Athanasius against the World

Athanasius and the Early Churchearth

 Hugh Hewitt Interviews Dr. Larry Arnn and Dr. Ken Calvert

 January 2014

 HH > Hugh Hewitt

LA > Larry Arnn, Dr.

KC > Ken Calvert, Dr.

 HH: It is the Hillsdale Dialogue, and once a AABweek, we sit down and we put aside most of that which has troubled us for the week and we focus on that which has driven the West forward for 2,000 years. And in that effort, I’m joined usually by Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, and he is indeed with me today, and often by one or more of his colleagues. Today, Dr. Ken Calvert, a member of the faculty at Hillsdale College, the headmaster at the Hillsdale Academy is back as well. All of last year’s and this year’s Hillsdale Dialogues are available for free at You can also get AAGall of the online courses for Hillsdale at You can also sign up for Imprimus, their speech digest, and do lots of other great stuff at And Dr. Calvert, Dr. Arnn, welcome back. Dr. Calvert, the reaction to last week’s conversation about Constantine was pretty amazing in my email. People didn’t know about him. They were fascinated by our conversation, and the bar is very high, because I could pronounce Constantine but I have trouble with Athanasius. So we’re in big trouble. Dr. Arnn, welcome back as well. But I can say contra mundum…AAF

 KC: Right. There you go.

 HH: …and that’s where we ought to begin. I think Larry is often contra mundum, so why don’t you explain what that term means.

 KC: Well, essentially, it means against the world. And Athanasius is given that title, because as the defender of orthodoxy in the early 4th Century, mid-4th Century, he stood up against emperors, he stood up against heretics, he stood up against the world.

 HH: And Dr. Arnn, is that part of the Hillsdale motto, because it might be.

 LA: Well, I want to, it is part of the Hillsdale model, and lately, if we have more and more reasons to need that motto, but I also want to say that I’m very proud of Ken Calvert and how he carried this along last time. And I want to mention one of Churchill’s favorite sayings, which is “if you keep a dog, you don’t have to bark yourself.”

 KC: I like that. That’s good.

 HH: There you go.

 KC: As long as I’m a beagle.

 HH: Well, it was fascinating. But when I was reviewing his notes, he works a lot harder at getting me ready to make, to avoid dumb mistakes, so he’s very kind to radio hosts. But one of the things I noted, Dr. Calvert, in your notes, is that maybe it was a good thing to become official, and maybe it wasn’t, but that we ought not to confuse that Athanasius was the first orthodox man.

 KC: Right, it was a mixed bag when Constantine legalized Christianity and when he favored Christianity, because what that meant was the Christians were now free to be who they are in the Roman empire. On the other hand, it also made them part of the political system. And you quickly begin to see Christian leaders, Christian bishops show a more, shall we say, secular side of their personality. And what Athanasius was interested in doing was maintaining the true faith, maintaining orthodoxy, and also fighting against much of this secularism that you begin to see emerging in the Church.

 HH: And Larry Arnn, at this time in the nation’s history, contra mundum makes a lot of sense. [The] Hobby Lobby case is going up before the Supreme Court, [and] will be argued in March. It is brought by the Green family that owns Hobby Lobby, who are absolutely convinced of their orthodox Evangelical faith, and they are standing against the world in the form of the Obama administration’s mandates on religious freedom. And we began the year talking about that, so it’s a very good thing to double back to the original people who were willing to go contra mundum.

LA: Yeah, well, one of our students, a graduate named Joel Gehrke, wrote a really good coverage article in the Washington Examiner about a conference at the Center For American Progress back in December, just before Christmas, just before John Podesta left that place to go be in the Obama White House. And the way he reports the conference is that the scholars there, including some significant clerics from some mainstream churches, said that anybody who claims that religious freedom justifies them in these things that Hobby Lobby claims, or their views about homosexuality, that those people have to be ridden down, because that’s just bigotry paraded as religious freedom. And that’s, you know, I mean, there’s a deal they’re trying to make in Washington to get some things through, and one thing, some of the people in the Republican Party want is they want this conscience-protecting protection that Justice Sotomayor has temporarily extended to the Sisters Of The Poor extended to everybody for the duration of the court case. And the executive branch won’t go along with that.

HH: And as a result, people may be obliged to actually live out their faith in a very dramatic way in the next few weeks, months and certainly this year. So let’s go back to the beginning and tell them about an example that they can take some succor from, Dr. Calvert. Athanasius born, I’m looking here on my notes, born where?

 KC: Born in 300, and he was born in Egypt. He was born near Alexandria, so he was of Egyptian descent. And this is very interesting, because there is a kind of Egyptian nationalist aspect to his actions. He is exiled from Alexandria after he becomes bishop. He’s exiled five times by different emperors who, you know, he has to stand up against. And what’s important about Athanasius, one of his most important works was on the incarnation. It was a book about the incarnation of Christ and who Christ is. And what’s an important theme in that book is the sovereignty of Christ, the kingship of Christ. And so his ability to stand up against these emperors, and against this state power, is rooted in his conviction that first of all, Christ really is, Jesus is the incarnate Christ, the incarnate God, and that He is king.

 HH: And Larry Arnn, one of the things that Dr. Calvert has stressed is that we have a direct line of succession. Jesus taught the apostle, John. John taught Polycarp. Polycarp taught Irenaeus. I believe that’s how you say his name.

 KC: That’s correct, yeah.

 HH: There’s a line of teaching that is direct, and I’m sure you can follow your line of teachers back. And it makes a difference when you know that the teaching that is being handed down has come through responsible hands.

 LA: Yeah, and you know, one thing that strikes me about this story about early Christianity is that is has something in common with the Jews. You know, the story of the Jews in the Bible is the story of them being chosen by God, and having to go through all kinds of things, and along the way, come to understand what it means to be in that station. Well, these early Christians, you know, there’s this very, this claim of this impossible and earth shattering event, the incarnation of God, His death and resurrection. And how are we going to work all that out? How’s that going to fit with all of the other things we know in nature and by reason and from previous revelation? And so you get these heresies. And they’re called heresies now, because they were argued through and repudiated. And Athanasius is one of the main people who did that. And so what we understand today about Christianity is the product of a lot of thinking that comes right after the classical world that had to apply what was known from the classical world to this new set of facts. And these great Christian fathers are the people who did that work.

 HH: And two minutes to the break, Dr. Calvert. How did they do that work, because obviously, we do it on Twitter, we do it at or at We have tools that no one could have imagined. How did they wage their battles?

 KC: And yeah, that’s an important concept to kind of wrap your mind around, because the early Christians did create a leadership, and eventually, actually very early, created what we call bishops or episcopoi. And these men would meet together either regionally or at least in 325 A.D., they called it an ecumenical or a worldwide gathering or council. They would meet in local councils. Remember that the apostles did that in Jerusalem very early to work out some doctrinal ideas. And that is recorded in the book of Acts. This gathering of bishops to get together, to talk about, to hammer out what fits with Scripture, what fits with what the apostles taught, and then work that out. Now they also developed not only this idea of episcopal authority, but they developed creeds, credo, the Latin, meaning I believe. They would create summaries of doctrine that were easily memorized in a population, or by a population that was illiterate. So it was a way of creating an orthodox statement, a creedal statement, in a way that was easily memorized. And in this way, they would keep the Church in its boundaries, give it some solid foundations.

 HH: for all you need to know about that, especially you young people who are up against an application deadline. Dr. Arnn, has that passed, yet, for Hillsdale?

 LA: No. There’s three weeks left.

 HH: Three weeks. That would be perhaps the most productive three weeks of your life, young people, if you go and look at that application. And Dr. Ken Calvert, headmaster of the Hillsdale Academy, as well as a professor at Hillsdale, and we were talking about the early Christian Church in our weekly Hillsdale Dialogue. And we are up to the Council of Nicaea. Now there are three things that I always try and tie these together with what’s going on a little bit. We had terrible news today that Dr. Tom Coburn, who’s a wonderful man of faith and a man of great integrity, is retiring early because he’s fighting cancer. So, bad things happen to good people: unexpected loss of leadership. Number two, Athanasius was appointed, if I get this right, at the age of 19 to be the secretary to the bishop at the Council of Nicaea.

 KC: That’s correct.

 HH: Meaning young people need to go to things like this and be in that sort of situation. And I’m thinking of my friend, Alan Crippen, who runs the John Jay Institute, and all of your colleagues at Hillsdale who prepare up young people to take jobs like that so they’re prepared to be leaders down the road. And then number three, next week, the Republicans are gathering in a retreat in Maryland to decide what to do this year, much like the retreat that Dr. Arnn, I believe, you addressed last year. And it’s important for groups of like-minded but disputing people to get together and hammer stuff out, because unexpected changes in leadership happen, and young people ought to be learned about them. So now that’s my somewhat strained transition to the Council of Nicaea, Dr. Calvert. Set up what was going on there.

 KC: Well, you had a severe argument among the bishops. In the east, particularly those bishops who were more involved in speculative theology, had come into this idea developed by a deacon, Arius, in Alexandria, that Jesus had not existed from the beginning, but only entered into the world lately and time, really at the time when he was baptized by John the Baptist. The orthodox or Biblical perspective, as defended by Athanasius and the bishop of Alexandria, a man named Alexander, the orthodox position went back to the Gospel of John. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, the idea that Jesus was the Word, is the Word, and was with God, the Father, from the beginning. And so you have this doctrinal controversy coming to a head, even violence going on, and the emperor, Constantine, saying listen, you bishops, we’re going to come together, we’re going to hammer out a common statement, and say what the Church believes in this creed, understanding that creeds had been used before. Constantine had, according to the accounts, a little bit to say of how this controversy was settled. There was some influence from the bishop of Rome, and all of the bishops coming together. And essentially, it was, was Jesus the same as the Father? Or was he only similar to the Father. And the Nicene Creed came out and, as they hammered it out, said clearly that the Father and the Son are of the same substance.

 HH: And what’s interesting, it’s short. It is to the, I don’t know how long it took to get to it. It might have taken years to get to it. But it can be repeated, is repeated at every Roman Catholic Mass, versions of the Apostle’s Creed, of course, predate that.

 KC: Right.

 HH: And I’m wondering, Dr. Arnn, if you think these get-togethers and forced agreements or brokered agreements, or conclusory statements, are useful in every context.

LA: Well, yeah, the Declaration of Independence is such an agreement. And they’re useful when they’re true and when they’re believed. If you look back at these things that Ken is talking about, these are attempts, these heresies, are attempts to make the story more believable, because more ordinary. It’s not hard to believe that there’s a God up, and it’s relatively easy to believe that there’s a God up above who made everything. And then this idea that some Savior, some messenger of His, appeared among us is not that hard to believe. But the idea that you mix God up with something made of matter and having our nature, that’s very hard to believe. And so they’re trying to make it seem more ordinary. Well, today, the contrast between principles as they occurred in American history and practice and principle as they’re articulated today is very sharp. And it’s implausible to a lot of people to believe that we can go back. And so you have to argue that through, and you have to come up with two things. One is you have to come up with a conviction that you can go back. And my opinion is that conviction will be based on the belief that you must go back, because these modern things don’t make any sense and cannot persist. And after you come up with that conviction, then you have to come up with a plan. And both of those things are present in the Declaration of Independence and in the actions that were taken immediately after it. And both of those things are present in the first Republican Party platforms that dealt with slavery in the 1850s. And both of those things could be present again today.

 HH: And also could be replicated today is the willingness to promote younger people of great talent. Now Athanasius, I believe, became bishop at the age of 30. Am I right about that, Dr. Calvert?

KC: That’s correct, and a relatively young age.

HH: And not in an insignificant, out of the way, backwater.

KC: Right, the city of Alexandria, which was the intellectual center of the Mediterranean, yeah.

 HH: So how come he got into trouble again and again and again?

 KC: Well, he continued to defend Nicene orthodoxy. He continued to defend what the Council of Nicaea had concluded. Constantine, late in his career, began to question as to whether or not that had been the right decision. His three sons, Constantius, Constantine II, and Constance were all made emperors after Constantine’s death, and they all fought among themselves, and did not agree among themselves on the nature of Christianity. So among them, they banished and beat up on Athanasius. There was a resurgence of polytheism or paganism in an emperor named Julian. He banished Athanasius, of course, as well. So Athanasius is standing up to these great political powers who themselves were not entirely or consistently clear on the nature of Christianity.

 HH: Dr. Larry Arnn, banished repeatedly one time because he was sharp-tongued about the Arians, heretics. I mean, he wasn’t very nice. He was tough. And it occurs to me that a lot of the people that we’ve talked about have not hesitated to go into the fray at the risk of exile or worse over the years.

 LA: Well, you’ll never get anything great done unless you make a commitment. And the commitment has to involve some risk to you. You know, politicians become famous when they risk something. And it matters that you make the right one, but it also matters that you make it boldly. And you know, look at the American Revolution. Look at the story of that. Look at the tone of the Declaration of Independence, especially at the end. They write to the king, and you know, we think of these guys now as the founders of our country, but what they were, was men sought for treason by warrant, and they wrote to the king that they were prepared to die for what they wrote. And so it was very absolute. And Athanasius is remembered today, because he had that quality.

 HH: Now how long does this go on for, especially the Arian Heresy, Dr. Calvert? It is not a one to five year battle.

 KC: No, it goes on for quite a long time, and really, until the time of the emperor, Theodosius, in the 370s, 390s, who puts an end to the controversy and lays down the law and says that the creedal statement established at Nicaea is going to be the creed. It’s going to be the law.

 HH: And so the battle goes on, and allies are found. And I like the fact you told me, you wrote to me, he goes out to the desert for a period of time.

 KC: He does. In fact, one of his great heroes is St. Anthony, who was one of the first, and really, the founder of Christian monasticism. And Athanasius finds in his time in the desert, he writes a book about, a biography of Anthony. Athanasius finds strength in the desert, in the wilderness.

 HH: And Larry Arnn, are these books by Athanasius still read? And are they read at Hillsdale?

LA: Yeah, sure, of course. Ken reads them, and the students read them. I mean, you want to, like what we try to do here is we try to put together a story of the building of the West, and you know, to some extent, the East, too, but the story of the West which involves the coming together of the philosophy that started in Athens, and the faith that started in Jerusalem. These are crucial workings out of that story. And one thing you learn from the story, by the way, is that we’re still in the period of early Christianity, and it lasts about 400 years.

 HH: Right, and in fact, after he dies, there will be a continued dispute over what is and what is not the canon, am I right, Dr. Calvert?

 KC: That’s correct, and in fact, that is even in dispute up until pretty much into the modern period. But what Athanasius does do is, as well as a number of leaders in the early Christian period, is give us an understanding of what books, basically the four Gospels and he apostolic writings, what books the Christians consider to be serious, consider to be authoritative, going back into that 1st Century apostolic period.

 HH: So whenever we see one of the new hot topics, the fifth Gospel, the Gospel of Thomas, all that kind of…

 KC: Yeah, yeah.

HH: Athanasius dealt with all this, didn’t he?

 C: Absolutely, and that’s something we need to remember. Every ten years, there’s a new book that comes out, you know, the hidden gospels, or the gospels that were suppressed, or that kind of thing. The early Christians knew about them, and they dealt with them in those early years, and they rejected them upon very good grounds, one of them being do they come from apostolic foundations or roots? What is the use of them throughout the Christian world? What is the theological agreement among them? So a lot of these so-called hidden or new gospels or fifth gospels, the gospel of Thomas, a lot of this has been dealt with and hammered out actually long before Athanasius.

 HH: I’ll bet you more than a few of you are driving around in your cars who are yourself Catholic, and you don’t know how the bishop of Rome became the pope. You don’t even know how the bishop of Rome got to be the bishop of Rome. And Dr. Ken Calvert and Dr. Larry Arnn, professor and president of Hillsdale College respectively, are here to answer that. This is a very practical question, so I’ll go to you, Ken Calvert, because this is your specialty. There was a debate between who was first, Peter or Paul, and who got to run things, and what about Jerusalem where James was? So how did this all play out in those first four hundred years?

 KC: Right, in the first couple of centuries, it’s important to understand that the bishop of Rome was seen as authoritative in part because he was the successor to Peter, but also because Rome was the capital. And by virtue of that, it has some weight. Rome also had at its founding double apostolicity, two apostles involved in the founding of that Church, Paul and Peter, both of them buried in and around the city. And so the authority of the bishop of Rome had something to do with St. Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church. But it also had to do with the fact that it was the capital. Now it’s important that through these first four hundred years, bishops were meeting in local councils, meeting in local gatherings to hammer out doctrinal issues. And at that point, they were not, they were not all looking to the bishop of Rome for answers. Even at the time of Athanasius, this was something of a question, and something of a problem. And as Christianity became legal, there was something of a struggle over which bishop of what city was to be authoritative. Well, should it be Rome? Should it be the bishop of Constantinople? Should it be the bishop of Jerusalem? The bishop of Alexandria — the intellectual center? And so there was a lot of conflict. Really, the papacy and what we know today as the bishop of Rome and the head of the Catholic Church emerged more in terms of power and consolidation of authority in the West as the Western part of the empire collapsed. The only institution that survived in any serious way in the West was the Church.

 HH: You mean, as the Dark Ages descended?

 KC: Exactly. Exactly, the Middle Ages, the Dark Ages, as you had the invasions of the various Germanic tribes and the collapse of society in the West. All that remains, really, in terms of some sort of sensible institution is the Church. And so when we talk about Western Catholicism saving Western civilization, there is really a great deal of truth to that. And of course, the bishop in Rome was the head of all of that activity, of that ecclesiastical activity in the West.

 HH: I think we ought to make a note, because you sent it to me, the emperor Theodosius makes Christianity it.

 KC: Right.

HH: And that matters, does it not?

 KC: It does absolutely. And on the one hand, what this does is it gives Christianity a very strong position within the Roman world, within the Mediterranean world. The emperor Theodosius is actually the last emperor to rule over the entire Mediterranean as a whole. And so what you have here is Christianity becoming very, very strong. Now there is the other side of that coin, because as the Christians become strong, they also become the oppressors. Paganism is outlawed for good and for bad. There begins to be some tension, of course, with Judaism. The Jews have to deal with the fact that now Christianity is the legal religion in the Roman Empire.

 HH: And Larry Arnn, I think it’s important to note that as Hobby Lobby and other debates about religious freedom come forward, no one is advancing the argument of exclusivity or primacy on the side of Christianity, at least no one that I care to align myself with.

 LA: No, it’s, you know, we talked about this a few weeks ago. The question right now is whether we’re going to continue to have a society in which private places are carved out in which people can practice their faith, and how wide will they be, because it’s possible that religious freedom is soon to mean only people directly at worship. And of course, when it means that, then that means you can’t live your faith outside worship.

HH: And that was, that is essentially what Christianity did to paganism at the end of the consolidation, correct, Dr. Calvert?

KC: That is correct. And you know, when you look back at Athanasius, Athanasius was fighting to defend the freedom of conscience and the freedom of orthodox Christianity to survive and to spread. What Theodosius then did was to take that and to make it, to legislate against other religions, other religious beliefs.

HH: And I can’t stress it enough, and I’ll go back to Dr. Arnn on this, we have to underscore, because opponents of religious freedom, and especially of Christian belief, want people to believe that is what Christians want now when it is not.

LA: Yeah, it — that’s right. And Christianity demands, you know, there’s a different…when Christian rule is imposed, there are demands in Christianity for charity toward all, toward toleration, toward peace, and toward freedom that are not common to all of the other religions. And so a Christian would, you know, it is a violation of the spirit of the Christian faith, it’s happened, to compel someone to worship a certain way. And by the doctrines of Christ, there’s no salvation in that for anybody.

 HH: And a last note, Dr. Calvert, next week, we turn to when the darkness comes, and the works of the great Augustine in Africa. But the darkness does come. You win, and then you lose.

KC: Right, that’s correct. The invasions of the Germanic groups, there are a great deal of civil wars among the Romans themselves and the West collapses, and really, fall into an era of anarchy and disorder. And Augustine is writing at this wonderful moment and horrible moment all at the same time, and really asking the important questions about the providence of God, and God’s hand in history, so a great man, and an important piece of the foundations of Western civilization.

HH: At exactly the right time, we turn to him next week. Dr. Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, Dr. Calvert, professor at Hillsdale College and headmaster of the Hillsdale Academy, thanks to you both.


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