Athanasius (1)

This continues a short series on ancient church fathers.

At the beginning of the fourth century, the post-Apostolic church had been tested in the fires of persecution, and by the blood of the martyrs the church had grown. But doctrinally she was still a babe. She had the testimony of martyrs; now she needed to be tested by heretics so that her understanding of the truth once delivered to the saints could be developed. 

The fundamental doctrine of Christianity that first needed development was the Incarnation. When Peter confessed, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus proclaimed that confession to be the rock on which He would build His church (Matt. 16:16-18). It is no surprise, then, that the first heresy to trouble the church was Arianism, which denied the deity of Christ. Opposite Arianism stood the orthodox Athanasius. A brief sketch of Athanasius’ life and literature will give us a sense of the man who, more than any other, was used by God to preserve the foundation of the New Testament church.

Athanasius was born in Alexandria in 298. Emperor Diocletian began his persecution of Christian in earnest only several years later in 303, and it continued with minor interruptions until 311. Christian churches were destroyed, Bibles were burned, and the Christians themselves were regularly deprived of their rights, imprisoned, and put to death. Alexandria was a great city of the Roman Empire, as well as a city with a rich Christian heritage. In the famous Alexandrian school, Athanasius was given an education full of both Greek philosophy and training in the Scriptures. But Alexandria was not spared from persecution, for a young Athanasius must certainly have been well-acquainted with the martyrdom of Peter, the Bishop of Alexandria, in 311.

In 313, Constantine’s Edict of Milan brought about the cessation of persecution, and thus began a brand-new era of prosperity for the church just as Athanasius was reaching adulthood. That is not to say, however, that Athanasius had before him a life of peace and leisure, for the remainder of his days were spent dealing with Arians, emperors, and exiles.

Arius entered the scene in 319. Although quickly excommunicated by an Egyptian synod in 321 for denying the full deity of Christ, he found support especially in the eastern portions of the empire. After some attempts at reconciliation between Arius and his adversaries, Emperor Constantine called the first of the great ecumenical councils in Nicaea in 325. There, the Nicene Creed was adopted and Arius exiled.

Athanasius become Bishop of Alexandria in 328. Although he had spent the early years of the controversy as the secretary to the previous bishop, the earliest writings of Athanasius reveal that he already had a “sure instinct and powerful grasp of the centre of the question” [1] which would characterize his work for the rest of his life. Now as a bishop, he was the undisputed head of the orthodox position, arguing the deity of Jesus as the Son of God. And although Arianism had been dealt a blow at Nicaea, there were still many not yet committed to the Nicaean doctrine. 

Often through intrigue and outright duplicity, the Arians were soon back in the good graces of emperor, and in 336 Athanasius was on to his first exile by order of Constantine. The balance of power shifted to the Arians, and by all outward appearance remained there for much of Athanasius’ remaining life. Exiled five times by four different emperors, he spent 17 of his 55 years as bishop exiled from his city, enduring sufferings which were at least in his own words “beyond endurance, and it is impossible to describe them in suitable terms.” [2] Often, he had to flee Alexandria for his life. Once, five thousand soldiers were sent to break up his vigil service, and Athanasius responded by instructing his deacon to read Psalm 136 while the congregation responded, “For his mercy endureth forever.” Only then were his friends able to convince him to flee.[3] On account of his frequent exiles, Athanasius spent time traveling the empire, hiding in the deserts of Egypt, and is even reputed to have spent time hiding in the cisterns of Alexandria and the tomb of his father. He was condemned by a plethora of Arian councils, and even two of his closest allies, Hosius of Spain and Liberius of Rome, capitulated under pressure to sign an Arian creed. It was at these times that Athanasius earned his moniker: contra mundum, meaning“against the world.”

But eventually, the Arian front began to collapse. Water always breaks upon a rock, and slowly but surely the doctrinal truth of Christ’s deity began to assert itself throughout Christendom. Though Athanasius died in 373 before the final victory could be claimed, there were signs in the last years of his life. Arianism began to splinter along the lines of strict and moderate semi-Arian parties. According to Schaff, the reign of Julian the Apostate from 361-363 gave Christians a common enemy and allowed the truth of Nicaea to grow. [4] But without a doubt, it was also Athanasius’ steadfast resolve, as it comes down to us in his writings, by which the Arian heresy was defeated.

Athanasius was “not an author by choice.” [5] He had a firm grasp of the essential issue from the beginning of the Arian controversy, but he wielded his pen only because the truth required it. And although his intellect could outmatch most, his style was simple and to the point. He never wrote “for effect, but merely to make his meaning plain and impress it on others.” [6]

Athanasius was uncompromising in his stand against Arianism, but that does not mean he lacked humility and humanity. He never claimed to have a full understanding of the Incarnation, calling On the Incarnation only a rough sketch of the issue. When explaining Acts 2:36 he did so saying, “This, according to my nothingness, is the meaning of the passage.” [7] He had a pastor’s heart and often wrote to encourage his people in Alexandria even while he was exiled. He was in turn so loved by the people that riots often accompanied his exiles and celebrations marked his returns. He was also gracious in dealing with the moderate semi-Arians so that “it was from the ranks of the semi-Arians that the men arose who led the cause of Nicaea to its ultimate victory in the East.” [8]

[1] Archibald Robertson, ‘Prolegomena’ to Select Writings and Letters of Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria (The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol.4; repr. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1987), xvi

[2] Athanasius, Select Writings and Letters, 92

[3] Athanasius, Select Writings and Letters, 263.

[4] Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 5th ed., vol. 3  (repr. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1984), 638

[5] Robertson, ‘Prolegomena’ to Select Writings and Letters, lxvi

[6] Robertson, ‘Prologemena’ to Select Writings and Letters, lxvi

[7] Athanasius, Select Writings and Letters, 356

[8] Robertson, Introduction to ‘On the Councils of Ariminum and Seleucia’ in Select Writings and Letters, 449

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s