Athanasius: a remarkable soldier of Jesus Christ

His enemies called him “Black Dwarf”, because he was short and dark-skinned. Athanasius of Alexandria fought many enemies during his career as a bishop. The Roman emperors exiled him multiple times. But in the end, Athanasius prevailed. He defended the honour of his Lord Jesus and the Lord used him as a great teacher. Athanasius helped the church understand what it means that Jesus is God, who came to us in the form of a man.

The church in the fourth century

Athanasius lives from 297-373, and is therefore a fourth-century theologian. He lives through significant developments, both in the Roman Empire and in the Christian church.

Emperor Constantine and the Edict of Milan

When Athanasius was a little boy, in 303, there was a severe persecutions of Christians under emperors Diocletian and Galerius. Scarcely 10 years later, Emperor Constantine declared himself to be a Christian, and in 313 he proclaimed freedom of religion in the Roman Empire. Suddenly, Christians were free to worship publicly. The church accumulated wealth and influence. The Roman Empire adopted laws based on Christian principles. The Lord’s Day became an official holiday.

But the christening of the Roman Empire under Constantine also had negative aspects. Many joined the church for social and political gain rather than out of true faith. Paganism blended with Christianity, as many confused the Lord Jesus with the popular pagan deity of that day, the Unconquered Sun. The emperor involved himself in church matters, and his motivation was driven by political interests rather than a search for God’s truth. As we will see, these political factors had direct influence on Athanasius’ life and ministry.

Arius and Arianism

Also in the early fourth century, a great controversy arose within the church. It centred on the person of Arius, an influential monk. Arius declared that, while Jesus Christ was the greatest of all God’s creatures, he was not actually himself God. At this point in history, the church was still developing her understanding of the identity of Jesus Christ. For Arius, the fact that Jesus Christ is “the Word” meant that the Son of God is not eternal. He famously declared: “There was a time when the Son was not.”

It was against this false teaching of Arius that Athanasius fought his whole life, defending the honour of his Lord Jesus, who indeed is true God of true God.

Church politics in East and West

To understand the time of Athanasius, we must keep in mind the growing rift between the Eastern and Western halves of the church. The Eastern church was the Greek-speaking part, including the archbishoprics of Jerusalem, Antioch (in Syria), Alexandria (in Egypt), and later Constantinople (at the border of modern-day Turkey and Greece). The Western church spoke Latin, and had the archbishop of Rome, who would later become known as “the Pope”.

The difference in language and culture between West and East caused problems in the church. In the detailed discussions about the Trinity and the divine nature of Jesus Christ, the Greek and Latin terminology did not always fit together. Due to miscommunication and differences in emphasis, the two parts of the church could falsely suspect and accuse each other of heresy. Athanasius was a bishop in the east, but there were times when he only received support from the west.

Athanasius’ life

His early years

Athanasius was born in a Christian household in Alexandria, which was the most important trade centre in Egypt, if not in the entire Roman Empire. His family was apparently rich enough to give their son a classical education.

At a young age, Athanasius came under the care of Bishop Alexander. (A bishop, from the Greek word for “overseer”, was the leading elder in a city, a role comparable to the lead minister of a large church.) Legend has it that the school boy Athanasius and his friends were playing church in the street, pretending to perform a baptism ritual; Athanasius played the role of bishop. When the real bishop, Alexander, saw this, he decided that the boys should be trained for office in the church.

At first, Athanasius functioned as a secretary to the bishop. He rose in the ranks, from deacon to priest. Eventually he was appointed as the successor of Alexander in the year 328, barely old enough to meet the official minimum age of 30. Thus Athanasius became the bishop of Alexandria.

Throughout his life, Athanasius was an eager and witty debater, always ready to defend the honour of his Lord. Already in his early twenties, when we was still a lowly deacon, he wrote two important treatises: Against the Gentiles, and On the Incarnation. (The latter we will discuss below.) The main point of these books is that Jesus Christ is truly God, who appeared in human form. Athanasius would defend this truth zealously throughout his life.

The council of Nicaea

Around this time, the controversy around Arius broke out. Arius’ denial that Jesus Christ is God got him in trouble with the church leaders in Alexandria, and I have no doubt that Athanasius was involved in the decision to condemn Arius as a heretic. In response Arius moved away to Nicomedia (northwest Turkey), where he found influential supporters. Among these were Eusebius of Caesarea, a famous church historian, and Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, who was friends with Constantia, the sister of Emperor Constantine.

So in spite of his condemnation, Arius’ influence kept growing in the church. This led to so much unrest, that Emperor Constantine called all church leaders together in Nicaea, a town in northwest Turkey, close to Constantinople, where the Emperor himself lived.

The council of Nicaea rejected Arius’ teaching, and adopted a statement about the divinity of Jesus Christ. Even today, many churches recite this statement frequently: it is the Nicene Creed. It confesses clearly that Jesus Christ is “true God of true God, begotten not created, of the same substance as the Father.” For young Athanasius, who accompanied Alexander to this meeting as his secretary, must have been delighted with such a clear statement of the truth that Jesus is indeed God.

Controversies and exiles

Sadly, the council of Nicaea was not able to put the controversy to rest. More subtle versions of Arianism arose. It has been said that for 80 years, the church fought over a single letter! The council of Nicaea had declared that the Son of God is homo-ousios with the Father, “of the same substance”; but sympathizers of Arius made this into homoi-ousios, “of similar substance”, claiming that Christ is God-like in many ways, but not actually divine.

After the Council of Nicaea to the end of his life, Athanasius tirelessly fought against all forms of Arianism, insisting that Jesus Christ is God in the fullest sense of the word. Because of this, his opponents began attacking him personally. One of them was Eusebius of Nicomedia. This bishop had been condemned by Nicaea and exiled, but found new favour with the emperor and was allowed to return. The emperor instructed Athanasius to re-admit anyone who would express agreement with the decisions of Nicaea. But Athanasius distrusted the motives of Eusebius and others, and refused to do so. In response, Eusebius filed several accusations against Athanasius. These accusations had no substance, but became part of an effective campaign to discredit and remove Athanasius from office.

When Athanasius realized that the deck was stacked against him, he went directly to Emperor Constantine. The story is told that Constantine interrupted the emperor’s hunt and demanded a just hearing. A hearing was held, but Eusebius’ supporters managed to convince the emperor to exile Athanasius to France. In the meantime, Emperor Constantine died (in 337), and his three sons took over the empire. Constantine II allowed Athanasius to return to Alexandria, where he found the bishop’s seat still vacant, and continued his work as before. Even though he had been absent for 2 1/2 years, the believers in the city were excited to have him back.

But Eusebius and his followers refiled the charges against Athanasius with the new emperor in the east, Constantius, and complained that he had taken up his work in Alexandria without official approval of the church. They also forcefully put a new bishop upon Alexandria, so that Athanasius felt compelled to flee to Rome and present his case to the bishop there. This western bishop, Pope Julius, was a supporter of Athanasius and declared him innocent. But in the east, Eusebius and his party managed to have Athanasius officially declared a heretic!

For six years, Athanasius did not dare return to his city, but lived with monks in the desert of Egypt. He enjoyed that time very much, and even wrote a biography of the first monk, Pachomius. In 361, a new emperor took the place of Constantius; and Emperor Julian was no supporter of Christianity. (He is known as Julian the Apostate!) Pagan groups took the opportunity to remove the Arian bishop from Alexandria; this opened the way for Athanaius to return. Thankfully, Emperor Julian’s reign was short, and the new emperor Jovian was sympathetic to Christianity and officially reinstated Athanasius.

However, Emperor Jovian died after only a year, and under the new emperor, Valens, the Arians had the upper hand once again. Athanasius was facing exile again! Before he could be removed, Athanasius quietly left and hid outside the city, for some time even in his father’s tomb. But when the emperor saw how upset the city was about the banishment of Athanasius, he allowed him to return again.

The last ten years of Athanasius life was relatively peaceful. In his preaching and writing he kept emphasizing the teaching of Nicaea—that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is himself God in every sense of the word.

Athanasius’ legacy

It is clear that Athanasius’ life, and his defence of the true doctrine about Christ, was an uphill battle. Without the courage of the Holy Spirit, he surely would have given up! At one point, he was told: “You are fighting a losing battle. Does Athanasius not know that the whole world is against him?” But he said quietly: “Is the world against Athanasius? Then Athanasius is against the world.” The Latin text of that last phrase, Athanasius contra mundum, is how this faithful bishop was remembered for centuries.

Eight years after Athanasius’ death, in 381, the leaders of the church came together, once again, in the Council of Constantinople, to deal with several matters, including Arianism. This council was more successful in putting an end to most of this heresy. There were several men who stood up for the orthodox doctrine of Christ’s divinity: best known among them are the three so-called Cappadocian Fathers: Basil the Great, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and their close friend, Gregory of Nazianzen. But it is no exaggeration to say that Athanasius’ work in the previous decades was of crucial importance for this Council, which finalized the church’s definition of the Trinity, and provided the definitive version of the Nicene Creed.

Athanasius’ name also lives on in the Athanasian Creed. Theologians have pointed out that, technically speaking, this was neither written by Athanasius nor composed as an official creed. The Athanasian Creed probably originated in Italy or France, several centuries later. However, the content of this document is very much in line with what Athanasius fought for his whole life. In order to be saved, it says, we must believe that God is Three-in-One, and that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man. To that, Athanasius would have no doubt responded with a resounding “Amen!”

On the Incarnation

To conclude this article, we will briefly consider Athanasius’ writing On the Incarnation. The original Greek title, περὶ τῆς ἐνανθρωπήσεως τοῦ λόγου, literally means: “About the becoming human of the Word.” As was common in the classical world, the book appears to be written to a Christian friend, named Macarius (“the blessed one”),probably a fictional person.

Before talking in more detail about the Incarnation of the Son of God, Athanasius first emphasizes the greatness and glory of the Son of God:

We will begin, then, with the creation of the world and with God its Maker, for the first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been accomplished by the same Word who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation, for the one Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word who made it in the beginning. (ch. 1 §1)

Athanasius emphasizes that, as human beings, we share in the very Word of God; it is therefore a serious matter that we have become sinners. It is precisely our sin that made the Incarnation necessary. The author invites us to think along with God when he saw his perfect creation fall into disrepair and corruption because of man’s sin. He asks the question:

As the creatures whom he had created reasonable, like the Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being good, to do? Was he to let corruption and death have their way with them? In that case, what was the use of having made them in the beginning? … It was impossible, therefore, that God should leave man to be carried off by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of himself. (ch. 2 §6)

There could only be one solution to this “dilemma” of God, the author argues:

For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. … He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in his love and self-revealing to us. … He took our body, and not only so, but he took it directly from a spotless, stainless virgin, without the agency of human father—a pure body, untainted by intercourse with man. … Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, he surrendered his body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This he did our of sheer love for us, so that in his death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in his body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. (ch. 2 §8)

There is much beauty here, and we (who have grown up with 1600 years of Nicene Christianity in our background) recognize basic truth here. What Athanasius writes may also raise some questions. His description of Mary as a “spotless, stainless virgin” makes it sound like Jesus’ mother was herself sinless; this is indeed a teaching of the Roman Catholic church, but Protestants reject it. Already in Athanasius’ time there was a tendency to venerate Mary more than was probably healthy. And we may wonder: does Athanasius say that Christ died on behalf of all people? Was he a universalist? These types of questions naturally arise when we read authors of the past; we judge them in light of the things we find important, but may not have been on their radar…

There is much gold in Athanasius’ book On the Incarnation that cannot be presented here. He brings out many aspects of Christ’s identity and work, especially his death and resurrection. In the last several chapters, the author engages in a polemic with the Jews and the pagan unbelievers. I would invite you to read his book for yourself!

I will quote one final passage, that shows how Athanasius placed the Incarnation in the bigger picture of the gospel for a fallen human race.

You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is redrawn on the same material. Even so it was with the all-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that he might renew mankind made after himself, and seek out his lost sheep. … (ch. 3 §14)

For Athanasius, it was of the greatest practical importance that Christ is really God, and became really a man. Only then can we appreciate the future toward which all Christians live, the Day of the Lord on which the final judgment takes place. Athanasius concludes his book on this note, calling Macarius to serious study and holy living. The reward of such a godly life is great.

Of that reward is written: “Eye has not seen nor ear heard, neither has entered into the heart of man the things that God has prepared” for them that live a godly life and love the God and Father in Christ Jesus our Lord, through whom and with whom be to the Father himself, with the Son himself, in the Holy Spirit, honour and might and glory to ages of ages. Amen. (ch. 9 §57)

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