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May 2 — Athanasius of Alexandria

Today’s Bible reading

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it. — Colossians 2:8-15

More thoughts for meditation about Athanasius of Alexandria

“Those who maintain ‘There was a time when the Son was not’ rob God of his Word, like plunderers.”

Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296–298 – May 2, 373), became the 20th bishop of Alexandria. His on-again-off-again service in that role spanned 45 years. 17 of those years were served in exile, when he was replaced on the order of four different Roman emperors. Athanasius was a Christian theologian, a Church Father, the chief defender of Trinitarianism against Arianism, and a noted Egyptian leader of the fourth century.

Conflict with Arius and Arianism, as well as successive Roman emperors, shaped Athanasius’ career. In 325, at the age of 27, Athanasius began his leading role against the Arians as a deacon and assistant to Bishop Alexander of Alexandria during the First Council of Nicaea. Roman emperor Constantine the Great had convened the council to address the Arian position that the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, is of a distinct substance from the Father. Three years after that council, Athanasius succeeded his mentor as archbishop of Alexandria. In addition to the conflict with the Arians, he struggled against the Emperors Constantine, Constantius II, Julian the Apostate and Valens. He was known as Athanasius Contra Mundum (Latin for Athanasius Against the World). “Black Dwarf” was the tag his enemies gave him — and the short, dark-skinned Egyptian bishop had plenty of enemies. In the end, his theological enemies were “exiled” from the church’s teaching, and it is Athanasius’ writings that shaped the future of the church. Within a few years after his death, Gregory of Nazianzus called him the “Pillar of the Church.”

Most his enemies were earned by his stubborn insistence that Arianism, the reigning “orthodoxy” of the day, was in fact a heresy. The dispute began when Athanasius was the chief deacon in Alexandria. While his mentor, Alexander preached with philosophical exactitude on the Trinity, Arius, a presbyter from Libya announced, “If the Father begat the Son, then he who was begotten had a beginning in existence, and from this it follows there was a time when the Son was not.” The argument caught on, but Alexander and Athanasius fought against Arius, arguing that it denied the Trinity. Christ is not of a like substance to God, they argued, but the same substance.

To Athanasius this was no splitting of theological hairs. Salvation was at issue: only one who was fully human could atone for human sin; only one who was fully divine could have the power to save us. To Athanasius, the logic of New Testament doctrine of salvation assumed the dual nature of Christ.  Alexander’s encyclical letter, signed by Athanasius (and possibly written by him), attacked the consequences of the Arian heresy: “The Son [then,] is a creature and a work; neither is he like in essence to the Father; neither is he the true and natural Word of the Father; neither is he his true wisdom; but he is one of the things made and created and is called the Word and Wisdom by an abuse of terms… Wherefore he is by nature subject to change and variation, as are all rational creatures.”

The controversy spread, and all over the empire, Christians could be heard singing a catchy tune that championed the Arian view: “There was a time when the Son was not.” In every city, wrote a historian, “bishop was contending against bishop, and the people were contending against one another, like swarms of gnats fighting in the air.”

Word of the dispute made it to the newly converted Emperor Constantine the Great, who was more concerned with seeing church unity than theological truth. “Division in the church,” he told the bishops, “is worse than war.” To settle the matter, he called a council of bishops.

Of the 1,800 bishops invited to Nicea, about 300 came—and argued, fought, and eventually fleshed out an early version of the Nicene Creed. The council, led by Alexander, condemned Arius as a heretic, exiled him, and made it a capital offense to possess his writings. Constantine was pleased that peace had been restored to the church. Athanasius, whose treatise On the Incarnation laid the foundation for the orthodox party at Nicea, was hailed as “the noble champion of Christ.”

But the Arian heresy did not die out. Within a few months, supporters of Arius talked Constantine into ending Arius’ exile. With a few private additions, Arius even signed the Nicene Creed, and the emperor ordered Athanasius, who had recently succeeded Alexander as bishop, to restore the heretic to fellowship. When Athanasius refused, his enemies spread false charges against him. He was accused of murder, illegal taxation, sorcery, and treason—the last of which led Constantine to exile him to Trier, now a German city near Luxembourg.

Constantine died two years later, and Athanasius returned to Alexandria. But in his absence, Arianism had gained the upper hand. Now church leaders were against him, and they banished him again. Athanasius fled to Pope Julius I in Rome. He returned in 346, but in the mercurial politics of the day, was banished three more times before he came home to stay in 366. By then he was about 70 years old.

While in exile, Athanasius spent most of his time writing, mostly to defend orthodoxy, but he took on pagan and Jewish opposition as well. One of his most lasting contributions is his Life of St. Antony, which helped to shape the Christian ideal of monasticism. The book is filled with tales of Antony’s encounters with the devil, yet Athanasius wrote, “Do not be incredulous about what you hear of him… Consider, rather that from them only a few of his feats have been learned.” In fact, the bishop knew the monk personally, and this saint’s biography is one of the most historically reliable. It became an early “bestseller” and made a deep impression on many people, even helping lead pagans to conversion: Augustine is the most famous example.

During Athanasius’s first year permanently back in Alexandria, he sent his annual letter to the churches in his diocese, called a festal letter. Such letters were used to fix the dates of festivals such as Lent and Easter, and to discuss matters of general interest. In this letter, Athanasius listed what he believed were the books that should constitute the New Testament: “In these [27 writings] alone the teaching of godliness is proclaimed,” he wrote. “No one may add to them, and nothing may be taken away from them.” Though other such lists had been and would still be proposed, it is Athanasius’ list that the church eventually adopted, and the writings he listed make up the New Testament.

Quotes:

  • “Christians, instead of arming themselves with swords, extend their hands in prayer.”
  • “The holy and inspired Scriptures are sufficient of themselves for the preaching of the truth.”
  • “Jesus became what we are that he might make us what he is.”
  • “You cannot put straight in others what is warped in yourself.”
  • “Similarly, anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds.”
  • “For, indeed, everything about is marvelous, and wherever a man turns his gaze he sees the Godhead of the Word and is smitten with awe.”
  • “The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good.”
  • “For of what use is existence to the creature if it cannot know its Maker?”
  • “The Greek philosophers have compiled many works with persuasiveness and much skill in words; but what fruit have they to show for this such as has the cross of Christ? Their wise thoughts were persuasive enough until they died.”
  • “Even on the cross he did not hide himself from sight; rather, he made all creation witness to the presence of its Maker.”

More?

Development of New Testament canon

The Incarnation from the Coptics.

Catholic history 

Controversy about “deification

Suggestions for action

Athanasius is also known as the “father of orthodoxy.” He helped refine doctrines that set the baseline for true faith and set the final parameters on the New Testament. He was fighting for the church’s life in a time when the government wanted to exploit it and society was absorbing it according to its own image. Nothing is new under the sun.

What do you think the Lord would like you to fight for in this era? What truth is threatened? What necessity is being watered down or lost? If we want to leave a coherent faith for the next generation, what  should we do?

 

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