You think you’ve got it bad, don’t talk to Athanasius

Today’s church history minute is about Athanasius

Who was he? Athanasius was a fourth century bishop in Alexandria. He is famous for his opposition to the Arians. Arianism revolved around a controversy with respect to who Christ was. It amounts to a denial of the full Trinity. While Arius said Jesus was divine, he claimed Jesus had been created (not eternal) and was not of equal status with God the Father. Athanasius, a fairly young bishop, was a leaders (or possibly the leader) at the First Council of Nicaea, an ecumenical (all the churches) council to decide the issue. The Nicene creed became the standard of orthodoxy, affirming the Trinity, including the full divinity and humanity of Christ, and still the final document accepted by East and West

There’s Athanasius, clearly having been able to escape earlier attempts on his life. Fear the Beard. (image public domain, obtained via Wikicommons)

(although the introduction of “Filioque” (and the Son) was the last straw in the divide between the two). After the council, though, Athanasius returned to his home in Alexandria to find a less-than-welcoming welcome. He spent the majority of the next few years on the run from supporters of Arius and political opponents, often fearing for his life. More than once he made daring “Hollywood-type” escapes. On one occasion, he came to preach at a church and, knowing his enemies were waiting for him, he held the prayer a bit longer and turned the service over to a fellow priest while he slipped out the back and hopped on a boat in the nick of time.

Why was he important? Eventually Nicene Christianity (that is, the Christianity you know) prevailed. This is in thanks, in no small part, to Athanasius. In case you are wondering whether your orthodox belief was just an accident of history, it certainly was not. Athanasius, who was instrumental but not final in the formation of canon as well, was able to provide something of an objective criteria for the biblical books. While the core of the New Testament (the 4 gospels) was never genuinely challenged, the other books were frequently debated about (see my series on where our bible came from). Athanasius was able to provide criteria that included books which made sense with the gospels and the Old Testament (unlike competing criteria). It is doubtful Christianity would have survived had it taken another form (one that contradicted itself openly), and personally I think it struck the truth of the matter.

Fun Fact: Because he was so frequently on the run, he was given the nickname “Athanasius contra mundum” or “Athanasius against the world.” Doesn’t he sound fun?

Where might I have heard of him? Aside from the Athanasian Creed (which he didn’t write), he is known for writing many important works. The most well known and frequently read probably being On the Incarnation, which was a personal favorite of C. S. Lewis (who wrote the introduction for most English translations).


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