Friday, December 16, 2016

Athanasius (297-373 AD) and the Church’s Brush with Paganism by Chris White

Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.  –I Timothy 6:12

The Greek word which was chosen to express this mysterious resemblance bears so close an affinity to the orthodox symbol, that the profane of every age have derided the furious contests which the difference of a single diphthong excited between the Homoousians and the Homoiousians.

                                                 --Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Vol. 4

Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria was a good theologian and a towering leader in the ancient church, but more than anything else, he is remembered today for his lifetime battle to preserve the orthodox faith as defined by the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.  His stubborn position concerning the deity of Christ cost him personally, sometimes forcing him into hiding to avoid arrest, sometimes forcing him to live in exile far from his home diocese and the people he lovingly shepherded.  But Athanasius’s uncompromising position is part of why Christianity remains the totally unique and living faith it is today, instead of just another dead pagan religion among many from antiquity.  So what is Athanasius’ story?

Ancient Alexandria

Athanasius is a transitional figure in the church having lived through the last major persecution of the church under Diocletian and then in adulthood serving the church in the early days of imperial sponsorship.  Alexandria was a major center of Christianity in the world of this day.  The patriarch or bishop oversaw 100 dioceses in the region and virtually all decisions, activities and appointments in the church required his approval.   Bishop Alexander of Alexandria  (yes, it was a very unimaginative name) saw a lot of promise in Athanasius and appointed him to the office of deacon.  Athanasius was only 28 when the Council of Nicaea was called, but Alexander invited him to come with him and serve as his clerk at the proceedings.  Athanasius knew exactly what this council was all about because the controversy that sparked it happened right in his backyard.

Arius the Heretic

In 318 there was a gangly, oddly-dressed preacher with a bit of a tremor by the name of Arius who was getting a lot of attention over his new theological views about Jesus in Alexandria.  Arius ran afoul of Bishop Alexander for a couple of reasons.  Not only was his doctrine in error, but also when it came to church policy, Arius almost always sought to take the view that was contrary to his bishop.  Now Arius, always the grandstander, had taken his bad theology and put it to the music of a well-known drinking song and the people of Alexandria were singing it everywhere.  This may sound mildly noxious by today’s standards but think if a treasured song such as Amazing Grace was put to popular strip-tease music.  It wasn’t just a matter of bad taste; it was blasphemy. 

So what was this new viewpoint of Arius that was considered so heretical?  He taught that since God is uncreated and self-existent then the Son [Jesus] cannot be God because he owes his existence and beginning to the Father when he was begotten.  Arius took verses such as John 1:1, and John 3:16, to mean that the Son was created in time and that there was a time in eternity when he didn’t exist.  Colossians 1:15 speaks of Christ being the firstborn of all Creation which also on the surface seems to make the Son part of creation rather than eternity. Truth be told, the incarnation of the son of God is time-bound because humans are contingent beings.  But the mistake Arius makes here is taking the terms “begotten” and “firstborn” and making them only analogous to human generation.

 The implication of what Arius is teaching is that Christ is not truly God but a very sophisticated creature of God.  Higher than humanity but lower than God, the Son would be like the highest level of the angelic realm.  In this view, if Jesus were truly God, it would mean there were two Gods in the universe (which Arius knew contradicted Scripture) but it also would mean that if God begot another God as man begets, then God is not immutable but also subject to changes in life and circumstance.  In trying to make theological sense of this, Arius came to the tidy conclusion that the Father is the one eternal God and the son of God is a beautiful work of God’s creation given the task of being our redeemer.  If this sounds familiar to you it might be because the error of Arius has been given new life by the Watchtower Society or Jehovah’s Witnesses of today.  Worse yet, if this view would have prevailed, Christianity would have been just like pretty much every other pagan religion of the Mediterranean with higher gods working through lesser gods to accomplish things.  As I mention in the title, the fact that such teaching had at least some momentum and persisted was definitely a “brush with paganism”.


Generally speaking, many of those teachers we would have to rightly label heretical (from the Greek “haireses” meaning the party or group [opposed to the widely held orthodox position] we shouldn’t think of as sinister and malicious.  The Orthodox (meaning “right belief”) view was not made up over the centuries of Church councils, but was the faith held prior entrusted to the church “once for all” (Jude 1:3).  Councils clarified what the fifth-century church father Vincent of Lerins called the faith that was believed everywhere, always, and by everyone.  Parties within the church that were heretical often thought of themselves as being faithful to the scriptural record and perhaps even making the best sense of it.  The challenge of heresy actually was a long-term blessing because it made the earliest Church leaders commit to writing what they had long believed into the creedal statements.  The patrimony of the Creeds has never once eliminated a heretical group, but they have always provided a basis of unity as a touchstone for the authentic Christian faith.  But moving from speaking generally about heretics to speaking specifically about Arius, in my estimation he was a bit more malicious.  He was corrected, refuted, and then even lied about what he really believed to get reinstated in his church.  I confess no special historic knowledge about the internal motives of Arius, but his external actions point in a more negative direction.

After two years of Arius’ antics, bishop Alexander called a synod ( a meeting of bishops within the patriarchate Alexandria) where he was allowed to present his views and then have them evaluated by his fellow clergy.  The view of the synod was that Arius was heretical and should be deposed from his church and be excommunicated.  Arius fled to the care of a close friend by the name of Eusebius who was the bishop of Nicomedia.  Arius and Eusebius were indeed good friends having been taught in their early years by the same teacher, but also Eusebius was very close to the Roman emperor Constantine who lived nearby.  Eusebius then was someone who had the ear of the emperor and he was in essential agreement with his friend Arius.  Eusebius urged Arius to return to Alexandria with the knowledge that he had friends in high places.

When Arius came back to Egypt riots broke out between his supporters and those who supported bishop Alexander.  This outbreak of violence is what got the attention of Constantine and was the impetus behind the calling of the first Church Council of Nicaea in 325.  Constantine saw first-hand that heresy was actually a threat to national security and wanted this matter settled once and for all time.

Arius was the defendant at the Council of Nicaea where three hundred bishops gathered to hear his doctrine and pass judgment on it as to whether it was heretical.  An interesting sidelight of this council is that bishop Nicholas of Myra (the person we know as Santa Claus or St. Nick) was in attendance at this council.  When Arius shared what he believed, Nicholas was so angered by how it diminished Jesus Christ that he jumped up from his seat in the middle of this solemn assembly and punched Arius in the mouth!  When that happened Constantine had Nicholas arrested for his outburst and because it was illegal to commit any violence in the presence of the imperial dignity. 

When the Council made its judgment about the doctrine of Arius the vote was 298-2 against Arius.  The only reason Arius got two votes was because one of them was his own.  As the Council unfolded a written statement, known as the Nicene Creed, was developed for future generations to clarify what was believed by the entire church about God.  When it came to describing the relation of Jesus to the Father there were a couple of ideas floated at the Council that are important to our story.

Council of Nicaea

The hardest documents to produce are ones like this, where the views of an assembly are encapsulated in a brief statement.  Language used can sometimes be deliberately imprecise as to be inclusive of many viewpoints.  In the case of Nicaea, there were two terms floating around about how to describe the nature of Jesus as it relates to the Father.  The first word was “Homoiousion” which means the Son of God is like the Father in his substance.  The second word, which was eventually accepted and acclaimed by the council was “Homoousion” which means that Son is of the same substance as the Father.  Yes, even as Edward Gibbon has noted, the orthodox position was determined by a mere diphthong, but the difference between “oi” and “o” is fairly huge.  The former leaves open the possibility of belief that Jesus is not fully God while the latter makes Jesus and co-equal and co-eternal with the Father as a member of the Trinity.  One God who exists in Triunity is what was expressed.  

Read the Nicene Creed here 

It is an interesting detail that in all of his known writings Athanasius never once used the actual word “homoousion” that came from Nicaea and yet devoted his life to defending the concept.

Arius went into exile, Bishop Alexander was vindicated, and he and Athanasius now aged 27 returned to Alexandria.  One would think the matter was settled with the creed of Nicaea, but it was not.  And this matter was to affect Athanasius the remainder of his life.

In 328, Athanasius was elected by a synod of bishops in Alexandria.  He was Alexander’s choice to succeed him and some strings were pulled to make this happen as Athanasius was actually not quite the legal age of 30 to hold this office.  Athanasius inherited a badly divided church in Egypt and demanded submission of all factions with an iron hand.  Lest it be thought this was merely the fruit of youthful zeal, Athanasius was this way the remainder of his life.  He was an awesome and intelligent theologian but not given to any compromise or diplomacy.  His way was the right way.  To agree with him was to be on the side of truth, to disagree was to obviously be on the side falsehood.  With that frame of mind it’s easy to see why Athanasius always found himself in conflict and controversy.

After a few years Arius came back to the emperor Constantine and asked that he be reinstated in the church.  He said he was not in conflict with Nicaea and agreed with the creed (he didn’t really) but the humble approach worked and soon a letter arrived in Alexandria telling Athanasius to reconcile with Arius and stop quibbling over words.  Athanasius refused taking a stand that compromise of the faith for the sake of harmony in the church was a price too high to pay.

By the way, Athanasius was an early advocate of complete freedom of the church with regards to belief and practice.  He really felt that Constantine, even if he was a Christian, should run the government and had no right to inject himself into matters of the Kingdom of God.  Constantine felt differently and some regards the Church is still recovering from his favor and blessings.

Athanasius by this time had made a lot of enemies.  One schismatic group from his see known as the Meletians joined Arians and brought charges against him at a Synod in 334.  He was charged with all sorts of crimes of misconduct ranging from illegally imposing taxes, murder, and witchcraft.  The case against him unraveled with the person he supposedly murdered turned up alive and well and unaware of his recent demise.  Even as the charges were dropped the next year he was deposed by the Council of Tyre which was filled with Arian sympathizers (335).

2 years later Constantine dies and Athanasius seizes the opportunity to return to Alexandria.  After 2 years pass, his opponents in Alexandria make things so hard on him that he flees to Rome and is protected by the pope who states that Athanasius’ views are the orthodox views.  He is able to return in 346 but the Emperor Constantius (the successor of Constantine the Great) is an Arian and within a decade, Constantius sent troops to Alexandria to depose Athanasius and install and Arian bishop in Alexandria.  The military tried to take him down in the middle of a church service but he was able to escape in all the confusion that was caused and hid from house to house for the next 6 years.  Sometimes he was in Alexandria, sometimes he was in the Egyptian deserts hiding with the monks which is where he met St. Antony.

Although he had been replaced by an Arian bishop, the faithful knew their true bishop and Athanasius was able to lead the faithful by letter and intermediaries during this time of hiding.

When Constantius died he was succeeded by a family member known in history as Julian the Apostate.  Julian had been raised a Christian but truly loved paganism and thought it was what made Roman society truly great.  Thus, when he ascended to the throne he didn’t persecute the church per se, but did whatever he could to make things hard for the Christian church.

Julian the Apostate

Thinking it would stir up trouble, Julian ordered all exiled bishops to return to their sees.  It backfired completely in Alexandria where Athanasius was welcomed back with open arms and his replacement bishop was actually burned to death by the local citizens in a very cruel and painful fashion.

Athanasius was able to remain on in Alexandria until his death in 373.  He was their bishop for 46 years.  Only 29 of them were spent in Alexandria.  Throughout his ministry he found himself surrounded and opposed by those who wanted the church to move in the direction of Arius.  Athanasius was so firm in his belief that Nicaea was right he said even if the whole world disagreed, it would be Athanasius against the world.  Although he never lived to see it, his views were fully vindicated by the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD.

Athanasius’ most famous doctrinal writing was De Incarnatione (On the Incarnation of the Word) from which came this affirmation:  The Word of God [the Logos] was made man so the we might be made God; and he manifested himself through a body so that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; and he endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality.  Athanasius emphasized that through Christ, God was accessible.  He is literally Emmanuel “God with us.”

Before closing this brief essay, I want to mention two lesser known contributions of Athanasius to the Christian story that are actually equal to his lifelong defense of orthodoxy in the church.  The first contribution is a very short book he wrote called The Life of St. Antony.  Antony was a desert monk in Egypt who was a revered teacher of other monastics but also a respected sage who counseled thousands who made the trek out to the desert to seek his advice.  Athanasius met Antony during one of his many exiles and formed a strong friendship with him and later wrote a short biography about his life.  The importance of this book is immeasurable as its reading inspired the development of monasticism in the Western church which in turn became an engine of cultural growth and development for all of Western Civilization.

Antony of Egypt

The other contribution is Athanasius’ Festal Letter #39.  A Festal Letter was something he wrote every year and sent out to his leadership in every diocese of the Alexandrian See.  The letter would inform as to when and how Easter was to be observed (hence “festal”) but would also advise on matters such as pastoral care and doctrinal understanding.  In FL#39 Athanasius writes out a list of the only books that are to be taught as scripture as they have always been considered by the church as authentic and canonical.  What is important about this list is that it stands as one of the earliest witnesses of what the church included and considered to be the New Testament.  There are other pieces of evidence from Church councils and synods to combine with this, but Athanasius, because of his authority and importance as a theologian, is considered an importance ancient voice in the discovery of the canon of scripture.

Read more about St. Antony of Egypt here


Anatolios, Khaled.  Athanasius.  (London : Routledge, 2004)

Athanasius.  The Life of Antony and Letter to Marcellinus.  Robert Gregg, ed.  (New York : Paulist Press, 1980)

“Athanasius”  The New Dictionary of Theology.  Ferguson, Wright, Packer eds.  (Downers Grove : Intervarsity Press, 1988)

“Athanasius of Alexandria”  Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity.  Angelo Di Berardino ed.  (Downers Grove : Intervarsity Academic, 2014)

Brakke, David.  Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism.  (Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1995)

Hill, Jonathan.  The History of Christian Thought.  (Downers Grove : Intervarsity Press, 2003)

Pope Benedict XVI.  The Fathers.  (Huntington : Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 2008)

Reynolds, H. R.  Athanasius : His Life and Life Work.  (London : The Religious Tract Society, 1889)

Shelley, Bruce L.  Church History in Plain Language.  (Dallas : Word, 1995)

Von Campen-Hausen, Hans.  The Fathers of the Greek Church.  (London : Adam and Charles Black, 1963)

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

St. Boniface (680-754 AD): Apostle to the Germans by Chris White

St. Boniface is known as the Apostle of Germany and is credited with being one of the most effective missionaries in the history of the church.  Boniface is not without his detractors and some of his evangelistic style seems pretty insensitive by the standards of today, but he was a man of his times with a heart for making Christ known where he was not before and a man of boundless energy when it came to caring for the faithful and organizing a church that would stand the test of time in Northern Europe.

St. Boniface was born in Devonshire England in 680.  Christianity was a relatively new faith in Britain at this time having only been established in south and central England for 90 years.  Boniface’s birth name was Wynfrith (sometimes called Winfred) and he was of a strong Saxon family.  Early in life Wynfrith wanted to become a Benedictine monk but for some time his father was opposed to this calling.  Eventually his father came to support him and Wynfrith enters the monastery in his early twenties and is ordained a priest by age 30.
ruins of monastery in England

Although Wynfrith showed great promise as a scholar, he had a deeper calling welling up within his soul.  He felt duty-bound to return to the land of his ancestors and evangelize them.  His initial missionary trip was to Friesland (what we would call Holland or the Netherlands today) to assist a work among those people that had been going on for several years.  The situation on the ground was quite difficult largely because of political reasons and soon Wynfrith returned to England.  He was not discouraged in the slightest by the lack of fruit he saw in Friesland, but rather stimulated to even greater exertions in the future.
When he returned to England we might not have ever heard of him again.  He was offered the office of Abbot in his monastery which was an office with dignity and privilege.  Most anyone would have considered this God’s promotion of them, but Boniface, true to his character, was restless and looked again towards the mission field.  When he took the next step, Wynfrith would never set foot in England the remainder of his life.

For several centuries the German peoples had been exposed to the Gospel by Celtic and Frankish missionaries.  While they were strong in evangelistic zeal they were often weak in organizational skill. This coupled with the societal chaos in the wake of the tribal invasions from Central Asia pretty much left what churches existed in a weakened and floundering state. 
Boniface preaching to a local ruler

In 718, Wynfrith makes his way to Rome and presents himself to the pope for mission service.  He is given a commission from the papacy to travel beyond the Rhine river and establish the Roman church in Germany.  With the prestige of a papal endorsement behind him,  Boniface was well-received by the local rulers and over the next few years was quite successful in his work of re-building the existing Christian church and evangelizing the pagans.

5 years later (723) Wynfrith returned to Rome and was ordained a bishop.  This gave him the right to oversee the new churches and ordain its ministers.  It is on this occasion of ordination that Wynfrith is given the new name Boniface.  Boniface was the name of a Roman martyr whose feast day was about to happen.  His new name would have been Wynfrith Boniface but he so identified with his role as a bishop and shepherd that from that day forward chose to only go by his new name.

When Boniface returns as the bishop of Germany with the authority of the Pope and then gets a further letter of endorsement from Frankish King Charles Martel that perhaps the most storied moment of his ministry occurs.  
Sacred Grove
While he had been away from Germany, some of Boniface’s new converts in the area of Geismar had fallen back into their old pagan ways of magic and superstition.  The particular temptation and draw in this region was centered in the sacred oak tree of Thor the god of thunder.  Sacred trees have long been part of animist cultures throughout the world (even the Biblical Canaanite culture) but were especially prevalent in Northern Europe which was so heavily forested.  Sacrifices of all kinds were offered to the trees and if a person so much as picked a piece of bark of the tree they would pay for it with their life.

Boniface with cross and hatchet!

Boniface, wanting to ‘root paganism out of the people for good’ came to the sacred tree and to the shock and amazement of everyone took his axe out and chopped it down.  The people expected him to drop dead for touching the sacred oak but instead when all was said and done, he was still standing and the tree was not.  This had a strong effect on the people for they realized Boniface represented the one true God and the tree had no power.  It is said that Boniface used the wood from the sacred tree to build a small chapel dedicated to St. Peter.  

Another variation on this story has Boniface not chopping but preaching.  As he preaches the Gospel at the site of the oak, a huge gust of wind comes and blows the tree down splitting it conveniently into four pieces.  However this happened, it is representative of many instances where Boniface destroyed pagan temples, sacred rocks, and trees so that the people would truly believe that there was no spiritual power in the object which in turn paved the way for his message.   It was certainly not a culturally sensitive policy to be sure, but it was effective and often resulted in mass conversions.
At some point Boniface abandoned this “power encounter” approach and took a more philosophical approach with people asking questions about their local gods and what they believed and then would teach them about Christianity.  People often saw this as a superior message coming from a greater culture and would convert.  For Boniface, if the people renounced their pagan beliefs and confessed faith in Christ, he would prepare them for baptism.

Boniface baptizing new Christian
But the great missionary evangelist has more than a good message and a winning presentation.  He also has a plan for establishing church communities and building local leaders so that when he leaves the work will be self-sustaining.  Boniface’s plan was to establish monasteries.  It may seem odd from our modern perspective today, but in the early Middle Ages, the monastery was the closest thing to a university there was.  The men and women who lived there were taught to read, taught the scriptures, and learned and developed practical and useful knowledge for the entire world.  The perfect example of this is how monks advanced agriculture through crop rotation and the development of plow harnesses for animals.  This could only happen in a monastery at the time because its environment of security and efficiency allowed the leisure necessary for innovation and advanced thinking.
Boniface would recruit men and women monks from England to start monasteries in Germany and then as German people became Christians some of their number would be invited to join the monastery, become educated, and then would serve as leaders for the growing church in their nation.  The greatest and largest monastery was at Fulda which is said to be in Germany what the Benedictine Monastery at Monte Cassino is to Italy.

In 747 AD,  Boniface again is recalled to Rome and is made the Archbishop and spiritual leader of the German people by the pope.  This empowers him to organize the church into many different dioceses (church districts) and appoint bishops to oversee them.  Boniface himself was a stickler that holding high office in the church was not a call to privilege (as some in his day saw it), but a call to service.  He would remind those under him that the Lord Jesus Himself washed the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper.  Whenever he received a gift from one of his subordinate bishops, Boniface would send a gift in return and it was always the same: a hand towel for washing feet.

At this point Boniface is poised to end his life in Germany serving the church with distinction as archbishop. But shortly after his 70th birthday, he resigns his high office to return to his calling as a missionary.  His choice?  Boniface returns to Friesland, the place of his first missionary effort to give it another try.  In this, Boniface shows that as a Christians you are never too old to take on another challenge or assignment from the Lord.

The second mission in Friesland proved to be a very fruitful period for Boniface.  He had a large team of people helping him and thousands were baptized and again the church was expanding there.  Unfortunately in June of 754 AD, while Boniface and 50 of his assistants were encamped at Dockum on the river Borne preparing for a mass baptism, they were attacked and killed by a gang of robbers thinking they had a large sum of money to take.
Martyrdom of Boniface

Tragic as this was, the gospel had taken root and by the end of the 8th century paganism in Friesland had almost completely been replaced with Christianity.

To sum up, Boniface is considered one of the most powerful influences on the future history of Western Europe.  Not only were the Teutonic tribes who occupied most of the land we know as present day Germany evangelized, but by connecting them with the Catholic church there was a great transference of the seed of ancient Roman culture into a world that was at one time barbaric and superstitious.  This seed when fully germinated (or should I say “German-ated”) would later develop into an even greater movement of Christianity centuries later with the Protestant Reformation which would change the face of Western Civilization forever.

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