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


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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)