Series Intro: Jesus said that He will build His church, but does anyone care as to “how” He has done so? In an effort to help myself and online readers better understand the “Early Church,” I will be sharing brief research done in coordination with my graduate school work (as well as personal enrichment) on 10 important men and women in Christian history: Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Perpetua, Felicity, Tertullian, Irenaeus, Origen, and Athanasius. Join me in traveling back in time almost two millennia to encounter some of the most intriguing people you will ever meet, Christians who have left an indelible mark on church history.
– Athanasius –
There are some men and women of church history that make you want to stand up and cheer for them for what they’ve accomplished for the Christian faith. Athanasius of Alexandria is just that kind of person. A little over 40 years have elapsed between Origen’s death and Athanasius’s birth. But we are still dealing with, for the most part, the city of Alexandria and its prominence in early Christianity. Although, if you’re like me, you may be eager to hear about the life and influence of Athanasius, I think it is helpful to first consider the historical context, most specifically, the theological heresy that nearly killed Christianity: Arianism.
In the New Testament era and even into the 2nd century, the most common Christological heresy did not bring into question Jesus Christ’s divinity; it was his humanity (see, for example, my post on the heresy battled in First John). Certainly, some facets pertaining to Jesus’ divinity, according to early heretics, were not biblical either. Nevertheless, as time progressed, other heresies crept into the Church and were dealt with accordingly. But to my knowledge, probably no other heresy was as widespread and detrimental as Arianism in the latter part of the early church period. According to Justo Gonzalez, “What Arius taught was that the one who had come to us in Jesus Christ was not truly God, but a lesser being, a creature” (The Story of Christianity: Vol. 1, 175). Therefore, it was not the humanity of Jesus that was brought into contention, but his deity.
Where did this heretical idea come from? Although some have posited predecessors (for example, The Catholic Dictionary lists Paul of Samosata as the “true ancestor”), the main man to look to is Arius of Alexandria – hence the name “Ari-anism.” Arius was born in Libya, was raised in Antioch, but eventually became a presbyter (elder) at a church in Alexandria (see Ibid.). His heretical Christology got him in trouble, of course. So “In A.D. 323 a synod met in Egypt to condemn the doctrines of Arius” (Jonathan Hill, History of Christian Thought, pg. 60). While this publicly certified Arius’s views as heresy, such an action did not slow down the false teacher. One could walk through the streets of Alexandria and hear songs being sung about Jesus being “created” (rather than eternal): “There was a time when the Son was not” (cited in Christianity Today). While social media seems to be the primary mode of communication nowadays, evidently back in the 4th century people found very creative ways to promote their agendas. Another council had to be called to address this growing problem of Arianism in 325: the council of Nicaea (also spelled “Nicea”). This was not a council that “invented” the doctrine of Christ’s deity, it was simply reaffirming and clarifying what the orthodox Church already believed. At this council in 325, a young man — the pastoral assistant (perhaps an official “deacon”) to Alexander, bishop of Alexandria — was present who, though probably unknown by many at the time, would be almost a “superhero” in terms of what he did for Christian doctrine. This young man was Athanasius.
Athanasius was born in Alexandria shortly before the turn of the 4th century (probably 295 or 296). Not much is known of his early life, though he was probably well acquainted with some of the early desert monks (Gonzalez, TSOC: Vol. 1, pg. 173). In fact, he wrote The Life of Saint Anthony, a memoir of a monk named Anthony. Amidst Athanasius’s later struggles in life (especially during his numerous exiles) he found much solace within the company of monks. Justo Gonzalez tells of this important strength of Athanasius: “Of all the opponents of Arianism, Athanasius was most to be feared. The reasons for this were not to be found in subtlety of logical argument, nor in elegance of style, nor even in political perspicacity. In all these areas, Athanasius could be bested by his opponents. His strong suit was in his close ties to the people among whom he lived, and in living out his faith without the subtleties of the Arians or the pomp of so many bishops of other important sees. His monastic discipline, his roots among the people, his fiery spirit, and his profound and unshakable conviction made him invincible” (TSOC: Vol. 1, pg. 174). Christians ought to pay very close attention to what Gonzalez is saying about Athanasius. One’s personality, intelligence, and political power is no match for being a genuine and caring neighbor. Athanasius knew his fellow Alexandrians and they knew him.
Just a few years after the council of Nicaea, Alexander of Alexandria (that’s an easy connection to make with a name like Alexander!) died, opening up the opportunity for Athanasius to become the new bishop. Athanasius was no stranger to church problems, starting with the Melitian controversy in the early 330’s. All kinds of accusations were made against the young bishop, including the murder of a man named Arsenius. Was this all true?
A council convened at Tyre where Athanasius was ordered to appear for answering these rather serious charges. After the charges were laid out, Athanasius brought a man into the room who was covered in a cloak. He unveiled this man; indeed, it was Arsenius! Some men in the crowd of officials, remembering that rumors had spread of Athanasius cutting off Arsenius’s hand (rather than murder), asked for Athanasius to reveal the man’s hands as well. As cited in Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity, “[Athanasius] then uncovered one of Arsenius’ hands. ‘It was the other hand!’ shouted some of those who had been convinced by the rumors. Then Athanasius uncovered the man’s other hand and demanded: ‘What kind of monster did you think Arsenius was? One with three hands?’ Laughter broke out through the assembly, while others were enraged that the Arians had fooled them” (pg. 176). Was this the end of the problem? Hardly. After his debacle in Tyre, Athanasius traveled to Constantinople to defend himself before the emperor, Constantine, since his defense in Tyre was not sufficient for full acquittal. Athanasius found that it was nearly impossible to gain access to speak to Constantine. Finally, when Constantine was traveling on the roads, Athanasius jumped in front of the emperor’s horse to get his attention for being allowed the opportunity to defend his orthodoxy and right to be bishop of Alexandria. Unfortunately, Athanasius’s actions served to show the point that he seemed somewhat extreme, and therefore, Eusebius of Nicomedia (not the same Eusebius of Alexandria), who was no friend to Trinitarian orthodoxy, managed to successfully accuse Athanasius of being a political menace – according to Eusebius, “Athanasius had boasted that he could stop the shipments of wheat from Egypt to Rome” (Gonzalez, TSOC, 176). Therefore, Constantine banished Athanasius from Alexandria and sent him to the West.
In God’s good providence, Constantine died in 337, enabling Athanasius to return to his homeland. By this time, however, Arianism gained a lot of power. Many were accusing him of not being the rightful Alexandrian bishop. And in 339, Athanasius had to flee Alexandria and come to Rome for safety. In Rome, Athanasius’s influence was rather effective, convincing Julius (the bishop of Rome) that the Nicene position of Christology (that Jesus is divine) was indeed the biblical view. In time, a large portion of the West rallied around Athanasius, and through a synod was declared the rightful bishop of Alexandria; meanwhile, Gregory, was agreed to have been an Arian usurper (see Gonzalez, TSOC, pg. 177). But with the death of Constantine II, things changed. Constans became emperor in the West and asked Constantius, the Eastern emperor (all the “Constan” names are confusing, I know, but try to stick with the story!) to grant Athanasius safety to Alexandria. The Eastern emperor obliged and Athanasius could return home. It is said from church historians that when Athanasius arrived in Alexandria, the city responded in a way that resembled a parade.
The people rejoiced, but why so? Well, I think there are theological reasons at play, such as the regenerating work of God in the lives of Christians, but there was also a political reason. Gregory, the former bishop (and Arian), was seen as a “bigwig,” upper-class representative, whereas Athanasius contrasted against him as being a “man of the people” (Gonzalez, TSOC, pg. 177). This new attitude of the Alexandrian men and women did not put a complete end to the Arian problem, but it certainly made an impact. There would be other encounters which would lead to more accusations and banishments. The so-called “Blasphemy of Sirmium” in 357 was a council that affirmed Arianism, even gaining the support of some former Trinitarians. Athanasius didn’t get to stay in Alexandria permanently until 366. But something happened in the Roman empire: a pagan emperor came to power, and believe it or not, this was actually good for Trinitarianism.
From 361-363, Julian “the Apostate” ruled Rome. Although he was raised with Christian parents, Julian forsook the faith for paganism (hence the name “the Apostate”). In fact, he attempted to restore Rome to its pagan roots. Many pagan temples were resurrected and Julian did accomplish some of his plans, but ultimately he would not succeed. Yet, by Julian the Apostate coming to power, this helped Trinitarianism. Jonathan Hill writes, “In order to cause the church as much confusion as possible, the new emperor ordered all bishops exiled by his predecessor to return home” (HoCT, pg. 65). One of the returnees was, of course, Athanasius. You know, King Nebuchadnezzar once admitted, “[A]ll the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and [God] does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?'” Truly, God is sovereign, and one way in which He manifested His infinite wisdom was through the pagan emperor Julian. Julian’s plans were to make Christianity into a mess, but God’s plans were to reestablish the true teachings of the faith by bringing back once exiled bishops into their places of ministry. Julian intended it for evil, but God superintended it for good. In due time, orthodox Trinitarianism would become fully established.
An important year in Athanasius’s life (and for all of church history for that matter) was just a year following his return to Alexandria, 367. In his famous (to church historians at least) “Festal Letter,” Athanasius confirmed the 27 books that make up the New Testament, while also putting to rest debates about other helpful, but non-inspired writings like “Shepherd of Hermas” or “The Epistle of Barnabas.” Many have stated that this is the first full canonized list of the 27 New Testament books. And certainly, this is indeed a very important point to notice. However, as Michael J. Kruger has noted, “This language [from Origen’s Homilies on Joshua] suggests not only that Origen had a 27 book canon, but that, in his mind at least, that canon was closed. Moreover, he mentions this quite naturally in a sermon, suggesting that his audience also would have known and accepted these books. And all of this is more than a century before Athanasius’ Festal Letter.” Nevertheless, Athanasius’s canon is just another argument for the early church’s view of the inspired Word of God that believers today also possess.
In all, Athanasius was exiled 5 times, he was many times falsely accused of wrongdoing, and probably faced many days of frustration and discouragement. Nevertheless, Athanasius provides for us an example of one of the most heroic Christians to have ever lived. At one point in his life, a bewildered fellow believer cried out to Athanasius, “The whole world is against you!” From this circumstance, we have inherited the Latin translated response: “Athanasius Contra Mundum.” It would simply have to be that Athanasius was “against the world.” Few people have ever taken on the world and survived, but Athanasius was one who lived to tell the story. Indeed, it seemed to be that the whole world was against Athanasius, but thankfully the promises of Hebrews 13:5-6 remained true to him as they are to believers of all ages: “‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’”
Church History Tip: “AAA” can be a rather handy resource to have in an automobile problem. Many instances in which AAA is called upon are probably stress-filled, and in some cases serious. The life of Athanasius mimicked these kinds of intense situations. Likewise, you can remember the 3 A‘s pertaining to Athanasius: Athanasius (himself), Alexandria (his city), and Arianism (his theological opponents). In your studies of church history, remember the acronym AAA and how all three were intertwined in the 4th century!