Thursday, May 3, 2012

St Athanasius and the Divinity of Christ

Yesterday's post on St Athanasius (c.296-373) was so popular that I decided to share with you a brief outline of his life and work, prepared some time ago as a hand-out for a study group. Nothing original here; it is a conflation and paraphrase of a number of different sources. 


One day in the year 313, Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria was standing at his window gazing out across the city. He saw the houses and other civic buildings, and the city’s busy sea port that reflected Egypt's success as a trading centre at the height of the Roman Empire. And stretching as far as the eye could see were the waters of the Mediterranean. The bishop was about to turn aside from the window and make the final preparations for guests he was expecting for dinner when he noticed a group of boys playing on the shore of the harbour. They seemed to be acting out a baptism, with one boy actually baptizing the others. 

Annoyed that they were making fun of the Gospel, the Bishop sent his servant to stop the game and get the boys. He asked them to explain what they were doing. “It was the bishop’s fault”, said one boy, pointing at one of the others, the one Alexander remembered had been doing the baptizing.

“What is your name?” he asked. “My name is Athanasius,” the young boy answered, who was by this stage extremely nervous. “We were just playing,” the boy continued. “I was pretending to be the bishop and these [pointing to his friends] are my catechumens who have been preparing for baptism.” 

As the conversation continued, Bishop Alexander was amazed. The child had, in fact, carried out the baptismal liturgy with accuracy, perfectly reciting the Greek formulae. “Are you a Christian?” enquired Alexander. “Yes.” Bishop Alexander then asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “I want to be a priest.” The bishop was silent for a bit as he looked at the boy. “It is not an easy life,” he said softly, recalling the Diocletian persecution which had only just come to an end and in which many of his friends had been martyred for the faith. “Also, a priest must have learning.” “I love to learn,” said the boy, “And I am not afraid of anything!” 

Impressed by the boy’s enthusiasm, the bishop found out where his parents lived. Later that week he visited them and asked permission to bring the boy up, training and educating him for the priestly ministry. Athanasius’ parents agreed. Athanasius grew to love the gentle bishop as a father. But he was not the only one blessed by the relationship. Bishop Alexander found his generosity to the boy and his family repaid a hundredfold, as Athanasius became a very helpful assistant and secretary. Together the two of them travelled around the vast diocese, strengthening the clergy and caring for the congregations. Six years later, when Athanasius was 23 years old, he was ordained as a deacon and continued to work closely with the aging Patriarch. 


In those days the church was rapidly expanding under the freedom that resulted from Constantine’s Edict of Milan. The Edict, issued in the same year - 313 AD - that Alexander had found Athanasius playing his baptismal game, brought an end to the miserable persecution Christians had faced under previous emperors. But this freedom also enabled disunity and heresy to spread around the Church (one fulfilment of what St Paul had predicted in Acts 20:29-30: “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw the disciples away after them."

The trouble that would mark Athanasius’ ministry began one afternoon when Bishop Alexander was lecturing on the Trinity at a gathering of clergy. In the course of the talk, a priest from Libya named Arius stood up and opposed Alexander’s view that Jesus was co-eternal with the Father. Like modern day Jehovah’s Witnesses, Arius argued that if Jesus was God’ Son, then by definition he must have had a beginning to his existence and could not also be eternal God. Alexander tried to reason with Arius, but to no avail. 

It wouldn’t be long before Arius drew to himself quite a following from among the local clergy. They would chant: “There was a time when he was not, there was a time when he was not,” expressing their belief that Jesus was a creature with a beginning rather than the eternal Son of God. Soon followers of Arius could be heard throughout the whole empire singing their catchy songs. At one level it is not surprising that Arius’ heresy was popular; for hundreds of years Mediterranean culture had revolved around the worship of the emperor and various other "demigods". Indeed, Arianism was very attractive to some in positions of power. 


As Arianism spread like wildfire, it eventually caught the attention of the emperor. Division in the church deeply troubled Constantine, who considered such in-fighting to be worse than war because it threatened to destroy Church's unifying influence in the empire. In an attempt to resolve the conflict, Constantine convened a council at Nicaea in 325, a large gathering that including bishops from east and west. For three months the council debated the Arian heresy and other subsidiary matters. As the proceedings continued, Bishop Alexander was overshadowed by his young assistant, Athanasius, who used his scriptural knowledge and rhetorical skills to great effect. 

If Jesus is a created being, Athanasius argued, then he is not God. Unless Jesus is both fully man and fully God, he could not save us. Only one who is fully human can atone for human sin, but only one who is fully divine has the power to save. Under the force of these and other arguments emerged the words we say every Sunday: “We believe . . . in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father”. 

When he refused to say the creed, Arius was pronounced a heretic and exiled. But for Athanasius and Alexander, Nicaea was the beginning, not the end, of trouble. 


Within months of the Council, Arius' supporters urged the emperor to end Arius’ exile. They persuaded him that Arius had repented. Constantine ordered Bishop Alexander to restore Arius. Alexander refused, pointing out that Arius had NOT retracted his views about Jesus.

Three years after the Council, Alexander died. Athanasius was in his desert dwelling with his spiritual father St Anthony when elected to succeed Alexander. Fifty Bishops officiated at his consecration in 328 AD while the crowds cheered the enthronement of their 20th Patriarch. It came to be said that he was for the faithful what Pharos (the lighthouse) was for ships: “When the night was dark and tempest raged, all eyes turned instinctively to St. Athanasius.” 

Amongst his many pastoral achievements was the ordination of Frumentius as the first Bishop of Ethiopia in 330 AD shortly after he embarked on a pastoral tour of Egypt. The strong love and loyalty between St Athanasius and his people continued to the end of his life. 

But the Arians in the city initially saw the consecration of the young Athanasius as an opportunity to make a come-back, having greatly underestimated his strength and wisdom. 

When it became clear that Athanasius would not let anyone enter the church who refused to say the Nicean Creed, the Arians started a mud-slinging campaign. They accused Athanasius of everything from murder to illegal taxation. When these false accusations reached the ears of Constantine, Athanasius was summoned to appear before the emperor's representatives and answer charges. The following account (from Book I of Theodoret’s Ecclesiastical History (adapted by Stuart Bryan) helps us to understand what he endured: 

"One of these charges concerned a certain Arsenius, a bishop of the faction opposed to Athanasius. The men of his party put him in hiding, and charged him to remain there as long as possible. They then cut off the right hand of a corpse, embalmed it, placed it in a wooden case, and carried it about everywhere, declaring that it was the hand of Arsenius, who had been murdered by Athanasius. But the all-seeing eye did not permit Arsenius to remain long in concealment. The friends of Athanasius hunted Arsenius up, apprehended him and brought him to an inn in Tyre, where they kept him until the council was convened. 

"On the appointed day, early in the morning, the great Athanasius and his close friend Timotheus came to the council. His enemies first accused him of violating the chastity of a woman in whose house he had lodged. The woman herself was present as witness to the crime. She stood and reported (with loud tears and sighs) how she had invited Athanasius into her house only to be ravished by the unfeeling wretch. When she had finished, the court ordered Athanasius to reply, but Athanasius remained silent. Instead, Timotheus stepped forward, as though he were Athanasius, and addressed her, 'Have I, O woman, ever conversed with you, or have I entered your house?' She replied with even greater effrontery, screaming aloud at Timotheus, and, pointing at him with her finger, exclaimed, 'It was you who robbed me of my virginity; it was you who stripped me of my chastity.' 

"The devisers of this calumny were put to shame, and all the bishops who were privy to it, blushed, while the woman herself (a local prostitute as it turned out) was dragged from the room still screaming and accusing 'Athanasius' of violating her. 

"But Athanasius’ enemies were undeterred by this turn of events. This was not the only, nor the most serious charge against him. At this point the small, covered box containing the embalmed hand of the murdered Bishop Arsenius was produced. A gasp spread through the room when it was opened and all the spectators uttered a loud cry. Some believed the accusation to be true; the others had no doubt of the falsehood, and thought that Arsenius was lurking somewhere or other in hiding. When at length, after some difficulty, a little silence was obtained, Athanasius asked his judges whether any of them knew Arsenius. Several of them replying, 'Why, yes, of course we knew him!', Athanasius gave orders that a man who had hitherto stood outside in a long cloak be brought before them. Then Athanasius again asked them, 'Is this the right Arsenius? Is this the man I murdered? Is this the man those people mutilated after his murder by cutting off his right hand?' When they had acknowledged that it was the same individual, Athanasius pulled off Arsenius’ cloak, and exhibited two hands, both the right and the left, and said, 'Let no one seek for a third hand, for man has received two hands from the Creator and no more.'" 

When Athanasius’ accusers found that their plots had backfired, they tried to murder him. They would surely have been successful had the emperor’s soldiers not stepped in and ensured that Athanasius was safely placed on board a ship. 

Not long after this Athanasius reported to the emperor the unjust treatment he had undergone. The emperor commanded the men Athanasius had complained about to appear before him. Instead of urging any of the former accusations (which had been so easily refuted) they switched their tactics and told Constantine that Athanasius had threatened to prevent the exportation of corn from Alexandria. Believing what they said, Constantine banished Athanasius to Treves, a city in Gaul.

It was only when Constantine died two years later in 337 that Athanasius was able to return to Alexandria. However, upon his homecoming he found that Arianism had seeped into the city like a poison. This time it was the church leaders who wanted to get rid of Athanasius. The opportunity presented itself the following year when Constantine’s son, the new Roman Emperor Constantius II, renewed the order for Athanasius’s banishment, even issuing orders that Athanasius should be put to death if he entered his episcopal see. 

In 346 Athanasius was finally allowed to return, only to be exiled on three more occasions by the next two Roman emperors (Julian, noted for his opposition to Christianity, and Valens, noted for his Arianism). In 366 Athanasius was able to resume his bishopric for the last and final time, holding it until his death in 373 at the age of 78. 


Athanasius’ life reflected the seriousness with which he approached his high calling in Christ. Rejecting the life of ease that came to characterize so many bishops, he was prepared to live in constant turmoil and suspension of his office and income rather than compromise on the deity of Christ. His faithfulness bore fruit, for though he would not live to see it, his battle against Arianism turned out to be successful.

Athanasius’ enemies had hoped to silence him by removing him, but the result was actually the opposite. During his seventeen years in exile, Athanasius visited orthodox Christians in far off places, spreading his influence as a godly and learned teacher. These periods of exile also gave him the opportunity to write, and to leave behind a rich legacy of books. 

Athanasius’ most influential work, On the Incarnation, continues to help us understand the importance of Jesus’ divinity and humanity. In other works Athanasius defending the Christian faith not only against the Arian threat but also against pagan and Jewish opposition. Importantly, his Easter Letter of 367 defines the New Testament canon exactly as we have it today. 

“The whole world is against you!” a friend once said to him when it seemed that the entire Roman empire was lapsing into Arianism. Athanasius replied, “Then it is Athanasius against the world.” These words - Athanasius contra mundum - still ring in the ears of the faithful who hold fast to God's truth in the face of powerful opposition. 

In his introduction to a translation of On the Incarnation (see yesterday's post), C.S. Lewis commented: "He stood for the Trinitarian doctrine, ‘whole and undefiled,’ when it looked as if all the civilized world was slipping back from Christianity into the religion of Arius – into one of those ‘sensible’ synthetic religions which are so strongly recommended today and which, then as now, included among their devotees many highly cultivated clergymen. It is his glory that he did not move with the times . . . ”. 


St Athanasius strongly defended the full divinity and full humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Logos (Word) Incarnate. Christ is the second Hypostasis (person) of the Holy Trinity. God has One Essence in three Hypostasis, all equal in essence (ousia). The Hypostasis share all of the attributes in the One Divine Essence and are characteristically distinct in the Hypostasis. 

St Athanasius asserted that there was never a time when the Father was not a father, nor when the Son was not a son. There was never a time when they did not eternally co-exist. 

He explains: “Just as a river, produced from a well, is not separate and yet there are in fact two visible objects and two names. For neither is the Father the Son, nor the Son the Father. For the Father is the Father of the Son, and the Son, the Son of the Father. For like as the well is not a river, nor the river a well, but both are one and the same water which is conveyed in a channel from the well to the river, so the Father’s deity passes into the Son without flow and without division. For the Lord says, “I came forth from the Father and have come.” (John 16:28). But He is ever with the Father, for He is on the bosom of the Father, nor was ever the bosom of the Father void of the deity of the Son. Thus, the Son, the Logos of God, exists with the Father in eternity and is Himself the Eternal God.


St Athanasius states that after the fall, sin resulted in two major consequences: the change of human nature and the fall of man into the grasp of death. 

Any salvation, in order to be true to its name, must address these critical problems. Mere repentance of man could neither renew his nature nor abolish death. Christ, says St Athanasius, came to our realm and took up abode in one body among us, thus the whole conspiracy of death which before was prevailing against us is done away. 

Only the Word of God is the “Image of the Father” is able to create man after His image. He took a body in order to conquer death and the corruption in it. “He took what is ours and gave us what is His”. 

For St. Athanasius, salvation is not limited to the atonement for sin, but goes beyond this to include renewal and deification. He holds the biblical and patristic Tradition before him that does not separate Incarnation from Redemption, but it looks at salvation as brought by the whole life of Christ, from His conception to His return in glory. 

St Athanasius describes the road to God the Father as one which we take not only through but with Christ in the Holy Spirit. The salvation wrought by Christ’s redeeming action has still to be worked in each individual. A Christian is incorporated into Christ’s Body through the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church Sacraments.


In May 1973, the Coptic Church celebrated the 1,600th anniversary of St Athanasius' departure to heaven! Pope Shenouda III made a historical visit to Rome to meet Pope Paul VI who not only gave him the holy relics of St Athanasius, but also signed a common declaration resulting in dialogue between the Churches. The relics of St Athanasius are now in a large shrine in the Cathedral of St Mark in Cairo. 

All Christians owe an enormous debt to St Athanasius for his defence of the authentic Christian faith. May he pray for us in our day.


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