Church History Spotlight | Athanasius

Mar 14, 2023 | Articles, by Alexander Wade, Marrow Ministries Free Content

May 2023 marks one thousand six hundred ninety-eight years since the 1st Council of Nicaea met. When I was growing up, Nicaea was blamed for the birth of every religious conspiracy theory. “Oh, you don’t know about the letter J? They made that up at Nicaea.” “Jesus was invented at Nicaea.” “Worshipping on Sunday instead of Saturday happened at Nicaea.” And yet, none of these issues were topics of discussion at the council. There were, however, several other issues that were discussed, like church discipline, fasting days, and the official day for the celebration of Easter. And yet, none of these topics were the official reason for the convening of the council. They had one big question they were willing to fight and, if necessary, die over: Is Jesus a creature that is really like God, or is Jesus God?

Athanasius was born around 296 A.D. in Egypt. His family seems to have had pagan and Christian influences in their home. Athanasius favored the Christians or, as some referred to them, the “Galileans.”

Much of his adolescence was during Diocletian’s great persecution of the Christian church, which lasted from 303 to 311 A.D. This was the last great persecution that the church faced at the hand of Rome, but it was the most brutal. The biggest spectacle during Athanasius’ youth was the vicious slaughter of Christians. Their perseverance was compelling to him, and these martyrs became his heroes. Today our youth are awestruck by Avengers like Iron Man, Thor, or The Hulk, but Athanasius, by those who, to their final breath, placed their trust in the God who would one day avenge them.

In 313 A.D., the same year Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, the seventeen-year-old Athanasius meets Alexander, the patriarch of the Christian church in Alexandria, Egypt. This was Alexander’s 1st year as Bishop. According to Coptic tradition, the patriarch sees some young boys playing in the water, and one of them is pretending to baptize the others. Out of curiosity and concern, Alexander sends for the boys and begins to question them. He directs his questions to the boy who appeared to be baptizing.

Alexander asked, “What did you do?” The boy replied, “I poured the water on them and said the words.” “What words?” The boy repeated the baptismal formula in perfect Greek. “Did you pour the water as you said the words?” “Yes.” The Patriarch’s face was troubled. “It is a dangerous game to play,” he said. “What would you say if I told you, you had really baptized them?” The boy looked at him in amazement. “But I am not a bishop,” he said. That boy was Athanasius, and this was the moment that led to the formation of one of the most prolific duos in church history. This was an ancient African Shaq and Kobe, with Alexander as the seasoned vet and Athanasius as the understudy deacon and scribe who one day would bear the burden of leadership.

By A.D. 306, Constantine has become emperor, although not the sole emperor. In fact, at that time, the Roman Empire was ruled by four emperors. Constantine would eventually consolidate power and become the sole ruler of the Roman empire in A.D. 324 until he died in A.D. 337. Constantine grew sympathetic towards the Christians and, in A.D. 313, issued the Edict of Milan, legalizing Christianity and formally ending persecution. In the coming years, Constantine would convert to Christianity and become a catechumen.

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Throughout Athanasius’ life, his most famous opponent was Arius. In A.D. 311, Arius was ordained as a priest. By A.D. 318, he started teaching some unique ideas about Jesus’ divinity. Arius equated the word begotten with created and thus taught that Jesus was not divine but a creature: a glorious creature, but a creature nonetheless. Between 320 and 324, tensions rose as Arius wrote letters attempting to convince bishops of his views. Bishop Alexander responded with letters of his own capped off by his encyclical letter notifying roughly 1800 bishops that Arius needed to be deposed.

Constantine, now the sole ruler of Rome and a catechumen, desiring peace in his empire, called for a council to settle the issue of the divinity of Jesus to bring peace among the Christians under his rule. This was the 1st Council of Nicaea. It is important to note that Eusebius was the emperor’s most trusted bishop and a supporter of Arius. Constantine favored the Arian view, although it was the minority view.

In May of A.D. 325, the council began with 318 Bishops in attendance, with roughly 60 bishops siding with Arius and Eusebius. There were also many priests and deacons in attendance. Some were visibly mangled from the persecution they faced before Constantine’s conversion. He’s looking at them like, “My bad, y’all.”

When the debate began, and Arius was permitted to speak, he said, “The Son of God is infinitely holy, he says, the holiest of all the creations of the Father and far above them all. Very, very close to the Father Himself, so close that He is very nearly God. As a matter of fact, he declares, the Arians believe all that the church teaches.”

One thing of note is Athanasius’ youth. In 325 Arias was 69, Eusebius, 65, and Alexander, 75. When it is time for a rebuttal, the floor is given to Alexander, but the bishop, knowing that his 27-year-old deacon and scribe “has that dog in him,” decides to let him off his leash. Athanasius stands and says, “Who has deceived you, O senseless, to call the Creator a creature?” Athanasius proceeded to spend the next month laying the smackdown on the Arians.

By the end of the debate, the 60 bishops who sided with Arias had dwindled to 17. When Constantine let them know that anyone teaching Arianism in his empire would be banished, many of the remaining Arian bishops had a sincere change of heart about the divinity of Jesus, leaving just five unwavering Arian bishops. By June 19, 325, the Nicene Creed had been drafted and signed, affirming the belief that the church has always held, namely that Jesus is God.

Athanasius would succeed Alexander as the Bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, at just 30 years old. Unfortunately, the attacks on orthodoxy didn’t end at Nicaea, and because Athanasius wouldn’t budge, he was banished five times for a total of 17 years in exile. He also had six additional times that he had to flee for his life. On May 2, 373, Athanasius died peacefully in his bed.

To learn more about this African saint, here are some resources I recommend:

  • On the Incarnation by Athanasius of Alexandria
  • History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria: The Copts of Egypt Before and After the Islamic Conquests by Sawirus B. Al-Muqaffa
  • The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus by Athanasius of Alexandria
  • Athanasius of Alexandria: His Life and Impact (Early Church Fathers) by Peter Barnes
  • Athanasius: His Life and Times (The Fathers for English Readers Book 16) by R. Wheler Bush
  • The Great Athanasius: An Introduction to His Life and Work by John R. Tyson
  • Athanasius: Illustrated by Frances Alice Monica Forbes

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