“If Christian theology had superheroes,” scholar Kevin VanHoozer writes, “Athanasius would perhaps lead the list.”1 Athanasius is relatively unknown to most Christians today. In order for us to begin appreciating the significance of his life, we need to understand the world from which this little man stood tall.
In 302 A.D., when Athansius was only 6 years old, two men sought an audience with the god Apollo. These weren’t ordinary men, they were two of the most powerful people on the planet. Diocletian and Galerius were both Roman Emperors. They wanted Apollo to help settle an argument for them.
Christianity had been spreading like a virus. They knew the Roman gods weren’t happy with so many Romans becoming Christians. Dicoletian and Galerius wanted Rome, with help from the gods, to be greater than ever. How could they accomplish their wishes?
Diocletian thought the gods would be happy if Christians were prevented from positions of influence. Galerius, however, thought the gods wanted more. Galerius thought the gods would want Christians exterminated. The best way to settle the argument? Why don’t we just ask the head god and see what he wants? The two men asked their questions through the oracle of Apollo at Didyma (modern-day Didim, Turkey).2
The oracle told the two men the “impious” on the Earth were making it hard for Apollo to even provide advice. Diocletian and Galerius agreed; Christians needed to be exterminated. On February 23, 303AD Diocletian ordered the newly built church in his city to be leveled. Life was hell for many Christians. The horrendous ways Christians were persecuted and killed during this time period are only for the strongest of stomachs. The executions continued until at least April 24, 303AD when six people, including the lead pastor of a prominent city, were decapitated.3
While the Diocletian persecutions were still fresh in everyone’s mind, a man named Constantine became Emperor of Rome. The new emperor, shortly after taking office, faced a coup. Maxentius, a military leader, organized a huge force to defeat Constantine. The two forces met on October 28th, 312AD at Milvian Bridge, just north of Rome. Maxentius’s army was twice the size of Constantine’s. The night before, however, Constantine had a dream. He was advised in the dream to, “mark the heavenly sign of God on the shields of his soldiers…by means of a slanted letter X with the top of its head bent round.”4 Eusebius describes the sign as Chi (x) traversed by Rho (P), a symbol representing the first two letters of the Greek spelling of the word Christos or Christ.5
The battle was brief. Constantine’s cavalry and infantry decimated the larger force. The mob of fleeing soldiers pushed Maxentius into the Tiber river where he drowned. Constantine’s seemingly supernatural vision and victory would significantly change the way Christians were treated. Truth is stranger than fiction. No one who endured the Diocletian persecutions could have imagined such a drastic turn-around. Constantine credited his victory to the Christian God.
Just a few months after The Battle of Milvian Bridge, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan proclaiming religious tolerance of all religions throughout the empire. The edict had special benefits for Christians, it legalized the religion and granted restoration for all property seized during Diocletian’s persecution.
The newfound Christian freedom made it possible for everything Athanasius is famous for to transpire.
Arius was 63 years old when Constantine issued the Edict of Milan. Arius led a church in Alexandria, Egypt. Alexandria was one of the most influential cities of the entire Roman Empire. Arius was one of the most prestigious and popular pastors of the city.6 Arius started preaching something that would shake the Christian world and dominate almost the entirety of Athanasius’s life. Jeffrey Bingham explains:
Arius was preaching from the Bible, with Proverbs 8:22 as a central verse, that the Son is not eternal with the Father but is created by the Father. That verse reads: “The LORD brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old.” Arius and his followers argued their doctrine from this verse, which speaks of the creation of wisdom, and from the common early Christian understanding of Christ as “wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:24, 30). These verses…subordinate Christ, the Son, to the Father, who alone is God and who had begotten – that is, created – a Son. Other passages they pointed to in support of their view were Psalm 45:7-8 and Isaiah 1:2 and the words “only begotten” in John 1:14, 18. Thus, according to Arius, it was not true to say “Always God, always Son” or “At the same time Father at the same time Son,” meaning that God the Father and God the Son are co-eternal and both possess the quality of deity. Rather, Arius proclaimed that “before [the Son] was begotten or created or defined or established, he was not for he was not unbeggoten” and that “the Son has a beginning, but God is without beginning.” For Arius, the Son is a creature and is not eternal.7
Is Jesus the Creator or is He a creature? Did Jesus have a beginning? Is Jesus truly God? These are some of the most important questions in the universe. Athanasius would spend most of his life, sometimes standing alone, answering these questions.
Athanasius was born around 296AD. Little is known of his early life. A 10th century biographer, the Arabic speaking Severus, spoke about Athanasius’s mother as having worshipped idols and having been wealthy.8
Sometime during his youth Athanasius and his mother were baptized as Christians. He was then discipled by Alexander, the head of the Alexandrian church. It was from Alexander that Athanasius obtained not only his cursory knowledge of contemporary philosophy, but also his thorough understanding of Scripture.9
Gregory of Nazianzus tells us:
He was brought up, from the first, in religious habits and practices, after a brief study of literature and philosophy, so that he might not be utterly unskilled in such subjects, or ignorant in matters which he had determined to despise…[rather] from meditating on every book of the Old and New Testament, with a depth such as none else has applied even to one of them, he grew in contemplation, rich in splendour of life, combining them in wondrous sort by that golden bond which few can weave; using life as the guide of contemplation, contemplation as the seal of life.10
It was now time for Athanasius to step toward the spotlight.
With Alexander at Nicea
The entire Christian world pondered the ideas of Arius. Is Jesus a creature? The greatest creature ever created? Arius believed Jesus predated coming to earth; he even believed Jesus predated the earth itself. The phrase that eventually became the Arian motto, “there was when He was not,” aptly focuses on the point at issue.11
Athanasius’s mentor, Alexander, made the first move. Arius was a pastor under the authority of Alexander. Alexander, claiming his authority and his responsibility as bishop, condemned the teachings of Arius. Arius did not accept this judgment. He wrote to church leaders all over the world. Soon there were popular demonstrations in Alexandria, with people marching through the streets chanting Arius’ theological teachings.12 The local disagreement in Alexandria spread beyond Egypt and threatened to divide the church.
In 325 AD, Constantine decided to intervene. He called a great assembly of Christian bishops from all parts of the empire to meet him at Nicea (modern-day Iznik, Turkey). Constantine paid the travel expenses for all involved. Athanasius, only 29 years old at the time, travelled to the Council of Nicea as the personal assistant to his mentor Alexander.
Athanasius, as he arrived with Alexander, would have seen a spectacular sight. This was the first time in human history that it was safe for the leaders of the Christian Church to get together. It would have been foolish for them all to previously assemble in one location before the time of Constantine. All the leadership could have been wiped out in one strategic swoop. The more than 300 bishops who walked through those doors were true heroes of the faith. In order to understand what Athansius saw, it is necessary to remember that several of those attending the great assembly had recently been imprisoned, tortured, or exiled, and that some bore on their bodies the physical marks of their faithfulness.13 Davis writes:
As confessors of the faith, some of the bishops bore the signs of the recent persecution on their persons: Paul of Neo-Caesarea had lost the use of his hands because of torture, the half blind and hamstrung Paphnutius of Egypt was kissed by Constantine himself in a touching diplomatic gesture.14
Eusebius of Caesarea, who was present, describes the amazing scene:
There were gathered the most distinguished ministers of God, from the many churches in Europe, Libya [i.e., Africa] and Asia. A single house of prayer, as if enlarged by God, sheltered Syrians and Cilicians, Phoenicians and Arabs, delegates from Palestine and from Egypt, Thebans and Libyans, together with those from Mesopotamia. There was also a Persian bishop, and a Scythian was not lacking. Pontus, Galatia, Pamphylia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Phrygia sent their most outstanding bishops, jointly with those from the remotest areas of Thrace, Macedonia, Achaia, and Epirus. Even from Spain, there was a man of great fame [Hosius of Cordova] who sat as a member of the great assembly. The bishop of the Imperial city [Rome] could not attend due to his advanced age; but he was represented by his presbyters. Constantine is the first ruler of all time to have gathered such a garland in the bond of peace, and to have presented it to his Savior as an offering of gratitude for the victories he had won over all his enemies.15
Did you know even Santa Claus was at Nicea? Yes, that’s right! Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra (modern day Demre, Turkey) was a voting bishop at the Council of Nicea.
For about two months, the bishops discussed the issue raised by Arius. The two sides argued and debated, with each side appealing to Scripture to justify their respective positions. It is unclear exactly how much influence Athanasius, as a non-voting member, had during the meetings.
Eusebius of Nicomedia, holding the same view as Arius, was convinced that a clear statement of his doctrine was all that was needed to convince the assembly. The reaction from the bishops was not what Eusebius expected. The assertion that the Word or Son was no more than a creature, no matter how high a creature, provoked angry reactions from many of the bishops: “You lie!” “Blashpemy!” “Heresy!”16 Eusebius of Nicomedia was shouted down, and we are told that his speech was snatched from his hand, torn to shreds, and trampled underfoot.17 According to many accounts, debate became so heated that at one point, Arius was slapped in the face by Saint Nicholas!18
The assembly finally decided the best way to articulate the Bible’s teaching on the Trinity was through a creed. Eventually, the assembly agreed on the following creed:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, that is, from the substance of the Father, God of God, light of light, true God of true God, not made, of one substance [homoousios] with the Father, through whom all things were made, both in heaven and on earth, who for us humans and for our salvation descended and became incarnate, becoming human, suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended to the heavens, and will come to judge the living and the dead. And in the Holy Spirit.
But those who say there was when He was not, and that before being begotten He was not, or that He came from that which is not, or that the Son of God is of a different substance [hypostasis] or essence [ousia], or that He is created, or mutable, these the catholic church anathematizes.
The Nicene Creed clearly rejected Arianism. Arius and Eusebius of Nicomedia were both sent into exile. As the bishops all returned to their parts of the world, they hoped the Council of Nicea would end the controversy.
Defending Nicea as Bishop
Only three years after the Council, Alexander having died, Athanasius became Bishop of Alexandria on April 17th, 328AD. Athanasius became shepherd of one of the most vibrant cities within the Roman Empire.19 Athanasius would now become the champion for the Nicene cause.20 He would soon be swimming against the tide. Constantine, being won over by Eusebius of Nicomedia, revoked the banishment of Arius in 328AD.
Eusebius of Nicomedia, Arius, and other Arian leaders knew Athanasius was their strongest enemy. They soon plotted his downfall by circulating rumors that he dabbled in magic. They also claimed Athanasius had killed a bishop named Arsenius, and cut off his hand to use it in rites of magic.
Constantine summoned him to appear before a judge and answer to the serious charges brought against him. Here’s what happened during his murder trial:
Athanasius brought into the courtroom a man covered in a cloak. After making sure that several of those present had known Arsenius, he uncovered the face of the hooded man, and his accusers were confounded when they realized it was Athanasius’ supposed victim. Then someone who had been convinced by the rumors circulating against the bishop of Alexandria suggested that perhaps Athanasius had not killed Arsenius, but had cut off his hand. Athanasius waited until the assembly insisted on proof that the man’s hand had not been cut. He 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 a 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.
The murder charges were dropped and Athanasius was able to go back to shepherding the people of Alexandria. His freedom, however, would be short lived. Eusebius of Nicomedia had convinced Constantine that Athanasius was dangerous. Constantine sent Athanasius into exile. By this time most of the Nicene leaders were also banished. When Constantine asked for baptism, on his deathbed, he received the sacrament from the Arian Eusebius of Nicomedia.21
All exiled bishops, including Athanasius, were allowed to go back to their homes after Constantine’s death.
Yet Athanasius’ return to Alexandria was not the end, but rather the beginning, of a long period of struggle and repeated exiles22 For almost thirty years Athanasius would be considered a hero under one emperor and then have to flee to live with monks in the desert to survive the next emperor. It was at this time that Jerome said, “the entire world woke from a deep slumber and discovered that it had become Arian.”
Athanasius continued to speak, teach and write against Arianism. Although Athanasius never saw the final victory of the cause to which he devoted his life, his writings clearly show that he was convinced that in the end Arianism would be defeated. As he approached his old age, he saw emerge around himself a new generation of theologians devoted to the same cause.23 Death claimed him in 373AD at the age of 77.
Shortly after the Council of Nicea, it is believed Athanasius wrote his first works – Contra Gentes (Against the Gentiles) and De Incarnatione (On the Incarnation). These works articulated what he considered the true faith in a climate of growing theological and political tension.24
The presence of God in history was the central element in the faith and thoughts of Athanasius.25 Athanasius fully believed God himself had visited our planet. The visit from God in Jesus Christ made it possible for us to be free beings capable of living in communion with the divine.
He beautifully writes, “For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Savior of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death.”26 He then continues:
There were thus two things which the Savior did for us by becoming Man. He banished death from us and made us anew; and, invisible and imperceptible as in Himself He is, He became visible through His works and revealed Himself as the Word of the Father, the Ruler and King of the whole creation.27
We see the depth, elegance and developed thoughts of Athanasius speaking of the power of Christ:
The marvelous truth is, that being the Word, so far from being Himself contained by anything, He actually contained all things Himself…A man cannot transport things from one place to another, for instance, merely by thinking about them; nor can you or I move the sun and the stars just by sitting at home and looking at them. With the Word of God in His human nature, however, it was otherwise. His body was for Him not a limitation, but an instrument, so that He was both in it and in all things, and outside all things, resting in the Father alone. At one and the same time – this is the wonder – as Man He was living a human life, and as Word He was sustaining the life of the universe.28
The Arian controversy, for Athanasius, is not a matter of theological subtleties with little or no relevance. In it, the very core of the Christian message and the very core of Jesus is at stake.
C.S. Lewis conveys some of the Influence of Athanasius by saying:
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 to-day 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; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, as all times do, have moved away.29
The anti-Trinitarian world had grown very dark around Athanasius. He himself was a very small dark African. He was nicknamed in his day, “the black dwarf.” This black dwarf stood tall with a bright light and almost single-handedly kept defending Nicene orthodoxy until reinforcements eventually arrived. Men like the Great Cappadocians were soon to arrive on the scene and continue re-awakening the world to the full beauty and power of the God-Man.
Historically, Athanasius is known for his godly life. Gonzalez writes,”His monastic discipline, his roots among the people, his fiery spirit, and his profound and unshakable conviction made him invincible.”30 Additionally, Weinandy writes, “He was extolled through the centuries as a holy and selfless man of steadfast and fearless faith, of long suffering patience, and of zealous passion for the truth of the Gospel.”31
In the early 20th century, however, many contemporary scholars portrayed Athanasius as very sinister32 T.D. Barnes states, “Like a modern gangster, he evoked widespread mistrust, proclaimed total innocence – and usually succeeded in evading conviction on specific charges.”33 Barnes goes on to explain why most people haven’t heard of this side of him:
If the violence of Athanasius leaves fewer traces in the surviving sources…[the reason is] that he exercised power more efficiently and that he was successful in presenting himself to posterity as an innocent in power, as an honest, sincere and straightforward ‘man of God.’
Barnes makes an argument from silence. In order to survive and even win the day Athanasius surely needed to be a wise, resourceful and clever man. The fact that he ultimately bested his opponents in no way implies that he was more evil than they.34
Athanasius’s Effect on Us
The most obvious effect Athanasius has on our life is with our view of the Trinity. Is a correct understanding of the Trinity (one in essence, three in persons) important for you? So many Christians look at the Trinity like a casual dating relationship, “I want to date you, have the warm fuzzy romantic dinners, but I really don’t want to know too much about you. Let’s spend an hour together each week but don’t require me to learn about you. I like what we’ve got going on, let’s not ruin it with information.”
As we spend our lives singing about God, listening to sermons about God, talking about God it seems like we should know who we’re talking about. Athanasius teaches us how vitally important it is to have an orthodox understanding of the Trinity.
Athanasius, additionally, helps us to realize we do not live by public opinion polls. Athanasius was right, he was reading the Bible correctly, but the world around him had gone mad. He had the courage and conviction to proclaim the central truths of God when it was most unfashionable. We need thousands of people like Athanasius. People who love God and love people enough to tell people what they need to hear, not necessarily what they want to hear.
What do you think of Athanasius? Join the conversation by commenting below. We now move to #3 in our Top Ten Theologians!
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