Just Who Was Athanasius?
“Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the Word of God; whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.” — Hebrews 13:7
As we latter-day Christians continue to press onward in “the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1), drawing ever nearer to the final Day of Judgment, we have as our examples of faithfulness “a great cloud of witnesses” or testifiers, chief of which is our Lord Jesus Himself, “the Author and Finisher of our faith” (v. 2). And in our title-text we are exhorted to remember especially those faithful testifiers who, by the grace of God, staunchly defended and helped to preserve the doctrines of God’s pure Word to the present day. But whom are we to remember in particular? Whose “conversation” or exemplary way of life are we to “consider”? The writer to the Hebrews directs us first to “them which have the rule over [us], who have spoken unto [us] the Word of God,” to those who, in the nearest point of reference (v. 17), are our own faithful pastors and teachers who by word and deed have held us to the “old paths” and the “good way” (Jeremiah 6:16) on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2:20). We should not only remember them in a detached sort of way but gratefully follow their faith, that is, adhere to their teachings in doctrine and practice as we press toward the same mark to which they have pressed, “the end of [our] faith, even the salvation of [our] souls” (I Peter 1:9). Then, of course, we consider the apostles of the New Testament and the prophets of the Old Testament, God’s penmen, by whom He committed to us, word for precious word, His oracles in the Scriptures; and we remember the trials they suffered for the Lord’s sake. But there are also others who have spoken unto us the Word of God, whose faith we should follow and whose end we are to consider. One such individual is Athanasius of Alexandria. Athanasius is one of the most well-regarded figures of the whole history of the early Christian church; and yet, for all of his efforts, for all of his polemical warfare, many Christians today neither know who he was nor what he, by God’s grace, helped to accomplish. His name may sound in our ears from time to time — on Trinity Sunday perhaps, or in a special Bible Class; but what do we remember of him, and how do we consider the end of his conversation? The question then is put before us in our title: “Just who was Athanasius?”
Athanasius was born in the year 295 A.D. in Alexandria, Egypt. Around this time in history, Christianity had spread to all parts of the known world and had become so popular that under the rule of the Roman emperor, Constantine, Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. Since the time of the apostles, the early Christian Church had suffered greatly at the hands of the Roman Empire, especially in the persecutions of the early Christians at the hands of heathen emperors such as Diocletian and Nero and others before them. Yet, by God’s gracious and good will, through which He “breaks and hinders every evil counsel and will which would not let us hallow God’s name nor let His kingdom come” (Luther, Third Petition), the early Christian Church grew in spite of the horrific persecutions inflicted upon it (Romans 8:28-31). It was at this time, being the only externally recognized church, and being officially supported by the government through the endorsement of Constantine, that outward Christendom began to flourish in society. Being born of upper-class parentage, Athanasius was given the rare opportunity in that time to receive an education. Even as a child, Athanasius showed great interest in the Church, and earnestly studied the Holy Scriptures, as St. Paul exhorted Timothy in his second epistle (II Timothy 2:15). As he grew up in the Church, Athanasius also eagerly grew in grace and in the knowledge of his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (II Peter 3:18); and, before reaching the age of twenty, he wrote a treatise entitled, On the Incarnation, affirming and showing from Scripture that Jesus Christ is both God and man. He also became the pupil of the then current Bishop of Alexandria named Alexander and was subsequently adopted into his official family. Later on in life, Athanasius would eventually succeed Alexander as Bishop of Alexandria.
While little is known about the personal life of Athanasius, he is much more widely known for holding to the clear and certain doctrines of Holy Scripture (Cf. I Timothy 4:16). Around 325 A.D. controversy arose in the Church concerning the deity of Christ and His relationship to the Father. A man by the name of Arius, a presbyter or pastor in the Alexandrian church, taught that “the Son has a beginning but that God [the Father] is without beginning,” and that the Son was not really a part of God. He argued that, in order for the Father to beget the Son, He must be older and superior to the Son in all things including His Godhead. In defense of the true teaching of Scripture, Alexander, the Bishop of Alexandria, argued against the false teaching of Arius and held that “God [the Father] is always, the Son is always.” This contention became so great between the two men that Constantine, the emperor, himself stepped in hopefully to quell this conflict. During his rule, Constantine had worked hard to unite his Empire, both politically and religiously; and this argument had the potential of discrediting the most influential establishment in the entire Roman world, namely the Christian Church itself. Constantine, therefore, took it upon himself to call the first General, or Ecumenical Council of the catholic, i.e. universal, visible Christian Church, which we now refer to as the Council of Nicea. It was at this council that Athanasius, though only an archdeacon of Alexander at the time, engaged in his first of many polemical battles against Arianism.
Nicea was a city located in Asia Minor to which nearly three-hundred bishops were called for this council, or convention. It is said that approximately twenty bishops were outward supporters of Arius and his closest ally, Eusebius of Nicomedia. Even though Scripture clearly had decided the matter already (scriptura locuta, res decisa est — When Scripture speaks, the matter is decided), at this council the majority of clergy had not yet taken a position on the argument. Although the orthodox position of Alexander and Athanasius was initially held by the minority, they possessed a more influential and persuasive argument, namely that of the Scriptures.
In order properly to understand the relationship of Christ to the Father, we must carefully and diligently examine what the Holy Scriptures teach concerning the Doctrine of God and the Personal Union of Christ. According to Scripture, God is one in essence, or ousia (Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord, our God, is one Lord”; I Corinthians 8:4, “There is none other God but one”), though three in person, or hypostasis (Matthew 28:19, “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost”; I John 5:7, “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one”). The Scriptures teach that the three persons are fully coordinate; they are all God to the same degree, because the essence of God is numerically one (una numero essentia); “so the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God; and yet they are not three gods, but one God” (Athanasian Creed; see also regarding the Son: Jeremiah 23:6; John 1:1; 18:5; and the Holy Ghost: II Samuel 23:2; Acts 5:3-4).
Concerning the personal union of Christ, the Scriptures teach that the Son, who is true God from all eternity, not created but begotten, took the human nature into Himself (John 1:14; I Timothy 3:16) in order that He might accomplish His work of redemption (Galatians 4:4-5; Hebrews 2:14-15). The error of Arianism attacks Christ in His State of Humiliation, in which He humbled Himself (Philippians 2:5-8) and “did not always and fully use the divine attributes communicated to His human nature” (Catechism, Q/A 134). This was interpreted by Arius to be evidence of Christ’s essential inferiority to the Father. However, he failed to understand Christ’s own testimony concerning His relationship with the Father. In John 8:18 Jesus says, “I am one that bear witness of Myself, and the Father that sent Me beareth witness of Me;” in John 10:30, “I and My Father are One;” and in John 17:5, “And now, O Father, glorify Thou Me with Thine own self with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was” (cf. John 1:1; Philippians 2:5-11; John 8:58; et al.). On the basis of these and other clear and certain words of Holy Writ, the words that establish or support its teachings, the sedes doctrinae, we hold that the Son never was nor became subordinate to the Father in His essence, nor ceased to be God, but was and is the eternal Logos (John 1:1), the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8), the only-begotten Son (John 1:18), true God from all eternity (I John 5:20).
Once the council had begun, the Arians presented their position to the clergy. In light of the clear and certain testimony of Scripture summarized above, the Arians were met with violent opposition on the floor of the Council. By the grace of God and the staunch defense of Alexander and Athanasius on the basis of the Word of God, which is able to cut through “the joints and marrow and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12), it was recognized by the Council that the position held by Arius and his followers was clearly false and a heresy contrary to the doctrine of Scripture (Romans 16:17). By order of Constantine, under penalty of death, all books published by Arius were to be burned; and Arius and his close supporters were deposed and banished from the empire.
Upon having come to unanimous agreement on the matter in controversy, which is required by Scripture (I Corinthians 1:10), the Council at Nicea decided to compose a creed, or statement of belief, which would contain a summary of the doctrines addressed and agreed upon. This creed, thoroughly addressing the deity of Christ and His relationship to the Father, became known as the Nicene Creed, in which we still today truthfully declare:
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And 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, by whom all things were made….
While in its end result, the Council of Nicea helped to re-solidify the Church’s teaching concerning Christ, false teachers continued to reappear throughout the following centuries. Even within the next few years, a resurgence of Arianism plagued the Church once again; for, not long after the Council had concluded its deliberations, Arius was recalled out of exile. It was during those years that Athanasius continued to defend the resolutions and decisions of the Nicean Council by upholding the Scriptures upon which they were seated.
The faithful fight of Athanasius for the doctrines of Scripture served as an example throughout the continued growth of the early Christian church. Several hundred years after his death in 373 A.D., the Church constructed another summary creed outlining the “catholic,” or universal, faith or fides quae creditur concerning in particular the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and the person and work of Christ. It was known as the Quicumque vult after its opening words, “Whosoever will [be saved],” or, as we commonly refer to it in the Lutheran Confessions and in our Lutheran Hymnal, the Athanasian Creed. The name of Athanasius was attached to this creed because of its staunch testimony to the person of Christ and to His deity. The creed states, for example:
Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he [namely, one who wants to be saved] also believe faithfully the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man, God of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds, and Man of the substance of His mother, born in the world.
The resurgence of Arianism became so great and influential that even the “powers that be” (Romans 13:1), namely, in this case, the Roman government, was susceptible to its tactics. After the death of Emperor Constantine in 337 A.D., the Empire was divided among his heirs. These new rulers did not have the same respect for the doctrines of God’s Word, nor did they regard Athanasius with the same respect as their father did. We see a similar situation in the Old Testament in ancient Egypt when “there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). Under the reign of these new rulers, the determination to uphold the decrees and creed of the Council of Nicea was sorely lacking, if indeed it actually existed. The government having been persuaded by the false teachings of the Arians, Athanasius once again found himself in an uphill battle. By holding to the decisions and creed of the Nicean Council, which were based upon the analogia fidei (the Analogy of Faith), Athanasius suffered grave temporal consequences. And just what was the result of his defense of Scripture doctrine? What did Athanasius earn by standing up for Jesus and for the full truth of His Word? Over the course of his remaining life, Athanasius, who would later be called “the Father of Orthodoxy” and even “the Defender of the Faith” for his polemical defense of Scripture, was sent into exile five separate times for a total of twenty-five years.
This Creed should most certainly ring a bell in our ears at the end of the Festival Half of our church year, as we recently celebrated the Feast of the Holy Trinity on Sunday, May 30th.
“Considering the end of [Athanasius’] conversation,” or, as St. Paul called it, “the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14), why would any Christian yield anything of the immutable Word of God for the sake of temporal peace, tranquility and unity (Formula of Concord, Thor. Decl. XI, 95, Triglotta, p. 1095), when the price of such empty peace is so high? When we consider what Athanasius and so many others suffered for the sake of God’s truth, we haven’t suffered much at all, surely not the persecution that many of them suffered. Indeed, when we remember the Bishop from Alexandria and the fight he waged, how we should appreciate the peaceful temporal blessings given to us by the Lord, even in these latter days of sore distress. And having examined the valiant fight of this early church father, who spoke unto us the Word of God in order to protect and defend the doctrines of God and of Christ, how we ought to appreciate God’s divine preservation of His saving doctrines even unto us in this latter time through faithful witnesses like Athanasius. We know that God promises that the world will hate us and despise us for standing up for Christ and His Word (Matthew 10:22; 24:9), yet we should suffer it willingly for the Lord’s sake (John 15:20), as Athanasius did even while in exile. This exhortation by the writer to the Hebrews is one to which we, who are closer than ever before to the Last Day, should happily take heed, and for which we ought to praise God for his innumerable blessings to us who “have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin” (Hebrews 12:4).
As we pray that the Lord preserve us in the saving faith through “the Gospel of Christ” (Romans 1:16-17), giving us the “strength” (Psalm 27:1, 14; 46:1) to “endure unto the end” (Matthew 10:22), we also sing with the hymnwriter:
(TLH 470; 1, 4)