Athanasius: The Most Consequential Church Father
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While Augustine of Hippo may be the famous of the Church Fathers, I believe it was Athanasius of Alexandria who was the most consequential. His contributions to the Body of Messiah in the fourth century were crucial in steering the church away from a devastating heresy.
For his efforts to protect the young Church, he suffered violent beatings and illnesses as a result of being exiled five times. He spent much of time in his time in hiding, as emperors sought his life. From hiding he continued to write, and encourage the body of Messiah.
His defense of the faith resulted in the Nicene Creed, affirming the deity of Jesus. It’s the closest thing in the theological world to the legal term stare decisis—“let the decision stand.” The Nicene Creed has stood the test of time.
Athanasius was the first to “set out the New Testament canon in the form accepted today.” He penned a celebrated biography of St. Anthony, whom he assisted in his youth. He wrote many other books on theology and served faithfully as the beloved bishop of Alexandria. But his greatest contribution was being “the chief defender of Christian orthodoxy in the 4th-century battle against Arianism, the heresy that the Son of God was a creature of like, but not of the same substance as God the Father.”
Arius the heretic
Arianism was guided by Arius, the leader of a large church in Alexandria. His Christology was controversial, claiming, “Jesus Christ was not divine in any meaningful sense of the term. He was ‘first among the creatures’ – that is, pre-eminent in rank within the created order, yet someone who was created, rather than being divine.” Arius denied that Jesus was God. He was fond of saying, “there was a time when he was not.” Arius claimed that Jesus wasn’t eternal but that the Father created him to interact with creation.
He was excommunicated by the Patriarch Peter (This not the apostle Peter, but a fourth century bishop). F. A. Forbes gives a harrowing account of how Peter, the night before his martyrdom, refused to allow Arius back into the fold.
“Never,” said Peter. “Arius is separated from the glory of the Son of God both in this world and in the next.” Then, as Achillas and Alexander, his dearest and most intimate friends, had drawn him apart to ask the reason for such unusual severity— “This night,” he said, “as I prayed, Our Lord appeared to me in glory, but His robe was rent from top to bottom. ‘Who has treated Thee thus, my Lord!’ I cried, ‘and rent Thy garments?’ “‘It is Arius,’ He replied, ‘who has torn My robe, and tomorrow they will come to you to intercede for him. Therefore I have warned you to keep him from the fold. But you shall die for Me tomorrow.’”
Alexander would soon become patriarch in Alexandria, and a jealous Arius accused him of heresy for believing that Jesus is God. “In teaching that Christ was the Eternal Son of God … Alexander and his clergy made a great mistake,” claimed Arius. “Since Christ was the creation of God the Father, how could He Himself be God?”
A Christian emperor!
By this time, Emperor Constantine had converted to Christianity, which proved to be a gamechanger. “Constantine inaugurated an era of Christian emperors,” and they became as influential in the church as the bishops—sometimes more so. For 300 years, Christianity had flourished without permission. Now, we see an emperor with a “pro-Christian legislative agenda.” Constantine endeared himself to his citizens and especially favored Christians. It was a new day for the bishops. Yet there were pitfalls as well.
Within a generation, Christianity had moved from being a persecuted movement on the fringes of imperial culture to becoming its establishment. The Christian church was simply not prepared for this radical transition. Its bishops were once merely leaders of congregations; they now became pillars of Roman society, with power and influence. Its churches were once private homes; they were now massive dedicated buildings, publicly affirming the important place of Christianity in imperial culture.
The Council of Nicaea
But tension was growing between the two bishops from Alexandria over the nature of Messiah. Three factors brought forth a consequential confrontation. 1) Christianity was now legal—open debate was possible. 2) The emperor desired one doctrine uniting all Christians. 3) The dispute between Alexander and Arius had to be resolved. In the summer of 325, the Council of Nicaea took place, and Constantine was an active participant. The emperor invited the bishops to Nicaea and even subsidized their journey to bolster participation.
Finally, it would be decided: Was Jesus merely a creature, albeit upgraded? Or is he one with the Father? Arius goes first, and his argument can be summed up in five words: Jesus Christ is not God. Bishop Alexander yields the floor to his young protégé, a mere deacon, Athanasius—23 years younger than the wily Arius.
First, Athanasius argues that it is only God who can save. God alone, not one created by God, could fix humanity. “No creature can save another creature. Only the creator can redeem the creation. If Christ is not God, he is part of the problem, not its solution.” By arguing that only God can save and claiming that Yeshua is savior, he concludes, Yeshua must be God. (The Hebrew name Yeshua, short for Yehoshua, means Yahweh is salvation.)
Next, he explains that Christians worship Jesus: “If Jesus Christ were a creature, then Christians were guilty of worshipping a creature instead of God,” breaking the second commandment. He argues that there is “an absolute likeness between the Father and the Son.”
Athanasius won the day, and it wasn’t even close. The bishops drafted the Nicene Creed. It declared that Jesus is “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” The creed is “widely regarded as a benchmark of Christological orthodoxy within all the mainstream Christian churches.” Arius is one of only three bishops who refused to sign. “The council condemned Arianism [and] anathematized Arius.”
There is much we can learn from the character of this church father. He stood for truth above the praise of men. He forgave his enemies. He never panicked, even while emperors were seeking his death. Exhorted by a monk, “Fear not!” he answered, “I have no fear. For many long years, I have suffered persecution, and never has it disturbed the peace of my soul. It is a joy to suffer, and the greatest of all joys is to give one’s life for Christ.” We cannot minimize the contribution of Athanasius. His unwavering faith led the Church to safe harbor as he navigated the stormy seas of heresy. “St. Gregory Nazianzen speaks of him in one breath with the patriarchs, prophets and martyrs who had fought for the Faith and won the crown of glory.”
He dedicated his life to championing the preeminence of Jesus above all: “Heracles is worshipped as a god by the Greeks because he fought with humans equal to himself and killed wild beasts by guile. But what was that compared to what was done by the Word (Jesus), who banished sicknesses and demons and death itself from human beings?”
 The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, “Stare Decisis,” Encyclopedia Britannica, last modified May 3, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/topic/stare-decisis.  Alister E. McGrath, Christian History (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 55.  F. A. Forbes, St. Athanasias (London: R. & T. Washbourne, 1919), 13.  Ibid., 21.  Edward Hardy, “St. Athanasius,” Encyclopedia Britannica, last modified April 28, 2012, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Athanasius.  McGrath, Christian History, 56.  Ibid.  Julian Spriggs, “Arianism and the Council of Nicaea,” Bringing God’s Word to the Nations—Julian Spriggs, accessed on May 29, 2022, https://www.julianspriggs.co.uk/pages/Arianism.  Forbes, St. Athanasias, 6.  Ibid.