Devotions in Church History: Athanasius

Athanasius – Standing for Truth Against all the World. 

John 1:1-2. 14 –In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made…The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

He was called the “black dwarf.” Possibly the most important theologian since Paul, Athanasius was an orphan from the Upper (or southern) Nile. He was short and much darker-skinned than many in the cosmopolitan Greek city of Alexandria, Egypt. As God often does, he raises those of humble origin to do great things. 

Athanasius is mostly known for his strong Trinitarian theology and insistence on the full divinity of Jesus. In the late 3rd and early 4th centuries, the teachings of another African church leader, Arius, were spreading across the Roman World. Arius taught that “There was a time when the Son was not.” While he believed Christ was divine in a sense, Arius did not believe Jesus was the same substance or essence as the Father. Jesus was the savior, but was something less than God the father. Athanasius saw more clearly than anyone else the destructive subtleties of Arianism. 

On the Incarnation

Athanasius changed the world, even as a young man. As a young deacon in the church in Alexandria, he worked closely with Alexander the Bishop of Alexandria, who opposed the teachings of Arius. Before he was 30 years old, he wrote a monumental work of Christian theology called On the Incarnation. It has become a classic of orthodox theology.  C.S. Lewis said of this work, “When I first opened [it]…I soon realized by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece.” A masterpiece it was! It lays out the drama of the human dilemma of sin and God’s solution to the problem. Athanasius was not simply arguing the nuances of the trinity. He was dealing with the very core of the Christian faith–Who is Jesus and how does he save us?

Athanasius was guided by the Biblical confidence that God saves us through Christ. It is absolutely necessary that God saves us because humans cannot save themselves. He saw sin as the “dehumanizing of mankind.” Our rebellion corrupts and eventually destroys the image of God in man. God, however, has a plan to do something about that. Athanasius proclaimed: 

“What, then, was God to do? What else could He possibly do, being God, but renew His Image in mankind, so that through it men might once more come to know Him? And how could this be done save by the coming of the very Image Himself, our Savior Jesus Christ? Men could not have done it…The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father Who could recreate man made after the Image.” 

In other words, only God himself could save sinful man. Since only a man could pay the penalty for the sins of man, the full God had to become a full man. 

Athanasius Against the World

The Arian controversy raged. It was the time of Constantine. The newly-powerful, semi-Christian Emperor sponsored a council of Christian leaders in Nicea to decide the controversy. After years of being killed by Roman authorities, Christians met freely to discuss theology. Athanasius attended but didn’t play a role because of his youth and low rank in the Church. Still, the Council reflected his ideas. In 325 it condemned Arianism as a heresy. The Nicene Creed proclaims that Jesus is:

 “the only Son of God,
begotten from the Father before all ages,
God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made;
of the same essence as the Father."

The victory gained at Nicea only lasted a short time. Arius’ sympathizers persuaded Constantine to bring him out of exile. Soon the Emperor preferred Arian Christianity. Athanasius, now the Bishop of Alexandria, was out of favor. For the rest of his life, Athanasius would be moving back and forth between Alexandria and exile. The toxic combination of Christianity and politics was as pungent in Alexandria as any major city in the Empire. Because of his problems with Arian Emperors and city officials, the phrase “Athanasius contra mundum” (Athanasius against the world.) became well known in Christian circles.  

The great Bishop spent most of his exile days with the monks of the desert. These men dealt with the post-Constantine synthesis of Christ and Caesar by removing themselves from society at large. Their commitment to prayer and scripture emboldened him. While called to shepherd his flock in one of the Empire’s largest cities, Athanasius still found inspiration from the men who dedicated themselves to the simplest of lives in the desert. Athanasius wrote a book on the life of his friend, the monastic leader Anthony. This Life of St. Anthony would later be instrumental in the conversion of another great African church leader, Augustine of Hippo. 

Legacy and Prayer

His legacy is inestimable. God used Athanasius to stand up for a Trinitarian understanding of God and of the gospel, even when the winds of culture and politics were blowing in the opposite direction. His deep contemplation of the joyous mysteries of the incarnation is an example to us all. His link to early monasticism serves as a reminder of the dangers of the merger of Christianity and political power. In all these things, the black dwarf mined the treasures of the Scripture and we are all richer for it. 

Lord Jesus, above all we thank you for being the true God from the beginning and then becoming one of us. We thank you for the great pains you suffered to secure our salvation. Father, we thank you for men like Athanasius who suffered persecution and exile for defending this life-changing truth. Spirit, we pray that you would raise us to be able to stand for the gospel and the truth of Scripture even against all cultural and political trends to the contrary.

Series Navigation<< Devotions in Church History: PolycarpDevotions in Church History: Thomas Aquinas >>

David Lytle

Current history teacher, former missionary and youth pastor, grieving widower, father of the three cutest faces in creation, and giddy husband of a radiant bride. I also sang "I'm too sexy" for karaoke once. There was a crowd. My only comfort is that phones didn't make videos back then.
David Lytle

Latest posts by David Lytle (see all)

David Lytle

Current history teacher, former missionary and youth pastor, grieving widower, father of the three cutest faces in creation, and giddy husband of a radiant bride. I also sang "I'm too sexy" for karaoke once. There was a crowd. My only comfort is that phones didn't make videos back then.

2 thoughts on “Devotions in Church History: Athanasius

  • December 10, 2019 at 3:19 pm
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    Thank you, David. Excellent, and very relevant even for the time in which we live.

    Reply
  • December 10, 2019 at 6:53 pm
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    David, I love this series! Keep the articles coming!

    Reply

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