Now, if it is by the sign of the cross and by the faith that is in Christ that death is trampled down, then, if judging by truth, it is none other than Christ himself who shows the trophies and victories against death and renders it fully weakened. And if formerly death was strong, and therefore fearsome, but is now despised, after the sojourn of the Savior and after the death and resurrection of his body, clearly it is by him, the Christ who was raised upon the cross, that death has been destroyed and conquered. – St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation
Athanasius, whose name means “immortal,” left a mark on the Christian faith that will last until Christ’s return to this earth. The basic Christian doctrine that Jesus is not a created being but fully God was defended by heroes of the early church like Athanasius.
When Satan discovered that outside persecution of Christians would not stamp out the growing faith, he decided to resort to a different tactic–heresy. One of his agents was the Alexandrian bishop Arius (for more on Arius, check out this month’s Church History column).
In the early 4th century, Arius taught that “there was a time when the Son was not” and caused many Christians to accept this view. However, prominent among the resisters of this theology were Bishop Alexander of Alexandria and his student, Athanasius. Using his position as a bishop, Alexander taught against Arianism from the pulpit. Sides were taken in the debate, and division and contention arose in the church.
During this theological turmoil, the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and Rome became a Christian state. When the emperor heard that Christians were dividing over Arianism, he was horrified. To solve the problem, Constantine invited bishops from all over the empire to come to Nicea and debate Arianism. Among those invited were Alexander and Athanasius, a deacon. During this renowned council, the bishops condemned Arius and sentenced him to exile. In the Nicene Creed, they affirmed: “I believe 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” (“Nicene Creed”). This statement directly refuted Arianism’s view of a created Christ.
Athanasius played a pivotal role in the refutation of Arianism, tirelessly speaking against it and pointing out the false doctrine embodied in its beliefs. However, his stand did not make him popular. Standing firm in the truth hardly ever makes the world love and adore a Christian. Enemies of Athanasius convinced various Roman emperors to exile Athanasius a total of five times, and yet Athanasius never failed to cling to the Lord.
Perhaps Athanasius’s most famous work is On the Incarnation, a treatise that focuses on the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. In the booklet, Athanasius helps Christians understand a theological quandary he names the Divine Dilemma. In its most basic form, the Divine Dilemma asks how a holy God and sinful man can have a relationship. God created men as perfect beings, but when Adam fell in the Garden of Eden, humanity as a whole fell with him. Since God is a holy God and cannot have sin in His presence, man must be doomed to eternity away from Him. How can God, being Love, provide a way for man to enter His presence again? God sent His Solution to this problem in 3 B.C. with the birth of Jesus Christ.
Finally, after spending a lifetime serving his beloved Savior, Athanasius died of natural causes on May 2, 373 Anno Domini. His life inspires Christians to stand strong in biblical doctrine, no matter the cost. Christians must answer basic questions about their faith with Scripture so they can show unbelievers that they know what they have believed (2 Timothy 1:12). Christians should study God’s Word, learn and affirm true doctrine, and, thus empowered, reach the world for Christ.
Photo credit: https://orthodoxwiki.org/Athanasius_of_Alexandria.
“Arianism.” Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., October 9, 2015, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Arianism.
“Athanasius.” Christianity Today, Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/theologians/athanasius.html.
Athanasius. On the Incarnation. Preface by C. S. Lewis, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011, p 79.
Council of Nicea. “Nicene Creed.” Believer’s Web, http://www.believersweb.org/view.cfm?ID=273.
Hardy, Edward R. “St. Athanasius.” Encyclopedia Britannica, June 30, 2017, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Athanasius.