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Against the World*

When wondering through the forest of the church fathers I have often heard stories of men as Ploycarp, Augustine, Turtullian towering as redwoods above the others. I do believe this to be true, but as I have journeyed into the forest of the fathers I have found a giant amongst the old growth. This giant is Athanasius of Alexandria. Though his name and story may not be as familiar to many, he stands tall as a defender of the faith and a man who was used greatly used by God to preserve the truth of Christianity at a time in Church History when it seemed as if the Christian world had gone Arian. As John Piper puts it, “This is what Athanasius is best known for. There were times when it seemed the whole world had abandoned orthodoxy. That is why the phrase ‘Athanasius contra Mundum’ (against the world) arose. He stood steadfast against overwhelming defection from orthodoxy, and only at the end of his life could he see the dawn of triumph.”[1]

Athanasius was born in Alexandria, Egypt in the year 293AD and not much is known of his childhood though we may assume that he belonged to the lower class of the Egyptian Copts for he spoke the Coptic language and he had the dark skinned complexion which was a common trait of the Coptic people.[2] Though this is the case we may assume, I believe safely, is that he was brought up to love God and serve him. One reason for this assumption is also the event that brought him under the care and teaching of Alexander, the Bishop of Alexandria. When Athanasius was a young boy Alexander took notice of him playing with friends on the shore of the Mediterranean. Athanasius was with his friends and they were performing a church service amongst themselves. As the Bishop watched he took pleasure in their game but became troubled when their child’s game turned to the sacrament of baptism. Athanasius took it upon his young shoulders to baptize a fellow playmate and at this the Bishop Alexander stepped in to stop them. But as Alexander spoke to the children he learned that Athanasius performed the rite perfectly as any ordained presbyter would do it.[3] This led Alexander to consult the presbyters in Alexandria who decided that the baptism was true and Alexander took Athanasius under his wing. This started young Athanasius on a path that would have him stand in defense of truth against insurmountable odds and see it prevail.

As Athanasius grew he was tutored by Alexander and became a deacon of the Alexandrian Church. It was here that young Athanasius would meet the foe with which he would spend his life battling. This foe first reared its head in 319AD in the form of a presbyter in Alexandria by the name of Arius. Arius had taken the text of Colossians 1:15 which states that Christ is ‘the firstborn of all creation.’ For Arius this meant that Christ must have been, as sons on earth, born of the father and having a time which he was not. In a way, to teach these things Arius was even known to write songs that contained his theological views and set them to well-known tunes of the time as to embed them into the minds of all who heard them sung.[4] As this controversial theology spread throughout Alexandria, the Bishop summoned other bishops and presbyters to his city in 321 AD and together condemned Arius and exiled him from the city. It is even believed that young Athanasius at age 23 wrote the deposition that was used by the Bishop Alexander at this synod. But this was not enough to extinguish the destructive fire that had been lit under the church of the 4th Century.

After Arius was exiled from Alexandria he continued to preach his heretical doctrine and soon saw the destructive fire of it spread throughout the Eastern Roman empire. As this was happening the Empire itself was changing for Constantine converted to Christianity and the persecution which haunted the church since her birth was now lifted. It was in this time of peace for the church that the war for right doctrine was now raging. Seeing that the church was divided on the lines of Arianism, Emperor Constantine summoned bishops from throughout the empire, 318 in total, to Nicea for what would be the first ecumenical council of the Church. At this council young Athanasius accompanied Alexander and saw firsthand what was thought to be the death blow to Arianism. Arius was condemned and his theology was cast aside, in word even if not in deed.

Three years later in June of 238AD Alexander died and Athanasius became the Bishop of Alexandria. As Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius took a hard stance on the person of Christ and aligned strongly with the doctrine handed down at the Council of Nicea, and in like manner condemned as a heretic all who would not do the same. This became a line of division with many other bishops, especially in the Eastern Empire. As a result these bishops took it upon themselves to have Athanasius done away with. They comprised a plan which would have the Bishop of Hypsele go into hiding so that Athanasoius could be accused of his murder and of cutting off his hands to use for magic. Their plan was to condemn Athanasius for this at a trial in Trye but Athanasius became aware of the plan. In response to this Athanasius sent a trusted deacon to find this bishop and bring him to the trial. Once there Athanasius brought him before the crowd and uncovered his hands to show they he had not removed them. It is even recorded that upon uncovering the second hand Athanasius asked the crowd whom the third had been taken from.[5] But this was not enough to satisfy those who would have the Bishop of Alexandria removed from his post. Other false allegations were made and Athanasius was sentenced to exile. So in February of 336AD he left for modern-day Luxemborg. The next year Constantine II took control of the Gauls and Africa after his father, Constantine passed away. Athanasius was allowed to return home, but this victory was short lived.

Two years after being allowed to come home Constantius, the ruler of the Eastern Empire, was persuaded by an Arian bishop that Athanasius was a threat and had another bishop placed as head of the church in Alexandria. This was done by force and eventually Athanasius left the city to spare more bloodshed than had already occurred. This exile would be his longest, lasting seven years. But this would not be the last time the bishop would have to flee.

In 350AD Constans was killed and his brother Constantius saw this as a way to solidify his power over the whole empire. In 355AD yet another assault upon the city of Alexandria forced Athanasius to flee into exile once more. This time Athanasius fled into the wilderness to seek refuge with the monastic desert monks whom he had admired since visiting them under that care of Alexander as a youth. Athanasius took this time in exile to devote himself to writing his great defenses of orthodoxy.[6] It was here in the wilderness that Athanasius remained until 362AD when Julian became Emperor. He was allowed to return to his flock for only a few short months but in that time he called a Synod in Alexandria where he presented all which he wrote in exile and saw great gains in the favor of orthodox thinking.[7] Things looked to be going well for the bishop but in October of the same year he was once again removed from office for the new Emperor was a proud pagan and did not approve of Athanasius’ zeal for Christian truth. So Athanasius once again joined the desert monks until the death of Julian in February of 364AD. And so Athanasius returned home from his fourth exile where he remained for a year and a half until Emperor Valens ordered that all bishops expelled under order of Julian be once again removed. So Athanasius fled the city for his fifth and final time in exile.

This final exile was short lived for a revolt in northern Africa had emerged and Valens sought to return beloved bishop to his people in Alexandria to prevent further unrest. So Athanasius returned to the city which had always seen him as their true bishop in early 366AD. It was here that Athanasius lived, taught, and pastored until his death on May, 2 373AD. Though volumes could be, and have been, written on the life of such a man it is clear to see with such a small glimpse the great debt owed to Athanasius of Alexandria. I believe that the only way to repay such a dept is to, like Athanasius, live a life wholly devoted to the truth of the gospel not wavering or making compromise even when it seem that we stand alone against the world.

*This was originally written as an essay for a Church History class I was taking at Boyce College

[1] Piper, John. "Contending for Our All." Desiring God. February 1, 2005. Accessed October 19, 2015.

[2] Gonzalez, Justo L. "Athanasius of Alexandria." In The Story of Christianity, 199-207. Vol. 1. New York, New York: HarperOne, 2014.

[3] Litfin, Bryan M. "Athanasius." In Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction, 165-187. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2007.

[4] Reeves, Michael. "Against the World." In The Breeze of the Centuries: Introducing Great Theologians, from the Apostolic Fathers to Aquinas, 57-80. Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2010.

[5] Piper, John. "Contending for Our All." Desiring God. February 1, 2005. Accessed October 19, 2015.

[6] "Athanasius." Athanasius. August 8, 2008. Accessed November 2, 2015.

[7] Hardy, Edward R. "Saint Athanasius | Egyptian Theologian." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. May 22, 2015. Accessed October 30, 2015.

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