Saint of the Week: St. Athanasius

A few weeks ago, I had the “opportunity” to stand in a doorway and discuss the Bible and Christology with a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses as the floodgates of Heaven opened outside.  What stood out to me as we talked was how truly Arian their Christology is.  They encouraged me to read Proverbs 8:22-31 (“The LORD possessed me [Wisdom] at the beginning of his way …”) and tried convincing me that when the Word of John 1 is called “god” this doesn’t mean the same thing as the God with whom the Word is.

I did my best to pull out some St. Athanasius — Jesus is the only-begotten Son of the Father.  If like begets like (“Do you have a son? Is he of the same nature as you?”), and the Father is God, then God begets God, so the Son must be God.  I also used the analogy of the sun and its rays being different but the same and one being incomplete without the other.  That analogy breaks down — as well it should, for God is the Creator and entirely different from His creation.  St. Athanasius was an appropriate choice to use in debate with the Jehovah’s Witnesses because he spent most of his ecclesiastical career arguing against the heresy of Arianism.

St. Athanasius (c.296-373) is one of the Four Doctors of the Eastern Church.  He was born of Christian parents of Egyptian, not Greek, descent, and educated in the Greek Christian catechetical school in Alexandria.  He was present at the Council of Nicaea in 325 as a deacon and witnessed firsthand the debates about the divinity and eternity of Christ (Arius’ famous one-liner: “There was when he was not.”).  This is the Council that gave us that famous Creed that forms the basis of what we recite in churches around the world today (my translation here).  St. Athanasius was to spend the rest of his life combatting the teachings of the Arians and the Semi-Arians (or “homoiousians“), especially following his consecration as Bishop of Alexandria in 328.

He did his best to be a pastoral bishop, but constantly found himself running into heretical Arians or schismatic Meletians who were out to get him.  These run-ins, such as the Council of Tyre, had a tendency to end up with him in exile.  He was in exile in Trier (335-7), Rome (339-46), and the countryside around Alexandria (356-61, 362-3, 365-6).  While in exile within Egypt itself, he had occasion to take refuge with the nascent monastic movement that was flourishing at this time (ie. The Desert Fathers), encountering St. Antony about whom he would write one of the most influential works of hagiography (available in Carolinne D. White, Early Christian Lives).

His time spent in the West meant that the links between East and West were strengthened.  The Bishops of Rome during his episcopate (St. Sylvester I, St. Marcus, St. Julius I, Liberius, and St. Damasus I) were supportive of his teachings and polemic against Arianism.  Much of St. Athanasius’ work was translated into Latin, and he is one of the better-known Eastern Fathers in the West as a result of his time there and papal connections.

His theological works are focussed largely on the Person of God the Son, as seen in De Incarnatione Verbi Domini (On the Incarnation) and in his famous Contra Arianos.  One result of St. Athanasius’ reasoning about the Person of God was the statement that the Bible names God as Father.  This means that ontologically (ie. at the very root of Who God Is) God is Father.  Since God is eternal and unchanging, He will always have been Father.  One cannot be a father without offspring; God, therefore, begets the Son in eternity; God the Son is therefore eternal.  The implications for understanding Who God Is and what personhood is are far-reaching (see J.D. Zizioulas, Being As Communion, chh. 1-2).

St. Athanasius, like most of the Fathers, was not just a theologian, not just a pastor, not just a preacher.  He was also a believer in the life of holiness.  This was the root of his support of the monastic movement, for it is with the monks that we see the enduring persistence of costly grace (see D. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, ch. 1).  We are reminded that orthodoxy and orthopraxy are not to be divorced.  We are to think holy thoughts and live holy lives, worthy of the calling to which we are called.

St. Athanasius fell asleep on May 2, 373.  May we be half as vigorous in our defence of Truth as he.

Further Reading: Christopher A. Hall’s two books Reading Scripture With The Church Fathers and Learning Theology With The Church Fathers both deal with St. Athanasius.  I also recommend reading On the Incarnation as an entrance both to Athanasius and Patristic theology.

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