In 367 A.D. a Bishop of the church in Alexandria, Egypt was forced to live in exile for defending his belief – that Jesus of Nazareth was not only fully man, but also, fully God. His firm stance against the pervasive Arian heresy that taught that Jesus Christ was merely a created being would earn him the title of Athanasius contra mundum; Athanasius â€œagainst the world.”
Athanasius was born in Alexandria, Egypt around 297 A.D.. A small man with dark skin, Athanasius committed himself to the Christian ministry and attended the catechetical school of Alexandria. An intelligent and enthusiastic student, he wrote an influential work at the time entitled, On the Incarnation of the Word.
Speaking of the deity of Christ he noted, â€˜the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God comes to our realm .. took pity on our race, and had mercy on our infirmity, and condescended to our corruption, .. He takes unto Himself a body, and that of no different sort from ours.â€™
His defense of the nature of Christ in this treatise would foreshadow the struggles that would typify the rest of his life. For it was during this time that another clergyman, Arius from Alexandria, introduced the idea that Jesus Christ was not equal to God the Father in nature and divinity; that “God begat him, and before he was begotten, he did not exist.” The Arian doctrine concluded that Jesus Christ, although highly exalted and favored of God, was nevertheless a created being.
To decide this and other doctrinal issues, Emperor Constantine organized a church council which met in Nicea in 325 and consisted of 318 bishops from all over the empire. Athanasius attended the council as an assistant and took part in the debates and reportedly, â€˜contended earnestly for the apostolic doctrines, and was applauded by their champions, while he earned the hostility of their opponents.â€™
The controversy would eventually center around two words describing the nature of Christ. Athanasius and others defended the Greek word “homo-ousios” meaning “of the same substance, or nature, or essence” of God to describe the divinity of Christ. Arians preferred “homo-i-ousios” meaning “of similar nature.” The Nicene council would affirm unambiguously that Jesus Christ, the Son of God was “of one substanceâ€ (homo-ousios) with the Father.
Although the Nicene Creed was formally adopted by the counsel, the controversy continued. Arius rapidly regained influence resulting in many clergymen adhering to the Arian doctrine.Â Athanasius however stood firm and refused fellowship with the advocates of â€˜a heresy that was fighting against Christ.â€™
A pro-Arian council held in 335 found Athanasius guilty of false charges which included the practice of magic and he was ordered into exile. He traveled to Rome to appeal his case and two and a half years later was finally reinstated as Bishop. On his return to Alexandria, â€˜the people ran in crowds to see his face; the churches were full of rejoicing .. the ministers and clergy thought the day the happiest in their lives.â€™
However, the rejoicing would be short-lived. Another council brought up old charges and rather than insight riots, Athanasius left Alexandria to defend his cause. In 345, the Arian Bishop of Alexandria died and Athanasius was again reinstated.
This time he reigned for ten years, strengthening orthodoxy in Egypt and composing some of his greatest works, including his Defense Against the Arians. In 356, yet another Arian council set their sites on Athanasius. As he was conducting a service at the church of St. Thomas, a band of armed men broke into the sanctuary in order to capture him. Athanasius escaped and for six years took refuge among the monasteries and hermitages of Egypt. He would later write a biography on the life of St. Antony which would become an important book promoting monasticism.
Reinstated to his office in Alexandria again, Athanasius continued to defend the full deity of Christ against Arian emperors, bishops and theologians. For this, he was regarded as a troublemaker in the church and would be banished, exiled and reinstated three more times during the course of his life. In 366, he returned for the last time to his post and in 373, died quietly in his own home.
Colossians 1:15 states that Jesus Christ. “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation for by Him all things were created,” and verse 19 says that “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him.”
The deity of Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of the Christian faith and the pinnacle of God’s redemptive purposes. The eternal Son of God taking on human flesh, a union of two perfect and distinct natures, Godhead and manhood, joined together in the one person of Jesus Christ, is an incomprehensible display of humility, grace and mercy. By His sinless life, subsitutionary death, glorious resurrection and ascension, He opened the gates of heaven to all that would place their faith in Him for the forgiveness of their sins. As Christians today, we are called to continue to defend this doctrine amid postmodern skepticism; shining forth what is an ultimate mystery to the intellect but joy to the believing heart.
As Athanasius, a true hero of the early church stated, â€˜the more He is mocked among the unbelieving, the more witness does He give of His own Godhead .. and what men, in their conceit of wisdom, laugh at as merely human, He by His own power demonstrates to be divine.â€™
Athanasius, On The Incarnation of the Word.
Kiefer, Athanasius: Bishop of Alexandria, theologian, doctor.
Shepherd, St. Athanasius the Great.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica, Athanasius: St. Bishop of Alexandria.
The Columbia Encyclopedia, St. Athanasius