Athanasius – Too Young?

As you recall, young people, in our last article we looked at the work of God in the life of the young minister Timothy. We saw how God worked mightily in and through Timothy at a young age. He shouldered the work we would have expected a more seasoned minister to carry. Especially noteworthy were these words of Paul to Timothy: “Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers…” (I Tim. 4:12).

In this article we examine the wonderful work of God in the life of another young hero of faith: Athanasius. Like Timothy before him, Athanasius was used by God to do outstanding things while still very young. Like Timothy (and us), he was not too young to do the work of the Lord.

Athanasius was born in the cosmopolitan city of Alexandria, Egypt between the years AD 296-298. At the time, Alexandria boasted itself as one of the most outstanding centers of learning in the Roman world. It was in the prestigious schools of this city that Athanasius was educated. He received a top-notch education which prepared him for the work God had in store for him to do.

I think it is worth mentioning the importance of education. Young people, education is absolutely important. Not just any education, but solid, Reformed, Christian education. The kind we receive in our Protestant Reformed elementary and high schools. We must not overlook the fact that God used Athanasius’ education to equip him for the work which he would soon take up. God also uses our education to prepare and equip so that we might one day take up our place as the leaders of the church.

It appears that either Athanasius was born to Christian parents and instructed by them in the faith or he himself became a Christian at a very young age. There is a story told that supposedly young Athanasius was caught by Alexander, archbishop of Alexandria, performing an imitation baptism on some of his friends. Rather than punishing the zealous boy, Alexander took a liking to him and educated him further in the truth. Whether this baptism story is true or not is uncertain. What we do know for sure is that Athanasius’ outstanding education and firm grounding in the Word of God undoubtedly caught the eye of Bishop Alexander. Young Athanasius became Alexander’s personal secretary and later was made a deacon in the Alexandrian church. In 318, he wrote his first major work, Against the Heathen, while only about twenty or twenty-two years of age. He may have been young, yet he was actively involved in the defense and edification of the church. Imagine that! Here was a young man barely out of his teens working as a top assistant to the highest ranking church official in one of the largest and most prominent cities in the Roman Empire!

It was during the time that Athanasius served as secretary to Bishop Alexander that a controversy arose in the church of Alexandria, a controversy that would sweep across the Empire and divide the church. The source of this great whirlwind was a man by the name of Arius.

Arius was a priest in the city of Alexandria. Beginning around the year 319, this man began to publicly preach and teach his own views on the divinity of Jesus Christ. He taught that the Son was not eternal like the Father; rather, the Son was a created being like men and beasts. Arius’ catchphrase was: “There was a time when he was not.” This meant that the Son was not co-eternal or co-equal with the Father. He was subordinate to the Father. The implication of Arius’ teaching was two-fold: a denial of the Trinity and a denial of the full divinity of Christ. By arguing that there was a time when the Son did not exist, Arius was essentially saying that there was a time when the Trinity did not exist. There only would have been a Father. But even that name is wrong, because God cannot be a Father without a Son. So, all that Arius’ imagination envisioned was a singular Deity. That is, until the Son was created. But the Son that Arius conceived of was not fully God. He was not the same as the Father; he was not of the same essence. He did not partake fully of the divine.

To the Reformed reader this all seems absurd. “Arius is in Wonderland,” you might say. “How could these ideas ever pose a threat?” The truth of the matter is, however, that the teachings of Arius were a major threat. At that time in history the church had no official creed that clearly set forth and explained the Biblical doctrine of the divinity of Christ and the relationship of Christ to God. The church had no official stance, so people like Arius believed whatever they wanted. Such people were heavily influenced by the pagan philosophy of the Greeks, especially Plato’s views on subordination. Arius embraced this subordinationism and took it even farther than anyone else had done before him.

As soon as it became clear what Arius was trying to teach, he was officially condemned by an Egyptian Synod headed by Bishop Alexander and young Athanasius. The year was 321. Notice again the youthfulness of Athanasius. He was only about twenty-five years old when he took part in the condemnation of Arius’ heresies. He knew the Bible. He knew the truth and boldly defended it.

The official condemnation of Arius and his teachings did not mark the end of the struggle. In fact, it marked the beginning. Arius’ poisonous views, though condemned, spread like wildfire, and he soon had legions of followers willing to take up his cause. Arianism became so popular and the church was so thoroughly divided that the Roman emperor Constantine decided to step in to preserve the unity of his empire. He called together a council of church officials at the city of Nicea in 325. Bishop Alexander was invited to the Council of Nicea since he was a top-ranking church official and involved in the conflict from the start. Along with him went his personal secretary, Athanasius. The twenty-nine year old man did not intend to take part in the discussion. He went only to assist the aged Alexander. Yet, Athanasius quickly became involved in the proceedings of the Council, and he was soon looked to for leadership by the other more seasoned delegates. This smart, eloquent, wise young man entered the Council as a relative unknown and left as the unquestioned champion of the orthodox faith. And he was not even thirty!

What was it that Athanasius and the Council of Nicea decided? After much debate, the Council wrote a creed that opposed Arianism and set forth the Biblical truth concerning the proper relationship of Christ to God.[3] The Nicene Creed declares that Christ is “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all the worlds, God of God; Light of Light, true God of true God; begotten, not made, being of one essence with the Father…” Jesus Christ is the Son of God, not a mere creature. He is begotten, not made. He is of one essence with the Father. He is eternal, infinite, uncreated. He is fully God.

The Council of Nicea set forth unequivocally the orthodox faith, for which we give hearty thanks to God. This did not, however, put an end to the controversy. There were many Arians who continued to infiltrate the ranks of the church and tried to undermine the confession of the Council. They tried by many slippery schemes to spread their heresy among the Christians.

After the death of Alexander in 328, Athanasius was made bishop of Alexandria at the ripe old age of thirty-two. Athanasius used this position to try to root out this Arian weed from the church. However, he was forced to flee the city no less than five times because of the opposition and persecution of the Arian-sympathizers. He often stood alone against these enemies of the truth, which is why he received the title Athanasius contra mundum – Athanasius against the world.

Athanasius did not live to see the final victory over the Arian heresy. He died in 373, and the Arians were not finally defeated until the Council of Constantinople in 381. By God’s grace, this man continued to fight even when all seemed lost. He fought like a lion, giving all he had for the cause of Christ from the time he was a teenager until he died at the age of seventy-seven. Often he seemed to be fighting alone, with no one to stand beside him. Still, he never gave in. He “count[ed] all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus [his] Lord” (Phil. 3:8).

Athanasius is an example to us, young people. The excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord is going to cost us the praise of this world. Defending the truth means we will be hated by those whom we once counted friends. Are we ready for this? Are we willing to stand alone, like Athanasius? Fear not, young people. Although times are even now becoming difficult, rest assured that the same God Who strengthened Athanasius is the same God Who will strengthen our weak knees. By his grace we will stand, Protestant Reformed young people contra mundum.