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Nicene Fathers: Athanasius

Young people, if you remember only two names in the history of the early church, remember Athanasius (AD 293/296–373), who stood valiantly for the truth of Christ’s divinity, and Augustine (AD 354–430), who defended the total depravity of mankind and God’s irresistible grace. 

 

His Theology  

Athanasius was probably born in Alexandria in the early 290s AD. As a relatively young man he became secretary to the Bishop of Alexandria and a deacon in the church. In AD 325 the bishop attended the Council of Nicea, and Athanasius accompanied him. At the council, both the bishop and Athanasius defended the orthodox view of Christ’s divinity against the false teaching of Arius and his followers. That bishop died in AD 328, and Athanasius became the next bishop of Alexandria—the highest church position in all North Africa. 

The Arians taught that Christ was not God, and that he was instead created. Athanasius saw that if that was true, Christ could not save us from sin. We need a Savior who is truly God in order to reconcile us to God. So Athanasius opposed the Arians vigorously during and after the Council of Nicea. 

The matter seems so simple to the child of God who knows how deep our depravity is and how great the effects of sin are. Only God (the Son) can reconcile sinners to God (the Father). But Athanasius saw the matter more clearly than others before him. Some defended the divinity of Christ using philosophical arguments, but Athanasius used biblical and pastoral arguments. 

 

His Writings 

Before the Arian controversy began, Athanasius wrote a two-part work that helped form his views. In the first part, Against the Heathen, he defended the Christian faith against heathen unbelievers. His starting point was the contention that only the Christian faith gives a right explanation for how sinful man is saved. He began his second part, The Incarnation, by showing from the history of creation and the fall that Christ’s incarnation was necessary. Christ must be human to die for humans and must be God to restore the benefits that we lost in the fall. 

After the Nicene Council ended, the Arians and semi-Arians continued to attack the doctrine of Christ’s divinity. The semi-Arians taught that Christ was similar to, but not equal to, the Father; he was beneath the Father (subordinate) in some sense. In response, Athanasius wrote various treatises, including a defense of the Nicene Council. 

As bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius also wrote many letters. Every year he wrote to all the bishops under his supervision, giving them direction in their work. In his letter in AD 367 he listed all sixty-six books of the Bible as those that the church had received as inspired. 

Especially his mention of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament is significant: other gospel accounts and epistles had been written that some thought should be considered part of the Bible. But by AD 367 the church had a clear idea of which books belonged in the Bible and which did not. To be clear, Athanasius was not pronouncing which books belonged in; the church never decided what belonged in the Bible. Rather, the church recognized which books were inspired and which were not.  

 

His Sufferings 

When influential men in the church are wrong, they sometimes oppress those who oppose them. When a man stands for truth vigorously and uncompromisingly, he gains enemies. Athanasius illustrates this point. Five times, for a total of fifteen years, he was exiled from Alexandria.  

But God is always with his people, even in their sufferings. Athanasius illustrates this also. Five times he was recalled from exile and served as bishop once again. 

For his unflinching position on the matter of Christ being divine, and his suffering for that truth, he is known as Athanasius contra mundum, that is, “against the world.” Remember this lesson, young people: we are pilgrims and strangers on earth, living in hope of heaven. Stand against evil, even against ungodliness and unbelief within the instituted church, and stand for God! 

 

Prof. Kuiper is the professor of Church History & New Testament Studies at the Protestant Reformed Theological School and a member of Trinity Protestant Reformed Church.