Feast of Athanasius - January 18

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Feast of St. Athanasius is held on January 18, 2004. How should we as evangelical Protestants regard such a feast. Certainly there is no liturgical necessity, but perhaps in the spirit of the Eastern Church we should remember the champions of sound biblical Christianity who have protected the faith, their writings serving as protectorates for centuries. There is a movement with evangelical Christianity to look toward the past (e.g. journals such as Christian History, et al.) in order that contemporary Christians learn to connect with their heritage. The pillars that the essentials of the faith we take for granted sometimes are doctrines hammered out by great theologians such as Basil the Great or Athanasius. If the word "Saint" seems a bit distasteful (because the Bible declares that we are all "saints in Christ"), let us think of these great men as Christian heroes of the past who helped build the Church into the doctrinal system that it is. Certainly, scholars are not afraid of the ancient heroes (as well as those who still live today). As Louis Berkhof wrote, "Athanasius is by far the greatest man of the age, an acute scholar, a strong character, and a man who had the courage of his convictions and was ready to suffer for the truth.” (History of Christian Doctrines).


The Logos was not impaired in receiving a body,
for He deified that which He put on...
and existing in the form of God,
He became man and was called Jesus.
He none the less has the whole creation under foot,
bending their knees to Him in this name,
and confessing that the Logos has become flesh...
For whereas the powers in heaven,
both Angels and Archangels,
were ever worshipping the Lord,
as they are worshipping Him in the Name of Jesus,
this is our grace and high exaltation,
that the heavenly powers will not be astonished at seeing all of us,
who are one body with Him, one day introduced into their realms.

Athanasius was a deacon at the church of Alexandria. In ancient literature he is often referred to as "the black dwarf." Why? Mostly because he was short, he was dark (because of his Coptic heritage), he was lean in his stature, but he was strong and intensely energetic. His hair was auburn, his nose was roman-bent, yet his eyes were intense and brilliant. At any rate, his appearance was certainly worth noting. Although we do not know much of his early life, one thing is evident - he was highly educated in biblical studies, theology, and philosophy - in the fourth century Alexandria was the center of the intellectual world and the center of one of the most important Christian disputes in history. "Was Jesus Christ (the Logos) of the "same essence" of the Father - thus, was he God; or was Jesus Christ "created" by God as the first creature of creation, thus making him a lesser god? Essentially, this is what is known as the Arian Controversy .....

Perhaps a quick review is in order. If you remember, Christianity was a religio ilicita (illegal religion) in the Roman Empire from the time of Nero (AD 64) to the time of Diocletian (303-311). It would be in the year 312 that Constantine the Great (285-337) would become a friend to Christianity, attributing his conquest on the Milvian Bridge to a miracle in the sky (which is still disputed to this day), and he thus declared what is known as "The Edict of Milan" (312) which made Christianity a religio licita (a legal religion). (Contrary to what many writers and teachers have said, Constantine "never" made Christianity the "official state religion," and he signed this document with Licinius, the emperor of the East).

Anyway, in the year 324, Constantine and Licinius (250-324) went to war with each other, and the former secured for himself the entire Roman Empire. It had been eleven years since the dual sovereigns had signed the historic Edict of Milan, which extended toleration to the Christian religion; however, after Licinius withdrew his consent and renewed the Diocletian persecutions in 320, Constantine invaded by land and sea and thus earned for himself the title "Defender of the Faith."

Soon after his accession to the universal throne, the mighty emperor discovered a heated Christological dispute which had spread throughout the Eastern empire - the so-called Arian Controversy. In essence, the controversy was concerned with the nature of the person of Christ - the principal question being, "Was Christ God?" or "Was He the first of God's creatures?" According to Arius (256-336), a priest (presbyter) at Alexandria, the latter position reflected the true view; as he said, "There was a time when the Logos was not; before he was made, he was not." Thus, the implications of the Arian position represent a denial of the supreme divinity of Christ, relegating him instead to the status of a lesser god, a created intermediary between God and the world.

The chief enemy of the Arian movement was the Athanasius (300-373), a deacon at Alexandria, and perhaps one of the greatest defenders of orthodoxy that the Church has ever known. Soon, during the controversy he became the private secretrary to Bishop Alexander who also opposed the Arian view. Although Arius held to a "high view" of the Logos, making him instrumental in the creation of the cosmos, the logical conclusion of his teaching was clear: "The Logos who had come to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth was not God, but a lesser god, a creature." Unlike God, the Logos was not eternal, "for there was a time when the Logos was not." However, in his classic work, On the Incarnation of the Word, Athanasius presented numerous powerful arguments - one, for instance, that since Christians prayed and worshiped Christ, the whole church was guilty of idolatry - thus, the Church was an idolatrous entity (Alistair McGrath). Another one of Athanasius's arguments was purely salvific: If the Logos is not of the same essence as the Father, that would imply that the one who was incarnate (Jesus Christ) was merely as creature; simply put, it is impossible for a creature to redeem a creature. The beauty of the cross is that "the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us." He was one with the Father, the localization of God on earth. Thus, it was God, in a Trinitarian sense, who was led to Golgotha and sacrificed on the cross for the sins of the world. And it was God who conquered death and Satan, remeeming mankind into a kingdom of glory and eternal life.

What is not emphasized is that after Constantine died (337), his sons (successors) were Arians who bitterly opposed the champion of orthodoxy. It was here in his persecution that Athanasius earned the title "Athanasius contra mundum" -- "Athanasius against the world." Indeed, his Arian enemies employed secular influence and corrupt ecclesiastical authority to destroy him, and although he was banished five times for his staunch orthodoxy (spending seventeen years in exile), this one that they called "the black dwarf" would never recede from his position, the orthodox position, that Jesus Christ was "God of God, Light of Light, very God of Very God" - indeed, the incarnation of YHWH. In describing the nature of Christ and his relationship to the Father, Athanasuis wrote,

"As when the sun shines, one might say that the radiance illuminates, for the light is one and indivisible, nor can it be detached; so where the Father is or is named, there plainly is the Son...As radiance from light, and stream from fountain; so that whoso sees the Son, sees what is proper to the Father."

The credit that is due Athanasius lies in the fact that he contended for the Apostolic Faith, defending the orthodox Christology against the Hellenistic influences inherent in the Arian proposition, namely, the Middle Platonic philosophies of Philo, Origen, and Plotinus (Neoplatonism), all of which posited the theory of divine intermediaries (e.g., Logos, Nous, etc.) between God and the world. Not a speculative theologian or a philosopher, Athanasius perceived himself as a defender of "the very tradition, teaching, and faith of the universal Church from the beginning, which the Lord gave, the Apostles preached and the Fathers kept."

As history tells us, the Arian controversy was technically resolved at the Council of Nicea in 325, and the view of Athanasius was upheld by the great majority of the theologians in attendance. In many ways, however, the debate has continued throughout the centuries; thus it can be regarded as a paradigm for all Christological disputes concerning the nature of Christ. For on the one hand, you have those who would call Christ a creature; and on the other hand, you have those who would call Christ God. The solution to the apparent problem, however, is not to be found in the words of an Arius or an Athanasius, but in the words of Jesus of Nazareth himself - not in his moral teachings, or in his parables, but as C.S. Lewis observed, "in the appalling nature of his theological remarks." For unlike any other man in history, Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be the incarnation of the eternal God.

Finally, apart from the great theological and christological work of Athanasius, let me point out that it was "Athanasius" to be the first bishop to declare the 27 New Testament books we have today as canonical. Many others were close (e.g. Irenaeus - 26/27), and many other canon lists were almost to the point. However, it was "Athanasius" in an Easter letter in 367 who articulated precisely the 27 books of the New Testament canon. His work would be chiseled in stone at the Council of Carthage in 397. Anyway, I have placed some links below for more reading on Athanasius and his work, including the canon.

  • Athansius

  • "Athanasius" by Gregory of Nazianzus

  • Arian Controversy (319-325)

  • Deposition of Arius

  • The Council of Nicaea

  • The Malice of the Arians

  • On the Incarnation of the Word

  • Easter Letter (AD 367) containing Athanasius's canon

  • Athanasius and the New Testament Canon

  • Nicaea - Athanasian Statement of Faith

  • Nicene Creed - AD 381