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Friday, January 23, 2015

Formation Friday: Athanasius the Great

There are few people in history who have the title "the Great" attached to their name... I would like to introduce you to one of them:

If there was one person in Christian antiquity outside of the writers of the New Testament who is responsible for what the church globally believes today I would say it is easily St. Athanasius of Alexandria. This Church Father was empowered by God to be a voice of truth in an age where truth was not only unpopular, but completely disregarded.

It amazes me that God holds to His promise when he said, "I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." (Matthew 16:18) No matter what may come up God has always raised one person (or a group of people) up to hold the truth high. We see this in the Bible, and we can trace this throughout history.

The church was at a crisis moment like this at the beginning of the 4th Century, a priest named Arius from Libya, had become increasingly popular with his teachings. He announced, "If the Father begat the Son, then he who was begotten had a beginning in existence, and from this it follows there was a time when the Son was not." To say it another way, Arius preached that Jesus was not fully God, that he had a beginning and that he was not of one substance with God.

The argument caught on, but Athanasius and his mentor at the time, Alexander, fought against Arius, arguing that it denied the Trinity. Christ is not of a like substance to God, they argued, but the same substance.

Why does this matter?

Athanasius argued, that salvation was at issue: only one who was fully human could atone for human sin; only one who was fully divine could have the power to save us. To him, the logic of New Testament doctrine of salvation assumed the dual nature of Christ. Jesus is fully God and fully human.

"Those who maintain 'There was a time when the Son was not' rob God of his Word, like plunderers."

The controversy of who Jesus is spread, and all over the Roman Empire, Christians could be heard singing a catchy tune that championed the Arian view: "There was a time when the Son was not." In every city, wrote historian Eusebius, "bishop was contending against bishop, and the people were contending against one another, like swarms of gnats fighting in the air."

Athanasius spent years writing and fighting for the cause of keeping Christ's deity and other heresies that were present in the day, many of which are still around today to varying degrees. One book in particular, "On the Incarnation" makes clear that there are no new heresies. The beliefs he took on are still present in our world today—that God made all things out of preexisting matter, that everything originated by a haphazard method of self-creation, or that Jesus was simply a man. They are simply disguised under new names.

Athanasius believed these ideas were dangerous, mostly since they were firmly un-Biblical, but also because they lead us to devalue our bodies, cheapen our view of God, or even question our salvation. His most famous work though, "The Life of St. Antony" was foundational in the conversion of a later Church Father, Augustine from such heresies.

When he was approximately 70 years old, after having given his life to the ministry and his
reputation for the defending of orthodoxy he sent his annual festal letter to the churches around the known world. The bishop of Alexandria, because it was home to many of the astronomers and scientists was charged with keeping the Church calendar. So, this annual letter was used to fix the dates of festivals such as Lent and Easter, and to discuss matters of general interest. In this specific letter, he listed what he believed were the books that should constitute the New Testament.
For even at this time we did not have a closed canon of Scripture.

"In these [27 writings] alone the teaching of godliness is proclaimed," he wrote. "No one may add to them, and nothing may be taken away from them."

Though other such lists had been and would still be proposed, it is Athanasius's list that the church eventually adopted, and it is the one we use to this day.

Athanasius the Great is the Father of Orthodoxy and the origin of our list of accepted books of the Bible.

What we can learn from the life and words of St. Athanasius the Great is this: Truth matters.

Athanasius gave his entire life for the cause of Christ, an effective preacher, a gifted evangelist, a debater and intellectual that would not give up any ground to destructive heresies. He also, with the help of the Spirit of God, gave the church a list (or canon) of accepted Scripture. His life revolved around providing truth to people who had grown deaf to it. He gave the world back a powerful vision of what the church could be. He, in a time where there were so many voices spouting out falsehoods, heard the voice of truth and put a spotlight on it.

In a world and in a time where we are surrounded by this idea that there are no absolute truths, that there is nothing really worth fighting for, that people just need to find what works for them; the example of Athanasius stands as a bold opposition to such thought.

Truth matters. Truth is worth fighting for. Truth is not so much an idea, as it is a person: the person of Jesus Christ.

Truth sets people free. Truth is what gives us our hope. Like St. Athanasius of old my hope for you is that you would dig for truth in the Word of God and not settle for any substitute.

At the end of the day, all our attempts at spiritual formation, discipleship, growth, wisdom, knowledge, and even our attempts at cultivating love... will all fail unless they are grounded, planted, and cultivated in truth.

"Jesus that I know as my Redeemer cannot be less than God."

"These [books of Scripture] are fountains of salvation that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take out from these."

"One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the [Apostles] unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life... Similarly, anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach them by copying their deeds."


Nathan Bryant

is a pastor living in Phoenix, AZ. As a student at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri he majored in Biblical Leadership, New Testament Studies, and Missiology. Nathan has a combined passion for unity and discipleship in the global church.

Christ's Kingdom is bigger than our causes.
Christ's Kingdom is bigger than our boundaries.

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