As modern Christians it can sometimes be difficult for us to understand the early church fathers and their writings. Although they had mistaken thinking on certain issues they were, in fact, slowly discovering God’s truth as revealed in Scripture and to them we owe our orthodoxy of today – including the major creeds of our faith and our statements of faith in our individual churches. And of course God used many of these early believers to discover and determine what the actual canon of Scripture really was (that is to say what are the true inspired Words of God as opposed to mere writings of men).
One such early Church father who immensely helped in the forming of the canon of Scripture and in Christian orthodoxy itself was a man you may never have heard of – Athanasius of Alexandria. It can hardly be overstated how much God used this man to articulate and preach the doctrines of the Trinity and the Deity of Jesus Christ when the majority of the Church at the time was ambivalent if not outright hostile to these ideas. Here are 5 fascinating facts about Athanasius:
The name Athanasius means “Immortal” in Greek but his enemies often referred to him as “The Black Dwarf” as he was short and presumably dark-skinned – and not a little stubborn. However as his legacy endured he came to be known by other names such as “The Father of the Canon of Scripture” and no less than “The Father of Orthodoxy”. Recently, Trevin Wax, of The Gospel Coalition, named Athanasius as the most important Theologian in Church history (outside of the Bible writers).
|Fresco of the Council of Nicaea|
The Council of Nicaea was held near present day Istanbul in the year AD 325. It was summoned by the Roman Emperor Constantine I in order to clear up the question of Arianism vs the doctrine of the Trinity which claims that the Bible clearly teaches that God is one God yet in three persons and that each member of the Godhead ( The Father, The Son and The Holy Ghost) are equally God. Many years of controversy followed but ultimately the Creed formed at Nicaea and confirmed at the First Council of Constantinople (AD 381) won out and has laid the foundation for nearly every statement of faith that has come since in both Catholic and Protestant (including Evangelical) Churches ( See portion of Nicaean Creed below).
In one instance his enemies tried to frame him for the murder of a Bishop named Arsenius – even producing a human hand as evidence. Things became awkward though when Arsenius was brought in by a deacon who had found him hiding in a monastery – he had both hands intact. Another story is told by Timothy Paul Jones (PhD) that when the Emperor Julian’s soldiers had caught up to Athanasius escaping on a boat they asked the man on the boat if he had seen Athanasius (not knowing who he was). Athanasius answered truthfully “Yes! He is just ahead of you and if you hurry you shall overtake him.” The Bishop escaped once again.
In his work “Contending For our All: The Life and Ministry of Athanasius”, Dr. John Piper reminds us: “There are doctrines in the Bible that are worth dying for and living for. They are the ground of our life. They are the heart of our worship. The divine and human nature of Christ in one person is one of those doctrines.” Athanasius perceived this same truth over 1600 years ago.
Dr. Piper says again: “This single-minded love for Jesus Christ expressed itself in a lifelong battle to explain and defend Christ’s deity and to worship Christ as Lord and God.” In the face of seemingly insurmountable odds and at the constant risk of his life Athanasius held to this doctrine. I thank God for men and women like Athanasius in the history of the Church.
Sources & Further Reading:
For a more detailed account of Athanasius’ life and legacy and some clarification on his teachings please see John Piper’s “Contending for Our All: The Life and Ministry of Athanasius.” http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/contending-for-our-all