A while back I finished reading Bryan M. Litfin's great book, Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to investigate this time period in church history in a little more detail. Litfin's book provides the reader with 10 readable portraits of men and women from the centuries of the earliest church, from Ignatius of Antioch (c. 115 AD) to Cyril of Alexandria (5th century).
My favorite chapter in the book was the chapter on Athanasius of Alexandria in Egypt (299-373 AD). It reminded me of the reasons why Athanasius is on my list of true heroes of the Christian faith.
Athanasius lived during a time of intense theological debate about the person of Jesus Christ. Much of that debate centered on a doctrine called Arianism and its founder Arius. Arius was a man who taught that Jesus Christ was not fully God and had not existed eternally with God. Rather, he believed that Jesus was the first creation of God and as such was not of the same divine substance as God the Father. Rather he was inferior to the Father.
Athanasius confronted the error of Arius head on and at first, had some success. His superior, Bishop Alexander of Alexandria excommunicated Arius and during the great church council of Nicaea in 325 AD, Arianism was soundly and officially rejected as heresy by the church. The Nicene Creed stated clearly that Jesus Christ, eternally existing, was of the same divine substance as God the Father.
That should have been the end of Arianism, but it wasn't. Just the opposite, in fact. The influence of Arianism grew. Arians sent “missionaries” to the barbarian tribes outside of the empire, converting many of them to their view. After the Roman Emperor Constantine died, succeeding Emperors were Arian in belief. In fact, it was not until 381 AD, during the church council of Constantinople, that a biblical view of Jesus was again firmly established in the Roman Empire.
And what about Athanasius? What did he do during this time when, as another church father wrote, the Roman Empire woke up on morning and was astonished to find itself Arian? Athanasius, the true Christian hero, stood firm on the truth. At times it seems as if he was the sole remaining voice for a biblical, orthodox view of Jesus Christ. It got so bad that someone later penned a description of this time as “Athanasius against the world, and the world against Athanasius.” Athanasius even stuck to the truth of Scripture in the midst of suffering. He was exiled from the Empire a number of times for his belief, spending 17 of the 46 years he was bishop in exile. He lived a great part of his life abused, unwelcome and rejected. When he died in 373 AD, the fight had yet to be won. He died without seeing the victory of orthodox doctrine that he had fought so hard for.
Why is Athanasius a “hero” to me? Because he stood on the truth in an age when seemingly everyone had abandoned the truth. We live in an age like that today. The views of people are drifting farther and farther from a biblical worldview. That is happening in social issues like the homosexuality or the sanctity of life. But it is also happening in the theological arena. For example, everyone wants to co-opt Jesus for their own gain. Politicians and organizations want Jesus on their side – they are not too concerned about what their Jesus is like or whether they quote him in context. Cults and other religious groups embrace a Jesus that is generally nothing like the biblical portrait of Jesus. Scholars debate the veracity and accuracy of the New Testament. Some go so far as to postulate that we know very little about what Jesus actually said, which of course frees them up to make a Jesus of their own liking. What is the role of a Christian who believes in the authority of the Bible in all this? The same role as Athanasius – to take a stand on the truth of Scripture and not budge, no matter what. Like Athanasius, we may not see a victory in these things in this life. Athanasius did not see victory, but he was faithful to the end. Hopefully we will be also.