It is the 2nd of May 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
Well, we've certainly heard his name before on this show. It is one of the big "A" names that we can't seem to get away from—Athanasius.
(Please remember that you may pronounce that several ways, and snobbish bullies who make a big point about pronunciation aren't helpful.)
Maybe you know him because you remember the Athanasian Creed. That's the long one with the part at the end that your pastor always has to explain.
Maybe, you are a church history buff and think of Athanasius as the hero of orthodoxy against the claims of the heretic Arius. But, we're going to break down this part of his life today.
And maybe you know Athanasius as the author of the essential work on asceticism. I would be impressed if you knew that. Even more so, if you told me that Athanasius was called the Black Dwarf by his opponents. He was indeed from Egypt and likely dark-skinned. He was, in fact, short. But the "black dwarf" claim seems to be of dubious origin.
But the phrase "Athanasius contra Mundum" or "Athanasius Against The world" was used not only to highlight his unpopular stances but also just what a kind of a jerk he could be, too.
Here comes Athanasius.
He was born in 293 in Alexandria. This puts him in the Coptic church tradition. (Coptic is a transliteration of the Latin word for Egypt. Today it refers to the Christian minority in Egypt.) He is also born on the cusp of the Imperial church; that is, he was a teenager when Christianity went from outlaw religion to respectable religious options under Constantine.
The first time we see Athanasius, he is the deacon attending the Council of Nicea with Alexander the Bishop of Alexandria. We'll talk more about the Council another time, but Constantine called it to bring unity to a church that had been fractured by the question of the relationship between God the Father and Jesus. Arius, trying to uphold the singularity of the divine, argued that there was a time when Jesus was not. Yikes. So the Council decides that this is not the case, that the Father and Son are of the same substance, and that was that. Athanasius becomes the Bishop of Alexandria when Alexander dies and is told by the Emperor to chill on Arius himself. Arius signed off on the Nicene Creed. That's right. This supposed "arch-heretic" said, "All alright, I was out of line." But Athanasius has made his name by being anti-Arius. So he wouldn't accept that Arius could be part of the universal church.
Constantine, who called the Council to get some peace in the church, was not pleased. Athanasius would be banished to the edges of the empire until Constantine died in 337. But the banishments kept happening. Athanasius was banished five times as the Bishop of Alexandria by numerous Emperors. In the new imperial church, forging peace was as important as defining orthodoxy.
Athanasius would famously write "On the Incarnation," and as people who knew him personally began to pass away, his reputation was rehabilitated, and his theological work began to stand on its own. And his theology attempted to answer the questions about the Trinity that vexed the church in the first centuries.
The legend of Athanasius was developed in the hands of friendly writers who were, ironically, treating him much how he treated the central figure of his second most important work, "The Life of St. Antony." In this fantastical tale of an ascetic, Athanasius developed the template for centuries of "desert monks".
His name will be tossed around on this show, especially when we are in the 4th century and discussing Christological conversations and the relationship between doctrinal purity and church unity.
Athanasius is rightly revered as a defender of the Christological tradition that would be accepted by most of the Church. He is also one of the first sources to list the 27 books of the New Testament, and for all of this, he has been recognized as a doctor of the Roman church, a confessor of the Coptic church. Today, he is remembered on his feast day, the 2nd of May, across Greek, Roman, Coptic, Anglican, and Lutheran churches. And if you can get all these cats to agree about something, you've linked church unity and doctrinal purity in a way that he, St. Athanasius of Alexandria, could have never imagined.
The last word for today, let's get a little Christological with the Epistle to the Colossians chapter 1, verse 17 and following.
"He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 2nd of May 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by Christopher Gillespie Contra Mundum. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis who prefers the Apostles' creed. You can catch us here every day. And remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.