Saturday, January 10, 2009

52 Men Trying Part 1: Athanasius

In 2009 One Man Trying will highlight one historical church figure per week. Why? To highlight the courage and bravery of the fathers of the faith. One weakness of the modern church is a lack of teaching on the history of the church, thus we tend to repeat some of the mistakes that previous generations worked hard to resolve. We also forget all the courageous acts that have laid the foundation of our faith today. These posts will help us remember – for there is great danger in forgetting God's faithfulness (Deut 6.12).

Thus the first featured figure is Athanasius, the timing of which is directly tied to the recent advent season. Athanasius was born around 300 AD and was known as the "black dwarf" (he was short and dark skinned). Theologically, he is best known for his relentless fight for the belief in the deity of Christ. In fact some say that he alone stood in the gap to protect Orthodoxy against ultimate corruption. The common phrase to describe him was Athanasius contra mundum, or "Athanasius against the world."

The main group he opposed was led by Arius, who taught that Jesus was created by God the Father (a belief also held by modern day Jehovah Witnesses). To spread his teaching, Arius coined the phrase, "There was a time when he (Jesus) was not." But Athanasius understood the absolute centrality of the deity of Christ to the Christian faith. If Christ was not fully God, then how did he have the power to forgive sins? Only God can forgive sins. Athanasius fought for the truth and appeared to win when Arius was declared a heretic by the council of Nicea (325 AD) and condemned to exile. In order to clear up confusion about the term "begotten" (John 3.16), they clarified that Jesus was "Begotten, not made." So whatever begotten means, they were sure it did not mean "created/made." In his Orations against the Arians Athanasius explains that, "The sun's rays belong really to it and yet the sun's substance is not divided or lessened. The sun's substance is whole and its rays are perfect and whole. These rays do not lessen the substance of the light but are a true offspring from it. Likewise we understand that the Son is begotten not from outside the Father but from the Father himself. The father remains whole while 'the stamp of his substance' (Heb 1.3) is eternal and preserves the Father's likeness and unchanging image."

Everything seemed settled, but politics were a big part of early church government (imagine that). Shortly after the banning of Arius, Constantine reversed the decision and ordered Athanasius of all people to restore Arius as a bishop! Athanasius refused and was threatened with exile. He stood firm and faced the consequences. This was not the first time he knew of persecution. Growing up in Alexandria, he spent much of the first 15 years of his life in fear of a particularly ruthless persecutions headed by the Roman government. As Bishop, he was in and out of exile four more times, spending a total of 15 years away from his work as Bishop of Alexandria.

During these exiles, he spent much time with the monks, eventually writing a 'best-seller' about the life of Antony, one of the first monks. Many would see an exile as time wasted, but God used Athanasius' writings from this period to lead many to faith in Christ. In fact, his book on Antony played a key part in Augustine's conversion!

One of his contemporaries described him as follows: "He was sublime in action, lowly in mind; inaccessible in virtue, most accessible in intercourse [conversation]; gentle, free from anger, sympathetic, sweet in words, sweeter in disposition; angelic in appearance, more angelic in mind; calm in rebuke, persuasive in praise, without spoiling the good effect of either by excess, but rebuking with the tenderness of a father, praising with the dignity of a ruler, his tenderness was not dissipated nor his severity sour, for the one was reasonable, the other prudent, and both truly wise; his disposition sufficed for the training of his spiritual children, with very little need of words; his words with very little need of the rod."

What a description! And all this is said of a man who stood firm for truth. His example proves that one does not have to be a hot-headed loud-mouth to be persuasive. Not in the church, not at work, and not with your wife or kids. "A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger" (Prov. 15.1).

I end with some of Athanasius' own words (heading the advice of C.S. Lewis), from his book On the Incarnation. This is a short read (about 100 pgs) that I highly recommend, especially the edition with an introduction by C.S. Lewis. I picked up this book around Christmas, and will likely make a habit of reading it every December for years to come. In this book, Athanasius defends the need for God to come to earth as a human and builds a case against pagans who would laugh at this "absurd" notion.

In refutation of the Gentiles, he says: "They laugh at that which is no fit subject for mockery, yet fail to see the shame and ridiculousness of their own idols." (p75)

Of Jesus' limitations he says: "His body was for Him not a limitation, but an instrument, so that He was both in it and in all things, and outside all things, resting in the Father alone… nor was He defiled by being in the body. Rather, He sanctified the body by being in it. For His being in everything does not mean that He shares the nature of everything, only that He gives all things their being and sustains them in it. Just as the sun is not defiled by the contact of its rays with earthly objects, but rather enlightens and purifies them, so He Who made the sun is not defiled by being made known in a body, but rather the body is cleansed and quickened by His indwelling" (p45-46).

On why Jesus allowed the Jews to kill him: "A generous wrestler, virile and strong, does not himself choose his antagonists, lest it should be thought that of some of them he is afraid. Rather, he lets the spectators choose them, and that all the more if these are hostile, so that he may overthrow whomsoever they match against him and thus vindicate his superior strength. Even so it was with Christ… who did not arrange the manner of his own death lest He should seem to be afraid of some other kind" (p54).

Athanasius – he was one man trying to do the right thing, not matter how much it hurt.

1 comment:

Tim Casteel said...

Good stuff man. I'm going to enjoy the 52 men series.