Summary: In this lesson, we examine the life of Athanasius and also the creed which bears his name.
Church History: Examining the Creeds and Confessions of the Church Through the Ages and Why They Matter.
Lesson 5: The Athanasian Creed
So far, in our study of church history we have seen:
An overview of the last 2,000 years of church history.
The creeds which are found within the Bible itself.
The early church documents called the Didache and the Apostles’ Creed.
The Council of Nicea and the Nicene Creed in AD325.
The Council and Confession of Chalcedon in AD451.
Tonight, we are going to examine the life of Athanasius and also the creed which bears his name.
The Life and Death of Athanasius
There is a story about the early life of Athanasius which tells us a bit about his zeal from a very young age.
Alexander, the Bishop of Alexandria, was gazing out his window one day when he happened to see a group of boys playing near the water.
This was not unusual, of course, but their activity caught his eye because it was apparent that they were actually acting out a baptismal service.
Alexander, concerned about the boy’s apparent act of sacrilege, went and confronted them.
The one who was organizing the group was a young man named Athanasius.
The Bishop inquired what he was doing, and he said that he was pretending to be a bishop and that the other boys were his catechumens.
What began as a rebuke became an endearing relationship between Alexander and Athanasius, and after Athanasius’ parents agreed, he became his assistant.
At the age of 23, he was ordained as a deacon and continued to work closely with Alexander. (Robin Philips: http://atgsociety.com/2010/02/against-the-world-the-legacy-of-saint-athanasius/)
We have already seen that Athanasius, along with Alexander, was instrumental in the events which occurred at the Council of Nicaea.
Following Nicaea, in AD328 he was elected to succeed Alexander as the Bishop of Alexandria.
His episcopate lasted 45 years.
But Athanasius’ ministry was not an easy one.
17 of his 45 years of ministry, he was in exile as a result of his battles regarding doctrine.
As we noted last week, a famous quote came from this time period:
Athanasius Contra Mundum
Athanasius Against the World!
He was exiled 5 times by different emperors.
He was exiled once by Emperor Constantine for 2.5 years.
He was exiled under Emperor Constantius twice.
Once for 7.5 years.
Second for 6 years.
He was exiled by Emperor Julian (the Apostate) for 10 months.
He was exiled by Emperor Valens for 4 months.
Athanasius was accused of many things, from defiling the altar, to selling church grain for his own personal gain, to engaging with prostitutes, to even violence and murder to suppress dissent.
In the situation with Constantine (the first exile), it was obvious that his accusers were bringing falsehoods against him.
They brought in a prostitute to accuse Athanasius of having raped her. During the trial, Timotheus, the friend of Athanasius, stepped forward and said, “Was it I who entered your house?” to which she answered in the affirmative, demonstrating that she had never even met Athanasius. The Bishops who had put her up to it were demonstrated to be deceivers.
During this same event, Athanasius was accused of murdering a fellow Bishop named Arsenius, and taking his severed hand as a prize. They produced the severed hand to accuse him. Athanasius, knowing of their accusation beforehand, decided to destroy their accusation in he best way possible: He produced Arsenius... with both of his hands.
When these failed, they accused Athanasius of having prevented corn from being exported from Alexandria, and believing them Constantine went forward with his exile.
These are just a few of the incidents wherein it seemed that Athanasius was “against the world”.
Yet, even with all of the controversy surrounding his life and ministry, Athanasius left an indelible mark on the Christian Church.
He stood for truth, when so many others faltered.
In that he is an example to us of Christian fortitude and commitment.
In AD366, he was able to resume his position as Bishop for the last time, holding it until his death in 373 at the age of 78.
C.S. Lewis commented on the life of Athanasius saying:
“He stood for the Trinitarian doctrine, ‘whole and undefiled,’ when it looked as if all the civilized world was slipping back from Christianity into the religion of Arius – into one of those ‘sensible’ synthetic religions which are so strongly recommended today and which, then as now, included among their devotees many highly cultivated clergymen. It is his glory that he did not move with the times…”
The 39th Festal Letter
Some believe the most influential of the writing of Athanasius to be his 39th Festal Letter, in AD367.
It was customary that after the Epiphany each year (the festival held twelve days after Christmas) that the Bishops of Alexandria would write a letter which would fix the dates for Lent and Resurrection Sunday and the other important festivals of the church.