Athanasius, the Original Pillar of the Church
Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding?
Lost amongst the noise around the Catholic church are great founding members of the world’s largest Christian denomination. Augustine gets credit for his witty prose and writings. Certainly, there are Saint Francis and Thomas Aquinas too. But one person who has existed in relative obscurity this last millennium is one of the most important early fathers of the church—Athanasius.
Athanasius lived in the desert around Alexandria during the early part of the fourth century. He was the long-serving bishop of Alexandria and was credited with many of the theological understandings of Christianity and the Trinity.
The first person to name the twenty-seven books of the New testament.
Athanasius served as the chief defender of the trinitarian view of God at the age of twenty-seven during the Nicean Council. At the age of thirty, he was made bishop of Alexandria and served in that capacity intermittently for forty-five years. He constantly rubbed the Roman emperors the wrong way, who would then ask that he be replaced. This happened five times. He railed against political influence in the running of the church, and four separate emperors had him removed.
He was known in his times as Athanasius Contra Mundum—Latin for Athanasius Against the World. His defense of the Bible and the church against heresy and politicians was a constant struggle, but he never submitted to going along to get along. His primary focus in life was in defending the Gospel and the church. After his death, Gregory of Nazianzus called him “the pillar of the church” in recognition of his life-long commitment to it.
He was born between 296 AD and 298 AD. His parents were wealthy enough to provide him with a secular education, but they were not part of the Egyptian aristocracy.
As a child, he was observed imitating the ritual of baptism with his friends in the school play yard by the existing bishop of Alexandria. Athanasius was imitating the bishop during this youthful event. Upon this discovery, the bishop took Athanasius under his wing and would serve as his mentor for almost twenty years.
Give us Athanasius
When Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, was on his deathbed, Athanasius fled, fearing they would make him the new bishop. However, the Catholic population surrounding the church would accept no person other than Athanasius. At an assembly to decide who the candidates would be, the crowd yelled: “Give us Athanasius!” Finally, Athanasius submitted and began his long and tumultuous forty-five-year service as bishop. Athanasius was unbending in his support of the Gospel and his belief the substance of God, in the form of the Holy Trinity.
When others would give in to appease the emperor, Athanasius stood firm at great personal peril. It wasn’t that he was trying to be difficult—his points of view were firm and well-founded. Each time he was exiled, a group would come back to his defense and request: “Give us Athanasius.”
Athanasius was also a prolific writer.
His most famous book was the biography of Anthony the Great, called the Life of Antony. Athanasius spent many of his years in exile in the desert residing among early monks who were called the Desert Fathers. These men and women sought to separate themselves from the world while living in caves meditating or writing about Jesus. Antony was a monk that Athanasius admired.
Whether the book is a factual or fictitious account of his friend Antony is a matter of debate amongst scholars. Some say it is a collage of the lives of the many who lived in the mountains of the desert of Egypt. Others insist it is a true account. Regardless of how it was written, it is a story about turning from the ways of the world toward a life of reflection about God. In it is also an early depiction of monastic life which many Catholics would mirror in future centuries.
Athanasius today is revered by the three separate denominations— the Coptic church, the Eastern Orthodox church, and the Roman Catholic church. This young boy who’d imitated the baptismal act in a schoolyard rose up to become the great defender of the Gospel and a well-loved patriarch of the church.
The common people loved him, and their cry of: “give us Athanasius!” was his support for most of his life. When rulers tried to subdue him, he stood up for faith. He was the Pillar of the Church because he stood up for his beliefs when others sought to please emperors through compromise.
The Catholic church has many great historical figures like Augustine, St Francis, Mother Teresa, and others. Athanasius was the pillar when those of our Christian faith first started to create the New Testament and many of the doctrines we have today.
Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman