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The Life and Ministry of Athanasius

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:14

Watch Week Five, Day Three

Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria

You may remember that the great opponent of Arius’s teaching was a man named Athanasius. Athanasius had been present at the Council of Nicaea, but because he was not a bishop he did not take part in it. After serving as a deacon under the bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, at the age of thirty-three, reluctantly became the bishop of Alexandria in AD 328.

In his earlier writings, we see that for Athanasius, “the central fact of Christian faith, as well as of all human history, is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.” In Jesus Christ, God has come and made His dwelling among us. Hear these confirming words from the gospel of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1–3, 14)

Athanasius himself wrote about Jesus, “For being the Word of the Father and above all, it followed that he alone was able to re-create everything and to be ambassador for all men with the Father.” This is the story of God’s rescue—God’s work for our salvation—that we find in Scripture. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Opposition against Athanasius

As bishop, Athanasius walked a long road of opposition and turmoil. In an attempt to discredit Athanasius, church leaders who supported the teaching of Arius, including bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, spread false charges against him. Athanasius was brought before a synod and accused of practicing magic as well as charged with killing another bishop. Eventually cleared of all charges, Athanasius went to Constantinople to speak with Constantine. Yet, because of the influence Eusebius of Nicomedia had with the emperor, Athanasius had difficulty gaining the hearing of Constantine. Ultimately Constantine banished Athanasius. Athanasius would be exiled five times in all.

Athanasius, in his defense of the orthodox faith, had far from an easy life. His teachings and convictions led to opposition, false accusations, and repeated banishment. At one point, he fled to the desert and lived there for five years. Yet, as scholar Justo González remarks, “despite years of slander against him, Athanasius stood as a defender of the Nicene faith. The church remembers him as one of the greatest champions of right belief.” He was so courageous in his insistence on orthodoxy, so stalwart in the face of opposition, that he was remembered with the phrase, Athanasius contra mundum, which means, “Athanasius against the world.”

legacy of Athanasius

What is the legacy of Athanasius’s teachings? Athanasius was a staunch defender of the doctrine of the incarnation and full divinity of Christ. This was an important step in the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, affirming that God is three in one, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the holy mystery we proclaim. Consider the importance of Athanasius’ life and work. Athanasius helped form this understanding, defending the full divinity of Christ as well as the oneness of God, and articulating the orthodox beliefs of the church concerning the relationship between God the Father and God the Son.

As we come to a close for today, consider the meaning of the incarnation: Jesus, God in the flesh. God who is with us.

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Daily Question

Why is the doctrine of the incarnation so central to our faith? How do you need to be reminded of this?

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