Today is the Feast of St. Athanasius, a Christian leader from Alexandria Egypt who is remembered as the primary defender of the faith against the teachings of Deacon Arius, also of Alexandria. This is all happening in the 4th century some 300 years after the death and Resurrection of Jesus. It is also in the age when the Christian faith was no longer “illegal” under Roman rule – thanks to Emperor Constantine. Christianity become the official religion of the Roman Empire was still some 50 year away, but the Church was beginning to flourish with its new found freedom from oppression and the threat of the next persecution.Still, some 300 years after Jesus, there are some in the Church who are still raising issues about Jesus. Arius (and his teaching, Arianism) held that Jesus was divine, but was subordinate to God the Father – that there was time when the 2nd person of the Trinity “was not.” Divine? Yes, but created, not eternal. Arius has his own arguments from Scripture and he had supporters – and not just theologians. It became topic that divided the empire and the emperor’s court. Sides were taken, armies were formed, battles fought and people died. To be sure it was mixed in with political intrigue, but it was a prominent part of the mix. It especially made inroads in the Balkans and areas north of the Black Sea. Remember the Goths and Visigoths from history classes in school? There are often thought of as barbarians and pagans. Barbarians maybe, but by-iin-large, they were Arian Christians who sacked Rome in 410.
Where is Athanasius in all this? He became the chief defender of orthodox Christianity that is confessed today as regards the relationship of Father-Son-Spirit. He was a leading voice at the Council of Nicea (325; convened by Emperor Constantine) that condemned Arianism and held to the Athanasius proposed view. But the Council’s edict did not end the conflict which continued to embroil the empire theologically and politically. It started a period of struggle for Athanasius as he confronted Emperors Constantine, Constantius II, Julian the Apostate and Valens. He became known as Athanasius Contra Mundum (Athanasius Against the World). It also got him exiled five times. From 336 until his death in 366, most of Athanasius’ time was spent in exile as the Arian influence continued throughout the 4th century.
Athanasius’ work, De Incarnatione (On the Incarnation) is considered the first and most influential defense of orthodox Christianity.
…and today is his feast day!