Orthodox America

  Holy Fathers - St. Athanasius

In my last letter I wrote about the early false teaching called Gnosticism. I explained about St. Irenaeus of Lyons, an early Church Father (140--202 AD) who helped to combat this error, drew up a list of Holy Scriptures, and also demonstrated that the Church founded by Christ is the authority for every Christian.

In this letter I would like to tell you about another great Father, St. Athanasius (293-373 AD), and the Church's battle for the doctrine of the Trinity.

Today we take for granted the Church’s teaching concerning the Trinity: so did the Orthodox believers of the first two centuries. They baptized in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, just as Christ commanded; they knew that Christ was the Son of God and God, distinct from the Father and the Holy Spirit, but that all were equally One--a great mystery of faith.

About the year 180, however, a serious error appeared, called Adoptionism. According to this false teaching, Christ was not really God at all, but only a man who had been "adopted" by God! Still another group, the Sabellians, believed that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were but different "aspects" or manifestations of the one God. In other words, it was God the Father Who dwelt in the womb, becoming the Son at birth, etc. These dangerous ideas were of course purely human inventions, completely alien to the faith of Christians; but they prepared the way for an even more terrible heresy.

Around the year 318 the priest, Arius of Alexandria, 'and his followers (called Arians) began to preach a false Christ. According to Arius, Jesus Christ was only a creature, the first creation of God, through whom all else was made. This Christ was superior to all other created things, including the Holy Spirit, but He was also inferior to God the Father. Arianism was to disturb the Orthodox Church of Christ for several decades. (How many people today are actually Adoptionists, Sabellians, or Arians in a new disguise !)

In the city of Nicea in Bithynia, in the summer of 325, a universal Council of the Church convened to discuss Arianism and other topics. Eighteen hundred bishops were invited from all the corners of Christendom, but only 318 were able to make the arduous and, in some cases, quite long journey to Nicea. Some of these were men who had suffered persecution and torture for the faith under the pagan Emperors. Presiding over them was 'St. Hosius of Cordova, Spain. Among those in attendance were Arius, and the deacon, Athanasius. In the center of the council hall was placed a throne holding a copy of the sacred Gospels

After prolonged debate between the Arians and the Orthodox, led by Arius and Athanasius, Bishop Hosius announced that the Council would draw up a statement of beliefs--a Creed--in order to clearly state the faith of Christianity. The first draft was submitted by Arian bishops, and rejected. Finally, the first part of what came to be called the "Nicene Creed," recited in every Divine Liturgy to this day, was adopted by the Council.

This first universal Council specifically anathematized Arianism. The Holy Spirit had spoken to the Church through the assembled Fathers. As St. Athanasius himself proclaimed: "The word of the Lord, which was given at the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, remaineth for ever" But the heresy of Arianism continued for another 50 years, in small pockets of resistance throughout the empire.

Meanwhile, in 328, Athanasius became Bishop of Alexandria. Since he was the fearless champion of Orthodoxy, and the archenemy of Arianism, many Arians conspired against him. They spread slanders resulting in a series of exiles for the Bishop. When he returned home in 316, St. Athanasius composed his book, "Against the Arians." Ten years later he was again condemned by the Arian party for his Orthodoxy. This time he escaped into the Egyptian desert, where he lived in simplicity and piety, studying the word of God, writing theological treatises on the great questions of his day, and continuing to defend the true doctrine of the Trinity.

Quoting Scripture frequently,, St. Athanasius often returned in his letters to the theme of these verses: Beware of false prophets that come in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravening wolves (Matt. 7:15), and Believe not every spirit (I John 4:1). He wrote: "That is the way our adversaries operate ...They usurp the glorious Name of our Saviour 'which is above every name.' They deck themselves out in the language of Scripture, saying the words, but robbing them of their true meaning."


After his fifth and last exile, having been bishop for 45 years and having seen 16 Roman emperors come and go, this Holy Father, whom St. Gregory Nazianzen had described as "angelic in appearance and still more angelic in mind," 'reposed in the Lord on May 2, 373.

Like all Fathers of the Church, St. Athanasius confessed the Orthodox Faith openly. He was absolutely dedicated to telling the world the truth, even when it resulted in bitter reprisals against himself. He was not merely a bishop or theological writer, however; he was also a saint--that is, he was one who loved Jesus Christ so much that Christ was able to shine clearly and brightly through him, to the world,

Sincerely in Christ,
Fr. Alexey Young