Why Pastors Should Engage Athanasius
It all started on a beach. For most men of God, that probably wasn’t the place where their pastoral vocation began. Yet for one small, brown-skinned boy in Roman Egypt, a playful moment on the beach led to a long and fruitful pastoral ministry. Perhaps, as a fellow pastor, you will identify with humble beginnings that led somewhere unexpected in God’s great plan.
The ancient historian Rufinus tells us (Church History X.15) that the eminent bishop of Alexandria, named Alexander, was sitting by the sea one day when he glanced up to see some boys playing a game on the beach: not tag, nor chasing after a ball, nor swimming. These Christian boys were mimicking the actions they had witnessed in church.
As Alexander watched, he realized the boys weren’t just performing the more public actions of a Sunday church service, but even the private and mysterious ritual of baptism. Bishop Alexander brought the boys before him. He asked what they were up to. Frightened, they wouldn’t answer at first, but finally admitted they were baptizing their playmates.
Alexander asked the ringleader, Athanasius, what he had said, what responses were made, and how the ritual had been performed. After learning the facts, the bishop ruled that the baptisms were entirely valid! Then, after summoning the parents of the children who had shown such spiritual promise, he took the boys under his wing and had them educated for future service to the church. Such was the beginning of Athanasius’s long and illustrious pastoral career.
Precocious Athanasius went on to become Alexander’s personal secretary, then his successor as the bishop of Alexandria. Athanasius was ordained even before he was thirty years old. By personality, he was an energetic leader and bold debater, a feisty little fellow whose Coptic complexion earned him the nickname “the black dwarf.”
And his scrappy spirit was needed in those tumultuous times. Athanasius lived when the early church was fractured by the Arian heresy. A few years earlier, the Libyan pastor Arius had started claiming that there was a time when the Son of God did not exist, and only afterward did the Father bring him into existence. This meant that Jesus was an inferior deity who was created by the Father’s decision. But Athanasius—like Alexander before him—quickly realized that a Jesus who wasn’t fully God was a Jesus who couldn’t reunite sinful humans to that God. Only the full and complete deity of the Son could make salvation possible.
The Council of Nicaea was called in AD 325 to adjudicate this debate. There, the bishops recognized that the Father and Son possess the “same substance,” which meant they are equally divine. When a Christian believer is united by grace to the Lord Jesus, he or she is returned by the Savior into the life of the Holy Trinity. Only the God-Man, not a mere creature, can accomplish such a thing.
Since Arianism wasn’t immediately defeated after Nicaea, Athanasius spent the rest of his life fighting this heresy. Eventually it was stamped out in the ancient world, though it still rears its head today in modern cults like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Mormons. Modern pastors can be grateful for the example of someone like Athanasius. Guarding against heresy and teaching sound doctrine is always a shepherd’s job!
The Bishop’s Mighty Pen
Though Athanasius might have been small in stature, his pen was mighty. A torrent of his writings has come down to us: sermons, commentaries, apologetic works, letters to his flock, and a whole lot more. The fact that Athanasius was exiled from his pastorate in Egypt five times—often for months or even years—makes it all the more amazing that he could be so productive. He spent 17 of his 46 years as a bishop in exile! Yet nothing could set him back: not heretics, nor complex church politics, nor even the Roman emperors who favored Arianism and needed to be rebuked. Pastoral courage is a virtue well exemplified by this ancient saint. The fact that Athanasius was exiled from his pastorate in Egypt five times—often for months or even years—makes it all the more amazing that he could be so productive. Click To Tweet
The ink kept flowing from Athanasius’s pen right until the end of his life. Shortly before he died, he wrote a letter to a Caesarean pastor named Palladius who was embroiled in a dispute between some monks and the local bishop—the famous Basil of Caesarea—about pneumatology, or the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Athanasius’s tone was gentle as he wrote to his “beloved son” and urged him to remedy the divisions in the church. The work of a pastor to foster unity and heal church splits is never done.
Two Great Writings
Though Athanasius’ literary output was prolific, perhaps we can focus on two of his most enduring works. The first is his magnificent treatise On the Incarnation, which most historians think he wrote early in his life—though it is so mature that some scholars insist it must be the product of his later years. Whatever the answer, this book deserves to sit on every pastor’s shelf. A nice, inexpensive edition of it was published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press in the Popular Patristics series. Although the English translator of this Greek work was an anonymous monk, no less a luminary than C.S. Lewis wrote the introduction. Lewis’s insightful comments about the importance of reading old works is worth the book’s price, but don’t stop there. Athanasius’s theological remarks are profound, and Professor Lewis would be quite disappointed if you missed them.
On the Incarnation emphasizes an important biblical theme, one that the Greek Orthodox Church still emphasizes today, but too many Evangelicals have forgotten: that the incarnation is a vital part of God’s saving work, not just the necessary precursor to the “real action” at the Cross. The incarnation must be theologically tied not only to the crucifixion but also the resurrection and the ascension, creating a single story of divine descent, union with Christ, and restoration to the Trinitarian life of God.
Athanasius first describes how God made human beings in his own image. But at the fall, they became corrupted and started fading into non-being. To solve this “divine dilemma,” the eternal Word of God took on flesh and entered our world as a true human being. Jesus lived in perfect obedience, died for our sins, conquered the grave (and with it, Satan’s reign), and ascended on high in glory.
For Athanasius and many other ancient theologians, salvation is not just about an atoning payment that averts God’s wrath (though that language is certainly found in Scripture); it is also mystical union with the Savior who restores the divine image in us and takes us back to the God from whom we came. Modern pastors would do well to view salvation not just as a payment or a transaction, but as a cosmic narrative of rescue and restoration.
A second book from Athanasius’s mighty pen is well worth reading: his Life of Anthony, which is a biography about the ostensible founder of ancient Christian monasticism. Many editions of this work exist on internet sites. But one reliable volume is again from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: Robert Gregg’s translation, Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus in The Classics of Western Spirituality Series.
Anthony was an Egyptian orphan whose parents had left him with a nice inheritance. Yet God had a serious call upon his life. Anthony left his comfortable existence to take up residence in the desert, like other people were beginning to do at that time. He fasted much and slept little. Demons accosted him by night, yet he fought them like a spiritual warrior, often finding himself bruised and battered when he awakened the next morning.
Over time, Anthony became the most famous “hermit,” that is, a solitary monk. Yet we should not think Anthony was useless to the world because of his isolation. He often served as a spiritual director to other earnest brothers. And he spent more hours in prayer than just about anyone ever could. Despite his rigorous lifestyle, Anthony lived over a hundred years, and he spent most of those decades in constant prayer and contemplation of God. Athanasius was right to compose a biography about so worthy a man. His famous biography—which even contributed to the conversion of St. Augustine—is a story that modern pastors should know and emulate.
Not for Professionals Only
In the introduction to On the Incarnation, C.S. Lewis writes, “There is a strange idea abroad that . . . ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books . . . This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology.”
Lewis is exactly right. Too often, ancient books are thought to be only for scholars and professors. But Athanasius reminds us how wrong that idea is. Today’s pastor ignores this ancient father at his own peril. As the Eastern liturgy declares: “Wisdom! Let us attend!”