Athanasius was exiled after a riot in Alexandria, which erupted on February 9, 356AD.
Athanasius, hero of the Arian controversy some 20 years before and now Bishop of Alexandria, suddenly found his church surrounded by 5000 soldiers. As doors were being smashed the bishop “calmly turned to his assistant and bade him read Psalm 136”. As the church was desecrated by the mob, Athanasius was “successfully bundled out of the church into a side street”.
The Arians installed their own bishop, but Athanasius, fleeing into the desert, still found ways in which he could minister to his flock. For six years he suffered exile (wearing a worn-out sheepskin coat that once had belonged to the hermit monk St Anthony!) and then came his return to Alexandria to a jubilant community.
Born around 298AD, Athanasius lived in Alexandria, Egypt, which is on the Mediterranean coast and was the chief centre of learning in the Roman Empire. When Athanasius was in his teens Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan transformed Christianity from a persecuted religion to one with official sanction.
At the same time Athanasius was taken under the patronage of Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria, thus becoming engaged in Christian ministry. He was most likely schooled in the famous “catechetical school” of Alexandria, which boasted such illustrious teachers as Clement and Origen. He also became an acquaintance of the famous hermit, St Antony.
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While Athanasius was to become the Bishop of Alexandria he is most famous for his dogged resistance to the Arian heresy.
At about 319AD an Alexandrian priest, Arius, began to teach that Christ did not exist until God begat him. As a newly appointed Deacon and as secretary to Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, Athanasius refuted Arius, pointing out that the begetting of Christ speaks of an eternal relationship, not a temporal event.
Arius was condemned by the Egyptian bishops and relocated to Nicomedia. From there he promoted his position to bishops throughout the world. The controversy raged for years, prompting Emperor Constantine to call the Council of Nicea (325AD) to resolve the matter.
At that council Athanasius, although not a bishop, had the strongest voice in upholding the fundamentalist position. However it was important to formulate a non-ambiguous creed, so the phrase “of one substance with the Father” became the defining distinction. This was one of the early formulations of the doctrine of the Trinity.
While the council was a victory for Athanasius the tensions were far from over, as the Arian supporters won favour with successive Emperors. So it was that Athanasius, who soon became Bishop of Alexandria, endured continued opposition. We owe our hold on this key truth of the Trinity today to Athanasius’ determination to resist all compromise.
Thus Athanasius has been called “the Father of Orthodoxy” because of his staunch adherence to the doctrine of Christ being of ‘the same essence’ as the Father. Arians denied this.
The Dictionary of the Christian Church says “almost single-handedly Athanasius saved the church from pagan intellectualism”. He was hounded through five exiles (the incident mentioned above being his third!) over a period of 17 years.
After his fifth exile he continued in Alexandria, refuting heretics, building churches, rebuking rapacious governors, comforting faithful bishops, and strengthening the orthodox everywhere, till at length, in the spring of 373, “in a good old age” (his late seventies) he ceased from all his work.
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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com