Athanasius Defends the Nature of Christ

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:

The Church of England is Born

This is the day that … Henry VIII was excommunicated by the Pope of Rome. It was 1533.

He was 42 years of age, had sat upon the throne of England since 1509 … and (in 1521) had been awarded the title “Defender of the Faith” – by Pope Leo X!

Why? Because Henry had taken up his pen and denounced Martin Luther as a heretic.

Henry VIII was a loyal son of the Roman church. Until, that is, he set his eyes on Anne Boleyn! This raven-haired beauty, incidentally, “had a sixth finger on her left hand, a deformity she skilfully concealed…”

The problem was that Henry was already married to Catherine of Aragon … and after “16 years of repeated pregnancies” there was still no male heir. So Henry decided that his marriage was not legal in the first place – after all, Catherine had been the widow of Henry’s brother … and didn’t Leviticus have something to say about that? So he demanded that the Pope annul the marriage.

The Pope, however, stood firm. He may not have done so had it not been for the fact that he (the Pope) was “really a prisoner in the hands of Charles V of Spain … who was Catherine’s nephew”!

Suffice to say Henry divorced Catherine … married Anne, who was already pregnant (January, 1533) … and passed the Act of Supremacy (1534), which states that he is “the Supreme Head in Earth immediately under God of the Church of England”.

By September, 1533, Henry already had his roving eye on Jane Seymour.

Thus Anne was declared to be guilty of adultery, beheaded on Tower Hill … and Henry married Jane less than a month later.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at