One of the great heroes of the Christian Faith is Athanasius of Alexandria (296-373AD). He was given a number of soubriquets, including: Athanasius the Confessor, Athanasius the Apostolic, Athanasius Contra Mundum (‘against the world’) and, simply, Athanasius the Great.
He began his journey of faith at a tender age. A story is told of Bishop Alexander standing at his window and watching a group of children playing on the nearby seashore. Alexander soon realised that their game seemed to involve an imitation of the rituals of Christian baptism. One particular child was clearly asking questions of the others, baptising them in the sea and then praying for each of them. Fascinated, Alexander strolled outside to ask the kids why they were playing this game. The ‘baptiser’ – young Athanasius – explained that this was no game. Each of those baptised had made a commitment to Christ and wanted to be properly baptised. More conversation ensued and Alexander promptly invited the whole gang of kids to be fully involved in the Church. When Alexander passed away in 327AD, it was Athanasius who was asked to succeed him in the role of Bishop of Alexandria.
It’s a lovely thing to hear how Athanasius was sure of his Faith and clear about the Biblical teachings he was responding to from childhood. However, he lived in a time where there was considerable confusion about some of the specifics of Christianity. Seeds of doubt and uncertainty were sown by the likes of Arius (who had a full blown ‘Controversy’ named after him), Eusebius of Nicomedea (not the famous Eusebius, who came from Caesarea), Emperor Constantine, his son Constantius II, Emperor Valens and the worryingly named Emperor Julian the Apostate. Athanasius opposed the heretical beliefs of each and every one of them, in a most vocal way. It resulted in Athanasius being banished – or fleeing for his life – an astonishing five times before his death.
In a letter to a friend, Athanasius summed up his simple, Scriptural stance on all things:
“[I hold on to] the tradition, teaching and faith proclaimed by the apostles and guarded by the fathers!”
For me, the most significant moment of Athanasius’ Christian life came when he published his ‘Easter Letter’ to the Church, back in 367AD. It was in this letter that he suggested there were 27 documents which all of the churches recognised as being authentically linked to Jesus Christ. After much debate, this list of 27 documents went on to become our New Testament.
As minister of St Andrew’s Street Baptist Church, I’ve written 39 ‘letters’ for the Messenger magazine. This is my 40th. It’s interesting to note that the famous ‘Easter 367’ was Athanasius’ 39th letter to the Church. I’m sure and certain that I’ve written nothing that has a fraction of the significance of Athanasius’ pivotal letter! I can’t think of a better way to introduce our April Messenger than to remember and celebrate this man of faith, this man of determination. His high view of the scriptures led to their canonization and ensured that we can read them all in our Bibles today.
The Church Patriarch Cyril was born just after Athanasius passed away. Having studied Athanasius’ many works, he wrote this:
“Athanasius is one who can be trusted. He would not say anything that is not in accord with sacred Scripture.”
What a ‘great’ way to live.