Athanasius the Great

Today, May 2nd, is the feast day of Saint Athanasius the Great. Athanasius was, in a sense, the Saint Paul of the Constantinian era – maligned, persecuted, exiled, all for defending the triune faith against scholarly innovators, false brethren, and over-reaching politicians. It’s unrealistic to say that he defeated Arianism, since it continued to flourish as a rampant heresy long after his death, but he certainly deserves the lion’s share of the credit for repudiating it doctrinally, and it was his theological genius that gave us Trinitarian orthodoxy.

That’s some pretty heavy credentials. I find it hard to understand why he is not better known in the West. It was said of him: “Athanasius against the world,” because of the almost solitary figure he cut withstanding the fierce storm of 4th century Arianism. While it is true that the Roman Pope supported him, Rome was by then well on its way to political irrelevance in the Roman Empire, and with the new-found acceptance of Christianity by the emperors in Constantinople, the Church was suddenly a thread in the fabric of imperial policy across the empire. The man the Copts call Pope Athanasius I of Alexandria had to stand down, not only a wildly popular Christological theory that helped people make sense of what was otherwise a scandalous view of divine activity which seemed to defy logic, but also the august champions of the world’s mightiest empire, determined as they were to see an end to theological controversy and religious unrest.

So while the Church has an obvious debt to this great saint – chronologically the first Doctor of the Church – I have a personal debt, as well. It is common practice in these parts for confirmandi to take the name of a saint when being confirmed, and I took the name of Athanasius when I was confirmed shortly before my 31st birthday. I have to admit that I didn’t know too much about him at the time, but I have developed a deep love and appreciation for him, and feel quite certain that he has taken an interest in praying for me.

While I have no illusions about being able to stand in his shoes, my life over the past 17 years has been one of steady movement toward orthodoxy as orthodoxy – including some ways that probably would have surprised me back then. I used to see myself as a bit of a rebel, and certainly a “free spirit.” But I’ve come to see the foolishness of trying to invent or manipulate reality as if it were something subject to a creative art. I’ve come to see the beauty of faithful submission to that which is beyond me, and beyond my ability to understand. And I’ve come to see how such openness to the unknown, in fact, unfolds it before my eyes. This draws me into a freedom that is very different from what is practiced in the radical individualism of the “free spirit,” which turns out to be nothing more than a practical slavery to whatever manages to push your buttons.

Most importantly, I’ve come to understand that Trinitarianism is the key to everything. Athanasius understood that absolutely everything hinges on it. The doctrine, per se, is not articulated in Scripture, but if the doctrine is not true, then the New Testament – indeed, Christianity itself – sinks into a Jewish-flavored pagan mystery religion.

I think I owe much of this growth to the great Athanasius. That’s why I took the day off today to honor him.