On this episode of Simply Put, Barry Cooper introduces us to Athanasius and the creed that bears his name.
Athanasius was one of the early church’s most significant theologians.
He was born at the end of the third century in the city of Alexandria, which was a cultural hot spot in the Roman Empire.
Not much is known about Athanasius’ upbringing or education, but he started working for the bishop of Alexandria (who was called Alexander, confusingly) and eventually became bishop of Alexandria himself.
When Athanasius was about twenty years old, a dangerous heresy arose. And it was a heresy he would famously oppose for the rest of his life—at great cost to himself, given how popular the teaching became. It wasn’t until the very end of his life that the false teaching was finally put to death. In fact, Athanasius is often depicted in paintings as standing over a defeated heretic.
The heretic in question was an Alexandrian deacon called Arius, forty years the senior of Athanasius, whose teaching became known as Arianism. Arianism taught that although Christ was without doubt an exalted creature, He was nevertheless only a creature. According to Arius, the Son of God was made by God the Father, and therefore was less than God. That is, the Son of God did not exist as a coeternal member of the Godhead from all eternity.
The popularity of this teaching compelled early church leaders to assemble in Nicaea (in modern-day Turkey) in 325 AD. There they formulated the Nicene Creed, which clearly set out a biblical answer to Arianism: Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, has the same substance or essence as the Father (the key word they used was homoousios, a Greek word meaning “of one substance”). The Son of God is (quote) “begotten, not made, of one being with the Father.” In other words, the Bible teaches that all three persons of the Trinity—Father, Son and Spirit—are equal in being and eternality.
This might seem like a fairly arcane squabble to be having. But the early church understood the deep and damaging implications of Arianism: If the Son of God is nothing more than a creature, if He’s just a man—however exalted a man He may be—then how could He ever be our Savior, and how could He be our Lord?
Athanasius didn’t write the Nicene Creed. But he later championed it, brandishing it against those who followed in the footsteps of Arius—and there were plenty of people who followed Arius. In fact, hundreds of bishops who had originally signed the Nicene Creed began to twist the language and claim that, actually, Arianism was compatible with it. They wanted rid of Athanasius, who was now bishop of Alexandria and continuing to insist that Arianism was heresy. So, they accused him of charging illegal taxes, that he was too young when ordained, that he subsidized treasonable persons—even that he used magic. Even Emperor Constantine got involved. He wasn’t a fan of Athanasius either, and called him to Rome to face charges.
In all, Athanasius was exiled from his beloved congregation in Alexandria five times—the second time for as long as seven years. For years, he faced martyrdom, and even faced armed and murderous soldiers who broke into his church while he prepared worshipers for communion. Even then, he refused to flee until he knew all of his congregation was safe.
The so-called Athanasian Creed most likely wasn’t written by Athanasius either, but it was probably written in the fifth century. But with the Athanasian Creed’s emphasis on the Trinity and the nature of Christ, you can see why he was originally thought to be the author. It fills out in much greater detail the beauty of the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And it was badly needed. Just as the Nicene Creed proved invaluable in battling Arianism in the fourth century, so the Athanasian Creed—generally thought to have been written in the fifth century—came into its own as new heresies arose:
There was Monophysitism, which reduces the person of Christ to one nature that is neither purely divine or purely human.
Then there was Nestorianism, an equal and opposite error, which separates Christ’s human and divine natures to such a degree that Christ effectively becomes two separate persons, one human and one divine.
By contrast, the Athanasian Creed, following the teaching of Scripture, calls Christ “perfect God and perfect man.” It beautifully affirms that in the incarnation there was a “taking on” of a human nature rather than the divine nature somehow mutating into a human one.
As for Athanasius himself, having lived to see the threat of Arianism ended, he died in his mid-70s on 2nd May, 373 AD. The words on his gravestone are a rallying cry for every believer who stands for biblical truth, even when all others fall away: “Athanasius contra mundum”—“Athanasius against the world.”