Many Protestants speak of Martin Luther as though he was the first reformer of the church and its greatest underdog. Our imagination runs wild with re-enactments of Luther defying both the Roman Emperor and the Pope. Can any pastor theologian claim to match Luther’s gusto and the made-for-TV drama that consumed his life?
If the line of thinking above resonates with you, then you must read more about Athanasius of Alexandria (298-373 AD). Protestantism’s historical myopia is evident in our estimation (or lack thereof) of this monastic theologian. Before Luther challenged Europe's hierarchies, there was Athanasius contra mundum (‘against the world’)—a phrase used to describe Athanasius’s career that may have originated with the man himself. He became Bishop of Alexandria during the church's struggle with Arianism, in which Arians claimed that Jesus was merely a creature and not divine. This was despite rulings to the contrary from the Council of Nicaea (325 AD). So Athanasius spent his life promoting the Nicene understanding of the faith at a time when "the whole world groaned in astonishment to find itself Arian."
The main work associated with Athanasius is his On the Incarnation, a dense but short book that caused C.S. Lewis to say in his 1944 preface: "I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hands." If that isn't enough to coax you into reading more Athanasius (and smoking a pipe), it's worth noting that this famous Alexandrian had an equally interesting persona. He was short in stature but compensated with a towering intellect and a fiery tongue. He was marked for ordination at a young age because Alexander, then Bishop of Alexandria, observed children on the seashore playing a game in which they pretended to be priests and one of them was even offering baptisms. This child was so convincing and had performed all the sacramental duties so perfectly that Alexander felt compelled to accept the baptisms as legitimate and advise the youngster to train for the priesthood. True or not, the fact is that Athanasius became a towering figure in Christian theology—sometimes remembered as the “Father of Orthodoxy”—so we have reason to reflect as often as we can on his life and work.
1. Africa is central to the Christian story. Athanasius was Coptic and based in Egypt; in other words, he is the ancestor of the modern-day minority of Coptic Christians in Egypt. There was no concept of “Africa” in antiquity like there is today, but that doesn’t change the implication: Athanasius was all but certainly what modern Westerners would call a visible minority. Some have argued that he was black, while others insist that he had olive skin. Either reality reminds us that Christianity is not simply a white man’s religion. Athanasius stands in a long line of influential Africans that includes some of the church’s greatest minds—Augustine, Cyprian, and Tertullian, to name a few.
But the sad reality is that Christianity’s African heritage is often forgotten. It wasn’t long ago that white Christians enslaved their African brothers and sisters, which is all the uglier when one considers how indebted those slave masters were to the Africans who defined what it means to pray in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This behooves the modern pastor theologian to not forget the past and to ensure that our theological reading incorporates global voices. It is an interesting (and potentially provocative) point at present, when many African theologians do not share certain Western anxieties about the traditional Christian sexual ethic. One could argue that they lack empathy, but Africans in the Catholic, Anglican and Methodist traditions have nonetheless demonstrated commitment while others feel paralyzed or engage in theological revision. Africa—and specifically, Athanasius—gave direction to the church in its struggle with Arianism, and it seems Africa will be a theological leader again in the twenty-first century.
2. Exercise vocational patience. Athanasius was not ‘against the world’ from a young age—that was the rallying cry of an older, mature voice. This fact can be lost in a culture like ours, which loves to talk about ‘changing the world’ and being a ‘world-beater’. There are many armed with just a screen and a keyboard who feel entitled to a wide audience and the right to interrupt conversations as they see fit. But before the age of digital technology, aspiring leaders had to exercise more patience. Acknowledgement, respect, and a wide audience took many years to develop (and to a certain degree, they still do!).
Like every up-and-comer, Athanasius had to spend a great deal of time serving under leaders whose stature he would ultimately surpass. Perhaps one of the greatest ironies in church history is that Athanasius attended the Council of Nicaea as a member of Bishop Alexander’s attaché, but he wasn’t a key player in the Council’s discussions and he may not have participated at all. Only a few years later, he would begin his rise not only to become a star theologian, but to forcefully defend and advance the conclusions of Nicaea. This delayed trajectory is common in the theological world where your vocational ‘prime’ is often in your fifties or sixties rather than your twenties or thirties. I believe this is God’s grace to us, lest we think that it is our natural talent that is blessing the people around us. Instead, the church’s leaders are often longsuffering souls whose convictions are shaped by repeated failures and a wonderful marriage of wit, experience and years of listening to the Holy Spirit.
3. Persevere through the hate. Athanasius endured a great deal of criticism for his ideas. Justo González claimed that his opponents labelled him the “black dwarf.” While it appears that González may have fabricated the racial dimension of this critique, it’s true that opponents mocked Athanasius’s physical stature and, given the heat this monk was generating, the racial element could have been true.
What we know with certainty is that Athanasius was exiled from Alexandria five times as various leaders, both political and ecclesiastical, took issue with his ideas. The cumulative length of these exiles is close to twenty years—i.e. about 25% of his life. These periods of isolation gave Athanasius ample opportunity to soften his ideas, or even out rightly reject them. But he didn’t. Athanasius was nothing if not stubborn. In his life one sees that criticism isn’t always meant to be heeded; indeed, it may say more about your critic than the quality of your work. So Athanasius comes across as a very Pauline character: committing himself to the ‘foolishness’ of the gospel even when it sullies his reputation in the eyes of some (e.g. 1 Cor. 1.20-25; 4.13).
4. Practice seeing more in Jesus. When I first read Athanasius, I struggled to understand what he was saying about Jesus. I was accustomed to talking about Christ’s death and resurrection, but Athanasius is far more interested in his mere existence—as God and man. This showed me that Jesus cannot be reduced to a sacrificial Lamb whose significance is found only in his substitutionary death on the cross. Christ’s death is integral, but it would have no significance if he were not the God-man. Athanasius says that “the Son of God became man that we might become gods.” What he means is—ontologically speaking—human beings cannot be anything more than what we are. This reveals the grace of the incarnation: Jesus, the second Adam, takes humanity where it has never been before by joining together the divine and human natures and thereby making it possible for those with faith to attain to the resurrection of the dead.
A clear implication for modern pastor theologians is to examine every facet of Jesus’s story and identity. We do the church a disservice when we miss the center of the gospel story, but this is also true when we ignore the other constituent parts. Athanasius was attuned to how even the small details of Jesus’s personhood can have faith-altering implications, and he was willing to spend much of his life reflecting upon how the Word became flesh when many would turn their attention to the climaxes of Gethsemane and Golgotha. In a post-Reformation world, Athanasius is a fresh voice.
I’d be remiss to finish this piece without mentioning the tie that binds together these different lessons from Athanasius’s life. While he is most significant for his work on the incarnation, he is perhaps most admired for his Life of Anthony, which records the piety and feats of a monk now remembered as Anthony the Great. Athanasius admires the monastic lifestyle of silence, prayer and meditation. In fact, during one of his exiles, he spends several years with monks in the Egyptian desert who take him in and protect him from his enemies. This makes it easier to envision how one man could endure so much. Like Jesus, Athanasius knew the importance of abandoning the crowds and going into the wilderness to pray.
B.G. White is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at The King’s College in New York City. He holds a Ph.D. in New Testament from Durham University and has served as a Pastoral Tutor at St. John’s College, Durham. Prior to his doctoral studies, he worked in pastoral ministry in Cambridge, Ontario. He is a fellow of the St. Augustine Fellowship at the CPT. You can follow him on Twitter @bg__white.
 Jerome, Dialogue Against the Luciferians, 19.
 C.S. Lewis, “Introduction” in Athanasius, On the Incarnation (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993), 8.
 Rufinus, Historia Ecclesiastica, X.15.
 Justo González, The Story of Christianity (Harper Collins, 1984), 199-200.
 De inc. 54, 3.