According to the Fathers…
It’s not uncommon in our Orthodox circles to start out a conversation with that line. But what do we really mean when we invoke “the Fathers?” It sometimes sounds as if we are relying on a sacred club of automatons who all thought, spoke, and acted in the same way. As if when we say, “the Fathers,” complete and singular authority rests in whatever follows that line.
In one sense, of course, this is true. The Fathers of the Church “are above all those human beings in whose texts we find the witness to orthodoxy and whose authority could secure the orthodox faith in all its aspects.”1 There is a harmony amongst their writings that emerges as one becomes familiar with their writings, their lives, and the contexts in which they wrote. And in this harmony, the authority of the Fathers is expressed.
But harmony is not the same as monotony. Each Church Father (and Mother) is as unique as you and I are, and their surrounding cultures, personal experiences, lifestyles, talents, and even preferences influenced what they said and did and how they said and did it. As children and inheritors of these great minds, it is good for us to take the time to get to know our ancestors as individuals so that when we invoke their authority, we do so having established an intimacy with them, respecting the individual notes they play in the beautiful harmony of the Orthodox Church.
For the next few weeks, we’ll try to do just that: get to know a few of the Fathers whose lives and words have shaped our Orthodox faith. Of course, a few hundred words will never do any of our great Fathers justice, but my hope is that the little of their stories that I share with you will inspire you to get to know them more deeply by asking for their prayers, reading their lives, and exploring their works.
Today, let me introduce St. Athanasios the Great.
St. Athanasios (commemorated May 2) was born around 298 in Alexandria, Egypt. A Copt by birth, he received a classical Greek education in addition to a Christian education. He was influenced by the ascetic life of St. Antony the Great and visited him and other desert monks throughout his life. As a teenager, he wrote two of his most famous books: Against the Heathen and On the Incarnation. In the first, he refutes the arguments of the pagans and in the second and more famous work, he lays out the Christian story simply, describing man’s creation and fall and God’s response in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ.
Later, as an archdeacon, St. Athanasios became the foremost name at the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea among the defenders of the christological position that Jesus Christ was homoousios or “of one essence” with God the Father. He held this claim in opposition to the Alexandrian presbyter Arius who emphasized the divinity of the Father over the Son, claiming that there was a time before the Son was begotten, thus, the Son must have been created and was of a different essence than his Father and Creator. The Council of Nicaea, to affirm the divinity of Christ, produced the Nicene Creed, the first official version of the creed we recite today in every Liturgy.
After the Council, the controversy of Arianism did not die quickly, and during his time as Bishop of Alexandria, St. Athanasios was exiled from his see five times for his theological position. During these times, St. Athanasios continued to defend the Orthodox understanding of Christ, and finally, in the last few years of his life, he was allowed to peacefully oversee the Alexandrian flock until his death in 373.
A few of St. Athanasios’ other contributions:
- numerous treatises and letters concerning Arianism, including History of the Arians and Against the Arians
- the first recorded list of the 27 books of the New Testament as the Church uses them today
- the biography of St. Antony the Great
- a letter describing the Christian usage of the Psalter
If you’d like to read more, but would prefer a version of English that is from this century, check out On the Incarnation from SVS and The Life of St. Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus from Paulist Press.
Let me leave you with some of this Church Father’s own words on Christ’s trampling down death by death:
The body of the Word, then, being a real human body, in spite of its having been uniquely formed from a virgin, was of itself mortal and, like other bodies, liable to death. But the indwelling of the Word loosed it from this natural liability, so that corruption could not touch it. Thus it happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished.2
St. Athanasios, intercede for us.
1. Chrestou, Panagiotes K., Greek Orthodox Patrology: An Introduction to the Study of the Church Fathers (Rollinsford: Orthodox Research Institute, 2005), 14.
2. St. Athanasios, On the Incarnation (Crestwood: SVS Press, 1993), 49.