If Christian theology had superheroes, Athanasius would perhaps lead the list… – Kevin Vanhoozer*
Some Christians poo-poo the idea of having heroes. I guess the idea is that only Jesus should be our hero. I’m not one of those, I believe we need heroes. Historic men and women whose example of faith and courage can inspire and encourage us. Athanasius is one of my heroes. Every Christmas I read his little book On the Incarnation, according to C S Lewis it is a masterpiece (and very readable). I’m presently plowing through Peter Leithart’s new biography on the man’s thought.
Who Was This Guy? Athanasius was the bishop of Alexandria in the 4th Century. He had a hand in the creation of the Nicene Creed. Even though Christianity had been legalized, it was not easy to maintain orthodoxy all the time. The Arians were gaining sway over much of the Christian world. They denied that Christ was the eternally uncreated Son (think ancient Jehovah’s Witnesses). Theological debates were raging and the future looked bleak for trinitarian faithfulness. But Athanasius was a man that God had appointed for his time. He withstood the erosion of orthodoxy even when it was extremely unpopular and even dangerous to do so. He was known for his stubbornness and deep thinking. When he died his epitaph even read: ATHANASIUS CONTRA MUNDUM (Athanasius against the world).
Why Do We Need A Hero? Sometimes it feels hard to follow Jesus. It sometimes feels as though the world is against us. In every age and in every culture there are going to be certain points about Christian faith that are hard to swallow, either ideological or ethical. 100 years ago it was the supernaturalism of the Biblical revelation and so there were many who tried to cut that out of the faith. Nowadays people have less trouble accepting the possibility of the supernatural but their are points controversial today. The exclusivity of Christ, the need for repentance, the bloody atonement, the trustworthiness of revelation, and so on are ideas that don’t automatically jive with the contemporary mind. Even more tough to swallow today are Biblical sex ethics. To follow Christ faithfully sometimes seems like one must go against the world. Athanasius did that. In his day, it was the Trinity that too much for people to swallow. It seemed expedient for both the political and churchy types to just get rid of that one sticking point. Then we could have a relevant religion for the world. This was a no go for Athanasius, he dug his heels in and lived out his calling to be Against The World.
Why I Need A Hero. Why do I need a hero like Athanasius? I need him because sometimes I’m tempted to become shy about the parts of my faith most difficult for our culture to swallow. I need him because sometimes I tempted to shrink from the task of sticking up for the ’embarrassing’ parts of Christianity. I need him because I sometimes get afraid and I need courage. I get afraid that Christian folks will get intimidated out of their love for Christ. I get afraid that our culture, with its objections and prejudices, will be too much for the Gospel. But Athanasius teaches me not to fear but to be faithful, not to be intimidated by the majority but to be Against The World.
* From the back cover of Athanasius by Peter J Leithart.