I believe it is time for African-American Christians in particular and all Christians in general to acknowledge Athanasius of Alexandria (aka Athanasius the Great) and his contribution to our faith. I am sure there are some who would dare say that those old writers do not matter as much as they are not relevant to what is going on in the church today. Nothing can be further from the truth.
African-Americans say the same cliché every year around Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday, “If you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future.” If this statement is true, then there can be no future for a Christian people who ignore the black man who gave the church its first creed, boldly stood against the greatest heresy of his time (which was also started by a black man), and made a list of 27 books that would be canonized as the most important collection of scriptures to Christians.
St. Athanasius the Great. (from the icon at St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Church in Redmond Michigan)
Many people look at the history of Christianity as if all of the early saints looked like some Western European renaissance painting. This is completely incorrect! The Ecumenical Councils were attended by deacons, priest, and bishops from all corners of the known world. Some were Celts and Saxons with pale skin and light eyes. Others were Nubians and even Asiatic Indians with skin as dark as coal. Most were some shade of brown between these extremes of racial scale. Among the attendees of the First Council in Nicaea was a deacon from Alexandria who was greatly influenced by the monk Anthony of the desert. Athanasius declared the scriptures taught that Jesus was co-equal and co-substantial with God the Father. This was in opposition to the popular belief at the time that, according to a chant at the time, “there was a time when He was not.” The Egyptian priest Arius declared that Jesus was the first and greatest of the created beings. Although Athanasius won the initial argument at the Council, Arius had many friends in high places. His chants and songs were popular. Athanasius was driven into exile and was derided by his opponents as “a little black dwarf.”
Despite the number of influential opponents, Athanasius held firm to what the scriptures taught. He won support from several other bishops and had the backing of the monastic community that was known for their devotion to prayer and leaving worldliness for the relentless pursuit of holiness. At the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople, Arianism was once and for all denounced. The Creed that Athanasius proposed the first time included a deliberate belief in the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father as well as his original statement of faith describing Jesus as the, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made
The very presence and contribution of Athanasius to the first two great councils is very relevant for us today. The fact that it was a black man (at that time, he was a young deacon) who led the fight for true Christian doctrine counters the long-standing myth that “Christianity is the white-man’s religion.” In all honesty, we may not know exactly what he looked like. But, that Arius (again, himself an African) and his supporters used color to describe him shows that there must have been a significant amount of melanin in his skin. Also, that Athanasius had supporters from all over the known world, in particular the bishop (aka Pope) of Rome, shows that Christianity was a cosmopolitan faith that drew people to the truth no matter what ethnicity or race they were from. This is also seen in Acts chapter 2 where devout men from all over the world were in Jerusalem to hear Peter’s Pentecostal sermon and in Acts 13 where the church in Antioch with its African and Middle Eastern priesthood sent two Jews to bring the Gospel to Europe.
Despite the presence of racism that still exist, today’s America is far more of a mixture of people than it was some 50 years ago. My generation and those after me attend whatever universities we can afford and qualify for, pursue whatever careers we are interested in, and marry whomever we love. Our nation’s most visible black conservative, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is married to a white woman. Our President Barak Obama is not only the result of a racial mixture, his father was an African and not an African-American. Add to the traditional black and white dynamic the Native Americans (the true owners of the land), Hispanics, Asians, Middle Easterners, and others; and you have an extremely powerful and wealthy cosmopolitan nation. If such a diverse people could come together in Nicaea and Constantinople for the sake of true doctrine back then, surely we can do so now. If our Christian forefathers and mothers 2,000 years ago could go beyond their various ethnicities for the sake of the Gospel, then who are we not to work toward this goal today. A society of different people striving together in unity is as relevant for us today as it was back then.
The doctrine that Athanasius defended is very relevant today as well. Consider the presence of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the African-American community with their corrupted belief that the “Word was a God (John 1:1 in the “New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures”).” It is no accident that this modern form of Arianism has reared its ugly head. Because the old saying is true, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Had we read “On the Incarnation” where Athanasius gives a detailed argument of why it was necessary for the Word of God to take on humanity for our salvation, we would have far fewer blacks in the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society and fewer still believing the Jehovah’s Witnesses to be an equal to any other Christian belief. Furthermore, with the amendment made to the Athanasian Creed in the Second Ecumenical Council, there would be no modern “modalism” or Oneness Pentecostals that teach that God is one person that manifest Himself in three different modes. We would not be led to any idea that we should focus on one person of the Trinity at the expense of the other two, which leads to all sorts of false doctrines. When we know our role in the history of Christianity and accept the roles of other people and their contributions to the true pursuit of God, we are better prepared to stand on what is right. Standing for what is right and for what one believes in is as relevant for us today as it was back then.
For the first 300 years of Christianity, there was no Holy Bible. The early Christians had the Septuagint, the Greek language version of the Old Testament (which is older than the Hebrew Masoretic Text of Protestant Bibles). There were various Gospels and letters circulating throughout the known world. Some were heretical and false in doctrine. Some were correct and well-respected in some communities, yet unheard of in others. Local bishops did have some authority to direct clergy in their jurisdictions as to what books were useful to read during worship, which were edifying for study, and which were to be avoided. Athanasius, the Patriarch of the prominent city of Alexandria, made a list of 27 books that he felt all bishops, priest, and deacons should study and read to their congregations in 367 AD. He shared his list with other clergy as well as those in Africa. This list of books proved to be so popular that in 398 AD in the African city of Carthage, a synod of clergy met and declared these 27 books to be the New Testament Cannon.
If Athanasius is irrelevant to the modern African-American church or any church of our times, why then do we still use the list of books he felt were important for Christians to read? If this list of books proved to be tried and true for some 2,000 years, could it be that the person who made the list is worth knowing about? What else did he write? Who were his influences? Who were some of the other African, Asian, and European brothers and sisters who believed, taught, and stood as he did? Athanasius and his contemporaries provided the very foundation of body of scripture that we hold to be holy. If his work is relevant, surely he is relevant as well. And in a community where some still denounce Christianity as the slave master’s religion, Athanasius is a great rebuttal to this myth as it was this “little black dwarf” that gave the world this universally accepted collection of the written record of Christianity.
Again, I give you the familiar quote; “If you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future.” If modern Christianity in general and African-American Christianity in particular does not know this and other great saints of early Christianity, what will be our future? Shall we continue to give the likes of the Hebrew Israelites and Nation of Islam to denounce the black church as racially weak instead of standing on the shoulders of our ancient giants who stood alongside others of all races? Shall we continue to read the latest books from the latest bishops who’s works fade away as other bishops who are more marketable occupy bookshelves with their latest releases while this bishop has more than proven his timeless contribution to the faith? Shall we continue to reach for the latest conference and convocation to inspire us to receive “the next level of blessings” when we have not looked into our own basements and crawl spaces of Christianity to see what our foundation is and how it was built? I consider that to continue to ignore the contributions of Athanasius, other African saints, and ancient saints of Christians of other races is not benefiting to us or anyone else.
No, I don’t expect every African-American to become an Orthodox Christian three weeks from next Tuesday. But, there is a great treasure trove of doctrine, history, and spirituality that we are not tapping into when we ignore these deep roots of Christianity. During our ordeals of slavery and segregation, perhaps it was due that we didn’t learn about such saints. We were too caught up with the matters of the times. Orthodox communities were very closed societies, even to the average white American. But, blacks today have every sort of door open that we can learn more about our ancient pillars of Christianity. We have every ability to incorporate their wisdom and words into our current AME, Baptist, COGIC, and non-denominational churches. For those who wish to convert to the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church but feel uncomfortable among a mostly white congregation, there are Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox jurisdictions as well as Eastern European and Middle Eastern ones. Do not let fear of the unfamiliar prevent you from learning about the African Christians that helped pave the way for us all.