Saint Athanasius (Athanasios) the Great was the 20th bishop of Alexandria and remains one of the great figures of Christianity. Born in 296, he is called the "champion of orthodoxy" as he resolutely opposed Arianism. This heresy, propagated by a priest of Alexandria named Arius, questioned the relationship of the Holy Trinity and asserted that Jesus was created by, and therefore inferior to God the Father. While Arianism gained acceptance by the political forces of the time (Emperors Constantius II and Valens of the 4th century AD were probably Arians), it was eventually condemned as heresy at the First Council of Nicea in 325 and later at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

Five times Athanasius was exiled for his defence of the doctrine of Christ's divinity. During one period of his life, he enjoyed ten years of relative peace – reading, writing and promoting the Christian life along the lines of the monastic ideal to which he was greatly devoted. His dogmatic and historical writings are almost all polemic, directed against every aspect of Arianism. Athanasius suffered many trials while he was bishop of Alexandria. He was given the grace to remain strong against what probably seemed at times to be insurmountable opposition. He defended the true faith for his flock, regardless of the cost to himself. In today’s world we are experiencing this same call to remain true to our faith, no matter the cost.

Saint Cyril’s importance for theology and Church history lies in his championing the cause of orthodoxy against the heresy of Nestorius. The doctrine of this heretical priest, Nestorianism, taught that the humanity of Christ was a mere disguise. At the Council of Ephesus (431), Cyril condemned Nestorian teachings while proclaiming Mary as Theotokos – Greek for the mother of the one Person who is truly God and truly man. Divisions arose, both ecclesial and political, that led to confusion. Cyril was deposed as Patriarch and bishop of Alexandria and imprisoned for three months. Once released, Cyril was welcomed back to Alexandria and hailed as a second Athanasius for championing the True Faith of the apostles. For his defence of orthodoxy, he became known as Pillar of Faith and Seal of All the Fathers of the Church.  His polemical rhetoric is thought to have fanned the flames of political intrigue and factions. It was during this time that Hypatia, a well-educated woman of the ruling class who was an astronomer and teacher, was brutally murdered by Christian zealots. While it is not likely that Cyril had a hand in her death, the patriarch was at the centre of violent forces that had spiralled out of his control.

Nestorian doctrine lives on in the Church of the East, which is linked historically to Nestorian Christians of Persia who became successful in evangelisation in India and China. Following persecution by the Zoroastrians and the emergence of Islam, many of these Nestorians were killed or joined the new faith. Those remaining were confined to the western shore of India and to what is now Iraq. In the 16th century, they underwent a schism: some went on to form the Chaldean Catholic Church, which is one of the many rites of the worldwide Catholic Church, while others formed the Assyrian Church of the East.  

Lives of the saints are valuable not only for the virtue they reveal but also for the less admirable aspects of these very human people.  Study of their lives underscores the truth that all of the saints have a past, while all sinners have a future. Holiness is a gift of God to human beings. Since life is a process, we respond to this gift sometimes with zigzags and false starts.  If Cyril had been more irenic in his discourses and careful about their implications in a volatile political and cultural milieu, Nestorianism might not have emerged.  Even saints must continually embrace more of Jesus Christ. It is when Christians accept the struggle it is to grow in Christ that they are persons who live the Godly life.



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Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not of Spero News.

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