St. Athanasius

The Christian theologian St. Athanasius (ca. 296-373) was bishop of Alexandria, in Egypt. He was the most eminent Church leader opposing Arianism on the basis of the creed adopted by the Council of Nicaea in 325.

Athanasius was probably born at Alexandria. By his early 20s he was both a deacon in the Church and secretary to Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria. In 325 he accompanied Alexander to the Council of Nicaea, a meeting of Christian bishops that has become renowned as the first ecumenical council of the Church. The council was summoned by Emperor Constantine to deal with a controversy that had first arisen between Bishop Alexander and Arius, a presbyter at Alexandria. By 325 the dispute had broadened so as to appear to pose a threat to the unity of the Church in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. The controversy concerned the compatibility of belief in the oneness and transcendence of God with belief in the full deity of Jesus Christ. Arius, influenced by certain strands of Neo-platonic philosophical thought, taught that the Son of God, incarnate in Jesus Christ, could not possibly be "God" in the full and proper sense but was rather the most exalted of all God's creatures.

At the council Athanasius, though not a bishop, appears to have distinguished himself as a disputant against the Arian position. Under pressure from the Emperor to adopt a creedal formula in the interest of peace and unity, the majority of bishops ratified a statement, the Creed of Nicaea, whose crucial anti-Arian clause asserts that the Son of God is "of one essence" with God the Father. Arius and two bishops who would not sign the creed were sent into exile.

In 328 Athanasius succeeded Alexander as bishop of Alexandria. It soon became clear that the Council of Nicaea had only served to suppress temporarily the open expression of Arian views, and that the Emperor, susceptible to pressure from bishops close to his ear, was more interested in avoiding political problems than in supporting orthodox theological doctrine. By 330 there had occurred the first scene in a long drama of alliance between emperors and Arian leaders that was to prove so vexing for Athanasius. Constantine wrote to Athanasius, directing that he restore Arius to communion in the Church at Alexandria. Athanasius refused, and his ecclesiastical opponents then made common cause with the Melitians, a dissident Christian sect in Egypt. At a council of bishops at the city of Tyre in 335, they charged Athanasius, not completely without basis, with acts of violence committed against the Melitians and voted that he be deposed from his see. Constantine soon thereafter banished him to the German city of Trier.

Thus occurred the first of Athanasius' five exiles from Alexandria, which account for 17 of 30 years of his life from 336. It is testimony both to his determination and to his popularity in Egypt that after more than 4 decades of opposition to Arianism he lived his last 7 years as bishop of Alexandria under the vigorously Arian emperor Valens; the Emperor feared the populace would revolt if he were to take further measures against their bishop.

Athanasius' positive significance as a churchman and as an author may be suggested by three points. First, a governing theme in his anti-Arian writings is the conviction that God alone and no lesser being is the agent of man's salvation. This means that the Christian's union with Christ the Saviour is union with God, who alone can bestow immortal life. It means, too, that the traditional Christian belief in the Holy Spirit is belief in one who also is unequivocally God because he performs the activity of God in bringing man's salvation to completion. Second, Athanasius played a role as conciliatory orthodox leader. He was able to see that a large body of conservative Eastern bishops, who were uncomfortable over the Nicene formula and who preferred to say that the Son was "of like essence" to the Father, were not in fact Arians. He did important preparatory work toward a reconciliation and coalition, which he did not live to see. Third, he was a warmly enthusiastic supporter of the Christian monastic movement emanating from Egypt and wrote a widely read biography of the monastic organizer St. Anthony. Athanasius died in Alexandria in 373.

Further Reading on St. Athanasius

The best study of St. Athanasius is in French. In English see F. L. Cross, The Study of St. Athanasius (1945). G. L. Prestige, Fathers and Heretics: Six Studies in Dogmatic Faith (1940), includes a section on Athanasius. Background information is in Philip Hughes, A History of the Church, vol. 1: The Church and the World in Which the Church Was Founded (1934; rev. ed. 1949); George L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought (1936; 2d ed. 1952); and H. A. Wolfson, The Philosophy of the Church Fathers, vol. 1: Faith, Trinity, Incarnation (1956; 2d ed. 1965).

Additional Biography Sources

Barnes, Timothy David, Athanasius and Constantius: theology and politics in the Constantinian empire, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Coray, Henry W., Against the world: the odyssey of Athanasius, Neerlandia, Alta., Canada; Caledonia, Mich.: Inheritance Publications, 1992.