Athanasius of Alexandria 296 – 373 AD

In 03 Nicean Fathers on 2011/10/31 at 1:15 AM

The Ecumenical Council of  Nicaea met in 325 to deal with the heresies that had arisen and were threatening the unity of the Church: the Nicene Creed was promulgated.  The Council condemned Arianism.  The creed that Arius’ followers had produced was declared blasphemous.  While this was the first major defeat for Arianism, it would rear its head and its creed again.

The sentence of blasphemy pronounced against Arius was confirmed, but the confession of faith known as Arianism had spread rapidly through the ranks of the Roman army which then diffused it throughout their postings in the empire. Emperor Constantine summoned the famous council to determine matters of dogma. With the Emperor Constantine, now a Christian, the Arians lost the imperial favor they had depended on and which had sustained them.  Most of the bishops and clergy whom they had led into heresy immediately returned to orthodoxy.  The issue for the Church then became on what terms to restore communion to those who had not found the strength to defend under pressure what they really believed and still believed.

Athanasius, then and later on other occasion, set about the task of reconciliation with eagerness and, above all, with charity. Only obstinate heretics were to be condemned.  Those who would profess the Nicene Creed and reject the Arian Creed were to be welcomed back into the Church. Later, this issue would come up again at the time of Pope Liberius.  Athanasius would again set about the task of reconciliation with the same spirit of charity.

What exactly was Ariusʼ teaching?

In about 323 Arius began to teach:

1 That Jesus, though more than man, was not eternal God;

2 That Jesus was created in time by the Eternal Father; and

3 That Jesus, therefore, could be described only figuratively as the Son of God.

The bishops condemned these teachings as heresy and deposed Arius and eleven other priests. Arius retired to Caesarea in Syria, where he continued to propagate his ideas with the support of various Syrian prelates. Theology being the topic which most deeply engaged men’s minds, the Arian controversy interested all classes of the population. The heretical ideas were publicized in the form of songs set to popular tunes.  These were chanted in the forums and carried by sailors from port to port.

Athanasius was in his late twenties when he attended the Council of Nicaea as a deacon and assistant/secretary to the Patriarch of Alexandria.  In this capacity he played a prominent part in this great Church struggle.  This gathering of churchmen influenced Athanasius deeply. Shortly after the Council the patriarch died, and Athanasius succeeded him although he was not yet thirty.  He would live to be a very old man.  The rest of his life was a testimony to the divinity of the Savior, and he dedicated his strength and eloquence to the full doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity.  To him we owe what we called the Athanasian Creed which is actually  a development of each of the points of the of the twelve points of the Nicene Creed.

So, what do we know about this outstanding defender of the Faith? Of his physique, we know that he was small in stature, somewhat stooped, possessed a fine head and had light red hair, red beard and bright blue eyes. Of his gifts, we know that Athanasius received an excellent education, not only in Christian doctrine, but also in Greek literature and philosophy, rhetoric and law.  He had a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures and learned theology from teachers who had been confessors during the terrible persecutions. He was considered to have the greatest mind in the Roman world of his time and a talent for spiritual, intellectual and even political leadership.  He was genuinely holy and admired the talents of other without a tinge of jealousy. He had great speaking and writing abilities and debated with skill and charm.  He was considered kindness itself and possessed a charming sense of humor.

Athanasius had inflexible resolution and would persevere patiently in times of danger considering it a privilege to fight in any venue for the truth of Christ.  In addition, he had a deep love for the Christians under his care, and his people loved him unreservedly.

It is said that few men more gifted have ever lived.  Athanasius needed every gift God had given him to deal with the multiple facets of his life for Christ.  He was, after all, bishop for almost all of the forty-five years.  It was said of him: “Athanasius against the world” and for the Faith.

When he was young he became friends with some of the many hermits inhabiting the Sinai Desert, particularly with Anthony, whose biography he would later write.  Beginning as reader to the patriarch, he progressed to becoming secretary.  It was at this time that he penned the discourse AGAINST THE GENTILES on the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity.

Once he became bishop, he set about touring his enormous diocese which included all of Egypt and down to Ethiopia.  It also included great monastic settlements.

After Emperor Constantine’s death in 337, Arian’s importance changed as emperors came and went. At one point there was a great deal of pressure placed on Athanasius to restore Arius.  However, since Arius showed no sign of repenting or submitting to the doctrine of Nicaea, Athanasius would not restore him. In 336 Arius, who was past eighty, suddenly died in a manner compared to the Scriptural account of the death of Judas.

Because of his strong position against Arianism, Athanasius was intermittently exiled and restored to Alexandria. He was actually deposed twice by the Arian bishop of Antioch who replaced him with an Arian bishop. During these exiles he communicated with those under his care by letter.
Athanasius’ enemies constantly invented scandals against him, most of which were absurd, and seen clearly as such by his faithful followers. Athanasius went to Rome to have his case heard before the pope. A Synod was called; it resulted in a complete vindication of Athanasius, his accusers not even having dared to show up.  However, he found it impossible to return to Alexandria until the Emperor, on the eve of a war with Persia, thought it would be a good political move to restore Athanasius.  So, after an absence of eight years, Athanasius was welcomed back to Alexandria in 346. Four years of comparative peace followed.

However,  the murder of Emperor in 350 removed the most powerful support of orthodoxy, and a new emperor aimed to crush the man he now regarded as a personal enemy.  At one point, this new emperor threatened bishops opposing him in his persecution of Athanasius.  The emperor actually put his hand on his sword and gave the bishops their choice between condemnation of Athanasius and exile. Only a few bishops were exiled, including the new Pope Liberius.  Athanasius held on for another year with the support of his own clergy and people.  That was until the night when Athanasius was celebrating a vigil in the church of St. Thomas.  Although soldiers broke in, Athanasius was instantly surrounded by his people, who swept him out into the safety of darkness.  For six years he had to live in hiding in German lands. During this exile, his abounding energy expressed itself in the composing of his major writings particularly his HISTORY OF THE ARIANS.

After the death of his enemy emperor in 361, Athanasius returned to Alexandria.  Four months later, there was another shift in the situation: a new emperor, known in history as Julian the Apostate, came to power.  Julian began to see Athanasius as an obstacle and banished Athanasius from Alexandria as “a disturber of the peace and an enemy of the gods.”

Julian is the only self-proclaimed apostate in the whole history of Christian monarchy from Constantine the Great to the French Revolution.  Julian the Apostate had been schooled in Alexandria with Gregory Nazianzen, friend of the two other great Cappadocian Fathers: Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa.  Julian’s intellectual pride made it impossible for him to accept the Christian demand for humility before divine mysteries, and he moved into quickly into apostasy and outright hatred of Christianity.  His apostasy was compounded by an unhealthy kind of intellectual curiosity which led him into occultism.  He determined to revive ancient paganism and was shocked to find it a corpse which he in all his power could not resuscitate.  Although he only  reigned for eighteen months, he left his mark on history.  Instead of destroying the Faith he rejected, he unintentionally strengthened the Christian faith.

During this fourth exile in the reign of Julian, Athanasius again explored his entire diocese. When Julian died, the new emperor, a soldier of Catholic sympathies, revoked the sentence of banishment and invited Athanasius to Antioch, to expound the doctrine of the Trinity.  Unfortunately, Jovian’s reign lasted only a year, and his successor in the East, Valens, succumbed to Arian pressure in Constantinople.  He issued an order banishing again all orthodox bishops who had been exiled by former emperors.  However, Valens had to revoke this edict for fear of an uprising in Egypt because the Egyptians were determined to accept only Athanasius as bishop.  They joyfully escorted Athanasius back. While he has spent seventeen years in exile, now in his last days, he had a peaceful existence.  He died in Alexandria on May 2, 373. His body was taken first to Constantinople and then to Venice.

The Council of Nicaea marks an important milestone in the history of the Church.  Since then, the Nicene Creed has been part of the liturgy of the Catholic Church, recited by the faithful every Sunday in every church. The term consubstantial was the language proposed by Athanasius and accepted  by the Council of Nicaea: that Jesus was “consubstantial” with the Father, true God from true God, begotten, not made. With his statements of Christian doctrine that form the Athanasian Creed, Athanasius rendered a monumental and invaluable service to the Church.

Regarding the Canon of the Bible, Athanasius became the first of the Fathers to declare in 367 the 27 books of the New Testament as a canon binding on the whole church. Still, the New Testament issue was not conclusively settled until the conclusions of the 419 North African synod in Carthage were accepted by the universal church.  The whole matter had been held up by whether or not to include the Book of Revelation in the Canon.  It was Augustine who provided the impetus for its acceptance.

In the Orthodox Church, Athanasius is called the “Father of Orthodoxy.”

John Henry Newman said that in Athanasiusʼ work, “there is deep spiritual feeling and understanding” and that Athanasius stands as “a principal instrument, after the Apostles, by which the sacred truths of Christianity have been conveyed and secured to the world.”

Athanasius is deservedly known as the “champion of orthodoxy.”  C. S. Lewis recommended that one should approach the mystery of God as St. Athanasius did: not as a theologian but as a believing soul in need of God who transforms the soul.

See: Nicean writing category for Nicene and Athanasian Creeds.


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