Athanasius

c.296-373. Champion of orthodoxy against Arianism.* Born to wealthy parents, he was Egyptian by birth but Greek by education. In the excellent catechetical school of Alexandria he was deeply moved by the martyrdoms of Christians during the last persecutions and was profoundly influenced by Alexander,* bishop of Alexandria, by whom he was ordained deacon. Of small stature but keen mind, Athanasius took no official part in the proceedings of the Council of Nicea (325), but as secretary to Alexander his notes, circulars, and encyclicals written on behalf of his bishop had an important effect on the outcome. He was a clear-minded and skilled theologian, a prolific writer with a journalist's instinct for the power of the pen, and a devout Christian-which endeared him to the large Christian public of Alexandria and the the vast majority of the clergy and monks of Egypt.

Athanasius contested Arius and the Arians during most of the fourth century. Arius taught that Christ the Logos* was not the eternal Son of God, but a subordinate being, which view attacked the doctrines of the Trinity, the Creation, and redemption. Athanasius said the Scriptures teach the eternal Sonship of the Logos, the direct creation of the world by God, and the redemption of the world and men by God in Christ. On the Incarnation of the Word of God, written while Athanasius was in his twenties, expounds these truths.

Alexander died in 328, and by public demand Athanasius was enthroned as bishop when he was only thirty-three. The victory at Nicea remained in political jeopardy for two generations, and Athanasius was the focal point of Arian attack. Arianism had a wide following in the empire and also the sympathies of Constantius, Constantine's successor in 337. The history of the Church in the fourth century parallels the events of Athanasius's life and his public ministry. He was hounded through five exiles embracing seventeen years of flight and hiding, not only among the monks of the desert, but often in Alexandria where he was shielded by the people. During one exile, at Rome in 339, he established firm links with the Western Church which supported his cause. His later years were spent peacefully at Alexandria. G.L. Prestige declares that almost single-handedly Athanasius saved the Church from pagan intellectualism, that “by his tenacity and vision in preaching one God and Saviour, he had preserved from dissolution the unity and integrity of the Christian faith.”

The volume and scope of his writings is impressive. Contra Gentes, a refutation of paganism, and de Incarnatione, the exposition of the incarnation and work of Christ, were both written early (c.318) and are really two parts of one work. De Decretis and Expositio Fidei are also important doctrinal writings. The polemical and historical essays include Apologia Contra Arianos, ad Episcopos Aegypti, and de Synodis. He wrote many commentaries on biblical books. There are numerous other writings, including letters, many of which are readily accessible (The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, IV). Key doctrines which he discusses include Creation, the Incarnation, the Holy Spirit and the Trinity, the work of Christ, and baptism and the Eucharist. Athanasius greatly influenced the monastic movement, especially in Egypt.

See also Athanasian Creed and Christology.

G.L. Prestige, Fathers and Heretics (1940); E.R. Hardy, Christology of the Later Fathers (1954); H.E.W. Turner, The Pattern of Christian Truth (1954); J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (1958); B. Altaner, Patrology (1960); J. Quasten, Patrology, III (1966).