Rarely in the history of the Church has the course of its development been more significantly influenced by one person than it was by Athanasius in the fourth century. It is not an exaggeration to say that by his tireless defense of the phrase in the Creed of Nicaea, homousios, “of one being [with the Father]”, he preserved orthodox teaching for the Church in the East during a doctrinally turbulent time in the Church’s history. Two of the late fourth century defenders of the Nicene teaching noted his contribution, Gregory of Nazianzus calling him “the pillar of the Church”, and Basil the Great saying that Athanasius was “the God-given physician of her wounds”.
Born about 296 in Alexandria of Christian parents who were probably Egyptian (several writers commented on the darkness of his skin), Athanasius was educated in the catechetical school in that city. He joined the clergy about 312 and was ordained to the diaconate by Bishop Alexander in 319. He quickly gained attention by his opposition to the teaching of the Alexandrian presbyter Arius, whose denial of the full deity of the Second Person of the Trinity (the Son) was gaining widespread acceptance through the East. Athanasius accompanied Alexander as his secretary and theological adviser to the Council of Nicaea in 325, which dealt with the Arian controversy. Athanasius was successful in winning acceptance of the phrase, homousios, despite the fact that a number of the bishops objected to the use of a phrase not drawn directly from the Scriptures. Athanasius realized that nothing less than the unequivocal expression of the full Godhead of the Son in homousios was necessary to defend the Church’s confession of Jesus against the Arians.
On Alexander’s death in 328, Athanasius, whom Alexander had named as his successor, became bishop of Alexandria, with the general approval of the bishops of Egypt. As a new bishop, Athanasius made extensive pastoral visits in the entire Egyptian province (over which the bishop of Alexandria was metropolitan), but he faced vicious opposition from numerous schismatics who had opposed his election to the episcopate.
Throughout the fractured and tumultuous course of his episcopate, Athanasius defended Nicene christology against emperors, magistrates, councils, bishops, and theologians. He suffered exile five times, to places as far-flung as northern Gaul and the Libyan desert. Supported by the bishops of Rome and generally supported by the Church in the West, Athanasius sometimes seemed to stand alone in the East for the catholic faith, hence the phrase that became a byword: Athanasius contra mundum – Athanasius against the world. In his own city he became a beloved bishop, so that by the time of his last exile, in 364, the emperor Valens had to recall him after only four months to avoid an insurrection in the city. He then remained in his see until his death on May 2, 373. During his forty-five year episcopate he had spent altogether seventeen years away from his see in exile.
Athanasius wrote voluminously. His Defense against the Arians and The History of the Arians remain the best extant sources of knowledge about the Church in the first half of the fourth century. His brilliant treatise On the Incarnation, written in his youth, and his Discourses against the Arians remain among the clearest and most forceful explanations of the unity of the triune God and of the necessity of the incarnation of Jesus. His biographical Life of Saint Antony was immensely popular (it was known to English hagiographers at the time of the Venerable Bede) and had a wide influence in promoting monasticism. Because Alexandria was recognized as having the best astronomers in the classical world, it fell to the bishop of Alexandria to send out a festal letter soon after the feast of the Epiphany each year, giving the proper date for the beginning of Lent and for the celebration of the Paschal feast (Easter). In his Festal Letter of 367, his thirty-ninth such letter, Athanasius gave the oldest extant list of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, calling them “the springs of salvation”.
In On the Incarnation, he writes: The Savior of us all, the Word of God, in his great love took to himself a body and moved as man among men, meeting their senses, so to speak, halfway. He became himself an object for the sense, so that those who were seeking God in sensible things might apprehend the Father through the works which he, the Word of God, did in the body. Human and human-minded as men were, therefore, to whichever side they looked in the sensible world, they found themselves taught the truth.”
adapted from Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980),
The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, and
The New Book of Festivals and Commemorations
Uphold your Church, O God of truth, as you upheld your servant Athanasius, to maintain and proclaim boldly the catholic faith against all opposition, trusting solely in the grace of your eternal Word, who took upon himself our humanity that we might share his divinity; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The image is a Coptic icon of Saint Athanasius of Alexandria.
The propers for the commemoration of Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, are published on the Lectionary page website.