ATHANASIUS (c. 295-373) Bishop of Alexandria (Egypt)
Athanasius did more than anyone else to bring about the triumph of the orthodox Nicene faith over Arianism, a struggle to which he devoted forty-five years and for which he was exiled five times.
Athanasius was born in Alexandria and was trained there as a theologian. He moved up rapidly as reader, deacon, and theological adviser for Bishop Alexander, accompanying him in 325 to the Council of Nicaea (near Constantinople, now Istanbul in modern Turkey). Athanasius succeeded Alexander as bishop upon Alexander’s death in 328.
The conflicts which necessitated the Council of Nicaea began in Alexandria. They existed when Alexander was bishop and continued throughout the life of Athanasius. The first came from a challenge by Melitius of Lycopolis to the authority which the bishop of Alexandria exercised over the whole church of Egypt. Melitius formed a schismatic church in reaction to the lenient treatment Alexander’s predecessor gave to those who had denied the faith during the persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Diocletian. A greater conflict soon to engulf the whole church began when Arius, an Alexandrian presbyter, advocated the view that Christ was not eternal but was created by the Father Arius was condemned by Alexander in 319 at a synod in his city; but Arian views spread rapidly in the East, where prominent bishops held similar views. The Council of Nicaea was called in 325 by the Roman emperor Constantine to settle the Melitian and Arian issues and to bring unity to the church and civic peace to the area.
Condemnation of Arius by the council and even the adoption of the Nicene Creed did not bring the peace and unity which Constantine desired. There was ambiguity in the way the bishops understood the creed they had signed. As a result, Arius eventually signed the creed himself (with a few private additions). The emperor then ordered Athanasius, now bishop of Alexandria, to restore Arius. When the order arrived, Athanasius refused to readmit Arius — whereupon false charges were brought against Athanasius at the synod of Tyre (335), and Constantine exiled him.
The sanction of Arian views by the emperor threatened to turn Christianity into a philosophy mixed with pagan thought. Arians believed in a single supreme God who made contact with the world through lower creatures such as the Son and the Spirit. The Son was a suffering divine hero who was to be worshiped, very much like the hero gods of the Greeks. Since that view was so similar to paganism, Arianism made the monotheism of Christianity acceptable to many who were adopting the religion of the emperor. Athanasius recognized the danger and frequently called the Arians heathens.
As Arianism’s greatest opponent, Athanasius emphasized redemption and the necessity of the Incarnation of the Word (Christ) for man’s salvation (Oration on the Incarnation of the Word). He taught that it was necessary for the Word to be as eternal as God if he was to form the divine image in man. This was also the emphasis of his primary theological work, The Three Orations against the Arians (335 or later). In Three Orations Athanasius taught that since the Scripture describes the Son as “begotten” of the Father, he must be of the same nature as the Father, not a creature of the Father. Christ was generated spiritually, not created. In the second oration Athanasius rejected the Arians’ baptism because they did not baptize in the name of the Trinity as understood in Scripture.
Athanasius’s periods of exile spanned the rule of four emperors: Constantine, Constantius, Julian (a pagan who tried to restore the old gods), and Valens (who exiled Athanasius for only four months). His first exile lasted until Constantine’s death in 337. He returned to Alexandria only to be deposed the same year by a synod of Antioch. From 346, there was relative peace until he was again deposed in 355. The years 361 and 362 saw him back in his bishopric, but emperor Julian exiled him in the fall of the second year. He went back to Alexandria in 363, was deposed in 365, and recalled in 366. Through these trying times Athanasius struggled for the faith without yielding. He made it difficult for emperors to deal with him. At times he would delay appearing before their court, or would escape to appear before the emperor at another time and place — to the surprise of everyone. Throughout the struggles the majority of Christians in Alexandria remained devoted to him. One major benefit resulted from his two exiles in the West: the Latin church came under his influence.
There were, however, many bishops in the East who were not Arians and had no sympathy with the Arian bishops who controlled the Eastern church during the rule of Constantius. At the same time, they did not completely agree with the wording of the Nicene Creed: “the Son of God . . . of one substance with the Father.” The majority of those bishops held that the essence of the Son is “like” that of the Father. For them the creedal phrase did not make a clear distinction between Father and Son. In 359 Athanasius made a great step toward reconciliation with that majority in his Letter Concerning the Synods. He apologized to Basil of Ancyra and said that those who accepted the Nicene Creed but questioned the term “of one substance” should be treated as brothers. Athanasius went further toward reconciliation by calling a synod in Alexandria (362) during his brief return while Julian was emperor. The final step in the triumph of orthodoxy came after the death of Athanasius under the emperor Theodosius at the Council of Constantinople in 381.
In addition to contributing to the defeat of Arianism, Athanasius helped shape the Christian ideal of monasticism. He brought monasticism out of isolation in Egypt with his book, The Life of Antony. Athanasius knew the desert hermit monk personally and through his writing made the pattern of Antony’s life the ideal in the East. The Life of Antony also had an impact on many in the West.--J. Newton
WHO’S WHO IN CHRISTIAN HISTORY
J. D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort,
EditorsDonald Mitchell, Associate Editor
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