Athanasius (295-373)

Athanasius was born in Alexandria.  He was born to wealthy parents in Egypt but was educated in Greek thought.  He had a very keen mind and was an excellent theologian.  With his prolific and excellent writing style, he won many friends among the Christians in northern Africa.  He was the aid to the Bishop of Alexander and accompanied him to the council of Nicea in 325 A.D.  Nicea is not Istanbul in Turkey.  When Alexander died, Athanasius succeeded him as bishop.

Arianism was becoming prevalent at the time.  It taught that God could not appear on the earth, that Jesus was not eternal and could not be God.  This undermined the doctrine of the Trinity and the atonement.  Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicea in 325 to settle the Arian issue as well as to bring peace to the land that was suffering civil unrest.  At the council of Nicea, Arianism was condemned.  But that did not stop its spread in the church nor the trouble that it was causing politically.  After the council of Nicea, "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."  Douglas, J. D., Comfort, P. W., & Mitchell, D. (1997, c1992). Who's who in Christian history. Illustrated lining papers. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House.


For seventeen years, he fled and hid at various times as those loyal to Arianism, sought to persecute Athanasius.

In his twenties, he wrote "On the Incarnation of God," a brilliant work defending the deity of Christ as God, the second person of the Trinity, in flesh. 


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 Douglas, J. D., Comfort, P. W., & Mitchell, D. (1997, c1992). Who's who in Christian history. Illustrated lining papers. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House.


About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.