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Biography of
Athanasius of Alexandria

Back in History

Hakizimana Tendo Clement
4th Year Student - African Bible UniversityHakizimana Tendo Clement

Who: Individual, Family, Friends, Opponents

Saint Athanasius of Alexandria (æθəneɪʃəs/; greek: Ἀθανάσιοσ Ἀλεξανδρείασ, athanásios alexandrías), also called Athanasius the great, Athanasius the Confessor, or primarily in the Coptic Orthodox church, Athanasius the Apostolic, was the twentieth bishop of Alexandria (as Athanasius 1). His parents were wealthy enough to afford giving him a fine secular education (Clifford, Cornelius). Some western scholars consider his command of Greek, in which he wrote most of his surviving works, evidence that he was a Greek born in Alexandria.

Where and When?

Athanasius was born c. 296–298 in Alexandria, Egypt and died on 2 May 373 (aged 75–79). He was born to a Christian family in the city of Alexandria (Orthodox Church in America) or possibly the nearby Nile delta town of Damanhur.

The earlier date is sometimes assigned due to the maturity revealed in his two earliest treatises "contra gentes (against the heathens) and De Incarnatione (on the Incarnation)," which were admittedly written about the year 318 before Arianism had begun to make itself felt, because those writings do not show an awareness of Arianism (Cliford, Cornelius).

Conflict with Arius and Arianism as well as successive Roman emperors shaped Athanasius's career. In 325, at the age of 27, Athanasius began his leading role against the Arians as a deacon and assistant to bishop Alexander of Alexandria during the first council of Nicaea. Roman emperor Constantine the great had convened the council in May–August 325 to address the Arian position that the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, is of a distinct substance from the Father (Durant, Will). Three years after that council, Athanasius succeeded his mentor as Archbishop of Alexandria.

In addition to the conflict with the Arians (including powerful and influential Arian churchmen led by Eusebius of Nicomedia), he struggled against the emperors Constantine, Constantius II, Julian the Apostate and Valens. He was known as "Athanasius Contra Mundum" (Latin for Athanasius against the world).

A few years after his death, Gregory of Nazianzus called him the "pillar of the church." His writings were well regarded by all of the church fathers who followed, in both the West and the East, who noted his rich devotion to the Word-become- Man, great pastoral concern, and profound interest in monasticism. Athanasius is counted as one of the four great eastern doctors of the church in the Roman Catholic Church (Chapman, john).

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, he is labelled as the "father of Orthodoxy." Some Protestants label him as "Father of the Canon." Gregory of Nazianzus (330–390, also a doctor of the church), said: "when I praise Athanasius, virtue itself is my theme: for I name every virtue as often as I mention him who was possessed of all virtues. He was the true pillar of the church. His life and conduct were the rule of bishops, and his doctrine the rule of the Orthodox faith." (Clifford, Cornelius, volume 2, pgs: 35–40).

How: evangelism, mission, writings, teachings, ruling

In Coptic literature, Athanasius is considered the first patriarch of Alexandria to use Coptic as well as Greek in his writings ( retrieved 2012-09-25).

Polemical and theological works

Athanasius was not a speculative theologian. As he stated in his first letters to Serapion, he held on to "the tradition, teaching, and faith proclaimed by the apostles and guarded by the fathers”. He held that not only was the Son of God consubstantial with the Father, but so was the Holy Spirit, which had a great deal of influence in the development of later doctrines regarding the trinity (᾽αλεξανδρεὺσ τῷ γένει, ἀνὴρ λόγιοσ, δυνατὸσ ὢν ἐν ταῖσ γραφαῖσ)

Athanasius' "letter concerning the decrees of the council of Nicaea" (de decretis), is an important historical as well as theological account of the proceedings of that council. Another letter from 367 is the first known listing of all those books now accepted as the new testament (᾽αλεξανδρεὺσ τῷ γένει, ἀνὴρ λόγιοσ, δυνατὸσ ὢν ἐν ταῖσ γραφαῖσ). (Earlier similar lists vary by the omission or addition of a few books.)
Examples of Athanasius' polemical writings against his theological opponents include orations against the Arians, his defense of the divinity of the Holy Spirit (letters to Serapion in the 360s, and on the Holy Spirit), against Macedonianism, and teachings on the incarnation.

Athanasius also wrote a two-part teaching against heathenism and an explanation of the incarnation of the Word made flesh. It was probably completed early in his life, before the Arian controversy (Herbermann, Charles). In the first part, Athanasius attacks several pagan practices and beliefs. The second part presents teachings on redemption (᾽αλεξανδρεὺσ τῷ γένει, ἀνὴρ λόγιοσ, δυνατὸσ ὢν ἐν ταῖσ γραφαῖσ). In addition, Athanasius put forward the belief, referencing John 1:1–4, that the Son of God, the eternal word (logos), through whom God created the world, entered that world in human form to lead men back into the harmony from which they had earlier fallen away. His other important works include his Letters to Serapion, which defends the divinity of the Holy Spirit. In a letter to Epictetus of Corinth, Athanasius anticipates future controversies in his defense of the humanity of Christ. Another of his letters, to Dracontius, urges that monk to leave the desert for the more active duties of a bishop (Encyclopædia Britannica).

Athanasius also wrote several works of biblical exegesis, primarily on Old Testament materials. The most important of these is his Epistle to Marcellinus (pg 27:12-45) on how to incorporate Psalm sayings into one's spiritual practice. Excerpts remain of his discussions concerning the book of Genesis, the Song of Solomon, and Psalms.

Perhaps his most notable letter was his festal letter, written to his church in Alexandria when he was in exile, as he could not
be in their presence. This letter clearly shows his stand that accepting Jesus as the divine Son of God is not optional but necessary:
"I know moreover that not only this thing saddens you, but also the fact that while others have obtained the churches by violence, you are meanwhile cast out from your places. For they hold the places, but you the apostolic faith.

They are, it is true, in the places, but outside of the true faith; while you are outside the places indeed, but the faith, within you. Let us consider whether is the greater, the place, or the faith. Clearly the true faith (greater), who then has lost more, or who possesses more? He who holds the place, or he who holds the faith."
(fragment conjectured to belong to the Festal letter)

Further Writings

Athanasius' biography of Anthony the great entitled life of Anthony (βίοσ καὶ πολιτεία πατρὸσ Ἀντωνίου, vita antonii) became his most widely read work. Translated into several languages, it became something of a best seller in its day and played an important role in the spreading of the ascetic ideal in Eastern and Western Christianity (Encyclopedia Americana). It depicted Anthony as an illiterate yet holy man who continuously engaged in spiritual exercises in the Egyptian desert and struggled against demonic powers. It later served as an inspiration to Christian monasticism in both the East and the West (Metropolitan Bishop of Damiette).

Athanasius' works on Asceticism also include a discourse on virginity, love, and self-control, and a treatise on sickness and health of which only fragments remain.

Misattributed Works

There are several other works ascribed to him that are generally unaccepted as his own. These include the so-called Athanasian Creed (which is seen today by most as being of 5th century Galician origin), and a complete exposition on the Psalms (pg 27: 60-545).

What: Important things Athanasius Did

There are many things which Athanasius accomplished, and here we will name just a few.
  1. While in the council of Nicae, as a secretary to the bishop Alexander of Alexandria, he suggested the word “Homoousios” to express how the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, are equal, eternal, and uncreated. He was nicknamed the “Black Dwarf.” He was the leading theologian arguing for this position (class note [2017] given by Dr. John Carson on church history in second year, second semester).
  2. Athanasius, only a deacon, when he participated in the Nicene Council, which clarified the doctrine of the unity of the Father, the deity of the Son and his eternal existence.
  3. Concerning the nature of Christ, he held the view that Christ was coequal, coeternal, and consubstantial with the Father. This view was the cause of his exile. He made a Christology defense that will never be like any other.
  4. He served as the Bishop (archbishop) of Alexandria for forty-five year succeeding Alexander of Alexandria. He spent seventeen years of his Episcopate in exile.
  5. Along with the Bishop of Alexandria and his mentor Alexander, he opposed Arianism at the Nicene Council.
  6. He suffered persecution and was forced to go into exile five times, but later came back to Alexandria where he died peacefully.

Why — reasons why this person is important

Athanasius suffered persecution due to his commitment to defending the Christian faith. He defended the doctrines of the church and suffered persecution. His willingness to suffer, strengthened the church by the grace of God, he returned home late in his life where he died peacefully.

1. Doctrine

Athanasius was a Christian theologian, a church father, the chief defender of Trinity, against Arianism, and a notable Egyptian leader of the fourth century. He explained the word "Trinity" by dividing the doctrine into two parts:
a. Doctrine of God: (paraphrase from John Carson, note on biographies in his diploma course of church history);
  • Equality: to explain this Athanasius uses the word “homoousios” (consubstantial), to mean that the Son is divine and "of one substance (consubstantial) with the Father."
  • Eternity: on this idea he uses “gennathenta,”which means that the Son is eternal, "begotten (gennathenta) and not made." By this he meant that there was never a time when the Son came into existence. Neither, by implication, was there a time when the Holy Spirit came into existence.
b. Ontological trinity: from Greek “ontos” which means “being”. This was to show who God is in his inmost being. We see transcendent inner-relations between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (paraphrase from John Carson, note on biographies in his diploma course of church history).

2. Persecution

Athanasius' episcopate began on 9 May 328 when the Alexandrian council elected Athanasius to succeed the aged Alexander. That council also denounced various heresies and schisms, many of which continued to preoccupy his 45-year-long episcopate (c. 8 June 328 – 2 may 373). Patriarch Athanasius spent over 17 years in five exiles ordered by four different Roman emperors. This does not exclude approximately six more incidents in which Athanasius fled Alexandria to escape people seeking to take his life. These incidents gave rise to the expression "Athanasius contra mundum" or "Athanasius against the world."

After returning to Alexandria in early 366, Athanasius spent his final years repairing all the damage done during the earlier years of violence, dissent, and exile. He resumed undisturbed writing and preaching, and characteristically re-emphasized the view of the incarnation, as defined at Nicaea. On 2 May 373, having consecrated Peter II, one of his presbyters as his successor, Athanasius died peacefully in his own bed, surrounded by his clergy and faithful supporters (Encyclopedia Britannica).

  1. Class notes by Dr. John Carson
  2. Paraphrase from john Carson, note on biographies in his diploma course of church history).
  3. Wikipedia
  4. Encyclopedia Britannica



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