Athanasius of Alexandria

Athanasius of Alexandria (also spelled “Athanasios”) (298May 2, 373) was a Christian bishop, the Patriarch of Alexandria, in the fourth century. He is revered as a saint by both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, and regarded as a great leader and doctor of the Church by Protestants. Roman Catholics have declared him one of 33 Doctors of the Church. His feast day is January 18.

Historical Significance

Opposition to Arianism

In about 319, when Athanasius was a deacon, a presbyter named Arius began teaching that there was a time before God the Father begat Jesus when the latter did not exist. Athanasius accompanied Alexander to the First Council of Nicaea in 325, which council produced the Nicene Creed and anathematized Arius and his followers. On May 9, 328, he succeeded Alexander as bishop of Alexandria. As a result of rises and falls in Arianism’s influence, he was banished from Alexandria only to be later restored on at least five separate occasions, perhaps as many as seven. This gave rise to the expression “Athanasius contra mundum” or “Athanasius against the world”. During some of his exiles, he spent time with the Desert Fathers, monks and hermits who lived in remote areas of Egypt. Despite his doctrinal firmness, he showed diplomatic flair in rallying the Orthodox at the Council of Alexandria in 362.

Writings

Possibly during his first exile at Trier in 335-7, although probably between 318 and 323, Athanasius wrote a double treatise entitled Against the Gentiles — On the Incarnation, affirming and explaining that Jesus was both God and Man. In his major theological opus, the Three Discourses Against the Arians, Athanasius stressed that the Father’s begetting of the Son, or uttering of the Word, was an eternal relationship between them, not an event that took place within time. He makes very sparing use of the key-word of Nicea, homoousios (consubstantial). These writings lay the foundation of catholic Christianity‘s fight against the heresy of Arianism, which Athanasius opposed all his life. He also wrote a defence of the divinity of the Holy Spirit (Letters to Serapion) in the 360s, and wrote a polemic (On the Holy Spirit) against the Macedonian heresy.

Athanasius also wrote a biography of Anthony the Great entitled Vita Antonii, or Life of Antony, that later served as an inspiration to Christian monastics in both the East and the West. The Athanasian Creed is traditionally ascribed to him.

New Testament Canon

Athanasius is also the first person to identify the same 27 books of the New Testament that are in use today. Up until then, various similar lists of works to be read in churches were in use. A milestone in the evolution of the canon of New Testament books is his Easter letter from Alexandria, written in 367, usually referred to as his 39th Festal Letter. Pope Damasus, the Bishop of Rome in 382, promulgated a list of books which contained a New Testament canon identical to that of Athanasius. A synod in Hippone in 393 repeated Athansius’ and Damasus’ New Testament list (without the Epistle to the Hebrews), and a synod in Carthage in 397 repeated Athanasius’ and Damasus’ complete New Testament list.

Scholars have debated whether Athanasius’ list in 367 was the basis for the later lists. Because Athanasius’ canon is the closest canon of any of the Church Fathers to the canon used by Protestant churches today many Protestants point to Athanasius as the father of the canon. They are identical except that Athanasius excludes the Book of Esther which is placed in a deuterocanon along with the Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Judith, Tobit, the Didache, and the Shepherd of Hermas. On the other hand, Catholics tend to point to Damasus or the Council of Carthage, since these councils endorsed an Old Testament identical to that used by Catholics today. Regardless of this question, the New Testament canon endorsed by Athanasius has been used by almost all Christians since his day.

Relics and Veneration

The saint was originally buried in Alexandria. His holy body was later transferred to Italy. H.H. Pope Shenouda III restored the relics of St. Athanasius back to Egypt on 15 May 1973 [1], after his historical visit to the Vatican and meeting with H.H. Pope Paul VI. The relics of St. Athanasius the Great of Alexandria are currently preserved under the new St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Deir El-Anba Rowais, Abbassiya, Cairo, Egypt.

The following is a troparion (hymn) to St. Athanasius sung in some Orthodox churches.

O holy father Athanasius,
like a pillar of orthodoxy
you refuted the heretical nonsense of Arius
by insisting that the Father and the Son are equal in essence.
O venerable father, beg Christ our God to save our souls.

Criticism of Athanasius

The tactics of Athanasius, while often downplayed by church historians, were a significant factor in his success. He did not hesitate to back up his theological views with the use of force. In Alexandria, he assembled an “ecclesiastical mafia” that could instigate a riot in the city if needed. It was an arrangement “built up and perpetuated by violence.” (Barnes, 230). Along with the standard method of excommunication he used beatings, intimidation, kidnapping and imprisonment to silence his theological opponents. Unsurprisingly, these tactics caused widespread distrust and led him to being tried many times for “bribery, theft, extortion, sacrilege, treason and murder. (Rubenstein, 6) While the charges rarely stuck, his reputation was a major factor in his multiple exiles from Alexandria.

He justified these tactics with the argument that he was saving all future Christians from hell. Athanasius stubbornly refused to compromise his theological views by stating, “What is at stake is not just a theological theory but people’s salvation.” (Olson, 172). In this assertion that violence was justified in defense of theology and the church, Athanasius, some hold, laid the foundation for theological concepts such as just war and the inquisition. He played a clear role in making constantinian shift a part of the theology of the church.