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Summary Article: ATHANASIUS
from Rise of Christianity, The: History, Documents, and Key Questions

Athanasius was bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, from 328 to 373 CE. He is probably the most controversial bishop of the fourth century mostly because of his involvement and arguments with the Arians. Although he was bishop of Alexandria for a very long time (45 years), he spent a good part of that time away because of the numerous exiles that he suffered during this period. Athanasius had a long association with the church, even before he became bishop. He was a deacon from 311 CE until the time he became bishop. He was also present at the now-famous Council of Nicea in 325. Athanasius wrote quite a few texts and letters that still survive today, and there are also two documents that chronicle some of his life and letters, written sometime right after his death. Because of these important sources, the later part of his life is well known.

Not much is known about the early life of Athanasius. It is known that he became a deacon of the church in Alexandria, Egypt, in 311 CE under Bishop Alexander. It was just after this period that Bishop Alexander had gotten into a heated discussion with a priest named Arius. Arius openly argued with Alexander over the nature of Christ. Arius believed that God was always in existence, while Christ came into existence at some point after God. Alexander believed that God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit existed all at the same time from the very beginning. The argument soon spread outside of Egypt and was centered primarily in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. The deacon Athanasius sided with Bishop Alexander. In 325 Emperor Constantine I asked that all bishops and their attendants go to Nicea to discuss the problems surrounding the Arian controversy. Alexander, Arius, and Athanasius were all present, although since Athanasius was a deacon, he had no say in the main meeting, which was reserved only for the bishops. Athanasius acted as the secretary of his bishop, so he knew what was happening. Athanasius wrote a little of what happened in the Council of Nicea (especially in his book titled Defense of the Nicene Definition). He wrote that the Arians were condemned at this council and specifically mentions the end of the Nicene Creed. Alexander, Athanasius, and those who supported their beliefs walked away from the council victorious in their efforts to get the Arians exiled. However, this celebration did not last long.

Bishop Alexander and Athanasius went back to Alexandria thinking that the Arian controversy was over, but in reality, it was just starting. In either 327 or early 328 Emperor Constantine allowed a number of Arians to rejoin their church, and the emperor demanded that Bishop Alexander take back Arius. Alexander refused to do this. Alexander died in 328 and before his death he picked Athanasius to be the next bishop. This did not occur right after the death of Alexander. It appears that a few months went by, and it isn't absolutely clear what had happened in the meantime. It appears that some did not want Athanasius to become bishop, but by June 328, he was officially anointed. Bishop Athanasius, like Alexander, refused to accept Arius back into the Alexandrian church. This was the beginning of many years of trouble for him. In 335 CE Bishop Athansius was removed from his office for the first time and sent into exile to the western Roman city of Trier. Emperor Constantine died in 339, and his three sons, Constantine II, Constans, and Constantius II, jointly ruled the Roman Empire. After the death of Emperor Constantine, Athanasius traveled back to Alexandria with the support of Emperor Constantine II, who was ruling over the western part of the empire. However, this return did not last long, and he was once again sent into exile in 339. The emperor of the eastern part of the Roman Empire was Constantius II, who was firmly in the Arian camp and did not like Athanasius. Athanasius, however, was well liked in Rome, but wasn't able to return to Egypt until 346 CE. He was sent into exile again from 356 to 361, in 363 for a short period, and finally in 365 for a year. Each exile was essentially over his sometimes violent opposition to the Arians.

Being away from Alexandria for so long also caused him problems. Some bishops who didn't like him stated that he really should be replaced by someone else, and that he was cowardly for not standing up to the emperors and instead abandoned his flock. Athanasius responded to this with a book titled Defense of His Flight. He starts his letter:

I hear that Leontius, now at Antioch, and Narcissus of the city of Nero, and George, now at Laodicea, and the Arians who are with them, are spreading abroad many slanderous reports concerning me, charging me with cowardice, because indeed, when I myself was sought by them, I did not surrender myself into their hands. Now as to their imputations and calumnies, although there are many things that I could write, which even they are unable to deny, and which all who have heard of their proceedings know to be true, yet I shall not be prevailed upon to make any reply to them, except only to remind them of the words of our Lord, and of the declaration of the Apostle, that “a lie is of the Devil,” and that, “revilers shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” For it is sufficient thereby to prove, that neither their thoughts nor their words are according to the Gospel, but that after their own pleasure, whatsoever themselves desire, that they think to be good.

(Schaff, n.d.)

Athanasius continues to defend himself against the charges all throughout this book. Athanasius also wrote many other books about his trials against his enemies, including one titled Defense against the Arians. At the very beginning of the book he explained why he had to write it:

I supposed that, after so many proofs of my innocence had been given, my enemies would have shrunk from further enquiry, and would now have condemned themselves for their false accusations of others. But as they are not yet abashed, though they have been so clearly convicted, but, as insensible to shame, persist in their slanderous reports against me, professing to think that the whole matter ought to be tried over again (not that they may have judgment passed on them, for that they avoid, but in order to harass me, and to disturb the minds of the simple); I therefore thought it necessary to make my defense unto you, that you may listen to their murmurings no longer, but may denounce their wickedness and base calumnies. And it is only to you, who are men of sincere minds, that I offer a defense: as for the contentious, I appeal confidently to the decisive proofs which I have against them. For my cause needs no further judgment; for judgment has already been given, and not once or twice only, but many times …

(Schaff, n.d.)

This book is extremely important because Athanasius preserves a number of letters that were sent (and do not exist anywhere else). Care must be taken, however, with believing everything that Athanasius wrote because, in many cases, we only have his accounts. Regardless, Bishop Athanasius is an extremely important source for our knowledge of what took place in the middle of the 300s CE. Athanasius died in 373 after presiding over the Alexandrian church for 45 years. Although he did not have an easy time, his battles with the Arians helped to cement the theological ideas that were rapidly becoming part of the Catholic Church. His writings were also used by many later Christians and are very important for recreating this interesting time in church history.

See also Arians; Council of Nicea

Further Reading
  • Anatolios, Khaled. Athanasius (The Early Church Fathers). Routledge New York, 2004.
  • Barnes, Timothy D. Athanasius and Constantius: Theology and Politics in the Constantinian Empire. First Harvard University Press Cambridge MA, 1993.
  • Brakke, David. Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism (Oxford Early Christian Studies). Oxford University Press Oxford, 1995.
  • Schaff, Philip. “Defense against the Arians.” Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. T&T Clark Edinburgh, n.d. Available online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf204.
  • Schaff, Philip. “Defense of His Flight.” Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. T&T Clark Edinburgh, n.d. Available online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf204.
  • Copyright © 2015 Kevin W. Kaatz

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