Athanasius was born in Alexandria in the last years of the third century (296 or 298 A.D.) and received a liberal education in secular learning, being thoroughly instructed in the Scriptures. Some of his teachers were martyred in the persecution of 311 A.D. In 312 A.D., Bishop Alexander of Alexandria took him into his household as a companion, a secretary and later a deacon and there he lived, as a son, under the roof of this kindly and beloved bishop. At age twenty-one, Athanasius published two apologetic works in support of Christianity against paganism.
Bishop Alexander died in 328 A.D. and Athanasius, barely thirty years old, was unanimously chosen to succeed this great leader. Indeed the story is told that on his deathbed the bishop called for his beloved deacon, who happened to be absent. However, another man with the same name stepped forward, but the bishop ignored him and kept repeating the call. It was then that the dying bishop uttered the prophetic words: “Athanasius, you think you have escaped, but you will not escape.” Seven weeks later Athanasius succeeded Alexander as bishop of Alexandria.
Athanasius had first made a public appearance at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. when he was just a little under thirty years old. He may have been attracted by the monastic life of Anthony, the hermit, and may have authored the book The Life of Anthony. It is unlikely that Athanasius played a significant role at the Council of Nicaea apart from prompting and supporting Alexander, his bishop, as his deacon. He had a share in the decisions of Nicaea. There is no doubt, however, that Athanasius played a significant role in the dispute against the Arians, particularly in the period after the decision of Nicaea in 325 A.D.
The life work of Athanasius was to preserve the truth of the incarnation. He understood this truth that it was no semi-god who had appeared upon the earth but the very essence of the Godhead. Athanasius believed the Nicene formula, which stated that the Son (Jesus) was homo-ousios–of the same essence–with the Father, attested to this truth. Any attempt to construct a statement less precise than this was a compromise with Arianism and a denial of the very basis of Christianity. Such was Athanasius’ position and he was prepared to stand by it even if the entire world should be against him. Hence the popular saying, Athanasius contra mundum, meaning “Athanasius against the world.”
While Emperor Constantine lived, the Nicene formula could not be openly attacked. Nevertheless its opponents, the Arians, were able to make considerable progress. Among the foremost was Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia, who had been exiled in 325 A.D. He was soon restored to favour, and his party quickly found ways of attacking and securing the deposition of two of the most prominent champions of the term homo-ousios, Eustatius, bishop of Antioch, and Marcellus, bishop of Ancyra. Athanasius, too, proved to be vulnerable. The Eusebians, as the opponents of the term homo-ousios came to be known, could not of course, attack his teaching since, broadly speaking, it conformed to that of the Nicene Creed. However, he was falsely accused of a variety of offences and eventually Constantine was persuaded to banish him. Indeed, in the course of his dispute with the Arians, Athanasius suffered five banishments. (See table of events below).
In Egypt, turbulent events were taking place. The Council of Nicaea had attempted to resolve the Meletian schism by conciliation. Alexander had been prepared to accept this policy but Athanasius was sharply opposed to any compromise. He dealt impetuously and tyrannically with the Letetians who appealed to the emperor with a long list of charges against Athanasius, the new bishop of Alexandria (328-373 A.D.). Athanasius was summoned to appear before the emperor but succeeded in answering the charges laid against him.
He gained but a brief respite as renewed charges resulted in further summons. A full ecclesiastical council was called at Tyre in 335 A.D. and Athanasius was deposed. Arius, who had been exiled, was recalled owing to the powerful influence of Constantina, the emperor’s sister who was a strong supporter of Arius. Thus, after a vague confession, Arius was recalled in 335 A.D.
Athanasius refused to reinstate Arius and, as a result, was excommunicated and exiled to Treves in 336 A.D. by Emperor Constantine on a trumped-up charge that he had delayed the sailing of the corn fleet, in addition to disturbing the peace. There may have been truth in the charge that Athanasius intended to block food supply to the emperor. However, Constantine took the threat seriously and Athanasius was exiled.
When Emperor Constantine died in 337 A.D., the empire was divided between his three surviving sons, Constantine II taking the west, Constans controlling Italy and North Africa, Constantius, the east. Relations between the three brothers were not too cordial and in 340 A.D. Constans defeated his elder brother in the west and became ruler of two-thirds of the empire. But Constantius proved the strongest of the three and became sole ruler in 353 A.D., after crushing Magnantius, a usurper who had supplanted Constans.
Athanasius was allowed to return to Alexandria after the death of Emperor Constantine in 337 A.D., but his enemies declared that his return was uncanonical. They thereby appointed a Cappadocian named Gregory who was only able to enter Alexandria under military protection and Athanasius withdrew to Rome where Julius, bishop of Rome, was sympathetic. He sent a letter to the east in which he declared innocent not only Athanasius but also Marcellus who had been convicted of sabellianism. In 338 A.D., Emperor Constantine II recalled Athanasius who received a popular ovation. In the east, Arianism prevailed and its supporters were promoted presbyters and bishops. Eusebius of Nicomedia became bishop of Constantinople in 339 A.D., and once again Athanasius was expelled from Egypt and exiled.
In 341 A.D., the Council of Antioch deplored the part played by Julius, bishop of Rome, and declared that it was a new thing that a western synod should sit in judgment upon eastern decisions. The council adopted a formula, which became known as the second creed of Antioch. It described Christ as being homo-ousios with the Father and, in order to combat sabellianism, it emphasized that the Trinity exists “in three hypostases.”
One year later Constans persuaded Constantius to accept a new council. In 342 A.D., the emperor summoned a General Council at Serdina (now modern-day Sofia, Bulgaria). It was attended by eastern and western bishops and was presided over by Bishop Hosius, former adviser on ecclesiastical matters to Emperor Constantine. But then the eastern bishops withdrew and held a rival council just across the border of the eastern territory. There, once more, they excommunicated Athanasius, Marcellus and Julius, bishop of Rome. The western delegates replied by excommunicating the leading eastern bishops and re-affirming the Nicene Creed. They went even further, stating that the bishop of Rome, not the emperor, was to be regarded as the court of appeal in ecclesiastical matters. This development led to the widening of the gulf between east and west.
By 355 A.D., there was a not bishop who had not subscribed to the deposition of Athanasius and the virtual repudiation of the Nicene creed. Truly the situation was Athanasius contra mundum–“Athanasius against the world,” but the very victory of these Arians led to their break-up for it had no real unity. They eventually subscribed to a belief that the “Son was of a different substance than the Father and unlike him.” The majority were actually semi-Arians who held that the Son was similar in substance to the Father.
The Climax of Athanasius’ Influence, 346-356 A.D.
After the deadlock at the General Council of Serdina, a kind of compromise was reached. The west quickly dropped the cause of Marcellus of Ancyra whose overt sabellianism was indeed an embarrassment. The east in turn was compelled to accept the return of Athanasius to Alexandria where he was received with tumultuous rapture. A consummate politician, he was now at the peak of his influence. During his exile he had taken every opportunity to strengthen the traditional links between the sees of Alexandria and Rome and to generally win support in the west. In Egypt he had succeeded in winning the devotion of the ordinary people. He had even gone so far as to preach in Coptic.
Athanasius single-mindedly denied the doctrine of the createdness of the Son. For him, this teaching was not simply a theological deviation or error, it was the end of Christianity. There could be no compromise, no rapprochement, with his adversaries in the east, whom one and all he branded as Arians. In 353 A.D. Constantius became sole ruler-emperor. His policy had always been to support the eastern bishops who by and large favoured the term homo-ousios in the Trinitarian debate.
For the majority of his reign Emperor Constantius was embroiled in the war against the Persians and needed the support of the bishops in the east. Now that he was sole ruler he was able to turn his attention to the west. He sought religious unity as his father had done. In pursuit of this policy he set out to break down western support for the Nicene Creed as personified in the already legendary figure of Athanasius.
At the Council of Arles in 353 A.D. and Milan in 355 A.D., the emperor coerced the western bishops, most of whom had but a slight understanding of what the issue was all about, into condemning Athanasius. Those who resisted were exiled. Among them were Hosius, bishop of Cordova, Liberius, bishop of Rome (352-356 A.D.) and the bishop of Poitiers. The emperor now felt able to dispose of Athanasius and troops were sent to arrest him in his church but Athanasius evaded them and escaped into the desert.
Writings Against the Gentiles and The Incarnation of the Word
It is generally recognized that Athanasius against the Gentiles and The Incarnation of the Word are two parts of one book and not two books as had earlier been supposed. It is important to inquire into the date of publication as it would help us to determine the purpose and the context in which the apology was written.
The early view is that it was written when Athanasius was still a young man before the Arian controversy. In The Incarnation of the Word there are references to current conditions. Consequently it is suggested that an early date of 316 A.D. is the likely date of the authorship. The Arian controversy is usually taken to begin in earnest in 318 A.D. It is suggested that the book was written after the Diocletian persecution had ended but was still vividly remembered. It is argued that the Arian heresy had not yet arisen to trouble the church although there is a hint at the schism that was an aftermath of the great persecution. Most significant perhaps, are the passages where, as in a continuous song of triumph, Athanasius proclaimed the victory of the cross which is now bringing not only holiness to individuals and destruction of idols but peace to the world. Athanasius wrote “We may see the power of the Redeemer as from the harmony of the universe we see the wisdom of the Creator.” From this it is suggested that such assurance could only have been in the few years of confidence that followed the victory of Constantine. And so a date between 316 and 318 A.D. is suggested as the likely date. This is the view of Edward Hardy in his work on Athanasius (Library of Christian Classics).
However, using the same argument based on internal evidence, that the book contained no specific mention of the Arian heresy which features so prominently in Athanasius’ dogmatic works, it is inconceivable that this book would have been written during the Arian controversy and yet would contain no direct reference to it considering how deeply Athanasius was involved in the controversy. It is most probable that the book was written before 324 A.D., that is, before Constantius became the sole ruler and emperor. As for the argument that there are no specific references to the Arian heresy, it could be argued that the reason for this is because the book is essentially an apologetic one. As such Athanasius was not likely to make specific and direct references to a division within the church when he was aiming to commend the Christian faith. There are in fact references to the Incarnation Logos as nothing less than a divine being. The references to the divine being of Christ is certainly an anti-Arian position on the person of Christ. The book The Incarnation of the Word does seem to affirm the position he would have been likely to hold or did in fact hold in the Arian controversy.
As attractive and perhaps convincing as the argument for an early date may seem, there are several objections, such as Athanasius’ reference to “those who wish to divide the church.” This expression could possibly refer to the Meletian schism as indeed the proponents of an early date have taken it to mean. But it is possible this expression referred to the Arians as it always did in Athanasius’ other writings.
Furthermore, a remark regarding Christ’s undivided body in his book The Incarnation is perhaps an allusion to the Arian controversy as is Athanasius’ statement that he did not have to hand over the books of the theologians from whom he had learned a lot. Thomson thought this was a surprising statement if the book was written during the period when Athanasius was Bishop Alexander’s secretary and had access to all the books in Alexandria. It is therefore suggested that he could not have been writing the book before 342 A.D. On the other hand, the statement that Athanasius does not have to mention the writers or theologians who had influenced him could literally be a way of saying that he was not going to quote everything verbatim. It could mean that he was saying that he was not going to mention writers to support himself perhaps since he was not really following the writers or theologians to the letter as he was covering new ground. Or else he was simply saying he was not going to cite chapter and verse every time he made allusions to these writers and theologians. In other words, he was just going to quote freely.
A most convincing argument against an early date is the alleged dependence of Athanasius’ apology on the Theophany of Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, which was written after Constantius had become the sole emperor in 324 A.D. but before 335 A.D.. Was the Theophany of Eusebius of Caesarea dependent on Athanasius or were they both drawing on a common source which is no longer extant? Most scholars hold the view that it is more likely that Athanasius was dependent on Eusebius. If this were so, Athanasius wrote after the composition of Eusebius’ Theophany which was written in 324 A.D. just before the General Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.). The problem with this view is that if Athanasius wrote between 324 and the 330s A.D. can we really suppose him to be dependent on Eusebius, an Arianizing bishop for that matter, for his apologetic purposes, at a time when Athanasius was most deeply involved in the Arian controversy? For this reason in part, Nordberg has proposed a much later date.
Nordberg held the view that a much later date must be contemplated, that is, much later than 338 A.D. and most probably in the reign of Emperor Julian in the 360s. He argued that by this time it would be possible for Athanasius to borrow from Eusebius without much inhibition owing to the time lapse. The attraction of this suggestion is that a period during the reign of Julian the Apostate would fit in well with the context of Athanasius’ apology. Nordberg argued that a careful reading of the work showed that it was the essay of a man who was to be a great champion of orthodoxy.
Nordberg further argued that Athanasius was writing at a time when Emperor Julian (361-363 A.D.) was attempting to bring back paganism and so Athanasius’ work would serve well as an apology. If there is a difficulty in accepting an early date because Athanasius alledgedly borrowed from Eusebius, with a much later date the time lapse made it possible to do this as by now the common enemy for the Arians and the orthodox was Emperor Julian, nicknamed the Apostate.
Table of Events
325 A.D. Athanasius attended the first General Ecclesiastical Council at Nicaea.
328 A.D. Athanasius was consecrated bishop of Alexandria following the death of Alexander.
330 A.D. Athanasius wrote The Incarnation of the Word against the new theology of Arianism.
335 A.D. Athanasius was deposed by the Council of Tyre (1st exile).
339 A.D. Athanasius was expelled from Egypt for seven years (2nd exile).
346 A.D. Julius, bishop of Rome, ruled Italian bishops in support of Athanasius by the Council of Serdina (modern Sofia in Bulgaria). Athanasius returned from exile to start his golden decade of peace.
357 A.D. Athanasius was banished from his diocese. He wrote De Fuga (3rd exile).
362 A.D. Athanasius was again banished in the reign of Emperor Julian the Apostate (4th exile).
364 A.D. Athanasius returned to Alexandria from exile.
365 A.D. Athanasius suffered his fifth and last exile in the reign of Emperor Valen, an Arian who was determined to restore Arianism.
373 A.D. Athanasius died on May 2.
G. A. Oshitelu
This article is reproduced, with permission, from The African Fathers of the Early Church, copyright © 2002, by G. A. Oshitelu, Ibadan, Nigeria. All rights reserved.