St. Athanasius

Saint Athanasius (ăthənā´zhəs), c.297–373, patriarch of Alexandria (328–73), Doctor of the Church, great champion of orthodoxy during the Arian crisis of the 4th cent. (see Arianism). In his youth, as secretary to Bishop Alexander, he took part in the christological debate against Arius at the Council of Nicaea (see Nicaea, First Council of), and thereafter became chief protagonist for Nicene orthodoxy in the long struggle for its acceptance in the East. He defended the homoousion formula that states that Jesus is of the same substance as the Father, against the various Arian parties who held that Jesus was not identical in substance with the Father. Made bishop of Alexandria upon the death of his superior, he faced a conspiracy led by Eusebius of Nicomedia to return the condemned Arius to Egypt. When Athanasius refused to yield, a pro-Arian council held at Tyre (335) found him guilty of sacrilege, the practice of magic, dishonest grain dealings, and even murder. Athanasius appealed to Constantine who demanded a retrial, then unaccountably ordered Athanasius into exile—the first of five. Reinstated (337) and exiled again (339), he fled to the West where, under Pope Julius I, the Council of Sardica vindicated him (343). To placate his Catholic brother Constans, the Arian Constantius permitted Athanasius to return to his see in 346. There he reigned, a beloved pastor, for ten fruitful years, strengthening orthodoxy in Egypt and composing some of his greatest works, including his Defense Against the Arians (348). When Constans died, Constantius procured the condemnation of Athanasius (Arles, 357), again forcing him into exile. It was during this period of hiding with the hermit monks of the Egyptian desert, whom he admired greatly, that he wrote his best exposition of Nicene christology, Discourses Against the Arians, attacking both the Arians and the views of Marcellus of Ancyra. By now a conservative reaction in the East issued in the strongly anti-Arian Lucianic creed promulgated at the Council of Seleucia (359), a step which led to the final victory of Nicene orthodoxy at the Council of Constantinople in 381. Athanasius was restored briefly in 362, only to be quickly exiled by Julian and again by Valens (365). The climate was changing, however, and by 366 Athanasius was secure in his see, where he remained the spokesman for orthodoxy until his death. After him, St. Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzen secured the victory of orthodoxy in the East. Feast: May 2.

See translation of Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione by R. W. Thomson (1974); translation of Life of Saint Antony and Letter to Marcellinus by R. C. Gregg (1980).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

St. Athanasius: Selected full-text books and articles

The Life of Saint Antony By Robert T. Meyer Newman Press, 1950
The Church in Ancient Society: From Galilee to Gregory the Great By Henry Chadwick Oxford University Press, 2001
Librarian's tip: Chap. 31 "Athanasius, Marcellus, and the Gathering Storm" and Chap. 34 "Athanasius' Return: A Wind of Change"
The Christianity of Constantine the Great By T. G. Elliott University of Scranton Press, 1996
Librarian's tip: Chap. Fourteen "Constantine, Athanasius, and Arius, 328-333" and Chap. Fifteen "Constantine and Athanasius to the Council of Tyre in 335"
By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine By Ellen T. Charry Oxford University Press, 1997
Librarian's tip: Chap. 4 "Defeating the Fear of Death: Athanasius of Alexandria"
Nicaea and Its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology By Lewis Ayres Oxford University Press, 2004
Librarian's tip: "Alexander, Athanasius, and Friends: Theologians of the True Wisdom" begins on p. 43, "Athanasius and the Defence of Homoousios" begins on p. 140, and "Athanasius and the Beginnings of Rapprochement" begins on p. 171
The Roman Empire at Bay: AD 180-395 By David S. Potter Routledge, 2004
Librarian's tip: Discussion of Athanasius begins on p. 420
FREE! The Early Church: From Ignatius to Augustine By George Hodges Houghton Mifflin, 1915
Librarian's tip: Discussion of Athanasius begins on p. 139
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