ATHANASIUS (c. 298–373), bishop of Alexandria, theologian, church father, and saint. Athanasius was born around the year 300, perhaps in 298, according to a chronicle composed soon after his death and preserved in Syriac. Later Coptic legends locate Athanasius's birthplace in Upper Egypt, but these claims seem to contradict his genuinely Greek education. In his youth he may have visited Christian monks in the desert areas near Alexandria. The Alexandrian bishop Alexander (311–328) ordained him as a deacon at the time of the fateful dispute with Arius, and in the spring of 325 Athanasius accompanied the bishop to the imperial Council of Nicaea, where Arianism was solemnly condemned as a heresy. Elected by a small minority of the Egyptian clergy and by the Alexandrian laity as the successor of Alexander in the summer of 328, the young Athanasius, not yet in his thirties, faced a critical situation.
More than half of the many bishops subordinated to the jurisdiction of the Alexandrian pope had recognized the authority of the schismatic bishop Meletios of Lycopolis in Upper Egypt. Soon after the episcopal election of Athanasius, the Meletians built up a common front against him in supporting Arius and his friends. They were encouraged to do so by a coalition of bishops from the eastern provinces of the empire under the leadership of Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, who was hostile to the Alexandrian see for political reasons. Athanasius was exposed to attacks from all sides in imposing without compromise the decrees of Nicaea, which condemned the Arian heresy and regulated strictly the readmission of Meletians into the Catholic church. He hoped for a time to consolidate his precarious position by rallying the monastic groups in the deserts of Egypt and the Coptic communities along the Nile Valley. Between 328 and 334 his pastoral visits reached the border of modern Sudan and the western parts of Libya. But in 335 the Synod of Tyre, organized by the anti-Alexandrian and pro-Arian party, succeeded in driving Athanasius out of office. As it was invested with imperial power like the Council of Nicaea ten years earlier, this synod made questionable the very legitimacy of Athanasius as a bishop.
Athanasius was exiled by Emperor Constantine on November 7, 335. Only after Constantine's death on May 22, 337, could Athanasius return to Alexandria. But his legitimacy was still rejected by the Eastern bishops, who had gained the favor of Constantius II, Constantine's son and successor in the East. In 338 Athanasius again found himself driven from Alexandria. In dramatic circumstances he fled to Rome, where he was welcomed by Bishop Julius I and rehabilitated by his local synod. In 342 a broader synod, convoked in Serdica (modern-day Sofia) by the emperor of the West, Constantius's brother, Constans I, ratified this recognition of Athanasius as legitimate bishop of Alexandria.
Only in October 346 could the exiled bishop regain his see, but not without Constans's heavy political pressure on his younger brother Constantius in the East. Athanasius's fulfillment of his pastoral duties in Alexandria, from 346 to 356, became increasingly difficult after Constans was murdered by a usurper in 350. As sole ruler of the whole empire, Constantius tried to work out a unified religious policy. However, this policy was unacceptable to Athanasius, because it interfered in the realm of the church's dogma as canonized in Nicaea in 325. In fact, Constantius, influenced by a conservative majority of bishops in the East, rejected the creed of Nicaea. He organized a vast subversive campaign in the West and the East against Athanasius, as the main supporter of Nicaea. Outlawed and sought by the emperor's secret police, Athanasius vanished, remaining in the desert from February 356 until November 361, hidden by the monks but very active in the clandestine administration of his diocese. Exile under Constantius's successor, Julian (361–363), proved less disruptive. Finally, under Emperor Valens (364–378), Athanasius was exiled for only a few months. On February 1, 366, he was fully recognized and was reinstalled in his office, where he remained until his death in early May 373.
Fifteen years and ten months of exile had not damaged Athanasius's popular links with the Alexandrian church, or with Coptic monastic circles. The mature energies of this dominant figure revealed themselves in an even more efficient way during his repeated exiles. At the time of his first exile, Athanasius completed a compilation of older notes and gave them the form of an apologetic treatise. In doing so, he added to a first work, Against the Heathen, a second apology, On the Incarnation of the Word, with a deeply renewed view of Alexandrian Christology. In the early stage of his second exile, in Rome, Athanasius finished his principal dogmatic work, entitled Discourse against the Arians, originally in one or two books. During his third exile, among the monks, he dictated important historical, dogmatic, and apologetic works, especially his Letters to Serapion concerning the Divinity of the Holy Spirit, the apology On the Synods of Rimini and Seleucia, and Life of Anthony.
Through these works Athanasius entered into dialogue with various pro-Nicene theological parties, among them the group of Basil of Ancyra. Their reconciliation was celebrated at the Synod of Alexandria in the summer of 362.
Athanasius's theology remains strikingly coherent throughout his writings. It focuses on the incarnation of God in Christ as the central principle of Christian theology. The Trinity is truly known only in light of the gospel message. The incarnate Son of God operates in divinizing humankind, which is saved by the Son from death and corruption in conjunction with its own godlikeness. The mystery of Christ, revealed by the New Testament, is actualized in the life of the church, in its official creed, in baptism, in the Eucharist, and in the religious improvement of its members.
The literary and doctrinal legacy of Athanasius was decisive through the Cappadocian fathers in the East and Ambrose of Milan in the West. His doctrine on the salvific incarnation of Christ has shaped subsequent Christian traditions. During his lifetime, Athanasius was acclaimed by Basil of Caesarea, among others—and after his death, universally—as champion of the church's dogmatic freedom against the state's political administration.
The writings of Athanasius are available in English translations such as Select Works and Letters, translated and edited by Archibald Robertson, "A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church," 2d series, vol. 4 (New York, 1892); The Life of Anthony, translated by Robert T. Meyer, "Ancient Christian Writers," vol. 10 (Westminster, Md., 1950); Life of Saint Anthony, translated by Mary Emily Keenan, "The Fathers of the Church," vol. 15 (New York, 1952); and Contra gentes and De incarnatione, translated and edited by Robert W. Thomson (Oxford, 1971). The Athanasian doctrine on Christ is developed in Aloys Grillmeier's Christ in Christian Tradition, 2d ed., rev. (Atlanta, 1975). My critical study on Athanasius's career as a bishop and a writer, Athanase d'Alexandrie: Évêque et écrivain (Paris, 1983), offers a new evaluation.
Charles Kannengiesser (1987)