Bishop of Alexandria from 328 to 373, dominant 4th-century churchman, and theologian in the battle for orthodoxy against arianism; b. Alexandria, c. 295; d. Alexandria, May 2, 373 (feast, May 2).
Life. Athanasius was born apparently of a Christian family and received a good classical education that was followed by a solid scriptural and theological formation. At an early age (c. 312) he entered the ranks of the Alexandrian clergy and was ordained a deacon (c. 318) by Bishop Alexander, whom he served as secretary. Contemporary sources say little about his role in the earliest stages of the Arian dispute; undoubtedly not he but Bishop Alexander was the leading figure. Athanasius accompanied Alexander to the Council of nicaea i (325) and supported his actions but did not occupy the predominant position in this assembly attributed to him in later panegyrics.
Before his death in 328, Alexander designated Athanasius as his successor, and this choice was confirmed by
the Egyptian bishops, despite the opposition on the part of Arians and Meletians. Athanasius first made extensive pastoral visits to the entire Egyptian province, but soon had to face vicious attacks from various enemies. In 331, the partisans of the meletian schism accused him at the court of Constantine I, but Athanasius was able to vindicate himself, and on his return to Alexandria he took severe measures against the Meletians. Next, he became the target of the anti-Nicene reaction, led by the Arianminded eusebius of nicomedia, who had already succeeded in deposing eustathius of antioch and other bishops for their pro-Nicene stand.
First Exile and Exoneration. With the approval of Constantine, Athanasius was summoned to the Council of Tyre (335), composed almost exclusively of his enemies. Seeing no hope of obtaining a fair judgment, he left for the imperial court to present his case directly to the emperor. There are conflicting reports on what happened in Constantinople; however, Constantine exiled him to Treves in Northern Gaul. On the emperor's death (May 337), his son Constantine II gave Athanasius permission to resume his episcopal duties. Soon afterward, however, the Eusebian bishops deposed him again at the Synod of Antioch (337 or 338) and established first Pistus, then Gregory as bishop in Alexandria. Athanasius protested this violence in an encyclical letter to all Catholic bishops and took his case to Rome, where he found marcellus of ancyra, Asclepas of Gaza, and other victims of the anti-Nicene reaction. Pope Julius I (337–352) convened a Roman synod attended by some 50 bishops in the fall of 340 or spring of 341. The charges brought forth at the Council of Tyre were fully examined, and Athanasius and Marcellus were declared innocent.
The Eastern bishops refused to accept this verdict, and Athanasius remained in the West, where he promoted the monastic ideal in his travels through Italy and Gaul. With Bishop Hosius of Córdoba he traveled to sardica, where a general council had been summoned by the emperors Constans and Constantius II (343). The council proved a failure because the Eastern bishops refused to sit in joint session with their Western colleagues, who had Athanasius and Marcellus in their midst. The Western assembly proceeded to examine anew the case of the accused bishops and again fully exonerated them. On the death of the Alexandrian usurper Gregory of Cappadocia, Constantius allowed Athanasius to return to his see, where he arrived in October 346. There followed 10 years of relative peace, which he used to renew Christian life in Egypt, to promote monasticism, and to compose some of his writings, including his On the Decrees of the Nicene Synod and On the Opinion of Dionysius of Alexandria.
Subsequent Exiles. On the death of Constans in 350, Constantius became sole emperor, and the enemies of Athanasius resumed their agitation against him. Concentrating their efforts in the West, they had him condemned at the Council of Arles in 353 and at the Council of Milan in 355. Later, imperial emissaries were sent to collect signatures from the bishops absent from these councils; the few who resisted, among whom were Pope liberius (352–366) and hilary of poitiers, were banished to the East, while the centenarian Hosius of Córdoba was detained for a year in the imperial court at Sirmium. Abandoned by the West, Athanasius was attacked at home. In February 356 a military detachment invaded the church where he was celebrating a vigil service; he managed to escape and went into hiding in the Libyan Desert, while an Arian bishop, George of Cappadocia (357–361), was installed in his place. For the next six years, eluding pursuit by moving from one hiding place to another and supported by the loyalty of his clergy and monks, Athanasius managed to govern his flock and even made several secret visits to Alexandria. During this period he composed some of his major writings, including the three Discourses against the Arians, the Life of St. Antony, the History of the Arians, and the Letters to Serapion and to Epictetus. He kept himself well informed about events in the Christian world, and particularly about the many synods held during these years, each of which proclaimed a different creed according to the faction of the anti-Nicene coalition enjoying the momentary favor of Emperor Constantius. Like Hilary of Poitiers exiled in Phrygia, Athanasius in his De Synodis ridiculed this multiplication of creeds and, powerless, watched the defeat of orthodoxy at the councils of Rimini, Seleucia, and Constantinople.
A reaction set in with the death of Constantius, on Nov. 3, 361. George of Cappadocia was murdered by the rabble (Dec. 24, 361), and the new emperor, julian the Apostate, set the exiled bishops free. In February 362 Athanasius made his triumphant reentry into Alexandria. Immediately he convened a synod, attended mostly by bishops who had suffered for the orthodox faith. Its decisions, contained in the Tomus ad Antiochenos, had farreaching effects and contributed greatly to the restoration of unity in the Eastern Church. The Synod anathematized Arianism and made special note of the heresy's application to the Holy Spirit (so-called Semi-Arianism), and also condemned the first traces of the Christological heresies. It dealt leniently with bishops who had signed the Arian, Homoean formulary under duress, provided they now adhered to the Nicene Creed. By admitting that the Origenistic formula of "three hypostases" could have an orthodox meaning, it paved the way for the reconciliation of many Homoiousians. Julian, however, who promoted a revival of paganism, did not desire a strong and united Christianity. In October 362 Athanasius was exiled once more, but the death of the emperor in June 363 set him free. Before regaining his see, Athanasius tried without success to solve the Antiochian schism.
On the death of Jovian in February 364, the new emperor, Valentinian, made his brother Valens coemperor and entrusted him with the government of the Eastern Empire. Valens favored a return to the Homoean (Arian) formulary and resumed the persecution of all who rejected it. For the fifth time, Athanasius went into hiding. Four months later the mutinous attitude of the Alexandrians forced Valens to rescind the exile. Athanasius spent the last years of his life in peace, continuing by his actions and writings to prepare the ultimate triumph of orthodoxy. Before his death, he designated his brother Peter as his successor.
Writings. Athanasius was a prolific author whose literary production was intimately linked with his life and, as such, part of his unceasing battle against the enemies of Christ, as he designated Arianism in any form. This explains the predominantly polemical nature of most of his dogmatic works, the biased selection of documents in his historical compositions, the lack of serenity in his argumentation, and the public character of his letters. Even the Life of St. Antony contains an attack against Arianism. For the same reason he cared more for clarity and persuasiveness than for literary excellence.
Dogmatic Writings. The major work in this section is constituted by his three Discourses against the Arians; they contain a summary of the Arian doctrine, a defense of the Nicene definition, and a comprehensive discussion of scriptural arguments. The discourses were written, in all probability, during his third exile (c. 358). A fourth Discourse, added in the Benedictine and Migne editions, is now considered as definitely spurious. The Oration against the Pagans and the Oration on the Incarnation of the Word, although often edited as separate works, are one treatise mentioned by Jerome as the Two Books against the Pagans. Since this work contains no reference to Arianism or to Nicaea, the date of composition is commonly assigned to c. 318. A third work On the Incarnation and against the Arians deals with the divinity of Christ and of the Holy Spirit. It dates probably from a later period of his life; but its authenticity has been challenged. To this category belong also several letters that are, in fact, short dogmatic treatises: the Four Letters to Serapion, written between 359 and 360, in which Athanasius set forth his admirable doctrine on the divinity and procession of the Holy Spirit; the Letter to Epictetus, often quoted in later Christological controversies; the Letter to Adelphus, on the same theme; and the Letter to Maximus the Philosopher. His Letter concerning the Decrees of the Nicene Council (c. 350 or 351) presents a defense from Scripture and the Fathers of the nonscriptural expressions in the Nicene Creed. The Letter on the Teaching of Dionysius the Alexandrian is probably a later addition to the letter on the decrees of Nicaea. Among the dogmatic writings attributed to Athanasius but definitely spurious, the following should be mentioned: On the Incarnation against Apollinaris; the Sermo Maior de Fide; the Expositio Fidei; and the Athanasian Creed called the Quicumque, the date and authorship of which is still debated.
Historical-Polemical Writings. Athanasius composed several apologies during his third exile from 356 to 362; they include: the Apology against the Arians, particularly valuable for its collection of documents pertaining to the councils of Tyre and Sardica; the Apology to Constantius, important for its doctrine on Church and State; the Apology for His Flight; and the History of the Arians, written at the request of the monks with whom he was living in 358. This last book covers events from 335 to 357. To this category belong also his Letter on the Synods of Rimini and Seleucia of 359, which contains valuable data on the texts of the various Arian creeds; the Encyclical Letter to the Bishops, protesting his expulsion from Alexandria in 339; and the Encyclical Letter to the Bishops of Egypt and Libya, written on his expulsion in 356.
Ascetical Writings. Of paramount importance is the Life of St. Antony, founder of Christian monasticism. Written c. 357 at the request of the Egyptian monks and intended to provide "an ideal pattern of the ascetical life," it enjoyed astonishing popularity and was soon translated into various languages. Particularly in the Latin translation of Evagrius of Antioch, this biographical tract contributed greatly to the establishment of monastic life throughout the Western Christian world. From the literary point of view, it created a new, Christian genre, and set the pattern for countless later lives of monks and saints. The Letter to the Monk Amun and the Letter to Dracontius also belong in this category. According to Jerome, Athanasius wrote several treatises on virginity; because of this statement, many similar treatises have been attributed to him, creating problems of authenticity that contemporary scholars have only begun to solve. The treatise On Virginity, for example, edited among his works (Patrologia Graeca, 28:251–282), is defended as authentic by E. von der Goltz but rejected by M. Aubineau. In recent years several other treatises and fragments of works on virginity have been discovered and edited, some in the original Greek, others in Coptic, Syriac, or Armenian translations. Not all of these are genuine writings of Athanasius, but some of them will undoubtedly in time be recognized as his. Noteworthy among these is a Letter on Love and Self-control that may well be an original Athanasian Coptic writing.
Homiletic and Exegetical Works. Much remains to be done to determine the authenticity of sermons attributed to Athanasius, either in the collection published in Patrologia Graeca, v. 28 or in newly discovered Syriac and Coptic manuscripts. As to his Biblical commentaries, none has survived in full, but numerous fragments are found in ancient catenae. Many of these pertain to a Commentary on the Psalms, a few, to Genesis or to Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs. There is also a Letter to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms that serves as a general introduction on their meaning and use.
Letters. Besides the letters mentioned in the preceding groups, there is a collection of annual Lenten messages, the so-called Festal Letters. Thirteen of these have been preserved in a Syriac translation; 17 others, in a recently published Coptic manuscript. Of major importance among these is the festal letter of 367 for its enumeration of the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments. Three other letters were written at the request of Alexandrian synods: Tome to the Antiochians (362), To the Emperor Jovian (363), and To the African Bishops (369). The Letter to Bishop Rufianus gives directives for the reconciliation of the Arians; while the Letter to the Monks contains a warning against the heretics.
Doctrine. Because Athanasius's life and writings were one long battle against Arianism, his doctrinal horizon is dominated by Trinitarian and Christological controversies; there is little to glean in his writings on other tenets of the Christian faith. His doctrine is eminently traditional; he created no new synthesis of his own, but clarified and defended the central mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation by means of revealed concepts rather than philosophical constructions. While not opposed to philosophy in principle, Athanasius had little use for it. The key to his theological thinking is the dogma of Redemption. Like Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyon, he stressed the identity of the Logos with the Son of God become man. He saw the Logos as the mediator of divine salvation rather than as the agent of divine creativity; hence the predominantly soteriological nature of his argumentation.
Against the Arians, Athanasius argued that if Christ were not truly God, He could not have imparted divine life and resemblance to man. Similarly, against the Pneumatomachians, he argued that, since men are divinized and sanctified by partaking of the Holy Spirit, He must have the nature of God. Again, against the incipient Christological errors, Athanasius stressed the reality of the Incarnation and the personal unity of Christ as indispensable conditions for the effectiveness of His redeeming death. In his spiritual doctrine, asceticism and virginity are but means to achieve in man the divine image through the Divine Word, who is the substantial image of the Father.
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