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Athanasius of Alexandria

Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 293 – May 2, 373), also known as St Athanasius the Great, Pope Athanasius I of Alexandria, and St Athanasius the Apostolic, (Greek: Αθανάσιος, Athanásios) was a theologian, Bishop of Alexandria, Church Father, and a noted Egyptian leader of the fourth century. He is best remembered for his role in the conflict with Arius and Arianism. At the first Council of Nicaea (325), Athanasius argued against Arius and his doctrine that Christ is of a distinct substance from the Father.

Saint Athanasius is revered as a saint by the Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Eastern Catholic Churches. He is traditionally regarded as a great leader of the Church by the Lutheran Church, the Anglican Communion, and most Protestants in general. He is chronologically the first Doctor of the Church as designated by the Roman Catholic Church, and he is counted as one of the four Great Doctors of the Eastern Church. St Athanasius' feast day is May 2 in Western Christianity, May 15 in the Coptic Orthodox Church, and January 18 in the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

Biography

Athanasius received his philosophical and theological training at Alexandria. He was ordained as a deacon by the current patriarch, Alexander of Alexandria, in 319.In 325, he served as Alexander's secretary at the First Council of Nicaea. Already a recognized theologian and ascetic, he was the obvious choice to replace Alexander as the Patriarch of Alexandria on the latter's death in 328, despite the opposition of the followers of Arius and Meletius of Lycopolis.

Bishop Athanasius spent the first years of his patriarchate visiting the churches with people of his territory, which at that time included all of Egypt and Libya. During this period, he established contacts with the hermits and monks of the desert, including Pachomius, which would be very valuable to him over the years. Shortly thereafter, St Athanasius became occupied with the disputes with the Byzantine Empire and Arians which would occupy much of his life.

Athanasius' first problem lay with the Meletians, who had failed to abide by the terms of the decision made at the First Council of Nicaea which had hoped to reunite them with the Church. Athanasius himself was accused of mistreating Arians and the followers of Meletius of Lycopolis, and had to answer those charges at a gathering of bishops in Tyre, in 335. At that meeting, Eusebius of Nicomedia and the other supporters of Arius deposed Athanasius. Later, both parties of the dispute met with Constantine I in Constantinople. At that meeting, Athanasius was accused of threatening to interfere with the supply of grains from Egypt, and, without any kind of formal trial, was exiled by Constantine to Trier in the Rhineland.

On the death of Emperor Constantine I, Athanasius was allowed to return to his See of Alexandria. Shortly thereafter, however, Constantine's son, the new Roman Emperor Constantius II, renewed the order for Athanasius's banishment in 338. Athanasius went to Rome, where he was under the protection of Constans, the Emperor of the West. During this time, Gregory of Cappadocia was installed as the Patriarch of Alexandria, usurping the absent Athanasius. Athanasius did however remain in contact with his people through his annual "Festal Letters", in which he also announced on which date Easter would be celebrated that year.

Pope Julius I wrote to the supporters of Arius strongly urging the reinstatement of Athanasius, but that effort proved to be in vain. He called a synod in Rome in the year 341 to address the matter, and at that meeting Athanasius was found to be innocent of all the charges raised against him. Julius also called the Council of Sardica in 343. This council confirmed the decision of the earlier Roman synod, and clearly indicated that the attendees saw St Athanasius as the lawful Patriarch of Alexandria. It proved no more successful, however, as only bishops from the West and Egypt bothered to appear.

In 346, following the death of Gregory, Constans used his influence to allow Athanasius to return to Alexandria. Athanasius' return was welcomed by the majority of the people of Egypt, who had come to view him as a national hero. This was the start of a "golden decade" of peace and prosperity, during which time Athanasius assembled several documents relating to his exiles and returns from exile in the Apology Against the Arians. However, upon Constans' death in 350, a civil war broke out which left Constantius as sole emperor. Constantius, renewing his previous policies favoring the Arians, banished Athanasius from Alexandria once again. This was followed, in 356, by an attempt to arrest Athanasius during a vigil service. Following this, Athanasius left for Upper Egypt, where he stayed in several monasteries and other houses. During this period, Athanasius completed his work Four Orations against the Arians and defended his own recent conduct in the Apology to Constantius and Apology for His Flight. Constantius' persistence in his opposition to Athanasius, combined with reports Athanasius received about persecution of non-Arians by the new Arian bishop George of Laodicea, prompted Athanasius to write his more emotional History of the Arians, in which he described Constantius as a precursor of the Antichrist.

In 361, after the death of Emperor Constantius, shortly followed by the murder of the very unpopular Bishop George, the popular St Athanasius now had the opportunity to return to his Patriarchate. The following year he convened a council at Alexandria at which he appealed for unity among all those who had faith in Christianity, even if they differed on matters of terminology. This prepared the groundwork for the definition of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, which stresses the distinctions between the persons of God more than Athanasius himself generally did. In 362, the new Emperor Julian, noted for his opposition to Christianity, ordered Athanasius to leave Alexandria once again. Athanasius left for Upper Egypt, remaining there until Julian's death in 363. Two years later, the Emperor Valens, who favored the Arian position, in his turn exiled Athanasius. This time however, St Athanasius simply left for the outskirts of Alexandria, where he stayed for only a few months before the local authorities convinced Valens to retract his order of exile. Some of the early reports explicitly indicate that Athanasius spent this period of exile in his ancestral tomb.

Works

Saint Athanasius's other works include his two-part "Against the Heathen" and "The Incarnation of the Word of God". Completed around 335, they constitute the first classic work of developed Orthodox theology. In the first part, Athanasius attacks several Pagan practices and beliefs. The second part presents teachings on the redemption. Also in these books, Athanasius put forward the belief that the Son of God, the eternal Word through whom God created the world, entered that world in human form to lead men back into the harmony from which they had earlier fallen away. This work intentionally challenged the doctrines of Arianism, which stated that the Son was a lesser entity than the Father. His other important works include his Letters to Serapion, which dealt with the divinity of the Holy Spirit, and his classic Life of St Anthony, which was translated into several languages and played an important role in the spreading of the ascetic ideal in Eastern and Western Christianity. He also wrote several works of Biblical exegesis, primarily of volumes in the Old Testament, which are preserved in excerpts regarding Book of Genesis, the Song of Solomon, and Psalms. His works on ascetism, include the aforementioned Life of St. Anthony, as well as a Discourse on Virginity, a short work on Love and Self-Control, and a treatise On Sickness and Health which is only preserved in fragments.

St Athanasius' letters include one "Letter Concerning the Decrees of the Council of Nicaea" (De Decretis), which is an account of the proceedings of that Council, and another letter in the year 367 which was the first known listing of the New Testament including all those books now accepted everywhere as the New Testament. (earlier similar lists vary by the omission or addition of a few books, see Development of the New Testament canon). Several of his letters also survive. In one of these, to Epictetus of Corinth, Athanasius anticipates future controversies in his defense of the humanity of Christ. Another of his letters, to Dracontius, urges that monk to leave the desert for the more active duties of a bishop.

There are several other works ascribed to him, although not necessarily generally accepted as being his own work. These include the Athanasian creed, which is today generally seen as being of 5th century Galician origin.

Athanasius was not what would be called a speculative theologian. As he stated in his First Letters to Serapion, he held onto \"the tradition, teaching, and faith proclaimed by the apostles and guarded by the fathers.\" In some cases, this led to his taking the position that faith should take priority over reason. He held that not only the Son of God was consubstantial with the Father, but so also was the Holy Spirit, which held a great deal of influence in the development of later doctrines regarding the trinity.

Veneration

Saint Athanasius was originally buried in Alexandria, Egypt but his body was later transferred to Italy. During Pope Shenouda III's visit to Rome from May 4 to May 10, 1973, Pope Paul VI gave the Coptic Patriarch the relics of St Athanasius, which he brought back to Egypt on 15 May. The relics of St Athanasius the Great of Alexandria are currently preserved under the new Saint Mark Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Deir El-Anba Rowais, Abbassiya, Cairo, Egypt.

The following is a troparion (hymn) to Saint Athanasius sung in some Orthodox churches.

O Holy father Athanasius,
like a pillar of orthodoxy
you refuted the heretical nonsense of Arius
by insisting that the Father and the Son are equal in essence.
O venerable father, beg Christ our God to save our souls.

Saint Athanasius is venerated as a saint by the majority of major Christian denominations which officially approve of and recognize saints. His feast day is observed on May 2, the day of his death. In the Roman Catholic Church he is deemed a Doctor of the Church.

He has been hailed as \"the pillar of the Church\" by Gregory of Nazianzus.

Historical significance

Early life

The Alexandria of his boyhood was an epitome—intellectually, morally, and politically—of the ethnically diverse Graeco-Roman world. It was the most important center of trade in the whole empire; and its primacy as an emporium of ideas was more commanding than that of Rome or Constantinople, Antioch or Marseilles. Its famous \"Catechetical School\", while sacrificing none of its famous passion for orthodoxy since the days of Pantaenus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen of Alexandria, had begun to take on an almost secular character in the comprehensiveness of its interests, and had counted influential pagans among its serious auditors.

St. Athanasius seems to have been brought early in life under the immediate supervision of the ecclesiastical authorities of his native city. A story has been preserved by Rufinus (Hist. Eccl., I, xiv). The bishop Alexander, so the tale runs, had invited a number of fellow prelates to meet him at breakfast after a great religious function. While Alexander was waiting for his guests to arrive, he stood by a window, watching a group of boys at play on the seashore below the house. He had not observed them long before he discovered that they were imitating the elaborate ritual of Christian baptism. He sent for the children and, in the investigation that followed, it was discovered that one of the boys (none other than Athanasius), had acted the part of the bishop, and in that character had actually baptized several of his companions in the course of their play. Alexander determined to recognize the make-believe baptisms as genuine, and decided that Athanasius and his playfellows should go into training in order to prepare themselves for a clerical career.

Sozomen speaks of his \"fitness for the priesthood\", and calls attention to the significant circumstance that he was \"from his tenderest years practically self-taught\". \"Not long after this,\" adds the same authority, the Bishop Alexander \"invited Athanasius to be his commensal and secretary. He had been well educated, and was versed in grammar and rhetoric, and had already, while still a young man, and before reaching the episcopate, given proof to those who dwelt with him of his wisdom and acumen\" (Soz., II, xvii). That \"wisdom and acumen\" manifested themselves in a varied environment. While still a deacon under Alexander's care, he seems to have been brought for a while into close relations with some of the solitaries of the Egyptian desert, and in particular with the Anthony the Great, whose life he is said to have written.

Opposition to Arianism

In about 319, when Athanasius was a deacon, a presbyter named Arius came into a direct conflict with Alexander of Alexandria. It appears that Arius reproached Alexander for what he felt were misguided or heretical teachings being taught by the bishop. Arius’ theological views appear to have been firmly rooted in Alexandrian Christianity, and his Christological views were certainly not radical at all. He embraced a subordinationist Christology (that God did not have a beginning, but the Logos did), heavily influenced by Alexandrian thinkers like Origen, which was a common Christological view in Alexandria at the time.. Support for Arius from powerful Bishops like Eusebius of Caesarea and Eusebius of Nicomedia, further illustrate how Arius' subordinationist Christology was shared by other Christians in the Empire. Arius was subsequently excommunicated by Alexander, and he would begin to elicit the support of many bishops who agreed with his position. Athanasius may have accompanied Alexander to the First Council of Nicaea in 325, the council which produced the Nicene Creed and anathematized Arius and his followers. On May 9, 328, he succeeded Alexander as bishop of Alexandria. As a result of rises and falls in Arianism's influence after the First Council of Nicaea, Emperor Constantine I banished him from Alexandria to Trier in the Rhineland, but he was restored after the death of Constantine I by the emperor's son Constantine II. In 359, Athanasius was banished once again. This time he went to Rome, and spent seven years there before returning to Alexandria. The years from 346 through 356 were a relatively peaceful period for Athanasius, and some of his most important writings were composed during this period. Unfortunately, the emperor Constantinus II seems to have been committed to having Athanasius deposed, and went so far as to send soldiers to arrest Athanasius. Athanasius went into hiding in the desert with the Desert Fathers, and continued in his capacity as bishop from there until the death of Constantinus in 361.

A particularly noteworthy event occurred in 362, when Athanasius showed remarkable diplomatic flair in rallying the Orthodox at the Council of Alexandria in 362.

There were two more brief periods when Athanasius was exiled. In the spring of 365, after the accession of Emperor Valens to the throne, troubles again arose. Athanasius was once more compelled to seek safety from his persecutors in concealment (October 365), which lasted, however, only for four months.

From 366 he was able to serve as bishop in peace until his death. Athanasius was restored on at least five separate occasions, perhaps as many as seven. This gave rise to the expression \"Athanasius contra mundum\" or \"Athanasius against the world\".

He spent his final years in repairing all the damage done during the earlier years of violence, dissent, and exile, and returning to his writing and preaching undisturbed. On the 2nd of May 373, having consecrated Peter II, one of his presbyters as his successor, he died quietly in his own house.

Writings

Athanasius spent a good deal of his energy on polemical writings against his theological opponents. Examples include: Orations Against the Arians, his defence of the divinity of the Holy Spirit (Letters to Serapion in the 360s, and On the Holy Spirit) against Macedonianism and \"On the Incarnation\".

Arguably his most read work is his biography of Anthony the Great entitled Vita Antonii, or Life of Antony. This biography later served as an inspiration to Christian monastics in both the East and the West. The so-called Athanasian Creed dates from well after Athanasius's death and draws upon the phraseology of Augustine's De trinitate.

In Coptic literature St. Athanasius is the first patriarch of Alexandria to use Coptic, as well as Greek in his writings.

New Testament canon

Athanasius is also the first person to identify the same 27 books of the New Testament that are in use today. Up until then, various similar lists of works to be read in churches were in use. A milestone in the evolution of the canon of New Testament books is his Easter letter from Alexandria, written in 367, usually referred to as his 39th Festal Letter. Pope Damasus, the Bishop of Rome in 382, promulgated a list of books which contained a New Testament canon identical to that of Athanasius. A synod in Hippo in 393 repeated Athanasius' and Damasus' New Testament list (without the Epistle to the Hebrews), and a synod in Carthage in 397 repeated Athanasius' and Damasus' complete New Testament list.

Scholars have debated whether Athanasius' list in 367 was the basis for the later lists. Because Athanasius' canon is the closest canon of any of the Church Fathers to the canon used by Protestant churches today, many Protestants point to Athanasius as the father of the canon. They are identical except that Athanasius includes the Book of Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah and places the Book of Esther among the \"7 books not in the canon but to be read\" along with the Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Judith, Tobit, the Didache, and the Shepherd of Hermas. See the article, Biblical canon, for more details.

Recent Opinions

There are at present two completely opposite views about the personality of Athanasius. While some scholars praise him as an orthodox saint with great character, others see him as a power-hungry politician who employed questionable ecclesiastical tactics.

Critics of Athanasius

Some recent academics have painted a less than flattering picture of the saint. They argue that his ascension to the station of Bishop in Alexandria occurred under questionable circumstances. Upon the death of his predecessor Alexander, in 328 C.E., more than fifty bishops gathered to confer a new leader to the Alexandrian see. While Alexander had been priming Athanasius to assume the bishopric after his death, it is said, he was not unanimously supported, and questions of his age (the minimum age to become a bishop was thirty, and questions remain to this day if he was yet that old), as well as less than overwhelming support, did not help his candidacy. Growing impatient, Athanasius took a small number of bishops who supported his claim, and held a private consecration making him bishop. According to these scholars, his ascension would only later be declared the will of the people.

Throughout most of his career, Athanasius had many detractors. There were allegations of defiling an altar, selling Church grain that had been meant to feed the poor for his own personal gain, and for suppressing dissent through violence and murder. It cannot be claimed, beyond all doubt, whether any or all of these specific allegations were true, but Athanasius almost certainly employed a level of force when it suited his cause or personal interests, and his administration of the Alexandrian see has even been likened to an “ecclesiastical mafia”. Serious questions also surround the reliability of his historical accounts. Some claim that Athanasius misrepresented his own life and events in order to warp the truth behind his own actions, and those of his enemies; especially when discussing his theological opponents, the Arians.

Allegations of violence

Some modern historians suggest that the tactics of Athanasius were a significant factor in his success. He did not hesitate to back up his theological views with the use of force. In Alexandria, he assembled a group that could instigate a riot in the city if needed. It was an arrangement "built up and perpetuated by violence. Along with excommunication he used beatings, intimidation, kidnapping and imprisonment to silence his theological opponents. Some of these allegations from the Council of Tyre were clearly false, like the charge of killing Arsenius as Arsenius was still alive. The allegations nevertheless led to distrust in some quarters and to his being tried many times for "bribery, theft, extortion, sacrilege, treason and murder. While the charges rarely stuck, his reputation was a major factor in his multiple exiles from Alexandria. Athanasius stubbornly refused to compromise his theological views by stating, "What is at stake is not just a theological theory but people's salvation. He played a clear role in making the Constantinian shift a part of the theology of the church.

Anti-Arianism

Athanasius presented his opponents, the Arians as a cohesive group that backed Arius’ views and followed him as a leader. It is now accepted by most scholars that the Arian Party were not a monolithic group. It is now believed that Arius’ supporters held drastically different theological views that spanned the early Christian theological spectrum. They supported the tenets of Origenist thought and theology, but had little else in common. The term Arian was first coined by Athanasius. Athanasius used the term Arian to describe many of his opponents, except for Melitians. He used the term in a derogatory fashion to chide Arius’ supporters who did not see themselves as followers of Arius. As stated by Timothy Barnes; Athanasius used “invented dialogue to ridicule his adversaries”, and used “suppression and distortion” to serve his own means. He often blamed charges and accusations leveled at him on “Arian madmen” who he claimed conspired to destroy him and Christianity. The Arian party, as described by Athanasius, may not have existed in the form he portrayed it in his writings. The view of Arianism that exists to this day among most Christians would not have existed were it not for Athanasius.

Defenders

However, there are also many modern historians who object to this view and point out that such hostile attitude towards Athanasius is based on an unfair judgment of historical sources.

See also

Notes

References

  • Arnold, Duane W.-H., 1991 The Early Episcopal Career of Athanasius of Alexandria
  • Alexander of Alexandria "Catholic Epistle", The Ecole Initiative, http://ecole.evansville.edu/arians/alex1.htm
  • Arius, “Arius’ letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia” from Theodoret’s, Ecclesiastical History, ser. 2, vol. 3, 41, The Ecole Initiative, http://ecole.evansville.edu/arians/arius1.htm
  • Attwater, Donald and Catherine Rachel John. The Penguin Dictionary of Saints. 3rd edition. New York: Penguin Books, 1993. ISBN 0-140-51312-4.
  • Barnes, Timothy D., Athanasius and Constantius : Theology and Politics in the Constantinian Empire (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1993).
  • Barnes, Timothy D., Constantine and Eusebius (Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 1981)
  • Brakke, David, 1995. Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism
  • Chadwick, Henry, “Faith and Order at the Council of Nicaea”, Harvard Theological Review LIII (Cambridge Mass: 1960), 171-195.
  • Ernest, James D., The Bible in Athanasius of Alexandria (Leiden: Brill, 2004).
  • Haas, Christopher “The Arians of Alexandria”, Vigiliae Christianae Vol. 47, no. 3 (1993), 234-245.
  • Hanson, R.P.C., The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381 (T.&T. Clark 1988)
  • Kannengiesser, Charles, “Alexander and Arius of Alexandria: The last Ante-Nicene theologians”, Miscelanea En Homenaje Al P. Antonio Orbe Compostellanum Vol. XXXV, no. 1-2. (Santiago de Compostela, 1990), 391-403.
  • Kannengiesser, Charles “Athanasius of Alexandria vs. Arius: The Alexandrian Crisis”, in The Roots of Egyptian Christianity (Studies in Antiquity and Christianity), ed. Birger A. Pearson and James E. Goehring (1986), 204-215.
  • Ng, Nathan K. K., 2001 The Spirituality of Athanasius
  • Rubenstein, Richard E., When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ’s Divinity in the Last Days of Rome (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1999).
  • Williams, Rowan Arius: Heresy and Tradition (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1987).

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