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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.