ATHANASIUS OF ALEXANDRIA ’Αθανασιος[Athanasios], Athanasius, Athanasius the Great)—a doctor of the Church, Archbishop and Patriarch of Alexandria (from 328), theologian, defender of Catholic orthodox belief in the controversy with the Arians, b. around 296, d. in 378.
We know of Athanasius’ life from his works and from biographies and eulogies written within a few years of his death, especially the Historia acephala of the deacon Theodosius.
In 325 when Athanasius was a deacon of Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, he participated in the Nicene Council. He then wrote his first theological works: Against the pagans and On the incarnation of the Word of God. In 328, despite the efforts of the Arians and Meletians, he became the metropolitan of Alexandria. Around 335 to 337 following a synod in Tyre he was exiled to Trevir where he remained until the death of Constantine (337). Around 339 to 356 he governed as Bishop of Alexandria. In the years 356 to 361 he was gain sent into exile. In that period he wrote his greatest works: Orationes contra arianos, Apologies, The Life of Anthony, Epistles to Serapion, and Thomus ad Antiochenos. In 362 Athanasius was exiled for the fourth time to the desert (in the times of Julian), and between 366 and 373 for the fifth time (in the times of Valens).
Among Athanasius’ works we should mention the two-part apology Speech against the pagans (Oratio contra gentes), and Speech on the incarnation of the Word of God (Oratio de incarnatione Verbi). The opening chapter of the apology of the Oratio contra gentes was inspired by Origen’s mystical anthropology. After an extensive description of idolatry abounding in psychological observations, the apology concludes with an original treatment of the nature of the human soul that had elements of a Christian Platonism of the Alexandrian tradition.
The Oratio de incarnatione Verbi is most important in our knowledge of Athanasius’ theological views.
The Speeches against the Arians (Orationes contra Arianos), which according to tradition was written during Athanasius’ third exile, but the date for almost a century has been shifted to the year 339—were sent from Rome to Egypt along with a letter of commendation To the monks, with another work On the death of Arius (336 in Constantinople), and a personal Letter to Bishop Serapion (Epistula ad Serapionem). The Orationes contra Arianos contained a defense of the Nice Creed and polemics with the Arian interpretation of the Sacred Scripture; they contain fragments of Arius’ Thalia which are a direct source of knowledge on Arianism.
After his return from exile in 346, Athanasius worked on an apology and two other works: Letter on the doctrine of Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria (Epistola de sententia Dionysii episcopi Alexandrini) and Letter on the decrees of the Nicene Council (Epistola de decretis Nicaenae synodi). In both treatises in the form of letters he used materials and thoughts from his own discourses on the Arians. In 356 he was able to publish an Encyclical letter to the bishops of Egypt and Libya (Epistola encyclica ad episcopos Aegypti et Libyae). Arius’ theses are rejected in this letter on the basis of biblical arguments and citations from Holy Scripture.
During his third exile (in the Egyptian desert) Athanasius was very active in writing as a leader of the Church and as a theological and pastoral writer. After the death of the hermit Anthony, he write Vita sancti Antonii (Life of Saint Anthony). With this work he produced a model that would be followed in later Greek and Latin hagiographies, a model based on the principles employed in the biographies of heroes and ancient wise men. There are clear parallels to Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus. During this period he worked on the first, second, and third Letter on the divine nature of the Holy Spirit in which he brought Christological arguments into pneumatology. His Letters on the synods in Rimini and Seleuciae (Epstola de synodis a Rimini in Italia et Seleuciae in Isauria celebratis) was completed around 362. His Apology to Emperor Constantine (Apologia ad Constantinum imperatorem) was completed in 357, and and it is his best work with respect to style and rhetoric. He had finished his Apology concerning flight (Apologia de fuga) somewhat earlier, at the beginning of his time in the desert.
Among Athanasius’ later extant writings, his synodal letter from Alexandria (362) is important: Letter to the Antiocheans (Tomus ad Antiochenos), as are two dogmatic letters, Letter to Epictetus, Bishop of Corinth (Epistula ad Epictetum episcopum Corynthi), and his Letter to the Bishop Adelphios (Epistola ad Adelphium episcopum), a personal friend from Egypt. His Letter to Epictetus answers a question by Epictetus by direct reference to the Arian discourses, while in his correspondence with Adelphios, Athanasius paraphrases his own first dogmatic Oratio de incarnatione Verbi.
The so-called Letter to the philosopher Maximus (Epistola ad Maximum philosophum) and another Letter to the Africans (Epistola ad Afros) were cited in the general councils in Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451), but their authenticity is questionable. In both works the so-called third Arian discourse had an important role. The purpose of both these letters seems to have been to circulate the theses of that discourse.
We should remember a short letter To Draconitios, two or three texts to monks, and the Paschal Letters that Athanasius sent quite often between the years 328 and 373.
In his writings Athanasius provides a picture of the state of Christianity in the epoch of Constantine. He resolutely defended the laws of the Church against the temptations of the imperial power and against attacks from other bishops. At the same time with unending patience he was faithful to the confession of faith from Nicea. He joined this fidelity with a deep understanding of tradition conceived as the source and sign of orthodoxy in the life of the Church (including the establishment of the canon of Holy Scripture and an understanding of it). He applied the rules of classical rhetoric to the explanation of Holy Scripture (who speaks in Holy Scripture, when, where, why, and to whom?—the answers to these questions were applied to the community’s level of faith). In later times the sayings of the Fathers of the Church were presented in this literary form.
Athanasius was the first among the hierarchs of the Church to understand the historical significance of the monastic movement. He succeeded in renewing the “axioms” of Christian theology established by Origen. His focus on the mystery of the Incarnation provided a new foundation for that theology. His systematic doctrine on God was thereby closely connected with an investigation of the concrete history of salvation as this history was realized in the Church.
In Athanasius’ dogmatic work he developed the doctrine of the Council of Nicea concerning, among other things, the problem of ‘ομοουσιος [homoousios]. He outlined the doctrine of the essential unity of Father and Son in a language that the people could understand and suited to pastoral purposes. The concrete event of the Incarnation was the central point of reference in his thought. Salvation (’οικονομια [oikonomia]) was realized in the Incarnation. Abstract and deductive arguments were alien to him, and so his Christology had a narrative and practical character close to the spirituality of Origen but alien to philosophical Origenism. His Christology is a prologue to Apollinarianism (Apollinarius), but he does not introduce the systematic problematics of Apollinarius. Athanasius also laid the foundations for a dogmatic definition of the divinity of the Holy Spirit.
Athanasius’ work witnesses to the discussion with non-orthodox positions that were alive at the time, especially with Arianism, and his work constitutes an important stage in the process of creating a Greek philosophical-theological vocabulary (including ’ουσια [ousia], ‘υποστασας [hypostasis], ‘ομοουσιος [homoousios], προσωπον [prosopon]). He also attempted to use analogies drawn from the human world in his doctrine about God, especially about the Holy Trinity (including the concept of a simple being, and the structure of the faculties of the human soul).
Athanasius contributed to the important role of the basic principles of trinitarian and Christological doctrine in Greek theology, and by way of the Cappadocian Fathers who thought of themselves as his disciples he influenced the synthesis formed by St. Augustine.
Athanasius, PG 25–38; A. Cavallera, Sankt Athanasius, P 1908; H. G. Opitz, Athanasius’ Werke I–III, B 1934–1941; idem, Untersuchungen zur Verlassung der Schriften des Athanasius, B-L 1935; G. Meller, Lexicon Athanasianum, B 1952; E. Schwartz, Zur Geschichte des Athanasius, B 1959; C. N. Cochrane, Chrześcijaństwo a kultura antyczna [Christianity and ancient culture], Wwa 1960; H. Chadwick, Die Kirche in der antiken Welt, B-NY 1972; A. Martin, Athanasius et les Melitiens: politique et théologie chez Athanasius d’Alexandrie, P 1974, 31–61; M. Tetz, Athanasius und die Vita Antonii, ZNW 73 (1982), 1–30; C. Kannengisser, Athanasius d’Alexandrie, évêque et écrivain. Une lecture des traités contre les Ariens, P 1983; J. N. D. Kelly, Początki doktryny chrześcijańskiej, Wwa 1988; B. Altaner, A. Stuiber, Patrologia, Wwa 1990; D. W. H. Arnold, The Early Episcopal Career of Athanasius of Alexandria, Notre Dame (In.) 1991.