Athanasius Patriarch of Alexandria, was born in that city about A.D. 296. The precise date is not known, nor have we any accurate knowledge of his family or of his earlier years. It is clear, however, that he was brought up and educated with a view to the Christian ministry by Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, and gave promise of his future eminence in early youth. When a young man, he became very intimate with the hermit Anthony (q.v.), whose life he afterward wrote. His intellect matured so early that before he was twenty- four he wrote the treatises Against the Greeks, and Concerning the Incarnation of the Word (of which see an account below). While only a deacon he was sent to the Council of Nice (A.D. 325), where he contributed largely to the decision against the Arians, and to the adoption of the Nicene Creed. SEE NICE, Council of. It was the great task of his whole after life to defend this creed against the Arians and other heretical sects. On the death of Alexander (A.D. 326), he was made bishop of Alexandria by the voice of the people as well as of the ecclesiastics. He discharged his duties with exemplary fidelity; but the Arians soon commenced a series of violent attacks upon him, which embittered all his remaining life. About 331, Arius, who had been banished after his condemnation by the Council of Nice made a plausible confession of faith, and Constantine recalled him, directing that he should be received by the Alexandrian Church. But Athanasius firmly refused to admit him to communion, and exposed his prevarication. The Arians, upon this, exerted themselves to raise tumults at Alexandria, and to injure the character of Athanasius with the emperor. In 334 a synod of hostile bishops was called to meet at Caesarea. To this council Athanasius was summoned to defend himself against the charge of having murdered a certain Meletian bishop called Arsenius; but, knowing the enmity entertained by all the members of the council against him, he refused to attend. In the following year a more important council was convoked at Tyre, at which sixty Arian bishops were present, and many of the orthodox faith. No accusation was brought against the faith of Athanasius, but the old charge of the murder of Arsenius was renewed, and he was also accused of having violated the person of a virgin. The first accusation was most clearly refuted by the appearance of Arsenius himself before the synod; and the falsehood of the second as clearly proved by the woman (who was, in fact, a common prostitute, and who had never before seen the bishop) fixing, by mistake, upon another man, Timotheus, who stood near Athanasius, and declaring that it was he who had committed the sin. But Athanasius, seeing that his condemnation was resolved on by the majority, left the council. Athanasius was deposed, fifty bishops, however, protesting against the judgment. Athanasius went at once to the emperor, and laid his complaint before him, upon which, in 336, Constantine called the leaders of the opposing party before him, who, seeing that some new charge must be trumped up to support their conduct, declared that Athanasius had threatened that he would prevent the yearly export of corn from Alexandria to Constantinople; upon which the emperor exiled him to Treves. At the expiration of a year and six months, i.e. in June, 337, Constantine the Great being dead, Athanasius was restored to his see. In 340 Constantine the younger, who was the friend of Athanasius, was killed; and in 341 Athanasius was again deposed in a synod held at Antioch, and Gregory of Cappadocia was elected to succeed him. — In the mean time Athanasius betook himself to Rome, where Pope Julius declared his innocence in a synod held in 342. At Rome or in the West he remained till the Synod of Sardica, in 347, had pronounced his acquittal of all the charges brought against him; after which the emperor Constantius, at the entreaty of his brother Constans, recalled him to his see (A.D. 349). In the very next year Constans was slain by Magnentius in Gaul, and in him Athanasius lost his protector. Constantius, now sole emperor, soon gathered the Arians around him, and the court determined to ruin Athanasius. New accusations were trumped up, and he was condemned by a council convened at Arles (353), and by another at Milan (355), and was a third time obliged to flee into the deserts of Thebais. His enemies pursued him even here, and set a price upon his head. In this situation Athanasius composed his most important writings to strengthen the faith of believers, and expose the falsehood of his enemies. He returned with the other bishops whom Julian the Apostate recalled from banishment, and in A.D. 362 held a council at Alexandria, where the belief of a consubstantial Trinity was openly professed. Julian soon became alarmed at the energy with which Athanasius opposed paganism, and banished him, even (according to Theodoret) threatening him with death. He escaped to the desert (A.D. 362). The accession of Jovian brought him back in 363; but Jovian died in 364, and Valens, being an Arian, compelled him to retire from his see (A.D. 367). He hid himself in his father's tomb at the gates of Alexandria for four months. At last Valens (according to one account, for fear of the people of Alexandria, who took arms in favor of Athanasius) recalled the heroic bishop, and he was permitted to sit down in quiet and govern his affectionate Church of Alexandria until his death, May 2, 373 (according to Baronius, 372). Of the forty-six years of his official life he spent twenty in banishment. Athanasius was perhaps the greatest man in the early church. "With the most daring courage and perseverance of purpose, he combined a discreet flexibility, which allowed him after defeats to wait for new contingencies, and prepare himself for fresh exertions. He was no less calm and considerate than determined; and while he shunned useless danger (see his 'Apology for his Flight'), he never admitted the slightest compromise of his doctrine, nor attempted to conciliate by concession even his imperial adversaries. 'In his life and conduct,' says Gregory of Nazianzus, 'he exhibited the model of episcopal government — in his doctrine, the rule of orthodoxy.' Again, the independent courage with which he resisted the will of successive emperors for forty-six years of alternate dignity and misfortune introduced a new feature into the history of Rome. An obstacle was atonce raised against imperial tyranny: a limit was discovered which it could not pass over. Here was a refractory subject who could not be denounced as a rebel, nor destroyed by the naked exercise of arbitrary power; the weight of spiritual influence, in the skillful hand of Athanasius, was beginning to balance and mitigate the temporal despotism, and the artifices to which Constantius was compelled to resort, in order to gain a verdict from the councils of Aries and Milan, proved that his absolute power had already ceased to exist. Athanasius did not, indeed, like the Gregories, establish a system of ecclesiastical policy and power — that belonged to later ages and to another climate — but he exerted more extensive personal influence over his own age, for the advancement of the church, than any individual in any age, except perhaps Bernard. 'In all his writings,' says Photius, 'he is clear in expression, concise, and simple; — acute, profound, and very vehement in his disputations, with wonderful fertility of invention; and in his method of reasoning he treats no subject with baldness or puerility, but all philosophically and magnificently."'

Gregory of Nazianzus has an oration on Athanasius, from which the following passage is given by Cave (Lives of the Fathers, vol. 2): "He was one that so governed himself that his life supplied the place of sermons, and his sermons prevented his corrections; much less need had he to cut or lance where he did but once shake his rod. In him all ranks and orders might find something to admire, something particular for their imitation: one might commend his unwearied constancy in fasting and prayer; another, his vigorous and incessant persevering in watchings and praise; a third, his admirable care and protection of the poor; a fourth, his resolute opposition to the proud, or his condescension to the humble. The virgins may celebrate him as their bridesman, the married as their governor, the hermits as their monitor, the cenobites as their lawgiver, the simple as their guide, the contemplative as a divine, the merry as a bridle, the miserable as a comforter, the aged as a staff, the youth as a tutor, the poor as a benefactor, and the rich as a steward. He was a patron to the widows, a father to orphans, a friend to the poor, a harbor to strangers, a brother to brethren, a physician to the sick, a keeper of the healthful, one who 'became all things to all men, that, if not all, he might at least gain the more.'... With respect to his predecessors in that see, he equalled some, came near others, and exceeded others; in some he imitated their discourses, in others their actions; the. meekness of some, the zeal of others, the patience and constancy of the rest; borrowing many perfections from some, and all from others; and so making up a complete representation of virtue, like skillful limners, who, to make the piece absolute, do first from several persons draw the several perfections of beauty within the idea of their own minds; so he, insomuch that in practice he outdid the eloquent, and in his discourses outwent those who were most versed in practice; or, if you will, in his discourses he excelled the eloquent, and in his practice those who were most used to business; and for those that had made but an ordinary advance in either, he was far superior to them, as being eminent but in one kind; and for those who were masters in the other, he outdid them in that he excelled in both." The aptitude of his remarkable intellect for grappling with the deepest problems is shown in all his writings, even in the earliest (λόγος κατὰ τῶν ῾Ελλήνων, Oration against the Greeks), an apologetic work to refute the Grecian attacks on Christianity, which evinces his culture in Greek learning, as well as rare metaphysical acuteness, written as it was before the author was twenty-five (A.D. 318?) The treatise De Incarnatione verbi appeared about the same time, and, indeed, is cited by Jerome as the same work. It treats of the deepest themes, God, creation, .anthropology, and Christology. His other most important writings are Epistola de decretis Nicence Synodi contra Ariaios; Epist. de sententia Dionysii; Orationes contra Arianos; 'Epistolce od Serapionem; Epistola ad Epictetum; Epistola ad Adelphum; Contra Apollinarium. Besides these are Apologia de Fuga sua (to justify his flight from persecution); Epistola ad Monachos, written by request of certain monks, to give an account of his sufferings and of the Arian heresy. The first, or dogmatical part, is lost. The following passage from this book manifests the modest 'humility of a grand intellect. Speaking of his attempts to explain the doctrine of the Logos, he says: "The more I think on the subject, the more incomprehensible it appears to me; and I should abandon it entirely were it not for your importunity and the blasphemy of your opponents. I therefore think it ploper to say something on the subject; for, though it be impossible to comprehend what God is, yet it is possible to tell what he is not. In like manner, though it is impossible fully to explain the nature of the Logos, yet it is easy to condemn and refute what his adversaries have said against him." After having made this apology, he begs them to return the letter after they had read it, without either copying or permitting it to be copied, as it was at least but an inadequate defense of that a great truth, and was too inconsiderable to deserve being transmitted to posterity. In this epistle his views on persecution contrast nobly with those of Augustine's later years. "Nothing," he observes, "more forcibly marks the weakness of a bad cause. Satan, who has no truth to propose to men, comes with axe and sword to make way for his errors. The method made use of by Christ to persuade men to receive his beneficent religion is widely different, for .ie teaches the truth, and says, If any man WILL come after in me, and be my disciple, etc. When he comes to the heart he uses no violence, but says, Open to me, my sister, my spouse; if we open, he comes in; if we will not open, he retires; for the truth is not preached with swords and spears, nor by the authority of soldiers, but by counsel and persuasion. But of what use can persuasion be where the imperial terror reigns? And what place is there for counsel where resistance to the imperial authority in these matters must terminate in exile or death? It is the property of the true religion to have no recourse to force, but to persuasion. But the state makes use of compulsion in matters of religion, and what is the consequence? Why, the church is filled with hypocrisy and impiety, and the faithful servants of Christ are obliged to hide themselves in caves and holes of the earth, or to wander about in the deserts." The Orationes contra Arianos, four in number, were written, it is supposed, during the stay of Athanasius in Egypt. In the first discourse he answers the objections which the Arians brought against what is now commonly termed the Eternal Sonship of Christ. In the second he shows the dignity of Christ's nature, and its superiority to that of angels and to all created beings, and explains several portions of Scripture, especially Proverbs 8, which he applies to Christ, pointing out what parts relate to his divine nature, and those which are to be understood of his human nature. The third may be divided into three parts. In the first he shows the essential unity and identity of the Father and Son; in the second he explains certain passages of Scripture which relate only to the human nature of Christ, and which the Arians had perverted by applying them to his divinity, in order the better to serve their own cause; in the third part he answers their objections; in the fourth discourse Athanasius shows the unity of the divine nature, and, at the same time, the distinct personality of the Father and the Son. Most of this oration refers to other heresies than Arianism. "We do not hesitate to affirm that the four orations of Athanasius against the Arians contain a dialectics as sharp and penetrating, and a metaphysics as transcendental as any thing in Aristotle or Hegel" (Shedd, History of Doctrines, 1, 73). Bishop Kaye gives a digest of the four orations in his Council of Nicea (Lond. 1853, pt. 2).

The Epistolae ad Serapionem (four in number) were written in reply to Serapion, an Egyptian bishop, who asked Athanasius to answer certain heretics who maintained that the Holy Spirit was a creature, and one of the ministering spirits of God, different from angels only in rank, but not in nature. "If," say they, "the Holy Spirit be neither an angel nor created being, if he proceed from the Father, he is his Son, and the Logos and he are brothers; if so, how can the Logos be called the only son of God? If they be equal, why is he called the Holy Spirit, and not Son; and why is it that he is not also said to have been begotten by the Father?" To show them the futility of such objections, which suppose that, in speaking of God and his son Jesus, we must be governed by the ideas of natural generation, Athanasius asks in his turn, "Who, then, is the father of the Father, the son of the Son? who the grandchildren, seeing, among men, father implies father antecedent, and son implies son consequent, and so on ad infinitum? Son among men is only a portion of his father; but in God, the Son is the entire image of the Father, and always Son, as the Father is always Father; nor can the Father be the Son, nor the Son the Father. We cannot, therefore, speak of God as having brother or ancestor of any kind, seeing the Scriptures speak of no such thing; nor do they ever give the Holy Spirit the name of Son, but only that of the Spirit of the Father and the Spirit of the Son. The holy Trinity has one and the same godhead or divinity; it is all but one God; we must not attach the idea of creature to it; human reason can penetrate no further; the cherubim cover the rest with their wings." In the second letter Athanasius combats those who place the Son in the rank of created beings, and advances the proofs of his divinity. The third letter shows that what the Scriptures say of the Son as to his divine nature, they say the same also of the Holy Spirit; and that the proofs which establish the divinity of the one, establish also the divinity of the other. In the fourth letter he shows how the Holy Spirit cannot be termed Son, and insists on the necessity of saying nothing of God but what he has revealed concerning himself; and that we must not judge of the divine nature by what we see in men; and that the mystery of the Trinity cannot be fathomed by human wisdom. As Serapion had asked his opinion concerning that text, He who blasphemeth against the Holy Ghost hath no forgiveness, neither in this world nor in that which is to come, he employs the conclusion of this letter in discussing this point. Origen and Theognostus, he observes, asserted that the sin against the Holy Ghost was apostasy after baptism. This Athanasius denies, because the words were addressed to the Pharisees, who had not been baptized, and yet are charged with having committed this sin; he then asserts that as the Jews had seen the miracles which Christ wrought, and attributed them to the power of Beelzebub, thereby denying his divinity, that this alone constitutes the sin against the Holy Ghost. Those, says he, who consider only the human acts of Christ, and suppose him, therefore, to be a man only, are in some sort excusable. Those also who, seeing his miracles, doubted whether he was a man, could scarcely be deemed culpable; but those who, seeing his miracles and divine actions, obstinately' attributed them to the power of the devil, — as the Pharisees did, committed a crime so enormous that there is reason to fear such a sin is unpardonable. This, therefore, is the sin against the Holy Ghost of which Christ speaks. The treatise against Apollinaris and the Epistle to Epictetus treat with unrivalled skill and acumen of the true doctrine of the humanity of Christ.

The Athanasian Creed, so called, is not the work of Athanasius. SEE CREED, ATHANASIAN. For the doctrinal views of Athanasius, and for his great services to the church in settling the scientific doctrine of the Trinity, see Shedd, History of Christian Doctrine, bk. 3, ch. 3; bk. 5, ch. 6; Smith's Hagenbach, History of Doctrines, § 87-105; Neander, History of Dogmas, 2, 290 sq. Bishop Kaye's Account of the Council of Nicea (Lond. 1853, 8vo) gives a history of the Arian heresy from its rise to the death of Athanasius, and also a digest of the "Four Orations against the Arians." See also the articles SEE ARIANISM; SEE TRINITY.

Athanasius brought against the Arian and other heresies three classes of arguments: (1) from the authority of preceding writers and the general sense of the church; (2) philosophical and rational arguments; (3) scriptural and exegetical proofs. In each of these fields he showed entire mastery of the material. But the great merit of his position was his assertion of the supreme authority of Scripture as against the assertions or presuppositions of reason. The Arians, Sabellians, etc. were simply precursors of the modern Rationalism; Athanasius, on the other hand, maintained that the mind of man is not, and cannot be, the I measure of the universe, still less of God, the creator of the universe. Neander sums up his share in the Arian controversy as follows: When the Arians maintained that the Son of God was only distinguished from other created beings by the fact that God created him first of all, and then all other beings by him; Athanasius, on the contrary, said It is a narrowminded representation that God, must require an instrument for creation; it looks as if the Son of God came into existence only for our sakes; and by such a representation we might be led to regard the Son of God, not as participating immediately in the divine essence, but as requiring an intermediate agency for himself. What, then, could that agency be between him and God? Grant that such existed, then that would be the Son of God in a proper sense; nothing else, indeed, than the divine essence communicating itself. If we do not stand in connection with God through the Son of God as thus conceived of, we have no true communion with him, but something stands between us and God, and we are, therefore, not the children of God in a propersense. For, in reference to our original relation, we are only creatures of God, and he is not in a proper sense our Father; only so far is he our Father as we are placed in communion with the Father through Christ, who is the Son of God by a communication of the divine essence: without this I doctrine it could not be said that we are partakers of the divine nature (Orat. contr. Arian. 1, 16) ἀνάγκη λέγειν τὸ ἐκ τῆς οὐσίας τοῦ πατρὸς ἴδιον αὐτοῦ σύμπαν εϊvναι τὸν υἱὸν· τὸ γὰρ ὃλως μετέχεσθαι τὸν θεὸν, ϊvσὸν ἐστι λέγειν ὅτι καὶ γεννᾶ'/· τὸ δὲ γεννᾶ'/ν τί σημαινει ἤ υἱὸν; αὐτοῦ γοῦν τοῦ υἱοῦ μετέχει τὰ πάντα κατὰ τὴν τοῦ πνεύματος γινομἐνην παῤ αὐτοῦ χάριν, καὶ φανερὸν ἐκ τούτου γένεται, ὅτι αὐτός μεν ὁ υἱὸς οὐδενὸς μετέχει, τὸ δὲ ἐκ τοῦ πατρὸς μετχόμενον, τοῦτό ἐστι ὁ υἱός· αὐτοῦ γάρ τοῦ υἱοῦ μετέχοντες τοῦ θεοῦ μετέχειν λεγόμεθα ( ἵνα γένητε θείας κοινωνοὶφύσεως᾿᾿ - ῾οὐκ οἴδατε, ὅτι ναὸς θεοῦ ἐστε;᾿᾿ - ῾ἡμεῖς, γὰρ ναὸς θεοῦ ἐσμεν ζῶντος,᾿᾿ 2, 59). Thus, in Athanasius, the ideas of redemption, adoption, and communion with God were connected with the idea of Jesus as the true Son of God. As the Arians believed that they ought to pay divine honor to Christ according to the Scriptures, he charged them with inconsistency, since, on their principles, men were made idolaters and worshippers of a creature. The Arians objected to the Nicene doctrine that the idea of the Son of God could not be distinguished from that of a created being unless anthropopathical notions were admitted, Athanasius replied that certainly all religious expressions are symbolical, and have something anthropopathical at their basis, which we must abstract from them in order to get the correct idea. But the same is the case with the idea of creation, which the Arians are willing to maintain; we should fall into error if we tried to develop this according to human representations. In like manner we must abstract from the ideas Son of God and begotten of God what belongs to sensuous relations, and then there is left to us the idea of unity of essence and derivation of nature. Athanasius objects to the Semi- Arians that the ideas of likeness and unlikeness suit only creaturely relations; in reference to God we can speak only of unity or diversity. It belongs to the idea of creation. that something is created out of nothing, ab extra, by the will of God; to the idea of the Son of God belongs derivation from the essence of God. It was a difficulty to the Semi-Arians in general, as well as to the Arians, that the Son of God was asserted to maintain his existence not by a direct act of the Father's will, and both parties urged against the Nicseans the dilemma that either God brought the Son into being by his own will, or that he was begotten against his will by necessity. Athanasius emphatically maintained the doctrine they impugned. If the will of God be supposed to be the origin of the Son's existence, then the Son of God belongs to the class of creatures. The existence of the divine Logos precedes all particular acts of the divine will, which are all effectuated only by the Logos, who himself is the living divine will. Our opponents think only of the contrast between will and compulsion; they ignore what is higher, namely, the idea of that which is founded in the divine essence. We cannot say God is good and merciful first of all, by a special act of his will, but all the acts of the divine will presuppose the being of God. The same holds good of the Logos and the acts of God's will." — Neander, Hist. of Dogmas, 1, 295.

Athanasius must be classed among the greatest of Christian theologians. Yet in some points he was "weak like other men;" and the ascetic and monastic spirit received a strong impulse from his writings, and especially from his Life of St. Anthony (q.v.). This and some other of his writings were doubtless interpolated by later writers in the interest of Romish corruptions, yet enough remains to show that he shared in some of the Gnostic errors, especially with regard to religious virginity and celibacy. Thus, in his oration Against the Greeks, the following passage occurs: "The Son of God," says Athanasius (i. 698), "made man for us, and having abolished death, and having liberated our race from the servitude of corruption, hath, besides his other gifts, granted to us to have upon earth an image of the sanctity of angels, namely, virginity. The maids possessing this (sanctity), and whom the church catholic is wont to call the brides of Christ, are admired, even by the gentiles, as being the temple of the Logos. Nowhere, truly, except among us Christians, is this holy and heavenly profession fully borne out or perfected; so that we may appeal to this very fact as a convincing proof that it is among us that true religion is to be found." And thus, in the undoubted tract of the same father on the Incarnation, we meet the very same prominent doctrine spoken of as a characteristic of the Christian system, and even including the Gnostic phrase applied to virginity, that it was an excellence obeying a rule "above law." "Who is there but our Lord and Savior Christ that has not deemed this virtue (of virginity) to be utterly impracticable (or unattainable) among men, and yet he has so shown his divine power as to impel youths, as yet under age, to profess it, a virtue beyond law?" (1, 105). (Taylor, Ancient Christianity, 1, 222; see also Taylor's remarks on Athanasius's Life of Anthony, p. 280.)

The most complete edition of the works of Athanasius is that of the Benedictines (Athanasii Opera omnia quae extant, vel quce ejus nomine circumferuntur, etc. Padua, 1777, 4 vols. fol.). Very convenient for ordinary students is Athanasii opera dogmatica selecta, ed. Thilo, (Lips. 1853, 1000 pp. 8vo), which contains all the really important writings of Athanasius. The Four Orations against the Arioans were translated by S. Parker (Oxf. 1713, 2 vols. 8vo). We have also in English, Select Treatises in Controversy with the Arians, in the "Library of the Fathers," vols. 8, 19 (Oxf. 184244); Historical Tracts (Lib. of Fathers, 13, Oxf. 1843). The "Festal Letters" of Athanasius were long lost, but were edited in 1848 by Mr. Cureton, from a newlyfound Syrian MS., and translated into German under the title Die Fest-Briefe des Heiligen Athanasius, aus dem Syrischen fibersetzt und durch Annmerkungen erlautert von F. Larzow (Leipzig, 1852, pp. 156); also into English by Burgess (Oxf. 1854, 8vo, pp. 190).

See Journal of Sac. Lit. Jan. 1855, p. 255. A complete list of the works of Athanasius, including the doubtful and supposititious as well as the genuine, is given in Fabricius, Bibl. Grce., ed. Harles, 7, 184-215. The sources of information as to the life of Athanasius, besides his own writings, are the church histories of Socrates (lib. 1, 2), Sozomen (2, 3), Theodoret (1, 2), and the material is well arranged by Montfaucon, Vita A thanasii, prefixed to the Benedictine ed. of his works. There is also a modern biography by Mohler, Athanasius d. Grosse und die Kir he seiner Zeit, which gives a careful analysis of his doctrine and writings. See also Bohninger, Kirchengeschichte in Biographien (vol. 1, pt. 2, Zurich, 1842); Ritter, Gesch. der Christlich. Philosophie, vol. 2; Baur, Christl. Lehre v. der Dreieinigkeit, vol. 1; Dorner, History of the Doctrine of the Person of Christ, vol. 1, div. 2 (Edinb. ed.); Neander, Ch. Hist. 2, 380; Murdoch's Mosheim, Ch. Hist. 1, 239; Eng. Cyclopedia; Gibbon, Decline and Fall, ch. 21 - 24; Dupin, Eccl. Script. 1; Tillemont, Memoires, vol. 5; Cave, Hist. Lit. anno 326; Clarke, Succession of Sacred Literature, 1, 260; Voigt, Die Lehre d. Athanasius von Alexandrien (partly transl. in Bibliotheca Sacra, Jan. 1864); Shedd, History of Christian Doctrine, bk. 3, ch. 3; Kaye, Council of Nicaea (Lond. 1853, 8vo); Christian Remembrancer, Jan. 1854, art. 4; Herzog, Real-Encyklopadie, 1, 571 sq.; Villemain, Eloquence Chret. au Ame siecle, 92 sq.

Topical Outlines Nave's Bible Topics International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Online King James Bible King James Dictionary

Scripture linking and popups powered by VerseClick™.