Athanasius of Alexandria

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Saint Athanasius of Alexandria
Ikone Athanasius von Alexandria.jpg
Icon of St Athanasius
Pope of Alexandria; Confessor and Doctor of the Church
Bornc. 296–298
Alexandria, Egypt
Died2 May 373(373-05-02) (aged 77)
Alexandria, Egypt
Honored inRoman Catholicism, Oriental Orthodoxy, Eastern Orthodoxy, Lutheranism, Anglican Communion, and among the Continuing Anglican Movement
Major shrineSaint Mark Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo, Egypt
Feast15 May = 7 Pashons, 89 A.M. (Coptic Orthodox)
2 May (Western Christianity)
18 January (Eastern Orthodox Church)
AttributesBishop arguing with a pagan; bishop holding an open book; bishop standing over a defeated heretic
 
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Saint Athanasius of Alexandria
Ikone Athanasius von Alexandria.jpg
Icon of St Athanasius
Pope of Alexandria; Confessor and Doctor of the Church
Bornc. 296–298
Alexandria, Egypt
Died2 May 373(373-05-02) (aged 77)
Alexandria, Egypt
Honored inRoman Catholicism, Oriental Orthodoxy, Eastern Orthodoxy, Lutheranism, Anglican Communion, and among the Continuing Anglican Movement
Major shrineSaint Mark Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo, Egypt
Feast15 May = 7 Pashons, 89 A.M. (Coptic Orthodox)
2 May (Western Christianity)
18 January (Eastern Orthodox Church)
AttributesBishop arguing with a pagan; bishop holding an open book; bishop standing over a defeated heretic

Saint Athanasius of Alexandria (Greek: Ἀθανάσιος Ἀλεξανδρείας, Athanásios Alexandrías) (c. 296–298 – 2 May 373), also called Athanasius the Great, Athanasius the Confessor or, primarily in the Coptic Orthodox Church, Athanasius the Apostolic, was the twentieth bishop of Alexandria (as Athanasius I). His episcopate lasted 45 years (c. 8 June 328 – 2 May 373), of which over 17 were spent in five exiles ordered by four different Roman emperors. He is considered to be a renowned Christian theologian, a Church Father, the chief defender of Trinitarianism against Arianism, and a noted Egyptian leader of the fourth century.

He is remembered for his role in the conflict with Arius and Arianism. In 325, at the age of 27, Athanasius had a leading role against the Arians in the First Council of Nicaea. At the time, he was a deacon and personal secretary of the 19th Bishop of Alexandria, Alexander. Nicaea was convoked by Constantine I in May–August 325 to address the Arian position that the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, is of a distinct substance from the Father.[1]

In June 328, at the age of 30, three years after Nicæa and upon the repose of Bishop Alexander, he became archbishop of Alexandria. He continued to lead the conflict against the Arians for the rest of his life and was engaged in theological and political struggles against the Emperors Constantine the Great and Constantius II and powerful and influential Arian churchmen, led by Eusebius of Nicomedia and others. He was known as "Athanasius Contra Mundum". Within a few years of his departure, St. Gregory of Nazianzus called him the "Pillar of the Church". His writings were well regarded by all Church fathers who followed, in both the West and the East. His writings show a rich devotion to the Word-become-man, great pastoral concern, and profound interest in monasticism.

Athanasius is counted as one of the four great Eastern Doctors of the Church in the Roman Catholic Church[2] and in Eastern Orthodoxy, he is labeled the "Father of Orthodoxy". He is also celebrated by many Protestants, who label him "Father of The Canon". Athanasius is venerated as a Christian saint, whose feast day is 2 May in Western Christianity, 15 May in the Coptic Orthodox Church, and 18 January in the other Eastern Orthodox Churches. He is venerated by the Roman Catholic Church, Oriental and Eastern Orthodox churches, the Lutherans, and the Anglican Communion.

Biography[edit]

Athanasius was born in the city of Alexandria or possibly the nearby Nile Delta town of Damanhur around 296–298. It is speculated that his parents were wealthy enough to afford giving him an esteemed secular learning. In his earliest work, Against the Heathen - On the Incarnation, written before 319, he repeatedly quoted Plato and used a definition from the Organon of Aristotle. He was also familiar with the theories of various philosophical schools, and in particular with the developments of Neo-Platonism. In later works, he quotes Homer more than once (Hist. Ar. 68, Orat. iv. 29). In his letter to Emperor Constantius, he presents a defense of himself bearing unmistakable traces of a study of Demosthenes de Corona.

St. Athanasius (1883-84), by Carl Rohl-Smith, Frederik's Church, Copenhagen, Denmark.

He came from a Christian family, despite accounts to the contrary, as in his writings he tells more than once of an aunt who taught him some principles of the Christian faith, and a father who did the same, as well as mentioning (once) his mother doing the same. He had a Christian brother, and later in his life, in one of his exiles, he hid in his father's tomb in what appears[citation needed] to be described as a Christian cemetery.

He knew Greek and he admits to not knowing Hebrew [see, e.g., the 39th Festal Letter of St. Athan.]. The Old Testament passages he quotes frequently come from the Septuagint Greek translation. Ignorant of Hebrew, and only rarely appealing to other Greek versions (to Aquila once in the Ecthesis, to other versions once or twice on the Psalms), his knowledge of the Old Testament is limited to the Septuagint.[3] He was able to write a letter in exile, with no access to a copy of the Scriptures, and quote from memory every verse in the Old Testament with reference to the Trinity without missing any. The combination of Scriptural study and of Greek learning was characteristic of the famous Alexandrian School, of Clement, Origen, Dionysius and Theognostus.

At the time he was a student, the influence of Origen was still felt in the traditions of the theological school of Alexandria. It was from St. Alexander of Alexandria, Bishop of Alexandria, 312–328, himself an Origenist, that St Athanasius received his main instruction. His earliest work,Against the Heathen - On the Incarnation, bears traces of Origenist Alexandrian thought but in an orthodox way. He later modified the philosophical thought of the School of Alexandria away from the Origenist principles such as the "entirely allegorical interpretation of the text" proposed by Origen.

National origin[edit]

Statue in Catania.

St Athanasius was an Egyptian born in the city of Alexandria or possibly the nearby Nile Delta town of Damanhur. His superior command of Greek, and the fact that the vast majority of his writings were in Greek, led some in the West to claim that he was a Greek born in Alexandria. However, in Coptic literature, St Athanasius is the first patriarch of Alexandria to use Coptic as well as Greek in his writings.[4] The fact that he assumed the Episcopal see of Alexandria at a time of rising Egyptian Nationalism and of his being a noted Egyptian leader lends additional support to his Egyptian ancestry.

He received secular, philosophical, as well as theological training at Alexandria. Specifically his theological learning was in the famed Catechetical School of Alexandria. He recounts being a student in that school who was educated by the Martyrs of the Great (tenth) and last persecution of Christianity at the hands of pagan Rome. This persecution was most severe in the East, particularly in Egypt and Palestine. Possibly one of his teachers was St. Peter of Alexandria, the 17th archbishop of Alexandria who was martyred in 311 in the closing days of that persecution.

Early life[edit]

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.[5] 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.[6]

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). 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.[5]

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, 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.[5]

He was ordained a deacon by the contemporary patriarch, Alexander of Alexandria, in 319.[7] 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,[8] despite the opposition of the followers of Arius and Meletius of Lycopolis.[7]

Patriarch[edit]

Athanasius spent the first years of his patriarchate visiting the churches 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, Athanasius became occupied with the disputes with the Byzantine Empire and Arians which would occupy much of his life.[8]

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, the First Synod of Tyre, in 335. At that meeting, Eusebius of Nicomedia and the other supporters of Arius deposed Athanasius.[7] On 6 November, both parties of the dispute met with Constantine I in Constantinople.[9] 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.[7][8]

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' 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.[8]

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.

"Early in the year 343, Athanasius went to Gaul, whither he had gone to consult the saintly Hosius of Corduba, the great champion of orthodoxy in the West. The two together set out for the Council of Sardica which had been summoned in deference to the Roman pontiff's wishes. At this great gathering of prelates the case of Athanasius was taken up and once more his innocence reaffirmed; and clearly indicated that the participants saw St Athanasius as the lawful Patriarch of Alexandria.[7] Two conciliar letters were prepared, one to the clergy and faithful of Alexandria, the other to the bishops of Egypt and Libya, in which the will of the Council was made known. The persecution against the orthodox party broke out with renewed vigor, and Constantius II was induced to prepare drastic measures against Athanasius and the priests who were devoted to him. Orders were given that if the Saint attempted to re-enter his episcopal see, he should be put to death."[5]

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 the 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.[8]

In 361, after the death of Emperor Constantius, shortly followed by the murder of the very unpopular Bishop George, St Athanasius 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. 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, 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.[8] Some of the early reports explicitly indicate that Athanasius spent this period of exile in his ancestral tomb.[7]

Valens, who seems to have sincerely dreaded the possible consequences of a popular outbreak, gave orders within a few weeks for the return of Athanasius to his episcopal see. Here, St Athanasius, spent his remaining days, characteristically enough, in re-emphasizing the view of the Incarnation which had been defined at Nicaea. He died peacefully in his own bed, surrounded by his clergy and faithful.[5]

Year of birth[edit]

St Athanasius' year of birth is given anywhere from 296-298 or in 293. The arguments for a later date (i.e., 296-298, and most probably 298) can be summarized as follows. The author of the Festal Index, who was the original collector of St. Athanasius' famed Festal Epistles (collected shortly after his death), stated that the Arians had accused St. Athanasius, among other accusations, that his ordination as Pope of Alexandria in 328 was not canonical because at the time of the consecration to the episcopate he had not yet attained the canonical age 30. While there is no reason to believe the Arian claim, it can be surmised that he was close enough to 30 years old in 328 for them to contemplate raising such an accusation.

In two distinct passages of his writings (Hist. Ar., lxiv, and De Syn., xviii), St Athanasius does not recall from memory being a first hand witness to the onset of the great persecution by the Tetrarchy of Diocletian and Maximian in February 303, for in referring to the events of this period he makes no direct appeal to his own personal recollections, but falls back on tradition. Being unable to recall the events from memory (because he was still young) places him at an age much younger than 10 in 303.

Moreover, his parents were still alive in Alexandria in 358, which would also place the date of his birth later rather than earlier. These considerations would seem to make it likely that he was born no earlier than 296 and no later than 298. The Catholic Encyclopedia states he was born c. 296.

The earlier date, 293, is sometimes assigned and apparently supported by the authority of a "Coptic Fragment" (published by Dr. O. von Lemm among the Mémoires de l'académie impériale des sciences de S. Péterbourg, 1888) and corroborated by the maturity revealed in his two earliest treatises Contra Gentes (Against the Heathens) and De Incarnatione (On the Incarnation), which were admittedly written about the year 318 before Arianism had begun to make itself felt, as those writings do not show an awareness of Arianism.

Exiles[edit]

St Athanasius' long episcopate lasted 45 years (c. 8 June 328 – 2 May 373) of which over 17 years were spent in five exiles ordered by four different Roman Emperors, not counting approximately six more incidents in which he had to flee Alexandria for his own safety to escape people seeking to take his life.

First exile: under Emperor Constantine, for 2.5 years [11 Jul 335 – 22 Nov 337]; in Trier (Germany).

Second exile: under Emperor Constantius, for 7.5 years [16 Apr 339 – 21 Oct 346]; lived at Rome.

Third exile: under Emperor Constantius, for 6 years [9 Feb 356 – 21 Feb 362]; in the Egyptian desert.

Fourth exile: under Apostate Emperor Julian, 10 months [24 Oct 362 – 5 Sep 363]; in the Egyptian desert.

Fifth exile: under Emperor Valens, 4 months [5 Oct 365 – 31 Jan 366]; in his father's tomb.

Works[edit]

Athanasius works include his two-part Against the Heathen and The Incarnation of the Word of God. Completed probably early in his life, before the Arian controversy,[10] 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.[7] 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. 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.[8] He also wrote several works of Biblical exegesis, primarily of volumes in the Old Testament, which are preserved in excerpts regarding the 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.

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.[7] (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.[8]

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.[7]

Athanasius was not what would be called a speculative theologian. As he stated in his First Letters to Serapion, he held on to "the tradition, teaching, and faith proclaimed by the apostles and guarded by the fathers."[7] He held that not only was the Son of God consubstantial with the Father, but so was the Holy Spirit, which had a great deal of influence in the development of later doctrines regarding the Trinity.[7]

Veneration[edit]

Athanasius' Shrine (where a portion of his relics are preserved) under St. Mark's Cathedral, Cairo

St Athanasius was originally buried in Alexandria, Egypt, but his body was later transferred to the Chiesa di San Zaccaria in Venice, Italy. During Pope Shenouda III's visit to Rome from 4 to 10 May 1973, Pope Paul VI gave the Coptic Patriarch a relic of Athanasius,[11] which he brought back to Egypt on 15 May.[12] The relic of St Athanasius the Great of Alexandria is currently preserved under the new Saint Mark Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Deir El-Anba Rowais, Abbassiya, Cairo, Egypt. The body of St Athanasius continues to repose in the Chiesa di San Zaccaria.[13][14]

The following is a troparion (hymn) to St Athanasius sung in some Eastern 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.

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

St Gregory Nazianzen, fellow Doctor of the Church, 330-390, said in Or.21: "When I praise Athanasius, virtue itself is my theme: for I name every virtue as often as I mention him who was possessed of all virtues. He was the true pillar of the Church. His life and conduct were the rule of bishops, and his doctrine the rule of the orthodox faith."[5]

Historical significance[edit]

Opposition to Arianism[edit]

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.[15] Arius’ theological views appear to have been firmly rooted in Alexandrian Christianity, and his Christological views were certainly not radical at all.[16] He embraced a subordinationist Christology (that Christ was the divine Son( Logos ) of God made not begotten ), heavily influenced by Alexandrian thinkers like Origen,[17] which was a common Christological view in Alexandria at the time.[18] Support for Arius from powerful bishops like Eusebius of Caesarea[19] and Eusebius of Nicomedia,[20] 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 9 May 328, Athanasius 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 339, he 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 Constantius II seems to have been committed to having Athanasius deposed, and went so far as to send soldiers to arrest him. Athanasius went into hiding in the desert with the Desert Fathers, and continued in his capacity as bishop from there until the death of Constantius II in 361.

At the Alexandrian Council of 328, Athanasius was elected to succeed the aged Alexander, and various heresies and schisms of Egypt were denounced. In 340, one hundred bishops met at Alexandria, declared in favor of Athanasius, and vigorously rejected the criticisms of the Eusebian faction at Tyre. At a council in 350, Athanasius was replaced in his see. In 362 was held one of the most important of these councils. It was presided over by Athanasius and Eusebius of Vercelli, and was directed against those who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit, the human soul of Christ, and Christ's divinity. Mild measures were agreed on for those heretic bishops who repented, but severe penance was decreed for the chief leaders of the major heresies.

In 363, another council met under Athanasius for the purpose of submitting to the new Roman Emperor Jovian an account of the true faith. Somewhat similar was the purpose of the Council of 364.[21]

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

Writings[edit]

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 depicts Anthony as an illiterate and holy man who through his existence in a primordial landscape has an absolute connection to the divine truth, which always is synonymous with that of Athanasius as the biographer.[22] It 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.[4]

Quotes from St Athanasius[edit]

He said;

"Jesus that I know as my Redeemer cannot be less than God" ~at the Council of Nicæa (c. 325)

"Both from the confession of the evil spirits and from the daily witness of His works, it is manifest, then, and let none presume to doubt it, that the Savior has raised His own body, and that He is very Son of God, having His being from God as from a Father, Whose Word and Wisdom and Whose Power He is. He it is Who in these latter days assumed a body for the salvation of us all, and taught the world concerning the Father. He it is Who has destroyed death and freely graced us all with incorruption through the promise of the resurrection, having raised His own body as its first-fruits, and displayed it by the sign of the cross as the monument to His victory over death and its corruption". - The Incarnation of the Word, Chapter 5, The Resurrection (5:32)

"But for the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and a pure soul, and for Christian virtue to guide the mind to grasp, so far as human nature can, the truth concerning God the Word. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life. Anyone who wants to look at sunlight naturally wipes his eye clear first, in order to make, at any rate, some approximation to the purity of that on which he looks; and a person wishing to see a city or country goes to the place in order to do so. Similarly, anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds. Thus united to them in the fellowship of life, he will both understand the things revealed to them by God and, thenceforth escaping the peril that threatens sinners in the judgment, will receive that which is laid up for the saints in the kingdom of heaven." ~in his conclusion to The Incarnation of the Word, Chapter 9, (9:57)

"These are fountains of salvation that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take out from these. For concerning these, the Lord put to shame the Sadducees, and said, 'Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures' and He reproved the Jews, saying, 'Search the Scriptures, for these are they that testify of ME". ~describing the canon in his 39th Festal Letter (c.367)

"The Son of God became man so that we might become God."[23][24][25] (Also phrased as Christ became like man so that we might become like him.)

New Testament canon[edit]

St 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 I, the Bishop of Rome in 382, promulgated a list of books which contained a New Testament canon identical to that of Athanasius.[26] 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.[27] See the article, Biblical canon, for more details.

Recent Opinions[edit]

Statue of the saint in St Athanasius' Roman Catholic Church in Evanston, Illinois.

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[edit]

Richard E. Rubenstein and Timothy Barnes argue that his ascension to the station of bishop in Alexandria occurred under questionable circumstances. Upon the death of his predecessor Alexander in 328, more than fifty bishops gathered to choose 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 whether he was yet that old). Having less than overwhelming support as well did not help his candidacy. According to recent academics, Athanasius, growing impatient, took a small number of bishops who supported his claim, and held a private consecration making him bishop.[28]

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.[29] It cannot be claimed, beyond all doubt, whether any or all of these specific allegations were true, but Rubenstein suggests that Athanasius employed a level of force when it suited his cause or personal interests.[30]

Supporters of Athanasius[edit]

However, there are also many modern historians who object to this view and point out that such a hostile attitude towards Athanasius is based on an unfair judgment of historical sources.[31] Many Christian denominations revere Athanasius as a Saint, teacher, and father. They cite his defense of the Christology described in the first chapter of the Gospel of John[1:1-4] and his significant theological works (C.S. Lewis calls On the Incarnation of the Word of God a "masterpiece")[32] as evidence of his righteousness. They also emphasize his close relationship with St Anthony, who is almost universally revered throughout Christendom.

St Gregory Nazianzen, 330-390, begins Or. 21 with: "When I praise Athanasius, virtue itself is my theme: for I name every virtue as often as I mention him who was possessed of all virtues. He was the true pillar of the church. His life and conduct were the rule of bishops, and his doctrine the rule of the orthodox faith."[5]

St Cyril of Alexandria, 370-444, In the first letter says: "Athanasius is one who can be trusted: he would not say anything that is not in accord with sacred scripture." (Ep 1).

Pope Pius X said in a letter to philosopher-friend and correspondent in the closing years of his life, (Epist. lxxi, ad Max.): "Let what was confessed by the fathers of Nicaea prevail".[5]

Anti-Arianism[edit]

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 was not a monolithic group,[33] holding drastically different theological views that spanned the early Christian theological spectrum.[34][35][36] They supported the tenets of Origenist thought and theology,[37] but had little else in common. The term Arian was first coined by Athanasius to describe both followers of Arius, and followers of ideas that he deemed as bad as Arius'. Athanasius used the term Arian to describe many of his opponents, except for Miletians.[38] He used the term in a derogatory fashion to chide Arius’ supporters[39] who did not see themselves as followers of Arius.[40] As stated by Timothy Barnes, Athanasius used “invented dialogue to ridicule his adversaries”, and used “suppression and distortion” to serve his own means.[41] The Arian party, as described by Athanasius, may not have existed in the form he portrayed in his writings. Some argue that the view of Arianism that exists to this day among most Christians would not have existed were it not for Athanasius. However, others point to the Council of Nicaea as proof in and of itself that Arianism was a real theological ideology. While Athanasius may have affected the general perception of Arianism, they say, his portrayal was polemical, not creative.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Durant, Will. Caesar and Christ. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1972.
  2. ^ a b Wikisource-logo.svg "Doctors of the Church". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  3. ^ ᾽Αλεξανδρεὺς τῷ γένει, ἀνὴρ λόγιος, δυνατὸς ὢν ἐν ταῖς γραφαῖς
  4. ^ a b "Encyclopædia Britannica". Britannica.com. Retrieved 2012-09-25. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Clifford, Cornelius, Catholic Encyclopedia 1930, Volume 2, Pgs: 35-40 "Athanasius".
  6. ^ Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., VI, xix
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Encyclopedia Americana, vol. 2 Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier Incorporated, 1997. ISBN 0-7172-0129-5.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h Encyclopædia Britannica, 15th edition. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. ISBN 0-85229-633-9
  9. ^ Barnes, Timothy D., Athanasius and Constantius: Theology and Politics in the Constantinian Empire (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1993), 23
  10. ^ Justo L. Gonzalez in A History of Christian Thought notes (p292) that E. Schwartz places this work later, around 335, but "his arguments have not been generally accepted". The introduction to the CSMV translation of On the Incarnation places the work in 318, around the time Athanasius was ordained to the diaconate (St Athanasius On the Incarnation, Mowbray, England 1953)
  11. ^ "Metropolitan Bishoy of Damiette". Retrieved 2012-09-25. 
  12. ^ "Saint Athanasius". Avarewase.org. Retrieved 2012-09-25. 
  13. ^ "Chiesa di San Zaccaria Tour". Museumplanet.com. [dead link]
  14. ^ "The Incorrupt Relics of Saint Athanasios the Great". Johnsanidopoulos.com. 
  15. ^ 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), 398
  16. ^ Williams, Rowan, Arius: Heresy and Tradition (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1987),175
  17. ^ Williams, 175
  18. ^ Williams 154-155
  19. ^ Arius letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia
  20. ^ Alexander of Alexandria's Catholic Epistle
  21. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg "Councils of Alexandria". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  22. ^ Dag Øistein Endsjø Primordial landscapes, incorruptible bodies. Desert asceticism and the Christian appropriation of Greek ideas on geography, bodies, and immortality. New York: Peter Lang 2008.
  23. ^ Weigel, George (2001). The Truth of Catholicism. New York City: Harper Collins. p. 9. ISBN 0-06-621330-4. 
  24. ^ Later echoed by Thomas Aquinas
  25. ^ Later echoed by Witness Lee
  26. ^ Hahn, Paul Prof., "Development of the Biblical Canon"
  27. ^ "Excerpt from Letter 39". Ccel.org. 2005-07-13. Retrieved 2012-09-25. 
  28. ^ 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), 105-106
  29. ^ Barnes, Timothy D., Athanasius and Constantius: Theology and Politics in the Constantinian Empire (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1993),37
  30. ^ Rubenstein,106
  31. ^ Arnold, 24-99; Ng, 273-292.
  32. ^ Introduction to St. Athanasius on the Incarnation. Translated and edited by Sister Penelope Lawson, published by Mowbray 1944. p.9
  33. ^ Haas, Christopher, “The Arians of Alexandria”, Vigiliae Christianae Vol. 47, no. 3 (1993), 239
  34. ^ Chadwick, Henry, “Faith and Order at the Council of Nicaea”, Harvard Theological Review LIII (Cambridge Mass: 1960),173
  35. ^ Williams, 63
  36. ^ Kannengiesser "Alexander and Arius", 403
  37. ^ Kannengiesser, “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),208
  38. ^ Barnes "Athanasius and Constantius",135
  39. ^ Barnes "Athanasius and Constantius",14
  40. ^ Williams, 82
  41. ^ Barnes "Athanasius and Constantius",128

Translations[edit]

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Preceded by
Alexander
Pope of Alexandria
328–373
or
328–339
346–373
Succeeded by
Peter II

Gregory of Cappadocia (Anti-patriarch, not acknowledged)
Peter II