Heroes of the Faith: Athanasius of Alexandria
Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296–298 – 2 May 373), also called Athanasius the Great, Athanasius the Confessor, was the twentieth bishop of Alexandria. 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. Athanasius is a renowned Christian theologian, a Church Father, the chief defender of Trinitarianism against Arianism, and a noted Egyptian leader of the fourth century.
Conflict with Arius and Arianism as well as successive Roman emperors shaped Athanasius's career. In 325, at the age of 27, Athanasius began his leading role against the Arians as a deacon and assistant to Bishop Alexander of Alexandria during the First Council of Nicaea. Roman emperor Constantine the Great had convened the council in May–August 325 to address the Arian position that Jesus Christ, is of a distinct substance from the Father. Three years after that council, Athanasius succeeded his mentor as archbishop of Alexandria. In addition to the conflict with the Arians (including powerful and influential Arian churchmen led by Eusebius of Nicomedia), he struggled against the Emperors Constantine, Constantius II, Julian the Apostate and Valens. He was known as "Athanasius Contra Mundum" (Latin for Athanasius Against the World).
Athanasius was born to a Christian family in the city of Alexandria or possibly the nearby Nile Delta town of Damanhur sometime between the years 293 and 298. The earlier date is sometimes assigned due to 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.
However Cornelius Clifford places his birth no earlier than 296 and no later than 298, based on the fact that Athanasius indicates no first hand recollection of the Maximian persecution of 303, which he suggests Athanasius would have remembered if he had been ten years old at the time. Secondly, the Festal Epistles state that the Arians had accused Athanasius, among other charges, of not having yet attained the canonical age (30) and thus could not have been properly ordained as Patriarch of Alexandria in 328. The accusation must have seemed plausible. The Orthodox Church places his year of birth around 297.
His parents were wealthy enough to afford giving him a fine secular education. Some Western scholars consider his command of Greek, in which he wrote most of his surviving works, evidence that he was a Greek born in Alexandria. However, in Coptic literature, Athanasius is the first patriarch of Alexandria to use Coptic as well as Greek in his writings.
Rufinus relates a story that as Bishop Alexander stood by a window, he watched boys playing on the seashore below, imitating the ritual of Christian baptism. He sent for the children and discovered that one of the boys (Athanasius) had acted as bishop. After questioning Athanasius, Bishop Alexander informed him that the baptisms were genuine, as both the form and matter of the sacrament had been performed through the recitation of the correct words and the administration of water, and that he must not continue to do this as those baptized had not been properly catechized. He invited Athanasius and his playfellows to prepare for clerical careers.
Alexandria was the most important trade center in the whole empire during Athanasius's boyhood. Intellectually, morally, and politically—it epitomized the ethnically diverse Graeco-Roman world, even more than Rome or Constantinople, Antioch or Marseilles. Its famous catechetical school, while sacrificing none of its famous passion for orthodoxy since the days of Pantaenus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen of Alexandria, Dionysius and Theognostus, had begun to take on an almost secular character in the comprehensiveness of its interests, and had counted influential pagans among its serious auditors.
Athanasius recounts being a student, as well as being educated by the Martyrs of the Great (tenth) and last persecution of Christianity by pagan Rome. This persecution was most severe in the East, particularly in Egypt and Palestine. Peter of Alexandria, the 17th archbishop of Alexandria, was martyred in 311 in the closing days of that persecution, and may have been one of those teachers. His successor as bishop of Alexandria, Alexander of Alexandria (312–328) was an Origenist as well as a documented mentor of Athanasius. According to Sozomen, 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". Athanasius's earliest work, Against the Heathen – On the Incarnation (written before 319), bears traces of Origenist Alexandrian thought (such as repeatedly quoting Plato and used a definition from Aristotle's Organon) but in an orthodox way. Athanasius was also familiar with the theories of various philosophical schools, and in particular with the developments of Neo-Platonism. Ultimately, Athanasius would modify the philosophical thought of the School of Alexandria away from the Origenist principles such as the "entirely allegorical interpretation of the text". Still, in later works, Athanasius 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.
Athanasius knew Greek and admitted not knowing Hebrew in the 39th Festal Letter of St. Athan. The Old Testament passages he quotes frequently come from the Septuagint Greek translation. Only rarely did he use other Greek versions (to Aquila once in the Ecthesis, to other versions once or twice on the Psalms), and his knowledge of the Old Testament was limited to the Septuagint. Nonetheless, during his later exile, with no access to a copy of the Scriptures, Athanasius could quote from memory every verse in the Old Testament with a supposed reference to the Trinity without missing any.The combination of Scriptural study and of Greek learning was characteristic of the famous Alexandrian School.
Bishop (or Patriarch, meaning the head of the Church in Alexandria) Alexander ordained Athanasius a deacon in 319. In 325, Athanasius served as Alexander's secretary at the First Council of Nicaea. Already a recognized theologian and ascetic, he was the obvious choice to replace his aging mentor Alexander as the Patriarch of Alexandria, despite the opposition of the followers of Arius and Meletius of Lycopolis.
At length, in the Council of Nicaea, the term "consubstantial" (homoousion) was suggested by Athanasius: it was immediately adopted, and a formulary of faith embodying it was drawn up by Hosius, Hosius of Cordoba. From this time to the end of the Arian controversies the word "consubstantial" continued to be the test of orthodoxy. The formulary of faith drawn up by Hosius is known as the Nicene Creed.
While still a deacon under Alexander's care (or early in his patriarchate as discussed below) Athanasius may have also become acquainted with some of the solitaries of the Egyptian desert, and in particular Anthony the Great, whose life he is said to have written.
Frances A. M. Forbes writes that when the Patriarch Alexander was on his death-bed he called Athanasius, who fled fearing he would be constrained to be made Bishop. "When the Bishops of the Church assembled to elect their new Patriarch, the whole Catholic population surrounded the church, holding up their hands to Heaven and crying; "Give us Athanasius!" The Bishops had nothing better. Athanasius was thus elected, as Gregory tells us..." (Pope Gregory I, would have full access to the Vatican Archives).
T. Gilmartin, (Professor of History, Maynooth, 1890), writes in Church History, Vol. 1, Ch XVII: On the death of Alexander, five months after the termination of the Council of Nicaea, Athanasius was unanimously elected to fill the vacant see. He was most unwilling to accept the dignity, for he clearly foresaw the difficulties in which it would involve him. The clergy and people were determined to have him as their bishop, Patriarch of Alexandria, and refused to accept any excuses. He at length consented to accept a responsibility that he sought in vain to escape, and was consecrated in 326, when he was about thirty years of age.
Athanasius's episcopate began on 9 May 328 as the Alexandrian Council elected Athanasius to succeed the aged Alexander. That council also denounced various heresies and schisms, many of which continued to preoccupy his 45-year-long episcopate (c. 8 June 328 – 2 May 373). Patriarch Athanasius spent over 17 years in five exiles ordered by four different Roman Emperors, not counting approximately six more incidents in which Athanasius fled Alexandria to escape people seeking to take his life. This gave rise to the expression "Athanasius contra mundum" or "Athanasius against the world". However, during his first years as bishop, Athanasius visited the churches of his territory, which at that time included all of Egypt and Libya. He established contacts with the hermits and monks of the desert, including Pachomius, which proved very valuable to him over the years. Shortly thereafter, Athanasius became occupied with the theological disputes against Arians within the Byzantine Empire that would occupy much of his life.
Athanasius's first problem lay with Meletius of Lycopolis and his followers, who had failed to abide by the First Council of Nicaea. That council also anathematized Arius. Accused of mistreating Arians and Meletians, Athanasius answered those charges at a gathering of bishops in Tyre, the First Synod of Tyre, in 335. There, Eusebius of Nicomedia and other supporters of Arius deposed Athanasius. On 6 November, both sides of the dispute met with Emperor Constantine I in Constantinople. At that meeting, the Arians claimed Athanasius would try to cut off essential Egyptian grain supplies to Constantinople. He was found guilty, and sent into exile to Augusta Treverorum in Gaul (now Trier in Germany).
When Athanasius reached his destination in exile in 336, Maximinus of Trier received him not as a disgraced person. Athanasius stayed with him for two years. Also, Paul I of Constantinople stayed with him, who was banished by the Emperor Constantius. Maximinus, precautioned the Emperor Constans against the Arians, revealing their plots.
When Emperor Constantine I died, 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.
In 339 or 340, nearly one hundred bishops met at Alexandria, declared in favor of Athanasius, and vigorously rejected the criticisms of the Eusebian faction at Tyre. Plus, Pope Julius I wrote to the supporters of Arius strongly urging Athanasius's reinstatement, but that effort proved in vain. Pope Julius I called a synod in Rome in 340 to address the matter, which proclaimed Athanasius the rightful bishop of Alexandria.
Early in the year 343 we find Athanasius had traveled, via Rome, from Alexandria, North Africa, to Gaul; nowadays Belgium / Holland and surrounding areas, where Hosius of Cordoba was Bishop, the great champion of orthodoxy in the West. Together they set out for Sardica. A full Council of the Church was convened / summoned there in deference to the Roman pontiff's wishes. The travel was a mammoth task in itself. At this great gathering of prelates, leaders of the Church, the case of Athanasius was taken up once more, that is, Athanasius was formally questioned over misdemeanors and even murder, (a man called Arsenius and using his body for magic, – an absurd charge.). The Council was convoked for the purpose of inquiring into the charges against Athanasius and other bishops, on account of which they were deposed from their sees by the Semi-Arian Synod of Antioch (341), and went into exile. It was called according to Socrates, (E. H. ii. 20) by the two Emperors, Constans and Constantius; but, according to Baronius by Pope Julius (337–352), (Ad an. 343). One hundred and seventy six attended. Eusebian bishops objected to the admission of Athanasius and other deposed bishops to the Council, except as accused persons to answer the charges brought against them. Their objections were overridden by the orthodox bishops, about a hundred were orthodox, who were the majority. The Eusebians, seeing they had no chance of having their views carried, retired to Philoppopolis in Thrace, Philippopolis (Thracia), where they held an opposition council, under the presidency of the Patriarch of Antioch, and confirmed the decrees of the Synod of Antioch. Once more, at the Council of Sardica, was his innocence reaffirmed. 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. Meanwhile, the Eusebian party had gone to Philippopolis, where they issued an anathema against Athanasius and his supporters. The persecution against the orthodox party broke out with renewed vigour, and Constantius was induced to prepare drastic measures against Athanasius and the priests who were devoted to him. Orders were given that if the Saint attempt to re-enter his see, he should be put to death. Athanasius, accordingly, withdrew from Sardica to Naissus in Mysia, where he celebrated the Easter festival of the year 344. It was Hosius who presided over the Council of Sardica, as he did for the First Council of Nicaea, which like the 341 synod, found Athanasius innocent. He celebrated his last Easter in exile in Aquileia in April 345, received by bishop Fortunatianus.
After the death of the replacement bishop Gregory in 345, Constans used his influence to allow Athanasius to return to Alexandria in October 345, amidst the enthusiastic demonstrations of the populace. This began 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's death in 350, another civil war broke out, which left pro-Arian Constantius as sole emperor. An Alexandria local council in 350 replaced (or reaffirmed) Athanasius in his see.
Julius had died in April, 352, and was succeeded by Liberius. For two years Liberius had been favourable to the cause of Athanasius; but driven at last into exile, he was induced to sign an ambiguous formula, from which the great Nicene text, the "homoousion", had been studiously omitted. In 355 a council was held at Milan, where in spite of the vigorous opposition of a handful of loyal prelates among the Western bishops, a fourth condemnation of Athanasius was announced to the world. With his friends scattered, the saintly Hosius in exile, and Pope Liberius denounced as acquiescing in Arian formularies, Athanasius could hardly hope to escape. On the night of 8 February, 356, while engaged in services in the Church of St. Thomas, a band of armed men burst in to secure his arrest. It was the beginning of his third exile.
T. Gilmartin, (Professor of History, Maynooth, 1890), writes in Church History, Vol. 1, Ch XVII: By Constantius's order, the sole ruler of The Roman Empire at the death of his brother Constans, the Council of Arles in 353, was held, which was presided over by Vincent, Bishop of Capua, in the name of Pope Liberius. The fathers terrified of the threats of the Emperor, an avowed Arian, they consented to the condemnation of Athanasius. The Pope refused to accept their decision, and requested the Emperor to hold another Council, in which the charges against Athanasius could be freely investigated. To this Constantius consented, for he felt able to control it, at Milan. Milan was named as the place, here three hundred bishops assembled, most from the West, only a few from the East, in 355. They met in the Church of Milan. Shortly, the Emperor ordered them to a hall in the Imperial Palace, thus ending any free debate. He presented an Arian formula of faith for their acceptance. He threatened any who refused with exile and death. All, with the exception of Dionysius (bishop of Milan), and the two Papal Legates, viz., Eusebius of Vercelli and Lucifer of Cagliari, consented to the Arian Creed and the condemnation of Athanasius. Those who refused were sent into exile. The decrees were forwarded to the Pope for approval, but were rejected, because of the violence to which the bishops were subjected.
Through the influence of the Eusebian faction at Constantinople, an Arian bishop, George of Cappadocia, was now appointed to rule the see of Alexandria. Athanasius, after remaining some days in the neighborhood of the city, finally withdrew into the desert of Upper Egypt, where he remained for a period of six years, living the life of the monks, devoting himself to the composition of a group of writings; "Apology to Constantius", the "Apology for his Flight", the "Letter to the Monks", and the "History of the Arians".
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. Athanasius fled to 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's 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.
Constantius, ordered Liberius into exile in 356 giving him, then, three days to comply. He was ordered into banishment to Beroea, in Thrace; Beroea (Thrace). He sent expensive presents, too, if he were to accept the Arian position but were refused. He sent him, indeed, five hundred pieces of gold "to bear his charges" but Liberius refused them, saying, he might bestow them on his flatters; as he did also a like present from the empress, bidding the messenger learn to believe in Christ, and not to persecute the Church of God. Attempts were made to leave the presents in The Church, but Liberius threw them out. Constantius hereupon sent for him under a strict guard to Milan, where, in a conference recorded by Theodoret, he boldly told Constantius that Athanasius had been acquitted at Sardica, and his enemies proved calumniators (see: "calumny") and impostors, and that it was unjust to condemn a person who could not be legally convicted of any crime. The emperor was reduced to silence on every article, but being the more out of patience, ordered him into banishment. Liberius went into exile. Constantius, after two years went to Rome to celebrate the twentieth year of his reign. The ladies joined in a petition to him that he would restore Liberius. He assented, upon condition that he should comply with the bishops, then, at court. He subscribed the condemnation of Athanasius, and a confession or creed which had been framed by the Arians at Sirmium. And he no sooner had recovered his see that he declared himself for the Creed of Niceae, as Theodoret testifies. (Theodoret, Hist. lib. ii. c. 17.). The Emperor knew what he wanted people to believe. So did the bishops at his court. Athanasius stuck by the orthodox creed. Constantius was an avowed Arian, became sole ruler in 350, at the death of his brother, Constans.
T. Gilmartin, (Professor of History, Maynooth, 1890), writes in Church History, Vol. 1, Ch XVII: The Arians sought the approval of an Ecumenical Council. They sought to hold two councils. Constantius, summoned the bishops of the East to meet at Seleucia in Isauria, and those of the West to Rimini in Italy. A preliminary conference was held by the Arians at Sirmium, to agree a formula of faith. A "Homoeon" creed was adopted, declaring The Son to be "like the Father". The two met in autumn of 359. At Seleucia, one hundred and fifty bishops, of which one hundred and five were semi-Arian. The semi-Arians refused to accept anything less than the "Homoiousion", formulary of faith. The Imperial Prefect was obliged to disband, without agreeing on any creed. Acacius, the leader of the "Homoean" party went to Constantinople, where the Sirmian formulary of faith was approved by the "Home Synod", (consisted of those bishops who happened to be present at the Court for the time), and a decree of deposition issued against the leaders of the semi-Arians. At Rimini were over four hundred of which eighty were Arian, the rest were orthodox. The orthodox fathers refused to accept any creed but the Nicene, while the others were equally in favor of the Sirmian. Each party sent a deputation to the Emperor to say there was no probability to agreement, and asked for the bishops to return to their dioceses. For the purpose of wearing-down the orthodox bishops; (Sulpitius Severius says), Constantius delayed his answer for several months, and finally prevailed on them to accept the Sirmian creed. It was after this Council that Jerome said: " ...the whole world groaned in astonishment to find itself Arian."
In 361, after the death of Emperor Constantius, shortly followed by the murder of the very unpopular Bishop George, Athanasius returned to his patriarchate. The following year he convened a council at Alexandria, and presided over it with Eusebius of Vercelli. Athanasius appealed for unity among all those who had faith in Christianity, even if they differed on matters of terminology. This prepared the groundwork for his definition of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. However, the council also 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.
The Arians no longer presented an unbroken front to their orthodox opponents. The Emperor Constantius, who had been the cause of so much trouble, died 4 November 361 and was succeeded by Julian. The proclamation of the new prince's accession was the signal for a pagan outbreak against the still dominant Arian faction in Alexandria. George, the usurping Bishop, was flung into prison and murdered. An obscure presbyter of the name of Pistus was immediately chosen by the Arians to succeed him, when fresh news arrived that filled the orthodox party with hope. An edict had been put forth by Julian permitting the exiled bishops of the "Galileans" to return to their "towns and provinces". Athanasius received a summons from his own flock, and he accordingly re-entered his episcopal capitol on 22 February 362.
With characteristic energy he set to work to re-establish the somewhat shattered fortunes of the orthodox party and to purge the theological atmosphere of uncertainty. To clear up the misunderstandings that had arisen in the course of the previous years, an attempt was made to determine still further the significance of the Nicene formularies. In the meanwhile, Julian, who seems to have become suddenly jealous of the influence that Athanasius was exercising at Alexandria, addressed an order to Ecdicius, the Prefect of Egypt, peremptorily commanding the expulsion of the restored primate, on the ground that he had never been included in the imperial act of clemency. The edict was communicated to the bishop by Pythicodorus Trico, who, though described in the "Chronicon Athanasianum" (XXXV) as a "philosopher", seems to have behaved with brutal insolence. On 23 October the people gathered about the proscribed bishop to protest against the emperor's decree; but Athanasius urged them to submit, consoling them with the promise that his absence would be of short duration.
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 with the Desert Fathers until Julian's death in 363. Julian terminated his brief career 26 June 363; and Athanasius returned in secret to Alexandria, where he soon received a document from the new emperor, Jovian, reinstating him once more in his episcopal functions.
His first act was to convene a council which reaffirmed the terms of the Nicene Creed. Early in September 363 he set out for Antioch on the Orontes, bearing a synodal letter, in which the pronouncements of this council had been embodied. At Antioch he had an interview with the new emperor, who received him graciously and even asked him to prepare an exposition of the orthodox faith. But in the following February Jovian died; and in October, 364, Athanasius was once more an exile.
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. Some early reports state that Athanasius spent this period of exile at his family's ancestral tomb in a Christian cemetery. It was during this period, the final exile, that he is said to have spent four months in hiding in his father's tomb. (Soz., "Hist. Eccl.", VI, xii; Soc., "Hist. Eccl.", IV, xii).
The accession of Valens gave a fresh lease of life to the Arian party. He issued a decree banishing the bishops who had been deposed by Constantius, but who had been permitted by Jovian to return to their sees. The news created the greatest consternation in the city of Alexandria itself, and the prefect, in order to prevent a serious outbreak, gave public assurance that the very special case of Athanasius would be laid before the emperor. But Athanasius seems to have divined what was preparing in secret against him. He quietly withdrew from Alexandria, 5 October, and took up his abode in a country house outside the city. Valens, who seems to have sincerely dreaded the possible consequences of another popular outbreak, within a few weeks issued orders allowing Athanasius to return to his episcopal see.
In 366 Pope Liberius died and was succeeded by Pope Damasus, a man of strong character and holy life. Two years later, in a council of the Church, it was decreed that no Bishop should be consecrated unless he held the Creed of Nicea.
After returning to Alexandria in early 366, Athanasius spent his final years repairing all the damage done during the earlier years of violence, dissent, and exile. He resumed writing and preaching undisturbed, and characteristically re-emphasized the view of the Incarnation which had been defined at Nicaea. On 2 May 373, having consecrated Peter II, one of his presbyters as his successor, Athanasius died peacefully in his own bed, surrounded by his clergy and faithful supporters.