Shortly before his death in 373, St. Athanasius wrote to a friend with a simple plea: “Let what was confessed by the Fathers of Nicaea prevail.” This sentiment of the bishop of Alexandria served as the fundamental guide for his life and labors.
Bishop, saint, and theologian, Athanasius has been honored as one of the Greek Fathers and was, in the words of Gregory of Nazianz, a “pillar of the Church.” His contributions to the faith were wide-ranging and include his treatise on the Incarnation and his promotion of early monasticism, but his most famous achievement was his defense of orthodoxy during the Arian controversy.
Athanasius is a role model for Catholic apologists by his defense of the true faith even at the risk of his own life. As Henry Bettenson observed in his work The Early Christian Fathers, “The final triumph of the Nicene faith, and its ratification at the Council of Constantinople in 381, is due to Athanasius more than any other man.”
Athanasius was born probably in Alexandria, perhaps between 296 and 298. The historians Rufinus and Socrates preserved the famed story of Athanasius’s boyhood introduction to Bishop Alexander of Alexandria. As the story goes, Athanasius was discovered baptizing several playmates on the seashore in imitation of the bishop. Upon examination, though, the youth displayed such composure and knowledge of doctrine that Alexander declared the baptisms to be entirely valid, and the intelligent youth was raised under the supervision of the clerics of the city. He received instruction in grammar, rhetoric, and theology and, after becoming a deacon, was named by Bishop Alexander to be his private secretary.
The Arian Nation
Even as Athanasius was serving in Alexandria, around 318 in Baucalis, Egypt, the presbyter Arius began preaching that “the Son being begotten apart from time by the Father, and being created and founded before ages, was not before all things, was not before his generation. . . . For he is not eternal or co-eternal or co-unoriginate with the Father.” Arian theology declared in effect that the Son of God was not eternal but was created by the Father from nothing. Christ was thus a changeable creature, his dignity bestowed upon him as Son of God.
Athanasius participated in the proceedings against Arius over the succeeding years, including the council of over 100 Egyptian bishops that was convoked to depose the recalcitrant cleric. Arius had already fled to Palestine and sparked the ecclesiastical conflict across the East that led to Emperor Constantine the Great’s decision to summon the Council of Nicaea in 325. The Council condemned Arianism and required acceptance of both the Council’s creed and the term homoousion to describe the relationship between the Father and the Son within the Godhead. Athanasius accompanied Alexander to the Council in the capacity of secretary and theological adviser.
Already well known to the faithful of Alexandria, Athanasius continued to display considerable skill throughout the Council, so much so that when Alexander died around 328, he was elected to succeed him. It seemed an improbable appointment. Aside from the lingering divisions in the Alexandrian church and the new bishop’s youth, Athanasius was described as small and insignificant looking, hardly the towering figure who would lead the charge against heresy. Emperor Julian the Apostate dismissed him as a “despicable mannequin.” Looks, though, were most deceiving, for beneath his small stature and delicate features was a saint and a commitment to the faith that prompted later generations in the Greek church to call him “the father of orthodoxy.”
The long and troubled episcopate of Athanasius was taken up chiefly with the question of Arianism, and through his response he established himself firmly as the heresy’s most valiant opponent in the Church. For Athanasius, Arian theology posed a direct threat to an authentic understanding of Christ and redemption. Athanasius had already written the treatise De Incarnatione (c. 318), in which he had declared, “God became man, so that man might become God.” His understanding of the Incarnation thus compelled him to stand as a forceful defender of orthodoxy. He saw the struggle within the context especially of Christ’s redemptive work of salvation, his soteriology, and the grace of divine Sonship offered through redemption. As Athanasius taught, the divine Son is eternally generated by the Father, and so both must share the same nature. At the same time, both the Son and the Father must be truly distinct.
Defender of the Faith
Athanasius became the chief target of Arian supporters in the eastern part of the empire. Throughout the next decades, he suffered repeated exiles and humiliations, starting with the Arian resurgence in Constantinople in 328 through the efforts of Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, leader of the Arians at Nicaea, to gain the confidence of Constantine and secure the rehabilitation of Arius. When Athanasius refused Constantine’s request to re-admit Arians to ecclesiastical Communion, Eusebius connived to have Athanasius charged with various improprieties. The outlandish charges included that he had not reached canonical age at the time of his consecration and that he had put Bishop Arsenius to death and afterwards used the dismembered corpse for magic.
At the Council of Tyre in 335, Athanasius sought to answer the charges, but his enemies had already decided his guilt, whereupon he fled the city to appeal directly to the emperor. His appeal was denied when Eusebius produced testimony that Athanasius had threatened to interrupt the corn supply from Egypt to Constantinople if the emperor refused him. Athanasius was condemned and exiled to the city of Trèves (modern Trier) for over two years. Only after the deaths of Arius in 336 and Constantine in 337 and the accession of the new co-emperors—Constantine II, Constans, and Constantius II—was he permitted to return. It was an occasion for great rejoicing in Alexandria.
The joy was short-lived, as Athanasius faced another exile at the hands of the Eusebian party and the Arian emperor for the East, Constantius II. Athanasius this time journeyed to Rome to appeal to Pope Julius I and galvanize the support of the Western Church, keeping in touch with his flock through his annual Festal Letters. The pontiff summoned a synod of bishops in Rome and exonerated the prelate. As Athanasius’s return was prevented by the Arians, he spent several years in Rome, culminating in the summoning of the Council of Sardica in 343. The Council reaffirmed his innocence, and letters were sent to Egypt and to the bishops of Libya. This did little to satisfy the Arians, though, who issued anathemas against the bishop and made his restoration to Alexandria impossible. His reinstatement was achieved through the timely passing of the usurper Bishop Gregory of Cappadocia in 345. His triumphant return was followed by ten years of comparative peace.
The Arians once more connived to bring Athanasius’s condemnation at councils in Arles (353) and Mediolanum (355). The third banishment was announced to Athanasius on the night of February 8, 356, while he said Mass in the Church of St. Thomas.
Athanasius had known the famed St. Anthony of the Desert (whose Vita or Life was attributed to Athanasius’s pen), and the bishop had promoted the early ascetic movement and introduced knowledge of it to the Western Church. Now in exile, Athanasius spent most of the next six years among the desert monks of the Thebaid in Upper Egypt and at work on some of his most famous writings, including the Apologia de Fuga and the Orationes contra Arianos. As Christian biographer William Bright wrote, “The books that he began to pour forth were apparently written in cottages or caves, where he sat, like any monk, on a mat of palm-leaves, with a bundle of papyrus beside him, amid the intense light and stillness of the desert, which might harmonize with his meditations and his prayers.”
Still, he lived like a criminal, hunted and always in danger. Soldiers were sent to find him in the parched deserts of Egypt and along the Nile. Once, while being pursued, he took a small boat and rowed down the Nile as soldiers sailed up the river. Failing to recognize him, they asked him if knew where the fugitive Athanasius might be found. He replied calmly as he sailed past, “Not far from here.”
The Triumph of the Truth
Julian the Apostate ascended to the throne in 361 and brought a brief pagan restoration. The Arian interloper in Alexandria, George of Cappadocia, was imprisoned and perhaps murdered, and the new emperor permitted all exiled bishops to return to their sees. Athanasius arrived home in February 362. He convened a synod that year in Alexandria at which he reached out to the more moderate factions of the Arian movement. His conciliatory spirit—after the injustices heaped upon him by the very bishops whom he now embraced—went far toward repairing the ecclesiastical breach in the East and setting the stage for the eventual triumph of orthodoxy.
The widespread acclaim that greeted Athanasius’s return earned the enmity of Julian, who wrote contemptuously of the diminutive size of the bishop. After eight months, Athanasius was exiled from his see for the fourth time. Julian died in June 363, but in early 364, Valens, an ardent Arian, became emperor. But Valens permitted Athanasius to return home after only four months. The indiscriminate oppression of the emperor only promoted the process of reconciliation that Athanasius had begun in 362. The bishop was given seven years of peace and respect, dying in his bed on May 2, 373, and mourned by the faithful of Alexandria.
Eight years after his death, Arianism in the East received its final repudiation at the Council of Constantinople. The labors of Athanasius were fully vindicated when the Council upheld the orthodox position on the divinity of Christ.
For modern apologists of the Catholic faith, Athanasius stands as our sure guide, but he is also a powerful reminder of two important realities. First, he tells us that the truth will triumph—if we hold fast to it even in the face of lies and calumny. But even more, Athanasius teaches us that defending the faith is not an easy task. He faced slander, violence, and even death for standing firm and proclaiming the truth. The life of Athanasius makes every apologist ask: Would I be willing to do the same?