Biography of Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria

This fourth century bishop spent his life defending Christianity

Athanasius
Saint Athanasius.

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Athanasius of Alexandria is revered today as one of the most important voices in the early Christian Church, but during his lifetime his courageous stand against heresy had harsh repercussions. He was exiled five times for defending biblical church doctrines. Much was at stake; the very divinity of Jesus Christ was being denied. Athanasius knew what the Bible said and risked his life to uphold it.

Fast Facts: Athanasius of Alexandria

  • Also Known As: St. Athanasius the Apostolic 
  • Occupation: Bishop, theologian, writer 
  • Born: c. 293 A.D.
  • Died: 373 A.D.
  • Published Works: On the Incarnation, Discourses Against the Arians, Life of Antony
  • Key Accomplishments: Defended the Trinity, wrote Athanasian Creed 
  • Famous quote: “He became what we are that we might become what he is.”

Turbulent Times for the Faith

Athanasius was born about 293 A.D. in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. He rose through the ranks to become the assistant to Alexander, bishop of Alexandria.

After centuries of persecution, the Christian Church suddenly experienced a change in fortune when the Roman Emperor Constantine converted. In 313 A.D., Constantine the Great issued the Edict of Milan, officially sanctioning Christianity as a religion.

Because of the years of unrest, however, there was no official unity in the Church. Theologians came up with interpretations of the faith that contradicted Scripture. With the scarcity of hand-copied Bibles, it was easy for these theories to gain acceptance.

The Rise of Arianism

One such doctrine was called Arianism, named after the priest Arius of Alexandria (256-336 A.D.). Arianism came after a second century heresy called Modalism. Modalism contended that God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit were only modes, or masks that God used on various occasions.

In other words, sometimes God would appear as the Father, other times as the Son, and yet other times as the Spirit. However, these were only disguises of one God.

Arianism, on the other hand, denied the divine nature of Jesus Christ, claiming he was a created being, and although higher than humans as the "firstborn," he was not God.

Bishop Alexander and Athanasius saw the danger in this doctrine. It denied the Trinity and eroded God's plan of salvation, as detailed in the New Testament. They knew that only a man could serve as a suitable sacrifice for the salvation of humanity, but that the sacrifice also had to be perfect and sinless, which was impossible for human beings.

God the Father's answer was Jesus, fully human and fully divine at the same time. The doctrine of the Incarnation was necessary to make salvation work. Alexander and Athanasius began to fight the growing popularity of Arianism because they knew where it would lead.

The Council of Nicaea

A bitter fight broke out between supporters and opponents of Arianism. Letters from the time are filled with false accusations, insults, and character assassination. In 325 A.D., Emperor Constantine called for a conference of bishops and church leaders at the ancient city of Nicaea, in what is now Turkey.

Front and center at the meeting was the question: Who is Jesus Christ? Arius presented his view that Jesus was created by the Father and therefore not divine. Alexander and Athanasius argued the biblical doctrine of the Trinity. It states that there are three Persons in one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all of the same, equal substance.

Constantine pushed for a vote. The 300-plus bishops reaffirmed the Trinity, rejecting the Arian heresy. The Nicene Creed, produced at the council, defines each Person of the Trinity and summarizes Christian beliefs in a clear, concise statement.

Arius was exiled and his books burned, but eventually he was reinstated. He submitted an edited creed to Constantine, which the emperor considered orthodox. While walking through the streets of Constantinople one day, Arius collapsed and died.

Athansius Keeps Fighting

The death of Arius did not end his heresy. During his lifetime, Arius had composed catchy little songs about his beliefs that spread quickly across the Roman Empire. Peasants would sing them while working, and the heresy about Jesus being a created being became even more popular.

Meanwhile, Athanasius continued to defend the Trinity. In 328 A.D. he was elected bishop of Alexandria, on the death of his mentor Alexander. His opponents attacked him because they thought he was too young for the post. Clergy who fought the Nicene Creed also chimed in, inventing a litany of false charges against him.

In those times when the Church and government were closely intertwined, a change in politics could mean the fate of someone like Athnasius depended on who was in power. As emperors came and went, Athanasius was exiled five times from Alexandria, but that did not dampen his zeal for the truth of Jesus' divinity.

Treatises to Defend Doctrine

Athanasius realized that preaching and teaching, as effective as they were, would still not reach as many people as he wanted. He began writing treatises, or apologetic defenses, of the true biblical message. Considering when they were written, his books are quite readable today and available free online.

His most important work was On the Incarnation of the Word, written about 328 A.D. In it he presents the problems of sin, death, and the Fall of Man and explains why the Incarnation was God's only solution to restore the human race.

"Now this is proof that Christ is God, the Word and Power of God," Athanasius wrote, "For whereas human things cease and the fact of Christ remains, it is clear to all that the things which cease are temporary, but that He Who remains is God and very Son of God, the sole-begotten Word."

Another of Anasthasius' works that had long-lasting impact was his Life of Antony, written between 356-362 A.D. This biography set the standard for lives of saints. Athanasius used it to subtly defend his beliefs while chronicling the life of this religious hermit.

Not only was the book widely circulated in the fourth century, but it did much to establish the validity of monasticism and inspired countless Christians to become monks and nuns.

Athanasius' Four Discourses (Orations) Against the Arians was another apologetic which attacked their beliefs. Besides these major works, dozens of letters and sermons are preserved in fragmentary form.

Athanasius' Lasting Legacy

In the long history of Christianity, Athanasius is revered for his single-minded defense of Trinitarianism. He never compromised; he never budged a bit in his insistence that Jesus Christ was both fully human and fully divine.

Athanasius rescued the Christian Church from accepting Gnosticism, a widespread belief that material things are evil and spiritual things are good. On the Incarnation showed that the human body, which Christ took on, was not evil. This became orthodox teaching in the Church.

The Trinity and the divinity of Christ are cornerstones of Christianity, but even today, some denominations reject the Trinity and teach that Jesus was a created being. In his carefully reasoned treatises, Athanasius showed that God the Father cared enough to send his only Son to take away the sins of the world. That was only possible if Jesus Christ is God.   

Sources

  • "Athanasius," Christianity Today, https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/theologians/athanasius.html.
  • "Athanasius," by Aaron J. West, Fourth Century Christianity, https://www.fourthcentury.com/athanasius-chart/.
  • On the Incarnation, by Athanasius, Christian Classics Ethereal Library,https://www.ccel.org/ccel/athanasius/incarnation.pdf.
  • "St. Athanasius," Catholic Encyclopedia, by Clifford Cornelius, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02035a.htm.
  • "St. Athanasius, Egyptian Theologian," by Edward R. Hardy, Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Athanasius#ref287412.
  • "Who was Athanasius?," Got Questions, https://www.gotquestions.org/Athanasius.html.