Early Life & Biography
Saint Athanasius of Alexandria is a hefty name for someone you’ve probably never heard of before. Today, we will shed some light on who he is and why he was so significant in the past. He was born in 297 in the city of Alexandria, to devout Christian parents. Athanasius spent the early years of his career as a private secretary for Alexandrian Bishop Alexander, and later went on to become Bishop of Alexandria.2 He had to fight to keep that role, however. Athanasius was exiled a total of 5 times in his life, due to his struggle against Arianism. By living a life filled with conflict against Arianism, Athanasius fought to establish the divinity12 of Jesus. Without Athanasius, Christianity would not be what it is today; Jesus’ divinity may not have been acknowledged in the present.
If any of you are Christian, you probably believe that Jesus is God. However, this wasn’t always what Christians believed. During Athanasius’ time, the notion of Jesus as God was not quite fully accepted. There were many questions regarding Jesus’ divinity and humanity, resulting in the development of heresies1 trying to explain Jesus and his relation to God and men. Thus, the early church was had many conflicts: different people had different ideas of Jesus. One of these heresies was Arianism. Founded by Arius, Arianism claimed that Jesus was created by the God and was therefore not of the same essence as God; Jesus was, at best, of similar essence as God. Athanasius’ struggle against Arianism shaped his entire life.
Same or Similar?
Hold up a minute. Same and similar? Do those two not sound very… similar? In Greek, homoousios means “of the same essence” as God, while homoiousios means “of similar essence” to God. The two phrases literally differ by one "i", the Greek iota.3 However, this distinction was crucial for the early Christians, who were fighting a hard battle against Arianism.
What does the term “essence” mean? The Greek term for it, ousía, refers to an object or person with specific qualities. In essence, to say that Jesus was of the same essence as God is to say that Jesus shared the exact set of qualities that God possessed. One oft-debated quality is God’s eternal nature.8 The Arians posited that Jesus was not God, and therefore not coeternal9 with God. In this sense, the Arians believed that Jesus did not exist with God since the beginning of time; rather, he was a mere created being. Athanasius took an opposing stance: he believed that Jesus existed with God since the very beginning, and was not created by God. By distinguishing homoousios from homoiousios, Athanasius ensured that there would be little room for disputes regarding the divinity of Jesus.
So... Where was Athanasius in all of this?
Athanasius’ prominence started in the first meeting of the leaders of the Christian Church (Council of Nicaea). Although Athanasius was a mere assistant to the then Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, Athanasius did most of the legwork in contradicting Arius’ proposition and concluded that the Jesus was of the same essence as God, not just similar. During one of their meetings, Athanasius presented an outline regarding the death of Jesus, which reflected that Jesus was indeed God. Because Athanasius was such a faithful assistant to Alexander, he was invited to be the Archbishop of Alexandria after Alexander passed. Although Athanasius was not allowed to sit in at the Council of Nicaea’s meetings, his legacy intertwines with his controversy of Arianism.
(Athanasius rose to prominence also because he canonised the New Testament: he proposed a list of biblical books which would eventually be included in the bible. If you're interested, you can find out more about how this occurred in our classmates' post!)
Arius was not the only one who Athanasius had conflicts with. Athanasius' future conflicts with successive Roman emperors which led to his numerous exiles were also significant in shaping his career. Fun fact: his nickname was “Athanasius Against the World”, a rather fitting nickname for someone who was exiled five times.
For many years in the fourth century, Arianism seemed to have won. In the end, however, the teachings of Nicaea won out. While most emperors were for Arianism, Theodosius, the first ever emperor who went against Arianism, supported the doctrine of the Nicene leaders. Under his influence, the Council of Constantinople accepted and developed statements by Nicene bishops 56 years earlier. This was a significant breakthrough because Arianism had almost won, yet Athanasius managed to successfully establish the divinity of Jesus.
Athanasius' Arguments Against Arianism (AAAA)
Athanasius’ arguments were centred around:
- God alone can save. If Jesus was a mere human and not God, he would not be able to save humankind from sin.6
- Jesus was worshipped in churches, including those who supported Arianism. If Jesus was not God, how could they worship him? To worship a mere mortal would be blasphemy.7 Even though Jesus is the Son of God (the Father), Athanasius argued that the Father and the Son are one. Thus, if the Father is God, so is the Son.
Athanasius' first exile came in 335 CE, when he was accused of mistreating Arians. Athanasius answered these charges at a gathering of bishops, the First Synod of Tyre, in 335. There, Eusebius of Nicomedia and other supporters of Arius deposed Athanasius. Eusebius gained favour with Constantine I, the Emperor then. Eusebius convinced the Emperor to readmit those who followed the "Nicaean definitions" (which included elements of Arianism) back to the church. Athanasius refused this as he believed in the trinitarian doctrine;4 he was exiled by the Emperor Constantine I.
The death of Emperor Constantine I in 337 marked the end of his first exile, and he returned to Alexandria, but alas! His stay was not meant to be. Athanasius had been away for so long that he was no longer regarded a bishop. Gregory of Cappadocia had claimed Athanasius’ role as Bishop of Alexandria while he was in exile. When Gregory tried to gain control of the church, the people of Alexandria were unhappy and caused so much chaos that Athanasius decided to leave for Rome in 341, where he gained the favour of the Roman priests. Soon enough, Athanasius was restored as Bishop of Alexandria. However, Constantine II10 once again exiled Athanasius.
Although Athanasius was in exile, he defended his beliefs in writing. Athanasius lived in the desert of Upper Egypt, committing himself to writings like “Apology to Constantius”.11 Constantius’ previous policy sided the Arians, but he changed it and banished Athanasius from Alexandria for the third time. Following this was an attempt to arrest Athanasius during a church mass. He escaped to Upper Egypt and lived in houses and multiple monasteries.
Athanasius’ fourth and fifth exiles were pretty much similar to his first three exiles. An emperor exiles him, the emperor dies, then Athanasius returns again. Athanasius was finally restored for the last time in 366.
Phew, now let's move on to "his" creed.
The Athanasian Creed
A common misconception: Athanasius wrote this creed, hence it is named the Athanasian Creed. The Athanasian Creed was actually written after Athanasius’ death, around 500 CE. It bears his name because it writes of what he fought for. Written to affirm the existence of the Trinity, the creed speaks of his impact as a theologian. With the creed being centred around the trinitarian doctrine, it also dismisses Arianism; it speaks of how the Father, Son and Holy Spirit was in fact of the same essence. As illustrated in the creed itself: “...and the Catholic faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.” The Athanasian Creed is one of the four authoritative creeds of today and it is most used in Catholic churches, though not as much in Protestant5 churches.
After going through so much, did Athanasius achieve what he set out to do? Was all that struggle worth it, or did he fight in vain? Even though Athanasius did not write the Athanasian creed, his significance in Christian history was what championed the creed. Athanasius was also charismatic and influential; he stood firm against his enemies, who were intimidated by him, under all trials with his strong personality and brilliance. To Athanasius, it was not simply about being proven right, it was about getting the core of the Christian faith right. Athanasius was unstoppable, living up to his nickname of “Athanasius against the world”. He is Athanasius of Alexandria, who although lived a life of misery, emerged victorious in the end. Amidst all his fights and battles, Athanasius established the Godhood of Jesus. What a life worth living!
- A belief or opinion contrary to orthodox religious (especially Christian) doctrine. ↩
- The Bishop of Alexandria was an important role, and considered the highest ranking minister in all of Egypt. ↩
- It's the ninth letter in the Greek alphabet and is used to symbolize very small quantities. This is the origin of the English idiom "differ by one iota".
- In case this term is kind of confusing, the doctrine of the Trinity means that there is one God who eternally exists as three distinct Persons — the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Basically, God is one in essence and three in person. ↩
- A Protestant is a Christian who belongs to one of the many branches of Christianity that have developed out of the Protestant Reformation started by Martin Luther in 1517. ↩
- Sin here is defined as anything we do that falls short of the perfect standard of God (e.g. lying, stealing, being jealous). ↩
- Blasphemy was a big deal then! Blasphemy is the "act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence to a deity, to religious or holy persons or sacred things" (in this case, God). ↩
- To say that God exists eternally means that he has no beginning nor end, he is the beginning and the end. He existed even before the beginning of time, and he will still exist at the end of time (aka when the world dies out). ↩
- Dictionary definition: coeternal means to exist with something else eternally. ↩
- Constantine II stayed constant due to family tradition! ↩
- "Apology" may sound like Athanasius was saying sorry, but in Christianity, an apologia is a formal written defence of one's opinions, so he's really doing the opposite of apologising. ↩
- Divinity: the noun of divine. ↩
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