Milpitas Christian Church

St. Athanasius of Alexandria (296-373)

Doctor of the Western Church, Bishop of Alexandria, Opponent of Arianism, Friend of Monks!

The Gist

  • Foremost opponent of Arianism between the First Council of Nicaea (325) and the Council of Constantinople (381). Effective not so much because of sophisticated arguments but because of:

    • His monastic discipline which led to a life of integrity that all could see

    • The respect he had from the people he lived among

    • A fiery, energetic spirit

    • Unshakeable conviction in a Christ-centered gospel, and in Christ as fully God and fully man, refusal to compromise

  • Popularized desert monasticism with his Life of Saint Anthony

  • Likely a native Egyptian, he was more familiar with the common people of Egypt than with the upper-class Greeks and Romans – this proved very helpful to him!

    • Was sometimes mocked as a “black dwarf” because he was short and dark-skinned
  • His theology avoided speculation and focused in on the central fact of the Incarnation, God become man in the person of Jesus

    • Famous illustration of his: the Incarnation is like if the emperor comes to visit a town. The emperor resides in one of the houses (i.e. human body, or perhaps the people Israel) but because of his presence, the entire town receives blessings and protection. He is also now close to the people of the village, who can see him and gain audience with him.

Bishop, banishment, and blasphemy

  • Present at the First Council of Nicaea as the secretary to Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, the one who first fought with Arius

  • From early on he admired the desert monks like Pachomius and Anthony and was in close contact with them. Wrote The Life of Saint Anthony which popularized Anthony the Great and the desert hermits; claims to have visited Anthony many times

    • The monks tended to reject Arianism very strongly too
  • Though he did not become a monk himself, he practiced austerity and discipline that he learned from them

  • Tried to decline being made bishop of Alexandria when Alexander died, by running away into the desert!

  • But the same year (328), Constantine revoked the banishment of Arius and the heresy started to spread again. The church at Alexandria voted to make Athanasius their bishop even in his absence, and he felt it was his duty to come out of hiding to serve them and to fight Arianism

  • The Arians tried to undermine his influence by accusing him of occultism and murder, but he dramatically proved his innocence when being tried at a synod at Tyre. However, the villainous Eusebius of Nicomedia (again, not the historian) convinced Constantine that Athanasius had threatened to stop the shipments of wheat from Egypt to Rome, so the emperor banished Athanasius from Alexandria all the way to Trier in Germany

  • After Constantine died, Athanasius was able to return to Alexandria. Unfortunately the Arian party there had become strong and refused to accept him as bishop, promoting an Arian bishop instead. Athanasius did not want to abandon the true church there, so the Arians began using violence, and the disorders were bad enough that the government started to blame them on Athanasius. Athanasius decided he should leave the city in order to stop the violence, and he fled to Rome.

  • In Rome, he persuaded the Roman bishop and clergy to formally support the Nicene position against Arianism. A synod in Rome declared Athansius the true bishop of Alexandria, although naturally they had no authority to enforce the matter.

    • A lot of Nicene bishops were forced to formally accept Arianism against their will. Athanasius was seen as almost a lone maverick who refused to compromise
  • Eventually Athanasius was allowed to return safely to Alexandria, where the people welcomed him because they were sick of the incompetence of the Arian bishop. The people of the city actually held a celebration for his return, and some of the desert monks came in to join the party. This show of support silenced the Arians for about 10 years. In this time, Athanasius did a lot of work building relationships with other orthodox Christians and writing a lot.

  • 353 - Emperor Constantius was an Arian and began to force it upon the Church. When a synod refused to condemn Athanasius without a formal hearing, the emperor threatened them and banished the ones who would not cooperate. All around the empire Constantius forced church leaders to sign Arian confessions of faith or be banished.

    • Interestingly, Constantius also persecuted pagans, arguing that they should be wiped out just like the Israelites were commanded to destroy the Canaanites. Athanasius spoke out against him, arguing that the Christian Church should not be spread by violence or force, but instead through gentle persuasion and love
  • Athanasius avoided banishment for a while, outsmarting the emperor with clever politics. But eventually the emperor got too frustrated and sent soldiers to arrest Athanasius at church. The story goes that as the soldiers forced their way into the building, Athanasius led the congregation in singing Psalm 136 “His mercy endures forever…” The clergy surrounded Athanasius to protect him because he refused to run away while his congregation was in danger. Eventually the strain was so intense that he fainted, and the clergy were able to carry him out to safety and hide him.

  • For 5 years the authorities searched for Athanasius to arrest him but couldn’t find him. He had actually gone to hide with the desert monks. That network of communities was outside the control and intelligence networks of the government, and they were able to move Athanasius around to desert hideouts so the authorities could never find him.

  • During this time, the emperor basically forced all the remaining Christian clergy to become Arian at least in name. He even called a church council at Sirmium and forced them to reject the Council of Nicaea – this is called the Blasphemy of Sirmium.

A pagan emperor

  • 361 - Constantius dies and the new emperor, Julian, is a pagan. Emperor Julian wants to restore paganism and see Christianity fall apart. He cancels all banishments so everyone can return to the cities, hoping that the Arians and Nicene Christians will fight each other again. Athanasius returns to Alexandria.

  • Arianism had been getting more complicated and abstract in its arguments; sounding impressive but moving away from what most people could easily understand. They had mostly stopped talking about salvation at all.

  • Athanasius –not really a philosopher or intellectual–attacked them right at the heart of the gospel in a way people could understand: our spiritual death because of sin is so severe that we are in need of nothing less than a brand new birth, a birth so fundamental that it is a new creation, which means that salvation requires an act of creation. Therefore our salvation can only be accomplished by the same person who created us in the first place…therefore Jesus our Savior must be fully God.

  • But Athanasius also recognized that a lot of people wanted to reject Arianism but were uncomfortable with the original Nicene Creed’s calling Jesus “of the same substance” as the Father, because they worried that it erased the distinction between the Father and the Son. Even though Nicene Christians insisted there was a distinction, they had failed to make arguments clear enough to satisfy most other Christians.

    • Many Nicene Christians had gotten frustrated trying to explain their position to those in the middle and sometimes were uncharitable, lumping them together with the Arians.

    • But Athanasius listened carefully and understood their concerns. He discussed and negotiated patiently with many of them to persuade them that the Nicene formula did not erase the distinctions between the Father and the Son.

  • 362 - at a synod in Alexandria Athanasius clarified that it was okay to refer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as “of one substance” so long as one understood that they were still distinct persons, and likewise that it was okay to refer to the Trinity as “three substances” as long as one understood that there were not three gods

    • This convinced most of the church to rally behind the Nicene Creed (still in its first formulation–it gets revised with further clarification shortly after Athanasius’ death)
  • So the pagan emperor Julian is unhappy, because he hoped that Athanasius’ presence would provoke such disorder that the pagans would be able to gain more influence in the city. Instead, Athanasius has strengthened and unified the Christian church in Alexandria. So Julian sends soldiers to arrest Athanasius

  • Athanasius decides to flee to the desert again

    • He escaped the city on a ship that was sailing up the Nile River. The authorities knew he was on the river and sent a ship after him, but they didn’t know which ship was his. As the boat with soldiers began to overtake Athansius’ ship, they called out “Have you seen Athanasius?” He replied: “Yes, he is just ahead of you. If you hurry you will overtake him.” He told the truth, and the soldiers sped up their ship and passed him by, going out of sight and losing him completely! So Athanasius once again hid among the desert monks

  • Julian died after a few years and the new emperor Jovian really liked Athanasius, so Athanasius returned to his church

  • BUT the new emperor Jovian died after a few months and was replaced by another Arian! Athanasius wearily prepared to go into exile again, but the new emperor was actually intimidated by his resilience and decided not to bother him. Athanasius stayed with the church in Alexandria until his death in 373

Major works

Discourse on the Incarnation

  • Combined with another work called Against the Gentiles/Heathens, they are considered the first great work of Greek Orthodox theology

  • Casts the gospel in terms of the image of God

    • Man, made in God’s image, corrupted that image in the Fall

    • God resolved to save man and restore his immortal image by sending His Son

    • The Son is the perfect and essential image of the Father, therefore He alone can renew man to become the uncorrupted image of God again

    • The Son is also the Wisdom of God, therefore only the Son can teach us men

  • The resurrection is proved by the wonderful nature of conversions that happen in the name of Jesus and the conquering of sin

An Apology against the Arians

  • A collection of documents from his time fighting Arianism, including treatises and letters refuting Arian accounts of the history of the conflict and laying out the Nicene argument

Life of Anthony

  • Less a biography in the modern sense and more a poetic work praising Anthony and the monks for their struggles against sin

  • Was especially written at the request of monks outside of Egypt who wanted to know more about the founder of the movement

  • Preserves some of Anthony’s famous sayings, like:

    • “Do not wonder that an emperor writes to us; he is only a man. Be astonished rather that God has written his law for men and has spoken to us by the mouth of his own Son.”
  • Written in Greek, it was soon translated into Latin and gained popularity in the West


  • In one of his letters, he listed all the books which should be considered canon by the Church. His Old Testament is almost identical to what Protestants use (he omits Esther and includes the apocryphal Baruch), but his New Testament is the first authoritative list of all 27 books that we also accept. His list confirms that this was the list in wide acceptance in the church.

  • For close to 50 years he was THE figurehead for orthodox, Nicene Christianity, defending the full divinity of Christ against the Arians. His bravery combined with his pastoral spirit made for a very powerful witness that has lasted long beyond his lifetime

  • The Athanasian Creed is named after him but probably not written by him, as there is no mention of it until the 6th century. It does defend the doctrine of the Trinity in very thorough terms (as that Saint Patrick video demonstrates humorously!)


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