ATHANASIUS, St, Bishop of Alexandria


(9th Edition of The Encyclopaedia Britannica - Vol. II, 1878)

ATHANASIUS, ST, Bishop of Alexandria and one of the most illustrious defenders of the Christian faith, was born at Alexandria about the year 297. Of his family, circumstances, or early education nothing can be said to be known, although a legendary story has been preserved by Rufinus of Aquileia as to the manner in which he came, while yet a boy, under the notice of his predecessor, Alexander. It seems certain that Alexander became his patron, took him as a youth into his house, and employed him as his secretary. This was probably about 313, and from this time Athanasius may be said to have been devoted to the Christian ministry. He was, no doubt, a student in the "Didascaleion," or famous "catechetical school " of Alexandria, which included amongst its already illustrious teachers the names of Clement and Origen. In the museum, the ancient seat of the Alexandrian university, he may have learned grammar, logic, and rhetoric. His mind was certainly well disciplined, and accustomed to discuss from an early period the chief questions both in philosophy and religion. The persecution under which the Alexandrian Church suffered at this time, and his intimacy with the great hermit Antony of which he himself has told us, had all their effect upon his character, and served to nurture in him that undaunted fortitude and high spirit of faith by which he became distinguished.

Before the outbreak of the Arian controversy, which began in 319, Athanasius had made himself known as the author of two essays addressed to a convert from heathenism, one of them entitled Against the Gentiles, and the other On the Incarnation of the Word. Both are of the nature of apologetical treatises, arguing such questions as monotheism, and the necessity of divine interposition for the salvation of the world; and already in the second may be traced that tone of thought respecting the essential divinity of Christ as the "God-man" for which he afterwards became conspicuous. There is no distinct evidence of the connection of Athanasius with the first contentions of Arius and his bishop, which ended in the exile of the former, and his entrance into Palestine under the protection of Eusebius the historian, who was bishop of Caesarea and subsequently of his namesake the bishop of Nicomedia. It can hardly be doubted, however, that Athanasius would be a cordial assistant of his friend and patron Alexander, and that the latter was strengthened in his theological position by the young enthusiastic student who had already expounded the nature of the divine Incarnation, and who seems about this time to have become archdeacon of Alexandria. At the Council of Nicaea, in the year 325, he appears prominently in connection with the dispute. He attended the council, not as one of its members (who were properly only bishops or delegates of bishops), but merely as the attendant of Alexander. In this capacity, however, he was apparently allowed to take part in its discussions, for Theodoret (i. 26) states that "he contended earnestly for the apostolic doctrines, and was applauded by their champions, while he earned the hostility of their opponents". Within `five months' after the return of Alexander to the scene of his episcopal labours he expired, and his friend and archdeacon was chosen to succeed him. He was elected in the sight and amidst the acclamations of the people. He was now about 30 years of age, and is spoken of as remarkable both for his physical and mental characteristics. He was small in stature, but his face was radiant with intelligence, as 'the face of an angel. This is the expression of Gregory of Nazianzus (Orat., xxii. 9), who has written an elaborate panegyric upon his friend, describing him as fit 'to keep on a level with common-place views yet also to soar high above the more aspiring,' as accessible to all, slow to anger, quick in sympathy, pleasant in conversation, and still more pleasant in temper, effective alike in discourse and in action, assiduous in devotions, helpful to Christians of every class and age, a theologian with the speculative, a comforter of the afflicted, a staff to the aged, a guide of the young."

The first few years of the episcopate of Athanasius were tranquil; but the storms in which the remainder of his life was passed soon began to gather around him. The Council of Nicaea had settled the creed of Christendom, but had by no means composed the divisions in the church which the Arian controversy had provoked. Arius himself still lived, and his friend Eusebius of Nicomedia rapidly regained influence over the Emperor Constantine. The result of this was a demand made by the emperor that Arius should be re-admitted to communion. Athanasius stood firm, and refused to have any communion with the advocates of a "heresy that was fighting against Christ." Constantine was baffled for the moment; but many accusers soon rose up against one who was known to be under the frown of imperial displeasure. The archbishop of Alexandria was charged with cruelty, even with sorcery and murder. It was reported that a Meletian bishop in the Thebaid, of the name of Arsenius, had been unlawfully put to death by him. He was easily able to clear himself of such charges, but the hatred of his enemies was not relaxed, and in the summer of 335 he was peremptorily ordered to appear at Tyre, where a council had been summoned to sit in judgment upon his conduct. He did not venture to disobey the imperial order, and a commission was appointed to inquire into an alleged instance of cruelty urged against him, notwithstanding the explanations which he had made. There appeared plainly a predetermination to condemn him, and he fled from Tyre to Constantinople to appeal to the emperor himself. "He resolved," says Gibbon, "to make a bold and dangerous experiment, whether the throne was inaccessible to the voice of truth." He presented himself suddenly with five of his suffragans before the emperor, while riding into his new capital. Refused at first a hearing, his perseverance was at length rewarded by the emperor's consent to his reasonable request--that his accusers should be brought face to face with him in the imperial presence. The leaders of the Tyrian council, amongst the most conspicuous of whom were the two Eusebii, were accordingly summoned to Constantinople just after they had celebrated, at a great dedication festival at Jerusalem, the condemnation of Athanasius and the restoration of Arius to church communion. In confronting the former before Constantine they did not attempt to repeat the charge of cruelty, but found a more ready and effective weapon to their hands in a new charge of a political kind--that Athanasius had threatened to stop the Alexandrian corn-ships bound for Constantinople. Here, as in other matters, it is very difficult to understand how far there was any truth in the persistent accusations made against the prince-bishop of Alexandria. Probably there was in the very greatness of his character and the extent of his popular influence a certain species of dominance which lent a colour of truth to some of the things said against him. On the present occasion his accusers succeeded in at once arousing the imperial jealousy; and the consequence was, that, notwithstanding his earnest denial of the act attributed to him, he was banished to Trier, or Treves, the capital of Gaul.

This was the first banishment of Athanasius, which lasted about two years and a half. It was only brought to a close by the death of Constantine, and the accession of Constantine II. as emperor of the West. It is recorded by himself (Apol. 7) that, on his return to Alexandria, "the people ran in crowds to see his face; the churches were full of rejoicing; thanksgivings were offered up everywhere; the ministers and clergy thought the day the happiest in their lives." But this period of happiness was destined to be short-lived. His position as patriarch of Alexandria placed him, not under his friend Constantine II., but under Constantius, another son of the elder Constantine, who had succeeded to the throne of the East. He in his turn fell, as his father had done, more and more under the influence of the Nicomedian Eusebius, now transferred to the see of Constantinople. A second expulsion of Athanasius was accordingly resolved upon. The old charges against him were revived, with the addition of his having set at naught the decision of a council. It was further resolved on this occasion to put another bishop in his place. Accordingly, in the beginning of the year 340, a Cappadocian named Gregory, said to be an Arian, was installed by military force on the throne of the great defender of the faith, who, to save his followers from outrage, withdrew to a place of concealment. As soon as it was possible he repaired to Rome, to "lay his case before the church." He was declared innocent at a council held there in 342, and in another held at Sardica some years later. Julius, the bishop of Rome, warmly espoused his cause, and, generally, it may be said that the Western Church was Athanasian in its sympathies and its creed, while the majority of the Eastern bishops sided with the Eusebian party. This severance was clearly shown at the Council of Sardica, where the Orientals refused to meet with the representation of the Western Church, because the latter insisted on recognising the right of Athanasius and his friends to attend the council as regular bishops. The commonly received date of this council is 347, but the rediscovered Festal Letters of Athanasius have had the effect of throwing back this date for some years. It has been placed by some as early as the end of 343, by Mansi and others in the end of 344. The decision of the Council of Sardica, however, had no immediate effect in favour of Athanasius. Constantius continued for some time implacable, and the bold action of the Western bishops only incited the Arian party in Alexandria to fresh severities. Gradually, however, the excesses of the Arian party brought their own revenge, while the death of the intruded bishop Gregory, in the beginning of 345, opened up the way for a reconciliation betwixt the Eastern emporor and the banished prelate. The result was the restoration of Athanasius for the second time, amidst the enthusiastic demonstrations of the Alexandrian populace, which is represented by his panegyrist, Gregory Nazianzen, as streaming forth " like another Nile " to meet him in the distance as he approached the city. His restoration is supposed to have taken place, according to the more accurate chronology based upon the Festal Letters, in October 346.

For ten years at this time Athanasius held his ground in Alexandria. But the intrigues of the Arian or court party were soon renewed against him, and the feeble emperor, who had protested that he would never again listen to their accusations, was gradually stimulated to new hostilities. A large council was held at Milan in the spring of the year 356, and here, notwithstanding the vigorous opposition of a few faithful men amongst the Western bishops, a renewed condemnation of Athanasius was procured. This was followed up by the banishment of the faithful prelates, even of Hosius of Cordova, whose conciliatory character and intimate connection with the imperial family had not prevented him from addressing to Constantius a pathetic remonstrance against the tyranny of the Arian party. When his friends were thus scattered in exile, their great leader could not long escape; and on the night of the 8th of February 356, while he was engaged in service in the church of St Thomas, a band of armed men burst into the sacred building. He has himself described the scene (Apol. de fuga, 24). Here for a time he maintained his composure, and desired the deacon to read the psalm, and the people to respond--" For His mercy endureth for ever; " and how, as the soldiers rushed forward with fierce shouts towards the altar, he at length made his escape in the crowd, and sought once more a place of safe retirement. The solitudes of Upper Egypt, where numerous monasteries and hermitages had been planted, appear to have been his chief shelter at this time. Here, protected from pursuit, he spent his time in literary labours in behalf of his cause; and to this period, accordingly, belong some of his most important writings, above all the great Orations or Discourses against the Arians, which furnish the best exposition of his theological position and principles.

For six years at this time Athanasius continued in exile, till the death of Constantius in November 361 opened once more the way for his return to his episcopate. Julian, the successor to the imperial throne, professed indifference to the contentions of the church, and granted permission to the bishops exiled in the late reign to return home. Amongst others, Athanasius took advantage of this permission, and seated himself once more upon his throne, amidst the jubilations of the people. He had begun his episcopal labours with renewed ardour, and summoned a council to Alexandria to decide various important questions, when an imperial mandate yet again drove him from his place of power. The faithful gathered around him weeping. " Be of good heart," he said, " it is but a cloud it will soon pass." His forecast proved true; for within a few months Julian had closed his brief career of Pagan revival, and Athanasius "returned by night to Alexandria." He received a letter from the new emperor, Jovian, praising his Christian fidelity, and encouraging him to resume his work. With the emperor he continued to maintain friendly relations, and even drew out for him a synodal letter embodying the Nicene Creed, which was graciously received. During the brief reign of this bluff soldier-prince, comparative quiet prevailed in the church. But the repose was of short duration. In the spring of 365, after the accession of Valens, troubles reappeared. An order was issued for the expulsion of all bishops who had been expelled by Constantius, and Athanasius was once more forced to take refuge in concealment from his persecutors. His concealment, however, only lasted for four months, when an order came for his return; and from this time (Feb. 366) he was left undisturbed to pursue his episcopal labours. Those labours were unceasing in refuting heretics, in building churches, in rebuking rapacious governors, in comforting faithful bishops, and in strengthening the orthodox everywhere, till at length, in the spring of 373, "in a good old age," he ceased from all his work. Having consecrated one of his presbyters his successor, he died quietly in his own house. His "many struggles," according to his panegyrists, won him "many a crown." He was gathered to his fathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, who had contended for the truth. Even those who fail to sympathize with the cause which Athanasius steadfastly maintained, cannot refuse their tribute of admiration to his magnanimous and heroic character. The cynic eloquence of Gibbon grows warm in recounting his adventurous career, and the language of Hooker breaks into stately fervour in celebrating his faith and fortitude. " The whole world against Athanasius, and Athanasius against it; half a hundred of years spent in doubtful trial which of the two in the end should prevail --the side which had all, or else the part which had no friends but God and death--the one a defender of his innocency, the other a finisher of all his troubles." If imperious in temper and inflexible in dogmatic determination, Athanasius had yet a great heart and intellect, enthusiastic in their devotion to Christ, and in work for the good of the church and of mankind.

His chief distinction as a theologian was his zealous advocacy of the essential divinity of Christ as co-equal in substance with the Father. This was the doctrine of the Homoousion, proclaimed by the Nicene Creed, and elaborately defended by his life and writings. Whether or not Athanasius first suggested the use of this expression, he was its greatest defender; and the catholic doctrine of the Trinity has ever since been more identified with his "immortal" name than with any other in the history of the church and of Christian theology. (J.T.)

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Ninth Edition, Vol. II

Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1878

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