Getting to Know the Fathers: Athanasius

That the ordinances which have been preserved in the Churches from old time until now, may not be lost in our days, and the trust which has been committed to us required at our hands; rouse yourselves, brethren, as being stewards of the mysteries of God, and seeing them now seized upon by others.

“The Catholic faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal.” Thus we confess in the creed bearing the name of St. Athanasius. While almost certainly not composed by the great patriarch of Alexandria, it bears all the marks of his orthodox faith, a faith which was exhibited in his exercise of his office as bishop, in his eloquent teaching about Christ, in his staunch defense of our Lord’s Divinity against the Arians, and in his perseverance in the face of persecution. St. Gregory of Nazianzus said of him, preaching on the day of his commemoration in Constantinople only a few years after the death of the great saint: “In praising Athanasius, I shall be praising virtue. To speak of him and to praise virtue are identical, because he had, or, to speak more truly, has embraced virtue in its entirety. For all who have lived according to God still live unto God, though they have departed hence.”1

Athanasius, who lived from about 297 until 373, first comes to our attention as a deacon serving Alexander (then patriarch of Alexandria) as his assistant. In that capacity he was present at the Council of Nicaea in 325. Already he had written one of his most important works, On the Incarnation, in which he simply and elegantly puts forth an explanation of the person and work of Christ, the very subject that the Council would deal with.

Shortly after Nicaea, in the year 328 he succeeded Alexander (who had directed his appointment before his death) and was himself made patriarch of his home city.2 It was not to be a peaceful term of service, for within a few years of the close of the Council of Nicaea, Arianism, the very same novel heresy condemned by the Council, whose adherents claimed that the Son of God was himself a creature and not of the same nature as God the Father, was gaining traction again. The Arian factions opposed Athanasius’ elevation to the episcopacy, but without success. The historian Sozomen reports: “But when, on the death of Alexander, the succession devolved upon him, his reputation was greatly increased, and was sustained by his own private virtues and by the testimony of the monk, Antony the Great. This monk repaired to him when he requested his presence, visited the cities, accompanied him to the churches, and agreed with him in opinion concerning the Godhead. He evinced unlimited friendship towards him, and avoided the society of his enemies and opponents.”3 The fact that the reclusive ascetic Antony so supported Athanasius and even visited others on his behalf illustrates the great saint’s ability to draw the disparate parts of the church together in the cause of the Gospel. Gregory of Nazianzus explained: “the great Athanasius, who was always the mediator and reconciler of all other men, like Him Who made peace through His blood between things which were at variance, reconciled the solitary with the community life: by showing that the Priesthood is capable of contemplation, and that contemplation is in need of a spiritual guide.”4

The emperor Constantine, once bitterly opposed to the schismatic teachings of Arius, grew more tolerant of Arianism toward the end of his life and had some prominent Arians in his court. Athanasius found himself continually accused before Constantine by the heretics (with the aid of the schismatic Melitians) of everything from destroying the unity of the church in Alexandria to murder and witchcraft! Proven innocent each time, the Emperor at first encouraged the bishop to faithfully continue his ministry in Alexandria and publicly supported him. Eventually, however, the Emperor convened a council to deal with the repeated accusations against the faithful bishop. The council, dominated by the Arians and their allies, succeeded in deposing Athanasius and exiling him from Alexandria. This time Athanasius’ appeal to the emperor did him no good. He was sent to live in Treves in Gaul.5 The people of Alexandria and even Antony (the famous monk) called to the emperor for his return to Alexandria and the episcopacy, but the emperor would not listen.6

Athanasius continued his defense however. Writing to his fellow bishops, he said, “That the ordinances which have been preserved in the Churches from old time until now, may not be lost in our days, and the trust which has been committed to us required at our hands; rouse yourselves, brethren, as being stewards of the mysteries of God, and seeing them now seized upon by others.”7 It would not be until after Constantine’s death that he would be recalled to Alexandria by Constantine II who, while defending his father’s actions by portraying them as acts performed to protect Athanasius from further attack, reversed his father’s decision and reinstated the saint to his bishopric.8

The same support would not be had for long, however, as Constantine II was killed less than three years into his reign. His brother and successor in the East, Constantius II, made the Arian confession his own, as would the Emperor Valens who began his reign in the East in 364 after the relatively short rule of Julian the Apostate. Athanasius would be deposed and reinstated four more times by these heretical and apostate emperors, all the while maintaining both his innocence in the face of their charges, and his orthodox confession of Christ Jesus as the Son of God and a person of the consubstantial Trinity: “He is then by nature an Offspring, perfect from the Perfect… before every rational and intelligent essence, as Paul also in another place calls Him ‘first-born of all creation’. But by calling Him First-born, He shows that He is not a Creature, but Offspring of the Father. For it would be inconsistent with His deity for Him to be called a creature. For all things were created by the Father through the Son, but the Son alone was eternally begotten from the Father, whence God the Word is ‘first-born of all creation,’ unchangeable from unchangeable.”9

This staunch defense of the truth in the face of worldly powers both political and heretical gave birth to the famous slogan, “Athanasius contra mundum,” Athanasius against the world. Athanasius’s theology, conveyed to us through his numerous writings, help us also stand contra mundum, teaching us to confess the Nicene faith without fear of persecution, exile, or death: that Christ Jesus is the very Son of God become man for our salvation. “For since He Himself is mighty and the Maker of everything, He prepares in the Virgin a temple for Himself, namely, His body, and makes it His very own as an instrument, being made known by it and dwelling in it. And thus taking from our bodies one of like nature, because all were under penalty of the corruption of death He gave it over to death in the stead of all, offered it to the Father—doing this, moreover, of His loving-kindness, in order to…turn them again to incorruption, and make them alive from death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of the Resurrection, banishing death from them like straw from the fire.”10

1 Gregory of Nazianzus: Oration XXI:1
2 Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, 2:17. Translated by Chester D. Hartranft. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 2. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1890.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <>
3 Sozomen, 2:17
4 Gregory of Nazianzus: Oration XXI:19
5 Sozomen, 2:28
6 Sozomen, 2:31
7 Athanasius, Encyclical Epistle to the Bishops Throughout the World
8 Sozomen, 3:2
9 Athanasius, Statement of Faith
10 Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 8. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 4. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1890.), 40. Alt.

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Rev. David Kind

Rev. David Kind is Pastor of University Lutheran Chapel in Minneapolis, MN, and teaches early and medieval history and literature at Wittenberg Academy.

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