Athanasius Essay - Critical Essays

Athanasius

Introduction

Athanasius c. 295-373

Greek theologian.

The most important Church leader of the fourth century, Saint Athanasius was a strong and vocal opponent of the popular minister Arius and his heretical views of the Incarnation. His exegetical skills and brash manner involved him in constant controversy on matters involving the Trinity and the nature of the relationship between God the Father and the Son of God. His contentious, lifelong battles led to his exile from Alexandria on five separate occasions. A persistent fighter against the heresy of the Arians, he was revered by his supporters as the “Father of Orthodoxy.” Today Athanasius is recognized for his substantial influence on early Christianity and is considered the greatest advocate ever of the Church's position on the Incarnation.

Biographical Information

Little is known of Athenasius's early life and his writings reveal a negligible amount of personal information. He is believed to have been born in Alexandria, Egypt, and possibly to have been educated in grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy. He reached the status of deacon by 318, and it is probably about this date that two of his most famous works were written: Oratio contra Gentes (Against the Gentiles), and Oratio de incarnatione Verbi (On the Incarnation of the Word). The strength of Athanasius's arguments in these works gained the Bishop of Alexandria's attention. The early years of Christianity were rife with contentiousness: Arius preached that the Son of God was distinct from and subordinate to God the Father; Alexander, the Bishop of Alexandria, believed that the Arian views were essentially pagan. The emperor of Rome, Constantine, ordered a council composed of hundreds of bishops to meet in 325 in Nicaea with the directive that the leaders come to some agreement regarding the nature of Christ and the Trinity, so that the Church could show a united front. The Bishop of Alexandria chose Euthanasias to accompany him, and Euthanasias was the conservatives' champion at the council. Although at times Euthanasias appeals to reason, his ultimate position is that the nature of the Trinity is beyond the ability of mortals to comprehend and thus must simply be accepted on faith. Arius refused to sign the creed of the council and was expelled from the Church. Soon, however, he and his supporters prevailed on the emperor and Constantine changed his mind, now siding against Euthanasias's position. Euthanasias became Bishop of Alexandria in 328, a post he would hold for the rest of his life. He was in the midst of controversy throughout his life and suffered many exiles. Athanasius steadfastly defied Arianism in spite of its sometimes tremendous endorsement by other church leaders, rejected cooperation, and ultimately prevailed in his battle for Orthodox doctrine.

Major Works

In Oratio contra Gentes and Oratio de incarnatione Verbi Athanasius offers his description of various aspects of Church doctrine. Athanasius adamantly disagreed with Arius's views and explained that God the Father and the Son of God were indeed of the very same essence. His major arguments against Arianism constitute the Orationes contra Arianos (circa 335; Orations against the Arians). Vita Antonii (Life of Anthony), the date of which is unknown, greatly affected St. Augustine, exerted a strong influence on the style of later hagiographies, and helped to spread the ideals of Christian religious practice. Additionally, Athanasius wrote numerous letters on particular doctrinal matters, the majority of which have not been translated into English. There are also some works which survive only in a very fragmentary state.

Critical Reception

Although it is unlikely that several of Athanasius's works will ever be precisely dated, scholars have made diligent efforts at compiling lengthy chronologies of his career and the controversial events in which he played an important role. In modern times there has been much debate over the dating of Oratio contra Gentes and Oratio de incarnatione Verbi. Though the works have long been thought to date to the year 318, Charles Kannengiesser and other scholars contend that they were written considerably later; their arguments have not been generally accepted. Because Athanasius was popular, numerous contemporaneous writers attempted to popularize their own ideas under his name. Scholars have assessed many works assigned to Athanasius in the past and have declared them fakes or of doubtful authenticity. Interest in Athanasius eventually subsided as the doctrine that he himself advocated became accepted. Edward Rochie Hardy discusses some of the textual history of Oratio de incarnatione Verbi, stating that it was not until the nineteenth century that Athanasius's importance in Church history and Christian thought was fully appreciated. Since Athanasius's arguments are often intellectually challenging, the majority of critical attention has been devoted to explicating his theology. Frederick Kershner offers a typical expression of the high regard in which Athanasius is now held: “For more than a thousand years the name of Athanasius has remained the symbol of orthodoxy in Christian theology. Along with Augustine and Aquinas, he helps to constitute the great trinity of dogmatic thinkers down to the period of the Reformation.”

Principal Works

Oratio contra Gentes (treatise) c. 318

Oratio de incarnatione Verbi (treatise) c. 318

Orationes contra Arianos (treatises) c. 335

Vita Antonii (biography) fourth century

Treatises in Controversy with the Arians (translated by John Henry Newman) 1843-44

On the Incarnation: The Treatise “De Incarnatione Verbi Dei” (translated by Penelope Lawson) 1946

“Contra gentes” and “De incarnation” (translated by Robert W. Thomson) 1971

“Life of Antony” and “Letter to Marcellinus” (translated by Robert C. Gregg) 1980

The Coptic Life of Antony (translated by Tim Vivian) 1995

Criticism

George Hodges (essay date 1911)

SOURCE: Hodges, George. “Athanasius 296-373.” In Saints and Heroes: To the End of the Middle Ages, pp. 15–26. New York: H. Holt and Company, 1911.

[In the following excerpt, Hodges relates how Athanasius came into conflict with the Arian-dominated church over the issue of the nature of Christ.]

One day, in Alexandria, a bishop was standing by a window in his house, which looked out over the sea. He had invited some people to dinner, and they were late in coming, and he was waiting. When they came they found the bishop so interested in what he saw out of the window that they looked also. On the shore of the sea a little group of boys were “playing church.” One was the minister, the others were the congregation. The boy who was the minister called up the others one by one and baptized them in the sea; and this he did just as it was done in church, saying the right words and doing the right acts: The bishop beckoned to the boy. “What is your name?” he said. And the boy answered, “Athanasius.”

Some years after, when Athanasius had come to the last year of school, the bishop took him into his own house, and he became his secretary, and the bishop loved him as a son. The lad desired to be a minister in earnest, and the bishop taught him, and at last ordained him.

Now the minister of the largest church in Alexandria was named Arius. He was a tall, pale man, careless in his dress, and with his hair tumbling about his head, but kind and pleasant to everybody whom he met, and a great preacher. His church was always crowded, and he was much admired for his goodness and his eloquence. But Arius and the bishop did not agree. And one time, in the presence of a large number of ministers, at a convention, Arius said aloud and publicly that the bishop was not a good teacher of religion. The bishop, he said, was seriously mistaken.

Alexandria, at that time, was much like Athens when it was visited by St. Paul. It was a place where the people loved to argue and debate.

Now, there are two quite different things about which men may argue. They may debate matters which can be decided by weights or measures; as, for example, the height of a house. And they may come to a speedy decision about which there is no further doubt. Or they may debate matters which nobody understands or can ever understand completely; as, for example, the question whether human beings have any existence before they are born. Here one may say, “Yes, the soul of each man has always been in the world, now in a tree, now in a lion, and, at last, in the man”; while another may say, “No, the soul and the body come into being at the same time.” And such a question they may go on debating forever, because neither can prove his position. The Alexandrians were fond of discussing these hard problems. They were, therefore, greatly interested in the debate between Arius and the bishop, and everybody took part in it, on one side or on the other.

Arius said to the bishop, “You teach that Christ is only another name for God, and that there is no difference. How can that be, when God is the Father and Christ is the Son? Is not the Son different from the Father? Is He not, indeed, inferior to the Father? There must have been a time in the far spaces of eternity when the Son began to be, when He was created like the rest of us. He is, of course, divine but in an inferior position.” At this the bishop was filled with horror and declared that Arius was either making Christ a creature like man, or at least was robbing Him of so much of His greatness that He was not truly divine, or was setting such a difference between Him and God that there were two gods according to his teaching, two distinct Gods.

This is not the place in which to discuss this difficult matter, as they discussed it in Alexandria. This much, however, may be said, that Arius in taking the names “Father” and “Son” literally, and making such inferences from them, was putting Christianity in danger of a pagan invasion. For if there may be two distinct gods, the Father and the Son, why not twenty, why not two hundred? We have to remember that a great part of all the people of Alexandria and everywhere else were pagans, and believed in many gods. Out of this the Christians had been saved. They had daily evidence...

(The entire section is 1801 words.)

Frederick D. Kershner (essay date 1930)

SOURCE: Kershner, Frederick D. “Athanasius.” In Pioneers of Christian Thought, pp. 113–34. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1930.

[In the following excerpt, Kershner provides background for the debate on the nature of the Trinity and contends that the logically-incomprehensible doctrine championed by Athanasius ultimately defied his rational critics.]

For more than a thousand years the name of Athanasius has remained the symbol of orthodoxy in Christian theology. Along with Augustine and Aquinas, he helps to constitute the great trinity of dogmatic thinkers down to the period of the Reformation. It seems a little strange that all three of these illustrious...

(The entire section is 6849 words.)

Edward Rochie Hardy (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: Hardy, Edward Rochie. “Introduction to Athanasius.” In Christology of the Later Fathers, pp. 43-54. The Library of Christian Classics, Vol. III, edited by Edward Rochie Hardy. London: SCM Press Ltd, 1954.

[In the following essay, Hardy provides an overview of On the Incarnation of the Word and explains why it is a Christian classic of great influence.]

BACKGROUND AND IDEAS

For forty-five years Bishop of Alexandria, for fifty a central figure in the exposition and defense of orthodox theology, Athanasius is one of the dominating personalities in the history of the Church. Yet practically all his writings were produced in...

(The entire section is 3662 words.)

Bengt Hägglund (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: Hägglund, Bengt. “Arianism: The Council of Nicaea” and “Athanasius: The Formation of the Trinitarian Doctrine.” In History of Theology, translated by Gene J. Lund, pp. 75–88. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1968.

[In the following excerpts, originally published in Swedish in 1966, Hägglund summarizes Athanasius's arguments against Arianism and examines their influence on the development of Nicene thought.]

The challenge of Monarchianism returned in a more acute form in the violent ecclesiastical controversies of the fourth century. It was then that the threat of Arianism was combated and that the church's Trinitarian formula was established...

(The entire section is 5408 words.)

Justo L. González (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: González, Justo L. “The Theology of Athanasius.” In A History of Christian Thought, Vol. I: From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon, pp. 291-302. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970.

[In the following excerpt, González explains that Athanasius did not develop a formal system of thought because his theological interests were of a practical, not an academic, nature.]

One of the best patristic scholars of our time has said about Athanasius that “the history of dogma in the fourth century is identical with the history of his life.”1 In fact, the life and work of Athanasius are so interwoven with the development of theological discussion in...

(The entire section is 5008 words.)

Robert W. Thomson (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Thomson, Robert W. “Introduction.” InAthanasius: “Contra Gentes” and “De Incarnatione,” edited and translated by Robert W. Thomson pp. xi-xx. Oxford: Oxford at the Clerendon Press, 1971.

[In the following excerpt, Thomson examines the personality of Athanasius, focusing on how it contributed to his turbulent career.]

Few Fathers of the Church have more captured the popular imagination than Athanasius of Alexandria. Exiled repeatedly, he came to enjoy an almost mythical reputation as the champion of Nicaea and the sole obstacle to an Arian empire. The significance of Athanasius' career was, however, much wider than the triumph of the Nicene...

(The entire section is 3733 words.)

Thomas F. Torrance (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Torrance, Thomas F. “The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity according to St Athanasius,” In Trinitarian Perspectives: Toward Doctrinal Agreement, pp. 7–20. Edinburgh: T & T Clark Ltd, 1994.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1989, Torrance examines Athanasius's Christological approach to the Trinity.]

‘There is one eternal Godhead in Trinity, and there is one Glory of the Holy Trinity … If theological truth is now perfect in Trinity, this is the true and only divine worship, and this is its beauty and truth, it must have been always so.’1

‘There is one Form...

(The entire section is 5120 words.)

Susanna Elm (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Elm, Susanna. “Athanasius of Alexandria and Urban Ascetism.” In “Virgins of God”: The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity, pp. 331-72. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.

[In the following excerpt, Elm examines Athanasius's letters to a group of virgins in which he outlines his beliefs on purity and warns against Arianism.]

The previous discussions have made it abundantly clear that ascetic life in Egypt was characterized by an extraordinary degree of variety and, consequently, fluidity. Several models of ascetic life coexisted and at times competed with each other. As in Asia Minor, there were three distinct categories: ascetic life within cities and...

(The entire section is 20887 words.)

Alvyn Pettersen (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Pettersen, Alvyn. “Introduction: Athanasius's Life and Times.” In Athanasius, pp. 1-18. London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Pettersen discusses the history of the city of Alexandria and how its politics influenced the work of Athanasius.]

Alexandria was ‘the crossroads of the world, serving it as a marketplace serves a single city’. To a degree these words of the early second-century Dio Chrysostom1 were still true in the very early fourth century. Alexandria certainly was still a place rich in ideas, culture and commerce. Power and prestige might be found there. Hence it acted as a magnet, attracting both rich and...

(The entire section is 7382 words.)

Alvyn Pettersen (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Pettersen, Alvyn. “A Good Being Would Envy None Life: Athanasius on the Goodness of God.” Theology Today 55, no. 1 (April 1998): 59-69.

[In the following essay, Pettersen analyzes Athanasius's emphasis on the goodness of God in his writings.]

The title of this article looks like a literary flourish and in ways it is. In his Timaeus Plato writes that the One “was good; and for the good there never has been any envy concerning anyone.”1 Athanasius of Alexandria echoes this in his early dual work Contra Gentes-De Incarnatione when, in a rather literary way, he records that “a good being would be envious of no one; so [the God of...

(The entire section is 5116 words.)

Christopher A. Hall (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Hall, Christopher A. “The Four Doctors of the East: Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil the Great & John Chrysostom.” In Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, pp. 56-64. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1998.

[In the following excerpt, Hall explains how Athanasius remained steadfast in his position regarding Christ's dual nature as God and man.]

In the four doctors of the East we encounter the preeminent teachers who exemplify the riches of Eastern patristic insight and exegesis. All four illustrate the fruitfulness of patristic biblical interpretation, although these fathers practiced their exegetical craft in response to different...

(The entire section is 3816 words.)