Athanasius Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.”