AskDefine | Define athanasius

Dictionary Definition

Athanasius n : (Roman Catholic Church) Greek patriarch of Alexandria who championed Christian orthodoxy against Arianism; a Church father, saint, and Doctor of the Church (293-373) [syn: Saint Athanasius, St. Athanasius, Athanasius the Great]

Extensive Definition

Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 293-May 2, 373), also known as St Athanasius the Great, Pope Athanasius I of Alexandria, and St Athanasius the Apostolic, (Greek: Αθανάσιος, Athanásios) was a theologian, Bishop of Alexandria, Church Father, and a noted Egyptian leader of the fourth century. He is best remembered for his role in the conflict with Arius and Arianism. At the first Council of Nicaea (325), Athanasius argued against Arius and his doctrine that Christ is of a distinct substance from the Father.
Saint Athanasius is revered as a saint by the Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Eastern Catholic Churches. He is traditionally regarded as a great leader of the Church by the Lutheran Church, the Anglican Communion, and most Protestants in general. He is chronologically the first Doctor of the Church as designated by the Roman Catholic Church, and he is counted as one of the four Great Doctors of the Eastern Church. St Athanasius' feast day is May 2 in Western Christianity, May 15 in the Coptic Orthodox Church, and January 18 in the Eastern Orthodox Churches.


Athanasius received his philosophical and theological training at Alexandria. He was ordained as a deacon by the current patriarch, Alexander of Alexandria, in 319.In 325, he served as Alexander's secretary at the First Council of Nicaea. Already a recognized theologian and ascetic, he was the obvious choice to replace Alexander as the Patriarch of Alexandria on the latter's death in 328, despite the opposition of the followers of Arius and Meletius of Lycopolis. which he brought back to Egypt on 15 May. The relics of St Athanasius the Great of Alexandria are currently preserved under the new Saint Mark Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Deir El-Anba Rowais, Abbassiya, Cairo, Egypt.
The following is a troparion (hymn) to Saint Athanasius sung in some Orthodox churches.
O Holy father Athanasius,
like a pillar of orthodoxy
you refuted the heretical nonsense of Arius
by insisting that the Father and the Son are equal in essence.
O venerable father, beg Christ our God to save our souls.
Saint Athanasius is venerated as a saint by the majority of major Christian denominations which officially approve of and recognize saints. His feast day is observed on May 2, the day of his death. In the Roman Catholic Church he is deemed a Doctor of the Church.
He has been hailed as "the pillar of the Church" by Gregory of Nazianzus
St. Athanasius seems to have been brought early in life under the immediate supervision of the ecclesiastical authorities of his native city. A story has been preserved by Rufinus (Hist. Eccl., I, xiv). The bishop Alexander, so the tale runs, had invited a number of fellow prelates to meet him at breakfast after a great religious function. While Alexander was waiting for his guests to arrive, he stood by a window, watching a group of boys at play on the seashore below the house. He had not observed them long before he discovered that they were imitating the elaborate ritual of Christian baptism. He sent for the children and, in the investigation that followed, it was discovered that one of the boys (none other than Athanasius), had acted the part of the bishop, and in that character had actually baptized several of his companions in the course of their play. Alexander determined to recognize the make-believe baptisms as genuine, and decided that Athanasius and his playfellows should go into training in order to prepare themselves for a clerical career.
Sozomen speaks of his "fitness for the priesthood", and calls attention to the significant circumstance that he was "from his tenderest years practically self-taught". "Not long after this," adds the same authority, the Bishop Alexander "invited Athanasius to be his commensal and secretary. He had been well educated, and was versed in grammar and rhetoric, and had already, while still a young man, and before reaching the episcopate, given proof to those who dwelt with him of his wisdom and acumen" (Soz., II, xvii). That "wisdom and acumen" manifested themselves in a varied environment. While still a deacon under Alexander's care, he seems to have been brought for a while into close relations with some of the solitaries of the Egyptian desert, and in particular with the Anthony the Great, whose life he is said to have written.

Opposition to Arianism

In about 319, when Athanasius was a deacon, a presbyter named Arius came into a direct conflict with Alexander of Alexandria. It appears that Arius reproached Alexander for what he felt were misguided or heretical teachings being taught by the bishop. Arius’ theological views appear to have been firmly rooted in Alexandrian Christianity, and his Christological views were certainly not radical at all. He embraced a subordinationist Christology (that God did not have a beginning, but the Logos did), heavily influenced by Alexandrian thinkers like Origen, which was a common Christological view in Alexandria at the time.. Support for Arius from powerful Bishops like Eusebius of Caesarea and Eusebius of Nicomedia, further illustrate how Arius' subordinationist Christology was shared by other Christians in the Empire. Arius was subsequently excommunicated by Alexander, and he would begin to elicit the support of many bishops who agreed with his position. Athanasius may have accompanied Alexander to the First Council of Nicaea in 325, the council which produced the Nicene Creed and anathematized Arius and his followers. On May 9, 328, he succeeded Alexander as bishop of Alexandria. As a result of rises and falls in Arianism's influence after the First Council of Nicaea, Emperor Constantine I banished him from Alexandria to Tyre, but he was restored after the death of Constantine I by the emperor's son Constantine II. In 359, Athanasius was banished once again. This time he went to Rome, and spent seven years there before returning to Alexandria. The years from 346 through 356 were a relatively peaceful period for Athanasius, and some of his most important writings were composed during this period. Unfortunately, the emperor Constantinus II seems to have been committed to having Athanasius deposed, and went so far as to send soldiers to arrest Athanasius. Athanasius went into hiding in the desert with the Desert Fathers, and continued in his capacity as bishop from there until the death of Constantinus in 361.
A particularly noteworthy event occurred in 362, when Athanasius showed remarkable diplomatic flair in rallying the Orthodox at the Council of Alexandria in 362.
There were two more brief periods when Athanasius was exiled. In the spring of 365, after the accession of Emperor Valens to the throne, troubles again arose. Athanasius was once more compelled to seek safety from his persecutors in concealment (October 365), which lasted, however, only for four months.
From 366 he was able to serve as bishop in peace until his death. Athanasius was restored on at least five separate occasions, perhaps as many as seven. This gave rise to the expression "Athanasius contra mundum" or "Athanasius against the world".
He spent his final years in repairing all the damage done during the earlier years of violence, dissent, and exile, and returning to his writing and preaching undisturbed. On the 2nd of May 373, having consecrated Peter II, one of his presbyters as his successor, he died quietly in his own house.


Athanasius spent a good deal of his energy on polemical writings against his theological opponents. Examples include: Orations Against the Arians, his defence of the divinity of the Holy Spirit (Letters to Serapion in the 360s, and On the Holy Spirit) against Macedonianism and "On the Incarnation".
Arguably his most read work is his biography of Anthony the Great entitled Vita Antonii, or Life of Antony. This biography later served as an inspiration to Christian monastics in both the East and the West. The so-called Athanasian Creed dates from well after Athanasius's death and draws upon the phraseology of Augustine's De trinitate.
In Coptic literature St. Athanasius is the first patriarch of Alexandria to use Coptic, as well as Greek in his writings.

New Testament canon

seealso Biblical canon Athanasius is also the first person to identify the same 27 books of the New Testament that are in use today. Up until then, various similar lists of works to be read in churches were in use. A milestone in the evolution of the canon of New Testament books is his Easter letter from Alexandria, written in 367, usually referred to as his 39th Festal Letter. Pope Damasus, the Bishop of Rome in 382, promulgated a list of books which contained a New Testament canon identical to that of Athanasius. A synod in Hippone in 393 repeated Athanasius' and Damasus' New Testament list (without the Epistle to the Hebrews), and a synod in Carthage in 397 repeated Athanasius' and Damasus' complete New Testament list.
Scholars have debated whether Athanasius' list in 367 was the basis for the later lists. Because Athanasius' canon is the closest canon of any of the Church Fathers to the canon used by Protestant churches today, many Protestants point to Athanasius as the father of the canon. They are identical except that Athanasius includes the Book of Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah and places the Book of Esther among the "7 books not in the canon but to be read" along with the Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Judith, Tobit, the Didache, and the Shepherd of Hermas. See the article, Biblical canon, for more details.

Recent Opinions

There are at present two completely opposite views about the personality of Athanasius. While some scholars praise him as an orthodox saint with great character, others see him as a power-hungry politician who employed questionable ecclesiastical tactics.

Critics of Athanasius

Some recent academics have painted a less than flattering picture of the saint. They argue that his ascension to the station of Bishop in Alexandria occurred under questionable circumstances. Upon the death of his predecessor Alexander, in 328 C.E., more than fifty bishops gathered to confer a new leader to the Alexandrian see. While Alexander had been priming Athanasius to assume the bishopric after his death, it is said, he was not unanimously supported, and questions of his age (the minimum age to become a bishop was thirty, and questions remain to this day if he was yet that old), as well as less than overwhelming support, did not help his candidacy. Growing impatient, Athanasius took a small number of bishops who supported his claim, and held a private consecration making him bishop. According to these scholars, his ascension would only later be declared the will of the people.
Throughout most of his career, Athanasius had many detractors. There were allegations of defiling an altar, selling Church grain that had been meant to feed the poor for his own personal gain, and for suppressing dissent through violence and murder. It cannot be claimed, beyond all doubt, whether any or all of these specific allegations were true, but Athanasius almost certainly employed a level of force when it suited his cause or personal interests, and his administration of the Alexandrian see has even been likened to an “ecclesiastical mafia”. Serious questions also surround the reliability of his historical accounts. Some claim that Athanasius misrepresented his own life and events in order to warp the truth behind his own actions, and those of his enemies; especially when discussing his theological opponents, the Arians.

Allegations of violence

Some modern historians suggest that the tactics of Athanasius were a significant factor in his success. He did not hesitate to back up his theological views with the use of force. In Alexandria, he assembled a group that could instigate a riot in the city if needed. It was an arrangement "built up and perpetuated by violence." Along with excommunication he used beatings, intimidation, kidnapping and imprisonment to silence his theological opponents. Some of these allegations from the Council of Tyre were clearly false, like the charge of killing Arsenius as Arsenius was still alive. While the charges rarely stuck, his reputation was a major factor in his multiple exiles from Alexandria. Athanasius stubbornly refused to compromise his theological views by stating, "What is at stake is not just a theological theory but people's salvation." He played a clear role in making the Constantinian shift a part of the theology of the church.


Athanasius presented his opponents, the Arians as a cohesive group that backed Arius’ views and followed him as a leader. It is now accepted by most scholars that the Arian Party were not a monolithic group. It is now believed that Arius’ supporters held drastically different theological views that spanned the early Christian theological spectrum. They supported the tenets of Origenist thought and theology, but had little else in common. The term Arian was first coined by Athanasius. Athanasius used the term Arian to describe many of his opponents, except for Melitians. He used the term in a derogatory fashion to chide Arius’ supporters who did not see themselves as followers of Arius. As stated by Timothy Barnes; Athanasius used “invented dialogue to ridicule his adversaries”, and used “suppression and distortion” to serve his own means. He often blamed charges and accusations leveled at him on “Arian madmen” who he claimed conspired to destroy him and Christianity. The Arian party, as described by Athanasius, may not have existed in the form he portrayed it in his writings. The view of Arianism that exists to this day among most Christians would not have existed were it not for Athanasius.


However, there are also many modern historians who object to this view and point out that such hostile attitude towards Athanasius is based on an unfair judgment of historical sources.


  • Arnold, Duane W.-H., 1991 The Early Episcopal Career of Athanasius of Alexandria
  • Alexander of Alexandria "Catholic Epistle", The Ecole Initiative,
  • Arius, “Arius’ letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia” from Theodoret’s, Ecclesiastical History, ser. 2, vol. 3, 41, The Ecole Initiative,
  • Attwater, Donald and Catherine Rachel John. The Penguin Dictionary of Saints. 3rd edition. New York: Penguin Books, 1993. ISBN 0-140-51312-4.
  • Barnes, Timothy D., Athanasius and Constantius : Theology and Politics in the Constantinian Empire (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1993).
  • Barnes, Timothy D., Constantine and Eusebius (Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 1981)
  • Brakke, David, 1995. Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism
  • Chadwick, Henry, “Faith and Order at the Council of Nicaea”, Harvard Theological Review LIII (Cambridge Mass: 1960), 171-195.
  • Ernest, James D., The Bible in Athanasius of Alexandria (Leiden: Brill, 2004).
  • Haas, Christopher “The Arians of Alexandria”, Vigiliae Christianae Vol. 47, no. 3 (1993), 234-245.
  • Hanson, R.P.C., The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381 (T.&T. Clark 1988)
  • Kannengiesser, Charles, “Alexander and Arius of Alexandria: The last Ante-Nicene theologians”, Miscelanea En Homenaje Al P. Antonio Orbe Compostellanum Vol. XXXV, no. 1-2. (Santiago de Compostela, 1990), 391-403.
  • Kannengiesser, Charles “Athanasius of Alexandria vs. Arius: The Alexandrian Crisis”, in The Roots of Egyptian Christianity (Studies in Antiquity and Christianity), ed. Birger A. Pearson and James E. Goehring (1986), 204-215.
  • Ng, Nathan K. K., 2001 The Spirituality of Athanasius
  • Rubenstein, Richard E., When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ’s Divinity in the Last Days of Rome (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1999).
  • Williams, Rowan Arius: Heresy and Tradition (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1987).
athanasius in Arabic: أثناسيوس (بابا الإسكندرية)
athanasius in Bulgarian: Атанасий I
athanasius in Catalan: Sant Atanasi d'Alexandria
athanasius in Czech: Atanáš
athanasius in German: Athanasius der Große
athanasius in Estonian: Athanasios
athanasius in Modern Greek (1453-): Αθανάσιος Αλεξανδρείας
athanasius in Spanish: Atanasio
athanasius in Esperanto: Atanazio
athanasius in French: Athanase d'Alexandrie
athanasius in Galician: Atanasio de Alexandría
athanasius in Korean: 아타나시우스
athanasius in Croatian: Atanazije Aleksandrijski
athanasius in Italian: Atanasio di Alessandria
athanasius in Latin: Athanasius Alexandrinus
athanasius in Hungarian: Nagy Szent Atanáz
athanasius in Malayalam: അത്തനാസിയൂസ്
athanasius in Dutch: Athanasius van Alexandrië
athanasius in Japanese: アタナシオス
athanasius in Norwegian: Athanasius av Alexandria
athanasius in Polish: Atanazy Wielki
athanasius in Portuguese: Atanásio de Alexandria
athanasius in Romanian: Atanasie din Alexandria
athanasius in Russian: Афанасий Великий
athanasius in Albanian: Athanasi i Aleksandrisë
athanasius in Slovak: Atanáz
athanasius in Serbian: Атанасије Александријски
athanasius in Serbo-Croatian: Atanazije Aleksandrijski
athanasius in Finnish: Atanasios Suuri
athanasius in Swedish: Athanasius
athanasius in Ukrainian: Афанасій Великий
athanasius in Chinese: 亚他那修
Privacy Policy, About Us, Terms and Conditions, Contact Us
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
Material from Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Dict
Valid HTML 4.01 Strict, Valid CSS Level 2.1