(This was originally a church history paper during my time at Southern Seminary, written approximately 2003. Athanasius has continued to fascinate me. I pray you may find this of value. This article is also posted here .)
Author: Matt Perry
Quodlibet Journal: Volume 5 Number 2-3, July 2003
The purpose of this paper is to examine the career of Athanasius. This will include areas of his childhood and adolescence, his beginnings as archdeacon of Alexandria, his dealings at the Council of Nicaea, and his long-term battle with the Arians during his 46-year tenure as Bishop of Alexandria. Louis Berkhof considers Athanasius to be “by far the greatest man of the age, an acute scholar, a strong character, and a man who had the courage of his convictions and was ready to suffer for the truth.” That is the aim that this paper will attempt to show.
His Early Years.
Athanasius, known as “The Black Dwarf” for his short stature and dark complexion (likely stemming from a Coptic origin), endures as one of the greatest of the Fathers of the Church.  Little is known of his early life, but what is known is that he was trained in the doctrines of Christianity and secured a good education. It was during these formative years that he stayed in close connection with the desert monks — apparent in his biography on The Life of St. Antony. He learned true discipline from these men of God and, in turn, they would often grant him support and even asylum in the tumultuous years that would follow.
The education of his childhood bears the imprint of one raised in Alexandria.
The Alexandria of his boyhood was an epitome, intellectually, morally, and politically, of that ethnically many-couloured Graeco-Roman world, over which the Church of the fourth and fifth centuries was beginning at last . . . to realize its supremacy. It was moreover the most important centre of trade in the whole empire; and its primacy as an emporium of ideas was more commanding than that of Rome or Constantinople, Antioch or Marseilles.
This background and the education offered in this type of culture would indeed help sharpen his mind for the battles ahead.
His Early Career.
When his relationship with the Alexandrian Bishop Alexander began is not known. What is known is that he spent the early part of his career as a private secretary for Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria, and in the year 325 became Archdeacon of Alexandria. His wonderful volumes entitled Against the Gentiles and On the Incarnation of the Word before he was age twenty. They were also written when the Arian controversy began and just prior to the convening of the Nicene Council in A.D. 325 — works which would demonstrate that it would be he to lead the charge against the Arian heresy — a subject to be discussed later.
When Bishop Alexander attended the Nicene council in 325, he successfully presented an argument outlining the Godhood of Jesus Christ. What was also apparent is that it was the Archdeacon Athanasius who did most of the leg work for Alexander. His reputation as a scholar and a disciplined man of God grew to such an extent that upon Alexander’s death, he was asked to be Archbishop of the great church and city of Alexandria — a position he would have off and on for the next 46 years.
Athanasius’ ‘claim to fame’ came not just from the Arian controversy. In 367, he included in a letter the first complete list of biblical books that he felt should be included in the canon. The council of North Africa at Hippo in 393 and at Carthage in 397 presented the same list. 
Athanasius’ legacy as the champion of Nicene orthodoxy has been intertwined with his controversy with the Arians, and it is his role in this controversy to which this paper is devoted.
The Beginning of the Controversy.
In the year 313, the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan which ended the persecution of Christianity. Now, it stood as a protected, even favored religion by the emperor. Once the crises of the persecutions from outside the church ended, crises arose from within the church about, among other issues, the nature and person of Jesus. These discussions had taken place around 150 years before the Edict was enacted with several groups coming to the fore in expressing their views.
Of considerable influence were the Monarchians — who held to the unity or “monarchy” (“one source”) of God. Some such as Sabellius, a third-century Roman teacher, who viewed God as one person revealing Himself in different modes throughout history as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (soon known as modalists). Other Monarchians known as adoptionists believed Jesus was adopted by the Father and endowed with complete divine presence. Neither of these views were embraced widely by the church because, as Mark Noll states, “they either undercut the conviction that Jesus was a distinct person or shortchanged the fullness of his deity.”
The word ‘Trinity’ was coined by Tertullian, a distinguished lawyer from Carthage. Origen (c. 185- c. 254) sought to preserve the unity of this concept, while at the same time to preserve the distinction between the Father and Son. Mark Noll states again that, “some who followed Origen’s train of thought, however, did not share his concern for balance.” This brings us to a presbyter from Alexandria named Arius (c. 250-c.336).
In 318, Arius told Bishop Alexander of his views of the Father and Son. The Father was eternal in character, but the Son was in a lower strata that the Father. Arius began making his teachings about the nature and person of Jesus Christ, the ‘logos’ of God, known throughout the area. He taught that “God begat him, and before he was begotten, he did not exist.” The Arians state:
If the Son were, according to your interpretation, eternally existent with God, He would not have been ignorant of the Day [of His return – see Mark 13:4, 32], but have known it as Word; nor would he have been forsaken if he was co-existent … nor have prayed at all. . . . [B]eing the Word, he would have needed nothing.
In spite of what the Arians state, Christopher Stead argues that Arius was “teaching a relatively high view of the Logos.” He continues:
He is determined to safeguard the Father’s preeminence; but … he has no pressing concern to reduce the honours traditionally accorded to the Logos; he describes him as ‘mighty God’, as Monogenes, as God’s first-born Son, as the Wisdom who assisted the Father at creation. Athanasius himself, while criticizing Arius’ presentation of this last point, cannot deny that it was made. … That Arius described the Logos as merely one of the creatures, or alternatively as a mere man, does not rest on good documentary evidence but on polemical sallies which have been wrongly treated as quotations.
Regardless of Dr. Stead’s contentions, Arius’ view even on the points of agreement concerning what he did say were still divisive and destructive to the unity of the church and the Gospel.
This teaching, condemned by the bishops of Egypt, forced Arius flee to Nicodemia. He gathered a following and influence and a place where he could state his position. Soon, a Christianity that battled the state in their persecutions now would be infighting concerning who the Son of God truly was and is.
Justo Gonzalez puts it well when he says,
What Arius taught was that the one who had come to us in Jesus Christ was not truly God, but a lesser being, a creature. Such a notion was unacceptable to Athanasius — as it was also to the monks who had withdrawn to the desert for love of God Incarnate. . . . For Athanasius, for the monks, and for many of the faithful, the Arian controversy was not a matter of theological subtleties with little or no relevance. In it, the very core of the Christian message was at stake.
As mentioned previously, his book On the Incarnation of the Word dealt with this very issue and how it is central to the Scriptures. Athanasius compares it to a king who enters a large city and stays in one of the houses. His staying there guarantees protection not just for that house but for the whole city.
Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and inconsequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled, and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be. For the huna race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Savior of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death.
Athanasius debated that the implications of Arius’ views were far-reaching, even to the point of affecting the efficacy of Christ’s ability to save us. If Christ does not share an eternal Godhood with the Father, then our salvation would be impossible for creature cannot redeem creature. Also, as Alistair McGrath points out, “the Christian church was guilty of idolatry, as Christians regularly worshipped and prayed to Christ. As “idolatry” can be defined as ‘worship of a human construction or creation,’ it followed that this worship was idolatrous.” So it is clear that the lines were drawn. The clergy in Alexandria sided with the Godhood of the Logos, while those following Arius in Nicodemia (and soon in all parts of the Empire) believed that the Logos was a created being of God. This issue in particular led to the Council of Nicaea.
The Council of Nicaea.
Constantine, seeing this as a divisive issue, sought to restore religious and political unity to his empire by calling the first worldwide council in the town of Nicaea (a major city in Bythynia which is now Iznik in Turkey) and close to Constantinople, the military headquarters of the Empire. Having unified the Empire under his power after years of division since Diocletian’s death, he wanted to keep the empire unified at all costs. In a letter written to an unknown recipient, he states:
My design then was, first, to bring the diverse judgments found by all nations respecting
the Deity to a condition, as it were, of settled uniformity [that is, to clarify doctrine for the sake of the church]; and, second, to restore a healthy tone to the system of the world, then suffering under the power of grievous disease [that is, to end religious strife for the sake of the empire].
Not only this, but since his vision of the cross and Christ’s supposed admonition to “conquer by this,” his heart had forever been swayed toward the religion of Christianity. 
Over 300 bishops attended this Council — mostly from the East — with all expenses paid for by the Emperor himself The issues at hand were not just about Arius, but concerning the dates of when to celebrate Easter and settling issues between the largest episcopal cities. Many felt the Arian controversy was merely an argument among the Easterners, but there were other groups represented. Along with the Arians, about three or four bishops held to Patripassianism: that the Father and the Son are the same. These issues would be dealt with in due course. Yet, the way this council would be handled would handle the Arian heresy would determine the path of Athanasius’ career for the rest of his life.
When the council convened, those in the Arian camp spoke their side. Since Arius was not a bishop but merely a presbyter, he was not allowed to sit in on the meetings. The Arian view was presented by Eusebius of Nicodemia, who was quite confident that once the Arian view was clearly and logically stated, the Council would overwhelmingly vote for them. They stated how the Son was created out of nothing from the Father and different in nature and essence from the Father (heteroousious). Yet, their reaction to this was not off acceptance, but considered blasphemous. Gonzalez states that, “Eusebius was shouted down, … his speech snatched from his hand, torn to shreds, and trampled underfoot.”
Athanasius was not allowed to sit in on the Council either since he was only a deacon. Yet, clearly it was Athanasius who did the legwork and concluded (as Bishop Alexander conveyed in the Trinitarian defense) that the Son was of the same essence (homoousios) than the Father and was generated from that essence of the Father. A middle party concluded as a way of compromise between the Arian and Athanasian viewpoints that Christ was of a similar essence than the Father (homoiousios). This viewpoint, drawn up by Eusebius of Caesarea, tried to accommodate both parties (where in reality, a similar essence is still a different essence, thus accordingly favoring Arius).
The Council, through the strong influence of Constantine, decided overwhelmingly in favor of Athanasius, thus securing for orthodoxy the view of both the nature and substance of Christ — of the same essence as the Father, yet a distinct person in the Godhead. As a result, the bishops remained to formulate a creed to express the concurrence. While the Arian contingent desired the Creed be formulated completely from Holy Scripture. The rest, seeing how the Arians interpreted certain Scriptures to fit their theology, felt that an interpretive document was necessary.
Regardless of how much this Council accomplished, it did not settle the controversy, but actually fanned its flame. Berkhof states, “Athanasius himself, though victorious, was dissatisfied with such a method of settling ecclesiastical disputes. He would rather have convinced the opposing party by the strength of his arguments.”20 As a result, it was clear that when another Emperor took the throne, the decision at Nicaea might be overturned.
The Arians did not accept the decision lightly and the other bishops, seeking unity as well, sought to soften the wording so the Arians would accept it. When Alexander, the Bishop of Alexandria, died in 328, Athanasius succeeded him. As mentioned earlier, Athanasius’ role in the Council of Nicaea showed that he would be the central figure in the Trinitarian controversies following the Council. When the Emperor called for negotiations between the Arians, the Trinitarians, and the moderates seeking compromise, Athanasius refused to participate because he knew that if unity and compromise were sought above all else (which seemed to be the case here), then the truth of the Scriptures and what they said about the Son’s relationship to the Father would be compromised as well.
Athanasius made it clear that he would defend the full deity of Christ against great odds — to such an extent that an expression arose: “Athanasius contra mundum” — ‘Athanasius against the world.’ Rumors began to arise about Athanasius’ religious practices and private life. He was accused of dabbling in magic and that he was a dictator over his church in Alexandria. As a result, he had to answer to the emperor concerning these charges. Of course, he was innocent — he was far too disciplined a man to practice such things. Once again he defeated the Arians, though the war was not over.
The Five Exiles
Athanasius would be sentenced to five exiles in the days after Nicaea. In spite of the success of Nicaea, the Arians would soon sway the imperial throne toward their cause. And with Athanasius being such a formidable foe and the leader of the Trinitarian cause — not to mention that he is never one to back down from a fight for truth — would often be the recipient of the Arian imperial wrath.
The First Exile
Athanasius’ refusal to attend these negotiations coupled with the rumors circulating about him did not earn him much favor with Emperor Constantine. Eusebius of Nicodemia (the Arian supporter), who was exiled by the Emperor due to his part in the Arian controversy, had been recalled from exile. He garnered great favor with Constantine, even to the point of convincing the emperor to recall Arius from exile as well. 
Eusebius’ influence increased to such an extent that Constantine wrote a letter to young Athanasius in the year 330 saying that the Arian view presented by Eusebius of Nicodemia had been distorted and was persuaded that those willing to submit to the Nicaean definitions should be readmitted into the Church. Athanasius refused this saying that no fellowship could exist between the Church and “the one who denied the divinity of Christ.”
Eusebius, using his garnered favor with the Emperor, trumped up charges to Constantine about how Athanasius was bragging about his ability to stop shipments of food from Egypt to Rome. These and other charges were refuted by a trial. Yet, when he was summoned to appear before a synod of prelates at Tyre in 355, it was clear that “the complexion of the ruling party in the synod made it evident that justice to the accused was the last thing that was thought of.” Athanasius refused to be tried there.
Athanasius knew he had to obtain an audience with the Emperor, but Eusebius was blocking every opportunity. He resorted to drastic measures. After Constantine was returning from a hunt, Athanasius jumped in front of the Emperor as he was riding his horse, grabbed the horse’s bridle and kept it until he could speak his peace.  Yet from the time of Constantine’s granting of an audience to Athanasius’ arrival before him, Eusebius stirred up his faction and resubmitted the charges to Constantine during Athanasius’ appearance before him. Constantine ruled in favor of Eusebius and sent Athanasius into exile at Trier. He stayed in exile for two and a half years.
The Second Exile
Soon after Athanasius was sent to Trier, Arius had died (336) and Constantine died the following year (337). His sons, Constantine II, Constans, and Constanius jointly took the throne and immediately decided that all exiled bishops could return to their places of service. Athanasius’ church were still devoted to him, but upon his return an Arian faction had taken root in Alexandria and claim that due to Athanasius’ prolonged absence that he was no longer a legitimate bishop. After gaining support from the authorities in Alexandria, Gregory (the Arian leader of that contingent with the backing on Constantine II) tried to take over Athanasius’ church. When Athanasius refused, a skirmish broke out with such violent that he felt it best to leave the city and go to Rome. 
While in Rome, Athanasius presented the Nicene position to Julius, the Bishop of Rome, and garnered the favor of the Roman clergy. Soon, he was declared by a synod in Rome to be the legitimate bishop of Alexandria and that Gregory must go. Yet, since Constantine II was still alive, Athanasius could not return as yet, but as Gonzalez points out, “it did signal the support of the Western church for the Nicene cause, and for Athanasius in particular.”
When Constantine II died, Constans became the sole emperor of the West while Constantius (an avowed Arian) was emperor in the East.. After two years in Rome, Constans summoned Athanasius to Milan. Soon, Constants convinced Constantius to allow Athanasius to come back to his see in Alexandria. When this was granted and Athanasius returned to Alexandria, he was welcomed back as a hero. He was in relative safety for the next ten years.
The Third Exile
Eastern Emperor Constantius (pro-Arian) endured Athanasius’ presence in Alexandria for the sake of his brother in the West, Emperor Constans, and due to tumultuous circumstances along the border of Persia. In A.D. 352, Julius (the Bishop of Rome) died and was replaced by Liberius, who was favorable to Athanasius for a time. Yet, when he faced exile, he was forced to sign “an ambiguous formula, from which the great Nicene test, the homoousion, had be studiously omitted.”
To make matters worse, in A.D. 353, Constantius became the ruler of the entire Empire and he now had free reign to put his pro-Arian policies into play. He convened a synod to denounce Athanasius. When told that it was the church’s policy that someone could not be condemned without a formal hearing, Constantius responded, “My will also is a canon of the church.” Scared, many bishops signed the condemnation of Athanasius. Those who refused were banished from the church.
Constantius sent a letter to Athanasius granting him an audience. He answered politely that there must have been an error, for he did not request one. The Emperor then ordered troops to be sent to Alexandria and then the governor of Alexandria, upon seeing the troops, ordered Athanasius to leave the city. The wise bishop then showed an order from the Emperor himself granting permission for Athanasius to be in Alexandria, knowing that the Emperor would not contradict himself. It was during communion that Athanasius’ church was stormed by imperial soldiers and thus removed Athanasius from his see. This begins his third exile.
For the next six years, Athanasius dwelt with his friends who always gave him safe harbor when necessary: the desert monks. Whenever an imperial officer approached one of the monastic communities, they would safely and secretly transport him to another community. During these years, he wrote Apology to Constantius, Apology for his Flight, Letter to the Monks, and the History of the Arians.
During these years as well, the Nicean contingent suffered great obstacles and opposition. As previously mentioned, the imperial throne was in favor of Arius, plus several councils met and endorsed (by force) Arianism; even the elderly Bishop Liberius of Rome were encouraged (by force) to sign Arian confessions of faith. Arians even convened at the city of Sirmium and decidedly rejected Nicaea’s decisions. This was known as the “Blasphemy of Sirmium.”
Soon, news came that Emperor Constantius died. This was in A.D. 361. He was succeeded by Julius who was known for trying to restore paganism to its former glory. He hoped that the Arians and the Niceans would cancel each other out with their battles, so Julian allowed all the exiled bishops to return to their sees, thus ending Athanasius’ third exile where he returned on February 22, 362.
The Fourth Exile
Athanasius took this opportunity to shore up the decisions and conclusions made at Nicaea. The issue of Christ being of “the same substance” (homoousios) or of “a similar substance” (homoiousios) still plagued the church. Gonzalez states that at an earlier time considered those who advocated the homoiousios position “were as heretical as the Arians … was now ready to see the legitimate concern of those Christians who, while refusing Arianism, were not ready to give up the distinction between the Father and the Son.” Gonzalez continues:
In a synod gathered in Alexandria in AD 362, Athanasius and his followers declared that it was acceptable to refer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as “one substance” as long as this was not understood as obliterating the distinction among the three, and that it was also legitimate to speak of “three substances” as long as this was not understood as if there were three gods.
The church supported it and ratified it at the Council of Constantinople in A.D. 381.
Athanasius’ power was threatening to Julian and sought to remove Athanasius once again from his See. When the people of Alexandria protested, Athanasius encouraged them to submit to the order, saying that “his absence would be of short duration.” Unexpectedly, Julian left the imperial throne in 363, being replaced by Emperor Jovian who reinstated Athanasius. With his fourth exile concluded, Athanasius thought that the stormy waters would be calm.
The Fifth Exile
Just over a year after Jovian took the throne, he died. Valens, a staunch Arian, took the throne and, once more, Athanasius went into exile. Unlike Constantius and Julian, Valens did not debate with the feared Athanasius. Valens banished the same bishops deposed by Constantius. Yet, within a few weeks, Valens permitted Athanasius to return to his see, where he spent the last nine years of his life in relative peace from the imperial throne.
As mentioned previously, Athanasius’ doctrine drawn up at the synod of Alexandria in 362 was ratified at the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in 381. Athanasius, who died in 373, never saw the final victory of his lifelong cause. Yet, the church (especially the Western church) will always be indebted to the good fight he fought in protecting the Christological view of Scripture.
It is this writer’s contention that the cause of Athanasius must still be taken up in the 21st century. Certain cults (the Watchtower Society, for one) hold to an Arian view of Christ being a lesser being than the Father. Orthodox Christians of our time must be as much a student of the Scriptures as Athanasius was. He did not bow to philosophies nor compromise to Emperors. He did not quit when in exile nor did he become complacent when at his church in Alexandria. He was a driven, determined theologian who was short in stature but a giant among the Eastern Fathers.
Louis Berkhof. The History of Christian Doctrines, 7th ed. (Edinburgh, Scotland: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), 87.
Justo L. Gonzalez. The Story of Christianity, Volume I: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publications, 1984), 173.
W.C.L. The Orations of St. Athanasius Against the Arians. London: Griffith Farran & Co.: year not indicated. 5.
Christopher A. Hall. Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers. ( Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1998). 57.
Bruce Shelley. Church History in Plain Language. 2nd Edition. (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1994.) 66.
Mark Noll. Turning Points: Decisive Moments in Christian History. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997), 48-49.
James E. Kiefer. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, Theologian, Doctor. (New York: The Society for Archbishop Justus, Lts., 1997), [online], accessed 23 October 2002, http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/152.htm; Internet.
Athanasius, Four Discourses Against the Arians, Discourse 3, NPNF Second Series, vol. 4 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 408.
Christopher Stead. Doctrines and Philosophy in Early Christianity: Arius, Athanasius, Augustine. (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2000), 153.
Athanasius. On the Incarnation. Trans. & ed. by a religious of C.S.M.V (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), 35.
Alistair McGrath. Christian Theology: An Introduction. (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1994), 12.
 Noll. 51.
 Clifford. Internet.
 Hall. 57.
 Gonzalez. 176.
 Ibid. 177.
 Gonzalez. 178.
 Gonzalez. 178.
 Gonzalez. 179.
 Gonzalez. 179.
 Ibid. 179.
 Clifford. 10.
 Gonzalez. 180.