Who was Saint Athanasius and Why Did He Oppose Arianism?

St. Athanasius (c. 296-373 CE) or Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, once referred to as “Black Dwarf” because of his dark skin and short stature, was a fourth-century figure and champion of Nicene orthodoxy over the perceived heresy of Arianism.

Athanasius probably originated from a small town on the shore of the Nile River and in his early years came into close contact with the monks of the desert. He visited the Egyptian monk Anthony the Great (251-356), leading some to think that he served the monk when he was a child. Athanasius learned many lessons from the monks including rigid discipline and austerity that would serve him well in his future trials. 

In some of his works, namely On the Incarnation of the Word and Against the Gentiles, Athanasius saw the heart of the Christian faith in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ and God’s presence among humankind. According to historian of Christian history Justo L. González,

“In a memorable passage, he speaks of the incarnation in terms of an imperial visit to a city. The emperor resides in one of the houses in the city. As a result, the particular house, as well as the entire town, receives special honor and protection. Bandits stay away from such a place. Likewise, the Monarch of the Universe has come to visit our human city, living in one of our houses, and thanks to such a presence we are all protected from the attacks and wiles of the Evil One. Now, by virtue of that visit from God in Jesus Christ, we are free to be what God intends us to be—that is, beings capable of living in communion with the divine” (1).

The presence of God in history is clearly stressed as the central tenet in Athanasius’s faith, which is why he perceived Arianism to be a significant threat to Christianity. He opposed the priest Arius (256-336) who taught that the Jesus who had come to save humanity was not truly God, but a lesser being, a creature. As Arius taught, “If the Father begat the Son, then he who was begotten had a beginning in existence, and from this it follows there was a time when the Son was not.” 

To Arius, the Son had not always existed and was a creation of God. This denied the Trinity and made Jesus less than God. Arian’s views spread across the Empire. They were also hugely consequential in Athanasius’s eyes for at stake was salvation. Athanasius believed that only a human being who is fully divine could save humanity.

Emperor Constantine the Great (c. 272-337 CE), famously the first Christian emperor, learned of the Arian controversy and decided to become involved to find a solution. Constantine was more interested in the unity of the Church and less so with matters of theology. Nonetheless, he called a council in 325 CE—the Council of Nicea— in which several hundred bishops were present and argued for their views. This debate centered on how to refer to the relationship between the Son and God. Were they “of the same substance” (homoousios) or “of a similar substance” (homoiousios)? The Council of Nicea adopted the former by declaring the Son to be homoousios with the Father. It also concluded that Arius’ views were heretical and exiled him.

But Arius would later find favor with Constantine and be invited out of exile. This decision was resisted by Athanasius, which led to his enemies, among them the Arians and Melitians, making various charges against him such as treason, sorcery, and murder.

In 328 CE, Athanasius succeeded Alexander as bishop of Alexandria, but then, given a change in official support for Arianism, was exiled from Alexandria to Tyre by Constantine. Much of Athanasius’s life involved exile and restoration, possibly on seven occasions. Throughout his many years in exile, he traveled and always remained committed to Nicene orthodoxy and the Christological formulation defined at the council. In 364 CE, Athanasius was publicly pardoned by Emperor Valens (328-378) and invited to return to his diocese where he spent the rest of his years,

“Although Athanasius never saw the final victory in the cause to which he devoted his life, his writings clearly show that he was convinced that in the end Arianism would be defeated. As he approached old age, he saw emerge around himself a new generation of theologians devoted to the same cause” (2)

References and Recommended Readings

1. González, Justo L. 2010. The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. ‎San Francisco: HarperOne. p. 324. 

2. González, Justo L. 2010. Ibid. p. 337.

González, Justo L. 2010. p. 322-339.

Meyer, John R. 1999. “Athanasius’ Son of God Theology.” Recherches de théologie et philosophie médiévales 66(2):225-253.

Stead, G. Christopher. 1982. “The Scriptures and the Soul of Christ in Athanasius.” Vigiliae Christianae 36(3):233-250.


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