Athanasius “The Great” Against the World – A Brief Biography

Academic Articles | Biographies | Church History

Published on March 15, 2021

It feels like writing a piece about a figure to influential as Athanasius in anything less than a full book would fall severely short of doing justice to such an exquisite life. As a result, this will be more of an academic article (in length), but I hope you will begin to appreciate this great saint’s life as I have! He is designated as one of the four great “Doctors of the Eastern Church” along with St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. John Chrysostom, and with good reason. Christians today have been the benefactors of his theological brilliance and struggles against the false doctrine of Arianism in the face of a litany of 40 years of tumultuous trials, fighting to uphold the Nicene creed against persecution from ecclesial and political foes which earned him the accolade of “Athanasius contra mundam” – Athanasius against the world. [1]

Here is a table of contents to help you navigate this article.

[Arianism – definition: A widespread heresy of the early church taught by Arius in the 4th century. It affirmed that Christ is not truly divine but a created being.]

Understanding His Times

To appreciate the life of Athanasius we must be acquainted with his times as there were numerous factors to which he was responding that shaped his ministry. There is some debate over certain details of his life, such as the exact date of his birth and writings,[2] however there is also a rich library of his works available which drip with depth and meaning. C.S. Lewis wrote of Athanasius, “When I first opened his De Incarnatione I soon discovered by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece.”[3]

Athanasius was one of the most feared opponents by Arianism not for his elegance, logical subtlety or political prowess, but rather for the testimony of his life of faith lived out in close relation to the people whom he lived with, his fiery spirit and unshakeable conviction.[4] All of this makes his life one worthy of study to learn from, as Paul exhorted in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “follow my example, as I follow the example Christ.”[5] We will briefly look at his life and critics, his works and their theological significance, then turn attention to the struggle which defined much of his life against the Arians to see what contemporary application can be gleaned from him.

The Black Dwarf

Athanasius was probably born between 296-300 CE, and was so dark and short that his enemies gave him the nickname “the black dwarf”. (And NO – this was way before the Marvel character! haha) His exact place and time of birth are not known, but it is likely since he spoke Coptic and because of his complexion, that he was born in an obscure small village near the Nile River.[6] Severus’ Arabic History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria claims that Athanasius’ mother worshipped idols and was wealthy, but then they were both baptized and he came under the training of Alexander, the Bishop of Alexandria from whom he gained a thorough understanding of contemporary philosophy and Biblical theology.[7]

The Professional Exile

He attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE as a young deacon of Alexander and probably played little part in the proceedings[8] other than being his personal secretary[9], but it undoubtedly left its mark on him as he emerged in the years to come as the prime defender of the Nicene Creed[10]. “Like a beloved but incommodious friend the Council of Nicaea constantly shadowed Athanasius, and that association dictated the course of his theological career and his ecclesial life.”[11] He became Alexander’s successor on June 8, 328 CE, still a young man likely in his late twenties, which caused some contestation to his assumption of the position. He ministered for some forty-six years, fighting the good fight and also suffering exile five times for a sum of seventeen years,[12] it is said that, “Athanasius became almost a professional exile…”[13]

[The Council of Nicaea – a council of Christian bishops convened in Nicaea in Bithynia by the Roman Emperor Constantine I in AD 325. This first ecumenical council was the first effort to attain consensus in the church through an assembly representing all of Christendom. Its main accomplishments were settlement of the Christological issue of the nature of the Son of God and his relationship to God the Father, the construction of the first part of the Creed of Nicaea, establishing uniform observance of the date of Easter, and promulgation of early canon law. Learn more about Nicea here…]

The time of Athanasius was one of intense tension between the church and state – the emperor was seeking to exercise greater control in the church in setting doctrine – however, the brave opposition of Athanasius and others managed to hold that threat at bay for the time.[14] Even though the Council of Nicaea called by Constantine seemed to have settled the matter of Arianism, it would still be a while before the Nicene theology would win the day, and not too long after, Constantine himself as well as the emperors succeeding him became supporters of Arianism.

“Athanasius’ unwavering support of Nicaea annoyed the Emperor Constantius… [who] wanted some flexibility to settle the theological dispute, which was disrupting the peace of the empire… But Athanasius was not the man from whom one could expect flexibility. Athanasius was repeatedly deposed, exiled, and restored to the bishopric of Alexandria.”[15]

The exiles of Athanasius show another example of God working all things for good for those called according to his purpose, for it is in this part of his life that we come across some of the most inspirational stories of bravery, theological contemplation and even some humorous stories of his whit. On one such occasion, as Constantius was seeking to capture Athanasius by force, his secretary Diogenes stormed the Church of Theonas. According to Athanasius’ own testimony in “Apologia de Fuga”, he refused to flee until his congregation was safe preferring that he should be endangered rather than one of his flock. Eventually he and his clergy managed to slip away glorifying God that they did not betray the people and yet were able to escape.[16]

Trolling Before It Was Cool

During his third exile from 356 to 362 C.E., hiding in the desert among the monks whom he had continuing good relations, he had his most prolific period of writing. There in one year he produced his Apologia ad Constantium (Defence before Constantius), Apologia de Fuga (Defence of His Flight), Historia Arianorum ad Monachos (History of the Arians), then his De Synodis (On the Councils), his very influential Vita Antonii (Life of Antony) and his letters Ad Serpapionem where he defended the full divinity of the Holy Spirit.[17] He was indeed no lazy exile! A humorous story is told of his exile from Emperor Julian, while fleeing the authorities Athanasius was on a ship going up the Nile when some soldiers called out to him, “Have you seen Athanasius?” from their ship which was passing his. He answered quite truthfully, “Yes. He is just ahead of you, and if you hurry you shall overtake him.” Before long they had gone ahead of his none the wiser and he made his escape again to withdraw to the desert.[18] (…maybe one of the earliest recorded incidences of trolling… haha!)

Some Modern Criticisms

Athanasius has been the subject of considerable modern criticism. There have been accusations against him ranging from forging documents included in his historical records, the possibility of the invalidity of his consecration as bishop of Alexandria and even alleged use of violence by T.D. Barnes in “organizing an ecclesiastical mafia”[19] for the suppression of the Meletian schism in Egypt. The charge of forgery has been well refuted by numerous scholars and dismissed. Likewise, the other charges of his invalidity as bishop and use of violence have been rebutted as mostly lacking substance.[20] It might be said of his modern critics that the reasons for their high criticism and even slanderous accounts of Athanasius could be their own susceptibility to the critical spirit of their day – as we have seen in many works of higher criticism – this bias towards skepticism and critique is seen as a sign of sophistication much to their own loss.[21] To his credit, he received high praise for his character by some such as St. Basil the Great[22]. Archibald Robertson, bishop of Exeter and master of Hatfield College had this to say about Athanasius;

“[He] had the not too common gift of seeing the proportion of things… With Arius and Arianism no compromise was to be thought of; but he did not fail to distinguish men really at one with him on essentials, even where their conduct toward himself had been indefensible… Athanasius, far from seeking the establishment of his own power in the church, showed ‘a lack of self-interest. The glory of God and the welfare of the Church absorbed him fully at all times.'”[23]

However, we must not also be totally lost in an over-romanticized version of Athanasius. He too was a man flawed, perhaps rash and zealous in his youthful years, and just as much in need of the grace which he preached and defended with such tenacity. It is noteworthy though, that by the end of his life he had become reconciled to many of his earlier adversaries.[24]

Additionally, Athanasius also worked to centralize church structures to counteract the introduction of heresies from independent teachers by establishing a governing authority structure on doctrine.[25] He sought “to set up a circle of like-minded bishops, who would create the cultural space within which sound ideas could be articulated and protected.”[26] Also through his work on the Life of Antony, which became the equivalent of a best seller in that time, he contributed immensely to ascetic theology and the development of monasticism.[27] The value of reading old books and works which have stood the test of time cannot be measured. Newer modern writings, which some have limited themselves to reading, have not yet had sufficient time to judge accurately all their hidden implications that only years of criticism and use can reveal. C.S. Lewis said this,

“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.”[28]

So with that, we will turn to look briefly at the works of Athanasius and their theological and historical significance to us today.

His Writings & Theological Significance

His “Apologia contra Arianos” as well as many of his other works are of significant historical value not only for the events which he recorded but also because of the many other documents which he reproduces and quotes in his writings which may otherwise be lost.[29] Also, in the early church, music had to earn its place in worship as they feared the power of music on a person as seen in contemporary Greek cults. However, Athanasius wrote that “…just as we make known and signify the thoughts of the soul through the words we express, so too the Lord wished the melody of the words to be a sign of the spiritual harmony of the soul,” to which many contemporaries would heartily agree.[30] In 367 C.E.,[31] he was the first to list the twenty-seven books which now comprise the New Testament[32] canon in his “Festal Letter of Athanasius”, and by the end of the fourth century, the majority of Christians accepted this collection. There were some differences between the Greek East and Latin West about the order of the books, but the canon was practically closed by the early fifth century.[33]

His body of work also contributed to our understanding of the human body in theology. Responding to ideas of his time from Gnosticism and Manichaeism, which considered the material world as evil, Athanasius argued that the body and material world is created good by God, and though it will die, in Christ it will rise again. So what is the point of the resurrection of the body if it is evil?[34] “Athanasius believed that the body was of great significance. Indeed, it was of such significance that it was not inappropriate for the divine Logos to become incarnate by taking a body.”[35] Thus it is not the body itself that is evil, but rather the evil deeds of the flesh which we are to put to death. Through Christ, our hope is not liberation from the body but rather freedom from the sin which corrupts it[36], he has redeemed all of creation including the noble purpose of the body.

[Gnosticism – describes a collection of ancient religions whose adherents shunned the material world, seeing it as evil, created by the demiurge and embraced the spiritual world. Gnostic ideas influenced many ancient religions that teach that gnosis (variously interpreted as knowledge, enlightenment, salvation, emancipation or ‘oneness with God’) may be reached by practicing philanthropy and the idea of some ‘secret knowledge’.]

[Manichaeism – a major Gnostic religion that was founded by the Iranian prophet Mani. It taught an elaborate dualistic cosmology describing the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness. Through an ongoing process that takes place in human history, light is gradually removed from the world of matter and returned to the world of light whence it came.]

Athanasius on the Incarnation

Two of his earliest works written while he was yet a young man, Against the Gentiles and On the Incarnation “show the deep conviction that the central fact of Christian faith, as well as of all human history, is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. The presence of God amidst humankind made human: that is the heart of Christianity as Athanasius understood it.”[37] Their influence on all later theology is profound and considered as the defining exposition of Nicene theology, expounding the central mystery of the Gospel in relation to all aspects – from creation to recreation.[38] In Against the Gentiles, he argues that Jesus is not brought into being external from God, but is the divine eternal Logos, not by participation, but in himself.

In the follow up to Against the Gentiles, On the Incarnation, he writes that Jesus – being the divine Logos – is alone able to recreate the universe and offer substitutionary atonement for all. He writes, “For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God comes into our realm, although he was not formerly distant. For no part of creation is left void of him; while abiding with his own Father, he has filled all things in every place. But now he comes, condescending towards us in his love for human beings and his manifestation.”[39]

On Christ’s conquest over death shown through the martyrs Athanasius wrote: “For when one sees human beings, who are weak by nature, leaping towards death, neither shrinking from its corruption nor fearing the descent to hell, but with an eager spirit challenging it and not flinching from torture, but rather for the sake of Christ preferring instead of this present life zeal for death; or if one were to watch men and women and young children rushing and leaping towards death on account of their devotion to Christ, who is so silly or who is so incredulous, or who is so maimed in mind, as to not understand and reason that it is Christ, to whom human beings are bearing witness, who provides and grants the victory over death to each, rendering it fully weakened in each of those having his faith and wearing the sign of the cross? …What has been said so far is no small proof that death has been destroyed and that the lordly cross is the trophy over it. For those having sound mental sight, the proof of the resurrection of the now immortal body effected by Christ, the common Saviour of all and true Life, is clearer through visible facts than through arguments.”[40]

Caught up in the rapture of all the glorious implications of the Gospel he writes, “the achievements of the Saviour, effected by his incarnation, are of such a kind and number that if anyone should wish to expound them he would be like those who gaze at the expanse of the sea and wish to count its waves.”[41] They are too numerous to totally fathom in their entirety. Indeed, “wherever one looks, seeing there the divinity of the Word, one is struck with exceeding awe.”[42] There are not many other works that one would read and find such a high and glorious view of Christology, which after reading stirs the soul to worship.

There is a phrase on the same page in “On the Incarnation” that tends to cause some readers unfamiliar with the context trouble – where Athanasius argues that Christ comes to not just deal with sin but also create a glorious new potential; “For he was made man that we might be made God; and he showed himself in the body that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; and he endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality.”[43] This idea of deification was one mentioned by Irenaeus, Clement, and Basil. In another of his works, De Decretis, he explains what is meant. It is not that we actually become God in our nature, but rather are in Christ.[44] Dr. J. Faber offers this clarification;

“Man does not sink into God, and he does not lose his created nature. Athanasius tried to express for the Greek readers of his days what Paul had proclaimed as our wonderful expectation: creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies (Rom. 8). By “deification” Athanasius means ‘sanctification and glorification.'”[45]

The Arch-Nemesis of Arianism

The defining struggle of Athanasius’ life was undoubtedly in his opposition of the Arian controversy. “To Marcellus and Athanasius one is an Arian if one holds that the Word, in so far as his is the Word and not yet man, is a ktisma[κτίσμα] or creature of the Father.”[46] An Arian was one who held that “before he was born he was not” and denies that the Son is homoousios [ὁμοούσιος] with the Father[47]. For Athanasius, this was no small matter of little relevance, but it actually threatened the very core of the Christian message.[48] The devastating implication was that because no creature could redeem another creature, and if Christ was a created creature, he had no salvific power. Also, because the church worshipped and prayed to Christ, it was committing idolatry as they would be worshipping a created thing rather than the Creator.[49]

Arius’ heresy was trying to make sense of the conundrum of the Trinity. He asserted that the Son was essentially different from God, less than fully God and was the Son not by nature but by the will of the Father – his divinity, therefore, was derivative and his status inferior to the Father. He believed in a three-person hypostasis [ὑπόστᾰσις], but in contrast to the Father, the lesser hypostases have a beginning and derive their immortality from Him[50]. He was also trying to deal with a problem he perceived in Christian soteriology, it seemed that God suffered in Christ, and to Greek philosophers, this was a problem since God – being the highest form of reality – cannot suffer since they thought it would imply change and He is by essence immutable. This message of the incarnation and suffering of God was indeed, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:23, foolishness to the Greeks.[51] The Arian teaching seemed to solve some problems but created more significant ones since it went contrary to the data from the New Testament and church traditions. By reducing Jesus to a creature, issues of salvation and the nature of God were at stake and these would require fine distinctions to address these complex issues. It was common that in trying to distance orthodox doctrine from error, people ended up falling into the opposite error sprouting other heresies.

The Council of Nicea and the Arian Controversy

This was one of the primary reasons why the Synod of Nicaea was called in 325 C.E. Had it not been for the heresy of Arius, the formulation of Nicaea may not have come about. It affirmed that Jesus was homoousios [ὁμοούσιος] with the Father, that is, of the same being or consubstantial or essence. “Jesus was no demi-God, but ‘very God from very God.”[52] Alexander of Alexandria condemned Arius, asserting that as the Father was always Father, he must always have had a Son also. Athanasius reproduced a letter by the historian Eusebius of Caesarea that states:

“We believe in on God, Father, Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, born of the Father only-begotten [μονογενὴς], that is, from the essence [οὐσία] of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, born not made, consubstantial [ὁμοούσιον] with the Father, through whom all came to be, things in heaven and things on earth…”[53]

The Nicene formulation was not an immediate remedy to the problem though, as some objected that it was Sabellian in thinking. Also, the emperors which succeeded Constantine were pro-Arian and continued to propagate the spread and power of Arianism for years to follow. “Constantius sought resolution of the doctrinal and ecclesiastical division by having the church take a minimalist theological approach to Trinitarian issues, rather than defining orthodoxy too closely – a ‘lowest common denominator’ perspective.”[54] It seemed like the whole world was turning Arian.

[Sabellianism – a heresy that held the nontrinitarian or anti-trinitarian belief that the Heavenly Father, Resurrected Son, and Holy Spirit are three different modes or aspects of one monadic God, as perceived by the believer, rather than three distinct persons within the Godhead – that there are no real or substantial differences between the three, such that there is no substantial identity for the Spirit or the Son.]

False Charges and a Man of Character

Many false charges were brought against Athanasius by his opponents such as Eusebius of Nicomedia and other Arian leaders claiming that; he dabbled in magic, was a tyrant to his flock, and even accusing him of killing a rival bishop, Arsenius, cutting off his hand to use it in magical rituals. It is reported that Athanasius in response to these claims, went to Tyre as ordered, and brought in a man with him covered in a cloak. He made sure that several there knew who Arsenius was, then uncovered the hooded man revealing Arsenius. Still unconvinced, someone there accused him that he had not killed him, but just cut off his hand – to which he uncovered both the man’s hands and demanded, “What kind of a monster did you think Arsenius was? One with three hands?”[55] …much to the laughter of the crowd.

J.A. Moehler wrote of Athanasius that,

“all those who had the occasion to know Athanasius well loved him, and those to whom he was pastor had a touching attachment to him. He knew how to recognize the worth of others, and he highly proclaimed that worth. He showed much indulgence for human weakness, even in the case of that weakness exercising an influence on faith; he preferred to highlight the truth which had been mixed in with falsehood…”[56]

It was the character of Athanasius and the love from the people in his diocese, whom he took good care of, that venerated him from these slanderous attacks on his character.

Latter Years and Legacy

It was not until after his death, at the Council of Constantinople in 381 C.E., that the Nicene formulation was reaffirmed with minor adjustments to the wording to clarify concerns about implying Tritheism or Sabellianism. This was in large part due to the work of Athanasius in fighting against the Arians and also in working to bring unity amongst the two parties which agreed on the deity of the Son, the Homoousians (ὁμοούσιος meaning ‘of the same substance’) and the Homoiousians (ὁμοιούσιος meaning ‘of like substance’). By effectively reconciling the differences between these two groups, it allowed for a combined force which could finally stand up to the sway of Arianism.[57] “In the words of Jerome some decades later, ‘the whole world groaned, astonished to find itself Arian.'”[58]However, victory over the Arians was finally officially complete.

The remainder of his latter years were lived in relative peace, during which he was primarily concerned with Christological issues and wrote “Ad Adelphium” and “Ad Epictetum” which would have a profound significance in the future Nestorian controversy of the fifth century. He died on May 2, 373 C.E.[59], and although he did not see the final victory of the cause to which he had dedicated his life, his writings do express his confidence that he had not suffered and laboured in vain.[60]

His legacy lives on for many generations today who can learn from a man so steadfast and unwavering for the cause of the Gospel. We must not neglect to read the old books and writers of the past such as Athanasius. In the wise words of Lewis, “They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.”[61] It would be immense value and pleasure for any person today to learn from the writings of a saint such as Athanasius. You may seldom find a higher Christology than his which moves his readers to deeper worship of Jesus as revealed in the incarnation. The foundations he laid are still standing today, and his arguments are relevant to the struggles we face even now in responding to Arian-like cults such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and even Mormons.


For further reading – you can access a library of Athanasius’ translated works here: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf204

Books used in research for this article:


[1] Weinandy, Athanasius, pg vii – Preface [2] Weinandy, Athanasius, pg 1 [3] Behr, St. Athanasius the Great, pg 14 [4] Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, pg 200 [5] 1 Cor 11:1 NIV [6] Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, pg 199 [7] Weinandy, Athanasius, pg 1 [8] Esler, The Early Christian World, pg 583 [9] Weinandy, Athanasius, pg 2 [10] Lynch, Early Christianity, pg 165 [11] Weinandy, Athanasius, pg 2 [12] Behr, St. Athanasius the Great, pg 17 [13] Rousseau, The Early Christian Centuries, pg 229 [14] Guy, Introducing Early Christianity, pg 128 [15] Lynch, Early Christianity, pg 165 [16] Weinandy, Athanasius, pg 5 [17] Weinandy, Athanasius, pg 6 [18] Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, pg 207 [19] T.D. Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, pg 230 [20] Arnold, The Early Episcopal Career, pg 11 [21] Arnold, The Early Episcopal Career, pg 186 [22] Behr, St. Athanasius the Great, pg 18 [23] Arnold, The Early Episcopal Career, Pg 18 [24] Behr, St. Athanasius the Great, pg 18pg 18-19 [25] Guy, Introducing Early Christianity, pg 89-90 [26] Rousseau, The Early Christian Centuries, pg 229 [27] Behr, St. Athanasius the Great, pg 18 [28] Behr, St. Athanasius the Great, pg 10 [29] Bernard, Studies in Athanasius, pg 15 [30] Kelly, The World of the Early Christians, pgs 129-132 [31] Guy, Introducing Early Christianity, pg 255 [32] Kelly, The World of the Early Christians, pg 200 [33] Davidson, The Birth of the Church, pg 178 [34] Petterson, Athanasius and the Human Body, pg 30 [35] Petterson, Athanasius and the Human Body, pg 7 [36] Petterson, Athanasius and the Human Body, pg 113 [37] Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, pg 200-201 [38] Behr, St. Athanasius the Great, pg 19 [39] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, pgs 7-8 [40] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, pgs 29-30 [41] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, pg 54 [42] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, pg 54 [43] Athanasius, On Incarnation, pg 54 [44] Graves, In Context: Article #12, online [45] Faber, Athanasius on the Incarnation, online [46] Edwards, Catholicity and Heresy, pg 109 [47] Edwards, Catholicity and Heresy, pg 112-113 [48] Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, pg 201 [49] McGrath, Christian Theology, pg 11 [50] Edwards, Catholicity and Heresy, pg 106 [51] Guy, Introducing Early Christianity, pg 272 [52] Guy, Introducing Early Christianity, pg 273 [53] Edwards, Catholicity and Heresy, pg 106-108 [54] Guy, Introducing Early Christianity, pg 276 [55] Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Pg 201-202 [56] Moehler, Athanase le Grand, pg 108 [57] Guy, Introducing Early Christianity, pg 277-278 [58] Guy, Introducing Early Christianity, pg 276 [59] Weinandy, Athanasius, pg 7 [60] Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, pg 207 [61] Behr, St. Athanasius the Great, pg 11

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