St Athanasius, by Georges Hierodiacre, 1728
St Athanasius was Bishop of Alexandria from 328 to 373. He is best known for his fierce resistance to the supporters of Arius – whom he called “Ariomaniacs” – and his defence of the Nicene Creed, including his exposition of the controversial term homoousios, or “consubstantial” or “of the same essence/nature/being”. St Athanasius’ support of the Nicene definition and resistance of those we’ll call Arians led him to being exiled five times throughout his episcopate, spending seventeen of his forty-five years as a bishop in exile. Despite being sent into exile, Athanasius was able to maintain a steady flow of work over the years.
His exiles were 335-337 in the West, under Constantine; 339-346 in the West, under Constantius II; 356-362 in the Egyptian desert with the Desert Fathers, under Constantius II; 362-364 in the Egyptian desert, under Julian; a few months in 366 on family property near Alexandria, under Valens. Each of these exiles, you may note, was the work of a Roman Emperor; we have entered a new stage of ecclesiastical history, where canonical crimes can get a bishop punished by secular authorities. For good or ill, for the rest of the patristic age, we have what is sometimes called the Constantinian settlement, sometimes considered the imperial church.
Besides jumping into the Arian-Nicene fray, Athanasius was, fundamentally, the pastoral overseer of the church of Alexandria, which meant that, as bishop, he had oversight of Egypt, Libya, and Cyrene. Thus, besides his various controversial writings, we also have letters he wrote to individual bishops and some of his yearly “Festal Letters.” It was the duty of each major bishop to write a letter to all the bishops who served under him that informed them of when the date of Easter would be that year, the date of Easter being a major bone of contention we met already in the Ante-Nicene Fathers and in the writings of Eusebius. Along with this information, these letters would also address some concerns the bishop had, theological, pastoral, canonical. The job of properly calculating the date of Easter for the whole imperial church had been delegated to the Bishop of Alexandria under Athanasius’ predecessor, Alexander, so these letters had particular significance for Athanasius and his successors.
Another element of Athanasius’ role as bishop of Alexandria was his close relationship with the Desert Fathers, the early ascetics of the Egyptian desert. Although it seems likely that Athanasius did not write the Life of St Antony himself, it still had his stamp of approval, and its theology is a narrative dovetailing with his On the Incarnation, as has been discussed by John Behr in his introduction to On the Incarnation and Khaled Anatolios in Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought. You may have noticed that he spent two of his exiles with the Desert Fathers, living as one of the monks. Moreover, earlier, within a year or two of becoming bishop, Athanasius went and visited the monks in the region around Thebes, the Thebaid, where he ordained Pachomius presbyter. Pachomius has the reputation of having founded what we call “cenobitic” monasticism and wrote the first monastic rule. He’s kind of a big deal. Another big deal was the coming of the purported first hermit Antony to Alexandria in 339 after Athanasius’ return home following his first exile.
From 366 to 373, Athanasius was able to reside in Alexandria and continue his work of theological reflection on what it meant that God became a human being as well as engaging in the important task of network building with other pro-Nicene bishops like Basil of Caesarea. In these years, he also wrote his series of letters on the Holy Spirit to Serapion of Thmuis (sadly, these are not in NPNF), which were described by one translator as a veritable treatise on the Spirit. He reposed on 2 May 373. His feast is on 2 May in the western churches, 18 January in the Byzantine tradition, and 7 Pashons in the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Athanasius’ theology is an exploration of how and why the God Word took on flesh and pitched his tent amongst humans. He is keen to assert not only the fulness of the divinity of Christ against his Arian opponents but also, as we see in Against the Heathen and On the Incarnation, to assert the fittingness of the incarnation for the one, true, and living God, ably demonstrating in those early twin treatises that the transcendent God is also immanent, making himself accessible to creation through the incarnation. As his Irenaean paraphrase puts it, God became a human being so that the human being might become God. In this way, Athanasius maintains the apostolic and Irenaean tradition of Christology as well as the biblical view of the Most High God who is both as near as your very breath yet also holy, holy, holy.
As the Nicene-Arian controversy heated up after the death of Constantine, Athanasius forged his reputation that would last for centuries. In particular, he had to face the task of articulating a definition of the word homoousios (consubstantial/of the same essence/substance/being) that was in line with Scripture and tradition. This word was used in the creed promulgated at Nicaea specifically to exclude Arius and his supporters from orthodoxy, saying that the Christ is “homoousios with the Father.” The term had been taken by some to mean that Christ and the Father have the same essence or perhaps even nature in the same way that a human father and son do—and thus, it was felt that it separate them too much. Others felt the opposite, that it collapsed the difference between Father and Son and ran the risk of Sabellianism, or modalism, that idea that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are just different modes of the one God interacting with humanity. This error, in fact, is what one of Athanasius’ allies, Marcellus of Ancyra, was accused of.
Athanasius took the analogy of father and son but pressed it to its logical conclusion as far as divinity is concerned. Essentially, the reason human fathers and sons are so separable has to do with the very nature of humanity. Everything that is essential to a father’s nature is shared with his son. If we accept that Scripture means something similar, if not precisely the same thing, then everything that is essential to Father is shared with the Son. Therefore, the Son has all of the divine attributes (he is eternal, almighty, omniscient, etc.), thereby safeguarding both divine simplicity and monotheism. However, like a human father and son, the Father and the Son are their own hypostaseis. How to continue thinking in this mode was a real challenge, and it was taken up with great power by the next generation, especially St Gregory of Nazianzus.
More could be said about Athanasius’ theology – the manner in which it is reflected in the Life of Antony, his pneumatology, how he views the human soul of Christ, how it is that the God Word’s human death saves humanity, the vast philanthropia of God, his view of sacred Scripture, his understanding of Proverbs 8, his use of tradition and its role in theology. But I think we’re ready to read him ourselves now.
Besides the translations in NPNF2, volume 4, you can read St Athanasius here:
There is an out-of-print Oxford Early Christian Texts edition with translation of Against the Heathen and On the Incarnation of the Word: Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione, ed. and trans. Robert W. Thomson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.
On the Incarnation. Ed. and trans. John Behr. Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 2011. This translation exists both stand-alone and with Greek text.
The Life of St Antony. There are various translations of this. The two we recommend are:
–trans. George E. McCracken. New York: Paulist. ACW volume 10.
— The Life of Antony: The Coptic Life and the Greek Life. Trans. Tim Vivian and Apostolos N. Athanassakis. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 2003.
Coming October 1, 2022: The Festal Letters of Athanasius of Alexandria, with the Festal Index and the Historia Acephala, trans. David Brakke and David M. Gwynn. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2022.