The Life of Church Father Athanasius
By Christopher Jethro
Last Updated: Dec 13, 2017
Last Updated: Dec 13, 2017
Athanasius is a legendary Early Church Father whom lived during the fourth century. He was a man of fiery passion who is particularly renowned for his ardent defense of the Nicene Creed, theological apologies regarding the Trinity, and his biography of Anthony. Athanasius was the bishop of Alexandria and spent most of his life refuting the Arianism heresy that permeated the Church of that time with false doctrine. Despite a lifetime of persecution and multiple exiles, Athanasius was the greatest nemesis of Arianism and remained faithful to true doctrine to the very end.
Athanasius was nominated as “Doctor” of the Church, a title of which only four carry in the Eastern tradition. During most of his exiles, Athanasius was housed by Anthony of the Desert (also spelt at “Antony”), whom is considered to be the father of Christian monasticism. Anthony remained a lifelong companion and mentor to Athanasius. Athanasius’s antagonists were Arius, Emperor Constantius II, Emperor Julian the Apostate, and George of Cappadocia.
Athanasius was a little shorter than average height and slender. He had dark skin, thin auburn-colored hair, and intense eyes. In countenance, he was intuitive, pleasant, quick-witted, brilliant, and possessed an unfailing mordant sense of humor. Perhaps more so than anything else, Athanasius is known for his passion for true doctrine, courage and boldness to defend truth, and fierceness in theological debates. It was not the use of Greek logic that made Athanasius a feared debater, but rather his fiery spirit and great conviction. He was called “the black dwarf” due to his size and dark skin. He spoke Coptic, the common language of the Egyptians.
Little is known about Athanasius’s early childhood. Records indicate that he was born of a rich pagan worshipper and that his early years took place during fierce Christian persecution under the Roman Emperor Diocletian. After his mother died, the orphan boy was later adopted by the Church Father Alexander. Athanasius had been discovered by Alexander when he was a boy playing in the waters of a shore pretending to baptize his friends, pouring water over them, and citing the baptismal words in perfect Greek. Alexander was impressed by the boy and invited him to learn from him to become a priest, just as the boy desired. Later that evening, as they talked, Alexander discovered the boy’s passion, iron will, noble heart, and intellect. Alexander proceeded to raise Athanasius as his own son in his own household. Alexander educated Athanasius in all arts and Athanasius would eventually outgrow his mentor in brilliance. Later, Athanasius served as Alexander’s scribe and interpreter for many years.
When Athanasius was a teenager, he visited the Christian monks living in the desert of Egypt and was greatly inspired by the holiness of their lives. Their conduct set him on fire for God and Athanasius would continue to have a great interest in ascetics the rest of his life. Later, Athanasius would flee to these same monks during his times of exile. When Athanasius was barely out of his teenage years, he published his first two treatises: Contra Gentes (Against the Gentiles/Heathen) and Oratio de Incarnatione (On the Incarncation). Considered as a single work, the treatises attacked pagan practices, established Orthodox theology, and presented Christ as the eternal God entering the realm of men to lead them back to Himself.
Athanasius’s great antagonist was Arius, a clever but unorthodox man who studied in Turkey at the School of Antioch. Arius had been stripped of his priesthood for supporting a bishop called Meletius, a priest who would not allow Christians into the church if they renounced their faith under torture even after repentance. Arius is described as vain and ambitious, a person whose teachings became poison spreading in the Church.
The most focal event in Athanasius’s life occurred when Arius introduced a heretical teaching that later became known as Arianism. Arianism was the heretical belief that denied the Deity of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Arius taught that Jesus was not God, but rather an insubordinate Being created by God, and that the Holy Spirit was a created power-force that flowed from God. This belief was in direct opposition to the crucial Christian belief in the Trinitarian nature of God. Athanasius, among other faithful Church Fathers, would do everything they could to stamp out any heresy attacking the Deity of Christ.
The Church Fathers held an official council known as the Council of Nicaea that addressed and condemned Arius’s teaching as heresy. Athanasius was a key figure during this council in utilizing Scripture to disprove the Arian beliefs. This event was only the beginning of a long journey, for Athanasius would spend the rest of his life defending the Nicene Creed (which affirmed the Trinitarian nature of God) against the heresies of Arianism infiltrating the Church through false teachers.
It was Anthanasius’s display of courage, sincerity, and clarity at the Nicene debates that deemed him as a remarkable young cleric by everyone, so much so that when the Primate of Alexandria died five months later, Athanasius was chosen to succeed him. At this point, Athanasius became buried in priestly duties and church functions most of his time. Athanasius became the bishop of Alexandria in 328 AD when he was approximately 30 years old. This is significant because according to Anatolios, Alexandria was “one of the most prominent cities of the Roman empire”, which placed its bishop at a key center of influence for encouraging biblical doctrine in the Christian community.
A man named Eusebius, a supporter of Arius, had been exiled for his support of the Arianism heresy. When Eusebius was permitted to return from exile, he induced Emperor Constantine into recalling the heretic Arius from exile as well; having convinced the emperor that Arius was a man who had been misunderstood. Constantine then wrote to Athanasius that Arius should be permitted to rejoin the ecclesiastic communion. Athanasius refused on grounds that the true Church has no fellowship with those who deny the Deity of Christ. From that point onward, Eusebius relentlessly falsely accused Athanasius of various crimes, claiming that he was not at the canonical age when he became consecrated as priest, that he imposed linen tax on provinces, that he profaned the Sacred Mysteries, and that Athanasius had even killed one Arenius and dismembered the body using witchcraft.
Athanasius eventually agreed to refute these false charges made against him at a synod of prelates in Tyre 335 AD. Unfortunately, the ruling party would not hear Athanasius’ truthful refutations so Athanasius was forced to escape the city by boat. In order to put the false accusations to rest, Athanasius traveled to Byzantium to plead his case before the emperor. Athanasius bravely jumped in the middle of the road where the emperor was traveling, demanding a hearing, which was granted him.
Unfortunately, Athanasius was condemned at the hearing and exiled to Treves for two and a half years. There, at least, he was welcomed by the bishop Maximus. His office was not replaced during his exile and Athanasius continued to help govern his See by continually writing to his clergy. During this first exile, the great heretic Arius died, along with Emperor Constantine. The Eusebian faction, now a large party, had swayed Emperor Constantius II to their side. Upon Athanasius’s return from exile, he was greatly welcomed by crowds of people and the churches rejoiced. Unfortunately, the Eusebian faction refurbished the old charges with greater severity. Athanasius presented his case before Bishop Julius and a synod of bishops in Rome, where his name was vindicated in the Church from the false accusations. Although the Church knew the true, the Arian party in Alexandria claimed that Athanasius was not the legitimate bishop. Instead, his rival Gregory, who had the support of the government, took authority over the church buildings by use of force and Athanasius was forced to flee to Rome.
Emperor Constantius II was devoted to Arianism and viewed Athanasius as a threat. When Constantius II took rule over the whole Roman Empire in 353 AD, he began to propagate Arianism. Using threats and force, many bishops were forced to submit to Arianism. The Emperor tried to make Athanasius leave the city first by summoning him to a personal audience (undoubtedly a trap) which Athanasius politely refused. Then the Emperor ordered the city to be surrounded soldiers and commanded Athanasius to leave. Athanasius reacted by insisting to the soldiers that there must be a mistake, since the Emperor had personally invited him to his presence previously. Finally, a group of soldiers interrupted a communion service and tried to arrest him, but Athanasius was protected by his clergy. Athanasius somehow escaped the city after that moment and hid among monks of the desert completely undetected for five years.
During this lengthy second exile, Athanasius was sought out by authorities on every occasion. Soldiers would break into monasteries and search every cell, but Athanasius was never found. There seemed to be an intelligent network among the monasteries that always hid Athanasius from one location to another; he was invisible to his enemies. During this exile, Athanasius wrote Apology for Flight, Apology to Constantius, and History of the Arians which defended his actions and theology against his accusers. He also wrote Letters Concerning the Holy Spirit which was a theological apology for the Deity of the Holy Spirit to help refute the Arians that were now focusing more on discrediting the Deity of the Holy Spirit. Finally, it was also during this time that Athanasius wrote The Life of Anthony, a prominent biography of his monk friend, the famous Desert Father Anthony.
During this time, Arianism continued to plague society, with several synods and church leaders being forced to accept it, and even a heretical council in Sirmium that rejected the Nicene Creed. Constantius II died of sickness however when marching to attack his cousin Flavius and was succeeded by the pagan emperor Julian. Athanasius, still remaining in exile until he knew more of the new emperor, strengthened coalitions through his writings behind-the-scenes. Athanasius returned once more when Julian permitted bishops to return from exile.
Athanasius’s rival Gregory turned out to be failure as bishop of Alexandria and was killed by an Alexandria mob for his judicial affairs. After this, Athanasius was welcomed as a hero to resume his position as bishop of Alexandria. For about ten years, Athanasius was free from the persecution of his enemies. During this time he formed stronger ties with other defenders of orthodox doctrine and wrote many treatises against Arianism.
Just before his fourth exile, Athanasius convened the council of Alexandria. The council was a timely event in which Athanasius successfully promoted unity in the Christian community. He helped many to water down tensions among Christians who were easily offended or angered by misuse of theological terms. Athanasius cleverly reiterated sound Trinitarian doctrine at the heart of the matter, but also promoted flexibility in the theological terms we use to affirm the Nicene formula. This helped to loosen tensions while simultaneously affirming true doctrine among the Church. He also helped restrain the actions of well-meaning but overzealous Christians who intended to use violence against their theological opponents.
Athanasius fervently combatted the pagan policies of Julian during his reign. Julian envied the popularity and political influence of Athanasius and recognized him as a great threat, thus he eventually had Athanasius exiled to Upper Egypt. Julian sought to remove him altogether so that Athanasius was forced to flee again to the monks after that. Julian died shortly after this and was succeeded by Jovian. Upon Julian’s death, Athanasius immediately returned and sought to secure favor with the new Emperor Jovian. Although successful, and Athanasius was welcomed back to his see to continue the Nicene cause, Jovian died just a few years later most likely from carbon monoxide fumes.
Jovian was succeeded by Valens whom was another pro-Arian Emperor. At first, Emperor Valens exiled Athanasius for what was now his fifth exile, but having suffered from riots from Athanasius’ supporters, recalled him from that exile.Since Valens decided that he was not able to dispose of Athanasius, Athanasius was able to remain in Alexandria until he finally died in 373 AD. Under Valen's reign, Athanasius wrote his most influential letter wherein he warned of heretical doctrine, condemned the apocryphal writings, and listed the true canon of Scripture.
Athanasius’s final years were lived in peace, mostly free from all the persecution and turmoil he had endured most of his life. Athanasius died on his bed, old and frail. Peter, whom Athanasius trusted to defend the Nicene creed, would succeed him as bishop of Alexandria. At the time of his death, there was still much Arian influence and power. However, other great men of the faith, like Basil and Gregory, would continue to fight for the Nicene Creed, utilizing Athanasius’s writings to do so. Not long after Athanasius's death, Theodosius took the throne and fought strongly against Arianism and in 381 AD a council in Constantinople ratified the Nicene Creed. Although Athanasius did not see the final victory by the time of his death, his tireless efforts were not in vain because the Arianism heresy would soon fade into the minority of Christian beliefs.
 Paul Henderson and Thomas Gibbs, Athanasius: Someone From Nothing (Australian eBook Publisher, 2014), 20-23.
 Harold Castle, St. Athanasius: A Concise Biography (Illustrated) (Bieber Publishing, 2011), 6.
 Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity (HarperCollins Publishers, 2014), 208.
 Henderson, et al., 21.
 F.A. Forbes, Saint Athanasius, The Father of Orthodoxy (Andrews UK, 2012), 6-7.
 Khaled Anatolios, Athanasius: the Coherence of His Thought (Taylor & Francis, Inc., 2004), 16.
 Forbes, 8.
 Henderson, et al., 24.
 Castle, 10.
 Anatolious, 14.
 Castle, 11.
 Castle, 11.
 Forbes, 34.
 Castle, 12-13.
 Gonzalez, 210.
 Gonzalez, 211-212.
 William Harmless, Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism (Oxford University Press, 2004), 59.
 Henderson, 32.
 Henderson, 32.
 Gonzalez, 211.
 Henderson, 33.
 Henderson, 34.
 Henderson, 36.
 Gonzalez, 213-216.
 William Stephens, Athanasius and the Nicene Creed (William H. Stephens, 2014), 369.
 Henderson, 36.
 Stephens, 372.
- Henderson, Paul, and Thomas Gibbs. Athanasius: Someone From Nothing. Australian EBook Publisher, 2014.
- Castle, Harold. St. Athanasius: A Concise Biography (Illustrated). Bieber Publishing, 2011.
- Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. HarperCollins Publishers, 2014.
- Anatolios, Khaled. Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought. Taylor & Francis, 2004.
- Forbes, F.A. Saint Athanasius, The Father of Orthodoxy. Andrews UK, 2012.
- Harmless, William. Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism. Oxford University Press, 2004.
- Stephens, William. Athanasius and the Nicene Creed. William H. Stephens, 2014.