Thursday, March 13, 2008

Pope Athanasius I of Alexandria (c. 293-May 2, 373) also known as St. Athanasius The Apostolic (Greek: Αθανάσιος, Athanásios) was a theologian, Patriarch of Alexandria, and a noted Egyptian leader of the fourth century. He is best remembered for his role in the conflict with Arius and Arianism. He is revered as a saint by the Oriental Orthodox & Eastern Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic & Eastern Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Anglican Communion, and is regarded as a great leader of the Church by Protestants. He is chronologically the first Doctor of the Church so designated by the Roman Catholic Church, and he is counted as one of the four Great Doctors of the Eastern Church. His feast day is January 18 in the Eastern Orthodox Churches and May 2 in Western Christianity and the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Athansius's other works include his two-part Against the Heathen and The Incarnation of the Word of God. Completed around 335, they constitute the first classic work of developed Greek Orthodox theology. In the first part, Athanasius refutes several pagan practices and beliefs. The second part presents teachings on the redemption.


Historical significance
The Alexandria of his boyhood was an epitome—intellectually, morally, and politically—of the ethnically diverse Graeco-Roman world. It was the most important center 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. Its famous "Catechetical School", while sacrificing none of its famous passion for orthodoxy since the days of Pantaenus, Clement, and Origen, had begun to take on an almost secular character in the comprehensiveness of its interests, and had counted influential pagans among its serious auditors.
Athanasius seems to have been brought early in life under the immediate supervision of the ecclesiastical authorities of his native city. A story has been preserved by Rufinus (Hist. Eccl., I, xiv). The bishop Alexander, so the tale runs, had invited a number of fellow prelates to meet him at breakfast after a great religious function. While Alexander was waiting for his guests to arrive, he stood by a window, watching a group of boys at play on the seashore below the house. He had not observed them long before he discovered that they were imitating the elaborate ritual of Christian baptism. He sent for the children and, in the investigation that followed, it was discovered that one of the boys (none other than Athanasius), had acted the part of the bishop, and in that character had actually baptized several of his companions in the course of their play. Alexander determined to recognize the make-believe baptisms as genuine, and decided that Athanasius and his playfellows should go into training in order to prepare themselves for a clerical career.
Sozomen speaks of his "fitness for the priesthood", and calls attention to the significant circumstance that he was "from his tenderest years practically self-taught". "Not long after this," adds the same authority, the Bishop Alexander "invited Athanasius to be his commensal and secretary. He had been well educated, and was versed in grammar and rhetoric, and had already, while still a young man, and before reaching the episcopate, given proof to those who dwelt with him of his wisdom and acumen" (Soz., II, xvii). That "wisdom and acumen" manifested themselves in a varied environment. While still a deacon under Alexander's care, he seems to have been brought for a while into close relations with some of the solitaries of the Egyptian desert, and in particular with the Anthony the Great, whose life he is said to have written.

Early life
Further information: Arian controversy
In about 319, when Athanasius was a deacon, a presbyter named Arius came into a direct conflict with Alexander of Alexandria. It appears that Arius reproached Alexander for what he felt were misguided or heretical teachings being taught by the bishop.
There were two more brief periods when Athanasius was exiled. In the spring of 365, after the accession of Emperor Valens to the throne, troubles again arose. Athanasius was once more compelled to seek safety from his persecutors in concealment (October 365), which lasted, however, only for four months.
From 366 he was able to serve as bishop in peace until his death. Athanasius was restored on at least five separate occasions, perhaps as many as seven. This gave rise to the expression "Athanasius contra mundum" or "Athanasius against the world".
He spent his final years in repairing all the damage done during the earlier years of violence, dissent, and exile, and returning to his writing and preaching undisturbed. On the 2nd of May 373, having consecrated Peter II, one of his presbyters as his successor, he died quietly in his own house.

Opposition to Arianism
Athanasius spent a good deal of his energy on polemical writings against his theological opponents. Examples include: Orations Against the Arians, his defence of the divinity of the Holy Spirit (Letters to Serapion in the 360s, and On the Holy Spirit) against Macedonianism.
Arguably his most read work is his biography of Anthony the Great entitled Vita Antonii, or Life of Antony. This biography later served as an inspiration to Christian monastics in both the East and the West. The so-called Athanasian Creed dates from well after Athanasius's death and draws upon the phraseology of Augustine's De trinitate.
In Coptic literature St. Athanasius, is the first patriarch of Alexandria to use Coptic, as well as Greek in his writings.

See also: Biblical canon
Athanasius is also the first person to identify the same 27 books of the New Testament that are in use today. Up until then, various similar lists of works to be read in churches were in use. A milestone in the evolution of the canon of New Testament books is his Easter letter from Alexandria, written in 367, usually referred to as his 39th Festal Letter. Pope Damasus, the Bishop of Rome in 382, promulgated a list of books which contained a New Testament canon identical to that of Athanasius. See the article, Biblical canon, for more details.

New Testament canon

Athanasius' life was mired in controversy, and recent scholarly works at time paint a less than flattering picture of the saint. His ascension to the station of Bishop in Alexandria occurred under questionable circumstances. Upon the death of his predecessor Alexander, in 328 C.E., more than fifty bishops gathered to confer a new leader to the Alexandrian see. While Alexander had been priming Athanasius to assume the bishopric after his death, he was not unanimously supported, and questions of his age (the minimum age to become a bishop was thirty, and questions remain to this day if he was yet that old), as well as less than overwhelming support, did not help his candidacy. Growing impatient, Athanasius took a small number of bishops who supported his claim, and held a private consecration making him bishop. His ascension would later be declared the will of the people. Serious questions also surround the reliability of his historical accounts. Athanasius seems to have severely misrepresented his own life and events, in order to warp the truth behind his own actions, and those of his enemies; especially when discussing his theological opponents, the Arians.

Some modern historians suggest that the tactics of Athanasius were a significant factor in his success. He did not hesitate to back up his theological views with the use of force. In Alexandria, he assembled a group that could instigate a riot in the city if needed. It was an arrangement "built up and perpetuated by violence." He played a clear role in making the Constantinian shift a part of the theology of the church.

Athanasius Allegations of violence
Athanasius presented his opponents, the Arians as a cohesive group that backed Arius' views and followed him as a leader. It is now accepted by most scholars that the Arian Party were not a monolithic group. He often blamed charges and accusations leveled at him on "Arian madmen" who he claimed conspired to destroy him and Christianity. The Arian party, as described by Athanasius, may not have existed in the form he portrayed it in his writings. The view of Arianism that exists to this day among most Christians would not have existed were it not for Athanasius.

However, there are also many modern historians who object to this view and point out that such hostile attitude towards Athanasius is based on an unfair judgment of historical sources.

See also

Arnold, Duane W.-H., 1991 The Early Episcopal Career of Athanasius of Alexandria
Alexander of Alexandria "Catholic Epistle", The Ecole Initiative,
Arius, "Arius' letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia" from Theodoret's, Ecclesiastical History, ser. 2, vol. 3, 41, The Ecole Initiative,
Attwater, Donald and Catherine Rachel John. The Penguin Dictionary of Saints. 3rd edition. New York: Penguin Books, 1993. ISBN 0-140-51312-4.
Barnes, Timothy D., Athanasius and Constantius : Theology and Politics in the Constantinian Empire (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1993).
Barnes, Timothy D., Constantine and Eusebius (Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 1981)
Brakke, David, 1995. Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism
Chadwick, Henry, "Faith and Order at the Council of Nicaea", Harvard Theological Review LIII (Cambridge Mass: 1960), 171-195.
Ernest, James D., The Bible in Athanasius of Alexandria (Leiden: Brill, 2004).
Haas, Christopher "The Arians of Alexandria", Vigiliae Christianae Vol. 47, no. 3 (1993), 234-245.
Kannengiesser, Charles, "Alexander and Arius of Alexandria: The last Ante-Nicene theologians", Miscelanea En Homenaje Al P. Antonio Orbe Compostellanum Vol. XXXV, no. 1-2. (Santiago de Compostela, 1990), 391-403.
Kannengiesser, Charles "Athanasius of Alexandria vs. Arius: The Alexandrian Crisis", in The Roots of Egyptian Christianity (Studies in Antiquity and Christianity), ed. Birger A. Pearson and James E. Goehring (1986), 204-215.
Ng, Nathan K. K., 2001 The Spirituality of Athanasius
Rubenstein, Richard E., When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ's Divinity in the Last Days of Rome (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1999).
Williams, Rowan Arius: Heresy and Tradition (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1987).