Athanasius was born around 296-98AD and died in 373AD. In around about 313AD he was taken into the household of the Bishop of Alexandria where Athanasius devoted himself to the Christian teaching. He was very well educated in the local academy, or what we might understand as university, where he became very skilled in grammar, logic and rhetoric. His early life was impacted by the great persecutions and his association with the hermit, Antony. It is to Antony that Athanasius owes his strength of character and his commitment to remain faithful to the teaching of the Apostles.
By the time the Arian controversy broke out in 319AD, Athanasius had already become well established as a distinguished author with two papers to his name. The first was Against the Heathen and the second was On the Incarnation of the Word. By the time the Nicene Council was called in 325AD, Bishop Alexander had already recognised the formidable capability of Athanasius for his knowledge in both the teaching of the Apostles and ability to provide positively to the discussion in defence of the Apostolic tradition. Not only was he applauded by his contemporaries but gained intense hostility by his opponents.
Athanasius was highly acclaimed for the part he played in the outcome of the Nicene Council and possibly made considerable contribution in the formulation of the Creed. Five months after the council, the Bishop Alexander died and Athanasius was chosen to succeed him.
There are some who have raised concerns regarding the character of Athanasius. If we take his opponent’s constant accusations seriously, then there may cause for grave concern. Theodoret describes the opponents bringing Athanasius to the attention of the Emperor Constantine regarding the many accusations as having evil intentions. He also makes it clear that the accusations were unfounded on every occasion where the charges against him were largely trumped up. Eusebius of Caesarea was a close companion of the Emperor and also a supporter of Arius. The opponents of Athanasius took this opportunity to influence Constantine to have him deposed or worse. They never succeeded in totally silencing him. Athanasius remained steadfast in his opposition to the Arians.
Yet if we read a quote from Gregory of Nazianzen in his Oration 22.9 we have a different picture of Athanasius’ character:
“to keep on a level with common-place views yet also to soar high above the more aspiring,’ as accessible to all, slow to anger, quick in sympathy, pleasant in conversation, and still more pleasant in temper, effective alike in discourse and in action, assiduous in devotions, helpful to Christians of every class and age, a theologian with the speculative, a comforter of the afflicted, a staff to the aged, a guide of the young.”
What Athanasius was renowned for was his dependance on the authority of Scripture and the Rule of Faith. His steadfastness to this led the way for the church to overcome Arianism and remain true and faithful to the apostolic tradition. He has such a focus on the Person and work of Jesus Christ that he would allow no speculative ideas to cloud his vision. It is fundamental to Athanasius that the Incarnation of God Himself come to us as man, suffered and was crucified under Pontius Pilate and rose again remain the central tenet of the Christian faith.
While Arianism was trying to water down the gospel declaring there was a time when Jesus Christ was not, Athanasius defended the article in the Creed, Homoousios to Patri (of the same being with the Father) solidifying the divinity of Christ as well as upholding His humanity. This has enormous implications for providing a gospel of the good will of God towards all human beings that is often hard for the modern mainline church to digest. Why is this the case? What we find if we are to take seriously the writings of Athanasius, is the modern church have taken sides with Arius and have severely undermined the Godness of God in Jesus Christ.
The mission of Perichoresis Australia in camaraderie with Perichoresis USA is to bring to light the teaching of the ancient church. If this is how the early church understood the gospel, then we need to seriously question the grounds for what we believe today. If Athanasius of the 4th Century is in the same camp as Irenaeus of the mid 2nd Century, then we have evidence of a way of thinking that can be enormously beneficial for us today. These two enormous communities are linked so closely to that of the Apostles we can hear their echoes in these writings as the voices of the Apostles still ringing in their ears.
Each of the lectures/letters can be viewed internally or can be downloaded as a PDF.
Translated by Philip Schaff
Defence against the Arians (Apologia Contra Arianos)
Against the Arians (Orotiones Contra Arianos)
To Serapion on the Holy Spirit