This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 42, number 1 (2019). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Athanasius was born of non-Christian parents in Alexandria, Egypt, around AD 295. He spoke and wrote Greek, and may have taught himself to speak Coptic (Egyptian), though his ability to write Coptic is disputed. He received a basic education but only had a cursory knowledge of Greek philosophy. His clear writing style combined with the powers of argumentation shows familiarity with rhetorical devices. Athanasius was converted to Christ as a young man at an uncertain date. His main source of inspiration came from the Greek Old and New Testaments, though he also relied on previous church Fathers and the church’s worship for theological understanding. He was ordained a deacon c. 318 and became the secretary to his bishop, Alexander, and accompanied him at the Council of Nicea in 325.
Before dying in 328, bishop Alexander named Athanasius as his successor and thus he became a leading bishop of the Alexandrian church for the next forty-six years. Most of his episcopate focused on defending the theology of the Council of Nicea against the heretic Arius, who denied the full divinity of the Son of God, and other leaders who wanted to work out a compromise with Arius. Emperor Constantine requested Athanasius to be in communion with Arius, but he refused, was deposed, and then condemned in 335 at a church council in Tyre (in modern-day Lebanon). Soon afterward, Athanasius was exiled to Trier (in Germany) until Constantine died in 337. This would be the first of five exiles from Alexandria during the period 328–373, depending on whether or not an Arian or Nicean emperor was on the throne.
The new emperor of the West, Constantine II, permitted Athanasius to return to Alexandria. On his arrival, riots broke out between his supporters and opponents, forcing Athanasius to flee to Rome where he lived in exile from 339 to 346. While there, Athanasius rallied Rome and the Latin churches to support his cause. After making peace with a new emperor (Constantius), he returned home to Alexandria where the whole city celebrated his arrival with great excitement.
The church was now in the heat of the Arian crisis. Constantius, however, was a staunch Arian, and thus Athanasius could no longer depend on his protection. For the next six years, Athanasius went into hiding, moving from house to house, fleeing soldiers who wanted to capture him. Most of his time, however, was spent sojourning in the desert among the monks of Egypt who supported him in large numbers. It was possibly during this time that Athanasius met Anthony, one of the greatest hermits of all time. It was from those visits that Athanasius composed the famous Life of Anthony (described below).
In 361, Constantius died and was succeeded by Julian “the Apostate,” a pagan who hated Christians. In order to confuse the Christians, Julian ordered that all bishops who were living in exile return to their homes. Athanasius emerged from the desert to Alexandria in 362. His supporters were so happy to see him that they tied bishop George, who had taken Athanasius’s place, to a camel and burned both the camel and George to death (certainly not a Christian thing to do). Athanasius remained in Alexandria until his death in 373. He died without seeing the victory of his defense of the divinity of Christ, which finally occurred at the Council of Constantinople in 381. Athanasius was one of the greatest of all defenders of the faith. His uncompromising defense of the Father and Son’s identical divinity (summarized in the term homoousios, “same nature”) earned him the later epitaph “Athanasius against the world!” He especially is revered by the Coptic Orthodox Church, to which he belonged, but also by all Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and historic Protestant communities today.
Athanasius’s works are largely situational in nature. Most are small tracts written on specific occasions for specific purposes. On the Incarnation of the Word2 is the most famous of all Athanasius’s writings. Had this been Athanasius’s only work, it would have earned him a permanent memory in the mind of the church. It was likely written when he was only twenty-three years old (c. 318), before the outbreak of the Arian controversy. It centers on the supreme mystery of the gospel, namely, the Incarnation.
In another work, Against the Heathen (c. 318), Athanasius attacks paganism, showing it to be an inadequate approach to religion with its many gods as compared to the Christian belief in one God.
Discourses against the Arians are three large books written against the Arians between 340 to 346. They are Athanasius’s most substantive theological work as well as the most important sources for constructing the history of Arianism.
Life of Anthony3 (c. 357) defines the meaning of monasticism (and the Christian life) through the biography of one of the greatest of all hermits, Anthony of Egypt. Here Athanasius shows how only God incarnate can transform (deify) human nature into the divine likeness. An easy and inspiring read of approximately seventy-five pages, this work became one of the most widely read books in all of Christian history. It was like being on the New York Times Best Sellers list for a thousand years!
Letters to Serapion are four letters written to a friend and fellow bishop named Serapion c. 360. They are some of the most influential writings on the Holy Spirit in Christian antiquity. Here Athanasius affirms the divinity of the Holy Spirit against some who were questioning it as a result of the Arian controversy.
Paschal (Easter) Epistles come from the custom of the Alexandrian bishops who wrote their dioceses to announce the date of Easter and beginning of Lent. In Epistle #39 (367), Athanasius lists as the church’s Bible the present books of the Old Testament (minus “Esther”) and twenty-seven books of the New Testament. He most often quotes the Old Testament in Greek, not Hebrew. The New Testament canon was not settled at this time, but this letter reflects a growing consensus by the church.
Athanasius was a kerygmatic (“gospel-preaching”) theologian. Throughout his writings, he identified at least three requirements for properly interpreting the Bible: the interpreter must (a) live a godly life,4 (b) consider the context of the biblical text being interpreted,5 and (c) interpret the text in light of the entire “scope of Scripture.” The “scope of Scripture” is the church’s reading of Scripture that has been passed down faithfully in the teachings of the Fathers and the ongoing worship of the church. “For Christ’s enemies, being ignorant of this scope, have wandered away from the way of truth.”6 Thus the Arians misread Scripture because they follow none of these principles. The following is a general overview of the theological and spiritual teachings of Athanasius.
Eternal Generation of the Son
It is important for a first-time reader of Athanasius to understand the distinction between God’s “Being” in eternity, and God’s actions in time and space. The eternal aspect of God’s existence concerns how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate to each other outside of creation, while the temporal relations focus on how the three Persons of the Trinity relate to this world, as when Jesus sent the Spirit on the day of Pentecost to take His place on Earth (John 15:26). Athanasius defended the divinity of the Son by asserting that God the Father eternally and timelessly generates the Son by nature but created the world in time by an act of His will. “Created things have come into being by God’s pleasure and by His will; but the Son is not a creation of His will, nor has He come into being subsequently, as the creation; but He is by nature the proper offspring of the Father’s substance.”7
The Son’s Identical Divinity (Homoousios) with the Father
Athanasius insisted on the need for the Nicene term homoousios (“same nature, consubstantial”) to express the Son’s identical divinity with the Father. He employs analogies, especially the relationship between light and its splendor, to illustrate that (a) the Son is the unique expression of the Father, and (b) the Son is distinct, but inseparable from, the Father. Many Eastern bishops had rejected homoousios as a non-Scriptural term that carried modalistic connotations (i.e., the belief in one God acting in three ways: sometimes Father, sometimes Son, sometimes Holy Spirit). Originally, Athanasius did not insist on homoousios so long as its meaning was retained. After c. 350, however, he consistently defended the word as the best means of expressing the biblical teaching about the Father–Son relationship.
Only God Can Save: Salvation as Deification
Humans were originally created mortal by nature, yet remained immortal so long as they lived in obedience to God (i.e., conditional immortality). “For by nature they [Adam and Eve] were subject to destruction; but by grace of participation in the Word they would have escaped this natural condition, had they remained good; for because of the presence of the Word with them their natural corruption was kept away from them.”8 The Arian Christ, however, cannot save because he was created before the world began (a virtually identical teaching with Jehovah’s Witnesses today). Christ was neither fully God, nor fully human, but a supermanlike figure. Against this view, Athanasius posited that only God can save and that anything less leaves us unredeemed. “Rather, He [the Son] deified what He put on; and, more than that, He bestowed this gift upon the race of humans….But if ‘the Word was made flesh’…then the death ascribed to Him may be a redemption for the sins of men and an annihilation of death.”9
Moreover, Athanasius makes a connection between deification and the Incarnation. “God became man so that man might become God.”10 Here we meet one of the central theological affirmations in Athanasius’s writings. Deification (theosis) describes the saving effects of the Incarnation. God became human in order to bring humans back into communion with God. Note, however, that deification does not teach that humans partake of God’s “essence,” thereby becoming fourth Persons of the Trinity with creative powers, or that humans lose their personal distinction from God, as taught by Mormons, Hindus, and Neoplatonists. By uniting our humanity with the God-who-became-human, there is a transformative healing of our broken humanity (1 Pet. 2:24) that makes it possible for us to regain what was lost in the Fall. Redemption, forgiveness, justification, sanctification, and adoption have taken place “in Christ” (Rom. 8:1; Eph. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2; 15:22; Gal. 2:17; 3:26). Salvation is not only accomplished by Christ on the cross but also accomplished in Christ through the Incarnation. Salvation comes through union with the divinized, new humanity that Christ assumed and restored to communion with the Father.
Athanasius’s theology is largely about the story of salvation: the Father eternally begets His Son through whom the world is created. Adam and Eve were made with conditional immortality. They sinned, however, and so death and corruption now comes upon the human race. But God so loved the world that He gave His eternally begotten Son who became Incarnate and thereby recreated humanity in His own divine image. Through the Incarnation, Christ renewed human nature by His death and resurrection. The Son unites us to Himself and thus gradually transforms us in this life into His divine likeness (theosis), but fully realized in heaven.
What are some of the enduring values of Athanasius’s work? Methodologically, his discerning use of church tradition as an interpretive guide to the faith remains a valid resource for biblical interpretation today. Theologically, Athanasius’s work has remained an enduring contribution to orthodox Christianity for more than 1,600 years. The most vibrant, growing churches today are not theologically liberal but those whose God “came down from heaven…became human…suffered under Pontius Pilate…was buried and rose again on the third day” (Nicene Creed). Spiritually, Athanasius teaches that our sanctification is grounded in the saving ontology of the Son’s deified humanity. Christ-likeness involves more than the external fulfillment of Jesus’ ethical teachings. Stylistically, Athanasius’s theology was cast more in the vocabulary of a story than as an abstract theological text. His writings speak powerfully much like C. S. Lewis’s have in our own day.
Bradley Nassif, PhD, is professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at North Park University.
- C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: Touchstone, 1996 repr. 1947), 143.
- A revised edition of the English translation by a “Religious of C.S.M.V.” is St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, introduction by C. S. Lewis (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996). This translation is preferred over the newer, but cumbersome, one in 2011 by John Behr in the same series.
- Beautifully translated by Robert C. Gregg, The Life of Anthony and the Letter to Marcellinus (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980). A more recent, though wooden translation is based on the critical editions of Greek and Coptic manuscripts by Tim Vivan and Apostolos Athanassakis, The Life of Anthony: The Coptic Life and The Greek Life (Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publishers, 2003).
- On the Incarnation, paragraph 57.
- Discourses against the Arians, Book 1 paragraph 54 in the Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers (hereafter NPNF) 2, 4:338.
- Discourses against the Arians, 28 NPNF 2, 4:409.
- Discourses against the Arians, 2, 19–20.
- On the Incarnation, paragraphs 5–6.
- Discourses against the Arians, 42, 45.
- On the Incarnation, paragraph 54.