Athanasius of Alexandria (Greek: Αθανάσιος) (also spelled "Athanasios") (ca. 293 – May 2, 373) was a Christian bishop, the Bishop of Alexandria, in the fourth century. He is revered as a saint by the Anglican, Latin and Eastern Orthodox Churches, and regarded as a great leader of the Church by Protestants. Roman Catholics have declared him, earliest living, one of 33 Doctors of the Church, and he is counted as one of the four Great Doctors of the Eastern Church. His feast day is (May 2) in the Coptic Orthodox Church (7 Pashons), January 18 in the Eastern Orthodox Churches and May 2 in the Anglican and Latin Churches.
Outside the pages of the New Testament itself, Athanasius is probably the man to whom we chiefly owe the preservation of the Christian faith and should be looked upon as a role model for maintaing sound Christian Doctrine.
He was born around AD 298, and lived in Alexandria, Egypt, the chief center of learning of the Roman Empire.
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 the 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 levite 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 great St. Anthony, whose life he is said to have written.
In 313 the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which changed Christianity from a persecuted to an officially favored religion. About six years later, a presbyter (elder, priest) Arius of Alexandria began to teach concerning the Word of God (John 1:1) that "God begat him, and before he was begotten, he did not exist." Athanasius was at that time a newly ordained deacon, secretary to Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, and a member of his household. His reply to Arius was that the begetting, or uttering, of the Word by the Father is an eternal relation between Them, and not a temporal event. Arius was condemned by the bishops of Egypt (with the exceptions of Secundus of Ptolemais and Theonas of Marmorica), and went to Nicomedia, from which he wrote letters to bishops throughout the world, stating his position.
In about 319, when Athanasius was a deacon, a presbyter named Arius came into a direct conflict with Bishop Alexander. It appears that Arius approached Alexander for what he felt were misguided or heretical teachings being taught by the bishop. Arius’ theological views appear to have been firmly rooted in Alexandrian Christianity, and his Christologial views were certainly not radical at all. He embraced a subordinationist Christology (that God did not have a beginning, but the Logos did), heavily influenced by Alexandrian thinkers like Origen, which was a common Christological view at the time. Arius was subsequently excommunicated by Alexander, and he would begin to elicit the support of many bishops who agreed with his position. Athanasius may have accompanied Alexander to the First Council of Nicaea in 325, the council which produced the Nicene Creed and anathematized Arius and his followers.
The party of Athanasius was overwhelmingly in the majority. (The western, or Latin, half of the Empire was very sparsely represented, but it was solidly Athanasian, so that if its bishops had attended in force, the vote would have been still more lopsided.) It remained to formulate a creedal statement to express the consensus. The initial effort was to find a formula from Holy Scripture that would express the full deity of the Son, equally with the Father. However, the Arians cheerfully agreed to all such formulations, having interpreted them already to fit their own views. (Those of you who have conversed with members of the Watchtower Society, who consider themselves the spiritual heirs of Arius, will know how this works.) Finally, the Greek word "homo-ousios" (meaning "of the same substance, or nature, or essence") was introduced, chiefly because it was one word that could not be understood to mean what the Arians meant. Some of the bishops present, although in complete disagreement with Arius, were reluctant to use a term not found in the Scriptures, but eventually saw that the alternative was a creed that both sides would sign, each understanding it in its own way, and that the Church could not afford to leave the question of whether the Son is truly God (the Arians said "a god") undecided. So the result was that the Council adopted a creed which is a shorter version of what we now call the Nicene Creed, declaring the Son to be "of one substance with the Father." At the end, there were only two holdouts, the aforesaid Secundus and Theonas.
No sooner was the council over than its consensus began to fall apart. Constantine had expected that the result would be unity, but found that the Arians would not accept the decision, and that many of the orthodox bishops were prepared to look for a wording a little softer than that of Nicea, something that sounded orthodox, but that the Arians would accept. All sorts of compromise formulas were worked out, with all shades of variation from the formula of Nicea.
Eventually, Christians who believed in the Deity of Christ came to see that once they were prepared to abandon the Nicene formulation, they were on a slippery slope that led to regarding the Logos as simply a high-ranking angel. The more they experimented with other formulations, the clearer it became that only the Nicene formulation would preserve the Christian faith in any meaningful sense, and so they re-affirmed the Nicene Creed at the Council of Constantinople in 381, a final triumph that Athanasius did not live to see.
It was a final triumph as far as councils of bishops were concerned, but the situation was complicated by the fact that after Constantine there were several Arian emperors (not counting the Emperor Julian, who was a pagan, but correctly saw that the most effective way to fight Christianity was to throw all his weight on the side of the Arians). Under one of them Arian missionaries were sent to convert the Goths, who became the backbone of the Roman Army (then composed chiefly of foreign mercenaries) with the result that for many years Arianism was considered the mark of a good Army man. The conversion of Clovis, King of the Franks, in 496, to orthodox Christianity either gave the Athanasian party the military power to crush Arianism or denied the Arian Goths the military supremacy that would have enabled them to crush Athanasian Christianity, depending on your point of view.
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 the Macedonian heresy.
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.
Since Alexandria had the best astronomers, it was the duty of the Bishop of Alexandria to write to the other bishops every year and tell them the correct date for Easter. Naturally, his annual letter on this topic contained other material as well. One Easter Letter (or Paschal Letter) of Athanasius is well known for giving a list of the books that ought to be considered part of the canonical Scriptures, with a supplementary list of books suitable for devotional reading. For the New Testament, he lists the 27 books that are recognized today. (If you will look at your list of New Testament books, you may note that Matthew through 2 Thessalonians were never in dispute, that the next four were subject to relatively little dispute, and that the remaining books had more trouble being accepted. There were also a few books that looked as if they might make the list, but eventually did not, the most conspicuous being the Epistle of Barnabas, the Epistle of Clement, and the Shepherd of Hermas.) For the Old Testament, his list is like that used by most Protestants, except that he omits Esther, and includes Baruch, with the letter of Jeremiah. His supplementary list is Wisdom, Sirach, Tobias, Judith, and Esther. He does not mention Maccabees.
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. In February 366 he resumed his episcopal labours, in which he henceforth remained 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.
Propers for St. Athanasius - Bishop of Alexandria, Theologian and Doctor of the Church.
ALMIGHTY, everlasting God, whose servant Athanasius steadfastly confessed thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ to be Very God and Very Man: Grant that we may hold fast to this faith, and evermore magnify his holy Name; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost ever, one God, world without end. Amen.
The Epistle - 2 Corinthians 4:5-14.
WE preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our heart, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. For we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus' sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh. So then death worketh in us, but life in you. We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak; knowing that he which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise up us also by Jesus, and shall present us with you.
The Gospel - St. Matthew 10:23-32.
WHEN they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come. The disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord. It is enough for the disciple that he be as his master, and the servant as his lord. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more shall they call them of his household? Fear them not therefore: for there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known. What I tell you in darkness, that speak ye in light: and what ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops. And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows. Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven.
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