Who was Athanasius, and why is he a central figure in the history of Christianity?

Athanasius of Alexandria (ca. 297-373) was bishop of the see of Alexandria from 328 to his death in 373. He often is referred to by the Latin phrase “contra mundum”—Athanasius against the world. Due to his defense of Nicaea, the Alexandrian bishop was opposed by those within the church as well as outside the church, including a slew of emperors who often regarded him as incalcitrant and a miscreant because of his dogged determination to defend and maintain Nicene orthodoxy. The five exiles he experienced as bishop reflect the ebb and flow of the tide of controversy that consumed fourth century Christianity. As a deacon attending the Council of Nicaea with his bishop Alexander, and then as bishop of Alexandria after Alexander’s death, Athanasius was the chief proponent of orthodoxy during the 4th century Arian crisis.


The emperor Constantine had called the Council of Nicaea in 325 to deal with the challenge of Arianism which held that the Son of God, the Logos, was a divine being who could not be equal with the Father because he was begotten, whereas the Father was unbegotten. Arius equated begottenness with coming into existence and therefore taught that “there was when the Son was not.” This meant that the Son could not be eternal, unlike the Father who was eternal and “unoriginate.” Therefore, Arius held, the Son is not equal with the Father and is a subordinate, albeit exalted, deity. He would ask mothers in the marketplace if they existed before their children did. The obvious answer was “yes.” Therefore he would say, in the same way the Father must have existed before his child, the Son. Athanasius understood that the more important question, of course, was: Can you be a father without having children? The obvious answer is “no.” And, the fact that the Son was begotten from the Father meant that he has all the characteristics his Father has, including being eternal. So, how best to demonstrate the equality of the Son with the Father? The Nicenes responded with the term “homoousios” (of the same substance/essence) to describe the Son’s relationship with the Father since two beings who share the same essence are equal, ontologically speaking (the question of whether this was the best way to frame the discussion is a matter for another day).


While Nicaea decided in favor of orthodoxy, the political machinations of the Arians and their alliances with pro-Arian emperors such as Constantius (emp. 337-361), ensured that for the next 50 years Arianism would be on the rise while orthodoxy was often in retreat. Athanasius’ first two exiles in Trier (335-337) and Rome (339-346) occasioned much of his writing against the Arians. His third exile to the Egyptian desert (356-362) helped him solidify his base and turn the tide against the different iterations of Arianism that had arisen after Arius’ death in 337 such as the political Homoions who said the Son was like the Father, and the Anomoions who went even further in rejecting Nicaea to say that the Son wasn’t like the Father at all.


Athanasius understood that if the Son is not fully God but is a lesser god, no matter how highly exalted, this put salvation itself into question. In one of his early seminal works, On the Incarnation, (par. 54) he echoed the orthodox bishop Irenaeus who had lived a century earlier: “He (God) became what we are so that we might become what He is.” God’s purpose in creating us, and then redeeming his fallen creation, was that we would be his sons and daughters for all eternity (Jn 1:12). If anyone less than God was involved and in charge of our salvation, then the situation was hopeless and our salvation would not be accomplished. If the Baptisms and blessings and prayers of the church were offered to a divine being, not matter how exalted, who was not fully God, then they lacked not only the power, but also the authority, to do what they said they would do—i.e. save us. This, no doubt, is why the Nicene Creed included the phrase “who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven. . . .”


In addition to his Arian struggles, Athanasius also put together a tour de force in confessing the divinity of the Holy Spirit in his Letters to Serapion (357-359), understanding that as goes the Spirit, so goes the Son, and vice versa. He also provided an engaging and informative tale of spiritual warfare in his Life of Anthony (356) that Augustine cited as a factor in his own conversion a few decades after it was written and translated into Latin. Athanasius was most likely not the theologian behind the creed that bears his name, but it no doubt became associated with him because of his staunch defense of the Trinitarian teaching.


Athanasius may have been contra mundum, but that same “mundum” owes him a debt of gratitude for holding fast as a pastor and theologian to the Scriptural truth of how God came to save us in His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Joel Elowsky, Ph.D. is professor of Historical Theology, dean of Advanced Studies, and coordinator of International Seminary Exchange Programs at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.


For more of Professor Elowsky's work on Athanasius:

Elowsky, Joel C., Athanasius: Letter to Marcellinus on the Psalms