of Alexandria (c. 296-373)


 Bishop St. Athanasius  Icon, St. Katherine's, Sinai

ATHANASIUS, St. (c. 296–373), Bp. of Alexandria.

consecrated Bishop of Alexandria 8 June 328.

1st exile:  under Constantine, 11 July 335 22 November 337; lived at Trier (Germany).

2nd exile: under Constantius, 16 April 339 21 October 346; lived at Rome.

3rd exile: under the same, 9 February 356 21 February 362; in the Egyptian desert.

4th exile: under Julian, 24 October 362 5 September 363; in the Egyptian desert.

5th exile: under Valens, 5 October 365 31 January 366; in the Egyptian desert.

died 2 May 373.

HE was secretary to Alexander, Bp. of Alexandria, and accompanied him to the Council of Nicaea (325), succeeding him as bishop in 328. He incurred the enmity of the powerful Arianizing party, who secured his exile from Alexandria on a number of occasions between 336 and 366. He then helped to build up the new Nicene party by whose support orthodoxy triumphed over Arianism at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

IN his famous (and prob. early) De Incarnatione, he expounds how God the Word, by His union with mankind, restored to fallen man the image of God, and by His death and resurrection met and overcame death. As bishop he was the greatest and most consistent theological opponent of Arianism Between 339 and 359 he wrote a series of works in defence of the true Divinity of the Son. From c. 361 he worked to reconcile the Semi-Arians to the Nicene term homoousios (of one substance).

HE was also concerned to uphold the Divinity of the Holy Spirit and the full manhood of Christ against Macedonian and Apollinarian tendencies As the friend of Pachomius and Serapion, and the biographer of Antony, he aided theascetic movement in Egypt and was the first to introduce knowledge of monasticism to the West.

Based on an article in The Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church. ed. E.A. Livingstone, (Oxford, 1996).




Benedict XVI  General Audience Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Saint Athanasius of Alexandria

[...] Only a few years after his death, this authentic protagonist of the Christian tradition was already hailed as “the pillar of the Church” by Gregory of Nazianzus, the great theologian and Bishop of Constantinople (Orationes, 21, 26), and he has always been considered a model of orthodoxy in both East and West.

As a result, it was not by chance that Gian Lorenzo Bernini placed his statue among those of the four holy Doctors of the Eastern and Western Churches - together with the images of Ambrose, John Chrysostom and Augustine - which surround the Chair of St Peter in the marvellous apse of the Vatican Basilica.

Athanasius was undoubtedly one of the most important and revered early Church Fathers. But this great Saint was above all the impassioned theologian of the Incarnation of the Logos, the Word of God who - as the Prologue of the fourth Gospel says - “became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1: 14).

For this very reason Athanasius was also the most important and tenacious adversary of the Arian heresy, which at that time threatened faith in Christ, reduced to a creature “halfway” between God and man, according to a recurring tendency in history which we also see manifested today in various forms.

In all likelihood Athanasius was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in about the year 300 A.D. He received a good education before becoming a deacon and secretary to the Bishop of Alexandria, the great Egyptian metropolis. As a close collaborator of his Bishop, the young cleric took part with him in the Council of Nicaea, the first Ecumenical Council, convoked by the Emperor Constantine in May 325 A.D. to ensure Church unity. The Nicene Fathers were thus able to address various issues and primarily the serious problem that had arisen a few years earlier from the preaching of the Alexandrian priest, Arius.

With his theory, Arius threatened authentic faith in Christ, declaring that the Logos was not a true God but a created God, a creature “halfway” between God and man who hence remained for ever inaccessible to us. The Bishops gathered in Nicaea responded by developing and establishing the “Symbol of faith” [“Creed”] which, completed later at the First Council of Constantinople, has endured in the traditions of various Christian denominations and in the liturgy as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.

In this fundamental text - which expresses the faith of the undivided Church and which we also recite today, every Sunday, in the Eucharistic celebration - the Greek term homooúsios is featured, in Latin consubstantialis: it means that the Son, the Logos, is “of the same substance” as the Father, he is God of God, he is his substance. Thus, the full divinity of the Son, which was denied by the Arians, was brought into the limelight.

In 328 A.D., when Bishop Alexander died, Athanasius succeeded him as Bishop of Alexandria. He showed straightaway that he was determined to reject any compromise with regard to the Arian theories condemned by the Council of Nicaea.

His intransigence - tenacious and, if necessary, at times harsh - against those who opposed his episcopal appointment and especially against adversaries of the Nicene Creed, provoked the implacable hostility of the Arians and philo-Arians.

Despite the unequivocal outcome of the Council, which clearly affirmed that the Son is of the same substance as the Father, these erroneous ideas shortly thereafter once again began to prevail - in this situation even Arius was rehabilitated -, and they were upheld for political reasons by the Emperor Constantine himself and then by his son Constantius II.

Moreover, Constantine was not so much concerned with theological truth but rather with the unity of the Empire and its political problems; he wished to politicize the faith, making it more accessible - in his opinion - to all his subjects throughout the Empire.

Thus, the Arian crisis, believed to have been resolved at Nicaea, persisted for decades with complicated events and painful divisions in the Church. At least five times - during the 30 years between 336 and 366 A.D. - Athanasius was obliged to abandon his city, spending 17 years in exile and suffering for the faith. But during his forced absences from Alexandria, the Bishop was able to sustain and to spread in the West, first at Trier and then in Rome, the Nicene faith as well as the ideals of monasticism, embraced in Egypt by the great hermit, Anthony, with a choice of life to which Athanasius was always close.

St Anthony, with his spiritual strength, was the most important champion of St Athanasius’ faith. Reinstated in his See once and for all, the Bishop of Alexandria was able to devote himself to religious pacification and the reorganization of the Christian communities. He died on 2 May 373, the day when we celebrate his liturgical Memorial.

The most famous doctrinal work of the holy Alexandrian Bishop is his treatise: De Incarnatione, On the Incarnation of the Word, the divine Logos who was made flesh, becoming like one of us for our salvation.

In this work Athanasius says with an affirmation that has rightly become famous that the Word of God “was made man so that we might be made God; and he manifested himself through a body so that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; and he endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality” (54, 3). With his Resurrection, in fact, the Lord banished death from us like “straw from the fire” (8, 4).

The fundamental idea of Athanasius’ entire theological battle was precisely that God is accessible. He is not a secondary God, he is the true God and it is through our communion with Christ that we can truly be united to God. He has really become “God-with-us”.

Among the other works of this great Father of the Church - which remain largely associated with the events of the Arian crisis - let us remember the four epistles he addressed to his friend Serapion, Bishop of Thmuis, on the divinity of the Holy Spirit which he clearly affirmed, and approximately 30 “Festal” Letters addressed at the beginning of each year to the Churches and monasteries of Egypt to inform them of the date of the Easter celebration, but above all to guarantee the links between the faithful, reinforcing their faith and preparing them for this great Solemnity.

Lastly, Athanasius also wrote meditational texts on the Psalms, subsequently circulated widely, and in particular, a work that constitutes the bestseller of early Christian literature: The Life of Anthony, that is, the biography of St Anthony Abbot. It was written shortly after this Saint’s death precisely while the exiled Bishop of Alexandria was staying with monks in the Egyptian desert.
Athanasius was such a close friend of the great hermit that he received one of the two sheepskins which Anthony left as his legacy, together with the mantle that the Bishop of Alexandria himself had given to him.

The exemplary biography of this figure dear to Christian tradition soon became very popular, almost immediately translated into Latin, in two editions, and then into various Oriental languages; it made an important contribution to the spread of monasticism in the East and in the West.

It was not by chance that the interpretation of this text, in Trier, was at the centre of a moving tale of the conversion of two imperial officials which Augustine incorporated into his Confessions (cf. VIII, 6, 15) as the preamble to his own conversion.

Moreover, Athanasius himself showed he was clearly aware of the influence that Anthony’s fine example could have on Christian people. Indeed, he wrote at the end of this work: “The fact that his fame has been blazoned everywhere, that all regard him with wonder, and that those who have never seen him long for him, is clear proof of his virtue and God’s love of his soul. For not from writings, nor from worldly wisdom, nor through any art, was Anthony renowned, but solely from his piety towards God. That this was the gift of God no one will deny.

“For from whence into Spain and into Gaul, how into Rome and Africa, was the man heard of who dwelt hidden in a mountain, unless it was God who makes his own known everywhere, who also promised this to Anthony at the beginning? For even if they work secretly, even if they wish to remain in obscurity, yet the Lord shows them as lamps to lighten all, that those who hear may thus know that the precepts of God are able to make men prosper and thus be zealous in the path of virtue” (Life of Anthony, 93, 5-6).

Yes, brothers and sisters! We have many causes for which to be grateful to St Athanasius. His life, like that of Anthony and of countless other saints, shows us that “those who draw near to God do not withdraw from men, but rather become truly close to them” (Deus Caritas Est, n. 42).



Bp.Kallistos Ware - Hilary, 1995



 Born 296 at Nicea present as deacon to Bp Alexander of Alexandria -- more prominent were Marcellus of Ancyra and Eustathius of Antioch

 328 Made bishop.  Remains in office for 48 years.  Exiled five times.  First two in West - Trier and Rome; then in Egypt but on run from police.  for 15 of 45 years not inposession of his see.

 Speak of as Greek father- but was native Egyptian.  First language would have bee Coptic.  Strength was that he was close to people of Egypt - from poor background.  Very different from Cappadocians.  as a boy playing harbor, Bishop Alexander saw him perform ceremony of baptism

 could have never resisted Emperor as he did except as Copt and friend of people.  Also friend of monk.  Biography of Antony attributed to him - attribution disputed

 Was always firmly opposed to Arius - - -


Three key points


1) Emphasis on salvation

2) Homoousious to describe divine union

3) Did he allow sufficiently for diversity in Godhead?


1) Salvation was theosis Je/wsij - we become gods by grace, by adoption, Ps. 82:6 quoted in fourthe gospel, Jn 10:34-35

salvation not principally juridical, but therapeutic and organic healing and total transfiguration of nature in God. 

tHEREFORE ONLY GOG CAN SAVE Christ must be God - not possible for one who merely participates, cannot pass on what has received - must give us what is his own.

“A prophet cannot be the savior of the world; the death of a man does not destroy death.  Therefore issue not terminological, but touched salvation of us humans.



but surely we must also assert salvation must reac the point f human need.  Must have true and full humaity. 

does Athanasius sufficiently emphasize second point?

                raises difficult problem of Christ's soul.  Certainly believed that Christ fully and completely man - thus not an Apollinarian?




1. Salvation - KEY to his theology

2. Homoousos as key term

3. Possible weakness “Athanasius' enigmatic smile” - the diversity of God


Earliest Works De Incarnatione - 318 still in 20s; others put it later as late as 336 - no explicit allusion to controversies - would be unusual as late as 336


Contra Gentes 41 - “Son exact image of Father” - 2nd Creed of Antioch uses this in 3441

CG 47 Logos is true son, power, wisdom - not be participation but absolute wisdom, absolute truth au)to- sophia, dunamij, etc.  - self-subsistent

                not by participation ou kata\ metoxh/n - as we participate in God - Here logos himself is God.  Here repudiating Origen, who would not have called Logos absolute wisdom


47 He ALONE is son



47 Christ alone has been made known as God - true God, divine word of God.  Clear assertion of Christ's equality with God.

                On this point logos God in absolute sense ATHANASIUS NEVER WAVERED.


Motive for making this claim soteriologial DE:4 au)toj ga\r e)nhnqrw/phsen i(/na h(mei=j qewoihqw=men.  He humanized that we “engoded”

                If Christ merely shared in divinity by partipation, could not make us divine - a holy man cannot be our savior

                Salvation is theosis - thus Christ must be theos.


Spells out in later writings - DeSynodis - autumn 359, revised and reissued in 361

ch 51.2 “if he also like us merely shared in Godhead by participation, not essential image would not divinize us, since he would require to be divinized.”

                Savior cannot one who needs to be saved- must bestow as his gift, not as something he has received.

Thus soteriology one with Doctrine of Trinity



“The Dog that did not bark” in years 325-356 Nincene dog that says homoousios does not bark much.

                In later life Athanasius says Nicea is touchstoe.  But only slowly came to this view. 

In Conta Arianos - 339 - uses homoousios only once I,9.

357-357 Doesn't use homoousios or refer to Nicea.  Other anti-Arians remain silent as well, as do Arias.

342-3 Western bishops at Sardica do not mention it, even though very concerned.


In generation following Nicea Ath uses less specific phrases: “Christ proper to Father's essence” proper offspring” I,9

Ikon, radiance, imprint - charakter CA I,20


Why prolonged silence? Perhaps wants to be conciliatory? Probably not rather polemical and not concliatory.  perhaps preferred to used scriptural terms - but uses non-scriptural “ousia”

Term had gnostic (first used in 2nd cent) and Sabellian overtones

4. Athanasius not yet appreciated significance of Nicea and word homoousios.  This happened only graduallly.  By late 350s uses word and speaks of Nicea.  DeSynodis and ?


However, did previously have other ways of speaking of Christ ContArianos III,62-66.  Kannengiesser argues that Book III by Apollinaris - not won general acceptance.  book 4 certainy not Ath.


Distnguishes will bou/lhsij and nature fu/sij.  Arians say Christ depends on Father's will - Father wills to create Chrisy and makes Christ a creature.

Ath. distinguishes creation and begetting - God chooses to create, not necessary ex nihilo - begetting is a relationship within divine nature and ousis - cannot say that at certain point God choose to have son.  Father Son relationship essential to God.  Son Not raked in creation - is uncreated and eternal.  Thus defends same doctrine as homoousios in diffferent words.  Carrying on with creedal words “begotten, not made” - although doesn't refer to council.  see Florovsky , St.Pat 6: TU 81, 31-57.


When starts using homoousios in late 350s how does understand?


Not only son's      but also his unity with Father.  In On Decrees.  Not only similar to but inseperable from Father's essence.  He and father arre oe.  Father always in logos, and logos always in Father.  Coinherence, mutual indwelling.  Son identical, inseperable, indwells, two as inseperable as radiance is from light.

23.  “radiance” indicates that proper to and inseperable from essence of father - indicates union e(no/thj and ? qtau)to/n a)diai/retoj.


Christopher Reed - Asymmetrical relationship - never says that Father homoousios with son, never says trinity homoousioi - BUILT IN DIRECCTION - NOT SYMMETRICAL RELATIONSHIP says son equal one with, identical with Father - and that Father as source - son derives being from father.  Cappadocians emphasize that Father is archh beginning phgai/a qeo/thj - welspring od divinity.

                sense of direction in use of term seems to have been preent from start.



ORIGEN Frag PG 17,581c Ep to Hebrews - some doubt authenticity - Exhalation - a)porroia is homoousia with cloud of vapor from which it emanates - clod from cloud: suggesting not two things of same nature, but one as souce and other derived


DIONYSIUS OF ALEXANDRIA: 260          Recorded by Athanasius appplies to Father-so relarionship.  Child homoousios with parent - plant h. with seed; river h. with spring out of which it flows.  Implication that Father is fountain


NICENE CREED Son from essence of father


EUSEBIUS OF CAESARIA'S LETTER TO FLOCK Stephenson - new Eusebius 291, or 301 Means son not from some other hypostases or ousis, but from Father.  For Eusebius means son derived from Father - Father as source and origin.


Thus Athanasius uses sense f direction and derivation as in earlier sources.



                Shadow or weak point is absebce of technical term for threeness or diversity in God.  Not modalist - believes person distinct e.g. ConAr III,4 Father not self son, etc.  Deliberateyly rejecting Sabellius.  No distinctive word like Cappadocian hypostasis - diversity.

                ATANASIUS USES OUSIA AND HYPOSTASES AS SYNONYMS - as does Nicea “son not from another hopostasis or ousia, but from father.

                Origen had already said that three persons three hypostases - Arians also speak of three hypostases - Council of Sardca understands 3 hypostases as 3 Gods.


3) Does Ath sufficiently underline the diversity in the Trinity as well as the unity? No techinical term - hypostases means same as ousia


But did he not move forward at the end of his life

                362 Council of Alexandria under his chairmanship.  Julian has come to throne - allows all exiles to return to sees.  Athanasius wishes to reconcile homoIousians - afraid of Nicea, but not Arians.  In tome, endorsed if not drafted by Ath.

                sec 3-6 Some speak of God as three hypostases (i.e. Basil) others of one (Ath and Marcellus).  Both allowed as long as first make clear that not tritheists - others that not Sabellian.


In own writings Ath never writes of God as three hypostases.  EG says hypostases signifies ousia - means “being” God is a single reality [letter to African bishops ???)


Is Ath aware of dangers of modalism? - Arians always enemies


Thus look at relationship with Marcellus of Ancyra.  Leading anti-Arians at Nicea.  Deposed 336, restored 337; 339 again deposed goes to Rome.  Pope Julius declares Marcellus and Athanasius orthodox.  Marcellus also vindicated at Western council of Sardca - 342.  “God one hypostasis”


But is an embarssment - speas of expansion - expansion -platysmus of Godhead - AT END TIMES SYSTOLE - contraction.

God monad - logos and spirit externalized for creation, sanctification, etc.  Will eventually be reabsorbed into Monad.  Clause in Creed of Const - “of whoe kingdom tere shall be no end” THIS IS DIRECTED AGAINST MARELLUS.  Spoke of one Prosopon.  Not so much as Sabellian as old fashioned ??? distinctions belong to realm of economy - not to eternal realm of God.


This thoroughly alarmed moderate Origenists.  Did much to push them twards of Araianism and suspicious of Nicea


Was a friend of Ath - saw as ally in struggle against Arius.  Ath broke with him for support od Photinus - very close to modalism in 345.  But reconciled at some time before ???.  Epiphanius called on Athanasius to condemn (dead) Marcellus.  Athanasius neither defended nor expressed hostility.  When pressed, all Athanasius would do was to remain silent and to smile.


In fact he did not agree with Mar.  by 362 Ath was willing to agree wit three hypostases language.


But this weakness balanced by Cappadocians.


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