Early Christian History

St Athanasius of Alexandria

Athanasius was a protege and successor of Patriarch Alexander of Alexandria, who’s generally credited with having come up with the Trinity doctrine. While this isn’t quite true, Athanasius had a good deal to do with this matter, so this common supposition isn’t far off the mark.

Rising to the Occasion

Athanasius became prominent as the Arian conflict heated up in Alexandria. A deacon and advisor to Alexander, Athanasius appears to have been even more incensed at Arius’ teaching — that Christ was not eternal, having not existed until the Incarnation — than the Patriarch himself. He began to devise a christology which answered Arius’ own, yet asserted the eternality of Christ.

He is not mentioned as having any authority or influence prior to the Council of Nicaea, however, at that time he was said to have been Alexander’s closest assistant, so he must have had some importance within the Patriarch’s circle, at least, and possibly within the diocese of Alexandria.

At Nicaea, Athanasius became the chief spokesman for the anti-Arian, Alexandrian view. Since Arius was an excellent orator, for Athanasius to have been given this task, shows that he must have been greatly respected by Alexander and probably a number of other bishops present. He argued that Arius’ view, that Christ had come into existence at a finite point in time, violated Christ’s eternality and aseity (i.e. self-existence) and thus made him non-divine.

To do this, Athanasius called upon Christian documents for support. But first he had to establish their authority. He did so by citing prior Church Fathers such as Irenaeus. One of his key pieces of evidence, was the opening passage of the gospel of John; he had to demonstrate John’s authority as an apostolic gospel, then used those verses, in which Christ is referred to as the Λογος (Logos, usually translated into English as “the Word”), which is said to have been with God at the beginning of time, and to have been God, then (λογος ην προς τον θεον και θεου ην ο λογος, logos én pros ton theon, kai theou én ho logos (“And the Word was with God, and the Word was God”).

Despite Arius’ speaking skills, and the fact that at least 1/3 of the bishops had been on his side to begin with — a rather sizeable faction, given the amount of disagreement among the bishops, who came from all over the eastern Empire along with a handful from the west — Athanasius successfully impressed upon the assembly to affirm Christ’s full divinity.

The Council ultimately declared Arianism an unacceptable, heretical doctrine, because it denied Christ’s divinity. Furthermore, any future doctrine which did this, or implied it, would automatically be considered heretical.

Athanasius’ Bumpy Career

Although he triumphed at the Council of Nicaea, Athanasius’ had a great deal of trouble for the rest of his career. He eventually succeeded his mentor, Alexander, as Patriarch of Alexandria. His tenure was punctuated by several resurgences of Arianism, however, and he was driven from office, and from Alexandria itself, several times. At one point he took refuge with a remote ascetic community living in caves along the Nile, one which very likely had Gnostic leanings. (There’s no evidence, though, that this influenced him much, nor is there any evidence that he did anything about them later.)

Very likely because of the protracted conflict which endured pretty much for the length of his patriarchate, Athanasius dealt with opposing doctrines rather sternly. His partisans harassed, assaulted, and ostracized the opposition. He justified the violence he incited by claiming that eternal salvation was at stake; that is, some temporal discomfort was a comparative bargain, if it saved one’s eternal soul.

Over the years, Athanasius refined his christology, attempting to reconcile Christ as God with Christ as distinct Being. While Nicaea had decided this must be the case, the Council had not actually developed a christology which explained this. It was up to Athanasius to do so.

Ultimately he had to resort to a coined word, ομοουσιος (homoousios). This compound word is best translated into English as “consubstantial”; but in Greek it meant “self (singular) substance.” It is difficult to determine the meaning of this word, though, since Athanasius invented it, and he did so only because he couldn’t otherwise describe his concept in words.

Athanasius’ invention thus became the heart of the Trinity doctrine, which held that God was three Persons which are eternally One. Thus, each is separate, but each is God, and thus simultaneously the whole.

The Athanasian Legacy

This set the stage for later Christian heresy-smashing. Prior to Athanasius the worst that a Christian could get away with doing to a heretic, was to shun him or her. Athanasius, though, set a precedent for harassment and violence, one which would be followed much later, for instance during the Inquisitions of the Middle Ages.

Another legacy Athanasius left behind was the Trinity doctrine. Ultimately adopted at the First Council of Constantinople (381) and affirmed at subsequent Councils, it has been a core part of Christian doctrine, ever since. To some degree, we owe this to the fierce tactics of Athanasius, who did not hold back when it came to enforcing doctrine which he thought led to salvation and in wiping out doctrine which he thought endangered it.

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