Athanasius: Pugnacious Defender of Orthodoxy

by Patrick Henry Rardon

Few churchmen have been so entirely embroiled in doctrinal and ecclesiastical disputes as Athanasius.

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue 85 in 2005 ]

A MODERN BIOGRAPHER of Athanasius of Alexandria speaks of “the predominantly polemical nature of most of his dogmatic works” and “the lack of serenity in his argumentation.” Understandably so! In all of Christian history, it is safe to say, few churchmen have been so entirely embroiled in doctrinal and ecclesiastical disputes as Athanasius. In one comparison with him, one ventures that even so controversial a figure as Martin Luther lived out a relatively quiet and uneventful life.

Born into a Christian Family in Alexandria in 295, Athanasius was an infant during the persecution of Diocletian and barely more than a boy when the Edict of Milan legalized the church in 313. He was ordained a deacon five years later at age 23. The most indubitable claim we can make for Athanasius is that his entire life was absorbed in the service of the church.

The event that most marked the destiny of this ardent churchman was, of course, the council of Nicaea in 325. Although there is perhaps no other name more closely identified with Nicaea than Athanasius, this close identification had more to do with the aftermath of the council than with the event itself. Three facts conspired to make this so.

First, the fathers at Nicaea had formalized in the church a ranking patriarchal structure, according to which the bishops of Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch would exercise general oversight of the other churches in their respective regions. Thus, when Athanasius was made Bishop of Alexandria in 328, just three years after Nicaea, he suddenly found himself in one of the most influential and prestigious positions in the whole church.

Second, Nicaea had also determined that the church at Alexandria, because of the superior records and resources of astronomy available in that city, would be charged with establishing the proper date of Easter each year, and so informing the rest of the church by an annual notice. This arrangement afforded Athanasius an official opportunity to send an annual letter to all of the other major ecclesiastical centers, and until his death in 373 he used these “Paschal Letters” as opportunities to teach and admonish Christians far beyond the borders of Alexandria. Because many successors of Athanasius followed his example in this respect, the bishopric of Alexandria became one of the most influential teaching authorities in the whole church, second only to Rome.

Third, because Nicaea had implicitly granted the Roman emperors an authority over the affairs of the church that they had never done before, the next several decades (even centuries) would see many instances of direct imperial interference with the church’s teaching ministry itself, including the office of bishop. As various emperors exercised this interference, Athanasius was forced into exile from Alexandria no fewer than five times.

Athanasius spent these extended periods of banishment chiefly doing two things. First, he traveled extensively to far-off places, where he conferred with churchmen regarding the Arian heresy and other ecclesiastical matters, including imperial interference. These consultations greatly extended the reputation of Athanasius as a universal Christian teacher. Second, these periods of exile afforded him ample time to write the lengthy theological treatises that caused him to be ranked, even today, among the greatest exponents of Christian doctrine. CH

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