May 2 – Athanasius

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

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Athanasius, Christian thinker

Athanasius of Alexandria was not only one of the great church figures and theologians of the fourth century but also a major symbol for a central teaching of the church even if the historical basis for that significance may be disputed. He was born c. 296CE and died in 371. He was a native son of one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the ancient world. Founded by the Greeks, it was the major seat of administration in the province of Egypt, a significant commercial centre for trade between the Empire and Asia and Africa, the granary for Rome, the spiritual home of many of the great ancient schools of philosophy, and identified with figures like Philo, Clement and Origen.

Not a convert like Justin or Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius served the church in Alexandria as deacon, presbyter and bishop. While his formal education was restricted he very early caught the attention of Alexander the bishop of the city and, ordained as deacon, served as secretary to him. This took him to the centre of things and perhaps gave him his first taste and enjoyment of power and influence which so shaped his career. He accompanied Alexander to Nicaea in 325 but can hardly have been a major player there as later mythology suggests. When Alexander died in 328 Athanasius, against great opposition from various sources – most particularly the schismatic Melitians – was elected bishop and began to make his own mark on the international stage.

While it is suggested that from the very first as bishop his career was marked most significantly by an assumed leadership of the anti-Arian or pro-homoousian party, this is not, as will be suggested below, perhaps the case. While it is the case that from the start of his episcopate more and more anti-Nicene figures – it is more correct to name them thus than as anti-Arian (for Arius’ role in the post-Nicene period is at best marginal and mainly symbolic) – were being elected or restored to various sees, the clashes between them and the ruthless bishop of Alexandria were as much personal and political as theological. Indeed it could be argued that it was only after the Council of Sirmium in 351, where the Creed of Nicaea from 325 was specifically denounced in the First Sirmian Creed, that Athanasius began vigorously to defend both the homoousian and the authority of Nicaea, in his De Decretis of 352-3. Previously he had said little of real significance on the matter in his published writings.

Athanasius experienced five periods of formal deposition and exile during his episcopal career: from 335-337, to Trier in Gaul, for the alleged maltreatment of his opponents and alleged embezzlement of the corn supplies; from 339-346, spent in Rome; from 356-362 with the desert monks, his indefatigable supporters; from 362-364 again with the monks; and then from 365-6.

His extant writings are many and their consistent theme, in the words of one Athanasian scholar, ‘thoroughly soteriological’: the Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione (c.335/6) on the person and work of Christ; his three volume Contra Arianos (339-343? or possibly later); his Festal Letters; the celebrated life of Antony (356); the Apologia ad Constantium (356) in which he lays out clearly his theological confession; and the Letters to [Bp.] Serapion (357-9) where he begins a defence of the full divinity of the Holy Spirit when this was challenged even by vigorous defenders of the homoousian of Nicaea.

His life was one of constant struggle and strife, as much political and personal as theological. Not for nothing has he been called Athanasius contra mundum.

by  Rev Dr David Mackay-Rankin