(c. 295-373)



I.                   His life


St. Athanasius, Doctor of the Church, (c. 295-373 ) was born in Alexandria and was bishop there for nearly half a century where he earned for himself the title 'The Great' and the reputation for all time as the intrepid and brilliant defender of the faith against Arianism.

His extensive writings - exegetical, apologetical, dogmatic, disciplinary, moral. polemical - are all concerned with the dominant purpose and idea in his life - the defence of the divinity of Christ. Denying Christ’s divinity, Arianism was destroying the Redemption, sacraments, the Church, the whole Faith.

The `Pillar of the Church' (St. Gregory of Nazianus) or the `God-given physician of her wounds' (St. Basil), Saint Athanasius is one of the most imposing figures of ecclesiastical history.


Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, was much impressed by the young Athanasius, and St. Anthony directed the youth’s life for a time. In 319 Athanasius was made deacon and secretary and counsellor to the bishop whom he accompanied to Nicaea (325) where he proved a powerful opponent of Arianism. He was chosen as successor to Alexander on the latter’s death (17 April 328) and the remainder of his life he spent between struggles for the faith, brief periods of quiet, synods, banishments, battles with bishops and ma­gistrates and emperors.


The Arians condemned and deposed him at Tyre (335) and he was banished by Constantine to Trier. He returned in 338 on Constantine’s death.

Condemned at Antioch (339) he went to Rome to Pope Julius. Constantius sided with the Arians and Arian Pistus, and afterwards George of Cappadocia seized the see of Alexandria by force. Julius declared Athanasius innocent and the Synod of Sardica declared him the rightful occupant of the see of Alexandria (343). Only in 346 could he return.

After the death of his brother Constans (350), Constantius supported the Arians again and the Synod of Arles (353) and Milan (355) deposed Athanasius. George entered Alexandria again while Athanasius went to the monks in Egypt (358).

Julian the Apostate (362) recalled banished bishops but Athanasius was banished again in the same year as a disturber.

Jovian (363-364) allowed him to return - his successor Valens (Arian) banished him - now for the fifth time. After four months he allowed him to return and having spent seventeen years out of his see, he lived now in peace until his death, 2 May 373.


He was a bishop for 46 years and spent 17 years in exile.

He is the first non-martyred bishop to have been canonised.

He was the first to be declared Doctor of the Church.

He defended mainly Faith and the Church’s independence.

“They have kept the churches, we have kept the Faith” he wrote.



II.                His writings


1)      Apologetic

Oratio Contra Gentes, 2 books.

(a)    Against the emptiness of pagan pantheism, it shows the reasonableness and necessity of Christianity;

(b)    Oratio de incarnatione Verbi (against pagans and Jews).


2)      Dogmatic Works are almost all against the Arians

(1)    Orationes contra Arianos IV is the longest and most important work.

Bk. 1 teaches the eternal origin of the Son from the Father and the substantial unity of both

Bks. 2 and 3 gives an explanation of the pertinent texts of Scripture

Bk. 4 deals with the personal distinction of the Son from the Father. Written in Egypt about 356-362.

(2)    Letters IV to Serapion, bishop of Thmuis, refuting the theory of those who, admitting the divinity of the Son, main­tained that the Holy Ghost is a creature.

(3)    Liber de Trinitate et de Spiritu Sancto (c. 365).

(4)    Epistola encyclica ad episcopos (340);

(5)    Epistola ad Antiochenos;

(6)    Ep, ad Jovinianum imperatorem (363);

(7)    Ep. encyclica ad episcopos Aegypti et Libyae, (356-­361)

(8)    Ep. Ad Epictetum (c. 371) - bishop of Corinth – about Christological doctrine; Ep. Ad Adelphium, (Letter to Adel­phius;) Ep. Ad Maximum, (Letter to Maximus). These three were important, especially `to Epictetus'. The Nestorians interpolated it and were convicted of the fraud by St. Cyril of Alexandria.


3)      Historico-Polemical Writings.

He wrote three Apologies to justify his conduct :

(1)    Apology against the Arians, 350 - very important for history

(2)    Apology to the Emperor Constantius, 356

(3)    Apology for his flight, 357.


Two encyclical letters might be classed here too, i.e. numbers 4 and 7 above. There are letters on the decrees of Nicaea ; on the doctrine of Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria (350) ; letter to monks, called Historia Arianorum, letter (359) on the proceedings of the Councils of Rimini and Seleucia ; letter (two) to Lucifer, bishop of Cagliari (360).


4)      Exegetical Writings.

We have only fragments of these in Catenae, the most important of them belonging to a com­mentary on the Psalms. Allegorical interpretation is in evidence.



5)      Ascetical

In 357 (365?) Athanasius composed a biography of St. Anthony as the model of the dedicated life. Evagrius of Antioch translated it into Latin and it helped greatly in East and West to arouse enthusiasm for the ascetic and monastic life. Athanasius had spent some time with monks himself.



6)      Festal Letters.

It was an ancient custom for bishops of Alexandria to send Festal Letters after Epiphany to their churches announcing the date of Easter and of the preparatory fast and instructions about the Easter festival etc. In 1847 a collection in Syriac of some sent by Athanasius was found in a monastery of the Nitrian desert and edited in 1848 and contain fifteen letters. These are valuable for the history of Arianism.



III.             His Teaching


Teaching on Christ is contained in his phrase “God became man in order to deify men”.

Christ is true God and true man. God is a unity, but in this unity is included a trinity. The name Father supposes the existence of a Son. The Son is not from nothing, nor from the will of the Father, but from the substance of the Father; He is co-eternal with the Father, shares with Him the entire plenitude of the divinity. Father and Son are two but their nature is one. The Spirit of God shares the same divinity and the same power. The source of the Holy Spirit is the Son who is with the Father. He is of one and the same substance with the Father and the Son. There is, thus, but one divinity and one God in three persons.


The menace that Arianism was cannot be exaggerated. We cannot now easily picture the details of the struggle, we are too solidly established in the security of doctrine which men like Athanasius expounded and vindicated. There is no struggle against heresy that can be cited as a parallel to it, for it was a matter of life or death for the Christian religion [1]. The mystery of the Trinity, the divinity of the Son and the Holy Ghost are at the heart of Christianity. If Christ, as Arians, maintained, was a creature, then we were not redeemed, the new and complete revelation has not been made, worship of Christ is idolatry.


Athanasius’s greatness lies in his victory over Arianism. “He was the chief instrument, his was the major role, in that conflict which determined that Christianity was to continue... Great minds and greater literary artists fight in the ranks of orthodoxy, but Athanasius is the leader of them all and the personal inspiration of most”.

For the Christian philosopher, however much he may wish to draw on reason and its findings, the goal is predetermined - there is Revelation and between it and reason there can be no clash. St. Athanasius “is the first clear manifestation to us moderns of how Revelation must act when forced by an intellectual crisis to be specific. To have been the leading protagonist of Revelation in such a crisis as was Arianism... was to live a career of sovereign importance to the future of civilisation”. (Campbell)



The Athanasian Creed known also as Quicumque vult  was not composed by St. Athanasius.


The attribution to him, accepted from seventh century, has been abandoned since the researches of G. Voss (1642) chiefly on the ground that the Creed contains doctrinal expressions that envisage contro­versies. Because of its clear expression of the doctrine of the Trinity and Incarnation, formulated in forty rhythmical propositions, it was universally accepted and until recently was recited in Prime on many Sundays of the year now in prime on the feast of the Holy Trinity. Since the seventeenth century it has been recognised that it was com­posed later than St. Athanasius’s time and in Latin, and until fairly modern times it circulated only in the West.

It has been ascribed to : St. Vincent of Lerins (450), St. Hilary of Arles (449), Fulgentius of Ruspe, North Africa (533), Caesarius of Arles (542), etc. The doctrines defended and the terminology used suggest a time when Apollinarism was a danger and before Nestorianism and Eutychianism (which are not referred to). Probably it was written between 381 and 428. The precise date and authorship must remain yet open matters, but the thesis of H. Brewers, S.J. (1909) has received very wide acceptance : St. Ambrose was the author, and 382/3 the date.


[1] From a book edited in 1966.