Contra Mundum: A Biographical Sketch of Athanasius of Alexandria
The following paper was prepared for Dr. Nathan Finn’s Patristic and Medieval Church history class.
I. Athanasius the Man
Even sixteen hundred years after his death, all orthodox Christians stand indebted to Athanasius, the man who stood contra mundum, “against the world.” Born in Alexandria between A.D. 296 and 298, Athanasius grew up in Alexandria, Egypt. As an obviously talented young man coming up through the ranks of the city’s famed scholastic system, he became a deacon and within a few years was picked by Alexander to accompany him to the landmark Council of Nicaea, where he wrote one of the definitive accounts of the gathering.
Athanasius came into his bishopric as the church underwent a number of substantial challenges in the first half of the fourth century after Christ. Internally, the church faced the threat of heresy from the Arians, ecclesiastical conflict with splinter groups such as the Meletians, and the task of integrating the growing ascetic and monastic movements into the life of the church. Externally, the church confronted the changes brought on by the new realities of first tolerance and then outright patronage by the Roman Empire. These challenges pressed the bishop into new roles, not merely a “local teacher” but now a “cosmopolitan representative of ecclesiastical and often secular authority.”1 Moreover, Imperial authority now touched on every action a major bishop could take, such that “Only someone with the intellectual power, obstinacy of will and longevity of Athanasius could stand against it.”2
By the end of his life, Athanasius had made significant progress in a number of these areas, though not without cost. Each of Athanasius’ five exiles were prompted by his opposition to Arian theology as the changing winds of imperial doctrine brought Nicene orthodoxy in and out of public favor. His fight was ultimately successful, however: the Arians were vanquished decisively (though not finally) at the Council of Ephesus only eight years after his death in exile. The influence of the Meletians in Alexandria had been thoroughly blunted. The monks, though still a distinct movement within the church, were tied much more closely to the bishop and local congregations than they had been when he came into office. Finally, his willingness to oppose the emperor even at great personal cost helped establish the independence of right doctrine from Imperial political authority, even if the point remained in contention and doubt for centuries.
II. Foundations for Orthodoxy
Athanasius left a number of significant doctrinal contributions in his wake, both defending what had gone before and working creatively within the bounds of orthodoxy. Most obviously, he helped guarantee that Nicene orthodoxy would prevail in maintaining his decades-long war against the Arian heresy. Throughout On the Incarnation of the Word, Athanasius highlighted both the possibility and the necessity of God’s becoming man. The Incarnation of God himself was not only conceivable but necessary if men were to be reunited with God. It was also essential for the security of the doctrine of revelation, for there could be no theological certainty apart from Scripture, and no assurance of the reliability of Scripture apart from the validation of the divine Logos. “[The] eternal and incarnate son, who was the essential image of the Father, was the only guide able to reveal and embody divine truth for fallen humanity.”3
It has been argued that Athanasius was not so much a theological innovator as a defender of the tradition delivered to him.4 It is true that he spent his life protecting against innovations that threatened the orthodoxy his predecessor had won at Nicaea. His Christology was not novel but focused on rebutting errors and carefully explaining orthodox doctrines. Even to the extent this is true, Athanasius’ work has proven foundational in a number of areas for the cogency of his thought and the care with which he treated the orthodoxy he defended. Moreover, he formulated a number of original points which remain influential.
First, his On the Incarnation of the Word was the seminal work on the subject. Though relatively short, the book traces out a wide variety of ways that Christ’s work in becoming a man “effected a genuine transformation in man and in the world… as genuine and complete as the rout of darkness by light when the sun [rises].”5 Those who follow Christ are made something more than they were before, not only rescued from the pernicious consequences of the Fall but raised to participate in divinity. Christ’s deity penetrated and transformed not only his own body, but all bodies being reconciled by his death and resurrection. This in turn prompted his famous reflection on theosis: “[Christ] was made man that we might be made God”).6 As Pelikan comments, “Although formulations of this sort were more frequent in the Eastern tradition… Western theology and spirituality spoke in such language also; so, for that matter did the Reformers and other Protestant divines.”7 Thus, Athanasius’ Christology left a double mark on church dogma. It helped protect later generations from the Arian error, and it also shaped centuries of reflection on the process of sanctification, particularly in the East.
Beyond these clarifications and expansions of earlier doctrines, Athanasius innovated in at least two categories: theology proper and anthropological theology. Drawing on some of the Middle Platonic thought common in his day, he argued that the “‘very notion of God’” had “implications a man would recognize immediately upon hearing the name ‘God.’”8 As he comments in his discussion of creation, “God is… the source of goodness: nor could one that is good be niggardly of anything: whence, grudging existence to none, He has made all things….”9 This category of existence as a genuine good and therefore fundamental to God—a point simply assumed by Athanasius in his treatment of another point—ultimately became the foundation of Anselm’s famous ontological argument.
This approach to Middle Platonic thought was itself a methodological innovation. Athanasius rejected the out-and-out borrowing of Platonic categories that characterized Clement’s and Origen’s approaches. Whereas they had sometimes let Platonic categories shape their interpretation of Scripture, he inverted the paradigm, opting to reject whatever of Platonism not fit with Scripture while reinterpreting the rest. He both synthesized Christian and Platonic thought and set them in antithesis as necessary in light of the Incarnation.10
From within this framework, Athanasius argued that all human relationships are reflections of realities within the Godhead. Fatherhood and Sonhood should be understood not as human categories projected onto God, but as the eternal nature of the relationship between those members of the Trinity—an “exemplar” from which the corresponding human relationships are derived.11 Furthermore, the Biblical language used to describe God exists to prevent humans from “prying into the incomprehensible nature of God”12 by entering into mere speculation. Thus, Christian categories for God—whether of the Son’s being begotten, of God as light, or so on—must be grounded in the Scriptures over and above any philosophical speculation.13
There remained both gaps and problems in Athanasius’ written theology. First, it is not clear whether Athanasius himself directly addressed the issue of Christ’s soul in his writings, and therefore whether he embraced a monophysite or dyophisite Christology.14 It seems likely he simply never had occasion to address the issue, which came to the fore far more prominently in the years after his death. Athanasius nonetheless paved the way for the Cappodocian Fathers and others in their defense against the Apollinarian and Nestorian heresies in the decades following.
Second, if there is an actual weakness in Athanasius’ Christology (beyond a mere gap), it is in his treatment of Jesus’ body. Throughout his writings there is a thread suggesting he saw Jesus’ human physicality as merely the instrument of the divine Logos, not an essential part of his incarnate nature.15 This tendency is initially surprising: On the Incarnation explicitly rejected the notion that incarnation was somehow below God, for God’s aims demanded incarnation.16 However, Athanasius understood physicality to be frail and ever in danger of returning to nothingness. Until divinized by the incarnation and resurrection of the Logos, human flesh was a liability. Indeed, corruption in death is humanity’s by nature; eternal life is available only through the ongoing presence of the Logos.17
Regardless of the theological accuracy of this assessment, it tended to produce a degree of skepticism toward the body—a skepticism reinforced by Athanasius’ approval of asceticism as evincing purity of heart. Indeed, as Pelikan comments, Athanasius seems to have at least partly conformed his portrait of Christ to the pattern of the monks, rather than the other way around.18 His tendency to describe Jesus’ own body as a mere means, rather than a full part of his Incarnate being, is less surprising in light of the ascetic tendency to think ill of the body and Athanasius’ views on physicality more generally. Consequently, Athanasius unfortunately strengthened the already-present hesitancy to affirm the genuine goodness of the human body.
III. Monasticism and Politics
Athanasius, along with John Chrysostom and Augustine, was one of the major figures responsible for integrating the burgeoning monastic movement with the broader church. Christianity had entered an era free from persecution and was quickly growing comfortable, even decadent. Athanasius valued asceticism as a helpful check on these worrisome trends. At the same time, he was concerned by what he perceived to be excesses in the monastic movement, and recognized the danger of the monks’ becoming a separate, parallel Christian movement distinct from the church. Accordingly, he took steps to integrate the monks back into the church. He pursued this agenda both by seeking to bring the monks under the authority of the bishop and by introducing and lauding many of the monks’ ascetic practices to the wider church.19
The most overt of Athanasius’ moves to promote asceticism came in the form of his biography of the most famous of the desert monks. The Life of Antony was wildly popular and served the double purpose of promoting monasticism in general and emphasizing Athanasius’ take on asceticism in particular. Likewise, in On the Incarnation of the Word, Athanasius highlights the ascetic movement as part of his apology for the life-altering power of the Incarnation. Indeed, advice to, commentary on, and lessons drawn from the ascetic movement make regular appearances throughout his writings.20 The monks, solitaries (celibate men), and virgins (celibate women) were a helpful corrective to the spiritual temptations facing the newly liberated church. Athanasius thus encouraged the growing admiration for these ascetics in popular piety: not everyone could be a monk or live in celibacy, but everyone should esteem those who could embrace the ascetic life.
Supporting the ascetics also buttressed the spiritual authority of his bishopric. Athanasius spent his entire ecclesiastical career engaged in controversy and the legitimacy of his spiritual authority was a prime point of attack, so the monks were important potential allies. Their help could prove significant, even decisive, in the battle for public opinion in the Arian controversy. Successfully drawing the monks into the orthodox bishop’s sphere also allowed Athanasius to preempt others such as the Meletians in the battle for public approval—a necessity if the authority of the Catholic bishopric was to be upheld against schismatics. By the same token, were the monks to either fall in with one of these opposing parties or simply go their own way, Athanasius’ position with the ordinary believers would have been substantially weakened, and both his defense of orthodoxy and his hopes for ecclesiastical unity threatened.
It was therefore important to clarify and stabilize the relationship between the monastic orders and the episcopate—and to do so in a way that strengthened rather than weakened the Catholic church.21 In affirming the monastic orders publicly and helping them resolve internal conflicts, Athanasius was able to establish just the sorts of closer links the church needed.22 The closer relationship proved mutually beneficial. The monks, as stalwart allies in the battle for Nicene orthodoxy, gained further regard from a population already impressed with their ascetic practices. Athanasius gained immediate popular support, found long-term friends (of the sort to whom he could flee when exiled), and prevented the monastic orders from splintering off from the broader church.
Athanasius’ work to integrate the monks with the broader church is representative of a broader aim in his ministry: the creation of a truly diverse and universal church that could draw together the ascetics, the academics, the clergy, and the ordinary communicants. By contrast, the Arians represented a dangerously academic breed of Christianity. Athanasius did not oppose learning as such, but rejected the development of academic theology apart from the life of the church. Drawing on his theological reflections on the connection of the Incarnation and revelation, Athanasius delivered a broadside against extra-Biblical teachers as unnecessary and divisive.23 The church had need of only the prophets and apostles who had delivered the canon. (Athanasius seems not to have acknowledged the irony of delivering this critique from his own position as an extra-biblical teacher—or at least, to have so thoroughly identified his teaching with Scripture’s that he could not see the apparent conflict.)
The academic model was further unsatisfactory because it had room for only a single kind of thinker: the philosopher-theologian. Athanasius’ church, though, “now included not only scholars… but also bishops… priests… virgins and monks… and married people…. Athanasius thus sought to articulate a spirituality that was… inclusive of people of greatly differing social roles.”24 This social diversity was a good thing to be embraced, while doctrinal diversity (of the wrong sort, as with the Arians) and division in the church (even if for apparently right original motive, as with the Meletians) were to be rejected. If Athanasius’ goal was forging unity, he largely succeeded—an accomplishment made all the more striking for a bishop beleaguered by controversy throughout his career.25
Athanasius was one of the most lastingly important figures from the first few centuries of the church. His Eastern Orthodox title, “Father of Orthodoxy” seems entirely appropriate in light of his costly dedication to Nicene orthodoxy, his integration of monasticism within the broader ecclesiastical structure, and his many theological contributions. While Athanasius was hardly the only leader to hold to Nicene orthodoxy in his day, he was the sole polemical figure in the battle against Arianism for decades. Adding in his development of the doctrines man and God, his careful reappropriation and critique of Middle Platonic thought, and his emphasis on the diversity and unity of the church, he stands among the very greatest of the saints.
- Athanasius, Saint. On the Incarnation of the Word of God. Palm Desert: Grieving Teens Publishing, 2011. Kindle e-book.
- Brakke, David. Athanasius and Asceticism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
- Englebrecht, Edward A., ed. The Church from Age to Age: A History from Galilee to Global Christianity. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2011. Kindle e-book.
- Hastings, Adrian, ed. A World History of Christianity. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999. Kindle e-book.
- Lyman, J. Rebecca. Christology and Cosmology: Models of Divine Activity in Origen, Eusebius, and Athanasius. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
- Meijering, E. P. Orthodoxy and Platonism in Athanasius: Synthesis or Antithesis? Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1974.
- Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Light of the World: A Basic Image in Early Christian Thought. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1962.
- Stead, Christopher. Doctrine and Philosophy in Early Christianity: Arius, Athanasius, Augustine. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2000.
Hastings, Kindle Locations 994-995.↩
ibid., 35; Meijering, 128–129.↩
Meijering, 130–131; Lyman, 130ff.↩
ibid., 28; Lyman 129, 147.↩
Pelikan, 99, 102.↩
Athanasius’ reliance on the authority of Scripture led him to include a list of his Biblical canon, which comprises the first extant list of the canon in its final form; see also Brakke, 66–70.↩