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. Read on, intrepid explorer →