Athanasius of Alexandria

Defender of the Nicean Faith

Athanasius is a pillar of the Church, angelic in appearance and even more angelic in his mind.

Gregory Nazianzen

The Book of Psalms is like a garden containing things of all these kinds, and it sets them to music, but also exhibits things of its own that it gives in song along with them.


Athanasius stands out as one of the most prominent and influential theologians in the Christian east. He was born about 297 in Alexandria and attended the Nicean council of 325 as the assistant to Bishop Alexander of Alexandria. About three years after the council he succeeded Alexander as Bishop.

Athanasius grasped the importance and the intricacies of the Christological controversy that the Nicean Creed addressed. He became the chief spokesperson for the position of the council on the nature of Christ. For the bulk of the next fifty years, he would be the point person for debate on the issue. He created a number of treatises on the subject that are now the standard explanation of the Church.

This ground breaking work came at a great cost for Athanasius. He was exiled from Alexandria five times over the years and spent about as much time away from his episcopal seat as in the city. Athanasius would not be considered a diplomat by temperament, and those who opposed the Nicean council’s decision frequently held powerful positions in government. These two factors caused Athanasius’ multiple exiles.

Arian Controversy

Arius taught that the essence of God was one and indivisible. Thus the son of God we encounter in scripture could not be of one essence with the father. Only the essence of God is eternal and preexistent, so the son had to have a moment of “creation.” Arius expressed this by saying there was a time when the son was not. This makes Jesus an exalted creature, a created being, not an integral part of the God head. This son of God is born outside of our time and is preeminent over us, but Jesus is still created. The son’s status as God is a title of this preeminence, not an expression of his essence.

Arius supports this subordination of the Son by pointing to numerous passages in scripture that patently make no sense if Jesus is divine. In the Garden, Jesus experiences fear and grief. (Mt 26:38) On the cross he asks why God has forsaken him. (Mt 27:46) He does not know when time will be fulfilled, only the father does. (Mk 13:4) If the Son is one in essence with the God head how could he NOT know the day of the Lord’s coming.

The Nicean council rejects Arius’ position in 325. Writing in defense of the councils creed Athanasius makes two basic arguments to defend the divinity of Christ: Only God can save us, so if Christ saves he must be God. And only God can be worshiped, clearly Christ is worshiped in the Church from the beginning, so he must be God.

These two points establish the divine nature of Christ, but don’t answer the specific problems encountered by the human like passages that Arius used in his position. Athanasius points out that Christ is BOTH human and Divine. So we have in scripture a combined double account of his life. This mingling of both the human and Divine nature was necessary as the very method to save us. Because Christ has clothed humanity with divinity, we can share in that divine nature as well when we join ourselves to Christ in baptism.

The Desert Life

In addition to his continual work against Arius, Athanasius had a strong affinity for the monastic life in the desert. During his periods of exile he would return to the desert life in community. He personally knew the famous spiritual leader and monk of the desert Antony. Antony fell asleep in the lord during one of Athanasius’ exiles from Alexandria, so he composed a “The life of Antony” to preserve his memory and teaching. The treatise provides the introduction to the life of discipline from the Egyptian desert. Antony provides the method of spiritual discipline and accounts of his own struggle with demons. The work is intended as an introduction to the desert spiritual life for those who wish to follow in Antony’s footsteps.

On the Canon of Scripture

Athanasius has a key role in our understanding of the formation of the New Testament canon of scripture. He provides the earliest surviving complete listing of NT books and some brief comments on the canon in his “Thirty-ninth Festal Letter.” Written as a Paschal pastoral letter for 369, he warns the faithful not to accept those new books purporting to be scripture floating around.

He specifically lists the twenty-seven books we have as the New Testament as the only ones accepted by the Church and asks his faithful to ignore the rest. During this time, there were a lot of books circulating about the life of Christ and the apostles that are not accepted as scripture. They were produced by Christian groups that ultimately split off from the Church because of their teachings.

When listing the Old Testament he does not include all of the books we have in the canon now, but he qualifies his list by saying, “Thus far this constitutes the Old Testament.” The debate was apparently still open for the OT canon in his time, while the NT appears to be in the final form.

On the Psalms

Athanasius wrote volumes of personal letters on spiritual topics, a number of these are still preserved for us. One of the longer letters is the one to Marcellinus discussing the Psalms. Here we see the role the Psalter played in the prayer life of the Church from an early period. Athanasius recounts what he learned from a spiritual father about the Psalter to Marcellinus. He notes that the Psalter is the book for prayer and meditation because it recapitulates the entire OT in song.

The letter notes that the Psalms have a personal directness that holds up a mirror to the person praying. They allow our prayer to reach God with the very words of the Holy Spirit, but in a personal appeal from our own condition at the same time.


Athanasius was a controversial figure throughout his life. He stood up for the Nicean doctrine and suffered for taking this stand. His work brought life and vital expression to the most complex theological issue of the day. And his works on the subject are still the standards to learn and defend the Nicean creed. His treatise “On the Incarnation” stands apart as the consummate expression on the nature of Christ.

Athanasius had a firm grasp of both the human and divine found in the gospels on Christ. His work is a continuing example for us. Even today, we face a Christian world that would over emphasis the human aspect of Christ in a way similar to the Arians. The current concentration on historical and cultural research into the Gospels pushes some towards an almost exclusively human Jesus. Athanasius understood that the divine and human natures of Christ are both present and perfected as seen in the Gospel accounts.

Originally Posted March 12, 2009
Last Revised on August 15, 2010