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Athanasius - The Black Dwarf

Icon of St Athanasius

Icon of St Athanasius

Early Years:

Born- ? / 295 AD Died - May 2nd / 336 AD at 78 years old

St. Athanasius, as well known as he is today in Christian circles, especially that of theologians, came from rather obscure origins. Born in a small town or more likely village on the east shore of the Nile close to the city of Alexandria, Athanasius spoke Coptic, the language of the original inhabitants of the area. However, it was at Alexandria that he received his classical and theological training.

Athanasius was known to be short with a dark complexion, like that of the Copts, hence the nickname his enemies gave him, ‘The Black Dwarf’. It was very likely that he belonged to that group and was a member of the lower classes of Egypt.[1]

During these early years, Athanasius connected frequently with the monks of the desert, known in later years as the ‘Desert Fathers.’ It was in those days that he met Anthony, one of the first desert monks. A story is told of Athanasius, that he used to visit the monk often and wash the old man’s hands for him in an act of servant hood. It was from Anthony and the other desert monks that Athanasius learned a ridged discipline. An austerity that earned him the admiration of friends and even the respect of many of his enemies. The monks, especially Anthony, would, at times, prove to be his only source of support and much needed asylum in the years of battle ahead.[2]

At 24 years old, in 319 AD, his Bishop Alexander (312-328 AD) ordained Athanasius, a deacon and he served as the bishops secretary. Athanasius went with his bishop to the First council of Nicaea, in 325 AD, which the converted Emperor Constantine called, where his debates with the Arians attracted considerable attention, a sign of things to come. At the age of 33, in 328 AD, Athanasius succeeded Bishop Alexander as bishop of the great see or diocese of Alexandria, a position he held for 45 years.[3]

[1] Justo L Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: the early church to present day, Prince Press, Peabody, MA., (c1984), pg 173

[2] Gonzalez, pg 173/4

[3] F.F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame: Advance of Christianity, Vol. 1 A.D.1 to 800, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI., (c1958) pg 307

The Father of Orthodoxy

 Athanasius Bishop of Alexandria

Athanasius Bishop of Alexandria

Character of Athanasius:

 Athanasius was a pastor rather than a systematic or speculative thinker. His work and theology developed in response to the needs of each moment rather than on the basis of requirement of  system. His works consisted of pastoral, polemical, exegetical, with even a biography among them. His theology was more concerned with relative matters than with those, which were purely exploratory in nature.

            Although Athanasius was not a great theologian, he was a man of great character. In an age when court favor counted for much, he stood like a rock for his convictions. That the Nicene theology ultimately conquered the heresies predominant at the time was primarily due to him, for the Nicene West possessed no able theologian. To Athanasius, the question at issue was one of salvation, and that he made men to feel it to be so was a main source of his power.[1] Not only was Athanasius known as one of the most outstanding of all Alexandrian bishops, he earned the reputation as one of the most imposing figures in all ecclesiastical history. The Greek Church called him, “The Father of Orthodoxy”, and the Roman Church counted him amongst the four great “Fathers of the East.” St. Gregory of Nazianzus had this to say about him, “Of undaunted courage, unflinching in the face of danger or adversity and cowed by no man, he was the steadfast champion and great defender of the faith of Nicaea, ‘the pillar of the Church.’[2]

            Athanasius was first a man of God; then a man of the people. Of all the challengers of the controversy of Arianism, Athanasius, was the most feared. The reasons for this were not found in the subtlety of his logical argument, or in the elegance of his style, not even in his political discernment. In all these areas, Athanasius could be outdone. His strong suit was that of his close ties to the people among whom he grew up, learned and lived. Athanasius lived out his faith on the ground without the sophistication of the Arians or the pompous ceremony of many other bishops of important sees. His monastic discipline, his roots among the people, his fiery spirit, and his profound and unshakable conviction made him invincible.[3]  

[1] Williston, Walker, A History of the Christian Church: 3rd Edition, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, NY., (c1918, 1970) Pg 110

[2] Johannes, Quasten, Patrology : Vol. III - The Golden Age of Greek Patristo Literature,Christian Classics, Notre Dame, IN., (c2???) Pg. 319

[3] Gonzalez,  pg 174

Fresco depicting the First Council of Nicaea

Fresco depicting the First Council of Nicaea

The Arian Controversy:

 To understand Athanasius there must be some understanding of the controversy that would engulf his life for 40 years of his bishopric. The Arian controversy started with Arius, a pupil of Lucian of Antioch. Arius was a presbyter in charge of a church known as St. Baucalis. He was 53 years old when he first began presenting his heretical theological doctrine in 318 AD. In about 320 AD, Alexander held a synod in Alexandria in which Arius was condemned and excommunicated. Arius then appealed for help from a fellow student of Lucian, the powerful bishop of the West, Eusebius of Nicomedia. It was at the first general council of the church in Nicaea in 325 AD when Arius’ theology came under the direct opposition of Athanasius.

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            A brief summary of the Arian view is essential here. 1. God is solitary, the Father unique. 2. The Son had an origin ex nihilo (out of nothing). There was a time when Jesus did not exist as He was created. 3. God made a person (Word, Spirit, Son) when he wanted to create. 4. The Word has a changeable nature, and he remains good by exercising his freewill only so long as he chooses. 5. The ousiai (substance or being) of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are divided and are different from one another.[1]

            It was these views that Athanasius spent most of his life battling. Athanasius convinced that the Savior must be God, held that there was no alternative left but to affirm that the Word was God in the strictest sense. Two fundamental ways why Athanasius abhorred Arian doctrine. 1. Arianism approached polytheism and, 2. It implied that salvation came from a creature. In battling for the truth of the deity of Christ and His work in salvation, Athanasius contributed in a positive way to the development of the Trinitarian doctrine. For his insistence in the divinity of the Son was one of the main factors that lead to the defeat of one of the greatest enemies of that doctrine (the Trinity) as it finally evolved, Arianism.[2]

[1] Robert, Letham, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology and Worship, P&R Publishing Company, Phillipsburg, N.J., (c2004) Pg. 11/2

[2] Justo L.,Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought: from the beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon, Revised Edition, Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN., (c 1970, 2nd Ed. 1987) Pg. 299

The Exiles of Athanasius:

             Athanasius was banished no less than five times from his Episcopal see. He spent, altogether, a period of seventeen years in exile. Each expulsion and return to Alexandria represented either a change in emperors or a shift in the makeup of the palace ecclesiastical clique that had the current emperor’s ear. Even when in exile Athanasius worked towards the clarifying the truth of Jesus as begotten Son of God, fully Man and fully God.

            First Exile: 331 AD, Athanasius made use of this exile in order to visit the west and establish ties that would later prove useful, proving himself to be far seeing. He returned Nov. 23, 337 AD after emperor Constantine died (May 22, 337 AD). 

            Second Exile: 339 AD, this time Athanasius took refuge at Rome. A synod held there in 341 AD, at the invitation of Pope Julius I, completely exonerated him and at the synod of Sardica (modern Sofia) in the fall of 343 AD, Athanasius was re-affirmed as legal bishop of Alexandria.

            Third exile: 356 AD. Once again driven from Alexandria Athanasius spent the next six years taking refuge with the Egyptian Monks. The monks taking care to move Athanasius whenever a search party came to close to the location of their beloved bishop. Two important events occurred during this exile. First, the Nicene formula had been completely set aside due to imperial pressure. Second, a newly formed middle party emerged at the synod at Ancyra in 358 AD, the Semi-Arians or better known as the Conservatives. Upon the death of Constantine’s son Constantius in 361 AD, Julian became emperor and invited all the exiled bishops back. So Athanasius returned once again early in the year of 362 AD.

            Fourth exile: 362 AD, upon his return, Athanasius began his work immediately for the reconciliation of the Semi-Arians and the Orthodox party. He held a synod/council at Alexandria to clear up misunderstandings. However, none of this was to Julian’s preference, as he had not wanted peace but continued discord and dissension amongst the Christians. He wanted to bring back the pagan religion of Rome and needed to upset the hold that Christianity had taken of the empire. So once again, Athanasius was exiled, expelled by imperial order as ‘a disturber of peace and enemy of the gods.’ Emperor Julian died in 363 AD, Athanasius returned to the region of Alexandria.

            Fifth Exile: 365 AD, after Valens became ruler of the east, Athanasius took up his residence in a country home outside the city for four months. When the people of Alexandria threatened revolt against the exile order, Valens, afraid of the possible consequences, recalled the primate. Athanasius was finally and resolvedly restored to office on Feb. 01, 366 AD.



Coptic Orthodox Cross

Coptic Orthodox Cross

Final Years:

By no means was the defeat of the Arian Controversy Athanasius’ only accomplishment. When writing the Festal letter of 367 AD for his Alexandrian diocese he presented a list by which he defined the New Testament Canon.[1] It is with wonder that his list enumerates exactly the 27 books known today.

A final thought from historian, Justo Gonzalez, “…a weak point in Athanasius’ Trinitarian theology was his lack of fixed terminology that could serve to express the multiplicity as well as the unity within the Trinity. Athanasius himself never developed the terms, which was a task left for the Cappadocians. Here, as well as in the rest of his theological work, Athanasius showed that he was a person of sharp relative perception, but without great interest or gift for the formal systemization of thought. Without him, the work of the Cappadocians would have been impossible. Without the Cappadocians his work would not have come to fruition.”[2]

[1] Bruce, pg 307

[2] Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, Pg. 299

© 2010 UlrikeGrace


UlrikeGrace (author) from Canada on October 28, 2010:

Daniel the Short...thank you for stopping to read this article. The early Chuch Fathers have much they can teach us about the beauty and the strength of being have given me an idea for a for it in the near future...called "The beauty of being Christian" thanks...if you have any questions feel free to ask and I will consider them with you...blessings Ulrike Grcae

Daniel the Short on October 17, 2010:

I love the early church fathers like Athanasius. This triggers me to study early church fathers history and know more about the beauty of being christian.

Thank u

UlrikeGrace (author) from Canada on February 20, 2010:

Absolutely, we learn so much from history, that which happened many years ago...such as this...but also from our elders who are but down the street from us. None of it should be overlooked. "Tremendous" is a great word for Athanasius, he was a bull for the Lord and once he had his head down...well, look out...we have had many of those, such as, Martin Luther, John Calvin, or Dietrich Bonnhhoffer. Blessings to you.

Ulrike Grace

rls4Immanuel on February 20, 2010:

Ulrike Grace: What a treasure is the study of history. Those who refuse to recognize the realities and mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them. It is human nature. Truly, Athanasius was a man incredibly or perhaps I could say "tremendously" used by God to establish His kingdom for time and eternity. God's richest blessings on you. We walk in a royal lineage and Athanasius is our brother who encourages us to walk in sacrificial love and godliness.

Ulrike Grace on February 16, 2010:

Thank You Tony, I really appreciate your comments...we, in general, think so little of how we got to where we are today in the much we have to be thankful for to the Fathers that went before us...they are Not just dead guys...(smile)

May God grant Peaceful Blessings to you in your day

Ulrike Grace

Tony McGregor from South Africa on February 16, 2010:

The history of thought is always fascinating to me - how we change and adapt our thinking to the situations we find ourselves in - it's a great strength of humanity. Athanasius was obviously a very clever and strong thinker.

Thanks for sharing his wonderful story. I have known the famous Creed since childhood and never really thought about the man who wrote it!

Love and peace


UlrikeGrace (author) from Canada on February 15, 2010:

Thank you coffeesnob...Athanasius was truly a man on the ground, he cared not for the higher places but God put him there. He always had the needs and the welfare of people in his heart. I truly think we miss out a lot when we do not avail ourselves of their experience.



UlrikeGrace (author) from Canada on February 15, 2010:

rls4Immanuel, thank you for your insightful thoughts on the history of the church. I agree with you, I feel we can a lot from our predecessors. They paved the road for us sometimes with their very lives. We truly are surrounded by so great a witnesses.

Blessings to you

Ulrike Grace

coffeesnob on February 15, 2010:

Bravo and well done.

rls4Immanuel on February 15, 2010:

The history of the church has vital importance for us today. We can be greatly encouraged as to the sovereignty of God when we study the impossible situations (from a human perspective) He brought His servants through. D. Martyn Lloyd Jones, a very effective preacher in England in the pre and post world war 2 erra affirmed the importance of studying chruch history to greatly encourage today's followers of Jesus Christ when persecution and suffering are being experienced.

UlrikeGrace (author) from Canada on February 15, 2010:

Oh You are welcome Revlady...I love history and esoecially the Church Fathers...they are very inspiring...

On my way now to reading some Hubs I am following...

Ulrike Grace

RevLady from Lantana, Florida on February 15, 2010:

This is a well written and informative hub. I appreciate how you organized and presented this material as well the the education I received. Thank you much UlrikeGrace.

Forever His,

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