Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on St. Athanasius

Athanasius

St. Athanasius passionately defended Christ’s deity during a time when Christological heresies were rampant, but what else did he contribute to Christianity? Here’s your crash course on the life and accomplishments of St. Athanasius—and why he still matters today.

Who Was St. Athanasius?

St. Athanasius (c. 296–373) was born and educated in the ancient city of Alexandria. Coming from a Christian family, he would go on to become the greatest theologian of his time. He assisted at the famous Council of Nicea in 325 when the historic Christian church condemned the influential heresy known as Arianism (the view that Jesus was the first and highest creature of God but not fully equal to God—this view is similar to the one advocated by present-day Jehovah’s Witnesses). St. Athanasius later became bishop of Alexandria, a post he held for 46 years, though he was exiled five times for his outspoken opposition to the vexing Arian heresy that continued to gain influence. St. Athanasius was an articulate, tenacious, and untiring defender of Nicene orthodoxy. He argued for the truth of such essential doctrines as the Incarnation and the Trinity.

What Did St. Athanasius Write?

Among several works, St. Athanasius’ two most important apologetics-related books are On the Incarnation and Letters of St. Athanasius Concerning the Holy Spirit. The first book has become a theological classic in which Athanasius explains and defends the doctrine of the Incarnation (Jesus was God in human flesh). In the second work, he both critiques the heretical view that the Holy Spirit is a mere creature and sets forth the orthodox view that the Spirit of God is a full divine person like the Father and the Son.

What Did St. Athanasius Believe?

Christians of various traditions continue to hold several beliefs that St. Athanasius ardently defended. Athanasius’ three most important ideas or arguments for historic Christianity are the following:

  1. St. Athanasius affirmed Nicene orthodoxy and argued that the Son (Jesus Christ) is homoousios (of the “same substance”) with God the Father.
  2. St. Athanasius tied the Incarnation and atonement together in his theological reasoning. He is known for formulating the following theological argument:
    Only God can save people from sin.
    Jesus Christ saves people from sin.
    Therefore, Jesus Christ is God.
  3. At a time when the Arian heresy was at its most influential, the bishops who sided with Arianism taunted Athanasius with the words “The world is against you Athanasius.” But Athanasius defiantly responded: “Athanasius contra mundum.” (“No. It’s Athanasius against the world.”) While Arianism insisted that the Son was a mere creature, Athanasius argued for Christ’s full deity.

CRASH COURSE_ ATHANASIUS

Why Does St. Athanasius Matter Today?

As an ecclesiastical leader, St. Athanasius has been criticized for allegedly playing politics in his opposition to the Arian heresy, but this claim is short-sighted and he is clearly one of the most honored men in Christian history. He reflects a universal Christian voice in being called the “Father of Orthodoxy” and the “Father of the Canon.” All three branches of Christendom—Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism—revere him. With his strong character and keen theological thinking, St. Athanasius championed Christian orthodoxy at a time when the faith was under its greatest doctrinal assault.

When contemporary evangelicals encounter Jehovah’s Witnesses at their door, they will gain a sense of what Athanasius was up against with the Arian heresy. Evangelicals can learn from Athanasius’ courage and steadfast witness to Christ, the divine-human Savior.

Other articles in the Christian Thinkers 101 series: St. Augustine; C. S. Lewis; Blaise Pascal; St. Anselm

Reflections: Your Turn

Athanasius passionately defended Christ’s deity. How does Jesus Christ being both God and man impact his atoning death?

Resources

  • To read his classic work, see On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius.
  • For analysis of St. Athanasius’ life and thought, see A History of Apologetics by Avery Dulles.

  One thought on “Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on St. Athanasius

  1. May 17, 2016 at 11:08 am

    Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging.

    • May 17, 2016 at 1:34 pm

      Thanks again for the reblog, Vincent.

      Ken Samples

      • May 17, 2016 at 7:20 pm

        You’re very welcome Ken!

      • Richard Tobin
        May 18, 2016 at 12:42 am

        Hi Ken
        Please see some scripture verses that will help when witnessing to Jehovahs witnesses as they can not except litreture from any one they can read these verses in there owen bible
        Jesus Christ Is God
        Rev 1:8.Rev 21: 5-7
        Rev 22:13 – 16
        Rev 22: 7,12,20.
        Rev 22: 13.Isa 44: 6
        Rev 1: 12 – 18

        Kind regards
        Richard

      • May 18, 2016 at 2:36 pm

        Thank you, Richard.

        Best regards in Christ.

        Ken Samples

  2. Neil
    May 18, 2016 at 5:55 am

    Our school recently adopted a House System, and we named our five houses after Christian leaders from Church History. I was psyched to be able to give credit to this important but often overlooked giant of our faith.

    • May 18, 2016 at 2:35 pm

      Neil:

      I really like your naming houses after figures in church history.

      Best regards in Christ.

      Ken Samples

  3. May 18, 2016 at 12:03 pm

    Thank you Ken for another Crash Course on the heroes who found the words and courage to convey some of the deepest truths of Scripture.
    As finite creatures, any sin against our infinite Creator deserves infinite punishment, and if God simply excused any violation against His perfect nature without imposing punishment, and allowed violators into His eternal presence and Kingdom, He would no longer be a righteous and perfect God. Any sin is so opposite to God’s nature, Adam’s disobedience doomed all of humankind. Only God Himself could step in to receive the necessary infinite punishment in our place, and He did it in the person of the Son Jesus Christ, whose perfect life as a man erases Adam’s failure, for those who put their faith in Him rather than themselves. What an amazing Savior!

    • May 18, 2016 at 2:32 pm

      Made From Dirt:

      Thanks for the comments.

      Ken Samples

    • February 25, 2017 at 4:50 am

      I agree with your text . My only comment is that as human , Christian’school should ” love thy enemy ” . Which is difficult for sinners . Wrath of GOD , does not come from man , unless GOD deems it that way .

  4. Benjamin Amusah
    May 19, 2016 at 2:59 pm

    jesus is My personal Lord and saviour. I can’t begin to quantify is Love for me.so glad I gave my life to Him and as usual He received a sinner like me.thank God for His apostles like Kenneth and the rest who are helping out witg the men fishing job, God will Bless you all in Jesus Name. Amen

    • May 20, 2016 at 8:52 pm

      Thanks, Benjamin.

      Ken Samples

  5. May 24, 2016 at 7:04 am

    Don’t forget ‘The life of Antony’, St. Athanasius’ biography of St. Antony of the Desert, founder of Christian monasticism.

    • May 24, 2016 at 10:27 am

      Thanks, Marcus.

      Ken Samples

    • May 25, 2016 at 2:41 pm

      Thanks, Jaime.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

  6. jeramyoverland
    December 4, 2016 at 10:09 pm

    Hey Ken thanks for this crash course! I really enjoyed the infographic! Athanasius was such a courageous man. I recently posted about him trying to answer the question ‘what is theology?’ from his perspective. If you have time please check it out and leave a comment. Thanks.

    http://www.whatistheology.com/index.php/2016/12/01/what-is-theology-st-athanasius/

    • December 5, 2016 at 4:11 pm

      Thanks, Jeremy.

      I’ll check it out.

      Ken Samples

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