Two thousand years of Christian history has given us a legacy of the church in all its triumphs and tragedies. One of my goals as an author is to introduce Christians to historical figures who made courageous stands during challenging times and whose voices remain critical for us today.
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 an exceptional career and become the greatest theologian of his time. He was an articulate, tenacious, and untiring defender of Nicene orthodoxy. He battled what was perhaps the greatest heresy in church history and argued for the truth of such essential doctrines as the incarnation and the Trinity.
Yet while Athanasius is one of the most famous theologians in all of church history, there are three things you may not know about him.1 I hope this brief sketch on Athanasius will inspire you in your service and devotion to Christ.
1. He battled the Arian heresy for some fifty years.
Athanasius attended the pivotal 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. Despite conciliar condemnation, Arianism did not disappear but remained popular in some parts of Christendom. 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. Athanasius died not knowing whether his efforts had been effective enough to defeat Arianism. They had, for later church councils reaffirmed Arianism as a heresy.
2. He wrote a book that influenced St. Augustine’s conversion.
Athanasius was asked to write a biography about the great spiritual and monastic leader St. Antony (c. 251–356). Written in Greek around AD 360, The Life of Antony profiles St. Antony’s life of spiritual warfare in which he battles the devil during his sojourn in the Libyan desert. Athanasius’s account of Antony’s extraordinary life of spiritual discipline caused many people in history to consider a monastic vocation. When the work was translated into Latin it even influenced St. Augustine, who mentions Antony in his classic work, Confessions.2
3. He may be the most honored theologian in church history.
All three branches of Christendom revere Athanasius. The Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic branches have granted him sainthood status. Protestants have also praised Athanasius as a great defender of the deity of Christ. As the bearer of the honorific title of “father of orthodoxy,” Athanasius may be a rare universal voice within all of Christendom.
Thus, we see three admirable things about Athanasius: (1) he was steadfast and determined to promote the truth at a time when the church was vulnerable to error, (2) he provided inspiration and an example that would influence one of the shapers of Western civilization, and (3) he was a force for unity that all Christians recognize.
Athanasius was a heroic figure who wouldn’t back down when it came to the essentials of the Christian faith. His example can inspire all of us. So how about taking up his book On the Incarnation? You’ll be reading a theological masterwork of historic Christendom.
Reflections: Your Turn
Which of the three points about Athanasius did you find most interesting?
1. For more about Athanasius and his accomplishments as a Christian thinker and writer, see Kenneth Richard Samples, Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2019), chapter 2.
2. St. Augustine mentions Athanasius’s book about St. Antony in his own work Confessions, Book VIII, part 6.