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Saint Athanasius

Athanasius, Saint (ăthənāˈzhəs) [key], c.297–373, patriarch of Alexandria (328–73), Doctor of the Church, great champion of orthodoxy during the Arian crisis of the 4th cent. (see Arianism). In his youth, as secretary to Bishop Alexander, he took part in the christological debate against Arius at the Council of Nicaea (see Nicaea, First Council of), and thereafter became chief protagonist for Nicene orthodoxy in the long struggle for its acceptance in the East. He defended the homoousion formula that states that Jesus is of the same substance as the Father, against the various Arian parties who held that Jesus was not identical in substance with the Father. Made bishop of Alexandria upon the death of his superior, he faced a conspiracy led by Eusebius of Nicomedia to return the condemned Arius to Egypt. When Athanasius refused to yield, a pro-Arian council held at Tyre (335) found him guilty of sacrilege, the practice of magic, dishonest grain dealings, and even murder. Athanasius appealed to Constantine who demanded a retrial, then unaccountably ordered Athanasius into exile—the first of five. Reinstated (337) and exiled again (339), he fled to the West where, under Pope Julius I, the Council of Sardica vindicated him (343). To placate his Catholic brother Constans, the Arian Constantius permitted Athanasius to return to his see in 346. There he reigned, a beloved pastor, for ten fruitful years, strengthening orthodoxy in Egypt and composing some of his greatest works, including his Defense Against the Arians (348). When Constans died, Constantius procured the condemnation of Athanasius (Arles, 357), again forcing him into exile. It was during this period of hiding with the hermit monks of the Egyptian desert, whom he admired greatly, that he wrote his best exposition of Nicene christology, Discourses Against the Arians, attacking both the Arians and the views of Marcellus of Ancyra. By now a conservative reaction in the East issued in the strongly anti-Arian Lucianic creed promulgated at the Council of Seleucia (359), a step which led to the final victory of Nicene orthodoxy at the Council of Constantinople in 381. Athanasius was restored briefly in 362, only to be quickly exiled by Julian and again by Valens (365). The climate was changing, however, and by 366 Athanasius was secure in his see, where he remained the spokesman for orthodoxy until his death. After him, St. Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzus secured the victory of orthodoxy in the East. Feast: May 2.

See translation of Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione by R. W. Thomson (1974); translation of Life of Saint Antony and Letter to Marcellinus by R. C. Gregg (1980).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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