Athansius: The Executor of Nicaea


William McPherson

CHHI 520-C05 Spring: Church History Part I

April 2, 2011


INTRODUCTION: THE COUNCIL OF NICAEA………………………………………………………………2

THE SOLID FOUNDATION OF ATHANASIUS……………………………………………………………….5

ATHANASIUS’ LOGOS-SARX THEOLOGY……………………………………………………………………8

ATHANASIUS CONTRA MUNDUM……………………………………………………………………………..11

NICAEA STILL MATTERS TODAY………………………………………………………………………………15




            It is amazing how one small Greek word can have such a profound impact on the breadth of Christian theology; a word, in fact, that is not even mentioned in the Scriptures. Not only would this small Greek word become the standard, orthodox confession of faith; it would be the first time that a non-biblical word would be backed by anathemas or “devoted to destruction.”[1] This small, harmless Greek word would be a stumbling block to most of Alexandrian Christianity which was rightly concerned with the implications of going too far in the other extreme theological direction. In fact, the Origenists who signed their agreement to the word, were not at all convinced it was the right word to use; they signed on out of their deference for imperial authority.[2]

Speaking of the Emperor Constantine, who was indeed the first “Christian” emperor, it was he who reigned over the proceedings of the called council; he arrived “dressed in gold from head to foot, adorned with flashing gems of every kind.”[3] How intimidating must it have been to have to decide on a word that crystallizes your beliefs when the representative head of the government that used to brutally persecute you for your beliefs was now overseeing those very beliefs? This small Greek word would not just be agreed to by a quorum of bishops; it would have the imperial seal to back up its authority.


Would it shock the reader to discover that this small, seemingly insignificant Greek word was not the only Greek word proposed? In fact, there were four different Greek words mentioned and some of them had radically different definitions.[4] Does it bother the reader to learn that there were such diverse and quarrelsome viewpoints; that the great doctrines of the faith may have come down to the equivalent of a junior high clique rivalry and popularity contest? Even though it is true that all but two bishops of about three hundred (the number is heavily disputed) signed their agreement to this tiny Greek word, the animosity and insecurity toward it would cause it to be largely ignored for another fifty years.[5] This miniscule Greek word would finally triumph at the next council, with the help of the emperor of course.

The year was 325 A.D.; the place a small town called Nicaea, where Constantine had a summer palace. The council called has become known as the Council of Nicaea and it is agreed by all traditions to be the first ecumenical church council; bishops who were often disfigured and maimed from the all-to-recent persecution were present. It would be the first of many times where the emperor (or the state) would impose its will or at least its authority upon the church. It was the official ecumenical beginning of backing of creeds with anathemas.[6] What was the little Greek word that caused all of this strife and nearly ripped Christendom to tatters?  Homoousios means “of the same substance” and is an extra-biblical term chosen by the bishops to express the deity of Christ, though many of the its sympathizers thought the wording was too close to Monarchianism.[7] Later, homoousios would come under scrutiny because it was used to lay the foundation for patripassianism (that the Father suffered and died on the cross with the Son).[8]

The creed adopted at Nicaea condemns the language of the presbyter Arius who declared that the Son was created and not co-eternal with the Father. The official wording is:

And those who say “There was when he was not,”

and, “Before he was begotten he was not,”

and that, “He came into being from what-is-not,”

or those who allege that the Son of God is

“of another substance or essence,” or

“created,” or “changeable,” or


these the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes.[9]


Thus the basis of Christian orthodoxy was forged from the smoking coals of Arius’ theology. Still, as previously noted, the victory was short-lived; the Arians may have submitted to that powerful Greek word, but they would soon show that it is not words that have power, it is what one does with those words. Into this Arian onslaught enters a novice deacon to be made bishop of Alexandria; a man who would be the benefactor and executor of Nicene orthodoxy. It is the foundational character of his person, the coherent orthodoxy of his theology, and the tenacity of his will to endure that Athanasius of Alexandria wielded to ensure the ultimate triumph of Nicaea.


            Not much is known about the early life of Athanasius; there is a mention of Athanasius’ early days in  History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria written by a tenth century Alexandrian bishop named Severus Ibn al-Muqaffa, though the veracity of it is questioned. He claims that Athanasius’ parents were pagans and that his mother brought him to Bishop Alexander to baptized; they both were baptized and she supposedly died a few months later.[10]  One can only begin to imagine what it was like for young Athanasius to grow up without his parents being brought up under the tutelage of Bishop Alexander. It is safe to infer that Athanasius likely learned independence and perseverance early in his life; having to survive on just the benevolence and goodwill of the church will push one to overachieve in order to thrive.

This education that Athanasius received was mostly ecclesiastical in nature though his writing does show a “colloquial familiarity with philosophical concepts…particularly a Stoic cosmology…a Middle Platonic ontology…[and] use of classical rhetorical techniques.”[11] With such a heavy ecclesiastical education; this secular knowledge could only help the young Athanasius to explain his view of Christology through a framework that was academically and polemically satisfying to his supporters and opponents. Some argue that this great intellect and ecclesiastical zeal borders on destructive dogmatism. Barnes argues in his introduction to Athanasius and Constantius, that “he could not have had such an impressive figure had he not been conspicuously lacking in the Christian virtues of meekness and humility.”[12] Whether this is true or not is beyond the scope of this treatise, however it is easy to see how Athanasius’ early life laid the foundation for his ascendancy to the bishopric of Alexandria.

Athanasius is a rather obscure figure until the aforementioned Council of Nicaea in 325; it is here that we see the first glimpse of the young deacon, who at this point is still in his twenties. “We do not know what role, if any, Athanasius played in the deliberations of the first Ecumenical Council,” writes Weinandy, “nonetheless…he could hardly have conceived or appreciated the full theological significance of the creed…it would become the decisive defining moment of Athanasius’ entire life.”[13] What we do know is that Athanasius was present as Alexander’s scribe and was probably involved in relaying some of Alexander’s arguments to the delegates of the council.[14] For Athanasius, likely to be in his twenties, to be a deacon and present at the Council of Nicaea shows just how solid, sharp, and suitable his character had already become. However, his character would be severely tried to the full extent through the coming events.

In 328 A.D. Alexander died; apparently while Athanasius was abroad. Upon his return, he found Alexandria in conflict over who should be the next bishop. Athanasius’ principal rival was a man named Melitius, who would become a perennial thorn in Athanasius’ side. Melitius was likely left out of contention and Alexander’s followers consecrated Athanasius as the next bishop. Melitius and his followers were outraged and managed to get Alexander’s old theological/political enemy Eusebius of Nicomedia to grant him influence with the emperor. This would lead to many false accusations and serious charges being brought before Emperor Constantine.[15] So, Athanasius’ life of struggle and controversy continued even in his new role as Bishop of Alexandria; if Athanasius’ core was not solid and his skin made of iron, one wonders how he would have endured such constant malicious behavior. In charge after charge, Athanasius defended himself; in fact, when accused of murdering Arsensius the Bishop of Hyspele, Athanasius went on a personal search for the man and found him outside of Tyre quite alive.[16]

It would have been so easy with such political power and theological clout, for Athanasius to raise an army of Nicaeans and crush all of his opponents. Yet, despite Barnes charge, Athanasius refused to fight his own battles except through words. Again and again, Athanasius was exiled and reinstated. The first was after the Council of Tyre which saw Athanasius deposed, Arius reinstated, and Melitians restored to communion. Even the appeal of the Egyptian monk Antony would not dissuade Constantine from exiling Athanasius to Trier in Gaul in 335 A.D.[17] There would be two other occasions in which Athanasius would be exiled after returning to his see and experiencing brief periods of peace in Alexandria; most of his oversight of Alexandria occurred far away from its precincts.

It is beyond the scope of this treatise to analyze the life of Athanasius, yet it is clear from what has been discussed that Athanasius’ character was constantly being forged in adversity. Though critics, like Barnes, tend to accuse Athanasius of being a power hungry tyrant who used orthodoxy as an end to his means, one must be careful not to let cultural and academic bias obscure Athanasius’ portrait. Anatolios writes that “it is a theologian who gave consistent and tireless expression to this claim of faith, and not as a paragon of meekness, mildness, and politesse in debate…that Athanasius         continues to be a towering figure among the pioneering architects of the Christian tradition.”[18]

It is to this theology that this work now proceeds.


            Anatolios gives a two-fold understanding of Athanasius’ Christology as revealed in On the Incarnation, “First, he attempts to present the incarnation as consistent with divine immanence and involvement in the world; second, he insists that the incarnation in no way detracts from the transcendence that properly belongs to God.”[19] Athanasius’ Christology is not analytical, meaning he is not trying to figure out how God is man (and vice versa); he is concerned not with “how the divine-human being of Christ is internally constituted, but rather on the fact that Christ unites the extremes of God and world.”[20] God is transcendent and immanent; it is his immanence in the incarnation that ensures the salvation and ultimately deification of mankind. Athanasius writes that “there were thus two things which the Savior did for us by becoming Man. He banished death from us and made us anew; and, invisible and imperceptible as in Himself He is, He became visible through His works and revealed Himself as the Word of the Father, the Ruler and King of the whole creation.”[21]

It is clear then, that in order for Christ to be both savior and redeemer, he must be the incarnation of the Word which proceeds directly from the Father. Thus, when Arius began to teach that the Son was merely a created superhuman, the entire salvation and redemption of mankind (and the entire cosmos for that matter) was at risk. As mentioned above, Athanasius was not concerned with so much how God was made man, but rather the importance of the event of God being made man. For Athanasius this is restoring the knowledge of God that was lost in the Fall, “In the context of the narrative of human sin and corruption, the incarnation is conceived as a renewal of the knowledge of God, which implies a restoration of a relationship of full participation by the created…in the divine Logos.”[22]

From the foundation provided by On the Incarnation, one can easily deduce how important it was, at least according to Athanasius, for Christ to be not just a mediator of God, but rather one with God in himself. It is this homoousios that allows Christ to bring about the salvation and redemption of man and the entire cosmos.

In the Incarnation, because of the identity of the body which the Word has with ours, the             reception of the Spirit, sanctifying the flesh and anointing him as the Christ, extends             through him to us. The security of the gift bestowed in this way picks up the     dialectic…between the benevolence of God, bestowing upon human beings a share in the    Word and creating them in his image, and the inability of human beings to preserve this             gift.[23]

So then, the Word becoming flesh or human is quintessential for human beings to be remade into the image of God and to be able to share in the love and truth of the divine Word.

To show that the Father and Son are both eternal and uncreated, Athanasius argues that since the Father is eternally designated Father, then the Son must eternally be designated as the Son. Thus, the Father and the Son are both eternal and are thus, homoousios.  “The Father must then be eternally perfect as father,” writes Weinandy, “and thus the Son, as the Father’s Word and Wisdom, must eternally coexist with the Father as radiance must by necessity accompany light and as water must by necessity spring forth from a fountain.”[24] If the Son is to be the one who restores the image of God in man, then the Son must himself be able to bestow the image. Since God is immutable and eternal; the Son in order to be able to redeem the image must have been eternal and therefore divine.

The question then becomes what does the Scripture mean by “being begotten?” Arius and his followers used this wording to suggest that Christ was “begotten” like a human father would give paternity to a child. Athanasius refutes this argument in Contra Arians, “and they, on hearing Him, ought not to measure by will what is by nature; forgetting however that they are hearing about God’s Son, they dare to apply human contrarieties in         the instance of God, ‘necessity’ and ‘beside purpose’ to be able thereby to deny that there is a true Son of God.”[25]

Athanasius peers through the theological smoke screen and sees what the followers of Arius are really doing; they are attributing human biological necessity to what it means for the Father to beget the Son. Weinandy sums it up, “God as Father is Father only if that is what he eternally is, but to be the Father eternally he must, by his very ontological nature as a Father, beget the Son.”[26] He continues a little further to say that, “for Athanasius, if God is good by nature and not something that he becomes, then ‘much more is he, and more truly, Father of the Son by nature and not by will.'”[27]

This seems a lot of theological jargon to the average reader and yet, this theological jargon is extremely important. The Father must be eternal and beget the Son from the eternality of his nature not because of some necessity or shifting awareness. Thus, if the Son is both eternal and homoousios with the Father; then he is capable, in the incarnation, to restore mankind and the cosmos to a right, deified relation with God. Rather than accept this truth and simply affirm what is written in Scriptures, the Arians tried to understand things too wonderful for them. Athanasius and those who upheld Nicaea, defined Christology in order to preserve the mystery; the Arians defined Christology in order to rationalize and understand it. Weinandy warns that “‘it is better to be silent in perplexity and believe, than to disbelieve on account of the perplexity.’ In the midst of such perplexity one’s sure recourse is to ponder, in faith, the truths of Scripture, for it ‘is able to afford one some relief.'”[28]



            Character and theology were not enough to ensure the triumph of Nicaea; Rome staunchly supported Nicaea and its bishops were theologically sound, but in the end they withered before the imperial pressure of Constantius. [29] Yet, through all of the pressure, repeated exiles, and erroneous charges Athanasius remained tenacious and relentless in his defense of Nicaean orthodoxy. At one point it truly was Athanasius (and some Egyptian monks) against the Roman world gone Arian.

“Many were the legends told of how Athanasius eluded the imperial detectives during this period,” writes Young, “sometimes escaping very narrowly; as the ‘invisible patriarch’ he successfully administered the church of the faithful…in hiding.”[30] Athanasius was far from deterred from the oversight of his Alexandrian flock and was always prepared to make a quick escape. Athanasius’ epitaph according to Young was that  he “died…an aged but triumphant upholder of his convictions…he had lived as a martyr for the sake of truth.”[31] Perhaps it was Athanasius submission to “living death” that empowered him to be so veracious and ferocious in dealing with the Arians.

Barnes comments on Constantius’ ineffectiveness in dealing with Athanasius:

In 365, when Constantius attempted to arrest Athanasius, he was unable to apprehend      him. Imperial officials, generals, and troops could prevent Athanasius from performing    his normal functions as bishop in the city of Alexandria, and they could sometimes install        a rival as bishop in his place, but they were unable to lay hands on Athanasius himself or        eliminate him as a political factor.[32]

Barnes claims that Athanasius had almost full political power over Alexandria; whether this true or not, it is clear that Constantius was constantly frustrated at any attempt to decisively deal with Athanasius. Building on this, Young suggests that Athanasius was likely deposed at the Council of Tyre because of his unscrupulous misconduct in dealing with the Meletians in Alexandria.[33]

Despite Athanasius’ influence on Alexandria for better or for worse, his supposed domineering control of Eastern bishops is likely unfounded. It is likely that most bishops viewed Athanasius as “out of touch: he went on fighting the old battle against Arius when everyone else was struggling with…much subtler issues.”[34] So, Athanasius may truly have been fighting a one man battle against both the empire and the capitulating, cowering church. Yet, when it became clear that the Arians were carrying the day, Athanasius was willing to make his dogma more moldable. “Athanasius remained firm even when all around him appeared to be weakening,” writes Lane, “but at the same time he knew how to be flexible.”[35] It was this flexibility that set the foundation for the Cappadocian theologians to a compromise amongst the anti-Arian party at the Council of Constantinople.

Barnes sees this not as flexibility but begrudging necessity:

In the autumn of 359, his On the Councils of Ariminum and Seleucia signaled a      fundamental change of attitude, as Athanasius decided to ally himself with the        theologians of Asia Minor, whom for twenty years he had stigmatized as ‘Arians,’ ‘Arian      fanatics’ and the like. They held conservative views and approved of the successive        attempts by eastern councils to define a doctrinal via media.[36]

What Barnes says next is even more fascinating; he claims that “those among them who attended the councils and formulated the creeds had condemned Athanasius time after time, not only for his…rejection of their theology, but…because they…believed the he was guilty of using violence and intimidation to control the Egyptian church.”[37]

So then, Athanasius’ will was so forceful and unhinged that he used the end to justify the means. There is also evidence that Athanasius became more mild and tolerant whether it was out of necessity or genuine repentance. Athanasius the man and the myth, was a force to be reckoned with; a bull running around in a china shop. Still, his stubborn and many times forceful will allowed Nicaea to survive and ultimately become the victor at the Council of Constantinople.

Young finishes his thoughts on Athanasius with this statement:

Athanasius was a controversial figure throughout most of his life. He has been described   as ‘wily, brutal and unscrupulous’ . He certain inspired hatred as well as blind loyalty…He         was a bit of a tyrant, and violent acts were committed in his name. Many Eastern bishops,             who, whether really Arian in sympathy or not, regarded him as a trouble-maker best got          out of the way…Yet he rapidly became the hero of orthodoxy, a saint within a             generation.[38]

Whether one agrees with Athanasius’ handling of adversity or not, one cannot deny the tenacity of his impact upon all of Christendom. It is Athanasius who, right or wrong, did what it took to ensure that Jesus Christ remained God and that such a proclamation would be the basis of Christological truth even to this day.


            It is very easy for the modern reader to simply disregard what happened in the fourth century; the modern reader is so removed and the issues seem so cloudy and even sketchy when one examines the accounts and the evidence of what occurred during and after Nicaea. Did orthodoxy, with adherents like Athanasius, simply crush the opposition? If so, this “victory” of the church is more Nietzschean than Christian. Skeptics have alleged that Athanasius and others Nicaeans simply bullied their way into achieving a desirable Christology based on their own selective views of a wider stream of Christianity. The reader must ask if there is any truth to such accusations.

But for a side that seems to have crumbled when given the ultimate authority to push its teachings, the Arians seem to have undermined themselves. How does one gain the favor and authority of the Empire and still fail to destroy the opposition? Could not one of the followers of Arius silence Athanasius once and for all? If the whole Roman Empire became Arian almost overnight, then why did a disjointed, not unified group of bishops manage to wait them out and ultimately discredit the entire theology of Arius? Athanasius and his fellow Nicaeans did not win the battle for orthodoxy by strength of numbers or arms; they won the battle of orthodoxy by strength of character, by cohesion of doctrine, by the sheer determination of will, and not to be overlooked, by the power, grace, and providence of Jesus Christ the Son of God.




Anatolios, Khaled. Athanasius. New York: Routledge, 2004.

—. Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought. New York: Routledge , 1998.

Barnes, Timothy. Athanasius and Constatius: Theology and Politics in the Constantinian    Empire. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Havard University Press, 1993.

Behr, John. The Nicene Faith: Formation of Christian Theology Part I. Vol. 2. Crestwood: St.      Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004.

Ferguson, Everett. Church History Volume 1: From Christ to Pre-Reformation. Grand Rapids:     Zondervan, 2005.

Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day. 7th ed.            Peabody, Massachusetts: Prince Press, 2007.

Hill, Jonathan. The History of Christian Thought. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press,       2003.

Lane, Tony. A Concise History of Christian Thought . Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006.

Weinandy, Thomas G. Athanasius: A Theological Introduction. Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate ,    2007.

Young, Francis. From Nicaea to Chalcedon. Ist ed. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983.

                [1] Everett Ferguson, Church History: From Christ to Pre-Reformation Volume 1 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 197.


                [2] Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 30.


                [3] Jonathan Hill, The History of Christian Thought (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003), 62.

                [4] Ferguson, 201.


                [5] Hill, 63 .


                [6] Ferguson, 196-197.

                [7] Lane, 30.


                [8] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day  7th ed. (Peabody, MA: Prince Press), 166.


                [9] Ferguson, 195.

                [10] Khaled Anatolios, Athanasius (New York: Routledge, 2004), 2-3.

[11] Ibid., 3-4.

[12] Timothy Barnes, Athanasius and Constantius: Theology and politics in the Constantinian Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 1.

                [13] Thomas G.Weinandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007), 2.

[14] Anatolios, Athanasius, 4.

                [15] John Behr, The Nicene Faith: Formation of Christian Theology Part 1 vol. 2 (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004), 71.


[16] Behr, 72.


[17] Anatolios, Athanasius, 11.

                [18] Anatolios, Athanasius, 31.

[19]Khaled Anatolios, Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought (New York: Routledge), 67-68.


[20] Ibid., 73.

[21] Athanasius On The Incarnation of the Word 3.16.3.

                [22] Anatolios, Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought, 75.


[23] Behr, 230.

                [24] Weinandy, 68.

[25] Athanasius Contra Arians 3.62.


[26] Weinandy, 70.

                [27] Ibid.


[28] Ibid., 78.


[29] Ferguson,  202.

[30] Frances Young, From Nicaea to Chalcedon 1st ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press), 66.


[31] Ibid., 67.


[32] Barnes, 168.

                [33] Young, 67.


[34] Ibid.


[35] Lane, 32.


[36] Barnes, 152.

                [37] Ibid.


[38] Young, 82.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s