Saint Athanasius, a Doctor of the Church, and the foremost defender of the divinity of Christ, is one of the key figures in the history of the Faith. His era, the Fourth Century, was a time period of turbulent change, not unlike our own in that respect. With the conversion of the Emperor Constantine to Christ, the Church was suddenly transformed from a proscribed cult into the religion of the Empire. Instead of being executed for their faith in Christ, bishops found themselves important players in what was rapidly becoming a Christian Empire. To many Christians, it seemed as if they had reached a golden period in human history when the Church could rapidly reach its goal of bringing all men to Christ. History, however, never ceases to twist and turn as it charts the affairs of Man.
One of the more dangerous twists of History in the Fourth Century for the Church, was the meteoric rise of the Arian heresy. A priest of Alexandria, Egypt, Arius propounded the doctrine that the Son, since he was begotten of the Father, was a creation of God, and not God. He was the greatest of God’s creations, and next to God, but he was not God. Of course, Arius thus destroyed the doctrine of the Trinity, and reduced Jesus from being God to being a creature serving God. This doctrine, if it had prevailed, would have transformed Christianity into a Unitarian faith and inevitably downplayed the centrality of Christ. The doctrine of Arius began to spread, until it was necessary for it to be addressed at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, the first of the ecumenical councils. Called specifically to address Arianism, the Council was unequivocal in its condemnation of Arianism as indicated by the Nicene Creed written at the Council:
We Believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father; God from God, Light from Light, very God from very God, begotten, not made, Consubstantial with the Father, by whom all things were made, both things in heaven and things in earth; who for us men and for our salvation came down and was incarnate, was made man, suffered and rose again the third day, ascended into heaven, and is coming to judge the living and the dead. And in the Holy Spirit, and those who say “There was when he was not” and “Before his generation he was not” and “He came to be from nothing” or those who pretend that the Son of God is “Of other hypostasis or substance; or “created” or alterable” or “mutable”; the Catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes.
Arianism was condemned but not killed. The Church was just entering into a deadly struggle with Arianism that would last for centuries. Arius died in 336, but he left behind him a strong and growing movement. Arius had been a charismatic leader of his heresy, and had written many popular hymns which spread his teachings. No doubt he was also helped by an infatuation for the novel that occasionally seizes upon large sectors of the clergy periodically in Church history.
The year after Arius died, Constantine died. His son Constantius, seized power in the Eastern Empire and ruled as Constantius II. He would reign until 361 and he favored the Arians. Under his sponsorship, the Arians largely controlled the Church in the Eastern Roman Empire. However, one man refused to accept the fact than Arianism was the inevitable wave of the future.
Born in Alexandria, Egypt between 293 and 296, Athanasius watched as a young man as Arianism was born in Alexandria and began to spread throughout the East. He was ordained as a deacon in 319 by Patriarch Alexander of Alexandria. It was under Alexander that a synod was held in Alexandria in 320 which condemned Arianism. Athanasius served as secretary to Alexander at the Council of Nicaea. Shortly after the council Alexander died in 328, Athanasius succeeding him as Patriarch.
Athanasius quickly established himself as an uncompromising foe of the Arians. As a sign of their waxing strength, at the Synod of Tyre in 335, at which Athanasius was accused of a laundry list of crimes up to and including the murder of a bishop, the Arians were able to depose Athanasius as Patriach. Constantine, who exonerated Athanasius of all charges except that he had threatened to interrupt the sailing of grain ships from Alexandria to Constantinople, ordered him exiled to Trier in Germany. This was the first of four exiles that Saint Athanasius would endure from Alexandria between 335-366. Throughout his travails he received strong support from the Popes of his time and the entire Church of the West in his struggles against Arianism. He also wrote a remarkable body of work against the Arians and clarified Church doctrine on the relationship of the Father and the Son and the Incarnation of the Son. Many of the writings of Saint Athanasius can be read on-line here at New Advent.
Fighting against a vigorous heretical movement and an imperial government usually aligned with it, Athanasius kept alive the Nicene creed in the East. When he died in 373 the issue was still in doubt, but the forces of the Nicene creed were clearly gaining strength against the Arians.
John Henry Cardinal Newman, the great historian of this period sums it up well:
“THE episcopate, whose action was so prompt and concordant at Nicæa on the rise of Arianism, did not, as a class or order of men, play a good part in the troubles consequent upon the Council; and the laity did. The Catholic people, in the length and breadth of Christendom, were the obstinate champions of Catholic truth, and the bishops were not. Of course there were great and illustrious exceptions; first, Athanasius, Hilary, the Latin Eusebius, and Phœbadius; and after them, Basil, the two Gregories, and Ambrose; there are others, too, who suffered, if they did nothing else, as Eustathius, Paulus, Paulinus, and Dionysius; and the Egyptian bishops, whose weight was small in the Church in proportion to the great power of their Patriarch. And, on the other hand, as I shall say presently, there were exceptions to the Christian heroism of the laity, especially in some of the great towns. And again, in speaking of the laity, I speak inclusively of their parish-priests (so to call them), at least in many places; but on the whole, taking a wide view of the history, we are obliged to say that the governing body of the Church came short, and the governed were pre-eminent in faith, zeal, courage, and constancy.”
Athanasius, after his death, has continued to speak through his writings. On his tombstone was inscribed a phrase which all Catholics should recall with gratitude: Athanasius Contra Mundum.