Bishop of Alexandria; born in 293, probably in Alexandria; died there May 2, 373. Athanasius was the greatest combatant of the Old Church. No less than twenty out of the forty-seven years of his official life (he was made bishop in 326) were passed in exile, owing to the activity of enemies—personal, religious, and political—he had made. With the extremes of courage and of obstinacy, he united a certain pliability of character, which naturally made him one of the foremost leaders in the religious contests of his time.A Writer of Polemics.
His writings resembled his life; for the greater part of his literary productions have the polemic character strongly marked. His very first works, an "Address Against Heathens" and an "Address on the Incarnation of the Logos," are devoted to an attack upon heathenism and a refutation of Judaism. From the outbreak of the Arian disputes—to the campaign against which and all kindred heresies Athanasius devoted his life—he concentrated his literary activity upon one field, that of the defense of orthodoxy, thus earning for himself the title of "the Father of Orthodoxy." Of his work of this nature may be mentioned his "Defense Against the Arians," his "Pastoral Letter," and "Four Speeches Against the Arians." Of his other writings, his socalled "Exegetical Essays on the Psalter," in explanation of the Psalms; "A Letter to Marcellinus," and "Arguments and Explanations of the Psalms" are worthy of mention.
Athanasius' historical importance is neither as an author nor as a theologian; his works were for the most part born of passing circumstances and filled no literary want; and his dogmatics can not be considered original, as they are almost identical with those of Alexander, his predecessor in the bishopric of Alexandria. It was Athanasius nevertheless who actually enabled Nicene Christianity to triumph over Arianism and kindred heresies, and who for more than a thousand years shaped the course of the Christian Church so absolutely that he rightly deserves the titles of "the Great" and "the Father of Orthodoxy," bestowed upon him by grateful Catholicism.Attitude Toward Judaism.
Athanasius, as the chief representative of Nicene Christianity, removed from Christology every trace of Judaism and gave to it a Hellenic cast; so that, curiously enough, at the very time that the Greek world was surrendering its earthly dominion to Christianity, Hellenism was asserting itself spiritually. The Christology, which began with John's doctrine of the Logos and reached logical completion in the Nicene confession, and was opposed to the Monarchian Sabellian idea of the person of Jesus which attained fulness in the doctrines of Arius, reflects fundamentally the identical opposition between the strictly Jewish conception of the Messiah as a human, moral ideal, and the Hellenic, according to which Jesus is a metaphysical religious principle. In illustration of Athanasius' position, the following sentences placed by him at the head of his polemic against the Arians may serve: "He, whom we acknowledge, is an actual and genuine and real Son of the Father, whose Being belongs to him likewise. He is neither creature, nor made, but the product of the Essence of the Father; wherefore is he truly God, because of similar being with the true God" ("Orationes Contra Arianos," i. 9). Jesus is for Athanasius not only the true and real Son of God, but he is also of similar essence (homoüsios) and of like eternity, but in such fashion as to permit of a duality of the divine personages. This, of course, is contradictory not only to the ruling idea of strict monotheism among the Jews, but also to the teachings of the Old Testament; and the Arians therefore rightly asked (ib. iii. 7) how Athanasius could harmonize his doctrine with such words of Scripture as "The Lord our God is one Lord" (Deut. vi. 4); "See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god with me" (Deut. xxxii. 39), and similar passages.The O. T. with Athanasius.
A lack of all critical sense marked both Athanasius and Arius, and prevented them from realizing that their mutually contradictory conceptions of the person of Jesus lay in the divergent presentation of the same by the Jewish synoptic gospels contrasted with that of the Greek writer of the fourth Gospel and of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Athanasius did not perceive how far removed he really stood from the Old Testament conception of God. In his controversy with Arius he had no scruple in making the fullest use of the Old Testament. The following are illustrations of his explanations and applications of such passages. Proof of the eternity and infinity of the Logos is found by him in Isa. xl. 28, "the everlasting God," and in Jer. ii. 13, "they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters" (ib. i. 19). The immutability of the Logos he finds expressed in Deut. xxxii. 39, "See now that I, even I, am he," and in Mal. iii. 6, "I am the Lord, I change not." In such fashion, by simply applying to the Logos-Christus all Bible passages relating to God, it was not a very difficult task for him to found his whole system of dogmatics upon the Old Testament—at least to his own satisfaction. The unity of revelation in both Testaments is an essential principle withAthanasius; and he therefore stigmatizes their separation as "Manichean" and "Jewish" (ib. iv. 23).Christianity Versus Judaism.
This peculiar method of Old Testament exposition, which was the customary one in the Christian Church even before Athanasius, was also employed by him in replying to Jewish attacks upon Christianity by means of Old Testament teachings. In a polemic against the Jews upon the incarnation of the Logos ("De Incarnatione Dei Verbi"), he endeavors to reply to the arguments of the Jews against the Incarnation, as being something unworthy of the God-Logos, and particularly against the Crucifixion (ch. xxxiii.), by observing that nothing is easier than to confute the Jews: "Out of their own Holy Scriptures in which they daily read, they can be controverted." It is true, he promises more than he performs; for when he discovers the doctrine of the Incarnation of the Logos in Num. xxiv. 5 and Isa. viii. 4, or finds that the Virgin's conception is predicted in Isa. vii. 14, it is easily understood why his Jewish opponents were so "prejudiced that they prefer their own exposition of the passages" (ib. ch. xl.). Athanasius nevertheless sets up the reasonable hermeneutic principle, that both the time and the person to which a passage applies, as well as the circumstances originating such passage, must always be taken into consideration ("Orationes Contra Arianos," i. 54b) in expounding it. This rule seems to have been derived by him from Jewish sources where it was long recognized, for it is frequently noticeable that he willingly has recourse to Jewish authority in Scripture explanation, just so soon as his dogmatics permit him to do so. His canon of Old Testament books ("Festal Letters," ii. 1176) excludes Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, and Tobit, which certainly is an approximation to the authoritative Jewish canon. He gives the Jewish view concerning the collection of the Psalms and their superscriptions, that a Babylonian prophet, living in the Exile, collected them, and put them together as he received them. The anonymous psalms were written by this prophet. Although called "the Psalms of David," many of them are not by the Jewish king; but their authors were chosen by him to write them, and the whole may thus be considered as originating with him.
Contact with Jews made Athanasius acquainted with many rabbinic legends, as for instance that of Isaiah being sawn asunder("De Incarnatione Dei Verbi," ch. xxiv.), as well as with the interpretation of many proper names, such as David "the beloved." Athanasius did not understand Hebrew; thus, for instance, he had only "heard" that the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet was twenty-two ("Festal Letters," l.c.).
- Best edition Migne, Patrologia Groeœco-Latina, xxv.-xxix.;
- German translation in Sämmtliche Werke der Kirchenväter, xiv.-xviii., Kempten, 1836;
- partly also in Bibliothek der Kirchenväter, 1872;
- English translation, Athanasius, Select Writings and Letters, by Archibald Robertson, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2d series, iv.;
- J. A. Mahler, Athanasius der Grosse, Mayence, 1827, 2d ed., 1844;
- H. Voigt, Lehre des Athanasius, Bremen, 1861;
- E. Fialon, St. Athanase, Paris, 1877;
- K. Hass, Studien über . . . Athanasius, Freiburg in Baden, 1899.
- Compare the copious bibliographic lists in the Real-Encyklopädie für Protestantische Theologie und Kirche, 3d ed., under Athanasius and Arianismus.