Athanasius of Alexandria (born around 293, died on this day, May 2, 373) stands out from the great crowd of witnesses that make up the early history of the church. If you’d like to begin reading the church fathers but don’t know where to start, consider starting with Athanasius.
Anybody who understands the work of Athanasius in its context understands the most important things that happened in the early patristic period (that is, from about the passing of the apostles to the arrival of Augustine of Hippo). He was involved in all of the most decisive conflicts of the age, and he shaped Christianity in numerous ways. Here are ten battles Athanasius fought and won:
1. He defended Christianity against paganism. One of his earliest books is Against the Pagans, which is a classic piece of patristic apologetics. He begins by asserting that it is not irrational to follow Christ, and then turns the tables by saying that since Christ is the Logos, the reason of God, those who do not believe in him are the ones who are a-logos, without reason, irrational. He backs this up with a damning account of idolatry, tracing its descent from worshiping great things (stars, the sky, mountains) to worshiping small things (men) to worshiping imaginary things (gods in the form of crocodile-headed men). Christianity was still a sometimes-persecuted religion when Athanasius was young, so marshaling an intellectual apologetic against paganism was a crucial task.
What to read: Contra Gentes (Against the Pagans), which is, by the way, the seldom-read first half of the much-read On the Incarnation.
2. He refuted the Arian heresy. This is his main accomplishment, for which he will always be remembered. Arianism taught that Christ was the greatest of all creatures, through whom all other creatures were made. Athanasius countered: Our problem is that we are estranged from God himself, and no created mediator is capable of reconciling us. Only God can bring us back to God. Therefore if the gospel is true, Jesus is God. Through endless biblical argumentation, Athanasius pursued the errors of Arianism and pressed the logic of salvation.
What to read: Almost anything by Athanasius will have a strong anti-Arian component to it, but the Four Books Against the Arians contain are the motherlode.
3. He defended his predecessors and the Council of Nicaea. The first Arians (including Arius himself) appealed to earlier theologians and church officials in support of their views. Any time a thinker like Ireneaus or Origen said something that could be interpreted to detract from the full deity of Christ, the Arians would claim to be the true conservators of Christian tradition. Athanasius did the careful historical work of citing the earlier church fathers in context, and showing that even if they occasionally slipped, the only reasonable way to read them was as proponents of the full, eternal Godhood of the Son. Throughout, he maintained a calm confidence in the essential correctness of his predecessors, and he even avoided insulting wild characters like Origen (who really did say some indefensible things here and there) when he could help it. Athanasius was a young man at the time of Nicaea, and he had several decades of productivity and influence. He out-lived and out-argued most of his key opponents.
What to read: Defence of the Nicene Definition (De Decretis) is the best short piece showing Athanasius in defense of his tradition and Nicaea in particular.
4. He trained the church in how to interpret the Bible. The fight against Arianism was mostly a Bible-fight, and Athanasius took the lead in showing how to marshal biblical evidence to prove the most important points. He had an uncanny grasp of the main things in Scripture, and could argue them in detail. And when the detailed arguments were met by Arian quibbling, he could back out of the trees and see the whole forest, even using new terminology not found in Scripture to specify what Scripture meant. Patristics scholar Charles Kannengiesser said “he was the inventor of what one can call the ‘dogmatic exegesis’ which became one of the principal forms of biblical interpretation throughout the great controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries.”
What to read: The Four Books Against the Arians are the most copious, but for a quick look at his exegetical technique, see On Luke 10:22 (In Illud Omnia).
5. He defended the deity of the Spirit. After working out his anti-Arian theology, Athanasius extended his arguments to the deity of the Spirit, which some people began denying in the fourth century. Athanasius’ presentation of the deity and personhood of the Holy Spirit is a classic statement of this topic, though in the next generation Basil of Caesarea would write a more influential and definitive work on the subject.
What to read: Though it’s out of print and I don’t think it’s available online anywhere, the collection Letters of Athanasius to Serapion on the Holy Spirit is the book to read.
6. He articulated the full doctrine of the Trinity. When Athanasius extended his anti-Arian arguments to include the Spirit, he didn’t just add another character to the pantheon. He rounded out the complete doctrine of the Trinity, and that pushed Christian thought to a new level of clarity and biblical power. “For the holy and blessed Triad is indivisible and one in itself. When mention is made of the Father, there is included also his Word, and the Spirit who is in the Son. If the Son is named, the Father is in the Son, and the Spirit is not outside the Word. For there is from the Father one grace which is fulfilled through the Son in the Holy Spirit; and there is one divine nature, and one God ‘who is over all and through all and in all.'”
What to read: Again, the Letters to Serapion are the best, though some parts of the Four Books Against the Arians are also rich in trinitarian theology. Also, you can pick up Athanasius’ direct influence on the next generation (especially the Cappadocians, and most especially Gregory of Nazianzus) with its increasingly potent trinitarianism.
7. He helped launch monasticism as a protest against worldliness. For a church coming out from under mortal persecution and marginalization, the blessings of imperial recognition were great. But overnight, it became possible to be a Christian just by being a Roman citizen, and in some places there were even political and social advantages to being a church member. The result was a creeping worldliness in the church, a dumbing-down of discipleship, and a lowering of expectations for what the Christian life could be. One of the the reactions against that was the first great wave of monasticism. Athanasius was a great supporter of the monastic movement, and wrote the biography of Antony of Egypt.
What to read: The Life of Antony, a must read of early Christian biography.
8. He pastored (as bishop/overseer) an important church. It’s easy to think of theologians as floating heads with big ideas about God in them, but in the early church the leading theologians were usually bishops: overseers of churches. Athanasius gave pastoral oversight to the churches of Alexandria in Egypt, a huge and influential metropolis. Athanasius had an unusually close relationship with his congregations, and enjoyed widespread popular support from them.
What to read: The Festal Letters, which he sent to his congregations before Easter each year, are the best place to catch a glimpse of Athanasius the pastor.
9. He took a stand against imperial control of church and doctrine. Modern conspiracy theorists think the church jumped into Constantine’s lap and obeyed the political powers, but consider the career of Athanasius: Five different times he was sent into exile by the emperors, and this gave him a unique perspective on how much the Christian church could count on political support.
What to read: Athanasius rarely writes about this subject, so it is best seen in accounts of his life. For an ancient source, see the Historia Acephala.
10. He was first to document the New Testament canon. It’s not as if the church had been clueless about the canon before Athanasius: after all, the one thing the Arians and the Nicenes agreed about was which books counted for making arguments about the deity of Christ. But if the question is, “Who wrote down the first surviving list of the 27 books of the New Testament, excluding none and adding no extras?” then the answer is Athanasius.
What to read: The Festal Letter for the year 367.