#4 Athanasius of Alexandria: 50 Figures in Church History that You Need to Know

By Ricky Njoto

This article continues from the previous one because it talks about another figure who was important during the time of the Council of Nicaea (325 AD). Shortly after the Council condemned Arius and his followers as heretics, Arianism spread around the Roman Empire, and Christians were found singing the catchy tune of Arianism, “There was a time when the Son was not.” Athanasius of Alexandria (ca. 296–373 AD) lived during this era and was a great opponent of Arianism.

  1. Athanasius was born in Alexandria, Egypt, and received a good secular education. He was fluent in Greek, and probably in Coptic too.
  2. Since young, Athanasius had already displayed great wisdom, training, and willingness to minister. For that reason, Bishop Alexander of Alexandria trained him as an assistant and apprentice.
  3. Remember Origen of Alexandria, whose school of thought influenced Eusebius to support Arianism? Well, since Athanasius was trained in Alexandria, he also adopted the same school of thought, but he modified it to resemble more of the orthodox and accepted Nicaean way.
A depiction of the Council of Nicaea
  1. Athanasius was present alongside Bishop Alexander at the Council of Nicaea. He suggested the term “homoousios” (consubstantial) to describe God the Son. Arians insisted that the Son was only “homoiousios” (similar in substance) but not “homoousios” (of the same substance) with the Father. The Council of Nicaea ruled against the Arians and adopted Athanasius’s word.
  2. For Athanasius, the debate was not merely about being picky with words. It touched the issue of salvation. Jesus had to be both man and God because he could only atone for humans if he was a man, and he could only powerfully save humans if he was God.
  3. Remember Antony of Egypt? Athanasius was also acquainted with him during his lifetime.
  4. When Bishop Alexander was in his death bed, Athanasius fled because he didn’t want to be made bishop to replace Alexander. But a lot of people surrounded the church and yelled, “Give us Athanasius!” And so, Athanasius was elected bishop when he was about 30 years old.
  5. Athanasius was sent to exile 5 times by different Roman Emperors who embraced Arianism. He spent 17 years in total in exile. He was also forced to flee Alexandria 6 times to escape those who tried to kill him.
An English translation of the Nicene Creed. Notice Athanasius’s word “consubstantial” being used in the third paragraph.
  1. Athanasius has many titles. He is regarded as one of the four “great Eastern doctors (teachers) of the church” by the Catholic Church, along with John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nazianzus. He is also called the “Father of Orthodoxy” in the Eastern Orthodox Church. His enemies called him “the black dwarf” because of his dark skin. And Gregory of Nazianzus called him the “Pillar of the Church.” He was also known as “Athanasius Contra Mundum” (Athanasius against the world) because he stood against Arianism which was adopted by most of the Roman Emperors at the time.
  2. In the end, Nicaea won the day. Orthodoxy was kept. Arians were sent into exile. And Athanasius’s writings have continued to shape the church until now.

Those who maintain “There was a time when the Son was not” rob God of his Word, like plunderers.

Athanasius of Alexandria

Ricky Njoto is a pastor of Church on the Corner, an English congregation of Camberwell Methodist Church, Melbourne.