Athanasius the great

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Greek icon,
legend : ὁ ἅγιος Ἀϑανάσιος ὁ Μέγας
(Saint Athanasios the Great)

Athanasius the Great (also Athanasius of Alexandria , Greek Ἀϑανάσιος Athanásios 'the immortal'; * around 300 in Alexandria ; † May 2, 373 ibid) was Patriarch of Alexandria and father of the church .

In addition, he was an opponent of ' Arianism ', or rather of everything he believed to be, famous for his vehemence over many years . But since the Council of Nicaea (325) - the Alexandrian presbyter, Arius , who gave it its name , was condemned there - it was more about criticism and approval of the Nicaea Confession . Almost all opponents of the Nicene Confession were accordingly very often, and not only by Athanasius, generally referred to as 'Arians'.

Therefore, in the more recent dogma historiography, it is suggested to speak of the Trinitarian or Subordinatian dispute for the phase after 325 . Very often the people and theologies and doctrines of the Trinity, such as Christologies, defamed as 'Arian' after the Nicaean Council of 325 can be counted among theological currents that developed from the theology of Origen .

Theological positions

Around 318 the presbyter Arius , also living in Alexandria, had claimed in a theological dispute with Bishop Alexander of Alexandria that Jesus Christ or the Logos Son had a beginning and that this was begotten or created by God the Father. Accordingly, the Logos son is a god, but not a true god. This was the beginning of the Arian dispute, which was essentially carried on by Athanasius. Athanasius wrote two important but practically undated works, Against the Nations ( Contra gentes ) and περὶ ἐνανθρωπήσεως τοῦ Λόγου (On the incarnation of the Logos ) , in which the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ and therefore the presence of God in history shows as a central element of his faith. Therefore he saw in Arianism , in Arius' understanding of the Trinity, a threat to the salvific effectiveness of Christ, which was only guaranteed by the true divinity of Christ, while Arius saw the monotheism of Christianity, the uniqueness of God, endangered by Athanasius . Alexander's encyclical of 321, which condemns Arianism, is likely to have come from Athanasius, who was still a deacon at the time, in terms of style and content .

Athanasius accompanied Alexander as a deacon to the Council of Nicaea (325). In Nicaea, with the Confession of Nicaea , the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity was formulated for the first time, according to which Jesus Christ as Son of God with God the Father was ὁμοούσιος (homoousios) , i.e. of the same essence - Arius, on the other hand, had postulated that God created the Logos Son out of nothing through his own will that the Logos-Son was not begotten from the being of God, so that the Logos and the Father are accordingly not of the same nature. Athanasius himself enters into the Council in Nicaea for the first time 20-30 years after the Nicene Council (325), i.e. after 345/355, as his letter De decretis Nicaenae synodi ('On the resolutions of the Synod of Nicea') shows, which In the past, it was often incorrectly referred to as the 'Council Report', and for the first time formulates a comprehensive theological claim to validity of Nicene.

Following his return to Alexandria in 362, Athanasius had taken a far more compromise path on the disputed issues. In 362 Athanasius held a small regional synod as Bishop of Alexandria. Athanasius then also wrote a letter in her name, the Tomus ad Antiochenos , which addressed five bishops who were close to a particular church in Antioch , where there had also been theological disputes between 'Eustathians' and ' because of different views of the Trinity . Meletians' . This letter played a key role in the trinity theological controversy between the one- hypostasis model and the three-hypostasis model of the Trinity, and already anticipated the turning point in this question from the 370s. Basil of Caesarea became Bishop of Caesarea in 370 and above all he, along with his brother Gregory of Nyssa and his friend Gregory of Nazianz , the three 'Cappadocian Church Fathers', used his strength to develop a new creed , despite pressure from Emperor Valens . which should solve the controversial problem of hypostasis and the associated subordination in the doctrine of the Trinity between 'anti-Arians' or 'anti-origins' (one hypostasis and one being) and the 'anti-Nicene' (three hypostases, three beings) .


Athanasius was born around 296/98, maybe around 300. Since he was outwardly small and of dark skin color (his opponents called him a black dwarf - Homunculus ), it is quite possible that he belonged to the Copts . He had an excellent Greek education - his works show in-depth knowledge of Plato , Homer , Aristotle and Neoplatonism . He also acquired a profound knowledge of the Bible in what was then the theological stronghold of Alexandria.

In his youth he met the monks in the Egyptian desert , among them Anthony the Great . From them he learned self-discipline and an abstinence for which he was respected even by his enemies. Later on he maintained good contact with the monks and found asylum with them several times. At a young age he came into the household of the Patriarch Alexander of Alexandria in Alexandria and became its secretary.

Around 318, Alexander's arguments began with the presbyter Arius , also living in Alexandria, about the trinity , which was later known under the terms ' Arianism ' and ' Arian controversy ' and vigorously continued by Athanasius.

Athanasius accompanied Alexander as a deacon to the Council of Nicaea (325). He wrote one of the reports about the council that is still preserved today. In Nicaea, the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity was formulated for the first time with the Confession of Nicaea . In 328 Athanasius succeeded his predecessor Alexander as Patriarch of Alexandria - in the same year that Constantine I lifted the exile of Arius. The election of Athanasius as bishop was not without controversy in the Egyptian church. Soon the theological and ecclesiastical opponents among the bishops of Egypt, led above all by Meletius of Lycopolis ('Meletian schism' in Egypt, not to be confused with the schism of the same name a few decades later in Antioch), the prominent, rigorous and probably also ambitious bishop since the beginning of the 4th century from the time of the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, rumors spread about Athanasius that he was tyrannizing his church. He also killed Arsenius, a Meletian bishop , and cut off his hand in order to use it for magical rituals - Athanasius, however, managed to present the allegedly murdered man after a long search: alive and with both hands.

Maximin von Trier (left) receives the exiled Athanasius (right); Illumination, 1463

At the Synod of Tire (335), Bishop Athanasius was finally deposed. Eusebius of Nicomedia , a close confidante of Constantine and a respected representative of the Eastern church dignitaries, as well as Eusebius of Caesarea were the driving forces behind a condemnation of Athanasius. He was accused of being wrongly elected and was also charged with the fact that one of his presbyters had vandalized a church. Athanasius was condemned by the synod and deposed as bishop, then banished to Trier by Constantine the Great .

After the death of Constantine the Great in May 337, the banishment of various bishops, u. a. of Athanasius in Trier in June 337 , abolished by the Western Roman emperor, Constantine II . Athanasius, however, was banished again after unrest in Alexandria in 339, this time by the Eastern Roman Emperor Constantius II , or fled from the violent installation of the counter-bishop Gregory of Cappadocia. He spent the next few years in Rome and Aquileia. Since his stay in Rome he had good relations with Pope Julius I (337–351) and the Roman clergy.

Constantine II died in 340 and his brother Constans became the sole ruler in the center and west of the Roman Empire. On the advice of Julius I, Constans urged his brother Constantius II to hold an imperial synod in Serdica in the fall of 343 . In Serdica, the bishops of the West had already accepted the bishops Athanasius and Markell who had traveled with them back into the church community. The bishops of the East, who arrived a little later, demanded their exclusion as a condition to participate in the sessions of the Imperial Synod, since both had been condemned and deposed by synods - Athanasius in 335 in Tire, Markell in 336 by the Synod of Constantinople . The bishops of the West insisted that the two had been rehabilitated by a Roman synod in 341. The bishops from Constantius' eastern part of the empire therefore gathered in the imperial palace, while the western bishops had moved into the city church.

It was only after Constans put massive pressure on his brother Constantius II that the latter allowed Athanasius to return to Alexandria, who arrived there in the autumn of 346.

In 350 Constans, the emperor of the west, was murdered by the usurper Magnentius . This was defeated in the subsequent war against Constantius II. After the suicide of the usurper in 353, Constantius became sole ruler and planned a new creed as a compromise formula for the whole church in the Roman Empire. Constantine has already decided on the side Origenist been embossed theology of the East: Already 338 he had sent the 'Nicene' Bishop of Constantinople Opel, Paul into exile and replaces it with the Origenists Eusebius of Nicomedia. Constantius convened synods in Arles (353), Milan (355) and Beziers (356), in which he enforced the condemnation of the 'eternal troublemaker' Athanasius, who had so far vigorously opposed all theological compromises in the confessional formula, under threat of violence . Athanasius was forced to flee underground. In the following years he lived among the monks in the desert. Due to the restitution edict of the pagan emperor Julian of February 8, 362, his exile was lifted, which allowed him to return to Alexandria as bishop on February 21, 362.

A few months later in the same year 362, however, he had to leave his hometown again, since he was now resolutely in the way of Julian's 'repaganization policy', i.e. the revival of the traditional pagan cults, but only for ten months until Emperor Julian surrendered in June 363 He died as a result of being wounded in a military conflict with the Sassanids . For the last time Athanasius was temporarily banished from Alexandria by the Eastern Roman Emperor Valens in 365-366.

In 362 he held a synod in Alexandria, whose teaching letter, Tomus ad Antiochenus , played a key role in the trinity-theological disputes and already anticipated the trinity-theological turn in this question from the 370s.

Due to the changing successes and failures of Arianism, he was banished five, possibly seven times from Alexandria and reinstated. The proverb Athanasius contra mundum (Athanasius against the world) also relates to this .

The so-called Historia Acephala is an important source for the life of Athanasius .


Athanasius authored a variety of theological works in Greek , including a Βίος καὶ Πολιτεία Πατρὸς ᾿Αντωνίου Life and Deeds of the Father Antony , a hagiography of the desert saint Antony, shortly after his death (c. 360), which was a great inspiration for both Christian monks the Eastern as well as the Western Church. In addition to the works already mentioned (On the Incarnation of the Logos, Life of Saint Anthony, Against the Gentiles, Tomus ad Antiochenus) , his four λόγοι κατὰ ᾿Αρειανῶν (speeches against the Arians) should also be mentioned. In this polemic he attacked Arius as inconsistent, because he adores Christ, but at the same time describes him as a creature. When the Arians asked women whether they had a son before they gave birth, it was a trick question with which they, through anthropomorphic ideas of the divine father-son relationship, questioned the pre-existence of Christ as Logos . The procreation of the son from the father rather happened outside of time , which is why the father has always been a father. Bible passages that suggested Christ's mutability refer solely to Christ's human nature. The identity of father and son does not, as Arius taught, refer only to a common will, but to a common substance . Because the fourth speech, which positively represents Orthodox Christology, lacks any polemical momentum in comparison with the first three and is directed not only against the Arians but also other alleged heretics, it is evaluated in research as an ingredient of later hand.

Other works on the exegesis of the Old Testament and on ascetic topics (Περὶ Παρθενίας (About virginity), About love and self-control, About health and disease) have only survived in fragments.

The tradition attributes to him the Athanasian Creed to.

Athanasius was the first, in an Easter letter in AD 367, to designate precisely the 27 books of the New Testament as canonical , which are still regarded as such today. Various lists of canonical books were in circulation up to his 39th Easter Letter. His list was eventually ratified by a number of synods and found universal acceptance as the New Testament canon .


  1. Franz Dünzl : Brief history of the Trinitarian dogma in the old church. Herder Verlag, Freiburg (Breisgau) et al. 2006, pp. 53-59. ISBN 3-451-28946-6 .
  2. Uta Heil: De decretis Nicaenae synodi , in: Peter Gemeinhardt (Ed.), Athanasius-Handbuch . Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2011, pp. 210-214, here pp. 210f.
  3. ^ Hanns Christof Brennecke , Annette von Stockhausen, Christian Müller, Uta Heil, Angelika Wintjes (eds.): Athanasius works. Third volume, first part. Documents on the history of the Arian dispute. 4th delivery: Up to the Synod of Alexandria 362 . Walter de Gruyter , Berlin / Bosten 2014, p. 589ff.
  4. Franz Dünzl: Brief history of the Trinitarian dogma in the old church. Herder Verlag, Freiburg (Breisgau) et al. 2006, p. 120. ISBN 3-451-28946-6 .
  5. Andreas Müller : Athanasius and the Melitianier , in: Peter Gemeinhardt (ed.), Athanasius-Handbuch . Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2011, p. 122ff.
  6. Tobias Georges: The Bishop of Alexandria , in: Peter Gemeinhardt (Ed.), Athanasius-Handbuch . Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2011, pp. 82–93, here p. 85.
  7. Franz Dünzl: Brief history of the Trinitarian dogma in the old church. Herder publishing house, Freiburg (Breisgau) et al. 2006, p. 75f.
  8. Franz Dünzl: Brief history of the Trinitarian dogma in the old church. Herder Verlag, Freiburg (Breisgau) et al. 2006, p. 82f.
  9. Tobias Georges: The Bishop of Alexandria , in: Peter Gemeinhardt (Ed.), Athanasius-Handbuch . Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2011, pp. 82-93, here pp. 85f.
  10. Winrich Löhr : The 'Arianische' Streit , in: Peter Gemeinhardt (ed.), Athanasius-Handbuch . Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2011, pp. 56–73, here pp. 63f.
  11. Tobias Georges: The Bishop of Alexandria , in: Peter Gemeinhardt (Ed.), Athanasius-Handbuch . Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2011, pp. 82–93, here p. 87.
  12. Tobias Georges: The Bishop of Alexandria , in: Peter Gemeinhardt (Ed.), Athanasius-Handbuch . Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2011, pp. 82–93, here p. 91.
  13. 39th Easter letter of Athanasius


  • Opera omnia . Von Neuss, Coloniae 1548 ( digitized edition of the University and State Library Düsseldorf ).
  • Athanasius Werke , published by the Patristische Arbeitsstelle Bochum; The North Rhine-Westphalian Academy of Sciences under the direction of Martin Tetz . Berlin, Walter de Gruyter, 1996–2016.
    • I. Dogmatic writings , Epistula ad episcopos Aegypti et Libyae , prepared by Karin Metzler; by Dirk Uwe Hansen and Kyriakos Savvidis (1996).
    • II. Orationes I et II contra Arianos , prepared by Karin Metzler (1998).
    • III. Oratio III contra Arianos , prepared by Karin Metzler (2000).
    • IV. Epistulae I-IV ad Serapionem , obtained from Kyriakos Savvidis (2010).
    • V. Epistulae dogmaticae minores , obtained from Kyriakos Savvidis (2016).

Remembrance days and worship

Athanasius is considered the patron saint against headaches . Numerous churches are dedicated to him.


Web links

Commons : Athanasius of Alexandria  - collection of images, videos and audio files
predecessor Office successor
Alexander I. Bishop of Alexandria
Peter II