St. Athanasius (293 A.D. – 373 A.D.) was bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, and a noted Eastern Christian leader of the 4th century. He is remembered especially for his role in the conflict with Arianism and for his affirmation of the Holy Trinity as three equally Divine Persons. At the First Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.), Athanasius argued against the Arian doctrine that Christ is of a separate substance from the Father. One church historian wrote: “Athanasius was the greatest champion of the Catholic belief on the subject of the Incarnation that the Church has ever known and in his lifetime earned the characteristic title of ‘Father of Orthodoxy’, by which he has been distinguished ever since.” St. John Henry Newman describes him as a “principal instrument, after the Apostles, by which the sacred truths of Christianity have been conveyed and secured to the world.”
Arianism was a fourth-century heresy that denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. Its author was Arius (256-336 A.D.), a priest of Alexandria, who in 318 A.D. began to teach that there are not three distinct persons in God, co-eternal and equal in all things, but only one person, the Father. The Son is only a creature, made out of nothing, like all other created beings. As a figure of speech he might be called God since he was the first and greatest person chosen to be a divine intermediary in the creating and redeeming of the world. According to Arias, Christ as “logos” or word of God is not eternal. He is not a son by nature, but merely by grace and adoption. Brazenly anti-Trinitarian, Arianism struck at the foundation of Christianity by reducing the Incarnation to a figure of speech. A most basic Christian belief vanishes. A substantial number of believers and even bishops were drawn into Arianism ranking it next to Protestantism as the greatest heresy in Church history.
The First Council of Nicaea was convoked in 325 A.D. to meet the Arian crisis. At least 220 bishops, mostly from the East but also from Africa, Spain, Gaul, and Italy, signed the creed that affirmed the divinity of Christ and condemned Arius as a heretic. “We believe,” the formula read, “in one God, the Father Almighty, Creator of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance of the Father; God from God, light from light, true God from true God; begotten, not created, consubstantial with the Father.” The heart of the council was St. Athanasius whose resolute character and theological insights were the main obstacle to the triumph of Arianism in the Christian world.
It was the custom of the bishops around Alexandria to circulate a letter after Epiphany each year confirming the date of Easter and other moveable feasts. They also took the occasion to discuss other matters. Athanasius wrote 45 such letters. Athanasius’ 39th letter, written in 367 A.D., is widely regarded as a milestone in the evolution of the canon of New Testament books. Athanasius is the first person to identify the same 27 books of the New Testament that are in use today. The establishment of the canon was not a unilateral decision by this bishop in Alexandria but rather the result of a process of careful investigation and deliberation as documented in an ancient copy of the Greek Bible and in a later Epiphany letter. Pope Damasus I, the bishop of Rome in 382 A.D., promulgated a list of books which contained a New Testament canon identical to that of Athanasius. A synod in Hippo, North Africa, (393 A.D.) repeated Athanasius’ and Damasus’ New Testament list, but without the Epistle to the Hebrews. The Council of Carthage (397 A.D.) repeated Athanasius’ and Damasus’ complete New Testament list. The Bible known today owes much to St. Athanasius’ keen scholarship.
Christian denominations worldwide revere Athanasius as a saint and teacher. St. Cyril of Alexandria (370 A.D.–444 A.D.) in a letter wrote: “Athanasius is one who can be trusted: he would not say anything that is not in accord with sacred scripture.” Church historians also emphasize his close relationship with St. Anthony the Great, the ancient monk who was one of the founders of the Christian monastic movement. St. Athanasius wrote a biography of this Egyptian hermit who gave up a comfortable life of wealth for the grim isolation of the North African desert. St. Anthony lived to the age of 104! Also the reading of St. John’s Gospel prologue at the end of the Tridentine rite of Mass which flatly states that the “Word became flesh” in contradiction to Arianism might trace back to St. Athanasius and his lifelong stand. Authentic Christianity is greatly in his debt.