Athanasius, St.

, an eminent father of the Christian church, of the fourth century, was born at Alexandria, of heathen parents. He was noticed, when very young, by Alexander, bishop of that see, who took care to have him educated in all good learning, and when of age, ordained him deacon. He took him in his company when he attended the council of Nice, where Athanasius distinguished himself as an able and zealous opposer of the Arians. Soon after the dissolution of the council, Alexander died, and Athanasius was appointed to succeed him in the government of the church of Alexandria. This was in the year 326, when Athanasius is supposed to have been about twenty-eight years of age.

Arius and some of the principal of his followers renounced their opinions, and subscribed to the Nicene faith, by which means they obtained the countenance and favour of the emperor Constantine, who wrote letters to Athanasius, insisting upon his re-admitting Arius into the church, and receiving him into communion but this he peremptorily and inflexibly refused to do, though urged warmly by sovereign authority, and menaced with the rod of imperial vengeance. While thus he lay under the emperor’s displeasure, his enemies took the opportunity of bringing against him many grievous accusations, which, however, appeared in the end to be false and groundless. Among others, they charged him with threatening that he would take care no corn should be carried from Alexandria to Constantinople and said, that there were four prelates ready to testify that they had heard such words from his own mouth. This so much incensed the emperor, that he exiled him into France though some writers intimate, that this sentence was not the effect of his resentment, but his policy, which indeed is more probable. It was the desire of the emperor to remove all frivolous disputes about words, to allay the heats and animosities among Christians, and to restore peace and unanimity to the church, and perhaps he looked upon Athanasius as a great obstacle to his favourite design, as he | could by no means be brought to communicate with the Arians.

After the death of the emperor, he was recalled by his successor Constantine the younger, and restored to his see, and received by his people with great joy. This emperor’s reign was short, and his enemies soon found means to draw down upon him the displeasure of Constantius so that, being terrified with his threats, he sought his safety by flight, and by hiding himself in a secret and obscure place. Julius, at this time bishop of Rome, being greatly affected with the injurious treatment of Athanasius, sought him out in his obscurity, and took him under his protection. He summoned a general council at Sardis, where the Nicene creed was ratified, and where it was determined, that Athanasius, with some others, should be restored to their churches. This decree the emperor shewed great unwillingness to comply with, till he was influenced by the warm interposition of his brother in the west for at this time the empire was divided between the two surviving brothers. Being thus prevailed upon, or rather indeed constrained by necessity, he wrote several letters with his own hand, which are still extant, to Athanasius, to invite him to Constantinople, and to assure him of a safe conduct. He restored him, by an edict, to his bishopric wrote letters both to the clergy and laity of Alexandria to give him a welcome reception and commanded that such acts as were recorded against him in their courts and synods, should be erased.

When the emperor restored Athanasius, he told him, that there were several people in Alexandria who differed in opinion from him, and separated themselves from his communion; and he requested of him, that he would permit them to have one church for themselves. The bishop replied, the emperor’s commands should be obeyed; but he humbly presumed to beg one favour in return, viz. that he would be pleased to grant one church in every city for such as did not communicate with the Arians. The proposal was made at the suit, and through the insinuations, of the Arians who, when they heard the reply, and had nothing either reasonable or plausible to object to it, thought proper to desist from their suit, and make no more mention of it. This is one proof among many others, that the Arians had no reason to reproach Athanasius with intolerant principles. | At the death of Constans, which happened soon afterwards, he was again deposed, ana Constantius gave orders that he should be executed wherever he was taken. He was re-instated by Julian; but, before the end of that apostate’s reign, was again obliged to have recourse to flight for safety. When orthodoxy found a patron in Jorian, and the Nicene creed became again the standard of catholic faith, Athanasius recovered his credit and his see, which he enjoyed unmolested in the time of Valentinian and even Valens, that furious and persecuting Avian, thought it expedient to let him exercise his function unmolested, because he found there was a great multitude of people in Egypt and Alexandria, who were determined to live and die with Athanasius. He died in peace and tranquillity in the year 373, after having been bishop forty-six years. His works were published in Greek and Latin, at Heidelberg, 1601; at Paris, 1627; at Cologne, 1686; but the best edition is that given by Montfaucon, at Paris, 1698, in 3 vols. folio. There has been a reprint of this, however, at Padua, in 1777, 4 vols, folio, which some prefer as being more complete and more elegantly printed.

Photius greatly extols Athanasius as an elegant, clear, and excellent writer. It is controverted among learned men, whether Athanasius composed the creed commonly received under his name. Baronius is of opinion that it was composed by Athanasius when he was at Rome, and offered to pope Julius as a confession of his faith which circumstance is not at all likely, for Julius never questioned his faith. However, a great many learned men have ascribed it to Athanasius as cardinal Bona, Petavius, Bellarmine, and Rivet, with many others of both communions. Scultetus leaves the matter in doubt; but the best and latest critics- make no question but that it is to be ascribed to a Latin author, Vigilius Tapsensis, an African bishop, who lived in the latter end of the fifth century, in the time of the Vandalic Arian persecution. Vossius and Quesnel have written particular dissertations in favour of this opinion. Their arguments are, 1. Because this creed is wanting in almost all the manuscripts of Athanasius’ s works. 2. Because the style and contexture of it do not bespeak a Greek but a Latin author. 3. Because neither Cyril of Alexandria, nor the council of E^phesus, nor pope Leo, nor the council of Chalcedon, have ever mentioned it | in all that they say against the Nestorians or Eutychians. 4. Because this Vigilms Tapsensis is known to have published others of his writings under the borrowed name of Athanasius, with which this creed is commonly joined. These reasons have persuaded Pearson, Usher, Cave, and Dupin, critics of the first rank, to come into the opinion, that this creed was not composed by Athanasius, but by a later and a Latin writer.

With respect to the writings of Athanasius, it has been justly observed, that there is little important in them, but what relates to the Avian controversy, in which he was occupied during the greater part of his life. What Photius asserts of his style may be allowed but in his life of Anthony the monk, and some other of his pieces, we find him giving too much support to the superstitions and follies of the monastic system. In other respects, he is one of the ablest supporters of the Trinitarian doctrine, and in his private conduct, although occasionally exasperated by oppression, he was in general consistent and upright. 1


Dupin. Cave. Mosheim and M liner’s Eccl. Histories. --W^terland’s Hist; of the Athana^ian Creed. Saxii Ouomasticon.