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“Since you know my will, grant free admission to all those who wish to enter the church. For if I hear that you have hindered anyone from becoming a member, or have debarred anyone from entrance, I shall immediately send someone to have you deposed at my behest and have you sent into exile.”

These are the words of Emperor Constantine the Great, written c. 328 to Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria. Athanasius had not followed Constantine’s growing interest in ecumenism. Instead, he had insisted upon excluding from the church anyone who did not subscribe to the Creed of Nicea. Consequently, Athanasius was deposed in 335 and exiled to Trier (today in West Germany, near the border with Luxembourg). Two years later, after Constantine’s death, he returned to Alexandria, but he was removed from power again in 339 and fled to Pope Julius I, a supporter, in Rome. He returned in 346, only to be exiled three more times for various reasons. Athanasius finally resumed his bishopric in 366, which he held until his death in 373, at the age of 78.

Most of his writings defend the orthodox position against the influence of Arianism (Three Speeches against the Arians, c. 335), but he also ably defended the faith against pagan and Jewish opposition (Speech against the Pagans and Speech on the Incarnation of the Word, both c. 318). Another lasting contribution to church writings is his Life of St. Anthony, c. 357, one of the first lives of a saint that can justifiably claim authenticity. The book, an early best seller, widely disseminated information on monasticism.

Famous Festal Letter

Perhaps Athanasius’s single most influential writing, however, was his Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter of 367.

It had been customary after Epiphany each year [the Christian ...

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