A modern biographer of Athanasius of Alexandria speaks of "the predominantly polemical nature of most of his dogmatic works" and "the lack of serenity in his argumentation." Understandably so! In all of Christian history, it is safe to say, few churchmen have been so entirely embroiled in doctrinal and ecclesiastical disputes as Athanasius. In one comparison with him, one ventures that even so controversial a figure as Martin Luther lived out a relatively quiet and uneventful life.

Born into a Christian Family in Alexandria in 295, Athanasius was an infant during the persecution of Diocletian and barely more than a boy when the Edict of Milan legalized the church in 313. He was ordained a deacon five years later at age 23. The most indubitable claim we can make for Athanasius is that his entire life was absorbed in the service of the church.

The event that most marked the destiny of this ardent churchman was, of course, the council of Nicaea in 325. Although there is perhaps no other name more closely identified with Nicaea than Athanasius, this close identification had more to do with the aftermath of the council than with the event itself. Three facts conspired to make this so.

First, the fathers at Nicaea had formalized in the church a ranking patriarchal structure, according to which the bishops of Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch would exercise general oversight of the other churches in their respective regions. Thus, when Athanasius was made Bishop of Alexandria in 328, just three years after Nicaea, he suddenly found himself in one of the most influential and prestigious positions in the whole church.

Second, Nicaea had also determined that the church at Alexandria, because of the superior records and ...

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