Athanasius I of Alexandria (293- 373) was a theologian, a Patriarch (Bishop) of Alexandria, a Church Father, and a noted Egyptian leader of the fourth century. Alexandria was the New York City of fourth century. He was ordained as a deacon by the current patriarch, Alexander of Alexandria, in 319. In 325, he served as Alexander’s secretary at the First Council of Nicaea. A recognized theologian, he was the obvious choice to replace Alexander as the Patriarch of Alexandria on the latter’s death in 328.
He is best remembered for his role in the conflict with Arius and Arianism. At the Council of Nicaea in 325, as a mere deacon, no less, Athanasius argued against Arius and his doctrine that Christ is of a distinct substance from the Father (i.e. that Christ is not really God like God the Father is God). He became occupied in theological disputes with the Byzantine Empire and the Arians which would occupy much of his life (leading to his banishment from Alexandria five separate times).
In 367, Athanasius was the first person to list the 27 books of the New Testament as we have them in our Bibles today. Up until then, various regions added other early Christian writings to the New Testament list. In 382, Pope Damascus supported Athanasius' New Testament list. By 397, Athanasius’ New Testament list was the standard canon throughout the Church.
Athanasius is one of the greatest Church theologians. He challenged the emperor and the many followers of Arius. He held to the decision of Nicaea and defended the Nicene Creed. This was no simple task, because the Byzantine emperors were fickle: one would support the Creed, and then his successor would support Arius, and back and forth for a number of years (this is why he was banished and reappointed numerous times from his patriarch). Although the Creed upheld Christian orthodoxy in 325, many Christians, bishops, pastors, theologians, and churches sided with Arius. The confessional and orthodox pastors, bishops, and churches were in the minority.
In spite of this challenge, Athansius and others moved forward to teach and confess the Nicene Creed as the true exposition of the holy Scriptures. After numerous hardships, Athansius and his colleagues won the day as the Holy Spirit worked through men and women like him to confess the faith even when they were in the minority and ridiculed.
We take forgranted today the orthodoxy we have with the Nicene Creed. Athanasius must be given much credit for spearheading the truths we now accept without much thought. Thank God, the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, for giving Athanasius to the Church as a defender of the faith, a pastor who preached the Word and administered the Sacraments, and lead the patriarch (diocese) of Alexandria for many years.