Athanasius of Alexandria is one of the most influential figures in Christianity. He was the Bishop of Alexandria, a city that was second to Rome alone in authority. As a young man he was present as the Council of Nicaea as an advisor to Alexander of Alexandria. It seems he became a Bishop at quite a young age since some accused him of not being thirty years old when he took the post as that was the minimum age one could become a Bishop. By that time he had already written the works known as On the Incarnation and Against the Heathen (which may have been a single work at first). These books remain standard reading for those interested in the development of Christian theology, especially Trinitarianism.
Athanasius was one of the earliest Bishops to hold such an office in the post-Constantine era. This is a time when Emperors and statesmen influenced the church unlike in years past. Athanasius remained consistent in his affirmations no matter who was in authority and no matter what their current position. This led to five different exiles from Alexandria! During some of those exiles he spent time in the desert with the monastics where he met the famous St. Anthony about whom he would write a popular hagiography.
“Athanasius Contra Mundum” is popular phrase that explains the dogmatic theologians quite well. It didn’t matter who was for him or against him, if needed he would stand “against the world” if he thought something was heretical. Although the Council of Nicaea seemed to have settled the question of the deity of Christ the influence of the Arian views continued to influence and push against the Council’s ruling. At one point it seemed (as St. Jerome would put it), “The whole world groaned and was amazed to find itself Arian.”
Athanasius may be one of the most important figures between the Council of Nicaea and the Council of Constantinople which many see as affirming and solidifying the decisions of the first council. He stood strong for Nicene Christology against Arianism affirming the full deity of the Son. Also, while Basil the Great is given most of the credit for the church coming around to calling the Spirit “God” one could argue that Athanasius’ Letters to Serapion on the Holy Spirit contain as much force as Basil’s work. I wrote a paper on this subject which you can find here.
These are my brief thoughts on Athanasius of Alexandria, let me know what else you find worth discussing about Athanasius.
If you’d like to discuss Origen of Alexandria and Irenaeus of Lyons go here.