Athanasius the Heretic

Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 293 – 2 May 373) is considered by many to be a champion or orthodox Trinitarianism. Indeed, he was the leader of the fight agains Arianism during the heyday of that controversy.  A Trinitarian creed (composed much later) was even named after him. However, it is less known that Athanasius held some views that are now considered heretical. Athanasius was, in fact, a heretic. He believed something very similar to Apollinarianism, a heresy condemned in 381.

I’m adding this to the blog because it is an interesting footnote of history, and one that I think could be useful. The hero of many Trinitarians turns out to be a bit of heretic himself.

This is from Evangelical scholar Roger Olson in his book “The Story of Christian Theology.” I’ve kept the same footnote numbers he used, and I added my note own at the end:

He is truly one of the great heroes of the faith, and yet, like Origen before him, he left a troubling legacy. Unlike Origen, Athanasius’s reputation is unsullied in all major branches of Christendom. Although some of his opinions turned out to be heretical by later standards of orthodoxy, he was never condemned or even harshly criticized. (pg 162)

Here it will be beneficial to quote at some length from Athanasius’s great classic text On the Incarnation of the Word in order to illustrate his vision of the connection between salvation and incarnation:

He [the Logos] took pity on our race, and had mercy on our infirmity, and condescended to our corruption, and, unable to bear that death should have the mastery—lest the creature should perish, and His Father’s handiwork in men be spent for nought—He takes unto Himself a body, and that of no different sort from ours…And thus taking from our bodies one of like nature, because all were under penalty of the corruption of death He gave it over to death in the stead of all, and offered it to the Father—doing this, moreover, of His loving-kindness, to the end that, firstly, all being held to have died in Him, the law involving the ruin of men might be undone (inasmuch as its power was fully spent in the Lord’s body, and had no longer holding-ground against men, his peers), and that, secondly, whereas men had turned toward corruption, He migh turn them again towards incorruption, and quicken them from death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of the Resurrection, banishing death from them like straw from the fire.

On the one hand, this beautiful theological description of Christ’s work on our behalf well illustrates why Athanasius considered it so essential that he be divine as well as human. If he were something less than truly God, his life could hardly banish death from mortal bodies. On the other hand, the statement also illustrates a problem in Athanasius’s Christology. It leaves unanswered a question, and therein lies the “troubling legacy” Athanasius left behind for later theologians to wrestle with. The question is how Jesus Christ could accomplish the work of salvation if only his body or flesh was truly human and the divine Logos—the Son of God—remained immutable and impassible and even outside of the body throughout Jesus’ life and death? Is this then a real incarnation? Did the Son of God actualy experience birth, suffering, and death? Athanasius’s answer is that he only experienced such creaturely things through the human body that he took on. The Son of God was himself in no way limited or diminished or hindered or caused to change or suffer through the incarnation. 15

What kind of “incarnation” is that? one may fairly ask. Even during Athanasius’s own lifetime another theologian named Apollinarius taught a view of the person of Jesus Christ nearly identitical to Athanasius, and it was declared heretical at the Council of Constantinople in 381. It appears that Athanasius, as great as he was, was an “Apollinarian before Apollinarius.”16 * (pg. 170-171) 

15. Athanasius On the Incarnation of the Word, 8.2 and 4.

16. Young, From Nicea to Chalcedon, pp. 74-75


* My note: Appollinarianism is described by the Catholic Encyclopedia as:

A Christological theory, according to which Christ had a human body and a human sensitive soul, but no human rational mind, the Divine Logos taking the place of this last.

** Note 2: Olson’s “The Story of Christian Theology” has been awarded the following awards (as shown at

Winner of the 2000 Christianity Today Book of the Year Award for Theology/Ethics. — Christianity Today, April 24, 2000

Winner of the 2000 ECPA Gold Medallion Award in Theology/Doctrine. — Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, July 2000


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3 comments on “Athanasius the Heretic

  1. tim says:

    so you are purporting, then that Christ in fact temporarily gave up his role as sustainer of the universe (only while he was on earth)?

    i agree with orthodoxy, that Christ did not have a separate soul, distinct from his humanity. and yet i take no issue—nor do i see any inconsistency—with Athanasius’ emphasis on Christ’s nature as fully man and yet fully God.

  2. James says:

    Hello Tim.

    Tentatively, I’d agree that Christ gave up his role as “sustainer of the universe” while he was on Earth (though, I’m sure you and I don’t agree on what exactly that entails).

    I think what you’ve missed is that Athanasius is suggesting, according to Olsen, that the Logos, the 2nd person of the Trinity, never possessed the human nature. Instead, the Logos remained immutable and impassible while dwelling in a human body, never actually taking on the human nature.

    That of course is now a heretical view. The Hypostatic Union insists that the Logos is 100% god and 100% man. According to Athanasius the Logos is not 100% man. He merely had a human body, but not the human nature.


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