St. Athanasius (c. 296-373 AD)
born: c. 296 AD
Athanasius was bishop of Alexandria and spent almost his entire life contending against the Arian heresy. He was banished and restored no less than four times as the political winds changed. His best known work is On the Incarnation.
The life of Athanasius divides itself naturally into seven sections, respectively terminated by (1) his consecration; (2) his first exile; (3) his second exile; (4) his second return; (5) his third exile; (6) his fourth exile; and (7) his death.
Athanasius was born at Alexandria, and had but scanty private means (Apol. c. Ar. 51; Socr. iv. 13). We must date his birth c. 296; not earlier, because he had no personal remembrance of the persecution under Maximian in 303 (Hist. Ar. 64), and was comparatively a young man when consecrated bishop, soon after the Nicene council; not later, because he received some theological instruction from persons who suffered in the persecution under Maximian II. in 311 (de Incarn. 56), and the first two of his treatises appear to have been written before 319.
There can be no reason to doubt that Athanasius became an inmate of bishop Alexander's house, as his companion and secretary (Soz. ii. 17). The position involved great advantages. The place held by Alexander as "successor of St. Mark," and occupant of "the Evangelical throne," was second in the Christian hierarchy: we may call the bps. of Alexandria in the 4th cent., for convenience' sake, archbishops or patriarchs, although the former name was then very rarely applied to them, and the latter not at all, and they were frequently designated, though not in contradistinction to all other prelates, by the title of Papas (pope), or "dear father." Their power throughout the churches of Egypt, Libya, and Pentapolis was, by ancient custom, which the Nicene council afterwards confirmed, almost monarchical, extending over about a hundred bishops, who revered their judgments as the decisions of the see of Rome were revered in Italy.
One experience of a different kind, most fruitful in its consequences, was Athanasius's acquaintance with the great hermit Anthony. He tells us, in his Life of Anthony, that he often saw him; and although that reading of the conclusion of the preface, which makes him say that "he himself for some time attended on him, and poured water on his hands," may be considered doubtful, yet we know that he was afterwards spoken of as "the ascetic," and that when, years later, he took shelter in the cells of the monks of Egypt, he found himself perfectly at home. He contracted an admiration for monasticism, which will not surprise those who remember that the spiritual intensity of the Christian life had found a most emphatic, though a one-sided expression, in the lives of men who fled, like Anthony, from a society at once tainted and brutalized beyond all modern conception.
The two essays of Athanasius, Against the Gentiles and On the Incarnation, which form one complete work addressed to a convert from heathenism, cannot be dated later than the end of 318; for they make no reference to the Arian controversy which broke out in 319. Dorner, in his work On the Person of Christ, has given a résumé of their argument on the threefold subject of God, man, and the Incarnate Word; and Möhler calls the book on the Incarnation "the first attempt that had been made to present Christianity and the chief circumstances of the life of Jesus Christ under a scientific aspect. By the sure tact of his noble and Christian nature, everything is referred to the Person of the Redeemer: everything rests upon Him: He appears throughout." The young author seems to have been ordained deacon about this time, and placed in the position of chief among the Alexandrian deacons. Among the clergy who joined the archbishop in calling on Arius to retract, and who afterwards assented to his deposition, was the young archdeacon of Alexandria (see the Benedictine Athanasius, i. 396 seq.). In this spirit he attended Alexander to the Nicene council in 325.
In that assembly he is represented by Gregory of Nazianzum (Orat. 21) as "foremost among those who were in attendance on bishops," and as "doing his utmost to stay the plague." His writings may assure us of the argument which he would maintain: that the real Divinity of the Saviour was (i) asserted in many places of Scripture, (ii) involved in the notion of His unique Sonship, (iii) required by the Divine economy of redemption, and (iv) attested by the immemorial consciousness of the church. And although, as he himself informs us, the council would willingly have confined themselves to purely Scriptural terms (de Decr. 19) if their legitimate sense could have been bonâ fide admitted; although too he was far from imagining that any form or expression of human thought would adequately represent a Divine mystery; yet his convictions went thoroughly with the adoption of the term "Homoousion" or "co-essential," explained, as it was, in a sense which made it simply equivalent to "truly Son of God," and proposed as a test of adherence to the Scriptural Christology. And if we are to understand his mind at the close of the council, we must say that he regarded its proceedings as something done, in fact, "for the rightful honour of Jesus." Nothing was to him more certain than that Jesus was, in the full force of the words, God Incarnate; that Arianism was essentially a denial, and the "Homoousion" the now authenticated symbol, of His claim on men's absolute devotion; and that it was infinitely worth while to go through any amount of work or suffering in defence of such a truth, and in the cause of such a Master.
More work was near at hand, and suffering was not far off. A solemn and touching incident of Alexander's last moments is connected with the history of Athanasius, who was then absent from Alexandria. The dying man, while his clergy stood around him, called for Athanasius. One of those present, also bearing that name, answered, but was not noticed by the archbishop, who again repeated the name, and added, "You think to escape—but it cannot be." Some time appears to have elapsed between his death and the assembling of the Egyptian bishops to consecrate a successor. An encyclical letter of these same Egyptian prelates proclaimed to all Christendom, some years later, that a majority of them had elected Athanasius in the presence, and amid the applause, of the whole Alexandrian laity, who for nights and days persevered in demanding him as "the good, pious, ascetic Christian," who would prove a "genuine bishop," and prayed aloud to Christ for the fulfilment of their desire (Apol. c. Ar. 6). It was granted; and then, in the words of Gregory, "by the suffrages of the whole people, and not by those vile methods, afterwards prevalent, of force and bloodshed, but in a manner apostolic and spiritual, was Athanasius elevated to the throne of Mark," some time after the beginning of May in 326, and very probably on June 8.
At the outset of his archiepiscopate is to be placed the organization of the church in Ethiopia or Abyssinia by his consecration of Frumentius as bishop of Axum. Another event of these comparatively quiet times was Athanasius's visitation of the Thebaid, a region where much trouble was being caused by the Arians, and by the Meletians, who resisted his earnest efforts to repress their separatist tendency.
Now began the troubles from which the Arians never suffered Athanasius to rest till the last hour of his life. It was probably in 330 that he had his first severe experience of their hatred. After the Nicene council, Constantine had become a zealot for orthodoxy, and Eusebius of Nicomedia had been exiled. But Eusebius had procured his recall by orthodox professions; it may have been by his means that Arius himself was recalled, perhaps in Nov. 330. Eusebius now entered into a league with the Meletians of Egypt, of whom a bishop named John Arcaph was the head. "He bought them," says Athanasius, "by large promises, and arranged that they should help him on any emergency" by that machinery of false accusation which they had already employed against three archbishops. The charges were not to be theological: to attack Athanasius's teaching would be to declare against the Nicene doctrine, and this was a step on which Eusebius could not venture.
He began by writing to Athanasius in behalf of Arius, and urging that, as a man whose opinions had been seriously misrepresented, he ought in justice to be received to church communion. Athanasius's answer shews the ground on which he took his stand. "It cannot be right to admit persons to communion who invented a heresy contrary to the truth, and were anathematized by the oecumenical council." It is probable that (as Fleury thinks, though Tillemont and Neander date it much later) we should refer to this period the visit of Anthony to Alexandria (Vit. Ant. 69), when he confounded the Arians' report that he "agreed with them." This would be a great support to Athanasius. But Eusebius had recourse to Constantine, who thereupon wrote, commanding Athanasius to admit into the church "all who desired it," on pain of being removed from his see by sheer State power. This gave him an opportunity of laying before Constantine his own views of his duty. "There could be no fellowship," he wrote, "between the Catholic church of Christ and the heresy that was fighting against Him."
Not long afterwards, in compliance with instructions from Eusebius, three Meletians, Ision, Eudaemon, and Callinicus, appeared before the emperor at Nicomedia with a charge against Athanasius that he had assumed the powers of the government by taxing Egypt to provide linen vestments for the church of Alexandria. But two of Athanasius's priests, happening to be at court, at once refuted this calumny; and Constantine wrote to Athanasius, condemning his accusers, and summoning him to Nicomedia. Eusebius, however, persuaded the accusers to meet him on his arrival with a bolder charge: "he had sent a purse of gold to Philumenus, a rebel."
This, being easily overthrown, was at once followed up by the famous story of the broken chalice. A certain Ischyras, a layman pretending to the character of a presbyter, officiated at a little hamlet called "the Peace of Sacontarurum," in the Mareotis; Athanasius, being informed of this while on a visitation tour, sent a priest named Macarius, with the actual pastor of the district, to summon Ischyras before him, but found him ill. Ischyras, on recovering, attached himself to the Meletians, who, resolving to use him as a tool, made him declare that Macarius had found him in church "offering the oblations," had thrown down the holy table, broken the chalice, and burnt the church books; of which sacrilege Athanasius was to share the responsibility. But Athanasius was able to prove before Constantine at Nicomedia, early in 332, that, point by point, it was a falsehood. About mid-Lent he returned home with a letter from Constantine reprobating his enemies and praising him as "a man of God"; whereupon Ischyras came to him, asking to be received into the church, and piteously protesting that the Meletians had set him on to assert a falsehood. But he was not admitted to communion; and the story was ere long revived in an aggravated form—Athanasius himself being now called the perpetrator of the outrage (Apol. 62, 64, 28, 74, 17, 65, 68).
A darker plot followed. John Arcaph persuaded a Meletian bishop, named Arsenius, to go into hiding. A rumour was then spread that he had been murdered, and dismembered for purposes of magic, by Athanasius, in proof of which the Meletians exhibited a dead man's hand (Apol. 63, 42; Socr. i. 27; Soz. ii. 25; Theod. i. 30). The emperor was persuaded to think it a case for inquiry. Athanasius received a summons to appear at Antioch and stand his trial. At first he disdained to take any steps, but afterwards sent a deacon to search for the missing Arsenius. The deacon ascertained that Arsenius was concealed in a monastery at Ptemencyrcis, on the eastern side of the Nile. Before he could arrive there the superior sent off Arsenius, but was himself arrested by the deacon, and obliged to confess "that Arsenius was alive." At Tyre Arsenius was discovered. Constantine stopped the proceedings at Antioch on hearing of this exposure, and sent Athanasius a letter, to be read frequently in public, in which the Meletians were warned that any fresh offences would be dealt with by the emperor in person, and according to the civil law (Apol. 9, 68).
The slandered archbishop had now a breathing-time. Arcaph himself "came into the church," announced to Constantine his reconciliation with Athanasius, and received a gracious reply; while Arsenius sent to his "blessed pope" a formal renunciation of schism, and a promise of canonical obedience (Apol. 66, 17, 70, 69, 8, 27).
But the faction had not repented. Eusebius persuaded Constantine that such grave scandals as the recent charges ought to be examined in a council; and that Caesarea would be the fitting place. There a council met in 334 (see Tillemont, Ath. a. 15; cf. Festal. Epp. index, for A.D. 334). Athanasius, expecting no justice from a synod held under such circumstances, persisted, Sozomen says (ii. 25), "for thirty months" in his refusal to attend. Being at last peremptorily ordered by Constantine to attend a council which was to meet at Tyre, he obeyed, in the summer of 335 and was attended by about fifty of his suffragans. Athanasius saw at once that his enemies were dominant; the presiding bishop, Flacillus of Antioch, was one of an Arian succession. Some of the charges Athanasius at once confuted; as to others he demanded time. Incredible as it may seem, the dead man's hand was again exhibited.
Athanasius led forward a man with downcast face, closely muffled; then, bidding him raise his head, looked round and asked, "Is not this Arsenius?" The identity was undeniable. He drew from behind the cloak first one hand, and then, after a pause, the other; and remarked with triumphant irony, "I suppose no one thinks that God has given to any man more hands than two." The case of the broken chalice now remained; it was resolved to send a commission of inquiry to the Mareotis. Ischyras accompanied the commissioners, as "a sharer in lodging, board, and wine-cup"; they opened their court in the Mareotis. It appeared in evidence that no books had been burned, and that Ischyras had been too ill to officiate on the day of the alleged sacrilege. An inquiry of such an ex parte character called forth indignant protests from the Alexandrian and Mareotic clergy, one of the documents bearing the date Sept. 7, 335. The commissioners, disregarding remonstrance, returned to Tyre (Apol. 27, 73–76, 17, 15).
Athanasius, regarding the proceedings of the council of Tyre as already vitiated (Apol. 82), resolved, without waiting for the judgment of such an assembly, "to make a bold and dangerous experiment, whether the throne was inaccessible to the voice of truth." Attended by five of his suffragans, he took the first vessel for Constantinople, and suddenly presented himself in the middle of the road when the emperor was riding into the city. Constantine, on learning who he was, and what was his errand, tried to pass him by in silence; but Athanasius firmly stood his ground. "Either summon a lawful council, or give me opportunity of meeting my accusers in your presence."
The request was conceded. The bishops of the council, after receiving their commissioners' report, had by a majority condemned Athanasius, and then pronounced Arius orthodox on the ground of a doctrinal statement made five years earlier, when they were startled by an imperial letter expressing suspicion of their motives, and summoning them to Constantinople. Many of them, in alarm, fled homewards; but the two Eusebii, Theognis, Patrophilus, Valens, and Ursacius repaired to court, and, saying nothing of "the chalice," or the report of the commission, presented a new charge, like the former quasi-political ones—that Athanasius had talked of distressing Constantinople by preventing the sailing of Alexandrian corn-ships. "How could I, a private person, and poor, do anything of the kind?" asked Athanasius. Eusebius of Nicomedia answered by affirming with an oath that Athanasius was rich and powerful, and able to do anything. The emperor cut short Athanasius's defence with a show of indignation; and, perhaps not from real belief in the charge, but by way of getting rid of the case and silencing the archbishop's enemies in his own interest, banished him to the distant city of Trier or Trèves, the seat of government of his eldest son Constantine, who received the exile with much kindness, in Feb. 336.
His life at Trèves, including nearly two years and a half, was an interval of rest, much needed and doubtless invigorating, between the storms of the past and those of the future. He had now to "stand and wait"—a new experience for him. He was "abundantly supplied with all necessaries" (Constantine II. in Apol. 87); he had the friendship of Maximin, the orthodox bishop of Trèves, afterwards canonized; he had with him some Egyptian "brethren," and kept up a correspondence with his friends at home, although at the risk of having his letters seized.
For more than a year Constantine's death produced no change in Athanasius's position; but at length, on June 17, 338, Constantine II., who in the partition of the empire had a certain precedency over his brothers Constantius and Constans, the sovereigns of the East and of Italy, wrote from Trèves to the Catholics of Alexandria, announcing that he had resolved, in fulfilment of an intention of his father, to send back Athanasius, of whose character he expressed high admiration (Apol. 87). In this he appears to have presumed his brother's consent, and to have then taken Athanasius with him to Viminacium, an important town of Moesia Superior, on the high-road to Constantinople. Here the three emperors had a meeting, and all concurred in the restoration of Athanasius, who, after passing through Constantinople, saw Constantius a second time, at a farther point on his homeward journey, at Caesarea in Cappadocia (Apol. ad Const. 5; Hist. Ar. 8). His arrival at Alexandria, in Nov. 338, was hailed by popular rejoicing: the churches resounded with thanksgivings, and the clergy "thought it the happiest day of their lives."
But his enemies bestirred themselves, and "did not shrink from long journeys" in order to press on the emperors new charges against him—that he had misappropriated the corn granted by the late emperor for charitable purposes in Egypt and Libya, and that the day of his return had been signalized by bloodshed. Constantius wrote to him in anger, assuming the truth of the former charge; but Athanasius was successful in disproving both. However, Constantius—who was so soon to be "his scourge and torment" (Hooker, v. 42, 2)—fell more and more under the influence of his great enemy Eusebius, now transferred from Nicomedia to the see of Constantinople, which had been forcibly vacated by the second expulsion of the orthodox Paul.
The Eusebians now resumed a project which had been found impracticable while Constantine lived; this was to place on "the Evangelical throne" an Arian named Pistus, who had been a priest under Alexander, had been deposed by him for adhering to Arius, and had been consecrated, as it seems (Apol. 24), by a notorious Arian bishop named Secundus. It was argued that Athanasius had offended against all ecclesiastical principles by resuming his see in defiance of the Tyrian sentence, and by virtue of mere secular authority. The charge did not come well from a party which had leaned so much on the court and the State; but it must be allowed that Athanasius's return had given some colour to the objection, although he doubtless held that the assembly at Tyre had forfeited all moral right to be respected as a council. By way of harassing Athanasius, the Eusebians, apparently about this time, made Ischyras a bishop, after obtaining an order in the name of the emperor that a church should be built for him—an order which failed to procure him a congregation (Apol. 12, 85).
The Eusebians now applied to the West in behalf of their nominee Pistus. Three clergy appeared as their envoys before Julius, bishop of Rome; on the other hand, Athanasius sent to Rome presbyters to state his case, and an encyclic—the invaluable document which has furnished us with so much information—from "the holy synod assembled at Alexandria out of Egypt, Thebais, Libya, and Pentapolis," composed, says Athanasius, of nearly 100 prelates. At Rome his envoys gave such evidence respecting Pistus as to cause the senior of the Eusebian envoys to decamp by night in spite of an indisposition. His companions asked Julius to convoke a council, and to act, if he pleased, as judge. He accordingly invited both parties to a council, to be held where Athanasius should choose. Thus matters stood about the end of 339.
Early in 340 a new announcement disquieted the Alexandrian church. It was notified in a formal edict of the prefect that not Pistus, but a Cappadocian named Gregory, was coming from the court to be installed as bishop (Encycl. 2). This, says Athanasius, was considered an unheard-of wrong. The churches were more thronged than ever; the people, in great excitement, and with passionate outcries, called the magistrates and the whole city to witness that this attack on their legitimate bishop proceeded from the mere wantonness of Arian hatred. Gregory, they knew, was an Arian, and therefore acceptable to the Eusebian party: he was a fellow-countryman of Philagrius. Philagrius attacked the church of St. Quirinus, and encouraged a mob of the lowest townspeople and of savage peasants to perpetrate atrocious cruelties and profanations. Athanasius was residing in the precincts of the church of St. Theonas: he knew that he was specially aimed at, and, in hope of preventing further outrage, he withdrew from the city to a place of concealment in the neighbourhood, where he busied himself in preparing an encyclic to give an account of these horrors. This was on March 19. Four days later Gregory is said to have "entered the city as bishop." Athanasius, after hastily completing and dispatching his encyclic, sailed for Rome in the Easter season of 340, some weeks after Constantine II. had been slain during his invasion of Italy.
After Julius had welcomed Athanasius, he sent two presbyters, Elpidius and Philoxenus, in the early summer of 340, to repeat his invitation to the Eusebian prelates, to fix definitely the next December as the time of the proposed council, and Rome as the place. Athanasius received much kindness from the emperor's aunt, Eutropion, and from many others (Ap. ad Const. 417; cf. Fest. Ep. 13). He had with him two Egyptian monks. Their presence in the city, and Athanasius's enthusiasm for Anthony and other types of monastic saintliness, made a strong impression on the Roman church society, and abated the prejudices there existing against the very name of monk, and the disgust at a rude and strange exterior. In fact, Athanasius's three years (340–343) at Rome had two great historic results. (a) The Latin church, which became his "scholar" as well as his "loyal partisan," was confirmed by the spell of his master-mind "in its adhesion to orthodoxy, although it did not imbibe from him the theological spirit"; and (b) when Gibbon says that "Athanasius introduced into Rome the knowledge and practice of the monastic life," he records the origination of a vast European movement, and represents the great Alexandrian exile as the spiritual ancestor of Benedict, of Bernard, and of the countless founders and reformers of "religious" communities in the West.
Meantime Elpidius and Philoxenus had discharged their errand. The Eusebians at Antioch, finding that Athanasius was at Rome, and that the council to which they were invited would be a free ecclesiastical assembly, detained the Roman legates beyond the time specified, and then dismissed them with the excuse that Constantius was occupied with his Persian war. At the same time they stimulated Philagrius and Gregory to new severities. Orthodox bishops were scourged and imprisoned; Potammon never recovered from his stripes; Sarapammon, another confessor-bishop, was exiled (Hist. Ar. 12). The letters of Alexandrians to Athanasius, consolatory as proofs of their affection, gave mournful accounts of torture and robbery, of hatred towards himself shewn in persecution of his aunt, of countenance shewn to Gregory by the "duke" Balacius; and some of these troubles were in his mind when, early in 341, he wrote "from Rome" his Festal Letter for the year. That year had begun without any such settlement of his case as had been hoped for at Rome. December had passed, and no council could be held, for the Eusebians had not arrived. January came, and at last the legates returned, the unwilling bearers of a letter so offensive that Julius "resolved to keep it to himself, in the hope that some Eusebians" would even yet arrive (Apol. 24) and render the public reading of it unnecessary. No one came. On the contrary, the Eusebians resolved to take advantage of the approaching dedication of a new cathedral at Antioch, "the Golden Church," in order to hold a council there. Accordingly, ninety-seven bishops, many of whom were rather negatively than positively heterodox, assembled on this occasion, apparently in Aug. 341. Constantius was present. The sentence passed against Athanasius at Tyre was affirmed; several canons were passed; and three creeds were framed, in language partly vague and general, partly all but reaching the Nicene standard (cf. Newman, Arians, c. 4, s. 1; cf. Athan. Treatises, i. 105 seq.).
This business necessarily lasted some time; and no information as to this council had reached Rome when, in Nov. 341, Athanasius having now been waiting at Rome for eighteen months (Apol. 29), Julius assembled the long-delayed council, consisting of more than fifty bishops, in the church of the presbyter Vito. Athanasius's case was fully examined; Athanasius was formally pronounced innocent; his right to brotherly treatment and church communion—admitted from the first by the Roman bishop—was solemnly recognized by the Italian council. The year 342 is not eventful in his history. Constans had shewn himself friendly to Athanasius, who at his request had sent him from Alexandria some bound copies of the Scriptures (Ap. ad Const. 4). Narcissus, Maris, and two other prelates appeared before Constans at Trèves, spoke in support of the decisions against Athanasius, and presented a creed which might, at first sight, appear all but to confess the "Homoousion." But Constans, doubtless swayed by bishop Maximin, who would not admit the Eastern envoys to communion, dismissed them from his presence (Athan. de Syn. 25; Soz. iii 10; Hil. Fragm. iii. 27).
Athanasius remained at Rome until the summer of 343, when, "in the fourth year" from his arrival, he received a letter from Constans, by which he was ordered to meet him at Milan (Ap. ad Const. 3, 4). Surprised at the summons, he inquired as to its probable cause, and learned that some bishops had been urging Constans to propose to Constantius the assembling of a new council, at which East and West might be represented. On arriving at the great capital of Northern Italy, which was to be so memorably associated with the struggle between the church and Arianism, he was admitted, with Protasius, bishop of Milan, behind the veil of the audience-chamber, and received with "much kindness" by Constans, who told him that he had already written to his brother, "requesting that a council might be held." Athanasius left Milan immediately afterwards, being desired by Constans to come into Gaul, in order to meet Hosius, the venerated bishop of Cordova, and accompany him to the council, which both sovereigns had now agreed to assemble on the frontier line of their empires, at the Moesian city of Sardica. And there, about the end of 343, some 170 prelates met, a small majority being Westerns.
It soon appeared that united action was impossible. The majority, ignoring the councils of Tyre and Antioch, and treating the whole case as open, could not but regard Athanasius as innocent, or, at least, as not yet proved guilty; and he "joined them in celebrating the Divine mysteries" (Hil. Fragm. iii. 14). The Eusebian minority, on reaching Sardica, had simply announced their arrival, and then shut themselves up in the lodgings provided for them at the palace, and refused to join their brethren until the persons whom they denounced as convicted men should be deprived of seats in the council. The answer was, that the council was prepared to go into all the cases which could be submitted to it: each party would be free to implead the other. The Eusebian bishops, although urged to confront their adversaries, withdrew from Sardica and established themselves as a council at Philippopolis within the Eastern empire, renewed the sentences against Athanasius, put forth new ones against Julius, Hosius, and others, drew up an encyclic, and adopted a creed (Apol. 36, 45, 48; Hist. Ar. 15, 16, 44; Hil. de Syn. 34; Fragm. 3).
The prelates at Sardica proceeded with their inquiry, recognized the innocence of Athanasius, and excommunicated eleven Eusebian bishops, as men who "separated the Son from the Father, and so merited separation from the Catholic church." They enacted several canons, including the famous one providing for a reference, in certain circumstances, to "Julius, bishop of Rome," in "honour of Peter's memory," so that he might make arrangements for the rehearing of a prelate's cause. It need hardly be added that they would have no creed but the Nicene. They wrote letters of sympathy to the suffragans of Athanasius and the churchmen of Alexandria, urging the faithful "to contend earnestly for the sound faith and the innocence of Athanasius."
The bold line taken at Sardica provoked the advisers of Constantius to fresh severities; and the Alexandrian magistrates received orders to behead Athanasius, or certain of his clergy expressly named, if they should come near the city. Athanasius, still kept under the emperor's ban, had gone from Sardica to Naissus, and thence, at the invitation of Constans, to Aquileia. There, in company with the bishop Fortunatian, he was admitted to more than one audience; and whenever Constans mentioned Constantius, he replied in terms respectful towards the latter. Constans peremptorily, and even with a threat of civil war, urged his brother to reinstate Athanasius (Socr. ii. 22). The death of Gregory, about Feb. 345 (Hist. Ar. 21), gave Constantius an occasion for yielding the point. He therefore wrote to Athanasius, affecting to be solicitous of the Western emperor's assent to an act of his own free clemency. He wrote two other letters (Apol. 51; Hist. Ar. 22), and employed six "counts" to write encouragingly to the exile; and Athanasius, after receiving these letters at Aquileia, made up his mind, at last, to act on those assurances; but not until Constantius could tell Constans that he had been "expecting Athanasius for a year."
Invited by Constans to Trèves, Athanasius made a diversion on his journey in order to see Rome again; it was some six years since he had been cordially welcomed by Julius, who now poured forth his generous heart in a letter of congratulation for the Alexandrian church, one of the most beautiful documents in the whole Athanasian series. Julius dwelt on the well-tried worth of Athanasius, on his own happiness in gaining such a friend, on the steady faith which the Alexandrians had exhibited, on the rapture with which they would celebrate his return; and concluded by invoking for his "beloved brethren" the blessings "which eye had not seen, nor ear heard." Athanasius travelled northward about midsummer; visited Constans, passed through Hadrianople (Hist. Ar. 18), proceeded to Antioch, and saw Constantius for the third time (Ap. ad Const. 5). The reception was gracious: the emperor valued himself on his impassive demeanour (Ammian. xvi. 10). Athanasius, without vilifying his enemies, firmly desired leave to confront them (Ap. ad Const. l.c.; Hist. Ar. 22, 44). "No," said Constantius, "God knows, I will never again credit such accusations; and all records of past charges shall be erased." This latter promise he at once fulfilled, by orders sent to the authorities in Egypt; and he wrote letters in favour of the archbishop to the clergy of Egypt and the laity of Alexandria. One thing he asked, that Athanasius would allow the Alexandrian Arians a single church. Athanasius promptly replied that he would do so, if a church might be granted at Antioch to the "Eustathian" body, which held aloof from the crypto-Arian bishop Leontius, and whose services, held in a house, he had been attending. The emperor would have agreed to this, but his advisers stood in the way.
From Antioch Athanasius proceeded to Jerusalem, where an orthodox council met to do him honour, and to congratulate his church. And now he had but to return home and enjoy the welcome which that church was eager to give. This he did, according to the Festal Index, on Oct. 21 (Paophi 24), 346. We see in Gregory Nazianzen's panegyric a picture of the vast mass of population, distributed into its several classes, and streaming forth, "like another Nile," to meet him at some distance from Alexandria; the faces gazing from every eminence at the well-known form, the ears strained to catch his accents, the voices rising in emulous plaudits, the hands clapping, the air fragrant with incense, the city festal with banquets and blazing with illuminations—all that made this return of Athanasius in after-times the standard for any splendid popular display.
His 19th Festal Letter, for 347, begins with a thanksgiving for having been "brought from distant lands." The Egyptian prelates, in council, received the decrees of Sardica. More than 400 bishops of different countries, including Britain, were now in communion with Athanasius; he had a multitude of their "letters of peace" to answer. Many persons in Egypt who had sided with the Arians came by night to him with their excuses: it was a time "of deep and wondrous peace" (Hist. Ar. 25), which lasted for a few years. Valens and Ursacius had already, it seems, anathematized Arianism before a council at Milan; but they deemed it expedient to do more. In 347 they appeared at Rome, and presented to Julius a humble apologetic letter, having already written in a different strain to Athanasius, announcing that they were "at peace with him." He believed at the time that they were sincere; they afterwards ascribed their act to fear of Constans (Hist. Ar. 29).
This motive, if it existed, was ere long removed; the revolt of Magnentius brought Constans to an ignominious death at the foot of the Pyrenees, in Feb. 350. This tragedy was a severe shock to Athanasius. He received, indeed, letters from Constantius, assuring him of continued favour, and encouraging him to pursue his episcopal work. The Alexandrian authorities were also commanded to suppress any "plotting against Athanasius." Thereupon in presence of high state officers, including the bearers of these letters, Athanasius desired his people, assembled in church, "to pray for the safety of the most religious Constantius Augustus." The response was at once made, "O Christ, help Constantius!" (Ap. ad Const. 9, 10, 23; Hist. Ar. 24, 51). He had leisure for writing On the Nicene Definition of Faith and On the Opinions of Dionysius, his great predecessor in the 3rd cent., whose language, employed in controversy with Sabellianism, had been unfairly quoted in support of Arianism. He also brought out, at this time, what is called his Apology against the Arians, although he afterwards made additions to it. It may have been about this time that he chose the blind scholar Didymus, already renowned for vast and varied learning, to preside over the "Catechetical School."
When Magnentius sent envoys to Constantius, one of them visited Alexandria; and Athanasius, in speaking to him of Constans, burst into tears. He at first had some apprehension of danger from Magnentius; but it was soon evident that his real danger was from the Arianizing advisers of Constantius. Valens and Ursacius, having now recanted their recantation, were ready to weave new plots; and Liberius, the new bishop of Rome, was plied with letters against him, which were outweighed, in the judgment of a Roman synod, by an encyclic of eighty Egyptian prelates; and Rome remained faithful to his cause. (See Liberius's letter to Constantius, Hil. Fragm. 5. Another letter, in which Liberius is made to say that he had put Athanasius out of his communion for refusing to come to Rome when summoned, is justly regarded as a forgery.) This was in 352; and Athanasius, in May 353, thought it well to send 5 bishops (Soz. iv. 9, and Fragm. Maff.), one being his friend Serapion of Thmuis, and 3 presbyters, to disabuse Constantius of bad impressions as to his conduct.
Five days later, May 23, Montanus, a "silentiary" or palace chamberlain, arrived with an imperial letter forbidding him to send envoys, but granting a request for himself to go to Milan. Athanasius, detecting an attempt to decoy him, replied that as he had never made such a request, he could not think it right to use a permission granted under a misconception; but that if the emperor sent him a definite order, he would set forth at once (Ap. ad Const. 19–21). Montanus departed; and the next news that Athanasius received from Europe was such as to make him forget all personal danger. The Western usurper had been finally overthrown in August; and Constantius, having gone to Arles for the winter, was induced by the Arians to hold there, instead of at Aquileia, the council which Liberius and many Italian bishops had requested him to assemble. The event was disastrous: Vincent, the Roman legate, was induced to join with other prelates in condemning Athanasius; but Paulinus of Trèves had inherited Maximin's steadfastness, and preferred exile to the betrayal of a just cause.
In the Lent of 354 the Alexandrian churches were so crowded that some persons suffered severely, and the people urged Athanasius to allow the Easter services to be held in a large church which was still unfinished, called the Caesarean. The case was peculiar (Ap. ad Const. 15; Epiph. Haer. 69, 2): the church was being built on ground belonging to the emperor; to use it prematurely, without his leave, might be deemed a civil offence; to use it before dedication, an ecclesiastical impropriety. Athanasius tried to persuade the people to put up with the existing inconvenience: they answered, they would rather keep Easter in the open country. Under these circumstances he gave way. The Arianizers were habitually courtiers, and ready, on occasion, to be formalists likewise; and this using of the undedicated imperial church was one of several charges now urged at court against their adversary, and dealt with in his Apology to Constantius; the others being that he had stimulated Constans to quarrel with his brother, had corresponded with Magnentius, and that he had not come to Italy on receiving the letter brought by Montanus. A letter which Athanasius wrote before the Easter of this year, or perhaps of 355, is particularly interesting; he seeks to recall Dracontius, a monk who had been elected to a bishopric, and had weakly fled from his new duties. The earnestness, good sense, and affectionateness of this letter are very characteristic of Athanasius. He dwells repeatedly on the parable of the Talents, reminds Dracontius of solemn obligations, and warns him against imagining the monastic life to be the one sphere of Christian self-denial. The calm contemplation of fast-approaching trials, which would make a severe demand on Christian men's endurance, shews a "discernment" of the "signs" of 354–5 in Athanasius.
For, in the spring of 355, he would hear of the success of Constantius in terrorizing the great majority of a large council at Milan, which had been summoned at the urgent desire of Liberius. A few faithful men, such as Eusebius of Vercelli, Lucifer of Caliaris, Dionysius of Milan, after a momentary weakness, and Maximus of Naples, who was suffering at the time from illness, alone refused to condemn Athanasius (Hist. Ar. 32–34); and in standing out against the incurable tyrannousness of Caesarism, as thus exhibited, must have felt themselves to be contending both for civil justice and for Nicene orthodoxy.
That some coup d’état was meditated against Athanasius must have been evident, not only from the emperor's passionate eagerness to have him condemned, and from the really brutal persecution which began to rage throughout the empire against those who adhered to his communion (Hist. Ar. 31), but from the appearance at Alexandria, in July or Aug. 355, of an imperial notary, named Diogenes, who, though he brought no express orders, and had no interview with Athanasius, used every effort to get him out of the city. Failing in this, he departed in Dec.; and on Jan. 5, 356 Syrianus, a general, with another notary named Hilarius, entered Alexandria. The Arian party exulted in their approaching triumph; Athanasius asked Syrianus if he had brought any letter from the Emperor. He said he had not. The archbishop referred him to the guarantee of security which he had himself received; and the presbyters, the laity, and the majority of all the inhabitants supported him in demanding that no change should be made without a new imperial letter—the rather that they themselves were preparing to send a deputation to Constantius. The prefect of Egypt and the provost of Alexandria were present at this interview; and Syrianus, at last, promised "by the life of the emperor" that he would comply with the demand. This was on Jan. 18; and for more than three weeks all was quiet. But about midnight on Thursday, Feb. 8, when Athanasius was at a night-long vigil service in St. Theonas's church, preparatory to the Friday service, Syrianus, with Hilarius, and Gorgonius, the head of the police force, beset the church with a large body of soldiers. "I sat down," says Athanasius, "on my throne" (which would be at the extreme end of the church), "and desired the deacon to read the Psalm" (our 136th), "and the people to respond, For His mercy endureth for ever, and then all to depart home."
This majestic "act of faith" was hardly finished, when the doors were forced, and the soldiers rushed in with a fierce shout, clashing their arms, discharging their arrows, and brandishing their swords in the light of the church lamps. Some of the people in the nave had already departed, others were trampled down or mortally injured; others cried to the archbishop to escape. "I said I would not do so until they had all got away safe. So I stood up, and called for prayer, and desired all to go out before me . . . and when the greater part had gone, the monks who were there, and certain of the clergy, came up to me and carried me away." And then, he adds, he passed through the mass of his enemies unobserved, thanking God that he had been able to secure in the first instance his people's safety, and afterwards his own. As on a former occasion, he deemed it his duty to accept an opportunity of escape, especially when the sacrifice of his life would have been ruinous to the cause of the church in Egypt (see Augustine, Ep. 228, 10); and he therefore concealed himself in the country, "hiding himself," as the Arian History, c. 48, employs the prophet's words, "for a little moment, until the indignation should be overpast."
On leaving Alexandria, Athanasius at first thought of appealing in person to Constantius, who could not, he tried to hope, have sanctioned the late outrage. But he was deterred by the news of one woe following upon another (Ap. ad Const. 27, 19). Bishops of the West who had refused to disown him were suffering under tyranny, or had been hurried into exile. Among the latter class was the Roman bishop himself, who had manfully spurned both gifts and menaces (Theod. ii. 16); and Hosius, on addressing to Constantius a remonstrance full of pathetic dignity, had been sent for to be detained at Sirmium. Then came news which touched Athanasius more closely. It was given out that one George, a Cappadocian of evil reputation and ruthless temper, was coming to supersede him; and that a vague creed, purporting to be simply Scriptural, but in fact ignoring the Nicene doctrine, was to be proposed for his suffragans' acceptance. This last report set him at once to work on a Letter to the Egyptian and Libyan Bishops.
But he had soon to hear of a repetition of the sacrileges and brutalities of the days of Gregory. As before, Lent was the time chosen for the arrival of the usurper. Easter brought an increase of trouble in the persecution of prelates, clergy, virgins, widows, the poor, and even ordinary Catholic householders. On the evening of the Sunday after Pentecost, when "the brethren" had met for worship, apart from the Arians, in the precincts of a cemetery, a military commander, named Sebastian, a fierce-tempered Manichean, whose sympathies went with George, came to the spot with more than 3000 soldiers, and found some virgins and others still in prayer after the general congregation had broken up. On their refusal to embrace Arianism, he caused them to be stripped, and beaten or wounded with such severity that some died from the effects, and their corpses were kept without burial.
This was followed by the banishment of sixteen bishops, doubtless for rejecting the new-made creed; more than thirty fled, others were scared into an apparent conformity, and the vacated churches were given over to men whose moral disqualifications for any religious office were compensated by their profession of Arianism. Tragical as were these tidings, Athanasius still clung to his purpose of presenting himself before Constantius, until he learned that one imperial letter had denounced him as a fugitive criminal who richly merited death, and another had exhorted the two Ethiopian sovereigns to send Frumentius to Alexandria, that George might instruct him in the knowledge of "the supreme God."
Then it was that Athanasius, accepting the position of a proscribed man who must needs live as a fugitive, "turned back again," as he says, "towards the desert," and sought for welcome and shelter amid the innumerable monastic cells. Anthony had died at the beginning of the year, desiring that a worn-out sheepskin cloak (the monk's usual upper dress), which when new had been the gift of Athanasius, might be returned to him (Vit. Ant. 91). As Athanasius appears to have made secret visits to Alexandria, he probably spent some time among the recluses of Lower Egypt, but he also doubtless visited what Villemain calls "the pathless solitudes which surround Upper Egypt, and the monasteries and hermitages of the Thebaid." A veil of mystery was thus drawn over his life; and the interest was heightened by the romantic incidents naturally following from the Government's attempts to track and seize him. When comparatively undisturbed, he would still be full of activities, ecclesiastical and theological. Athanasius made those six years of seclusion available for literary work of the most substantial kind, both controversial and historical. The books which he now began to pour forth were apparently written in cottages or caves, where he sat, like any monk, on a mat of palm-leaves, with a bundle of papyrus beside him, amid the intense light and stillness of the desert (Kingsley's Hermits, p. 130, 19). He finished his Apology to Constantius, a work which he had for some time in hand, and which he still hoped to be able, in better days, to deliver in the emperor's presence. He met the taunts of "cowardice" directed against him by the Arians with an Apology for his Flight.
To the same period belong the Letter to the Monks, with the Arian History (not now extant as a whole), which it introduces (and as to which it is difficult to resist the impression that part of it, at least, was written under Athanasius's supervision, by some friend or secretary); a Letter to Serapion, bishop of Thmuis, giving an account of the death of Arius, the details of which he had learned from his presbyter Macarius, while he himself was resident at Trèves; and, above all, the great Orations or Discourses against the Arians. These last have been described by Montfaucon as "the sources whence arguments have been borrowed by all who have since written in behalf of the Divinity of the Word." The first discourse is occupied with an exposition of the greatness of the question at issue; with proofs of the Son's eternity and uncreatedness, with discussion of objections, and with comments on texts alleged in support of Arianism (i.e.
It may be thought by some who have no bias against the theology of the Discourses that his tenderness towards an old associate is in striking contrast with the exuberance of objurgation bestowed on the Arian "madmen" and "foes of Christ." But not to urge that the 4th cent. had no established rules of controversial politeness, and that the acerbity of Greek disputation and the personalities of Roman society had often too much influence on the tone of Christian argument, one must remember that Athanasius is not attacking all members of the Arian communion, but representatives of it who had been conspicuous, not for heterodoxy alone, but for secularity in its worst form, for unscrupulousness, and for violence. He followed up his Discourses by four Letters to Serapion of Thmuis, of which the second briefly repeated the teaching of the Discourses, while the others were directed against a theory then reported to him by Serapion as springing up, and afterwards known as Macedonianism; which, abandoning the Arian position in regard to the Son, strove with singular inconsistency to retain it in regard to the Spirit. Athanasius met this error by contending for "a Trinity real and undivided," in which the Spirit was included with the Father and the Son.
The general aspect of church affairs was very unhopeful. At Constantinople an Arian persecution had again set in. But the defection of Hosius in 357, and Liberius in 358, after hard pressure and cruel usage, from the steadfastness which Athanasius had so much admired, must have wounded him to the heart. Yet he speaks of them with characteristic and most generous tenderness, and with full recognition of the trials under which they had given way (Hist. Ar. 45, 41; Apol. 89; de Fugâ, 5). In 359 the general body of Western bishops, at the council of Ariminum, were partly harassed and partly cheated into adopting an equivocal but really Arian confession, which was also adopted at the beginning of 360 by the legates of the Eastern council of Seleucia. An account of the earlier proceedings of these two councils was drawn up, in the form of a letter, by Athanasius, who, on the ground of a few words in the opening of this Letter on the Councils of Ariminum and Seleucia, has been thought by Tillemont and Gibbon to have been present at any rate at the latter place. The treatise is remarkable for his considerateness towards those of the semi-Arians whose objections to the Nicene Creed were rather verbal than real, while the second creed of Sirmium had driven them into open hostility to the Arians properly so-called, which they had expressed in their council of Ancyra in 358. Athanasius, then expressly naming their leader, Basil of Ancyra, welcomes them as brothers who mean essentially what churchmen mean. He will not for the present urge the Homoousion upon them. He is sure that in time they will accept it, as securing that doctrine of Christ's essential Sonship which their own symbol "Homoiousion" could not adequately guard (de Syn. 41). But while exhibiting this large-minded patience and forbearance he is careful to contrast the long series of Arian creeds with the one invariable standard of the orthodox; the only refuge from restless variations will be found in a frank adoption of the creed of Nicaea (ib. 32; cf. ad Afros, 9).
On Nov. 30 the accession of Julian was formally proclaimed at Alexandria. The Pagans, in high exultation, thought that their time was come for taking vengeance on the Arian bishop, whom they had once before tumultuously expelled for oppressive and violent conduct. They rose in irresistible force, threw George into prison, and on Dec. 24 barbarously murdered him. The Arians set up one Lucius in his place; but Julian, as if to shew his supercilious contempt for the disputes of "Galileans," or his detestation of the memory of Constantius, permitted all the bishops whom his predecessor had exiled to return; and Athanasius, taking advantage of this edict; reappeared in Alexandria, to the joy of his people, Feb. 22, 362.
One of his first acts was to hold a council at Alexandria for the settlement of several pressing questions. (a) Many bishops deeply regretted their concessions at Ariminum in 359: how were they to be treated? (b) It had become urgently necessary to give some advice to Paulinus and his flock at Antioch, with a view to healing the existing schism there. (c) A dispute which had arisen as to the word "hypostasis" had to be settled. (4) A correct view as to the Incarnation and the Person of Christ had to be established. The work before the council was that of harmonizing and reconciling. A synodal letter, or "Tome," addressed "to the Antiochenes" (i.e. to Paulinus and his flock), and composed by Athanasius, is one of the noblest documents that ever emanated from a council. But it came too late to establish peace at Antioch. Lucifer of Caliaris had taken upon him to consecrate Paulinus as the legitimate bishop of Antioch, and so perpetuated the division which his wiser brethren had hoped to heal.
The pagans of Alexandria had been rebuked by Julian for the murder of George, but he lent a ready ear to their denunciations of Athanasius as a man whose influence would destroy their religion. Julian assured them that he had never intended Athanasius to resume "what is called the episcopal throne"; and peremptorily commanded him to leave Alexandria; the imperial edict was communicated to Athanasius on Oct. 23 (=Paophi 27, Fest. Ind., Fragm. Maff.). The faithful gathered around him weeping. "Be of good heart," he said; "it is but a cloud; it will soon pass." He instantly embarked to go up the Nile. But Julian's implied orders were not forgotten; some Government agents pursued his vessel. They met a boat coming down the river, and asked for news of Athanasius. "He is not far off," was the reply. The boat was his own—he himself, perhaps, the speaker (Theod. iii. 9). His facilities of information had given him warning of the peril, and his presence of mind had baffled it. He sailed on towards Alexandria, but concealed himself at Chaereu, the first station from the capital, then proceeded to Memphis, where he wrote his Festal Letter for 363, and then made his way to the Thebaid.
It was probably about this time, shortly before Easter, 363, that Athanasius was met, while approaching Hermopolis, by Theodore of Tabenne, the banks of the Nile being thronged by bishops, clergy, and monks. Night apparently favoured this demonstration; Athanasius, having disembarked, mounted an ass which Theodore led, and pursued his way amid a vast body of monks bearing lanterns and torches, and chanting psalms. He stayed some time at Hermopolis and Antinoe, for the purpose of preaching; then proceeded southwards to Tabenne. At midsummer, according to another narrative, he was at Antinoe, apprehensive of being arrested and put to death, when Theodore and another abbot named Pammon came to see him, and persuaded him to embark with them in Theodore's closely covered boat, in order to conceal himself in Tabenne. Athanasius was in prayer, agitated by the prospect of martyrdom, when Theodore, according to the story, assured him that Julian had at that very hour been slain in his Persian war. The day of Julian's death was June 26, 363.
"The cloud had passed," and Athanasius returned by night to Alexandria. After his arrival, which was kept secret, he received a letter from the new emperor Jovian, desiring him to resume his functions, and to draw up a statement of the Catholic faith. Athanasius at once assembled a council, and framed a synodal letter, in which the Nicene Creed was embodied, its Scripturalness asserted, and the great majority of Churches (including the British) referred to as professing it: Arianism was condemned, semi-Arianism pronounced inadequate, the Homoousion explained as expressive of Christ's real Sonship, the co-equality of the Holy Spirit maintained in terms which partly anticipate the language of the Creed of Constantinople.
On Sept. 5 Athanasius sailed to Antioch, bearing this letter. He was most graciously received, while the rival bishop Lucius and his companions were rebuffed with some humour and some impatience by the blunt soldier-prince, who, however, during his brief reign, shewed himself as tolerant as he was orthodox. The general prospects of the church must now have seemed brighter than at any time since 330. Liberius was known to have made a full declaration of orthodoxy; and many Western bishops, responding to the appeals of Eusebius and Hilary of Poictiers, had eagerly renounced the Ariminian Creed and professed the Nicene. But the local troubles of Antioch were distressing; and Athanasius, seeing no other solution, recognized their bishop Paulinus as the true head of the Antiochene church, on his appending to his signature of the Tome a full and orthodox declaration, which, according to Epiphanius (Haer. 77, 20), Athanasius himself had framed.
Having written his Festal Letter for 364 at Antioch, Athanasius reached home, apparently, on Feb. 13, a few days before Jovian's death. Valentinian I. succeeded, and soon afterwards assigned the East to his brother Valens. The Alexandrian church was not at first a sufferer by this change of monarchs; and 364–365 may be the probable date for the publication of the Life of Anthony, which Athanasius addressed "to the monks abroad," i.e. those in Italy and Gaul. But, ere long, his troubles to some extent reappeared. According to the Egyptian documents, it was the spring of 365 when Valens issued an order for the expulsion of all bishops who, having been expelled under Constantius, had been recalled under Julian, and thereby announced that he meant to follow the Arian policy of Constantius.
On May 5 this order reached Alexandria, and caused a popular ferment, only quieted on June 8 by the prefect's promise to refer the case of Athanasius to the emperor. If we may combine his statement with Sozomen's (who, however, places these events in a subsequent year), we should suppose that the prefect was but biding his time; and on the night of Oct. 5, Athanasius, having doubtless been forewarned, left his abode in the precinct of St. Dionysius's church, and took refuge in a country house near the New River. For four months the archbishop's concealment lasted, until an imperial notary came to the country house with a great multitude, and led Athanasius back into his church, Feb. 1 (Mechir 7), 366. His quiet was not again seriously disturbed, and Athanasius was free to devote himself to his proper work, whether of writing or of administration. His Festal Letter for 367 contained a list of the books of Scripture which, so far as regards the New Testament, agrees precisely with our own (see, too, de Decr. 18). The canonical books are described as "the fountains of salvation, through which alone" (a mode of speaking very usual with Athanasius) "is the teaching of religion transmitted"; a second class of books is mentioned, as "read" in church for religious edification ; the name "apocryphal" is reserved for a third class to which heretics have assigned a fictitious dignity (Westcott, On the Canon, pp. 487, 520).
To this period has been assigned the comment on doctrinal texts which is called a treatise On the Incarnation and against the Arians; but its entire genuineness may be reasonably doubted. In or about 369 he held a council at Alexandria, in order to receive letters from a Roman council held under Damasus, the successor of Liberius, and also from other Western prelates, excommunicating Ursacius and Valens, and enforcing the authority of the Nicene Creed. Hereupon Athanasius, in a synodal letter addressed To the Africans, i.e. to those of the Carthaginian territory, contrasts the "ten or more" synodical formulas of Arianism with the Nicene Creed, gives some account of its formation, and exposes the futile attempt of its present adversaries to claim authority for the later, as distinct from the earlier, proceedings of the Ariminian council.
It appears that on Sept. 22, 369, Athanasius, who had in May 368 begun to rebuild the Caesarean church, laid the foundations of another church, afterwards called by his own name (Fest. Ind.). We find him excommunicating a cruel and licentious governor in Libya, and signifying the act by circular letters. One of these was sent to Basil, who had just become exarch, or archbishop, of Caesarea in Cappadocia, and had received, perhaps at that time, from Athanasius, a formal notification of the proceedings of the council of 362 (Ep. 204).
Basil immediately announced to his own people the sentence pronounced in Egypt; the strong sense of church unity made such a step both regular and natural, and he wrote to assure Athanasius that the offender would be regarded by the faithful at Caesarea as utterly alien from Christian fellowship (Ep. 60). This led to a correspondence, carried on actively in 371. Basil, who had troubles of all kinds weighing upon his spirit, sought aid in regard to one of them—the unhappy schism of Antioch (Ep. 66). He wanted Athanasius to promote the recognition by the Westerns of Meletius as rightful bishop of Antioch, and to induce Paulinus to negotiate. In the autumn Basil wrote again (Ep. 69), and the tone which he adopts towards Athanasius is very remarkable. He calls him the foremost person (literally, the summit) of the whole church, the man of "truly grand and apostolic soul, who from boyhood had been an athlete in the cause of religion"—"a spiritual father," whom he longed earnestly to see, and whose conversation would amply compensate for all the sufferings of a lifetime (Ep. 69, 80, 82). But although Athanasius consented to act as a medium between Basil and the Westerns (Ep. 90), he could not take any direct part in favour of Meletius, whose rival's position he had unequivocally recognized. Nothing came of the application.
Athanasius was far from tolerating, in these latter years of his life, any theories which seemed definitely heterodox respecting what may be called the human side of the Incarnation. If, in his Letter to Adelphius, he condemned a certain class of Arians, and vindicated against their cavils the adoration paid to Christ's Manhood, that is, to His one Person Incarnate; if, in his Letter to Maximus, he denounced those who spoke of the man Christ as simply a saint with whom the Word had become associated; he was also, in his Letter to Epictetus, bishop of Corinth—a tract called forth by a communication from Epictetus—most earnest against some who, while "glorying in the Nicene confession, represented Christ's body as not truly human, but formed out of the essence of Godhead." This was, in fact, the second proposition of the heresy called Apollinarian; the first being that which had attracted the attention of the council of 362, and had been disclaimed by those whom the council could examine—as to the non-existence, in Christ, of a rational soul, the Word being supposed to supply its place. These views had grown out of an unbalanced eagerness to exalt the Saviour's dignity: but the great upholders of Nicene faith saw that they were incompatible with His Manhood and His Headship, that they virtually brought back Docetism, and that one of them, at any rate, involved a debased conception of Deity.
In the next year, 372, he combated both these propositions with "the keenness and richness of thought which distinguish his writings generally" (see Newman, Church of the Fathers, p. 162; Praef. ed. Benson, ii. 7) in two books entitled Against Apollinaris. These books are remarkable for the masterly distinctness with which the one Christ is set forth as "perfect God and perfect Man" (i. 16): if words occur in ii. 10 which seem at first sight to favour Monothelitism, the context shews their meaning to be that the Divine will in Christ was dominant over the human; if in the next chapter the phrase "God suffered through the flesh" is called unscriptural, the whole argument shews that he is contending against the passibility of the Saviour's Godhead. Inexact as might be some of his phrases, the general purport of his teaching on this great subject is unmistakable; it is, as he says in Orat. iii. 41, that Christ was "very God in the flesh, and very Flesh in the Word." In truth, these later treatises, like the great Discourses, exclude by anticipation both the forms of heresy, in reference to the Person and Natures of Christ, which troubled the church in the next three centuries (see especially i. 11, ii. 10). Athanasius, in the fruits of his work, was "in truth the Immortal" (Christ. Remembr. xxxvii. 206): he was continually "planting trees under which men of a later age might sit." It might indeed be said that he "waxed old in his work" (Ecclus. xi. 20).
But the time of work for him came to an end in the spring of 373. The discussions about the year of his death may be considered as practically closed; the Festal Index, although its chronology is sometimes faulty, may be considered as confirming the date of 373 given in the Maffeian Fragment, supported by other ancient authorities, and accepted by various writers. The exact day, we may believe, was Thursday, May 2, on which day of the month Athanasius is venerated in the Western church. He had sat on the Alexandrian throne, as his great successor Cyril says in a letter to the monks of Egypt, "forty-six complete years"; had he lived a few weeks longer, the years of his episcopate would have been forty-seven. Having recommended Peter, one of his presbyters, for election in his place, he died tranquilly in his own house, "after many struggles," as Rufinus says (ii. 3), "and after his endurance had won many a crown," amid troubles which Tillemont ventures to call a continual martyrdom.
Such was the career of Athanasius the Great, as he began to be called in the next generation. Four points, perhaps, ought especially to dwell in our remembrance: (a) the deep religiousness which illuminated all his studies and controversies by a sense of his relations as a Christian to his Redeemer; (b) the persistency, so remarkable in one whose natural temperament was acutely sensitive; (c) the combination of gifts, "firmness with discretion and discrimination," as Newman expresses it, which enabled him, while never turning aside from his great object, to be, as Gregory Nazianzen applies the apostolic phrase, "all things to all men"; and in close connexion with this, (d) the affectionateness which made him so tender as a friend, and so active as a peacemaker—which won for him such enthusiastic loyalty, and endowed the great theologian and church ruler with the powers peculiar to a truly lovable man. That he was not flawless, that his words could be somewhat too sharp in controversy, or somewhat unreal in addressing a despot, that he was not always charitable in his interpretation of his adversaries' conduct, or that his casuistry, on one occasion, seems to have lacked the healthy severity of St. Augustine's—this may be, and has been, admitted; but it is not extravagant to pronounce his name the greatest in the church's post-apostolic history.
In 1698 appeared the great Benedictine ed. of his works, enriched by the Life from the pen of Montfaucon, who in 1707 published, in one of the volumes of his Nova Patrum et Scriptorum Graecorum Collectio, additional remains collected by his industry. The work on the "Titles of the Psalms" was edited by Nic. Antonelli at Rome, in 1746; and in 1777 appeared at Padua an ed. in 4 vols. fol., combining the labours of previous editors.
A few English translations of some of Athanasius's works had appeared before the publication of any part of the "Library of the Fathers." But the volume of Historical Tracts of St. Athanasius, and the two volumes of Treatises in Controversy with the Arians, published in that series at Oxford in 1843–1844, under Dr. Newman's editorship, must (whatever exceptions may be taken to a few passages in the notes) be always ranked among the richest treasures of English Patristic literature. These translations have been reprinted and revised in what is now the best collection in English of Athanasius's chief works, with a very valuable introduction, life, and illustrative notes by Dr. A. Robertson, bishop of Exeter, in the Post-Nicene Fathers ed. by Dr. Schaff and Dr. Wace. The Orations against Arius, with an account of the life of Athanasius by W. Bright, are pub. by the Clarendon Press, as also his Historical Writings according to the Benedictine text, with intro. by W. Bright. A cheap popular Life of Athanasius by R. W. Bush is pub. by S.P.C.K. in their Fathers for Eng. Readers; and a cheap trans. of the Orations in "A. and M. Theol. Lib." (Griffith).
- This article incorporates public domain text from the Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the Sixth Century, edited by Henry Wace.
- "Athanasius." (Catholic Encyclopedia)
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