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Sources (§ 1).
Early Life. Chosen Bishop 326 (§ 2).
The Arian Controversy. First Exile (§ 3).
Second and Third Exiles (§ 4).
Fourth and Fifth Exiles (§ 5).
Relations with Monasticism (§ 6).
His Works in Chronological Order (§ 1).
His Teaching (§ 2).
Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, was born apparently at Alexandria 293; d. there May 2, 373. His fame is due solely to his unswerving and self-sacrificing opposition to the Arian heresy, and some account of his life, with a statement of his views, is given in the article Arianism. A few facts will be added here, and an account of his literary activity attempted.
The principal sources for the biography of Athanasius are the numerous documents bearing on the great Arian controversy which have been preserved, and his own works, which are rich in biographical material,—especially his ” Apologies” (” against the Arians,” ” to Constantine,” and ” for his Flight” ) and his ” History of the Arians for Monks.”
The oration on Athanasius by Gregory Nazianzen (xxi, NPNF, 2d ser., 269-280; dating from 380?) is a mere panegyric without much biographical value. The biographies prefixed to the Benedictine edition of his works are later than the fifth century historians and quite worthless. Of greater importance are two sources not known to the seventeenth century editor of his works. These are the fragment published by Maffei (1738) of the so-called Historia acephala, written between 384 and 412, and the preface to the ” Festal Letters” of Athanasius which are preserved in a Syriac version (ed. Cureton, Mai). Both of these come apparently from a single older source, and are very careful in their chronology, so that since they have been known the dates given by Socrates and Sozomen have often to be corrected.
2. Early Life. Chosen Bishop 326.
Some difficulties still remain; but a careful comparison of these authorities enables us with reasonable security to fix the date of Athanasius’s consecration at 326, and, with the help of a recently discovered fragment of a Coptic ” Encomium,” written by a contemporary of Bishop Theophilus of Alexandria (d. 412), to put his birth back to 293. Of his life up to 326, however, we still know very little. He seems to have been an Alexandrian; that his parents were Christians is not proved. The traditional story of his playing at ” church” as a boy and, in the character of a bishop, so correctly baptizing some catechumens that Bishop Alexander (313-326) recognized the validity of the baptism, and took the lad under his care, is worthy of its first narrator, Rufinus; the chronology is sufficient to condemn it. Devoting himself, however, to a clerical life, he served (according to the Coptic ” Encomium” ) six years as reader; by the outbreak of the Arian controversy he was already a deacon, and in close relations with the aged bishop Alexander, perhaps as his amanuensis. This would account for Alexander’s taking him to the Council of Nicæa, and perhaps for Sozomen’s story that he designated him as his successor. At any rate, Athanasius was chosen to this office on Alexander’s death (326), and was received with enthusiasm by the great majority of his flock. His opponents early asserted that he was chosen bishop by a minority and consecrated secretly; but this is disproved by the evidence of the Egyptian bishops assembled in council in 339.
The position was by no means an easy one. The Meletian schism (see Meletius of Lycopolis) had rent the Egyptian Church in two; and, although the Nicene decisions had opened the way for a termination of the schism, the manner in which this came about did not preclude the continuance of strife as to the validity of the orders of the Meletian clergy. Athanasius had scarcely been consecrated when these disturbances broke out anew, complicated by the enmities aroused by his decided anti-Arian attitude.
3. The Arian Controversy. First Exile.
At the instance of Eusebius of Nicomedia, the leader of the semi-Arians (see Eusebius of Nicomedia and Constantinople, the emperor demanded the readmission of Arias into the Church; but Athanasius stoutly refused his consent, and immediately the storm broke (see Arianism, I). He was summoned before the emperor, who was at that time in Nicomedia, and accused of conspiring to prevent the export of grain from Egypt to Constantinople. Only after long and wearisome exertions did he succeed in proving his innocence. Immediately after his return, new accusations were brought against him; it was said that he had killed a Meletian bishop, Arsenius, and used his bones for magical acts. An investigation was ordered, and a synod summoned to meet at Cæsarea (334). Athanasius refused to appear; and the investigation came to a natural end on the discovery that Arsenius was alive. Eusebius, however, still had the emperor’s ear, and Athanasius was summoned to appear at 344a synod in Tyre. He left Alexandria July 11, 335, but found at Tyre that the council had made up its mind to condemn him, and repaired to Constantinople, where he succeeded in convincing the emperor of the unfairness of the synod. Constantine saw in him, none the less, an obstacle to peace, the maintenance of which seemed the most desirable thing, and banished him to Treves toward the end of the year. Constantine died May 23, 337, and Athanasius’s first exile ended with his return to his diocese, Nov. 23 of the same year, his entrance into the city being, according to Gregory Nazianzen, ” more triumphal than had ever an emperor.”
4. Second and Third Exiles.
The opposition and intrigues still continued, however; the enemies of Athanasius accused him of having sold and employed for his own use the corn which the late emperor had destined for the poor widows of Egypt and Libya. A synod of African bishops declared in his favor, but as Constantius was influenced by Eusebius of Nicomedia, and as the prefect of Egypt, Philagrius, wanted the see for a countryman of his own, Gregory of Cappadocia, he was driven into his second exile March 19, 339, and Gregory was installed by military force at Easter. Athanasius went to Rome, where he was well received by Pope Julius, and later to Gaul to confer with Hosius, whom he accompanied to Sardica to take part in the famous council held there (343?). After spending some time at Naïssus in Dacia, at Aquileia, and in Gaul (where he met Constans, whose influence with his brother was exerted in his favor), he finally appeared once more before Constantius, and obtained permission to return. Gregory died June 25, 345, and was not replaced; and Athanasius was able to resume his jurisdiction Oct. 21, 346. After the death of Constans (Jan., 350), his position once more became unsafe; and the end of a long series of intrigues and machinations was that the ” Duke” Syrianus surrounded the church of St. Theonas with 5,000 soldiers to arrest him on the night of Feb. 8, 356. He escaped, and fled the next day, finding refuge during this his third exile among the monks and hermits of the desert, though for a part of the time he lay concealed within the city, and by his writings continued to encourage his faithful followers. On Feb. 24, 357, another Cappadocian, George, was made bishop, and as many as possible of the ecclesiastical offices were filled by Arians. George, however, was able to maintain himself for only eighteen months, and then, after a three years’ absence, was imprisoned three days after his return, and put to death in the disturbances which followed the death of Constantius. The new emperor, Julian the Apostate (361-363), issued an edict permitting the exiled bishops to return to their sees, hoping thus to increase the confusion in the Church, to the profit of the paganism which he was bent on restoring. The third exile of Athanasius thus ended Feb. 21, 362.
5. Fourth and Fifth Exiles.
But a fourth exile followed shortly. The new emperor’s counselors found Athanasius too dangerous a man for their plans, and Julian issued a special edict commanding him, as he had returned to Alexandria without personally receiving permission, to leave it at once (Oct. 24, 362). He remained in concealment in the deserts of the Thebaid until he heard of Julian’s death (June 26, 363), when he returned to Alexandria (Sept. 5), though only to pass through on his way to see the new emperor, Jovian, at Antioch. Jovian received him kindly, and his fourth exile was definitely terminated by his return on Feb. 20, 364. Jovian’s death after only eight months brought fresh trouble to the orthodox. An edict of Valens (May 5, 365) reversed Julian’s recall of the exiled bishops; and on Oct. 5 the prefect Flavianus broke into the church of St. Dionysius and compelled Athanasius to flee once more. He remained at a villa in the neighborhood of the city, until Valens found the discontent in so important a place as Alexandria dangerous, and made a special exception in favor of Athanasius, who was able to return Jan. 31, 366. The last seven years of his episcopate were undisturbed.
6. Relations with Monasticism.
The refuge of Athanasius among the monks and hermits of the desert during his third and fourth periods of exile leads up to a point which needs special mention—his relations with monasticism. Athanasius was not only the father of orthodoxy in the East, but also the first bishop to take an active part in encouraging the monastic life. This assertion is so far from being founded on the ” Life of Anthony” alone that it would still be demonstrable if his authorship of that work were less certain than it is. From an early period he was in close relations with Egyptian monasticism. When the assembled bishops in 339 designate him as ” one of the ascetics” (referring to the motives which led to his election), it may mean no more than that he belonged to the large number in the Christian community who practised the ascetic life in varying degrees, without retiring from the world. We can not say whether his personal intercourse with Anthony (d. 356) occurred altogether after he was a bishop or partly before. But he came early in his episcopate into contact with Pachomius (d. 345), who came out with his brethren to greet their new bishop when he undertook a visitation of the Thebaid between the Easters of 328 and 329. Lasting relations with this colony were kept up by means of the yearly visits of deputations of the monks to Alexandria for the purpose of making necessary purchases. Pachomius is reported to have said that there were three sights specially pleasing to the eyes of God in the Egypt of his time—Athanasius, Anthony, and his own community of monks. Athanasius knew Theodore, the successor of Pachomius, and visited him in his desert retreat at Phboou—probably in 363, for which year we have evidence of a journey as far south as Antinoē and Hermopolis. So well known were these relations that an imperial officer sent by Constantius to apprehend him in 360 searched for him, though in vain, at Phboou. When Theodore died (368), Athanasius 345wrote his successor a letter of warm sympathy. These long and intimate relations with Egyptian monasticism support the assertion of Jerome (Epist., cxxvii) that the Roman lady Marcella first heard through Athanasius, in 341, of Anthony, Pachomius, and the ascetic communities of the Thebaid. If, however, he rendered monasticism a service by calling to it the attention of the western world, he did even more for it by successfully combating the tendency which it showed at first to form a caste apart from, and to some extent in rivalry with, the clergy; he was also the first (at least in the Church of the empire) to promote monks to the episcopate—a point of great importance to the later development of the Eastern Church.
1. His Works in Chronological Order.
Athanasius ranks high as an author—though it may be doubted whether he would have attained so high a place had it not been for the epoch-making war which he waged upon Arianism. Of pure learning he had not much, or else it was put in the background by the more absorbing interests of his life. His most important works were written for some special purpose of the moment; and they may therefore be best considered in their chronological order, the more that any classification of them is practically impossible. The editors of his works place first the two connected treatises ” Against the Heathen” and ” On the Incarnation.” These have until recently been considered as a product of Athanasius’s youth (c. 318); but some recent critics (Schultze, Dräseke) have attempted to deny his authorship and to assign them to the middle of the fourth century. The grounds given for this opinion are unconvincing, although the date may be brought down as late as 325. Next follow the oldest of the ” Festal Letters” (329-335 and 338-339); of the later ones only short fragments have been preserved, either in Greek or Syriac—among them part of the 39th, which is important for its bearing on the New Testament canon. Up to 348 the only things that can be surely dated are the ” Encyclical Letter,” written soon after Easter, 339, and the discussion of Matt. xi, 27 (probably incomplete), belonging to a time before the death of Eusebius of Nicomedia. But with the collection of documents known as the ” Apology against the Arians” (between 347 and 351) begins a long series of works more important for the history of the period, and at the same time more certainly to be dated. These are the ” Defense of the Nicene Council” (probably 351); the ” Defense of Dionysius” soon after; the ” Letter to Dracontius” (Easter, 354 or 355); the ” Letter to the Bishops of Egypt and Libya” (between February of 356 and the same month of 357); the ” Apology to Constantius” (probably summer of 357); the ” Apology for his Flight,” a little later; the ” History of the Arians for Monks” (end of 357 or beginning of 358); the ” Letter to Serapion on the Death of Arius” (358); the four ” Letters to Serapion,” decisive for the doctrine of the consubstantiality of the Holy Ghost (during the third exile); ” On the Synods of Ariminum and Seleucia” (end of 359); the ” Book to the Antiochians” (362); the ” Letter to Jovian” (364); the ” Letter to the Africans” (probably 369); and about the same time, after the Roman synod of 369 or 370, the ” Letters to Epictetus,” ” to Adelphus,” and ” to Maximus the Philosopher,” so weighty for the controversies of the fifth century. We have not mentioned in this enumeration a few important works whose date can not be certainly determined, as well as a large number of smaller letters, sermons, and fragments. To the former class belong the ” Life of Anthony,” whose genuineness has been disputed of late years on insufficient grounds; the ” Four Orations against the Arians,” which have by many been considered the dogmatic masterpiece of Athanasius (usually dated in the third exile, but for various reasons more probably to be assigned to a much earlier date, say, 338 or 339); the fragmentary ” Longer Sermon on the Faith,” and the ” Statement of Faith,” both of which seem fairly assignable to the earliest period of Athanasius’s authorship. Owing to his fame, it is not to be wondered at that a large number of works were ascribed to him which have since been classed as doubtful or certainly not his. For the famous exposition of the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation which passes under his name, see Athanasian Creed.
2. His Teaching.
As to the teaching of Athanasius, especially in regard to his Christology, consult the article Arianism; some further discussion of his views on the human nature of Christ, which deserve a more thorough examination than they have ever received, will be found under Nestorius. It is the opinion of Harnack that the doctrine of Athanasius is identical with that of Alexander and underwent no development. But it would be difficult to prove that the teaching of the two is really identical, at least on the basis of the writings of Athanasius from the ” Defense of the Nicene Council” on; and perhaps as hard to show that his views did not develop as time went on. It is more probable (though the question needs more thorough investigation) that he began by simply accepting Alexander’s teaching, and then struck out a path of his own. His terminology, in questions of Christology, demonstrably changes. The earlier works, like those of Alexander, do not use the word which became the crucial test of orthodoxy, homoousios; even in the main thesis of the ” Statement of Faith” homoios tōi patri is found, though homoousios occurs in the explanations, but with an express caution against a Sabellian meaning. The same impression is strengthened by the ” Orations against the Arians,” written after he had spent some time in banishment at Treves; it is probably an already visible effect of his contact with western thought that we get a slightly different terminology—but the influence of the older phrases, which he gave up later, is still clearly marked; he employs the word homoousios, which his opponents rejected as unscriptural, only once in passing, and uses homoios several times to denote the generic identity of substance between the Father and the Son. In short, in these ” Orations” Athanasius’s terminology is in a transitional stage, not free from uncertainty. Later, 346he got over his concealed dread of the term homoousios, though without giving up the assimilation of ousia and hypostasis, as to which he was evidently uncertain in the” Orations.” In fact, his later homoousios is scarcely distinguishable from monoousios, and the earlier homoios [tēs ousias] no longer sufficed him. If we ask the origin of this change between 339 and 343-352, it will be obvious that we can not neglect to think of his sojourn in the West from 339 to 346, and his intercourse with Marcellus. Further evidences of development may be found in his teaching as to the manhood of Christ. If, however, his change of attitude toward the Homoousians, his condemnation of Basil of Ancyra, etc., show that he was capable of development, it need not be taken as a reproach. He knew better than many of his contemporaries how to separate the fact, as to which he never wavered, from the formulas employed to describe it; his convictions were fixed early, but to the end of his life he never obstinately asserted the completeness of the phrases he had chosen to express them. Through evil report and good report, through the many changes of a long and eventful career, he maintained indisputably his title to the respect which we give to love of truth and honesty of mind.
Bibliography: The Benedictine ed. of the works was printed in 4 vols., at Padua, 1677; again at Paris, 1699, ed. B. de Montfaucon; in MPG, xxv-xxviii; and in A. B. Caillau, Patres Apostolici, xxx-xxxii, Paris, 1842-43. The dogmatic treatises are accessible in the ed. of J. E. Thilo, Leipsic, 1853. Editions or translations of selected works are: Historical Tracts and Treatises in Controversy with the Arians, in Library of the Fathers, viii, ix, xiii, and xxviii, 1843; Contra Gentes, ed. H. von Hurter, in Collectio opusculorum sanctorum patrum, xliv, Innsbruck. 1874; Select Treatises, transl. by J. H. Newman, 2 vols., London, 1881; Historical Writings ed. from the Benedictine Text, by W. Bright, Oxford, 1881; Dialogue of Athanasius and Zacchæus, ed. F. C. Conybeare, in Anecdota Oxoniensia, part 8, ib. 1882; Orations Against the Arians, ed. W. Bright, with a life, ib. 1873, reissued in Ancient and Modern Library of Theological Literature, 1887; Select Writings and Letters, transl. with prolegomena, in NPNF, iv; and De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, transl. with notes by T. H. Bindley, London 1903. Especially noteworthy is the edition of the long lost Festal Letters, by W. Cureton from a Syriac manuscript, London, 1853, Eng. transl. by H. Burgess, Oxford, 1854. His life, from early sources, is in ASB, May, i, 186-258, cf. 756-762 and vii, 546-547; consult the biographies by P. Barbier, Paris, 1888; R. W. Bush, London, 1888; and H. R. Reynolds, ib. 1889 (” lucid and able” ). For his writings and teaching consult J. A. Moehler, Athanasius der Grosse and die Kirche seiner Zeit, Mains, 1844 (Roman Catholic); H. Voigt, Die Lehre des Athanasius, Bremen, 1861; F. Boehringer, Athanasius und Arius, oder der erste grosse Kampf der Orthodoxie and Heterodoxie, Stuttgart, 1874 (Protestant, in his familiar series); E. Fialon, St. Athanase, Étude littéraire, Paris, 1877; L. Atzberger, Die Logoslehre des Athanasius, ihre Gegner und Vorläufer, Munich, 1880; G. A. Pell, Lehre des Athanasius von der Sünde, Passau, 1888 (Roman Catholic, ” difficulties not always faced” ); W. Bright, Lessons from the Lives of Three Great Fathers, New York, 1891; P. Lauchert, Die Lehre des heiligen Athanasius, Leipsic, 1895; K. Hoss, Studien über Schrifttum und Theologie des Athanasius, Freiburg, 1899; Harnack, Dogma, passim (consult index), 7 vols., Boston, 1895-1900 (important, very detailed); L. L. Paine, Critical History of the Evolution of Trinitarianism, Boston, 1900 (brilliant, deals with the position of Athanasius respecting homoousianism); W. F. Fraser, A Cloud of Witnesses to Christian Doctrine, third series, Against Arianism, part 1, St. Athanasius, London, 1900; L. H. Hough, Athanasius; the Hero, Cincinnati, 1906.
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