Nicene and Ante-Nicene Fathers, Ser. II, Vol. IV:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
Prolegomena.: Section 1
Life of St. Athanasius and Account of Arianism
A. §§1–3. To the Council of Nicæa, 298–325.
§1. Early years, 298–319.
§2. The Arian controversy before Nicæa (319–325).
§3. (1.) The Council of Nicæa (325).
§3. (2.) Situation at the close of the Council (325–328).
a. Novelty of Arianism. Its Antecedents in the history of doctrine.
b. The Ομοούσιον.
c. Materials for reaction. 1. Persecuted Arians. 2. Eusebius and the Court. 3. Ecclesiastical conservatism. Marcellus and Photinus.
B. §§4–8. The Conflict with Arianism (328–361).
§4. Early years of his Episcopate (328–335), and first troubles.
§5. The Council of Tyre and First Exile (335–337).
§6. Renewed troubles and Second Exile (337–346).
(1) At Alexandria (337–339).
(2) At Rome. Council of Antioch, &c. (339–342).
(3) Constans; Council of Sardica, and its sequel (342–346).
§7. The golden Decade (346–356).
(1) Athanasius as bishop.
(2) Sequel of the death of Constans.
§8. The Third Exile (356–361).
(1) Expulsion of Athanasius.
(2) State of the Arian controversy:—(a) Anomœans; (b) Homœans; (c) Semi-Arians.
(3) Athanasius in his retirement.
C. §§9, 10. Athanasius in Victory (362–373).
§9. Under Julian and his successors; Fourth and Fifth Exiles (362–366).
§10. Last years. Basil, Marcellus, Apollinarius (366–373).
p. xiv Id primum scitu opus est in proposito nobis minime fuisse ut omnia ad Arium Arianos aliosque haereticos illius aetatis itidemque Alexandrum Alexandrinum Hosium Marcellum Serapionem aliosque Athanasii familiares aut synodos spectantia recensere sed solummodo ea quæ uel ad Athanasii Vitam pertinent uel ad eam proxime accedunt.—Montfaucon.
Athanasius was born between 296 and 298 1 . His parents, according to later writers, were of high rank and wealthy. At any rate, their son received a liberal education. In his most youthful work we find him repeatedly quoting Plato, and ready with a definition from the Organon of Aristotle. He is also familiar with the theories of various philosophical schools, and in particular with the developments of Neo-Platonism. In later works, he quotes Homer more than once (Hist. Ar. 68, Orat. iv. 29), he addresses to Constantius a defence bearing unmistakeable traces of a study of Demosthenes de Corona (Fialon, pp. 286 sq. 293). His education was that of a Greek: Egyptian antiquities and religion, the monuments and their history, have no special interest for him: he nowhere betrays any trace of Egyptian national feeling. But from early years another element had taken a first place in his training and in his interest. It was in the Holy Scriptures that his martyr teachers had instructed him, and in the Scriptures his mind and writings are saturated. Ignorant of Hebrew, and only rarely appealing to other Greek versions (to Aquila once in the Ecthesis, to other versions once or twice upon the Psalms), his knowledge of the Old Testament is limited to the Septuagint. But of it, as well as of the New Testament, he has an astonishing command, ᾽Αλεξανδρεὺς τῷ γένει, ἀνὴρ λόγιος, δυνατὸς ὢν ἐν ταῖς γραφαῖς. The combination of Scriptural study and of Greek learning was what one expects in a pupil of the famous Alexandrian School; and it was in this School, the School of Clement and Origen, of Dionysius and Theognostus, that young Athanasius learned, possibly at first from the lips of Peter the bishop and martyr of 311 2 . The influence of Origen still coloured the traditions of the theological school of Alexandria. It was from Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria 312–328, himself an Origenist of the right wing, that Athanasius received his moulding at the critical period of his later teens.
Of his first introduction to Alexander a famous story is told by Rufinus (Hist. Eccl. I. xiv.). The Bishop, on the anniversary of the martyrdom of his predecessor, Peter, was expecting some clergy to dinner after service in a house by the sea. Out of the window, he saw some boys at play on the shore: as he watched, he saw that they were imitating the sacred rites of the Church. Thinking at last that they were going too far, he sent some of his clergy to bring them in. At first his enquiries of the little fellows produced an alarmed denial. But at length he elicited that one of them had acted the Bishop and had baptized some of the others in the character of catechumens. On ascertaining that all details had been duly observed, he consulted his clergy, and decided that the baptisms should be treated as valid, and that the boy-bishop and his clergy had given such plain proof of their vocation that their parents must be instructed to hand them over to be educated for the sacred profession. Young Athanasius accordingly, after a further course of elementary studies, was handed over to the bishop to be brought up, like Samuel, in the Temple of God. This, adds Sozomen (ii. 17), was the origin of his subsequent attachment to Alexander as deacon and secretary. The story is credited by some writers of weight (most recently, by Archdeacon Farrar), but seems highly improbable. It depends on the single authority of a writer not famed for historical judgment, and on the very first anniversary of Peters martyrdom, when Alexander had hardly ascended the episcopal throne, Athanasius was at least fourteen years old. The probability that the anniversary would have been other than the first, and the possibility that Athanasius was even older, coupled with the certainty that his theological study began before Peters martyrdom, compel us to mark the story with at least a strong note of interrogation. But it may be allowed to confirm us in the belief that Alexander early singled out the promise of ability and devotion which marked Athanasius for his right-hand man long before the crisis which first proved his unique value.
His years of study and work in the bishops household bore rich fruit in the two youthful works already alluded to. These works more than any later writings of Athanasius bear traces of the Alexandrian theology and of the influence of Origenism: but in them already we trace the independent grasp of Christian principles which mark Athanasius as the representative of something more than a school, however noble and many-sided. It was not as a theologian, but as a believing soul in need of a Saviour, that Athanasius approached the mystery of Christ. Throughout the mazes of the Arian controversy his tenacious hold upon this fundamental principle steered his course and balanced his theology. And it is this that above all else characterises the golden treatise on the Incarnation of the Word. There is, however, one p. xv element in the influence of Origen and his successors which already comes out, and which never lost its hold upon Athanasius,—the principle of asceticism. Although the ascetic tendency was present in Christianity from the first, and had already burst forth into extravagance in such men as Tertullian, it was reserved for the school of Origen, influenced by Platonist ideas of the world and life, to give to it the rank of an acknowledged principle of Christian morals—to give the stimulus to monasticism (see below, p. 193). Among the acclamations which accompanied the election of Athanasius to the episcopate that of εἷς τῶν ἀσκηῶν was conspicuous (Apol. Ar. 6). In de Incarn. 51. 1, 48. 2, we seem to recognise the future biographer of Antony 3 .
He was unable to speak from memory of the events of the persecution of 303 (Hist. Ar. 64), but (de Incarn. 56. 2) had been instructed in religion by persons who had suffered as martyrs. This must have been before 311, the date of the last persecution in Egypt under Maximin. Before 319 he had written his first books against the Gentiles, the latter of which, on the Incarnation, implies a full maturity of power in the writer, while the former is full of philosophical and mythological knowledge such as argues advanced education. But from several sources we learn that his election to the episcopate in 328 was impugned, at any rate in after years, on the ground of his not having attained the canonical age of thirty. There is no ground for supposing that this was true: but such a charge would not be made without some ground at least of plausibility. We must therefore suppose that on June 8, 328, he was not much beyond his thirtieth year. His parents, moreover, were living after the year 358 (see below, p. 562, note 6); allowing them over fourscore years at that date, we find in 298 a reasonable date for the birth of their son. We must remember that in southern climates mind and body mature somewhat more rapidly than with ourselves, and contra Gentes and de Incarnatione will scarcely appear precocious.xiv:2
The statements of Greg. Naz. that he frequented classes of grammar and rhetoric is probable enough; that of Sulpitius Severus that he was juris consultus lacks corroboration.xv:3
The actual connection of Athanasius with Antony at this period is implied in the received text of Vit. Anton. Prolog., for it could scarcely fall at any later date. At the same time the youthful life of Athanasius seems fully accounted for in such a way as to leave little room for it (so Tillemont). But our ignorance of details leaves it just possible that he may for a time have visited the great hermit and ministered to him as Elisha did of old to Elijah. (Cf. p. 195, note 2.)
Next: The Arian Controversy before Nicæa, 319-325.
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