Nicene and Ante-Nicene Fathers, Ser. II, Vol. IV:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
Prolegomena.: Derivative Doctrines. Grace and the Means of Grace; The Christian Life; The Last Things.
§6. Derivative Doctrines. Grace and the Means of Grace; The Christian Life; The Last Things.
The idea of Grace is important to the theological system of Athanasius, in view of the central place occupied in that system by the idea of restoration and new creation as the specific work of Christ upon His fellow-men (supra, §2, cf. Orat. ii. 56, Exp. in Pss. xxxiii. 2, cxviii. 5, LXX.). But, in common with the Greek Fathers generally, he does not analyse its operation, nor endeavour to fix its relation to free will (cf. Orat. i. 37 fin., iii. 25 sub fin.). The divine predestination relates (for anything that Ath. says) not to individuals so much as to the Purpose of God, before all ages, to repair the foreseen evil of mans fall by the Incarnation (Orat. ii. 75, sq.). On the general subject of Sacraments and their efficacy, he says little or nothing. The initiatory rite of Baptism makes us sons of God (de Decr. 31, cf. Orat. i. 37 ut supra), and is the only complete renewal to be looked for in this life, Serap. iv. 13). It is accompanied (de Trin. et Sp. S. 7) by confession of faith in the Trinity, and the baptism administered by Arians who do not really hold this faith is therefore in peril of losing its value (Orat. ii. 42, fin.). The grace of the Spirit conferred at baptism will be finally withdrawn from the wicked at the last judgment (Exp. in Ps. lxxv. 13, LXX.). In the de Trin. et Sp. S. 21 baptism is coupled with the imposition of hands as one rite. On the Eucharist there is an important passage (ad Serap. iv. 19), which must be given in full. He has been speaking of sin against the Holy Spirit, which latter name he applies [see above, ch. iii. §1 (22)] to the Saviours Divine Personality. He proceeds to illustrate this by John vi. 62-64.
For here also He has used both terms of Himself, flesh and spirit; and He distinguished the spirit from what is of the flesh in order that they might believe not only in what was visible in Him, but in what was invisible, and so understand that what He says is not fleshly, but spiritual. For for how many would the body suffice as food, for it to become meat even for the whole world? But this is why He mentioned the ascending of the Son of Man into heaven; namely, to draw them off from their corporeal idea, and that from thenceforth they might understand that the aforesaid flesh was heavenly from above, and spiritual meat, to be given at His hands. For what I have said unto you, says He, is spirit and life; as much as to say, what is manifested, and to be given for the salvation of the world, is the flesh which I wear. But this, and the blood from it, shall be given to you spiritually at My hands as meat, so as to be imparted spiritually in each one, and to become for all a preservative to resurrection of life eternal.
Beyond this he does not define the relation of the outward and visible in the Eucharist to the spiritual and inward. The reality of the Eucharistic gift is insisted on as strongly as its spirituality in such passages as ad Max. (Letter 61) 2 sub fin., and the comment on Matt. vii. 6 (Migne xxvii. 1380), See to it, therefore, Deacon, that thou do not administer to the unworthy the purple of the sinless body, and the protest of the Egyptian bishops (Apol. c. Ar. 5) that their churches are adorned only by the blood of Christ and by the pious worship of Him. The Holy Table is expressly stated to have been made of wood (Hist. Ar. 56), and was situated (Apol. Fug.) in a space called the ἱερατεῖον. The Eucharist was celebrated in most places every Sunday, but not on week-days (Apol. c. Ar. 11). But in Alexandria we hear of it being celebrated on a Friday on one occasion, and this was apparently a normal one (Apol. Fug. 24, Apol. Const. 25). To celebrate the Eucharist was the office of the bishop or presbyter (Apol. c. Ar. 11). Ischyras (supr. p. xxxviii.) was held by Athanasius to be a layman only, and therefore incapable of offering the Eucharist. The sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist is not touched upon, except in the somewhat strange fragment (Migne xxvi. 1259) from an Oratio de defunctis, which contains the words ἡ δέ γε ἀναίμακτος θυσία ἐξιλασμός. He insists on the finality of the sacrifice of the Cross, Orat. ii. 9, αἱ μὲν γὰρ κατὰ νόμον…οὐκ εἶχον τὸ πιστόν, καθ᾽ ἡμέραν παρερχόμεναι· & 211· δὲ τοῦ Σωτῆρος θυσία ἅπαξ γενομένη τετελείωκε τὸ πᾶν. On repentance and the confession of sins there is little to quote. He strongly asserts the efficacy of repentance, and explains Heb. vi. 4, of the unique cleansing and restoring power of baptism (Serap. iv. 13, as cited above.) A catena on Jeremiah preserves a fragment [supra, ch. iii. §1 (38)], which compares the ministry of the priest in baptism to that in confession: οὕτως καὶ ὁ p. lxxx ἐξομολογούμενος ἐν μετανόιᾳ δία τοῦ ἱ& 153·ρεως λαμβάνει τὴν ἄφεσιν χάριτι Χριστοῦ. Of compulsory confession, or even of this ordinance as an ordinary element of the Christian life, we read nothing.
On the Christian ministry again there is little direct teaching. The ordinations by the presbyter Colluthus (Apol. Ar. 11, 12) are treated as null. The letter (49) to Dracontius contains vigorous and beautiful passages on the responsibility of the Ministry. On the principles of Christian conduct there is much to be gathered from obiter dicta in the writings of Athanasius. His description (cf. supra, p. xlviii.) of the revival of religious life at Alexandria in 346, and the exhortations in the Easter letters, are the most conspicuous passages for this purpose. In particular, he insists (e.g., p. 67) on the necessity of a holy life and pure mind for the apprehension of divine things, and especially for the study of the Scriptures. He strongly recommends the discipline of fasting, in which, as compared with other churches (Rome especially), the Alexandrian Christians were lax (Letter 12), but he warns them in his first Easter letter to fast not only with the body, but also with the soul. He also dwells (Letter 6) on the essential difference of spirit between Christian festivals and Jewish observance of days. Christ is the true Festival, embracing the whole of the Christian life (Letters 5, 14). He lays stress on love to our neighbour, and especially on kindness to the poor (Letter i. 11, Hist. Ar. 61, Vit. Ant. 17, 30). On one important practical point he is very emphatic: Persecution is a device of the devil (Hist. Ar. 33). This summary judgment was unfortunately less in accordance with the spirit of the times than with the Spirit of Christ.
The ascetic teaching of Athanasius must be reserved for the introduction to the Vita Antoni (cf. Letters 48, 49, also above, p. xlviii.). His eschatology calls for discussion in connection with the language of the de Incarnatione, and will be briefly noticed in the introduction to that tract. With regard to prayers for the departed, he distinguishes (on Luke xiii. 21, &c., Migne xxvii. 1404) the careless, whose friends God will move to assist them with their prayers, from the utterly wicked who are beyond the help of prayer.
Next: Chapter V
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