Apologia Polemic And Theology

Hell Really Exists

Hell Really Exists

Get Instant Access

in february 356, as in the spring of 339, athanasius escaped arrest when his church in Alexandria was seized. A picturesque story was later told of how he remained concealed for six years, his whereabouts unknown, through the agency of a devoted virgin.1 The truth is more interesting and more complex, though few precise details are known.2 Since Athanasius was an outlaw whom the authorities strenuously sought to apprehend, he must have moved about constantly until he resumed possession of his see after the death of Constantius.

Athanasius passed his third 'exile* in concealment either in the city of Alexandria itself or among the monks of the Egyptian countryside, with whom he had close and long-standing ties of friendship. Antony himself had supported Athanasius by writing to Constantine in 336 and by visiting Alexandria in 338, and his followers remained well disposed toward the bishop regardless of his political and ecclesiastical vicissitudes.3 Pachomius had supported Athanasius at the time of his disputed election in 328, and Athanasius visited the Thebaid shortly afterward (Index 2). After their founder's death the Pachomian communities regarded Athanasius* cause as their own, and the abbot Theodore declared that in his generation God had raised up three great leaders—Antony, Pachomius, and Athanasius. It was not without cause, therefore, that the dux Artemius searched Pachomian monasteries in Upper Egypt on suspicion that the fugitive bishop might be concealed there.4

In February 356 Athanasius left the city and (it appears) traveled through the desert toward Cyrenaica (Letter to the Bishops of Egypt and Libya 5, 7; Apol. ad Const. 27.1), then turned back and returned to Alexandria when the initial search for him, which was conducted with vigor and violence (Index 29), had died down. There he remained in hiding for some time (Index 30). He did not stay in the city continuously, but he was in Alexandria again in 360, when an other determined attempt was made to apprehend him by the prefect Faustinus and the dux Artemius, who instituted a search, entered a private house, and tortured the virgin Eudaemonis, with whom Athanasius had secretly been lodging (Index 32).5

During his exile Athanasius kept up a constant correspondence with friends and allies,6 even though he may not have been able to send a Festal Letter for all of the Easters between 358 and 361.7 Two letters of some historical importance which survive from the many Athanasius must have written in these years deserve brief comment. They are addressed to monks. One accompanied a brief account of the sufferings of Athanasius and the church which refuted the Arian heresy (probably a lost work): Athanasius requests an immediate return of his manuscript, which no one is to copy or transcribe.8 The other warns monks not to welcome to their monasteries any visitors who associate with the Arian party, even if they profess to repudiate the views of Arius himself.9 Significantly, this letter was inscribed on the walls of a monastery at Thebes.10 The two letters are political as well as pastoral documents in which Athanasius looks forward to the day when 'the slaves of Antichrist' will be overwhelmed as the servants of Pharaoh once were at the crossing of the Red Sea.

Athanasius wrote more in his years of 'exile* between 356 and 362 than in any other period of his life. These years also witnessed profound theological changes within the eastern church.11 Were Athanasius a different type of man or writer, or had he not been an outlaw, it might have been possible to chart in his writings the changes of ecclesiastical alliances and to follow the moods of the eastern church in the tumultuous years between 357 and 360. For the most part, however, the exiled Athanasius of these years looked backward in bitterness rather than forward and ruminated on the grievances of the past in order to explain (and discredit) the persecution of the present. Nevertheless, his writings reveal a sudden realisation, late in 359, that those whom he had long denounced as heretics as well as personal enemies could be won over as allies in ecclesiastical politics.

Athanasius wrote his long Letter to the Bishops of Egypt and Libya from an unknown location (perhaps the Nitrian Desert) shortly after his expulsion from Alexandria.12 The letter was designed to dissuade its recipients from subscribing to the synodical letter of the Council of Sirmium which had deposed Athanasius and drawn up a creed. Athanasius is typically allusive in his references to the target of his criticisms, but he reveals enough to make the identification certain. Some Arians had written concerning the faith, threatening exile and other punishments and seeking to overturn the creed of Nicaea:

They disturb and confuse everything, and not even so are they satisfied with their actions. For every year, like men writing their wills, they meet and pretend to write about the faith, so that in this too they tend to de-

serve ridicule and disgrace, because their decisions are rejected not by others, but by themselves. (6)

That is a tendentious but unmistakeable allusion to the Councils of Aries in 353/ 4 and Milan in 355. Athanasius contrasts the Arian party, the enemies of Christ, who are few in number but wish their view to prevail, with the orthodox who uphold the tenets of the ecumenical Council of Nicaea. Who are the former? Secundus from the Pentapolis, who has often been removed from the priesthood; George of Laodicea, the eunuch Leontius of Antioch, his predecessor Stephanus, Theodorus of Heraclea, Ursacius and Valens, Acacius, Patrophilus, and Narcissus, men deposed at Serdica; Eustathius of Sebasteia, DemophilUs, Germinius, Eudoxius, and Basil; Cecropius of Nicomedia, Auxentius of Milan, the impostor Epictetus of Centumcellae, and above all George of Cappadocia, a man with the character of a public executioner, who has been hired as bishop of Alexandria despite his ignorance of the Christian faith and his rumored devotion to idols (7). And who are the orthodox? The confessor Ossius, Maximinus of Trier and his successor Pauiinus, Philogonius and Eustathius, successive bishops of Antioch, Julius and Liberius of Rome, Cyriacus from Moesia, Pistus and Aristaeus from Greece, Silvester and Protogenes from Dacia, Leontius and Eupsychius from Cappadocia, Caecilianus from Africa, Eustorgius of Italy, Capito of Sicily, Macarius of Jerusalem, Alexander of Constantinople, Paederos of Heraclea, the great Meletius, Basil, Longianus, and the other bishops of Armenia and Pontus, Lupus and Amphion from Cilicia, Jacob of Nisibis, and other bishops from Mesopotamia (8). The long list, designed to impress the country bishops of Egypt and Libya, reveals Athanasius* isolation: too many of his champions were dead when he wrote, and even Ossius and Liberius were soon to accept a creed other than the Nicene formula.

The Letter to the Bishops of Egypt and Libya is well constructed and maintains an optimistic tone. Athanasius begins with a general warning against false prophets, the Devil, and rejection of paths of scripture, and follows with a specific warning against Arian attempts to subvert the creed of Nicaea. The second part of the Letter attacks the Arian position on doctrinal grounds and from scripture. Athanasius concludes by urging the bishops to stand firm for true faith against the unholy alliance of Arians and Melitians, and declares his conviction that when 'our gracious emperor* hears of what is happening, he will stop the persecution (23, cf. 5,19).

Athanasius adopted the same optimistic assumption about Constantius when he added a long continuation to the Defense before Constantius which he had originally composed as a practical measure of self-defense in 353.13 But now he found it increasingly hard to sustain the pretense that imperial benevolence was being systematically frustrated by the emperor's servants. As Athanasius described his resistance to attempts to remove him in 353 and 355 (Apol. ad Const. 19-22), then his expulsion and the installation of George (24-28), and finally Constantius' denunciations of him (29-31), he repeated his contention that Constantius' agents were exceeding, even disregarding, his orders. He pro* tested that the emperor, who was pious, patient, and kind, disapproved of the exile of aged bishops and the torturing of virgins (29.2). Yet a note of exasperation creeps in as Athanasius contemplates the possibility that officials may kill him on the authority of the emperor's letters (32). Athanasius knew what Constantius' attitude toward him really was, and he had known it for a long time. Perhaps he composed the final version of the Defense before Constantius in the hope of deterring subordinate officials and civilians in Egypt who might be tempted to arrest him.14

The distress which Athanasius felt at being compelled to leave Alexandria, the firmest bastion of his political support, surfaces in the closing chapters of the Defense before Constantius. Also in 357, Athanasius wrote a Defense of His Flight( which, unlike the Defense before Constantius and the earlier Defense against ¡he Arians, never underwent a fundamental revision (though Athanasius did add at least one sentence to the original version).15 The work appears to have been composed in the summer or autumn of 357.16 Athanasius refers to events in Alexandria of May and perhaps June 357 (6/7), but consistently assumes that Leontius is still bishop of Antioch (1.1, 26.6): although the exact date of Leontius' death is not known, news that he was fatally ill had already reached Eudoxius while he was in Rome with the emperor in May.17 It is not known what title Athanasius himself gave the work. The title in the Greek manuscripts ('concerning those who were reproaching his flight in persecution') does not go back to the author, but represents an inference from what the text reveals about the occasion of composition:

I hear that Leontius, who is now at Antioch, Narcissus of the city of Nero, George, who is now at Laodicea, and the Arians with them are spreading much gossip and slander about me and charging me with cowardice because, when I was sought by them to be killed, I did not deliver myself up to be surrendered into their hands. (1.1)

The opening sentence reveals clearly the circumstances which impelled Athanasius to write: the slanders may have been inspired by Leontius, Narcissus, and George of Laodicea, but the whispering campaign was dangerous because it coincided with, and was intended to make easier an attempt to win Alexandria away from the departed bishop. His replacement, George, was in Alexandria when Athanasius wrote, as were Aetius and Euno-mius.18 It was a critical time for Athanasius. The charge of cowardice might stick and impair his authority. There were alarming precedents in the opposition which arose in Carthage when Cyprian withdrew during the Decian persecution in 250/1,19 and in the Melitian schism, which began precisely because Melitius stepped in to perform the duties of an absent bishop of Alexandria.20 Athanasius' Defense of His Flight meets that challenge, and it is reasonable to assume that he wrote it for immediate circulation in Alexandria.

Athanasius begins by impugning the motives of his accusers, and concludes by attacking their characters and praising God for frustrating their machinations. They imitate the Jews who killed Jesus, so that it is insincere for them to complain when their intended victim escapes their clutches (2.1). Leontius, whom Constantius installed as a bishop by force (in 344), is a eunuch who castrated himself in order to live freely with the young woman Eustolium and was expelled from the priesthood for doing so; Narcissus has been deposed by three church councils; and George of Laodicea has been both expelled from the priesthood and, at the Council of Serdica, deposed from his episcopal see (26.2-4). Each has his own vices, but they share the common stain of heresy, being no Christians, but Arians (27.1).

The main argument of the Defense of His Flight is twofold: Athanasius is a victim of persecution, and it is right to flee persecution if one can.21 Athanasius presents the attack on himself as part of a systematic attack, sustained over many years, on all who have upheld truth and fought the Arian heresy. He names victims from earlier years: Eustathius of Antioch, Euphration of Balaneae, Cymatius of Paltus, Carterius of Antaradus, Eutropius and Lucius of Adrianople, Marcellus of Ancyra, Cyrus of Beroea, Asclepas of Gaza, the Thracian bishops Theodulus and Olympius, Athanasius himself long ago, and Paul of Constantinople, whom the praetorian prefect Philippus killed (3.3-6). Next, Athanasius names those now in exile for refusing to accept either the Arian heresy or the calumnies against him: Liberius of Rome, Paulinus of Trier, Dionysius of Milan, Lucifer of Caralis, Eusebius of Vercellae, and the venerable Ossius of Corduba (4.2-5.2). Athanasius then summarises the outrages which George of Cappadocia (as he always styles him) has perpetrated in Alexandria and Egypt, with emphasis on his use of torture and the exile of more than thirty bishops (6.1-7.5).

Athanasius himself has escaped: the real complaint of his adversaries is that their wicked designs have been frustrated (8.1). He has fled to avoid persecution: in doing so, he has followed biblical precept and biblical examples. Jesus himself both hid when enemies sought him and instructed his disciples to flee. For God allots each man a time which he does not know: it is wrong, therefore, to offer oneself to one's persecutors. The saint who is persecuted should wait for God to reveal his appointed time: that is not cowardice, but a sign of fortitude. Athanasius illustrates and buttresses his argument with examples from scripture—not only Jesus himself, but also Jacob, Moses, David, Elijah, and the apostles Peter and Paul (8.2-23.2). Athanasius applies the general rule to himself by describing Syrianus' attempt to arrest him and the remarkable escape by which divine providence delivered him. To surrender himself now would be to act contrary to scripture (24.1-26.1).

Athanasius' Defense of His Flight provides yet another touchstone for assessing his literary culture. At first sight, the work appears to have antecedents and obvious models in Greek philosophical literature (such as Plutarch's On Exile) and in Christian writings (such as Tertullian's On Plight under Persecution). On closer examination, however, it is hard to discover any clear literary affinities between Athanasius' work and earlier extant works of a similar type, whether pagan or Christian. Nor does the Defense of His Flight show any obvious influence of traditional Greek methods of composition or use any exempla other than biblical ones. The Defense of His Flight gives no support at all to the notion that Athanasius owed much to Greek rhetorical theory in his apologetical works. On the contrary, the matrix of Athanasius' mind was and remained biblical. The Defense of His Flight is steeped throughout in biblical language and biblical modes of thought. In this work too Athanasius' style of expression reflects the vigor of his native intelligence rather than the influence of pagan literary culture: it is rough and forceful rather than polished and urbane.

The History of the Arians has an evil reputation as 'the solitary monument of a less noble spirit which Athanasius has left us, the one work which we would gladly believe to have come from any other pen.'22 That verdict implicitly denies the tendentious quality evident in Athanasius' other writings: the History of the Arians merely states outright much that Athanasius deemed it politic to suppress or to veil when he was writing to defend or justify himself to a neutral or hostile audience. The History of the Arians was addressed, if indeed it had a definite audience, to monks sympathetic to the author.23 As it stands, the text begins abruptly, without introduction and with a reference back to what precedes (1.1: They themselves [the Mclitians] soon fulfilled the purposes for which they had contrived these things'). A lacuna is usually postulated.24 It would have to be one of considerable compass, since the History appears to continue the narrative of the second part of the Defense against the Arians. Perhaps, therefore, the History of the Arians is the surviving part of a work which Athanasius never completed or intended to publish in its present form. Its composition may be assigned to the closing months of 357. At the time of writing, Athanasius knew that Liberius had capitulated (41.3/4) and that Ossius had died repenting on his deathbed of setting his name to the 'blasphemy' of Sirmium (45.4/5); yet he assumes that Leontius of Antioch is still alive and that Eudoxius is still bishop of Germanicia (4.2).2S

The History of the Arians is political satire or political caricature. It deserves to be compared to works like Synesius' On Kingship, which attacks the ministers of the emperor Arcadius, and Procopius' Secret History of the reign of Justinian.26 Like them, it is opposition literature in an age of panegyric and ceremonial laudations. Here too, however; Athanasius shows no signs of familiarity with the techniques of invective and vituperation developed in a long Greek and Latin literary tradition. Instead of deliberate and conscious art, he uses native wit. The product is all the more lively and effective for being spontaneous.

Athanasius had shown his talent for such writing in miniature when he wrote to Serapion of Thmuis long before to tell him how Arius died.27 In this brief epistle, essential facts which fix the date of the episode are stated succinctly: Athanasius was not in Constantinople when Arius died, but the priest Macarius was—and the emperor Constantine. Arius drew up a dishonest creed and swore that he had never held the views for which Alexander had excommunicated him. The emperor commented: 'If your creed is orthodox, you have done well to swear; but if your creed is impious, although you have sworn (that it is not], may God judge your case according to your oath.' The Eusebians tried to compel Alexander of Constantinople to receive Arius into communion. Alexander prepared to resist and prayed; as Arius was being escorted to his church, he retired to a latrine to relieve himself—and dropped down dead. The story has clearly been made more stylised and pointed than a straightforward narrative would naturally be. Some of the most colorful details may be suspect, and Athanasius has invented the dialogue for himself, yet the narrative fits perfectly into the known historical framework: Arius died in July 336 while the Council of Constantinople was attempting to vindicate his orthodoxy.28 The History of the Arians exhibits the same talents and techniques on a large scale.

The underlying assumption of the History of the Arians is that Athanasius is a victim of a systematic policy of persecution mounted by the Arians against Christ and his true believers ever since the days of Constantine, and that this policy has been rendered possible only by secular support. Constantine himself was duped by slanderous accusations and worked upon by his female relatives, so that Eustathius and many of his clergy were exiled for insulting his mother, Helena (4.1). Eutropius of Adrianople was ruined through the agency of Basilina (5.1), and Marcellus of Ancyra came to grief because Eusebius and his associates had access to the emperor through the women of the palace (6.1 ).29 High officials too supported the heretics. Philagrius installed Gregory as bishop of Alexandria in 339 (9.3-10.2), and he was vicaritts of Pontica when Paul of Constantinople was murdered at Cucusus: he was so disappointed that the praetorian prefect Philippus had forestalled him in despatching the exiled bishop that he disclosed details of the murder (7.5). But it is Constantius above all who has fostered the persecution of orthodox)' and interfered improperly in the affairs of the Christian church. Athanasius denounces the emperor as the enemy of Christ, as Antichrist, worse than the biblical villains Saul, Ahab, and Pontius Pilate (67/8). Athanasius produces a litany of family treacheries which even the tirades of the emperor Julian never surpassed. Constantius slaughtered his uncles and his cousins, he refused to pity his relatives or his father-in-law, whom he killed while still sleeping with his daughter,30 and he gave Olympias, the intended bride of his brother Constans, in marriage to a barbarian (69.1 ).31 His actions, toward his family as well as toward the church, show that he is an unjust ruler with wicked subordinates (69-73).

The connecting thread of the History of the Arians is Athanasius* career from 337 onward. The relation of the introductory chapters to the rest is clouded by the chapter on Paul of Constantinople, which Athanasius appears to have added carelessly to an existing text (7). Without this chapter, Athanasius proceeds smoothly from the general recklessness of the Melitians and Arians as allies in the 330s (1-3) to bishops deposed and exiled under Constantine (4-6); he then makes the transition to himself by means of the restoration of bishops by the sons of Constantine in 337, and quotes the letter of Constantinus to the church of Alexandria (8). The discussion of Paul, though full of valuable historical details, interrupts its context both logically and chronologically.32

The introduction to the History already exhibits one of the characteristic features of the work: Athanasius* use of invented dialogue to ridicule his adversaries. Any Melitian or Arian who wishes to become a bishop is told to adopt unchristian views and not to worry about character: 'that suffices to recommend you and to win the emperor's friendship' (3.4). Athanasius had a good eye for plausible caricature, and some of his inventions have imposed themselves on the historical tradition.33 More serious, Athanasius' tendentious narrative has unduly influenced both the ecclesiastical historians of the fifth century and modern reconstructions of his career.

Athanasius' primary techniques in the History of the Arians are suppression and distortion. He makes no allusion here to his audiences with Constantius at Viminacium and Caesarea in Cappadocia (Apol. ad Const. 5.3), no allusion to his audiences with Constans {Apol. ad Const. 3/4.1, and no open allusion to his journeys into eastern territory in 343 and 344—though a reference to his seeing the tombs of the supporters of Lucius at Adrianople in 344 has escaped his vigilance (18.2).34 Nor, predictably, is there any reference to his alliance with Paul of Constantinople or to the letter which Constans wrote in 345 threatening to restore the pair by force35—only to the earlier letter which Constans wrote very shortly after the Council of Serdica on behalf of all the exiled bishops (20.2). And there is naturally no hint of the shifts and compromises of 345 and 346 whereby Athanasius and Paul returned to their sees while Marcellus of Ancyra remained in exile.36

The omissions are matched by tendentious misrepresentations. Athanasius never admits that his enemies proceeded against him in due form or that he was ever condemned by a properly constituted council of bishops: an innocent reader of the History of the Arians might conclude that it was only Athanasius' allies who habitually convened church councils. On Athanasius' presentation, it was Constantius who replaced him with Gregory: the emperor sent Philagrius to Egypt as prefect with the eunuch Arsacius, and he sent Gregory to Alexandria with a military escort (10.1). Gregory himself had not been ordained a bishop according to proper ecclesiastical procedure: he arrived from court with military pomp as if entrusted with a post in the secular administration, and he received letters from the emperor and magistrates with extreme joy, but refused letters from the monk Antony (14.1/2). Similarly, the eastern bishops came to the Council of Serdica under the protection of the comes Musonianus and the castrensis Hesychius, expecting them to manage the conduct of the council: when things went badly for them, they fled and concocted the excuse that they needed to congratulate Constantius on his victory over the Persians (15.3-16.2). In contrast, the western contingent consisted only of bishops, with Ossius as their leader (15.3). Athanasius presents the Council of Sirmium in 351 as a cabal which persuaded Ursacius and Valens to return like dogs to their vomit, then approached Constantius and so inflamed him with anger that he turned against Athanasius and forswore his oaths (29/30). Athanasius cannot resist quoting Constantius' flattering letter of 350, and he cannot gainsay its reference to the death of Constans; yet he quotes it in the context of his return from exile in 346 (24). Hence he can slide easily over Magnentius' overtures to him and the embarrassing accusations which the Defense before Constantius had rebutted.37

Athanasius did not set out to write a full or impartial narrative. For his career between 337 and 346, he drew on the existing account in the Defense against the Arians, sharpening and exaggerating as well as supplying additional details. For more recent events, he marshaled his account around the theme of Constantius as a persecutor. Throughout he selected, emphasised, and developed striking episodes. As a result, the History of the Arians is a systematically deceptive work. When the course of events has been reconstructed from other evidence, the distortions can be recognised and the skill of the caricaturist can be admired. Yet an accurate reconstruction of the complicated ecclesiastical politics of the years between 337 and 357 could not be deduced from the History of the Arians, even though Athanasius includes many details and individual episodes which can be found nowhere else in the surviving record.

Athanasius describes briefly the outrages which attended and followed his expulsion in 339: a mob of herdsmen and dissolute youths armed with swords and clubs attacked the Church of Quirinus; worshippers were killed, beaten, and insulted; bishops were exiled or wounded, monks scourged; Gregory appropriated alms for his own use, and the dux Valacius lent him aid—until his horse bit and threw him with fatal results (10, 12-14). But recent events occupy the most space: almost half of the History of the Arians is devoted to the persecution of Athanasius and the orthodox in Alexandria and Egypt between 353 and 357 (47-81).

First, with a great deal of rhetorical elaboration, Athanasius denounces Constantius for his unsuccessful attempts to oust him. He then describes in some detail the Arian seizure of the churches in Alexandria in 356 and the violence used both then and later. In all this he emphasises the role of secular officials. In June 356 it was the comes Heraclius, the prefect Cata-phronius, and the catholicus Faustinus who instigated a crowd of pagan youths to attack the Church of Theonas and to seize and burn the seats, the bishop's throne, the altar, and the curtains (54-56). Later it was the dux Sebastianus, a notorious Manichee, the prefect, and the catholicus who assisted the Arians in insulting virgins, procuring the death of Eutychius by scourging, plundering the poor, and exiling priests and dcacons (59-61).

Next, again with much rhetorical elaboration, Athanasius describes the persecution in the rest of Egypt, which he compares to the 'Great Persecution* in the reign of Constantius' grandfather Maximian (64.2). Here he is at pains to establish that, without the aid of external power and persecution, the Arian heresy would long ago have withered and died: refuted, cast down, shamed by the truth, it coerced with violence, with the lash, and with imprisonment. Sebastianus wrote to the praepositi and the military authorities everywhere, and they exiled all the true bishops, replacing them with holders of impious doctrines: Athanasius names a total of twenty-six exiled bishops, of whom ten were so aged that they had been ordained by Alexander before his death in 328. Some of these suffered violence, some were sent to hard labor in stone-quarries. Laymen too were banished, monasteries destroyed, private houses robbed (72). The new bishops were young, wanton pagans, not yet even catechumens, men with two wives, chosen because of their wealth and civil power (73)—all of which showed that 'puny Constantius' was no Christian, but the image of the Antichrist (74.1 ).JS From denunciation of Constantius, Athanasius slides easily to denigration of the Melitians, his original foes in Alexandria in the early years of his episcopate (78/9). Finally a documentary appendix quotes two formal protests which the Christians of Alexandria submitted on Athanasius* behalf in February 356 (81: the first has been lost in transmission).

Athanasius naturally devoted much space to the vicissitudes of his own career between 339 and 346 (8-28). He also selected the cases of Liberius and Ossius for special treatment. Liberius resisted the blandishments of the eunuch Eusebius and refused to condemn Athanasius: the History of the Arians invents a speech of firm defiance. When Liberius then refused to accept the bribe previously dangled before him as an offering at the shrine of Saint Peter, Eusebius was annoyed and induced the emperor to summon the bishop from Rome. Despite resistance in the city, Liberius was dragged before Constantius, whom he defied. After two years of exile, however, he succumbed to the fear of being murdered, and subscribed (35-41). The aged Ossius also resisted bravely and doggedly. Yet he too was eventually broken by imprisonment and violence. After being detained a whole year at Sirmium, Ossius agreed to hold communion with Ursacius, Valens, and their associates, although he still would not subscribe against Athanasius (42-45). That corresponds to the truth. Liberius left Rome in autumn 355, saw Constantius at Milan, and was exiled to Beroea in Thrace: when he subscribed to the decisions of the Council of Sirmium of 351, he was allowed to return to Rome, which he reentered on 2 August 357.39 Ossius (it may be inferred from Athanasius) never subscribed to the decisions of the Council of Sirmium of 351: he put his name to the 'blasphemy' of 357. Again, the distortion is recognisable, but the original reality could not be recovered from Athanasius' depiction of it alone.

In ever)' section of the History,■ Athanasius employs the technique of invented speeches or invented dialogue. He uses it most effectively, not in long speeches such as that put into the mouth of Liberius, but in short, snappy sentences which lampoon his opponents' motives. Three examples of some historical importance will illustrate. First, the Arians approached Constantius in 338/9 as the patron of their heresy:

Spare the heresy. You see that all have deserted us: few of us are left. Start to persecute, for we have been abandoned even by these few and are isolated. Those whom we compelled after these men had been banished, the exiles have again persuaded on their return to take sides against us. Write then against them all, and send Philagrius as prefect of Egypt for the second time, for he can persecute properly, since he has already shown it in practise, and especially because he is an apostate. And send Gregory as bishop to Alexandria, for he too can sustain our heresy. (9.2/3)

Second, the eastern bishops a: Serdica in 343:

We came for one result and see another. We arrived with comités and the trial is proceeding without comités: we arc being completely condemned. You all know our orders. The Athanasians possess the records from the Mareotis by which he is cleared and we are put to shame. Why then do we hesitate? Why do we delay? Let us invent excuses and depart, lest by remaining we be condemned. It is better to flee in shame than to be convicted and condemned as false accusers. If we flee, we can still champion our heresy in some way: even if they condemn us for fleeing, we still have the emperor as our patron, who will not allow us to be expelled from our churches by our congregations. (15.5)

Third, Constantius to the bishops who refused to condemn Athanasius or hold communion with heretics at Milan in 355:

Whatever I wish, let that be considered a binding rule [of the church). The so-called bishops of Syria agree with me when I speak thus. Therefore, either obey or you too will become exiles. (33.7)

It is inconceivable that either the eastern bishops or Constantius used such words: the former cannot have styled themselves heretics, nor can the latter have questioned their right to be called bishops. Athanasius puts into the mouths of his adversaries what he believes their real reasoning to have been—in his own words.40 Such invented utterances in the History of the Arians fall into a pattern of painting Constantius as an Arian emperor and the principal patron of the Arian heresy.

Athanasius is unfair to Constantius. That must be conceded. But what here is the reality which he distorts? It will not suffice to challenge Athanasius' characterisation of the Arian emperor and his motives, while accepting most of his narrative of imperial actions.41 For the distortions vitally affect the narrative:

when Athanasius has systematically avoided reporting the decisions of eastern church councils (or at least has avoided reporting them as such), then it becomes no easy matter to define Constantius* role in ecclesiastical politics. Nevertheless, two guiding principles of imperial policy can be discerned, which Constantius inherited from Constantine. First, the emperor both showed an interest in defining true belief and believed that God had given him the duty of propagating it. Constantius attended councils which discussed credal matters, and took part in attempts to define an acceptable orthodoxy: if he overstepped the mark in promoting a homoean creed in 359,42 that may be a sign of his exasperation with disputing bishops—and permits no inference back to his policy in earlier years. Second, Constantius both consistently observed and explicitly reasserted the principle that a bishop could be condemned and deposed only by a council of his peers, whatever the charge.43 The principal defect of the History of the Ariatts as history is that it consistently denies this central fact.

Athanasius is also inconsistent. His constant complaint that the emperor interferes in the affairs of the church is not in fact directed against interference as such, but against imperial actions of which he disapproves. He commends the imperial restoration of exiled bishops in 337 (8.1), which was clearly uncanoni-cal and condemned as such by contemporaries: bishops deposed by a council of bishops ought to be reinstated only by a similar body or court.44 Athanasius implicitly asserts that emperors have a right to overrule church councils—provided that they do so in the interest of orthodoxy rather than heresy. Instead of the complexities of the real world of the fourth century, the History of the Ariatts propounds a simplistic disjunction:

If there is a decision by bishops, what concern has the emperor with it?

But if it is merely a threat from the emperor what need in that case for the so-called bishops? (52.3)

Athanasius avoids the real ambiguities and vicissitudes of his career in order to make the false and barefaced claim that he has never been condemned by an ecclesiastical verdict, only persecuted for his devotion to Christ by imperial fiat (1.2).

The content of theological discussion changed radically around 360 and rendered the debates of the 340s and 350s out-of-date. Until c. 360 controversy centred on Christology; thereafter the issue became one of trinitarian theology. What is the relation of the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son? The problem was posed, debated, and solved to the satisfaction of the vast majority of the theologically aware very quickly.45 When the Council of Constantinople met in 381, the issue was dead. And so was the classic 'Arianism* which Athanasius opposed throughout his long episcopate, at least as an intellectual force within the Greek-speaking eastern empire. If those who rejected the hotnoousion tended to subordinate the Son to the Father, a fortiori they so subordinated the

Holy Spirit as to lose any sense of equal persons in a threefold godhead.

Athanasius acutely saw and seized upon this flaw while he was in exile. Serapion wrote to him in the desert about certain Christians who held views which appear to derive from indoctrination by Aetius and Eunomius, who were active in Alexandria c. 357. These tropici (as Athanasius calls them) forsook the Arians, but still continued to assert that the Holy Spirit is a creature, a ministering spirit, a superior type of angel.46 Athanasius wrote a long letter, then two briefer ones, to Serapion setting out his doctrine of the Holy Spirit. He had always assumed a trinitarian position. Now he made it explicit. The long letter disproves the deductions which the tropici have made from their proof-texts (Amos 4:13; 1 Timothy 5:21), then transcends their dilemma that the Spirit must be either creature or son, and finally argues the case for 'the holy and indivisible Trinity' from scripture and the tradition and life of the church. Athanasius argues with force and clarity. But some of those who wished to use his arguments found the exposition too long. Athanasius accordingly composed a briefer letter which distills the longer treatment into a more systematically anti-Arian format: here Athanasius argues first that the Son is not a creature, then that the Spirit is not a creature either. Finally, in response to a further letter from Serapion informing him that the tropici were still employing their dilemma, Athanasius supplied the brief refutation which his second letter had omitted. These Letters to Serapion show Athanasius at his best, in the loft)' realms of theological speculation, where he always retains a tone of hard-headed moderation.47 They are also a valuable document for the intellectual life of Alexandria, where theological argument was an everyday occurrence.

Athanasius' 'letter on the councils which took place at Ariminum in Italy and Seleucia in Isauria' spans the two realms of polemic and theology. Athanasius was writing in the late autumn of 359: although he later (apparently after 3 November 361) added a postscript containing the exchange of letters between Constantius and the Council of Ariminum (55), and a passage in the middle of the work which quotes the creed of the Council of Constantinople (January 360) and discusses the Council of Antioch held in the spring of 360 (30/1), most of On the Councils was written after he received news of the Council of Seleucia (which broke up on 1 October), but before he learned of Constantius' reception of the envoys from the Council of Ariminum.48 Athanasius wrote On the Councils of Ariminum and Seleucia for a very immediate and very practical purpose—to make common cause with the homoeousians of Asia Minor. It would be optimistic to suppose that the work had an immediate impact, or even that it reached Athanasius' potential allies before events overtook it. But it marks a significant change of position: Athanasius was now seeking an alliance with bishops who had condemned and deposed him in 351, and whom he had recently been denouncing as Arians in virulent language.

The work falls into three entirely separate parts. The first comprises a brief account of the two councils, every bit as tendentious as the History of the

Arians, though somewhat less abusive. Athanasius makes great play with the 'dated creed' of 22 May 359 (3/4), as if the catholic faith had suddenly been revealed on a specified day of the current year. And he reiterates his long-held view that any council which considers the faith is either futile or dangerous, since it will either repeat the Nicene creed or subvert it (5-7). The account of the Council of Ariminum contrasts the dishonesty of those who framed and presented the 'dated creed' with the firm letter of the council to Constantius defending the Nicene creed and deposing Ursacius, Valens, Gaius, Germinius, and Auxentius (8-11). For events at Seleucia, Athanasius provides a summary narrative without documents, and contrasts the resolution of the bishops at Ariminum with the fickleness of Eudoxius, Acacius, and their allies who disown the Council of Nicaea (12.1-14.3).

The second section of On the Councils argues that the Arian heresy which the majority at Seleucia has condemned in 359 is in all important respects identical with the heresy of Arius himself and his original sympathisers, which the Council of Nicaea condemned. Athanasius had long believed this thesis: now he quotes Arius himself (selectively and at length), Eusebius of Nicomedia, Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius of Anazarbus, George of Laodicea, and the sophist Asterius (also at some length) to show that the Acacians of 359 are advocating precisely the same doctrines (15-19). And he quotes a long series of creeds to show how the Arians have tried to replace the Nicene formula for many years (21-28). Athanasius* comments on the documents are misleading, for not all are creeds, and he presents them all as due to mere whim, ignoring their political and theological contexts. The documents quoted are the following:

(1) part of the synodical letter of the Council of Jerusalem in 335, which readmitted Arius;

(2) part of the letter which the Council of Antioch in 341 wrote to Julius of Rome;

(3) the creed from the synodical letter of the same council;

(4) a creed submitted to the same council by Theophronius of Tyana;

(5) the creed drawn up at Antioch in 342 and sent to Constans in Gaul;

(6) the 'long creed* drawn up by the Council of Antioch in 344;

(7) the creed and anathemas of the Council of Sirmium in 351;

(8) the theological manifesto drawn up at Sirmium in 357, in the names of Ossius and Potamius.49

In Athanasius' exposition, all these documents are the work of the same group of bishops, perennially dissatisfied with their existing creed. The only alternative, Athanasius urges, is to acknowledge the Council of Nicaea.

The third section of On the Councils of Ariminum and Seleucia addresses itself to the key words homoousios and homoiousios. Athanasius argues against Eudoxius and Acacius that if the Son really is 'like' the Father (as they assert), then he must also be of the same essence.50 He defends the Nicene term, but also claims that there is no serious difference between calling the Son homoousios with the Father and defining the relationship as homoiousios. Accordingly, those who prefer the latter term are neither Arians nor heretics, but should be treated like brothers who have a friendly disagreement. Athanasius compares the two terms in conciliatory tones, arguing amicably but firmly that the Council of Nicaea chose the correct word (32-54).

Athanasius was thus not unaffected by the theological changes of the late 350s. By late 359 he welcomed as allies men who had long been enemies. His vocabulary shows an internal shift which reflects his change of attitude. In all of his earlier writings, including the History of the Arians, the word 'Arian' denotes anyone who condemned Athanasius and who was not a Melitian—a category which originally coincided with those who also thought that Arius should not be treated as a heretic. But On the Councils of Arimmum and Seleucia restricts the term 'Arian* to homoeans and anomoeans. The Athanasius who returned from exile in 362 was ready to cooperate with men who had deposed him, and he was prepared to forget the condemnation at Sirmium in 351, reiterated in 353/4 and 355, which had dominated both ecclesiastical and imperial politics for the greater part of the sixth decade of the fourth century.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Responses

  • Enzo Buccho
    What is polemic theology?
    1 year ago

Post a comment