Open main menu

Page:Catholic Encyclopedia, volume 2.djvu/59

This page needs to be proofread.


ATHANASIUS


37


ATHANASIUS


episcopate of St. Peter, and whose teachings had succeeded in making dangerous headway, even among "the consecrated virgins" of St. Mark's see (Epiph. Haer., Ixix; See, Hist. EccL, I, vi), accused Bishop Alexander of Sabellianism. Arius, who seems to have presumed on the charitable tolerance of tlie primate, was at length deposed (Apol. c. Ar., vi) in a synod consisting of more than one hundred bishops of Egypt and Libya (Depositio Ar., 3). The con- demned heresiareh withdrew first to Palestine and afterwards to Bithynia, where, under the protection of Eusebius of Nicomedia and his other "CoUucian- ists",he was able to increase his already remarkable influence, while his friends were endeavouring to prepare a way for his forcible reiiLstatement as priest of the Alexandrian Church. Athanasius, though only in deacon's orders, must have taken no subordinate part in these events. He was the trusted secretary and adviser of Alexander, and his name appears in the list of those who signed the encyclical letter sub- sequently issued by the primate and his colleagues to offset the growing prestige of the new teaching, and the momentum it was beginning to acquire from the ostentatious patronage extended to the deposed Arius by the Eusebian faction. Indeed, it is to this party and to the leverage it was able to exercise at the emperor's court that the subsequent importance of Arianism as a political, rather than a religious, movement seems primarily to be due.

The heresy, of course, had its supposedly philo- sophic basis, which has been ascribed by authors, ancient and modern, to the most opposite sources. St. Epiphanius characterizes it as a kind of revived Aristoteleanism (Haer., Ixvii and Ixxvi); and the same view is practically held by Socrates (Hist. Eccl., II, xxxv), Theodoret (Haer. Fab., IV, iii), and St. Basil (Adv. Eunom., I, ix). On the other hand, a theologian as broadly read as Peta\'ius (De Trin., I, viii, 2) has no hesitation in deriving it from Pla- tonism ; Nemnan in turn (Arians of the Fourth Cent., 4 ed., 109) sees in it the influence of Jewish prejiidices rationalized by the aid of Aristotelean ideas; while Robertson (Sel. Writ, and Let. of Ath. Proleg., 27) observes that the "common theology", which was invariably opposed to it, "borrowed its philosophical principles and metliod from the Pla- tonists. " These apparently conflicting statements could, no doubt, be easily adjusted; but the truth is that the prestige of Arianism never lay in its ideas. From whatever school it may have been logically derived, the sect, as a sect, was cradled and nurtured in intrigue. Save in some few instances, which can be accounted for on quite other grounds, its prophets relied more upon curial influence than upon piety, or Scriptural knowledge, or dialectics. That must be borne constantly in mind, if we would not move distractedly through the bewildering maze of events that make up the life of Athanasius for the next half century to come. It is his peculiar merit that he not only saw the drift of things from the very beginning, but was confident of the issue down to the last (Apol. c. Ar., c). His insight and courage proved almost as efficient a bulwark to the Christian Church in the world as did his singularly lucid grasp of traditional Catholic belief. His oi> portunity came in the year 32.5, when the Emperor Constantine, in the hope of putting an end to the scandalous debates that were disturbing the peace of the Church, met the ]jrelates of the entire Cath- olic world in council at Nica>a.

The great council convoked at this jimcture was something more than a pivotal event in the history of Christianity. Its sudden, and, in one sense, almost unpremeditated adoption of a q\iasi-philosophic and non-Scriptural term — dfj.ooij<not> — to express the charac- ter of orthodox belief in the Person of the historic Christ, by defining Him to be identical in substance, or


co-essential, with the Father, together with its confi- dent appeal to the emperor to lend the sanction of his authority to the decrees and pronouncements by which it hoped to safeguard this more explicit pro- fession of the ancient Faith, had consequences of the gravest import, not only to the world of ideas, but to the world of politics as well. By the official pro- mulgation of the term homoousion, theological spec- ulation received a fresh but subtle impetus which made itself felt long after Athanasius and his su[i- porters had passed away; while the appeal to the secular .inn inaugurated a policy which endured practically without change of scope down to the publication of the Vatican decrees in our own time. In one sense, and that a very deep and ^ ital one, both the definition and the policy were inevitable. It was inevitable in the order of religious ideas that any break in logical continuity should be met by inquiry and protest. It was just as inevitable that the protest, to be effective, should receive some coun- tenance from a power which up to that moment had affected to regulate all the graver circiunstances of life (cf. Harnack, Hist. Dog., Ill, 146, note; Bu- chanan's tr.). As Newman has remarked: "The Church could not meet together in one, without en- tering into a sort of negotiation with the powers that be; whose jealousy it is the duty of Christians, both as individuals and as a body, if possible, to dispel" (Arians of the Fourth Cent., 4 ed., 241). Athanasius, though not yet in priest's orders, ac- companied .Alexander to the council in the character of secretary and theological adviser. He was not, of course, the originator of the famous homoousion. The term had been proposed in a non-obvious and illegitimate sense by Paul of Samosata to the Fathers at Antioch, and had been rejected by them as savour- ing of materialistic conceptions of the Godhead (cf. Athan., "De Svn.," xliii; Newman, "Arians, of the Fourth Cent., ""4 ed., 184-196; Petav. "De Trin.," IV, V, § 3; Robertson, "Sel. Writ, and Let. Athan. Proleg.", 30 sqq.).

It may even be questioned whether, if left to his own logical instincts, Athanasius would have sug- gested an orthodox revival of the term at all ("De Decretis", 19; "Orat. c. Ar. ",ii,32; "AdMonachos ", 2). His writings, composed during the forty-six critical years of his episcopate, show a very sparing use of the word; and though, as Newman (Arians of the Fourth Cent., 4 ed., 236) reminds us, "the authentic account of the proceedings" that took place is not extant, there is nevertheless abundant evidence in support of the common view that it had been imexpectedly forced upon the notice of the bishops, Arian and orthodox, in the great .synod by Constantine 's proposal to accept the creed submitted by Eusebius of Cxsarea, with the addition of the homoousion, as a safeguard against possible vagueness. The suggestion had in all prolj- ability come from Hosius (cf. "Epist. Eusebii. ", in the appendix to the " De Decretis", § 4; Soc, "Hist. Eccl.", I, viii; III, vii; Theod. "Hist. Eccl.", I, Athan.; "Arians of the Fourth Cent.", 6, n. 42; ovros tt/i/ ^y NiKo/? irlcTTiv i^iOtTo. says the saint, quoting his opponents); but Athanasius, in common with the leaders of the orthodox party, loyally accepted the term as expressive of the traditional sense in which the Church had always held Jesus Christ to be the Son of God. The conspicuous abilities displayed in the Niesan debates and the character for courage and sincerity he won on all sides made the youthful cleric henceforth a marked man (St. Greg. Naz., Orat., 21). His life could not be lived in a corner. Five months after the close of the council the Pri- mate of .\lexandria died; and Athanasius, quite as much in recognition of his talents, it would appear, as in deference to the death-bed wishes of the de- ceased prelate, was chosen to succeed him. His elec- tion, in spite of his extreme youth and the opposition