§10. Last Years, Feb. 1, 366–May 2, 373.
Athanasius now entered upon the last septennium of his life, a well-earned Sabbath of honoured peace and influence for good. Little occurred to disturb his peace at home, and if the confusion and distress of the Eastern Church under Valens could not but cause him anxiety, in Egypt at any rate, so long as he lived, the Catholic Faith was secure from molestation.
In 367 Lucius, who had been ordained Bishop of Alexandria by the Arian party at Antioch, made an attempt to enter the city. He arrived by night on Sept. 24, but on the following day the public got wind of his presence in Alexandria, and a dangerous riot was imminent. A strong military force rescued him from the enraged mob, and on Sept. 26 he was escorted out of Egypt. In the previous year a heathen riot had taken place and the great Church in the Cæsareum had been burned. But in May, 368, the building was recommenced (the incendiaries having been punished) under an Imperial order.
On Sept. 22, 368, Athanasius began to build a Church in the quarter Mendidium (perhaps in commemoration of his completion of the 40th year of his Episcopate, see Hist. Aceph. xii.), which was dedicated Aug. 7, 370, and called after his own name.
In 368 or the following year we place the Synod at which Athanasius drew up his letter to the bishops of Africa giving an account of the proceedings at Nicæa, and mentioning his dissatisfaction at the continued immunity enjoyed by Auxentius at Milan (see p. 488).
Our knowledge of the last years of the life of Athanasius is derived partly from his own letters (59–64), partly from the scanty data of his latest works, partly from the letters of Synesius and Basil. From Synesius (Ep. 77) we hear of the case of Siderius, a young officer from the army who was present in Libya on civil duty. The Bishop of Erythrum, Orion by name, was in his dotage, and the inhabitants of two large villages in the diocese, impatient of the lack of supervision, clamoured for a bishop of their own, and for the appointment of Siderius. Siderius was accordingly consecrated by a certain Bishop Philo alone, without the canonical two assistants, and without the cognisance of Athanasius. But in view of the immense utility of the appointment Athanasius overlooked its irregularity, and even promoted Siderius to the Metropolitan see of Ptolemais, merging the two villages upon Orions death once more into their proper diocese. (Fuller details D.C.B. iv. 777, sq.) But if Athanasius was no slave to ecclesiastical discipline when the good of the church was in question, he enforced it unsparingly in the interest of morality. An immoral governor of Libya was sternly excommunicated and the fact announced far and wide. We have the reply of Basil the Great, who in 370 had become Bishop of Cæsarea in Cappadocia, to this notification, and from this time frequent letters passed between the champions of the Old and of the New Nicene orthodoxy. Unhappily we have none of the letters of Athanasius: those of Basil shew us that the loss is one to be deplored. The correspondence bore partly on the continuance of the unhappy schism at Antioch. Basil asks for the mediation of Athanasius; if he could not bring himself to write a letter to the bishops in communion with Meletius, he might at least use his influence with Paulinus and prevail upon him to withdraw. He also presses Meletius to take the initiative in conciliation: possibly he did so, at least one of Basils letters is sent by the hand of one of Meletius deacons (Bas. Epp. 60, 66, 69, 80, 82, 89). But nothing came of the application: Meletius probably felt injured at the strong support Athanasius had given to Paulinus, even in so questionable an affair as that of Diodorus of Tyre (supra, §9, and cf. Letter 64); while Athanasius was too deeply committed to surrender Paulinus, who again was the last man to yield of his own accord (Thdt. H. E. v. 23).
Basil obtained the good offices of Athanasius in his attempt to induce the bishops of Rome and the West to give him some support in his efforts against heresy in the East; but the failure here was due to the selfishness and arrogance of the Westerns. (Epp. 61, 67).
Basil was also troubled with the continued refusal of Athanasius and the Westerns to repudiate Marcellus, who was still living in extreme old age, and to whom the mass of the people at Ancyra were attached (Bas. Ep. 266, Legat. Eugen. 1, ἀναρίθμητον πλῆθος). This state of things, he urged, kept alive the prejudice of many against the Nicene decrees (Ep. 69). But the Marcellians, perhaps aware of the efforts of Basil, sent a deputation, headed by the deacon Eugenius, and fortified by letters from the bishops of Macedonia and Achaia, to Alexandria. A synod was apparently in readiness to receive them, and upon demand they produced a statement of their faith, emphatically adopting the Nicene creed, condemning Sabellius, but affirming an ἐν ὑποστάσει τριάδα. The distinction between Λόγος and the Son is rejected, and the idea that the Monad existed before the Son anathematised. Photinus is classed as a heretic with Paul of Samosata. Only the eternal duration of Christs kingdom is not mentioned. (It may be noted that while this letter gives up many points of the theology of Marcellus, the process is quite completed in a letter submitted by the Marcellian community in 375 to some exiled Egyptian bishops at Diocæsarea 86 ; Epiph. Hær. 72, 11). Athanasius accepted the confession, and the assembled bishops subscribed their names (only a few p. lxiii signatures are preserved). While we understand Basils regret at the refusal of Athanasius to condemn Marcellus, we can scarcely share it. If Athanasius shewed partiality toward his old ally, it was an error of generosity, or rather let us say a recognition of the truth, too often forgotten in religious controversy, that mistakes are not necessarily heresies, and that a man may go very far wrong in his opinions and yet be entitled to sympathy and respect.
Basil speaks of Athanasius in terms of unbounded veneration and praise, and Athanasius in turn rebukes those who attempted to disparage Basils orthodoxy, calling him a bishop such as any church might desire to call its own (p. 579 sq.).
During the last decade of his life the attention of Athanasius was drawn to the questions raised by the Arian controversy as to the human nature of our Lord. The Arian doctrine on this subject was apparently as old as Lucian, but the whole subject received little or no attention in the earlier stages of the controversy, and it was only with the rise of the Anomœan school that the questions came into formal discussion. In the later letters of Athanasius we see the traces of wide-spread controversy on the matter (especially in that to Epictetus, No. 59), and Apollinarius, bishop of the Syrian Laodicea, and a former close friend of Athanasius, whose legates in 362 had joined in condemning the Arian Christology, broached a peculiar theory on the subject, viz., that while Christ took a human soul along with His Body, the Word took the place of the human spirit, πνεῦμα (1 Thess. v. 23). The details of the system do not belong to our subject (an excellent sketch in Gwatkins Arian Controversy, pp. 136–141); in fact it was two years after the death of Athanasius when Apollinarius definitely founded a sect by consecrating a schismatic bishop for the already distracted Church of Antioch. But Athanasius marked with alarm the tendency of his friend, and in the very last years of his life wrote a tract against his tenet in two short books, in which, as in writing against Marcellus and Photinus 15 years before, he refrains from mentioning Apollinarius by name. It may be observed that at the close of the second book he brings himself for the first time to censure by name him they call Photinus, classing him along with Paul of Samosata.
Athanasius was active to the last; spiritually (we are not able to say physically) his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated. In his seventy-fifth year he entered (Ruf. ii. 3) upon the forty-sixth year of his episcopate. Feeling that his end was near, he followed the example of his revered predecessor Alexander, and named Peter as the man whom he judged fittest to succeed him; then on the seventh of Pachon 87 (May 2, 373) he departed this life in a wonderful manner.
For the best treatment of the document, see Zahn, p, 95. I am quite unable to follow the theory advanced in D. C. B. iii. 812; least of all the writers suggestion that Athanasius was egregiously duped (!) by Marcellus.lxiii:87
Fest. Ind. xlv. The Hist. Aceph. give May 3; probably he died after midnight; but May 2 is kept as his feast by the Copts and by the Western Church.