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Chapter IV.

The Theology of S. Athanasius

§1. General Considerations.

The theological training of Athanasius was in the school of Alexandria, and under the still predominant although modified influence of Origen (see above, pp. xiv., xxvii.). The resistance which the theology of that famous man had everywhere encountered had not availed, in the Greek-speaking churches of the East, to stem its influence; at the same time it had made its way at the cost of much of its distinctive character. Its principal opponent, Methodius, who represented the ancient Asiatic tradition, was himself not uninfluenced by the theology he opposed. The legacy of his generation to the Nicene age was an Origenism tempered in various degrees by the Asiatic theology and by accommodations to the traditional canon of ecclesiastical teaching. The degrees of this modification were various, and the variety was reflected in the indeterminate body of theological conviction which we find at the time of the outbreak of Arianism, and which, as already explained, lies at the basis of the reaction against the definition of Nicæa. The theology of Alexandria remained Origenist, and the Origenist character is purest and most marked in Pierius, Theognostus, and in the non-episcopal heads of the Alexandrian School. The bishops of Alexandria after Dionysius represent a more tempered Origenism. Especially this holds good of the martyred Peter, whom we find expressly correcting distinctive parts of the system of his spiritual ancestor. In Alexander of Alexandria, the theological sponsor of the young Athanasius, the combination of a fundamentally Origenist theology with ideas traceable to the Asiatic tradition is conspicuous 89 .

Athanasius, then, received his first theological ideas from Origenist sources, and in so far as he eventually diverged from Origen we must seek the explanation partly in his own theological or religious idiosyncrasy and in the influences which he encountered as time went on, partly in the extent to which the Origenism of his masters was already modified by different currents of theological influence.

To work out this problem satisfactorily would involve a separate treatise and a searching study, not only of Athanasius 90 but on the one hand of Origen and his school, on the other of Methodius and the earlier pre-Nicene theologians. What is here attempted is the more modest task of briefly drawing attention to some of the more conspicuous evidences of the process and to some of its results in the developed theology of the saintly bishop.

It has been said by Harnack that the theology of Athanasius underwent no development, but was the same from first to last. The truth of this verdict is I think limited by the fact that the Origenism of Athanasius distinctly undergoes a change, or rather fades away, in his later works. A non-Origenist element is present from the first, and after the contest with Arianism begins, Origen’s ideas recede more and more from view. Athanasius was influenced negatively by the stress of the Arian controversy: while the vague and loose Origenism of the current Greek theology inclined the majority of bishops to dread Sabellianism rather than Arianism, and to underrate the danger of the latter (pp. xviii., xxxv.), Athanasius, deeply p. lxix impressed, from personal experience, with the negation of the first principles of redemption which Arianism involved, stood apart from the first from the theology of his Asiatic contemporaries and went back to the authority of Scripture and the Rule of Faith. He was influenced positively by the Nicene formula, which represents the combination of Western with anti-Origenist Eastern traditions in opposition to the dominant Eastern theology. The Nicene formula found in Athanasius a mind predisposed to enter into its spirit, to employ in its defence the richest resources of theological and biblical training, of spiritual depth and vigour, of self-sacrificing but sober and tactful enthusiasm; its victory in the East is due under God to him alone.

Athanasius was not a systematic theologian: that is he produced no many-sided theology like that of Origen or Augustine. He had no interest in theological speculation, none of the instincts of a schoolman or philosopher. His theological greatness lies in his firm grasp of soteriological principles, in his resolute subordination of everything else, even the formula μοούσιος, to the central fact of Redemption, and to what that fact implied as to the Person of the Redeemer. He goes back from the Logos of the philosophers to the Logos of S. John, from the God of the philosophers to God in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. His legacy to later ages has been felicitously compared (Harnack, Dg. ii. 26, note) to that of the Christian spirit of his age in the realm of architecture. ‘To the many forms of architectural conception which lived in Rome and Alexandria in the fourth century, the Christian spirit added nothing fresh. Its achievement was of a different kind. Out of the many it selected and consecrated one; the multiplicity of forms it carried back to a single dominant idea, not so much by a change in the spirit of the art as by the restoration of Religion to its place as the central motive. It bequeathed to the art of the middle ages the Basilica, and rendered possible the birth of Gothic, a style, like that of the old Greek Temple, truly organic. What the Basilica was in the history of the material, the central idea of Athanasius has been in that of the spiritual fabric; an auspicious reduction, full of promise for the future, of the exuberant speculation of Greek theology to the one idea in which the power of religion then resided’ (ib. and pp. 22 sqq., freely reproduced).



To begin with, we have the interesting fact that Alexander studied the writings of Melito of Sardis, and even worked up his tract περὶ ψυχῆς καὶ σώματος εἰς τὸ πάθος into a homiletical discourse of his own, omitting such passages as seemed to savour of ‘modalism,’ (see Krüger in Zeitschr. f. wiss. Theol. 1888, p. 434, sqq.: his grounds are convincing). Secondly, the expressions attributed to him by Arius (in his letter to Euseb. Nic.), and his letter to his namesake of Byzantium, bear out the above statement.


The reader is requested to supplement the necessarily very slender treatment of the Athanasian theology in this chapter by referring to the General Index to this volume, as well as to the Index of Texts, for guidance to the passages of Athanasius which are needed to check, fill out, and qualify what is here presented only in broad outline.

Next: Fundamental ideas of man and his redemption.