HEROES OF THE FOURTH CENTURY: I. ST. ATHANASIUS OF ALEXANDRIA

 

The World Of The Fourth Century

January and February are months in which the Church celebrates the feast days of a number of saints who lived in the fourth century. These men — St. Basil the Great (January 1), St. Gregory of Nyssa (January 10), St. Antony the Great (January 17), St. Athanasius the Great (January 18), St. Gregory Nazianzen (January 25), and St. Meletius of Antioch (February 12) — were not merely great men and of interest in themselves, but they played a great role in the history of a century that is worth thoughtful consideration on the part of us people of the twentieth century.

There are many things about the fourth century that will remind us of our own day. The luxuries of education and material comforts were widely available. Political, social, and religious changes were causing great upheavals which engaged people in controversy. The expense of government and of war caused heavy taxes. The vast extent of the Roman empire was based on the conquests of Alexander the Great and the later Romans. In the fourth century the boundaries of the empire had been established for two centuries and the period of expansion, as in our own case, was over. The continuous wars were for defense against the barbarians, or as we would say today, against the "underdeveloped civilizations."

The extent of this remarkable empire was geographically as great as that of the United States, from Spain to Persia and from Britain to Libya. The miracle that made possible the organization of such a vast territory in a period before mechanized transportation or telephonic communication was the Roman system of government and law supported, of course, by its legions, but above all by the use of a universal language — Greek. The spread of Greek into Asia and Africa had followed the conquests of Alexander, and even in the days of the Roman Republic it was customary for every well-educated Roman to study Greek at one of the eastern schools of rhetoric.

 

Religion And The State

The fourth century, like our own, was one of tremendous changes, and its effect on the Christian Church was one which affects us even today. Until the end of the persecutions by the emperor Diocletian, who retired in 306, the Christian Church had been what we would call an "underground movement." The reason for the enmity of the state toward it was that it compromised the loyalty of citizens. While the institution of Roman law and government had great unifying force, the ancient as well as modern governments realized that something more than governing institutions is needed to inspire self-sacrifice; there must be an emotional appeal.

Until the fourth century this was supplied by the formal pagan ceremonies of respect for the gods and the emperor. Compliance with these forms was regarded as the least common denominator of loyalty to the state. Since this was generally devoid of emotional appeal, people resorted to other sources for their religious satisfaction. Some of these sources were systems of philosophy which were highly moral and lofty in their ideals of self-restraint and good conduct, but were intellectual and rational. They had no cult or system of practices for emotional or aesthetic gratification. Other sources were the mystery religions, in which people found emotional satisfaction through ceremonials designed to bring them into communication with the divine. There was a great variety of these and many of them came from the east. Christianity had very formidable adversaries, but none of them at that time was universally accepted.

 

The Nicene Creed

Constantine perceived in Christianity an unusual force which inspired total loyalty in its members. It occurred to him that this could be used to advantage by the state to unify the loyalty of its people, but first it was necessary to have agreement about what the Christian faith was. In order to secure this agreement he called the Council of Nicaea (the First Ecumenical Council) in AD. 325. It was at the council that the first official Christian creed was put into writing, and it was during the next fifty-six years that the theology of the Christian Church was crystallized under attack and counter-attack.

By the time the emperor Theodosius called the Second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in AD. 381, several things happened. The center of the great empire had moved from Rome to Constantinople. The Latin west was becoming separated, not only in language but also in politics, because the pressure of barbarians was absorbing their attention. In the east the Arians and other sects hostile to the Orthodox tradition tried to alter the character of Christian theology as it was expressed in the Nicene Creed. Most of these efforts took the form of trying to rationalize, or make acceptable to logical "common sense" thought, the mysteries of the Holy Trinity and Christ's Incarnation. Their efforts were exactly like those of the theologians of today whose rationalization of these matters has led to the conclusion that for all practical purposes, "God is dead." The result of the fifty-six years of conflict in which St. Athanasius, St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Basil the Great, and St. Gregory of Nyssa took such a leading part was to determine that Christian theology should retain its basis of mystery and not become a system of logic. As Gregory of Nyssa said, "All religious truth consists in Mystery." Today the Christian Church is once more engaged in this same battle. In the fourth century as now, it was not a battle between the uneducated and the educated, between the poor and the privileged, it was a battle among educated people, many of whose families were divided upon the question of the relative value of paganism and Christianity, or Arianism and Christianity. It was a battle about which we cannot afford to be ignorant.

 

A New Era: Church And State

The emperor Constantine gave official approval to Christianity by his edict of toleration in A.D. 313. This edict had no bearing on his personal belief, for he did not become a Christian until 337, but it altered for all time the relationship between the Christian Church and the state. From this time on until the end of the empire in the east, the Church was never free of the patronage and the intervention of the emperor, and the history of the Church and of the empire are one. When Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea in 325, the choice of the site on the Asiatic side of the Bosphorus was in itself an admission that the center of the empire was no longer at Rome. He had already begun the work of restoring the ancient city of Byzantium which was to be consecrated in 330 as Constantinople, and which was to be the capital of the empire for the next 1100 years.

At the Council Constantine presided, and began by burning unread all the accusations of various bishops against each other. He made a strong plea for unity: above all he wanted to heal the various schisms and put an end once and for all to the arguments of the Arians. More than 300 bishops (traditionally 318) attended from all over the civilized world. This in itself was a triumph, but what was even more remarkable was the fact that all but two of the bishops gave assent with their signatures to the Nicene Creed as it was then decided upon.

"The victory won at Nicaea was decisive. Arianism started vigorously, and seemed for a while the winning side; but the moment it faced the council, it collapsed before the all but unanimous reprobation of the Christian Churches. The decision was free…and it was permanent. . .No later gathering could pretend to rival the august assembly where Christendom had once for all pronounced the condemnation of Arianism, and no later movements were able definitely to reverse the decision."

So writes the great English historian J. B. Bury (Cambridge Medieval History, vol. I, 124) but he also makes it clear that while the final outcome was indicated, no victory is won that does not require continuous effort to support it, and that it required sixty more years of controversy until the Council of Constantinople to defeat the militant forces of Arianism.

 

St. Athanasius And The Arians

The hero of the Council of Nicaea was the young deacon Athanasius of Alexandria. This great man was born in 297 and very likely remembered the great persecutions. He may, like St. Basil and St. Gregory Nazianzen, have been a lawyer before he entered the Church. In any case he was well educated in Greek literature and in the Scriptures. His vivid faith in the reality and meaning of Christ's Incarnation was the rock on which the Nicene Creed was based, and it was his firmness and that of a few other bishops which succeeded in establishing the form which the theology of the creed was to take. In spite of the outward appearance of unity which the council presented, and the obvious success of Athanasius and his party, the Arians were not defeated. They worked behind the political scene, seeing to it that the Orthodox bishops were ousted from their sees on some pretext or other and replaced by bishops who were favorable to the Arian cause.

The conflict between the Nicaeans and the Arians really represented a conflict between Christian theology, as the Orthodox Church understands it today, and the last phase in the decline of paganism. Arianism was the "common-sense" approach by means of logic to the mystery of the Holy Trinity and the Divinity of Christ. Paganism was still a very strong force and was associated in the minds of many educated people with the literature and philosophy of the ancient Greek civilization. Christianity had, in fact, adopted the best of what classical civilization had to offer, and the paganism of the fourth century was in practice a much different matter from what it had been in the classical period. But for the people of the time there was still an emotional connection between pagan culture and its religious context. Consequently Arius' ideas, which eliminated mystery from the concept of the Holy Trinity and made Christ a human being, appealed to many people because it restored the pagan concept of God. Arianism was, in fact, a compromise between paganism and Christianity, and for fifty years after the Council of Nicaea the Arians summoned innumerable councils (locally, not ecumenically) in order to alter the Orthodox definition of Christ as being of one substance with the Father. Ammianus Marcellinus, the historian of the reign of Constantine's successor Constantius, criticizes the emperor by saying that he threw the system of coach transportation out of gear because so many fresh relays were required to convey bishops to and from councils at state expense. Later in 382, Gregory Nazianzen refused to attend a new council to which he had been summoned on the ground that he "never saw any good end to a council nor any remedy of evil, but rather an addition of more evils as a result."

While this was a tribulation for the Church, it was only by being thus challenged to examine minutely every aspect of the newly proclaimed dogma and by overcoming all possible objections and arguments against it that it was possible for the Fathers of the Church to draw up a creed that could withstand the attacks of the centuries to came.

 

The Arian Plot Against Athanasius

St. Athanasius was the first to suffer for his faith. In AD. 328 he was elected Archbishop of Alexandria, the apostolic Patriarchate of St. Mark. His enemies were not resting. They succeeded in persuading a man named Arsenius, bishop of Hypsele, to go into retirement and remain concealed. Then they circulated the tale that he had been murdered by Athanasius, who had cut off his hand and was using it for magical purposes. They showed the hand as evidence. Athanasius wisely had the man tracked down to a monastery where he was hiding. Nevertheless, when the trial was held in answer to the appeal of Athanasius' enemies to Constantine, it looked as if things were to go badly for Athanasius for the judges were all opposed to him. Fortunately the accusers walked into a trap. They produced the "hand of Arsenius" and made a sensation in the courtroom.

"Did you know Arsenius personally?" Athanasius inquired of them.

"Oh yes," came the eager reply from several quarters.

Arsenius was ushered in alive, wrapped up in a cloak. Everyone awaited the explanation of how he had lost his hand. Athanasius turned up the man's cloak and exposed one hand; then, during a moment of breathless suspense, Athanasius lifted the cloak further and exposed the other hand, asking the accusers from whence they had cut off the third hand!

Even so, his enemies had an answer. They said that this was another example of Athanasius' witchcraft. He was forced to flee and appeal to the emperor at Constantinople. But again his enemies triumphed, for they suggested to Constantine that Athanasius was responsible f or delaying the grain shipments from Alexandria and causing crucial food shortages in the capital. Athanasius retired into exile at Treveri (Trier on the Moselle) where he remained until after the death of Constantine. He returned briefly in 337 but was again forced to retire in 338. The new emperor Constantius, the son of Constantine, was a professed Arian, and the Arian forces were encouraged to denounce Athanasius again. They even went so far as to claim that the holy hermit, St. Antony, was also opposed to him, but St. Antony proved them wrong by leaving the seclusion of his ascetic life in the Egyptian desert and appearing in Alexandria for two days, defending Athanasius and denouncing the Arian heresy.

This time Athanasius was in exile for seven years. He spent the time in Italy, Rome and Milan. There were good reasons for this. The western Churchmen had never felt sympathy with Arianism because for most purposes they spoke Latin and did not really understand the Greek words on which the controversy was based. Their loyalty to the Nicene Council was on the strength of its authenticity as a council. Furthermore, Constantius' brother Constans who was co-emperor in the west was favorable to Athanasius and the Nicene faith. It was through the offices of Constans that a synod was summoned at Sardica (the modern Sofia in Bulgaria) in order to review the cases of exiles like Athanasius. The synod dismissed the charges against the Nicene bishops and upheld the Nicene creed, refusing to add anything by way of explanation to the text already adopted. As a result of the plotting and counter-plotting, even Constantius relented in his stand against the Nicenes and promised to restore Athanasius to his see. Athanasius, when he was finally convinced of Constantius' good intentions, went to Antioch to meet the emperor and from there returned to Alexandria in triumph. Constantius at that time had his headquarters in Antioch where he was in a better position to deal with the Persians who were attacking the eastern boundary of the empire.

 

The Golden Decade

Athanasius' return to Alexandria on October 21, 346, was the great triumph of his life. With it began nine years, three months, and nineteen days of peaceful and fruitful labor in his diocese, uninterrupted by exile. It was the longest such period in the fortyfive years of his episcopate. He was welcomed with such tumultuous enthusiasm by his people that a kind of spiritual revival swept over the entire community. "How many widows and how many orphans, who were before hungry and naked, now through the great zeal of the people were no longer hungry, and went forth clothed!" … "In a word, so great was their effort in virtue that you would have thought every family and every house a Church by reason of the goodness of its inmates and the prayers which were offered to God." (History of the Arians, ch. 25)

One of the most interesting features of "the golden decade," as this period of Athanasius' episcopate was called, was the tremendous growth of monasticism. In a period that required political leaders and devoted citizens more than anything else, many people left all the concerns of the world and retired to a life of solitude and contemplation. Monasticism had been established in the Egyptian desert some time before, and men like St. Basil, St. Gregory Nazianzen, and St. John Chrysostom not only themselves professed the monastic life, but visited the monasteries of Egypt. St. Antony was already an old man, and St. Pachomius had died in 346, but Athanasius placed himself at the head of this movement and prevented it from falling into a pattern too remotely separated from church life. He also derived a great deal of support from the monastics, which was later to stand him in good stead, and from time to time he filled vacancies in the episcopate with monks. During this same period church membership increased enormously, so that the Arians found further grounds for criticizing Athanasius when he used the unfinished Church of the Caesareum in order to contain the vast crowds that showed up at Easter.

In A.D. 350 the cause of Athanasius suffered a severe blow when Constans was murdered by the troops of the upstart son of a barbarian freedman named Magnentius who declared himself western emperor in Constans' place. Magnentius tried to invite the support of Alexandria by approaching Athanasius for his approval, but Athanasius rejected the plea and expressed his loyalty to Constantius. Constantius was in turn less loyal. After the great and disastrous battle at Mursa in Pannonia in 351 in which both sides lost staggering numbers of men, Constantius reversed his tolerant attitude toward the Nicene party. Their predicament was increased when a Pannanian general named Valens began to organize Arian dissent in the western empire. After two years of trying to undermine Athanasius by guile, the emperor sent his secretary to Alexandria to try to force the people to give him up. This they adamantly refused to do, and the emperor resorted to force.

 

Further Persecution

On the eve of February 8, 356, Athanasius was celebrating services preceding the Liturgy on the morning following. The church was packed, when suddenly armed forces surrounded the building, and the doors were broken in. A general named Syrianus suddenly came with more than five thousand soldiers, according to Athanasius' account, armed with swords, bows, spears and clubs. With these he surrounded the church, stationing his soldiers so that no one could leave the church without passing by them. Athanasius dismissed the idea of trying to escape or of avoiding danger to himself. He seated himself upon the episcopal throne and asked the deacon to intone the 136th Psalm, and the people to respond to the verses with "For His mercy endureth forever" and then to depart quietly home.

While this was in progress the general forced his entry and stationed soldiers around the sanctuary for the purpose of seizing Athanasius. Clergy and laity alike cried out for him to withdraw, but he refused, saying that he would not do so until they had all departed first. Gradually the people departed, leaving only the monks and clergy. "And thus," continues Athanasius' account, "truth is my witness, while some of the soldiers stood about the sanctuary and others were going around the church, we passed through under the Lord's guidance, and with His protection withdrew without observation, greatly glorifying God that we had not betrayed the people, but had first sent them away, and then had been able to save ourselves and to escape the hands of those who sought after us."

Again Athanasius went into exile, this time into the Egyptian desert, whose inhabitants had became his loyal supporters over the past ten years. The emperor's scouts investigated every corner as far as they were able, but no one betrayed the beloved bishop. In his absence the churches were seized by the Arians and their own bishops and clergy installed. Nevertheless, this period of exile was a fruitful one for Athanasius. Most of his large output of writings was accomplished during these years.

 

Julian The Apostate

Finally in A.D. 362 the picture changed again. Constantius died, and in his place his nephew Julian became emperor. Julian and his brother Gallus had been raised almost as prisoners in a castle in Cappadocia as a precaution against political troubles. Their tutor was a pagan and an ardent classicist. The miseries of his youthful life affected Julian in such a way that he reacted strongly against his inherited Christian faith. In 351 he was initiated into the mysteries of Mithras, a Persian mystery cult, and upon succeeding to the imperial throne at the age of thirty-one, he devoted himself wholeheartedly to the suppression of Christianity in every form. He reestablished the pagan forms of public worship, removed Christians from his entourage, and tried to turn the clock back to the fifth century B.C.

His policy was not destined to succeed, for four centuries of the Christian Church had made an unalterable change in the habits and attitudes of many thousands of people. He, like the other emperors who did not understand the sources of the vitality of the Christian Church and its ability to withstand adversity, made the mistake of thinking that by revoking the exile of the Nicene bishops and allowing them to return, he could multiply the internal dissensions of the Church and help to destroy it.

 

The Fourth Exile

When Athanasius heard of Julian's edict restoring Christian bishops to their homes and property, he returned to Alexandria where he was ardently received by his people. Julian was furious. He wrote to the governor of Egypt, "By all the gods, nothing could give me more pleasure than that you should expel from every corner of Egypt that criminal Athanasius, who has dared, during my reign, to baptize Greek wives of illustrious citizens. He must be persecuted." Athanasius was again driven into the Egyptian desert, but not until after he had convened the Council of Alexandria which, as St. Jerome said, "snatched the world from the jaws of Satan by attaching to the Church many who might otherwise have been driven back to the Arians."

Athanasius' friends stood around lamenting their bishop's fourth departure into exile. "Be of good cheer," he told them, "it is only a cloud, and will soon pass away."

He escaped in a boat and started up the Nile, but when it was evident that government officers were following, he asked that the boat reverse its course. The officers presently came alongside and, without suspecting anything wrong, asked if Athanasius had been seen.

"He is not far off," replied the man himself. Athanasius could enjoy a joke even in a time of danger.

Athanasius was right about the cloud. A new months later Julian traveled to Antioch in preparation for an attack on the Persians. His objective was Ctesiphon, but he never reached it. He was killed and his body brought back and buried in Tarsus. The captain of the imperial guard, a good-natured incompetent named Jovian was hailed as emperor in his stead.

 

The Fifth Exile

Athanasius traveled to Edessa and Antioch to receive the new emperor's permission to return to his see. In the spring of 365 he returned peacefully to Alexandria. Jovian did not survive as emperor long enough to reach the capital, but was found dead of charcoal smoke in his bedroom on February 16, 364. His successor, the emperor Valens, the western general who followed Magnentius, reverted to the policy of Constantius. His first act was to order under penalty of a heavy fine the return into exile of all those bishops who had been restored to their sees by Julian. The officers who made their way to Athanasius' apartment to seize him were foiled, for he had been forewarned and escaped, but the people were indignant. For a month there were riots and demonstrations. Valens had his hands full defending the imperial boundaries and did not dare risk such popular discontent. Athanasius was recalled and spent the last years of his life until his death in A.D. 373 enjoying a well-earned peace.

 

The Triumph of a Hero

He had survived five exiles; he had lived under five emperors and strongly challenged three; but neither the miseries of exile nor the wearisomeness of fifty years' controversy diminished his patience and good nature. He readily forgave those who had wronged him, and as soon as his trials and tribulations abated, he was always soon his cheerful and agreeable self.

During the latter years of his life he carried on a considerable correspondence with St. Basil the Great concerning the Church's difficulties in Antioch, the see of Meletius, and in Asia Minor, where Basil and the two St. Gregories were. The problem of Arianism had been disposed of in Alexandria and in the Latin west, where it had never been as great a problem, but the churches of Asia Minor and the Levant still had a great battle ahead of them.

From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
January 1968
pp. 11-15

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