Athanasius and Another “ism”

22 Sep

Before I get into this, let me apologize for not posting in three months. Every year, I start to get extremely busy around mid-June. In past years I’ve tried to keep posting and have ended up putting up some pretty weak stuff which largely consists of me talking about buying books. This year I said the heck with it and decided if I couldn’t post something decent, I wouldn’t post at all. This year was even worse than usual as we’ve been short a person in our office and it hasn’t rained much on weekends, meaning I’ve been spending most of my time outdoors. Now I have to get myself back into the habit of regular posting. Fortunately, I still have some Kalamazoo reports to put up and I have a couple of other things I’ve started. Just need to knock the rust off.

I’ve recently been reading up on Athanasius. I haven’t gotten through his source material yet but I wanted to share something from David Gwynn’s Athanasius of Alexander. I’ve not been shy about putting up posts where I talk about my unease when I come across various “isms” or how I’ve developed a distrust of historical models. As I learn more about this stuff I’m constantly discovering that various processes of social development are far more complex than their models and/or “isms” indicate. This is no longer a surprise and these days, when faced with one of these which I consider important to whatever it is that I’m reading about at the moment, one of my first inclinations is to try to find out if these sorts of depictions are accurate. Now this isn’t to say that using models, or words that end in “ism” should be stricken from use. My caution is that a) these depictions are almost always more complex and nuanced than a general characterization can provide and b) be very skeptical when you read something in which the author or authors appear to have viewed specific evidence through a model or ism-tinted lens. The evidence must first be examined on its own terms and only after this should it be compared to a model. And yes, this will also vary depending on if this evidence is central to the author's argument or secondary. Historians can't go back and re-work everything; they have to rely on the work of others. Heck, I’m about to try to summarize Athanasius and his influence on our (non-specialist/amateur) concept of Arianism in a thousand words. If I was too worried about over-generalizing something, I wouldn’t even write this.

So I was not particularly surprised, though I was pleased, when Gwynn spent a significant portion of this book discussing something he called "Athanasian Arianism." In essence, Athanasius was a prolific writer. Many of his writings discuss his conflicts with those who did not embrace Nicene Christianity, including extensive discussions of what led to his various exiles. In these discussions he consistently describes his enemies as Arian and followers of the standard belief system which included the Son not being eternal and a product of the Father's will. The Son is a creature, though different from other creatures (and men), and not of the same substance as the Father. According to Arius there was a time when the Son did not exist. This contrasts with Nicene Christianity where the Son and the Father are eternal – there was never a time when they were not, and they are consubstantial; of the same matter and essence. 1

Athanasius of Alexandria, Source: Wikimedia Commons
Athanasius of Alexandria. Source: Wikimedia Commons

However Gwynn argues that this lumping of all of Athanasius’ enemies under an Arian umbrella is inaccurate, at least in characterizing them as wholly subscribing to Arius’ doctrine. He begins by discussing Eusebius of Nicomedia, who led the effort which resulted in Athansius’ first exile in 335, and Asterius the Sophist. Regarding these two, Gwynn writes:

Both men shared Arius’ refusal to describe the Son as eternal, or from the Father’s ousia, and believed that the son must be a ktisma and a product of the Father’s will. Like Arius, they held that the father alone is eternal and unbegotten, and that to name the Son co-eternal or co-essential with the Father was to teach two unbegotten beings or impose material or Sabellian ideas upon God. Unlike Arius, they did not refer to the Son as ‘out of nothing’ or teach that he did not fully know the Father. They also placed a greater emphasis upon the unique divinity of the Son, whom Asterius is reported to have described as ‘the exact Image of His [the Father's] Essence and Will and Power and Glory. p. 79 2

While Eusebius and Asterius did not subscribe to Nicene Christianity, clearly they did not completely agree with Arius. This becomes more evident in examining what has become known as the Dedication Creed, developed by a Council of Eastern Bishops (including Eusebius) in 341 at Antioch. This creed describes the Son as an exact image of the Father, immutable and unchangeable; not a creature, yet not eternal. This isn’t Nicene, but it isn’t Arian either. But Athanasius is quick to lump the 90 bishops with Arius and describes and condemns them as Arian. 3

Athanasius’ characterization of his opponents is picked up by later authors and has helped create the concept of a large, cohesive group of religious figures who subscribe to “classical” Arianism, in conflict with the defenders of Nicene Christianity. However the reality is much more complex, and interesting. Athanasius’ opponents, and opponents of Nicene Christianity, held a variety of beliefs. Some of them were very close to Arius’ original doctrine however many were not and differed to such an extent that Arius would have almost certainly denounced them himself.

Athanasius wrote a lot on the Arians and he is rightly considered among the foremost defenders of Nicene Christianity. However it is through Athanasius, and his depiction by later authors such as Sozomen, Theodoret, Socrates Scholasticus and others, where the concept has formed of Nicene Christianity battling with a uniform, united Arian party to determine what would be considered Orthodox. Athanasius had a lot to do with unifying Nicene Christianity and refining its arguments however he also characterized this conflict and its participants in a way which does not reflect historical reality. 4

1 See pp. 76-85 for Gwynn’s main discussion of Athanasian Arianism however he refers to this regularly throughout the remainder of the text.

2 Terms: ousia is substance, ktisma is creature.

3 The Dedication Creed and subsequent adaptations by this group of bishops can be found in Athanasius’ de Synodis 22-30. Athansius’ condemnation of them as Arian is in de Synodis 31-2.

4 I’ve not discussed how important Athanasius is in any detail however when Theodosius passed his law in February of 380 defining Orthodoxy, the lack of resistance to it is indicative of how crucial the theological battles of the preceding half-century had been. I think it’s also important to note that the Nicene Creed commonly used today is not the original one developed in 324 but the one issued by the Council of Constantinople in 381.

Gwynn, David M., Athanasius of Alexander: Bishop, Theologian, Ascetic, Father. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2012). ISBN: 978-0-19-921095-4.

Robertson, Archibald, ed., Select Writings and Letters of Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Second Series 4. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012). ISBN (for 14-volume set): 978-1-56563-116-8.

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6 responses to “Athanasius and Another “ism”

  1. Richard

    September 24, 2012 at 8:15 am

    Thanks for posting again. This is a very informative and thought provoking blog. I really enjoy your book reviews along with some personal reflections and the “currently reading” update. Looking forward to increased winter posting activity!

    Me currently reading:
    Herrin, Judith. The Formation of Christendom. Phoenix Press
    Abulafia, David. Italy in the Central Middle Ages. Oxford University Press

  2. Curt Emanuel

    September 24, 2012 at 12:02 pm

    Thanks for the comment. I’ve been rather delinquent on book reviews lately, largely because I’m reading things covering areas I’m less familiar with. I have a book of Herrin’s, Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. Princeton (2009). which sits on one of my “to-read” bookcases. That I have two of these should be an indication that I don’t need to buy more books but I don’t seem to take the hint.

  3. Gerry Dorrian

    October 18, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    Last month I read a “BBC History Magazine” article on the Council of Nicaea, and it didn’t mention Athanasius once. You could’ve knocked me down with a feather.

    • Curt Emanuel

      October 18, 2012 at 8:00 pm

      Interesting – it’s hard to see how they could leave him out of it. I suppose you could if it was about the Council itself and didn’t consider its impact in future years (though the opinion seems to be that even as a deacon A. had a role in authoring some of the canons and helping produce the creed) but in a discussion about the future adoption of the creed or the subsequent religious conflict you really have to include Athanasius.


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