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St Athanasius the Great FOUR DISCOURSES AGAINST THE ARIANS, Part I, Complete

Translated by Cardinal Newman.

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There is no absolutely conclusive evidence as to the date of these Discourses, in fact they would appear from the language of ii. 1 to have been issued at intervals. The best judges, however, are agreed in assigning them to the fruitful period of the 'third exile.' The Discourses cannot indeed be identified with the lost account of the Arian heresy addressed to certain Egyptian monks (see Introd. to Arian Hist. supra); but the demand for such a treatise may have set Athanasius upon the composition of a more comprehensive refutation of the heresy. It was only at this period ('Blasphemy' of Sirmium, 357) that the doctrinal controversy began to emerge from the mass of personalities and intrigues which had encumbered it for the first generation after the great Council; only now that the various parties were beginning to formulate their position; only now that the great mass of Eastern 'Conservatism' was beginning to see the nature of the issue as between the Nicene doctrine and the essential Arianism of its more resolute opponents. The situation seemed to clear, the time had come for gathering up the issues of the combat and striking a decisive blow. To this situation of affairs the treatise before us exactly corresponds. Characteristic of this period is the anxiety to conciliate and win over the so-called semi-Arians (of the type of Basil of Ancyra) who stumbled at the homoousion, but whose fundamental agreement with Athanasius was daily becoming more clear. Accordingly we find that Athanasius pointedly avoids the famous test word in these Discourses [1820] (with the exception of the fourth: see Orat. i. 20, note 5, 58, note 10: it only occurs i. 9, note 12, but see Orat. iv. 9, 12), and even adopts (not as fully adequate de Syn. 53, but as true so far as it goes), the 'semi-Arian' formula 'like in essence' (Or. i. 21, note 8, 20, 26, iii. 26, he does not use the single compound word homoiousios: see further, Introd. to de Synodis). Although, therefore, demonstrative proof is lacking, there is tolerable certainty as to the date of our Discourses. And their purpose is no less manifest: they are a decisive blow of the kind described above, aimed at the very centre of the question, and calculated to sever the abnormal alliance between conservatives who really thought with Athanasius and men like Valens or Eudoxius, whose real convictions, so far as they had any, were Arian. Moreover they gather up all the threads of controversy against Arianism proper, refute its appeal to Scripture, and leave on record for all time the issues of the great doctrinal contest of the fourth century. They have naturally become, as Montfaucon observes, the mine whence subsequent defenders of the Divinity of our Redeemer have drawn their material. There are doubtless arguments which a modern writer would scarcely adopt (e.g. ii. 63, iii. 65 init., &c.), and the repeated labelling of the Arians as madmen ('fanatics' in this translation), enemies of Christ, disciples of Satan, &c., &c., is at once tedious and by its very frequency unimpressive (see ii. 43 note 8 for Newman's famous list of animal nicknames). But the serious reader will pass sicco pede over such features, and will appreciate 'the richness, fulness, and versatility' of the use of Scripture, 'the steady grasp of certain primary truths, especially of the Divine Unity and of Christ's real or genuine natural and Divine Sonship (i. 15, ii. 2-5, 22, 23, 73, iii. 62), the keen penetration with which Arian objections are analysed (i. 14, 27, 29, ii. 26, iii. 59), Arian imputations disclaimed, Arian statements old and new, the bolder and the more cautious, compared, Arian evasions pointed out, Arian logic traced to its conclusions, and Arianism shewn to be inconsistent, irreverent' (Bright, Introd. p. lxviii.). Above all, we see in these Discourses what strikes us in all the writings of Athanasius from the de Incarnatione to the end, his firm hold of the Soteriological aspect of the question at issue, of its vital importance to the reality of Redemption and Grace, to the reality of the knowledge of God vouchsafed to sinful man in Christ (ii. 69, 70, cf. i. 35, 49, 50, ii. 67, &c., &c). The Theology and Christology of Athanasius is rooted in the idea of Redemption: our fellowship with God, our adoption as sons of God, would be unaccomplished, had not Christ imparted to us what was His Own to give (i. 12, 16, cf. Harnack, Dogmengesch., 2. 205). Among other points of interest we may observe the anticipatory rejection of the later heresies of Macedonius (i. 48, iii. 24), Nestorius (ii. 8 note 3, &c., and the frequent application of theotokos to the B.M.V. iii. 14, 29, &c.), and Eutyches (ii. 10 note 6, &c.), the emphatic vindication of worship as the exclusive prerogative of Divinity (ii. 23, iii. 32, 'we invoke no creature') and of the unique sinless conception of Christ (iii. 33), lastly the cautious and reasonable discussion (iii. 42 sqq.) of our Saviour's human knowledge.

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