The Threatened Series - 5
Let us now turn our attention to Athanasius of Alexandria, the chief
opponent of Arianism at the Council of Nicæa. He was born in 295,
attended the Council as a deacon, representing his bishop Alexander,
whom he succeeded in 328, and died in 373.
Like most other theologians of his period, he does not seem to have
realised the theological importance of the human soul of Christ. He
nowhere explicitly discusses the problem. He did not see that the
Arians were vulnerable through their Christology.
Steeped in the writings of St Paul, he was conscious of sin and of the
need for redemption. Therefore his emphasis is soteriological: the
Logos [word] must equal Theos [God], in order to effect our salvation.
Therein lies his quarrel with the Arians. One might have thought this
would have been agreed by all, on the basis of John 1:1, 'Kai theos en
ho Logos' - 'And the Word was God.' But this the Arians did not
It has been said that Athanasius' understanding of sin was too
physical. He understood it as something done by the flesh ['sarx'].
It was therefore sufficient that Christ has taken our flesh and
redeemed it. He does not consider the moral aspect of sin, that it is
a defect of the will, of the intention - functions of the soul.
Athanasius' 'De Incarnatione' contains no reference to Christ's human
soul. The Logos dwells (enoikei) in the temple of the body: language
more typical of Antioch, of Paul of Samosata, than of Alexandria.
Athanasius is strong on the Incarnation, in the sense of the Logos
taking 'carnis', flesh ('sarx'); but the motivating force of that
flesh is the divine Logos, not a human soul. What about human
ignorance, human suffering, human death as exemplified in Christ? In a
late work, the 'Tome to the Antiochenes', Athanasius makes a
distinction between 'ignorance according to the flesh' and knowledge
according to the Logos. But what is 'ignorance according to the
flesh'? Precisely what is ignorant? 'Ignorant flesh' is an odd
phrase; usually one thinks of the mind, rather than the flesh, as
being ignorant. But Athanasius cannot of course say that the Logos is
ignorant. Nor does Athanasius mention the human soul of Christ with
reference to his suffering. And the death of Christ is seen as the
separation of the body from the Logos. Athanasius probably did not
consider the question of the human soul of Christ to be of deep
>From the ODCC:
'By his refusal to compromise with Arianism he incurred the enmity of
the powerful Arianizing party in the reigns of Constantine and
Constantius. His use of violence and intimidation also contributed to
the strength of opposition to him and was the specific ground for his
deposition at the Council of Tyre in 335 and his exile to Trier in 336;
he returned on the death of Constantine in 337; but in 339 he was
forced to flee to Rome, where he established close contacts with the W.
Church, which continued throughout his life to support him. He was
restored in 346 by the influence of Constans, the W. Emperor, against
the will of Constantius, who in 356 again drove him from his see. He
remained in hiding near Alexandria till the accession of Julian (361).
He returned to the city in Feb 362, but Julian exiled him again later
in the year. On Julian's death (363) he was able to come back in 364,
and, after yet another brief exile (365-6), helped for the rest of his
life to build up the new Nicene party by whose support orthodoxy
triumphed over Arianism at the Council of Constantinople in 381. He
died at Alexandria on 2-3 May 373.'
The Supple Doctor.
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