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NPNF2-04. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters
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Introduction to the de Sententia Dionysii.

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The following tract, like the last, is a letter to a person engaged in discussion with Arians, who were openly finding fault with the Definition of Nicæa, and especially with the word Co-essential (§19). Montfaucon suggests that both epistles were addressed to the same person, the de Decretis (§25) having as it were challenged the Arians to cite passages from Dionysius on behalf of their own doctrine, whereupon their opponent came back to Athanasius with a request for further help. But the language of the first sentence of our present tract seems to imply that Athanasius had not previously heard of the discussions in question. However, slender as such grounds are, the tract furnishes no more decisive indication of date. (On certain expressions which might seem to carry the date back to the lifetime of Arius, see Prolegg. ch. ii. §7.)

Dionysius ‘the Great,’ Bishop of Alexandria 233–265, was a pupil of Origen (Eus. H. E. vi. 29), and equally distinguished as a ruler of the Church and as a theologian. In all the controversies of his age (the lapsed, rebaptism, Easter, Paul of Samosata, Sabellianism, the authorship of the Apocalypse) his influence made itself felt, and his writings were very numerous (Westcott in D. C. B. i. p. 851 sq.; a good account of Dionysius in vol. I. of this series, p. 281 note). The most celebrated controversy in which he was involved was that which, a century later, gave rise to the tract before us.

About the period when personal attacks on the Nicene leaders began to be exchanged for overt objections to the Nicene Definitions, the claim was freely made that ‘the fathers’ had been condemned by the latter: in other words, that they had held with the Arians (see below §1, ἀεὶ μὲν προφάσειςνῦν δὲ καὶ διαβάλλειν τοὺς πατέρας τετολμήκασι). Accordingly we find Athanasius at about the same date, viz. early in the sole reign of Constantius, vindicating on the one hand the work of the Council, on the other the orthodox reputation of Dionysius. The Arians found material for their appeal to the latter in a letter addressed by him to certain bishops in Pentapolis, called Ammon and Euphranor. Whether or no Sabellius had been a native of that province, at any rate his doctrine was at that time so popular there ‘that the Son of God was scarcely any longer preached in the Churches.’ Exercising the right of supervision over those districts which had already become vested by prescription in the Alexandrian See, Dionysius wrote to Ammon, Bishop of Berenice, (Euseb. H. E. vii. 26, who enumerates three several letters to Ammon, Telesphorus, and Euphranor, and a fourth to Ammon and Euporus: he also refers to his letters to Dionysius of Rome: Montfaucon is therefore scarcely fair in charging Eusebius with suppressing the episode ‘ne verbum quidem de hac historia fecerit!’) insisting on the distinctness of the Son from the Father. In doing so he used strong expressions akin to the language of Origen on the subordination of the Son. These expressions were at once objected to by certain orthodox churchmen (§13, it is not clear whether they belonged to Pentapolis or Alexandria), who without consulting Dionysius went to Rome (about 260), and spoke against him in the presence of his namesake, the Roman Bishop. The latter, true to the traditions of his See since the time of Callistus (see Hipp. Philos IX. vii. δίθεοι ἔστε), while steering clear of Sabellianism, was especially jealous of error in the opposite direction. Accordingly he assembled a synod (de Synod. 44), and drew up a letter to Alexandria, in which he rebuked firstly the Sabellians, but secondly and more fully those who separate the Godhead or speak of the Son as a work, including under this category certain unnamed catechists and teachers of Alexandria (De Decr. 26). At the same time he wrote personally to Dionysius, informing him that he was accused of maintaining the opinions in question. In answer to this letter, Dionysius of Alexandria drew up a treatise in four books, entitled ‘Refutation and Defence,’ and addressed to his namesake of Rome, in which he explained his language, and stated his belief in a manner which put an end to the controversy. He had been charged with maintaining that the Son was made, that He was not eternal (οὐκ ἀεὶ ἦν ὁ θεὸς πατήρ, οὐκ ἀεὶ ἦν ὁ ὑιός,…οὐκ ἦν πρὶν γεννήθῃ, ἀλλ᾽ ἦν ποτὲ ὅτε οὐκ ἦν κ.τ.λ. §14), that he denied the co-essentiality (ὁμοούσιον) of the Son, and separated Him from the Father (§16, 18, cf. § 4, ξένον κατ᾽ οὐσίαν κ.τ.λ). In his Refutation and Defence, Dionysius admits the use of these expressions, withdraws the first (§15, line 1) and admits the propriety of the ὁμοούσιον, although he himself prefers Scriptural language (§ 18. The section shews the unfixed use of the word. Dionysius had formerly used οὐσία in the sense of πρώτη οὐσία, nearly as equivalent to ὑπόστασις: but now he clearly takes it as δευτέρα οὐσία, indicative not of Person but of Nature). That the Son was made, he explains as an inadequate formula, the word being applicable (in one of its many senses) to the relation of son to father (§20. The defence of Athanasius, that Dionysius referred to the Human Nature of Christ, is scarcely tenable. It is not supported by what Dionysius himself says, rather the contrary: and if his language did not refer to the Trinity, where would be its relevancy against Sabellianism?). The words ἦν ὅτε οὐκ ἦν, and οὐκ ἦν πρὶν γεννήθῃ, he does not explain, but professes his belief in the eternal union of the Word with the Father (§§24, 25). Lastly, he repudiates the charge of dividing the Holy Trinity, or of mentioning Father and Son as though separate Beings: When I mention the Father, I have already mentioned the Son, before I pronounce His Name (§17, the closing words of the section are a complete formula of agreement with all that his Roman namesake could possibly require of him).

That Dionysius in his ‘Refutation and Defence’ merely restated, and did not (κατ᾽ οἰκονομίαν) alter, his theological position is open to no doubt. Athanasius, not the Arians, had the right to claim him as his own. He is clearly speaking optima fide when he deprecates the pressing of statements in which he had given expression to one side only, and that the less essential side, of his convictions. At the same time we cannot but see that the Arians had good prima facie ground for their appeal. Here were their special formulæ, those anathematised at Nicæa, ἦν ποτὲ ὅτε οὐκ ἦν and the rest, adopted, and the ὁμοούσιον implicitly rejected, by the most renowned bishop Alexandria had yet had. (Newman, in de Decr. 26, note 7, fails to appreciate the reference to the language of Dion. Alex.) Moreover it is only fair to admit that not only in language, but in thought also, Athanasius had advanced upon his predecessors of the Alexandrian School. The rude shock of Arianism had shewn him and the other Nicene leaders the necessity of greater consistency than had characterised the theology of Origen and his school, a consistency to be gained only by breaking with one side of it altogether. While on the one hand Origen held fast to the Godhead of the Logos (κατ᾽ οὐσίαν ἐστὶ θεὸς), and to His co-eternity with the Father (ἀεὶ γεννᾶται ὁ σωτὴρ ὑπὸ τοῦ πατρός, and see de Decr. §27); he had yet, using οὐσία in its ‘first’ sense, spoken of Him as ἕτερος κατ᾽ οὐσίαν τοῦ πατρός (de Orat. 15), and placed him, after the manner of Philo, as an intermediary between God and the Universe. He had spoken of the unity of the Father and the Son as moral (Cels. viii. 12, τῇ ὁμονοί& 139· καὶ τῇ συμφωνί& 139·), insisted upon the ὑπεροχὴ of the Father (i.e. ‘subordination’ of the Son), and spoken (De Orat) as though the highest worship of all were to be reserved for the Father (Jerome ascribes still stronger language to him). Yet there is no real doubt that, as regards the core of the question, Athanasius and not his opponents is the true successor of Origen. The essential difference between Athanasius and the ‘Conservatives’ of the period following the great council consisted in the fact that the former saw clearly what the latter failed to realise, namely the insufficiency of the formulæ of the third century to meet the problem of the fourth. We may then, without disparagement to Dionysius, admit that he was not absolutely consistent in his language; that he failed to distinguish the ambiguities which beset the words οὐσία, ὑπόστασις, and even ποιεῖν and γένεσθαι, and that he used language (οὐκ ἦν πρὶν γεννήθῃ and the like) which we, with our minds cleared by the Arian controversy, cannot reconcile with the more deliberate and guarded statements of the ‘Refutation and Defence965965    It may be added that the letter to Paul of Samosata quoted by Bull, Def. III. iv. 3, Petavius, Trin. I. iv. is not genuine. Posterity, which enveloped the name of Origen with storms of controversy, did not entirely spare his pupil: Basil (Ep. 41) taxes him with sowing the first seeds of the Anomœan heresy, Gennadius (Eccl. Dogm. iv.) calls him ‘Fons Arii.’.’

The controversy of the two Dionysii has another interesting side, as bearing upon the means then employed for dealing with questions affecting the Church as a whole,—and in particular upon the position of the Roman Church as the natural referee in such questions. (Cf. Prolegg. ch. iv. §4.) This is not the place for a general discussion of the question, or for an attempt to trace its history previous to the case before us. But it should be noted, firstly, that when the Pentapolite (?) opponents of Dionysius desire a lever against him, their first resource is not a council of local bishops, but the Roman Church: secondly, that the Roman bishop takes up the case, and writes to his Alexandrian namesake for an explanation: thirdly, that the explanation asked for is promptly given. Unfortunately the fragment of the Roman letter preserved to us by Athanasius tells us nothing of the form of the intervention, whether it was the request of one co-trustee to another for an explanation of the latter’s action in a matter concerning their common trust, or whether it was coupled with any assumption of jurisdiction at all like that involved in the letter of the Bishop of Alexandria to those of Libya. At any rate, the latter alternative has no positive evidence in our documents; and the fragments of the Refutation and Defence ‘shew the most complete and resolute independence. There is nothing in the narrative of Athanasius which implies that the Alexandrine Bishop recognised or that the Roman Bishop claimed any dogmatic authority as belonging to the Imperial See.’ The letter of Dionysius of Rome is certainly highly characteristic of the indifference to theological reasoning and the close adherence to the rule of faith as the authoritative solution of all questions of doctrine which marks the genius of Rome as contrasted with that of Alexandria (see Gore, The Church and the Ministry, ch. i. sub fin., and Harnack, Dg. i. 686, who observes upon the striking family likeness between this letter and that of Leo to Flavian, and of Agatho to the Sixth Ecumenical Council). Lastly, the Roman Church, which never troubled about a precedent adverse to her imperial instinct, never forgot one which favoured it. The intervention of Dionysius was treasured up in her memory, and, when the time came, fully exploited (supr. p. 113, note 3, where the note distinguishes somewhat too carefully between the ‘Pope’ of Rome and the ‘Bishop,’ πάπας, of Alexandria).

The tract of Athanasius, with his extracts in de Decr. and de Syn., tell us all that we know of the history of this important controversy. Dionysius had previously (Eus. H. E. vii. 6) had some correspondence with Xystus, the previous Bishop of Rome, on the subject of the Sabellian teaching current in the Pentapolis. He was in fact during his episcopate in constant communication with Rome and with the other important churches of the Christian World. His letters are much used in the sixth and seventh books of the History of Eusebius, to whom we are indebted for most of our knowledge of his writings.

The general arrangement of the tract is as follows:—

§1–4 are prefatory, the fourth section broadly indicates the line of the defence. §§5–12 deal with the incriminated passages: Athan. gives the history of them, and lays stress on their incomplete presentation of the belief of Dionysius, as having been written for a special purpose,—as may also be said of much of the language of the Apostles. But even in themselves the expressions of Dionysius are orthodox, referring (as Athanasius claims) to Christ as man. In §§13–23 he turns to the Refutation and Defence, from which he makes copious extracts, bringing out the diametrical opposition between Dionysius and the Arians. In §§24, 25 the anti-Arian doctrine of Dionysius is summed up, and §26 recapitulates the main points of §§5–12. He concludes (§27) by claiming a verdict upon the evidence, and urging upon the Arians the alternative of abandoning their error, or of being left with the devil as their only partisan.


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