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NPNF2-04. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters
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Introduction to Four Discourses Against the Arians.

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Written Between 356 And 360.

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 ὁμοούσιον, but whose fundamental agreement with Athanasius was daily becoming more clear. Accordingly we find that Athanasius pointedly avoids the famous test word in these Discourses18201820    Not that he was willing to suppress the term and surrender the Nicene cause, far from it; but he sees the relative importance of things and words. This shews the absurdity of the taunt, that the Nicene theologians fought ferociously over a single ‘iota.’ (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 ὁμοιούσιος: 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 θεοτόκος 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.

Although apparently composed at different times (see above) the four ‘Discourses’ form a single work. The fourth alone ends with the usual doxology, thus announcing itself as the conclusion of the four-fold treatise. At the same time, the relation of the fourth Discourse to the others is by no means clear. It is largely occupied with a polemic against a heresy at the opposite extreme from Arianism, Monarchianism in one or other of its forms. Newman, in his introductory excursus, expresses the opinion that it consists of a series of fragmentary notes against several heresies, which for some unknown reason came to be incorporated, possibly by Athanasius himself or by his secretaries, in the great anti-Arian Manifesto. Zahn Marcell. pp. 198–208 shews convincingly that the system of Marcellus, either in itself or in its supposed logical consequences, is the main object of criticism all along. If we trace throughout the Discourses the purpose of conciliating the ‘Conservative’ and Semi-Arian party, we can well understand that Athanasius may have appended to them a section directed against Monarchianism, which, in the persons of Marcellus and Photinus (whose names, however, are characteristically absent), must have been felt by him to be a legitimate stumbling-block in their path toward peace. At any rate the fourth oration has always been associated with the others as forming part of one work.

There is, however, some confusion in early citations, in mss., and in early editions as to the number of ‘Orations’ against the Arians. The confusion is due to the frequent practice of reckoning the Ep. Æg. as the first (or in one or two cases as the fourth; the Basel ms. counts de Incar. c. Ar. as the fifth, and our fourth as the sixth). Montfaucon (Monitum Migne xxvi. p. 10) ascribes this to the arrangement in many mss. by which the Ep. Æg. comes immediately before the ‘Orations.’ Being itself directed against the Arians it has come to be labelled λόγος πρῶτος

The title ‘Orations’ is consecrated by long use, and cannot be displaced, but it is unfortunate as implying, to our ears, oratorical delivery, for which the Discourses were never meant. The original Greek term (λόγος) is common to these Discourses with the c. Gentes, de Incarnatione, &c., &c.

A full analysis of these Discourses is given by Bishop Kaye (Council of Nicæa, in ‘Works,’ vol. v.); his strictures on Newman’s notes are occasionally very just. The Discourses are more concisely analysed by Ceillier (vol. v., pp. 218, sqq.) See also Dorner, Doctr. of Person of Christ, Part I., Div. 3, i. 3. The headings of Newman, prefixed to the ‘chapters,’ will supply the place of an analysis for readers of this volume.

The translation which follows is that of Cardinal Newman, published in 1844 (the year before his secession), in the Oxford ‘Library of the Fathers.’ The copious and elaborate notes and discussions which accompany it have always been acknowledged to be a masterpiece of their illustrious author. The modern reader sits down to study Athanasius, and rises from his task filled with Newman. Like all the work of Newman included in this volume, translation and notes alike have been touched by the present editor with a reverent and a sparing hand. The translation, which shews great care and fidelity, coupled with remarkable ingenuity and close study of characteristic phrases and idioms, has been, with two main exceptions, but little altered. These exceptions are (1) the substitution throughout of ‘essence’ for ‘substance,’ (2) an attempt to remedy the most unfortunate, though not unconsidered, confusion of γεννητός and γενητός under the single rendering ‘generate.’ A good rendering for the latter word and its cognates is indeed not easy to find (see above, p. 149); but it was felt impossible, even in deference to so great a name, after the note in Lightfoot’s Ignatius, to leave the matter as it stood.

With regard to the notes, the historical matter and the abundant cross references have been thoroughly overhauled and in some cases modified without indication of the change. Moreover, some theological notes of minor importance have been expunged to economise space, while for the same reason, mere references have in many cases been reluctantly substituted for the extensive patristic quotations. The notes to Orat. iv., which are less important theologically, have been very much curtailed. With these exceptions, all doctrinal notes proper have been left exactly as they first appeared, even where they maintain views which appear untenable: any additions or explanations by the present editor are enclosed in square brackets, which also in a very few cases denote additional or corrected references made under Dr. Pusey’s authority in the reprint of 1877.

It is necessary to apologise to the reader for the hesitation which has been felt in touching, even to this slight extent, the work of John Henry Newman. The only apology which the editor of this volume cares to offer is for having done the little that seemed absolutely needed.

It may be added that the Cardinal published in 1881 (4th ed., 1888) a ‘free translation’ of the first three Discourses, based upon the Oxford translation, but of a totally different kind, amounting to a somewhat highly condensed paraphrase of the original in the luminous English of the Cardinal himself, rather than bound, as the older translation is, to the style of Athanasius. The new rendering includes the de Decretis and the de Synodis; almost all the notes are in a second volume.

The most convenient edition of the Greek text is that of Dr. Bright (Oxford, 1872), with an Introduction on the Life and Writings of Athanasius (rewritten for D.C.B., vol. i., pp. 179 sqq.).

Table of Contents of the Four Discourses.

The following Table of Contents of Orat. i–iii. (the contents of Orat. iv. will be tabulated at the end of Exc. C.) must be supplemented by the fuller headings prefixed to Newman’s ‘chapters.’

Orat. i. 1–4. Introductory.

i. 5–7. a. The Arian doctrine as represented in the ‘Thalia.’

i. 8–10. b. Significance of the Controversy.

General Subject of the Discourses: The Sonship of Christ.

i. 11–13. The Divine Sonship: (1) Eternal

i. 14–16. (2) Though real, not like earthly Sonship.

i. 17–21. (3) The true Sonship.

i. 22–29. Objections to the above discussed.

i. 30–34. (4) On the term ἀγένητος

i. 35, 36. (5) On the unchangeableness of the Son.

Orat. i. 37–iii. 58. (6) Discussion of controverted texts.

i. 37–64. Texts bearing on the exaltation of the Son (viz. Phil. ii. 9; Ps. xlv. 7, 8; Heb. i. 4).

(Excursus B. On the Arian formula πρὶν γεννηθῆναι οὐκ ἦν.)

ii. 1–82. b. Texts bearing on the ‘creation’ of the Son (viz. Heb. iii. 2; Acts ii. 36; Prov. viii. 22; the latter occupying §§18–82).

iii. 1–25. g. Texts from the Fourth Gospel on the relation of the Son to the Father.

iii. 26–58. d. Texts bearing more directly on the Incarnation (Matt. xxviii. 18; Joh. iii. 35; Mark xiii. 32, Luke ii. 52, human knowledge, &c., of Christ, §§42–53; Matt. xxvi. 39, &c.).

iii. 58–67. (7) The Divine Sonship in relation to the Divine Will.


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