Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Hans von Campenhausen:

For the life of Athanasius of Alexandria

Σχετικά με το βίο του Αθανασίου Αλεξανδρείας


The whole subsequent development of the Greek-Byzantine Church was based on the struggle and success of [Athanasius]. [...]

He was alleged to have bribed an imperial messenger, to have overturned an altar, smashed a sacred chalice, and even murdered a Meletian bishop in the course of his brutal attacks on the sectarians. As far as the last of these charges is concerned, Athanasius was able to vindicate himself. His secret service succeeded in tracing the alleged victim, who was hiding in a monastery in Upper Egypt and, though he escaped, he was later discovered in Tyrus and identified by the bishop of that place. Complaints about acts of violence and illegal encroachments on the rights of others accompanied the patriarch throughout his life. It is no longer possible to assess their credibility in every case. Athanasius rejected every complaint in the most violent terms. He knew how to assert himself amid the press of intrigues and controversy and was a master at impressing the masses. His pamphlets reveal the intelligence and clarity of an outstanding personality, but he indulged in all the wiles of defamation and outrageously caricatured his opponents in the most lurid colors. Blood was shed repeatedly in the Alexandrian struggles, and in his later years Athanasius came more than once near to committing high treason. But it was impossible to humble him, and he continued to believe in and assert his rights. For a time it seemed as if Athanasius might win over the Emperor to his point of view. It is true that his enemies at court were at the helm of affairs and they had already been in touch with the Meletians in Egypt. But Athanasius refused to appear before their seat of judgment. When he finally had to present himself before a Council in Tyrus he talked his way out by protesting uninterruptedly, and before sentence could be passed he had secretly escaped by sea. He turned up again in Constantinople, forcing himself on the Emperor and demanding an audience. In a letter the Emperor himself described how he had been taken completely by surprise. Even he clearly found it difficult to withstand the bishop's violence and impetuosity. New discussions with his opponents were begun, but when they explained to the Emperor that Athanasius, whose predecessors had already played a great part in the Egyptian corn trade, was now about to cut off all supplies to the capital city, the Emperor's patience was exhausted. According to Athanasius' own account, Constantine became extremely angry and banished him to Trier without any further discussion. It was the first of five exiles which Athanasius underwent  and which kept him away from his see for seventeen years all together.

We cannot follow his story in any further detail, through all the ups and downs of political and ecclesiastical developments. Two circumstances made it possible for him to assert himself in the end. The first was the support that he found in the Latin world. The traditional good relationships between the sees of Alexandria and Rome were revived by his sojourn in the West. The whole of the West became consciously Athanasian. The difficult philosophical speculation which formed the background to the Arian controversy met with no understanding in the West, which took it for granted that there must be a close connection between the Father and the Son. There was in fact a widespread inclination to identify the two persons of the Godhead –the greatest theological crime imaginable for a Greek theologian trained in the school of Origen!

In order that this Western sympathy might become effective a further purely political factor had to come into operation. Constantine had divided the Empire among his sons, and this had led to a loss of unity in the State's ecclesiastical politics. Each separate ruler favored the tendency prevailing in his own part of the Empire and strove to promote it to the best of his ability in the neighboring areas as well. Thus Constantius, one of the weaker sons who ruled in the East, was twice forced by his brother to readmit Athanasius. The first time this happened was immediately after the death of Constantine in 337. Instead of going straight to Alexandria, Athanasius travelled for months on end through the provinces of Syria and Asia Minor in order to reinstate his party in the East and to strengthen its unity. When he was recalled after a further period of several years in exile in the West, in similar circumstances, he managed to exploit his victory even more intensely. The Emperor who had banished him was forced to invite Athanasius no less than three times before he would appear before him again in Antioch. He then travelled on by way of Jerusalem, where a synod was in session, entering his episcopal city in triumph. [...]

Making purely political and criminal accusations was the surest way of reducing the theological opposition to silence. In contrast to these not entirely honest tactics, Athanasius immediately lifted every controversy onto the theological plane. In a tone of supreme indignation he mercilessly declared that anyone who opposed him was a notorious heretic, a "mad Arian/' a blasphemer of Christ goaded by the meanest motives, and an enemy of the true Church. He admitted no doubts about the validity of his own position. The absolute self-confidence of his attack and defense gave his pamphlets the stormy atmosphere and booming echo which he needed for success. Athanasius was a very deliberate and determined propagandist for his own cause. It must not, however, be inferred that the theological principles he claimed to be defending were mere pretexts and without any true significance for him. Athanasius believed in what he asserted. But he lacked all sense of the distance between the religious concerns which he represented and the ecclesiastical position that he wanted to hold. He did not really think of the Church as a sacramental institution but in terms of the sacred dogma which sustains it.


* Hans von Campenhausen,
The Fathers of the Greek Church
[Οι Πατέρες της Ελληνικής [δηλ. Ελληνόφωνης] Εκκλησίας],
Pantheon Books, 1959,
pp./σσ. 68, 71-73.
[English/Αγγλικά, PDF]

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