Saturday, December 27, 2008

Athanasius, De Synodis

Athanasius’ “Concerning the Synods” was written circa 359 AD, after and in response to the councils that met in Ariminum and Seleucia. Some elements were probably inserted later. Athanasius gives an account of the recent councils, and cites a variety of statements and creeds produced, and is a valuable source for the period.

Athanasius begins by stating that there is no ground for these new councils, since Nicaea is sufficient, and that they are formed to promulgate Arian heresies. Their main feature is to reject the language of ‘essence’, ‘like in essence’, and so forth, as ‘unscriptural’.

In the second section Athanasius gives a brief ‘history’ of Arianism, starting from Arius, and quoting from the Thalia at length. The ‘slogans’ or Arianism are prevalent:
“created before times and before ages”, “three subsistences”, “was not before His generation, “He is not eternal or co-eternal or co-unoriginate with the Father, nor has He His being together with the Father, as some speak of relations”

Much of the value of Athanasius in this text is that he goes on to quote at full-length the material from various confessions, Sirmian, Seleucia, Antioch, and the like, each of which is generally homoean in orientation. What is fascinating about the confessions is how orthodox they read. It is only the careful ear and eye that sees what is missing, and understands the sense of terms designed to be read in (semi)-Arian fashion.

Athanasius devotes the third part of this work to defending the terms ‘of the essence’ and ‘coessential’. He argues that the shift from ‘from God’ to ‘from the essence’, must either mean ‘coessential’ in practice, otherwise they have made the Son a creature. He defends the use of ‘unscriptural’ phrases, showing how many of the Arian statements are likewise not found in scripture. He defends against the complaint that they are ‘obscure’ and difficult to understand, by saying they should have sought instruction, rather than rejection.

The finest touch of argument in the work is when Athanasius treats of the condemnation of Paul of Samosata and the 3rd council which declared the Son not coessential with the Father. Athanasius notes the different contexts and the different heresies on view, and claims that the declaration with regard to Paul of Samosata was regarding ‘coessentiality’ in a material sense, but that in regards to the post-Nicene debate, coessentiality was properly used of the immaterial, ie. the Father and Son. He likewise speaks of the terms ‘unoriginate’ with respect to what is created and what has a personal cause. So Ignatius speaks of the Son as unoriginate (in respect to being created), but originate (in respect to being personally caused).

Finally, he opposes the idea that the Son was divine by participation, as this would destroy our own participation in the Godhead. Let me wrap up with this fine quotation:

if what the Father has is by nature the Son’s, and the Son Himself is from the Father, and because of this oneness of godhead and of nature He and the Father are one, and He that hath seen the Son hath seen the Father, reasonably is He called by the Fathers ‘Coessential’.

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