The Eusebians: The Polemic of Athanasius of Alexandria and the Construction of the 'Arian Controversy'

The Eusebians: The Polemic of Athanasius of Alexandria and the Construction of the 'Arian Controversy'

The Eusebians: The Polemic of Athanasius of Alexandria and the Construction of the 'Arian Controversy'

The Eusebians: The Polemic of Athanasius of Alexandria and the Construction of the 'Arian Controversy'

Excerpt

Few figures in the history of Christianity have aroused such controversy within their own lifetimes or wielded such influence upon the judgements of later generations as Athanasius of Alexandria (bishop 328–73). In the traditional interpretation of the so-called 'Arian Controversy' that divided the fourth-century Church, Athanasius is the champion of 'orthodoxy'. He it was who all but single-handedly resisted the spread of the 'Arian heresy' that threatened to deny the divinity of the Son of God, and so ensured the ultimate triumph of the Nicene Creed, composed by the first ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 under the auspices of Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor.

This interpretation of Athanasius' career, which originated in the writings of the bishop himself, became over the century that followed his death the largely unchallenged foundation for later assessments both of Athanasius as an individual and of the period in which he lived. Already less than ten years after he died, Athanasius' steadfast defence of the Nicene faith was commemorated in a Funeral Oration by Gregory of Nazianzus. The fifth-century ecclesiastical historians Socrates, Sozomen, and Theodoret, whose works provide the only detailed narrative accounts of the fourth-century controversies, likewise derived their interpretations of those years to a large extent from Athanasius' own writings. It is therefore hardly surprising that for centuries few writers saw any need to challenge what had become the accepted representation of the heroic bishop of Alexandria and of the 'Arian Controversy'.

Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration XXI, c.380.

The extent of Athanasius' influence upon the ecclesiastical historians is readily
apparent from their accounts of his career and their quotations from his writings. It
thus needs to be emphasized that these fifth-century sources cannot provide external
confirmation for Athanasius' own presentation of the fourth-century controversies.

For a study of medieval and early modern attitudes towards Athanasius and the
'Arian Controversy', see Slusser (1993). Those attitudes are well encapsulated in
the panegyrical presentations of Athanasius given by William Bright (1877) in the . . .

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