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Sermon Podcast | Audio | Video : Christian Books : Section 4. Early years of his Episcopate. The Anti-Nicene reaction, 328-335.

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Section 4. Early years of his Episcopate. The Anti-Nicene reaction, 328-335.

Athanasius was elected bishop by general consent. Alexander, as we have seen, had practically nominated him, and a large body of popular opinion clamoured for his election, as |the good, the pious, a Christian, one of the ascetics, a genuine bishop.| The actual election appears (p.103) to have rested with the bishops of Egypt and Libya, who testify ten years later (ib.) that the majority of their body elected him.

The see to which he succeeded was the second in Christendom; it had long enjoyed direct jurisdiction over the bishops of all Egypt and Libya (p.178, Socr. i.9), the bishops of Alexandria enjoyed the position and power of secular potentates, although in a less degree than those of Rome, or of Alexandria itself in later times (Socr. vii.11, cf.7). The bishop had command of large funds, which, however, were fully claimed for church purposes and alms (see p.105). In particular, the pope' of Alexandria had practically in his hands the appointment to the sees in his province: accordingly, as years go on, we find Arianism disappear entirely from the Egyptian episcopate. The bishop of Alexandria, like many other influential bishops in antiquity, was commonly spoken of as Papa or Pope; he also was known as the 'Archiepiskopos, as we learn from a contemporary inscription (see p.564, note 2).

The earliest biographer of Athanasius (see Introduction to Hist. Aceph. p.495, 496, below) divides the episcopate of Athanasius into periods of quiet' and of exile, marking the periods of each according to what appears to be the reckoning officially preserved in the episcopal archives. His first period of quiet' lasts from June 8, 328, to July 11, 335 (departure for Tyre), a period of seven years, one month and three days; it is thus the third longest period of undisturbed occupancy of his see, the next being the last from his final restoration under Valens till his death (seven years and three months), and the longest of all being the golden decade (346-356, really nine years and a quarter) preceding the Third Exile.

Of the internal events of this first septennium of quiet we know little that is definite. At the end of it, however, we find him supported by the solid body of the Egyptian episcopate: and at the beginning one of his first steps (autumn of 329) was to make a visitation of the province to strengthen the churches of God' (Vit. Pach., cf. also Epiph. Hær.68.6). We learn from the life of Pachomius (on which see below, p.189), that he penetrated as far as Syene on the Ethiopian frontier, and, as he passed Tabenne, was welcomed by Pachomius and his monks with great rejoicings. At the request of Saprion, bishop of Tentyra, in whose diocese the island was, he appears to have ordained Pachomius to the presbyterate, thus constituting his community a self-contained body (Acta SS. Mai. iii.30, Appx.). The supposed consecration of Frumentius at this time must be reserved, in accordance with preponderating evidence, for §7.

Meanwhile, the anti-Nicene reaction was being skilfully fostered by the strategy of Eusebius of Nicomedia. Within a year of the election of Athanasius we find him restored to imperial favour, and at once the assault upon the Nicene strongholds begins. The controversy between Marcellus and Eusebius of Cæsarea (supra, p. xxxv.), appears to have begun later, but the latter was already, in conjunction with his friend Paulinus of Tyre and with Patrophilus, at theological war with Eustathius of Antioch. A synod of Arian and reactionary bishops assembled at Antioch, and deposed the latter on the two charges (equally de rigueur in such cases) of Sabellianism and immorality. Backed by a complaint (possibly founded on fact) that he had indiscreetly repeated a current tale (p.271, n.2) concerning Helena, the Emperor's mother, the sentence of the council had the full support of the civil arm, and Eustathius lost his see for ever. Although he lived till about 358, no council ventured to restore' him (discussed by Gwatkin, pp.73, 74, note), but the Christian public of Antioch violently resented his extrusion, and a compact body of the Church-people steadily refused to recognise any other bishop during, and even after, his lifetime (infr. p.481). Asclepas of Gaza was next disposed of, then Eutropius of Hadrianople, and many others (names, p.271). Meanwhile everything was done to foment disturbance in Egypt. The Meletians had been stirring ever since the death of Alexander, and Eusebius was not slow to use such an opportune lever. The object in view was two-fold, the restoration of Arius to communion in Alexandria, without which the moral triumph of the reaction would be unachieved, and the extrusion of Athanasius. Accordingly a fusion took place between the Arians of Egypt and the Meletians, now under the leadership of John Arcaph,' whom Meletius on his death-bed had consecrated as his successor against the terms of the Nicene settlement. At any rate, the Meletians were attached to the cause by Eusebius by means of large promises. At the same time (330?) Eusebius, having obtained the recall of Arius from exile, wrote to Athanasius requesting him to admit Arius and his friends (Euzoius, Pistus, &c.) to communion; the bearer of the letter conveyed the assurance of dire consequences in the event of his non-compliance (p.131). Athanasius refused to admit persons convicted of heresy at the Ecumenical Council. This brought a letter from the Emperor himself, threatening deposition by an imperial mandate unless he would freely admit all who should desire it;' -- a somewhat sweeping demand. Athanasius replied firmly and, it would seem, with effect, that the Christ-opposing heresy had no fellowship with the Catholic Church.' Thereupon Eusebius played what proved to be the first card of a long suit. A deputation of three Meletian bishops arrived at the Palace with a complaint. Athanasius had, they said, levied a precept (kanon) upon Egypt for Church expenses: they had been among the first victims of the exaction. Luckily, two Presbyters of Alexandria were at court, and were able to disprove the charge, which accordingly drew a stern rebuke upon its authors. Constantine wrote to Athanasius summoning him to an audience, probably with the intention of satisfying himself as to other miscellaneous accusations which were busily ventilated at this date, e.g., that he was too young (cf. p.133) when elected bishop, that he had governed with arrogance and violence, that he used magic (this charge was again made 30 years later, Ammian. xv.7), and subsidised treasonable persons. Athanasius accordingly started for court, as it would seem, late in 330 (see Letter 3, p.512 sq.). His visit was successful, but matters went slowly; Athanasius himself had an illness, which lasted a long time, and upon his recovery the winter storms made communication impossible. Accordingly, his Easter letter for 332 (Letter 4) was sent unusually late -- apparently in the first navigable weather of that year -- and Athanasius reached home, after more than a year's absence , when Lent was already half over.

The principal matters investigated by Constantine during the visit of Athanasius were certain charges made by the three Meletian bishops, whom Eusebius had detained for the purpose; one of these, the story of Macarius and the broken chalice, will be given at length presently. All alike were treated as frivolous, and Athanasius carried home with him a commendatory letter from Augustus himself. Defeated for the moment, the puppets of Eusebius matured their accusations, and in a year's time two highly damaging stories were ripe for an ecclesiastical investigation.

(a) The case of Ischyras. This person had been ordained presbyter by Colluthus, and his ordination had been, as we have seen (§2), pronounced null and void by the Alexandrian Council of 324. In spite of this he had persisted in carrying on his ministrations at the village where he lived (Irene Secontaruri, possibly the hamlet Irene' belonged to the township of S., there was a presbyter for the township, pp.133, 145, but none at Irene, p.106). His place of worship was a cottage inhabited only by an orphan child; of the few inhabitants of the place, only seven, and those his own relations, would attend his services. During a visitation of his diocese, Athanasius, had heard of this from the presbyter of the township, and had sent Macarius, one of the clergy who were attending him on his tour (cf. pp.109, 139), to summon Ischyras for explanations. Macarius found the poor man ill in bed and unable to come, but urged his father to dissuade him from his irregular proceedings. But instead of desisting, Ischyras joined the Meletians. His first version of the matter appears to have been that Macarius had used violence, and broken his chalice. The Meletians communicate this to Eusebius, who eggs them on to get up the case. The story gradually improves. Ischyras, it now appeared, had been actually celebrating the Eucharist; Macarius had burst in upon him, and not only broken the chalice but upset the Holy Table. In this form the tale had been carried to Constantine when Athanasius was at Nicomedia. The relations of Ischyras, however, prevailed upon him to recall his statements, and he presented the Bishop with a written statement that the whole story was false, and had been extorted from him by violence. Ischyras was forgiven, but placed under censure, which probably led to his eventually renewing the charge with increased bitterness. Athanasius now was accused of personally breaking the chalice, &c. In the letter of the council of Philippopolis the cottage of Ischyras becomes a basilica' which Athanasius had caused to be thrown down.

(b) The case of Arsenius. Arsenius was Meletian bishop of Hypsele (not in the Meletian catalogue of 327). By a large bribe, as it is stated, he was induced by John Arcaph to go into hiding among the Meletian monks of the Thebaid; rumours were quietly set in motion that Athanasius had had him murdered, and had procured one of his hands for magical purposes. A hand was circulated purporting to be the very hand in question. A report of the case, including the last version of the Ischyras scandal, was sent to Constantine, who, startled by the new accusation, sent orders to his half-brother, Dalmatius, a high official at Antioch, to enquire into the case. He appears to have suggested a council at Cæsarea under the presidency of Eusebius, which was to meet at some time in the year 334 (perusin, p.141, cf. note 2 there, also Gwatkin, p.84 note; the 30 months' of Soz. ii.25 is an exaggeration). Athanasius, however, obstinately declined a trial before a judge whom he regarded as biassed; his refusal bitterly offended the aged historian. Accordingly the venue was fixed for Tyre in the succeeding year; a Count Dionysius was to represent the Emperor, and see that all was conducted fairly, and Athanasius was stringently (p.137) summoned to attend. Meanwhile a trusted deacon was on the tracks of the missing man. Arsenius was traced to a monastery' of Meletian brethren in the nome of Antæopolis in Upper Egypt. Pinnes, the presbyter of the community, got wind of the discovery, and smuggled Arsenius away down the Nile; presently he was spirited away to Tyre. The deacon, however, very astutely made a sudden descent upon the monastery in force, seized Pinnes, carried him to Alexandria, brought him before the Duke,' confronted him with the monk who had escorted Arsenius away, and forced them to confess to the whole plot. As soon as he was able to do so, Pinnes wrote to John Arcaph, warning him of the exposure, and suggesting that the charge had better be dropped (p.135; the letter is an amusingly naive exhibition of human rascality). Meanwhile (Socr. i.29) Arsenius was heard of at an inn in Tyre by the servant of a magistrate; the latter had him arrested, and informed Athanasius . Arsenius stoutly denied his identity, but was recognised by the bishop of Tyre, and at last confessed. The Emperor was informed and wrote to Athanasius (p.135), expressing his indignation at the plot, as also did Alexander, bishop of Thessalonica. Arsenius made his peace with Athanasius, and in due time succeeded (according to the Nicene rule) to the sole episcopate of Hypsele (p.548). John Arcaph even admitted his guilt and renounced his schisms and was invited to Court (p.136); but his submission was not permanent.

According to the Apology of Athanasius, all this took place some time before the council of Tyre; we cannot fix the date, except that it must have come after the Easter of 332 (see above). It appears most natural, from the language of Apol. Ar.71, to fix the exposure of Arsenius not very long before the summoning of the council of Tyre, but long enough to allow for the renewed intrigues which led to its being convened. But this pushes us back behind the intended council of Cæsarea in 334; we seem therefore compelled to keep Arsenius waiting at Tyre from about 333 to the summer of 335.

It must be remembered that the Council of Tyre was merely a parergon to the great Dedication Meeting at Jerusalem, which was to celebrate the Tricennalia of Constantine's reign by consecrating his grand church on Mount Calvary. On their way to Jerusalem the bishops were to despatch at Tyre their business of quieting the Egyptian troubles (Eus. V. C. iv.41). To Tyre accordingly Athanasius repaired. He left Alexandria on July 11, 335, and was absent, as it proved (according to the reckoning of the Hist. Aceph., below, p.496), two years, four months and eleven days.

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