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St. Athanasius the Great on Matter and the Human Body


(Literature review and some critical reflections)


Abstract The Doctrine of the Resurrection and Deification of the Flesh Matter, Flesh and their Ontological Status God’s Active Response to the Fall of Adam Originality of the Concept of “Matter’s Meonism” in St Athanasius The Teaching of St Athanasius on the Eucharist Conclusion


With the sobriquet Athanasius contra mundum, the great bishop of Alexandria stands out not only for his remarkable formulations of Christian orthodoxy, but also for a philosophical language that resembles the Platonism of his contemporaries in form but that is radically different in content. Reviewing relevant literature in the field, we shall argue that central to these differences are the saint’s anthropology and doctrine of creation. While previous scholarship has examined St Athanasius’ contribution to Trinitarian theology and the economy of salvation, his theology of created matter and its role in these contributions has not been adequately considered, especially as it pertains to the nature of the human body after the resurrection of the flesh. Our work here examines this question comparing St Athanasius’ theology with that of other Alexandrian luminaries, Origin and Cyril, as well as the Platonists, and finds that the ontological value of human flesh in the hierarchy of creation is his distinguishing contribution. This is expressed in St Athanasius’ understanding of the meonism of matter created ex nihilo, and, most especially, in his theology of the Eucharist whose eschatological resonances betray a conversation with the early theological tradition of Asia Minor.

In Fr John Meyendorff’s phrase, St. Athanasius ‘was not understood by many of his contemporary eastern theologians which had been brought up on the teachings of Neoplatonists and Origen. As for Athanasius, he was completely free from the commitment to Neoplatonic thought, and most notably in his doctrine of the creation of the world.’1 Fr John stressed St Athanasius’ loyalty to the church tradition from which he ‘assumed the catholic faith in the Divinity of the Word’ that ‘came to be the pivotal point of his theology’.2 We should like to add that St Athanasius is almost never credited with the restoration and theological substantiation of the church’s doctrine regarding the resurrection of the flesh, a position that had been significantly undermined by Origen. In fact Athanasius brought Alexandrian theology back to the ground of a biblically positive estimation of the final destination of matter and human flesh.

St Athanasius should certainly be recognized as a theologian of ‘renewal’ and ‘recreation’ of the whole material world, and most notably of humanity in the integrity of its nature. Reasoning about a ‘new creation’, the Saint taught that ‘the Word was to renew and recreate man made in His Image… exalt, sanctify and restore us.’3 Scholarship has emphasized that the development of the doctrine of deification was one of the most important achievements of the great Alexandrian primate.4

The whole redemptive feat of the Saviour is termed by St. Athanasius as ‘the Economy according to the flesh’ (κατὰ σάρκα οἰκονομία).5 However, no previous research has focused attention on the idea of the nature of resurrected bodies in St Athanasius as compared to Origen. Neither is there any mention of Origen in Roldanus’ (Roldanus Johannes) monograph entirely devoted to St. Athanasius’ anthropology.6

Khaled Anatolios is the only author to stress in his newly published monograph on St Athanasius, that following the line of Origen’s thought in respect of the doctrine of man as the ‘image of Image’,7 the saint retreats from Origen (as well as from Saints Irenaeus and Clement) as he does not distinguish between the concepts of ‘image’ and ‘likeness’.8 St Athanasius in every possible way tried to emphasize the continuity of the bond, rather than the gap between the orders of creation and redemption. Moreover, Anatolios points to the saint’s striking retreat from the Platonic and Origenist identification of human nature with the soul, as he indicates that ‘in Athanasius the unique identity of a human being is especially linked to his body’.9 It would be logical, then, to extend this to the practical identification of the human body with the flesh which St Athanasius maintains in his theology in startling antithesis to Origen, however this is not an argument this scholar makes.

Neither does Alvyn Pettersen’s significant analysis of St Athanasius’ doctrine of the body account for the correlation between the terms ‘flesh’ and ‘body’ in the saint’s work. Rather he merely observes that the resurrection of the body means ‘renovation and reconstruction of the physical part’ of human nature implying deliverance not from the physical body but from its material perishability.10

St Athanasius’ position must be contrasted with the internal theological and psychological relationship between Origen’s subordinationism and his negative attitude toward matter. For Origen, it was impossible to consider a connection of God’s nature with a material body apart from a mediator.11 This role was usually played by Jesus’ soul, yet Origen’s system displays the Logos Himself as a mediator between God the Father and the world of matter. As we shall see later, Saint Athanasius succeeds in overcoming both of Origen’s theological ‘weaknesses’.

The Doctrine of the Resurrection and Deification of the Flesh

St Athanasius of Alexandria’s theology clearly reveals the theological meaning of bearing the flesh in the incarnation of the Son of God for the purpose of its renewal and deification. Thus, the Saint taught that God the Word bore ‘our body […] for our sanctification, that we might share His anointing’.12 It was through the mystery of His incarnation that the eternal Logos ‘rid the flesh of the trespass, in which it was continually held captive’.13 By virtue of Christ’s ‘having rendered the flesh capable of accepting the Word’ (τοῦ λόγου),14 Christians are enabled to partake of the life in the Holy Spirit.

St Athanasius is acknowledged for coining a laconic formulation of the Incarnation dogma related to the deification of the whole man and resurrection of the body. Thus, for example, St Athanasius taught that ‘the Word became flesh […] so that the flesh might be raised’ (γέγονε σὰρξ ὁ λόγος… ἀλλ’ ἵνα ἡ σὰρξ ἀναστῇ).15 Unlike Origen, he speaks of the ‘salvation of the whole man’ (ὅλου τοῦ ἀνθρώπου σωτηρία)16 and makes use of the term ‘deification’ with regard to the flesh itself – ‘ἡ σὰρξ ἀναστᾶσα καὶ […] θεοποιηθεῖσα’.17 Relating it to the flesh of Christ and asserting that with the resurrection it was already ‘risen, devoid of mortality and deified’,18 St Athanasius refers to the flesh of the God-Man as a fountain of sanctification for all. The Word assumed a ‘created and human body so that He as a Framer might renew this body in order to deify it in Himself (ἀνακαινίσας ἐν ἑαυτῷ θεοποιήσῃ) and thereby take all of us, after the likeness of His body, to the heavenly kingdom.’19

This teaching of the saint was likewise expressed in Clement of Alexandria’s oft-used formula: ‘economy according to the flesh’20 as well as in its theological development. St Athanasius speaks of ‘the Lord’s economy and resurrection according to the flesh’ (κατὰ σάρκα τοῦ Κυρίου οἰκονομίαν καὶ ἀνάστασιν).21

Certainly the flesh of Christ, the “new Adam” qualitatively changed its features as compared with that of the “old Adam”. It was delivered from ‘that corruption which is by nature’ (κατὰ φύσιν ἀπηλλάγην φθορᾶς).22 After Christ the whole of humankind attains renewal in the fullness of its nature.23

According to the saint, the foundation of salvation and deification of human flesh lies in the unity of the nature of the Son of God, Consubstantial and Connatural with God the Father, and the human nature taken by Him.24 The Logos as giver of life has quickened the mortal nature of Adam in His incarnation. The ‘origin’ of the new humanity is, apparently, Christ the Man in the fullness of His human nature, yet St Athanasius ventures to apply the term ‘the beginning’ (ἡ ἀπαρχή)25 also to the very flesh of the risen Saviour. The renewal of this latter relates to all Christians, ‘the flesh being no longer earthly (οὐκέτι ὡς γηίνης), but being henceforth made one with the Word’.26

The above-mentioned expression requires special comment. St Athanasius’ teaching on the renewal of the flesh does not imply its elimination. It is still human flesh, passing to a new mode of existence where it is literally filled by the Word (λογωθείσης).27 The saint refers to the flesh ‘as no longer earthly’ not by reason of all human and earthly elements being removed from it, but by reason of the overwhelming and enveloping prevalence of the divine activites (energies) of God the Word in the human soul and material body of a human.

This is evidenced by another text from Oratio II contra Arianos 65.2.2, where the saint says that human nature became ‘naked and merely earthly’ (ψιλὸς καὶ μόνον χοϊκός) on account of Adam’s transgression. Evidently, this ‘nakedness’ is to be understood as a state of being destitute of grace.

Regarding the doctrine of predestination of flesh and its eschatological perspective, the whole structure of St Athanasius’ theological system radically differs from that of Origen. This theological achievement of the saint has been so far beyond the compass of theological study, nonetheless it addresses the most important part of the Church’s dogmatic teachings. Retaining the fullness of human nature in the resurrection, with its ‘lower’, fleshy component also involved, corresponds closely with the teaching on the mode of creation of the first man.

Despite the fact, that previous researchers have noted some ideological and philological similarities in the anthropological legacy of St Athanasius and Plato’s Phaedrus, our study makes a firm distinction between St Athanasius’ position and one that would draw on Platonic philosophy in respect to ‘the dichotomy principle between mental and sensory realities’ to the extent of identifying the likeness of God with transcending the ‘corporeal reality by man’.28 The Saint does relate to the mind going ‘beyond the limits of the senses and all human things’ in its contemplation of God, yet this does not in itself necessitate commitment to a Platonic rejection of fleshliness.

Unlike Origen, St Athanasius did not accept the theory of pre-existence of souls, nor the conception of the earthly body as a temporary abode for the sinful soul to be transmogrified to an other-worldly, subtle ethereal vehicle of the soul. The Saint emphasizes the ontological connection between the first creation and the renewed creation. It is the very flesh which the first man received in the first creation (ἐν τῇ πρώτῃ κτίσει) which is quickened (ζωοποιήσῃ) by the Word of God, through putting on the created flesh (ἐνδιδύσκεται τὴν κτισθεῖσαν σάρκα).29 Therefore one cannot agree with the opinion that ‘Athanasius, unfortunately, strengthened the already-present hesitancy to affirm the genuine goodness of the human body’.30 Quite on the contrary, St Athanasius, having taken in the best of the theological traditions of Alexandria and Asia Minor, came to be the first theologian who revealed the original predestination of human flesh and the significance of the deified flesh of the Christ as the beginning of deification for the whole human race.

Matter, Flesh and their Ontological Status

In his polemic against Plato’s followers, St Athanasius indicates that Platonists ‘are investing God with weakness’, by holding that God made the world out of previously existing matter (ἐκ προϋποκειμένης καὶ ἀγενήτου ὕλης).31 St Athanasius held the teaching of the church on the creation of the whole material cosmos ex nihilo. The Saint considers all creatures of God (θεοῦ ποιήματα) to be originally made of pure and good nature (πάντα μὲν καλὰ καὶ καθαρὰ).32 In contrast to Origen, we do not find in St Athanasius any negative epithet applied to the term ‘ὕλη’.

Reproving the heathen for idolatry, St Athanasius points out that idols are made by human hands ‘out of soulless matter’ (ἐξ ὕλης ἀψύχου), and convinces them that they should not expect God to be present ‘in soulless or immobile things’ (ἀψύχοις καὶ ἀκινήτοις).33 However, after God’s putting on the flesh, matter may be transformed by divine activity. Thus, for example, in the Commentary on Psalm 2, the saint relates that the matter of wood (ὕλη ξύλου) subsisting in the Holy Cross, regardless of its weak natural substance, acquires ‘firmness of iron’ (ἡ δὲ ἰσχὺς σιδήρου).34

It is especially noteworthy that these divine energies do not belong to any substance lower than the Godhead. For just as God the Word Himself was manifest and active in the Lord’s body, so the hypostasized energy of God the Word works in the matter of the Cross.

In the Saint’s works we do repeatedly find a negative connotation in the usage of the adjective ‘fleshy’ (σάρκινος) in the meaning of ‘infirm’, ‘sinful’, ‘passionate’. Thus, for example, St Athanasius refers to those who have the ‘wisdom of fleshly ways’ (φρόνημα σαρκικὸν) for they cannot have the wisdom ‘in Christ’.35 In the Life of Antony the Ascetic commands his disciples to keep themselves from filthy thoughts and fleshly pleasures (σαρκικῶν ἡδονῶν).36 The Saint points to the hypothetical possibility that evil may have sprung from the motions of the flesh (ἐκ τῶν σαρκικῶν κινημάτων ἀνεφύετο κακόν)37 in Christ’s body; yet such evil was cut away and destroyed in the bud by the power of His Divinity. He also directly contrasts the ‘will of the flesh’ (σαρκικός θέλημα) and the ‘will of the Godhead’ (θεϊκός), as he comments on the Saviour’s words in the garden of Gethsemane.38 Yet these instances do not imply negative properties to the flesh itself, but the domination of sin over human flesh due to the violation of the hierarchy of beings which was overcome by God’s Incarnation.

The saint repeatedly demonstrated that it was through the flesh of Christ that ‘every bite of the serpent (δῆγμα τοῦ ὄφεως)39 began to be utterly staunched from out it’. Following the example of the Apostle Paul, the saint employs the adjective ‘fleshy’ not only in a negative, but also in a positive sense (2Cor 3. 3). St Athanasius reflects on the commandments of the New Testament ‘written not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart’ (οὐκ ἐν πλαξὶ λιθίναις, ἀλλὰ σαρκίναις) as he considers the economy of God the Word according to human flesh and its resurrection.40

God’s Active Response to the Fall of Adam

St Athanasius repeatedly underlines the subjection of human nature to corruption as a natural consequence of man’s falling away from God owing to, if one may put it so, purely natural grounds. But we also find direct evidence of the Creator’s active and immediate interference in the material world after the fall of Adam for the purpose of man’s reformative punishment.

In St Athanasius the term ‘ἡ ἀπειλή’ (threat)41 frequently relates to a more passive connotation of God’s warning against corruption gaining power over man.42 However, even this ‘milder’ connotation indicates God’s active intervention in man’s fallen estate. Thus, the saint says that ‘the threat against transgression gave a firm hold to the corruption which was upon us’.43 The same term is made use of to refer to the threat of everlasting damnation at the Last Judgement.44 In the Saint we also find the notion of ‘warning of the law’ (τοῦ νόμου ἀπειλὴν), annihilated by God the Father after the death of Christ at Golgotha.45

The word ‘ἡ κατάρα’ (curse)46 even more distinctly conveys the notion of God’s reformative and chastising function. This biblical term (Gen 3.17; Gal 3.10,13; 2Pet 2.14) recurs in semantic conjunction with notions of corruption and death. Thus, ‘the slavery of corruption’ and ‘the curse of the Law’ stand alongside as interrelated expressions.47 Christ ‘received the death set for a curse’.48 We occasionally find the phrase ‘the curse of the death’ (τοῦ θανάτου κατάραν) in the saint’s writings.49 Death itself, according to the biblical narrative, comes to pass as a result of Adam’s fall and it is not only a necessary consequence of the meonistic (nonexistent) degeneration of Adam, but also directly corresponds to the ‘distemper of the heavens’ (ὁ οὐρανὸς ἐθυμώθη) and the curse of the earth (ἡ γῆ κεκατήραται).50

Removing this curse is connected with the Incarnation of the eternal God the Word through Whom the curse was inflicted (‘ἡ γῆ ἀντὶ κατάρας εὐλόγηται’) and man himself is brought to a stop (‘ἡ κατάρα μηκέτι ἰσχύσῃ κατὰ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου’).51 The notions of the curse of the earth and the perishable state of the matter of the human body are closely connected as man was taken out of the ground’ (ἡμεῖς δὲ ἐκ γῆς γεγόναμεν).52

It is also noteworthy to refer to the text Oratio II contra Arianos 68, where St Athanasius considers the possibility of undoing the curse by virtue of a simple command of God. In response to his own question, the saint remarks that though all ‘is possible with God’, He provides ‘what is profitable and fitting’ for men. If the curse had been undone with a simple command of the all-mighty God, apart from the economy of His Son's Incarnation, man would have ‘become such as Adam was before the transgression, having received grace only from without’ (ἔξωθεν λαβὼν τὴν χάριν).53 The state of men would have been identical to the state of Adam placed in Paradise, but man would have run a risk of becoming ‘worse, because he had learned to transgress’.

Therefore, in St Athanasius God is apparently understood not only as the Creator of man and the Divine guide for the salvation of the human race through the Incarnation of the Consubstantial Son of God, but also as the active guide caring about the state of the material nature of human essence at the time of its creation and from Adam’s fall to the Incarnation of the Logos.

Originality of the Concept of “Matter’s Meonism” in St Athanasius

St Athanasius employs the expressions ‘ἐξ οὐκ ὄντων’ and ‘ἐκ μὴ ὄντων’ synonymously to refer to the creation of the cosmos and of all ‘things from nothing into being’ (‘ἐκ τοῦ μὴ ὄντος’; ‘τὸ μὴ ὂν εἰς τὸ εἶναι’; ‘τὰ οὐκ ὄντα εἰς τὸ εἶναι’).54

While Middle Platonists used to identify categories of ‘matter’ and ‘non-existence’ in the sense of the eternal and chaotic meon (τὸ μὴ ὂν), the Alexandrian theological tradition, beginning from Clement, strictly held the theological teaching on the creation of the whole created nature ex nihilo. Hence, dualism between matter and spirit, which was in fact inevitable for the Platonic tradition, was overcome and substituted with the ‘dualism’ between the Creator and the creature. Though St Athanasius and the Platonists both hold the view that ‘soulless matter’ belongs to the lower level of hierarchical beings, for the former it was originally brought into existence as a result of God’s creative activity.

According to Platonists, matter’s ‘nothingness’ (meonism) relates to its perpetual liability for the law of chaos and its passive resistance as an inanimate amorphous substance to the creative efforts of the demiurge to give it meaningful arrangement,55 while in Alexandrian theology matter was conceived as coming to be from complete and absolute nothingness. Though already traceable in the theology of Clement and Origen these ideas were most fully developed by St Athanasius. In addition to the aforementioned thesis, which was logically quite consistent with speculation about the complete subordination of matter to God, St Athanasius substantiated positions which had been only briefly outlined by Clement and distorted by Origen and gave them theological content. Namely the Saint proclaimed the favour of the Creator towards existence and the maturation in this existence of the material world.

The fact that St Athanasius distinguished sharply between the Divine being and the Divine will has been given special notice. In the view of Fr George Florovsky, it was St Athanasius the Great who ‘for the first time in the history of the Christian thought would guess and strictly develop such distinction in the troublous times of the Arian debates which resulted in overcoming Origen’.56 If the Son begetting from the Father not by will, but by nature, it follows that the creation is but the result of God’s favour. The Son ‘is not a work of will’ (‘ὁ δὲ υἱὸς οὐ θελήματός ἐστι δημιούργημα’), but ‘is by nature the own Offspring of God’s essence’.57 The Son is ‘origination’ (τὸ γέννημα)58 without beginning, while ‘things originate’ (τὸ γενητὰ) have come to be by the favour of the Father (‘εὐδοκίᾳ καὶ βουλήσει γέγονεν’).59

The Father and the Son have ‘one will, one disposition’ […] ‘since their essence is also one and indivisible’.60 Creation, on the contrary, is the work of one will and one action of all Persons of the Holy Trinity (‘μία ταύτης ἡ ἐνέργεια’).61 Thus, as for the creation and the creature, ‘a created and framed thing is made from without, and not from within of the creator and framer, and of utterly dissimilar nature’.62 However, such one and all-mighty, good and perfect will of the Tri-hypostatic God the Creator is a solid ground for the existence of the material world. In a way, this positive and creative divine will can be called a ‘blessed necessity’ for all creatures to continue their existence and ‘mature in grace’ in the process of life.

God’s will is creative (τὸ βούλημα αὐτοῦ ποιητικόν ἐστι), ‘and His will is effective, and suffices for the consistence of the things that come to be’ (‘πρὸς σύστασιν τῶν γινομένων’).63 And His Word is creative and powerful, and this Word is certainly the living will of the Father, essential activity, the true Word through which all has come into being and is perfectly handled.

From the Christian perspective, both the first creation ‘out of nothing’ and man’s restoration in the second Adam, reveal infinite goodness and care of the One supreme God Himself for His creation. God the Father, with His coexistent Logos, is ‘over all and in all revealing His own providence’.64 The fullness of the Providence of the Creator Himself relates not only to the things in heaven, but also to the things on earth (‘ἐν τῇ γῇ πρόνοιαν αὐτοῦ’).65 The very substance of God is referred to as ‘Good and Exceedingly beautiful’ (‘ἀγαθὸς καὶ ὑπέρκαλος’),66 as well as ‘the source of goodness’,67 ‘the source of mercy and love of mankind’.68 In De incarnatione verbi alone, St Athanasius makes use of nearly 30 expressions related to goodness and God’s love of mankind (‘τοῦ Θεοῦ ἀγαθότητος καὶ φιλανθρωπίας’)69 and asserts such goodness is the main cause of the Saviour’s Incarnation. This Saviour is no representative of ‘minor gods’, but the Consubstantial and the Only Begotten Son of God.70 Despite the utter dissimilarity of His divine nature, He comes into the world to annihilate the force of the law of corruption and degradation, the slow slide of the humanity towards non-existence.71

Furthermore, according to St Athanasius the creature is assigned with the task of running the course of maturing in its existence and the grace of God. The saint’s works give little direct teaching, yet it is clearly traceable in his system. In the saint’s view, the first man was assigned with the task of maturing in grace, and especially in respect to the corporeal part of his being. Hence, apart from the logically dependent principles of absolute non-being against created being as rooted in the Creator’s good will, the notion of matter’s ‘meonism’ is complemented by the thesis of the anthropocentricity of God’s design and His providence for the material world.

Thus, with regard to Adam’s condition before the transgression, the Saint remarks that he received grace, in a sense, ‘from without (ἔξωθεν) […] not having it united to the body’.72 For since the first man Adam had the capacity to alter (both for the better and worse), therefore, in the mind of the saint, the second Adam was to become ‘unalterable’ with ‘unalterable and unchangeable’ characteristics’ (‘ἀτρέπτου καὶ ἀναλλοιώτου’).73 Naturally, the God-man’s increase in stature (‘ἡ προκοπή’), means ‘increasing with respect to the human nature’.74 The Saint even relates to it as ‘the body increasing in stature’ (‘προκοπτούσης τῆς σαρκὸς’),75 though this implies the growth of bodily and spiritual powers alike.76 In St Athanasius the term ‘flesh’ denotes the whole man in the totality of his nature including the condition of man being subject to bodily and spiritual infirmities which were not only instilled to human nature in a great measure through the transgression, but were also somehow inherent to it from the beginning of his life in the Paradise.

Since man could have gone from the first ‘both in the right and in the wrong way’ by the power of free choice, ‘the grace imparted to men was to be beforehand protected by “law and place (νόμῳ καὶ τόπῳ)”, and that is why the Creator ‘gave them the law’77 on placing the first men in Paradise. The bulk of the saint’s theology points to the task of overcoming the natural law of corruption, which the first Adam failed to achieve, but which the second Adam – Christ – took upon Himself.

The saint and the Platonists hold similar views on the perpetual flux of all material things, but their opinions on the destiny of human corporeal nature are diametrically opposed. The extension and intensification of corruption within the material reality of meonic predisposition, and, vice versa, the diminution and termination of its effects correlate closely with the expression of the will of the first and second Adam. Just like his predecessors in the Alexandrian theological tradition, St Athanasius, in contrast to pagan philosophy, asserts that the entire cosmos was subjected to corruption just as he rejects the aimless repetition of cosmic cycles of destruction and rebirth. The Saint ascribes incorruption not to the generalized cosmic nature, but primarily to the body of the new Adam by which those human beings willing to enter into communion with God become partakers of incorruption. It is through the humanity renewed in Christ that the entire cosmos will acquire incorruption, yet obtaining the characteristic of incorruption after its transformation not only as a whole but in all of its individual components.78

Hence, we must consider the qualitative originality of the notion of matter’s meonism in St Athanasius. We can designate the reflection of a dualistic antithesis between the natures of God and matter by such a term as ‘philosophical’ meonism. Whereas the ‘theological’ meonism of matter, as it is found in the saint’s system, should designate the reflection of the principles of God’s absolute monarchy and the Creator’s anthropocentric providence for the material cosmos.

According to the saint, the interaction of human will and the will of God the Creator and Divine Guide not only defines the salvation of man for eternal life, but also controls the efficacy and power of the law of corruption in the material world. In the first place, in the Saint’s system it refers to the corruption of the nature of the human body, but there is also indirect evidence with regard to the relationship between the condition of the whole cosmos and the condition of man. Thus, after Adam’s fall, ‘all came into perturbation’ (τὰ πάντα τετάρακται).79 Owing to its anthropocentricity, in many instances St Athanasius’ theology just falls short of equating notions of the cosmos and humanity, and while the human race represents the principal ‘part of the whole’,80 yet it is no less a creature and part of creation.

In the saint’s view, the tendency of the whole created world toward corruption was natural due to its origination out of nothing (ἐκ τοῦ μὴ ὄντος).81 In the first Adam it rules over the total human nature, whereas in the second Adam it is destroyed. The body of Christ as a new Adam becomes the source of incorruption, above all, for all men and also for the whole world. For God the Word ‘even while present in a human body and Himself quickening it, was, without inconsistency, quickening the universe as well (ἐζωοποίει καὶ τὰ ὅλα)’.82

The Teaching of St Athanasius on the Eucharist

According to the leading theme of the saint’s theology, it is the body of Christ, Whose nature is consubstantial to all human bodies by virtue of a hypostatic union with the Logos, that becomes the source of incorruption for the human race. This fact lays a foundation for acknowledging the Alexandrian archbishop’s standing in a fully realistic scheme of Eucharistic theology. The saint’s texts, which cover the spiritual nature of the Eucharistic meal, do not change the overall picture, but rather reveal the depth of his realistic insight into the central Church Sacrament.

Thus, commenting on the expression of Christ, Who expounds the teaching on His flesh as true food (John 6. 55) – ‘It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life’ (Jn. 6.61–63), St Athanasius emphasises that ‘therein He said of Himself either way’, i.e., that He is ‘both flesh and spirit’ (σάρκα καὶ πνεῦμα).83

The Eucharistic mystery is evidently not ordinary flesh, but transmitted from above a ‘heavenly and spiritual meal’ (οὐράνιον καὶ πνευματικὴν τροφὴν),84 with special spiritual characteristics. Yet it does not cease to be the flesh of the incarnate Word. Thus it is the very flesh of Christ which is ‘made manifest and offered for the salvation of the world’, the flesh which He assumed in earthly life, ‘this flesh and blood’ (αὕτη […] καὶ τὸ ταύτης αἷμα) is offered ‘as a spiritual meal, so that it is imparted to everyone […] spiritually, being a protection for all of us in order to awake to everlasting life’ (φυλακτήριον εἰς ἀνάστασιν ζωῆς αἰωνίου).85

The term ‘protection’ (τὸ φυλακτήριον) is used by St Athanasius again to refer to the Old Testament offerings aspersed with blood which came to be the antitype of ‘purification of all with the blood of the true lamb Christ’.86 The expression ‘εἰς ἀνάστασιν ζωῆς αἰωνίου’, employed on this occasion by the Saint, again bears traces of his relation to Asia Minor theology, since it occurs at an earlier date only in the text of Martyrdom by St Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna (in the saint’s prayer for partaking of Christ’s Passion and His resurrection).87 The combination of the words ‘resurrection’ and ‘everlasting life’ is to be found in the writings of this saint and other authors of that time mostly with regard to the doctrine of the resurrection of flesh.88

The text from Oratio III contra Arianos 57 also definitely indicates the Eucharist as a means of partaking of immortality acquired by the flesh of Christ, as it says that the Word ‘having come in our body, was conformed to our condition, so we, receiving Him, partake of the immortality that is from Him’.89 The expression ‘receiving Him’ is conveyed in the original text with the participle derived from the verb ‘δέχομαι’, which implies both physical and mental ‘embracing’, ‘acceptance’.90

Finally, we would like to point to the specific usage of the adjective ‘σύσσωμος’, which in the apostle Paul means Christians’ partaking of the Church as a spiritual body of Christ (Eph 3. 6) in the context of human material nature acquiring the characteristics of incorruption and immortality. The acquisition of these latter is viewed by St Athanasius not only as a result of Christians’ harmonious entering in the spiritual body of Christ (συναρμολογούμενοι καὶ συνδεθέντες ἐν αὐτῷ διὰ τῆς ὁμοιώσεως τῆς σαρκός),91 but is also closely associated with the divine Incarnation.


Although the saint refrained from openly denouncing the Alexandrian didascale, and even praised him for his industriousness and learning,92 yet St Athanasius’ position, exposed in his teaching both on the destiny of the matter of the human body and properties of matter as such, was fundamentally distinct from that of Origen. According to the saint’s doctrine, matter is able to assume the divine energy of the Only and Supreme God the Trinity to the utmost degree. In the first place, it applies to the matter of Christ’s human body which received the highest degree of deification. However, by means of it, as an “instrument” (ὄργανος), the consecration also extends to the entire human race and the entire material world. The matter of Christ’s body, the wood of the cross, according to Saint Athanasius, came to be transmitters of consecration and spiritual power, a position in direct antithesis to that of Origen.

In his doctrine of Adam’s fall the saint echoes Origen’s ideas in many respects. However, their views are diametrically opposed as concerns the active providence of God for the state of the material nature of a human being at its creation, from Adam’s fall to the incarnation of the Logos, as well as with regard to the very deification of material bodies. By contrast to Platonic tradition, in St Athanasius the lower material reality is not rejected in the process of deification as it is framed to a truly harmonious state in conformity with the Logos.

In the saint’s mind, sensual body and flesh are made a part of humanity’s essential nature from the very beginning. Rejecting the possibility of anyone but God to overcome the ontological gulf between God and the creature, St Athanasius is in ‘uncompromising opposition to Platonists… and, even though he does not proclaim it openly, to many of the Christian teachers, and most notably Origen’.93 We would like to add that this veiled, though uncompromising opposition also extends to the teaching on the origin and eschatological perspective of the human flesh.

We can also speak of the emergence of a fundamentally new concept of meonism in St Athanasius. The meonism of matter in the interpretation of the Saint denotes the reflection of the principles of the absolute monarchy of God and anthropocentric providence of the Creator for the material cosmos alongside the positive design of God about the destination of matter as such. A ‘theological’ meonism can also be found in Origen’s system, yet there the major distinction lies in the negative connotation of matter’s ontological status because it has its primordial origin in human sin. This aspect of Origen’s teaching gave matter no ground for any positive eschatological perspective and, as a result, his system was inevitably biased towards a ‘philosophical’ meonism of matter, with the only difference being that matter created out of nothing was destined to pass again into nothingness.

The Saint’s unique formula to refer to the Holy Gifts (‘φυλακτήριον εἰς ἀνάστασιν ζωῆς αἰωνίου’), bears witness again to his relation to Asia Minor theology and introduces the reader to the area of theological discussion on the relationship between the Old Testament antitype sacrifices and the true Sacrifice of Christ, His redemptive sufferings and resurrection in flesh for the entire humanity.

* * *


Fr John Meyendorff, Introduction to Patristic Theology, trans. L. Volkonskaya (New York, 1985), 128–129.


Fr Florovsky Georges, ‘The Idea of Creation in Saint Athanasius the Great’ in G. Florovsky, Dogma and History (Moscow, 1998), 80–109.


Hieromonk Vladimir (Blagorazumov), St. Athanasius of Alexandria, his Life, Scholarly and Literary, Polemical and Dogmatic Activities (Kishinev, 1895), 368.


Archimandrite Cyprian (Kern), The Golden Age of Patristic Literature (Moscow, 1995), 37.


S. Athanasius Alexandrinus. Oratio II contra Arianos, 75.1.3, TLG; S. Athanasius Alexandrinus. Against the Arians. Discourse II, 75 in Athanasius. Select Works and Letters. A Selected Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. ed. Philip Schaff, in 7 volumes, vol. IV. (Grand Rapids, Michigan 1999). This formula, apparently, conveys the core idea of St Athanasius’ theology. URL: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf204.toc.html (accessed 03. 09. 2013).


Jh. Roldanus. Le Christ et l’homme dans la théologie d’Athanase d’Alexandrie: Étude de la conjonction de sa conception de l’homme avec sa christologie (Leiden, 1968).


This has the sense that man is the image of the Logos Who is the image of God the Father.


Khaled Anatolios, Athanasius, The Early Church Fathers (Durham, 2004), 57–58.


Ibid. 65.


Alvyn Pettersen, Athanasius and the Human Body (Bristol, 1990), 28.


K.D.F. Walker, The theological and doxological understanding of resurrection: an examination of its centrality within the 4th century Christian orthodox understanding of Easter with particular reference to the festal letters of St. Athanasius of Alexandria. Master’s thesis Durham University (Durham E-Theses, 2001), URL: http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/4201/1/4201_1720.pdf (accessed 03. 09. 2013).


‘ἀλλ’ ἡ προσληφθεῖσα παρ’ αὐτοῦ σάρξ ἐστιν, ἡ ἐν αὐτῷ καὶ παρ’ αὐτοῦ χριομένη’, Oratio I contra Arianos 47.6.4, (Thesaurus Linguae Graecae. University of California, Irvine – Irvine, CA. URL: http://www.tlg.uci.edu/ (TLG).


‘ἐκστήσας ἀπ’ αὐτῆς τὸ παράπτωμα, ἐν ᾧ διαπαντὸς ᾐχμαλωτίζετο’, ibid. 60.3.4–5.


Ibid. 60. 4. 2.


S. Athanasius, Epistula ad Epictetum 9.17–18, TLG.


Ibid. 7.2–3.


S. Athanasius, Oratio III contra Arianos 48.4.2–3, TLG.


Christ’s ascending to heaven is portrayed in a fleshly way, namely ‘ascending as man, and carrying up to heaven the flesh which He bore’ (εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν ἣν ἐφόρει σάρκα), ibid. 48.3.3, TLG.


Ibid. 70.1.


Clemens Alexandrinus, Stromata–3: ‘κατὰ σάρκα… οἰκονομίαν’; S. Athanasius Alexandrinus, De decretis Nicaenae synodi 25. 3. 2; In illud: Omnia mihi tradita sunt 25. 209. 38; Tomus ad Antiochenos, 26.804.12; Oratio II contra Arianos 75.1.3; Expositiones in Psalmos 27.245.14; 27.373.1; 27.377.10; Tomus ad Antiochenos 7.1.1, TLG.


Expositiones in Psalmos 27.128.5–6, TLG.


Oratio III contra Arianos 34.5.4, TLG.


‘ἅπασαν δὲ τὴν ἀνθρώπου φύσιν εἰς ἀφθαρσίαν ἀνακαινίζουσα’, Expositiones in Psalmos 27.584.9–10, TLG.


“For therefore the union was of this kind, that He might unite what is man by nature to Him, who is in the nature of the Godhead, and his salvation and deification might be sure”, Oratio II contra Arianos 70, TLG.


Oratio II contra Arianos 66.2.5, TLG.


Ibid. 33.5.9–10, TLG.


Ibid. 33.5.9. “λογωθείσης” is aorist passive participle from the verb “λογόω”. According to the Liddel-Scott Lexicon, the verb and its derivatives in philosophical context occur in Neoplatonists Plotinus and Proclus (H. Liddel, R. Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford, 1996), 1059). In particular, Plotinus discusses the subordinate matter (ὑποκειμένη […] ὕλη), which is subject to the creative activity of the framing Logos (λογωθεῖσα). However, the similarity of conceptions seems to be rather rough and approximate, for in Plotinus the logos which is poured forth by the World Soul is a mediator of a lower class. The transcendental Soul of the universe does not affect matter directly. In addition, as stated by A.H. Armstrong, in Enneades I.6.3 Plotinus almost equates the logos with light, designating it as ‘the principle of the material world’s form’. At this point the logos-spirit is represented as the most subtle form of matter, A.H. Armstrong, ‘Emanation in Plotinus’ Mind. New Series 46.181 (Jan., 1937), 61–66, here 64.


Andrew Hamilton, S.J., ‘The relationship between God and created reality in the theology of St Athanasius of Alexandria’ (Thesis (D. Phil.), University of Oxford, 1977), 58.


Oratio II contra Arianos 65.1.6–7, TLG.


Ch. Krycho, ‘Contra Mundum: A Biographical Sketch of Athanasius of Alexandria’. Ardent Fidelity (April 15, 2013). URL: https://2012–2013.chriskrycho.com/theology/contra-mundum-athanasius/ (03. 09. 2018).


S. Athanasius, De incarnatione verbi 2.3.2, TLG.


S. Athanasius, Epistula ad Amun 63.11–12, TLG.


S. Athanasius, Expositiones in Psalmos 27.368.45–46, TLG.


Ibid. 27.68.18.


Ibid. 27.204.52.


S. Athanasius, Vita Antonii 55.7b, TLG.


Oratio II contra Arianos 69.3.2–3, TLG.


‘σχεδόν τοι μηδὲ φανῆναι τῷ σαρκικῷ θελήματι συγχωροῦντος τοῦ θεϊκοῦ’; Homilia in illud: Nunc anima mea turbata est (fragmenta) 26.1244.8–9, TLG.


Oratio II contra Arianos 69.3.1–2, TLG.


Expositiones in Psalmos 27.192.50–27.193.4, TLG.


H. Liddel, R. Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (1996), 183.


De incarnatione verbi 5.2.5–9, TLG.


‘τὴν ἀπειλὴν τῆς παραβάσεως διακρατοῦσαν τὴν καθ’ ἡμῶν φθοράν’, ibid. 8.2.3–4.


‘τὴν ἀπειλὴν τοῦ Θεοῦ’, Expositiones in Psalmos 27.64.2, TLG.


De incarnatione verbi 21.1.2–3: ‘Why, now that the common Saviour of all has died on our behalf, we, the faithful in Christ, no longer die the death as before, agreeably to the warning of the law; for this condemnation has ceased’.


H. Liddel, R. Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (1996), 908.


‘τῇ δουλείᾳ τῆς φθορᾶς’ καὶ ‘τῇ κατάρᾳ τοῦ νόμου’, Oratio II contra Arianos 14.1.2–3, TLG.


De incarnatione verbi 25.2.3, TLG.


Expositiones in Psalmos 27.313.58; 27.380.47, TLG.


In illud: Omnia mihi tradita sunt 25.209.45–50, TLG.


Ibid. 25.212.13–14; 25.212.46, TLG.


De sententia Dionysii 11.4.4, TLG.


Oratio II contra Arianos 68.4.4.


‘ποιήσας ἐκ τοῦ μὴ ὄντος εἰς τὸ εἶναι’, S. Athanasius Alexandrinus. Epistula ad Afros episcopos 26.1037.30–31; ‘οὐδὲ ὁ ἥλιος κτίσμα ὢν ποιήσει ποτὲ τὸ μὴ ὂν εἰς τὸ εἶναι’, Oratio II contra Arianos 21. 4. 6; ‘τὰ οὐκ ὄντα καλεῖ διὰ τοῦ ἰδίου λόγου εἰς τὸ εἶναι’, see also 22.1.3–4 and 21.2.2; ‘ποία γὰρ ἐμφέρεια τῶν ἐξ οὐκ ὄντων πρὸς τὸν κτίσαντα τὰ οὐκ ὄντα εἰς τὸ εἶναι’, Oratio I contra Arianos 21.3.1–2; 27.3.8, TLG.


The Platonic ‘chaotic (πλανωμένης) beginning’ (Timaeus 48а), which hinders sensual bodies from corresponding to their originative model of well-ordered and perfect ideas, is in complete opposition to the Idea and is termed ‘necessity’, ‘adoption’ (in more contemporary language – ‘the principle of corporality’). This notion reflects the law of the material world which is contrary to the reason and good of the ideal world.


Fr G. Florovsky, The Idea of Creation in Saint Athanasius the Great (1998), 104. In Origen’s teachings on the being of the Son of God ‘ontological and cosmological aspects are intermixed’. In the right judgement of V. V. Bolotov, ‘in Origen’s works the logical bond between the birth of the Son and existence of the world has not been severed yet’, 83–84. Origen must have considered the birth of the Son to stem from the action of the Father’s will.


‘ἀλλὰ φύσει τῆς οὐσίας ἴδιον γέννημα’, Oratio III contra Arianos 63.4.3–4, TLG.


Oratio III contra Arianos 57.6.5: ‘ἄναρχος ὑπάρχῃ ἐν τῷ πατρὶ γέννημα’; ‘γέννημα ἐκ τῆς οὐσίας τοῦ πατρός ἐστιν ὁ λόγος’, De decretis Nicaenae synodi 3.3.1, TLG; ‘ἢ ὁμοούσιον γέννημα’, see also 24.2.7; Oratio II contra Arianos 57.


Oratio III contra Arianos 63.4.2–3, TLG.


‘Καὶ ἓν θέλημα Πατρὸς καὶ Υἱοῦ καὶ βούλημα, ἐπεὶ καὶ ἡ φύσις μία καὶ ἀδιαίρετος’, In illud: Omnia mihi tradita sunt 25.217.19–21, TLG.


The Holy Trinity is ‘after the likeness of Itself, indivisible by nature and Its action is one’, Epistulae quattuor ad Serapionem 1.28.2–5, TLG.


Fr. G. Florovsky, The Idea of Creation, 105.


Oratio II contra Arianos 2. 5. 4.


‘εἰς πάντα ἐν πᾶσι τὴν ἑαυτοῦ πρόνοιαν’, De incarnatione verbi 17.1.8, TLG.


Expositiones in Psalmos 27.437.12, TLG.


Contra gentes 2.7; 41.13, TLG. Although Plotinus employs the term ‘τὸ ὑπέρκαλον’ with regard to the One, his context implies self-contained beauty rather than kindness focused on the material world. Enneades; Enneades; Enneades, TLG.


‘πηγὴ τῆς ἀγαθότητος’, De incarnatione verbi 3.3.2; Ср.: ‘πηγὴ τῶν ἀγαθῶν’, De sententia Dionysii 23.2.l2, TLG.


Expositiones in Psalmos 27.268.35, TLG.


De incarnatione verbi 12.6.1–2; 43.4.3; 12.6.1; 6.10.3; 6.5.2; 3.3.2, TLG.


The Word of God ‘has filled all things everywhere, remaining present with His own Father. But He comes in condescension to shew loving-kindness upon us, and to visit us’ (φιλανθρωπίᾳ καὶ ἐπιφανείᾳ), ibid. 8.1.5–7, TLG.


Ibid. 8.4.


‘καὶ μὴ συνηρμοσμένην ἔχων αὐτὴν τῷ σώματι’, Oratio II contra Arianos 68.4.4; The participle ‘συνηρμοσμένην’ that the saint uses to formulate this conjunction is derived from the verb ‘συναρμόζω’ and has the same linguistic roots as the noun ‘ἀρμονία’ – harmony.


Oratio I contra Arianos 51.3.5–6, TLG.


Oratio III contra Arianos 53, TLG.


Ibid. 54.1.1.


Thus the saint in this place speaks of the Saviour’s spiritual sufferings as a characteristic of the “body […] passible […] to weep and hunger”, ibid. 55.1.


St. Athanasius the Great, Writings V.1, 195; De incarnatione verbi 3.4.2–3, TLG.


‘ὁ οὐρανὸς καινὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ καινή’, Expositiones in Psalmos 27.436.35, TLG.


In illud: Omnia mihi tradita sunt 25.209.45–46, TLG.


‘Μέρος γὰρ τοῦ παντὸς καὶ τὸ ἀνθρώπων ἐστὶ γένος’, De incarnatione verbi 41.7.4–5, TLG.


De incarnatione verbi–5.2; also: Epistulae quattuor ad Serapionem–3: ‘ἡ δὲ τῶν γενητῶν καὶ κτιστῶν φύσις ἐστὶ τρεπτή, ἅτε δὴ ἔξωθεν οὖσα τῆς τοῦ θεοῦ οὐσίας καὶ ἐξ οὐκ ὄντων ὑποστᾶσα’ (The essential nature of creatures brought into existence and created is prone to change since it is existent out of the Divine essence and made up of nothing).


De incarnatione verbi 17.2.1–3; Hamilton remarks that God the Word in St Athanasius’ system is ‘the beginning of life and consecration for His body and the whole cosmos alike’, Andrew Hamilton S. J. ‘The relationship between God and created reality in the theology of St Athanasius of Alexandria’ (1977), 143.


Epistulae quattuor ad Serapionem, TLG.




Ibid.–9: ‘ὁ μὲν δεικνύμενον καὶ διδόμενον ὑπὲρ τῆς τοῦ κόσμου σωτηρίας ἐστὶν ἡ σὰρξ ἣν ἐγὼ φορῶ’.


Expositiones in Psalmos 27.241.25, TLG.


See Martyrium Polycarpi. Epistula ecclesiae Smyrnensis de martyrio sancti Polycarpi (2nd century AD) 14.2.3: ‘I bless Thee that thou hast bestowed upon me in this day and time to be numbered among Thy martyrs and share in the cup of thy Christ for the resurrection to eternal life (εἰς ἀνάστασιν ζωῆς αἰωνίου) as body and soul in the incorruption of the Holy Spirit.’ This prayer is also preserved in Eusebius of Caesarea, Eusebius, Historia ecclesiastica (4th century AD), TLG.


S. Athanasius Alexandrinus, De synodis Arimini in Italia et Seleuciae in Isauria 22.7.2; Epiphanius, Panarion (= Adversus haereses) (4th century AD) 3.258.13; Marcellus, Fragmenta. (4th century AD) Fragment 129.48; S. Cyrillus Hierosolymitanus, Catecheses ad illuminandos 1–18 (4th century AD); Catechesis 18. 4, TLG.


St. Athanasius the Great, Writings Vol. 2, 441; Oratio III contra Arianos 57.6.4–6, TLG.


Liddel and Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (1996), 382.


St. Athanasius the Great, Writings. V. 2, 359: ‘that we, as incorporated and compacted and bound together in Him through the likeness of the flesh, may attain unto a perfect man, and abide immortal and incorruptible’; Oratio II contra Arianos 74.6.5–6, TLG.


‘ὁ πολυμαθὴς καὶ φιλόπονος’, Epistulae quattuor ad Serapionem. Epistle; De decretis Nicaenae synodi 27.1.3, TLG.


E.P. Meijering, Orthodoxy and Platonism in Athanasius: Synthesis or Antithesis? (Leiden, 1968), 130–131.

Источник: St. Athanasius the Great on Matter and the Human Body / Hieromonk Kirill (Zinkovsky). - Bristol : Classical Press, Bristol, 1990. - 117 pp.

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