Early Church Fathers
Introductory Note to the Writings of Athenagoras
[Translated by the Rev. B. P. Pratten.]
[a.d. 177.] In placing Athenagoras here, somewhat out of the order usually accepted, I commit no appreciable violence against chronology, and I gain a great advantage for the reader. To some extent we must recognise, in collocation, the principles of affinity and historic growth. Closing up the bright succession of the earlier Apologists, this favourite author affords also a fitting introduction to the great founder of the Alexandrian School, who comes next into view. His work opens the way for Clement's elaboration of Justin's claim, that the whole of philosophy is embraced in Christianity. It is charming to find the primal fountains of Christian thought uniting here, to flow on for ever in the widening and deepening channel of Catholic orthodoxy, as it gathers into itself all human culture, and enriches the world with products of regenerated mind, harvested from its overflow into the fields of philosophy and poetry and art and science. More of this when we come to Clement, that man of genius who introduced Christianity to itself, as reflected in the burnished mirror of his intellect. Shackles are falling from the persecuted and imprisoned faculties of the faithful, and soon the Faith is to speak out, no more in tones of apology, but as mistress of the human mind, and its pilot to new worlds of discovery and broad domains of conquest. All hail the freedom with which, henceforth, Christians are to assume the overthrow of heathenism as a foregone conclusion. The distasteful exposure of heresies was the inevitable task after the first victory. It was the chase and following-up of the adversary in his limping and cowardly retreat, "the scattering of the rear of darkness." With Athenagoras, we touch upon tokens of things to come; we see philosophy yoked to the chariot of Messiah; we begin to realize that sibylline surrender of outworn Paganism, and its forecast of an era of light:-
"Magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo,
quo ferrea primum
Desinet, ac toto surget gens aurea mundo."
In Athenagoras, whose very name is a retrospect, we discover a remote result of St. Paul's speech on Mars Hill. The apostle had cast his bread upon the waters of Ilissus and Cephisus to find it after many days. "When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked; "but here comes a philosopher, from the Athenian agora, a convert to St. Paul's argument in his Epistle to the Corinthians, confessing"the unknown God," demolishing the marble mob of deities that so "stirred the apostle's spirit within him," and teaching alike the Platonist and the Stoic to sit at the feet of Jesus. "Dionysius the Areopagite, and the woman named Damaris," are no longer to be despised as the scanty first-fruits of Attica. They too have found a voice in this splendid trophy of the Gospel; and, "being dead, they yet speak" through him.
To the meagre facts of his biography, which appear below, there is nothing to be added;1 and I shall restrain my disposition to be a commentator, within the limits of scanty notations. In the notes to Tatian and Theophilus, I have made the student acquainted with that useful addition to his treatise on Justin Martyr, in which the able and judicious Bishop Kaye harmonizes those authors with Justin. The same harmony enfolds the works of Athenagoras,2 and thus affords a synopsis of Christian teaching under the Antonines; in which precision of theological language is yet unattained, but identity of faith is clearly exhibited. While the Germans are furnishing the scholar with critical editions of the ancients, invaluable for their patient accumulations of fact and illustration, they are so daring in theory and conjecture when they come to exposition, that one enjoys the earnest and wholesome tone of sober comment that distinguishes the English theologian. It has the great merit of being inspired by profound sympathy with primitive writers, and unadulterated faith in the Scriptures. Too often a German critic treats one of these venerable witnesses, who yet live and yet speak, as if they were dead subjects on the dissecting-table. They cut and carve with anatomical display, and use the microscope with scientific skill; but, oh! how frequently they surrender the saints of God as mere corpses, into the hands of those who count them victims of a blind faith in a dead Christ.
It will not be necessary, after my quotations from Kaye in the foregoing sheets, to do more than indicate similar illustrations of Athenagoras to be found in his pages. The dry version often requires lubrications of devoutly fragrant exegesis; and providentially they are at hand in that elaborate but modest work, of which even this generation should not be allowed to lose sight.The annotations of Conrad Gesner and Henry Stephans would have greatly enriched this edition, had I been permitted to enlarge the work by adding a version of them. They are often curious, and are supplemented by the interesting letter of Stephans to Peter Nannius, "the eminent pillar of Louvain," on the earliest copies of Athenagoras, from which modern editions have proceeded. The Paris edition of Justin Marty (1615) contains these notes, as well as the Greek of Tatian, Theophilus, and Athenagoras, with a Latin rendering. As Bishop Kaye constantly refers to this edition, I have considered myself fortunate in possessing it; using it largely in comparing his learned comments with the Edinburgh Version.
A few words as to the noble treatise of our author, on the Resurrection. As a finn and loving voice to this keynote of Christian faith, it rings like an anthem through all the variations of his thought and argument. Comparing his own blessed hope with the delusions of a world lying in wickedness, and looking stedfastly to the life of the world to come, what a sublime contrast we find in this figure of Christ's witness to the sensual life of the heathen, and even to the groping wisdom of the Attic sages. I think this treatise a sort of growth from the mind of one who had studied in the Academe, pitying yet loving poor Socrates and his disciples. Yet more, it is the outcome of meditation on that sad history in the Acts, which expounds St. Paul's bitter reminiscences, when he says that his gospel was, "to the Greeks, foolishness." They never "heard him again on this matter." He left them under the confused impressions they had expressed in the agora, when they said, "he seemeth to be a setter-forth of new gods." St. Luke allows himself a smile only half suppressed when he adds, "because he preached unto them Jesus and Anastasis," which in their ears was only a barbarian echo to their own Phoebus and Artemis; and what did Athenians want of any more wares of that sort, especially under the introduction of a poor Jew from parts unknown? Did the apostle's prophetic soul foresee Athenagoras, as he "departed from among them"? However that may be, his blessed Master "knew what he would do." He could let none of Paul's words fall to the ground, without taking care that some seeds should bring forth fruit a thousand-fold. Here come the sheaves at last. Athenagoras proves, also, what our Saviour meant, when he said to the Galileans, "Ye are the light of the world." The following is the original Introductory Notice:-
It is one of the most singular facts in early ecclesiastical history, that the name of Athenagoras is scarcely ever mentioned. Only two references to him and his writings have been discovered. One of these occurs in the work of Methodius, On the Resurrection of the Body, as preserved by Epiphanius (Hoer., lxiv.) and Photius (Biblioth., ccxxxiv.). The other notice of him is found in the writings3 of Philip of Side, in Pamphylia, who flourished in the early part of the fifth century. It is very remarkable that Eusebius should have been altogether silent regarding him; and that writings, so elegant and powerful as are those which still exist under his name, should have been allowed in early times to sink into almost entire oblivion.
We know with certainty regarding Athenagoras, that he was an Athenian philosopher who had embraced Christianity, and that his Apology, or, as he styles it, "Embassy" (presbei/a), was presented to the Emperors Aurelius and Commodus about a.d. 177. He is supposed to have written a considerable number of works, but the only other production of his extant is his treatise on the Resurrection. It is probable that this work was composed somewhat later than the Apology (see chap. xxxvi.), though its exact date cannot be determined. Philip of Side also states that he preceded Pantaenus as head of the catechetical school at Alexandria; but this is probably incorrect, and is contradicted by Eusebius. A more interesting and perhaps well-rounded statement is made by the same writer respecting Athenagoras, to the effect that he was won over to Christianity while reading the Scriptures in order to controvert them.4 Both his Apology and his treatise on the Resurrection display a practised pen and a richly cultured mind. He is by far the most elegant, and certainly at the same time one of the ablest, of the early Christian Apologists.