I. As a Christian apologist, Athenagoras' conception of God is biblical. He was the first to attempt to give philosophical and scientific proofs about monotheism, that which the prophets witnessed for. He does this by a study of the relation of the existence of God to place. As a philosopher he wishes to show, in philosophical and scientific terms, that God is accessible to the human mind. He is careful to adapt from Middle Platonism only what he needs for his purpose and he is able to set forth clearly the Christian concept of God as a loving Creator of the universe and of men, and Father.
II. His idea of God is fundamentally biblical. Athenagoras is confident that Gods providence guides the righteous through all difficulties. God is for him the Creator whose providence guides and governs all men's lives in their smallest details. God, as the Father, controls the world splendidly, and nothing is beyond the reach of His guardianship and forethought. God works upon matter much as a potter works upon his clay, fashioning it and giving it differentiation, shape, and order, indeed there is an analogy between man's creative activity and God's. From His hand and mind come all created beauty seen on earth.
W.R. Schoedel suggests the following scheme:
a. There is a general providence of God connected with the "law of reason," extending over the whole material world and over men as physical organisms.
b. There is a restricted providence delegated to angels who have been set over aspects of creation; some of these angels, including the prince over matter, exercised their freedom and violated their office. The angels, with their offspring the demons, move men to folly, the prince over matter creates disorder in human affairs.
c. There is a particular providence of God "over the worthy." This is not the Middle Platonic hierarchy with particular providence in the hands of the demons.
III. The heart of his belief is the unique, creative activity of God. He holds that the purpose of life is an inseparable companionship with the ultimate realities, an unceasing and exultant contemplation and service of the Creator as He is in Himself, and that contemplation would be the Christian's lot for all eternity.
IV. God, who is the Father, is also transcendent, unbegotten, possessing goodness, separated from matter which He nevertheless shapes in His creative purpose. He is Light inaccessible, Himself a universe of perfection and beauty, superior to the exigencies of change and decay, uncaused by anything outside of Himself.
V. Goodness is inseparably connected with God's Nature: "This goodness is annexed to Him and co-existent with Him as surface is with body. It is nothing without Him, and, not being a part of Him, but, as it were, a necessary consequence of His being, so united and so closely allied to Him as the color blue is to the sky or golden yellow is to fire." It is noticeable that Athenagoras does not say that God is goodness but that God has goodness. By this he avoids the Platonic identification of the form of the Good with the highest soul, that is God, and since the Good must communicate itself, so avoids a theory of emanations from God.
VI. Athenagoras argues that God is one, but unlike a human individual who is created and corruptible, composite and divisible (into parts), God is unbegotten, impassable and indivisible, and therefore not composed of parts.
VII. Athenagoras belief in the resurrection of the body illustrates the completeness of his reliance on Gods power.
VIII. The power of God and His will are inseparable. For all what God wills is possible to Him, or as Athenagoras says,
For why should I speak of their correspondence each with each, and of their connection with one another? If indeed we ought to use the word connection, as though they were separated by some difference of nature; and not rather say, that what God can do he can also will, and that what God can will it is perfectly possible for Him to do, and that it is accordant with the dignity of Him who wills it.
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2. THE TRINITARIAN FAITH
Athenagoras doctrine of God culminates in Trinitarian theology. The essential passage is as follows:
"I have given sufficient proofs that we are not atheists, but hold God to be one, unbegotten, eternal, invisible, suffering nothing, comprehended by none, circumscribed by none, apprehended by mind and reasoning alone, girt about with light and beauty and spirit and power indescribable, Creator of all things by his Word, their embellisher and master.
We do indeed think also that God has a Son - please let no one laugh at the idea of God having a Son! This is not a case of the myths of the poets who make the gods out to be no better than men; we have no such ideas about God the Father or the Son. The Son of God is Word of the Father in thought and power. All things were made through Him and after His fashion. The Father and the Son are one, the Son being in the Father and the Father in the Son by the powerful union of the Spirit - the Son of God is Mind and Word of the Father.
Now, if in your exceeding great sagacity, you wish to investigate what is meant by the Son, I will tell you in brief. He is the first-begotten of the Father. He did not indeed come to be, for God was from the beginning Being eternal Mind and had His Word within Himself being from eternity possessed of a Word; but He proceeded to become thought and power over the elements of undifferentiated nature when all the material elements were like a substrate in quiescence and the heavier elements lay mixed with the lighter. The Spirit of prophecy agrees with this account saying, 'The Lord made Me in the beginning of His works' (Prov 8:22). Then again this same Holy Spirit that works in those who utter prophecy, we call an outflow from God flowing out and returning like a ray of the sun. Who then would not be amazed hearing those called atheists who call God Father and Son and Holy Spirit, proclaiming their power in unity and their diversity in rank (order)?
I. The Trinitarian faith is in harmony with monotheism, as he says,
...neither are we atheists who acknowledge and firmly hold that He is God who has formed all things by the Logos, and hold them by His Spirit.
II. God is a simple Spirit, supreme, perfect, able to do anything. Showing that Christians were not polytheists, he became the first Christian writer to treat of the Trinity in philosophical terms. He says that the essential works of Christians is, "to see the way of the Son with The Father," what is the unity of the Son with the Father, what is the unity of all three, and the distinction of the united: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He spoke accurately and with perfect understanding of the unity of God, the unity of the Trinity.
...they (the Christians) know God and His Logos, what is the oneness of the Son with the Father, what the communion of the Father with the Son, what is the Spirit, what is the unity of these three, the Spirit, the Son, the Father, and their distinction in unity.
II. The Son is the uncreated Mind, Word, and Wisdom of the Father. Athenagoras states strongly the divine nature of the Logos but, unlike Justin, he does not base the Son's divinity upon the fact of His divine sonship, i.e. His generation from the Father, but with greater philosophical insight he derives the Son's divinity from His being the Mind and Reason of the Father. Thus the logos - Son exists essentially and eternally within the deity and He is designated "God" together with the Father without distinction.
Athenagoras emphasizes in Johannine terminology the intimate union of the Father and the Logos - Son: "The Father and Son are one. The Son being in the Father and the Father in the Son." In Embassy I2 he speaks of the unity of the Son with the Father and the sharing of the Father. This intimate, eternal, union and equality does not however obliterate the distinction between the Father and the Logos - the Son. This distinction becomes apparent economically, in that the Son is subject to the Father's Will and Thought.
Athenagoras warned from the philosophic way of understanding "The Father and Son," and ensured "The Son" is an everlasting Being with the Father. The real danger for him was that the pagan would be ready to accept the idea of God having a son with his memories of the son of Zeus had by Alcmene or others. The Son of God is not like sons of men for He is His Word in idea and actualization. He is the unity with Him, for He is in the Father, and the Father in Him.
For Athenagoras, God being eternally "endowed with Reason (Logikos), had the Logos within Himself eternally, and that, therefore, the Son as Logos did not come into existence," but was eternal. He states that the unoriginate, eternal and invisible God created, adorned, actually governs the universe by His Word, who is the Son of God.
What Athenagoras wants to say is obviously that the Son is eternal although begotten and hence pre-existent to all creation, and that He is in fact the one who organized the material creation from an undifferentiated state into a world of order, weight, and measure.
Athenagoras holds that the Logos is the agent of the Father in creation, closely following St. John and St. Paul, but his teaching is peculiar in describing the logos as the "idea of all material things" and holding that "all things were made through Him and agreeably to Him" which draws out the meaning of Col. I:I6f. The logos is, for Athenagoras, the power or energy of the divine mind operating in conditions of space and time. As such He not only possesses an ideal plan of the cosmos but has the power to bring that plan into concrete existence. He proceeds from the inner life of the Godhead and from the creation onwards continues in perpetual relation with the cosmos as God's vice-agent, the Governor and Upholder of the Universe.
IV. The Holy Spirit is described as an outflow (effluence) ('atto'ppoidv) of the Father, coming forth and returning like a ray of light from fire or beam of the sun. He says "We confirm the Holy Spirit himself inspired the prophets, flowing from God and reflecting Him." The term "aporrsia" (outflow) to the Holy Spirit cannot imply His subordination to the other two hypostaseis, for the Three are joined several times.
V. Athenagoras asserts the place of the Holy Spirit as the eminent power in creation. God has created all things by His Word and holds them in being by the Spirit that is from Him.
VI. That divine Persons should have such koinwnia (fellowship or kinship). Some interpreters of his work have made him say that it is by kinship in one divine nature that the Three are one, but that would be to make the Divine Persons no better than the instances of a universal, like men sharing in a common humanity. He can hardly have meant this. Crehan suggests that Plato may have predisposed him to adopt the term. Barnard states that Plato nowhere suggests that Persons might have such a (koinonia), it seems more probable that Athenagoras has merely drawn on the earlier Christian use of this term in 2 Cor. I3:I4 where it is used in connection with the divine triad with the probable meaning of participation by Christians in the Holy Spirit. It will be as well to cite the relevant texts:
We are guided by the Spirit alone to know the true God and His Logos, to know what the unity of the Son with the Father is, what the fellowship of the Father with the Son is, what the Spirit is, and to know what is the unity and division of these Three great ones thus united - Spirit, Son and Father.
For we speak of His Logos as God too and Son and of Holy Spirit likewise, united into one by power and divided in order.
In the last passage from Embassy 24 Athenagoras distinguishes the divine triad from a host of "powers" concerned with material nature.
VII. The idea of considering the Spirit as the uniting power of the Father and the Son is here set forth for the first time in Christian theology. No doubt one can derive it from certain Johannine phrases, but Athenagoras has supplied it with its first technical terms.
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3. The creation
If He (God) was not ignorant of the nature of the elements that are to be constituted in being - out of which man's body is to be formed - even before they enter severally into the composition which is proper to them, and if He was not ignorant of the parts of these elements from which He was to take what was fitting for the composition of man's body, then it is very clear that neither, after the complete dissolution of the whole, will He be ignorant of the place to which each part has gone that He took for the completion of each individual.
Barnard states that the implication of this passage is that God originally formed the elements of men's bodies from pre-existing matter. But Athenagoras in these passages does not say that matter existed eternally as an antithesis to God, as Plato believed, although equally neither does he explicitly state that matter was the creation of God in an unformed state which He then organized, through the agency of the Logos, to bring into being the phenomenal world. It is noticeable that Athenagoras, unlike Justin, does not fall into the error of trying to bring Gen. 1:1 into line with the Middle Platonist teaching concerning the eternity of matter.
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Athenagoras views the body organs as instruments performing actions, showing thoughts and deeds, though sharing the same responsibility with the soul. So no complete worship is done without involving the body and soul, and the just judgment falls on both of them.
The soul remains in an equable existence proper to it by nature and undertakes its natural tasks; that is to say, it is by nature appointed to govern the instincts of the body and to judge and estimate by suitable canons and measures the stimuli that occur.
The image of God is in man's nature and is not a static thing like a stamp on wax, but a developing or growth towards a pattern of existence.
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5. THE BODY
The body is an instrument for fulfilling the thoughts and words, but is responsible with the soul in every action. Worship can not be realized without the fellowship of the body and soul.
He explains that the death of human beings is not on the same level with that of irrational animals, nor is the continuance of men like that of the immortals. With the irrational animals, man must undergo dissolution of the body, yet with the immortals he shares in immortality through his soul. It is as a human being, not as a disembodied soul, that man will and must continue forever.
Athenagoras, although arguing strongly for the reconstitution of the body after death, nowhere refers to the resurrection of Christ and in no way bases his belief on it. In the first chapter of De Resurrectione, he prepares his readers for this, assuring that he is writing to the non-Christians
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6. The soul
Following St. Justin, Athenagoras rejects, with Middle Platonism, the Aristotelian belief that the soul was an attribute of the body and could not exist without it. However he differs from Justin in his emphasis that man is not soul alone, nor body alone, but a composite being of the two elements united into one. The function of the soul towards the body is that of driver or commander whose bridle rein curbs the body - here Athenagoras is close to Plato's view.
Athenagoras differs from Plato; the former sees that the realities in man can't be complete without the support of body and soul together, the two are conjoined to form one composite being so that to the one being is attributed all the actions of the soul and the body, but the latter sees man as a spirit using a body. This Christian understanding of man itself rested on the Hebrew conception that man has not a body but is a body with no rigid distinction between physical and spiritual. Man in his totality, for this Hebrew-Christian view, is not a discarnate spirit but a spiritual-corporal entity.
Athenagoras reacted strongly against the Greek doctrine as he insisted that man must have his body with him forever. If man as man is incomplete without his body, that body is not a prison-house or tomb of the soul (as in Pythagorean and Platonic thought) and its union with the soul is a good thing. He was also against the Platonic theory of the transmigration of souls.
Athenagoras held that man has been created for a purpose:
Thus since man was created neither in vain nor without cause - nor nothing made by God lacks a cause in the mind of the Creator nor yet for the need of the Creator nor of any of His creatures, it is plain that God made man, in the first and most general aspect of the matter, for Himself and for His goodness and Wisdom's sake, that was to be made manifest upon the face of all His handiworkø.
Man, it will be noted, was not created by God for His own use, nor that is He in need of any creature, nor can any creature contribute anything to God. Neither was man made for the sake of other creatures, for nothing that is endowed with reason and judgment has been or is created for the use of another, whether greater or lesser than itself. Reason cannot discover any use which might be a cause for the creation of man. And the fact that man was not created to serve man follows from the same line of argument. As far as God is concerned man is well-ordered, both by his original nature which has one common character for all, and by the constitution of his body, which does not transgress the law imposed upon it, and by the termination of his life, which remains equal and common to all.
Athenagoras gives no explicit teaching about the qualities of the soul, its simplicity, unity or distinction between its faculties. His main concern is to argue for the resurrection of the body and he introduces his views of the soul only in so far as they assist the establishment of his main thesis.
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7. THE ANGELS
Athenagoras' theological doctrine also contains "a host of angels and ministers whom God, the Creator of the world, set in their places through the Logos coming from Him, commanding them to be concerned with the planets, the heavens, and the world with what is in it, and with the good order of all." Our faith in angels as heavenly beings, serving God and caring for the creation, is an inseparable part of the common faith. After his defense about the accusation of Atheism, he adds "But our knowledge about theology does not stop here, as we believe in a multitude of angels and servants whom God, Maker and Artificer of the universe, set in their place by means of His Word and appointed severally to be in charge of the elements and the heavens and the universe and all it contains and its good order."
Athenagoras strongly emphasizes the place and function of angels within the divine providence. While God has a general and creative providence over everything the angels have a providence over each part of the creation.
"While God had the general and creative providence over all, these angels set over each part were to have providence over that part. And just as with men who have power to choose good or evil - for you would not honor the virtuous and punish evildoers if vice and virtue were not within their free choice - some are found zealous for what they are entrusted with by you, and others remiss, so it is with these angels too: some remained at the task for which they were created and to which they were appointed by God (for they had received free will from God), while others acted wantonly towards their own nature and their charge, that is, the ruler of this realm of matter and of the forms that are in it, and others that were in charge of the first firmament. Pray, realize that we tell of nothing without evidence, but expound what the prophets have declared. Well then, these angels fell a - lusting after maidens and yielded to fleshly desires, and he, the chief of them, became heed less and wicked in the administration of his charge... Earthly wisdom differs from that of the prophets as a likely tale does from the truth; the one is earthbound and under the ruler of matter, the other is from heaven."
Athenagoras, like St. Justin, has more to say about the existence and activity of evil angels than that of the good angels. He believes that the angels were originally created good and, like humans, had received free-will from God. Unfortunately, some angelic administrators included a spirit who was opposed to God, therefore was untrustworthy. However this spirit, whom Athenagoras does not call the devil; nor any other name, became heedless and wicked in the administration of his charge and took to guiding and directing the material world in opposition to the goodness of God. As "prince of matter," he operated wickedly when governing the material world, while subordinates lusted after virgins and succumbed to the flesh.
Athenagoras, in support of this theory of the fall of the angels, appeals to the witness of the prophets, no doubt by this meaning Gen. 6.2-5 which says that the sons of God came in to the daughters of men. The LXX originally rendered "sons of God" by (angelio tou theou) and so a tradition grew up in Greek Judaism that it was the union of angels with men which produced giants, whose souls are "the demons who wander about the world."
He held that these fallen angels dwell about the earth and sky, and so cannot stretch upwards into the regions above the heavens "stationed at the first firmament." They harass and drag men hither and thither even though each man has the same rational principle within. In particular the evil spirits are responsible for the vagaries of idol worship usurping the names of men and working through images and statues. Polytheism and idolatry alike are delusions.
However, in Athenagoras' view, the activity of evil spirits is terrible yet they are not beyond control. Man, in origin and in himself, is a well-ordered being with a rational nature possessed of a mental disposition (diathesis) which was not intended to transgress its own law. And there remains a host of good angels who have not fallen.
His approach is more philosophical and represents a rational attempt to explain the origin of evil. Yet Athenagoras, as with the other early Christian Fathers, really believes that the evil spirits are everywhere actively urging men to work against nature. He speaks of the artifices of the demons, saying:
... the demons who hover about matter, greedy of sacrificial odours and the blood of victims, and ever ready to lead men into error, avail themselves of these delusive movements of the souls of the multitude; and, taking possession of their thoughts, cause to flow into the mind empty visions as if coming from the idols and the statues; and when, too, a soul of itself, as being immortal, moves comfortably to reason, either predicting the future or healing the present, the demons claim the glory of themselves.
However he is even more sure that God's providence is ultimately in control of the universe in spite of the fact that some angels and men have abused the freedom given to them by God.
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8. THE CHURCH
Through the writings of Athenagoras, we can discover the features of the Alexandrian Church:
a. The Alexandrian Church was in fact a community of righteousness and sanctity:
If, indeed, any one can convict us of a crime, be it small or great, we do not ask to be excused from punishment, but are prepared to undergo the sharpest and most merciless inflections.
b. There were Christians in the Alexandrian Church in his day who were rich enough to own slaves, some few, some many, as well as many Christians of very humble origin. But no slave, he says, had ever brought a false accusation against them, possibly a reference to denial under torture.
Not long after the time of Athenagoras there were so many rich members of the Alexandrian Church that Clement of Alexandria devoted a special sermon to the question, and Origen could mention "not only rich men, but persons of rank and delicate and high-born ladies who receive the teachers of Christianity."
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9. THE LITURGY
It is not to be expected that Athenagoras would make any formal references to the Christian sacraments as his main purpose is simply to refute calumnies against Christians and to defend monotheism. Any references are a priori likely to be allusive - and, in any event, the observance of the disciplina arcani inhibited a full description of these rites even if Athenagoras had been minded to give such.
The Eucharist for Athenagoras as for the early Fathers, such as St. Ignatius and St. Clement of Rome, was a real sacrifice. Athenagoras certainly deserves the credit for introducing into the vocabulary of Christian theology the term 'unbloody sacrifice' where the sword is a word and where no blood is shed.
The kiss of peace, the liturgical or apostolic kiss in the Christian liturgy is mentioned by Athenagoras. It is still exchanged in the Coptic and the Ethiopian Orthodox Churches while it disappeared from other churches. St. Cyril of Jerusalem says, " Do not think that this kiss is like that which friends are accustomed to give one another when they meet in the agro. This kiss unites the souls together and destroys all resentment."
In Embassy 13 Athenagoras seems to be quoting from a public prayer in praise of the Creator: "who stretched out the heavens and reared them into a vault and established the earth as the center of things, who gathered the waters into seas and separated light from darkness, who bedecked the sky with stars and made the earth bud forth every green thing, who made the animals and fashioned man.' Similar prayers are to be found in Melito's Homily on the Passion and in the Apostolic Constitutions.
A minor liturgical reminiscence seems to have survived at the end of Embassy 10, where a Trinitarian phrase echoes the style of many early church prayers to the Trinity. The words: We 'call God Father and Son and Holy Spirit, proclaiming their power in unity and in rank their diversity,' have the articulation of later Trinitarian prayers with the balance of contrasting clauses. That Christians of the period did call upon the Trinity is shown by the hymn which runs: 'As we sing to Father Son and Holy Spirit, may all the powers join with us to say Amen. To the only giver of all good things be power and praise. Amen.' This liturgical hymn is published in Oxy. papyrus 1786, along with the music that it was sung to, and again in Patrologia Orientalis 18:507. The papyrus has a 3rd century mercantile account on the reverse side. The hymn must have been in use in Egypt at least soon after the time of Athenagoras.
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10. THE RIGHTS OF THE EMBRYO
At the time where law did not treat the embryo as a being with rights, Athenagoras declares the church teaching, as the embryo is a being who has the right to live, if aborted by pills, it is a crime of murder. He says, "We call it murder and say it will be accountable to God if women use instruments to procure abortion."
Abortion is condemned by Philo, and Josephus. The Roman law did not forbid it as a murder, but an offense against the husband's right. The Apocalypses Petri assign a punishment in hell to those who procure abortion by corrupting the work of God. The epistle of Barnabas and the Didache give a general prohibition of abortion.
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11. HUMAN FREEDOM
Christians, like Athenagoras, put the Creator as a center of their philosophy ensuring the importance of man and his free will. Freedom faces us with responsibility so we are judged for every action. If man falls into evil, he is judged, and thrown into the fire of eternity as his spirit does not vanish, and if he follows God, he lives in the heavenly eternity.
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12. THE SCRIPTURES
Athenagoras references to the Old and New Testaments are very few. His main purpose was apologetic, i.e. to defend the faith against certain calumnies by a subtle use of contemporary philosophy rather than by a detailed appeal to the sacred books of the Church. Without this base further theological progress and the preaching of the Gospel would have been of no benefit. The biblical tradition was, for Athenagoras, not essential to his argument as he wished to defend the faith.
In Embassy 9 he says, "On our side we have prophets as witnesses of our ideas and beliefs, men who have spoken out under divine inspiration about God and the things of God." Thus, he states that the prophets guarantee Christian reasoning and mentions Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah and the rest of the Old Testament prophets as inspired by the Divine Spirit much as a flutist blows on his flute. He then quotes Exod. 20:2, 3; Isa. 44:6; 43:10, II and 66:1 as a buttress for his argument for monotheism concluding with the words "I leave it to you, since you are possessed of the books themselves, to examine more closely the prophecies of these men, in order that you may prepare with fitting reflection to remove this Disgrace from us." The apologist assumes that the LXX, which was widely known, would be consulted by those who wished to know the basis for Christian monotheism. It is significant that he suggests nowhere that the prophets were Jewish or had any status independently of Christianity. Athenagoras has a few other Old Testament quotations. In Embassy I0 he quotes Prov. 8. 22 in connection with his doctrine of creation, and in Embassy I2 he cites "let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die" from Isa. 22;I3 (cf. I Cor. I5:32). There are only two other quotations in De Resurrectione, viz. De Resurrectione I9, a further citation of Isa. 22.I3, and De Resurrectione 23 from Exod. 20:I2, I3 (cf. Luke. I8:20) - two of the ten commandments.
Concerning the New Testament, in Embassy II he quotes Mt. 5:44,45 exactly with an addition from Luke. 6:28: "Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that persecute you, that you may be the children of your Father which is in heaven, who makes His sun to rise upon the good and bad, and rains upon the just and unjust." The quotation is completed in Embassy I2: "If you love them that love you and lend to them that lend to you, what reward shall you have?" Athenagoras' only other direct New Testament quotations is found in Embassy 37, the conclusion of the work, where the first half of I Tim. 2. 2 is cited. The sum total of Athenagoras' quotations from the New Testament is five and four of these appear, in one form or another, in the Sermon on the Mount.
Athenagoras is considered an excellent witness for the inspired education,
For poets and philosophers, as to other subjects so also to this, have applied themselves in the way of conjecture, moved, by reason of their affinity with the afflatus from God, each one by his own soul, to try whether he could find out and apprehend the truth; but they have not been found competent fully to apprehend it, because they thought fit to learn, not from God concerning God, but each one from himself; hence they came each to his own conclusion respecting God, and matter, and forms, and the world. But we have for witnesses of the things we apprehend and believe, prophets, men who have pronounced concerning God and the things of God, guided by the spirit of God. And you too will admit, excelling all others as you do in intelligence and in piety towards the true God, that it would be irrational for us to cease to believe in the prophets like musical instruments, and to give heed to mere human opinions.
But since the voices of the prophets confirm our arguments, I think that you also, with your great attainments in learning, cannot be ignorant of the writings either of Moses or of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and the other prophets, who, lifted in ecstasy above the natural operations of their minds by the impulses of the Divine Spirit, uttered the things with which they were inspired, the Spirit making use of them as a flute-player breathes into a flute.
Athenagoras does not forget to call the two emperors to read the Bible, inspired by the Holy Spirit, which declares the perfection of truth.
But I leave it to you, when you meet with the books themselves, to examine carefully the prophecies contained in them.
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13. THE CHRISTIAN TRADITION
Do not be surprised that I am reproducing exactly the account customary among us. To prevent your being carried away by the unreasonable opinion of the multitude and to give you opportunity to know the truth, I give this exact report. By the dogmas to which we give assent, not man-made but divine and taught by God, we are able to persuade you that you have not to regard us as you would atheists.
L.W. Barnard comments that Athenagoras is clearly referring to a common stock of earlier Christian teaching handed down in the Christian community to which he belonged. This no doubt included items, such as belief in the Incarnation, which are not used in the Embassy. It is not possible however to discover, from Athenagoras' works, the creed which was used in this community.
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14. THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD AND SACRIFICES
God is not in need of animal sacrifices, but He wants us to acknowledge Him as our Creator and Father who is taking care of us.
As to our not sacrificing; the Framer of this universe does not need blood, nor the odour of burnt-offerings, nor the fragrance of flowers and incense, forasmuch as He is Himself perfect fragrance, needing nothing either within or without; but the noblest sacrifice to Him is for us to know who stretched out and vaulted the heavens, and fixed the earth in its place like a center, who gathered the water into the seas and divided the light from the darkness...
And what have I to do with holocausts, which God does not stand in need of? - though indeed it does behoove us to offer a bloodless sacrifice and "the service of our reason."
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Athenagoras praises chastity as one of the fruits of great Christian life, clarifying its positive target "you find amidst us many men and women, unmarried, hoping for a life deeper with God."
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16. THE VIRGINITY
In the early Church, virginity for the sake of God, establishes a relationship with the divine. This is stated as something taken quite for granted in Athenagoras' Embassy for the Christians: "To abide as a virgin or a eunuch unites one to God, while a mere [unclean] thought or evil desire turns one away from Him." There are in the Christian community, Athenagoras says, "both men and women who are growing old in virginity in the hope of being united more closely to God."
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17. The world
Athenagoras speaks of God in relation to the universe as the Framer of matter, the Maker of all things, the Father and Maker of all, who works on matter as a potter works on his clay. However he does not give any clear explanation as to how this matter came into existence although, in two passages, he appears to hold that matter pre-existed in an undifferentiated form.
"The world is fair indeed, and excels in size and array all that exists in the ecliptic and all that is about the Pole, and it excels too in the beauty of its spherical form; yet not this but its maker is to be adored... The world did not come to be for any need on the part of God. God is all-in-all to Himself, light inaccessible, a universe of perfection, spirit, power, and reason."
God's freedom in creating was a stumbling block to the Stoic, to whom the movement of creation was a biological urge as powerful as the sex instinct.
Athenagoras considers the world as a good divine gift, which is bestowed upon us not to worship it but the Giver;
Beautiful without doubt is the world... Yet it is not this, but its Artificer, that we must worship...
If, therefore the world is an instrument in tune, and moving in well-measured time, I adore the Being who gave its harmony, and strikes its notes, and sings the accordant strain, and not the instrument.
V V V
As we have mentioned, Athenagoras, in a biblical thought reveals that persecution of the believers is based on the accusation of name. They do not deserve any penalty, but the world cannot accept the name of Christ, to whom the believers are attributed.
Names are not deserving of hatred; it is the unjust act that calls for penalty and punishment. And accordingly, with admiration of your mildness and gentleness towards every man, individuals live in the position of equal rights; and the cities, according to their rank, share in equal honor; and the whole empire, under your intelligent sway, enjoys profound peace. But for us who are called Christians you have notion like manner cared; but although we commit no wrong - nay, as will appear in the sequel of this discourse, are of all men most piously and righteously disposed towards the deity and towards your government - you allow us to be harassed, plundered, and persecuted, the multitude making war upon us for our name alone.
The judges, instead of inquiring whether the person arraigned has committed any crime, vent their insults on the name, as if that were itself a crime.
V V V
19. ETERNAL LIFE
He, being Himself light, sees all things in our heart, we are persuaded that when we are removed from the present life we shall live another life, better than the present one, and heavenly, not earthly (since we shall abide near God, and with God, free from all change or suffering in the soul, not as flesh, even though we shall have flesh, but as heavenly spirit), or, falling with the rest, a worse one and in fire; for God has not made us as sheep or beasts of burden, a mere by-work, and that we should perish and be annihilated. On these grounds it is not likely that we should wish to do evil, or deliver ourselves over to the great Judge to be punished.
Therefore, having the hope of eternal life, we despise the things of this life, even to the pleasures of the soul, each of us reckoning her his wife whom he has married according to laws laid down by us, and that only for the purpose of having children .
V V V
Athenagoras and Pagan Culture
1. Proverbs: Athenagoras has studied philosophy, but he is essentially a grammarian, proud of his erudition. Greek education began with proverbs, and it is natural to find them in Athenagoras. One is a tale from the Iliad: "Sleep and death are twins" (12.3); another is a "sentence": "Those who test the quality of honey and whey can tell if the whole is good by tasting one small sample" (12.4). In one instance a proverb is identified as such: "The harlot presumes to teach the chaste woman," and in the same passage adulterers and pederasts are said to live "like fish" because "they swallow up whoever comes their way, the stronger possessing the weaker" (34.1, 3).
2. Poets: Most of his quotations come from Homer, seventeen from the Iliad and only three from the Odyssey. There are also two from the Orphic literature, three from Hesiod, and four from unidentified tragedians; one apiece from Aeschylus, Pseudo-Sophocles, and Pindar; and eight from the more popular moralist Euripides.
3. Literature of and on Religion: Athenagoras cites the theosophical literature of his time for pagan ideas about the gods and the beginning of the world. He is the first known authorto mention Hermes Trismegistus, who like Alexander the Great "links his own family with the gods" (28.6).
4. Historians on Religion: Athenagoras' use of Herodotus is especially interesting. Like Tatian he cites the historian for the date of Hesiod and Homer (17.2), but he also uses him as an authority on Egyptian religion. Eight quotations and three references come from Herodotus' study of Egypt in his second book and serve chiefly to show that the Egyptian "gods" were human. Such direct use was unusual, but Athenagoras was relying on Herodotus because of his critical attitude toward Egyptian religion. Perhaps he knew that an Egyptian magician had accompanied the emperor by the Danube.
5. Historians of Art: Tatian found Greek sculpture objectionable and used literary sources to attack the models used by sculptors. Athenagoras seems less hostile but when he lists the originators of various arts he is trying to show how recent and artificial Greek ideas about the gods are (17.3). He explains how "tracing out shadows" leads to painting and relief modeling, which then are followed by sculpture and molding, and he finally provides a brief list of sculptors who made famous statues of gods and goddesses.
6. Philosophers: We have already mentioned Athenagoras' relationship with philosophers.
WAS ATHENAGORAS PLATONIC?
With Athenagoras, we touch upon tokens of things to come; we see philosophy joined to the chariot of the Messiah.
In the time of Athenagoras, Tertullian was to write that Plato was used by all the heretics, and Tatian was to produce a diatribe against the classics. It is surprising then that Athenagoras himself should show such sympathy for Platonic ways of thought, but, if his earlier life had been that of an exponent of Plato's philosophy, then one can understand this difference of attitude very well.
Athenagoras has a high reverence for Plato. Some scholars consider him as a Platonist, though he abandoned some Platonic opinions in later life. But he is not overawed by the authority of the great philosopher and adapts only what he wants to serve the needs of the Christian Faith. He is a philosopher related to the recent Platonism, but does not fully submit to it. After becoming a Christian, he chose the best belief and was the first caller for elitism. This, in substance, indicates that every belief thus carrying a part of the truth is the best, so it is better for man to request the perfect truth willingly. Athenagoras reveals the inability of philosophers to reach the perfect truth, so the necessity arises for the inspiration of prophets.
The fact that Athenagoras is not overwhelmed by this eclecticism but manages instead to adapt what he wants to serve the needs of the Christian Gospel is a measure of his ability as a philosopher. Another factor in the complex philosophic environment of the second century apologists was the continuing debates between the various schools of Greek philosophy which went on throughout the Hellenistic period.
Athenagoras' technique in developing argument is manifestly Platonic: there is the analogy from agriculture and the manual arts besought to suggest lines of thought; the derivation game is played in the manner of the Cratylus. It does not mean that he was Platonic. His firm rejection of the transmigration of souls is proof enough of that.
Athenagoras expressly states that Plato was no atheist, but he does not want to call him a Christian before his time, and there is no sign that the stories of Plato's having studied the Old Testament during his visit to Egypt were believed by Athenagoras, though they had been accepted by Justin a generation earlier, and in this Clement of Alexandria followed Justin avidly.
Plato believes in a divine providence and a judgment at the end of the world. Athenagoras goes further in holding firmly to God's divine revelation which was a work of providence beyond all human understanding and expectation. Plato's Minos and Rhadamanthus, for Athenagoras, will themselves have to submit to the judgment of God. So Plato is not a Christian before Christ but one who hovers on the verge of the idea of revelation. It was therefore entirely proper that a Christian apologist should use so much of his philosophy as could be made serviceable for Christian needs. In this way Christianity could be presented as the crowning perfection of Greek thought and culture.
God is accessible to Nous alone, says Athenagoras in a sentence that Plato might have written, but, when he wants a word for God's inaccessibility, it is to St. Paul's vocabulary that he turns and not to the language of the Platonic way of negation.
In Ch. 12 (Embassy) he makes what must be regarded as the first Christian use of the analogy of being in a philosophical argument.
Goodness is an inseparable accident of God's nature for Athenagoras, and herein he differs widely from Plato. There is always a problem for the Platonic scholar, whether to make the highest in the hierarchy of forms a soul or not, and those Platonists who hold that the form of the Good was the highest soul, or God, by actual identification, find it hard to avoid saying that God must necessarily produce emanations of Himself, since the Good is communicative of itself by its very nature. Athenagoras by making God's goodness an inseparable property of His being, as natural to Him as a skin is to a body or their ruddy color to flames of fire, seems to be seeking to avoid having to say that God must necessarily communicate His being by some kind of creation.
Athenagoras does indeed speak of God the Son as the thought and power (i d e a kai energeia) of the Father and says that all things were made through Him and after His fashion, or agreeably to Him. In this he is following the Prologue of St. John more closely than anything that is specifically Platonic.
The devil is not the counterpart to God's being, but to His goodness, which goodness has been declared to belong to, but not to be identified with, God's being. Thus Athenagoras finds a rather primitive way of avoiding the dualism which in his Gnostic surroundings must have been very catching. That he should avoid it says much for his integrity as a Christian thinker.
One notable difference between Athenagoras and his master is in the account of the human soul. Whereas Plato has accepted the threefold division of the soul, Athenagoras has abandoned it for a twofold division. Even among the Stoics man was held to be made up of body, spirit, and mind, and Jewish thought had always accepted this threefold division. The third member, the mind was to the Stoic a participation in the divinity. Athenagoras, in order to avoid falling into this form of paganism, may have been content to accept as much of this account as he could, holding man to be body and spirit and making his mind to be independent of that of God and somehow to be identical with his spirit. Partnership rather than opposition is the keynote of their relation, and the Platonic notion of the body as a prison house has been set aside.
When Plato said that it was a hard task to find the Maker of this universe and impossible to declare Him to the rest of mankind, he seemed to a Christian to hover on the verge of the idea of a revelation. One had only to put his premises into relation with the other idea that God exercises a providential care over the world, to produce if not a conclusion at least a suspicion that there would be a revelation from God to lighten man's task. Athenagoras is so sure of God's revelation from his Christian faith, that he can afford to retain much of the philosophy of his former master Plato, as leading thereto.
L.W. Barnard explains in detail how Athenagoras does not adopt the Platonic ideas as they were, but accepts what is in harmony with the holy Scriptures.
WAS ATHENAGORAS A MONTANIST?
The Accusation of Montanism has been brought against Athenagoras, not by his contemporaries, but by some scholars. Tillemont thinks he was... depending on two things.
1- He compared the prophet to a flute, on which the Holy Spirit plays, like Manes, but that analogy was common to the Greeks. Hippolytus, Justin, Pseudo-Justin, Tertullian, and Philo, used it. St. Clement of Alexandria called the prophets "the organs of the divine voice."
2. Athenagoras who agrees with the Montanists on the subject of second marriage, calls it a "respectable form of adultery," or a "decent adultery," but differs in many points to marriage.
a. Whereas Athenagoras regards marriage as holy, his target is reproduction of children and to complete God's purpose, Manes regards marriage as adultery, not for the chosen, to nourish lust and whoever married was not allowed to bear children.
b. Athenagoras considers the state of chastity as unity with God, perfected, but voluntary, not obligatory as Manes said. His refusal of the second marriage after the death of the first partner, is due to his eternal idea about marriage. It is a sacrament which death cannot part.
The church calls him philosopher not saint, due to his fall into some theological mistakes.
1. He calls Satan as the prince of materialism, God made him its forebearer.
2. He thinks the spirit incomplete if not united to the body.
3. He calls for no punishment to children for their mistakes.
4. He stated that demons practiced sexual intercourse with girls who brought forth the Amalekites.