Introduction to the Treatise Contra Gentes
This treatise and that which follows it form in reality two parts of a single work. Jerome (De Script. Eccl.) refers to them as `Adversus Gentes Libri Duo.' They are, however, more commonly distinguished by the titles given them in the present volume. Both books, indeed, are mainly directed against the Gentiles, but in the present treatise the refutation is carried out with more special reference to the beliefs and worship of the heathen. The two books belong to the earlier years of Athanasius. The Arian controversy which broke out (319 a.d.) probably before his twenty-second year has left no trace upon them (not even c. Gent. 46. 8, see note there). How long before the limit thus fixed the work was composed it is impossible to say with certainty. The hint (c. Gent. 9. 5) that the time for the deification of emperors by decree of the Senate might have come to an end points to the conversion of Constantine as a terminus a quo. And the full maturity of power which marks out the de Incarnatione as a masterpiece of Christian theology inclines us to put the composition as late as we can. Hence the date usually adopted, viz. in or shortly before 318 b.c., the twenty-first year (probably) of Athanasius' age.
The position of the book in relation to the general history of the theology of Athanasius and of the Church has been pointed out in the Prolegomena. It remains to sketch its argument, and tabulate its arrangement: a somewhat more extended summary is prefixed to each section.
His aim is to vindicate (§1) the Dignity and reasonableness of the Christian Faith. The main vindication of the Faith is seen in its practical results. But, that these may produce their proper effect, a removal of error from the mind is needed. Hence the necessity of refuting idolatry, which is deduced from the same cause as evil in general, namely, the departure of man from his original exemplar, the Logos (§§2-5). By the misuse of his power of conscious choice, man fell (6-8) into the degradation and illusions (9-15) of idolatry. He then examines the popular and learned pleas on behalf of idolatry (16-26), and thus arrives at the central problem of the conception of God. That God is not Nature is shewn (27-29) by the mutual dependence of the various constituents of the Universe: no one of these, therefore, can be God: nor can their totality; for God is not compounded of parts on which He depends, but is Himself the cause of existence to all Such a God as this, the soul of man (30-33) can and, if purified from sin, will (34) recognise; if her imperfections hinder this, the spectacle of Reason and Order in the Universe (35-46) will assist her to recognise the handiwork of God, and the presence of the Logos, and through him the Father. The reclamation and restoration of sinful and degraded man can only be effected (47) by a return to the Logos. This opens the question dealt with in the second book, de Incarnatione.
Such is the general drift of the c. Gentes, and its high interest is beyond question. At the same time it may be admitted that to modern readers much of it fails to commend itself. In the two-fold work before us Athanasius `looks before and after.' The second portion, on the Incarnation, waxes rather than wanes in its significance for modern theology. It is more modern to us than the theology of any generation since then. But the c. Gentes, with its retrospect upon a past utterly dead1 to the human spirit, its arguments addressed to a range of ideas widely remote from our own, its inadequate view of the genesis and history of heathen religions, its antiquated physics (36, 44, and the fusikoz logoz of 39), its occasional glaring fallacies of argument (16 sub fin., 33. 1), is apt to disappoint the modern student who reads it for the first time. This may explain its not having been translated before now. But while the defects of the book are evident at a glance, it grows upon the reader with repeated study. The moral elevation of its tone,-the firm grasp of central Christian truths,-the sure insight in dealing with such problems as evil and sin,-the relation of God to Nature,-the ethical contrast of Christian theism and heathen polytheism,-the grave humour of such passages as 16. 5; 10. 4 fin.; II. 2 fin., &c.,-and beyond all this a certain largeness of mind and simple unostentatious fervour of conviction, stamp the book as a great one, and as the worthy complement of its more renowned companion.
The two together `are, next to Origen's de Principiis, the first attempt to construct a scientific system of the Christian religion upon certain fundamental ideas of God and world, sin and redemption; and they form the ripe fruit of the positive apology in the Greek Church.' (Schaff, Nicene Christianity, p. 82.) The polemic against idolatry and heathen mythology is common to the general class of Christian apologists, and is to be found in heathen writers like Lucian and even Porphyry (letter to Anebo). But what distinguishes Athanasius from previous apologists (excepting Origen) is the novel nature of his problem. The alliance between philosophy and gross popular idolatry had given Christian apology a new task. From Porphyry downwards (Porphyry himself was not consistent in this respect) the Neo-platonist school, in alarm at the progress of Christianity, had taken up the defence of popular paganism, endeavouring to subsume its grosser manifestations, its images, sacrifices, &c., under philosophico-religious principles (infra §19, &c.). The idea of `theurgy' as the necessary initiation into the higher life colours the teaching of Porphyry, but more strongly that of his pupil Iamblichus, who died early in the fourth century, and whose pupils (Aedesius, &c.)were contemporaries of Athanasius. This degeneration of Platonism, however, went along with the continued study of Plato, whose dialogues are to some extent common ground between Athanasius and his opponents (Phaedrus, §5, 33, Laws, 33, Tim§us, 41, &c., &c.; but it is not in every case easy to say whether Athan. quotes Plato merely at second hand, or directly, as he certainly does 10. 4).
It may be remarked finally that in these early treatises the influence of Origen and his school is more distinct than in the later works of Athanasius. Not to lay too much stress on his proof of God's existence and unity from the Cosmos (cf. Orig. c. Cels. I. 23), the prominence of the philosophic doctrine of the Logos as a cosmic mediatorial Principle (compare Alexander's mesiteuousa fusizmonogenhz) stands in contrast with his later insistence (cf. Orat. ii. 24, sq.) on the directness of the personal agency of God (see also below, note on `In Illud' 2). The Platonist idea of the Logos is utilised (de Incarn. 41) without sufficient explanation of its fundamental difference from the Christian doctrine. The influence of Origenism is traceable in his theory of the nature of evil as purely negative (cf. §5 with Orig. c. Cels. iv. 66), in the explanation (to which I recall nothing parallel in his later works) of the garden of Eden as figurative (2. 4, cf. 3. 3), the stress laid on the restoration of knowledge of God through the Logos, and perhaps in the deification of man through Christ (Orig. c. Cels. iii. 28 sub. fin.), a thought which Athanasius brings forward in his later at least as often as in his earlier writings (see note on de Incarn. 54. 3). On the whole, however, the tendency of Athanasius in the course of the Arian controversy is to move away from Origen and toward the Western habit of thought: this is especially exemplified in the history of the term Hypostasis (see above, Prolegg. chap. II. (2) b, and below Introd. to Tom. ad Ant.; cf. also Introductions to de Sent. Dionys. and ad Afros). Some of the more characteristic speculations of Origen have left no trace even on the earliest works of Athanasius (see Introd. to the next Treatise). The translation (here as elsewhere, except where it is otherwise stated) is from the Benedictine text.
The contents of the contra Gentes fall into the following scheme:-