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Athanasius' ‘Vita Antonii’ as Political Theology: The Call of Heavenly Citizenship


This article explores the political theology of Athanasius' ‘Life of Antony’. It argues that the work is profoundly concerned with the relationship between the Church and the empire, which it treats as a component of the relationship between the Church and the fallen world order. Athanasius explores this issue through Antony, striving to live as a citizen of heaven within the fallen world. Athanasius sees allegiance to earthly authority as problematising allegiance to the heavenly kingdom, which is bound up with a concern for the Christian's identity: the Christian must understand himself and the world in relation to the kingdom of heaven, rather than the earthly kingdom.

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1 I am persuaded that Athanasius is the author of Vita, though this remains somewhat controversial. R. Draguet argues that the Syriac version is based on a Copticising Greek version, earlier than the extant Greek: La Vie primitive de S. Antoine conservée en syriaque, Louvain 1980. Timothy Barnes developed this thesis, arguing that the Syriac was translated, directly and closely, from a Coptic original and that, moreover, Athanasius was not the author of the extant Greek version: Angel of light or mystic initiate: the problem of Life of Antony ’, JTS n.s. xxxvii/2 (1986), 353–68. Lorenz, Rudolph, ‘Die griechische Vita Antonii des Athanasius und ihre syrische Fassung: Bemerkungen zu einer These von R. Draguet’, Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte c (1989), 7784 , and Brakke, David, ‘The Greek and Syriac versions of the Life of Antony ’, Le Muséon cvii (1994), 2953 , have both argued that the extant Greek version is, indeed, earlier than the Syriac. Their arguments are, in my view, persuasive. There also seem to be many parallels between the Vita and other Athanasian works, as will become clear in what follows. It is difficult to date the Vita more precisely than to the third exile – as Brian Brennan argues, the respective differences between the Vita and the other works of Athanasius' third exile can be readily explained by the genre and audience of each of the works: Dating Athanasius' Vita Antonii ’, Vigiliae Christianae (hereinafter cited as VC) xxx (1976), 52–4.

2 Whilst Athanasius was conventionally seen as a victim of the pro-‘Arians’ and Constantius, Timothy Barnes argued forcefully that he was an aggressor: Athanasius and Constantius: theology and politics in the Constantinian Empire, London 1993. This interpretation has met with some criticism: see, for example, M. C. Steenberg, Of God and man: theology as anthropology from Irenaeus to Athanasius, Edinburgh 2009, 159. Barnes raises important points, but is ultimately unfair to Athanasius. However, the discussion of Athanasius' political theology is not reliant on seeing him as a victim; it only requires that he should feel that he and the ‘Nicene’ cause had been wronged by Constantius, however egoistic and myopic these feelings may seem.

3 On the date of Apologia ad Constantium, and the argument for its having been started before the exile, and finished during it, see Barnes, Athanasius, appendix 3.

4 Athanasius, Historia 74.

5 For example, L. W. Barnard dates the Vita on the basis of its attitude to the emperor and correspondingly places it between the Apologia de fuga and the Historia: The date of Athanasius' Vita Antonii ’, VC xxviii (1974), 169–75. He confines his investigation to Antony's one direct interaction with the emperor (Vita 81) and sees the political concern of this passage as running counter to the genre and tone of the text. Cf. David Brakke's assertion that ‘Athanasius' frequently unhappy experiences with imperial authorities give an ambivalent tone to Antony's interactions with representatives of the empire’: Athanasius and the politics of asceticism, Oxford 1995, 247.

6 This was the implication of Peter Brown's argument that, in withdrawing from society, monks fulfilled the desire of the average third-century farmer: The making of late antiquity, London 1978, 81–101. Colm Lubhéid responded in his Antony and the renunciation of society’, Irish Theological Quarterly lii (1986), 304–21. Brakke has analysed the Vita's treatment of ecclesiastical politics but, naturally enough, the theological aspect of his reflection is primarily ecclesiological: Politics.

7 Brakke addresses Athanasius' treatment of an aspect of this context in his Politics – namely, the relationship between the monks and the episcopate in Egypt, in light of the ‘Arian’ controversy and Melitian schism. Lack of attention to this aspect in this article is not because it is regarded as insignificant, but because it would be superfluous to reiterate what has already been so ably demonstrated.

8 Tim Vivian remarks that, ‘Saying that Athanasius is all politics and power is like saying a holy icon is a picture … such an understanding, if taken as the whole story, shortchanges the profoundly biblical nature of the Life’: The Life of Antony: the Coptic life and the Greek life, trans. Tim Vivian and others, Kalamazoo 2003, p. xxvi. Perhaps the political and biblical should be allowed to inform each other, so that this particular icon may be seen.

9 Lubhéid, ‘Antony and renunciation’, 307.

10 See Athanasius, Vita 16.3–8; 45.7, ed. G. J. M. Bartelink, Paris 2011.

11 Ibid. 14.7; translations are my own.

12 The two words have overlapping semantic ranges of meaning, and could both refer either to citizenship or to way of life. For example, Justin uses πολιτεία to mean, roughly, ‘commonwealth’ at Apologia secunda 10.6, ed. Paul Parvis and Denis Minns, Oxford 2009, but to mean ‘way of life’ at Dialogue cum Tryphone 4.7, ed. Miroslav Marcovich, Berlin 1997. Gregory of Nazianzus uses πολίτευμα to refer to heavenly citizenship at Orationes xxxiii.12, whilst Methodius uses it in the sense of ‘way of life’ at De resurrectione 2.1. Michael Hollerich surveys the uses of both words, from the Hellenstic period through to fourth-century Christian writers, in his Eusebius of Caesarea's commentary on Isaiah: Christian exegesis in the age of Constantine, Oxford 1999, 106–16. He demonstrates that, whilst both words originally had a primarily political sense, πολιτεία came to be used in a less political way whilst πολίτευμα continued to carry primarily political and social connotations.

13 Athanasius, Historia 78. The term ‘Arian’ has been widely criticised as a descriptor of subordinationist theology within the fourth-century disputes about the doctrine of God. For example, Richard Hanson dubs the term ‘the Arian controversy’ ‘a serious misnomer’, on the grounds that it unduly centralises Arius himself: The search for the Christian doctrine of God, Edinburgh 1988, pp. xvii–xviii, quotation at p. xvii. These criticisms are valid; the term is used in this article only when offering an interpretation of Athanasius' thought, in order to reflect Athanasius' own wording.

14 Vivian, Life of Antony, p. xxvi.

15 Though this transformation begins with, and is dependent upon, God. So, Antony's decision is prompted by hearing Scripture (Vita 2.3; 3.1), and he is able to overcome demons because of God working in him (Vita 5.7).

16 Ibid. 19.2.

17 Ibid. 22.2.

18 Brakke, Politics, 217.

19 Antony is said, in Vita 2, to give away his possessions, in progressive stages eventually only keeping a little for his sister. At Vita 3.1, he gives away the remainder and leaves his sister in the care of virgins.

20 Vita 17.7. This echoes Matthew v.5, ‘The meek shall inherit the earth.’ It might possibly imply that the heavenly kingdom will be on earth, after Revelation xxi.1–3.

21 There are both important parallels and important differences with Athanasius' treatment of uniquely Christian values in De incarnatione; in that work, Athanasius similarly contrasts Christian values – principally peace and chastity – with those of the pagan world, but he sees Christianity as spreading across the world, transforming it. The Vita is more pessimistic.

22 Vita 81 (emphasis mine).

23 Barnard, ‘Date of Vita’. See n. 5 above.

24 Brennan observes firstly that, in the preface, Athanasius compares his monastic audiences to the Egyptian monks, and so is clearly writing to monks outside of Egypt; secondly, that, far from requesting secrecy as he does with Historia, Athanasius later requests that the work be circulated as widely as possible (Vita 94): ‘Dating Vita’, 52–3. Here, Athanasius writes, ‘read what I have written to the other brothers that they might learn how monks should live and know that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ glorifies those who glorify him … if necessary, read it also to the gentiles’. It seems that, by ‘brothers’, Athanasius must mean Christians generally, because he contrasts the ‘brothers’ with pagans. David Brakke similarly argues that Antony is a model, not just for monks, but, by extension, for all Christians: Demons and the making of the monk, London 2006, 24.

25 At Vita 18, Athanasius writes that Judas ‘destroyed the toil of the previous time’ in one night. Might Athanasius intend to imply a parallel with Constantius' betrayal of true Christianity?

26 Brakke, though, is probably right that Athanasius depicts some officials as favourable to the Church, and gives them a more positive role in the text. He suggests that the mention of Archeleus, whom Antony helps, might be a warm reference to the Archeleus who had strongly supported Athanasius in the 330s: Brakke, Politics, 247. See Vita 61.

27 Several scholars have commented on the idea that Antony is a prophet. See Harmless, Desert Christians, 67–8, and Brennan, Brian, ‘Athanasius' Vita Antonii: a sociological interpretation’, VC xxxix (1985), 209–27 at p. 210.

28 Vita 82.4–9.

29 Ibid. 83.1.

30 Ibid. 84.1.

31 Ibid. 84.4.

32 Ibid. 84.6. Antony is citing Matt. vii. 2.

33 Vita, 85.3.

34 Ibid. 85.5. That it is significant that Antony engages with imperial officials, and not simply wider society, is suggested by a parallel with Matt. xxvii. 54, in this, the earth quakes and the dead rise on Christ's death. A centurion responds, ‘truly this was God's son’. The parallel also reinforces the idea that Antony's words are miraculous.

35 Vita, 86.

36 Historia 12, 14. Although, as David Gwynn notes, there are differences: in the Historia, Balacius is riding the horse that bites him; in Vita it is ridden by his companion, Nestorius the prefect of Egypt, and in the Historia Athanasius depicts Gregory, his sometime rival for the Alexandrian episcopate, as encouraging Balacius' scorn for Antony: The Eusebians: the polemic of Athanasius of Alexandria and the construction of the ‘Arian controversy’, Oxford 2006, 151.

37 ‘To Antony [persons of power] are just “human beings” who must be reminded of their subservience to their king, Christ’: Brakke, Politics, 248.

38 For Antony's other temptations see, for example, Vita 5, 12.

39 This is described in Matt. iv. 1–11; Mark i. 12, 13; and Luke iv. 1–13. Vivian correspondingly argues that Matthew's Gospel, rather than the Vita, is the earliest hagiography in Christian tradition: Athanasius's Life of Antony, p. xxviii.

40 Vita 37.2–3.

41 Matt. iv. 8–10. Christ quotes Deuteronomy vi.13. The phrase ‘Get behind me Satan’ is from Matt. xvi. 23, where Christ addresses Peter.

42 See Orationes contra Arianos, ii.2; ii.14, ed. E. P. Meijering, Amsterdam 1996–8.

43 Vita 69.5. As Khaled Anatolios argues, ‘Athanasius has Antony make the crucial point … that to impute anything less than the fullness of divinity to the Son is a regression to “paganism” and renders Christian devotion to Christ a form of idolatry’: Athanasius, London 2004, 14–15.

44 Historia 33.

45 Ibid. 66.

46 Ibid. 52. See Matt. xiv.1–12; Mark vi.14–29; and Luke ix.7–9.

47 Historia 74.

48 See Letter to the bishops of Egypt and Libya, in Athanasius Werke, I/1, Lieferung 1, ed. Karin Metzler and others, Berlin 1996, ii.

49 The idea that a text could have multiple layers would have been very familiar to Athanasius, as it recurs in various guises in patristic exegesis. Origen identified three levels on which Scripture should be read, corresponding to the body, soul and spirit: De principiis iv.2.4, in Origenes Werke, ed. Paul Koetschau, Leipzig 1913. In the Origenist controversy and its antecedents, it was widely assumed that the biblical text had multiple layers of meaning; the disagreement centred rather on the relationship between what may crudely be termed the ‘plain’ and ‘elevated’ senses of the text. See Frances Young, Biblical exegesis and the formation of Christian culture, Cambridge 1997, 161–85.

50 This relates to Athanasius' doctrine of evil as non-being: Contra gentes 4.4, ed. Pierre Camelot, Paris 1983.

51 Historia 78.

52 Vita 29.5.

53 Ibid. 81.2. See extended quotation of 81 at pp. 245–6 above.

54 See Vita 81.5, and p. 244 above.

55 Also, specifically, from God. See discussion of sections 83–5 at p. 248 above.

56 Vita 16.7.

57 Ibid. 24.9.

58 Daniel iii.19–27.

59 Vita 43.3. See Susannah 51–9.

60 Gerbern Oegema argues that fourth-century writers reinterpreted Daniel favourably with regard to the emperor by depicting the emperor favourably within an established sequence of events leading to Christ's reign. For example, the emperor is often seen as holding the AntiChrist's reign in check: ‘Back to the future in the Early Church: the use of the book of Daniel in early patristic eschatology’, in Patricia G. Kirkpatrick and Timothy Goltz (eds), The function of ancient historiography in biblical and cognate studies, London 2008, 152–61 at p.161.

61 The Vita can hardly be seen as an instance of positive reinterpretation, along the lines noted by Oegema. Whilst Athanasius does not obviously associate the emperor with the AntiChrist here, as in the Historia (see n. 3 above), he does declare Arianism to be ‘the Antichrist's forerunner’ (Vita 69.2) and lays some blame on Constantius' government for the spread of Arianism. The text could only be interpreted along these lines by supposing that Constans had previously postponed the reign of the AntiChrist; Constantius would then be the AntiChrist.

62 Vita 82.2. See Dan. iv.16 (LXX); iv.19 (Masoretic text).

63 Brakke, Demons, 27.

64 De incarnatione 51.

65 Ibid. 51.4–6.

66 Ibid. 52.2–5 (quotation at 52.5).

67 Ibid. 53.1.

68 Ibid. 48.1. The idea that virginity is a peculiarly Christian virtue is echoed in Athanasius' First letter to Virgins, 4: ‘nothing has ever been heard among the Greeks or the non-Greeks about virginity, nor has it ever been possible for such a virtue to exist among them’: trans. Brakke, Politics, appendix A, 275.

69 See, for example, Eusebius, Laudibus Constantini 7.12, in Eusebius Werke, i, ed. I. A. Heikel, Leipzig 1902: Constantine is described as ‘an unbeatable champion ordained to be the minister of [God's] revenge from heaven’.

70 For a summary of different views on the dating of De incarnatione see Gerald J. Donkers, The text of Apostolos in Athanasius of Alexandria, Atlanta 2011, 18 n. 46. I follow Barnes, Athanasius, 12–13, and Sara Parvis, Marcellus of Ancyra and the lost years of the Arian controversy, Oxford 2006, 60–3. Khaled Anatolios, though he suggests that De incarnatione is to be dated to just after Athanasius became bishop of Alexandria, none the less crucially agrees with Barnes and Parvis that it was written between the Council of Nicaea and Athanasius' first exile: Athanasius: the coherence of his thought, London 1998, 26–30. In my view, the work is too advanced to have been written before the outbreak of the ‘Arian’ controversy, but there is no evidence to place it late in Athanasius' life. Michael Slusser argues persuasively that Athanasius did not write the work during his first exile; dwelling on how far Christianity has spread, he never mentions places in the Western part of the empire, which would be odd indeed if he were writing from Rome: Athanasius, Contra gentes and De incarnatione: date and place of composition’, JTS xxxi (1986), 114–17.

71 Parvis, Marcellus, 60–1.

72 Ibid. 80–3.

73 Thus Anatolios suggests that ‘Athanasius is consciously revising the imperialist triumphalism of Eusebius of Caesarea by making sure that the triumph of Constantine is strictly attributed to Christ, to the point of not even mentioning the emperor’: Coherence, 29.

74 Athanasius expresses the trade-off between idolatry and power clearly in Historia 33, where he also specifically opines that Constantius uses violence to advance his cause and so demonstrates that Arian wisdom is not godly but human. The violence of Constantius and the Arians, as depicted in the Historia, is in sharp contrast to the peaceful values that Athanasius sees advancing in De incarnatione; the Arians have gained power, but it is not power to transform the world according to the heavenly kingdom; swords are not turned into ploughshares. If Barnes's picture of Athanasius is accepted this becomes, of course, a highly hypocritical accusation. See, for examples, Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, Cambridge, Ma 1981, 230, where Athanasius is described as leading an ‘ecclesiastical mafia’.

75 Vita 16.4.

76 So, Antony advises the emperors to pay less attention to the present, and more to eschatological judgement. See the extended quotation from Vita 81 at p. 246 above.

77 Vita 44.3.

78 Ibid. 50.8–9, 51.5.

79 Genesis i. 28.

80 Isaiah xi. 6.

81 The idea that the spread of Christianity halts violence is also found in De incarnatione 52, and there it is supported with citations from Is. ii. 4; here, Athanasius deploys Isaiah in a similar vein. However, the establishment of a peaceful society happens outside of the empire.

82 Vita 11.

83 Lubhéid implies such a perspective: ‘Antony and renunciation’.

84 Brakke, Politics, esp. p. 245.

85 Graham Gould, The Desert Fathers on monastic community, Oxford 1993, esp. ch. v, from the title of which the quotation is taken.

86 Brown, Peter, ‘The rise and function of the holy man in late antiquity’, Journal of Roman Studies lxi (1971), 80101 at p. 83.

87 Monasticism itself was a changing movement, difficult to define in the fourth century, and Athanasius had to grapple with this change, as David Gwynn notes in his Athanasius: bishop, theologian, ascetic, father, Oxford 2012, 16.

88 Vita 8.2–3. There is a parallel here with his thwarted desire for martyrdom. Antony wanted to be a martyr under Maximin, but God prevented this from happening, so that he would be able to teach others the ascetic discipline. See ibid. 46.6.

89 Ibid. 8.4.

90 Ibid. 38.2.

91 Ibid. 14–15.

92 See the citation of Brakke, Demons at n. 24.

93 Vita 93.5.

94 So Brakke argues that the Vita ‘promotes Athanasius' political goal of a church united under the Alexandrian episcopate’: Politics, 203.

95 Thus, in On the moral life 3–4, Athanasius acknowledges that not everyone is able immediately to lead the life of an ascetic, and suggests, as an alternative for these people, a gradual progress: Brakke, Politics, appendix E. Athanasius uses Lot's life as an example: fleeing Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot does not yet want to ascend the mountain, so he goes first to Segor, a city smaller than Sodom, and afterwards wants to go up the mountain: Gen. xix.15–30.

96 It is significant that in De incarnatione Athanasius highlights virginity – associated, of course, with asceticism – as a Christian virtue, at odds with worldly values; it is not at root a different vision of Christianity, but a different vision of the world in which it finds itself, that motivates the change in his political theology.

97 Athanasius elsewhere suggests a transformation of the social and political structures of the Roman Empire; God may take the kingdom away from Constantius: Historia 34. This has substantially different implications for political theology in that it seeks to alter sinful structures, rather than ignoring them. However, the apocalyptic tone of this work gives Athanasius' comments about the eventual overthrow of Constantius a primarily eschatological feel; indeed when bishops warn Constantius that God can take the kingdom from him, they also warn him of the judgement day. In the Historia, Athanasius is deeply concerned with ‘the things of the present’ (which he urges the Augusti to disregard in Vita 81) but no more optimistic about them.

98 The Historia offers ample evidence of his attunement; Athanasius frequently remarks upon Constantius' change of mind (see 21, 30).

99 Vita 30.1.

100 Ibid. 36.1–4 (emphasis mine).

101 Ibid. 93.1.

102 Ibid. 9.8–10.

103 Ibid. 42.8. In connecting faith and hope with serenity Athanasius may be alluding to 1 Corinthians xiii.13, in which faith, hope, and ἀγάπη are the three eternals. This is, however, speculative.

104 It does not obviously offer certainty; the emphasis on hope in particular points to trust in something not yet fully known, something still to be revealed.

105 The Historia does not share the Vita's sometime yearning for disengagement. See n. 97 above.

106 See, for example, Gwynn, Athanasius, 48–9.

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