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Fathers of the Church

Personal Letter LII: First Letter to Monks


In humility Athanasius explains his inability to write adequately concerning the divinity of Christ, and states that the death of Arius is refutation enough of the heretics.


This letter is in reponse to a request by the monks that Athanasius give an account of the sufferings of the Church and a refutation of Arianism.

by Athanasius in 358-360 | translated by Payne-Smith

To those in every place who are living a monastic life, who are established in the faith of God, and sanctified in Christ, and who say, 'Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed Thee,' brethren dearly beloved and longed for, heartiest greeting in the Lord.

1. In compliance with your affectionate request, which you have frequently urged upon me, I have written a short account of the sufferings which ourselves and the Church have undergone, refuting, according to my ability, the accursed heresy of the Arian madmen, and proving how entirely it is alien from the Truth. And I thought it needful to represent to your Piety what pains the writing of these things has cost me, in order that you may understand thereby how truly the blessed Apostle has said, 'O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God;' and may kindly bear with a weak man such as I am by nature. For the more I desired to write, and endeavoured to force myself to understand the Divinity of the Word, so much the more did the knowledge thereof withdraw itself from me and in proportion as I thought that I apprehended it, in so much I perceived myself to fail of doing so. Moreover also I was unable to express in writing even what I seemed to myself to understand; and that which I wrote was unequal to the imperfect shadow of the truth which existed in my conception.

2. Considering therefore how it is written in the Book of Ecclesiastes, 'I said, I will be wise, but it was far from me; That which is far off, and exceeding deep, who shall find it out?' and what is said in the Psalms, 'The knowledge of Thee is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it;' and that Solomon says, 'It is the glory of God to conceal a thing;' I frequently designed to stop and to cease writing; believe me, I did. But lest I should be found to disappoint you, or by my silence to lead into impiety those who have made enquiry of you, and are given to disputation, I constrained myself to write briefly, what I have now sent(6a) to your piety. For although a perfect apprehension of the truth is at present far removed from us by reason of the infirmity of the flesh, yet it is possible, as the Preacher himself has said, to perceive the madness of the impious, and having found it, to say that it is 'more bitter than death.' Wherefore for this reason, as perceiving this and able to find it out, I have written, knowing that to the faithful the detection of impiety is a sufficient information wherein piety consists. For although it be impossible to comprehend what God is, yet it is possible to say what He is not. And we know that He not as man; and that it is not lawful to conceive of any originated nature as existing in Him. So also respecting the Son of God, although we are by nature very far from being able to comprehend Him; yet is it possible and easy to condemn the assertions of the heretics concerning Him, and to say, that the Son of God is not such; nor is it lawful even to conceive in our minds such things as they speak, concerning His Godhead; much less to utter them with the lips.

3. Accordingly I have written as well as I was able; and you, dearly beloved, receive these communications not as containing a perfect exposition of the Godhead of the Word, but as being merely a refutation of the impiety of the enemies of Christ, and as containing and affording to those who desire suggestions for arriving at a pious and sound faith in Christ. And if in anything they are defective (and I think they are defective in all respects), pardon it with a pure conscience, and only receive favourably the boldness of my good intentions in support of godliness. For an utter condemnation of the heresy of the Arians, it is sufficient for you to know the judgment given by the Lord in the death of Arius, of which you have already been informed by others. 'For what the Holy God hath purposed, who shall scatter?' and whom the Lord condemned who shall justify? After such a sign given, who do not now acknowledge, that the heresy is hated of God, however it may have men for its patrons? Now when you have read this account, pray for me, and exhort one another so to do. And immediately send it back to me, and suffer no one whatever to take a copy of it, nor transcribe it for yourselves. But like good money-changers be satisfied with the reading; but read it repeatedly if you desire to do so. For it is not safe that the writings of us babblers and private persons should fall into the hands of them that shall come after. Salute one another in love, and also all that come unto you in piety and faith, For 'if any man' as the Apostle has said, 'love not the Lord, let him be anathema. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen.'

Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 1867. (NPNF II/IV, Schaff and Wace). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.

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