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Fathers of the Church

Personal Letter LIV: to Serapion, Concerning the Death of Arius


In this missive, Athanasius, by describing the death of Arius, refutes the notion that the heretic had been reconciled to the Church. The details were furnished him by his presbyeter Macarius, who was at Constantinople when Arius passed away while Athanasius was himself in exile at Treves. (Quasten)


Serapion had been superior of a colony of monks before he became bishop of Thmuis, a town of Lower Egypt. He was the recipient of a number of important epistles from Athanasius, his "brother and fellow minster". (Quasten)

by Athanasius in 358 | translated by Payne-Smith

Athanasius to Serapion, a brother and fellow-minister, health in the Lord.

I have read the letters of your piety, in which you have requested me to make known to you the events of my times relating to myself, and to give an account of that most impious heresy of the Arians, in consequence of which I have endured these sufferings, and also of the manner of the death of Arius. With two out of your three demands I have reapily undertaken to comply, and have sent to your Godliness what I wrote to the Monks; from which you will be able to learn my own history as well as that of the heresy. But with respect to the other matter, I mean the death, I debated with myself for a long time, fearing lest any one should suppose that I was exulting in the death of that man. But yet, since a disputation which has taken place amongst you concerning the heresy, has issued in this question, whether Arius died after previously communicating with the Church; I therefore was necessarily desirous of giving an account of his death, as thinking that the question would thus be set at rest, considering also that by making this known I should at the same time silence those who are fond of contention. For I conceive that when the wonderful circumstances connected with his death become known, even those who before questioned it will no longer venture to doubt that the Arian heresy is hateful in the sight of God.

2. I was not at Constantinople when he died, but Macarius the Presbyter was, and I heard the account of it from him. Arius had been invited by the Emperor Constantine, through the interest of Eusebius and his fellows; and when he entered the presence the Emperor enquired of him, whether he held the Faith of the Catholic Church? And he declared upon oath that he held the right Faith, and gave in an account of his Faith in writing, suppressing the points for which he had been cast out of the Church by the Bishop Alexander, and speciously alleging expressions out of the Scriptures. When therefore he swore that he did not profess the opinions for which Alexander had excommunicated him, [the Emperor] dismissed him, saying, 'If thy Faith be right, thou hast done well to swear; but if thy Faith be impious, and thou hast sworn, God judge of thee according to thy oath.' When he thus came forth from the presence of the Emperor, Eusebius and his fellows, with their accustomed violence, desired to bring him into the Church. But Alexander, the Bishop of Constantinople of blessed memory, resisted them, saying that the inventor of the heresy ought not to be admitted to communion; whereupon Eusebius and his fellows threatened, declaring, 'As we have caused him to be invited by the Emperor, in opposition to your wishes, so to-morrow, though it be contrary to your desire, Arius shall have communion with us in this Church.' It was the Sabbath when they said this.

3. When the Bishop Alexander heard this, he was greatly distressed, and entering into the church, he stretched forth his hands unto God, and bewailed himself; and casting himself upon his face in the chancel, he prayed, lying upon the pavement. Macarius also was present, and prayed with him, and heard his words. And he besought these two things, saying, 'If Arius is brought to communion to-morrow, let me Thy servant depart, and destroy not the pious with the impious; but if Thou wilt spare Thy Church (and I know that Thou wilt spare), look upon the words of Eusebius and his fellows, and give not thine inheritance to destruction and reproach, and take off Arius, test if he enter into the Church, the heresy also may seem to enter with him, and henceforward impiety be accounted for piety.' When the Bishop had thus prayed, he retired in great anxiety; and a wonderful and extraordinary circumstance took place. While Eusebius and his fellows threatened, the Bishop prayed; but Arius, who had great confidence in Eusebius and his fellows, and talked very wildly, urged by the necessities of nature withdrew, and suddenly, in the language of Scripture, 'falling headlong he burst asunder in the midst,' and immediately expired as he lay, and was deprived both of communion and of his life together.

4. Such has been the end of Arius: and Eusebius and his fellows, overwhelmed with shame, buried their accomplice, while the blessed Alexander, amidst the rejoicings of the Church, celebrated the Communion with piety and orthodoxy, praying with all the brethren, and greatly glorifying God, not as exulting in his death (God forbid!), for 'it is appointed unto all men once to die,' but because this thing had been shewn forth in a manner transcending human judgments. For the Lord Himself judging between the threats of Eusebius and his fellows, and the prayer of Alexander, condemned the Arian heresy, shewing it to be unworthy of communion with the Church, and making manifest to all, that although it receive the support of the Emperor and of all mankind, yet it was condemned by the Church herself. So the antichristian gang of the Arian madmen has been shewn to be unpleasing to God and impious; and many of those who before were deceived by it changed their opinions. For none other than the Lord Himself who was blasphemed by them condemned the heresy which rose up against Him, and again shewed that howsoever the Emperor Constantius may now use violence to the Bishops in behalf of it, yet it is excluded from the communion of the Church, and alien from the kingdom of heaven. Wherefore also let the question which has arisen among you be henceforth set at rest; (for this was the agreement made among you), and let no one join himself to the heresy, but let even those who have been deceived repent. For who shall receive what the Lord condemned? And will not he who takes up the support of that which He has made excommunicate, be guilty of great impiety, and manifestly an enemy of Christ?

5. Now this is sufficient to confound the contentious; read it therefore to those who before raised this question, as well as what was briefly addressed to the Monks against the heresy, in order that they may be led thereby more strongly to condemn the impiety and wickedness of the Arian madmen. Do not however consent to give a copy of these to any one, neither transcribe them for yourself (I have signified the same to the Monks also); but as a sincere friend, if anything is wanting in what I have written, add it, and immediately send them back to me. For you will be able to learn from the letter which I have written to the Brethren, what pains it has cost me to write it, and also to perceive that it is not safe for the writings of a private person to be published (especially if they relate to the highest and chief doctrines), for this reason;—lest what is imperfectly expressed through infirmity or the obscurity of language, do hurt to the reader. For the majority of men do not consider the faith, or the aim of the writer, but either through envy or a spirit of contention, receive what is written as themselves choose, according to an opinion which they have previously formed, and misinterpret it to suit their pleasure. But the Lord grant that the Truth and a sound faith in our Lord Jesus Christ may prevail among all, and especially among those to whom you read this. 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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