Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Fathers of the Church

Personal Letter LIX: to Epictetus


Athanasius strongly condemns those who dare raise such impious questions, and rebukes Epictetus for not putting a stop to them. He then refutes the heretics, summarizing at the end: "the body in which the Word was is not coessential with the Godhead, but was truly born of Mary, while the Word Himself was not, changed into bones and flesh, but came in the flesh."


The Epistula ad Epictetum episcopum Corinthi deals with the relation of the historical Christ to the eternal Son. The bishop of Corinth had submitted a memorandum to Athanasius regarding certain questions raised in his diocese. Their nature can be deduced from Athanasius' answer, in bold below. All these questions suggest that the difficulties came from Arian and Apollinaristic groups that shared Docetic views. The Letter to Epictetus gained almost canonical reputation and was much quoted in the Christological controversies. Epiphanius made use of it in his refutation of the heresy of Apollinaris of Laodicea. The Council of Chalcedon adopted it as the best expression of its own conviction. (Quasten)

by Athanasius in Unknown | translated by Payne-Smith

To my Lord, beloved brother, and most-longed-for fellow-minister Epictetus, Athanasius greeting in the Lord. I thought that all vain talk of all heretics, many as they may be, had been stopped by the Synod which was held at Nicaea. For the Faith there confessed by the Fathers according to the divine Scriptures is enough by itself at once to overthrow all impiety, and to establish the religious belief in Christ. For this reason at the present time, at the assembling of diverse synods, both in Gaul and Spain, and great Rome, all who came together, as though moved by one spirit, unanimously anathematised those who still were secretly holding with Arius, namely Auxentius of Milan, Ursacius, Valens, and Gaius of Pannonia. And they wrote everywhere, that, whereas the above-said were devising the names of synods to cite on their side, no synod should be cited in the Catholic Church save only that which was held at Nicaea, which was a monument of victory over all heresy, but especially the Arian, which was the main reason of the synod assembling when it did. How then, after all this, are some attempting to raise doubts or questions? If they belong to the Arians, this is not to be wondered at, that they find fault with what was drawn up against themselves, just as the Gentiles when they hear that 'the idols of the heathen are silver and gold, the work of men's hands,' think the doctrine of the divine Cross folly. But if those who desire to reopen everything by raising questions belong to those who think they believe aright, and love what the fathers have declared, they are simply doing what the prophet describes, giving their neighbour turbid confusion to drink, and fighting about words to no good purpose, save to the subversion of the simple.

2. I write this after reading the memoranda submitted by your piety, which I could wish had not been written at all, so that not even any record of these things should go down to posterity. For who ever yet heard the like? Who ever taught or learned it? For 'from Sion shall come forth the law of God, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem;' but whence came forth this? What lower region has vomited the statement that the Body born of Mary is coessential with the Godhead of the Word? or that the Word has been changed into flesh, bones, hair, and the whole body, and altered from its own nature? Or who ever heard in a Church, or even from Christians, that the Lord wore a body putatively, not in nature; or who ever went so far in impiety as to say and hold, that this Godhead, which is coessential with the Father, was circumcised and became imperfect instead of perfect; and that what hung upon the tree was not the body, but the very creative Essence and Wisdom? Or who that hears that the Word transformed for Himself a passible body, not of Mary, but of His own Essence, could call him who said this a Christian? Or who devised this abominable impiety, for it to enter even his imagination, and for him to say that to pronounce the Lord's Body to be of Mary is to hold a Tetrad instead of a Triad in the Godhead? Those who think thus, saying that the Body of the Saviour which He put on from Mary, is of the Essence of the Triad. Or whence again have certain vomited an impiety as great as those already mentioned; saying namely, that the body is not newer than the Godhead of the Word, but was coeternal with it always, since it was compounded of the Essence of Wisdom. Or how did men called Christians venture even to doubt whether the Lord, Who proceeded from Mary, while Son of God by Essence and Nature, is of the seed of David according to the flesh, and of the flesh of the Holy Mary? Or who have been so venturesome as to say that Christ Who suffered in the flesh and was crucified is not Lord, Saviour, God, and Son of the Father? Or how can they wish to be called Christians who say that the Word has descended upon a holy man as upon one of the prophets, and has not Himself become man, taking the body from Mary; but that Christ is one person, while the Word of God, Who before Mary and before the ages was Son of the Father, is another? Or how can they be Christians who say that the Son is one, and the Word of God another?

3. Such were the contents of the memoranda; diverse statements, but one in their sense and in their meaning; tending to impiety. It was for these things that men who make their boast in the confession of the fathers drawn up at Nicaea were disputing and quarrelling with one another. But I marvel that your piety suffered it, and that you did not stop those who said such things, and propound to them the right faith, so that upon hearing it they might hold their peace, or if they opposed it might be counted as heretics. For the statements are not fit for Christians to make or to hear, on the contrary they are in every way alien from the Apostolic teaching. For this reason, as I said above, I have caused what they say to be boldly inserted in my letter, so that one who merely hears may perceive the shame and impiety therein contained. And although it would be right to denounce and expose in full the folly of those who have had such ideas, yet it would be a good thing to close my letter here and write no more. For what is so manifestly shewn to be evil, it is not necessary to waste time in exposing further, lest contentious persons think the matter doubtful. it is enough merely to answer such things as follows: we are content with the fact that this is not the teaching of the Catholic Church, nor did the fathers hold this. But lest the 'inventors of evil things' make entire silence on our part a pretext for shamelessness, it will be well to mention a few points from Holy Scripture, in case they may even thus be put to shame, and cease from these foul devices.

4. Whence did it occur to you, sirs, to say that the Body is of one Essence with the Godhead of the Word? For it is well to begin at this point, in order that by shewing this opinion to be unsound, all the others too may be proved to be the same. Now from the divine Scriptures we discover nothing of the kind. For they say that God came in a human body. But the fathers who also assembled at Nicaea say that, not the body, but the Son Himself is coessential with the Father, and that while He is of the Essence of the Father, the body, as they admitted according to the Scriptures, is of Mary. Either then deny the Synod of Nicaea, and as heretics bring in your doctrine from the side; or, if you wish to be children of the fathers, do not hold the contrary of what they wrote. For here again you may see how monstrous it is: If the Word is coessential with the body which is of earthly nature, while the Word is, by your own confession, coessential with the Father, it will follow that even the Father Himself is coessential with the body produced from the earth. And why any longer blame the Arians for calling the Son a creature, when you go off to another form of impiety, saying that the Word was changed into flesh and bones and hair and muscles and all the body, and was altered from its own nature? For it is time for you to say openly that He was born of earth; for from earth is the nature of the bones and of all the body. What then is this great folly of yours, that you fight even with one another? For in saying that the Word is coessential with the Body, you distinguish the one from the other, while in saying that He has been changed into flesh, you imagine a change of the Word Himself. And who will tolerate you any longer if you so much as utter these opinions? For you have gone further in impiety than any heresy. For if the Word is coessential with the Body, the commemoration and the work of Mary are superfluous, inasmuch as the body could have existed before Mary, just as the Word also is eternal: if, that is, it is as you say coessential with the Body. Or what need was there even of the Word coming among us, to put on what was coessential with Himself, or to change His own nature and become a body? For the Deity does not take hold of itself, so as to put on what is of its own Essence, any more than the Word sinned, in that it ransoms the sins of others, in order that changing into a body it should offer itself a sacrifice for itself, and ransom itself.

5. But this is not so, far be the thought. For he 'takes hold of the seed of Abraham,' as the apostle said; whence it behoved Him to be made like His brethren in all things, and to take a Body like us. This is why Mary is truly presupposed, in order that He may take it from her, and offer it for us as His own. And this Isaiah pointed to in his prophecy, in the words: 'Behold the Virgin,' while Gabriel is sent to her—not simply to a virgin, but 'to a virgin betrothed to a man,' in order that by means of the betrothed man he might shew that Mary was really a human being. And for this reason Scripture also mentions her bringing forth, and tells of her wrapping Him in swaddling clothes; and therefore, too, the paps which He sucked were called blessed. And He was offered as a sacrifice, in that He Who was born had opened the womb. Now all these things are proofs that the Virgin brought forth. And Gabriel preached the Gospel to her without uncertainty, saying not merely 'what is born in thee,' lest the body should be thought to be extraneously induced upon her, but 'of thee,' that what was born might be believed to be naturally from her, inasmuch as Nature clearly shews that it is impossible for a virgin to produce milk unless she has brought forth, and impossible for a body to be nourished with milk and wrapped in swaddling clothes unless it has previously been naturally brought forth. This is the meaning of His being circumcised on the eighth day: of Symeon taking Him in his arms, of His becoming a young child, and growing when He was twelve years old, and of His coming to His thirtieth year. For it was not, as some suppose, the very Essence of the Word that was changed, and was circumcised, because it is incapable of alteration or change. For the Saviour Himself says, 'Behold, behold, it is I, and I change not,' while Paul writes: 'Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever.' But in the Body which was circumcised, and carried, and ate and drank, and was weary, and was nailed on the tree and suffered, there was the impassible and incorporeal Word of God. This Body it was that was laid in a grave, when the Word had left it, yet was not parted from it, to preach, as Peter says, also to the spirits in prison.

6. And this above all shews the foolishness of those who say that the Word was changed into bones and flesh. For if this had been so, there were no need of a tomb. For the Body would have gone by itself to preach to the spirits in Hades. But as it was, He Himself went to preach, while the Body Joseph wrapped in a linen cloth, and laid it away at Golgotha. And so it is shewn to all that the Body was not the Word, but Body of the Word. And it was this that Thomas handled when it had risen from the dead, and saw in it the print of the nails, which the Word Himself had undergone, seeing them fixed in His own Body, and though able to prevent it, did not do so. On the contrary, the incorporeal Word made His own the properties of the Body, as being His own Body. Why, when the Body was struck by the attendant, as suffering Himself He asked, 'Why smitest thou Me?' And being by nature intangible, the Word yet said, 'I gave My back to the stripes, and My cheeks to blows, and hid not My face from shame and spitting.' For what the human Body of the Word suffered, this the Word, dwelling in the body, ascribed to Himself, in order that we might be enabled to be partakers of the Godhead of the Word. And verily it is strange that He it was Who suffered and yet suffered not. Suffered, because His own Body suffered, and He was in it, which thus suffered; suffered not, because the Word, being by Nature God, is impassible. And while He, the incorporeal, was in the passible Body, the Body had in it the impassible Word, which was destroying the infirmities inherent in the Body. But this He did, and so it was, in order that Himself taking what was ours and offering it as a sacrifice, He might do away with it, and conversely might invest us with what was His, and cause the Apostle to say: 'This corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal put on immortality.'

7. Now this did not come to pass putatively, as some have supposed: far be the thought: but the Saviour having in very truth become Man, the salvation of the whole man was brought about. For if the Word were in the Body putatively, as they say, and by putative is meant imaginary, it follows that both the salvation and the resurrection of man is apparent only, as the most impious Manichaeus held. But truly our salvation is not merely apparent, nor does it extend to the body only, but the whole man, body and soul alike, has truly obtained salvation in the Word Himself. That then which was born of Mary was according to the divine Scriptures human by nature, and the Body of the Lord was a true one; but it was this, because it was the same as our body, for Mary was our sister inasmuch as we all are from Adam. And no one can doubt of this when he remembers what Luke wrote. For after He had risen from the dead, when some thought that they did not see the Lord in the body derived from Mary, but were beholding a spirit instead, He said, 'See My hands and My feet, and the prints of the nails, that it is I Myself: handle Me and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones as ye see Me to have. And when He had said thus, He shewed them His hands and His feet.' Whence they can be refuted who have ventured to say that the Lord was transformed into flesh and bones. For He did not say, 'As ye see Me to be flesh and bone,' but 'as ye see Me to have,' in order that it might not be thought that the Word Himself was changed into these things, but that He might be believed to have them after His resurrection as well as before His death.

8. These things being thus demonstrated, it is superfluous to touch upon the other points, or to enter upon any discussion relating to them, since the body in which the Word was is not coessential with the Godhead, but was truly born of Mary, while the Word Himself was not, changed into bones and flesh, but came in the flesh. For what John said, 'The Word was made flesh,' has this meaning, as we may see by a similar passage; for it is written in Paul: 'Christ has become a curse for us.' And just as He has not Himself become a curse, but is said to have done so because He took upon Him the curse on our behalf, so also He has become flesh not by being changed into flesh, but because He assumed on our behalf living flesh, and has become Man. For to say 'the Word became flesh,' is equivalent to saying 'the Word has become man;' according to what is said in Joel: 'I will pour forth of My Spirit upon all flesh;' for the promise did not extend to the irrational animals, but is for men, on whose account the Lord is become Man. As then this is the sense of the above text, they all will reasonably condemn themselves who have thought that the flesh derived from Mary existed before her, and that the Word, prior to her, had a human soul, and existed in it always even before His coming. And they too will cease who have said that the Flesh was not accessible to death, but belonged to the immortal Nature. For if it did not die, how could Paul deliver to the Corinthians 'that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures,' or how did He rise at all if He did not also die? Again, they will blush deeply who have even entertained the possibility of a Tetrad instead of a Triad resulting, if it were said that the Body was derived from Mary. For if (they argue) we say the Body is of one Essence with the Word, the Triad remains a Triad; for then the Word imports no foreign element into it; but if we admit that the Body derived from Mary is human, it follows, since I the Body is foreign in Essence, and the Word is in it, that the addition of the Body causes a Tetrad instead of a Triad.

9. When they argue thus, they fail to perceive the contradiction in which they involve themselves. For even though they say that the Body is not from Mary, but is coessential with the Word, yet none the less (the very point they dissemble, to avoid being credited with their real opinion) this on their own premises can be proved to involve a Tetrad. For as the Son, according to the Fathers, is coessential with the Father, but is not the Father Himself, but is called coessential, as Son with Father, so the Body, which they call coessential with the Word, is not the Word Himself, but a distinct entity. But if so, on their own shewing, their Triad will be a Tetrad. For the true, really perfect and indivisible Triad is not accessible to addition as is the Triad imagined by these persons. And how do these remain Christians who imagine another God in addition to the true one? For, once again, in their other fallacy one can see how great is their folly. For if they think because it is contained and stated in the Scriptures, that the Body of the Saviour is human and derived from Mary, that a Tetrad is substituted for a Triad, as though the Body created an addition, they go very far wrong, so much so as to make the creature equal to the Creator, and suppose that the Godhead can receive an addition. And they have failed to perceive that the Word is become Flesh, not by reason of an addition to the Godhead, but in order that the flesh may rise again. Nor did the Word proceed from Mary that He might be bettered, but that He might ransom the human race. How then can they think that the Body, ransomed and quickened by the Word, made an addition in respect of Godhead to the Word that had quickened it? For on the contrary, a great addition has accrued to the human Body itself from the fellowship and union of the Word with it. For instead of mortal it is become immortal; and, though an animal body, it is become spiritual, and though made from earth it entered the heavenly gates. The Triad, then, although the Word took a body from Mary, is a Triad, being inaccessible to addition or diminution; but it is always perfect, and in the Triad one Godhead is recognised, and so in the Church one God is preached, the Father of the Word.

10. For this reason they also will henceforth keep silence, who once said that He who proceeded from Mary is not very Christ, or Lord, or God. For if He were not God in the Body, how came He, upon proceeding from Mary, straightway to be called 'Emmanuel, which is being interpreted God with us?' Why again, if the Word was not in the flesh, did Paul write to the Romans 'of whom is Christ after the flesh, Who is above all God blessed for ever. Amen?' Let them therefore confess, even they who previously denied that the Crucified was God, that they have erred; for the divine Scriptures bid them, and especially Thomas, who, after seeing upon Him the print of the nails, cried out 'My Lord and my God!' For the Son, being God, and Lord of glory, was in the Body which was ingloriously nailed and dishonoured; but the Body, while it suffered, being pierced on the tree, and water and blood flowed from its side, yet because it was a temple of the Word was filled full of the Godhead. For this reason it was that the sun, seeing its creator suffering in His outraged body, withdrew its rays and darkened the earth. But the body itself being of mortal nature, beyond its own nature rose again by reason of the Word which was in it; and it has ceased from natural corruption, and, having put on the Word which is above man, has become incorruptible.

11. But with regard to the imagination of some, who say that the Word came upon one particular man, the Son of Mary, just as it came upon each of the Prophets, it is superfluous to discuss it, since their madness carries its own condemnation manifestly with it. For if He came thus, why was that man born of a virgin, and not like others of a man and woman? For in this way each of the saints also was begotten. Or why, if the Word came thus, is not the death of each one said to have taken place on our behalf, but only this man's death? Or why, if the Word sojourned among us in the case of each one of the prophets, is it said only in the case of Him born of Mary that He sojourned here 'once at the consummation of the ages?' Or why, if He came as He had come in the saints of former times, did the Son of Mary alone, while all the rest had died without rising as yet, rise again on the third day? Or why, if the Word had come in like manner as He had done in the other cases, is the Son of Mary alone called Emmanuel, as though a Body filled full of the Godhead were born of her? For Emmanuel is interpreted 'God with us.' Or why, if He came thus, is it not said that when each of the saints ate, drank, laboured, and died, that He (the Word) ate, drank, laboured, and died, but only in the case of the Son of Mary. For what that Body suffered is said to have been suffered by the Word. And while we are merely told of the others that they were born, and begotten, it is said in the case of the Son of Mary alone that 'The Word was made Flesh.'

12. This proves that while to all the others the Word came, in order that they might prophesy, from Mary the Word Himself took flesh, and proceeded forth as man; being by nature and essence the Word of God, but after the flesh man of the seed of David, and made of the flesh of Mary, as Paul said. Him the Father pointed out both in Jordan and on the Mount, saying, 'This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.' Him the Arians denied, but we recognising worship, not dividing the Son and the Word, but knowing that the Son is the Word Himself, by Whom all things are made, and by Whom we were redeemed. And for this reason we wonder how any contention at all has arisen among you about things so clear. But thanks to the Lord, much as we were grieved at reading your memoranda, we were equally glad at their conclusion. For they departed with concord, and peacefully agreed in the confession of the pious and orthodox faith. This fact has induced me, after much previous consideration, to write these few words; for I am anxious lest by my silence this matter should cause pain rather than joy to those whose concord occasions joy to ourselves. I therefore ask your piety in the first place, and secondly those who hear, to take my letter in good part, and if anything is lacking in it in respect of piety, to set that right, and inform me. But if it is written, as from one unpractised in speech, below the subject and imperfectly, let all allow for my feebleness in speaking. Greet all the brethren with you. All those with us greet you; may you live in good health in the Lord, beloved and truly longed for.

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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