Fathers of the Church
Personal Letter LXI: Letter to Maximus
by Athanasius in 371 | translated by Payne-Smith
To our beloved and most truly longed-for son, Maximus, philosopher, Athanasius greeting in the Lord.
Having read the letter now come from you, I approve your piety: but, marvelling at the rashness of those 'who understand neither what they say nor whereof they confidently affirm,' I had really decided to say nothing. For to reply upon matters which are so plain and which are clearer than light, is simply to give an excuse for shamelessness to such lawless men. And this we have learned from the Saviour. For when Pilate had washed his hands, and acquiesced in the false accusation of the Jews of that day, the Lord answered him no more, but rather warned his wife in a dream, so that He that was being judged might be believed to be God not in word, but in power. While after vouchsafing Caiaphas no reply to his folly, He Himself by his promises brought all over to knowledge. Accordingly for some time I delayed, and have reluctantly yielded to your zeal for the truth, in view of the argumentativeness of men without shame. And I have dictated nothing beyond what your letter contains, in order that the adversary may from henceforth be convinced on the points to which he has objected, and may 'keep his tongue from evil and his lips that they speak no guile(3a).' And would that they would no longer join the Jews who passed by of old in reproaching Him that hung upon the Tree: 'If thou be the Son of God save Thyself.' But if even after this they will not give in, yet do you remember the apostolic injunction, and 'a man that is heretical after a first and second admonition refuse, knowing that such an one is perverted and sinneth being self-condemned.' For if they are Gentiles, or of the Judaisers, who are thus daring, let them, as Jews, think the Cross of Christ a stumbling-block, or as Gentiles, foolishness. But if they pretend to be Christians let them learn that the crucified Christ is at once Lord of Glory, and the Power of God and Wisdom of God.'
2. But if they are in doubt whether He is God at all, let them reverence Thomas, who handled the Crucified and pronounced Him Lord and God. Or let them fear the Lord Himself, who said, after washing the feet of the disciples: 'Ye call Me Lord and Master, and ye say well, for so I am.' But in the same body in which He was when he washed their feet, He also carried up our sins to the Tree. And He was witnessed to as Master of Creation, in that the Sun withdrew his beams and the earth trembled and the rocks were rent, and the executioners recognised that the Crucified was truly Son of God. For the Body they beheld was not that of some man, but of God, being in which, even when being crucified, He raised the dead. Accordingly it is no good venture of theirs to say that the Word of God came into a certain holy man; for this was true of each of the prophets and of the other saints, and on that assumption He would clearly be born and die in the case of each one of them. But this is not so, far be the thought. But once for all 'at the consummation of the ages, to put away sin' 'the Word was made flesh and proceeded forth from Mary the Virgin, Man after our likeness, as also He said to the Jews, 'Wherefore seek ye to kill Me, a man that hath told you the truth?' And we are deified not by partaking of the body of some man, but by receiving the Body of the Word Himself.
3. And at this also I am much surprised, how they have ventured to entertain such an idea as that the Word became man in consequence of His Nature. For if this were so, the commemoration of Mary would be superfluous. For neither does Nature know of a Virgin bearing apart from a man. Whence by the good pleasure of the Father, being true God, and Word and Wisdom of the Father by nature, He became man in the body for our salvation, in order that having somewhat to offer for us He might save us all, 'as many as through fear of death were all their life-time subject to bondage.' For it was not some man that gave Himself up for us; since every man is under sentence of death, according to what was said to all in Adam, 'earth thou art and unto earth thou shall return.' Nor yet was it any other of the creatures, since every creature is liable to change. But the Word Himself offered His own Body on our behalf that our faith and hope might not be in man, but that we might have our faith in God the Word Himself. Why, even now that He is become man we behold His Glory, 'glory as of one only- begotten of His Father—full of grace and truth.' For what He endured by means of the Body, He magnified as God. And while He hungered in the flesh, as God He fed the hungry. And if anyone is offended by reason of the bodily conditions, let him believe by reason of what God works. For humanly He enquires where Lazarus is laid, but raises him up divinely. Let none then laugh, calling Him a child, and citing His age, His growth, His eating, drinking and suffering, lest while denying what is proper for the body, he deny utterly also His sojourn among us. And just as He has not become Man in consequence of His nature, in like manner it was consistent that when He had taken a body He should exhibit what was proper to it, lest the imaginary theory of Manichaeus should prevail. Again it was consistent that when He went about in the body, He should not hide what belonged to the Godhead, lest he of Samosata should find an excuse to call Him man, as distinct in person from God the Word.
4. Let then the unbelievers perceive this, and learn that while as a Babe He lay in a manger, He subjected the Magi and was worshipped by them; and while as a Child He came down to Egypt, He brought to nought the hand- made objects of its idolatry: and crucified in the flesh, He raised the dead long since turned to corruption. And it has been made plain to all that not for His own sake but for ours He underwent all things, that we by His sufferings might put on freedom from suffering and incorruption, and abide unto life eternal.
5. This then I have concisely dictated, following, as I said above, the lines of your own letter, without working out any point any further but only mentioning what relates to the Holy Cross, in order that the despisers may be taught better upon the points where they were offended, and may worship the Crucified. But do you thoroughly persuade the unbelievers; perhaps somehow they may come from ignorance to knowledge, and believe aright. And even though what your own letter contains is sufficient, yet it is as well to have added what I have for the sake of reminder in view of contentious persons; not so much in order that being refuted in their venturesome statements they may be put to shame, as that being reminded they may not forget the truth. For let what was confessed by the Fathers at Nicaea prevail. For it is correct, and enough to overthrow every heresy however impious, and especially that of the Arians which speaks against the Word of God, and as a logical consequence profanes His Holy Spirit. Greet all who hold aright. All that are with us greet you.
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.