A Letter of Athanasius to Bishop Serapion Concerning the Holy Spirit (A Critical Reading)

 

 

 

INTRODUCTION

I have no pretensions that this paper will be an exhaustive and detailed critical evaluation and reaction to the letter of St. Athanasius to Bishop Serapion concerning the Holy Spirit.

I personally and rationally wish, however, that this will help me in my incessant struggle to know and understand the Holy Spirit and eventually later on be able also to argue and defend the divine existence of this often forgotten person of the Blessed Trinity.

Sad to say that nowadays, many are neglecting to recognize the primordial and indispensable role of the Holy Spirit in their life. They assert that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are only for persons who are called to holiness, hence are unnecessary. I further aim that this critical reading about the letter of St. Athanasius will bring light and comfort to persons who are tempted to be discouraged and turn away from God’s call to holiness which the Holy Spirit’s role is very indispensable. The Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, asserted that the Holy Spirit is always necessary in order that a person can attain his supernatural end. “No one can say: ‘Lord, Jesus,’ except in the Holy Spirit” according to St. Paul.

Hence I want to resolve two questions that will hopefully end to my main objective above.

The first question is, “How did Athanasius struggle to write and make his point as he argued about the divinity of the Holy Spirit?”

Secondly, I want to deal with his sources. And so I ask, “What are the sources of Athanasius to support his claim?”

Chapter 1

THE STRUGGLE

Credits are often given towards the end of any venture. Be it in books, movies, in stage plays, concerts, academic courses and many others. But in this paper, I want first to give St. Athanasius credits which he rightly deserves. He’s a good writer. He’s a philosopher. An elite theologian on the Holy Spirit. An excellent biblical scholar. He’s a hermeneutist. A metaphysician. A good logician. An apologist in his own right. An exegete. A brave man. An undeniably impressive and reasonable thinker. I have no doubts or any reservation with all the credits I made of him.

And so, there is even greater reason for me to use the thoughts and teaching of this writer-saint in that nearly all of them seem to me to be inescapably true. Hence, whenever in the course of this article I quote his words, it should be understood that they represent my own beliefs, unless I make definite mention of disagreement or doubt.

Done with credits and praises! Let us then see the struggle of Athanasius as manifested in his letter. We begin to wonder. How was he able to write such an excellent work despite all the difficulties existing like the notorious environment of the desert and its inadequacy of sources and materials or the fear of being slain by the persecutors? Therefore we go to the first question:

“How did Athanasius struggle to write and make his point as he argued about the divinity of the Holy Spirit?”

In the opening sentence of his letter, he mentioned that he was in the desert or wilderness somewhere in Egypt. And he even used this wilderness to protect him from his enemies “who sought to slay us[1].” They were being persecuted by the Arians during that time, middle of 4th century AD.

The desert is a wasteland, barren region, desolate tract, also a phenomenon wherein we pattern our struggle in spiritual dryness. One of the episodes in National Geographic Channel deals with the deadliest animals on earth. Many deadliest animals are found in the desert like snakes and spiders. For additional difficulties aside from those creatures are the scarcity of food and water supply. The burning heat during broad daylight adds furthermore to the difficulties one can encounter in the desert plus the fact of being easily caught. These are some of the environmental and physical phenomena that will bother Athanasius. These are some factors that add to his struggles – the environment.

Psychologically speaking, he must also be bothered by his persecutors – the Arian persecutors. The reality of persecution, therefore, is another reason of his struggle.

Perhaps he is also struggling, in terms of spirituality, in purifying his soul in the desert. He must also be spiritually bothered by the transcendence of the mystery he was trying to expound. Was he also led by the Spirit towards the desert like Jesus to be tempted by the devil? I will absolutely affirm that he was also led by the Holy Spirit just like when Jesus was also led by the Holy Spirit (Mk 4:1-11). Like Jesus, Athanasius became despondent by the temptation and arguments of his opponents – the Arians and especially the Tropici – the two parties who have divided between them the offensive against the truth; …with the one opposing the Son and the other the Spirit, they both maintain the same blasphemy against the holy Triad.[2] Hence, the blasphemies of the Arians and the Tropici but more especially the latter added to the struggle of Athanasius. He said: “…it is not necessary to say anything more in reply to them (the Arians); what has been previously said against them is sufficient. But it is right that in some way we should make careful reply to those who have been deceived about the Spirit.[3]

And lastly, his intellectual disposition falls short of the immensity and transcendence of the issue in question he was trying to expound and defend – the Holy Spirit. He struggled, also therefore, because of his intellectual inadequacy. That is the reason why he humbly tells Serapion “…I write this letter in brief, though I am scarce able to do this much; only that you…  may supply what it lacks in the light of your understanding, and the argument against this unholy heresy may be complete[4].” This statement is a result of the complete awareness of St. Athanasius of the struggles and difficulties he was dealing with.

Chapter 2

THE SOURCES

Readers might wonder why I did not include sources as part of his struggle. A good argument must have reliable, factual, solid and true sources. An argument based on these kinds of sources will enjoy a more persuasive effect. In the case of St. Athanasius, I firmly believe that he did not have trouble as regards the foundation and source of his arguments. At this point the question that I will try to answer about the sources of St. Athanasius is “What are the sources of Athanasius to support his claim?”

St. Athanasius used the books in the Holy Bible as his sources to support his arguments. From here, we can conjecture that he was standing in a reliable, factual, solid and true ground. Why? It is because, plainly speaking these sacred books in the bible are divinely inspired – of course by the Holy Spirit. And secondly, the opponents of St. Athanasius (Arians and Tropici) were using the Bible (Amos 4:13 and Proverbs 8:22) as their bases of their erroneous arguments and claims and so it is just but fitting to combat the Arians and especially the Tropici regarding their cunning and deceptive assault[5] against the Holy Spirit in the same ground and level of arena, the Scriptural Arena.

The Table below shows how intensively St. Athanasius made use of the Bible:

The Pentateuch

Genesis (1:2) (6:3) (7:1) (48:15-16) (1:1) (28:12)

Exodus (33:1-2) (33:15) (33:17-18) (14:31)

Numbers (11:29) (14:24)

Deuteronomy (1:30) (4:26) (32:8)

The Historical Books

Judges (3:10) (11:29) (12:24-25) (15:14)

1 Kings (18:45)

The Wisdom Books

Job (15:15) (14:18) (25:5) (1:6)

Psalms (51:11) (143:10) (77:6) (107:25) (148:7-8) (104:29-30) (51:10) (93:2) (77:20) 78:53) (136:16) (50:4) (65:9) (146:7-8) (14:1) (104:30) (116:11) (139:7) (147:18) (43:3)

Ecclesiastes (7:16) (3:11)

Wisdom (1:5) (12:1)

The Prophetical Books

Isaiah (61:1) (30:1) (48:16) (59:21) (63:9-10) (7:2) (63:11-12) (63:14) (44:8) (48:16)

Jeremiah (2:13) (1:1)

Baruch (3:1) (3:10-12)

Ezekiel (11:24) (27:28) (18:31) (36:26) (18:31-32) (28:12) (10:7)

Daniel (3:36) (7:10) (12:4) (12:13)

Joel (2:28)

Amos (1:3)

Jonah (1:4)

Micah (2:7) (1:1)

Haggai (2:4-5)

Zechariah (1:6) (7:12) (12:1) (1:19) (4:5-6) (1:6)


Gospels

Matthew (12:32) (4:1) (10:20) (12:28) (28:19) (13:41) (13:49) (28:19) (4:11)

Mark (3:29)

John (20:22) (14:25) (15:26) (1:1) (14:26) (20:23) (15:26) (1:9) (1:12) (20:22) (14:23) (14:16-17) (14:10-12) (3:16) (16:17) (17:4) (16:14) (8:26)  (4:14) (7:39) (4:21-24) (14:6)

Luke (4:1) (3:21-22) (1:35) (18:2) (10:18)

 

Acts of the Apostles

Acts of the Apostles (7:51-52) (1:4) (2:1-5) (21:11) (20:28) (8:39) (8:30) (3:15) (1:16) (4:24-25) (28:25) (20:23)

 

New Testament Letters

Romans (8:9-11) (8:16-17) (7:14) (7:6) (7:25- 8:2) (11:33-34) (4:3) (8:15) (16:27) (1:4) (8:29) (3:23) (20:22-23)

1 Corinthians (2:10-12) (3:16) (6:11) (12:11) (3:17) (2:11) (12:13) (10:4) (1:24) (2:4) (2:8) (6:3) (12:4) (2:14)

2 Corinthians (1:3) (3:6) (12:4) (2:15) (13:13) (13:3)

Galatians (3:2) (3:14) (4:6-7) (2:20) (4:19)

Ephesians (4:30) (4:3) (2:15) (4:24) (4:6) (1:17-18) (1:13) (3:16-17)

Philippians (1:18-20) (3:3)

Colossians (1:20)

1 Thessalonians (5:19) (4:8) (5:23)

2 Thessalonians (2:8)

1 Timothy (5:21) (4:13) (6:13) (4:1)

Titus (3:5) (3:10) (3:4-7)

Hebrews (9:8) (10:29) (9:13-14) (10:1) (12:26-28) (1:14) (3:5) (11:6) (1:3) (6:4)

The Catholic Letters

James (1:17)

1 Peter (1:9-11) (4:14) (3:4)

2 Peter (1:4)

Jude (3) (6)

 

St. Athanasius almost covered all the books in the Bible as his reference. He used both the Old Testament and the New Testament. In the OT, he used extensively the Books of Psalms, Prophet Isaiah and Prophet Ezekiel. And in the NT, St. Athanasius considers the Gospel of St John extensively and the works of St. Paul. In fact he considers St. Paul as the Apostle of Grace. The Acts of the Apostles too played significantly as a good reference in the Arguments of St. Athanasius regarding the Holy Spirit.

CONCLUSION AND OBSERVATION

We can conclude that despite the struggles and difficulties – physically, materially, geographically, psychologically, spiritually and intellectually – St. Athanasius was still able to argue that the term spirit alone is different from the Spirit of God or My Spirit or the Spirit of my Father and others. Despite the struggles St. Athanasius was still able to argue that the Holy Spirit is not a mere creature or like the angels differing only in degree from the latter.

We can conclude further from here that the Holy Spirit can be defended just by using the sacred text – the holy Bible. But in arguing from the bible we must be conscious that the Sacred Scripture provides specifically the function of the Holy Spirit and not his nature per se. but then we can still employ the principle that agere siquitur esse.

Michael Schmaus opines that “the Scripture speaks more of the Holy Spirit’s function than of his nature.”[6] This is a good observation about the Holy Spirit as presented in the Bible both Old Testament and New Testament because this will complement the point of St. Athanasius in establishing the Bible as the foundation of his argument. What do I mean here is that, in establishing the argument St. Athanasius he started from the function or operation of the person of the Trinity in question – the Holy Spirit – because by doing so he might as well conclude the Holy Spirit’s nature and essence. Again, this is true because of the principle agere siquitur esse.


[1] C.R.B. Shapland, trans., The Letters of Saint Athanasius Concerning the Holy Spirit, by St. Athanasius (London: The Epworth  Press, 1951), 58.

[2] Shapland, The Letters of Saint Athanasius Concerning the Holy Spirit, 60.

[3] Shapland, The Letters of Saint Athanasius Concerning the Holy Spirit, 61- 62.

[4]Shapland, The Letters of Saint Athanasius Concerning the Holy Spirit, 61.

[5] They, the Tropici, say that this third person of the Trinity is actually not God nor divine but rather just a mere creature.

[6]  Michael Shmaus, Sacramentum Mundi: Concise Edition, ed. Karl Rahner. (Mumbai, India: St. Pauls, 2004), 642.

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