Wednesday, May 2, 2012

St. Athanasius and Blessed John Henry Newman

On this feast of St. Athanasius, the great defender of orthodoxy against the Arians, I can't help but recall his influence on Blessed John Henry Newman.

The University of Notre Dame Press published his book, The Arians of the Fourth Century in its series of Newman's works for the Birmingham Oratory:

The Arians of the Fourth Century was a revolutionary contribution to church history, challenging many of the assumptions of earlier Anglican scholars. John Henry Newman’s account of the great struggle over Christian doctrine in the fourth century shows the first signs of his later views on development. It was also in many ways a “tract for the times”—a warning to the Anglican Church of the 1830s of the dangers of state interference in religious debate and of the need for theologically educated leadership.
This book is taken from Newman’s 1871 revision of the text. It contains some additional material and a fuller apparatus of references. This present edition also includes an introduction and notes which attempt to put the work into its context in the nineteenth century Church, but also to explain how scholarship has altered our view of the subject matter. The Arians of the Fourth Century remains a startlingly original essay on the methods of intellectual history within the Christian church, and a powerful statement by Newman of a vision of the church that is not yet fully in tune with Roman Catholic teaching, yet is also at odds with much of the traditional theology of the Church of England.

This site, a blog for the Rare Books and Special Collections Department of the Catholic University of America, Washington, DC, features a post on three volumes of the works of St. Athanasius which Blessed John Henry Newman had owned:

These massive volumes were already more than a century old when Newman acquired them. They contain the 1698 Paris printing, in Greek and Latin, of the works of Saint Athanasius, edited by Bernard de Montfaucon (1655-1741) a member of the Benedictine congregation of St. Maur. In the 17th century the Maurists were a center of intense scholarly and literary activity. Montfaucon was a prolific scholar best remembered for editions of the Church Fathers such as this one, and for his ground-breaking work in the field of Greek paleography.

Newman, of course, would have known all that, as his own scholarship often focused on Saint Athanasius, the 4th-century bishop of Alexandria, generally regarded as the most important of the Greek Fathers. Newman published translations of Athanasius’ writings in 1843 and again in the 1880s. But beyond his scholarly interest, Newman felt a more personal connection to the Egyptian bishop, and mentions him many times in his letters and publications. The controversies of Athanasius’ day mirrored to some extent those of Newman’s. As the outspoken opponent of Arianism, and the author of important theological treatises on the nature of Christ, Athanasius endured false accusations from his own clergy and lengthy periods of exile from his diocese. Newman also suffered for his convictions; after his conversion he was shunned by many of his Anglican friends and family, and was scarcely treated better by Catholics who too often viewed his conversion with suspicion or merely exploited his celebrity status.

The writings of Athanasius and other Church Fathers were to prove the greatest inducement to Newman’s conversion. His decision to become a Catholic was formed, over many years, from careful study of the Church Fathers and reading of church history, and hardly at all from the influence of contemporary Roman Catholics. As an Anglican clergyman, Newman had minimal contact with Catholics prior to his conversion, but books provided the vehicle for his intellectual journey towards the Roman Church, and books were central to his life thereafter. Concerned about the Anglican bishops’ hostility to his published tracts, he joked about a possible eviction from Littlemore: “Where am I to stow all my books?” he asks in a letter to J. R. Hope (Dec. 23, 1841). Judging by his room in the Birmingham Oratory, this would have been a perennial worry.

Of course, you may find Newman's Arians and his translations of St. Athanasius on the wonderful Newman Reader site, but like Newman himself, I love "all my books"! One book I love, which is now available in a new translation, is St. Athanasius' On the Incarnation, from SVS Press, with a classic introduction by C.S. Lewis!

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