|Fr. George Florovsky|
The situation did not change in the Fourth century. The dispute with the Arians was centered again in the exegetical field — at least, in its early phase. The Arians and their supporters have produced an impressive array of Scriptural texts in the defense of their doctrinal position. They wanted to restrict theological discussion to the Biblical ground alone. Their claims had to be met precisely on this ground, first of all. And their exegetical method, the manner in which they handled the text, was much the same as that of the earlier dissenters. They were operating with selected proof-texts, without much concern for the total context of the Revelation. It was imperative for the Orthodox to appeal to the mind of the Church, to that "Faith" which had been once delivered and then faithfully kept. This was the main concern, and the usual method, of St. Athanasius. The Arians quoted various passages from the Scripture to substantiate their contention that the Saviour was a creature. In reply St. Athanasius invoked the "rule of faith." This was his usual argument. "Let us, who possess τον σκοπον της πιστεως [the scope of faith], restore the correct meaning (ορθην την διανοιαν) of what they had wrongly interpreted" (c. Arian. III. 35). St. Athanasius contended that the "correct" interpretation of particular texts was only possible in the total perspective of faith. "What they now allege from the Gospels they explain in an unsound sense, as we may discover if we take in consideration τον σκοπον της καθ ημας τους Χριστιανοθς πιοτεως [the scope of the faith according to us Christians], and read the Scripture using it (τον σκοπον, ton skopon) as the rule— ωσπερ κανονι χρησαμενοι" (III. 28) On the other hand, close attention must be given also to the immediate context and setting of every particular phrase and expression, and the exact intention of the writer must be carefully identified (I. 54). Writing to Bishop Serapion, on the Holy Spirit, St. Athanasius contends again that Arians ignored or missed "the scope of the Divine Scripture" (ad Serap., II. 7; cf. ad episc. Eg., 4). The (σκοπος) skopos was, in the language of St. Athanasius, a close equivalent of what St. Irenaeus used to denote as (υποθεσις) ipothesis — the underlying "idea," the true design, the intended meaning (See Guido Müller, Lexicon Athanasianum, sub voce: id quod quis docendo, scribendo, credendo intendit). On the other hand, the word σκοπος skopos was a habitual term in the exegetical language of certain philosophical schools, especially in Neoplatonism. Exegesis played a great role in the philosophical endeavor of that time, and the question of hermeneutical principle had to be raised. Jamblichos was, for one, quite formal at this point. One had to discover the "main point," or the basic theme, of the whole treatise under examination, and to keep it all time in mind [See Karl Prächter, Richtungen und Schulen im Neuplatonismus, in "Genethalikon" (Carl Roberts zum 8. März 1910), (Berlin, 1910). Prächter translates skopos as Zielpunkt or Grundthema (s. 128 f.). He characterizes the method of Jamblichos as an "universalistische Exegese" (138). Proclus, in his Commentary on Timaeus, contrasts Porphyry and Jamblichos: Porphyry interpreted texts merikoteron, while Jamblichos did it epoptikoteron, that is in a comprehensive or syntretic manner: in Tim. I, pp. 204, 24 ff., quoted by Prächter, s. 136.). St. Athanasius could well be acquainted with the technical use of the term. It was misleading, he contended, to quote isolated texts and passages, disregarding the total intent of the Holy Writ. It is obviously inaccurate to interpret the term (σκοπος) skopos in the idiom of St. Athanasius as "the general drift" of the Scripture. The "scope" of the faith, or of the Scripture, is precisely their credal core, which is condensed in the "rule of faith," as it had been maintained in the Church and "transmitted from fathers to fathers," while the Arians had "no fathers" for their opinions (de decr., 27). As Cardinal Newman has rightly observed, St. Athanasius regarded the "rule of faith" as an ultimate "principle of interpretation," opposing the "ecclesiastical sense" (την εκκλησιαστικην διανοιαν, c. Arian. I. 44) to "private opinions" of the heretics [Select Treatises of St. Athanasius, freely translated by J. H. Cardinal Newman, Vol. II (Eighth impression, 1900), pp. 250-252]. Time and again, in his scrutiny of the Arian arguments, St. Athanasius would summarize the basic tenets of the Christian faith, before going into the actual re-examination of the alleged proof-texts, in order to restore texts into their proper perspective. H. E. W. Turner has described this exegetical manner of St. Athanasius:
Against the favorite Arian technique of pressing the grammatical meaning of a text without regard either to the immediate context or to the wider frame of reference in the teaching of the Bible as a whole, he urges the need to take the general drift of the Church’s Faith as a Canon of interpretation. The Arians are blind to the wide sweep of Biblical theology and therefore fail to take into sufficient account the context in which their proof-texts are set. The sense of Scripture must itself be taken as Scripture. This has been taken as a virtual abandonment of the appeal to Scripture and its replacement by an argument from Tradition. Certainly in less careful hands it might lead to the imposition of a strait-jacket upon the Bible as the dogmatism of Arian and Gnostic had attempted to do. But this was certainly not the intention of St. Athanasius himself. For him it represents an appeal from exegesis drunk to exegesis sober, from a myopic insistence upon the grammatical letter to the meaning of intention (σκοπος skopos, χαρακτηρ haraktir) of the Bible" (H.E.W. Turner, The Pattern of Christian Truth, London, 1954, pp. 193-194).
It seems, however, that Professor Turner exaggerated the danger. The argument was still strictly scriptural, and, in principle, St. Athanasius admitted the sufficiency of the Scripture, sacred and inspired, for the defense of truth (c. Gentes, I). Only Scripture had to be interpreted in the context of the living credal tradition, under the guidance or control of the "rule of faith." This "rule," however, was in no sense an "extraneous" authority which could be "imposed" on the Holy Writ. It was the same "Apostolic preaching," which was written down in the books of the New Testament, but it was, as it were, this preaching in epitome. St. Athanasius writes to Bishop Serapion: "Let us look at that very tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church from the very beginning, which the Lord gave (εδωκεν), the Apostles preached (εκηρυξαν), and the Fathers preserved (εφυλαξαν). Upon this the Church is founded" (ad Serap., I. 28). The passage is highly characteristic of St. Athanasius. The three terms in the phrase actually coincide: (παραδοσις) paradosis [tradition] — from Christ himself, (διδασκαλια) didaskalia [teaching] — by the Apostles, and (πιστις) pistis [faith] — of the Catholic Church. And this is the foundation (θεμελιον, themelion) of the Church — a sole and single foundation. Scripture itself seems to be subsumed and included in this "Tradition," coming, as it is, from the Lord. In the concluding chapter of his first epistle to Serapion St. Athanasius returns once more to the same point. "In accordance with the Apostolic faith delivered to us by tradition from the Fathers, I have delivered the tradition, without inventing anything extraneous to it. What I learned, that have I inscribed (ενεχαραξα, eneharaksa), conformably with the Holy Scriptures" (c. 33). On an occasion St. Athanasius denoted the Scripture itself as an Apostolic paradosis (ad Adelph., 6). It is characteristic that in the whole discussion with the Arians no single reference was made to any "traditions" — in plural. The only term of reference was always "Tradition," — indeed, the Tradition, the Apostolic Tradition, comprising the total and integral content of the Apostolic "preaching," and summarized in the "rule of faith." The unity and solidarity of this Tradition was the main and crucial point in the whole argument.