Was Athanasius a universalist?

When it comes to patristic universalists, everyone points to Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, and some folk point to various precursors and followers of Origen, but not many people seek to enlist St. Athanasius (d. 373). However, in her recent 900-page volume on apokatastasis, Ilaria Ramelli makes a pretty strong case that Athanasius was indeed a universalist.

She notes that he was a supporter and defender both of Origen and of certain of Origen's followers, including Palladius, Theognostus, and St. Anthony. She further demonstrates that Athanasius absorbed a range of theological and exegetical insights from Origen.

Consequently, one should perhaps not be surprised if it turned out that Origen's universalism was also taken on board by the great Anti-Arian saint. And so it appears. Ramelli surveys a range of texts in which Athanasius sees:

  • Christ's incarnation as having a salvific effect on all humanity 
  • Christ death for all as resulting in the salvation of all
  • That what God has called into existence should not perish (on the grounds that then God's work for it would be in vain)
For instance, [all refs in the book]
Flesh was taken up by the Logos to liberate all humans and resurrect all of them from the dead and ransom all of them from sin. 
The Logos became a human being for the sake of our salvation . . . in order to set free all beings in himself, to lead the cosmos to the Father and to pacify all beings in himself, in heaven and on earth.
. . . in himself he has liberated humanity from sin, completely and entirely, and has vivified it from the state of death . . . 
he delivered his own body to death on behalf of all . . . in order bring again to incorruptibility the human beings now doomed to corruption 
That corruption may disappear from all forever, thanks to the resurrection. . . . He has paid for all, in death, all that was owed. . . . He set right their neglectfulness, having rectified all human things by means of his power. 
Creatures, which are his work, should not be reduced to nothing by the deception of the devil. 
[Christ], who through his own power has restored the whole human nature
He handed his own body to death for the sake of all . . . in order to drive back to incorruptibility . . . human beings.
[Christ] has redeemed from death and liberated from hell all humanity.
He died for all . . . to abolish death with his blood . . . he has gained the whole humanity. 
the totality of the people has entered, so that every human be saved. 
He offered the sacrifice for all.
Our Saviour's death has liberated the world. By his wounds all of us have been healed
[In the cross there is] salvation of all humans in all places 
I am most certainly not an Athanasius scholar, but it certainly looks universalist! And given his Origenist sympathies, we'd need some good reasons to think it was not.

Now Athanasius did speak of the eschatological punishment of aionial fire. Presumably this is why people assume that he could not have been a universalist. However, Ramelli argues that Athanasius' use of this concept follows that of Origen. In other words, she argues that he makes a clear distinction between aidios (eternal) and aionios (age-long, or belonging to an age). Thus, future punishment is never spoken of as aidios (eternal), but only ever as aionios (belonging to the age to come). 

She further shows that—like Clement, Origen, and others—Athanasius had a notion of corrective punishment in the age to come. After citing the threat of eternal fire he reveals that its aim is "that these may revive, and those may correct themselves." Those who have been cursed by the Lord can have his mercy and will be inserted anew once they have abandoned their incredulity.

If Athanasius was indeed a universalist, this is not insignificant. It is easy in some quarters to dismiss Origen (often on the basis of misunderstanding him), but one cannot so easily dismiss Athanasius, the great defender of Nicene orthodoxy and the arch-opponent of Arius. If Ramelli is right, then universalism was not as marginal and fringe as it is sometimes claimed. 


Juan C. Torres said…
Wow! This is indeed not insignificant!! I am going to save up to buy this book you've quoted. I've heard great things about it.

Thank you for sharing this great post:)
Tom N. said…
Thanks Robin,
This is so helpful. I'm so grateful to you for sharing from the 900 page tome!
Is there any more news on a "pop" version of Ramelli's book?
Robin Parry said…
I am not sure when she'll finish the pop version. She is very busy. I have read a draft of it, but she was going to be making a lot of changes to the draft. I'm not sure where she is up to. I see her later this month. I will try to remember to ask.
Jason Pratt said…
More significant information: in his office as bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius was responsible for appointing the young super-genius Didymus the Blind as president of the oldest and most prestigious orthodox Christian catechetical seminary at Alexandria. (At the time there were only two such institutions, and the other one in Caesarea Palestine had been started by Origen while in exile for ecclesiastic irregularities. He died as a confessor there, tortured for the faith.)

It's hard to underestimate the importance of this position: the presidents taught the teachers who taught new Christians proper belief and practice, and took worldwide lead in combating heresy. (Not with the authority of the Inquisition, of course, but something like the modern Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.) Didymus held the presidency throughout most of the 4th century, during the Arian resurgence which saw Athanasius repeatedly banished, and effectively led the orthodox defense until the rise of the Cappadochian fathers (including Gregory Nyssa) and the Antioch school (including Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia).

He was also a flagrantly obvious trinitarian Christian universalist. So Athanasius at the very least couldn't have had too bad an opinion of the orthodoxy of such a belief!

(But like Dr. Ramelli argues, and others before her, there's strong evidence directly from Ath's work, too.)

Robin Parry said…

That is very interesting. Thanks.

Unknown said…
universal salvation does not equal Universalism
Jason Pratt said…
Well, strictly speaking any status that could apply to all of a set, could be described as "universalism"; but the term would be so broad as to be useless. For example, "All ideas are equally true." Or "All religious ideas or religions or philosophies are equally true."

Any proposition of something that will happen to all people could also be described as "universalism"; but that's still pretty broad. "All created persons are created by God," for example.

Any proposition of the final fate of all people would narrow it down further but still be so broad as to be talking about quite different thing. "In the long run, everyone's dead" would be atheistic universalism in that sense. "Everyone is God" or "Everyone will cease to exist as distinct persons and be reabsorbed back into the divine monad" (or words to that effect) would be pantheistic universalism.

N. T. Wright once many years ago in a famous paper took a a stab at claiming the term "universalism", or "Christian universalism", for an Arminianistic soteriology: God acts toward saving all sinners from sin. He certainly distinguished that position from universal salvation, of course; but he was pretty blunt about trying to say that idea was the most true idea of Christian universalism compared to the idea that God originally and persistently acts toward saving all sinners from sin until He gets it done. He knew what idea he was opposing which was called "universalism" in other words.

On a somewhat different and much older note, "Catholicism" is pretty much Greek for "universalism" but refers to the universal church not to soteriology.

So yes, "universalism" doesn't have to mean "universal salvation". But those Christians who believe universal salvation to be true have at least as much claim on the term (or on "Christian universalism" anyway) as anyone else.

That being said, I do try to be as particular as possible about what I mean and don't mean by it; which is why I'll talk about "salvation from sin" and "trinitarian Christian universalism".

Robin Parry said…

I would be interested to hear you explain your thinking here. It could be interpreted in different ways.

I know some who make this claim because universalism can come in forms that do not require universal salvation (e.g., one can be a universalist in the sense that you think that God will save some of all types of people).

I know others who make your claim because they think that "universal-ism" sounds like some kind of system that God has to confirm to. So even though they think that God will (or may) save all, they do not speak of this as an "ism" because they fear what they see as the connotations or implications of the term.

Are you getting at one of these ideas or at something else?

James Moriarty said…

I dig this article and am still holding out hope that we can get you to Central California!!

Your friend,
James Moriarty
RDM said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
RDM said…
I was just innocently reading 'On the Incarnation' earlier today, and in just a couple of paragraphs into chapter two, it was overwhelming obvious that he was espousing universalism. What a treat to discover another Early Church Father articulating such wonderful Orthodox truth!
And thanks for this brief survey. I found it after googling to see if my suspicions were or could be true!
Robin Parry said…
Thanks RDM,

You may enjoy this interview I did on universalism in the early chirch with the leading expert on that topic, Ilaria Ramelli.

RDM said…
What a great interview. Thanks for the link. I'm so pleased a shorter version of her humongous book is coming out.
Kuudere-Kun said…
Does Ilaria Ramelli talk about Ignatius or Theophilus of Antioch?

The school of Antioch is what most interests me personally. So I'd like to find solid evidence Universal Salvation was already supported there before Origen.
Robin Parry said…

She talks about everyone who said anything remotely linked with apocatastasis-like ideas.

Anonymous said…
Hi Robin, how do you reconcile Athanasius of Alexandria being the author of the Athanasian Creed and what it states at the end...... he sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from whence he will come to judge the living and the dead. At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies; And shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire. This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe truly and firmly, he cannot be saved.

All the other Creeds do not mention eternal punishment and this appears to be how the Roman Catholic church started to control it's parishioners also - as it has anathemas. It does appear that the RC church hardly uses it anymore. Regards from OZ.
Kuudere-Kun said…
Scholars pretty firmly agree Athanasius did NOT write the Athanasian Creed, for one thing it is clearly a Latin work and Athanasius wrote in Greek.
Robin Parry said…
Anonymous, Jared is correct. Scholars agree that Athanasius had nothing to do with the Athanasian Creed. He is not its author. It is presumably named after him because it is so strongly anti-Arian, as he was.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for those clarifications. God Bless.
Unknown said…
Scholars have ways to support their arguments. Did the Church hide the universalism of
St Athanasius? One may observe that the Saint never raised the name of Origen or universalism
at Nicea. How strange that this fundamental soteriology should not be mentioned in the
Creed. The proponents of universalism usually forget the relation between the Cross and the devil? Do you understand? St Athanasius does. Why is it that Origen is not a Saint and St Athanasius is.
Kuudere-Kun said…
To my Unkown I point that Soteorlogy was not the issue being discussed at that or any other council.
Anonymous said…
It would be helpful to give the citations for your quotes. I've been trying to find them, and I can't. I can only assume they're paraphrases, or worse. I'd love to use this stuff, but as it stands, it's just a "he said she said" situation.
Kuudere-Kun said…
So I have recently found that Athanasius uses the phrase "Salvation of all" 8 times in "On The Incarnation of The Word.


Popular Posts