ATHENAGORAS OF ATHENS (’Αθηναγορ ας)—a philosopher and Christian apologists of the second century AD.
Early historians regarded him as an Athenian by birth and a Platonist who converted to Christianity, went to Alexandria, and established the prototype of the renowned Christian Academy (the Alexandrian School).
In his chief work Πρεσβεια περι Χριστιανων (Presbeia peri Christianon] from the year 177 (Plea for Christians), he used neo-Platonic concepts to interpret faith, and he presented Greek and Roman culture as valuable in Christian life. He dedicated the work to Marcus Aurelius in the form of a response to three accusations: atheism (that Christians did not believe in the pagan gods); cannibalism (that Christians ate children during their feasts), and incest. These accusations had been directed against the Jews in ancient times and later shifted to the Christians. Athenagoras appealed to Greek and Roman rationality and demanded the rights for Christians that others enjoyed.
Athenagoras answered the accusation of atheism saying that Christians worship God in an unbloody manner. They worship the perfect and eternal divinity, and the trinitarian self-revelation of the divinity is not polytheistic. Athenagoras presented the first rational apology for God’s simultaneous unity and trinity by showing the plurality of persons in one nature and power. According to Athenagoras, the philosophers come close to God by reasoning, while the Christians derive their knowledge of God from the Sacred Scriptures. This is a perfect and pure knowledge and it exceeds all the doctrines of the philosophers. Athenagoras thought that in certain questions there are nevertheless points of agreement between the doctrines of the philosophers and Christian Revelation, e.g., in the case of monotheism in Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, as well as among the Christians. He also searched for harmony in relations between Church and state. According to Athenagoras, these forms of monotheism are very different. Greek monotheism was more a supposition or postulate of philosophical reason, but it was not as resolute and clear as Christian monotheism. The Greeks were powerless to learn more about God because God himself must reveal himself. In their knowledge, Christians rely on the Word of God. This does not prevent them from attempting to ponder the meaning of the faith, but the faith itself does not require this, nor does it need to be confirmed by philosophical arguments. This principle became the foundation of the later scholastic theology. Athenagoras showed how the principle was used in his attempt to prove God’s unity. According to Athenagoras, God is eternal, uncreated, and invisible. He created and adorned the universe, and he rules it through the Word, his Son (Presbeia 10, 1f.) According to Athenagoras’ image, Divine Providence shapes pre-existing matter, but this matter has been created and it is destructible. God must therefore be separate from matter. Athenagoras’ proof indirectly locates God in space, which conflicted with God’s spirituality: “If the world is spherical and if the Creator is beyond the world, where could another god be found? Neither in this world, for it belongs to its Creator, nor beside the world, for the same reason. Could another god reside beside another world? But the first God holds everything. It is therefore clear, the a god who can never be anywhere or who could do nothing quite simply cannot exist” (ibid., 8).
Athenagoras presents the moral principles of Christians. These principles forbid evil thoughts, bigamy, divorce, abortion, and watching gladiators fight. They command obedience to civil authority and are directed at the life to come. With these remarks he counters the accusations of sexual immorality and cannibalism. Christians believe in the resurrection of the body and cannot eat what will someday return to life.
Another work by Athenagoras, the treatise Περι ’αναστασεως νεκρων [Peri anastaseos nekron] (On the resurrection of the dead), is mentioned at the end of the Presbeia. In the work Athenagoras rejects the Platonic view that the body is a prison for the soul and he emphasizes man’ spiritual-corporeal unity.
Athenagoras tried to provide a rational justification for faith in the resurrection. The raising of the dead is not in conflict with God’s knowledge, power, or justice. The resurrection is in essence a logical necessity because it follows from the idea of natural immortality: man was created for eternal life, and a rational being is destined to last eternally. God, who called the rational being into existence, always acts reasonably and with purpose. God did not create man for himself because he lacks nothing, nor for the sake of anything else. A rational being can be only an end unto himself, but not an end for the sake of some other being (On the resurrection, 12). There are only two rational reasons for calling man into being: God’s wisdom and goodness, and the eternal existence of a being capable of rationally knowing these attributes of God: “Whatever has been created for the sake of something else, if that other thing were to cease to exist, would itself obediently cease to exist in view of that for which it was created […] while that which was created for the purpose of existing and living the life proper to its nature, because the very cause is joined with this nature and can be known only in connection with existence itself, can never be subject to a cause that completely destroys its existence” (ibid., 15). He who created man can also restore his life after he dies (ibid., 3). Composition of body and soul belongs to man’s nature. The end that God assigned to man cannot be achieved without the body. Furthermore, the end is unattainable on earth, hence a future life is necessary in which the full man must participate. Furthermore, since satisfaction must be made for the faults of the present in a future life, the body must participate in this. Happiness, which is man’s destiny, is impossible to attain upon the earth.
Athenagoras emphasized that God did not create souls, but men, that is, beings composed of souls and bodies. We should not speak of the purpose of the soul, but of the purpose of man. It is not the soul which receives intelligence and reason, but man. In order that the reason may continue to exist, man necessarily, in keeping with nature, must continue to exist. The human reason could not exist as human if there were no resurrection (ibid., 18).
The treatise On the resurrection is important because it shows that it is possible to confirm the truths of faith with philosophical arguments. Athenagoras showed that the whole man, not the soul alone, is the basic concern of Christianity, hence Christian philosophy cannot be a form of spiritualism. Athenagoras’ thoughts had a great influence on the views of theologians in the thirteenth century and persuaded them to replace Platonistic doctrines of the soul with the Aristotelian conception of the soul as the form of the body.
F. Schubring, Die Philosophie des Athenagoras, B 1882; L. Richter, Philosophisches in der Gottes- und Logoslehre des Apologeten Athenagoras aus Athen, Meissen 1905; J. Geffcken, Zwei griechische Apologeten, L 1907; H. A. Lucks, The Philosophy of Athenagoras, Wa 1936; Gilson, HFS 19–21, 498–499; J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, NY 1959, 19602 (Początki doktryny chrześciańskiej [Beginnings of Christian doctrine], Wwa 1988); B. Altaner, A. Stuiber, Patrologie, Fr 19667 (Patrologia [Patrology] Wwa 1988); L. W. Barnard, Athenagoras. A Study in Second Century Christian Apologetic, P 1972; F. Drączkowski, Patrologia, Lb 1999.