Written a.d. 356.
This letter was addressed by St. Athanasius to the bishops of his Province after his expulsion by Syrianus (Feb. 8, 356), and when the nomination of George the contractor to the Alexandrian See was already known (§7). But no details of the persecution of the orthodox in Egypt had reached Athanasius when he wrote, in fact he mentions it as only beginning (§5). This points to about the Easter of 356; see Prolegg. ch. ii. §8 (1). The tract thus opens the series of anti-Arian works composed during the `third exile.' It has indeed been inferred (by Baronius and others) from §22 that the letter was written thirty-six years after the Nicene Synod, i.e. in 361. But it was certainly written before the arrival of George, and in the passage referred to it is the first condemnation of Arius by Alexander, and not the Council of Nicaea, that is placed thirty-six years ago. The primary purpose of the letter is to warn the bishops against a formulary which was on the point of being circulated for their acceptance on pain of banishment (§5). The creed in question cannot now be identified,-but it was very possibly the Sirmian Creed of 351 (de Synod. 27), not formally Arian, but evading the Nicene test (§10). He begins, accordingly, after a general warning (1-4) against being imposed upon by mere words, and a statement (5) of the tactics of his opponents, by urging the bishops to hold to the faith of Nicaea, in contrast to the shifting professions of its opponents (6-8), and to be satisfied with nothing short of an explicit repudiation of Arianism (9-11). In the Second Part of the Letter he turns to doctrine. He states (12) the original Arian position, and confronts it (13) with passages from Scripture. He challenges the Arians (14) to state any clear belief as to the nature of the Word, which shall reconcile their premises with the language of Holy Writ (15, 16). He explains Prov. viii. 22 of the Incarnation, and taxes the Arians with denying this truth, like the heathen (17). He next taxes them with dissimulation, especially Arius in his profession to Constantine (18); he describes the death of Arius, and presses the charge of complicity with a man already judged by God (19). He urges the bishops (20, 21) to steadfastness and confessorship, reprobates the coalition of Meletians (22) and Arians, and finally expresses the conviction (23) that the Emperor Constantius will put an end to these outrages when informed of the true facts of the case.
The last section is an anticipation of the Apol. ad Constantium, which Athanasius was probably preparing at the same time. Not till two years later does he cast aside all hope of the Emperor and launch out in the bitter invective of the `Arian History' (see Apol. pro Fuga 26, note 7).
The place where this Encyclical was written is quite uncertain, but it was most probably in the Libyan desert, or in Cyrenaica (Prolegg. ubi supr. note 10). His language (infr. §5, note 7) would naturally be such as not to give, through so public a document, a clue to his pursuers.
It may be added that in many mss., and in the editions previous to 1698, this tract was counted as the first of the `five' (or in some cases `six') Orationes contra Arianos. For a discussion of this error, see Montfaucon's Monita to this tract and to the four Orationes.