Commemoration of the Twelve Holy Doctors – Saints, Hierotheus of Athens, Dionysius of Areopagite, Silverst of Rome, Athanasius of Alexandria, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ephraem the Syrian, Vasil (Barsegh) of Caesaria, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory the Theologian, Epiphanius of Cyprus, John Chrysostom and Cyril of Alexandria
The Twelve Archimandrite (Holy Doctors) or Church Fathers have been famous for leading a pious and devote life and are considered to be the Fathers of the Universal Church.
Christian Doctors of the Church, the ultimate vartabeds, are a rare breed of scholar, theologian and champion of the faith in Jesus Christ. The Catholic Church, which is the most systematic about this designation, reserves the title for those who made a significant contribution to the worshipful, spiritual doctrine of the Church (theology). Only thirty six people in the history of Christianity are recognised by the Catholic Church as Doctors of the Church. As with many other things, the Armenian Apostolic Church is less codified in these matters. For the Armenian Church, someone is a saint if they are recognised liturgically as a saint. This means, if we recall their names during the Divine Liturgy or in another liturgical context, we should consider them as saintly sources for our lives. Throughout the year, there are several commemorations of Doctors of the Church, either individually or in groups. The largest grouping of such vartabeds is celebrated by the Armenian Church as the Commemoration of the Twelve Holy Doctors (Archimandrite) of the Church.
Among these “Twelve Holy Doctors of the Church” is St Athanasius, who was the Patriarch of Alexandria, one of the major early sees of the Christian Church. He lived between 296 or 298 and 373, and is largely known today for his forceful defense of Nicaean Christianity against Arianism, On the Incarnation. This text is his most renowned defense of the divinity of Christ and an important document in the development of Christology, the branch of theological thinking concerned with the question, “Who exactly is Jesus Christ?” Armenians, in their Miaphysite Christology that differed in certain important ways from the doctrine expressed at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, took many of their cues from St Cyril of Alexandria, a later Patriarch of the same see. His famous doctrine of “One Incarnate nature of the God Logos” has been central to the Armenian conception of Jesus Christ. Yet the earlier Athanasian defense of Christ’s divinity has also been important. Sometimes, Armenian writers appealed to St Athanasius to support the orthodoxy of their position, even when the exact words of Athanasius are not found in his extant writings.
The Seal of Faith, a crucial early source of Armenian Christianity, which collected quotes from many of the fathers, compiled in the seventh century, contains a version of the “Letter to Epictetus,” which seems dependent on an earlier translation. In other words, while it is reasonable to assume that all of these translations of Athanasius into Armenian were completed by the ninth century and some were completed by the end of the sixth century, it is difficult to pin down when and where the translations of Athanasius were done.
Though this is a scholarly problem, it has important implications for the Armenian Christian tradition. First, St Athanasius is one of the major doctors of the Church, universally recognised by all ancient Christian churches as a major defender of the faith. The Armenian Church’s reception of and understanding of Athanasius has consequences for much of the development of Armenian theological thinking, especially around Christological questions. At another level, The Life of St. Anthony, another important text of Athanasius’ penned in praise of the great father of Egyptian desert monasticism, was influential for Armenian spirituality and monastic development. Finally, if Athanasius has been mobilised in partisan Christological debates, then understanding his transmission in Armenian is crucial to meaningful ecumenical dialogue today. As one of the great defenders of Christian orthodoxy, St Athanasius is an indispensable source for Armenian Christianity.