The date of this Defence of his Flight must be placed early enough to fall within the lifetime, or very close to the death (§1. n. 1), of Leontius of Antioch, and late enough to satisfy the references (§6) to the events at the end of May 357 (see notes there), and to the lapse of Hosius, the exact date of which again depends upon that of the Sirmian Council of 357, which, if held the presence of Constantius, must have fallen as late as August (Gwatk. Stud. 157, n. 3). Athanasius not only refers to the lapse of Hosius, but by the quotation he makes from Gal. ii. 5, appears to know of its merely temporary nature (see D.C.B. iii. 173). How early, then, does the first-named condition compel us to place the `Defence?' Upon the news of the death of Leontius reaching Italy (Soz. iv. 12), Eudoxius obtained the leave of Constantius (who was in Italy, April 28 to July 3, 357, and again, Nov. 10 to Dec. 10, Gwatk. p. 292), to repair to Antioch. There he got himself elected bishop, assembled a council (Acacius and other Homoeans), and wrote a synodal letter, expelling from the Antiochene Church those who dissented. Some of the latter repaired to Ancyra with a letter from the semi-Arian George of Laodicea; at Ancyra, Basil assembled a small council (before Easter, April 12, 358, see D.C.B. i. 281, Epiph. Haer. 73), which wrote to the Emperor protesting against the proceedings of Eudoxius. To gain room for these events, at the very least five months, and probably more, must be allowed to elapse between the death of Leontius and April 12, 358. Leontius must therefore have died in the summer (Gwatk. p. 153, note), or at the very latest in October, 357. We cannot, therefore, place the Apology much after this date, for the reference to Hosius shews-in addition to many other indications-how quickly Athanasius in his hiding-place was informed of current events.
The Apology was drawn forth by the charge of cowardice circulated against him by the Arianising party, especially by the three bishops named in1. After a preamble upon the motives of his accusers (1, 2), he shews that his own case is but part of a general system (3-5) of expatriation directed against orthodox bishops. He then refers to the circumstance of the attack upon himself, and dwells at length upon the tyranny of George (6, 7) and the banishment of Egyptian and Libyan bishops. This brings him to the argument (8-22) which gives its name to the tract. After pressing the point that if flight be evil, those who persecute are the responsible cause (8, 9), and hinting at the real motive of their mortification at his escape (10), he defends his flight by the example first (10, 11) of the Scripture Saints, secondly of the Lord Himself (12-15). From the latter, he returns to the conduct of the Saints, who, unlike the Lord (16), were unaware of their appointed time, yet fled or not (17) as circumstances and the direction of the Spirit required them to do. The Saints if they fled were not moved to do so by cowardice, else how could their flight so frequently have been the occasion of divine communications (18-20), and how could such good (21, 22) have resulted from it? As a pendant to this vindication of flight on principle comes a short (23) but weighty rebuke of persecution as inherently devilish to de diwkein diabolikon estin epixei/rhma. From principle, Athanasius now passes to fact. He gives a graphic description (24) of the night attack on the Church of Theonas, and shews (25, 26) how fully his action on that occasion is covered by the examples of the ancient Saints of God. He concludes (26, 27) with a somewhat exasperated denunciation of his opponents, and a prayer for the frustration of their intrigues.
The Apology is a locus classicus on the duty of Christians under persecution. Athanasius was not the first great bishop who felt called upon to defend his conduct in retreating `until the tyranny be overpast' (see Cyprian, Ep. 20. August. Ep. 228). His principles are laid down with regard to the common welfare. Rashness must be avoided, with its tendency to a reaction (17, end), and its presumption in forestalling the time appointed by Providence for our death. But neither must that time be evaded. When our end must come, we must face it quietly. Accordingly (22) it is a duty to escape when we can, and to hide when sought for rather than to follow the exceptional (ib.) action of certain martyrs in courting death.
It is uncertain to whom the `Defence' was addressed: it was perhaps a `memorandum' to be circulated wherever opportunity offered. The tract has always been justly admired for its lucidity, force, and dignity. It is quoted largely by Socrates (ii. 28, iii. 8) and by Theadoret (H.E. ii. 15).