Athanasius (2)

This concludes a short series on ancient church history.

Athanasius had numerous and varied writings, but this paper will divide them into three categories: pre-Arian, anti-Arian, and other writings. Before the Arian controversy broke out over the empire, Athanasius wrote two works entitled Against the Gentiles and On the Incarnation. These two treatises mirror much of the Christian literature that had gone before in that they were written in defense of the Christian faith against pagans and Jews. He first seeks to refute the idolatry of other religions, prove the corruption of man, and show the necessity of a return to the one true God. The second, and much more well-known treatise, answers the question of how the return of man to God is made possible: through the Word made flesh.[1]

Athanasius was no systematic theologian, but these works reveal some of his fundamental ideas. His theology revolves around the gospel, and at the center of the gospel stands the Incarnation. Schaff sums up Athanasius’ theology this way: “The whole substance of Christianity, all reality of redemption, everything which makes Christianity the perfect salvation, would be utterly null and meaningless, if he who is supposed to unite man with God in real unity of being, were not himself absolute God, or of one substance with the absolute God, but only a creature among creatures… What value has such a Christianity when instead of bringing man nearer to God it only fixes the chasm between God and man?” [2]

Although Arius was not in view when Athanasius wrote these first two treatises, they formed a firm foundation from which to attack the Arian heresy. Most of his remaining works were written concerning Arianism, in defense and in the attack. Athanasius was often forced on the defensive, and not always on doctrinal issues. He was accused of killing a fellow bishop (the man was later presented alive before his accusers), as well as all manner of immorality, tyranny, sedition, and cowardice. Defense Against the Arians, Defense Before Constantius, and Defense of My Flightwere all written in part to refute these charges. The rest of his major works were published to defend the doctrine adopted at Nicaea and to condemn the Arian heresy. Much time was spent defending the use of the homoousios[3] against charges that it was unscriptural. To do so, he often pointed out that the duplicity of the Arians required the clearest language. He hammered home each text proving the divinity of Christ and exposed the Arians own lack of Scriptural grounding. 

The rest of Athanasius works include his many letters and one biography. The letters can be split into personal letters and festal letters. The festal, or Easter letters, were circular letters written by the Bishop of Alexandria each year to inform the churches of the proper date on which to celebrate Easter.  Athanasius took this opportunity to write on many issues, mostly personal and practical.[4] One notable letter is that of 367, in which Athanasius lays down the full New Testament canon for the very first time.

One unique work of Athanasius is his biography of the famed ascetic, Antony. This biography is one of the best records of early asceticism, and can claim much of the credit for the development of asceticism. Years later, the story of Antony aroused Augustine to dedicate his life to God.[5] The biography of Antony is unique among all Athanasius’ writings, for Athanasius was never prone to fantastic tales or mystical experiences. Not one miracle is attributed to him personally. The story of Antony, however, is full of such things.

Having studied the life and literature of Athanasius, his legacy can now be best determined. How should one view this man who once stood contra mundum? His weaknesses surely must be considered, but only in the context of his life and work. Regarding his theology, one common criticism is that he does not put enough emphasis on the vicarious nature of the cross.[6] While he does mention this aspect, his focus is on the restoration of the nature of man and not so much man’s legal standing before God. But can this be seen as only a matter of emphasis? Another criticism regards his emphasis on the divinity of Christ over against His humanity.  Athanasius spoke often of the Word “dwelling in the body,” [7] and some see this kind of language as a denial of the humanity of Christ. Barnes writes, “In Athanasius’s view, Christ’s anguish and ignorance were, to some degree, feigned.” But this likely can be attributed to the inherent difficulty in expressing the doctrine of the Incarnation. It is perfectly orthodox for Athanasius to say when discussing Matt. 24:36, “It is plain that He knows also the hour of the end of all things, as the Word, though as man He is ignorant of it, for ignorance is proper to man.” [8]

Other weaknesses include his view of the fall and corruption. He held that the “likeness of God was only gradually lost… involving men in increasing ignorance.” [9] Also regrettable is his support of asceticism as it is found in the biography of Antony. His hermeneutical method included far too much allegory, as did many of the early church fathers.[10] But despite his errors, it can be concluded that “the glory of God and the welfare of the Church absorbed him fully at all times.” [11]

When Athanasius stood contra mundum for the sake of Christ’s divinity, he did so not only as a theologian, but as a Christian. He was one of the most prominent bishops of his time and the first great defender of orthodoxy, but in his defense of the deity of Christ he never lost sight of the gospel. For Athanasius, it was more than a debate over unanswerable and unsolvable riddles, and it was certainly more than a quibble over one little iota in a long Greek word. It was nothing less than a soteriological matter, and to avoid error in this area was to preserve the perfect doctrine of salvation for himself and for the church of Christ. For this cause God raised up Athanasius, that the name of Jesus, true God of true God, might be declared throughout all the earth.      

[1] Robertson, Introduction to ‘Contra Gentes’ in Select Writings and Letters, 1

[2] Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 642

[3] This is the Greek term used in the Nicene Creed which states that Jesus Christ is “of one essence” with the Father.

[4] Robertson, Introduction to ‘Festal Letters’ in Select Writings and Letters, 501

[5] Augustine, Confessions, trans. F. J. Sheed, ed. Michael P. Foley, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis, Hacket Pub. Comp., 2006)

[6] Peter Barnes, Athanasius of Alexandria: His Life and Impact, (Ross-shire: Christian Focus Pub. Lt., 2019), 131

[7] Barnes, Athanasius of Alexandria, 140

[8] Athanasius, Select Writings and Letters, 416

[9] Robertson, ‘Prologemena’ to Select Writings and Letters, lxx

[10] Barnes, Athanasius of Alexandria, 149

[11] Robertson, ‘Prologemena’ to Select Writings and Letters, lxvii

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