The Great Athanasius: An Introduction to His Life and Work
John R. Tyson
Paperback: Cascade Books, 2017
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Reviewed by Gregory Soderberg
John Tyson is Professor of Church History at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, and is the author of ten books, including Faith, Doubt, and Courage(Wipf & Stock). His new book on Athanasius of Alexandria (296 – 373) is a welcome addition to the on-going effort by scholars to describe and assess the remarkable bishop who stood contra mundum (“against the world”) in his defense of what he believe the Bible clearly taught about the nature of Jesus Christ. Tyson remarks that this book began as his own attempt to understand Athanasius more fully, but he continued to pursue it because “Athanasius is not as well known among contemporary Christians as he deserves to be known” (vii). Opinions on Athanasius range from calling him the “great Athanasius” (from a funeral oration for Athanasius by another early Christian bishop and theologian, Gregory Nazianzen) to a “gangster” (from Timothy Barnes’ 1993 book, Athanasius and Constantius: Theology and Politics in the Constantinian Empire). Nor is this simply a modern, or post-modern, perspective. Charges against Athanasius, “including abuse of power and authority, along with sorcery, were so well known in the fourth century that they are even reported by the secular Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus” (xii)! So, who was the real Athanasius? Tyson navigates the ancient sources and the best of contemporary scholarship to present a nuanced, and ultimately more human, portrait of one of the most influential figures of Christian history.
Why was Athanasius so important? “In the days before the great Christian creeds were developed and while Christianity was still a minority religion in the Roman Empire, Athanasius laid many of the theological foundations that would become Christian orthodoxy” (x). Furthermore:
Athanasius was one of the chief architects and most persistent defenders of what would come to be accepted as the standard and orthodox understanding of the relationship of God the Father and God the Son. His writings on the Holy Spirit also helped pave the way for a truly full Trinitarian theology, and his use of and passion for Holy Scripture contributed significantly to the closing of the New Testament canon (ix).
Church history has always been a battleground. Although we can dismiss the sensationalism of the likes of Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code, who blithely repeats half-truths about the council of Nicea “voting” on the divinity of Jesus, it remains true that the development of Christian thought was often messy, chaotic, and even violent. “Athanasius was vehement in his defense of what became orthodox theology …” (xii), and this “vehemence” won him as many enemies as allies. He served as bishop of Alexandria for forty six years, and spent nearly fifteen of those years in three separate “exiles.” The conflict was not merely theological, however. Politics and theology were inextricably bound togeter during this period, as Constantine and his successors sought to control their empire. Political factions were also theological factions, which helps us to understand why the stakes were so high for Athanasius and his opponents.
Tyson adopts a chronological approach the life and work of Athanasius. Each chapter explains the major historical events, while also surveying and summarizing the main points of Athanasius’s works. One of Tyson’s aims is to make Athanasius more accessible to a contemporary audience, and so Tyson limits himself to English language sources. Although Tyson is aware of scholarly debates and technical theological questions, he touches on these tangentially in order to keep the focus on understanding the context and importance of Athanasius’s work.
Tyson closes his book with several reasons why we should concur with Gregory Nazianzen in referring to the “Great Athanasius.” Why was he great? Stated simply—he laid the foundation for what was eventually accepted as the authentic (“orthodox”) teaching of the Bible in several key areas. In his early works, Against the Heathen (Contra Gentes) and On the Incarnation of the Word of God (De incarnatione verbi Dei), “the goodness of creation was stressed, as well as the continuity of creation and redemption as twin acts of the Logos of God” (21). As Tyson summarizes: “If this rendition of the Christian gospel sounds at all familiar—if it sounds like faithful and traditional Christianity—that is because Athanasius said it first here, in these two treatises, in the early fourth century” (22).
Although Athanasius is primarily remembered for his defense of the deity of Christ, in opposition to the Arian teachings, and his championing of Nicene orthodoxy, Athanasius also paved the way for the affirmation of the full deity of the Holy Spirit. Later in life, Athanasius wrote the incisive Letters to Serapion on the Holy Spirit. In these treatises, addressed to a fellow bishop, Athanasius deals with the views of another group in the Egyptian church, who taught that the Holy Spirit was created by God. In opposing this teaching, Athanasius extended the implications of his theology of the Incarnation to include the Holy Spirit as well, a process which culminated after his death in the addition of a clause about the Holy Spirit’s deity to the Nicene Creed, at the Council of Constantinople (381).
Beyond his contributions to Trinitarian theology, Athanasius’s influence might actually be more profound in the areas of practical theology and spirituality. Athanasius played a critical role in the spread of the ideals of Egyptian monasticism: “In 340, during his exile to Rome, Athanasius took several Egyptian monks with him, and these helped him popularize monasticism in the West” (119). Athanasius was also inspired and mentored by Antony, the renowned hermit. Antony had supported Athanasius at critical junctures, and Athanasius spent his last exile among the monks in the Egyptian desert. After Antony’s death, Athanasius wrote a biography of the hermit (Vita Antonii), which became his most popular book. Regarding its impact, Tyson writes, “At a time when monasticism was replacing martyrdom as the epitome of the Christian life of selflessness and sacrifice, the Life of Antony showed Christians like Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen, and Augustine of Hippo how to follow the monastic path. In fact, Antony’s sudden and dramatic conversion to robust Christian faith was a model as well as a spur to Augustine’s own spiritual transformation” (138).
Why read Athanasius? Besides his importance for our understanding of the Christian faith, his life reads like a thriller at times, full of intrigue, last-minute escapes, and determination to follow the truth, no matter the cost. Furthermore, Athanasius (who was called the “black dwarf”) reminds us of the eminent role Africa has played in Christian history. In How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, the late Thomas Oden argued that we need to rediscover the early African church, for our sake, and for Africa’s sake. In a time of increasing racial and national tension, we need to remember the foundational contributions of early African Christians like Athanasius.
Beyond the reasons offered here, C.S. Lewis wrote a wonderful introduction to an earlier edition of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, which has become a classic essay in itself. In the essay, C.S. Lewis defends the “reading of old books” in a masterful way, the old book in this case being Athanasius’s On the Incarnation. We often forget that masters of writing like Lewis and Tolkien were themselves inspired by the great spiritual masters of the past, like the “Great Athanasius.” The church today desperately needs to remember its past, so that we may not lose our way in the future.