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).