Review: “Athanasius and His Legacy” by Thomas Weinandy and Daniel A. Keating

Thomas G. Weinandy and Daniel A. Keating, Athanasius and His Legacy: Trinitarian-Incarnational Soteriology and Its Reception (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017). 131 pages.

In this short volume from Fortress Press, Weinandy and Keating provide a pointed, if not exhaustive, exposition of the life and teaching of Athanasius of Alexandria. The authors also consider at length the reception and use of Athanasius in Eastern and Western theology, in addition to Reformation theology and contemporary theology with special attention given to the opposing views of Isaac Newton and John Henry Newman.

This volume begins (Ch 1) with an excellent overview of Athanasius’ theology, providing a concise but thorough explication of the issues of the Arian controversy, and situating his theological project into its proper context. While not a proper participant at Nicaea, the authors show how Athanasius came to be known as the true defender of Nicaea and what it cost him: namely, he spent a great number of his years as bishop in exile as the Arians gained the political favor of the emperor. This volume quotes Athanasius at length and helpfully show how his understanding of biblical hermeneutics shaped his defense of Nicene doctrine. Likewise, in Chapter 2, Weinandy and Keating provide ample material showing Athanasius’ arguments for the Holy Spirit as the third person of the triune God. The strength of their argument in each of these chapters is to show how Athanasius’ arguments were thoroughly grounded in Scripture, rather than philosophical imposition upon the faith or arguments from other authorities.

Chapter 3 is the strongest section of the book, and the crux of their argument: Athanasius Incarnational Soteriology. Their discussion of the necessity of the incarnation, Jesus’ true humanity, the communicatio idiomatum (though this language was not yet formally established) and deification are all quite helpful expositions of Athanasius thought. Also in this chapter, the authors defend Athanasius against charges that he did not teach Christ has a human soul. Weinandy and Keating assert that these critics have missed the point of Athanasian Christology: namely, that Christ became fully human and did not merely take on humankind’s passions. His entire Christological argument would fall apart if he denied Jesus had a human soul. Likewise, he affirmed the Council of Alexandria in 362, which condemned denials of Jesus having a human soul (45-46).

In addition to Athanasius own life and theology, the authors also consider his reception by later theological movements, including the filioque controversy. This section is helpful to understand how the East and West appropriated his arguments for their own positions. There’s also a section that will benefit those new to Athanasius on the Athanasian Creed, which he did not write himself and which originated after his death. However, this section also includes the weakest part of the book: the use of Athanasius among the Reformers. This is perhaps to be expected, given the Catholic background of the authors, but nonetheless seems to be a weakness of the volume that, if present, would commend is more strongly to a wider audience. The authors acknowledge Athanasius bore great influence on Luther and Melanchthon but say little of precisely how or where. Further, they say that Calvin has “no positive use” (84) for Athanasius. This is a bit of an oversimplification, and other scholars have noted otherwise1.

The book closes with interesting and engaging sections on modern reception and criticism of Athanasius, showing the ongoing relevance of Athanasius’ Trinitarian-Incarnational Soteriology even today. Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the book is the discussion of Isaac Newton’s commitment to Arianism and his belief that the Council of Nicaea represented the opening of the seventh seal of judgment, whereby the Whore of Babylon is……drumroll please…..the doctrine of the Trinity. Bit of a rollercoaster, that. I am somewhat skeptical to the claim that Newton’s private claims are a forerunner to later contemporary criticism of Athanasius, but the case made here is certainly interesting.

In general, this is an excellent and helpful volume. For casual readers of theology, this volume is accessible and light, weighing in at only 130 pages. It would serve as a great text for undergraduate students, or a supplementary text for seminarians. It is sure to provoke conversation around the chapters on contemporary appropriation of Athanasius. This book also engages with some of the most recent reception of Athanasius and Nicaea in the work of Khaled Anatolios, John Behr, and Lewis Ayres. For that reason, it is not given to many of the early to mid-20th century assumptions about Athanasius which have improperly, in my view, accused Athanasius’s views as leaning toward modalism or Apollinarianism. This book helpfully summarizes the arguments against such criticisms. I would note, finally, that the title may be deceiving for certain streams of protestants (such as my own stream). Soteriology here refers not to doctrines such as justification, atonement, depravity, or predestination. Weinandy and Keating are more concerned with the fittingness of Jesus to save as the incarnate Son of God. If you purchase or assign this book, please adjust your expectations in that regard.

I’m happy to say that I enjoyed this book and gladly recommend it.

Thank you to Fortress Press, who provided me a review copy of this volume.

1. See also, Stephen M. Reynolds, “Calvin’s View of the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds,” Westminster Theological Journal 23.1 (Nov. 1960): 33-37.

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