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.

You can’t have Nicene conclusions without Nicene methodology

Last night on twitter, I posted the following pair of tweets about Nicaea. This topic requires more space than Twitter can provide, so I want to try and build them out here.

Khaled Anatolios, in his book Retrieving Nicaea (future page numbers refer to this work), models this hermeneutic and doctrinal foundation. I want to use just a bit of his work to give some insight into what that looks like and what it might mean for doing theology.

Anatolios says that for the church fathers, and for Athanasius in particular, patterns of scriptural divine naming must correspond to the pattern of divine being. For Athanasius, divine names were paradeigmata, symbols by which to understand God’s uncreated being. By arguing from divine naming, Athanasius is demonstrating “a correlation between, on the one hand, the scriptural intertextuality involved in the naming of God and Christ and, on the other hand, the ontological correlativity of Father and Son” (111). In other words: hermeneutics, then theology.

The argument from divine naming goes like this:
A. Certain phrases and title are ascribed to God such as speaker of the Word, possessor of Wisdom, one who brings Light, etc.
B. These same terms and titles are applied to Christ. Chris is the logos, the Word from the beginning. Christ is Wisdom. Christ is the true Light, etc.
C. God is the one to whom these attributes are titles are inherent to his being.

For Athansius, this argument is crucial to force back the Arians, who said that ‘there was a time when the Son was not.” Because of divine names, it denigrates the essence of the Father to say there there was a time when he was without Wisdom, Word, Light, etc. (115). To deny that the Son is the Word is to deny that God is the Creator. If the Son is external to God, then Creation through the Son1 means that God may have willed creation, but the act itself is external to him. Likewise, when Scripture gives any divine title to Jesus, such as Wisdom, then “anything predicated of Wisdom anywhere in Scripture is predicated of Christ” (122). Intertextual reading is essential to maintaining a) Christ’s shared divinity with the Father and b) God as Creator.

So what does this have to do with the tweets? What you see here from Athanasius (recounted by Anatolios) is a thoroughgoing Trinitarian hermeneutic that reads Scripture through the lens of God’s being and actions as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The guardrail is a distinction between divine attributes ascribed to the Father and thereby shared with the Son, and those actions with are proper to Jesus in his incarnation. So Christ as Wisdom has divinity as its referent, but Jesus being tired after a long day does not compromise the almightiness of God.

It is often said that Scripture interprets Scripture, but what does that mean? For Athanasius, intertextuality also comes with a core commitment that the telos (the purpose) of the Scripture is the revelation of God. This is not merely what he has done in securing our salvation, but also who he is. Who God is revealed to be in Scripture will then inform our understanding of what he has done. When we read intertextually, we are reading in such a manner that we connect related language from different parts of Scripture intentionally revealing who God is attributionally, and thereby who God is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the intentional pattern of the New Testament authors, who identify the Son using the divine names of the God of Israel to show that the two share in the same nature, though distinct persons.

There are those in modern Evangelical theology who advocate a rigidly biblicist approach to theology that is more concerned with prooftexts than this kind of Trinitarian theological method. Biblical reasoning takes a backseat to linguistic, ANE context, and talk of authorial intent (with nearly all of the emphasis on the human author). These things are not unimportant, but if divorced from the trinitarian reading enumerated earlier, this method is utterly inconsistent with that which produced Nicene orthodoxy. Alexander said this about the Arians:

“Recalling all the words about the salvific suffering, humiliation, self-emptying, poverty, and other attributes that the Savior took on for our sake, they pile these up to impugn the supreme deity that was his from the start.”

“Piling up” is not a substitute for the Trinitarian theological method that produced Nicaea. Now, I am not inferring that these contemporary theologians are Arians3. Far from it. But I am saying that we all would do well not to imitate their method and call it “biblical”. Refusing to acknowledge a doctrine due to an insufficient pile of prooftexts is not the way to do theology. Rather, we should ask ourselves if our theological method is capable of producing Nicaea in such a manner that it is not given to the objections of the literalist Arians, nor insufficient to the task of grounding Nicene orthodoxy both hermeneutically and doctrinally in the way of the church fathers.

Nicaea was not ultimately a set of doctrines to check the box on before rejecting its foundations, implications, and related doctrines. Nicaea is founded upon Trinitarian hermeneutics and trinitarian doctrines. Were Nicaea a house, the eternal generation of the Son would be considered a load-bearing wall. If you remove it, the house falls. It is important then, if we are to be consistently and thoroughly Nicene2, to have a consistent hermeneutic and a consistent doctrinal foundation with those who produced it.

When it comes to the importance of Nicene methodology, a little wisdom from the American South may help: “Dance with the one who brought you.”

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1. Colossians 1:16
2. Which I’m assuming here is something we would like to be.
3. Who complained the homoousios should be rejected as unbiblical since the term couldn’t be found in Scripture.

Who should do theology?

Is theology for everyone? R.C. Sproul has made popular the phrase “Everyone’s A Theologian,” even publishing a book by the same title. He’s right: everyone has thoughts and foundational beliefs about God that shape their lives. In asking the questions though, I have something more specific in mind: who should engage in theological discussion? Who should be part of the debates, write the blogs, and host the podcasts?

St.Gregory of Nazianzus (A.D. 330-390) answers:

Who should listen to discussions of theology? Those for whom it is a serious undertaking, not just another subject like any other for entertaining small-talk, after the races, the theater, songs, food, and sex: for there are people who counter chatter on theology and clever deployment of argument as one of their amusements.

“…there are people who counter chatter on theology and clever deployment of argument as one of their amusements.

Endemic to Evangelicalism, particularly the very-online Evangelical social circles, is what I have come to call “theology as sport”. Like the old show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, everything’s made up and the points don’t matter. It may be that one of the worst effects of a Twitter and Facebook timeline is how serious theological claims are thrown into a stream as if they’re no different from the latest political charade or Hollywood fanfare. And so arguing over theology takes on all the gravity of a sports debate, or can be filled with all the competitive vitriol of a political fight.

We do well to heed this warning from Nazianzius about such people who use theology for their own entertainment, their own platform, or their own social ladder:

They are like the promoters of wrestling-bouts in the theaters, and not even the sort of bouts that are conducted in accordance with the rules of the sport and lead to the victory of one of the antagonists, but the sort which are stage-managed to give the uncritical spectators visual sensations and compel their applause. Every square in the city has to buzz with their arguments, every party must be made tedious by their boring nonsense… Such is the situation: this infection is unchecked and intolerable; “the great mystery’ of our faith is in danger of becoming a mere social accomplishment.

Sounds familiar.

Gregory of Nazianzus quotes taken from “On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius” Order a copy here.