ok, so Athanasius wasn’t all bad

athanasius_i1Actually, he’s one of my heroes.

I really only expressed my disappointment in the (ahem) ferocity of some of his polemics in order to balance out the shameless piece of Whig historiography posted over at the Resurgence.

From my point of view, the high water mark of his career was his orchestration of the Council of Alexandria (362 AD). There, the various groups opposing the Arian heresy — which denied the unity of being of the Son and the Father in the Godhead — although previously not quite seeing eye to eye, managed to forge something of a consensus.

This was achieved (in a manner anticipating the later Council of Chalcedon) first by clearly identifying those constructions of the doctrine of God which were agreed to be unacceptable. It then moved to clarify the important terms favoured by the different groups. Yet without simply upholding the preferred terms of one party over against the others.

So for those who insisted that Father, Son and Spirit are three ‘persons’, it ensured that this not be understood to imply three separate independent beings, different in essence from each other. (That would be polytheism.)

Conversely, for those wanted to speak of God as one ‘person’, it made sure they didn’t mean to compromise the real distinctions between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (That way lies modalism, where any differences between the persons of the Trinity are ultimately unreal, just matters of the ‘mode’ appropriate to each stage of salvation history — the Father in creation, the Son in reconciliation and the Spirit in perfecting the redemption of the creation.)

The emphasis of the Council thus fell on determining what each party did — and didn’t — mean by their favoured terms. And so an important step towards doctrinal agreement was taken. Of course, it would be going too far to say that the Council cleared up all the confusion. Yet R. P. C. Hanson (The Search For The Christian Doctrine of God, p 645) points out, ‘at least the confusion had been identified, and the way was open for a younger generation of theologians’ to hammer out what we now consider orthodoxy.

Huzzah for Athanasius!

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2 comments

  1. The historiography of the resurgence article is quite amazing huh? It portrayed Athanasius as a mild mannered ‘pastor’ who saw no other alternative than to take the combative line that he did, and loved by all people…so who exactly *did* kick him out of his own see 6 times (let alone the polemic you’ve already indicated)? In fact, one of his own friends is reported as remarking ‘don’t you know that the whole world is against you Athanasius?’ Also interesting was the assertion that the creed we now call the Nicene Creed was not established at Nicea, but rather later at the Council of Constantinople (381), and although Nicea became the benchmark of orthodoxy, I believe it was in relation to the canons of the council as well as the creed which was published there. (Further, it’s interesting to notice a rather negative view of philosophy thrown in by way of a theology/philosophy dichotomy…which seems to suggest that Athanasius was somehow inocculated against his philosophical milieu)

    Now on to your post -> it’s a good reminder that we don’t just work for our own generation, but to enable future generations to continue to wrestle with theological issues. I wouldn’t mind hearing a bit more, therefore, not just about what he did and how great it was (although for that I praise God), but also what we learn for our context from Athanasius…

    dmic

  2. let me clarify some bad English in the last comment regarding the Nicene creed:

    The resurgence article claimed that the Nicene Creed was a direct result of the Council of Nicea, of which Athanasius was a part (which by the way he was, but primarily he was invited not because of his theological nouse but the fact he was Alexander’s aide). However, the creed we now call the Nicene creed was not formulated until the Council of Constantinople (381). With such seemingly basic oversights….

    sorry for the confusion

    dmic

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