Athanasius Speaks to Us Today

Review of Athanasius by Peter J. Leithart

 This is the sixth installment of Reading Patristics–a review series dedicated to books about the early church fathers. These reviews will not be exhaustive summaries, but instead are meant to pique the interest of readers to pursue reading in this area of study and a guide to good books in the field. Previous installments: Classical Christian DoctrineRetrieving Nicaea, The Theology of AugustineThe Christians as the Romans Saw Them, The Spirit of Early Christianity.

Unconvinced that the patristic fathers have something to say to contemporary Christians? Then you haven’t read Peter Leithart’s Athanasius. Athanasius is the first installment of Baker Academic’s series, The Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Christian Spirituality, which in itself is dedicated to retrieving patristic exegesis and theology used in the Nicene Creed for modern usage. With eloquent prose and occasional reference to nineteenth and twentieth century literature, Leithart delivers a clear (though not light) exposition of Athanasius’s ideas.

When reading about Athanasius, one is struck by a sense of familiarity yet also foreignness. We confront the common contours of Christian history—the Arian controversy, Trinitarian debates, the unity of the God-man—but when we zoom in to consider the specifics, we realize that these early Christians spoke in a different way than our parlance, which has been shaped by the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds. This is a helpful exercise in realizing that Christianity is larger than our own tribe.

A second aspect of Athanasius that resonated with me was the comprehensive nature of Athanasius’s theology. Evangelicals tend to have an undeveloped doctrine of Creation. For Athansius, creation itself was infused by grace. From the gracious creation of Adam, to moral ontology of fleshliness (i.e., physicality), to the purpose of Christ’s incarnation, all is undergirded by a trajectory of grace. Leithart argues that Athansius understood the creation in Genesis 1-2 as still subject to “instability”. This instability was not a result of Genesis 3, though Genesis 3 exacerbated it.

Hence the incarnation of Christ was just as much the deification of the flesh as the fleshing of the Word. The telos of flesh is deification. The Word is proper (Athansius’s preferred word) to the Godhead and through the incarnation flesh also becomes proper. This leads to a high view of creation as a whole, as well as the implications of what we do with our bodies.

Finally, I found Athanasius to be surprisingly pastoral. Leithart points this out explicitly, but it is a strain that runs through his writings. Though known today, and back then, as a rabble-rouser and polemicist, “[a]ll his biblical interpretation was directed toward edification of the people he oversaw as bishop or to win his battles with the Arians and other threats to the gospel” (53).

Leithart is at his best when applying Athanasian categories to contemporary debates. He does so generously, covering topics such as nature and grace, impassibility, soteriology, and metaphysics. He interacts with theologians from David Bentley Hart, Karl Rahner, Henri de Lubac, and Matthias Joseph Scheeban, to Karl Barth, Michael Horton, and others. Leithart accomplishes a hefty amount within a 176-page volume. This fact testifies to his clarity and precision of mind.

It seems apt to end with words from Leithart’s epilogue (176):

Creatures “worded” in the Word: for your servant Athansius, there can be no deeper metaphysics than this, no deeper account of the nature of things. For it is all about Christ, the eternal Word made flesh, the Truth, the Way, the Life, and the measure of all truth, all ways, all life.

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