Who is Athanasius? And Why Is He Important?
Among those who know little else about church history, Athanasius is often appreciated as the defender of the doctrine of the Trinity, and as the first Christian leader who identified the twenty-seven books of the New Testament as we receive it today. We must, therefore, take Athanasius seriously when his writings show that he would see the theory of penal substitutionary atonement as a troubling error. Especially on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, where Luther and Calvin placed a great deal of weight on penal substitution theory.
Among Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants, Athanasius has long been celebrated as the foundational thinker for all Christian theology which followed him. Athanasius had been mentored from his youth by Alexander, then bishop of Alexandria, the first opponent of the heretic Arius, and one of the co-authors of the Nicene Creed of 325 AD. Athanasius had attended the Council of Nicaea as an assistant to his bishop, Alexander. When he published these two volumes, called Against the Heathen / Contra Gentes and On the Incarnation / De Incarnatione, Athanasius was probably thirty years of age. He probably published them in connection with his nomination to his mentor’s former seat in 328 AD, or to be considered for it before 328. Athanasius asserts that he represents the Christian tradition faithfully, from the time of Jesus and the apostles, all the way down to his own training in Christian theology and leadership, in one of the most important centers of the Christian community. And represent it he did. During his career as bishop, he endured threats from Roman Emperors for defending the Nicene Creed against the Arian heresy, and suffered five forced exiles from his home. Athanasius wanted to represent the Christian church at large. He also wanted to be taken seriously as an intellectual Christian. Athanasius published these writings in Alexandria, Egypt, the intellectual center of the classical world in the early fourth century. The city was diverse, with sizable Greek, Jewish, and other communities alongside Egyptians. It also was home to the great Library of Alexandria, which had long been the center of learning in the ancient Mediterranean world.
How Athanasius Portrayed God – Without Wrath and Anger
In Athanasius’ work of two volumes, which are evangelistic in nature, the great Christian theologian never uses the terms ‘wrath’ and ‘anger.’ Never does he assign those attributes, qualities, or sentiments to God. This is striking. To Protestant evangelical ears conditioned to hearing (among other theories) the Calvinist theory of penal substitutionary atonement, where God is full of ‘wrath’ and ‘anger,’ such a thing is hard to conceive. Yet Athanasius is more concerned to defend the sheer goodness of God in the face of human evil, and explain God’s activity in Christ and by the Spirit as His provision to undo all human evil. His argument is consistently medical and ontological, that is, about our state of being, not legal, judicial, or forensic. Elsewhere, I’ve called his atonement theology ‘medical substitution.’
Correspondingly, Athanasius seems to desire a response from his audience which does not map onto the emotional trajectory traced by penal substitutionary atonement – that of guilt, anxiety, and fear about one’s standing before God, a conception of hell as a Western prison system meting out divine retributive justice, followed by relief and gratitude that Jesus absorbed some discrete amount of punishment for God’s offended sense of retributive justice. Athanasius seems far more interested in provoking respect and admiration for this good and loving God, conviction about the tragedy of humanity’s damaged communion with God, and as well as longing and nostalgia for restored fellowship with God in and through Jesus.
For example, here is the conclusion of De Incarnatione, where Athanasius issues a surprising challenge to his non-Christian reader:
‘For just as, if a man wished to see the light of the sun, he would at any rate wipe and brighten his eye, purifying himself in some sort like what he desires, so that the eye, thus becoming light, may see the light of the sun; or as, if a man would see a city or country, he at any rate comes to the place to see it—thus he that would comprehend the mind of those who speak of God must needs begin by washing and cleansing his soul, by his manner of living, and approach the saints themselves by imitating their works; so that, associated with them in the conduct of a common life, he may understand also what has been revealed to them by God, and thenceforth, as closely knit to them, may escape the peril of the sinners and their fire at the day of judgment, and receive what is laid up for the saints in the kingdom of heaven, which ‘eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man’ [1 Corinthians 2:9], whatsoever things are prepared for them that live a virtuous life, and love the God and Father, in Christ Jesus our Lord: through Whom and with Whom be to the Father Himself, with the Son Himself, in the Holy Spirit, honour and might and glory for ever and ever. Amen.’
Athanasius is making an evangelistic appeal. To any Protestant evangelical who stands in the tradition of being deeply skeptical of ‘works’ prior to ‘faith,’ and sometimes even ‘works’ in conjunction with ‘faith,’ Athanasius’ admonition triggers alarm bells. At the very least, many Protestant evangelicals might reason, a Christian relating to a non-Christian should follow an order of topics: evangelism with a ‘gospel presentation,’ conversion, discipleship, and then Christian ethics. Why does Athanasius introduce Christian ethics earlier, and foreground it as part of evangelism and conversion?
Athanasius is arguing that one’s experience of God and inclination to regard the Christian message is actually dependent on one’s willingness to change one’s posture and take a few steps of purification, at the very least to appreciate what Jesus himself went through. Especially in the context of idolatry and all the behaviors that Greco-Roman idolatry called for, it would not have been unreasonable to ask someone to take a few steps towards (say) sobriety and clear-headedness to think more clearly, or towards sexual restraint to observe the actual state of one’s relationships and one’s inner emotional life. To locate the same principle in more modern concerns, one does not understand dieting or exercising until one has a basic sense for how much self-discipline is involved. The same is true with appreciating Jesus: One does not appreciate what Jesus’ experience of uniting human nature to the Father was like until one starts trying it for one’s self. Certainly the history of the people of Israel can be read that way: God asked them to receive His commandments, which were not even ultimate but penultimate, and they still could not do that; yet this experience helped them appreciate their need for the promised Messiah and what that Messiah had to on their behalf. Athanasius’ expectation is probably that once a person enters a place of deeper self-awareness, more desires will awaken or grow which will lead them to want more of the substance to which the Christian faith points. It is in that context that Athanasius speaks of ‘honour and might and glory’ which is now and will continue to be rendered ‘to the Father Himself, with the Son Himself, in the Holy Spirit.’ Athanasius will have an explanation for why a person has desires that awaken or grow like this. In the soul, and especially the soul of an unbeliever, the Holy Spirit never totally withdraws. Since the human person is a temple-person, the presence of the Spirit in the person’s soul is a light that refuses to go out.
What Emotional Response to God Did Athanasius Want?
What emotional responses is Athanasius hoping to stimulate in his readers? This is an important question because his pastoral voice corresponds to his theological insight. While on the one hand, I acknowledge my cultural distance from Athanasius, on the other hand, when I read his two volume work, I sense other emotional and intellectual responses arising in me that I cannot help but think are intentional on the part of the Alexandrian bishop. This is what he wanted me to feel. Athanasius was a skilled, polished orator in a cultural context that extolled skilled, polished orators., So it behooves us to first understand his content, but also, second, to understand what emotional responses he was seeking in us, because the emotional responses he sought reflects back upon his understanding of the human and the divine-human relationship.
I believe that the emotional responses that Athanasius is hoping to cultivate in his readers correspond to the content of his discourse. First, he is trying to stimulate in his audience an emotional longing and nostalgia for what human beings lost in the fall. Athanasius wanted his readers to mourn the loss of the human soul’s connection with God and the resulting moral, spiritual, and emotional malaise that set in. Here is a comparison of the emotional state of the soul under conditions of, first, contemplating God, and second, contemplating the pleasures of the body. Here is Athanasius’ account of a person’s emotional experience as one’s soul contemplates God:
‘…he might rejoice and have fellowship with the Deity… He is awe-struck as he contemplates…’
‘…taking pleasure in contemplating Him, and gaining renewal by its desire toward Him…’
‘…in a freedom unembarrassed by shame, and as associating with the holy ones in that contemplation of things perceived by the mind which he enjoyed in the place where he was…’
By contrast, here is the human soul as it turned self-ward to contemplate the pleasures of the body, along with the anxieties and fears thereof:
‘They entangled their soul with bodily pleasures, vexed and turbid with all kind of lusts, while they wholly forgot the power they originally had from God…’
‘Having formed a desire for each and sundry, they began to be habituated to these desires, so that they were even afraid to leave them: whence the soul became subject to cowardice and alarms, and pleasures and thoughts of mortality. For not being willing to leave her lusts, she fears death and her separation from the body. But again, from lusting, and not meeting with gratification, she learned to commit murder and wrong.’
It is worth noting that Athanasius’ paradigm does not seem to reflect a Stoic detached approach to human emotions, although that can be a matter for further scholarly debate (which must also include, of course, what the apostolic writers believed about Stoic and other Greek philosophies). Athanasius seems more concerned to locate the proper cause and object of human joy, delight, and pleasure than to deny those emotions altogether. Furthermore, Athanasius is also trying to engage a Jewish audience, not just Greek, as shown by his commentary on the Jewish Scriptures and Jewish story. This is strongly suggested by the fact that Athanasius quotes frequently from the Wisdom of Solomon, an extracanonical Jewish work that already critiques Hellenism, perhaps Epicureanism and Stoicism especially, in its own way. Athanasius apparently believes his portrait of the soul at an equilibrium of rest in God, and taking joy in God, compared to the disorder of the soul restless in sin, is inherently attractive, and broadly so.
Orthopathy, Not Just Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy
This cultivation of emotional self-awareness and emotional health must be included as part of Athanasius’ overall goal in writing. He is not only concerned about the moral and ethical quality of people’s lives, although that certainly does concern him. He is quite interested in the quality of people’s emotions and desires: joy, being awe-struck, pleasure, and experiencing a freedom unembarrassed by shame. He believes that desires can be shaped, oriented, and cultivated in a partnership between the human being and God. And being filled with right desire – that is, orthopathy – is a mark of developing right relationship with God. It is, in Athanasius’ mind, as we shall continue to see, a mark of our participation in Christ because it is a participation in what the incarnate Word actually did in his lived experience as a human being.
Second, Athanasius seems to be aiming for an intellectual conviction that a good God can only be maintained in Christian faith. He does not take for granted that his readers believe in a good God, but he does assume they want to. He wants to draw out how a good God is possible given human evil. The longing of the human mind and heart for a good, trustworthy God is something to which Athanasius believes he can appeal.
Third, Athanasius wants his readers to come to admire God for His goodness and love. He does not want his readers to feel ‘indebted’ to Jesus for his death. So even though he produces very fine expositions of the death of Christ, he does so in a way that stresses who died on the cross, i.e. the Word of God, not how much physical or spiritual pain he endured, what Jesus’ social conditions surrounding his death meant for him emotionally, and so on. And because Athanasius does not believe in a penal substitutionary account of Jesus’ death, he is not trying to produce the corresponding emotions that belong to that theory: guilt, relief, gratitude for the sacrifice, indebtedness. He wants to help people appreciate the sheer goodness of God, and the atonement is a reflection of that goodness. But Athanasius is not trying to call forth an emotional response to the atonement per se, but rather to God considered as God.
Fourth, Athanasius wants his readers to know and experience this God through His Word. In other writings, he will make clear that he also means, ‘and His Spirit.’ There is much more to knowing God than knowing rational content, but Athanasius’ stress on the Word, and the Scriptures in a subordinate sense, as something to be mediated to the soul and through the soul to the body, make clear that he views ‘the healing of creation’ as the restoration of true contemplation of God: ‘taking pleasure in contemplating Him, and gaining renewal by its desire toward Him.’ Athanasius believes that we are to grow in our desire for God, admiration for God, joy that this good God can be known and communicated and shared, and longing to be the human being God intended. And if these emotions are developmental and not static, progressively filling us, then this confirms that we are indeed temples in whom Christ dwells by his Spirit. It is a mark of our participation in Jesus’ own human response to his Father.
 Athanasius of Alexandria, Thirty Ninth Festal Letter (367 AD)
 Athanasius is celebrated as one of the four greatest teachers of the Eastern Church, along with Basil of Caesarea (330 – 379 AD), Gregory of Nazianzus (330 – 390 AD), and John Chrysostom (347 – 407 AD). Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 21.6 delivers a tribute to Athanasius by saying that while the Alexandrian knew classical literature and philosophy, yet, ‘From meditating on every book of the Old and New Testament, with a depth such as none else has applied even to one of them, he grew rich in contemplation, rich in splendor of life, combining them in wondrous sort by that golden bond which few can weave; using life as the guide of contemplation, contemplation as the seal of life.’ See Catholic scholar Thomas G. Weinandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007); the Greek Catholic scholar Khaled Anatolios, Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought (New York, NY: Routledge, 1998); Orthodox scholars Georges Florovsky, ‘St. Athanasius’ Concept of Creation’; George Dion. Dragas, Saint Athanasius of Alexandria: Original Research and New Perspectives (Rollinsford, NH: Orthodox Research Institute, 2005); Protestant scholars Thomas F. Torrance, Divine Meaning: Studies in Patristic Hermeneutics (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), chs.7 – 8 and The Trinitarian Faith (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995); Peter J. Leithart, Athanasius (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing, 2011); cf. Matthew Baker and Todd Speidell (editors), T.F. Torrance and Eastern Orthodoxy: Theology in Reconciliation (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015), ch.4
 Georges V. Florovsky, Patrology – Patristics: The First Eight Centuries AD, edited by George Dion. Dragas for Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology (2016), volume I, chapter 2 holds to an earlier date of 317 – 319 AD but without substantiation. James D. Ernest, The Bible in Athanasius of Alexandria (Atlanta, Society of Biblical Literature, 2004), p.45 – 51 considers much historical data and estimates a date of 328 – 335 AD, specifically arguing against a date earlier than 318 AD because of Athanasius’ apparent dependence on Eusebius.
 Athanasius of Alexandria, De Incarnatione 57.3
 Admittedly, a socio-rhetorical appreciation of any figure of late antiquity is hard to pin down with full certainty. However, C.S. Lewis, in his introduction to Athanasius’ De Incarnatione, shares that he was deeply impressed with both the theologian’s mastery of classical Greek, and also the deliberate simplicity with which he handles complex theological topics. C.S. Lewis, Introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation
 James D. Ernest, The Bible in Athanasius of Alexandria (Atlanta, Society of Biblical Literature, 2004) does a fine job with respect to how Athanasius handles Scripture.
 We can also benefit from some skillful attempts to help us appreciate Augustine and John Chrysostom – two Christian leaders who served as bishops in the generation after Athanasius – as preachers. Robert L. Wilken, John Chrysostom and the Jews: Rhetoric and Reality in the Late 4th Century (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1983); James M. Farrell, ‘The Rhetoric(s) of Augustine’s Confessions,’ Augustinian Studies 39:2 (2008), p.265 – 291; Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013); Malcolm Heath, ‘John Chrysostom, Rhetoric, and Galatians,’ Biblical Interpretation (12, 2004), p.369 – 400; Demetrios E. Tonias, Abraham in the Works of John Chrysostom (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014)
 Athanasius of Alexandria, Contra Gentes 2.2
 Ibid 2.3
 Ibid 2.4
 Ibid 3.2
 Ibid 3.4
 C. Kavin Rowe, One True Life: The Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), ch.8 – 9 on how semantic similarities do not lead anywhere near conceptual agreement
 Athanasius of Alexandria, 45.4; 46.1 – 4; De Incarnatione 22 – 25
 N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Parts 1 and 2 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013), p.238 – 243
 Athanasius of Alexandria, Contra Gentes 6 – 9
 Ibid 1.4
 Ibid 2.3