Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Athanasius, I (PTT)

I've been told the story of T.F. Torrance being identified as 'Barthian', to which he responded that he was rather 'Athanasian'. Clearly the importance of Athanasius continues to this day, not least in a Facebook Fan page, and the fact that the Athanasian version of the 4th century has dominated historical narration of it for the last millennium and a half. Athanasius, both then and now, is a controversial figure, and his importance and theology remains (as so many others), contested ground.

The story of his life is enough: born, ca. late 299, consecrated bishop June 8th 328, d. May 2, 373; bishop for 46 years, exiled 5 times for 17 years, a living legend.

When we turn to the works of Athanasius, there are 4 I want to treat: De Incarnatione, Contra Gentes, Orationes Contra Arianos, et De Synodis.

Contra Gentes et De Incarnatione

Behr treats this work and DeInc as early, foundational, and lucid expositions of Athanasius' theological vision. He notes that the two works present themselves as an exposition of the Christian Faith, and follows Anatolios' reading of them as an apologia for the Cross. So in CG, Athanasius lays down core principles: creation of the world by the will of God out of nothing through the Word, a fall from the contemplation of God to the contemplation of the flesh, a distinct yet dependent creation that only continues in its existence in connection to the Word, and a Cruciform and Christocentric theological method.

Behr treats De Inc. as the second part of a two-volume movement with CG, and as the solution to the problem of humanity's fall. Behr helpfully notes that 'incarnation' for Athanasius is more than Christological inquiry into Jesus' composition, but rather a treatment of the whole economy of salvation summed up in Christ.

In alignment with Anatolios' reading, Behr sees Athanasius as depicting humanity in the role of 'actively maintaining its own passivity', a peculiar position in regards to God's activity and Creation's passivity. Our rational nature is deeply intertwined with the Logos, and likewise our epistemological relation to God is always in and through Christ. From De Inc 10 onwards, the focus is on the reason for the Cross, in terms of the conquering of Death. Whatever may be said about the prominence of 'Incarnation' in Athanasius, the overriding motivation and telos of the incarnation is the crucifixion event. The solidarity of our humanity in Christ's is the basis of redemption.

Behr next treats of Anti-'Arian' writings, dating from 340 (Orationes Contra Arianos) to 359 (De Synodis). Here I will give some brief notes on Behr, and in a separate post I will treat OCA in more detail.

Athanasius makes clear that the point of contention is exegetical, and that the 'Arians' are failing to read the text of scripture properly, with due attention to time, person, subject matter, and the like. Their exegesis lacks Christocentricity, and tends to univocalise and thus illegitimately transfer meaning. They conflate 'theology' and 'economy'. Much of OCA thus consists of Athanasius engaged in counter-exegesis of key texts, not least the lynch-pin of Proverbs 8:22.

For Athanasius, the theological order is God become Man, but the epistemological order is to know God through the Man, Jesus. Yet, Athanasius is very insistent upon the unity of the subject, and is rather disinterested in the compositional analysis that modern theology dwells upon.

Relating Father and Son, Athanasius insists on eternal correlativity, and that the Son is divine in himself, not be participation. Torrance argues on this account that the emphasis is soteriological: if the Son is divine by participation, the atonement is void. Treating the Spirit (see Ad Serapion; also Torrance), Athanasius applies the same logic that has established the Son, to establish the Spirit's position. This is a common move by the later pro-Nicenes also.

Next we will treat OCA and De Synodis in more detail.

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