I decided to write a book about Athanasius (in my series of Christian Biographies for Young Readers) because I would like to give our children a historical and theological context to the Nicene Creed they often recite in church. As soon as I started my research, however, I realized that I was dealing with a very complex character and situation.
While some honor and venerate Athanasius as a courageous and self-denying saint, some think that he was nothing more than a self-serving violent politician. Of course, the truth is bound to lie somewhere in the middle. Or rather, as it is for so many characters of the past, the truth has to be viewed in the original context, free from the superimpositions of our own culture and our own modern views.
I must admit that, after seeing Athanasius compared to “a modern American gangster,” (Timothy Barnes) I started to have some doubts. His theology is undoubtedly correct, but did he enforce it through violence and political schemes? David Brakke, in his article, “Athanasius”, in The Early Christian World, tries to strike a happy medium between the two opinions. Still, it did not help me much to read, “The analogy of ‘a modern American gangster’ fails to capture this volatile combination of genuine religious conviction and brute political force, which may better be compared to that of a modern Iranian ayatollah.” (Brakke)
“Athanasius’ dual identity as saint and gangster stems from his more basic identity as a Christian bishop in the post-Constantinian imperially favoured chuch; the fourth-century bishop’s roles as preacher, theologian, patron, and administrator render hopeless any modern attempt to separate ‘religion’ from ‘politics’ or ‘thought’ from ‘action’.” (Brakke) As so often happens, we have to let these characters “be men of their times.”
All the characters in my previous books (Calvin, Augustine, and Owen) displayed a behavior which reflect the mindset of their times. Take Calvin and Servetus – most of us are ready to say that we would act differently in his shoes, but would we have really acted differently back then? Owen and the massacre of the Irish – how much could he do and how fully did he really approve or condemn Cromwell’s actions? It seems rather that he accepted them as a necessary evil. And Augustine’s approval of a government intervention against the Donatists has been widely criticized. After all, it was not too different from Athanasius’ repeated appeals to imperial sanctions of a common doctrine and of one church.
Again, I find Brakke’s insight very valuable: “If the resulting Athanasius seems less appealing than, say, the Augustine who sanctioned coercive actions against the Donatists, it is perhaps because, unlike Augustine, Athanasius has left us few glimpses of the inner life of a man burdened with such weighty responsibilities.” We love Augustine in his Confessions. We even sympathize with him when, in a letter, he compares the unrepentant people who kept pestering him for justice to flies that he just wants to swat away. We are then ready to understand his position with the Donatists.
Finally, I decided to read Athanasius’ Festal Letters, even if an expert thought they would not help me much. There, I immediately found a vibrant man full of love for God and His church. “Come, my beloved,” his first letter starts, “the season calls us to keep the feast … so that, when time has passed away, gladness may not leave us.”
I suddenly saw Athanasius as a young man, barely 30 years of age, suddenly invested with a position larger than almost any man could handle – the bishopric of the wide-spread area of Egypt and Lybia, full of disunity and strife – a position of utmost importance in his day, highly coveted, which came with immediate, unpleasant repercussions.
I saw aspects of his life and personality which I believe have been underplayed in his biographies (which normally focus on his defense of the full divinity of Christ). I understood his youthful passion and courage and his desire for innovation – trying to bridge the gap between the cities and the desert and bringing theological arguments to the level of the common man.
Then, providentially, I found a confirmation of my feelings in some writings by Charles Kannengiesser. “In such careful reading,” he says, “the surprising fact begings to emerge that even in the more polemic Apologies, Athanasius is revealed as a pastor, much less interested in imperial politics than in the religious and spiritual education of his flock. If correctly noted, this primary concern reveals in all the Athanasian treatises and letters a vivid interest in the Bible and its use in a pastoral pedagogy” (C. Kannengiesser, Early Christian Spirituality).
(to be continued as I find out more about Athanasius)…