By Brian Burns
Writing a blog post about Athanasius of Alexandria is dangerous business. To some, he was a violent political opportunist who made Michael Corleone look like an upstanding citizen. To others, he was a courageous defender of orthodoxy who stood alone against emperors and triumphed over his adversaries in the end through the power of his convictions and the justice of his cause. For his part, in a now-classic article, Charles Kannengeisser described Athanasius as “through and through a man of the Scriptures-a theologian whose Christian conviction through an intimate connection with the Scripture brought him significance in a unique way”. Whether Athanasius was a gangster or a God-send, the body of work he left behind shows a profound interest in the right reading of Scripture. In fact, as we shall see, Athanasius describes some of the interpretive tools he uses in some detail.
Unfortunately, as Kannengeisser has noted, Athanasius’ use of Scripture has been, until very recently, studied far less than his biography (in defense of older works about 4th-century Christianity, Athanasius was accused of murder, witchcraft and treason, and five times exiled in fear for his life–his biography would make compelling reading even if he hadn’t been present at Nicaea I). However, Kannengeisser, Blaising, Clayton, Ernest and, most recently, Boersma have done us a great service by examining Athanasius’ use of Scripture in a rigorous way. Their work, and a close reading of Athanasius’ Four Discourses Against the Arians, suggests that Athanasius used two primary interpretive tools: the Tri-Partite Formula (Allen Clayton coined the term as part of an extraordinarily helpful discussion of the Athanasian use of Scripture), and the scope of Scripture, which is closely related to it.
In sections 53 and 54 of his First Oration Against the Arians ( CA 1.53-1.54), Athanasius describes the Tri-Partite formula in some detail; he writes, “As regards all the divine Scripture, it is proper to do this and it is necessary in this way, here also to understand the time, the person, and the matter according to which the Apostle spoke for which he faithfully wrote.” The three parts of the formula are interrelated, but to understand the way that Athanasius used this tool, it may be helpful to examine each part individually and to consider each part of the formula (time, person, and matter) as the answer to a question the reader of the biblical text should consider.
The other primary tool Athanasius used, the scope (σκοπός) of Scripture, is closely related to the third part of the Tri-Partite Formula. Athanasius explains what he means by this phrase in section 7 of his Second Letter to Serapion in which he writes, “The distinguishing mark of our faith in Christ is this: “Being the Word of God (In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God) and the Wisdom and Power of God (For Christ is the Power and Wisdom of God), at the end of the age, he became a man for our salvation.” Again, to Athanasius, Christ’s work of redemption is at the heart of Scripture.
We at the SCECS have an ongoing interest in the use of Scripture in early Christianity. If this brief introduction to some of Athanasius’ use of Scripture has been of interest, please come back soon for more posts in this vein.