Athanasius on Scripture

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.

  1. Where does this passage fit in the story of salvation? Whether they adopt more recent conventions and refer to years as BCE and CE or continue to use BC and AD, many people in the West use the Incarnation of Christ as a sort of fulcrum upon which rests their whole idea of time. Athanasius certainly viewed time this way and furthermore encouraged his readers to establish carefully whether a particular passage referred to Christ before or after his Incarnation (Allen Clayton noted this in his dissertation. See that work for a more thorough treatment of this idea than is possible here; note especially pages 223 and following).  To see the significance of this distinction, we need only examine Athanasius’ treatment of Philippians 2 in CA 1.41 in which Athanasius wrote, “the Word is not exalted for he was and ever is ‘equal to God’, but the exaltation is of the manhood. Accordingly, this is not said before the Word became flesh.” Thus, the use of Philippians 2 to argue that Christ is a creature who has been exalted due to his moral excellence should be rejected.
  2. Who is this passage about? In CA 1.54 Athanasius points his readers to Acts 8 in which after reading Isaiah 53,  the Ethiopian asks Phillip, “Who is the prophet saying this about–himself or someone else?” (CSB). Athanasius argued that the Ethiopian asked this question out of fear that he might misunderstand the text and “wander from the right sense” of Scripture. In the Second Oration Against the Arians, Athanasius offers his thoughts about Proverbs 8:22–a passage that was dear to Arian theologians because it, at least in the textual traditions used in Alexandria in the fourth-century, spoke of Wisdom as a creature. It was a simple matter, then, to equate Wisdom with Christ and to call Christ a creature. To Athanasius, those who did this had fallen into the very trap that the Ethiopian feared. Athanasius’ explanation of Proverbs 8:22 is lengthy and multifaceted, but he underscored the importance of identifying who a text is about in CA 2.44 before observing in the next that, “In this passage, not as signifying the essence of his Godhead nor his own everlasting and genuine generation from the Father, has the Word spoken by Solomon, but on the other hand his manhood and economy towards us.” In other words, Christ’s humanity was created, but his divinity was not.
  3. Does my interpretation of this passage respect the unity of Scripture? Athanasius’ use of Scripture suggests that he considered all of Scripture as a unified whole. To Athanasius, Scripture tells the story of God’s work of redemption the central point of which is the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. This story of salvation is the “matter” which Athanasius tells his readers to consider. For Athanasius, any interpretation of a particular passage that neglects the fact that Scripture is fundamentally about Christ’s redemptive work is to be rejected.

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.