Athanasius: a Theological Introduction. By Thomas G. Weinandy
Article first published online: 8 JUN 2009
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 4, pages 706–707, July 2009
How to Cite
Meredith, A. (2009), Athanasius: a Theological Introduction. By Thomas G. Weinandy. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 706–707. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00501_10.x
- Issue published online: 8 JUN 2009
- Article first published online: 8 JUN 2009
Pp. xii, 150 , Aldershot , Ashgate , 2007 , $30.00 .
This elegantly written and produced book is one part of a new Ashgate venture entitled Great Theologians Series. Other writers dealt with are Owen, Barth, Aquinas and AnseIm. In the course of seven chapters and a conclusion the author explores the important contribution made by Athanasius. The whole book is unusually dedicated to lrenaeus and Cyril of Alexandria. After dealing with the life of Athanasius in chapter 1 we pass on to his understanding of salvation in chapters 2 and 3 especially as this is revealed in his earlier works Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione. This interest is reflected also in chapter 5, The Redemptive Life of the Incarnate Son, and serves to underline the fact that soteriology lies at the heart of Athanasius' vision of Christ and above all of his divinity. The same is to a large extent true of chapter 7, Being conformed to the likeness of Christ. Chapters 4 and 6 discuss Athanasius' defence of the creed of Nicaea and of the deity of the Holy Spirit. Oddly enough there is no discussion of the dating of the sources upon which the book's argument rests.
One of the overriding themes of this book is the insistence of the author on the biblical roots of the theology of Athanasius, for which he makes out a strong case. In doing so, however, he ignores or rather pays no attention to the possibility of philosophy having exercised any influence upon Athanasius. On page 1, indeed, Weinandy does refer to Athanasius' ‘cursory knowledge of philosophy’. To some extent this is a matter of outlook, even so it is worth noting that both in Contra Gentes 41 and in the De Incarnatione 3 there is a clear dependence upon the thought of the divine goodness as the ultimate cause of creation, which comes straight out of Plato's Timaeus 29 e. - an idea that also surfaces in Gregory of Nyssa's Catechetical Oration 5. It may of course be true that such references are indeed cursory and unimportant, but there is a feeling that the case might have been argued more. Further, Athanasius is eager to establish the fitting character of the intervention of God in the history of salvation and this too is a very Hellenic idea, as Werner Jaeger has shown.
In his efforts to establish the biblical orthodoxy of Athanasius there is a tendency on the part of the author to ignore or to smooth away certain expressions that on the face of it seem to point in an unacceptable direction. The most obvious and serious case of this occurs in the De Incarnatione in chapters 8 and 9. There and elsewhere in the treatise Athanasius habitually uses the word σωμα or body with which to refer to the humanity of Christ rather than σαρξ or flesh that we find in John 1,14. Where there is no mention of the soul of Christ it is easier for Athanasius to argue that one of the central purposes of the Incarnation is that by looking at Jesus we can see God, not simply the human face of Christ.
The difficulty with such a treatment of Christ is that it runs up against the fact that several passages from the bible imply the creaturely and ignorant nature of Jesus. This is above all true of Proverbs 8, 22 ‘The Lord begat/created me’. This and other passages are discussed above all in Contra Arianos 1, 37, 3, 58. In that work Athanasius argues that scripture offers a double account of the Saviour, as being both divine and human. In other words the unity of body/divinity has been sacrificed in favour of a more divisive picture.
The main criticism of this clearly written work is that if ignores or fails to come to terms with certain apparent inconsistencies or developments in the thought of Athanasius. The main area of the author's concern, is Athanasius' treatment of soteriology. My main criticism of the book is that it is too apologetic and insufficiently critical of Athanasius' position. What sort of humanity did the Word assume and again how were the fruits of the Incarnation communicated to they human race?