Friday 2 March 2007

Khaled Anatolios: two books on Athanasius

Thanks to Routledge for review copies of these two books:

Khaled Anatolios, Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought (Routledge Early Church Monographs Series; London: Routledge, 1998; paperback 2005), 258 pp.

Khaled Anatolios (ed.), Athanasius (Early Church Fathers Series; London: Routledge, 2004), 293 pp.

In the first of these two books, Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought, the brilliant young theologian Khaled Anatolios offers a close analysis of the internal “grammar” of Athanasius’ thought. The study focuses consistently on what Anatolios sees as the centre of coherence in Athanasius’ theology: “the distinction, and simultaneous relation, between God and the world” (p. 3). This is an essentially Irenaean reading of Athanasius, and Anatolios argues that Athanasius is deeply indebted to Irenaeus’ theology (or at least to an Irenaean tradition), with its underlying theme of an immediate relation between God and creation.

Athanasius’ own ontology is based on a conception of “the relationship between God and creation, precisely in the radical opposition of created to uncreated” (p. 31). In his early works, Athanasius developed a fundamental ontological structure which would underpin all his later theology: namely, a structure of convergence between God’s transcendence and nearness. In the act of creating, “God asserts his transcendence over that which he brings into existence from nothing, as well as demonstrating his love which leads him generously to grant existence to what was not” (p. 41).

This view of the convergence between transcendence and immanence shapes Athanasius’ christology. God’s redemptive work in Christ follows the pattern of God’s relationship to the world as creator; it is in Christ that the distance between the world and God is both affirmed and traversed. Likewise, the total otherness between Christ’s two natures is decisively “bridged over” by the initiative of grace (p. 83).

In his mature anti-Arian writings, Athanasius develops his trinitarian theology on the basis of this same structure of transcendence and nearness. At the heart of his doctrine of the Trinity is the idea that “the relation between God and the world is both contained in and superseded by the relation between the Father and the Son” (p. 120). God’s (free and external) creative act is grounded in God’s (necessary and internal) act of generating the Son, so that the relation between God and creation is “contained or ‘enfolded’ within the intra-divine relation of the Father and the Son” (p. 123).

Further, the incarnation of the Word modifies the relationship between God and creation at every point. Indeed, Athanasius is not interested so much in describing the specific constitution of Christ’s person as he is in describing “the new relation between God and creation that is given in Christ” (p. 146). In Christ, the God-world relation is “divinised,” and the christological model of this divinisation is a pattern of God’s (active) “giving” and the creature’s (passive) “receiving.” It is thus precisely God’s “gift” (χάρις) that radically qualifies the distinction and separateness between God and created nature.

If Athanasius conceives of christology in terms of giving and receiving, he also views anthropology in terms of “active passivity” (p. 60) – a passivity in which human agents maintain their proper openness towards the active giving of God. Nevertheless, this account of human passivity does not preclude a strong emphasis on the co-operation between humans and God. The fundamental model of this “synergy” is, for Athanasius, prayer: “Prayer, understood as the invocation of divine presence and assistance, is the human counterpart to the divine power” (p. 186). Prayer is thus active passivity; it is receptivity and openness to the initiative of the divine generosity.

Anatolios concludes his study by proposing that Athanasius’ theology offers a valuable resource for the contemporary theological task of articulating the Christian gospel. He suggests that Athanasius’ model of the relation between divine transcendence and nearness steers a safe course between both the “anthropocentric monism” of Schleiermacher and the “incipient dualism” of Barth. That is, Athanasius’ model “succeeds in affirming both the ineffable, sovereignly free and transcendent being of God (with Barth) and the nearness of this ineffable presence within the human realm (with Schleiermacher)” (p. 209). Even if this account rests on a rather schematic critique of Barth and Schleiermacher, Anatolios has convincingly demonstrated the powerful insight and the continuing dogmatic significance of Athanasius’ ontology.

Furthermore, this very fine study is now complemented by Anatolios’ impressive edition, simply entitled Athanasius. This work brings together new translations of some of Athanasius’ most important writings. There are selections from the Orations against the Arians (pp. 87-175) and Letters to Serapion on the Holy Spirit (pp. 212-33), together will the full texts of On the Council of Nicaea (pp. 176-211) and Letter 40: To Adelphius (pp. 234-42).

Anatolios introduces each text and provides extensive annotations, and he introduces the whole collection with an excellent overview of Athanasius’ life and thought (pp. 1-86). In this lengthy introductory essay, he emphasises (as in the monograph) the God-world relation as the structuring principle of Athanasius’ theology. But he also places special emphasis on the christological and soteriological character of the relation between God and creation – and he surveys the whole broad terrain of Athanasius’ thought, demonstrating the sharp christological and soteriological concentration of that thought at every point.

Together, these two works by Khaled Anatolios offer a lucid, compelling and richly rewarding account of the thought of the great Egyptian bishop. Anatolios’ deep learning and profound sympathies with his subject make his work an indispensable guide to Athanasius’ theological thought.


Anonymous said...

Barth, of course, was not keen on the language of cooperation and synergy, but from what you say in your review, Ben, I suspect that Anatolios seriously misreads him. From what Anatolios actually says about Athanasius, supplemented by T.F. Torrance's close readings of both Athanasius and Barth, there is not much between them that can't be explained by their intellectual contexts and polemical concerns. Athanasius was a proto-Barthian, and Barth a true heir of Athanasius.

Shane said...

athanasius was a proto-barthian?

thanks kim for these informative reviews. I've been wanting to read more athanasius recently, so I will definitely go try to pick up a copy of these works!


Anonymous said...

I wish I had done the review, Shane, but that's Ben's work. I just added the cheeky comment (for which Ben is not responsible)!

Myers and Fabricius are sometimes confused - which I take to be a huge compliment - but I'm the has-ben.

Weekend Fisher said...

Athanasius has always been my favorite of the early Christian writers for a very simple reason: you could hand the book to an atheist and, in reading it, he could become a Christian. He has the gospel that powerfully and that clearly that he has never forgotten that the good news is Christ; the Word is incarnate and that dissecting it is anti-incarnational, leading to lesser knowledge not greater.

Ben Myers said...

Someone posted a full journal article as a comment -- I've deleted this comment, since it was so long (and in breach of copyright). But I'll reproduce the last paragraph here -- it's from Richard A. Muller's article, "The Barth Legacy: New Athanasius or Origen Redivivus? A Response to T. F. Torrance", published in The Thomist:

"If, then, the patristic parallel must be made, Barth is not a new Athanasius. He is an Origen rediviv us, the author of a grand and at times highly insightful but also utterly nonnormative theological system. Just as the early church refused the gambit of uncritical followers of Origen like Rufinus and Gregory Thaumaturgus--the gambit of an origenistic systematization of the church's body of doctrine--so also we hope, and fully expect, that the church today in its wisdom will refuse the Torrancian gambit of a Barthian orthodoxy. If brilliance alone were the test of greatness, Barth might well find his place in the company of Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin. But the test also requires that the brilliant mind carry forward the great tradition of Christian witness with new insight into the meaning of its norms and with respect for the boundaries of formulation that it has established over the course of centuries. Inasmuch as Barth fails before this second criterion, he must be placed on a lower rank where, like Origen, he can insightfully press theology forward toward a synthesis of the truths of the faith that he himself could not attain. This much and no more is the legitimate legacy of Karl Barth."

Anonymous said...

The Anatolios volumes are wonderful. I'm glad to see you promoting them. Everyone should read them. I have only one reservation.

He doesn't quite seem to get the full implication of Athanasius's use of the Greek preposition "anti" when discussing Christ's saving death, especially in On the Incarnation. (The old translation published by SVS Press does get it while the Oxford bi-lingual edition doesn't.)

Athanasius sees that when Christ died "for us," he died "in our place" (anti). Athanasius has a healthy understanding of the substitutionary element in Christ's death.

And by the way, unlike the 17th-century figures with whom Professor Muller is so enamored, Athanasius, in discussing the sacrifice of Christ, never severed the idea of our objective participation in it from that of substitution, nor did he make punishment the point of substitution – a move of enormous consequence.

Professor Muller, who is very learned and always worth reading, sometimes allows his judgment to go astray. He doesn't really get Barth, for example, nor does he get how close Barth is to Athanasius and Cyril. (T. F. Torrance did get it.)

Edward Oakes, S.J., the von Balthasar scholar, has recently written:

I recommend Russian Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev’s lecture “Christ the Conqueror of Hell,” delivered at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Minneapolis on November 5, 2002. My favorite passage is this: “The doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades occupies an essential place in the works of Cyril of Alexandria. In his Paschal Homilies, he repeatedly mentions that as a consequence of the descent of Christ into Hades, the devil was left all alone, while hell was devastated: ‘For having destroyed hell and opened the impassable gates for the departed spirits, He left the devil there abandoned and lonely.’”

Barth sides with the likes of Cyril on these matters, not with Origen, and not with 17th-c. Protestant scholasticism.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review. Sounds like these books will be very helpful for thinking about the doctrine of creation.

Brandon Jones said...

Ben, I'm late in telling you thanks for this. Muller is a lot of fun to have in class, and of course, while always worth reading, is fallible. He usually restrains himself from such strong judgments above in print but those comments do reflect his understanding of Barth's legacy as best as I can tell. His joke is that Barth is clearly the greatest 20th century theologian, which is not a complement.

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