Peter Leithart is a Cambridge graduate who serves as a senior fellow of Theology at New Saint Andrews College and as pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, ID. This volume on Athanasius is the first in a new Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Christian Spirituality series, edited by Hans Boersma and Matthew Levering, which investigates the interaction of biblical exegesis, theology, and metaphysics in the thought of the orthodox patristic fathers affirming the Nicene Creed.
Leithart’s volume on Athanasius is an elegant contribution to this series. While many available works examine the life and theology of Athanasius, this one gives greater attention to the biblical exegesis and metaphysical commitments which were foundational for the theological beliefs. In so doing, Leithart brings a few contemporary theologians into a theological dialogue with Athanasius – some of whom may seem to be somewhat surprising conversation partners with an early church father (including Jürgen Moltmann, Karl Rahner, Henri de Lubac, G. W. F. Hegel, John Behr, David Bentley Hart, Robert Jenson, Matthias Joseph Scheeman, and Adolph von Harnack). Although offering rich insights into how Athanasius was responding to his own historical situation, this work is not merely a work in historical theology. Leithart provides a thoughtful theological discussion of Athanasius’ theological contribution, particularly the doctrines of Christology and the Trinity. The role that doctrinal polemics against the heretical Arius played in Athanasius’ writing on these topics, of course, receives significant attention.
Leithart advocates “theological interpretation” (p. 28) which respects the premodern tradition in which interpretation is read by and for the church, and is seen not as a scientific enterprise but as a product of prayer and praise. Leithart exemplifies this tradition by beginning and ending this book with prayers “in the Augustinian mode” (xv-xvi, 175-176).
The interrelated historical, theological, biblical, and metaphysical insights that Leithart weaves through each chapter of this book are simply too rich to do justice to them in this review. An overview of a couple of such discussions will have to suffice.
One of the fundamental insights of the book is how the divine and human natures of Christ are distinctively intrinsic or proper (idios) to Him (66-88). The divine nature of Christ is intrinsic to God the Father. The Son participates fully with the Father in a perichoretic unity. The Father would be incomplete without the Son. Without the Son, God would not be the Father. The Sonness of the Son is intrinsic and co-eternal in the Fatherness of the Father. The Logos is begotten of the Father, not created or made like other aspects of creation, as the Arians alleged. The Son is thus fully divine.
So what of Jesus’ human nature? Did Jesus’ divinity, as R. P. C. Hanson suggests, so overpower His human nature that He was a “God in a space suit”? In other words, did Athanasius imbibe of a semi-docetic or Nestorian Christology? Although some of Athanasius’ exegesis (particularly his denial of Jesus’ professed ignorance at times) might excuse one for thinking so, Leithart argues that in fact Athanasius taught that human frailty was proper or intrinsic to the Word made incarnate. However, this fleshly existence is not eternally intrinsic to the Word in the same way that the Son’s relation to the Father. The human and fleshly existence is assumed voluntarily by Christ in the incarnation, so it becomes proper to Him by choice (idiopoieisthai). The Word assumed flesh, and suffering is proper to fleshly human existence. The incarnate Word is not divided, however. Both the human and divine natures of the Word participate in the Father (117-134). How then does the suffering Savior arise from Athanasius’ impassible God? The divine nature of the Logos does not suffer, but the flesh of the incarnate Word does suffer all the frailty and pain of human existence. Jesus is the “impassible sufferer” who is a co-sufferer with us (134-144).
Another rich discussion concerns the relation of nature and grace in Athanasius’ thought. Leithart contrasts Athanasius’ perspective with the sharp bifurcation between nature and grace proposed by Reformed thinker Michael Horton, neoscholastic theologian Matthias Joseph Scheeben, and Jesuit thinker Henri de Lubac. Although Horton, Scheeben, and de Lubac differ somewhat in their perspectives, they all view nature and grace in sharp contrast, using spatial metaphors such as grace being “above” nature. Each of them represents grace as being wholly extrinsic to human beings. In contrast, Athanasius saw greater continuity between nature and grace, with the distinction being more a matter of degree, described with a historical (before/after) rather than a spatial metaphor (100-116). Athanasius’ higher view of nature is in part due to his high view of creation, due to the Logos’ direct involvement in creation. In contrast to the Arians, who sought to distance God from creation, Athanasius presented creation ex nihilo and providence as reflections God’s grace. Indeed, for a theologian at a time dominated by the Platonic metaphysic, Athanasius affirms a surprisingly positive view of the physical side of human life (92-97).
These are just a few of the themes addressed in this excellent and thoughtful book. Highly recommended for those interested in patristic thought.