4 Stars Out Of 5
Great Introduction to Athanasius
July 9, 2017
If studying early Church history in general has lost popularity with most Christians in the past few decades, then studying the early Church Fathers has lost more. Many simply say we have the Bible, why do we need to know what someone else taught? While this argument appears to have merit on its face, it lacks substance. Most of those who would make this argument would probably also say that their pastor does a good job with his sermons on Sundays, showing their inconsistency.
Dr. John R. Tyson does an excellent job explaining why it is valuable for a 21st century Christian to know about early Church Fathers. In his work, The Great Athanasius, Tyson not only explains who Athanasius (ca. 296-373 AD/CE) was, but also why he is important to the state of the Church today.
Tyson begins by providing the reader with the setting for Athanasius life, beginning in Alexandria. Alexandria, named after its founder, Alexander the Great, was to be the capital city for Alexanders rule in the Middle East. The importance of this location, Tyson explains, may have influenced the ecclesiastical strength that Alexandria was able to exert in the Church for centuries. Notable religious thinkers such as Philo and Origen both made their homes in Alexandria. Tyson provides an interesting argument for Athanasius birth and ethnicity. He, like many other scholars, cites Justo Gonzalez claim that Athanasius was referred to as the black dwarf by his opponents (38). While I have not been able to substantiate this claim, Tyson presents an interesting argument. He argues that because of Athanasius languages (Coptic and Greek), as well as the fact that he was loved by common people, accompanied with the black dwarf claim, mean that Athanasius was probably from the native Egyptian Coptic population rather than the higher class Greek population. This is an important piece to note for todays Christians, especially in the United States because it helps to show that Christianity is a multi-ethnic religion. It throws away all pretense of racial superiority and acknowledges that we owe a great debt to those outside of Western Europe for a defense of orthodoxy. This is not Tysons point in writing this, but I thought it was a valuable point (Dr. Tyson agreed in an email conversation we had on this point).
From this introduction, Tyson has set the stage for the rest of Athanasius life. From humble beginnings, Athanasius rose to prominence in the early Church. Tyson begins by examining Athanasius works before the Athanasius became a well-known name in Church history. Athanasius became bishop of Alexandria around 328 AD/CE. wrote on many subjects, but a key theme in the many of his writings was the deity of Jesus Christ. He wrote his Against the Heathen and On The Incarnation as polemic works supporting the validity of the Christian faith over against the pagan religions of the day (53). These works also laid the groundwork for Athanasius support of the deity of Jesus Christ as the Second Person of the Triune Christian God (53). This would come into play much more in the issue that defined Athanasius life and ministry to the Church. This issue was the Arian controversy.
Tyson takes time to lay out the foundation of the Arian controversy by briefly sketching the life of Arius (69). Arius (ca 256-336 AD/CE) was a Libyan presbyter (pastor) who rose to prominence in Alexandria shortly before Athanasius did (ca 311). Tyson explains the Arian theology clearly. He writes that the . . . Arians would eventually conclude that (1) the Son, created by God the Father, is a creature Who is superior to all other creatures; and (2) there was a time when the Father existed and the Son did not exist (46).
This theological issue is what led to the council of Nicaea in 325 AD/CE (contrary to what you may have read in a Dan Brown book from the turn of the century). Tyson explains the political motivation surrounding the council as well as the theological issues at stake. This defined much of Athanasius ecclesiastical and political life. He was engrossed in the Arian controversy so much that he was exiled no less than 5 times for his views and actions. Nevertheless, Tyson records Athanasius actions and arguments for the orthodox Christian position in each of his 5 periods of exile.
Tysons work is a thorough introduction of Athanasius life and teaching. Dr. Tysons work was very easy to read, which can be difficult when it comes to Church History, and when the book is lengthy. However, the book was a light read for those with some knowledge of Church History and the issues in Athanasius time. For those who do not have much experience in Church History, this would be a good book to pick up and get started in. It would be a good exercise in stretching your mind but not so much as to break your will to learn about the heritage that Christians have from these early Christians.