According to tradition, St. Atony died on January 17, 356. Although he was not the first Christian monk, he is usually considered the founder of Christian monasticism as his life and teachings were so influential in establishing the monastic patterns of those who came after him.
Athanasius’ Life of Antony is an important source of information about the great Christian and went a long way toward establishing his reputation in later Christianity. Here is how Athanasius explains his reasons for writing his biography of St. Antony.
Now since you asked me to give you an account of the blessed Antony’s way of life, and are wishful to learn how he began the discipline, who and what manner of man he was previous to this, how he closed his life, and whether the things told of him are true, that you also may bring yourselves to imitate him, I very readily accepted your behest, for to me also the bare recollection of Antony is a great accession of help. And I know that you, when you have heard, apart from your admiration of the man, will be wishful to emulate his determination; seeing that for monks the life of Antony is a sufficient pattern of discipline. Wherefore do not refuse credence to what you have heard from those who brought tidings of him; but think rather that they have told you only a few things, for at all events they scarcely can have given circumstances of so great import in any detail. And because I at your request have called to mind a few circumstances about him, and shall send as much as I can tell in a letter, do not neglect to question those who sail from here: for possibly when all have told their tale, the account will hardly be in proportion to his merits.
Brian LePort sparked quite the discussion yesterday with a question about “must read” theologians.
So what makes someone a bonafide “must read if you are serious about biblical/theological studies”? Who would you say is a must read, why, and what is your criteria? Also, is given “must read” always a must read (e.g. I don’t image Barth matters to those who spend their days in textual criticism or the Gospel of Thomas)? Is there anyone who is always a must read?
From there, the discussion ranged rather far afield, with most of the discussion focusing on whether people like Barth and Torrance qualify as must-read theologians. I commented early in the discussion and started to comment again toward the end. But, my comment got too long. So, I decided to turn it into a post of its own. Then that got too long. So now I think I’ll end up with a short series on what it means to say that someone is a “must read” theologian.
Reading the comments on Brian’s post, I was intrigued by how difficult it seems to be to keep separate the question of whether someone is a must-read because of their historical significance and whether they’re a must-read because of the inherent value of their theology. In this post, then, I’m going to comment on what I think makes for a must-read theologian in the former (historical) sense. Tomorrow, I’ll comment on what it means to be a must-read theologian in the latter sense. And, I’ll try to follow that up with a third post offering my list of must-read theologians (in both senses).
For me, determining whether someone falls into the former category (historical must-read) really has to do with the extent to which understanding that person is necessary for understanding a significant portion of Christian theology. For example, one simply must have some understanding of Augustine and Aquinas to have any real grasp of what’s been happening in Western theology pretty much ever since. The same would hold true in the East for theologians like Athanasius, John of Damascus, and Gregory Palamas (to name just a few). For me, people like these constitute the “giants” of theology – people we must read to have a deep understanding of entire Christian traditions. (This isn’t to say, of course, that their theology is necessarily better than that of other, lesser-known theologians; only that their theology has had a level of historical influence that places it in a distinct category.)
After these giants, there is a secondary level of historical must-reads, those people who are necessary for understanding their generation, and certainly had significant influence on later thinkers, but never rose to the level of defining an entire tradition. In this category I would put people like Tertullian, Ambrose of Milan, Bonaventure, Melancthon (depending on how you understand his impact on the Lutheran tradition), and others. These are important figures and well worth studying in their own right. But, for me, they are only must-reads for people specializing in their era of church history or who want a more thorough grasp of the particular tradition they represent.
Much of the debate about theological must-reads, though, focuses on a third category – those people who are are still alive or who died fairly recently. This is a debated category because it’s nearly impossible to assess their historical significance yet. Personally, I would not categorize any living theologian (or even any of those who have died recently) as a historical must-read. I think you need to be at least a generation or two removed from a person before you have any hope of making that kind of assessment. Each generation has its larger-than-life theologians who are largely forgotten by later generations. (And, that’s not a knock against their theology. Every generation needs people to rise up and engage the theological task in ways that are meaningful for that generation. Most will not be talked about by later generations, but they still performed a valuable and needful task for the church.) So, for me, if you were alive and writing within the last forty years, you would probably not qualify yet as a historical must-read. Indeed, as we’ll see in tomorrow’s post, even forty years is barely enough time to make this kind of assessment.
So, my main must-read category is reserved for those who are historical must-reads, primarily those who are theological “giants” because they established a theological trajectories for entire traditions.
Many thanks to Brian LePort for handling these posts while I was at the Acton conference. I have returned and will be posting some more reflections on Acton over the next day or so. But, for now, here are some interesting links.
- Peter Leithart has a very helpful post on whether we should continue to use the label “Arian” despite recent historical studies suggesting that Athanasius’ opponents were far too diverse to be covered by a single label like this.
- There’s been a lot of discussion lately about Ron Hendel’s decision to relinquish his SBL membership over concerns that the society has changed its position on the relationship between faith and biblical studies, and that it has done so for largely financial reasons (i.e. they’re trying to recruit more evangelical and fundamentalist scholars). John Hobbins, Mike Bird, and Jim West have all offered comments.
- Jim West asks if someone can be a committed Christian and a practicing homosexual. In the process, he presses on the popular notion of what it means to be a “committed” Christian and how this relates to ongoing sinful practices in general.
- Diglogtting reviews Don Schweitzer’s Contemporary Christologies. It sounds like a good, brief resource for familiarizing yourself with a variety of recent less-traditional approaches to Christology. The apparent lack of material dealing with more traditional Christologies, though, belies the back-cover claim that the book deals with the “chief approaches” in Christology since WWII.
- CT has posted its June 2010 interview with Al Erisman, who contends that “we need to think about ministry in the digital culture the way missionaries think about the culture of the people they serve”. They’ve also posted the responses by Wha-Chul Son, Haron Wachira, Nigel Cameron, and Juan Rogers. If you’re wanting to understand some of the pros and cons involved in using technology in ministry, this would be a good conversation to follow.
- With the growing use of the rosary in popular culture, Alan Creech offers a helpful primary on the rosary.
- Stuart discusses some recent claims that fundamentalist Christians are using the BP oil spill to support their eschatology. Joel Watts offers some thoughts as well.
- C. Michael Patton offers some thoughts on his two days as an atheist. His story raises some interesting questions about the nature of faith, doubt, and disbelief.
- And, apparently if you jump onto a moving semi on a dare, you should have some plan for getting down.
We’ve started posting a number of papers and abstracts that some of the Th.M. students wrote during last semester’s class on the Greek Fathers. The class started with Irenaeus and Origen as two fathers who exercised a profound influence on the later Greek Fathers. We then worked our way from Athanasius to John of Damascus. So far we’ve posted the papers that were written on Irenaeus, Origen, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and John of Damascus. We’ll be posting a few others over the next couple of weeks.
We also compiled a working Greek Fathers Annotated Bibliography. This is far from an exhaustive bibliography, but it does provide good resources on each of the individuals studied as well as a number of resources on theosis.
At the very beginning of discourse I of Against the Arians the great Athanasius answers those who argued that the Arians were still Christians. I think his response is brilliant, witty, and pithy. He writes the following,
For what have they discovered in this heresy like to the religious Faith, that they vainly talk as if its supporters said no evil? This in truth is to call even Caiaphas a Christian, and to reckon the traitor Judas still among the Apostles, and to say that they asked Barrabas instead of the Saviour did no evil, and to recommend Hymenaeus and Alexander as right-hand men, as if the Apostle slandered them. (I.2)
It doesn’t get more straightforward that that. Athanasius’ answer regarding whether or not Arius and his followers are still Christians despite being heretical is sarcastically, “Yes, if Caiaphas who had Christ killed is a Christian, if Judas is still an apostle, if choosing Barrabas was not an insult to Christ, and if the Apostle Paul wrongly framed those who persecuted him, sure, then he is a Christian.” There is no doubt how he would have answered at least part of the question asked in class!
This post has been modified from here.
(2) Athanasius Timeline (created by Aaron West)
(7) “The Life and Ministry of Athanasius” lecture by John Piper here.
Reprinted from here.
In his “Letter to Marcellinus” the great Athanasius writes these words regarding the value of reciting the Psalms:
Let each one, therefore, who recites the Psalms have a sure hope hope that through them God will speedily give ear to those who are in need. For if a man be in trouble when he says them, great comfort will he find in them; if he be tempted or persecuted, he will find himself abler to stand the test and will experience the protection of the Lord, Who always defends those who say these words. By them too a man will overthrow the devil and put the fiends to fight. If he have sinned, when he uses them he will repent; if he have not sinned, he will find himself rejoicing that he is stretching out towards the things that are before and, so wrestling, in the power of the Psalms he will prevail. Never will such a man be shaken from the truth, but those who try to trick and lead him into error he will refute; and it is no human teacher who promises us this, but the Divine Scripture itself.
I noticed a few things: (1) Athanasius understands the Psalms to have what we may call “devotional” value yet (2) he understand these very Psalms to have doctrinal value (preserving us from error) and elsewhere speaks of the Psalms as being a type of micro-canon containing all the truth of the Hebrew Scriptures in another format. Finally, (3) he sees the Psalms as inspired writing, the words of God, and therefore true in their promise to sustain us.
Reprinted form here.