Most people who read the writings of Athanasius are struck by his singlemindedness. Most of his writings are ad hoc, responses to provocations in the hectic, decades-long argument with Arianism. Yet his theological vision is undistractable. He seems to be a pastoral satellite orbiting one vast doctrinal planet.
What about that planet? Everybody who studies him feels compelled to bear witness to the profound coherence and interconnectedness of his theology. In scholarship about Athanasius, you always run into sentences like “The central point of his theology is obviously _______.” But there’s not quite unanimity about what fills in the blank.
Back in seminary I made a habit of collecting these “center of his theology” lines (what’s your hobby?), and below are several of them. My own view is that the center of Athanasius’ theology is large and clustered, which means I can affirm several (not all) of the observations made below without needing to resolve the differences. And for me, the overall effect of reading these 16 attempts to identify the core of Athanasian theology is that they make me want to read more Athanasius.
Athanasius was not a systematic theologian: that is he produced no many-sided theology like that of Origen or Augustine. He had no interest in theological speculation, none of the instincts of a schoolman or philosopher. His theological greatness lies in his firm grasp of soteriological principles, in his resolute subordination of everything else, even the formula homoousion, to the central fact of Redemption, and to what that fact implied as to the Person of the Redeemer. He goes back from the Logos of the philosophers to the Logos of S. John, from the God of the philosophers to God in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. … To Athanasius the Incarnation of the Son of God, and especially his Death on the Cross, is the centre of faith and theology. (“Prolegomena” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series, volume 4 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1891), lxix.)
“Cur Deus homo?” This question, which forms the living, central point of the Athanasian theology, arises above all in the treatise On the Incarnation. (Die Lehre Des Heiligen Athanasius des Grossen (Leipzig: Gustav Fock Verlag,1895), iii. 110)
Athanasius is the true Christian theologian, because for him Christianity is not a dead system of doctrine and statements of faith, but living faith in Jesus Christ. The divine-human person of the savior is the central point, toward which everything recurs, and from which light streams out to everything else. (Lehre, 12)
The thought of redemption is the keynote of his theology. His central idea is that by the Incarnation the Divine Being Himself entered into the world of humanity, in order to fulfill its obligations, and to lift it into the life of fellowship with God –in a word, to ‘deify’ human nature. (The Doctrine of the Incarnation, Vol. II (New York: Macmillan, 1896), 29-30)
W. Emery Barnes:
Athanasius, though an Alexandrian, was not a speculative theologian, but a great Christian pastor….Redemption was the centre of his teaching. As far as Athanasius’ theology was systematic, it was a systematizing of Scripture. …Athanasius’ own teaching is best described as a direct and complete repudiation of the teaching of Arius. (“Athanasius” in Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, James Hastings, gen. ed. Volume 3, 170-171)
He immediately proceeds further, to center his doctrine round the supreme theological truth, the dogma of the divinity of the Son and of the Incarnation. This he does in the second part of the Discourse on the Incarnation already referred to….The theme of the discourse is the communication of virtue, power, and sanctity, in a word, of supernatural life, which takes place between the Christians and Christ and manifests the union that exists between the Head and the members; in other words, it is the unity of the Mystical Body. (The Whole Christ (London: Dennis Dobson Ltd, 1938), 265 266)
The center of the theology of Athanasius: we must live a genuinely divine life, and this life is literally the life of Christ in us. (L’Incarnatione et l’Eglise Corps du Christ dans la théologie de saint Athanase (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1943), 46- 47)
St. Athanasius was on fire with the love of Christ. …His love of Christ is the key to his whole life and also to his writings. Christ, the Word incarnate, occupies the central position in the doctrinal system of this celebrated Doctor of the Church, as all writers on Athanasius observe. It is true, he did not write a Summa of Christology or of theology; however, from his writings we can build up a rather complete system of religious thought in his day. In that system Christ, under one aspect or another, is always in the central place. (“A Special Aspect of Athanasian Soteriology,” Franciscan Studies 6 (1946), 30)
Athanasius sets out the central theme of the Alexandrian Christology at its best. His chief concern is with the power of the new life in Christ which we share; his divinity makes his life might and his humanity makes it ours. (“Introduction” in Christology of the Later Fathers, Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954), 18)
He never had time or opportunity for a dispassionate and systematic exposition. Moreover, the time for systems had probably not yet come. But there was a perfect consistency and coherence in his theological views. His theological vision was sharp and well focused. His grasp of the problems was unusually sure and firm. In the turmoil of a heated debate he was able to discern clearly the real crux of the conflict. From tradition St. Athanasius inherited the catholic faith in the Divinity of the Logos. This faith was the true pivot of his theological thought. It was not enough to correct exegesis, to improve terminology, to remove misunderstandings. What needed correction in the age of St. Athanasius was the total theological perspective. (Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol. 8, The Byzantine Fathers of the Fifth Century (Vaduz: Buchervertriebsanstalt, 1987), 133 134)
For Athanasius the origination of the world and its impression by the Word are not separated in time. He wants to stress the duality of creation, which has its own fluctuating and created nature, and also bears the preserving stamp of the Word through whom it exists. Thus, creation has both “nature” and “grace.” Athanasius’ system is built on the distinction and opposition of these two elements. (Collected Works Vol. 7, The Eastern Fathers of the Fourth Century (Vaduz: Buchervertriebsanstalt, 1987), 44)
In any case, the fundamental intuition of Athanasius over which no doubt could be entertained and which motivates his entire refutation of Arianism is essentially Christological. More than anything else, through all sorts of arguments whose weaknesses are sometimes evident and whose development may appear quite clumsy, Athanasius insists that the Arians are mistake in their concept of theology, because they believe they are able to form a Christian idea of God by first developing in isolation the theory of the divinity of the Father and the Son, without taking into consideration right from the start the mystery of the incarnation of the Son. Although Athanasius changed his technical terminology several times, he remained faithful throughout his life to this fundamental intuition: that which is first in the exposition of the Christian faith is not God as such, nor the universe in its divine origin, but the historical event of salvation accomplished in Christ. (“Athanasius of Alexandria and the Foundation of Traditional Christology,” Theological Studies 34 (1973), 112.
…Athanasius’ theology, whose central insight is into the sharp distinction between God and all other reality, and the consequent fragility of created being and its need for God to intervene to rescue it. (“Narrative in the Theology of St. Athanasius,” Colloquium 10 (1977), 10)
The teaching of deification constitutes the primary and central idea of the whole theology of St. Athanasius. (“Aspects of Athanasian Soteriology,” in Greek Patristic Theology (New York: E.O. Press, 1979), 34)
His method is first to trace a circle of ideas in reply to a question or in defence of a particular point of doctrine. Then he enlarges the circle, possibly repeating what he has already said, but adding new points, and he may go on to construct a third circle where the early ideas recur once more. We might call it a concentric style of writing, and the result is that Athanasios’ writings are far from systematic in the Western sense of the word, and always lack a single central point. To discover his essential meaning we need to study the circles, not to search for the centre, and this is true above all in De Incarnatione Verbi. George Bebawi, “St. Athanasios: the Dynamics of Salvation,” Sobornost 8 (1986): 25.
As a work of post-baptismal catechesis, the De Incarnatione clearly reveals Athanasius’ basic conviction that the Incarnation was the central mystery of Christianity. In the light of that mystery, he could discuss creation, the fall, the saving work of Christ in the passion, death, and resurrection. … The theology of Athanasius is, clearly, a theology of the Incarnation. In addition to the pre-Arian De Incarnatione Dei Verbi, the Athanasian corpus reveals a perduring interest and reflection on the mystery of the Word of God. (“The Witness From Alexandria: Athanasius Contra Mundum,” Communio 14 (1987), 413.)
In the Father we have the Son: this is a summary of Athanasius’ theology. (The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1988), 426)
In making the incarnation the fact which determines his view of reality, rather than a fact which has to be slotted into an a priori ‘plausibility structure,’ Athanasius stands Christian theology and apologetic method in Alexandria on its head. … But Athanasius does not just begin his theology with the fact of the incarnation, and then move on to discuss other issues; rather he allows its radical significance to percolate through the whole of his understanding of man in his relationship to God, and it is nowhere more radical than in his exposition of the doctrine of redemption. (:The Two Soteriological Traditions of Alexandria,” Evangelical Quarterly 61(1989), 252 253)