While I was compiling the last Patristics Carnival, two posts, both posted on May 2nd, the feast day of St. Athanasius, caught my attention. First, Fred Sanders, an evangelical Protestant theologian teaching at Biola University, considered St. Athanasius' multi-front- ten, according to Sanders, but who's counting- theological wars. This is a classic conservative take on Athanasius, emphasizing the theme of Athanasius contra mundum in all its heroism. In this view, Athanasius was the stubborn theological warrior who continued to stand for what was right, despite almost universal imperial, ecclesiastical and theological hostility to his spirited defence of the decision made at Nicaea in 325 BC. While, ultimately vindicated, Athanasius was forced to stand alone for more than a generation, enduring imperial violence, no less than four exiles and endless vitriol aimed at him by his enemies. His resistance preserved orthodoxy in an age where heterodoxy was ascendant. Sanders' treatment of this theme is careful and scholarly, yet aimed at bringing out Athanasius' heroic qualities.
Sanders' article is contrasted by an article by the Rev. Laura Toepfer, an Episcopal priest, in which Athanasius' arguments against his opponents, the Arians, are analysed with an attempt to linking them used in current Anglican disputes. In particular, she notes that Arians claimed that Athanasius' term homoousios (of the same substance-which was at the heart of Christological issue which Arius raised) was unscriptural and against tradition. She notes that this is similar to the claims of the theological conservatives in the Anglican church and enlists St. Athanasius in the attempt to 'sort out this whole 'orthodoxy' thing'. The picture that is left for us is St. Athanasius as a theological innovator and his opponents, the conservatives of the day. In the context of Anglican-speak, there is strong implication that, since St. Athanasius proved right, the innovators in the Anglican Church today will also prove right as well.
My intention in drawing attention to these posts is not so much to condemn one or the other position. Neither position is precisely right or wrong. Nor do these two positions represent the sum total of ways to understand St. Athanasius' career or impact on how Christians think about their faith. A much more hostile view might emphasize the occasional riots caused by Athanasius' strongest supporters, the monks, or weave a conspiracy out of the court gossip that Athanasius was plotting with the usurper, Magnentius, to cut off Egyptian grain to Constantius' capital, Constantinople. Ultimately, both of these views represented are as positive as you can get, given the theological predispositions of the posters. The heroic churchman, defending orthodoxy against all comers, appeals to conservatives, who see Athanasius as setting an example of how to deal with a church culture which seems to have turned against the faith we have received. The bold innovator makes sense to liberals, who see themselves as boldly fixing the errors of the past, brushing past the erroneous traditionalists who quote faulty understanding of Scripture and tradition to support their untenable positions.
I should, of course, say that I'm more sympathetic to the first poster I cite than to the second. I think that the view of St. Athanasius as the theological innovator has a basis of fact, but it is rather overdone by the second poster (drawing, whether directly or indirectly, on Rowan William's Arius). I think this because Arius can only be considered a conservative only by assuming that Originism and Platonic Christianity was the sum total of tradition. That would, I suggest, be a faulty understanding of tradition which had, from the beginning, some real concerns with Origen and the influence of Greek philosophy on Christian theology. It would also ignore St. Athanasius' own debt to Origen. Athanasius drew on Origen, but he also drew on other streams of the tradition than that (his debt to St. Irenaeus is, I note, considerable). Still, I am a moderate conservative and an evangelical at heart, so it shouldn't be surprising that I would hold this position.
What I am trying to emphasize in this post, however, is that important historical figures such as St. Athanasius are much more complex than we necessarily remember in conventional treatments. Nor do I think it right to adopt too monolithic a view of anyone, whether that view was positive or not. It neither helps the cause of Christian history to white-wash a saint, or, conversely, to tar and feather them. I firmly believe that, if Christian history is to be taken seriously, we have to look with open eyes at the virtues and the sins of our saints. St. Athanasius was a brilliant polemicist, organizer and theologian, but he wasn't always scrupulous in his political tactics. Ignoring one or the other aspect of him will produce a distorted picture of a very important person in the life of the Church.
Ultimately, we have to remember our saints are men, not plaster statues. They strove to do right. They sometimes failed in ways that are obvious to us, but, perhaps, weren't so obvious to them. That doesn't make them any less of a saint. It merely makes them human. It merely makes them accessible representatives of what God's grace can do in our own lives.