Thursday, January 24, 2013

Athanasius on Theological Training

Years ago, I read St. Athanasius' On the Incarnation of the Word of God and was less than impressed. In fact, I hated it. Sure, there were some neat things in it, but I couldn't find myself agreeing with his soteriology (where was the eternal predestinating decree? the justification by faith alone? the penal substitution?) or his Christology (these were, after all, my unitarian days). Mostly, though, I was upset by what I conceived of as his sloppy use of language in speaking about Christ. That was six years ago (approximately). Then, I revisited his thought for a couple of classes at Trinity School for Ministry, in which I realized that his use of philosophical language was actually quite keen: by utilizing some of the terminology and concepts of Platonism he effectively burst the whole system open ("there are more things in heaven and earth, Arius, than are dreamt of in your philosophy"). It follows, now that I've reread his masterwork, that I should take some of the things back which I have said. Often when rereading what I've wrote in the past my reaction has lately been, "Fair enough, but have you thought about..." Possibly my thought is maturing, or at least that is what I hope.

I decided to revisit the work in the last week. Mostly this was for the excellent introduction done by C.S. Lewis, which I wanted to share with some of my colleagues at Geneva College. However, I couldn't resist reading the actual work, especially given some information I had gathered about his famous "He assumed humanity that we might become God" (this was the earlier crux of my displeasure with the work: "Greek philosophy!" I said. I have since moderated this view.). At the end of the book Athanasius gives some stunning recommendations about the studying of Scripture, which I think every student of theology -- especially those considering a "career" in the field -- needs to closely heed:
But for the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and a pure soul, and for Christian virtue to guide the mind to grasp, so far as human nature can, the truth concerning God the Word. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life. Anyone who wants to look at sunlight naturally wipes his eye clear first, in order to make, at any rate, some approximation to the purity of that on which he looks; and a person wishing to see a city or country goes to the place in order to do so. Similarly, anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds. Thus united to them in the fellowship of life, he will both understand the things revealed to them by God and, thenceforth escaping the peril that threatens sinners in the judgment, will receive that which is laid up for the saints in the kingdom of heaven.
Understanding of the Scriptures is not contingent on seminary training (and, as is true of all education, such training can either be helpful -- it was in my case -- or quite detrimental), but rather a life seeking after holiness in Christ. There is an ascetical bent to the reading and interpreting of the Scriptures that is not commonly taught to theological students. But it is vital. My own life is witness to that.

No comments: