A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Justin Powell
Peter Barnes presents Athanasius with a style one expects in a quality lecture hall of academia. Each chapter is filled with historical data and a well-organized narrative. Barnes’ ability to cram a mountain of data in a small volume is impressive. Athanasius sits within a series on the Early Church Fathers, so a wide-view surveying the Church Father typically involves leaving out details. Indeed it remains a survey volume; however, Barnes is gracious enough to include a wide variety of scholarly voices allowing the student to pursue many other research roads. Barnes provides a wonderful first step into the life of Athanasius.
What also stands out in Barnes’ introduction to the great Church Father are the subtle flourishes which critique many of the current views in scholarly circles while maintaining a respectable posture. With so many scholars presented in this volume, it is inevitable that Barnes would disagree with some, and he readily points out the flaw of his opponents’ arguments. For example, Athanasius is typically presented as someone who coerced his viewpoints on the empire. Orthodoxy, as known today, is simply the winner in a fourth century political battle. On the contrary, Barnes demonstrates Athanasius’ ability to “absorb former opponents into his camp, which hardly fits the hostile view that Athanasius was a rigidly dogmatic megalomaniac” (95). Likewise, Constantine is something of a divisive figure. Barnes politely summarizes Ramsey MacMullen’s critique of the emperor as “just plain silly.” These small remarks pepper Athanasius and reveal Barnes’ own beliefs while attempting (albeit failing at times) to maintain a balanced survey of Athanasius’ life and times.
Almost paradoxically, Barnes’ strength as a writer also display related weaknesses. In an attempt to present a full story of Athanasius in such a small work, he spends the first few chapters building to Athanasius’ actual life. While the political strife of Rome leading to Constantine and the series of prior bishops in Alexandria are pertinent to the life of Athanasius, two solid chapters of introductory material is hardly necessary. As with all great figures in history, Athanasius was a product of his time, and thus, the material Barnes gives is necessary. However, for the sake of brevity in this survey work, it could also be condensed into one, or even a half, chapter. The Council of Nicaea receives its own chapter, which being one of, if not the, greatest turning points in Christian History, makes sense at first. However, as Barnes even notes, many scholars question just how involved Athanasius was at the council. He was certainly close to his teen years, and thus a simple “The World Athanasius Grew Up In” would have sufficed.
The meat of Athanasius comes seemingly too late in the volume. Having filled up on historical appetizers, Barnes finally presents the main course of Athanasius’ beliefs and writings. But these are chapters six and seven in an eight chapter book. It is a shame, because these are also Barnes’ strongest chapters. Here, we see the man, Athanasius himself, and hear his own words. The only truly weak points in the last half have to do with Barnes attempting to trace the themes of Athanasius’ life with later Church periods.
For example, in chapter seven, Barnes expounds on the relationship between Athanasius and the many monks who housed him during the exiles. During this examination, Barnes pulls from the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in, what appears to be, an attempt relate monasticism to 20th century thought. However, the connection is lost to the reader. Several times Barnes has a connection in his mind that does not quite make it to paper. Another example would the unnecessary comparison to John Bunyan. With 1300 years of history between the two figures, no, Athanasius is not a John Bunyan.
Lastly, as stated above, Barnes does attempt to remain balanced in his presentation of Athanasius, allowing both pro- and anti-Athanasius scholars to speak. However, in addition to his subtle flourishes, Barnes can become quite sermonic in places. In regard to the prevalent view that Arianism was a viable form of Christianity, Barnes denounces its proponent, Rubinstein. Barnes quickly dismisses this claim with the bold, “The Christian faith has always demanded a belief in Jesus as the resurrected Lord who would judge the whole world. What came to be called Arianism has always been regarded as a bridge not quite completed” (43).
These statements are more sermon than history. Barnes’ own following chapters demonstrate a fluctuating church of the empire. Orthodoxy and Arianism continued to battle for primacy, and even today, as Barnes notes, traces of Arianism still exist in the world of Christianity. Though Barnes can demonstrate the insufficiency of Arianism, especially by using the work of Athanasius, it is a bit reckless to simply dismiss the viability of the heretical movement.
In reviewing a book, it is helpful to end with who should receive a copy. Should it be a student of academics? The professor? Or, perhaps the volume is worthwhile for the lay person who simply wants to know more about the topic. Athanasius presents a bit of a quandary, because it is a wonderful first step in researching Athanasius, but it lacks the depth needed for a church history textbook. Likewise, the series preface presents the series as an attempt to educate the wider Christian audience on the great Early Fathers of the first few centuries, however Barnes spends far too much time in historical context for a lay-person’s introduction to the actual person of Athanasius. Its niche is somewhere between the classroom and the book club. Perhaps, its best place would be under the “Recommended Reading” list of a Church History seminar. Regardless, that question is for the publisher’s marketing department. Whoever finds himself, or herself, with a copy will certainly have a worthwhile book in their hands.
Buy the books
ATHANASIUS OF ALEXANDRIA: HIS LIFE AND IMPACT, by Peter Barnes