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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Saint Athanasius and the "scope of Faith"

"The situation did not change in the fourth century.
The dispute with the Arians, at least in its early phase, was centered in the
exegetical field. The Arians and their supporters produced an impressive array
of scriptural texts in the defense of their doctrinal position. They wanted to
restrict theological discussion to the biblical ground alone. Their claims had
to be met precisely on this ground. And their exegetical method, the mannor in
which they handled the text, was much the same as that of earlier dissenters.
They were operating with selected proof-texts and without much concern for the
total context of the revelation.

It was imperative for the Orthodox to appeal to the
mind of the church, to that faith which had been once delivered and then
devoutly kept. This was the main concern and the usual method of Athanasius. The
Arians quoted various passages from the scripture to substantiate their
contention that the Savior was a creature. In reply Athanasius invoked the rule
of faith. This was his usual argument: "Let us who possess τον σκοπν της πιστεως
(the scope of faith) restore the correct meaning (ορθην τηυ διανοιαν) of
what they have wrongly interpreted." Athanasius contended that the correct
interpretation of particular texts was possible only in the total perspective of
faith. "what they now allege from the Gospels they explain in an unsound
sense, as we may discover if we take in consideration τον σκοπον της καθ'
ημας τους χριστιανους πιστεως (the scope of the faith according to us
Christians), and read the scriptures using it (τον σκοπον)
(ωσπερ κανονι χρησαμενοι)." On the other hand, close attention must be given
also to the immediate context and setting of every particular phrase and
expression, and the exact intention of the writer must be carefully

Writing to Bishop Serapion on the topic of the Holy
Spirit, Athenasius contends again that the Arians ignored or missed "the scope
of the Divine Scripture" (μη ειδοντες τον σκοπον της Θεικας Γραφης). The
σκοπος was, in the language of Athanasius a close equivalent of what Irenaeus
used to denote as νποθεσις - the underlying idea, the true design, the
intended meaning. On the other hand, the word σκοπος was a habitual term in the
exegetical language of certain philosophical schools, especially Neoplatonism.
Exegesis played a great role in the philosophical endeavor of that time, and the
question of hermeneutical principle had to be raised. Jamblichos was, for one,
quite formal on this issue. One had to discover the main point, the basic theme,
of the whole treatise under examination, and to keep it in mind at all times.
Athanasius could well have been acquainted with the technical use of the
term. It was misleading, he contended, to quote isolated texts and passages,
disregarding the total intent of the Holy Writ. It is obviously inaccurate to
interpret Athanasius's use of the term σκοπος as "the general drift" of the
Scripture. The "scope" of the faith, or of the Scripture, is precisely the
credal core, which is condensed in the rule of faith, as maintained in the
church and "transmitted from fathers to fathers"; the Arians by contrast had "no
fathers" to support their opinions. As John Henry Newman has rightly observed,
Athanasius regarded the rule of faith as an ultimate principle of
interpretation, opposing the "ecclesiastical sense" (την εκκλησιαστικην
διανοιαν) to the private opinions of the heretics.

Time and again in his scrutiny of the Arian arguments,
Athanasius would summarize the basic tenets of the Christian faith before going
into the actual reexamination of the alleged proof-texts; in this way he
restored those texts to their proper perspective. H.E.W. Turner has described
this exegetical manner of Athanasius:

against the favorite Arian technique of pressing the
grammatical meaning of a text without regard either to the immediate context or
to the wider frame of reference in the teaching of the Bible as a whole, he
urges the need to take the general drift of the Church's Faith as a Canon of
interpretation. The Arians are blind to the wide sweep of Biblical theology and
therefore fail to take into sufficient account the context in which their
proof-texts are set. The sense of scripture must itself be taken as Scripture.
This has been taken by an argument from Tradition. Certainly not the intention
of Athanasius himself. For him it represents an appeal from exegesis drunk to
exegesis sober, from a myopic insistence upon the grammatical letter to the
meaning or intention (σκοπος, χαρακτηρ) of the Bible.

It seems that Professor Turner exaggerated the danger.
The argument was still strictly scriptural, and in principle Athanasius admitted
the sufficiency of the Scripture, sacred and inspired, for the defense of truth.
Scripture had to be interpreted, however, in the context of the living credal
tradition under the guidance or control of the rule of faith. This rule was in
no sense an extraneous authority which could be imposed on the Holy Writ. It was
the same apostolic preaching which was written down in the books of the New
Testament, but it was, as it were, this preaching in epitome. Athanasius writes
to Bishop Serapion: "Let us look from the beginning at that very tradition,
teaching, and faith of the catholic church which the Lord gave (εδωκεν), the
apostles preached (εκηρυςαν) and the Fathers preserved (εφυλαςαν). Upon this the
Church is founded. This passage is highly characteristic of Athanasius. The
three nouns actually coincide: παραδοσις (tradition) from Christ himself,
διδασκαλια(teaching) by the apostles, and πιστις (faith) of the catholic
church. And this is the foundation (θεμελιον) of the church- a sole and
single foundation. Scripture itself seems to be subsumed and included in this
tradition, coming, as it does, from the Lord. In the concluding chapter of his
first epistle to Serapion, Athanasius returns once more to the same point: "In
accordance with the apostolic faith delivered to us by tradition from the
Fathers, I have delivered the tradition, without inventing to us by tradition
from the Fathers, I have delivered the tradition, without inventing anything
extraneous to it. What I learned, that have I inscribed (ενεχαραςα), conformably
with the Holy Scripture. On another occasion Athanasius denoted the Scripture
itself an apostolic paradosis. It is characteristic that in the whole discussion
with the Arians no single reference was made to "traditions" in the plural. with
the Arians no single reference was made to "traditions" in the plural. The only
term or reference was always "tradition," indeed, the tradition, the apostolic
tradition, comprising the total and integral content of the apostolic preaching,
and summarized in the rule of faith. The unity and solidarity of this tradition
was the main and crucial point in the whole argument.

The Purpose of Exegesis and the Rule of

The apeal to tradition was actually an appeal to the
mind of the church. It was assumed that the church had the knowledge and the
understanding of the truth, that is, the meaning of the revelation.
Accordingly, the church had both the competence and the authority to
proclaim the gospel and to interpret it. This did not imply that the church was
above the Scripture. She stood by the Scripture but, on the other hand, was not
bound by its letter. The ultimate purpose of exegesis and interpretation was to
elicit the meaning and the intent of the Holy Writ, or rather the
meaning of the revelation, of the Heilsgeschichte. The church had to preach
Christ, and not just the Scripture." [1]

[1] pages 104 to 107 by George Florovsky, edited by Daniel B. Clendenin, in the book Eastern Orthodox Theology: A contemporary reader



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