In the main part of this book, St. Athanasius (the author) and Friar Haase (the peppy modern paraphraser) present, as a model of “spiritual formation” (19, 21) for us to imitate, the life story of the desert monk Antony of Egypt. Called “the father of Christian monasticism,” Antony lived ca. 251-356 a.d. Haase doesn’t think we should take all the details of Antony’s life at face value, for example his many encounters with demons (17) or his bold apologetics against Arianism (15). But Haase says this is a chance for us to encounter the heart of a wise, passionate champion of Christian self-discipline who “shaped the practices of spiritual formation for almost a millennium” (19).
The book includes three other brief writings: Athanasius’ Letter to Ammoun (about how it is not a sin for a monk to have nocturnal emissions), his Letter to Draconitus (who wanted to flee his office as Bishop of Alexandria in order to pursue a monastic life), and the extant fragment of his Festal Letter 39 (purported to be our oldest list of the canonical books).
The book is fascinating and repugnant.
I write this review the week after Trinity Sunday. My pastor had us recite together the Athanasian Creed. It is majestic. The words are not from Athanasius, but the legacy is. As C. F. W. Walther says,
“Let us picture to ourselves as vividly as we can the situation that would have been created in the early Church, when errorists like Arius . . . arose, if men like Athanasius . . . had not earnestly opposed them. As far back as in the fourth and fifth centuries the Church would have lost the primary article of the Christian faith; the foundation would have been removed from beneath it, and it would have had to collapse. . . . for more than a thousand years their names have been beacon-lights” (Law and Gospel, Dau translation, 350).
Athanasius was a brave, banishment-enduring hero, who saved the foundation of the Church!
Haase’s paraphrase of The Life of Antony made clear to me that Athanasius left another legacy, in which he was anything but a beacon-light and a hero. He wrote the first great propaganda piece for works-righteous monasticism. It seems accurate to say that, in this tragic legacy, Athanasius detracted from Christ’s glory as Savior as much as Arius detracted from Christ’s glory as true God. The great defender of the truth of Colossians 2:9 – “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” – failed to apply that truth the way the rest of Colossians chapter 2 applies it – since we have fullness in the divine Christ, why should we seek fullness in “self-imposed worship, . . . false humility and . . . harsh treatment of the body” (2:23), etc.?
Haase gives Athanasius a breezy writing style, and perhaps too breezy sometimes. For example, he paraphrases Antony’s last words with a slangy “I’m out of here and going home” (98). The book is short and packed with vivid anecdotes. It makes for an easy read.
Unfortunately, it is not so easy to stomach.
Again and again Athanasius tries to show that the monastic life is the way to regain the image of God, to be made new again, as perfect as Adam and Eve were. Antony “was utterly at peace, the way human beings were created by God to be” (38). Antony tells the other monks,
“If, every day, we live and think this way, we will not commit sin, we will not want anything, we won’t bear a grudge against anybody, nor will we store up treasures on earth. . . . We will not only control our lustful desires but will lose interest in them . . . Don’t be afraid to snuggle up to virtue! It’s not unattainable—all we have to do is will it and it’s ours! So just do it! . . . It comes naturally to us since that’s the way God created us, . . . Sin makes an appearance when we veer off course and live in a way that is not natural. So it’s really easy as pie: live naturally, and that will lead to a life of virtue” (41-42).
In another address to the monks, Antony says, “Make an examination of conscience every day, and if you have sinned, admit it to yourself and stop it. And if you haven’t sinned, don’t go bragging about it—just keep doing good and don’t become careless” (71).
What should we call this? Pelagianism? Perfectionism? A beacon-light of orthodoxy?
How about this vision Antony had?
Once he was about to eat a mid-afternoon meal. As he rose for prayer, his thoughts got carried away and he saw himself being led through the air by heavenly beings. And wouldn’t you know it? Foul and terrible creatures suddenly formed a roadblock which prevented him from continuing. When his heavenly guides challenged them, these terrible creatures claimed that Antony had to give an account of his life from the very moment of his birth.
The guides took exception and retorted, “The Lord has already forgiven the sins of his birth. However, you can take an account from the time he began his spiritual formation and became a monk.”
The foul and terrible creatures started hurling accusation after accusation against him—but they couldn’t prove any of them. The roadblock then gave way and it was clear sailing ahead (78).
This teaches that you don’t need the grace of Christ, except for the sins you were born with. Your life as a monk is enough to get you past the accusers who would keep you out of heaven!
This also teaches that you don’t need to consider the gospel of Jesus’ kingdom of grace to be your pearl of great price. Antony shows you a different pearl: “[W]hen all was said and done, Antony valued above all else the pearl of great price which he had found—his solitary life on the mountain he called home” (93-94).
This also teaches you to forget about serving God in the calling he gives you, to serve your neighbor or your family through productive labor. Instead, put your little sister in the care of some nuns, and head for the hills to be as alone as possible (24).
This way of life is supposed to have great credibility because Antony had dozens of PG-13-rated encounters with demons, many healings, many visions, and “God would reveal to him the answer to any of his questions” (79). You’ll see page after page what Paul predicted: “all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie” (2 Thessalonians 2:9).
Do you need illustrations for upcoming Reformation Quincentennial sermons of how bad things were before Luther uncovered the gospel? Primary source material is here. Much of it is in story form.
Do you need food for thought about what orthodoxy really is?
Do you need a cautionary tale about how a pastor’s legacy can be both as a false-teaching “savage wolf” and as a “defender of doctrine,” how the same preacher can influence dozens of generations both for good and ill?
Do you need a spiritually gruesome lesson on what not to do with your Nicene, Colossians 2:9, high Christology, that you do not separate it from you and your people’s life of sanctification?
Do you need proof that, although we confessional Lutherans can and should interpret the “Those who have done good” line of the Athanasian Creed in an orthodox way, the Creed’s namesake might very well not have read it that way? That proof is here.
As another author for InterVarsity Press wrote recently, “[T]o value church history requires a willingness to learn from sinners.” (Tish Harrison Warren, “Our Checkered Past,” Christianity Today, Oct. 2015, 51) Athanasius was a sinner. He was called the “Father of Orthodoxy,” yet was also a tool of Antichrist. His sinful propaganda led countless Christians away from their God-given callings into the self-made, self-centered “worship” called monasticism. He ruined many lives for centuries. He needed a Savior who could shed divine, almighty blood for him on the cross. That’s just the kind of Savior that God emboldened him, despite five banishments and twenty years of exile, to keep on preaching. Wondrous are God’s ways!
Known as “the father of orthodoxy,” Athanasius (ca. 296-373 a.d.) was the one man chiefly responsible for the victory of the true doctrine of Christ’s divinity over and against the Arian heresy (that Christ was only the highest of God’s creatures). For his bold adherence to the theology of the Nicene Creed, Athanasius was banished five times, spending a total of twenty years in exile.
Ordained a Franciscan priest in 1983, Albert Haase [pronounced “al-bear,” as in French], has made somewhat of a name for himself popularizing the so-called “spiritual disciplines” of Roman Catholicism. He served as a missionary in China for eleven years, has written nine books on “spirituality,” appears on four best-selling DVDs, and has had a ten-year ministry training “spiritual directors.” His website is www.AlbertOFM.org.