Athanasius and the Scope of the Story

This summer I’ve been making my way through Peter Leithart’s excellent work on the theology of Athanasius. Laying out Athanasius’ hermeneutical principles, Leithart explains that for Athanasius the primary framework determining right and wrong interpretation is the overall shape of the biblical story. Thus Leithart says,

The standard of right reading is the ground motif of Scripture as a whole, the history of creation, fall, incarnation, glory. As Frances Young puts it, “Athanasius is not neglectful of the details of the text,” but more basically his reading is guided by a “sense of the overarching plot” that he has inherited as the fundamental narrative of salvation. Thus “the ‘Canon of Truth’ or ‘Rule of Faith’ expresses the mind of scripture, and an exegesis that damages the coherence of that plot, that hypothesis, that coherence, that skopos [scope], cannot be right.”

Athanasius of AlexandriaWhile this is hardly the only criteria for biblical interpretation, it strikes me as a particularly helpful one. When explaining to others why I’ve been convinced by the traditional interpretation of the biblical text with respect to same-sex sexual behavior, I’ve often said that the first three chapters of Genesis were far more persuasive than any of the so-called “clobber passages”. Of course Genesis 1-3 don’t explicitly talk about same-sex sexuality at all, but I think what I’ve been trying to get at is the point that Leithart is making above about Athanasius: the overall shape of the story should guide our interpretive decisions.

Athanasius argued against Arianism on the basis that the loss of the divinity of the Son actually “damages the coherence of the plot.” Of course, many supporting revisionist readings (note: I’m using this term descriptively, not pejoratively) of the text on same-sex marriage would have no problem with this criteria, contending that just as same-sex relationships don’t obviously harm anyone else, neither do they harm the overall coherence of the biblical story. So the appeal to the shape of the story is not a sort of debate-deciding maneuver.

However, I do think the shape of the story is a point in favor of the traditional reading of the biblical text. For Athanasius, the shape of the story was particularly Christocentric, and the discussion of whether a doctrine damages the coherence of the plot rests on what it does to Christ’s role in the plot. Here emerges the importance of the Pauline image of Christ as the bridegroom coming for his people, his bride. The marriage illustration wonderfully displays both Christ’s solidarity with his people (so much so that he will be one with them) and his distinction from them (he is creator, they are creature). The marriage typology emphasizes the loving relationship between Christ and his church while maintaining their corresponding distinction as well. Thus, altering our understanding of marriage and same-sex sexual behavior actual does damage the coherence of the plot because it flattens the creator-creature distinction and therefore cannot simply fall under the “debatable topics” that denominations agree to disagree about.

I want to conclude by bringing this back to my personal experience with the text. When I was in undergrad wrestling through the arguments for and against the traditional reading of the text, I found myself unpersuaded by revisionist readings of individual texts. However, I did not find the conservative readings of those same six or so texts compelling in motivating me to live in fidelity with scripture. Sure, those six texts seemed like they were saying same-sex sexual behavior was bad, but they didn’t give me a vision for living my life in accordance with the overall purpose of God. It was only in stepping back and looking at the overall shape of the biblical story—with Christ at the center—that I found myself captivated by the story of a Creator, a Lover, becoming incarnate to save his Creation, his Beloved.

Kyle KeatingKyle Keating received his M.Div. at Covenant Theological Seminary and teaches theology and history at a small Christian school in St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives with his wonderful wife Christy. He can be followed on Twitter: @KyleAKeating.

7 thoughts on “Athanasius and the Scope of the Story

  1. Pingback: Athanasius and the Scope of the Story | Allkirk Network

  2. I agree. The overall covenantal structure of the Biblical narrative is far more persuasive than anything that one can glean from the so-called clobber passages.

    I also recommend Leithart’s piece, “Intrusive Third Parties”, where he contrasts true traditional marriage (i.e., covenantal marriage) with its pornographic impostor. Sadly, it’s the pornographic impostor that often passes for traditional marriage in our culture, including the culture of conservative Christian churches.

  3. Kyle, while I agree with your conception, I continue to have trouble about the general plot of marriage as you’ve described above and its implications for Christ. A few points of contention that I have with your statements above –

    1. If marriage is so important in the earthly realm (as opposed to the heavenly one) than why do many of the major players in the NT prefer singleness to marriage? Additionally, why does Paul seem to state, at least from my perspective, that marriage is not a preferred state, but a state to go into if you can’t control your sexual desire? If the conception of marriage is this critical to the story, it seems that Paul does not reflect this in his letter to the Corinthians.

    2. Marriage in the OT and NT world was conceptualized in a different framework than today. Reading through Exodus and the law, it seems that marriage was more of an exchange of property than anything else and, as a result, love may have been secondary to the appropriate economic exchange. Maybe it is pushing a different form of marriage, but I just can’t see how this is as foundational as other relations in the bible (king / servant, shepherd / sheep, father / child, etc.).

    Lastly, can you please delve more deeply into your assertion that same sex marriage “flattens the distinction between creature and creator”? Why does sex, and not the form of the relationship, destroy this conception?

    I don’t write this to be argumentative, but to deepen my understanding of the text given my lack of awareness of the culture of the time and my own cultural biases, especially as they relate to marriage.


    • Good thoughts and questions. Here are some initial responses:

      1. Marriage is but one metaphor among several for the relationship between Christ and the church. I suppose I’m not trying to suggest that marriage is the end all, be all, but rather that it is one key metaphor, and redefining marriage actually messes with that metaphor. As to your point about the vocation of singleness, I’m on board. I think marriage is a useful metaphor for Paul for multiple reasons, one of which is that it is the most common vocation for people.

      2. Certainly marriage had an economic aspect, but I’m more inclined to go with Augustine’s understanding of the “goods” of marriage as fundamental to the Bible’s self-understanding of marriage: union (bonum sacramentum) , procreation, and faithfulness (bonum fidei). Thus marriage as an analogy is drawing on the permanence and intimacy of the relationship (though not, as you rightly noted, necessarily reflective of our own romanticized notions of marital love). But this gets to the answer for your last point, I think biological sex is actually part and parcel of the “form of the relationship”, especially in its procreative sense.

      Just my initial thoughts.

  4. Love , love, love Leithhart! Have you read, “A House for My Name” by him? That’s one of my favorites. Another, more obscure author who is friends with Leithart is James Jordan. His book, “Through New Eyes” and “Primeval Saints” literally changed the way I read the Bible and taught me so much about over-all narrative and seeing Christ everywhere, particularly in the Old Testament.

    • I’ve read a couple other books by Leithart, though not the one you mention… and you are the second person to recommend “Through New Eyes” to me. I’ll have to check it out.

  5. Pingback: Top 10 Posts of the Week (7/19/14 – 7/25/14) | Allkirk Network

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