Rise Up! Theologians Among the People

During the time and immediately after the events which led to the Council of Nicea, there were two outstanding men in the Eastern part of the Christian world from whom we today can learn much. These men are acclaimed by historians as the men used mightily by God to state the full truth of God’s Word, to defend that Word and to preserve and build the Church of God. Athanasius, of Alexandria, Egypt, was the dominant spokesman for the faith of the Church as revealed in the Scripture!; concerning the Trinitarian character of the Godhead. John Chrysostom, presbyter of Antioch and later bishop of Constantinople, was the leading workman of God for the establishment of that faith in the Church. Let us take a quick look at these two men.


Athanasius is best known as the opponent of Arius who propounded the view that Christ did not have an essentially divine nature. Arius’ main doctrine concerning Christ has been characterized as the “doctrine of createdness.”1 Athanasius strongly advocated the incarnation as the decisive event and act of God in the process of salvation. God himself acted, he brought himself down and removed the barrier separating fallen man and God the Father. Thus Athanasius strongly and persistently acclaimed the miracle of Christ’s coming.2

With Athanasius a new School of Theology originated and developed in Egypt.3 Athanasius was a Creek. born in Egypt and trained in a religious tradition which was strongly “anti-Origenist.”4 He was not a writing exegete and theologian by preference; the pulpit was his place of action and persuasion. But Athanasius wrote very much; he was compelled to do this to carry on his battle against Arianism.4

What was the character of the exegesis and thought patterns which were basic to Athanasius’ preaching and writing? First of all, as a man of the pulpit he was a man of the Scriptures. He did not appeal to previous theologians’ and he reflected a mistrust in Hellenistic culture, “at any rate, he completely ignores its treasures.”7 If this means anything at all, it means that Athanasius was not influenced by Greek philosophy, science or patterns of thought.8 Rather, he stood in that Judaist-Christian tradition which was based on the Scriptures.

It is difficult to determine the exact nature of Athanasius’ exegesis. His main writings were of a “dogmatic, apologetical and polemical” nature all of which were characterized “by a sharp dialectic and profound speculation.”9 Athanasius delved deeply into the relationship between God and world, God and man. If he went beyond the actual Scriptural givens, he remained within the Judaist-Christian framework of thought.

Quite definitely it can be stated that Athanasius represented and employed the Judaist-Christian pattern of thought and exegesis. All are agreed that he rejected the prevailing Creek influences. This raises a question concerning the character of his writings on the Psalms. Kurtz spoke of them as “exegetical, allegorical”9 and Atiya wrote: “In exegesis he wrote a Commentary 0n the Psalms, with an allegorical touch…”10 Schaff stated that Athanasius wrote a commentary on the Psalms, “in which he everywhere finds types and prophecies of Christ and the church, according to the extravagant allegorizing method of the Alexandrian school.” However Schaff added, “the genuineness of these unimportant works is by many doubted.”11

A number of comments should be made. Due to the fact that a copy of the text is very difficult to acquire” and since its authenticity is doubted, no finn opinion concerning Athanasius’ exegesis can be formed on the basis of it, Those who have commented regarding it have not expressed agreement as to the character and extent that the allegorical method was employed. There is agreement that Athanasius, if he is the author, was guided by the Christian Biblical principle of Christocentricity. Finally, Newman12 has pointed out that Athanasins dealt with the Scriptures as being “full of mysteries which are mysteries of fact, not of words.” This means that Newman considered Athanasius to regard the Scriptural account as factual, i.e., in the sense of historical as, opposed to mysteries of words, i.e., a presentation of materials in words which were not to be taken literally in any sense.

It seems quite correct to conclude then that Athanasius, within the Judaist-Christian tradition, adhering to the principle of the Christocentricity of Scripture, employed a method of exegesis which may have been heavily typological at times, so much so, that he may well have crossed over into allegorizing according to the Greek method in spite of his rejection of all things Creek. The possibility must also be allowed for that Athanasius, who had learned to preach in the Copt language,14 had adopted the Egyptian mentality to a degree and expressed this in his exegesis.15

John Chrysostom

The second leader that did so much for the faith of the Church is John Chrysostom. He more than anyone else is said to have exhibited the true character and produced the finest results of the Antioch SchooL The three major influences in his life are said to have been: a) the tender devotion of a pious Christian mother; b) the rhetoric polish acquired in the school of Libanius; and c) the “assiduous study of the Scriptures” in the school of Diodorus.16 All writers agree that John is to be remembered for two specific facts: a) he was an eloquent preacher and b) he was a profound exegete. It is of interest to note that as was the case with Athanasius, so with John of Antioch, the combination of the “pulpit” and the “study of Scripture” were the effective means to exert an intensive and extensive influence.

As a pastor, preacher and presbyter, John served in Antioch. Later he became the bishop of Constantinople. His life was filled with various difficulties. Some of these were due to his early rigid ascetic habits, others were due to his relentless opposition to the excesses of a worldly clergy in an affluent city and of the rich living in luxury. The ignorance and corruption of the poor received his uncompromising attention.” It can be said with justification that the greatest source of his difficulties was Theophilus, patriarch of Alexandria, uncle and predecessor of Cyril of Alexandria. Zernov posited Theophilus’ jealousy of John’s popularity and the fast rising dominance of Constantinople and its eventual “priority of honour” as the basic cause. But Theophilus found material reasons, “exegetical and theological,” to bring charges against John and was successful in gaining his deposition.18 John died in exile with the words “Glory be to God for everything” on his lips. He became a hero, example and inspiration to the church and the Christian community.

The voluminous writings of John bear a clear testimony to the fact that he was a student of Scripture.19 Most of the materials extant today are in the Conn of homilies, many of which are series of expositions on whole books of the Scriptures. His work on Genesis and the Psalms is considered of greater value than that on the Prophets, for in the latter “his ignorance of Hebrew” which prevented him from “apprehending the Spirit of the prophets,” is apparent.20

Some of the dominant features of John’s exegesis were: (1) his constant attempt to elucidate the historical sense of the Scriptural texts;21 (2) his persistent adherence to grammatical and logical principles;22 (3) literal approach which properly recognized the Biblical metaphors, parables, symbols and types;23 (4) his spiritual experiential approach to Scripture which particularly enabled him to enter “into complete sympathy with the psalmist;” (5) his persistent refusal to allegorize;25 and (6) his persistent attempt to derive the divine spiritual intent from the text.26 In view of these features Terry evaluated John as “unquestionably the greatest commentator among the early fathers of the church” and as “the greatest ornament and noblest representative of the exegetical school of Antioch.”

Their Points of Power

These two men were powerful influences in the Church of the Lord Jesus. What did they have in common? Four specific factors stand out.

a. They were men of personal living faith. They were convinced men. Both denied themselves physical pleasures for the sake of the Lord, his Word and his Church. They were battlers in the arena of personal sanctification. They knew the power of the indwelling Spirit of God.

b. They were men of the Word. They did not appeal to fellow theologians. They did not look to the philosophies or sciences of the learned men of their day for illuminating insights and contemporary methods of interpreting the Word of God. They applied those principles of Scriptural interpretation which Scripture itself taught them. They exegeted the Word of Cod in the Light of the Word.

c. They were men of the pulpit. They did not exegete in abstraction from the pulpit. They, with the Scriptures in their hands and faith in their hearts, stood in the midst of their congregations. These men were concerned with and for people first of all, not with academic problems. They dealt with problems only as they rose in their ministry of the Word of life to the people. Concerned for people, they were not concerned first of all with theological problems, ecclesiastical rules, orders or organizations. They loved people most of all, not their pet projects.

d. They were theologians. They formulated the truth. They propagated the truth. They boldly defended the Truth. But their theologizing was never separated from their faith, exegesis or concern for the people of Cod. Tn fact, they became renowned theologians because they formulated God’s revealed truths in a manner and setting that was very similar to that of the Lord Jesus who worked in the midst of disciples, or the multitudes, except when he wrestled in prayer.

These two men of Eastern Christianity show us the more clearly how to be theologians today when we consider the chief characteristics of a few other men of their times.

Consider Origen of Alexandria. He was a great teacher and theologian. He is known for his exegesis also. But, his exegesis and theology caused much confusion and division in the Church. Why? Origen listened to the philosophers of the world. He tried to unite two voices which spoke absolutely contradictory messages. Indeed, Origen introduced much tragedy into the Church.

Consider Cyril of Alexandria. He was a man who knew ecclesiastical organization and church polity. He knew how to control Synods and Councils. He was a sharp theologian too. And as a theologian and politician he is remembered as the theological father of the Monophysites who broke away from the Church. Within the Monophysite Church Mohammedanism spawned.

Consider Theodore of Mopsuestia. He was a very able theologian. He is known as a great exegete. But he was so logical! So intellectual. So rationalistic. How he did take pride in his independent spirit. He is known also as the theological forefather of another heretical segment of the church—the Nestorians.

What is missing in the last three which was dominant in the case of the two great Church Fathers? This is missing; they are not reputed to have been men of the pulpit! They were not among the people. for the people. Their strong point in the Lord’s service was not a direct ministry to the people. Where this direct concern for and involvement with the worshipping, daily struggling and nurturing  church was not dominant, there heresy, distrust, confusion and schisms were the eventual results.

Yes, there is much to learn from Athanasius and John Chrysostom. He who would be a theologian for today, holding forth a theology which is Biblical, true to the Lord, a living force in the Church, relevant and helpful must take his stand in the midst of the people, with an open Bible before him, with a heart filled with faith and love.

Well may the Church of today pray for a modern Athanasius and John. How sorely such men are needed today. And from where should the Church expect such men to arise? It seems to expect them from the ranks of the theologians-professors. But in times past, they arose from the ranks of the theologians-pastors.

1. Von Campenhausen, J., The Fathers of the Greek Church, London, 1963.

2. This is the message of his De lncamatione, written when he was still a very young man. Kidd, B. J.,  A History of the Church, Oxford, 1922. Vol. II. p. 14. F. L. Cross had edited and published the Greek text, Athanasius De Incarnatione, S.P.C.K., London, reprint, 1957. Cf. also the study on Athanasius’ works by A. Van Haarlem, Incarnatie en Verlossing Bij Athanasius, Veenman, Wageningen, 1961.

3. Professor Kurtz, Church History, London, 1889. Vol. I, p. 281. Under the heading of “Church Fathers of the New Alexandrian School.” Athanasius is the first to be discussed and that as the Pater orthodoxiae.

4. Cf. various Church Histories for details of life. Atiya. C.S., A History of the Christian Church. London, 1968. suggested that Athanasius may have been a Copt. The Discourse Against the Greeks, is his main support. Farrar has prepared a probable chronology of Athanasius’ life and time of writing various works. F. W. Farrar, Lives of the Fathers, London, 1889.

5. Ativa remarked that one wonders how Athanasius was able to write so many books in view of his many travels and repeated exiles. Idem.

6. His references to Origen were usually in those contexts where he showed that his opponent quoted Origen erroneously. Von Campenhausen, ibid, p. 72.

7. Ibid, p. 73. But cf. H. M. Groothuis, The Arian Controversy, p. 64, who spoke of his liberal eclessation and use of Greck models in his formulations.

8. But cf. Van Haarlem who said he found some Platonic ideas in Athanasius’ juvenile work. Chap. III, pp. 209–210.

9. Kurtz, idem.

10. Ativa, idem. Kidd. who discussed Athanasius’ life, work, and writings at length never referred to the Psalms once, or to his use of the allegorical method of interpreting Scripture.

11. P. Schaff, A History of the Christian Church, Grand Rapids. 1910, Vol. III pp. 892–3. B. Altaner, Patrology, trans. by H. Graef. Nelson, London, 1958 made only a slight reference to these also, p. 317.

12. It was unavailable to the writer.

13. J. H. C. Newman, Select Treatises, Vol II, Longman-Green. London, 1895, pp. 90–95.

14. Von Campenhausen. ibid, p. 73.

15. W. Bright, in Lessons from the Lives at Three Great Fathers, Longman, Creen, New York, 1891 included an Appendix ( III) in which he referred to a letter written by Athanasius to a certain Marcellinus. Athanasius explained that the Psalms, to which he took a special affection during an illness, should be so interpreted that, “he cannot help identifying himself with the Psalmist, and assimilating the contrition or the thankfulness to what the Psalm before him gives expression.” pp. 200ff.

16. N. S. Terry, Biblical Hermemeutics, Grand Rapids, no date, p. 648.

17. Cf. N. Zernov’s brief but pointed description of John’s life and work. Eastern Christianity, London. 1963. pp. 56–58. Bright, with flourish and devotion. has given an extended description, ibid. pp. 48–108. F. W. Farrar, has given a full account of his youth, stay at Antioch and work in Constantinople. Ibid, Vol. II. pp. 615–706. Cf. also other history books listed, all of which devote a varied amount of attention to John.

18. Cf. various references to the “Synod of Oak” 403 A.D., e.g., Altaner, ibid, p. 375.

19. Cf. e.g., the entire twelfth vol. of A.N.F. which contain~ the exposition and homilies on I and II Cor. Altaner, and others. have prepared an extensive list of the works of John, describing the character. subject material and present day availability of these. The most satisfactory edition of John’s work still is Montfaucon’s 13 vol. work. Cf. also Migne’s, Patrology, vol. 47–64.

20. Terry, ibid. p. 648.

21. Altaner, ibid, p. 378.

22. Terry, idem.

23. A. B. Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible, Grand Rapids, 1963.

24. Terry, idem.

25. R. M. Grant, A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible, New York, 1966.

26. Cf. Bright, ibid, p. 57.

Rev. Van Groningen is professor of theology at Geelong Theological Seminary, Victoria, Australia.