Eclectic Orthodoxy 101: Slowly Reading St Athanasius

by John Stamps

Nothing and no one says Eclectic Orthodoxy more than On the Incarnation of the Word of God by St Athanasius. He is deeply beloved by Eastern Christians and Western Christians alike. And for good reason. St Athanasius wants disciples of Christ to think rationally about our shared faith.

When we come to church on Sunday morning, outsiders get the mistaken impression that we take off our hats, we take off our coats, and then we take out our brains before we step through the doors into the sanctuary.

If you live in the Silicon Valley, you can’t ignore people’s questions about and objections to the Christian faith. Not if we’re going to maintain a credible witness among our friends and colleagues. You and I live in the most over-educated place on Planet Earth. The companies we work in every day — Apple, Google, and Facebook — set the techno­logical platinum standard for everyone else living on Planet Earth.

Christians from time immemorial have never shied away from explaining, yeah verily, defending the basics of the Christian faith to their incredulous neighbors. We postmoderns must not shirk that calling either.

As a Lenten exercise, we started reading On the Incarnation by St Athanasius at our little parish in Campbell, CA about a month ago. We were abruptly disrupted this week by the coronavirus and the Shelter In Place mandate for seven Bay Area counties. I didn’t care what version or translation you read — as long as it was a canonical translation with the C.S. Lewis imprimatur. I heartily recommended the new St Vladimir’s Press translation by Fr John Behr. The old translation by Sister Penelope Lawson, of the Anglican Community of St. Mary the Virgin, is a bit too much of a paraphrase for my taste, although it was the version I first read.1 And for heaven’s sake, it was endorsed by C.S. Lewis himself, so who am I to quibble?

No, we’re not going to finish it Lent 2020. Maybe we’ll finish by Lent 2021, God willing. We read one section (or less) on Saturday nights right before Vespers, from 6:00-6:22, about the time it takes to make a good Pomodoro sauce.

I figured if we had 5 righteous people (Abraham had to wheedle the Almighty for 10), we had a genuine quorum. Imagine my joy and delight when 10 or more showed up the first night. Loud huzzahs all around, brothers and sisters at St Stephen. The trifecta of daylight savings time, rumors of the coronavirus, and bad weather didn’t keep anyone away.

Reading this magnificent theological classic by St Athanasius is an exercise in Eclectic Orthodoxy at its very best. I first read St Athanasius as a young college student back in the 1970’s, mainly because of the C.S. Lewis introduction. I don’t remember how many times I’ve read it since. But C.S. Lewis provided a genuine toehold for me — not to accuse C.S. Lewis of being a gateway drug — into Mere Christianity (aka Orthodox Christianity), of whom St Athanasius is our chief spokesman. Eastern Christians and Western Christians might not agree on much. But we can all agree that St Athanasius is indeed great and On the Incarnation of the Word of God is worth reading.

With this modest introduction, we’re ready to jump into the book.

 

Footnote

[1] For example, Athanasius doesn’t actually say “Gnostics” in Section 2: “Then, again, there is the theory of the Gnostics…” He calls them “the heretics,” or “the pickers and the choosers,” if you like. Yes, this is just grousing. You can still read Sister Penelope’s translation with great profit and no discernible loss of meaning. Just realize Fr John’s translation is more strict, that’s all.

(Go to “Incarnation”)

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John Stamps is currently Senior Technical Writer at Guidewire Software in San Jose, California. He holds a BA in Greek from Abilene Christian University, an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, and did work towards an STM in philosophy of religion at Yale University. He is married to Shelly Houston Stamps and attends St. Stephen Orthodox Church in Campbell, California.

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13 Responses to Eclectic Orthodoxy 101: Slowly Reading St Athanasius

    • John Stamps says:

      Thank you for posting the link to Sister Penelope Lawson’s translation. While we’re at it, here is a link to the C.S. Lewis introduction. I read it every so often as a gentle reminder not to obsess about the Zeitgeist.

      https://reasonabletheology.org/cs-lewis-on-reading-old-books/

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        And here are Arend Smilde’s annotations:

        http://lewisiana.nl/essayquotes/index.htm#onthereading

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        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Note that one has to scroll past the notes on three other essays to get to the ones on the preface.

          Note, too, his remarks in the opening paragraph to this body of essay notes, to “Please note that the present attempt at annotation does not pretend to have reached completion. A row of six dots …… indicates those places where I hope to add details sooner or later. A double quotation mark in bold type (??) marks places where, so far, I can’t provide help but rather need it. Suggestions for ways to fill out these places are welcome [with a link provided]”.

          Liked by 1 person

  1. santascoffee says:

    I love John Behr, but, having read this book in Greek and in both translations, I’m afraid I disagree and think in many cases his hyperliteral mirroring of constructions and vocabulary will tend to put a barrier between the reader and Athanasius. Certainly readers in any doubt of their likelihood to enjoy the book and make it to the last page should seek out the older edition. Popular Patristics has done a wonderful thing by offering Behr’s translation with the Greek on facing pages!

    If it helps here are a few examples of outright mistranslations and infelicities by Behr. “He partook of thrm” for “He partook of the same things,” quoting Hebrews (section 10); “God anticipated also their carelessness” for “God provided for…” (12); “to pass and to serve others” for “to be surrendered/betrayed and serve others” (13).

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    • John Stamps says:

      In section 15, Fr John accidentally left out “the Word of God.” It should read, “for this reason the lover of human beings and the common Savior of all, ***the Word of God***, takes to himself a body…”

      Every day I try hard read the New Testament and Old Testament in Greek with my handy reader’s editions. I decided I really needed to plow through St Athanasius with my meager skills. But armed with an online Liddell-Scott-Jones at TLJ (http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/lsj/#eid=1), I make slow-and-steady progress.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Thanks for this, and hurray for the possibilities to compare translations for those of us who (unlike Lewis) are far from fluent!

        Liked by 1 person

        • John A Stamps says:

          If you want to jump start reading St Athanasius in Greek, buy a copy of “A Patristic Greek Reader” by Rodney Whitacre. He provides lots of help with vocabulary and syntax. I started Section 3 and was amazed by my progress. I felt emboldened enough when I finished to plow back into Sections 1-2. Whitacre doesn’t cover all of “On the Incarnation” – just 7 or 8 sections. But you realize working through Whitacre, “I can do this!”

          Liked by 1 person

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Thank you – I had not heard of this! Amazon’s “look inside” let me see the table of contents, and, so, the impressive variety of selections included. This looks very attractive.

            Liked by 1 person

      • Fr John Behr says:

        Thanks for these: please do send on any others for the next edition!

        Liked by 1 person

        • johnstamps2020 says:

          You always find mistakes only after you click the Send button. Thank you, Fr John, for your splendid translation.

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  2. sybrandmac says:

    John, could you please elucidate how we, visitors of EO, can join this weekly reading?

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    • John A Stamps says:

      Just stay tuned here on EO. I already have 5 or 6 in the pipeline. I feel reasonably good about them. I want to fine-tune a couple of them though e.g. my blog piece on Epicurus/Lucretius in Section 2.

      Liked by 2 people

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