Writing on Athanasius: A General Note on Hagiography

Hagiography - the uncritical and adulatory description of the life of a hero of the faith - is probably the most common form of popular Christian biographical writing and probably the most useful in a strictly pragmatic, results-oriented way.  A. Donald Macleod, speaking at Westminster last week on the challenges faced by a Christian biographer, observed that the modern missionary movement had been inspired by various hagiographical biographies.  The accounts of religious derring-do had captured the imagination of many through the ages.  The reality of mission work and missionaries was always somewhat more mixed: egos, alcoholism, doubts, conflicts and pettiness have marked the missionary movement; but they do not make such inspiring stories.

If hagiography is good for inspiration, it can be bad on other fronts.  First, there is the question of historical accuracy.  Of course, this matter is more complicated than the simple criticism that the hagiographer typically leaves out the bad bits and presents a deliberately selective portrait of the subject.  All historical writing is of necessity selective.  For a writer to point out that Missionary X preached the gospel in a far off land and hundreds were converted is not made less true by the fact that the same writer fails to point out that Missionary X was also a wife-beating alcoholic.  Nevertheless, a warts-and-all portrait is perhaps a better apologetic in the long run: to ignore or hide the problems is arguably to produce a deceptive account, especially when those problems play directly to the kind of overall balanced assessment of life, character and ministry for which a good biographer should be striving.  A writer does not have to record every act of jay walking or breaking the speed limit, but should not shy away from evidence that is relevant.   Opponents will certainly not do so; and to be shown to have ignored or suppressed evidence is lethal to a biographer's credibility.  

Second, hagiography tends to see the world in rather black and white, Manichean terms.  Even good Calvinist historians can be very wary of imputing any sin or moral ambiguity to their chosen heroes.   Thus we have lonely Athanasius contra mundum fighting for the full deity of the Son, a solitary Luther single-handedly defying an ineradicably evil church, the mighty Lloyd-jones scoring 10 out of 10 on everything (with the possible exception of the exegesis of Eph. 1: 13-14).  In the case of a man like Athanasius, this is rendered yet more problematic by the fact that the primary sources (whether favorable or hostile)  are so marked by this black-and-white approach that it can be difficult to know what to do with such.   One writer has clearly flung up his hands in despair and decided only to trust those sources which rubbish him, no matter how late and unattested they might be:

"An impartial historian cannot simply pin his faith on the utter
veracity of Athanasius or dismiss the testimony of his enemies without
due consideration.  This study starts from the presumption that
Athanasius consistently misrepresented central facts about his
ecclesiastical career.... Unfortunately, the hagiography of Athanasius
appears to be virtually worthless as historical evidence for his
career.  On the other hand, two ninth-century sources make explicit
statements about the 340s which deserve to be accepted as reliable,
even though found in no earlier extant texts...." (Timothy D. Barnes, Athanasius and Constantius [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993], 2, 9)

While the first sentence is really rather excellent, the second part signally fails to live up to this early promise.  Indeed, overall it is quite hard to imagine a worse statement of historical method; but, then again, one might perhaps commend the author for his openness and honesty. He is about to engage in a hatchet job and he has had the decency not only to warn readers in advance but also to outline the method by which he intends to achieve this. Yet what he describes, of course, is merely the flipside of hagiography, and few hagiographers are self-conscious enough about their method to approach such a clearly stated manifesto of their methodological turpitude.

History and the lives it contains are always more complicated than the simple moral Manicheeism of the hagiographer.  Even Athanasius, great as he was, was merely one complicated and sinful player among others.  One does not have to engage in the type of approach advocated by Barnes to see this: both R P C Hanson and, more recently, Lewis Ayres have both demonstrated in painstaking detail how the debates of the fourth century were complicated mixtures of church politics, imperial machinations and theological conviction; and how the simple taxonomy of an earlier era of historians, pitting goodies against baddies, is inadequate to account for the shifting alliances, fluid theological language and ecclesiastical combat of the post 325 world.  Hagiography may inspire but too often it tells us less about what actually happened and more about the personal tastes of the author.

Finally, hagiography may have inspired the modern missionary movement; but there is surely a case to be made that it can also have serious and negative pastoral consequences.  I am not thinking here so much of the inappropriate or uncritical hero worship of our Protestant images and icons as carved and painted in our literature, though that might undoubtedly be a problem for some.  I am thinking rather of the `I can never measure up!' syndrome, whereby the ordinary Christian is made to feel small and inadequate compared to the giant achievements of the greats of the faith. Despair and defeat are the frequent companions of such.   For such people, it might actually help to know that Missionary X struggled with the bottle.  The account of such should no doubt be tactful and avoid prurience; but weakness is something with which we can all identify.  It is why Augustine's Confessions still speaks today in a way that The Life of Anthony does not.  I understand a man divided against himself; and, while I have done an ultramarathon in the Rockies, I can never imagine myself swimming through crocodile infested waters.   I guess I will just never measure up, no matter how far or high I run.