One of facets of St. Athanasius’ theology that is often overlooked is his pneumatology; that is, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Normally when one thinks of St. Athanasius what comes to mind is his fervent insistence in the full divinity of the Son in such works as his classic On the Incarnation or in his Orations Against the Arians. However, between 359 and 361, while St. Athanasius in living in the lower Theibad of the Egyptian Deserts during his third exile (which lasted from 356-352), he wrote a number of letters to Serapion, the bishop of Thmuis in lower Egypt, regarding the divinity of the Holy Spirit. His Letters to Serapion were composed in response to a letter that Serapion sent to St. Athanasius requesting him to write a refutation of those who, while affirming the divinity of the Son, rejected the divinity of the Spirit. Those who rejected the divinity of the Spirit were styled as the “Tropikoi” since, in St. Athanasius’ opinion, they misinterpreted the Scriptures.
The majority of St. Athanasius’ first letter deals with the passages the Tropikoi rely upon for their rejection of the divinity of the Spirit; Amos. 4:13 and 1. Tim. 5:1. While examining the Tropikoi’s interpretation of Amos. 4:13 St. Athanasius charges them with failing to understand the different ways in which the Scriptures employ the word “spirit.” St. Athanasius concludes that Amos. 4:13 is, in fact, not speaking about the Holy Spirit at all and says to the Tropikoi that, “out of sheer audacity you have invented your own mode of exegesis and claim that the ‘spirit’ said to be created is nothing other than the Holy Spirit. Yet from scholars you could have learned about the difference among spirits.”i In response to the misinterpretation of the Tropokoi and their failure to differentiate between the various spirits in the Scriptures St. Athanasius puts forward an exegetical rule in order to do that which the Tropikoi failed to do:
1.) If the spirit is unpredicated or unqualified then the text is referring to a created spirit.
3.) If the spirit is predicated or qualifed (such as the Spirit ‘of God’ or ‘of Christ’) then the passage is to be understood to be referring to the Holy Spirit.
4.) Alongside this general rule St. Athanasius gives a qualification that there are two ways in which the Holy Spirit is being spoken without being predicated or qualified in the New Testament, “those which mention recipients of the Holy Spirit that have already been mentionedv, and those in which it is clear from the context that the reference is to the Holy Spirit.”vi
St. Athanasius’ exegetical key proves to be a helpful corrective to the methods of the Tropikoi since when their work on Amos 4:13 leads them to the conclusion that the Holy Spirit is a creature St. Athanasius is able to apply his rule to the passage to demonstrate that Amos 4:13 is in fact speaking about a created spirit rather than the Holy Spiritvii.
iEp. Serap. 1.7.2.
iiEp. Serap. 1.7.3-4. St. Athanasius brings Ps. 76:7, Bar. 3:1, Dan. 3:86, Rom. 8:16-17, 1 Cor. 2:11, and 1 Thess. 5:23 as scriptural support.
iiiEp. Serap. 1.7.5-6. Here he bring forward Gen. 8:1, Jon. 1:4, Ps. 106:25, Ps. 148:7-8, and Ezek 27:25-26.
ivEp. Serap. 1.8.1-3. Finally he refers to 2 Cor. 3:6, Rom. 7:14, Rom. 7:6, Rom. 7:25-8:2, and he also brings examples of Philip (Acts. 8:30) and Caleb (Num. 14:24) as men who had a heart of understanding that were able to comprehend the spirit of God’s words.
vSt. Athanasius points to Gal. 3:2 and 1 Thess. 5:19.
viSt. Athanasius points to Lk. 4:1, Mt. 4:1, and Lk. 3:21-22. Mark DelCogliano, Andrew Radde-Galwitz, and Lewis Ayres, Works on the Spirit, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011, p. 58 (footnote n. 12).
viiSee Ep. Serap. 1.8.4-1.9.10.