St. Anthony, the evangelical?

About A.D. 360, Athanasius wrote an account of the life of Saint Anthony of the Desert – one of the most influential monks of early Christianity. Though Anthony grew up in a “Christian home” as we would say today, it was an event that took place when he was a young man really woke him up:

He was left alone, after his parent’s death, with one quite young sister. He was about eighteen or even twenty years old, and he was responsible both for the home and his sister. Six months had not passed since the death of his parents when, going to the Lord’s house as usual and gathering his thoughts, he considered while he walked how the apostles, forsaking everything, followed the Savior, and how in Acts some sold what they possessed and took the proceeds and placed them at the feet of the apostles for distribution among those in need, and what great hope is stored up for such people in heaven.

He went into the church pondering these things, and just then it happened that the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” It was as if by God’s design he held the saints in his recollection, and as if the passage were read on his account. Immediately Antony went out from the Lord’s house and gave to the townspeople the possessions he had from his forebears (three hundred fertile and very beautiful arourae [~200 acres]), so that they would not disturb him or his sister in the least. And selling all the rest that was portable, when he collected sufficient money, he donated it to the poor, keeping a few things for his sister.

-Athanasius, The Life of Antony, Translated by Robert C. Gregg

I think contemporary evangelicals would be shocked to find an account like this in such a “Catholic” source – from the fourth century no less. Antony just happened to walk into church when a certain bible passage was being read, and the words jumped off the page, “as if by God’s design… the passage were read on his account.” This sounds exactly like how evangelicals (myself included) are taught to read scripture – always ready for the moment when the words become immediately and intensely personal by the power of the holy spirit working directly in the individual.

Of course, we are not talking about Anthony’s conversion here, but still, this is not at all the kind of language one would find today in the writings of very catholic (small ‘c’ but likely Roman or Orthodox) minded or covenental (again, small ‘c’ but likely Reformed) minded theologians and pastors. The 2oth century of modern Evangelicism greatly OVER emphasized the individual by all wise accounts. A corrective to this is welcome and healthy. And yet let us not forget that here we find the seeds of this immediate individualization of scripture – plain as day – in the writings of one of the early church fathers. That the Word of God cuts one (and sometimes JUST one – you) to the heart is not something we should ever downplay.