LESSONS FROM THE LIFE AND MINISTRY OF ATHANASIUS
excerpts from a biographical sketch by John Piper, "Contending for Our All" http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Biographies/
1. Defending and explaining doctrine is for the sake of the gospel of Christ’s glory and our everlasting joy.
When Athanasius was driven into his third exile, he wrote an open letter called “To the Bishops of Egypt.” In it he referred to the martyrs for who had died defending the deity of Christ. Then he said, “Wherefore… considering that this struggle is for our all…let us also make it our earnest care and aim to guard what we have received.” “The Arian controversy was a religious crisis involving the reality of revelation and redemption.”
What was at stake was everything. The incarnation has to do with the gospel…salvation…whether there is any hope or life. The creed that Athanasius helped craft [Creed of Nicaea], and that he embraced and spent his life defending and explaining, says this plainly…We believe…in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father…very God of very God…being of one substance with the Father…who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; he suffered, and the third day he rose again.
Athanasius saw the great proportion of things. There are doctrines in the Bible that are worth dying for and living for. They are the ground of our life. They are the heart of our worship. The divine and human nature of Christ in one person is one of those doctrines.
2. Joyful courage is the calling of a faithful shepherd.
Athanasius stared down murderous intruders into his church. He stood before emperors who could have killed him as easily as exiled him. He risked the wrath of parents and other clergy by consciously training young people to give their all for Christ, including martyrdom.
Athanasius contra mundum should inspire every pastor to stand your ground meekly and humbly and courageously whenever a biblical truth is at stake. But be sure that you always out-rejoice your adversaries. If something is worth fighting for, it is worth rejoicing over. And the joy is essential in the battle, for nothing is worth fighting for that will not increase our joy in God.
3. Loving Christ includes loving true propositions about Christ
Propositions about Christ carried convictions that could send you to heaven or to hell. There were propositions like: “There was a time when the Son of God was not,” and, “He was not before he was made,” and, “the Son of God is created.” These propositions were strictly damnable…Therefore Athanasius labored with all his might to formulate propositions that would conform to reality and lead the soul to faith and worship and heaven.
…“It is Christ who unites us; it is doctrines that divides.” “We should ask, Whom do you trust, rather than what do you believe?”…This is the very tactic used by the Arian bishops to cover the councils with fog so that the word “Christ” could mean anything. Those who talk like this—“Christ unites, doctrine divides”—have simply replaced propositions with a word. They think they have done something profound and fresh, when in fact they have done something very old and stale and very deadly.
4. The truth of biblical language must be vigorously protected with non-biblical language.
Athanasius’ experience was critically illuminating to something I have come to see over the years, especially in liberally minded baptistic and pietistic traditions, namely, that the slogan, “the Bible is our only creed” is often used as a cloak to conceal the fact that Bible language is used to affirm falsehood. This is what Athanasius encountered so insidiously at the Council of Nicaea.
The Alexandrians…confronted the Arians with the traditional Scriptural phrases which appeared to leave no doubt as to the eternal Godhead of the Son. But to their surprise they were met with perfect acquiescence…
“Theologians of the Christian Church were slowly driven to a realization that the deepest questions which face Christianity cannot be answered in purely biblical language, because the questions are about the meaning of biblical language itself.” The Arians railed against the unbiblical language being forced on them. They tried to seize the biblical high ground and claim to be the truly biblical people—the pietists, the simple Bible-believers—because they wanted to stay with biblical language only—and by it smuggle in their non-biblical meanings.
Athanasius saw through this “post-modern,” "post-conservative,” “post-propositional” strategy and saved for us not just Bible words, but Bible truth. May God grant us the discernment of Athanasius for our day. Very precious things are at stake.
5. A widespread and long-held doctrinal difference among Christians does not mean that the difference is insignificant or that we should not seek to persuade toward the truth and seek agreement.
“Athanasius, people have disagreed on this issue for 300 years and there has never been an official position taken in the church to establish one side as orthodox and the other as heresy? Half the bishops in the world disagree with you…So stop fighting this battle and let different views exist side by side.
He did not regard the amount of time that has elapsed or the number of Christians who disagreed to determine what doctrines are important and which we should strive to teach and spread and make normative in the church…So today we should not conclude that the absence of consensus in the church means doctrinal stalemate.
6. Don’t aim to preach only in categories of thought that can be readily understood by this generation. Aim at creating biblical categories of thought that are not present.
Don’t embrace the indigenous principle of Christianity [“I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22)] at the expense of the pilgrim principle [“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom.12:2)].
Some of the most crucial and precious truths of the Scripture are counter-intuitive to the fallen human mind. They don’t fit easily into our heads…But the Bible will not let its message be fit into the categories we bring with our fallen, finite minds. It presses us relentlessly to create new categories of thought to contain the mysteries of the gospel.
With the conversion of Constantine and the Edict of Milan (313) which gave legal status to Christianity, “the inevitable influx of heathen into the Church, now that the empire had become Christian, brought with it multitudes to whom Arianism was a more intelligible creed than that of Nicaea”…To grow a church the temptation is to give the people what they already have categories to understand and enjoy. But once that church is grown, it thinks so much like the world that the difference is not decisive. The radical, biblical gospel is blunted and the glory of Christ is obscured.
Rather, alongside the indigenous principle of accommodation and contextualization…have a deep commitment to the pilgrim principle of confrontation and transformation and brain-boggling, mind-altering, recategorization of the way people think about reality.
These two principles...start and continue together. We must not assume that the first and basic truths of Christianity fit into the fallen mind of unbelievers*…that these first truths can be contextualized in categories of thought that are present in the minds of 21st century human beings, and that only later, after they have become Christians, we can begin to alter the way they think with more advanced truth…From the very beginning, we are speaking to them God-centered, Christ-exalting truths that shatter fallen human categories of thought. We must not shy away from this.
From the very beginning, in the most winsome way possible…These kinds of mind-boggling, category-shattering truths demand our best thought and our most creative labors…that…a place for them would be created in the minds of those who hear. We must not preach only in the categories that are already present in our listeners’ fallen minds, or we will betray the gospel and conceal the glory of God.
* God rules the world of bliss and suffering and sin…yet, though He wills that such sin and suffering be, He…is perfectly holy; God governs all the steps of all people…yet such that all are accountable before Him and will bear the just consequences of His wrath if they do not believe in Christ; All are dead in their trespasses and sin and are not morally able to come to Christ because of their rebellion, yet, they are responsible to come and will be justly punished if they don’t; Jesus Christ is one person with two natures, divine and human…; sin, though committed by a finite person and in the confines of finite time is nevertheless deserving of an infinitely long punishment because it is a sin against an infinitely worthy God; the death of the one God-Man, Jesus Christ…that God is not unrighteous to declare righteous ungodly people who simply believe in Christ.
7. Don't assume that old books, which say some startling things, are necessarily wrong, but may in fact have something glorious to teach that we never dreamed.
…What is the ultimate end of creation—the ultimate goal of God in creation and redemption? Is it being [our being like Christ] or seeing [our seeing the glory of Christ]? How does Rom.8:29 (“predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son”) relate to Jn.17:24 (“Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory”)? Is the beatific vision of the glory of the Son of God the aim of human creation? Or is likeness to that glory the aim of creation?
Athanasius has helped me go deeper here by unsettling me. I am inclined to stress seeing as the goal rather than being…it seems to me that putting the stress on seeing the glory of Christ makes him the focus, but putting the stress on being like Christ makes me the focus…His language of deification forces me to think more deeply and worship more profoundly.
My present understanding…the ultimate end of creation is neither being nor seeing, but delighting and displaying. Delighting in and displaying “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor.4:6). And the displaying happens both in the delighting, since we glorify most what we enjoy most, and in the deeds of the resurrection body that flow from this enjoyment on the new earth in the age to come. The display of God’s glory will be both internal and external. It will be spiritual and physical. We will display the glory of God by the Christ-exalting joy of our heart, and by the Christ-exalting deeds of our resurrection bodies.