Friday, February 25, 2005

Contending for our all

Each year John Piper shares a biography at his pastors conference, calling us to sit at the feet of those who have gone before us and learn from them. This year he turned to Athanasius who took his stand to guard in the midst of a crisis over revelation and redemption, a fight that continues today.

What was clear to Athanasius was that 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. If they were spread and believed they would damn the souls which embraced them. And 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.

I believe Athanasius would have abominated, with tears, the contemporary call for “depropositionalizing” that you hear among many of the so-called “reformists” and “the emerging church,” “younger evangelicals,” “postfundamentalists,” “postfoundationalists,” “postpropositionalists,” and “postevangelicals.”36 I think he would have said, “Our young people in Alexandria die for the truth of propositions about Christ. What do your young people die for?” And if the answer came back, “We die for Christ, not propositions about Christ,” I think he would have said, “That’s what Arius says. So which Christ will you die for?”

Athanasius would have grieved over sentences like “It is Christ who unites us; it is doctrines that divides.” And sentences like: “We should ask, Whom do you trust? rather than what do you believe?”37 He would have grieved because he knew 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.

Read the whole biography: Contending for our all: The Life and MInistry of Athanasius


  1. He's a fascinating guy, who comes from a particularly stimulating time in the Churches history. Of course it would be churlish of me to point out that this is a case of the winners writing history, and thus demonising all the Christologies that didn't make it through the Nicene councils ect. But i do think you have to bear in mind his context, one of intense debate about the nature of Christ, when things were still in flux. Some might suggest that we have a comparible situation today, but at the very least I would be wary of using him on behalf of polemics about how we do church. After all, we have no real understanding f how he might eact to a situation other than his own...

    ...there is a sense in which beliefs can be deeply affecting of the stae of our place in the kingdom of God. But I remain one of those who would content that abstract confession is relative to expression. Orthodoxy, as a part of orthopraxy, as it were.

  2. The nature of Christ isn't however a matter of opinion, but reality. Christ is who he is... and the debate was centred on interpretation of the Bible not peoples ideas.

    Biblical Christianity is surely a massive example of the losers writing history...

    In his situation Athanasius drew the church back to God's revelation in the Bible to find who God had revealed himself to be, an approach that is timeless.

  3. I'm not denying that it was people who encountered Christ. But those encounters, from the very first of his incarnation right through to our own time, have been variously interpreted. By that, I mean that many people have made sense of their encounters in more ways that simply the formulation we have in the Nicene creeds. This not about the bible versus ideas, but about how experience and the witness of scriptural narratives fashion our Christologies.

    Athanasius had a particular approach that's proved very successful, helped a lot of people to be able to make sense of their encounters. I find it sympathetic, but not the limit of what Christ means. It's unrealistic to suggest one Christology is timeless. Jesus was a specific person and the transcendent reality. We may well have met the timeless light incarnated, but the incarnation of Immanuel takes place in the flux of varied cultures and so our experience of it will be affected by our transience and variability as one side of the God-people meeting.

    It's a bit of a moot point whether it was the orthodox Christians that 'won' at any particular time, as the deciding part will always write history and belief in their image. Which, of course, gives license for some of the more silly conspiracy theories like those in the Da Vinci Code!

  4. Not quite convinced that its always the "victors" writing history... many times those who are right are either a minority or are not believed at the time by most...

    E.g. the OT Prophets, the Apostles... ultimately they are the winners because they are right... but that doesn't always correlate at the time.

  5. An idea or view of the world will tend to have a particular period where it precipitates, and will not be a norm when it does. At some point they become the accepted widespread view, and then written histories will present them as right. When it comes to metaphysics and supernatural concerns, I suspect that rightness is quite a flexible understanding...