At the end of his biography of Athanasius (in Contending for Our All), John Piper extracts lessons from the manner in which Athanasius approached the importance of precise trinitarian language. If you remember, Athanasius spent his life defending and articulating the trinity. He was one of the more influential people at the Council of Nicea, and that was before he had even become a pastor. Once he assumed leadership of his church, Athanasius was exiled five times for his stance on the trinity. Piper points out that his third exile was particularly brutal, and that it was accompanied by persecution of those in his church.
All of this must have made Athanasius wonder: “Is precision in trinitarian language worth the division and bloodshed that contending for it obviously elicits?” Piper answers that rhetorical question by drawing these lessons from his life and ministry:
1. Defending and explaining doctrine is for the sake of the gospel and our everlasting joy.
2. Joyful courage is the calling of a faithful shepherd.
3. Loving Christ includes loving true propositions about Christ.
4. The truth of biblical language must be vigorously protected with non-biblical language.
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.
6. Pastors should not aim to preach only in categories of thought that can be readily understood by this generation. Rather we should also aim at creating biblical categories of thought that are not present.
Piper ends the chapter by giving a warning about “the danger of adapting to the seekers,” where he scolds pastors for dumbing down biblical language for the sake of contextualization, rather than being committed to “the pilgrim principle of confrontation” in dealing with those who are outside of saving faith. This section is powerful because in many obvious ways, the lessons of the 4th century have not been learned by pastors today.
What was clear to Athanasius was that propositions about Christ carried convictions that could send you to heaven or to hell. Propositions like “There was a time when the Son of God was not”….were damnable. If they were spread abroad and believed, they would damn the souls who embraced them.
He went on to say:
I believe Athanasius would have abominated, with tears, the contemporary call for depropositionalizing that we hear among many of the so called ‘reformists,’ the ’emerging church,’ ‘younger evangelicals,’… 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 the heretic Arius said.’
Piper continued by warning that people who say “the Bible is our only creed” are committing a grievous error because “in refusing to let explanatory, confessional language clarify what the Bible means, the slogan can be used as a cloak to conceal the fact that the Bible language is being used to affirm what is not biblical.”
Americans are seldom faced with martyrdom over trinitarian issues. Instead, our season of history merely asks Christians not to compromise on the formulation of the trinity purchased by the blood of women and children of Athanasius’ church, who were martyred for their pastor’s understanding that Jesus was begotten but not made. Conversations about Christ are important, but only when the Christ behind those conversations is backed up by true propositions about Christ. Only then would Athanasius be honored.