June 16, 2016

Trinitarian precision

by Jesse Johnson

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.

But the most potent section of these lessons is under #3: “Loving Christ includes loving true propositions about Christ.” Piper writes:

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.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Tim Bates

    The moment I convince myself that people don’t think deeply enough to warrant me sweating over precision is typically the moment just prior to someone coming to me with questions about heresy they inferred from my teaching.

    Also, when are you guys weighing in on the Trinity debate???

    • I’ll weigh in right now. What specifically are you curious about?

      • Andrew
      • Tim Bates

        Mr Riccardi just asked it, too, but since Jesus became a man how was there not pre-incarnate subordination? Or does that not even necessarily follow? I’m assuming you’re also in the camp that Jesus was only subordinate while incarnate so here’s my stab:
        Hear me out…
        The will of the Trinity is one and thus the Son, because of His being, acted in accordance with the united will of Trinity and didn’t have to listen to the Father because the Father’s thoughts and plans are His plans at the same time and in the same way. So He didn’t submit to the Fathers will any more than I submit to my own will (I’m speaking in human terms) because my will is always what I will do and I’m never separated from it.

        • Thanks Tim. See my post on this issue (June 20: Submission and salvation in the Trinity)

  • Ray Adams

    Much appreciated presentation of the issue behind the issue. We defend the truths of scripture to people who very often don’t want to hear a defense about the truths of scripture because they have grown lax in listening or think there is something inherently wrong with logic and precision. This was a timely encouragement to be unashamedly precise and demanding in the statements of truth that I hold precious. Thank you.

  • Adam

    I was surprised to hear of the multiple exiles he suffered. I thought Trinitarian doctrine was a core belief among the church from the start. What group or groups were persecuting him? That was not addressed in the article.

    • The Arians. And interestingly enough, Athanasius went to his grave not knowing if church history would vindicate him or not. The Piper book I reference in this post really is worth the read.

  • Larry Miles

    Excellent Jesse. Once again, the trinity is under attack. The marriage between what the Bible teaches and what church history affirms is vital for today’s proclamation of the gospel. Many do not want to think through Biblical doctrines, settling for a, “Best Life Now” approach to the scriptures.