Piper’s fourth book in the Swans Are Not Silent series tells the stories of Athanasius, Owen, and Machen, who passionately defended the truth of the gospel, despite facing opposition.
About the Author
John Piper (DTheol, University of Munich) is the founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and the chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He served for thirty-three years as the senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is the author of more than fifty books, including Desiring God; Don’t Waste Your Life; This Momentary Marriage; A Peculiar Glory; and Reading the Bible Supernaturally.
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CONTENDING FOR CHRIST CONTRA MUNDUM: Exile and Incarnation in the Life of Athanasius
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Athanasius was born in A.D. 298 in Egypt and became the bishop of Alexandria on June 8, 328 at the age of thirty. The people of Egypt viewed him as their bishop until he died on May 2, 373, at the age of seventy-five. I say he was "viewed" by the people as their bishop during these years because Athanasius was driven out of his church and office five times by the powers of the Roman Empire. Seventeen of his forty-five years as bishop were spent in exile. But the people never acknowledged the validity of the other bishops sent to take his place. He was always bishop in exile as far as his flock was concerned.
Gregory of Nazianzus (330-389) gave a memorial sermon in Constantinople seven years after the death of Athanasius and described the affections of the Egyptian people for their bishop. Gregory tells us that when Athanasius returned from his third exile in 364, having been gone for six years, he arrived
amid such delight of the people of the city and of almost all Egypt, that they ran together from every side, from the furthest limits of the country, simply to hear the voice of Athanasius, or feast their eyes upon the sight of him.
From their standpoint none of the foreign appointments to the office of bishop in Alexandria for forty-five years was valid but one, Athanasius. This devotion was owing to the kind of man Athanasius was. Gregory remembered him like this:
Let one praise him in his fastings and prayers ... another his unweariedness and zeal for vigils and psalmody, another his patronage of the needy, another his dauntlessness towards the powerful, or his condescension to the lowly. ... [He was to] the unfortunate their consolation, the hoary-headed their staff, youths their instructor, the poor their resource, the wealthy their steward. Even the widows will ... praise their protector, even the orphans their father, even the poor their benefactor, strangers their entertainer, brethren the man of brotherly love, the sick their physician.
One of the things that makes that kind of praise from a contemporary the more credible is that, unlike many ancient saints, Athanasius is not recorded as having done any miracles. Archibald Robertson, who edited Athanasius's works for Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, said, "He is ... surrounded by an atmosphere of truth. Not a single miracle of any kind is related of him. ... The saintly reputation of Athanasius rested on his life and character alone, without the aid of any reputation for miraculous power." Then he goes on with his own praise of Athanasius:
In the whole of our minute knowledge of his life there is a total lack of self-interest. The glory of God and the welfare of the Church absorbed him fully at all times. ... The Emperors recognized him as a political force of the first order ... but on no occasion does he yield to the temptation of using the arm of flesh. Almost unconscious of his own power ... his humility is the more real for never being conspicuously paraded. ... Courage, self-sacrifice, steadiness of purpose, versatility and resourcefulness, width of ready sympathy, were all harmonized by deep reverence and the discipline of a single-minded lover of Christ.
Athanasius: Father of Orthodoxy Contra Mundum
This single-minded love for Jesus Christ expressed itself in a lifelong battle to explain and defend Christ's deity and to worship Christ as Lord and God. This is what Athanasius is best known for. There were times when it seemed the whole world had abandoned orthodoxy. That is why the phrase Athanasius contra mundum (against the world) arose. He stood steadfast against overwhelming defection from orthodoxy, and only at the end of his life could he see the dawn of triumph.
But in a sense it is anachronistic to use the word orthodoxy this way — to say that the world abandoned orthodoxy. Was it already there to abandon? Of course, biblical truth is always there to abandon. But orthodoxy generally refers to a historic or official or universally held view of what is true to Scripture. Was that there to abandon? The answer is suggested in the other great name given to Athanasius, namely, "Father of Orthodoxy." That phrase seems to say that orthodoxy came to be because of Athanasius. And in one sense that is true in regard to the doctrine of the Trinity. The relationships between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit had not received formal statement in any representative council before the time of Athanasius.
R. P. C. Hanson wrote, "There was not as yet any orthodox doctrine [of the Trinity], for if there had been, the controversy could hardly have lasted sixty years before resolution." The sixty years he has in mind is the time between the Council of Nicaea in 325 and the Council of Constantinople in 381. The Council of Nicaea established the battle lines and staked out the deity of Christ, and the Council of Constantinople confirmed and refined the Nicene Creed. In the intervening sixty years there was doctrinal war over whether the Nicene formulation would stand and become "orthodoxy."
This was the war Athanasius fought for forty-five years. It lasted all his life, but the orthodox outcome was just over the horizon when he died in 373. And under God this outcome was owing to the courage and constancy and work and writing of Athanasius. No one comes close to his influence in the cause of biblical truth during his lifetime.
Arius Fires the Shot Heard 'round the Roman World
The war was sparked in A.D. 319. A deacon in Alexandria named Arius, who had been born in 256 in Libya, presented a letter to Bishop Alexander arguing that if the Son of God were truly a Son, he must have had a beginning. There must have been a time, therefore, when he did not exist. Most of what we know of Arius is from others. All we have from Arius's own pen are three letters, a fragment of a fourth, and a scrap of a song, the Thalia. In fact he proved to be a very minor character in the controversy he unleashed. He died in 336.
Athanasius was a little over twenty when the controversy broke out — over forty years younger than Arius (a lesson in how the younger generation may be more biblically faithful than the older). Athanasius was in the service of Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria. Almost nothing is known of his youth. Gregory of Nazianzus celebrates the fact that Athanasius was brought up mainly in biblical rather than philosophical training.
He was brought up, from the first, in religious habits and practices, after a brief study of literature and philosophy, so that he might not be utterly unskilled in such subjects, or ignorant of matters which he had determined to despise. For his generous and eager soul could not brook being occupied in vanities, like unskilled athletes, who beat the air instead of their antagonists and lose the prize. From meditating on every book of the Old and New Testament, with a depth such as none else has applied even to one of them, he grew rich in contemplation, rich in splendor of life.
This was the service he was to render for forty-five years: biblical blow after blow against the fortresses of the Arian heresy. Robert Letham confirms the outcome of Gregory's observation: "Athanasius' contribution to the theology of the Trinity can scarcely be overestimated. ... He turned discussion away from philosophical speculation and back to a biblical and theological basis."
In 321 a synod was convened in Alexandria, and Arius was deposed from his office and his views declared heresy. Athanasius at age twenty- three wrote the deposition for Alexander. This was to be his role now for the next fifty-two years — writing to declare the glories of the incarnate Son of God. The deposition of Arius unleashed sixty years of ecclesiastical and empire-wide political conflict.
Eusebius of Nicomedia (modern-day Izmit in Turkey) took up Arius's theology and became "the head and center of the Arian cause." For the next forty years the eastern part of the Roman Empire (measured from the modern Istanbul eastward) was mainly Arian. That is true in spite of the fact that the great Council of Nicaea decided in favor of the full deity of Christ. Hundreds of bishops signed it and then twisted the language to say that Arianism really fit into the wording of Nicaea.
The Council of Nicaea (325)
Emperor Constantine had seen the sign of the cross during a decisive battle thirteen years before the Council of Nicaea and was converted to Christianity. He was concerned with the deeply divisive effect of the Arian controversy in the empire. Bishops had tremendous influence, and when they were at odds (as they were over this issue), it made the unity and harmony of the empire more fragile. Constantine's Christian advisor, Hosius, had tried to mediate the Arian conflict in Alexandria, but failed. So in 325 Constantine called the Council at Nicaea across the Bosporus from Constantinople (today's Istanbul). He pulled together, according to tradition, 318 bishops plus other attenders like Arius and Athanasius, neither of whom was a bishop. He fixed the order of the Council and enforced its decisions with civil penalties.
The Council lasted from May through August and ended with a statement of orthodoxy that has defined Christianity to this day. The wording today that we call the Nicene Creed is really the slightly altered language of the Council of Constantinople in 381. But the decisive work was done in 325. The anathema at the end of the Creed of Nicaea shows most clearly what the issue was. The original Creed of Nicaea was written in Greek, but here it is in English:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible, and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father the only-begotten, that is, of the essence of the Father [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] God of God [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and Light of Light [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] very God of very God [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] begotten, not made [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] being of one substance with the Father [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] by whom all things were made in heaven and on earth; 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, ascended into heaven; from thence he cometh to judge the quick and the dead.
And in the Holy Ghost.
And those who say: there was a time when he was not; and: he was not before he was made; and: he was made out of nothing, or out of another substance or thing [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or the Son of God is created, or changeable, or alterable; they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.
The key phrase, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (one being with the Father) was added later due to the insistence of the emperor. It made the issue crystal-clear. The Son of God could not have been created, because he did not have merely a similar being to the Father [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] but was of the very being of the Father [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. He was not brought into existence with similar being, but was eternally one with divine being.
Astonishingly all but two bishops signed the creed, some, as Robertson says, "with total duplicity." Bishops Secundus and Theonas, along with Arius (who was not a bishop), were sent into exile. Eusebius of Nicomedia squeaked by with what he called a "mental reservation" and within four years would persuade the emperor that Arius held substantially to the Creed of Nicaea — which was pure politics.
When Athanasius's mentor, Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria, died on April 17, 328, three years after the Council of Nicaea, the mantel of Egypt and of the cause of orthodoxy fell to Athanasius. He was ordained as Bishop on June 8 that year. This bishopric was the second in Christendom after Rome. It had jurisdiction over all the bishops of Egypt and Libya. Under Athanasius Arianism died out entirely in Egypt. And from Egypt Athanasius wielded his empire-wide influence in the battle for the deity of Christ.
Athanasius, the Desert Monks, and Antony
We've passed over one crucial and decisive event in his role as Alexander's assistant. He made a visit with Alexander to the Thebaid, the desert district in southern Egypt where he came in contact with the early desert monks, the ascetics who lived lives of celibacy, solitude, discipline, prayer, simplicity, and service to the poor. Athanasius was deeply affected by this visit and was "set on fire by the holiness of their lives."
For the rest of his life there was an unusual bond between the city bishop and the desert monks. They held him in awe, and he admired them and blessed them. Robinson says, "He treats ... the monks as equals or superiors, begging them to correct and alter anything amiss in his writings." The relationship became a matter of life and death because when Athanasius was driven out of his office by the forces of the empire, there was one group he knew he could trust with his protection. "The solitaries of the desert, to a man, would be faithful to Athanasius during the years of trial."
One in particular captured Athanasius's attention, affection, and admiration: Antony. He was born in 251. At twenty he sold all his possessions and moved to the desert but served the poor nearby. At thirty-five he withdrew for twenty years into total solitude, and no one knew if he was alive or dead. Then at fifty-five he returned and ministered to the monks and the people who came to him for prayer and counsel in the desert until he died at 105. Athanasius wrote the biography of Antony. This was Athanasius's ideal, the combination of solitude and compassion for the poor based on rock-solid orthodoxy.
Antony made one rare appearance in Alexandria that we hear about, namely, to dispel the rumor that the desert monks were on the Arian side. He denounced Arianism "as the worst of heresies, and was solemnly escorted out of town by the bishop [Athanasius] in person." Orthodoxy, rigorous asceticism for the sake of purity, and compassion for the poor — these were the virtues Athanasius loved in Antony and the monks. And he believed their lives were just as strong an argument for orthodox Christology as his books were.
Now these arguments of ours do not amount merely to words, but have in actual experience a witness to their truth. For let him that will, go up and behold the proof of virtue in the virgins of Christ and in the young men that practice holy chastity, and the assurance of immortality in so great a band of His martyrs.
Athanasius's biography of Antony is significant for another reason. It was translated from Greek to Latin and found its way into the hands of Ponticianus, a friend of St. Augustine, some time after 380. Ponticianus told St. Augustine the story of Antony. As he spoke, Augustine says, he was "violently overcome by a fearful sense of shame." This led to Augustine's final struggles in the garden in Milan and his eventual conversion. "Athanasius' purpose in writing Antony's Life had gained its greatest success: Augustine would become the most influential theologian in the church for the next 1,000 years."
Athanasius Embroiled in Controversy
Within two years after taking office as Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius became the flash point of controversy. Most of the bishops who had signed the Creed of Nicaea did not like calling people heretics, even if they disagreed with this basic affirmation of Christ's deity. They wanted to get rid of Athanasius and his passion for this cause. Athanasius was accused of levying illegal taxes. There were accusations that he was too young when ordained, that he used magic, that he subsidized treasonable persons, and more. Constantine did not like Athanasius's hard line either and called him to Rome in 331 to face the charges the bishops were bringing. The facts acquitted him, but his defense of the Nicene formulation of Christ's deity was increasingly in the minority.
The First Exile of Athanasius (336-338)
Finally his enemies resorted to intrigue. They bribed Arsenius, a bishop in Hypsele (on the Nile in southern Egypt), to disappear so that the rumor could be started that Athanasius had arranged his murder and cut off one of his hands to use for magic. Constantine was told and asked for a trial to be held in Tyre. Meanwhile one of Athanasius's trusted deacons had found Arsenius hiding in a monastery and had taken him captive and brought him secretly to Tyre.
At the trial the accusers produced a human hand to confirm the indictment. But Athanasius was ready. "Did you know Arsenius personally?" he asked. "Yes" was the eager reply from many sides. So Arsenius was ushered in alive, wrapped up in a cloak. When he was revealed to them, they were surprised but demanded an explanation of how he had lost his hand. Athanasius turned up his cloak and showed that one hand at least was there. There was a moment of suspense, artfully managed by Athanasius. Then the other hand was exposed, and the accusers were requested to point out whence the third had been cut off.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Contending for Our All"
Copyright © 2006 Desiring God Foundation.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Sacred Controversy in Scripture, History, and the Lives of the Swans,
Chapter One: Contending for Christ Contra Mundum Exile and Incarnation in the Life of Athanasius,
Chapter Two: Communing with God in the Things for Which We Contend How John Owen Killed His Own Sin While Contending for Truth,
Chapter Three: Contending for Facts for the Sake of Faith J. Gresham Machen's Constructive Controversy with Modernism,
Conclusion: Contending for Our All: A Golden Opportunity for Love,
Our Prayer in a Time of Controversy,
A Note on Resources: Desiring God,