Monday, March 23, 2009

Considering the Early Church Fathers.

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.” 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?” 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.

This leads to a related lesson . . .

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 Arians affirmed biblical sentences. Listen to this description of the proceedings:

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. Only as each test was propounded, it was observed that the suspected party whispered and gesticulated to one another, evidently hinting that each could be safely accepted, since it admitted of evasion. If their assent was asked to the formula “like to the Father in all things,” it was given with the reservation that man as such is “the image and glory of God.” The “power of God” elicited the whispered explanation that the host of Israel was spoken of as dunamis kuriou, and that even the locust and caterpillar are called the “power of God.” The “eternity” of the Son was countered by the text, “We that live are alway (2 Corinthians 4:11)!” The fathers were baffled, and the test of homoosion, with which the minority had been ready from the first, was being forced (p. 172) upon the majority by the evasions of the Arians.

R. P. C. Hanson explained the process like this: “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.
But 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.

Contending for Our All: The Life and Ministry of Athanasius
By John Piper February 1, 2005

Yes. I want to call one thing to your attention in this whole thing (and I know it's long). We have traded in the Sovereignty of God, God honoring Theology and understanding for three things.

1. Laziness. It is easier to read the Bible through the lens of our own understanding, our preconceived notions and our cultural comforts. It is easier to let scripture fit our ideas than to make our ideas match scripture, because we think in a self-focused way. We are selfish by nature, and we have read the scripture for us and by us and for us. We think that by us and for us and through us all things are created, yet it's clear that scripture teaches:
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Col 1:16-17 (ESV)
It's easier to read it from our nature.

2. Fear. We are afraid that our beliefs and our way of thinking will be wrong. We are afraid to be wrong. When someone asks you a spiritual question, are you afraid to say "I don't know?" We read the scripture that says "be ready to give an answer" and so we are afraid if we can't give an answer. So we simplify the scripture so we can have an answer. We fit scripture into our world view because we are afraid if we read it for what is really is, we won't be able to justify the syncratism and contextualization of our modern religious idealism. We are terrified to be wrong, and even more terrified that others will think we are wrong.

3. Ignorance. We don't know any better. Someone once told us "it's just about Christ, it's only about the Bible". What we didn't know is what Christ are they talking about? Mormons talk about Christ, Jehovah Witnesses talk about Christ, Emergent Church people talk about Christ. Go back in history, Gnostics, Arians, Modalism. Some spoke of Christ as a spirit possessing the man Jesus, and leaving his body as Crucifixion. Some speak of Christ as God in the mode of man. Arianism speaks of Christ being created. So, modern Christian, which Christ is it about? If we just focus on Christ, but never a theology of who Christ is, we fall into Heresy. We assume we live Orthodoxy, but never take time to examine the presupisitions that exist in the modern Church. We have become a self-worshing idolotrist mass of people, and the church is dying and we wonder why. We don't see greater things (which I believe is tied to the harvest) and we don't see a great harvest? Why? Because we have thrown theology under the bus, and we just want to focus on our culturally understood and modern evangelical representation of Christ.

So here is my point. Stop being lazy, afraid and ignorant. Challenge your ideals. Piper put some things in his message about categories of thought that will mess with your current modern American sensibilities. Like:
God rules the world of bliss and suffering and sin, right down to the roll of the dice and the fall of a bird and the driving of the nail into the hand of his Son, yet, though he will that such sin and suffering be, he does not sin, but is perfectly holy.

God governs all the steps of all people, both good and bad, at all times and in all places, 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, such that he upheld the world by the word of his power while living in his mother’s womb.

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, so displayed and glorified the righteousness of God that God is not unrighteous to declare righteous ungodly people who simply believe in Christ.


Do those mess with you? I assume that most of you are bothered by the first one, that God will sin and yet is not sinful. We speak so often in our modern sensibilities about knowing and doing God's will, like somehow God's will can be thwarted. Can God's will be thwarted, or does He create, maintain and sustain all things? I know the argument that by His choosing He has stayed His hand, and He allows free will, I understand that, but do you really assume that God had no knowledge that sin would prevail on earth? Do you believe that when God planted the tree of knowledge, He didn't know the outcome? By it's very nature, sin was brought into the world by the will of God, who created mankind with the potential for sin and the opportunity for sin. Why He did it isn't in question, the reality is that God, if the creator, willed sin it existance, yet He Himself did not sin by doing so.

If you have read to this point in the blog, I commend you for sticking with it. This is weighty and probably convoluted diction, I know. It's difficult to begin to think outside of the society norms you have known your entire life. I am currently struggling with the fact that my entire life, Christianity has been foundationally about me, and God has been external to that. I must decrease and He must increase. More over, I am finding that most Christians in our society are at the exact same place, and only by God bringing in a few select few I have even come to the realization myself. I didn't get here on my own, and my blogging is sharing part of this journey. Perhaps you think the entire thing is errornus, then just pray for me. My own prayer is that God will change me in whatever way necessary for me to grow closer and understand more about Him than I have previously. Something is happening.


  1. Mark 9:14-15
    When Jesus saw this he was indignant. He said to them, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it."

    Here is my question: Where does intellectualism fit in that verse?

  2. Hardlessons,
    This is why we have the entire cannon of scripture. I find it interesting that you started with post with the indigence of Christ. He was indignant about the treatment of children. When we come to Christ, we come with faith, simple and pure faith like a child, yet we are not encouraged to stay there. 1 Corinthians 13:11 tells us that Paul puts away childish things. The context is love, learning to love and about love. We see dimly, but one day we will know as we are known, it's a process.

    So to answer you question, intellectualism doesn't fit into Mark 9:14-15, but if we limit ourselves to one verse of the Bible, and condemn systematic thinking based upon this dialogue, we deceive ourselves. Luke 2:52 says that Jesus grew in wisdom.

    If intellectualism was bad, would be approve of the Bereans? Would would approve of the early church being focused on study of the word? Would we be commanded to grow in grace and knowledge? Perhaps we should consider the whole cannon of scripture, and not a few choice sayings of Christ that fit our ideals.

  3. You're taking that verse in 1st Corinthians out of context, before Paul writes that he put childish ways behind him he explains the perfection of Love (God) and how as a child he did not see how flawed man was... "but where there are prophecies they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophecy in part; but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man I put childish ways behind me. Now we see the poor reflection as in a mirror; then we will see it face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known."
    Its symbolism for becoming aware of God.
    Now, as man, we have finite minds and thus can not comprehend the true Glory of God. But when God comes we shall see him fully.
    Much like a small child can not understand multiplication- a man can because he has grown.

    Wisdom and Intellectualism are two different things- not interchangeable in someone's large vocabulary.

    Wisdom (as found on the quality or state of being wise; knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action; sagacity, discernment, or insight.

    Intellectualism (as found on 1. devotion to intellectual pursuits.
    2. the exercise of the intellect.
    3. excessive emphasis on abstract or intellectual matters, esp. with a lack of proper consideration for emotions.
    4. Philosophy.
    a. the doctrine that knowledge is wholly or chiefly derived from pure reason.
    b. the belief that reason is the final principle of reality.

    Therefore we are called to grow in wisdom by studying the word of God- not to get trapped in a theological debate in which the Bible is a mere reason for exercising your superior intellect.

  4. Here is the irony. First, intellectualism is your word, not mine, it was brought up in your post. Second, you are using intellectualism in a logical, greko-style argument from the Enlightenment to condemn the very process in which you are using. So, you came to my blog to argue with me that arguments are invalid.

    You bested me in the debate, which shows signs that you are using the Bible at a text to best me in an intellectual debate. The entire argument is hypocrisy. How can you use the Bible and intellect to condemn using the Bible and intellect for the very thing you are doing? Do I think you are wrong, partially. I think you are partially wrong in your exegesis of 1 Cor. but I am not going to convince you any more than you are going to convince me. More over, I think your motives are wrong.

    If words are interchangeable in my vocabulary, it would make it more narrow, not larger. It is when we begin to separate words by differentiating between then and use them properly that we expand our vocabulary.

    So, my only question is, who are we talking about, me or you? Which one of us is the pot and which one of us is the kettle?

  5. I'm sorry Pastor, I did not mean to come to your blog to argue with you- if that's what you're thinking. And I probably carried my point too far.

    I came to discuss the point that intellectualism and theology are invalid points and should be put away when one is studying the Bible.

    Although I think you misunderstand me; You say I condemn intellect. Not so, not entirely. A person possessing a vast amount of intelligence is a wonderful thing, I just don't think its right that one should use the Bible to prove that they are any more smart than the average Christian and I find that theology seems to be a very large gateway to that very thing.
    In my original post I should have expanded on my question, explaining it entirely so that we would not have this misunderstanding.

    And it doesn't really matter who's the pot and who's the kettle, because really: I'm as black as sin. :)

  6. No need to apologies, it's just a blog. I have heard your argument before, and I am sorry that at some point someone used theology as a weapon against you. I have written about your point in earlier blogs, because I am terrified of your opinion. We have put theology farther and farther aside, and I fear the church is close to destruction as a result. It has nothing to do with intellect and everything to do with how we read and process information.

    There is no way that I, as a young, American born and raised Christian can simply read the Bible and not superimpose my western ideals on it. That, in my view, is why God gives us great men to learn from. We read and study theology because the Body of Christ is not limited to those who are alive on this earth. It extends to those who have lived and gone before us.

    To say that Theology, that being the Study of God, has no place in reading and studying the Bible, I think that is cancer in the American church, but you are not alone. Now I have heard people say "people just read the Bible to find ammo to put into their worldview, and find things to argue about" which I agree with. I wrote a blog about that at some point, I think there is a shift in the purpose of Theological study from Trailing Edge Boomers and Builders. I don't read and study Theology as a weapon, but as a safe guard.

    My issue with your argument is that men from John Piper to Joel Olsten read the Bible. Rick Warren and Brian McLaren both read the Bible. My LDS and JW friends read the Bible. Our interpretations, our belief systems are totally different. Who is right? I don't know you or your belief system or your theology, so you may say "well, they are all right". I can't agree, I believe there are many heresies out there, have been for 2,000 years. I love my LDS friends, but I have concern that their theology of salvation by works (even if they don’t’ call it that) is contrary to scripture. That is why we need Theology. To protect from Arianism, Gnostism, Pelagianism, and much of the 21st century heresy that comes along.

    My brother, in this area, we have to agree to TOTALLY disagree. I don't think a person should study the Bible without learning and holding to a study of God, which is what Theology is.

  7. I do agree with this point:

    "I just don't think its right that one should use the Bible to prove that they are any more smart than the average Christian and I find that theology seems to be a very large gateway to that very thing"

    But I think the resurgence of theological interests among younger evangelicals is moving outside of the individualistic concept into the community and meta-dialogue narrative, which by it's very virtue makes it less argumentative and decisive. I think your statement was more true 10 to 20 years ago than it is today, at least in my observations.