We need an Athanasius; we need a William Wilberforce (Part I)


Jesus replied: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. – Matthew 22:37-38

I’m just getting into John Chrysostom’s Homilies On the Incomprehensible Nature of God (CUA Press). The homilies attempt to explain that we can know nothing of the nature of God, but we can still know God. St. John gave these as a response to the neo-Arians who said that we could know the nature of God.

In order to give some background information, the introduction explains the controversy of Arianism and what it brought about. He talks about how how the adoption of the Nicene Creed was a response to Arianism. Yet he points out:

“…Arianism did not die; in fact it grew for four decades and was still a disturbing factor at the end of the fourth century. Indeed, it might have been reestablished after Nicaea were it not for Athanasius of Alexandria.”

For those who do not know, Athanasius is often referred to as “Athaansius Contra Mundum” (Athanasius against the world). Athanasius was a deacon when he attended Nicaea, but in 326 (the year after Nicaea) when Alexander of Alexandria died, Athanasius took his place as Bishop of Alexandria. During Athanasius’ tenure as Bishop of Alexandria he was banished from the city no less than five times due to his refusal to back down on his beliefs concerning Christ.

Eusebius (not to be confused with the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea), the bishop of Nicomedia, was an open Arian and used his position of influence to have the government of Alexandria consistently harass Athanasius. Much to the chagrin of Eusebius, Athanasius willingly faced the persecution; after all, he was raised during the last great persecution of Christians under the Roman Empire (303-311) and watched many of his family friends and his mentors die in the persecution. What was banishment compared to what he had endured as a child?

Athanasius turned away the favor of man and a position of prominence in order to stand for the truth. As C.S. Lewis says of Athanasius in the introduction to “On the Incarnation” (St. Vladamir’s Press),

“He knew that the very existence of the Church was at stake; but he was utterly certain of the truth and he knew that it must in time prevail.”

Athanasius was faithful to the doctrines of Christianity and to Christ not out of some desire to be right or some attempt to win an argument or exert his power and control over people, but because he was dedicated to the Truth who is Christ. In being dedicated to the Truth, he desired that all men know the Truth as He revealed Himself. The Arians created a Jesus who was different from the Jesus of history and therefore Athanasius, in loving loyalty to Christ, stood his ground and suffered for his holy obstinance. Banishment back then was not a simple thing; being in Egypt, he was banished into the wilderness. He had to leave all that he knew five separate times and depart into the unknown (though the first two times he went to the Desert Father Antony, while the last three times he went to the disciples of Antony).

In modern Christianity, it is quite popular to deny certain doctrines in order to advance in academia or in the eyes of the world. At the multiple emergent events I have been to I have witnessed well-known authors mock those who adhere to Orthodoxy, all so they can rub shoulders with the “great thinkers” of today. I fully admit that the faith of the Emergents is far more palatable than orthodox Christianity and far more appealing to those who are no fans of Christianity.

But a changing culture does not require a changing theology. Athaansius saw this. The Arians realized that by making Jesus less than God, but still firstborn of creation, they were able to appease both the Greeks and the Jews (who still had a presence in both Antioch and Alexandria, two cities where Arianism thrived).

To the Greeks, if Christ wasn’t God, but a created spirit, they could appeal to the Gnostic practitioners and neo-platonic philosophers by pointing out that Jesus was a form of an aeon (an extension of God, but not God). They could even win over the Stoics by showing them that Christ was the Logos (reason) of God. This would avoid the mystery of the Incarnation and make Christianity more rational (in fact, the predecessors of the Arians, to whom the homilies of John Chrysostom are addressed, actually said we could comprehend the nature of God, which would appeal to those who tend to be rational).

To the Jews, the Arians could explain that Christianity continued the strict monotheism of Judaism. While Jesus was no mere man and much more than an angel, he still wasn’t God, thus God was still one. Such openness in beliefs and willingness to compromise on the person of Christ developed in no small part to the fact that the Arian Christians grew out of two very cosmopolitan and pluralistic cities (Alexandria and Antioch) where they felt they needed to get along with their neighbors rather than contradict them.

Can’t we see the parallels in today’s world? The Emergents generally reside in cities that tend to be cosmopolitan and pluralistic (though society as a whole is becoming one big city due to the advent of the internet). Because of this, they are willing to have “inter-faith dialogue” and to water down or even do away with certain beliefs. In order to appease those who engage in homosexual actions, Emergents are willing to say that homosexuality isn’t a sin and, in fact, is the plan of God. In order to appease those who fight for abortion, they not only say that abortion is okay, but that it’s a blessing.

But the beliefs go beyond what translates into political laws. Many emergents deny both the existence of Hell and that Christ’s death dealt with our atonement for sin (while some Protestants and Catholics might disagree over the type of atonement, all agree that it dealt with our atonement for sins in some way). Some would say that while they don’t embrace Universalism (the belief that all religions lead to Heaven), there’s no reason to prohibit fellowship or communion with those who do believe in Universalism. Yet others go so far as to say that God does not know the future, is weak, and deny anything orthodox about the doctrine of God.

All of these beliefs – or unwillingness to stand on orthodox beliefs (e.g. “Well this is what my own journey has shown me, but not everyone needs to believe this”) – make the Emergents more popular among seculars both in the popular world and the academic world. To your regular university, bringing an Emergent Christian on to the faculty is as good as having an atheist on the faculty, because you can be assured that he won’t press his faith, won’t take an absolutist stance (except against orthodox Christians), and will function as an atheist within the classroom. To the masses, an Emergent Christian will present a faith that is free of traditional Christian personal morality (but still emphasize the importance of helping the poor). Likewise, if a Christian wants to worship Christ, but also adopt the metaphysics of Buddhism or Kaballah Judaism, then in the Emergent faith they are free to do so.

Is it no wonder that Emergent Christianity (or a type of Emergent Christianity, even if it is not called “Emergent”) continues to grow? While so many Christian authors laugh about how the Emergent fad has ended – and truly, the label “Emergent” has ended and the leaders who still ascribe to it are slipping into obscurity – the heresies brought with it continue to grow, just without title or with different titles. Christian after Christian either succumbs to these heresies or simply retreats behind the stain-glassed windows of the church or the ivory tower of the conservative Christian colleges. Very few are willing to stand firm, take the time to understand this heresy, and then combat it, especially when it comes as a personal cost.

We need a modern-day Athanasius; we need many people to act like an Athanasius in their own communities. We need Christians who are willing to stand on the orthodox principles of the faith even when it costs them personally. While I harped on the Emergents (as they are the greatest example of a modern-day heretical movement), there are also problems within conservative churches that need to be addressed. If the local church does little to nothing to help her poorer members or the poorer members of the local community, but wants to build a multi-million dollar sanctuary to display their fiscal prominence, then an Athanasius needs to stand up in that church and tell them “No, this is not what Christ taught.”

When we hear Christian friends heading towards Emergent beliefs and denying the essential doctrines of the Christian faith, we need people to stand up and say, “no, this is not what Christ taught.” Instead of trying to find the good in heretical works or the proponents of heresy or instead of brushing aside deep heresies in order to find the better message, we must instead focus on the heresy and attack it. While I am an ardent proponent of the belief that there is truth to be found in everything, I believe that if something claims to be a Christian writing, but is full of deep heresy that impacts how we view God, we have a duty to fight such a heresy. We can look at The Shack and say, “Oh, but that’s fiction!” It doesn’t matter; what it says about the Trinity is false and heretical and so we should point it out. When we read a book by Tony Jones, Brian McLaren, Peter Rollins, or someone else involved in the Emergent movement, even though we’ll find many things we agree with, when the orthodox tenets of the faith are under attack – especially the doctrine of God – we should, in love, combat these heresies and point them out.

But all of this begins with studying the orthodox tenets of the faith. If we don’t know our faith then how can we stand up for it? Athanasius was able to defend the faith because he understood the faith and he understood the implications. Likewise, he did not defend the faith so he could make a name for himself. He did not defend the faith so he could get a nice book deal that would bring in money. He did not defend the faith so people would be in awe of his knowledge. Instead, he defended the faith because he loved God. He learned the faith because he loved God.

At the end of our lives we will all look back on what we have done; some of us will be pleased while others will not. Some of us, out of a love for the world, will have befriended the world and accepted worldly philosophies in order to live a life of personal peace and prosperity. Others, however, will look back at a difficult life and be pleased. The world will have rejected them, but only because they rejected the world first and followed Christ. What an honor if we could legitimately earn the right to have “contra mundum,” Against the World, placed on our tombstones, not as a saying, but as an accurate description of who we were. But in all of it, such opposition should flow from our love for God and nothing else. May we all be like Athanasius.

(Part 2 will deal with the life of William Wilberforce and his love for his neighbor and how we should follow Wilberforce’s example)

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