The Spirit of Athanasius: Elizabeth A. Johnson & John Piper

Yesterday, I received a very disconcerting call from my friend T.C.; he said he was concerned for the state of evangelical Christianity, once more because of this interview of Rick Warren, by John Piper. I did not bother to watch the video, because it only proved to me what I already knew. It was just not any interview, as the link shows, but Piper goes through all of the doctrines of Grace, and now that Warren has been approved by the Pope of Protestantism, Piper’s followers are free to listen to Warren’s sermons and buy his books. Joel has already commented on this as well. Any one with a seminary trained eye can read The Purpose Driven Life and see that it is Calvinism, only making God nicer and more relevant and practical, without all of the theological jargon and intellectualism.

Certainly, not everything in PDL was traditional calvinist orthodoxy; the practical implications of some of the chapters, the odes to a form of evangelical Christian justice have both Arminian (John Wesley) and Calvinist (the martyr John Brown) rings to them. Why would Warren not defend himself, or at least take the courage to differentiate himself from that big group of people (The Gospel Coalition) that has condemned his books and ministry?

I submit that perhaps pastors like Warren, who receive scrutiny, take a cue from Elizabeth A. Johnson. Thanks to the update from Megan of Women In Theology, we have an update on the Elizabeth Johnson and her “dialogue”with the U.S. Council of Bishops on her work, The Quest for the Living God.  The letter is brilliant, and the most impressive parts are not any of Johnson’s arguments, but her humility, admitting that she has learned from peoples who have been traditionally marginalized.


Some of my favorite quotes:

I further observe that at times theology develops ideas that not only sustain the inquiring minds and committed praxis of the people of the church but also influence official church teaching itself. […] he best example in our day is the liberation theology of Latin America. As one of its esteemed originators, Gustavo Gutiérrez, has noted, seldom has an insight moved so quickly from the faith of the people to theology to church teaching as has the idea of God’s preferential option for the poor, now present in magisterial documents as a
challenge to the church’s own practice.

Or how about this one on how she came to accept “a suffering God” in 1987:

Toward the end of the first week I delivered a lecture on the cross, including contemporary views pro and con the idea of the “crucified God.” In the lively discussion that followed, I asked for a show of hands as to which position made more sense to them, Schillebeeckx’s or Moltmann’s. Every hand but one went up for Moltmann. I was dumbfounded. I had gone to South Africa assuming that the tradition of impassibility was unquestionably right. The judgment of bishops and priests who suffered for the gospel in ways I could hardly imagine made me stop and ask what was going on here in these people of faith. For them, as for the imprisoned Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “only a suffering God can help” (Letters and Papers from Prison, July 16, 1944). This result was repeated in subsequent weeks, with passionate affirmations. I returned from this beloved country with a new question, born of the suffering and spiritual experience of these good men.

And lastly, sounding more like Clement of Alexandria than Athanasius:

Here is where the church in Asia, thanks to its experience as a little flock amid majority religions, is leading the theological conversation, giving the rest of the church a glimpse of what I call the generous God of the religions. Quest cites episcopal conferences of India, Korea, and the Philippines regarding the sense of the Sacred found in Asian traditions; it presents insights these conferences gain as they explore the mystery of God’s self-revelation, known in Jesus Christ, at work in the different ways of the religions. The book recounts my own startling encounter with the power of Hindu symbols used in an approved Eucharistic rite during a conference in India on Christ and the savior figures of other faiths sponsored by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (173). That liturgy, and the whole experience of the church in India which I discovered during that conference, rearranged the furniture of my mind, casting more sharply the question of how to reconcile the centrality of Jesus Christ with God’s work in other religions. On one level, the issue is fascinating in an intellectual sense. As an avowed westerner who thinks in a linear line of logic, I stretch to understand the Asian way of inclusive thinking that holds: Rather than saying ‘A is true so B must be false,’ the Asian tends to say ‘A is true and B is also true in some sense.’ For the westerner, that would imply that truth is relative

After these, I think she was right to put this dialogue into perspective, referencing both Scripture (implicitly) and tradition:

I write these observations in the spirit of the Egyptian bishop Athanasius. I’ve always appreciated his words, written during the conflict that ensued after the Council of Nicea when three groups contended vociferously over the right way to express Jesus Christ’s divine identity. Athanasius, who upheld the homoousios (one in being) teaching of the Council, noted that his party and the homoiousios party (similar in being), originally perceived as opponents, were actually on the same side as compared with the subordinationist Arian position. In the effort to forge unity, he wrote: those, however, who accept everything else that was defined at Nicea, and doubt only about the homoousios, must not be treated as enemies; nor do we here attack them as Ario-maniacs, nor as opponents of the Fathers; but we discuss the matter with them as brothers with brothers, who mean what we mean, and dispute only about the words. (De Synodis 41)

See that? Just because there are disputes about the meanings of words does not mean that our fellow believers are our enemies; they remain are siblings all the same.

You can read the rest of Elizabeth Johnson’s letter HERE

Lessons learned today:

1. It is possible to stand up for what you believe in a bold and civil manner since it is important to distinguish one’s self for one’s detractors.

2. Elizabeth Johnson is very intelligent and very humble. I really need to read The Quest now.

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h00die_R (Rod)

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