>Perhaps you’ve never heard of a conference on Athanasius—perhaps you’ve never even heard of Athanasius!—but a recent conference in Pennsylvania demonstrated the importance of this fourth century theologian for today’s church.
Although Athanasius is popularly known as an “early church father,” it may be more accurate to use different terms since the church existed from creation and Adam could be considered an “early church father.” Athanasius is recognized as a father of Christian teaching, however, because his work greatly influenced the development of Christian thought in the centuries following Christ’s earthly ministry.
Athanasius was a bishop in Alexandria, Egypt, who is revered by Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians as a champion of Trinitarian doctrine against the attacks of Arianism. The Athanasian Creed, which reflects biblical teaching on the Trinity, bears his name because until the seventeenth century he was thought to be the author. Although Athanasius did not write it, he did write Against the Heathen and On the Incarnation. As an observer at the Council of Nicea, he argued against Arius’ doctrine of Christ as distinct from the Father; the Council adopted Athanasius’ position that the Son is co-eternal and co-equal with the Father. Athanasius suffered constantly for his defense of the biblical faith, at one time narrowly escaping capture by 5,000 soldiers and five times being sent into exile.
The importance of Athanasius for today’s church was the main point of the conference, “Against the World: Learning from St. Athanasius,” held on September 11, 2010, at Grace Bible Church in Dunmore, PA.
The conference was sponsored by Life Reformation, “a small group of evangelical Christians committed to advancing the cause of the gospel of Jesus Christ, especially in Northeast Pennsylvania, by providing accessible and practical theological resources that equip God’s people to live for his glory,” according to Rev. Bill Boekestein, pastor of Covenant Reformed Church (URCNA) in Carbondale.
“What that actually means on the street level is that a few close friends and ministerial colleagues and I have been trying to introduce historic reformational Christianity to our predominantly Roman Catholic, mainline evangelical and Arminian fundamentalistic community,” he explains. “We have tried to do this by maintaining a practical theology blog, LifeReformation.org, and organizing conferences and other speaking events. The response has been generally positive although there is a tremendous amount of work to be done yet.”
Rev. Boekestein and fellow organizer Pastor Mike Conroy (Grace Fellowship Church; Tunkhannock, PA) were two of the conference speakers as well as Dr. Carl Trueman and Dr. Tedd Tripp. Dr. Trueman is Professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and a contributing writer at Reformation21.org, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Dr. Tripp is pastor of Grace Fellowship Church in Hazleton, PA, and author of Shepherding a Child’s Heart and Instructing a Child’s Heart.
Rev. Boekestein relates that when he, Pastor Conroy, and Evan Hughes (Grace Reformed Episcopal Church; Scranton, PA) first began searching for speakers willing to participate in a conference “organized on a shoestring budget by three inexperienced young guys…we decided that we would go with whatever reasonable topic was suggested by the first speaker that accepted our request.”
“In hindsight,” he adds, “we are so glad that speaker was Carl Trueman and the topic he suggested was St. Athanasius. After committing to this topic we decided to focus on his monumental battle against the theological error of his day (Arianism), and his nearly unparalleled contribution to creedal theology.”
The conference was held on a Saturday and consisted of four morning sessions and two afternoon sessions, with an opportunity for questions after the morning lectures and after the afternoon lectures. An extended lunch break allowed participants to visit local restaurants.
The conference began with Rev. Boekestein showing that the Bible emphasizes history and God calls us to be “theological historians” in his lecture, Avoiding Chronological Snobbery: The Bible on History.
In the second session, A Professional Rebel: The Life and Times of Athanasius, Dr. Trueman surveyed the life of danger faced by Athanasius in his struggle to promote biblical teaching on Christ.
In the third session, The Art of Christian Biography: Athanasius and the Story of Anthony, Dr. Trueman examined the strengths and weaknesses of Athanasius’ “Life of Anthony” and demonstrated how it set a standard for future generations of biographers.
In the fourth session, Once and Future Faith: The Importance of the Ancient Creeds Today, Dr. Trueman considered how the ancient creeds are a rich resource for today’s Christians.
Pastor Mike Conroy led the fifth session, Finding Our Lord and Our Language: Athanasius on the Psalms. Utilizing a lengthy letter of Athanasius, he helped listeners understand the glory, majesty, and weight of Jesus’ name and how that should affect prayer and discussion about Christ.
In the final session, A Courageous Ministry: Doing Right in a World Gone Wrong, Dr. Tripp spoke about the dedication and perseverance of Athanasius in spite of dissent, violence, and repeated exile.
“Dr. Tedd Tripp did a great job in closing the conference by providing several ‘take-away points’ from the conference,” says Rev. Boekestein. “He highlighted the importance of church history, the importance of theological disagreement, and the importance of one life well-spent. He reminded us that truth is not defined by majority vote, that truth worth living for is truth worth dying for, that the battle for truth must be fought in each generation and that the Lord is the protector and defender of his church. He closed by reflecting on Athanasius’ blend of courage, persistence, passion, insight and clarity. As a shepherd’s shepherd, Athanasius had a passion for the entire church of Christ. That’s a lot of practical wisdom drawn from a person many of the participants had never heard of prior to this conference.”
About 60 people attended the conference, which was the group’s second annual fall conference. Last year’s conference on John Calvin was held on a Friday night and drew 185 people. According to Rev. Boekestein, at least 15 churches were represented by this year’s attendees with Reformed persons in the minority.
“One of the goals that I believe we met was to make a case to our evangelical community that history matters,” he says. “I think those who did attend were thoroughly edified.”
The group plans to host a Reformation Day event on Martin Luther’s Bondage of the Will and is planning a conference with Dr. Joel Beeke and Rev. Anthony Selvaggio for July 16.
The above article appeared as “Athanasius Comes to Pennsylvania” by Glenda Mathes on pages 6-7 in the October 13, 2010 issue of Christian Renewal.
© Glenda Mathes 2010