04 December 2008

Pyromaniacs (and you?) contra mundum

by Dan Phillips

On the heels of trying to source a Spurgeon quotation....

One of my favorite stories from church history may never have happened — but should have! It is the tale of Athanasius during the Arian controversy.

Sitting pretty as we are, we don't feel the drama of that time, where there were powerful and influential professed Christians who were deceived by Arianism. The leading, unyielding, and stalwart defender of the truth of Christ's full Godhood was Athanasius (328-373), the Bishop of Alexandria. Throughout his ministry, Athanasius suffered great pressure, and even seventeen years spent in exile. One exile was specifically in retaliation for Athanasius' refusal to obey Emperor Constantine's order to reinstate the unrepentant heretic Arius.

The tide was not always with Athanasius.

The story is that, at one point, someone tried to persuade Athanasius to moderate his stand. "Don't you know that the whole world is against you, Athanasius?" the man pled.

"Then Athanasius is against the world," the bishop replied. I picture Athanasius either saying it with a shrug, or else nailing the other with a "Duh!" glare — but that is definitely apocryphal. (Alternate version: the Latin phrase Athanasius contra mundum was engraved on the bishop's tombstone.)

That story of unblinking, unwavering, adamant allegiance to God's truth has long moved and challenged me. Years ago — I think it was when I was seriously considering giving the then-future Josiah the middle name "Athanasius" — I tried very hard to find any historical, contemporary validation of the story in question. (I'm a stickler for sourcing stories and quotations before using them.)

Try though I did, searching and making inquiry, I was only able to push any kind of documentation back as far as the Middle Ages. So, while it surely fits what we know about the character of Athanasius (and of clerical appeasers), and while it's one of those stories that should have happened even if it didn't... it may be a fiction.

We do know that Athanasius stood, and was ready to stand against the world if need be. We just don't know whether the story ever occurred as reported.

Yet there is a much older story that has impeccable — you might say inerrant — attestation. That is the story of Noah.

Here is the divine comment on the whole episode:
By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith (Hebrews 11:7)
Think of it. Even more so than Athanasius, Noah was literally the only man in the world who believed what he believed. His stance isolated him totally from all his contemporaries. Only Noah and his immediate family trusted God's word. All of the smartest, most powerful, most influential people in the world thought he was barking mad.

It was, in the most literal sense, Noƫ contra mundum.

And how did that work out for Noah? For his peers? Rather well, and rather disastrously, respectively. By his stance of faith in God's Word, Noah "condemned the world."

And we, today? Sometimes we feel (and are made to feel) that we're odd, that we stick out, that we're not trendy. Well: we are, we do, and we aren't. What's odd is that it is professing Christians who make those accusations — as if they're bad things, rather than par for the course (Matthew 10:11, 25; Luke 6:22; John 7:7; 15:18-20; 17:14; 1 Timothy 3:12; 1 John 3:1, 11-12). What ought to worry us, is if we find ourselves to be in the majority (Luke 6:26; James 4:4). Because it won't go well with the majority (Matthew 7:13-14).

Just remember: however small our number, more stand with us than stood with Athanasius — and far more than stood with Noah.

All that matters is whether the Lord stands with us (2 Timothy 4:17), and we with Him (Hebrews 13:11-14).

Dan Phillips's signature


donsands said...

Really nice post. Thanks.

David Kyle said...

After all, if God be for us...

Ben N said...

Does that mean I can't be cool?
Thanks for the message, Dan!

DJP said...

Maybe not in the short-run, Benjamin.


Marie said...

I had never heard about Athanasius (or that Constantine was baptized by an Arian bishop) until I read about it last New Year's in John Macarthur's "The Truth War". I'm sure you could find primary sources in whatever he used (don't you all kind of work with him)?

I love the message of your post. Definitely not too many on the side of truth (but many who are trying to re-invent truth to fit their own agenda). I recently learned this is called the nouetic effect of sin (from my associate pastor, who graduated from Macarthur's Master's Seminary). He seems to talk about sin a lot. I wonder if there's a connection....

DJP said...

A common misconception. Only Phil works with MacArthur, and he won't introduce Frank or me. (Can you blame him?)

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

God + one = A majority.

(But that one better be abiding in God's Word and Will.)

Stefan Ewing said...

If a pastor's exhortations
Rely on apocryphal quotations,
He should consult the source
And go to the mouth of the horse.

Argh, I can't stop now!

By faith, Noah believed and built
An ark to rise about water, mud, and silt.
He was surrounded by scoffers,
And of help received no offers.
But through him, God in His grace
Preserved the human race.

Anonymous said...

You have no idea how much my husband and I needed to read this today.

Solameanie said...

Now, Dan'l. You're beginning to get me bugged with all of these source hunts. I'm even to the point of checking my own posts to be sure I really said what I said, or if I am an urban legend.

I'm even wondering how many apocryphal stories are in circulation about TeamPyro posts or metas? Maybe I can start one. How's this:

"According to Dan Phillips at TeamPyro, it really wasn't Athanasius contra mundum. It was really Athanasius Aid the Contras.

DJP said...

Ohhh, great.

Zachary Bartels said...

I'm disappointed that the Pyromaniacs logo has not been branded into the side of the ark in that graphic...

Brian B said...

Great post and fitting time for me as I am preaching through Matthew 10, good encouragement for todays disciples.

I always thought this quote was attributed to Polycarp and not Athanasius. Hmmm?

DJP said...

Never heard "Polycarpus contra mundum."

But hey, Solameanie's starting new internet rumors, so... line forms at the left!

Doug Hibbard said...

I'm reminded of Elijah with his "I'm the only one left" complaint, and God reminded him that He had reserved 7000 that had been faithful (1 Kings 19, incredibly condensed Bible). So often it seems that we are all alone, and God has even left us to fend for ourselves.

He hasn't, and it's good to be reminded that whether we have 7000, our own family, or if it seems that the whole world is against us, God has His plan, and will not be stopped.

Mike Westfall said...

Helen Reddy and Kermit are Athanasians!

FX Turk said...

This is a great post -- one which makes a great point about the singularity of truth.

For what issues would you be willing to stand against the world, my dear friend? I think the list would be a great addendum to this post to show its scope.

FX Turk said...

Also, FWIW, I would be afraid to meet John MacArthur. I admit freely that I do not have good enough manners to meet someone that put-together.

I'd embarass myself and Phil if it ever happened because I would have no idea how to act.

DJP said...

Frank's last two, in reverse order:

But think of the joy and gladness it would give to us spectators! (Also and more importantly, the "cover" it would give me.)

Really excellent question. It's one I've often thought of the Emerg***s, with their vaunted return to primitive Christianity. What would they die for?

NothingNew said...


That was one excellent post.

donsands said...

"I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."

This is another quote that may have not have been accurate.

But this one I think we can nail down: "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen."

Today we really don't stand, do we. The "Gospel truth" is becoming the "gospel truths".

May the Lord give us grace and strength to stand. Amen.

lawrence said...

Well said.

So what about Polycarp's famous "away with the athiests" line. Did THAT really happen? I'm getting annoyed now...

DJP said...

Mm. Maybe we should open a second "MythPyros" site or something...so you don't have to see it if you don't want to.

Pedro said...

Great post, Thanks DJP.

I also find Perpetua’s
and Felicity’s
account in the year 203 AD mind-boggling because they both
were young, recent mom’s and specially Perpetua had to struggle against her
insisting and despaired Dad.

Athanasius of Alexandria said...

It's true. I said it.

John said...

Wow, really great simple reminder here. Thanks, Dan.

Anonymous said...

Dag, have I needed this...

DJP said...

Athanasius of AlexandriaIt's true. I said it

Well. There y'go, then.

MarieP said...

Great post, Dan!

Ironically, I find that I am not the only Pyro reader named Marie ;-)

Solameanie said...

"Who ya gonna call? Myth-Pyros!"

That might have some legs.

Becky Schell said...

Great post, Dan, and like Phil's The Background of the New Age, it is very timely.

Stefan Ewing said...

Who uttered that famous phrase:
Athanasius or Polycarp?
We may not know 'til the last days
As we strum hymns of praise on the harp.

Tom Austin said...

I had similar trouble this week tracking down Martin Luther's quip about the lion and the lamb. Lots of "as Luther said, ....." but no citations.

DJP said...

As an aside, if you're a stickler as I am, Warren Wiersbe will drive you right bonkers. He is CONSTANTLY alluding to wonderful statements and anecdotes and stories, 80% of them unsourced.

danny2 said...

Thank you. Great article.

Not only were Noah's actions contrary to the world, his preaching wasn't very good either...at least some would say.

(I fought hard for our son to be called Athanasius [could be shortened to Nate, right?] but my wife wouldn't budge. Since she was doing the most work, I relented and we decided on Malachi instead. I still hold our hope possibly for a future child!)

Angie said...

Frank and Dan, I have "met" Dr. MacArthur and I survived. While I was a student at TMC, he appeared on campus on a particularly windy day and commented to me on the weather. Then later, when I graduated, I shook his hand and even had my picture taken with him. His hand felt strangely like the hand of a human being!

You have to remember that he's a pastor, so he meets all sorts.

Also, when in doubt, smile and nod ;).

Oh, yeah, I appreciated the post. I was reminded in conversation with a friend last night just how narrow the gate is. I am grateful that God does not require perfect theology for us to be saved, yet I seek to understand the truth as well as my feeble mind can.

DJP said...

I understand. My dear wife was supportive and willing... but Josiah Athanasius Phillips would have been JAP, which would have been problematic to some or all. A. Josiah Phillips was tried for awhile, but didn't stand. Josiah Justus, mostly because it sounded very cool (and was Biblical).

In fact, I was going down to the wire on this one. When Josiah arrived literally one or two days early, he had to be "Boy Phillips" for a couple of days. The nurse told me I had until Friday to pick, and then I'd be talking to the county. Every time I'd coojie-coo him, my wife would say in a tiny voice, "What's my name, Daddy?"

In the end, it was —

Josiah — after the boy-king who rediscovered God's Word and sparked a revival and reformation

Paul — after the tireless, unstoppable preacher of Christ

Julien — after my dearly-missed dad

Phillips — after, well, duh! Our family!

FX Turk said...

Getting back here late, I like your take on my "which ones?" question, but I was more thinking of people who are willing to go all contra mundum every time they open their mouths -- as if everything was a matter of the utmost importance and nothing can be assigned to good graces or a little humility.

So I guess I am asking how you would pose this issue to our readers in a way which doesn't make them each a one-man Athanasius corps.

FX Turk said...

BTW, you should have named him Christus Victor Phillips. Think of all the trouble that name would have stirred up.

FX Turk said...


See -- that sounds good in theory, but I am so prone to making jokes in an all-too-familiar way and laughing when I am nervous that he would think (rightly) that I am some lunatic which Phil was somehow under duress to introduce to him.

I am sure he's a human being. I am also sure he's a hero in the faith and if I am a fan-boy about anything, it's great preaching.

Solameanie said...


Did you know "Justus" was the title of the last Monkees album?

Just thought you might wanna know. ;)

DJP said...

No, I really, really didn't.

Kim said...


Well, if you had given him Athanasius as his first name, he may have had some had to bear a great deal of teasing.

And Phil introduced Neil and me to MacArthur when we were visiting. Once we got over the presence of the Secret Service-looking guys, it was a very nice meeting.

DJP said...

He could have gone by A. Josiah Phillips, or A. J.

How nice that Phil thinks so well of you and Buggie.


Stefan Ewing said...

Dan: I was thinking that. "A.J." has a nice ring to it.

"J.P.J.P." works, too. He could be JP^2 (assuming "squared" is no longer part of the lingo and therefore doesn't carry the negative, ungroovy connotations it did a few decades ago, man).

Mike Riccardi said...

When I met MacArthur at the 2007 Shepherds' Conference, I gave him a hug and told him he had beautiful feet (a la Rom 10:15). He got a bit of a kick out of that.

Dan, fantastic post. And good follow-up questions, Frank. I'm one who has to remain in check about how often I'm ready to go contra mundum because of my own pride and not because of my boast in the Word of God.

Thanks for serving us.

sgtdabney said...


Very nice post, bro. When I'm deployed, that is exactly the kind of stuff I think about. In fact, I've meditated on Noah and his example many times when I was out in the sandbox and was tempted to compromise. For the times I sinned, I have always thought of people like Noah or Elijah and have been ashamed. These men faced greater hardships than I do and did not waiver. Certainly we, by the grace of God, should seek to do the same.

Remember Peter? At one point he took a sword to strike out at the Lord's enemies, and soon after caved into the questioning of a girl. I think we are all like that to some degree. I'm glad God gave us saints like Athanasius to stand as a rebuke to our own weakness.

Rachael Starke said...


I happen to have first-hand evidence that he likes to listen to Julio Iglesias.

Maybe if you brought a gift...:)

Morris Brooks said...

Well preached, Dan. Amazing how the unction of the Spirit accompanies even the digital word.


Susan said...

Wow, Dan, just look at what you've achieved today with this post:

1) Stefan began writing poetry;

2) Solameanie started rumors of his own about Athanasius;

3) You started a rumor yourself about Helen Reddy and Kermit being Athanasians;

4) And then the REAL Athanasius shows up!

(All seriousness aside, I needed this post as a reminder. These two days I've been giving into my flesh, passing my valuable hours by watching Youtube videos. Ridiculous, yes, I know. That's why I needed this post. It's not just me against the world--it's me against myself....

Thank you....)

Ed Gordineer said...

thanks. i needed to hear.. errr... read that.

DJP said...

Susal - LOL, then bang.

What an excellent point. Tempting to close comments just now, so we all think about what you brought up. The worst opposition of the world I'll ever face is its vicious little outpost in my own flesh.

Thanks for that.

Shelby Thomas said...

Really needed to read this today. Very true...
I was witnessing to a lot of professing Christians who... well, obviously aren't devoted to God... and well, I was teamed up on and very discouraged. After all, I was the only freak at the festival with a skirt on and telling everyone "God bless!"
I did begin to feel very discouraged and idiotic, but Praise God, a friend sent me this article to check out and I've been reminded by the Truth of God's Word.
God bless and thanks.

Anonymous said...

I learned that story from Phil's lecture series on the heresies =) and that was when Athanasius became my official Hero in the Faith (tm)

Although admittedly John Gill and David Brainherd are giving him a serious run for the money....

(Yeah, I'm new to this business.)

- Charlie (on the T... have no idea why OpenID is putting me as "Officer")

Anonymous said...

I do believe ZSB nailed this one.