This book is the fourth in the series The Swans Are Not Silent by John Piper. He writes three brief biographies of great men of faith who faced controversy at critical times in the life of the church. They contended for the truth of God’s Word not because controversy was enjoyed or for pride and recognition by others, but because the truth of the gospel was at stake. The three men are Athanasius (298-373), John Owen (1616-1683), and J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937). Each in his own way faced the controversy against Christianity and stood his ground for the cause of the truth as revealed in Scripture alone. They faced the battle out of love for Christ and for His Church.
Piper gives one a taste of the lessons to be learned from the lives of these stalwarts of the faith: “In view of the witness of church history and Scripture to the necessity of controversy in this imperfect world, and the compatibility of controversy and revitalization, we will do well to learn as much as we can from those who have walked through controversy and blessed the church in doing so. Athanasius and Owen and Machen have done that. The lessons they have to teach us are many.” Piper then reminds the reader that in the learning “let us resolve to renounce all controversy-loving pride and all controversy-fearing cowardice. And with humility and courage (that is, with faith in the sovereign Christ) let us heed Martin Luther’s warning not to proclaim only what is safe while the battle rages around what is necessary.”
Athanasius was exiled and driven out of his office five times during the great Arian controversy as he defended the deity of Christ. When it seemed the whole world had abandoned orthodoxy, the phrase “Athanasius contra Mundum” (against the world) was coined. What lessons can be drawn from Athanasius’ life? Here are several: “Defending and explaining doctrine is for the sake of the gospel and our everlasting joy,” “Joyful courage is the calling of a faithful shepherd,” and “Loving Christ includes loving true propositions about Christ.” You will find other wonderful lessons as well in reading the book.
Piper quotes J.I. Packer regarding John Owen as being the greatest of all Puritan theologians. Owen lived and served in the middle of the great Puritan century 1560 to 1660. After his conversion the driving force of his life became communion with God and holiness of life. He practiced his faith in a time of great controversy and persecution. God in his good pleasure raised up Owen to serve in various capacities as a pastor, as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, and a chaplain to Oliver Cromwell and his troops in Ireland and Scotland. From 1660 until his death in 1683 he was a fugitive pastor in London. He was the great evangelical voice for independence against the Act of Uniformity under Charles II and the Anglican Church. During all this time he was a prolific writer of books and articles defending the Reformed faith even though he later in his life became persuaded toward the congregational form of government.
The deep desire of Owen’s heart and life before God was the mortification of sin in his life leading to holiness of life. The other thing that was a driving force was his communion with God through contemplation of Christ. Piper summarizes this thought, “In the midst of all his academic and political and ecclesiastical labors he made many visits to his Friend, Jesus Christ.” In Owen’s own words, “When we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for-then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all the assaults of men.” Piper ends his biography with these words, “We are debtors to his mighty pen and to the passion for God’s glory and his own holiness that drove it.”
J. Gresham Machen wrote in his book What Is Faith, “Controversy of the right sort is good; for out of such controversy, as Church history and Scripture alike teach, there comes the salvation of souls.” Piper takes the reader back to the early twentieth century to discover the third stalwart of the faith who should be emulated for the defense of the truth in the face of what he termed another religion, namely Modernism. Piper recounts how Machen met Modernism face-to-face and was shaken profoundly in his faith under the influence of Wilhelm Herrmann at the University of Marburg. By the grace of God Machen came through this time without losing his evangelical faith and he came to see that the Princeton theology was firmer ground for life and joy. His experience in Germany also gave him a basis for teaching and preaching that there needs to be both intellectual credibility and joyful, passionate zeal for Christ. Machen wrote, “Preaching doctrine should not be confusing or boring…The preacher should present to his congregation the doctrine that the holy Scripture contains; but he should fire the presentation of that doctrine with devotion of the heart, and he should show how it can be made fruitful for Christian life.”
Some lessons to be learned from Machen’s life and teaching are: