Monotheism In Interfaith Exchange – 19

We continue with the story of the Church’s formulation of the fine print in her doctrine of “divinity” associated with Jesus as contested in the 4th century of the Christian Era (ce) by Arius vs. Athanasius and their followers. Page references are to Rubenstein, Richard E., When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome, 1999. Harcourt/Harvest: New York.

Muslim understanding of how Christian doctrine came about and developed, can benefit us when we engage in dialogue with our counterparts. The average Christian knows little or nothing of Church history.

Change of Guard

Arius died suddenly in 336 ce during a standoff against his opponents. At that time Arianism had been making significant inroads into the Balkan areas in southeastern  Europe, then under the domination of [Christian] Byzantine Rome—later to be part of the [Muslim] Ottoman Empire and home of Bosnian Muslims).

The speculative doctrinal preferences of Arianism had already begun to lose its rough edges: According to the Arian theological position, the Son was similar to the Father though not the same—far closer to God than to man. In the character of “Christ” (using Paul’s terminology), the “Son”—i.e., Jesus—was taken to be God’s “Word“—meaning to Arians that he had been “begotten” before the ages, a unique individual and one fully “divine.” (Rubenstein, p. 134, 138)

The next year, 337 ce, pro-Arian Emperor Constantine, too, died. Three decades earlier Constantine had been the military general who responded to a vision in the sky, telling him to conquer under the symbol of ‘Christ.’  Later as Byzantine [= eastern] Roman emperor, Constantine’s intention had been to unite his subjects under the banner of a unified Christianity.

By the 350’s, Arianism had won over a majority of bishops (church officials elevated above priests) and it was close to becoming Church dogma.  Meanwhile though, Arius’ opponent Athanasius, in reaction, was busy lobbying for support and seizing churches by force, by murder, and by war.

Only as late as 353 was son Constantius [note the spelling!] the only surviving heir of father Constantine and thus finally secure as successor to the throne. Until then, as we are about to see, [pro-Arian] Constantius had co-ruled with his brother, Constans, who was then [anti-Arian] emperor of the Western [Roman] Empire. As long as the two rulers were still alive, both theological parties had imperial patronage.

The Contention Continues

During those years, violent mobs deposed and reinstated bishops, with the population somewhat evenly split between championing Arius or Athanasius. In general, the western empire had more anti-Arian theological influence [i.e., supporting Athanius] and the eastern areas were more pro-Arian in philosophical bent.

Both sides engaged in speculative theology as a spin off from Paul’s description of the ‘Christ’—whom Paul identified with Jesus, thus making him a divine figure.  Thus both sides were equally guilty of re-formulating Jesus’ own teaching.

Anti-Arian bishops or priests, when evicted from their positions in the [pro-Arian] East, would collect in Rome, finding there a better acceptance for their orientation and eventually gaining the support of the [anti-Arian] Western bishops, as well as the mandate of an increasingly strong pontiff (super-bishop, eventually to be called ‘pope’).  (pp. 134-147)

Latin West vs. Greek East

Arian fortunes were about to change.  In the Latin-speaking Western empire, anti-Arian Bishop Julius set a new precedent by convening his own Council—innovatively, without the guiding hand of [the weaker] Emperor Constans—thus elevating his own position among the powerful bishops—and presumptively setting out to review the previous decisions  deemed to be improperly made by pro-Arian eastern bishops ! (pp. 148-153)

Among the Latin bishops there was great suspicion of the overly clever Greeks, with their tendency to produce novel combinations of Christian and Platonic ideas. Western churchmen had not been persecuted to the extent that their Eastern brethren had, but they toiled in a rougher physical and social environment, less urbanized, more exposed to barbarian threats and incursions, and less completely Christianized. These beleaguered clergymen had little taste for high-flown theory and no sympathy at all for Eastern attempts to qualify the divinity of Jesus. The Christ they preached to their ex-pagan congregants was God on earth, period—and if this produced difficulties for some Middle Eastern intellectuals, so be it.  (pp. 149-150)

In the meantime, the eastern bishops held their own meeting, where they worked out a middle-course Arian creed, rejecting western Bishop Julius’ heavy-handed attempt to undo their previous Council decisions. Most of all, they resented his arrogant self-appointment to a supreme bishop’s office (pp. 148-153).

Now Arius was dead and their successor emperor Constantius was away fighting a Persian uprising against Roman on-going occupation of Mesopotamia. Anti-Arian Bishop Hosius of Cordova, previously advisor to Constantius’ father Constantine, now led the western, Latin Church Council of Serdica, 343, meeting in Balkan territory.

Greatly outnumbered, the eastern bishops refused to accept the exile imposed upon some of their own group; the easterners would later accuse their opponents of heresy, violence and immoral conduct at the Council. Before their hasty departure for home (at the news of Constantius’ dramatic victory over the Persians), the Arian bishops agreed with the Council to denounce extreme Arian views.

Thus they agreed to sign on to certain anti-Arian tenets: that the Son did not come from nothing; that is, they agreed that the Son was not ‘created’ by God ‘from nothing’, but that he was, rather, ‘begotten’ by God, the ‘Father,’ from a hypostasis (= individual being or personhood) which was the same as God’s, and they agreed that the Son had always existed. (pp. 153-157)

Again, we note, these deliberations led to what eventually became binding Christian beliefs, only anachronistically linked to sayings of Jesus.

More Posturing and Contending

The anti-Arian western bishops, still at Council, took advantage of their retreating eastern counterparts. They formulated a profession of faith which featured an extreme anti-Arian position, in which the distinction between Father and Son barely existed.

No, the western bishops were ‘feeling their oats’ and they would not give up their heretical ‘Sabellianism’: that [the Father] God and [the Son] Jesus were simply aspects, or names, of the one undivided reality.  Also, the western, Latin bishops had the audacity to appeal to the victorious Constantius to allow them to choose their own bishops independently from the eastern, Greek bloc. The cultural divide between the Latin and the Greek elements in the Church would never really heal. (pp. 158-159)

Both sides tried to use imperial power to tip the balance in their own direction for deciding what would win out as ‘orthodoxy’—based, understandably, on what the bishops knew their own constituents could ‘buy into.’

Individual Christians themselves saw this heavy hand of government as desirable since they cared deeply about religious ideas—having recently overcome paganism, so they thought, and now led by an emperor powerful enough to conquer ever more remote barbarian lands—but their strength depended upon their unity, which in turn depended upon establishing orthodox ‘Truth.’  (pp. 158-162)

Payback Time

The Arians suffered a setback: An ill-fated attempt to sabotage the anti-Arian request for autonomy backfired when a vengeful Arian bishop, previous wronged by the anti-Arians, was discovered setting up a prostitute to be found sleeping with the anti-Arian bishop. But the connivery was foiled and it was the plotting Arian who got excommunicated! In response, the eastern emperor, Constantius, compelled a council to get on with adopting a moderate creed of appeasement, this time affirming “the spiritual unity of Jesus and God.” (pp. 162-164)

Comebacks and Setbacks

Power struggles are not unique to Christianity, but because combined with a speculative enterprise like understanding the supposed ‘divinity’ of a prophet, the outcome has materialized as a permanent corruption of prophetic teaching inculcated in the minds of his adherents.

Neither side surrendered its beliefs though their differences were narrowed. Still, not all was well. An exiled anti-Arian, Bishop Paul, dared to return (344) to his cathedral [a centrally-located church, often having its floor plan in the shape of a cross, oriented toward the rising sun to symbolize the ‘risen ‘[from the supposed death by crucifixion] ‘Christ,’ and often being the ‘seat’ (home office) of a bishop].

Bishop Paul’s cathedral was in pro-Arian Constantinople and his return took place during the absence of Constantius with his army; shortly, Paul was invited to the public bath (which he took as a gesture of acceptance by the elite of the city); suddenly he found himself abducted and exiled—ending up in the west with the chief anti-Arian, Athanasius, and with the anti-Arian co-emperor, Constans, then still alive.

Thereupon, the western ruler Constans threatened with war his brother, the eastern Constantius, if the anti-Arians were not reinstated in their posts. Later, once the office of bishop in Alexandria became vacated due to death, then Athanasius, too, was returned (346) to his old bishopric in the Egyptian port city, where [pro-Arian] Constantius could keep an eye on him—especially now that the [anti-Arian] bishop of Rome was flexing his new-found strength in Church affairs.

As the other major exiled anti-Arian, Paul was re-installed in his former bishopric in Constantinople, and other anti-Arians, too, regained their positions. Constantius’ brother in the west for the moment had the upper hand, but, thanks to Constantius’ savoir-faire, civil war had been averted. (pp. 164-168)

Arian Success in the Germanic Tribes

Positioned now in the western territories, Arians from Constantius’ eastern court were making converts among the Germanic tribes (Goths, Ostogoths, Burgundians, Vandals)—adding to the already Arian-Christian Balkan peoples. Later Arian missions would succeed along the trade routes in the East: Ethiopia, Arabia and India. The emperor gave privileges to Christian clergy (no tax to the city or to the military), while disadvantaging pagans and legislating against Jews who wanted to circumcise their slaves—indicating conversion to Jewish faith.

In the west, [anti-Arian] Constans was viewed as a weak administrator, violent and corrupt—and by roughly 350 ce he could no longer protect his anti-Arian interests so far away in the east (Alexandria, Constantinople). Bishop Athanasius and Bishop Paul were next accused of treason against Constantius and exiled to Eastern Cappadocia (eastern Turkey); then, news came of the overthrow and murder of Constans by a Gaulic general.

Arian Comeback – Or?

Fresh from his Persian campaign, Constantius moved west, crushing hopeful contenders to western rule by 353. His scholarly cousin Julian was seen fit to rule as his subordinate—regarded in the west as an anti-Arian Christian, but remaining strictly neutral. At this point [pro-Arian] Constantius was supreme ‘Roman’ ruler of both east and west.  (pp. 170-175)

Would the Arian sensibility now win out as defining the orthodox religious position in the Christian empire? Or are there more surprises ahead in this drama? We continue, inshâ’Allah, next issue.

Prophet Jesus Lost in the Shuffle for Power?

Once again, we have seen hardening theological deadlock with neither side appealing to the words of Jesus for deciding their differences.  While modern-day Christian splinter groups may appeal to Bible proof texts to argue their distinctive doctrines, I’m afraid they but follow the lead of their ecclesiastical predecessors in arguing from the words of Paul—or from Pauline interpretation of the Jesus narrative.

Jesus’ monotheistic message of trust in the One God, if interpreted in its time and place, is personally challenging but hardly ambiguous.  Our challenge to the Christian in our societies is to believe in the original Jesus and not to let his teaching be corrupted by later interpreters.

To be continued, inshâ’Allah, in Part 20

Written By

Growing up Christian, Dr. Linda Thayer came to realize in her teens, that Jesus as 'divinity' and Jesus as the second 'person' of a 'Godhead' (the doctrine of the 'Trinity') were philosophical constructs, evolved later and not part of the New Testament Gospel books' portrait of the Son of Mary. In her 30's, when working as Bible translations consultant and linguistic advisor in West Africa, she had already added all things Islamic to her reading list, along with Biblical Studies. She has three university degrees in linguistic science (BA, MA, PhD), with a minor in anthropology. She believes that her fellow Muslims need to be current with the thinking and findings of modern Biblical Studies in order to meet Christians halfway in understanding the prophetic mission and personal nature of Jesus. To this end, she writes of the historical phenomenon of the Jesus movement from an interfaith perspective that dovetails with the Quran and ahâdîth.

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