CONTINUING IN THIS installment, we look further at Richard E. Rubenstein’s book, When Jesus Became God, The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome so as to elucidate the 4th CENTURY ARIAN CONTROVERSY that divided the dominant Christian Church so sharply. Pages numbers in this article refer to the Rubenstein book.
A definitive relationship of Jesus to God—in response to Paul’s ”gospel” teaching concerning the “risen-from-death” and “exalted-to-heaven” “Christ”—was to be hammered out in Church Councils, or “synods,” so as to make possible the credibility of the new religion that was extending throughout the Roman-dominated territories of Europe, Asia Minor, Mesopotamia and North Africa.
In previous installments, we have visited Alexandria (Egypt) and Antioch (Syria) in the 4th century under the rule of the Roman emperor Constantine (306-337 CE). We take up our narrative again focused on the third main center of civilization within the Roman territories, Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), the new home of the Christian Roman emperor.
Constantinople and the Divinity Paradox
Midway between the eastern and western reaches of Constantine’s empire, the newly built Constantinople—dedicated in 330 CE—became the first great city in which Christianity would be the state church, whereas Rome was an ancient city with pagan altars remaining throughout.
Arianism was to continue as a live controversy: Was Jesus simply a human teacher with a divine message, or was he “divine” within himself? If personally “divine,” then how so? How would the Church write the “fine print” of her doctrinal statement. This is the story we continue here.
As exemplified in the story below, Constantine—in his quest for a belief system to unite his extensive empire—would always favor appeal to the logic of both parties.
In Constantine’s city there were no altars to Victory, no statues or paintings of gods and goddesses, indeed, no representations of Jesus, Mary, or the disciples, either, since many Christians still adhered to the Jewish rule forbidding graven images of the holy. Eusebius of Caesarea’s sharp response to a request by the emperor’s sister for a picture of Jesus was already famous. “I do not know what has impelled you to command that an image of our Savior be drawn,” he told Constantia. The request was senseless, the bishop said, since a picture of Jesus’ divinity would be impossible, and a picture of him as an ordinary man, irrelevant! (Rubenstein, p. 109)
The concept of “divinity” was clearly assumed by the Christian to apply to Jesus, as the above incident points out. However, the later Eastern Church would justify her use of holy pictures (‘icons’) on the grounds that such visual representations could be an aid to the worship of the reality behind what was brought to mind by the depiction. (pp. 108-115)
Today, Eastern (“Orthodox”) churches are places of sensorial grandeur, pervaded with visual displays of sacred persons and elaborate ritual. Roman (“Catholic”) churches also have visual representations of holy persons, as well as statues. Today’s Protestant Christian churches vary widely: from elaborate pictorial decoration to a simple ‘cross’ symbolism—emblematic of the Pauline doctrine of salvation from sin through the supposed sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on a Roman cross [from all of which we seek refuge with Allah].
Though Constantine would still long to bring resolution, he too swayed back and forth between supporting the position of Arius and that of Athanasius, evidently influenced by the personalities of one side, then of the other. Constantine was an emperor, not a priest or bishop of the Church, but he had his own stake in the success of a unified Christianity. He took a hands-on approach to ecclesiastical deliberation. His territory was wide and multi-cultured. Constantine wanted uniformity; the Church was pressed to bring about a defensible ‘orthodoxy’ (“correct” belief and practice).
Budding heresy-hunters were welcome. Was Arius a heretic? Or, was it the anti-Arians who were out-of-order by their innovation in Greek philosophical categories? Clearly Greek philosophy was absent from the teaching of Jesus and from his Bani Israel tradition. Greek philosophy provided engaging concepts suitable for drawing converts into the new, trendy religion—folk whose dominant, still half-pagan cultural outlook cherished the standards of Greek civilization.
Reflections on What Went Wrong
The Muslim reader of course already knows (Review Parts 1 – 12 of this series) that when the Church bought into Paul as the legitimate authority for “Christian” teaching, she adopted teaching beyond—and contrary to—that of Jesus. Jesus was thereby understood implicitly to equate to a pagan “god,” rather than to a Bani Israel prophet. The concept of prophet had simply lost standing.
Ask today’s Christian, “Was Jesus a prophet?” Few will unhesitatingly answer “Yes.” And those who answer “Yes,” will want to add, “But he was more than that. He was the Son of God.” If you ask them what Jesus meant when he referred to himself by the vernacular expression, “son of God,” they will likely answer by referring to concepts later developed by Paul or by the Church’s theologians: Jesus was the God-made-flesh human being who was cruelly put to death on a Roman cross so as to atone for the sins of the world.
Chance are, your interlocutor will be taken aback to realize that Paul had never walked with Jesus as one of the 12 mentored Disciples—so as to have heard, first-hand, the teaching of Jesus—nor had Paul even ever laid eyes on Jesus “in the flesh.” It was Paul who claimed to have seen—under duress—[a vision of] Jesus in the sky. Based on his several visionary spiritual experiences, Paul takes up claims to be at the same level of authority as the Twelve, also know to Christians as the Apostles:
Bible, Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians 10:8; 11:5: For I am not ashamed, even if I have boasted somewhat too much about the authority that the Lord has given us … I do not think that I am the least bit inferior to those very special so-called “apostles” of yours!
Bible, Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 1:10, 12-13: By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ I appeal to all of you, my brothers, to agree … Let me put it this way: each one of you says something different. One says, “I follow Paul“; another, “I follow Apollos“; another, “I follow Peter“; and another, “I follow Christ.” Christ has been divided into groups! Was it Paul who died on the cross for you? Were you baptized as Paul’s disciples?
Paul called himself by the same term that he called the Twelve: “apostle,” meaning one sent [on a mission by Jesus].
As for the normative Christian’s belief that Jesus is “more than a prophet, rather, the Son of God”: s/he simply does not know that “son of God” was an idiom, in the language of Jesus, meaning “a godly person.” A godly person is “one who does what God requires,” to use the terminology of Jesus (Matthew 5:10). The Jewish “messiah”—or “Christ” (see Quran 5:17, 5:75, 6:85) — would of course be a godly person—and more than that, the messiah would be a distinctive prophet!
Getting Christians Back on Track
Returning to the genuine Jesus became impossible for historical Christians as long as the Church would continue to incorporate—into their persona of Jesus—the mystery cult and the Greek philosophical concepts promoted by Paul when he talked about “Christ.”
On the other hand, in learning about the religion of today’s Christians whom we encounter in our interfaith contacts, we must applaud them for so much effort in trying to get their “orthodoxy” right! But why would they not take a “Jesus only” position? A “Jesus only” policy means that whatever Jesus did not teach should not become a test of orthodoxy in following Jesus, their God-sent spokesman.
And if anything is not part of orthodoxy—orthodoxy according to Jesus—then why not overturn, root out and abandon such concepts, such definitions of terms, and such doctrines, altogether? If an article of belief belonging to the so-called “orthodoxy” of today’s Church turns out to contradict or go beyond what Jesus plainly and unquestionably taught, then shouldn’t one steer clear of it completely? Does the Christian consider Paul to be more worthy of trust in divine matters than Jesus !
Subhana Allah! May Allah guide us all to His firm truth!
In the Gospel books of the New Testament, Jesus presents himself as a Banî Isrâ’îl prophet. If the Jesus portrayed in those Gospels were alive today, would he not exclude pagan and mystery cult belief systems and eschew the use of philosophical arguments to “prove” the orthodoxy of the historic Church’s doctrine?! Jesus’ message was a revealed one, not one worked out by philosophical argument and Church council.
Following Paul, all 4th century “mainline” churchmen accepted that “Jesus Christ” was “divine”:
Bible, Paul’s Letter to the Colossians 1:15: Christ is the visible likeness of the invisible God.
Bible, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 2:6: [Christ] always had the nature of God, but he did not think that by force he should try to become [or, remain equal] with God.
So do “mainline” “Christian” groups today.
Recall–Parts 8 – 12 of this series–that we began looking at the 4th century philosophical arguments for the Son (=Jesus) as being of the same [or similar] “essence“ as the Father (=God), whatever that might mean in concrete terms. Therein we introduced the controversy concerning:
- whether the Son was created by the Father—the Arian position based on Jesus’ clearly-stated and uncompromising monotheistic statements attested in the Gospel books of the New Testament
- or, whether the Son was ‘begotten’ from God—the anti-Arian stance based quite logically on an understanding of the implied meaning of the Greek words for a biological “father” and “son.”
After all, it was Jesus who had applied the Aramaic words “Father” and “Son” to refer to God (the One Deity who had sent Jesus) in relation to himself (the prophet whom God had sent with a message to his Bani Israel people). This is according to the records that have been passed down in the Greek language version of the New Testament used by Christian scholars today.
To be continued, inshâ’Allah, in Part 14…