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.
Tipping the Scale
The New Testament reference to the Logos, the “Word,” however, has misappropriated this metaphorical concept depicted by Philo and applied it to Jesus in a literal sense. This mishandling of metaphor set up the Logos concept to be misunderstood as espousing a status of deity for Jesus, treating him as the em-“body”-ment or “incarnation” of God Himself,
Bible, Gospel according to John, 1:1-2, 14: Before the world was created, the Word already existed; he was with God, and he was the same as God. From the very beginning the Word was with God. … The Word became a human being and, full of grace and truth, lived among us. We saw his glory, the glory which he received as the Father’s only Son.
The Greek word “Logos,” in the above passage referring to Jesus as the “Christ” figure, is rendered with the English term, “Word”—with a capital “W.”
Keep in mind that the New Testament “original” documents used by modern Christian scholars, from which they translate into modern languages, are hand-copied old manuscript texts in Greek, not in the Aramaic language spoken by Jesus, his Disciples and his audience. No one questions that Paul, by contrast, wrote in Greek, nor that the statements in Paul’s writings tipped the Church’s conviction that a “divine” standing applied to Jesus:
Bible, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 2:5-11: The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had: He always had the nature of God, but he did not think that by force he should try to become equal with God. Instead of this, of his own free will he gave up all he had, and took the nature of a servant. He became like man and appeared in human likeness. He was humble and walked the path of obedience all the way to death—his death on the cross. For this reason God raised him to the highest place above and gave him the name that is greater than any other name. And so, in honor of the name of Jesus all beings in heaven, on earth, and in the world below will fall on their knees, and all will openly proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Jesus as God? or, God as Jesus?
The Quran condemns 7th-century Christians as believing that Jesus had become God [Adoptionism]—as the Middle Eastern Arian Christians believed:
…the Christians say, ‘The Christ is God’s son.’ … although they had been bidden to worship none but the One God, save whom there is no deity: the One who is utterly remote, in His limitless glory, from anything to which they may ascribe a share in His divinity! [Sûrat Al-Tawbah, 9:30-32, 34]
Equally does the Quran condemn the obverse concept, that God had “incarnated” or embodied Himself as the man Jesus (“Incarnation“). This was a belief whose meaning had been loaded by Paul into the title “Christ” and attached to Jesus with a Greek sense. following Paul, the dominant Western Church had for this as the orthodox understanding:
Indeed, the truth deny they who say, “Behold, God is the Christ, son of Mary” — seeing that the Christ [himself] said, “O Children of Israel! Worship God [alone], who is my Sustainer as well as your Sustainer …” Indeed, the truth deny they who say, “Behold, God is the third (i.e., part or member) of a trinity”—seeing that there is no deity whatever save the One God. And unless they desist from this their assertion, grievous suffering is bound to befall such of them as are bent on denying the truth. Will they not, then, turn towards God in repentance, and ask His forgiveness? For God is much-forgiving…. [Sûrat Al-Mâ`idah, 5:72-74]
How was the fine print in definitive Christian doctrine to be written, then? Was Jesus exalted to become God (as described by Arius)—whether by his own perfection of life or by his supposed rising from the dead as Jesus Christ? Or, did God humble Himself to become God’s “Son”(Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 2:5-9, above)—as implied by the passage concerning the Logos as God’s co-creator (Gospel of John 1:1-3, 10-14, 17-18)? That is, did Jesus as God “incarnate” himself to become His own “Son” (as described by Athanasius)?
“Father” = “Son,” A Mystery beyond Human Understanding
We continue with Rubenstein:
Athanasius argues that God the Father is also God the Son. He says God actually became Jesus despite the fact that, throughout the Gospels, the Son describes himself as being other than the Father and less than Him. He ransacks the New Testament for evidence to support his position, but the only texts that he can find are two lines from the Book of John: ”I and the Father are one,” and “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” But it is perfectly clear from the context of these statements that Christ is talking about representing God, not about being him. (pp. 117-118)
Transcendence? Immanence? Limits on God’s power? Serious issues went unanswered—perhaps were brought to a head—when the Church gave the official stamp of approval to Pauline writings and concepts, in the process of drawing the boundaries for Christian Scripture, the “New Testament.” Rubenstein pulls from this chaos its logical resolution:
Can God do anything He chooses to do? Of course—except those things that are inconsistent with being God. Can He choose to be evil or ignorant? Could He be the devil—or nothing at all? No, the Christian God is the Eternal God of Israel, Creator of the Universe. Athanasius maintains that this utterly transcendent God transformed Himself into a man, suffered, died, and then resurrected Himself! Doesn’t this mixture of Creator and creature sound pagan? The bishop recognizes this, and tries to avoid its implications. For example, he insists that God did not create Jesus, as the Arians believe, or adopt him as His Son, but that he ‘begot’ him out of his own nature. As he says, the idea of God fathering offspring with human beings by natural means is too disgusting for any Christian to contemplate. He therefore hastens to add that the Father’s method of generating the Son is beyond human understanding.
Indeed! Everything about this theory is beyond human understanding. The bishop ridicules the Arians for saying that Jesus, being a creature of God, had the power to grow or decline in virtue, and that he chose to be virtuous through the exercise of his uniquely powerful will. No, Athanasius says, Christ, being God, was perfect by nature and could not change as humans do. But how can Jesus be called virtuous if he had not the power to choose? How can he be a model for human behavior if he was incapable of change? The answer: this is a matter that is beyond human understanding. (pp. 118-119)
Emperor Constantine had been the grand motivator and patron of Church Council endeavors. How well he ever really comprehended the technicalities of their theological issues, we can only surmise. It is clear, however, that he believed the opposing parties could “live and let live.” He had trusted his bishops to come to agreement, but hackles had been raised, and the “ante” had been “upped” too high for reconciliation. The escalating feud went beyond sitting in Council and discovering theological truth; philosophical mechanisms had been adopted as the standard by which to measure certainty, and the teachings of Jesus were not the last word.
In fact, Jesus’ own words and teachings seemed to be irrelevant to the Church’s need for philosophical standing! As long as Jesus had to be “more than” a prophet or “other than” a prophet, then the paradox of Jesus as a god-man would remain! Keep in mind that this paradox arose in the Jesus movement only with the adoption of Paul’s “Gospel of Jesus Christ”!
To be continued, inshâ’Allah, in Part 17.