We continue our series recounting the monumental struggle within the Christian Church regarding what was to be their officially ‘correct’ understanding of how it was that Jesus was ‘divine,’ since his supposed ‘divinity’ was something that had been promoted by Paul—the Church’s chief interpreter of Jesus and a major writer in the Christian’s New Testament. Page numbers herein refer to Richard E. Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome, 1999, Harcourt/Harvest: New York.
Arius vs. Athanasius in the Church of Constantius
In the 4th century of the Common/Christian Era (ce), the Arian party had taken the position that Jesus was more than man, but less than God—whereas the anti-Arians argued that he was of the same essence as God.
Having lost the concept of ‘prophet,’ Christians—from the ancient theologians among them down to the ordinary creed-confessing layperson today—have had their belief system stained by the burden of overt shirk, that is, the association of partners or peers with the One God. It is a rare ‘Christian’ that one might meet in interfaith gatherings who does not assent to Jesus as a divine “Lord,” “the Son of God,” and a member of the “Trinity.”
Connivance by both pro-Arian and anti-Arian parties, competing to win the approval of Roman emperor Constantius—now sole successor to his father Constantine the Great—was not at an end. Bishop Valens of Mursa (northern Balkans) came to the Emperor at just the right time with a visionary proclamation of victory in his civil war.
Valens would come in handy as an advisor with deep roots in eastern intellectual history, one who could bring to bear the rationalist element in Arianism so as to clarify a coherent reading of the New Testament (NT) Gospel narratives regarding Jesus. Thus, with the help of Valens, could one properly interpret Jesus in a Greek philosophical manner—with tolerance for the anti-Arian rival theologians—in spite of their presumptuous claims to knowledge of divine relationships.
The abiding goal of Arian-leaning Constantius was to outdo even his father Constantine in bringing a Roman-wide unity to the Christian community; he was determined to establish a clear-cut ‘orthodox’ creed to which all imperial subjects could assent. This would require a broad-based doctrinal agreement formulated at the theological center—through a combination of reason and, yes, compulsion!—this for the higher good of the empire.
He convened no less than nine Church Councils, mostly in the anti-Arian west, with a view to encouraging anti-Arian compromise. The bishops (regional church officials) did not share his lofty political aims, however, and continued their mutual dissent and intolerance. (Rubenstein, pp. 179-183)
It was clear to the Emperor that Bishop Athanasius, the arch-opponent of Arianism, was a hopeless trouble-maker who stood in the way of any unity by consensus. He must be isolated in Alexandria and condemned by the very western bishops who followed his lead.
Constantius wanted a minimalist creed (355) that all parties could sign—without the language of the anti-Arian Nicene Creed (Jesus as “begotten from the Father before all ages, God from God, light from light”), and likewise without the slogans of Arianism—avoiding the extremes of both sides.
This new version of theological orthodoxy was to omit the Nicene terminology homo-ousios (meaning “same essence/ substance/ being/ reality/ type”), which had been formulated to define the nature of Jesus in relation to the nature of God. (See Parts 8-12 for more detail.)
When it came to condemning their fellow bishop Athanasius, most attending delegates to the council were willing to sign on—for the sake of greater personal priorities! But one young resistor agreed to sign only if the others would go back to the anti-Arian Nicene Creed; when Constantius objected to this move, a counter-reaction erupted from the bishops, demanding that the emperor was not to intrude in their Church affair: he was not a churchman! (pp. 178-183)
Athanasius was abandoned by his western allies but failed to be persuaded to leave Alexandria; when force arrived, he fled to desert hiding, where he hung out for five years. Insults were hurled back and forth between the Emperor—who had come to consider Athanasius a corrupter of the Church—and Athanasius, whose militant supporters would stop at nothing to foment chaos in order to prevent Arian successors.
Several subsequent councils produced moderately pro-Arian creedal statements, including these doctrinal elements:
-Regarding the two terms, homo-ousios (same essence) and homoi-ousios (similar essence): Neither were scriptural terms and both must be abandoned.
-How the Father ‘begot’ the Son is known only to the two of them and is beyond man’s knowledge. (In Christian conceptualization, “Father” refers to God; “Son” to Jesus.)
-The Father and the Son are ‘two persons’ and the Father is greater than the Son.
– Christ took his human nature from the virgin Mary and through this human nature, he (not God) suffered for mankind’s sin.
– The Holy Spirit is participant in the Godhead ‘through the Son’— not coequal with God.
West vs. East
The [anti-Arian] Latin-speaking (western) bishops were not to be outdone by their [Arian] Greek-speaking (eastern) counterparts, whose presumed intellectual superiority they resented. The west rebelled as a region and unified against the east, destroying Constantine’s dream of unity. (pp. 185-188)
With a sense of gaining power, the Arians allowed themselves to splinter doctrinally, tossing around questions such as:
- Was the Son ‘the exact image’ of God, a divine being similar in essence to God, or, was he dissimilar in essence to God—not at all on the same level?
- Since the Son was more than ‘mere’ man, was he a lesser “god”? If he were something midway between the Father and the angels, could he be called the angel of the High God—and the “god” of all lesser beings?
- The most one could say about the Father and the Son was that they were ‘similar’ in some unspecified way, since scripture did not address this subject! All talk of ‘essences’ should be banned as no more than speculation. Christians should be free to disagree, and no speculative positions should be imposed upon Christians.
- But then, if Jesus were to be reduced to the level of a super-angel, then—Arians reasoned—it would be acceptable to see him as ‘a mere human prophet’! And who would want to worship a super-angel or prophet?!
Again (see previous installments of this series), the category of ‘prophet’ appears never to have been on the table in the 4th century Councils as a suitable understanding of Jesus. The Emperor took charge.
A committee of eastern bishops was directed to compose a compromise creed; a general council would meet in 359 at Seleucia (Asia Minor) with about 160 eastern bishops.
Slightly later about 400 western churchmen would meet at Rimini (Adriatic coast of Italy).
Participants in both groups were handed a short statement of faith to which to subscribe as a reasonable conciliation—either as vague enough to be unobjectionable, or, because the consequences of refusal were unpleasant.
In the council retreats, months of defiance and posturing went by, but permission to return home was not granted until creeds in both groups were fashioned and signed by its members. (pp. 188-190)
The eastern (Arian) council at Seleucia:
- Adopted the simple statement, ‘the Son is like the Father,’ in opposition to the more ‘conservative’ Arians who now insisted upon either: ‘the Son is like the Father in all things’; or, ‘the Son is like the Father in essence.’
The western (anti-Arian) council at Rimini:
- Banned the terms ousia (essence) and hypostasis (individual being or personhood)
- Dropped ‘in all things’ from ‘the son is like the Father…’
So both sides had given up—for the time being—the insistence that the Son (meaning Jesus) was in some sense ‘the same as’ the Father (meaning God). They were brought to agreement that the Son was simply ‘like’ the Father—without further detail. A few months later, Emperor Constantius convened a single council and all signed the joint Creed of Constantinople. (pp. 189-191)
Assessing 4th Century Shirk
A minority of 4th century Christians instinctively rejected such an over-thinking of Jesus’ relationship with God (whether that relationship was to be ‘the same as’ or ‘like’) based on Greek categories. But unfortunately they also rejected the simple status of Jesus as ‘prophet.’ Their return to, and holding onto, the category of ‘prophet’ could have spared the would-be followers of Jesus from the prolonged drama and corruption of monotheism that has plagued the Church ever since.
Instead, such dissenting Christians would have to wait for the 7th century Islamic conquest of the whole area, for a real return to the simple teaching of Jesus on the subject of Jesus’ relationship with God. Jesus—according to eyewitness recollections recorded in our NT Gospel sources—had referred to himself as ‘prophet’ (Matthew 13:57-58; Mark 6:4-6; Luke 13:33; Luke 24:19; John 4:25-26). But the Church—in effect—ignored Jesus’ self-identification in its pursuit for acceptance in wider philosophical circles.
In Islam a prophet is an honored and highly exemplary, specially-chosen human being sent by God and entrusted with fully conveying God’s message; yet the prophet is explicitly excluded from taking on kinship with God, even in a metaphorical sense:
Verily, in the sight of God, the nature of Jesus is as the nature of Adam… [ Sûrat Âl cImrân, 3:59]
And most of them do not even believe in God without [also] ascribing divine powers to other beings beside him. … Say [O Prophet]: “… And [even] before thy time, We never sent [as Our apostles] any but [mortal] men, whom We inspired [and whom We always chose] from among the people of the [very] communities [to whom the message was to be brought]. [Sûrah Yûsuf, 12:106-109]
Addressing the situation among Christians in the 7th century Arabian Peninsula, Allah in the Quran warns:
…Jesus the son of Mary, about whose nature they so deeply disagree. It is not conceivable that God should have taken unto Himself a son: limitless is He in His glory! When He wills a thing to be, He but says unto it “Be” — and it is! And [thus it was that Jesus always said]: “Verily, God is my Sustainer as well as your Sustainer; so worship [none but] Him: this [alone] is a straight way.” And yet, the sects [that follow the Bible] are at variance among themselves [about the nature of Jesus]! Woe, then, unto all who deny the truth when that awesome Day will appear! [Sûrat Maryam, 19:34-37]
Only under Islam would there be decisively removed (from association with the teaching of Prophet Jesus) the Pauline fiction of ‘Christ’—with all the then-current mystery cult paraphernalia and implications which Paul had packed into this term.
This Greek/pagan-enabled fiction of the ‘Christ’ figure had motivated the Gentile [non-Jewish] Church to resort to Greek philosophy as the final arbitrator in sorting out the relationship of the ‘Son’ to the ‘Father.’
These pagan converts to Pauline Christianity were understanding such terms in the Greek sense, not in the original Aramaic or ‘Hebrew,’ quoted in the New Testament as representing (in rough translation) the usage of Jesus himself in his own language. (See Parts 1-7 of this series, for a discussion of the original meaning of “Father” and “Son” in the context of Jesus’ time and place, as recorded within the Gospel writings of Christian scriptures.)
And yet, the 4th century Arian/anti-Arian story is still unfinished.
To be continued, inshâ’Allah, in Part 21