Resolving the fine print in the Church’s doctrine of the ‘divinity’ of Jesus—from which doctrine we” seek refuge with Allah”— was an ugly process, at its zenith throughout the 4th Christian century (ce).

In previous installments we have viewed opposing positions—one taken by a Churchman named Arius and the other by his nemesis, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria (Egypt).  We have also brought in relevant social and political factors prevailing throughout the Christian Empire of Constantine the Great.

Arius had died—to be outlived by Athanasius—and so had his imperial supporter, Constantine. The pro-Arian and succeeding son, Emperor Constantius, by astute brinkmanship, had been able to bring about a measure of concurrence on the part of Eastern and Western bishops, enough for them to sign on to a minimalist creed meant to define orthodox Christianity—while not ruffling the feathers of any opposing theological party— and thus to provide a unifying basis for Christendom.

We continue our review of these events. With the shoring up of the doctrine of ‘divinity’ applied to Jesus came also the doctrine of ‘Trinity.’

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Page numbers refer to the book by Richard E. Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God, The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome, 1999. Harcourt/Harvest: New York.

The Julian Interlude

Hanging in the balance (359 ce) was Constantius’ possible military loss of Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq) to Persia (today’s Iran). His nephew Julian, military commander in the west, declined to come to his aid with reinforcements that could save Uncle Constantius from defeat; instead, Julian acted so as to gain supreme control of Roman political leadership from Constantius for himself.

Taking advantage of this situation, the western bishops (willing supporters of Julian) lost no time in denouncing the [pro-Arian] Creed of Constantinople and proclaiming their allegiance to the older [anti-Arian] Nicene Creed. Julian gathered armies as he marched east, as liberator for Nicene orthodoxy—so they would presume.

Constantius, on his way home from Persia in defeat, fell seriously ill (to die at age 44 in 361); and for the sake of imperial unity, he named Julian as his successor. But the bickering church was in for an unexpected shock and staggering set-back (pp. 192-193).

Writes Rubenstein  (pp. 193-194):

Like Constantius and Constantine, Julian dreamed of unifying the Roman Empire and restoring its lost glory. But the religion that he believed would make this renaissance possible was not Christianity, it was paganism. Throwing off the pious Christian mask he had worn for the past decade, he revealed himself publicly to be a passionate believer in Greek mysticism and a worshiper of the ancient gods, with a particular affection for Helios, the sun god.  Before his conversion, the young Constantine had also devoted himself to Helios, but Julian’s real model was not Constantine; it was Alexander the Great: pagan par excellence, student of Aristotle, and conqueror of the Persians. …  Now that it was no longer necessary to dissimulate, the would-be Alexander announced that he had come not only to liberate the East from Arianism but the entire empire from the burdens imposed on it by “the cult of the Galilean [i.e., Jesus].” … No doubt, the initial enthusiasm for Julian among some of the common people also reflected their distaste for the scandalous disunity of the Church.  Christianity had conspicuously failed to bring the empire together or to secure it from enemy attack. As the contemporary historian Ammianus said, “[N]o wild beasts are such enemies to mankind as are most Christians in their deadly hatred of one another.

In this regard, one cannot help but remember the Qur’anic verse:

And so We have cast enmity and hatred among them [the followers of the Bible] [to last] until Resurrection Day; every time they light the fires of war, God extinguishes them; and they labour hard to spread corruption on earth: and God does not love the spreaders of corruption. [Sûrat Al-Mâ’idah, 5:64b]

Rubenstein continues:

The question that the Nicenes had asked of the Arians—”could they survive without state support?—[Julian] now asked of the faith as a whole. … Violence between competing Christian groups broke out almost immediately. … Perhaps, left to its own devices, the Church would self-destruct!  … To replace it, paganism would have to become an inward faith, a religion offering sanctuary from the whirlwind of earthly desire, one with a view of salvation capable of satisfying people’s new spiritual ambitions, and with a vision of a City of God that could replace the failing City of Man. In short, paganism would have to become Christianity. Or, if it wished to avoid worshiping …[Jesus], it would have to become Judaism!  (pp. 194-195)

Or, alternatively, did the developing Christianity become, in effect…in fact, a variety of paganism—one could wonder—judging from how the outcome of the prolonged Council wrangling departed so seriously from simple monotheism and judging from its consequent doctrinal requirements incumbent upon “Christian” today!

Under the circumstances, Athanasius was by now ready to argue that the Arians meant the same as what he did, but that they could not see the implications of their logic.  Arians responded that an uncreated (or, ‘ungenerate’) God could not share His nature with any other [created] being; thus, Jesus could be fully divine only if there were two Gods. ‘Christians’ [that is followers of Paul’s ‘Gospel of Jesus Christ’] were not convinced; they did not want Jesus on a level close to humanity—they wanted a strong God to worship.

The moderate Arians were now disposed to unite with Athanasius against Julian’s throwback to the paganism of Alexander the Great.  The posturing was taking shape, and then…Julian was killed in battle (363) against the Persians. Due to this period of withdrawn state support, the Church had learned it could live better without the close involvement of the State. (pp. 198-201)

Return to a Christian State

Jovian, the new [anti-Arian, Nicene] Christian commander-in-chief withdrew his army from the front, returned previously conquered territories to the Persians, thus restoring peace—but abandoning Christian Armenia in the process, and leaving it unprotected. He reinstated Christianity as Rome’s primary religion and restored clergy privileges, but at a lesser level. Jovian, too, lasted only a few months, another victim of an accidental death.  (pp. 201-202)

The successor in the west, Valentinian, a Nicene [anti-Arian] Christian, appointed as ruler of the east his younger brother, Valens—as it happened, a moderately radical Arian.

Valentinian concerned himself with defending his western borders, not with shaping the Church’s orthodoxy. Similarly tolerant of opposing views, brotherly Valens in the east allowed all schools to debate theology openly—short of mob action and scandalous mutual excommunication; the only restriction was that the pro-Arian Creed of Constantinople was not to be openly repudiated. Those of either party were given free rein to promote their views—but when they threatened the terms of tolerance, Valens used exile, excommunication and banning in proportion to the intended violations. (pp. 202-204)

Would either side, the Arians or the anti-Arians, ever be strong enough to ultimately win out over the other?

To be continued, inshâ’Allah, in Part 22…


Linda Thayer

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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