We continue discoursing the resolution of the fine print in the Church’s doctrine of the ‘divinity’ of Jesus. The ‘Greek Fathers’ weigh in with their contributions to the development of doctrine and Greek philosophy is back, center stage.
The Cappadocian ‘Fathers’ Legitimize the Doctrine of the ‘Trinity’
Concurrence that the Son (meaning Jesus) is somehow ‘LIKE’ the Father (meaning God)
—not ‘unlike’ Him (‘unlike’ being the extreme Arian position) and also that the Son is not ‘THE SAME AS’ the Father (‘the same as’ being the extreme anti-Arian position)—
had been a ‘compromise’ reached under duress by the two parties as shepherded by the Roman ruler Constantius II, son of the Constantine the Great, who had initially led his people into “Christendom”; this “agreement” was not to last.
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Greek philosophy as final arbiter of truth was back. Revealed understanding of God, as per the teachings of Jesus, was not definitive, presumably not even on the radar screen. The anti-Arians would not give up. In the end, Christianity would revert to the anti-Arian Nicene Creed, to which today’s mainstream Christians hold.
The eastern [anti-Arian] Nicenes gained ground over the eastern Arians during the reign of the Roman ruler Valens, owing to three churchmen from Cappadocia (in today’s eastern Turkey) who had met up as boys with the royal Julian in their student days in Athens—where they all had gathered to study philosophy and theology.
The brothers Basil (“the Great” and the younger Gregory, along with Basil’s oldest friend Gregory of Nazianzus, himself son of a bishop, were together able to re-work the paradoxes that had previously triggered such violent animosity among bishops. Their wordings enabled the conservative Arians (but not the radical Arians) to join anew with [anti-Arian] Nicene Christians in the 370s (ce).
The controversy had raged for decades as to how orthodox teaching was to define the “Son” (= Jesus) in relation to the ‘Father’ (= God). Under the influence of the Cappadocians, the ‘similar-in-essence’ Arians were able to come over to the ‘same-in-essence’ side without feeling that ‘Christ’ was no more than a name or an activity of God (as in the 3rd century Sabellianism heresy). Rather, Christ was to be understood as a separate individual having a human nature as much as he had a divine nature. (Rubenstein, pp. 204-207 [i])
Perhaps, the Church was simply more open to compromise, having been shaken by the empire’s official return to paganism during the two-year reign of Emperor Julian, only a decade earlier. But this return to defining the divinity of Jesus [from which we seek refuge with Allah!] resulted in an institutionalization of the doctrine of the Trinity due to final input from the Cappadocian Church Fathers.
Development of the Concept of ‘Trinity’
First, from the 4th century, we fast-forward ahead—for just a moment—to the 7th century and the full-blown Christian belief in “Trinity.” According to the Church’s teaching of the Trinity, deity (the so-called “Godhead“) exists in three manifestations:
- God the Father
- God the Son
- God the Holy Spirit
To this doctrine, the Quran would respond:
Indeed, the truth deny they who say, “Behold, God is the third 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, a dispenser of grace. [Sûrat Al-Mâ’idah, 5:73-74]
Now we return again to the 4th century: The concept of a divine ‘trinity’ had been first floated—late in the second Christian century within the Roman sphere of influence—to interconnect three concepts:
- God Himself
- God’s ‘Word’
- God’s Wisdom
This second element, God’s ‘Word’—as this concept evolved into a narrowed and specialized meaning—became the centerpiece of Christianity: In what was to become the Church’s theological interpretation, substantiated in the opening passage of the New Testament’s Gospel according to John, a force said to be ‘with God’ in the beginning and ‘the same as God’ was the so-called ‘Word’ (Greek, Logos). This ‘Word’ was identified by Paul –the chief direct contributor to the New Testament writings– with what he referred to as the ‘Christ’ element, which he claimed was resident in Jesus.[Regarding the origin and meaning of the Greek philosophical term which came to be associated with Jesus, see Part 4 of this series, under the subheading, “Philo’s Logos as Metaphor for God.”]
Through a network of claimed associations, this Logos /Christ was taken to mean the purportedly ‘divine nature’ element in Jesus. [Recall that all Christian scripture comes to us written in Greek, the prestige language of the Roman world—not in Aramaic, the language of Jesus and his followers.]
This ‘Prologue’ to the biblical book, the Gospel of John (1:1-14) patently alludes to the writings of the Jewish philosopher Philo, whose explicit purpose was to address a pagan audience—attuned to the mythical exploits of their quasi-human divinities—and conceptually to depict the singular and all-powerful Creator, [the Hebrew] God.
This feat Philo accomplished by using a personification of, and metaphorical linkage with, the Greek philosophical concept of ‘Logos.’ At its root ‘ Logos’ meant the organizing principle in the world.
The Greek concept of Logos was not something capable of creating, or even something which was the result of having been created, but rather it was something that had always existed as an inherent part of the fabric of what is! Since this passage made it into the New Testament ‘canon’ of scripture—attached to the Gospel of John—so then, this philosophical concept had to be squared with the writings of Paul, which also had attained scriptural status.
Early in the third century, the North African Christian apologist, Tertullian, first defended the Trinitarian doctrine, naming the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as its ‘persons’; these persons were said to be, all of them, consisting of the same ‘divine’ essence.
Needs of the State
More than a century before Tertullian, in response to the writings of Paul—whose theologizing and advice would become a pre-eminent part of the Christian scripture, the New Testament—some Christians had had a problem with the idea that Jesus [now as Paul’s ‘Christ’] was ‘divine,’ born of a righteous young girl and ‘fathered’ by God’s ‘holy spirit’—as we noted in Parts 1-13 of this series—in such a way as to become an object of worship and referred to as ‘Lord’—in the same way that Almighty God is referred to as ‘Lord’!
If Paul’s writings were not to be in doubt, then a philosophical explanation was essential in order to work out the wrinkles between the teaching of Paul and that of Jesus! At stake, too, was the status of Christianity as State religion of the Roman Empire. The Church needed to offer a strong ‘god-like’ figure, one worthy of human imitation, but at the same time the ultimate dying sacrifice, enabling initiation into ultimate spiritual realities. For Christianity was in rivalry with the Mystery Religion cults of the day.
This super-cult must be ‘one up’ from the pagan mystery religions of the day—if it were to outcompete them. Even the Jews of Jesus’ day were looking for a strongman military savior, not a prophet! If the human Jesus of the Gospel narratives was no more than a prophet, well then, what about the risen-from-the-dead and exalted-to-heaven, spiritualized Christ found in the writings of Paul? Wasn’t Paul’s Christ a deified ‘Son of God,’ begotten from ‘God the Father,’ like the mythological half-human Apollo, or Hercules, who had been begotten from the god Zeus in the womb of a human mother! The human Jesus—as the ‘Christ’—was said (in Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, 1:15 to be the ‘likeness of God.’
We return, insha’Allah, to the Cappadocian Fathers’ contribution to nailing down the Trinitarian doctrine in Part 23…
[i] Richard E. Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God, The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome, 1999. Harcourt/Harvest: New York.