Monotheism in the Hands of 4th Century Churchmen

We continue our series recounting the monumental struggle within the Christian Church regarding the ‘correct’ understanding of how Jesus was ‘divine,’ since his ‘divinity’ was something that had been promoted by Paul, the prominent writer of the Christian’s New Testament and chief interpreter of Jesus. In the 4th century 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 theologians among them down to the ordinary adherent—have been stained by the burden of shirk in their belief system. We follow the text of Richard E Rubenstein’s When Jesus Became God, The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome, 1999.  Harcourt/Harvest: New York.

Connivance by both pro-Arian and anti-Arian parties, competing to win Constantius’ approval, 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 to the Emperor 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, thus to 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.  Arian-leaning Constantius’ abiding goal was to outdo even his father Constantine in bringing a Roman-wide unity to the Christian community.  This would require a broad-based doctrinal agreement formulated at the theological center—through a combination of reason and, yes, compulsion—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 did not share his lofty political aims and continued their mutual dissent and intolerance. (Ruben, pp. 179-183)

It was clear to the Emperor that Bishop Athanasius, the opponent of Arianism, was a hopeless trouble-maker who stood in the way of 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 CE) 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 would omit the Nicene homo-ousios (‘same essence/ substance/ being/ reality/ type’) defining the nature of Jesus in relation to the nature of God.  When it came to condemning their fellow Athanasius, most attending bishops 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! (Ruben, pp. 178-183)

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Athanasius was abandoned by his western allies but failed to be persuaded to leave Alexandria; when force arrived, he fled to hide in the desert, 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 himself, 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:

  • The terms homo-ousios (same essence) and homoi-ousios (similar essence): neither technical wordings 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
  • The Father and the Son are ‘two persons’ and the Father is “greater than” the Son
  • “Christ” —referring to the supposed divine attribute of Jesus— took his human nature from the virgin Mary and through this human nature, he (not God) suffered for mankind’s sins
  • The Holy Spirit is participant in the Godhead ‘through the Son,’ not coequal with God

The anti-Arian Latin bishops were not to be outdone by their Greek counterparts, whose presumed intellectual superiority they resented.  The West rebelled as a region and unified against the East, destroying Constantine’s dream of unity. (Ruben, pp. 185-188)

With a sense of gaining power, the Arians, among themselves, were splintering doctrinally:

  • 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 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 elaborate; all talk of ‘essences’ should be banned as no more than speculation. Christians should be free to disagree, and speculative positions should not be imposed upon Christians.
  • But then, if Jesus were to be reduced to the level of a super-angel, then it would be acceptable to see him as ‘a mere human prophet’! And of course, no one would want to worship a super-angel or prophet!

Again, the category of ‘prophet’ was never on the table in the 4th century Councils, as far as we know. The Emperor took charge.  A committee of Eastern bishops alone was directed to compose a compromise creed; a general council would meet in 359 CE at Seleucia (Asia Minor) with about 160 eastern bishops.  Slightly later, about 400 CE, Western churchmen would meet separately at Rimini (Adriatic coast of Italy).  Participants in both groups were handed a short statement of faith to which they were expected 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.  (Ruben, pp. 188-190)

The Eastern (pro-Arian) council at Seleucia:

  • Adopted the simple statement, ‘the Son is like the Father’ [no further defining phrases], 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 was in some sense ‘the same as’ the Father.  They were brought to agree that the Son was only ‘like’ the Father.  A few months later, Constantius convened a single council and all signed the joint Creed of Constantinople.  (Ruben, pp. 189-191)

A minority of 4th century Christians instinctively rejected such an over-thinking of Jesus’ relationship with God (whether defined as ‘the same as’ or ‘like’) based on Greek categories.  But unfortunately, they also rejected the simple status of Jesus as ‘prophet.’

Adopting the already existing Jewish category of ‘prophet’ —Jesus was a Jewish teacher, after all— 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, they 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 our NT sources, had referred to himself as ‘prophet’ (Matthew 13:57-58; Mark 6:4-6; Luke 13:33, 24:19; John 4:25-26), but the Church—in effect—ignored Jesus’ self-identification in its pursuit for acceptance in philosophical circles.  In Islam a prophet is an honored and highly exemplary human being sent by God and entrusted with fully conveying God’s message, but the prophet does not take 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-Imrân, 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]. [Sûrat Yûsuf, 12:106-109]

…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 could the Pauline fiction of ‘Christ’ —with all the then-current mystery cult implications which he had packed into the term— decisively be removed from association with the teaching of Prophet Jesus. This fiction 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’—since these terms were being understood in the Greek sense, not in the Aramaic or ‘Hebrew’ language sense originally used by Jesus himself.

And yet, the 4th century Arian/anti-Arian story is still not finished…

…To be continued in Part 6

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.



    January 14, 2020 - 6:56 am

    I shall be grateful to you if you could send me the link of the missing part of Interfaith Exchange by Linda Thayer( Part No. 18).
    This is a very interesting series and I should like to add the missing part No. 18 so as to make it complete. In fact all your articles are extremely useful to us readers and they help us to learn more about Islam and different aspects of our religion. In the hope of having the mising No. 18 thank you very much in advance.

  • Linda Thayer

    January 14, 2020 - 12:38 pm

    Message to Raoof from author: There are 25 total in this series already available, and more coming. I wonder if you could skip to #8 until we get the missing installments fixed.


    January 30, 2020 - 5:21 am

    Many thanks for your answer to my query about the missing Part No. 18 of your extremely interesting series of ” Monotheism in Interfaith Exchange”. I am still waiting for the link which will permit me to complete the series so far. Without the No. 18 I feel the series will always lack something. Hope you can find the missing link so that all those following it will be grateful to you to allow us to continue reading the rest oof the series.

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