We continue our series on the story of how Christianity veered off the monotheistic path adhered to by Jesus. Instead of remaining faithful to the teaching of Jesus hiimself, Church officials defended the teachings of Paul. Accordingly, they built their doctrine preferring the logic of Greek philosophy rather than the Semitic thought world of revelation. Notably, the churchmen had formulated a notion of ‘divinity’ to be applied to Jesus and they incorporated that divine Jesus into their doctrine of the ‘Trinity.’
Page numbers are references to Richard E. Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God, The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome, 1999. Harcourt/Harvest: New York.
Theodosius and Persecution of the Arian ‘Heresy’ by the Christian State
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In January 379 CE, the Spanish military general Theodosius [i] took command in the eastern Roman Empire, succeeding Emperor Valens. Having undergone religious instruction at the hand of ‘Church Father’ Ambrose of Milan [ii] (Italy) regarding the [Western, Roman] Catholic [Christian] Faith, Theodosius became defender of Christendom’s orthodoxy with a determination to outlaw Arianism. [iii] After all, as they saw it, the ‘grievous error’ of Arianism had supposedly been clearly pronounced by God for all to see through the military defeat of the pro-Arian Valens [iv] at Hadrianopolis [Thrace]. Those who held to the anti-Arian Nicene Creed were gaining strength in high office over those who had struggled for the pro-Arian Constantinople Creed (Rubenstein, pp. 220-221).
For the first time, the state adopted its own definition of orthodoxy and promulgated it as law. Theodosius declared that true Christians were those who believed in ”the single divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit within an equal majesty and an orthodox Trinity.” (Rubenstein, p. 220)
The principle seats of Christian power—Alexandria [Egypt], [v] Antioch [Syria] [vi] and Constantinople [Turkey] [vii] —were secured for Nicene [viii] [anti-Arian] orthodoxy. Shortly after 381 CE, Theodosius became a fanatical persecutor of Arian Christians:
…the advocacy of Arian views (at least of the radical sort) and the possession of Arian writings would become crimes punishable by death.
…Another decree appoints inquisitors to inquire into the orthodoxy of various groups, and still another makes landowners, imperial bailiffs, and tenants responsible for heretical acts that take place on their lands. Theodosius was an enthusiastic persecutor; under his regime, for the first time, pagans were strictly forbidden to sacrifice to their gods or participate in other traditional rites, and Manicheans [ix] were hunted down and killed. He had a bloody temper, too; he invited some seven thousand citizens of Thessalonica [Greece] to a special show in that city’s arena, only to massacre them as punishment for a riot that had killed one of his officials.
…the Arian view of the world was by now generally recognized as obsolescent. Nicene Christianity, with its majestic Christ incorporated into the Godhead, its pessimistic view of human nature, and its bishops and saints playing dominant roles, was better suited to express the hopes and fears of Christians in an age of unpredictable change and lowered social expectations. (Rubenstein, pp. 223-224)
The Church was to take an ever-tightening hold on control of the State Religion. In Mesopotamia [Iraq] [x] a Christian mob led by monks [xi] attacked a small sect of heretical Christians (Valentinians) [xii] as well as a Jewish synagogue. In response, Theodosius quite justly ordered the punishment of those responsible for such outrageous disgraceful acts of intolerance and demanded corresponding restitution for their victims. Unfortunately, his own ecclesiastical mentor thwarted him:
Ambrose of Milan, the self-appointed guardian of Western orthodoxy, objected strongly. Why should [orthodox] Christians be penalized for attacking Jews and [unorthodox Christian] heretics? Ambrose complained. Had the pagan emperor, Julian, punished his people when Christians were attacked? (Rubenstein, p. 225)
Thus, the Church began to flex its muscle against those who stood in the way of obstructing Christian “orthodoxy” as decided by the Roman Church. Under threat of personal excommunication [xiii] from Ambrose, Theodosius cancelled his instructions. Similar acts of violence against all non-Nicene outsiders were given the green light. (Rubenstein, pp. 225-226)
Rubenstein from his background as conflict resolution specialist explains the psychology of such behavior:
The mood that motivates such crusades is almost always a mix of triumphalism and insecurity, as if success itself somehow intensified hidden feelings of vulnerability on the part of the victors. … They may well have sensed that the settlement of the Arian controversy left important subsurface issues unresolved, and that their victory might not be as final as they hoped. (Rubenstein, p. 226)
The Arian Controversy as Preparation for Islam
Arian Christianity had taken root in Arabia—as well as in North Africa, the Levant (Lebanon, Syria, Palestine), Asia Minor, Mesopotamia (Iraq, Syria), the Balkans,[xiv] [xv] and among the European Goths [xvi]— all before the seventh century when Prophet Muhammad appeared with a new revelation from the undivided, un-‘distributed’ One God. For the Quran strongly denies—and un-mistakenly condemns—the Christian Trinitarian doctrine that Deity is “distributed” among the three ‘persons’ of the ‘Godhead,’ that is, that God is one of three in a three-some arrangement:
And do not say: Three [gods in a Trinity]! Desist! It is better for you. Indeed, God is but One God. Highly exalted is He above having a son! …Never shall the Messiah disdain to be a servant of God. [Surat Al-Nisa’, 4: 171-172]
Truly they have disbelieved who say that God is the third of three [in a trinity], while there is no other god but the One God. … The Messiah, son of Mary, was only a [mortal] messenger. … And his mother [too] was a [mortal] woman of [faith and] truth. … Say [to them]: Do you worship apart from God what holds neither harm nor benefit for you, while God is He who is the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing? … Do not exceed the bounds [of Heavenly faith] in the creed of’ your religion without [revealed] truth. And do not follow the whims of a people who have gone astray before [you.] For they have led many astray, having strayed from the even path [themselves]. [Surat Al-Ma’idah, 5:73-77]
In some measure the Arian stance was developed as a corrective to a skewed monotheism on the part of those who claimed to follow the monotheistic Jesus.
While some might view Arianism as recognizing Jesus, in effect, as a prophet in all but terminology, we have been clear that Arians gave no evidence that they could think of rejecting Paul. [xvii] And the ‘deity’ of Jesus? Yes, Arians accepted this ‘divine’ – ‘divinity’ terminology in their allegiance to the innovative teachings of Paul, but—to their credit—they dragged their feet on defaulting to pagan concepts for understanding Jesus’ relationship to God.
Having left behind Jesus’ Aramaic language [xviii] context—wherein the original ‘Father’-‘Son’ relationship was a coded messianic metaphor (see Part 8)—the Church blindly followed Paul into the Greek and Latin language arena of literal conceptualizations of these terms, and has remained therein until today.
Arianism in its original form disappeared rapidly as a living force within the Roman Empire, and by the seventh century the last of the Arian tribes in Western Europe had been converted to Catholicism. (p. 227)
Soon, most of the Eastern world would come under the domination of a new religion offering another interpretation of Jesus’ nature and mission. The Islamic Jesus was not the incarnate God of Nicene Christianity or the superangelic Son of the Arians. In the view of the Muslim conquerors, he was a divinely inspired man: a spiritual genius ranking with the greatest prophets, Moses and Muhammad himself. Apparently, this teaching struck a chord among large numbers of easterners who still thought of God as unitary, and who had not fully accepted Jesus’ incorporation into the Godhead. This may explain why, in the Middle East and North Africa, the whole [Christian] structure was swept away in a few decades by the Arab tribes and their clear Moslem doctrine of One God. With the ascension of Islam, Arianism as a discrete religious philosophy disappeared in the East as well as in the West. (Rubenstein, pp. 230-231)
Yet, in fact, Arianism [xix] would never completely die among Christians:
About one thousand years later, Arian beliefs would be espoused by a number of well-known English Protestants, some of whom would go on to create Unitarianism. (p. 227)
Unitarian Christians Today
Today the Unitarian Church/ Unitarian Universalist Society [xx] is a widespread, socially active movement—dating back to the mid-sixteenth century in Protestant [Christian] Europe—with religious services and discussion groups appealing to people from a variety of Christian, even Jewish and other, backgrounds.
Unitarians are linked historically to an anti-Trinitarian belief system in which Jesus is seen as a prophet; they reject other mainline Christian beliefs like “original sin,” [xxi] “predestination” (predetermination) [xxii] and biblical “inerrancy.” [xxiii] They appreciate hearing diverse viewpoints and welcome Muslim speakers. Unfortunately, not many serious persons of Christian heritage are familiar with this option within Christianity, nor are they aware of the option of pure monotheism (Islam!) Thus most disaffected Christians choose—from among a narrowed set of options—to leave behind organized religion altogether or to consider something more contemplative or rationally spiritual.
Arian Christians –> Muslims
As we know, when the Muslim political conquest swept across North Africa, Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, Islam came to be readily accepted by Christian populations that had been Arian in their orientation to Jesus. Centuries later, in Medieval Christian Europe, the effects of Islamic conquest were still being felt culturally and academically: Arabic was a predominant language of scholarship, with ties to Andalusian Muslim Spain. [xxiv] All of this is beyond the scope of the topic at hand, although potentially of great historical interest in our interactions with our interfaith partners.