THE CONVERSATION OF Constantine to the Christian camp—and his subsequent military victory on his way to taking Rome—is a milestone in world history. From then on, Constantine and his imperial successors took a controlling interest in the matter of establishing a unified Christian belief system to which his empire-wide subjects could be expected to subscribe. But first, the “movers and shakers” within his ecclesiastical official structure would have to work out and define the Church institution’s theology.
We continue our reading of Richard E. Rubenstein’s insightful treatment of our subject in his book, When Jesus Became God, the Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome, 1999, Harcourt/Harvest: New York. Page numbers throughout this installment refer to this work.
CONSTANTINE’S CHURCH PATRONAGE
In 325 CE Christian bishop Hosius arrived in Alexandria (Egypt) with Emperor Constantine’s letter pleading for accord within the religion that was to be a universally unifying force.
Bishop Alexander of Alexandria had already been bombarded with affirmations of support for Arius—a Libyan known for his personal purity—support collected from influential Eastern bishops in Nicomedia (Bythinia, Asia Minor), Tyre (Lebanon), and Caesaria (Palestine), where regional bishops had met and pronounced Arius to be “orthodox”—or at least within the boundaries of orthodoxy.
Bishop Alexander, too, had been busy collecting signatures to show that his anti-Arian view was no minority opinion. More significant than “correct teaching” in regard to settling questions of Church orthodoxy was that neither side was willing to accept the implications of defeat (pp. 51, 59-61).
For the anti-Arians, being a Christian meant that God had sent a “Savior” no less in stature than God Himself. For the Arians, the idea that the Eternal could become a man was to lower—and demean—God Almighty. At the same time, the Arians did believe that, somehow, God had taken on the form of a man, without ceasing to be God! This belief continues among most of today’s Christians.
Athanasius, Alexander’s right-hand man, took up the anti-Arian cause. The anti-Arians were faced with an impossible paradox (pp. 62-64):
- Merging the “Father” and the “Son” (See Part 8) meant that the “Son” was not really human,
that only his body was human.
- The figure “Christ” had to be wholly human in order to suffer for mankind’s sins!
Note that in Islam, by contrast, God forgives sin as a result of the sinner’s repentance—not as a result of a righteous person suffering punishment in place of the guilty person, and much less God suffering for the sins of disobedient humans! And recall that it was Paul, not Jesus, who propounded the concept of salvation through belief in the sacrificial death of “Christ.” The trendiness of such mystery cult ideas in the culture of the age tipped the scales toward Paul’s version of the Jesus story. As to the question of Christ’s deity, well, wasn’t that also clear in the writings of Paul?
DOCTRINE TAILORED TO FIT NEED
Now that the Western Church clearly required a supernatural Savior, the anti-Arian Hosius was ready to join forces with Athanasius for the sake of national unity and security. He prepared to convene councils in anti-Arian strongholds so as to reverse the decision of previous Arian-friendly councils.
A statement of faith (a loyalty pledge) was drawn up: The “Lord Jesus Christ” was the “only-begotten Son”—not created at all, but the Creator Himself! He was to be considered begotten from the “Father,” not created from non-existence. The “Son” had always existed, being as unchangeable as the “Father,” and the “Son” was the image of the essence of the “Father.”
This formulation was simply a matter of Greek philosophical thought applied to the supposedly unassailable truth as set out by Paul in his writings which had been accepted as part of the New Testament canon. Whether of an Arian or anti-Arian hue, Christology (i.e., the Church’s theological doctrine regarding the nature of “Christ”) made Jesus out to be deity—whether created, begotten/born or adopted into that divine essence. Even Arius had said that Jesus was “God, but not true God” (pp. 78-79).
PHILOSOPHICAL BENT OF THE COUNCIL OF NICEA
A reported 250 bishops, mostly from eastern areas, arrived at a place called Nicea, as arranged by Emperor Constantine near his palace in Nicomedia (northwestern Asia Minor). Constantine set for his bishops the task of hammering out a creed agreeable to all the clergy of Christendom. With this as their task, they would have to listen to each other and come to an agreeable wording (pp. 72, 75).
But trying to define Jesus’ relationship to God and [to] humanity crystallized other concerns as well. One underlying question was this: To what extent were the values and customs of the ancient [pagan] world still valid guides to thinking and action in a Christian empire?
Some Christians, among them Arius and Eusebius of Nicomedia, had a stronger sense of historical continuity than others. Those whose ideas and social relationships were still shaped to a large extent by the optimistic ideals and tolerant practices of pagan society—and for whom Christianity seemed a natural extension of Judaism, even an improvement on it—tended to be Arians of one sort or another.
By contrast, the strongest anti-Arians experienced their present as a sharp break with the past. It was they who demanded, in effect, that Christianity be “updated” by blurring or even obliterating the long-accepted distinction between the “Father” and the “Son.” (pp. 73-74)
The Muslim might wonder whether it ever occurred to the bishops to consider what to us Muslims may seem obvious: If Jesus was not God, but rather a man with a God-revealed mission, then many derived questions would simply evaporate!
Why, seemingly, did no one question the authority of Paul as setting the pace in theological questions for the 4th century Church? In fact, an early sect of Jewish followers of Jesus, called the Ebionites, did reject Paul and his teachings outright, considering him a corrupter of Jesus’ teachings. This group was first mentioned in the second century CE.
It would seem that the acceptance of Paul had been under attack in the second century as evidenced by the fact that
- the Ebionites took such a strong position against Paul
- around the same time, at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Ebionites, came the followers of Marcion of Sinope (85-160 CE), whose hero was Paul and whose scriptures were restricted to the Letters of Paul; the Acts of the Apostles—where Paul is highlighted—and the Gospel of Luke, whose author was presumed to be the Luke mentioned as a companion of Paul in the These three writings are a subset of those included in today’s New Testament.
In the face of the two extremes (Paul and anti-Paul), the Church did not consider that one of the two might be the plain truth; rather, the Church went in for a compromise deal. They accepted Paul and included in the New Testament all of the Marcion-approved writings which champion Paul. In addition they accepted three Gospel books associated with the original (i.e., genuine) Disciples (“Apostles”) of Jesus and other writings believed to be of genuine apostolic authorship; none of the writings found in the New Testament challenge Paul by name, though The Letter of James (2:24, 26)—brother of Jesus and head of the Jerusalem church—contradicts the teaching of Paul (Galatians 2:16) and a passage in the First Letter of Peter (1:17, 22a) agrees with James against Paul. In another verse, Peter condemns someone who maliciously spreads false teaching—without mentioning names.
Is it possible that Paul had successfully steered Jews away from the Jesus reform movement by refitting it with new doctrines repulsive to Jews but attractive to pagan non-Jews? Paul’s “Christ”—the deified Jesus—was a violation of strict Jewish monotheism. Belief in a deified Jesus—once allowed to take hold through a vigorous marketing campaign—would naturally put off Jews from following the human Jesus as their messianic prophet.
By the fourth century, the adoption of Paul into the corps of genuine Apostles of Jesus was secure, it would appear—except on the part of marginal voices like the Ebionites. Paul’s teaching provided real philosophical “meat” for the pagan mind. Moreover, one could get caught up in the spiritual rapture of mystical union with the spiritualized figure called “Christ.”
The Jewish scripture was not needed, except as a historical anchor in human affairs. Even if its Law (Torah: Arabic Tawrah) was obsolete or irrelevant for Christians, this ancient collection of writings, now to be known as the “Old Testament” (OT), was claimed as a “Christian” book, to which the “New Testament” (NT) had been added to make up the “Bible” as found in various forms (reflecting these theological fights) in bookshops today.
In fact, the Roman world was moving on from the historical Jesus and his original message as it had been addressed to Banî Isrâ’îl; that message must have looked inappropriate to pagan non-Jews. In this new environment, metaphors counted as literal truth. Mythological figures were strong enough to win military contests. And thanks to precedents set by Emperor Constantine, then by his son Constantius II, and by their successors, the opportunity to play the leading role in this emerging project of “civilizing” humankind under the Roman banner was not to be missed by the Church. Still, practical logic stood in the way.
From the perspective of our time, it may seem strange to think of Arian “heretics” as conservative, but emphasizing Jesus’ humanity and God’s transcendent otherness had never seemed heretical in the East. On the contrary, subordinating the Son to the Father was a rational way of maintaining one’s belief in a largely unknowable, utterly singular First Cause while picturing Christ as a usable model of human moral development.
For young militants like Athanasius, however, ancient modes of thought and cultural values were increasingly irrelevant. Greek humanism and rationalism were shallow when it came to real life; Judaism was an offensive, anti-Christian faith for those like Athanasiius; and while admirable figures like the Christian hermit Antony could try to perfect themselves in the desert, most people’s primary need was the need for security. Only a strong God, a strong Church, and a strong empire could provide helpless humans with the security they craved. (p. 74)
Constantine would give “his” Church the structure it needed, “the Roman virtues of law, order, and efficient administration (p. 75).”
Constantine saw himself as facilitator in the proceedings of the Church Councils. He did not hesitate to offer conciliating suggestions. How could Jesus be “divine” and yet subordinate in some way to the “Father”? Constantine (or perhaps it was his personal advisor, Bishop Hosius of Cordova) suggested that the “Son” and the “Father” shared the same essence (in Greek, homo-ousios).
The Muslim can all but hear the verses of the Quran echoing objection to the creedal formulations proposed and countered:
Verily, in the sight of Allah, the nature of Jesus is as the nature of Adam… [Sûrat Âl ʿImrân, 3:59]
Verily, Allah does not forgive the ascribing of divinity to aught beside Him, although He forgives any lesser sin unto whomever He wills; for he who ascribes divinity to aught beside Allah has indeed contrived an awesome sin. [Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 4:48]
And Lo! Allah said: “O Jesus, son of Mary! Didst thou say unto men: ‘Worship me and my mother as deities beside God’?” [Jesus] answered: “Limitless art Thou in Thy glory! It would not have been possible for me to say what I had no right to [say]! [Sûrat Al- Mâ’idah, 5:116-117]
Say: “He is the One God: God the Eternal, the Uncaused Cause of All That Exists. He begets not, and neither is He begotten; and there is nothing that could be compared with Him.” [Sûrat Al-Ikhlâṣ, 112:1-4]
By this stage, however, no participating party is seen to have adhered to a simple One-God creed (monotheism) —or to a “Jesus only” policy in ferreting out Truth. Paul was the acknowledged interpreter of Jesus and even the Arians subscribed to the pagan Greek view that Jesus was God in some sense or another. No one seemed to argue for sticking to the words and teachings of Jesus alone as arbitrator in this controversy.
Under the influence of Paul, the religion of Jesus became focused on Jesus’ death, his “resurrection” (rising from the dead) and the “taking up” of Jesus. The message of Jesus became a museum piece, but, thank God, we still have some account of the story and sayings of Jesus (A.S) in the “Gospel books” of the New Testament—by which to measure the gravity of Paul’s departure from Jesus’ message!
Recall that Arius had taken the position that Jesus was “God, but not true God.” On the part of Arius, to say that Jesus was the Logos, the “Word”—who was with God in the beginning and was God (Gospel of John, 1:1)—was to make a metaphorical statement; the Word that God spoke was an aspect or activity of God, such that the power given to the “Son” by the “Father” was done by One who was a superior to one who was a subordinate. Even to say that Jesus had been “pre-existent” with God simply meant that Jesus’ role had been pre–planned by the Creator. For Arius, Jesus was still part of the created order—not part of the Creator! (p. 79)
COERCING A UNIFYING CREED
The anti-Arians wanted to construct a creed that the Arians could not interpret in their own “heretical” (i.e., metaphorical) manner—a creed that would be a test of their own “orthodox” (i.e., correct, anti-Arian) faith. The Greek term homo-ousios—in English, “same-essence” or “consubstantial”—was a philosophical expression, not a biblical one.
Hardline Arians could not sign on, but some Arians agreed to accept it. After all, it could be interpreted to mean not only “same” (homo)-”essence” (ousios), but a whole range of semantic nuances as used by philosophers: ‘essence,’ ‘substance,’ ‘reality,’ ‘being,’ or ‘type.’ The concealed Arian supporters’ argument was that if human beings are made in “God’s image,” as the biblical Book of Genesis (1:27) stated, then aren’t all human beings, including Jesus, of the same ‘type’ as is God? The Emperor Constantine had suggested this term, homo–ousios, so for the time being it would stand: The “Son” was “begotten” from the ousios of the “Father.”
However, the Nicene Creed added—in contradiction to the Arians—that the Son was “true God from true God.” Of the Arian bishops, all but two, both Libyans, signed—under pressure from Constantine—hoping to settle, once and for all, the shape of an orthodox doctrine that could be standardized throughout his empire. The two dissenters were immediately relieved of their offices. The Arians who signed under duress would later try to justify their compliance with alternative interpretations (pp. 79-84).
After the forced agreement in 325 at the Council of Nicea, mutual consultation (Arabic: al-shûra)—to the extent that it had ever worked in Church history—would no longer be possible. A malicious spirit of conflict had been set in motion. Arians had been demonized and Constantine’s use of pressure had set a permanent precedent (p. 87).
The Quran reinforces the definiteness of this mindset:
And so We have cast enmity and hatred among the followers of the Bible (i.e., literally, the Book), [to last] until Resurrection Day… [Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 5:64]
Constantine celebrated the end of the Council of Nicea with a spectacular banquet in which he assured the Churchmen of his commitment to advancing Christianity in his empire. As he soon thereafter wrote to them, their collective decision was from God and free from error (p.89)! This stance of the present Roman Catholic Church, in regard to its own inerrancy, apparently has its precedent in Constantine.
Constantine’s forgiveness and reinstatement of “excommunicated” Arians was soon forthcoming, but lack of consensus on basic theological issues (like the meaning of the “divine nature” of Jesus) would continue as a thorn in the side. Administrative organization was thus hindered and regional authorities went on functioning independently. When Rome claimed the right to control the council of bishops, Eastern churches became less and less able to come to a consensus with the West. Their separation steadily widened, but would not come in its eventual, final, definitive form (the “Great Schism”) until the eleventh century (pp. 84-86).
To be continued Inshâ’Allah, in Part 12