We continue studying the making of [Pauline] Christianity as “Christians” departed from the teaching of Jesus. In this installment we complete 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 the article refer to this work.
YES, SEX MATTERS IN ANCIENT CHURCH POLITICS
EMPEROR CONSTANTINE’S QUEST for peace and harmony was shattered by family intrigues and political challengers, which he handled brutally. Therewith, Bishop Hosius returned to Spain, leaving Constantine without a skilled [anti-Arian] adviser.
Next, Constantine’s obsession with sexual purity would give weight to the concepts of celibacy for clergy and the male domination of women—found in earlier Christian writings. His was in stark contrast to Jewish tradition where “most sexual pleasures were harmless or good, provided they were in moderation, under the regime of reason” (Rubenstein, p. 96).
And all of this would play into the Arian controversy! (pp. 89-96)
Sex and politics were enlisted in the bid to correct “heresy” or to win the theological contest (pp. 93-95):
Roman subjects were accustomed to hear of sexual hijinks and tragedies among members of the imperial elite: At court, matters of state were often family matters. But the ruling class now included bishops and other zealous Christians dedicated to—or obsessed with—ideals of sexual purity. Almost inevitably, disputes over religious issues took on a sexual cast. It was not enough to call one’s opponent a bad Christian or a heretic; he must also be a seducer, a rapist, or a frequenter of prostitutes. This tendency to sexualize conflicts added an intensity (and potential for violence) that made them even more difficult to resolve.
… Similarly, a practice had grown up of dedicating female virgins to the Church. Widows were expected to remain continent, and lifelong virginity was considered a holy state. “Christian marriage”— marriage without sexual intercourse!—was also valued. Yet clergymen were not expected to remain celibate. Priests usually married [in the 4th century].
… Celibacy was recommended for bishops, but many bishops were also married. In one celebrated case, a Libyan priest nominated to be bishop of Ptolemaïs told the bishop of Alexandria that he would not accept unless he could continue to have intercourse with his wife. “I shall not be separated from her,” he wrote, “nor shall I associate with her surreptitiously like an adulterer…I desire and pray to have virtuous children.” (Evidently, his request was granted.) This uncertainty about the sexual code applicable to the clergy reflected a more general ambiguity that troubled ordinary Christians as well. What did it mean to live as a righteous Christian in a post-pagan society?
… The second-century bishop, Clement of Alexandria, expressed this ideal in extreme terms… “Our [Christian] ideal is not to experience desire at all.”
The recommendations of Paul probably weighed heavy in the direction that the Church took regarding sex:
Bible, First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians 7:38 So the man who marries (or: lets his daughter get married) does well, but the one who doesn’t marry (or: doesn’t let his daughter get married) does even better.
Sexual abstinence would become a major struggle, reminiscent of Paul’s above advice, as admitted by the 4th/5th century Augustine of Hippo (Hippo is present-day Annaba, Algeria in North Africa) in his book—now commonly available as The Confessions of St. Augustine (397/398 CE) (Rubenstein, p. 96).
By contrast, we are reminded of the words of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in which marriage and family are the norm and the most pious state of affairs:
The Companion Anas ibn Malik narrates that Allah’s Messenger ﷺ said: When a man marries, he has fulfilled half of the religion [meaning Islam]. Then let him fear Allah regarding the remaining half. (Tirmidhi)
Christians, of course, have been the perennial symbols among humankind of personal and religious contradiction, especially as manifested in the incongruity of strict sexual code versus actual behavior and in the paradoxical theology that this has inspired in Christianity. The two sides in the Arian controversy as relevant to the questions of sexual code can be characterized as follows (p. 96):
Thus, the contradiction: men and women had a new sense of the power to perfect themselves, but most were unable to exercise it. “The mind,” wrote Augustine of Hippo, “orders itself to will. It would not give the order unless it willed it, yet it does not obey the order.”
While Arians tended to emphasize people’s potential to follow the moral example of Jesus, anti-Arians like St. Augustine focused on their continued self-enslavement, which implied the need for a Christ who was God. Only God could liberate His people from the crushing forces of habit and concupiscence. Only a Christ who was God could forgive them even if they remained helpless sinners.For both sides in the controversy, sex had become the dominant symbol of the power and weakness of the human will.
“PROOF TEXTS” VS. JESUS
Would-be orthodox theologians found themselves compromised when spelling out their positions too definitively, whether in the Arian camp or the anti-Arian one:
For the parties in the Arian controversy, the result was to privilege negative statements and punish affirmative ones. While it was safe to criticize an opponent’s ideas, presenting one’s own theology in any detail was dangerous. Arius had paid the price of speaking too clearly in The Banquet, in which he seemed to imply that Jesus was essentially a creature like other creatures. (p. 99)
Eustathius of Antioch exemplified the opposite danger, for he insisted that homo-ousios [“same-essence”] meant Christ and God were one and the same “individual reality” or “person” (hypostasis). …this made it seem that Jesus was merely an attribute or activity of God. On this point most of the Eastern bishops were inclined to accept that while the Father and the Son were “in agreement” on everything, they were two distinct realities that could not and should not be merged. (p. 99)
The lack of consensus between Arians and anti-Arians opened the door for political challenges to “finish off” the opponent.
Recall that “Christ” was a Greco-Roman mythological type of personality constructed by Paul, built upon the person of Prophet Jesus. The Christ figure—and a version of Jesus’ biography—was adopted by the Church as necessary to her doctrine of salvation. The bottom line was that Christ, in one sense or another, must have had the essence of God in order for the various philosophical analogies and metaphors to work. The wrangling over doctrinal correctness would become increasingly intricate:
Eustathius tried to defend himself against the charge of Sabellianism [i.e., that God and Jesus were simple aspects of, or names for, the same individual reality] by arguing that Christ had a human nature, too, but he insisted passionately (and confusingly) that the two natures were entirely separate and different. God Himself, he argued, could not have suffered on the Cross. Therefore, when Jesus declared, “the Father is greater than I,” when he maintained that “the Father only” and “not the Son” knows the date of the Last Judgment, and when he said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (all Arian “proof texts”), it was Jesus the man talking, not Jesus the Son of God. This was a brave attempt to formulate a doctrine of Christ’s dual nature, but the result was to turn Jesus into a kind of schizoid creature: a fallible, vulnerable human personality attached (but how?) to an omniscient, omnipotent, timeless God personality. This doctrine would not provide much protection against a determined Arian assault. (pp. 63, 99-100)
Again, a proper concept of prophet-hood would have come in real handy for settling the Arian controversy, but instead, these two parties would continue to duke it out—if need be, to the death of the other.
COLD CALCULATIONS VS. “WWJD”
While the Arian charges and counter-charges were being readied, there were accusations regarding the corruption of bishops and their immoral behavior—suggesting a pervasive culture of personal feuds, as well as the fluctuation of ethical standards. Next this would escalate into allegations of treason!
The upper hand at Church Council was always sought, where the tide of clerical opinion would swing back and forth between Arian and anti-Arian parties. There would never be lasting compromise. Bishops were unseated, then reinstated, according to their party affiliation. Brutality was commonly employed on both sides—quite unbecoming for churchmen! Mutual personal attacks intensified (pp. 100-102).
Perhaps such behavior should be seen as a common human reaction due to lack of respectful, brotherly handling of disagreement—or perhaps as a natural jealousy or envy when one’s opponent has the ear of the imperial patron, who had made known his favor for the Christian faith—just then emerging from State persecution.
But note the precedent for such cold and calculating deportment toward one’s “brothers in faith” as found in the writings of Paul—just at the time when Paul, as an outsider, was working his way into domain of the true Apostolic leadership of the Jesus movement, which included Peter, James, and John in Jerusalem:
Bible, the Letter of Paul to the Galatians 1:16-19; 2:1-14 But God…when he decided to reveal his Son to me…I did not go to anyone for advice, not did I go to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before me. Instead I went at once to Arabia, and then I returned to Damascus. It was three years later that I went to Jerusalem to obtain information from Peter, and I stayed with him for two weeks. I did not see any other apostle except James, the Lord’s brother…Fourteen years later I went back to Jerusalem…because God revealed to me that I should go. In a private meeting with the leaders I explained the gospel message that I preach to the Gentiles. I did not want my work in the past or in the present to be a failure. …Pretending to be fellow believers, these men slipped into our group as spies, in order to find out about the freedom we have through our union with Christ Jesus. …But those who seemed to be the leaders—I say this because it makes no difference to me what they were…made no new suggestions to me…James, Peter and John, who seemed to be the leaders…when Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him in public, because he was clearly wrong.
Paul was claiming his own right to leadership, even when he—who had never met Jesus—”disagreed” with the actual Apostles, that is, Jesus’ Disciples—when they had been mentored for years by Jesus! It would be difficult to argue a case that Paul’s behavior respected the example of Jesus:
Bible, Gospel of Matthew 5:8, 44 “Happy are the pure in heart; they will see God! … But now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
Bible, Gospel of Matthew 4: 9-11 “All this I will give you,” the Devil said, “if you kneel down and worship me.” Then Jesus answered, “Go away, Satan! The scripture says, ‘Worship the LORD your God and serve only him!’ ” Then the Devil left Jesus; and angels came and helped him.
The popular modern Christian maxim, “What would Jesus do?”—abbreviated as “WWJD”?—is used by Christians as a reminder to gauge themselves as how best to imitate Jesus. Our congratulations to them for aspiring to pattern their behavior after their prophet’s comportment! Our applause also to the many Christians who bravely doubt the divinity of Jesus and its corollary, the doctrine of the Trinity, since these are not teachings of Jesus!
Why, then, is it not also common for Christians to question Paul’s credentials? Is it because Paul’s writings have become a legitimized part of the New Testament canon—since the mid-4th century ce—and because Christians claim the New Testament as “God’s Word”—even though there has been an endless number of reformers who have questioned almost everything in Church history? Everything other than Paul’s legitimacy!
Surely the Quran and Prophet Muhammad ﷺ are the corrective for the endless controversies and contradictions in all of this dissension and squabble over orthodoxy.
In the coming set of installments, Inshâ’Allâh, we continue the sequel to the Arian controversy and the heritage left to the modern-day Christian. The fact that books still come out in fresh attempts to explain the doctrine of the Trinity—not to mention the fact that theologically unsophisticated, simple Bible-reading Christians today commonly have a more Arian view of Jesus—both, suggest that the Church has not satisfied the simple Christian regarding the legitimacy of their theological exploits across the centuries.