CONTINUING IN THIS installment, we look further at Richard E. Rubenstein’s book, When Jesus Became God, The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome so as to elucidate the 4th century Arian controversy that divided the dominant Christian Church so sharply. Pages numbers in this article refer to the Rubenstein book.
Jesus as Prophet vs. “Christ” as “Divine”?
The definition of “divine” was the enigma at issue for the 4th century Roman ruler and his ecclesiastical authorities, who—following Paul—was able to see Jesus as the divine “Christ.”
At one point the emperor denounced Arius as a “heretic” because the Council of Nicea (325 ce in Asia Minor) had already specifically condemned Arius’ solution to the “divinity” paradox of Jesus. Arius had opined that the Son [referring to Jesus] had a hypostasis (a Greek term meaning “an individual being or personhood”) different from that of the Father [meaning God]. If the personal being of the Father and Son were identical—or even in some sense ‘equal’ or on the same level—then that would mean that, yes, Jesus would be more than human, in accord with Paul; however, Arius argued (in accord with Jesus’ [Bani Israel] monotheism, requiring worship of the One God alone) that:
“[T]o equate Jesus with God lessens God. Whatever you take away from him [God], in that respect you make him less.” Rubenstein, (p. 144)
This Arian view, judged “heretical” for its Subordinationism meaning the view that Jesus, “the Son,” is subordinate to God, “the Father”) was based on the unequivocal self-statement of Jesus in the New Testament of Christian scripture, where he had specifically pronounced himself different from and less than God:
Bible, Gospel of John 5:19, 30: So Jesus answered them, “I tell you the truth: the Son can do nothing on his own; he does only what he sees his Father doing. What the Father does, the Son also does … I can do nothing on my own authority; I judge only as God tells me, so my judgment is right, because I am not trying to do what I want, but only what he who sent me wants. Bible, Gospel of Mark 13:3-5, 32: Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, across from the [Jewish] Temple, when Peter, James, John, and Andrew came to him in private. “Tell us when this will be,” they said, “and tell us what will happen to show that the time has come for all these things to take place.” Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and don’t let anyone fool you. Many men, claiming to speak for me, will come and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will fool many people. … No one knows, however, when that day or hour will come—neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son; only the Father knows.
While Jesus states plainly that he and God are separate beings of different orders, he also warns, in the above passage, that there will be those who will pull the wool over the eyes of his would-be followers with false teaching.
Misinterpretation of Code Language
In Part 8 we laid out the central point that the Muslim needs to understand: that in Jesus’ teaching attested in the New Testament Gospel books, the “Father”-“Son” terminology referred to God in relationship to His [Bani Israel “messianic”] reformer prophet. We saw how that father-son metaphor had been introduced in the Jewish scripture in regard to Israel’s King David, whose successor would be metaphorically God’s “son”— meaning one guided by God, with God acting in a close relationship, as if his “Father.”
Thus, in the Biblical text, Jesus would be “God’s Son” in the same sense that David was metaphorically “God’s Son,” namely that he was a “godly” person, doing what God required of him.
In that same context, Jesus’ teaching of the “Kingdom of God” concerned a society of “godly” persons, submitting to “what God requires of them”—in which God is the “King” and in which His royal subjects are those who follow His law, in conscious awareness of Him and in acknowledged dependence upon Him. Jesus was the prophet sent by God to instruct the would-be godly persons.
These intentionally veiled code terms (or “hidden transcript,” to be referenced in Part 38)—used by Jesus in speaking with his Bani Israel audience living under oppressive Roman observation—were later on misinterpreted by Greek-speaking churchmen who had lost connection with the world of the Aramaic-speaking, Bani Israel (=”Jewish”) prophet, Jesus.
In Greek thought, a pagan “god” could have a son, born of a human mother, who was half-god/half-human. Jesus was not simply half-God and half-man, according to what Church councils would later rule (Council of Ephesus, 431 ce); he was claimed to be fully both at the same time without a mixing of the two natures or essences.
It was in that intellectual environment that the Church was faced with defining how their “Savior” (“Jesus [the] Christ”) was to be defined as “divine,” or as being the same as what “God” was—now that the prolific writings of Paul were accepted as speaking for the meaning of the Jesus-events.
By misunderstanding the metaphoric code terms used by Jesus and turning it into literal truth, the Church launched itself into a thought world totally foreign to the words of Jesus.
However much we might want to applaud Arius’ insight—that God was demoted by having a divine partner—and however much we might admire the heat that Arius took for his continued stance, yet we cannot applaud the kind of circular argument that would be put forth by the normally pro-Arian Constantine. The emperor championed the idea–if not invented it–that Church Council decisions were definitive revealed Truth.
In fact, that belief—in the infallibility of a decision arrived at by collective bishop conclave—would be put forth as clinching evidence on both sides! Again and again, the Councils [“synods“] flip-flopped between exonerating Arius and condemning him! If a Council condemned Arius, then Arius must be wrong! So then, what if they un-condemned him?
Unfortunately, Arius’ argument is doomed never to measure up to Jesus’ monotheism (which equals our tawḥîd) as a consequence of Arius’ having accepted Paul’s say-so as a yardstick. So then, what can we say regarding the more objectionable implications of the position taken by Arius’ opponent, as so ably characterized by Rubenstein:
Athanasius’ answer, later expressed at length in his “Four Discourses Against the Arians,” is that Arianism is fundamentally anti-Christian, since it leads logically either to the conclusion that Christ was a man, which is the Jewish position, or that he is a second God or a demigod, which is pure paganism. If Jesus was a creature rather than the Creator, if he was perfect, as the Arians said, by force of will rather than by nature, if he owed his Sonship to “adoption” and his immortality to “promotion” by God, that might make him the holiest man in history, but it would not distinguish him in any essential way from other human beings. He would be a prophet, but still a man. Even if one thought that Jesus was the Messiah, as a few “Jewish Christians” did, he would still be no more than human. Clearly, it would be idolatry to worship a mere man, nor could there be any reason to worship him, seeing that no human being has the power to conquer sin and death. (pp. 115-116)
Did Jesus have the power to conquer sin and death? Did Jesus himself say so, or even hint at this? No? Well, even if Jesus never got around to saying that, still, Paul did say so (see quotations below), and the Church went with Paul—who was able to articulate so much theology that Jesus never got around to explaining when he sat with his Disciples.
Or, could it be that “theology” never occurred to Jesus! After all, Jesus was busy teaching his people to return to trust in, and obedience to, their Lord in a precarious political atmosphere! That is an inconvenient truth–20 centuries after Jesus–for a Church whose theological doctrine depends directly upon Paul!
Back to the 4th century, wouldn’t Pauline understanding of Jesus tip the balance against Arius? If Jesus did have the power to conquer sin and death, wouldn’t that make him “divine”? Even Arius assented to some definition of Christ as ‘divine’ in diffidence to Pauline writings. What Paul wrote clearly mattered; it was unquestionable “Gospel truth,” so to speak!
Which Gospel is Correct?
Jesus’ own teaching (descriptively labeled by himself: “Gospel of the Kingdom of God“) is generously preserved for us in the four “Gospel” compositions found in the collection of Christian scripture. But Paul’s theology (similarly branded: “Gospel of Jesus Christ“) is equally prominent within other parts of the same New Testament. Note how the innovative name of Paul’s message is misleadingly and cleverly similar to the name by which Jesus referred to his own God-sent, prophetic message!
Paul, in his intricately-woven belief system, had set up the risen-from-dead “Jesus Christ” as a spiritual being who had conquered sin and death.
Bible, Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 15:20-22: But the truth is that Christ has been raised from death, as the guarantee that those who sleep in death will also be raised. For just as death came by means of a man, in the same way the rising from death comes by means of a man. For just as all people die because of their union with Adam, in the same way all will be raised to life because of their union with Christ.
Bible, Paul’s Letter to the Romans 8:1-3: There is no condemnation now for those who live in union with Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit, which brings us life in union with Christ Jesus, has set me free from the law of sin and death. What the Law could not do, because human nature was weak, God did. He condemned sin in human nature by sending his own Son, who came with a nature like man’s sinful nature, to do away with sin.
Pauline Christians, in effect, had rejected Jesus as a prophet in preference for a “Christos” with supernatural being and power. And this had far-reaching and table-turning consequences! Those who followed the teaching of Jesus were eventually outnumbered and outranked by a powerful, state-sponsored Church which chose to adopt Paul as interpreter of Jesus.
To be continued, inshâ’Allah, in Part 15…