WE CONTINUE WITH Rubenstein, (When Jesus Became God, The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome), who—keep in mind—writes as a Jew and thus, like us Muslims, is unable to accept the Pauline, that is, the “Christian,” view of Jesus as “divine,” whether it be the interpretative version of Arius or of Athanasius.
Pages numbers referenced in this article refer to the Rubenstein book.
Defining God in Relation to Jesus
We continue with Rubenstein’s N Y Times best-selling book and its assessment of the Arian-Athanasian controversy:
But suppose one takes the Arians at their word. They claim to believe that Christ is a creature utterly unlike any other—that he is not a mere man but a divinity. This produces two possibilities. One, the Son is a second God equal to the Father. There are many ex-pagans who, in their ignorance, probably believe this. Obviously, the idea is as repulsive to Christians as to Jews. Two Gods? Why just two? If Jesus is a second God, why not declare the Holy Spirit a third? And why stop there? Open the floodgates, and there may be as many Gods as peoples’ imaginations can create. Not even the Arians can tolerate this blatant polytheism; that is why they insist that the Father is greater than the Son. (Rubenstein, p. 116)
…Their subordinationist views were traditional in the East and shared by a great many devout Christians, including a large number of bishops. And they did affirm the divinity of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten before time began, ruling at the Father’s right hand in heaven (p. 115).
But this subordinationism suggests a second possibility: Jesus is neither God nor man but something in between. The Arians suggest this when they say that Christ is God, but not true God. But what can this mean? If the Savior [i.e., redeemer] is some sort of creature intermediary between humanity and God, he must be either a demigod or an angel. Some pagans, misreading the story of the Virgin birth, consider him the child of a god and a human, like Hercules [i.e., in Greek mythology]. To Christians, the idea of God fathering Jesus on Mary like Zeus impregnating some human maiden is too disgusting even to contemplate, much less believe. To avoid this implication, the Arians talk about Jesus’ creation in entirely abstract terms. But they cannot avoid the fact that the idea of God producing a demigod offspring is pagan, no matter how the creature was conceived. (p. 116-117)
The alternative notion that Jesus is an angelic being is not necessarily pagan, but it produces the same lapse back into Judaism that the “Jewish Christian” position does. Why should an angel be any more worthy of worship than a man? The Jews originated the belief in angels, but they would not think of worshiping them! In fact, Athanasius concludes, this is why the Arian doctrine is so unstable: without a solid center, it fluctuates back and forth between the Jewish and pagan positions. True Christianity, on the other hand, insists that Christ is a man and God, simultaneously and eternally. The Arians hate the idea that God could have suffered on the Cross. But God can obviously do anything He wants to do. (p. 117)
Can God Choose to Change His Approach?
Hmm? Can God do anything that He wants to? (Or, Is the Almighty Creator and Sustainer of the universe restricted in His choices?) How is this to be answered in the context of arguing—in agreement with Paul’s teaching—that the transcendent God chose, for His own purposes, to take on the embodiment of a limited, human being (a creature created by Himself!)? Keep in mind that Allah is not simply an all-powerful, super version of the human being; He is of a totally different sort of being, in a class by Himself.
So then, it is not enough to ask whether He can do anything He wants to; one must ask WHAT it is that He has chosen to do. And having chosen a particular sort of world in which He has ordained for us to live, would He shift its ordained nature? One thing for sure, to shift a part of the universe is to shift the whole: All parts are interconnected.
This also raises the counter-intuitive question as to whether one can create another instance of one’s self, a second and separate form of one’s self, or, whether he can beget himself and be the two at the same time! More to the point, is it possible for the Supreme and All-Powerful to reproduce Himself in the form of another supreme and all-powerful? In such a case, neither would be supreme or all-powerful any longer—since sharing power means that neither is supreme.
Was Arius any more correct than Athanasius—from a Muslim point of view—that Jesus was a human being but unlike any other—thus in some sense “divine”? (Remember: a prophet is more than “mere man”—but the category of prophet was not one of the category options considered by Church Council or taken seriously by any prominent party in the Arian controversy.)
As reiterated repeatedly in the Quran, Allah/God can and does do what He pleases or chooses, and He does so balancing mercy towards His creatures within the context of His purposes. If He can be said to be “restricted” in any way, it is in terms of a self-imposed restriction in relation to His deliberately instituted, man-centered world. In fact, what Allah has said in the Quran is that He has set upon Himself a limit: His mercy is to outweigh His displeasure when it comes to weighing our intentions and deeds. When we choose to violate or to reject His Guidance, we are, in effect, rejecting Him.
Say: “To whom belongeth all that is in the heavens and on earth?” Say: “To Allah. He hath inscribed for Himself [the rule of] Mercy. That He will gather you together for the Day of Judgment, there is no doubt whatever. It is they who have lost their own souls, that will not believe…” [Sûrat Al-Anʿâm, 6:12]
And when those come to you who believe in Our verses, say, “Peace be upon you. Your Lord has decreed upon Himself mercy: that any of you who does wrong out of ignorance and then repents after that and corrects himself – indeed, He is Forgiving and Merciful. [Sûrat Al-Anʿâm, 6:54]
Allah/God has chosen, as His modus operandi, to create a system for us earth-dwellers by which His creatures are allowed to—actually have to—make certain choices and to exercise moral judgment. One’s individual (or collective) choice is to be evaluated, in the end, on the basis of his having been educated in right vs. wrong through prophetically-revealed Guidance—and that one then has to live with the consequences of his chosen actions.
Could God change His chosen approach of sending prophetic guidance to mankind? One would have to say, “Yes, God could do whatever He so chooses.” But is there evidence that He has chosen to change his approach? By what authority does Paul speak for God so as to say, in effect, that God has changed from a prophetic approach to an incarnation-al approach? Is Paul a God-sent prophet? (Hint: Paul didn’t put it that way, but Paul did claim to be receiving revelation from Jesus Christ!)
Clearly in the Quran, God’s continuing approach is the prophet-centered model—with families of prophets (Abrahamic, Mosaic) being prominent. Since the Gospel books of the New Testament validate that Jesus himself referred to his status as prophet in line with the Hebrew tradition, we ask, “Who was Paul that he had the authority to say that God had changed his way of doing business?!!!”
The Church Caught Up in Virtualized Metaphor
What is the “true Christian” view? (Hint: Officially, the “true Christian” view will, by definition, be the one that ultimately was adopted formally by “infallible” decision of the Christian institutional authorities through the centuries.) So, one might ask: Do any of the variety of “Christian” views in the 4th century reflect the teaching and mission of Jesus? Read on…
Continues Rubenstein in narrating the opposing arguments:
The essentially Christian idea is that [God] chose to become a human being and to suffer for our sake. He was a human being. But he was also God—and if this is hard to understand, it’s hard to understand! Whoever said that it was easy to understand God? (p. 117)
Of course, Arius—like his contemporaries—had accepted and worked with Paul’s concept of “Christ.” It was within that context that Arius had offered his protest: that Jesus had become “God, but not true God.” What could it mean to talk of “the Christ” (in the man Jesus) as being “similar to,” or “the same as” God—meaning that somehow Jesus must be in the same category with God? Jumping from metaphor to supposed literal reality was the nail in the coffin that solidified the Church’s paganized doctrinal stance.
Recall from Part 4 how the Greek philosophical term Logos, was used by the first century Jewish philosopher Philo: In a carefully-crafted exposition, Philo sought to illustrate for non-monotheists—through the power of conscious metaphor—the immanent presence of the Hebrew Deity.
It is in accord with Quranic concepts to say that the Presence of Deity—His watchful Awareness—is immanent in mankind’s experience: Deity (= Allah) knows; He sees and hears; He is “there” and more than ready to respond when we call upon Him. Church Council, however, fell into the trap of wanting to make a quantum leap—no doubt ignorantly. Christian theologian trail-blazers apparently never comprehended the distinction between the transcendent Allah/God Himself and his immanent Presence with us; they assumed that they could have both without affronting His awesome “wholly otherness.” They wanted to assert definitively, as a tenant of Christian faith, that God Himself had lived bodily, as it were, in human time / space life, just as the Greek/Roman gods and goddesses were understood to be “present” in their world.
The key for us to understand is that Allah/God is not “immanent” in our physical universe—in terms of His essence, in reference to Himself; He does not exist in our time-and-space material world in the same sense in which we live here in our mortal bodies. But rather He is “with us” in that we can sense His “presence” in our human experience—such that our spirits can connect spiritually with God. He is present in His Knowledge. His Presence is with us, but His “real” Self is above and beyond the created world and beyond our ability to know Him, except to the extent to which He chooses to reveal Himself prophetically. He is fully knowledgeable about our world, its events; and He watches over us in our existence, while He Himself is transcendent.
To be continued, inshâ’Allah, in Part 16…