We return to retelling the story of the 4th century Church’s theological exploits, following Richard E. Rubenstein’s book, When Jesus Became God, The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome; page numbers refer to material taken from this work.
Alexandria And Arius – The Drama
BEFORE BEGINNING AT the beginning, we jump into the middle of our drama—Alexandria, Egypt of 356-361 CE—with the central question at hand: Was Prophet Jesus (A.S)—now known as Paul’s “Jesus Christ”—to be considered a “god” (or even the “God”)? … now that the pagan gods were known by the pagan enlightened to be fictitious carriers of culture—perhaps like the modern Santa Claus, or the Easter Bunny, or the “tooth-fairy.” Was “the Lord Jesus Christ,” or “Christ Jesus,” or “Christ”—all terms used by Paul—to be considered “divine,” that is, somehow “God” himself?
An eastern presbyter (a church officer lower than bishop)—known to history as “Arius”—had responded to this exploratory hypothesis with “Nay,” while Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria countered with “Yea”—in agreement with his western colleagues. This bishop would—more than once—lose his bishopric over this question. He would be sent into exile when the new Arian-friendly emperor (Constantius II) took the throne in faraway Constantinople. This time, Athanasius was replaced with an Arian bishop from elsewhere in the empire—in keeping with the views of the Roman Throne.
George of Cappadocia (in Asia Minor/Turkey), the imported outsider bishop, was unwelcome in Alexandria: The local community wanted the return of their beloved hometown leader, Athanasius. After a year of Arian George’s persecution of pagan and non-Arians alike, the Alexandrians took matters into their own hands and attacked George, who escaped assassination.
But when a Church Council ruled in favor of the Arian position, George audaciously took it upon himself to return to Alexandria, reclaiming his office. Four days later, the Arian emperor Constantius died—most inconveniently for George—and anti-Arian supporters of Athanasius co-opted Alexandria’s churches, putting George in prison.
With the advent of the new non-Arian emperor Julian, George was hauled out and beaten to death (361 CE) in retaliation. Within two months, Athanasius returned from a monastery hideout in the Egyptian desert to his ecclesiastical post (pp. 2-4).
But let us now backtrack from this particular climax confrontation to fill in its background before moving on to complete the saga.
Theology – “(Un)Begotten”
Athanasius’ anti-Arian theology took the position—accepting Pauline writings as incontestable Church “Truth”—that Jesus Christ was “unbegotten” (just as God could be referred to as the “Unbegotten” One).
But what Athanasius meant was that Jesus was not created “from nothing” but rather that he was created by God from the same “substance” as that of God Himself—and that, accordingly, Christ was not separate from—and lesser than—God.
In contrast, Arius took the position that Jesus (A.S) was created by God like other humans were created and that while Jesus was the holiest person who had ever walked the earth, Jesus was not the Eternal God “incarnate” (i.e., embodied in human form). For Arius, God by nature was perfect and could not be imitated by human beings.
However, according to Arius, Jesus (Christ)’s virtue could be emulated, and thus individual believers could possibly become “sons” or “daughters” of God by “adoption” as a result of consciously having developed within themselves a godly manner of life—the same way in which Jesus (A.S) had become the ultimate “son” of God—by his perfection of life.
No one in Church circles seemed to notice that both Arius and Athanasius were philosophizing in Greek concepts, not explicating the Hebrew, or Jewish, categories used by Jesus (A.S) regarding himself.
The personal fortunes of Athanasius waxed and waned as Church Councils periodically condemned him. Five times he was exiled from his office as bishop of the Alexandrian Church, even pursued by imperial troops for arrest. In the end, bewilderingly, Councils ultimately settled on approving the views of Athanasius, not those of Arius.
Athanasius’ winning argument, in the eyes of the Church, was that if the Christ were to be less than God, that Christ would not have the standing to “save” mortal humans from the consequences of their sinful deeds. Christ had to be superior to sinful humans, meaning that—by a series of speculative leaps—he had to be: first, more than human; then, by default, in the same category as God; and thus the same as God. As Muslims we seek refuge with God from such a twisting of concepts and the lack of understanding of the uniqueness of God and of His total otherness from His creation.
The Christian concept of salvation means to be exempted from the guilt of the individual’s inevitable sin and thus rescued from the punishment of Hellfire in the next life. If anyone did not believe that Christ was God, Athanasius said, then that person could not be “saved” from his deserved punishment. According to Athanasius, the arguments of Arius were so clever and convincing that the struggle against Arianism was a battle against Satan (p. 9)!
Also thanks to Athanasius, the Church Councils made Christianity exclusivist: Outside the Church, there could be no salvation. After all, they reasoned, had not Jesus said:
Bible, Gospel of John 14:4-11. [Jesus to his Disciples:] “You know the way that leads to the place where I am going. Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; so how can we know the way to get there?” Jesus answered him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one goes to the Father except by me. Now that you have known me,” he said to them, “you will know my Father also, and from now on you do know him and you have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father; that is all we need.” Jesus answered, “For a long time I have been with you all; yet you do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. Why then do you say, “Show us the Father?” Do you not believe, Philip, that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I have spoken to you,” Jesus to his disciples, “do not come from me. The Father, who remains in me, does his own work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me. If not, believe because of the things I do. …
This, of course, comes from the Gospel of John, the theology-infused New Testament book that Christian scholars say “develops” the three other Gospel books in that it begins to introduce Jesus’ as a divine associate. Of the four Gospel books, this one is often chosen as the favorite of many “Evangelical Christians” today for its “spirituality,” meaning its portrayal of Jesus as a supernatural figure, while at the same time being human “like” them.
From a Muslim point of view, Jesus was simply saying that in his time and place, he was the only trustworthy authentic voice of divine revelation: the Banî Isra’îl leadership was running scared trying to stay in the good graces of the Roman authorities in Palestine; they had lost custody of God’s revealed message given through Moses (A.S).
Loss Of Context For The Words Of Jesus
Still today, Christians tend to [mis]quote Jesus’ metaphor (“I am IN the Father and the Father is IN me.”)—taking it literally to mean that Jesus is God in human form and that there would be no further prophet (“No one goes to the Father but by me.”) that could ever be rightly followed. They ignore the metaphorical meaning that God was revealing IN [by means of] Jesus prophetic words (“The Father is IN me”) and that Jesus was IN [synch with] that message from God (“I am IN the Father”).
For Muslims, who believe Jesus to be a God-sent prophet, there is no difficulty in reading the above words of Jesus (A.S) as a way of saying that Jesus (A.S), as a Banî Isra’îl/Hebrew prophet, conveyed the teaching that God was giving him, and that for his Jewish audience of his time and place, he was the exclusively correct source of God’s guidance—as the current access to Jewish teachings had been corrupted in spirit, if not also in letter.
Let us be clear: Having a correct concept of prophethood makes the difference between wrongly worshipping Jesus (A.S)—or even worshiping God in, by and through Jesus—versus rightly following Jesus as a human exemplar with a teaching sent by God. Unfortunately, our interfaith Christian partners will more likely be those who worship God in, by and through Jesus. Some will even worship Jesus directly without misgiving, calling upon him by name and thanking Jesus for [God’s] blessings.
Entrenched Mutual Intolerance
The intolerance of Athanasius against his detractors was perhaps matched, eventually, by persecution on the part of Arius against his opponents, whether they were pagans or anti-Arian Christians. Mass participation of Alexandrians in discussion of the issues was fierce and evenly divided. Each side had their staunch adherents and the Church would never be totally rid of this controversy—for reasons of intransigence and, above all, by reason of following Paul.
To be continued, Insha’Allah in Part 10