When Jesus Became God:
The Epic Fight over Christ’s Divinity in the Last Days of Rome
Rubenstein, Richard E.; (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1999, 267 pages including Index and copious end notes.)
Dr. Rubenstein is a professor of Conflict Resolution and Public Affairs at George Mason University, where he specializes in analyzing violent social and religious conflict. He is a graduate of Harvard College (B.A. 1959, magna cum laude in History and Literature); Oxford University (M.A. 1961, Honours School of Jurisprudence, Rhodes Scholar) and Harvard Law School ( J.D. 1963).
This reviewer has known for many years that the process by which the early Church determined its theology was a political one, and by today’s standards, a sordid one. It was power politics. Those who had the most power got to determine the theology of the fledgling Church. However, I did not know a lot of the historical details that support that conclusion. Reading Rubenstein’s account of those days--of who had the power, and how it was exercised—has come as a bit of a shock. Civil discourse was not a part of the story.
The focus of the book is on the Arian controversy, which spanned the better part of two centuries. This was a controversy about the nature of Jesus Christ. Was he God or was he a spiritually astute human anointed by God but neither one with God nor an equal. The early Church bishops were fairly evenly divided on the question. Arian, from whom the controversy got its name, was a priest in Alexandria, Egypt. As a mere priest, he had little power, but he was an able exponent of the view that Jesus was subordinate to the Father but was not of the same substance with him. Supporting him in this theology were many of the Eastern bishops, i.e. those who were situated around the eastern half of the Mediterranean world.
The Western bishops, those situated to the west of Constantinople, were for the most part supporters of the theology that Jesus and God the Father were essentially of the same substance.
“Faced with the problem that had confronted all Christians since St. Paul—how to be a monotheist believing in only one God, yet still worship Jesus Christ—Arius advanced the view that Jesus was a creature intermediary between man and God… All Christians believed that Jesus’ sacrifice redeemed humanity. What God did for the Son by resurrecting him and granting him immortality He could do for us as well, provided that we became new people in Christ. But if Jesus was not God by nature—if he earned his deification by growing in wisdom and virtue—why, so can we all. The Good News of the Gospels is that we also are God’s potential Sons and Daughters. How, then, is Christ essentially different from or superior to us? And if he is not, what does it mean to call ourselves Christians?” (pp. 55-56) These were questions that demanded answers. The answers given by Arius and his bishops in Alexandria--at first Bishop Alexander, and later his successor, Bishop Athanasius—were poles apart.
Civil discourse was apparently never considered a viable way to resolve the conflict. Instead, Arius’ bishops resorted to strong-arm tactics, each having gangs of street thugs whose job it was to beat their opponents into submission. Arius and some of his followers were forced to flee into the desert to escape bodily injury and possible death. At the same time there were other bishops in other cities who were rallying to the support of Arius. Riots spurred by street fighters spread to other cities, leaving paths of destruction in their wake. It appeared the whole fabric of Roman society was being ripped apart.
Into this volatile mix, early in the fourth century, steps the recently converted Roman emperor, Constantine. Ultimately it was Constantine who held the position of power, so each side in the controversy appealed to him for support of their particular theology. The problem for Constantine was that he was no theologian, and he tended to side with whoever was talking to him at the moment. The thing that Constantine wanted most was peace in the empire, and he had hoped that Christianity could be the instrument to bring it about. To this end he convened the bishops from all over the empire at his summer residence on the Lake of Nicaea near Nicomedia in Asia Minor, what is now modern day Turkey. The council began in May of 325 with 250 bishops in attendance.
“Constantine’s great hope was to convene a conference that would end the bishops’ bitter wrangling and begin an era of harmony in the Church.” (p. 69) It was not to be, in spite of the fact that “Constantine was in a position strongly to influence—perhaps even to dictate—the course of events at Nicaea.” (p. 71) The bishops staked out their positions… “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.
“From the perspective of our own time, it may seem strange to think of Arian ‘heretics’ as conservatives, 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.” (p. 74)
Constantine came down on the side of the anti-Arians, and the Nicene Creed, an amended version of which is still repeated in churches today, was the result. Several later gatherings would be more representative of the entire Church; one of them, the joint council of Rimini-Seleucia (359), was attended by more than five hundred bishops from both East and West…but its result—the adoption of an Arian creed—was later repudiated by the Church.
Unity was not achieved. Theology did not change as a result of the councils. Those who sided with Arius continued to do so. The anti-Arians dug in their heels even deeper, refusing to even acknowledge the legitimacy of the Arian bishops. Constantine continued to flip-flop in his efforts to unify the empire. He died May 22, 337, but the Arian controversy did not die with him. Rubenstein continues the story through the Great Council of Chalcedon (451 CE).
He concludes, “Soon, most of the Eastern world would come under the domination of a new religion offering another interpretation of Jesus’ nature and mission. The Islamic Jesus was not the incarnate God of Nicene Christianity or the superangelic Son of the Arians. In the view of the Muslim conquerors, he was a divinely inspired man: a spiritual genius ranking with the greatest prophets, Moses and Muhammad himself… With the ascension of Islam, Arianism as a discrete religious philosophy disappeared in the East as well as in the West. But the great questions that had generated the controversy over Jesus’ divinity remained—and remain yet—to haunt the imagination and provoke the conscience of humankind.” (pp. 230-231)
If we have learned anything from the past, it should be that one’s beliefs cannot be changed by violence. Truth is neither validated nor invalidated by coercion, political power, theological wrangling, or ecclesiastical mandates. Rubenstein’s very readable, detailed and well-documented account can serve well as a reminder of our past and of the highly tenuous theological conclusions we have inherited. Thus the debate continues, but please, may it at least be civil.
Jim Foster, reviewer