quotes & notes from
When Jesus Became God
Richard E. Rubenstein

Richard E. Rubenstein

These pages: When Jesus Became God

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When Jesus Became God

The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome

Copyright © 1999 by Richard E. Rubenstein


“When I was little, growing up in a mixed Jewish-Catholic neighborhood, most of my playmates were Italian-American boys. They were friends, but I learned to stay in my own house on Good Friday, since after hearing the sermon at St. Joseph’s Church, some of them would come looking for me to punish me for killing Christ. Once they caught me out on the street and knocked me down. ‘But Jesus was a Jew!’ I shouted through my tears. That idea, which they had never contemplated, infuriated them.”

One reason the Arian controversy interests me, I remarked, is that because before it ended, Jews and Christians could talk to each other and argue among themselves about crucial issues like the divinity of Jesus, the meaning of salvation, basic ethical standards . . . everything. They disagreed strongly about many things, but there was still a closeness between them. They participated in the same moral culture. When the controversy ended—when Jesus became God—that closeness faded. To Christians God became a Trinity. Heresy became a crime. Judaism became a form of infidelity.

An Incident in Alexandria

Note (Hal’s):
Introduction and overview, with an account of the lynching of George of Cappadocia (in Alexandria, in 361) illustrating the violent intensity of the dispute as well as the degree of popular involvement.

— end note

Two factors, in particular, made the struggle over Christ’s divinity particularly intense. In the first place, it was a contest to decide a genuinely undecided issue. Given the growing intolerance of dissent within the church, its outcome would decide which belief would be sanctified as truth and which vilified as heresy. Furthermore, it deeply involved the Christian laity, including masses of urban workers and artisans with a strong propensity to express themselves by rioting.

Christian bishops and theologians would not have gained the enormous power they wielded in the fourth century had they not operated on the assumption that people of normal intelligence and little formal education had the ability to comprehend complex religious doctrines, the judgment to distinguish true gods from false, and the will (with God’s help) to follow in Christ’s path.

To a great extent, the active involvement of shopkeepers and bath attendants in thorny religious controversies was a result of the Church’s centuries-long campaign to turn the empire’s pagan subjects into Christians. [...] It was not just Christ the evangelists and theologians were teaching, but a worldview derived originally from Judaism—a passionate monotheism fundamentally at odds with the premises of pagan thought.


The Silence of Apollo

Note (Hal’s):
General background: the Roman Empire and Christianity.

299-311: Diocletian, Galerius, Maximian, Constantius; the Great Persecution; Peter of Alexandria, Melitius, and the Donatists.

312-324: Constantine’s rise and conversion; Licinius; martyrdom of Peter of Alexandria and Lucian of Antioch; the Edict of Milan; Constantine takes note of the controversy between Alexander and Arius.

— end note

What most pagan leaders—even those as far-seeing as Diocletian—could not comprehend was the fact that the Christians had not merely added another god to the pantheon. They had redefined religion itself. Their God was an infinitely righteous but merciful parent, His Son an eternally loving and faithful friend. To call a Christian fanatical for refusing to sacrifice to other gods was like calling a monogamous lover fanatical for refusing to pay court to other men or women.



The willingness of many Roman bureaucrats and soldiers to look the other way while imperial edicts were violated reminds us that, for all its violence, the Great Persecution was not an attempt to exterminate the Christians en masse. One reason for this was that repression in premodern times was as inefficient as any other form of administration. While some local officials carried out their orders to the letter, others interpreted them idiosyncratically, allowed themselves to be bribed, or simply ignored them. The ancients were bloody-minded, but not genocidal; they did not ordinarily pursue systematic policies of extermination.


A Quarrel in God’s House

Note (Hal’s):
Background of the controversy: Hosius of Cordova investigates; the Council of Antioch; Origen’s influence.

Arians: Arius, Eusebius of Nicomedia, Eusebius of Caesarea [in Palestine]

anti-Arians: Alexander of Alexandria, Athanasius

— end note

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. Origen had been a subordinationist, too, but he insisted (even at the risk of calling Christ a “second God”) that the Son was with the Father eternally. Arius seemed to demote him even further, perhaps to the level of an angel . . . or, Alexander worried, a man!

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. [...] How, then, is Christ essentially different from or superior to us? And if he is not, what does it mean to call ourselves Christians?

Did Arius deny Christ’s divinity? He did not, since whether the Son was perfect by will or by nature, whether he was God’s subordinate or his equal, God had raised him up to rule by His side in heaven and there was none like him. Surely, considering the difficulty of understanding such matters with certainty, there was room in the Church for differences of opinion about the Son’s mysterious relationship to the Father!

Either/or: either Jesus was really God or he was really human. The Arians could not really imagine that he might be both, and so the tendency of their thought (even though they denied it) was to turn him into a man—or into some sort of third creature, an angel or demigod.

Yet he had to be both fully human and fully divine, argued Athanasius. Could the death of a mere human being redeem our sins, grant us immortality, and, eventually, resurrect our physical bodies? Of course not! But could Omnipotent God, the Beginning and the End, suffer for our sake without becoming human? The answer was equally plain. Therefore, whether or not it seemed “reasonable” to people schooled in Greek philosophy, Jesus Christ was both true man and true God.




The Great and Holy Council

Note (Hal’s):
The Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325), and the original Nicene Creed.

Unlike the one generally known by that name, this Creed anathematizes several alleged Arian teachings, including that the Father and Son have a different actual existence (hypostasis). Trinitarian doctrine (one ousios, three hypostases) eventually contradicted this.

— end note

Public discussion should not be avoided, of course, but acrimonious debate was as likely to harden positions as to change them. Working together on a proposed creed, however, might provide the bishops with the chance to listen more closely to each other, forge new connections, and, perhaps, discover language that they could agree on. Previous councils had promulgated statements of faith to bludgeon dissenters into submission. Perhaps creed-making at Nicaea could bring ecclesiastical harmony out of discord.
One reason for the passions aroused by the Arian controversy—and by intense religious disputes to this day—was that the main doctrinal issue acted like a magnifying glass, focusing the heat of many related disputes, not all of them strictly “religious,” on one contested theological question.
Constantine saw the Great Council as an opportunity to strengthen the Church’s position in this new world by unifying it doctrinally and helping to reorganize it internally. Christianity had inspired his army, redefined his own destiny, and held out new possibilities for uniting his people. Now he would return the favor by teaching the Church the Roman virtues of law, order, and efficient administration.



Why did Eusebius agree to accept the homoousios? Certainly, the pressure exerted by Constantine had something to do with his decision. But another factor was in play: the key word was ambiguous. Though Hosius and Alexander went to great length to draft a document that would expose and isolate the Arians, their effort fell afoul of the fact that there are no truly unambiguous words. [...]

Homoousios could mean “of the same essence,” but it could also mean of the same “substance,” “reality,” “being,” or even “type.” [...] In any case, by accepting the amendment, Eusebius put his enemies temporarily in check. They suspected that he was interpreting the word in an unorthodox fashion, but they could hardly accuse him of heresy without questioning Constantine’s judgment.

But without consensus—an underlying general agreement on fundamental religious and political issues—legal rules tend to become weapons in the hands of opposed groups. For this reason virtually every rule adopted at Nicaea, no matter how commonsensical and apparently neutral, became a cause of conflict rather than a method of resolving it.

A look into the future, then, shows us Nicaea as a watershed. While it looks forward to the ultimate resolution of the Arian controversy from the Catholic point of view—the identification of Jesus Christ as God—it also represents the last point at which Christians with strongly opposed theological views acted civilly towards each other. When the controversy began, Arius and his opponents were inclined to treat each other as fellow Christians with mistaken ideas. Constantine hoped that his Great and Holy Council would bring the opposing sides together on the basis of a mutual recognition and correction of erroneous ideas. When these hopes were shattered and the conflict continued to spread, the adversaries were drawn to attack each other not as colleagues in error but as unrepentant sinners: corrupt, malicious, even satanic individuals.

From bad Christian to anti-Christian was a long step to take, since all men were considered sinners, even those baptized in Christ. [...] Alexander and Athanasius had already compared the Arians to those who had crucified Christ and divided his garments between them. From anti-Christian to agent of the devil would prove a shorter step, and one pregnant with violence.




Sins of the Body, Passions of the Mind

Note (Hal’s):

325-330: Constantine’s son Crispus executed; Constantine’s mother Helena on pilgrimage; Arian victories at the Councils of Antioch and Nicomedia. On Alexander’s death, Athanasius succeeds as Bishop of Alexandria and begins violent oppression of the Melitians.

— end note

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.

The Arian strategy was brilliantly simple, bearing all the hallmarks of Eusebius of Nicomedia’s canny political judgment. Constantine wanted harmony in the Church above all else. He was convinced that the Council of Nicaea had been divinely inspired and that its creed could provide the basis for that harmony. [...] They could demonstrate that their own interpretation of the Nicene Creed, homoousios and all, was shared by most of the bishops in the Eastern Empire. And they would offer to live in peace with those churchmen who disagreed with them.

The problem that neither side in the controversy had yet grasped was this: whoever presented a detailed explanation of the relationship of the Father to the Son could fairly easily be accused of heresy. This is because it was difficult, perhaps impossibly so, to describe Jesus’ relationship to God in a way that did not seem either to deny his humanity (the Sabellian heresy) or to question his divinity (extreme Arianism). The real root of the difficulty was that Judeo-Christian monotheism posited an infinitely powerful, mysterious, single God who had created not only the world of people and things, but time and space itself. If Christ was actually this God, the human element in him seemed to dwindle into insignificance. But if he was other than God, then, unless one conceived of him as some sort of angel, he would be seen primarily as a man.

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.



The return of the Arians was not just a product of clever maneuvering by Eusebius and Arius; it was an indication that the apparent consensus reached at the Council of Nicaea was, in large part, an illusion produced by the bishops’ desire to please the emperor and to restore the unity of the Church. There were lessons to be drawn from this experience, but few had learned them. Consensus cannot be created by verbal formulas. Serious disputes are seldom resolved without a genuine change in the parties’ thinking. And a false consensus may be more productive of conflict than an honest disagreement.
With the return of Athanasius to Alexandria, the history of the Arian controversy, and, with it, the history of the Catholic Church, takes a new turn. For if Constantine thought that Alexander was a stubborn “servant,” he can never have met Athanasius. [...] For a similar combination of theoretical acumen, dogged adherence to principle, and political ruthlessness, one would have to await the advent of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Vladimir Lenin.

The Broken Chalice

Note (Hal’s):

330-335:New Rome (Constantinople) dedicated; Council of Tyre excommunicates and exiles Athanasius. Constantine examines, and is swayed by, arguments on both sides.

— end note

To watch Constantine alternate between approval of the two enemies, Arius and Athanasius, gives one the impression of an unstable, vacillating man. The impression is not entirely accurate. [...] The dispute itself also caused shifts of opinion, because each side seemed to have seized on an indispensable portion of the truth.

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 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. The essentially Christian idea—the idea that the Arians deny—is that He 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! Who ever said that it was easy to understand God?

The bishop ridicules the Arians for saying that Jesus, being a creature of God, had the power to grow or decline in virtue, and that he chose to be virtuous through the exercise of his uniquely powerful will. No, Athanasius says, Christ, being God, was perfect by nature and could not change as humans do. But how can Jesus be called virtuous if he had not the power to choose? [...]

The problem is not only that Athanasius’s theory mixes God with his creation, but that it removes Jesus entirely from human society, from the universe of moral turmoil, and places him in the unchangeable heavens. If Christ is not a changeable, choosing creature at least something like us, how can we hope to imitate him? And if he is God Himself, not our representative and intermediary, how can he intervene on our behalf? [...] It substitutes the sacraments of the church for sacrificial action in the world.

text checked (see note) Feb 2005

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Graphics copyright © 2004 by Hal Keen
The mosaic pattern is one of several suggested by a 4th- or 5th-century Syrian mosaic fragment.
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