Deus Ex Machina

"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

Different Christs for Different Needs; A Review of “When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome”

When Jesus Became God by Richard E Rubenstein

First details upon the form of the book itself before going into its contents. This book is by a non-specialist academician writing outside of his area of expertise. It is however a well researched book and highly readable with an easy flowing narrative of the events of the Arian controversy, from the Christian persecutions preceding Constantine to its conclusion with the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381. While not exactly a scholarly work, it however organises in a succint and clear manner the timeline of events and the major players in the controversy and gives one a basic feel and orientation of the developments of the controversy.

There is a lot which I’ve already known before I opened the book, how the fortunes of the theological parties were more or less tied to their ability to manipulate polities and secure the favour of the reigning emperor, etc. All the worse excesses of skullduggery are here, rabble rousing, assasinations, trumped up charges, even an amusing story of how an Arian bishop got two of his priests to hire a prostitute to sneak into a Nicene bishop’s room to ruin his reputation. But of course, all for the greater glory of God for whom no means are too underhanded to secure the defeat of those hell bound heretics and agents of the devil.

The author however has two overarching theses which I think is worth mentioning.

First is that the triumph of Nicene Orthodoxy effectively meant the severance of the Christian faith from all other religions in the world. Both Jews and pagans acknowledged one supreme God but differed on how he has acted on or relates to this world. Christianity used to be part of this civil dispute and discourse with the others as to where and how God has acted and related to us. However with Nicene Orthodoxy, this “common ground” in singular supreme God was lost, it is not so much that Jesus became God but that God became Jesus, with the meaning and person of God necessarily bound to the Trinity, any commonality that we occupy a world of one common supreme God, was irrevocably lost as the Trinity became a part of the essence of God, without which God was no God at all.

From a civil and political point of view, this effectively meant the death of any form of tolerant civil religion. It is either the Trinitarian God, or thorough-going secularism and the abandonment of God completely from the civil sphere. The unfortunate intolerance of the new Nicene Orthodoxy can be seen in this passage:

Not long after the emperor outlawed Arian religious worship, a violent and revealing incident occurred in Callinicum, a Roman frontier town in Mesopotamia. A Christian mob led by monks burned both a Jewish synagogue and a chapel used by the Valentinians, a tiny sect of heretical Christians. It is not clear whether there were worshipers in these buiildings at the time; such “details” were seldom reported. Theodosius responded as one would expect a responsible ruler to respond: he ordered the local bishop to make restitution to the injured parties and to punish the mob’s ringleaders. But before the order could be carried out, Ambrose of Milian, the self-appointed guardian of Western orthodoxy, objected strongly.

Why should Christians be penalized for attacking Jews and heretics? Ambrose complained. Had the pagan emperor, Julian, punished his people when Christians were attacked? Theodosisu’s intervention against Christ’s faithful servants was nothing less than sacrilegious. The fact that imperial officials in Mesopotamia were calling for the protection of Jews and heretics was irrelevant. Unless the emperor repented, Ambrose warned, he could hardly offer him Holy Communion in good conscience…

The threat of possible excommunication struck home.

Theodosius revoked his command.

Thus does “St” Ambrose set a holy and godly example for the Church. This is of course not forgetting the fact that Theodosius had by then actively persecuted and outlawed Arianism from the empire through a combination of inquisitions, dispossession of church property and offices and criminalisation of advocacy of Arianism. It would take the bloody conflicts of the Protestant Reformation, and the exhaustion of perpetual religious conflict before tired Christians formulated deism as an attempt to both retain civic public religiousity and to prevent doctrinal squabbles over minute theological points from causing civic disruption. This is encapsulated perfectly in Locke’s Letter concerning Tolerantion based firmly upon the Protestant doctirine of the Two Kingdoms and that civic power is distinct from ecclesiastical power while still adamant that atheism is not to be tolerated in the commonwealth.

His second overarching thesis is his account for the decline of Arianism. According to the author it has fundamentally to do with two different types of Christ which suited different socio-political conditions.

The “Arian” Christ, who is by definition more “human”, was more optimistic about humanity and the human capacity. Christ is the perfect human, even divinised, he is an inspirational example for our imitation. Not being infallibly God by nature, he is divinised by his will and actions and thereby provides the hope of our own sanctification and reformation through faith and good works. Also being fully human or at least a fellow creature, he is a friend, an intimate companion who truly understands us, with no divine glory blasting out of his otherworldly eyes.

The “Nicene” Christ, who is unambiguously the Almighty God, was a god fit for a civil religion. He is not a mere creature amongst creatures or a finite delimited entity, but he is as vast and boundless as the Almighty God himself, having power over mysterious macro-forces beyond our control.

Thus, the Nicene Christ was more fitted to a less secure empire under constant threat from political and natural disasters. When your survival is at stake, whether from hording barbarians, civic disorder and chaos or famine and starvation, what you need is an Almighty Christ, armed to the teeth with divine substance and power, not some inspirational example of a mere holy man who is morally perfect but gets crucified in the end. This is why towards the end of the Arian controversy, after the empire was threatened by the Huns and after having suffered breaking losses from the Visgoth invasions and destructions, Arianism as a way of life and theological system, even if the imperial persecutions did not happen, lost its appeal throughout the empire from its sheer inability to serve as the civil religion of the land. The Arian Christ was simply not Almighty enough for us to pray to to defend the empire from the barbarian horde and to secure the peace of the land.

However, the need for the Arian Christ still lingered on in that while a personal relatable Christ was not suited to be the defender of the realm, religious life has advanced such that the old esoteric and “mythologised” pagan gods could not longer meet the humanistic spiritual needs which such a compassionate loving, and most of all, really human Christ provides. Even as Nicene Orthodoxy triumphed and Christ ascended to divinity, the church adapted to the spiritual vacuum left behind by the ascended Christ by elevating the Virgin Mary to play the role of the relatable and compassionate human figure. Now the Mother of God is the one who lovingly comforts us, and along with her pantheon of other human saints, they fulfill the existential human needs for human sympathy which a fuilly divine Christ could no longer provide.

Whether or not you agree with his overarching theses, I would still recommend this book to read for its sheer accessibiltiy and organisation of the developments of the Arian controversy. It is a very good introduction to the issues and a springboard for further reading.

Anyway, I’ve just ordered a copy of Maurice Wiles’s Archetypal Heresy: Arianism through the Centuries which is a much more scholarly work on the subject and attempts to give a theological rehabilitation of Arianism as well as provide an interesting account of it beyond the 4th century dispute and into the 18th century English Arianism revival, a period which I have a current particular interest in currently.

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This entry was posted on September 21, 2014 by in Uncategorized.
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