A.D. 381: Heretics, Pagans, and the Dawn of the Monotheistic State
by Charles Freeman
by Barbara Buzzard
“The doctrine of the Trinity – that God the Father, Jesus the begotten Son of God, and the Holy Spirit are equal but distinct members of a single Godhead – is an article of faith that lies at the core of Christian belief. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, it is a mystery hidden by God, inaccessible by reason alone, and only known because God has revealed it. So should historians, as well as theologians, be concerned with it? I believe there are good reasons why we should.” I should like to broaden this statement and ask if we all ought not to be extremely interested in this subject. As stated, it is the core of orthodox belief; it is the very thing which dictates whether you are ‘in’ or ‘out’, anathematized or not.
“The story, as this book hopes to show, is well documented, but an alternative narrative, that the Church itself came to a consensus on the nature of the Godhead, is still the dominant one in histories of Christianity.” (Emphasis mine.) What a find this is. Yet another creditable source that attests to the fact that our world is upside down; that what is believed to be factual history is actually an alternative narrative! As Freeman states: “The 380’s were truly a turning point, and the story of how freedom of thought was suppressed needs to be brought back into the mainstream of the history of European thought.” Freeman explains that by the 12th century church and state were united in suppressing freedom of religious thought and that it wasn’t until the 17th century that the principle of religious toleration was again reasserted in Europe.
Demented and Insane?!
These words were part of an edict sent out by Theodosius in 380 AD: “We shall believe in the single deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost under the concept of equal majesty and of the Holy Trinity. We command that persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of catholic Christians. The rest, however, whom We judge demented and insane, shall carry the infamy of heretical dogmas. Their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches, and they shall be smitten first by Divine Vengeance, and secondly by the retribution of hostility which We shall assume in accordance with the Divine Judgment.” No gracious “if you please” here! Uncompromising language and sustained condemnation took the place of the former diversity of spiritual life and a long-standing tradition of freedom of speech. It should be pointed out that that many societies at this time were highly sophisticated, study guides and discussion groups being important features. (One poet’s library contained 62,000 papyrus rolls!) On a humorous note, social climbers in that day “filled their houses so full of papyrus rolls that it would have taken them a lifetime just to read the titles.”
Freeman expertly explores for his readers the relationship between church and state, at a time of chaos when Christians agreed on little or nothing, when men like Constantine, described as ambitious and ruthless, were after absolute power. Freeman says, “There is no evidence that Constantine became any more pious or less brutal in either his public or private life after his victory, so was this a genuine conversion?” This was also the time when the church first became rich. “In this way a pagan custom, the worship of gods through impressive buildings, was transferred successfully into Christianity. Such display was completely alien to the Christian tradition, and the ascetic scholar Jerome must have spoken for many traditionalists when he complained that ‘parchments are dyed purple, gold is melted into lettering, manuscripts are dressed up in jewels, while Christ lies at the door naked and dying.’ Now opulence became central to Christianity’s public identity.”
The Arian Controversy
“The greatest turbulence centered on a confrontation between Alexander, the Bishop of Alexandria...and one of his priests by the name of Arius...The particular debate focused on defining the relationship between God the Father and Jesus the Son. This had become one of the most challenging issues in Christian theology.” What followed was termed the Arian controversy. In an effort to deal with this issue, the Nicene Creed was drawn up by a number of bishops in 325 AD, but as Richard Hanson described it, “the Creed was a mine of potential confusion.” No positive mention of it is found until it was revived in the 350s. Interestingly, it said nothing about the Trinity and did not personalize the Holy Spirit. It appears that following Nicea, Constantine believed the debate impossible to resolve; it is said that good order was more important to him than good doctrine.
“The original conception of Jesus in the context of the Jewish world in which he lived and taught was that he was fully human. It was impossible to conceive, in fact blasphemous for a Jew to believe, as it would later be for Muslims, that he could be divine....Even here there were many Christians who continued to see Jesus as no more than a man, though one of great spiritual qualities.” This quotation makes me think of all the times I hear or read that Jesus was no mere man. Granted, he certainly wasn’t a mere man. I couldn’t agree more. What mere man can resurrect the dead, control the sea, exorcise demons, etc? But doing miracles does not turn one into God (especially if there is only one!).The disciples prophesied that greater miracles would be done by Christians in the future and that will not make them God.
“It’s a Mystery”
The ongoing argument between subordinationists who took seriously John 14:28, “The Father is greater than I,” and those who believed Father and Son were of one substance (Nicene Creed) is explained as follows: “Anyone who wished to argue that Jesus was equal in divine majesty to God the Father would need to exercise considerable literary ingenuity to find alternative explanations of these texts. To the subordinationists they seem incontrovertible, and this helps to explain why the gulf between them and the followers of the Nicene Creed, with their insistence on ‘one substance,’ became so wide.” Freeman summarizes very well what the issue was then and indeed still is: “The challenge of insisting that Jesus (and in later debates, the Holy Spirit) is divine and distinct without there being two (or three) gods was one of the main conceptual difficulties in the whole debate, and remains so today.”
Other factions concentrated on the differences between the Father and the Son, i.e. the Father unbegotten and the Son begotten. This group was led by Eunomius who apparently employed relentless logic, his opponents arguing that the Godhead was beyond reason and invoking the “it’s a mystery” argument. It is interesting that during this time a pagan emperor came to power and had this to say regarding the controversy: “No wild beasts are such enemies to mankind as are most of the Christians in their deadly hatred of each other.” One Christian apologist who I know sympathizes with this picture and says “Give me a good atheist any day. It is the Bible clutching types I have trouble with.”
A man with a dark side
Athanasius was an important player in this drama and Freeman candidly says of him: “His emphasis on the unity of the Godhead, even if not explained in any coherent way, meshed well with western thinking and so strengthened the Nicene cause there.” (Emphasis mine.) Even more importantly, Freeman informs us, there was a dark side to this man who seemed to enjoy pouring venom on his enemies. Freeman mentions him as one who marked a departure from former intellectual debate and through the use of invective lowered the tone of the exercise and contributed to the demise of free speech.