When Jesus Became God
by Richard E. Rubenstein
by Barbara Buzzard
“Was Jesus Christ God on earth, or was he something else? Three hundred years after the crucifixion, Christians still had not made up their minds about this.” This was what the Arian controversy was all about.
I am not a history buff so parts of this book were very challenging for me, but the matter posed by the title of the book is viewed as an unspeakable heresy and therefore an invitation to investigate.
I could not do better than the church father Gregory of Nyssa in describing the atmosphere which surrounded the Arian controversy: “If in this city you ask a shopkeeper for change, he will argue with you about whether the Son is begotten or unbegotten. If you inquire about the quality of bread, the baker will answer, ‘The Father is greater, the Son is less.’ And if you ask the bath attendant to draw your bath, he will tell you that the Son was created ex nihilo [out of nothing].”
What an incredible atmosphere where ordinary shopkeepers and workers were competent enough to discuss theological issues and confident enough to decide for themselves! What a departure from our present day experience where even questioning these very issues is often enough to have one dismissed from church. Also notable is that Arianism (the position that the Son was brought into existence, that he is separate from and lesser than God; that Jesus was the holiest person who ever lived, but not the Eternal God) was as popular as the view that “Jesus is God.”
The Arian dispute was regarding the relationship of Jesus to the Father. Today, Arianism is considered heretical - but that is because the other side won! (Remember who writes the history!) Arians argued that Jesus was a perfect representative of God, that just as a painting or statue “represents” its subject — it is not the subject itself. Being in the exact image of God did not mean that Jesus himself was God. Rubenstein tells us that what was at stake between the two camps was a “worldview derived originally from Judaism — a passionate monotheism fundamentally at odds with the premises of pagan thought." Rubenstein goes on to say "disputes as serious as the Arian controversy virtually compelled ordinary churchgoers to choose between rival theologies.”
Rubenstein paints a very vivid picture of the day with all of the tension and friction that existed. Add to that, fear of social collapse and the examples surrounding them of what happened to societies that lapsed into immorality. Into this chaos, the emperor Diocletian stepped with his plan to rid the Roman world of Christianity. Though it failed, the hundred years of conflict brought on by the Great Persecution and its campaign of terror was the background to the Arian controversy. “These clashes between Christians were traumatic, raising questions that would haunt the Church for generations to come. Did Jesus’ life provide a realistic model for human behavior, or was it an ideal reachable only by a handful of saints and martyrs?” Would that we as Christians were still “allowed” to ask this question, for it is an excellent question. After all, we are told to imitate Jesus; he is to be our elder brother in the faith. How does his example help us if he possessed Godhood as an advantage?
Enter Christianity as the established religion of the imperial family rather than the ragged little persecuted sect it had been. Problem: a priest named Arius publicly criticized his bishop’s theology. Arius was expelled but was supported by others and it became a raging controversy with the potential of spreading throughout the Mediterranean world. “Anathemas and decrees of excommunication were flying.” His ideas were explosive. Believers were “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.” Athanasius appears on the scene as Arius’ chief opponent. Athanasius argued that Jesus had to be both fully human and fully divine, that the death of a mere human being could not redeem our sins. These were tremendously powerful arguments and are with us today, written in stone, as it were. Unfortunately, they are philosophical arguments, not scriptural ones. (Did not the sacrifice of a dove cover Israel’s sins? Could not the sacrifice of a perfect man cover the whole of humanity? Yes, if God so decrees it.) It was decided that a conference would be called to end the bitter wrangling. So began the Council of Nicea (named after a lake).
And this, please note, is the answer to the now disallowed question, When did Jesus become God? He became God officially at Nicea. The rest of this review will be an attempt to show how such a thing came to be. Nicea was proposed (dictated) by the emperor to resolve the arguments among the bishops as that sort of wrangling was unhealthy for the state of the nation. Rubenstein states that Constantine “agreed with Hosius (his chief advisor) that the dispute should be ended on terms favorable to Alexander and the anti-Arians.” So the outcome was predetermined; the only question — how to get there! Rubenstein says this in the nicest possible way, yet it is a jaw dropper to be sure, for this is what is now considered “the faith.” Rubenstein goes on to explain why Constantine offered his personal hospitality to 250 bishops. He had just had his brother-in-law and nine-year-old nephew murdered as they were a threat to his power. (The choice between “losing heaven and losing power” was so difficult that Constantine put it off until his deathbed and was then baptized.) Hosting this conference would provide a way for the people to forget what had happened. “Having just assumed the throne, Constantine was by no means finished either with power or with committing the sins necessary to retain it. But presiding over the grandest council in Christian history might make up in the community’s eyes (and who knows, perhaps even in God’s!) for a certain number of moral lapses.” And this, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the leading actors in leaving to us that so-called Christian heritage. Rubenstein reveals that Constantine detested Judaism; rather he desired a “New Rome” and felt that Christianity could be used for uniting his people.