When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ’s Divinity in the Last Days of Rome

The Gospel narratives may suggest that Jesus was divine, but they do not insist upon it. Hundreds of years after Jesus’ death, the Church councils made Jesus’ divinity a central tenet of belief among many of his followers. This is a narrative history of Christians’ early efforts to define Christianity by convening councils and writing creeds.

Topics: Theology & Religious Education. Ages: Adult. Resource Types: Books.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ’s Divinity in the Last Days of Rome

  1. Review

    For sixteen centuries, the Nicene Creed has been the breastplate of orthodox belief for Christians in the Western world. In a lucid and compelling narrative, Richard Rubenstein, Professor of Conflict Management and Public Affairs at George Mason University, tells the story of the first major turning point in the history of Christianity, the epic fight, which lasted more than sixty years, resulting in the convening of the Council of Nicaea which adopted the Creed. He states that he decided to write his book because the controversy "tells us so much where we come from and what divides us. The story may even suggest how violent divisions can someday be healed. And, somehow I believe the figure of Jesus will play an important role in that healing. I think his life teaches us what it really means to be members of the human family."During the first three centuries following the death of Jesus, Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire in spite of periodic persecution. In October 312, Constantine the Great, who had recently become a Christian, became the ruler of the Roman Empire, which was undergoing a period of unprecedented change. In 313, the Edit of Milan was issued, ending the persecution of Christians, granting freedom of worship and compensating Christians for their prior years of suffering and depredation. Rubenstein states that the "true goal" of Constantine, "beyond favoring his co-religionists, was to unite the empire’s diverse, quarreling peoples in one huge spiritual fellowship." Imagine his surprise and dismay when his advisors informed him of a serious controversy among Christians in Alexandria, Egypt.The controversy had begun several years earlier when a presbyter named Arius had publicly criticized the theology of Alexander, his bishop, who quickly convened a council of Egyptians bishops. The council condemned Arius and expelled him from his church. Arius refused to accept the edict of the council and sought support from powerful churchmen in Palestine, Syria and Asia Minor. This event marked the beginning of a division of the Christian community into warring camps, which Constantine realized threatened his dreams of "one huge spiritual fellowship".The issue, which was at least a century old and had not been settled in the Christian community as a whole, was the relationship of Jesus the Christ to God, of the Son to the Father. The question behind the issue was how to be a monotheist believing in one God and still worship Jesus Christ. In the Arian view, Jesus was human, yet somehow more than human but less than God. For the Arians, the Greek word that described the relationship of Jesus to God, was homoiousios, meaning "similarity of essence". Bishop Alexander, who was succeeded by Athanasius, argued that Jesus could not be somehow subordinate or inferior to God. He had to be both fully human and fully divine. For the anti-Arians, the Greek word, which described the relationship to Jesus to God, was homoousios, meaning "identity of essence". Hearing of the growing controversy, Constantine decided to convene a conference at his summer residence at Nicaea to deal with the issue dividing the Church.The Council of Nicaea began its deliberations in June 325. In his welcoming address Constantine made it clear that issue would be settled on terms favorable to the anti-Arians. He wanted a Church that was unified, at peace and respectful of hierarchy. After a month, the bishops adopted the Nicene Creed, an amended version of which is recited today by Christians around the world. Arius and his followers were expelled, leading Rubenstein to write that the Council "represents the last point at which Christians with strongly opposed theological views acted civilly towards one another."The Council did not end the controversy. While a majority of the bishops of the Western Empire accepted the Nicene Creed, most bishops in the Eastern Empire supported the Arian side. Rubenstein writes 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." Several years after the Council, the two sides began a stormy, bitter and often violent struggle for supremacy. The bishops met almost once a year for ten years to "rule on charges of criminal activity and heresy." The controversy, which Rubenstein chronicles and interprets, lasted over sixty years during the last days of the Roman Empire. Finally, in the year 390, following the Council of Constantinople, which slightly amended the Nicene Creed, the emperor Theodosious banned Arianism, and Nicene Christianity was officially declared the religion of the Roman empire.Recently, it has been suggested that the churches need to revisit Nicaea and to reopen the debate between Arius and Athanasius on the nature of Christ. The purpose of the debate would be two-fold: ( 1) to balance the emphasis of the Creed on the divinity of Jesus with an equal emphasis on his humanity and his Gospel and (2) to refashion the Creed in words and symbols that communicate its truth in contemporary language. This endeavor would also offer churches an opportunity to adopt a creed without the outcome being dictated in advance by the state. For those interested in undertaking this formidable task, this book would be required reading.

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