e-mail us

Spring Books

Doctrinal murder and mayhem

By Richard E. Rubenstein
Harcourt Brace & Company, 267 pages, $26


As good a story as Richard Rubenstein tells in When Jesus Became God, the most compelling line for me was the rhetorical question he posed: “What, one wonders, would Jesus have made of that?”

The “that” is the near century of turmoil within the Holy Roman Empire and the Christian church over the nature of Jesus’ divinity. But “that” also extends to the beatings, the arson, the assassinations carried out in Jesus’ name by opponents in this heated debate.

Rubenstein, a professor of Conflict Resolution at George Mason University specializing in violent social and religious conflict, is a Jew. This book was a long time in incubation as he sorted through his fascination with this central issue of another religion’s faith and his presumption to “meddle” in it. He eventually came to see that, “this controversy tells us much about where we came from and what divides us. The story may even suggest how violent divisions can someday be healed.”

Whereas “meddle” was Rubenstein’s word, it was not his practice here. He brings to this material a respectful objectivity that allows the facts to speak for themselves.

The crux of the fourth-century debate centers on the divinity of the historical Jesus, with half of Christendom holding with the belief championed by a priest named Arius that Jesus was divine by adoption and thus subordinate to God’s will. Arius’ chief nemesis was a scrappy young priest, later to become bishop, named Athanasius, who insisted along with the other half of Christianity that Jesus was fully God and fully human.

The Arian affair was not a mere intellectual exercise among theologians; it toppled emperors and spilled over into street fights between opposing shopkeepers and mass excommunications on both sides. Athenasius himself, as Bishop of Alexandria, was exiled and restored to his see no fewer than five times.

Any half-alert Catholic realizes that the church is an intensely political organization. What I saw even more clearly in this book was how even basic theology, doctrine and dogma were dictated by secular politics. Much of the early politicization of the church lies at the feet of the Emperor Constantine, who, while he was shaping church teaching was not even a baptized Christian. (His procrastination stemmed from the fact that he had a lot of living and governing left to do, not all of it pretty, so why start with a clean slate too early in life?)

Within Constantine’s reign, Christianity went from a persecuted sect to state religion in a remarkably short time. I am not suggesting that Constantine did not have a genuine religious experience on the field of battle, but it is equally true that he saw in Christianity a useful tool to unite his far-flung, diverse empire. What he did not count on was a pesky little dispute that would eventually weaken the empire and lead ultimately to a schism in the church.

That pesky dispute was the quarrel over Jesus’ divinity. Trying to meet a problem head on that, according to Constantine, was not worth fighting over, he called for a council of bishops to resolve the dispute. There were even political reasons for holding the Great Council in his summer residence on Lake Nicaea. While Constantine leaned against Arius’ position, even he oscillated over the course of the next five years despite having manipulated an anti-Arian statement of faith at Nicaea. This irritation within Christianity was not going away soon, and a great deal hung in the balance. According to Constantine, “Only a strong God, a strong church and a strong empire would provide helpless humans with the security they craved.”

Even though the Council of Nicaea, which gave us the Nicene Creed, is generally regarded as the first ecumenical (or universal) council, it was not, in fact, universal at all. Even though it was attended by 250 bishops, the largest gathering to date, only a handful of Western bishops attended. More representative, attended by over 500 bishops from both East and West, was the joint council of Rimini-Seleucia 25 years later, which adopted a pro-Arian creed only to have it repudiated by the church.

The political machinations and doctrinal swings that ensued over the last half of the century are too numerous to mention here, but not too complicated for Rubenstein to sort through in a soap-operaish unfolding of events. They do, indeed, include murder and mayhem all in the name of Jesus — true Son of God or adopted heir of the kingdom. A quote attributed to Karl Marx who said, “History repeats itself, but the first time as tragedy, the second as farce,” is oddly appropriate here.

One more attempt to suppress Christianity in favor of neo-paganism yielded few results, proving that Christianity by the late fourth century did not need the power of the state behind it to survive. The pagan ruler Julian was succeeded by the Arian-leaning Valens who tried to impose his own version of peaceful co-existence between the still-disputing factions, and in so doing, dealt the anti-Arians a strong hand. He opened the door for three young theologians-rhetoricians to radically reshape the Christian faith, clear through to the present.

Basil of Caesarea (Basil the Great), his brother Gregory of Nyssa and their best friend Gregory of Nazainzus “developed the ideas that would make it possible for conservative Arians and Nicene Christians eventually to fuse.”

“Oddly,” says Rubenstein, “what triggered this burst of creative thinking was a new issue that threatened to make divisions within the Christian community even more contentious and complex: the nature of the Holy Spirit.” A new theological vocabulary was necessary, hence the drafting of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Whereas both sides were eventually won over to this new thinking, doctrinally, the Trinity was the point at which Christianity broke definitively with its parent faith, Judasim, and other forms of monotheism.

The rest, as they say, is history, but not without a few more chapters making Arianism a crime punishable by death, anti-Semitism a practice sanctioned by the church and the rise of the cult of Mary, who became that “sort of liminal figure combining human characteristics with a divine mission that many Arians had imagined Jesus to be.”

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, the doctrine that “healed” one division a few centuries later caused an even greater one. The Western and Eastern factions of the church split in the Great Schism over the filioque, that is, whether a line in the Nicene Creed would affirm that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the father and the son (Rome) or just the father (Constantinople).

All I can say is, if any of this interests you, read this book.

Judith Bromberg is a regular reviewer for NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, February 4, 2000