Note to Readers:
My blog has become a little heavy of late. I have decided to put some light touch on it by publishing a historical novel that I wrote a few years ago. Depending on suitability, I may publish a few chapters of this novel in one month, to be followed by my normal blog entries in another. What follows is the prelude to the novel. It provides the background to the whole story, but it is rather complex. You may skip the prelude if you find it a little heavy. Subsequent chapters will be more story telling.
God was not always the Father, wrote Arius in Thalia, but that there was a period when he was not the Father. The Word of God was not from eternity, he added, but was made out of nothing. There was a time, therefore, when he did not exist.
Those ideas and many others are now considered heretical by the mainstream Christianity. The orthodox Christians consider the Father, the appellation given to their God, and the Word of God, referred to their Lord Jesus Christ, to be consubstantial, that is having the same substance or essence, coeternal and coequal to one another. Yet the twain is not one and the same thing, which is another heretical idea, but that their substance is of the same, and they coexist eternally, and they are of coequal to each other. Anything less or more than that would be considered unorthodox. It is heretical, for instance, to say that their substance or their essence is similar, or alike, what more to say that they are different. The key word is the same, not similar, not alike and of course definitely not different.
Another element in the equation is the Holy Spirit, which is of the same substance, exists coeternally and coequal to both God the Father and God the Son. The trio makes up the elements of the Holy Trinity, one God in three personalities. Should one be concerned enough to ask about the number here, the answer is unequivocally one. The Christianity’s God is one God, for like Islam and Judaism, Christianity belongs to the monotheistic faith. Unlike the One God of the Muslims or the Jews whose existence is expressed as only one unit, the One God of the Christians, however, exists in three units united as one, whereby their substance, existence and status are the same. Yet they cannot be said as one and the same thing, for they are of three different personalities, not one.
If this sounds a little confusing, it is. The Holy Trinity is not an easy concept to grasp; nor a simple mystery to fathom. The Christians took about three hundred years in order to crystallize and formalize it as an accepted, correct, or orthodox creed. Within those three hundred years, there had been constant and often fierce debates around the mystery. Even after the orthodox view was made official, the debate continued to rage on for many centuries afterwards until the orthodox groups, either known as Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or even Protestant, won over the heretic groups. The challenges to the orthodox view remain till the present day, but they form no more than small minority.
The center of the controversy lies not in God the Father, whom the Jews called Yahweh, or the Muslims called Allah; neither it is on the Holy Spirit, which is a later addition to complete the triune; but on the person called Jesus. The nature of his person has become the subject of contention, whether he is just a human, a god, or a combination of both. If he is a god, why does he walks and talks with other people. If he is a human, why does he call himself the Son of God and performs things that no man can do, such as reviving the dead. If a combination, what exactly is the nature of that combination?
Setting aside theological nuances, this is what we know about him. He was born about two thousand years ago to a mother believed to be a virgin whose name was Mary. Being of a Jewish stock, on the eighth day he was circumcised and named Jesus. In his mother tongue, Aramaic, a dialect of Hebrew, he was called Yehoshua. Little is known about his youthful life, but when he reached 30 years old or so, the Bible said that he was baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. It was said that a holy spirit in the form of a dove descended to him at that time. From then on, he led the movement and gained many followers.
The nature of his movement is disputed, but among the Christians, he was said to preach the Kingdom of God. During his ministry, he was said to perform many miracles. These include reviving the dead, curing the leper, walking on water, transforming water into wine, and making abundant food out of little. Three years after being baptized by John the Baptist, he was allegedly put to death through crucifixion. Three days later, he rose from the grave and met his disciples. After giving final instruction to his disciples, he ascended to Heaven. A few centuries later, he was officially worshipped as God. His worshippers were called Christians, taking the religion from his title, the Christ. Currently, it is the largest religion in the world.
Who is this Jesus Christ?
To the mainstream or Trinitarian Christianity, a God. More precisely, the Son of God. To the Muslims, he is one of the great prophets. Muslims, believing also in his virgin birth, take this as a sign of God’s power rather than Jesus divinity, and call him Isa Al-Masih. To the Jews, his designations range from an inspired messenger of the Nazarene sect, a Pharisaic rabbi, and even an impostor. Many Jews during his time believed that he is an illegitimate child. Some contemporary writers even named Jesus’ natural father as Ben Panthera, a Roman officer who had a fling with Mary, whom they called Marianne. Yet there are some during our time who question his very existence, surmising that he is perhaps a mere legendary figure concocted by ancient people.
Is Jesus always a God from the beginning?
Historically, no. Most reports say that he never claimed himself to be a God, though he did point to himself as a Son of God. Historically, he was only officially proclaimed as a God about three hundred years after his death. This official proclamation took place during the first universal council among the prominent priests the world over at that time. The year was 325 AD. The place was Nicaea of Bithynia in Asia Minor, now the town of Iznik in the modern Turkey. It was after this Council of Nicaea that his Godhood was officially proclaimed, under the so-called the Nicene Creed. But it took another few hundred years or so before his divinity became institutionalized as the leading official creed.
The central figure behind that fateful council was curiously not a priest, but rather a king whose name was Constantine. His faith as a Christian at that time is even disputed, because he was only baptized a decade later, in his death bed to boot. What prompted him to convoke and convene that universal council appeared to be political, for the debates that raged on among the Christians were starting to threaten the social order in his empire. That it could also be for a religious reason is likewise probable, for Constantine was at least a nominal Christian at that time.
It is an established fact that the controversy, especially surrounding the person of Christ, had been raging on as early as a few years after his death. It was no different during Constantine’s time, except perhaps in its intensity. The difference lies in the way the power that be handled the situation. Some explanation is required here.
Christianity found its birth in Judea, the Roman dominion at that time, now roughly what makes up for Israel and Palestine. It found its impetus among the Jews, the Roman subjects, but was soon to find its adherents among the non-Jews, the Gentiles. All of the Roman emperors, however, were pagans.
Most of the original followers of Jesus among the Jews were strictly monotheistic, so they did not engage in the controversy about the nature of his person, but those among the gentiles, who were to become numerous, took that as their main occupation. His nature was a great mystery to them, and this needed to be resolved. Many views and opinions were promoted; most of them were conflicting to one another.
The Christians zealousness in promoting their ideas and preaching them to others on the pretext of saving the heathens from damnation, and the fight they had among themselves, had become a nuisance to the Roman power. The Roman emperors’ answer to this situation had always been one of persecution, that is, until the advent of Constantine the Great. Unlike his predecessors who were all pagans and bore hostile attitude to the Christians, Constantine the Great embraced the people and their faith. He set out to reconcile the raging dispute among the Christians by inviting all the leading disputants to a conference, made them to debate for months, and came up with the answer to the mystery, which was henceforth recognized as the official and orthodox version, and forced all parties to subscribe to it. Those who refused were exiled.
Of the many views, two were most prominent. The first was held by a priest named Arius, of whom we have earlier alluded. He seemed to indicate that Jesus was divine, but he was different from God. Those who shared similar views were known as the Arians by their opponents, though Arius and his followers no doubt considered themselves the people of the truth. The second view was held by his opponents, led by a bishop called Alexander. He said Jesus is a full God, who is the same as God the Father. He called himself and his followers as orthodox Christians, but Arius called him and people like him as Sabellians, because the idea that Jesus and the Father are one and the same was first popularized by a leading figure a century earlier, whose name was Sabellius, whose view had been deemed heretical by his opponents.
Arius and his group were to lose the debate in Nicaea through vote, but his version, or the variant of his version, was to dominate the Christian world a decade later. Constantine himself was finally baptized by an Arian called Eusebius, a longtime ally and supporter of Arius. Constantine’s successor, his son, too, was Arian, and imposed the Arian view on his Christian subjects, namely that Jesus may have been divine, but he is not God, or at least his nature is different from God. Thus, even when it was decided officially in the Council of Nicaea that Jesus was God, the controversy surrounding his nature continued unabated.
What was gained, but lost, was to be regained later on. The Arians lost again, largely through the work of Alexander’s protégé, a leading figure by the name of Athanasius, who dedicated his life fighting against his opponents. His cause was not to be victorious during his lifetime, but his works, the most important is “On the Incarnation of the Word,” were to provide the foundation by which the nature of Jesus Christ was to be based upon. It was for this reason that the Trinitarian creed of the Christianity is also known as Athanasian Creed. With the creedal foundation established by Athanasius, and the institutional foundation established by Constantine, the faith of Christianity came to be known as we now know: that God is one in three persons, all of whom are fully God; that Jesus is fully God and fully man, whose substance is the same as the Father, coequal to Him, and exist eternally with Him.
Arius may have lost the battle to win the creed that was accepted and recognized as the orthodox creed, but it is a historical fact that Jesus was not officially recognized as God until about three centuries after his death, and it was not until a few centuries thereafter that such a view became institutionalized and accepted by the mainstream Christians. As Arius was fond of saying, before he was, he was not.
No Christian worth his salt, however, would say that Jesus was not a God from the beginning. He always was, is and will be. The nature of his person was perhaps too mysterious to fathom, and it became apparent only after a few centuries of debates and theologizing. Just because a thing cannot be seen or fully understood does not mean that it does not exist. That Jesus’ divine nature was only understood and accepted many centuries later, after much theologizing, was only due to the frailty of human comprehension, or the complexity of the mystery. It does not mean, therefore, that he is not a God from the beginning.
The arguments would not cease to exist. In the final analysis, it all boils down to faith. One either believe in it, or one doesn’t. Many books have been written about the nature of Jesus Christ, both by the believers and otherwise. Most, however, are either of apologetics type or too scholarly. The one that treats the subject in the light of historical perspective, written in the story telling manner so as to make it accessible to the general audience, is indeed rare, if any. This book tries to do just that.
Where shall, then, our story begin?
The most obvious would be to start at or slightly prior to the birth of Jesus Christ, and progress chronologically up to the time when his divinity becomes an official creed. That would perhaps make sense for a scholarly historical book, but sound a little boring for our purpose.
Since it was emperor Constantine, perhaps more than anyone else, who provided the means for Christianity to take its present shape, it probably is a good idea to start with him, and the events that led to the Council of Nicaea. That would make the first part of the book, the foundation for the whole story. Next we go back to the time just slightly after Jesus was crucified to provide the background to the debates in the said Council. Then we move back to the future, to the conclusion and the result of the Council. Finally, we close with the aftermath after the Council of Nicaea, looking at the reversal of fortune of the victorious party and how that fortune was regained.
Let’s begin our story. Be prepared to be entertained; or if you like, be distressed.