The history of Christianity's greatest controversy


Richard Rubenstein is not a professor of religion, but of conflict resolution and public affairs at George Mason University. Yet he has taken one of the major religious controversies of the early Christian church, a controversy that consumed its energies for most of the 4th century, and turned it into a flesh-and-blood encounter of real people that reads like an adventure story. And he has portrayed the elements of the doctrinal debate with understanding and sensitivity.

The controversy concerned the divinity of Jesus. The antagonists in the drama were Arius and Athanasius, and the conflict is generally referred to as the Arian heresy, since Arius's views were on the losing side of what became orthodoxy. Both men agreed on the divinity of Jesus, but it was how that divinity was explained that divided them.

Constantine had barely united his empire when he became aware of the Arian controversy. The emperor had hoped to use Christianity as a uniting cultural force within the empire he had just succeeded in bringing within his grasp, and he moved quickly to settle the argument.

The Nicene Creed, adopted by the council at Nicaea in 325, effectively equated Jesus with God, and most of us, if we studied ancient history at all, learned that the anti-Arians had "won" at Nicaea.

However, the Greek words that were used were capable of differing interpretations. During most of the next 60 years of theological battle, the Arians were in the ascendancy.

After Constantine's death in 337, his three sons were jointly responsible for running the empire. Jealousy among them resulted in more warfare, until Constantius emerged as sole ruler, as his father had been.

Just as eager to end the bickering, he engineered a series of councils, until at separate meetings at Seleucia and Rimini in 359, an Arian creed was adopted. St. Jerome wrote, some 20 years later, that the world "awoke with a groan to find itself Arian."

Each side sought the support of the various Roman emperors. Rubenstein says, "The real initiative for involving the Roman state in the affairs of the Christian Church, it seems clear, came from the Christians themselves."

While the dispute was theological, its causes lay partly in the difference between the two parts of the Roman Empire. The West had been subject to more raids from the barbarian tribes of northern Europe. The East was older, more urban, and most significant, Greek-speaking.

"Among the Latin bishops there was great suspicion of the overly clever Greeks, with their tendency to produce novel combinations of Christian and Platonic ideas. Western churchmen had not been persecuted to the extent that their Eastern brethren had, but they toiled in a rougher physical and social environment.... These beleaguered clergymen had little taste for high-flown theory and no sympathy at all for Eastern attempts to qualify the divinity of Jesus. The Christ they preached ... was God on earth, period - and if this produced difficulties for some Middle Eastern intellectuals, so be it."

When Arianism was finally defeated, under emperor Theodosius in 381, with a creed coming out of the Council of Constantinople similar to the Nicaean Creed, it essentially went underground. The words of a creed alone could not settle basic differences that still remained regarding the meaning of Jesus' life.

Rubenstein writes of the Eastern emphasis on the humanity as well as divinity of Jesus: "Hope for humanity's moral progress - for a City of Man that could also become a City of God - did not go underground, as it did in the West. The correlative of this ethical optimism, as in the Arian controversy, was an affirmation of Jesus' humanity and his relevance to society as a model of loving, righteous, transformative behavior."

But the seeds had been sown for the eventual schism between the Eastern and Roman Churches, giving to the Arian heresy a significance equal to the split that occurred when the Protestant Reformation began during the 16th century.

*Richard A. Nenneman is a former editor in chief of the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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