Saturday, 21 December 2019

Arian Controversy Part I

Nicaea: Not my type of party
If you are an orthodox Christian you must believe that God exists as a Trinity: three gods manifest as  one entity. All equally powerful, omniscient and omnipotent. This makes no sense, but this does not matter because it is a mystery not made apparent to our mortal minds. This is the view of the Catholic church and has been since the fourth century. It would be interesting to poll a random collection of Christians, both Catholic, and Protestant, to see if they could articulate their conception of the relationship between Jesus and God. It is my humble contention that we would be exposed to a diverse set of views, not all of them Trinitarian in any strict doctrinal sense; least ways as construed by the early church fathers. And in a way, this would reflect the notions concerning God and Jesus as held by early Christians of the first, second, third and even subsequent centuries.

As the Christian faith developed across the Roman world in the third and fourth centuries the church leaders became very concerned to adopt and enforce a dogma concerning the nature of God and Jesus, come, God, come man. The synoptic gospels (Mark, Mathew, and Luke) were of the mind that Jesus was begotten of God and a mortal woman. The role of Joseph in the whole affair is a thwart one over which much ink (and just a tincture of blood)  has been spilled over the intervening two millennia. Mayhap cuckold is too harsh a word? Thus, the concept of the Trinity did not exist in the minds of the first  biblical authors. The Trinity begins to raise its three divine heads in the writings of John penned at least seventy years after the crucifixion. The fourth gospeller seems to have been a philosophically savvy Greek-speaking Jew of the diaspora. As an aside, it is unlikely that his name was ‘John’. The gospel was written anonymously and we have no idea who authored this rather fascinating and often theologically bewildering tome. His gospel was an early attempt at interposing/imposing Greek philosophical ideology onto Jewish Christianity. Educated Greek Christians were not overly impressed with Jewish theology which they considered primitive and penned by barbarians. They felt a need to 'smarten up' the intellectual content and inculcate Greek superior philosophical learning. Hence John's gospel is completely alien in temper, timbre, and tone to the preceding gospels. The synoptic gospels are very Jewish in expression and outlook while John's gospel has been thoroughly leavened in concept and content by Greek philosophical and intellectual concepts. A very interesting document indeed, but spurious when considering the original message of Jesus and, in the aftermath, the stark message of Christianity.

The ‘Trinity concept’ was but one of a series of competing ideologies fulminating during the early centuries of Christianity. This inconsistency was recognised as a problem by the early church fathers and they felt a need to formulate an official Christian creed. A creed to be kept and followed by all  Christian clerics and laity. In 325 AD the Roman Emperor, Constantine, presided at a meeting in Nicaea attended by 300 bishops, mostly from the eastern Roman provinces. The meeting was called ostensibly to tackle the serious ideological and theological challenge of Arianism to the conventional teachings of the Catholic church. Constantine was not particularly motivated by religious zeal but was more concerned with theological and hence political unity and he genuinely favoured a compromise solution between the Catholics and Arians. Alas, a mutually satisfactory solution, through concession, was not to be forthcoming due to the intransigence of the adherents of the two opposing doctrines. The theological debate of the time was highly intense and acrimonious.

The Arian teachings were promulgated by Arius (who else), a presbyter from Alexandria. Arius (c AD 256-336) disputed the fundamental divinity of Christ. Thus, Jesus, unlike God, was not omnitemporal, or had always existed, but was born in time and as a son to a father was separate and subordinate to God. This was in contrast to Catholic doctrine, which stated that God existed as three entities, but is one being, having a single divine nature. The divine entities of the Trinity are equal in having all the omni attributes and importantly, they have always existed. That is the Trinity concept in a nutshell- makes a lot of sense, dun it?

At the council, the argument between the two doctrinal camps was fierce with Athanasius of Alexandria leading the Catholic camp. In the end, and after much maneuvering and underhand tactics, Athanasius' viewpoint won out and Arius and his small band of followers were exiled by Constantine. This was not the end of the story and Arianism would soon see a surge in its fortunes although Catholicism and its Trinitarian teachings would triumph in the end. But I will leave the story here for now and pick up the second installment in this thrilling saga at a future date........

As a digression:  With the advent of increasing secular power in the 4th century AD, the Catholic authorities began to use Roman power to impose dogma on wayward clerics. And those of a recalcitrant bent were branded heretics. Initially, exile and loss of property were deemed sufficient punishment for not towing the company line. Later, of course, when the Church's power and self-confidence had risen to increasingly dizzy heights, unrepentant dissenters were sent forth, from this world to the next to be judged by the ultimate arbiter, God. 

Arius: Seems a bag of laffs


  1. The Trinity is a difficult concept. My local vicar - a vertically-challenged Welshman - came closest when he invited his three most recent curates to speak, each of them being well over six feet tall.

    1. Indeed. The concept of the Trinity is a rather odd concept to our modern minds. However, we must think as they did in a pre-scientific age. The Trinity made sense according to Platoism. Sadly for the Catholic church, they have never progressed from this strange and static, world view.