Arius Sleeps with the Fishes.
Richard Rubenstein's self-revealing preface discloses the mixed feelings that for a time prevented him from finishing this book about the fourth-century Arian controversy: "What business (does) an American Jew have writing about the divinity of Jesus Christ?... What (draws) me so strongly to explore the subject of Jesus' identity and mission?"
He finds his answer in the conflict he experienced personally between Jesus the "enormously attractive figure, challenging and inspiring" and the hostility to which he, a Jew in a Christian culture, was exposed as a child. Rubenstein believes that the Arian controversy caused Christianity to separate itself from a moral culture shared with Judaism, create a new kind of monotheism, and elevate heresy from difference of opinion to crime.
The Arian controversy on a superficial level involved the views of Arius, an eloquent priest who maintained that Jesus was less than God and that his true role was to serve as an example for humanity. Rubenstein provides details that convey something of the personalities involved. For example, Arius was a terrific speaker who put much of his theology into poetry and chanted it "to enraptured congregants." In fact, some of his poetry was in the style of popular ballads and was being chanted in port cities through the eastern Mediterranean. Arius was popular with "the sailors, dockworkers and young women who flocked to his church." He was a charismatic, free-thinking rebel.
His opposite number, Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, like all bishops in those days, exercised considerable temporal power, managing church properties, administering social services, and acting as a mediator between imperial power and the people.
Alexander took the view that Jesus was God in the form of man. He denounced Arius's views and summoned a church council that summoned Arius and his followers and demanded their signatures to a creed in conformity with Alexander's views. The Arians refused, and remained in Alexandria after their excommunication and banishment "stirring up trouble." There was street fighting between gangs supporting Arius and gangs supporting Alexander.
An interesting question is to the extent to which disputes were doctrinal and to what extent they symbolized other lines of division. Rubenstein begins his book by describing Alexandria as a place in which even the most uneducated laborer had strong opinions about whether Jesus was God or whether Jesus was subordinate to God. The issue was unsettled at this time in Christendom, though the former view was favored in the Latin-influenced Western part of the empire and the latter favored in the Greek-influenced Eastern part of the empire. The ascent of Constantine (the nature of his "conversion" is discussed below) marked Christianity's transition from a persecuted religion to a state-supported religion in position to persecute others and to seek the Emperor's intervention in doctrinal disputes. This is what happened with Arius. Remarkably, this resulted in temporally-powerful bishops throughout the Empire lining up on one side or the other of the dispute.
Rubenstein brings the characters to life: Athanasius, the redheaded, brilliant, ambitious and unrelenting authoritarian who, without a classic education, succeeded Alexander as bishop of Alexandria, and was equally adept at politics, intellectual debate and thuggery; Constantine, the "pragmatic" convert, won to Christ through a vision that Jesus was helping him destroy his a rival's army and gain an empire (Constantine postponed baptism until the end of his life because he recognized that he would need to sin seriously in the future to successfully expand and govern his empire); Eusebius of Caesarea and Eusebius of Nicodemia, consummate politicians who led the Arian factions.
Rubenstein says that the doctrinal dispute "acted like a magnifying glass, focusing the heat of many related disputes, not all of them strictly 'religious,' on one contested theological question." He suggests that one underlying issue was the extent of historic continuity with ancient thought and cultural values. Was Christianity an extension of Judaism, something that could survive in a culture that valued tolerance and respected customs and practices of the ancient world? The pro-Arians tended to be of this view. Rubenstein says Athanasius and his followers saw Christianity as a sharp break from the past, and believed that "Greek humanism and rationalism were shallow; Judaism was an offensive, anti-Christian faith; and... most people's primary need was the need for security." Only an all-powerful God, in the person of Jesus as God, was acceptable.
Rubenstein writes, " ... when he convened the Great Council of Nicaea, Constantine could not have imagined that the bishops would be meeting almost every year to rule on charges of criminal activity and heresy." The book presents in an accessible way the finer points debated at the councils convened to hammer out creeds and convict enemies, mixing them with tangible details that make the history of this dispute, which ultimately laid the groundwork for Christianity's division into the Rome-based West and the Constantinople-based East, decidedly readable. The stories that wind themselves about the controversy are filled with erudite reasoning, false swearing, folly, political maneuvering and mystery. Why did Antony, the desert monk hero to all of Christendom and model for future Christian monasticism, side with Anthanasius? Did God intervene when Arius suddenly took ill and died while waiting for an anti-Arian bishop, under orders of the Emperor, to readmit Arius to the church? Or was Arius poisoned by the anti-Arians?
Rubenstein says both sides apparently were able to muster large gangs of street-fighters during the decades-long dispute. It is fascinating to realize that creeds recited in churches today contain statements addressing the precise relationship between the Father and the Son because of the Arian controversy fought out, literally, by thugs in the streets of Alexandria.
Mike Wilson is a lawyer and student of religion living in Lexington, Kentucky.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2001|
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