Title

dianoigo blog

Monday, 9 January 2017

Review of "When Jesus became God" by Richard E. Rubenstein

1. Author, Genre and Scope
2. Overall Reaction
3. Some Criticisms
4. Reception of the book among experts
5. Reception of the book among unitarians
6. Conclusion


One of the gifts I received for the Christmas just passed was a book from my dear sister Sarah entitled, When Jesus became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome, by Prof. Richard E. Rubenstein (New York: Harcourt, 1999; paperback, body text 231 pages). Apparently the book was separately published with the slightly more provocative subtitle The Epic Fight over Christ's Divinity in the Last Days of Rome. Having finished the book, I thought I would write a detailed review since the topic of the book—the Arian controversy in the fourth century—is of general theological interest to me and (I suspect) most people who read my blog.

This is not an expert review. I am not particularly well-read about the Arian controversy or fourth-century Church history more broadly, so I am not in a position either to vouch for or criticize many of its historical claims. My insights are offered from the point of view of one who has some theological training, is fairly knowledgeable about Church history and theological developments in the first and second centuries, and has a deep personal interest in the theological issues involved. Specifically, I have moved over time from a Christology probably on the outer fringes of what Rubenstein calls "radical Arianism" (one that is uneasy about applying the term theos to Christ in any sense, and that denies his personal pre-existence) to the orthodox, Nicene Christology that eventually—after much blood had been spilled—carried the day.


Rubenstein is, by his own account, an "American Jew" (pp. xii-xiii) who offers the reader "my rather unorthodox (although, I hope, not disrespectful) interpretation of the Arian controversy" (p. xviii). A Rhodes Scholar and a professor of Conflict Resolution and Public Affairs, he is obviously a very learned and intelligent man. The book is written at a popular level, and as a review at Publishers Weekly describes it, the genre of Rubenstein's book is best described as "historical drama." It is important to recognize the difference between popular historical drama and sober, academic historiography. Rubenstein is not trained as a historian (or a theologian), and he does not provide a meticulously argued, carefully qualified historical reconstruction of the Arian controversy but a vivid, readable "interpretation of the Arian controversy." He relies mainly on secondary sources, which are cited rather sparsely (endnotes occur at a rate of just over one per page). When he does refer to primary sources, he sometimes cites them indirectly from his secondary sources. There is virtually no interaction with primary sources in the original languages, text-critical issues, etc. Moreover, on more than one occasion, Rubenstein explicitly invokes the imagination to support his suggested version of events where no historical evidence exists:
Bishop Athanasius did not lead the mob that lynched George of Cappadocia, but if he condemned their acts, the record of that condemnation has been lost. We do know how he felt about the Arian bishop who had tried to replace him. One can easily imagine him concluding that, distasteful as popular violence may be, the Alexandrian crowd on that occasion had done the Lord's work. (pp. 13-14, emphasis added) 
Arius appeared at the bishop's palace on the day scheduled and stood like a gaunt shadow before Alexander. No record of this interview remains, but we can easily imagine the priest upholding his ideas with gentle but implacable determination. (p. 56, emphasis added)
Once one recognizes what Rubenstein's book is not, one is in a better position to appreciate it for what it is. He is a master storyteller with a flair for the dramatic, and the result is a real page-turner. I stayed up well past my bedtime to finish it in one sitting! And, of course, there is no reason to doubt the basic veracity of his account of the controversy (i.e., people, events, dates, places, etc.), bearing in mind that Rubenstein has taken a certain amount of poetic license and put his own spin on the story.


Rubenstein certainly makes no effort to whitewash the unsavoury, and in some cases gory, details of the Arian controversy. This makes for an uncomfortable reading experience, especially for anyone with an emotional investment in the religious community involved—the Church. Probably any Christian reader will relate to Rubenstein's own comment on the impact of the controversy upon the believers of that time:
for devout Christians, of course, the Church was more than an organization. It was Christ's own congregation, the fruit of the Holy Spirit, and to split it would be to desecrate the very body of the Savior himself. (p. 158)
It is painful to read of how theological disagreement led to Christians killing Christians, and of the Church's messy attempt to re-calibrate its relationship to the State after the rapid reversal of its political status, from suffering imperial wrath to enjoying imperial patronage; from outlaw sect to prestigious religion. From the perspective of 21st century Western Christianity it all seems very strange: in this age of religious freedom and tolerance it is difficult to imagine riots and running street battles erupting over a difference in Christology. However, a glance through online Christian discussion forums reminds one that the religious hostility that led to fourth-century fratricide is still very much alive. One suspects it is largely social and legal structures, not softer hearts, that prevents contemporary intra-Christian disputes from escalating into violence. Given the principle "Much given, much required" (Luke 12:48), rather than judging our fourth-century forebears, we should be thankful for the freedom and tolerance that prevails in our society, and redouble our efforts to conduct ourselves in a charitable, respectful and orderly manner in religious dialogue. Jesus reminds us that the line between invective and bloodshed may be thinner than we think (Matt. 5:21-22).

Another take-home message for me is that no ecclesiastical tradition is without a checkered history. In this case, both the Arians and their opponents used the power of the State to suppress one another and committed atrocities in the name of Christ. It is shameful, and we must learn from it, but we must also not exaggerate the ecclesiological implications. The story of Israel reminds us that the elect status of God's people is not revoked for moral failings (Rom. 11:29). Moreover, to impute the guilt of violence against Arians to contemporary Trinitarians—or even to all fourth-century Trinitarians—would be just as reprehensible as imputing the guilt of Jesus' crucifixion to contemporary Jews—or even to all first-century Jews.

I would summarize Rubenstein's overall narrative thus: the Arian controversy was a violent conflict in which corrupt clergymen and meddling statesmen succeeded in changing Christian doctrine. However, the most encouraging finding I take from the book is one that runs against the grain of this narrative, but which Rubenstein nonetheless acknowledges. This is, namely, that as the fourth century wore on, the Nicene party and the conservative Arian party ("a bloc representing a substantial majority of Eastern Christians", p. 197) increasingly found each other through dialogue. Rubenstein explains that the solidarity of Christians created by the brief reign of the pagan emperor Julian and the subsequent mild regime of the Arian emperor Valens "created a space in which Nicene Christians and conservative Arians could communicate thoughtfully with each other" (p. 204). The result was exemplified through the theological work of the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus), who "developed the ideas that would make it possible for conservative Arians and Nicene Christians eventually to fuse" (p. 205). "The Cappadocians had provided a new theology capable of uniting a large contingent of Arian Christians with most Nicenes" (p. 210), who together "represented a probable majority of all Christians" (p. 200). Thus, according to Rubenstein's account, the orthodoxy that emerged from the Arian controversy (made official at the Council of Constantinople in 381) was a consensus of the Church achieved through theological reflection and dialogue. The Church's resolution to the Arian controversy was enforced politically, to be sure, under Emperor Theodosius—and ruthlessly, one should add, in relation to dissenting Arians—after the Council of Constantinople. However, what Theodosius enforced was the theological consensus of the Church, not merely his own private judgment or the will of a few politically connected bishops. This, I believe, supports the historical and theological legitimacy of Trinitarian orthodoxy.


Rubenstein's expertise in conflict resolution shines through clearly in his writing. He approaches the Arian controversy from a purely anthropological perspective: it is fully explicable as a bloody power struggle involving competing personalities motivated by self-interest. Most of the "principal characters," statesmen and clergymen alike, are depicted as ruthless, manipulative schemers trying to outmaneuver their opponents. Rubenstein repeatedly invokes the metaphor of moves in a chess game to describe individual turns in the plot (pp. 16, 65, 166, 168). While this is a useful perspective on the controversy and is not without warrant, those like myself with Christian faith commitments are likely to consider it insufficient for two reasons. First, the community which suffered through this horrific controversy was the Church—the Body of Christ, founded by Christ, ruled by Christ—and so one must be open to theological interpretations of the conflict and not only anthropological ones. Second, a measure of respect for the tradition of the Church and her "Fathers" inclines one toward a more charitable view of the clergymen involved in the controversy. This does not mean overlooking evidence of their moral failings or denying that atrocities were committed on their watch. It does, however, mean maintaining a certain level of humility in judging their motives and character, and respecting the dignity of their office as leaders of the Church of that time.

There are a few perspectives in the book that I would quibble with. First, Rubenstein offers certain dichotomous contrasts between the priorities of the Church before and after the rise of Constantine that seem exaggerated. For instance, "While terror rained, most Christian leaders had maintained a common front. Survival, not doctrinal purity, had been the order of the day" (pp. 72-73). This suggests that during times of persecution, Christian leaders' concern for doctrinal purity loosened. However, the writings of the Church throughout its first three centuries show a consistent concern for doctrinal purity, regardless of historical circumstances. Another example:
Was the Christianity that emerged from the years of travail to be a religion for everyone, or only for those meeting certain standards of faith and virtue? Should the clergy's primary task be to help its members perfect themselves or to administer sacred rites and help maintain order, as the pagan priesthood had done? (p. 73)
Rubenstein offers no evidence that these were among the most pressing questions on the minds of Christian leaders in the time of Constantine. The Church had always insisted on "certain standards of faith and virtue," and it is not clear that the tasks of helping members perfect themselves, administering sacred rites and maintaining order are antithetical. Certainly some of the other questions raised by Rubenstein are more obviously relevant:
What should a Christian empire look like? ... How much doctrinal unity was necessary to a healthy and growing Church? To what extent should ecclesiastical power be regularized and centralized? What sort of relations should the bishops maintain with monks and holy men? With emperors and state officials? (p. 73)
Second, Rubenstein does a reasonable job of maintaining scholarly neutrality in his analysis of the controversy, but at certainly points his comments are clearly slanted toward the Arians. For instance, he avers that the Arians were Christians who "had a stronger sense of historical continuity than others"; for them, "Christianity seemed a natural extension of and improvement on Judaism" (pp. 73-74). By contrast,
the strongest anti-Arians experienced their present as a sharp break with the past. It was they who demanded, in effect, that Christianity be 'updated' by blurring or even obliterating the long-accepted distinction between the Father and the Son. (pp. 73-74)
This is a clear value judgment on the relative historical credibility of the Arians and their opponents, yet Rubenstein neither substantiates it nor refer us to any sources that do. It is unclear why he places the word 'updated' in inverted commas as though this were the language used by the anti-Arians. Obviously, opponents of Arianism did not think of themselves as 'updating' Christianity, nor as "blurring or even obliterating the long-accepted distinction between the Father and the Son," but as defending the traditional doctrines of the faith against Arius' novel, heretical teachings. Probably both sides in the controversy laid claim to the historical high ground. The Church had traditionally maintained that Christ was God without dogmatically defining his relationship to the Father in philosophically precise language, and the controversy erupted exactly in that dogmatic gap. For Rubenstein to make the unsubstantiated claim that the Arians were historically minded conservatives while the anti-Arians anti-traditionalist innovators is a blight on the credibility of his book.

Another feature that suggests pro-Arian bias is his characterization of Arius and Athanasius, two of the principal antagonists on the Arian and Nicene side respectively. Consider these comments on the two men respectively:
Arius must have been a persuasive man. Notwithstanding the scurrilous labels bestowed upon him by his enemies ('heretic' was among the mildest of them), his devotion to Christ and the Church was genuine, as was his desire to live at peace with other Christians, even if he and they differed in matters of doctrine. (p. 102)
The redheaded deacon [Athanasius] was one of the fourth century's 'new men': a person who came of age after the Great Persecution had ended; whose parents were very likely pagans, but whose education was Christian, not classical; whose ambition was boundless; and who was very much at home in the 'real' world of power relations and political skulduggery. For a similar combination of theoretical acumen, dogged adherence to principle, and political ruthlessness, one would have to await the advent of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Vladimir Lenin. (pp. 104-105)
Thus, Rubenstein defends Arius against his opponents' accusations, describing him as a sincere, devoted follower of Christ and the Church who desired peace. Meanwhile, Athanasius is depicted as power-hungry, ruthless, underhanded (as the word 'skulduggery' implies), and driven by boundless ambition—a picture Rubenstein rounds off with a comparison to an infamous communist revolutionary, dictator and atheist, Vladimir Lenin. 

I'm not familiar enough with academic literature on either Arius or Athanasius to critique Rubenstein concerning these two men, but it doesn't seem impartial (especially given that Rubenstein's theological sympathies lie with the Arians). Moreover, there are aspects of Rubenstein's own narrative that are in tension with these characterizations: is Arius' "defiance" (read: insubordination; see pp. 49, 60) toward his own bishop the behaviour of a man devoted to the Church and desirous of peace? This can at least be questioned. Conversely, Rubenstein narrates the soft-speaking, conciliatory approach of "friendly persuasion" that Athanasius took toward the conservative Arian party later in life (p. 197). He construes this in terms of Athanasius' "sharp-eyed perception" of the changing shape of Arianism—in other words, shrewdness rather than an Arius-like longing for peace or a checking of his "boundless ambition." This hardly seems charitable. Contrast the articles on Arius and Athanasius in the old Catholic Encyclopedia, both of which are sympathetic from a moral point of view (notwithstanding the pro-Trinitarian bias). The Encyclopedia says of Arius, for instance, that "his moral character was never impeached except doubtfully of ambition by Theodoret."

Finally, I would take issue with Rubenstein's characterization of the Arian controversy as a whole. The very title of the book is problematic. Christians were calling Jesus "God" long before Arius came along—already in the New Testament, in fact (e.g., John 20:28; Heb. 1:8)! Even Bart Ehrman, no friend to orthodox theology and himself the author of a similarly-titled book How Jesus became God, locates the crucial development within the New Testament. For example, according to Ehrman, the Christology of John's Gospel holds that "even before he appeared, he was the Logos of God himself, a being who was God, the one through whom the entire universe was created."1 The story did not end there, of course, as the subsequent centuries saw many different Christological views develop "as theologians tried to work out the precise implications of these rather imprecise early claims made about Christ."2 Thus the Arian controversy is best described as an advanced stage of the Church's deliberation about what "Jesus is God" meant; it was not a debate over whether Jesus is God at all. Hence, the title's suggestion that Jesus became God in the mid-fourth century is "misleading," as leading patristic scholar Paul Hartog agrees (he criticizes it in the same footnote as the Da Vinci Code and for the same reason!) Of course, a carefully nuanced title might have a negative effect on sales, which is probably why Rubenstein or his publisher decided to go with the provocative approach.

Rubenstein characterizes the development of Trinitarian orthodoxy as "Doctrinally...the point at which Christianity breaks decisively with its parent faith" (p. 210). He obviously means Judaism; but most scholars today, including Jewish scholars, recognize that rabbinic Judaism (that which existed in the fourth century) was not the parent faith of Christianity but the brother (or sister?) faith of Christianity. In other words, rabbinic Judaism (which developed from Pharisaic Judaism, and from which developed modern orthodox Judaism) and Christianity were the two surviving "children" of Second Temple Judaism with all of its diversity. These two children offered competing answers to questions such as the significance of Jesus of Nazareth, the locus and practice of religion without the Jerusalem Temple, and the means by which Gentiles might become joined to the people of God. And Christians, of course, see Trinitarianism not as a break with their Second Temple Jewish roots but as the legitimate growth and flowering of those roots, developed particularly in light of their experience of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.


We have already noted Hartog's criticism of the book's misleading title. I also read two published, scholarly reviews of Rubenstein's book, one by Tim Vivian in Anglican Theological Review3 and the other by William B. Palardy in Catholic Historical Review.4 Both writers are experts: Vivian is a Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies, a "dedicated scholar in the field of early Christianity, with an emphasis in Coptic Studies and early Christian Monasticism"; Palardy is a Professor of Patristic and Systematic Theology and now Rector of a seminary. Both men are priests, so their bias is obviously Trinitarian. (Unfortunately I didn't find any reviews by secular historians.)

Vivian states that Rubenstein "has succeeded in writing a lively, engaging narrative that is reasonably accurate in its details," and calls him as "a good storyteller."5 However, he laments two recent major historical works that are absent from Rubenstein's bibliography and reminds us that
good storytelling is not enough to make good history. Rubenstein's footnoting of sources is, for a popular work, generally good, but when it is spotty it raises serious concerns.6
He observes that Rubenstein's appeals to imagination are more conducive to a novel than a work of history, and states, "If...one wants to argue historically that Jesus 'became' God, then one has to look at the writings of the first century, not the fourth."7 He adds that "The decisive break between Judaism and Christianity that Rubenstein places in the fourth century actually took place three centuries earlier"8 (on this point I might suggest two centuries earlier, if one defines the decisive break sociologically rather than theologically). He continues:
Rubenstein's laudable desire to bridge the differences between Judaism and Christianity leads, however inadvertently, to tendentious history, which then produces misleading theology, in this case an idealized view of Arianism over against Nicene Christianity.9
Vivian then concludes on a conciliatory note, acknowledging his admiration for the author's "forthrightness" and "his respect for both his subject and his audience", while expressing worry that the book "may unintentionally mislead a lot of readers...because of bad history beguilingly offered."10

For his part, Palardy describes Rubenstein's style as "dramatic, provocative, and eminently readable."11 He commends Rubenstein's "skills at analyzing social and religious conflict" and his being "generally well read in the pertinent recent literature in English" despite not being a theologian nor an historian. He further praises Rubenstein's "vivid portrayals of the major personalities involved" and "the generally successful attempt at making the very technical theological terms in this debate accessible for non-specialists." He also agrees with Rubenstein that the doctrine of the Trinity enshrined in the Creed of Constantinople (381) "was radically distinctive when compared with Greco-Roman Neoplatonism and Judaism."12

Palardy also criticizes Rubenstein on a number of historical inaccuracies as well as oversimplifications about the nature of patristic Christianity. He summarizes:
In sum, Rubenstein’s work may perhaps be acceptable for the non-specialist and in undergraduate courses dealing with this period of history, so long as it is read with caution. It is certainly not recommended otherwise. There are too many errors and unsubstantiated generalizations with too few references to primary sources.13
Given this somewhat muted critical reception (none of the major journals of patristics, late antiquity or theology reviewed it, as far as I can tell), let us consider the response to Rubenstein's book among contemporary unitarians.


Generally speaking, it appears that contemporary unitarians have lapped up Rubenstein's book, praising him as an "unbiased" "historian," although Rubenstein himself does not claim to be either (recall his description of his book as a "rather unorthodox...interpretation of the Arian controversy").

A self-published refutation of the Trinity by one Nathaniel Max Rock states that Rubenstein "presents an unbiased historical perspective on the development of the Trinity Doctrine" and describes him as "first an [sic] foremost a historian."14 A reviewer at biblicalunitarian.com, Matthew Johnson, writes, "Rubenstein not only does an excellent job in retelling history, but he does it from a very unbiased viewpoint." Barbara Buzzard, wife of leading unitarian scholar Sir Anthony Buzzard, praises Rubenstein's "rather unbiased perspective" on a "very volatile subject." (Her review, which is full of anti-Trinitarian polemic, is basically an apologetic for Rubenstein's thesis).15 She says Rubenstein "has managed to unearth the nuts and bolts of this conference and describe the goings on as if they were a suspense novel." But what exactly has Rubenstein "unearthed"? Anything that was not taken from his secondary sources was supplied by his own imagination—including much of the vivid detail that gives Rubenstein's narrative a "suspense novel" feel!

Philosopher (and unitarian) Prof. Dale Tuggy writes of the Arian conflict, "This controversy was complex, and has been much illuminated by recent historians," citing Rubenstein's work amongst others.16 This is a surprising statement from an academic, since Rubenstein is not a historian, and does not "illuminate" the history of the controversy in any academic sense.

The unitarian apologetic tome One God & One Lord relies on Rubenstein's book as a historical source, and at one point prefaces a quotation from the book thus: "Rubenstein points out the illogic of the assertion that 'God can do anything.'"17 However, the quoted portion is not Rubenstein's point but a reconstruction of what Arius said when testifying against Athanasius before Constantine (admittedly, a reconstruction seemingly drawn from Rubenstein's imagination, and thus perhaps indirectly reflecting his own ideas).

Another unitarian website places Rubenstein's book on a "Recommended Reading List," nestled among scholarly works like Dunn's Christology in the Making and N.T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God.

In summary, it appears that, by and large, biblical unitarians—even those of an academic bent—have accepted Rubenstein's book uncritically, overlooking its historiographical shortcomings and mistaking like-mindedness for unbiasedness in order to harness certain of its emphases for apologetic ends. None of the reviews or citations above, as far as I can tell, are the least bit critical of Rubenstein's book, nor do they show any awareness that it is not a scholarly historical work. For the most part, Rubenstein's vivid portrayal of the violence and political intrigue in the Arian controversy is simply steered into an attack on the theological legitimacy of Trinitarian orthodoxy.


The Arian controversy was an unpleasant chapter in Church history, and we are in Rubenstein's debt for retelling the story so vividly since, as it has been said, those who are ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it. However, it needs to be stressed first that the book is a popular work; Rubenstein is not a historian and the genre of his book is better described as a historical drama than a history. For a more sober, less imaginative reconstruction of the events and personalities one should consult a scholarly historiographical work that interacts critically with the primary sources in their original languages. Secondly, Rubenstein's bias is by his own admission "unorthodox"; he writes from the viewpoint of a secular American Jew. (There is nothing wrong with this, of course, and it is very interesting to hear this perspective on the controversy.) His narrative seems reasonably fair in its respective characterization of the Arians and Nicenes, but at certain points slants in an unduly pro-Arian direction, and one detects a bit too much enthusiasm in his vilification of revered Church figures like Athanasius (whom he compares to Vladimir Lenin).

A probably unintended consequence of Rubenstein's work is that it has attained the status of a cult classic18 among biblical unitarians, who view it as adding credibility to their interpretation of the Arian controversy as a politically motivated hijacking of Christian theology. I would recommend that unitarian readers be more critical in their reception of the book and base historical-theological arguments concerning the Arian controversy on scholarly histories rather than popular historical dramas. Moreover, as mentioned above, Rubenstein's book—and it may in this respect qualify as a "hostile witness"—attests that the Trinitarian dogma that emerged from the Arian controversy as orthodoxy was a theological consensus achieved through theological reflection and dialogue between the Nicene and conservative Arian parties (who together represented a majority in the Church). By contrast, a theological view corresponding to biblical unitarianism, if it existed at all in the fourth century Church, was restricted to the most radical fringe of the Arian party. And, without justifying the political action involved in either case, it must be conceded that whereas all State attempts to extinguish Christianity during the period of pagan rule failed, the State under Christian rule succeeded in extinguishing Arianism:
Arianism in its original form disappeared rapidly as a living force within the Roman Empire, and by the seventh century the last of the Arian tribes in Western Europe had been converted to Catholicism. (p. 227)
As I have argued previously, this extinction shows that, by the "Gamaliel criterion" endorsed in the Book of Acts, Arianism was not of God. Meanwhile, the Trinitarian orthodoxy achieved in the late fourth century has stood for over 1600 years, and despite schisms over other issues, remains the creed and foundation for ecumenical dialogue among Roman Catholics, the various Orthodox Churches and the various Protestant denominations. Weighed against the acrimony, violence and shifting balance of power during the Arian controversy, the durability of this ancient consensus is truly remarkable—perhaps even miraculous!

Footnotes

  • 1 Ehrman, Bart D. (2014). How Jesus became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. New York: HarperOne, p. 146.
  • 2 Ehrman, op. cit., p. 149.
  • 3 Vivian, Tim (2001). When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity During the Last Days of Rome [Review Article]. Anglical Theological Review, 83(3), 649-51.
  • 4 Palardy, William B. (2000). When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ's Divinity in the Last Days of Rome [Review Article]. Catholic Historical Review, 86(3), 483-85.
  • 5 Vivian, op. cit., p. 649.
  • 6 Vivian, op. cit., p. 650.
  • 7 Vivian, op. cit., p. 650.
  • 8 Vivian, op. cit., p. 651.
  • 9 Vivian, op. cit., p. 651.
  • 10 Vivian, op. cit., p. 651.
  • 11 Palardy, op. cit., p. 483.
  • 12 Palardy, op. cit., p. 483.
  • 13 Palardy, op. cit., p. 484.
  • 14 Rock, Nathaniel Max (2006). Christ is not God: A Powerful Deception. Published by author, p. 89.
  • 15 The review itself is "an attempt to show" (from Rubenstein's book) how Jesus "became God officially at Nicea". Having enthusiastically thanked Rubenstein for his "exposure of the roots of Trinitarian dogma," she ridicules the Church Father Gregory of Nyssa for describing the Trinity as a paradox ("Say what?!"), which she thinks is equivalent to a square circle. She asks, "How is it that 1700 years later we are still cowering under their very faulty leadership and the unscriptural “rules” they made up as the trinity was “invented”?"
  • 16 Tuggy, Dale (2013). "Trinity". In Edward N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2013/entries/trinity. Accessed at Google Books in a self-published book version, p. 85.
  • 17 Graeser, Mark H., Lynn, John A. & Schoenheit, John W. (2003). One God & One Lord: Reconsidering the Cornerstone of the Christian Faith (3rd edn). Indianapolis: Christian Educational Services, p. 368.
  • 18 I use this term in its usual sense, meaning a work that is popular among a particular demographic, without any of the pejorative connotation which the word 'cult' has when applied to sectarian religious groups. See here for my disavowal of the use of the term 'cult' for Christadelphians.

2 comments:

Grahame Grieve said...

"By contrast, a theological view corresponding to biblical unitarianism, if it existed at all in the fourth century Church, was restricted to the most radical fringe of the Arian party" - would you like to defend this and expand on it? I didn't see any grounds for saying that in either what you wrote or what Rudenstein wrote.

Also, the Gamaliel hypothesis. When does it apply, and when does it not? If the church has spent >1000 years persecuting Jews, and accumulating a great deal of wealth and power, does that therefore mean that we should decide that this is how God wants us to act?

Tom said...

Graham, thanks for these insightful comments.

With regard to whether biblical unitarianism existed in the fourth century Church, I would add the following comments.

- In the second and third centuries, theologians such as Theodotus of Byzantium and Paul of Samosata had been excommunicated for teaching forms of Adoptionism. The relationship between their doctrines and modern biblical unitarianism requires further discussion but there do seem to be important similarities. Given that such beliefs had previously led to excommunication in the East, it seems unlikely that they could have commanded a widespread following in the fourth century.
- Rubenstein (p. 55) notes uncertainty over whether Arius himself believed in Christ's pre-existence literally or only in terms of God's foreknowledge; and he does here refer to some researchers who have taken the latter position (pp. 241-42 n. 9). Whatever Arius' personal beliefs, it is clear that as the fourth century wore on, 'mainstream' Arianism affirmed the personal pre-existence of Christ, since the sticking point between conservative Arians and Nicenes--the ontological relationship between Father and Son--was ultimately resolved through dialogue, which would have been impossible had the former denied Christ's personal pre-existence. Arianism appears to have represented a spectrum of Christological beliefs from something close to Trinitarianism (hence the consensus reached through dialogue) to something close to a 'mere man' Christology. Hence I construe the latter as an extreme form of Arianism, if it existed at all.

With regard to the Gamaliel hypothesis, it is a theological argument and not a moral one. That is, it does not claim that persecutors who suppress a religious movement are morally justified in doing so. Rather, it argues that no human attempt to suppress a religious movement can be successful if that religious movement is "of God", because no human effort--however powerful and determined--can defeat God's power and will. Conversely, if a religious movement is successfully suppressed by human effort, we can conclude that said movement was not "of God."