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The Da Vinci Code and All That - Modern Ideas Or Just the Same Old Stuff?

Is Jesus’ life (as recorded in the Gospels), his ministry, his divinity, after all, only a myth, and beliefs that the church no longer needs to hold? Some of the ideas currently in circulation are reminiscent of some pretty long-standing historical debates.

The kind of errant nonsense typified by Dan Brown’s recent bestseller (racy read though it might be) is certainly nothing new and needn’t take anybody by surprise. It has a long and chequered history dating back to at least the fourth century, and was felt to be as important - and dangerous - then, as it is now, for reasons I shall try and explain. But let me apologise before I start for a much longer article this month. It could be my last so please forgive me!

For an indication of how important a strong affirmation of Jesus’ divinity was, and still is, we only have to look at the liturgy we use each Sunday morning in our service of Holy Communion. The outcome of a very early debate about who Christ is, starting around the year 318, was recorded at the church’s first main ecumenical council at Nicæa in 325. Because the doctrine that Jesus wasn’t actually divine had gained quick popularity and was causing widespread disunity in the early church, the Emperor Constantine called the leaders of the church together (the so-called ‘Church Fathers’) in an attempt to resolve the issue.  This council formulated the Nicene Creed, which we say together most Sundays to affirm our shared faith. Isn’t it interesting that the church has felt it necessary to retain something close to the original formulation of this early statement of belief - to be used almost 1700 years later and proclaimed throughout the Christian church?

A brief history of the debate

The main debate about this issue of who Jesus was took place between two prominent leaders in the life and thought of the early church: Arius, who didn’t believe that Jesus could be God or divine, and Athanasius, who argued that Jesus’ divinity, his status as truly God, was absolutely central to Christian faith and who strongly refuted what the church came to understand as Arius’ (‘Arian’) heresy. To properly understand why Arius’ ideas about Christ were so dangerous, and why Athanasius (and others) so robustly refuted his ideas, we need to go back in time to the early centuries of the Christian church. We need to understand why the idea of Jesus’ full divinity and equality with God emerged, why it mattered then and why it still matters today.

The early church

An understanding of the early church context helps us locate the ‘debate’. The setting was North Africa, of which Alexandria in Egypt was the main city and main focus of Christian activity and thought at the time. To the Alexandrian Christians this idea that Jesus might not be divine was not just a small difference of theological opinion between two personalities - a storm in a teacup - that might just blow over because it was not worth bothering about. This was a question that seriously agitated the Alexandrian church and was a source of huge disunity. It was, if you like, the first controversy to split the church. So let’s first have a look at the main characters involved.

Arius

Arius was a priest in the area who, through his quite vociferous insistence on publicly proclaiming his beliefs, had developed a reputation as one who denied the divinity of Christ and therefore as an enemy of the church. Because of the gravity of what Arius was saying, the Nicæan Council felt it important to publicly denounce him. This indicates how severely the early church dealt with such issues and the people behind them (a salutary reminder of their seriousness, I think). But more important, the outcome of the council’s deliberations crystallized issues about doctrine - that what we believe as Christians is of crucial importance.

Now, as you read this, you might be tempted to think ‘so what’s the big deal?’ Well let’s have a closer look at what Arius was saying and its implications, before we look at Athanasius’ response and what this might have to say to us today.

The argument - ‘Jesus is not God’

Arius’ starting point is understandable enough. He said that God did not have a beginning (God couldn’t have, otherwise he wouldn’t be God). But then, contrary to the mainstream Christian view, Arius argued that if that was so, then the Son of God must have had a beginning in time; that he couldn’t quite be the same as God and was therefore not eternal. His famous catch-phrase was: “there was a time when he [Jesus] was not”. Arius, was influenced by the thinking of the culture surrounding him and, in particular, the ideas of the Greek philosopher Plato. Consistent with these prevailing beliefs, God had to be utterly transcendent - so different and removed from us as human beings - so totally ‘other’ - that it would be impossible for him to show up in human form as Jesus: to muddy himself by coming so close as to actually enter our world and take on our human nature as a man. To understand why he believed this so vehemently, we have to get our heads around some of the essential beliefs within Greek philosophy with which Arius had grown up, and which had quite subtly and powerfully infiltrated his thinking (just like we can tend to be very materialistic, living in our consumerist culture and believing certain things go without saying, which are really quite harmful and wrong).

The influence of Greek culture and philosophy

The Greeks made a clear distinction between our bodies and our souls, or between what they termed ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’. For the Greek mind these had to be different - and therefore poles apart - with bodily, material (‘yukky’, base) things being hopelessly inferior to higher spiritual ideas and aspirations. Arius actually felt he was being true to Old Testament scripture, even orthodox (standing for right teaching), when he was saying these things. He didn’t seem to be able to handle the idea that God could be expressed in human form and reveal himself in weakness, without jeopardizing his status as God. So the answer for Arius was that Jesus, the Son - the Word or ‘Logos’ (in Greek) - was only ‘like’ the Father’ - and not the same. Now let’s try and ‘unpack’ that a bit.

Not one ‘iota’!

At some time or other you’ve probably heard or even used the phrase “not one iota”, to describe a situation or person that hasn’t or can’t or shouldn’t be changed in any respect whatever, however small. Well, Arius and others attempted to insert a very small Greek letter, the Greek letter for ‘i’ - called the iota - and if he’d been allowed by the church to get away with this, it would have changed our whole basis of faith (“nonsense” I can hear you saying!). To explain, I have to be a bit technical for a moment - bear with me. The insertion of this one small letter - this ‘iota’ -  (changing the Greek word which was at the heart of the debate from ‘homoousios’ to ‘homoiousios’) would have changed the whole belief system of the church.  Jesus Christ, the “only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made” would no longer be “of one Being [homoousion - one substance] with the Father”, as we say in the Nicene Creed, he would merely be ‘like’ God [homoiousios - with the inserted ‘i’]. Again I can hear people saying ‘so what’s so significant about that?’ Some further elements of Greek thinking are important here to fully understand what’s going on in Arius’ mind.

The Greeks had what can best be described as a hierarchy of being - a pecking order - which meant that Arius drew a line under God (this unknowable entity) so that everything below that line had to be part of the created order. Therefore the Logos/Word, the Son (Jesus Christ) was placed alongside other created beings below this line - separating the divine from the human and material - and the hierarchy would have looked something like this (in descending order of importance):

 

GOD

Logos

Humans

Animals

Vegetation

Demons

Inanimate matter (e.g. stones)

Arius didn’t deny that there was something special about Jesus but that, in his scheme of things, there wasn’t any way he could be divine. At this point we need to introduce Athanasius to see how significant the importance of retaining Jesus’ divinity is to us as Christians.

Enter Athanasius

Athanasius was Bishop of Alexandria for some 46 years. He was a determined figure, standing virtually alone against the onslaught of the heretical teaching ravaging the church of his day. The familiar phrase that is often associated with him is ‘Athanasius contra mundum’  - ‘Athanasius against the world’. He was a man with a mission to stamp out heresy! His basic point was this: that if you place the Word/Logos below this line of separation between divine and created things, you are faced with a central problem about salvation. How is it possible for salvation to take place if Jesus is merely man and not God? How can we be rescued from our current sinful state? As we saw with Arius, there were also certain ideas and beliefs that underpinned Athanasius’ response, which we need to set out here. But before we do I hope you’re still with me, and are beginning to appreciate the contemporary significance of this controversy - its relevance for today in terms of the importance of thinking carefully about the nature of what we believe as Christians and the basis of our faith. These are complex issues that are difficult to explain, but if we can begin to grasp these essential truths and their implications, not only will we be more confident of the life-changing nature of the Gospel message, but our attitude of worship towards this amazing God we serve will be deepened.

So where was Athanasius coming from?

To Athanasius the fundamental problem was a moral one: our human nature had become corrupted through our rebellion and disobedience and, as a result, we are subject to decay and death through the Fall. Before this, we shared God’s nature. But our disobedience meant that this nature became defaced - we lost this ‘sameness’ and fell short of our dignity as people bearing God’s image. Essentially Athanasius’ approach is determined by his understanding of what salvation means. For him this was God’s way of restoring the divine image for fallen humanity. But here’s the good news! God did become ‘flesh’ (truly human, while still being truly God), that we might have that relationship, that ‘likeness’, restored. We are intended to be made like God again, to share his nature. If this is what salvation is, then Arius’ view: that Jesus does not share God’s nature  - is not divine - means that God has not acted to restore the divine image, because Jesus does not possess it, and this makes salvation an impossibility! If the Logos, in our earlier pecking order, is ranked ‘below the line’ and is not truly God; if the divine nature has not truly entered humanity, then we are lost for evermore. Again, only if the Logos is the same substance as, or ‘co-eternal with’, the Father, can we be saved.

Arius’ view of salvation tended towards the idea that Jesus was merely an example to be followed (merely a good guy – we’ve heard that one before!). Athanasius saw the problem as much deeper and more profound than that. In his view we have become corrupt in our human nature, ‘through our own deliberate fault’ (as we say in our Confession) and need a radical transplant of God’s nature - something only a divine Jesus can do.

Now do you see the point? This is the main reason why Athanasius so vehemently opposed Arius and why it matters now that some people seem to be playing around with similar views - perhaps in ignorance, or to make pots of money - but they’re playing with the same fire as Arius and his followers in the fourth century.

Phew! Complicated eh? Without doubt we’re dealing with a mystery when we talk about “God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity” (in the words of the hymn) - but the basis of our faith and hope is that God really, really did enter our weakness in human form. And when he died on the cross he had the power - as God - to deal with all the rubbish in our lives, to make us clean and give us a new start. By denying the divinity of Christ we are stymied (as the Americans might say). If Arius’ views are correct - if Jesus is not the divine Son of God - then God never really breaks through into creation. How can he therefore help us?

he Council of Nicaea recognised the importance of all this and upheld the divinity of Jesus and, let’s be a little careful here, Arius and those who had followed him were banished. (Actually this wasn’t the end of Arius, and the debate rumbled on for a while, but that’s for another scintillating article sometime!).

If you have managed to stay with this, I wanted to end on a more contemporary note with C.S. Lewis’ famous challenge in Mere Christianity. This sums up my concerns much more succinctly than the verbose attempts in this article:

“I am trying to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about [Jesus]: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic - on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg - or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” (written in 1952 p.52 Collins: Fount Paperbacks)

He wasn’t exactly on his own – we recently remembered St. Gregory of Nazianzus in our lectionary, who also fought hard against the Arians – and was physically attacked for it during an Easter Baptism service in his own church! Christian beliefs meant something in those days, as they still do in some areas of the world where Christians are persecuted for their beliefs.
 

       
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