Early Debates on the Trinity
Dear Mr. Barnet,
Regarding item 7 in your "What's your religion quotient" quiz. While true that in the year 381 AD the Council of Constantinople terminated within the church the debate regarding the doctrine that Jesus and the Holy Spirit were not equal to God the Father, the reader should not infer that the matter was not a matter of settled orthodoxy prior to that date. Nor should the reader infer that the debate raged from the beginning of the church.
Arius, a presbyter from Alexandria, Egypt (AD 260 - 336) first publicly objected to the orthodox doctrine of Christ in the year 318 while listening to a sermon by Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, in which he (Alexander) stressed the co-eternity of the Father and of the Son. This is confirmed by Alexander's (of Alexandria) letter to Alexander of Thessalonica, in which he complained that Arius was "attacking the orthodox faith" and "denounced every apostolic doctrine" and "denied the diety of our Savior." No less than eighteen church councils were held on the issue, beginning in 319 and ending in 381, due to the constant interference from the Roman Emperors, which allowed the theo-political battle to rage back and forth for 63 years.
Nevertheless, Arius and his followers were excommunicated as heretics by both the Eastern and Western Churches.
It should be understood that Arianism is a reactionary theology in response to the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. Arius was clearly influenced by the Pagan philosophies of Platonism, Aristotelianism, Gnosticism and Stoicism circulating within society at large. Instead of the Bible dictating his philosophy, his philosophy dictated his theology.
It should be further understood that although disagreements have persisted for centuries after, these disagreements persist outside the pale of orthodoxy.
Thank you for reading my column and commenting so intelligently about it.
You will note that I carefully phrased the item so as to acknowledge that 381 did not end the controversy: "7. The doctrine that Jesus and the Holy Spirit were not equal to God the Father was hotly debated in the Christian churches until 381, with disagreements persisting for centuries after. " One could also have used the date 451 for Chalcedon, I suppose.
Of course it is a close-run thing that Athanasius, a nasty man, banished five times, finally had his views win after the death of Constantine and the ascension of Theodosius. It is a shame that the government had to settle theological disputes. It is a blotch on Christianity that orthodoxy has had to be enforced so often by force.
As for Arius being influenced by pagan philosophies -- who wasn't? And as for the Bible dictating one's philosophy, let's remember that there was no universally accepted canon in those days (Athanasius was the first on record to list the books which later became generally, though not universally, accepted as canonical, in his Easter Letter of 367 -- a pretty cool trick if you can select the texts you want as authoritative! So one might say his theology dictated his selection of books for scripture, rather than scripture governing his theology. But Marcion did the same thing in the first known attempt at a canon.
Those guys are all guilty! And we are also narrowed by our own experience and viewpoints, peering at what is too great for human vision.
Let's not forget that Scripture can be cited to support both views. For example, for Arius, John 17:3, 1 Tim 6:16, Col 1:15 in some witnesses (first-born of all creation, implying Christ was created), and many other texts.
I agree with you that the Nicene understanding (with subsequent wordings) has become normative Christianity, but of course Christianity, like any religion, has non-normative interpretations that must be considered for a complete understanding of the tradition.
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