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Richard E. Rubinstein

When Jesus Became God

The struggle to define Christianity during the last days of Rome

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

This hook is about the consequences of a decisive event in the history of Christianity: the conversion of the Emperor Constantine. Henceforth, instead of being persecuted at least intermittently, Christians found themselves favoured and supported by the State. But internal issues now came to the fore, as furious debates erupted about the nature of Christ and his relation to God the Father.

Two churchmen were specially prominent in this. One was Arius, who taught that Jesus, though uniquely holy, was inferior to God. The other was Athanasius, who said that Jesus was God himself in human form. Throughout much of the fourth century supporters of these two views argued, and sometimes fought, with each other and tried to enlist the Emperor's support for their views. The final defeat of the Arians gave us Christianity as we have it today.

The whole debate is likely to appear largely incomprehensible to most people today, but Rubinstein has done a good job of bringing the issues to life, in part by linking them firmly to the personalities of the people involved. Athanasius, whom I had vaguely pictured as a venerable saintly figure, comes as a particular surprise: small and red-headed, a rabble-rouser, prepared to do almost anything (including murder, at least according to his enemies) to further his cause. Rubinstein's presentation, both of the complexities of the doctrinal issues and of the political situation of the empire in the fourth century, is excellent.

The division between east and west is crucial to the story and foreshadowed the later schism between Orthodox and Roman Christianity. Constantine had little patience with the niceties of the doctrinal arguments and tried to settle matters at the Council of Nicaea, at which all the church leaders present (nearly all Easterners; very few Western bishops attended) were induced to sign the declaration that became known as the Nicene creed. But after his death the dispute broke out again, the eastern part of the Empire being mainly Arian, the Western part adhering to the Nicene creed. Matters were only finally settled in 381, when the empire was once more united under Theodosius I. He outlawed Arianism and announced that true Christians were those who believed in a Trinity in which Father, Son and Holy Spirit were of equal rank.

This is a very readable account of a complicated series of events. Although the issues that caused so much passion and bloodshed may seem obscure, they are still important today, since their outcome has shaped the whole subsequent development of Christianity and therefore of western civilization.

One year after he banned Arianism, Theodosius officially declared Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire, thus bringing the movement begun by Constantine the Great full circle. The formerly persecuted sect now became a state church with the power (and, according to some, duty) to suppress or control its rivals. A religious community once harboring diverse strains of belief became an orthodoxy committed to doctrinal unity and the extinction of heresy. And the loose, decentralized organization of the early Church gave way to a more hierarchical structure, with power concentrating in the hands of a few great bishops. With the elevation of Jesus to God, orthodox Christianity broke the intellectual links that bound it to both Judaism and Greco-Roman paganism. Increasingly autonomous both as a faith and as an organization, the Roman Church was now positioned to survive even the collapse of the Roman Empire.

5 February 2008

%T When Jesus became God
%S The struggle to define Christianity during the last days of Rome
%A Richard E. Rubinstein
%I Harcourt
%C Orland, Austin, New York, San Diego, Toronto, London
%D 1999
%G ISBN 10 0-15601315
%P xviii + 267pp
%K religion, history
%O paperback

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