Theological Debates

  1. The Deity of Jesus

Arius Vs Athanasius

Nicaea. AD 325. Emperor Constantine hosted a Grand Church Council to amicably resolve a debate that was threatening to break-up the mighty Roman Empire. The debate, intensely theological and deeply philosophical, was not over some frivolous emotive issue or a clash of egos that could be easily either be ‘overlooked’ or ‘ignored’. At the heart of the debate was the question concerning the relationship between the Father(God) and the Son (Jesus). Simply put, it was entirely about the deity of Jesus.

Emperor Constantine hosted a Grand Church Council to amicably resolve a debate that was threatening to break-up the mighty Roman Empire. The debate, intensely theological and deeply philosophical, was not over some frivolous emotive issue or a clash of egos that could be easily either be ‘overlooked’ or ‘ignored’. At the heart of the debate was the question concerning the relationship between the Father(God) and the Son (Jesus). Simply put, it was entirely about the deity of Jesus.

The contrary positions between Arius and Athanasius and the fiery debate that followed stirred up trouble far wider than anyone would have ever imagined! Arius, the popular presbyter at Alexandria popularized a view that Jesus was not eternal which, if and when taken to its logical conclusion, possibly reduced Jesus to no more than the highest among the Gnostic aeons. Arius, with his literary eloquence, persuasive arguments and charismatic personality, managed to garner popular support for his theological position. Meanwhile, Athanasius, a young deacon, held the conservative position and argued for the deity of Christ. He and a few others, including Bishop Alexander at  Alexandria, vehemently opposed the Arian position.

The theological debate, though entirely academic, was not confined within ecclesiastical circles and the intellectual elite. It quickly spilled over from the confines of to everyday conversations in public spaces, private homes and streets corners. In fact, as Christie Murray points, “Every Christian shopkeeper became a theologian”. The deepening religious fault lines and the political ramifications of such divisions across the Empire invited the attention and personal involvement of the Emperor himself!

The theological debate provided an occasion, however ‘unpleasant’ as it may have been, to discuss the deity of Christ at a wider ecumenical arena, and arrive at an acceptable formulation of faith for the Church’s theologians and confessional faith for the faithful. The infamous Arian controversy was not the first of its kind and definitely not the last either (which we will see).

Ironically, it was often the theses propounded by ‘theological mavericks’ like Arius that have helped in the development of theology. The Arian controversy helped the Church formulate the understanding of the deity of Christ, in keeping with historical experience of Jesus, biblical witness, the ‘handed down’ tradition and collective wisdom.

In this chapter, we take a look at the Arian controversy – (dubbed as the archetypal Christian heresy), the defense of orthodoxy and the Church’s formulation of the deity of Christ.

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