A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Monday, March 07, 2016

The Question of Christ in the Earliest Centuries #5

The Arian Controversy, Part 1

By the early third century, most Christians had come to believe that Christ was both human and divine. While these doctrines were held from the earliest years, they were not always held easily. Then, as now, the assertion that a poor Jewish carpenter, who died upon a cross was, in fact, God, seemed absurd to many. Christianity's background contributed to this uneasiness about such a claim. The monotheism inherited from Judaism made Christians nervous about the profession that Jesus was divine, yet not identical with the Father. Such a notion sounded polytheistic. Some Jewish Christians (Ebionites) taught that Jesus was not divine; he was only human: certainly a prophet, at best an angel.

While, on the one side, there was difficulty in accepting Christ's divinity, Gnostic Christians had concluded that Christ could not be human, since divinity could have no contact with the material world without being corrupted. Therefore, it was reasoned, that Jesus only seemed to be human . This became known as Docetism (from the Greek word, dokeo, which is translated "seem," or "appear").

The general consensus among Christians was to assert that Jesus was both human and divine. Such a position was not a compromise to the extremes. It was the only position the church could take and keep the integrity of the work of Christ intact. This "orthodox position" was not accepted by all. We must be careful not to be too harsh on those Christians who questioned the church's (up to this point) "unofficial" position. They, like their contemporaries, were trying to understand what it meant to claim that Jesus was both Lord and Savior.

It stands to reason that when a claim is made like "the Son is both human and divine," at some point those making the claim will be asked to explain it. Arius, a presbyter in Alexandria, was not the first to raise the question, but he did so in a way that the church had to address it publicly.


BJohnM said...

All I can say is that it is, and has been for centuries, an interesting and much debated question.

I'll get clobbered for this is many circles, but for me, it doesn't matter. I don't think it changes the message, nor does it change the impact of Christ on the world. So, I'd rather spend my time contemplating the meaning of that message to my life.

But that's just me. Thanks for challenging us though.

George Plasterer said...

Historically, of course, you are right. Yet, it led difficulties of "now we are seeing the human side" and "now we are seeing the divine side." It led to absurdity - 100% human 100% divine. It assumed that human being and divine being were closed to each other. If we assume that, given the eternal nature of the Trinity, God was already open to humanity and all that is not divine, and that humanity upon creation is already open to God, I think we have a better philosophical orientation. Jesus becomes the one who actualizes the divine orientation toward the human and the human orientation toward the divine. I suppose I find this notion (Moltmann and Pannenberg) helpful because of some early theological struggles I had with the "classical" formulation of the Trinity.

Allan R. Bevere said...

BJohn M:

Thanks for your comments.

I would only challenge you on your contention that it doesn't matter. Just as the character of any human being matters to their message, so it is with Jesus.

Allan R. Bevere said...


I appreciate your learned perspective.

I would only say that the affirmation that Jesus is fully God and fully human is not meant to be a mathematical equation (100% + 100% = ???). "Fully" is not meant to be understood as 100%. It's an affirmation of the character and nature of Jesus.

George Plasterer said...

Allan, you are quite right and good caution on the way I write about it.