This post discusses some of the background to the Council of Nicaea. It accompanies a new book by Tony Equale just published called “Arius and Nicaea: Science and Religion in a Material Universe.” It is 165 pages. It is available for sale here in Willis now, and on Amazon and B&N soon.
It deals with the Arian dispute of the fourth century which occasioned the Council of Nicaea and the dogmatic declaration that Jesus was “God” of the same nature as the Father.
The book is a combination of historical and philosophical reprise designed to reconstruct the mindset and intentions of the actors in this ancient drama that settled Christianity’s core identity and decided the destiny of Eurasia for the next two millennia. We, in our day, are its direct inheritors. The analysis in the book uses this understanding heuristically: as a guide for our own deliberations about the present and future of “religion.”
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I hope you can find the time to read it. It will be well worth your while … you won’t encounter this perspective anywhere else.
The Ancient Mediterranean World where Christianity was born came eventually to be dominated by the ideas of Plato, a Greek Philosopher who died 350 years before the time of Christ; Christianity’s early definitions of its core identity — like those made at the Council of Nicaea — were intimately involved with that phenomenon.
Plato had a basic vision of reality that stemmed from his thinking about the nature of ideas … and from there the human mind. Unlike all the individually existing things in our material universe, ideas were not individual, they were universal. The one idea of “horse,” for example, comprehended every imaginable horse: not only all those that exist now everywhere on the face of the earth but also every horse that ever existed in the past or will exist at any time in the future. Ideas are potentially infinite and unlimited. Even though we can “see” them clearly, and we know they are real because we build our lives around them, ideas are invisible and do not exist in space and time.
Plato was convinced that nothing with these characteristics could be made of matter. Matter was individual, visible, tangible, limited to the here-and-now. Ideas and the human mind that produced them had to be made of some real “stuff” that was other-than-matter. Plato called it spirit.
So, he said the universe was divided between two kinds of “things,” spirit and matter. Each was the polar opposite of the other: matter was not rational, had no mind and produced no ideas; matter existed in space and time, it was composed of parts and would eventually decompose and die; spirit was rational, it was not made of parts and could never decompose … and therefore it was naturally immortal.
This world, except for humans, was totally material, therefore ideas and the spirits that produced them must come from another world that was invisible to this one: a world of ideas. The fact that humans have “spiritual” minds means their “souls” must be spiritual and somehow “fell” from that other world of immortal ideas and into the foreign world of matter and material bodies where everything perishes. It’s as if our souls were being confined in a dungeon … as if being human were a punishment.
This view of things is called dualism. Insofar as it speaks of the dual nature of reality as matter and spirit, it’s called metaphysical dualism. And because it also speaks of the existence of two worlds corresponding to each — a world of spirit and a world of matter — it is also called cosmological dualism.
Thus was born the concept of the supernatural. What was “natural” for us was what belonged to this world of matter, and what was beyond it was “super-natural” i.e., “spiritual” — entities and abilities and an immortality that were characteristic of “spirit” and could not be explained by any natural source, cause or origin in this world.
When Christianity came along the Greco-Roman people were more and more persuaded that Plato was right, and the Christians who were trying to explain the significance of Jesus’ life and work increasingly used Plato’s categories to do it. So the Christian message focused more and more on Plato’s ideas about the mortality problem that matter created for us, and the other world where we were destined to live forever, and less and less on Jesus’ message which was not based on either of those issues. Christianity offered itself to the Greeks as a way of addressing their concerns: overcoming the lethal effect of irrational matter, escaping this natural world where everything dies and obtaining a living residence in the other world of spirit, a supernatural world, where “God” lives and nothing dies.
But there was a problem. The Jewish Bible, which formed the basis of Jesus’ message, said that “God” made everything “good.” But in Plato’s version of things, matter was “evil” because the unruly passions of our bodies made us sin, and matter was the cause of death. If matter were good, as Jewish Jesus believed, there would be no irrationality, there would be no uncontrolled passions, there would be no decomposition and decay, there would be no death and no need to go to another world. “Religion” would be a question of learning to live in the natural world that God made and not finding a way to go to a “supernatural” one.
But, like everyone else in the Roman Empire, Christians died. The matter in their bodies decomposed; they could see it right before their eyes. If matter were good, that wouldn’t happen. Matter is clearly “evil,” like Plato said. If “God” made matter “good,” as Jesus’ Bible claims, how did it get to be “evil”?
Christians said that Genesis provided an answer to that question: it was Adam’s sin of disobedience in the Garden of Eden that did it. Augustine explained it this way: “God” made matter good, but matter became corrupt through original sin and could never be whole again without the re-creating power of “God.” That’s why we have unruly passions, and our bodies die. Only the death of Christ could turn things around.
Augustine’s “explanation” agreed with Plato that matter was evil, the only difference was how it got to be that way. Plato said matter was mindless and necessarily irrational; it was naturally evil because it was composed of parts and subject to decay and death. Augustine couldn’t deny those facts, so he conjectured that before Adam’s sin matter must somehow have been immortal … and because being immortal was not natural to matter, matter was created in a supernatural state from the start. In other words, “God” allegedly created a “spiritualized matter” that belonged to that other world of spirit, and Adam’s punishment was to lose the unnatural spirituality with which matter was originally created.
At this point things are starting to sound a bit far-fetched. Augustine’s explanations were unconvincing, and seemed to be concocted to maintain a basic concurrence with mainstream Platonic assumptions about the respective significance of matter and spirit and the immortality that was at stake. All explanations, even Plato’s theories about matter, were in function of preserving the belief in another world, the world of the immortal gods where death did not exist, and that there had to be some way for us to get there.
Just as Greek Christians developed a belief about matter that paralleled and preserved Platonic assumptions and abandoned Jesus’ Jewish ideas, they also had a corresponding “doctrine of ‘God’” that played a similar role.
Platonists and Neoplatonists rejected the polytheism of their traditional myths and had come to the conclusion that there was only one “God,” whom Plato identified with “the Good” and Neoplatonists called “the One.” They imagined this one and only “God” to be Pure Spirit, self-existent — what they called agennētos, “unbegotten.” As the quintessence of the characteristics of spirit, the “One” was the utter antithesis of everything material. “God” was “Mind” and did nothing but think. What he contemplated was the “Beautiful” and the “Good” and that could only be Himself. It filled his mind with “ideas” … a world of ideas.
But how could this spiritual “God” be the cause of a world of matter? Plato thought long and hard about it and when he came up with his solution he dedicated an entire dialogue to explaining his theory. The dialogue was called Timaeus. It imagines that somehow from the Mind of the “One” there emerged the “idea” of a “craftsman,” or “architect,” what in Greek is called demiourgos. This “Craftsman” like all “God’s” ideas became a real existing thing. It was a divine entity, a god, whose job it was to create a universe of material things. The “Craftsman” could see the “World of Ideas” that filled the mind of “the One” and devised a way of translating them into a blueprint for material things that were beautiful and good and reflected “The Beautiful” and “The Good” that was the “One” himself. The Craftsman filled the universe with them and inserted a “World Soul” that was another divine entity like himself which enlivened it all, making it all “divine.”
The reason why Plato conjured up the Craftsman was what he imagined to be an infinite unbridgeable gap that existed between the total simplicity of the immortal spiritual “One” and the perishing world of material multiplicity. The “One” was remote, totally inaccessible to us, and so was the immortality that he enjoyed. What made this “God” to be what he was, was his “nature,” what the Greeks called ousía. This one “God’s” nature was solely his own. Not even the Craftsman shared his ousía. For Plato each thing had its own ousía, its nature. And only the “One” had the ousía of pure invincible immortality.
Plato’s Craftsman from the Timaeus was the bridge, the interface, the mediator between the remote inaccessible “God” and the world of perishing matter. The Christians claimed that Jesus was Plato’s Craftsman come to earth and born of a woman; he was God’s “Wisdom” that created the universe, incarnate as this man; he was the divine mediator between God and humankind, and his followers would be carried by him into the very ousía of “God,” and immortality. They called the Craftsman “Logos,” because Philo of Alexandria, a Greek Philosopher who was also Jewish, used that word and image to refer to the Bible’s Book of Proverbs where God’s “Wisdom” was similarly portrayed as a Craftsman, the “first born” of God, through whom God made the world.
Now, God’s “Wisdom” in the Book of Proverbs was a personification. It was a literary device — a poetic way of saying that a “wise God” made the world. For the Jews and for Jesus, “Wisdom” was not “a second god.” God made the world directly all by himself … and because he was wise he made it “good.” There was no mediator between God and the world. The Wisdom-Architect of Proverbs was a metaphor, but the similarity to Plato’s vision was uncanny.
In all of Jesus’ preaching there was not the slightest suggestion that God needed a demi-god mediator to create the world, much less that he was that mediator. Greek Christianity, in order to have its message “make sense” to the Greeks, changed the focus of Jesus’ Jewish message. Jesus was trying to get people to trust a loving “God” and cherish the “good” world he made. Greek Christians turned Jesus into a “second god” who made contact with Plato’s inaccessible “high God” possible, overcoming the “evil” resident in our very bodies and in the material universe.
But here again, there was the same problem. If as Jesus said, God loved us and made everything good, it would contradict Plato. For Jesus, God was not inaccessible. There was no “infinite distance” between us and God. There was no need for a “divine” mediator. Jesus’ message about “our Father” who loved us, as in the parable of the prodigal son, was the whole story. We did not need a special mediator to make contact with a remote and distant God. We were never alienated from God, except by our own mistrust and selfish abuse of one another and the world. All we needed to do was to change our attitudes and behavior … we did not need to change reality.
But how could a “good” God who loved us end up being so punitive that he would allow “death” to turn life into a nightmare. It’s as if we were being punished … just like Plato said. If God really loved us, we would never die. Something must have made God angry.
Once again Augustine found the “answer” in the book of Genesis. That same “sin of Adam,” he said, must have so torn apart the very fabric of the cosmos that it created an infinite gap between us and “God.” It wasn’t God’s doing … God always loved us, but he had to find some way to bridge the unbridgeable metaphysical distance between us that Adam’s sin had created. It was as much a problem for “God” as it was for us, and it was “God” who figured out a way to resolve it. He sent his son to die in our place for the heinous crime of disobedience and finally do away with the “state of alienation” that “we” had created, and with it death.
It was an elaborate theory that was obviously designed to make Jesus’ death “fit” Platonic needs and fulfill Platonic aspirations. So just as in the case of “evil” matter, Christians developed a theory about “God” that allowed them to make the Bible seem to conform to Plato’s vision. Plato insisted that God was remote and inaccessible. Christians found a way to agree with him in their own terms. But what Christians were telling themselves in order to be in sync with their Platonic neighbors flew in the face of what Jesus had said. By insisting on God’s inaccessibility, they totally distorted Jesus’ message about the nearness of God. They created a religion that, as a Jew, he could not have accepted. It contradicted the very core of Jesus’ message to say that God was remote and inaccessible and that we were born alienated from God.
Whatever one may think about the value of Greek Christianity, there should be no doubt that it was different from the vision of Jesus … and therefore the Greco-Roman “Catholic” Church’s claim to represent him is false and misleading. If there is any proof that Jesus is not “God” in the theist sense — i.e., a rational “person” who controls things providentially and wants his plans carried out — this is it.
God’s “providential plans” are rarely discernible, but in this case we know exactly what Jesus’ message conveyed. If he were “almighty God,” would he ever have permitted that such a contradiction to his clearly stated intentions be disseminated in his name by an organization that claims to be the living expression of his very person? Some, convinced of the demi-god status of the Church, have argued backwards from the effect to the cause … insisting that what the Church teaches is necessarily compatible with the message of Jesus, despite the glaring counter-evidence of the gospels. The gospels, they say, must be re-interpreted in that light.
By the time of the Council of Nicaea, the message of the Jewish Jesus had lost its independent clarity and was no longer discernible. It had been absorbed into one or another version of Platonic Christianity. The dispute of 325 was about which of those Platonic versions, Arius’ or Athanasius,’ represented the Greek Christianity that had been chosen to rule the Roman Empire.