Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 630
If one could go back in time to any period of history, one of the most fascinating times and places to travel might be the Roman Empire in the age of the early Church. In an astonishing coup, Christianity, the religion of love and peace, had become, under the Emperor Constantine, the official state religion of a military empire.
This newly exalted status was a boon but also presented difficulties. As the state religion of a powerful empire, Christianity had to have its theology straight, and yet it was a tangled mess of competing regional ideas.
Constantine, ever the pragmatist, saw arcane debates over the nature of Jesus's divinity threatening the stability of Egypt, one of his most important territories, as it was the breadbasket of the empire. He therefore called a council—which evolved into repeated councils—bringing together the greatest theological minds in the empire with orders to work it all out and come up with an official creed.
It would be fascinating to be a fly on the wall as these great minds—black, brown, and white—all came together from different corners of the empire under the auspices of a great emperor. These were highly, highly intelligent people who had had all the benefits a huge, advanced, and intellectually sophisticated empire could offer. There has probably never been in the history of Christianity another such cavalcade of the best minds the world has to offer.
Athanasius was in the middle of the controversy about the nature of Jesus' divinity. If Jesus was divine, then weren't there two gods—God and Jesus—making the religion polytheistic? Yet it was based itself on the claim of monotheism, one God. And what of the Holy Spirit? Was that yet another god? Or were there three gods?
Nobody contested that Jesus had presented himself as a human being on earth, but was he really human or did he just put on the shell of a human form so as not frighten people? Did he really suffer on the cross?
If the above were a heresy, as was widely accepted, then how could a being of human flesh be a god? Wasn't he a creature, created by God like the humans and animals, the earth, moon and sun? But if he were a creature, didn't that make him lower than God? If he were a creature and lower than God, how could also be a god? Didn't his creaturely status make him more a messenger of God, something more akin to a really, really, really good and faithful human? Maybe the best human ever but still a human? But if he were human, why would anyone worship him?
With pressure from Constantine, the Christian church leaders hammered all this out, going back and forth over time, but eventually falling into line behind Athanasius's position that Jesus was both wholly human and wholly divine. The Christian church could have gone the way of Islam, casting Jesus as God's most exalted servant-messenger but yet wholly human, as was the case with Muhammed. But the Church early on embarked on the more complicated path of acknowledging divinity and humanity at one and the same time. This was enshrined in the Nicene Creed, still a foundational creedal document for almost all of Christendom, a document which owes much to Athanasius's thinking that Jesus was of the same substance as the Father. The Church fashioned a sophisticated theology that accounted for the seemingly contradictions in the Christian story rather than opting for a more simplistic solution. In another time and place, that might not have been possible. In Ancient Rome it was, and for better or worse, Christian theology as we have it is the result, even 2,000 years later, with much of Athanasius's fingerprint on it.