Sunday, September 20, 2009

on the Council of Nicea: Consider Islam

Consider Islam. Though believed by many Muslims to be the incarnation of God’s attributes of holiness, justice and righteousness, Mohammed, the first Disciple and Prophet of Islam, is not and was not God. Mohammed is and was human. As human, Mohammed was and in some ways still is the head of a nation of people, the leader of a holy, political nation, the nation of Islam. All of this is not to say or intend any disrespect or disregard for Islam but is instead to posit the possibility that, barring the events culminating in the council of Nicea in 325 idea, things might not have turned out so differently for another Abrahamic faith, the faith of the disciples of the Way of Jesus Christ.

As the Jewish revolt and destruction of the Temple in 70 AD eliminated several possibilities for the future of Judaism, so the Council of Nicea commissioned by Constantine eliminated several possibilities for the future of Christianity. The very fact of its commissioning eliminated, of course, a version of Christianity wiped out by Roman imperialism and Christian impertinence – a fate not eliminated, let us note, for their Jewish counterparts several centuries before and which lingered through the persecutions as a distinct possibility for the early Christians, especially as the Empire grew more uncertain about its security.

But the council of Nicea itself concluded a fair number of sectarian struggles within the Christian ranks themselves. It decided with fair finality that Jesus Christ was both fully God and distinct from God the Father, against the monarchist theology of Arius – which would have allowed a monotheism much more like Islam’s, having the self-same God acting throughout all of history despite various manifestations of the same divine substance.

At the same time, the argument by which the Council refuted Arius and came to a consensus through Athanasius – that this Jesus-God was in no way subordinate to the Father-God in divinity – would come to mean that the Roman Church was in no way subordinate to the Empire when it came to its own affairs. This was in no way a given, considering who commissioned the Council and for what reason he had done so – namely, to produce a religious tool capable of reuniting the Empire as a whole, doubtless much as the Roman gods had helped to do in times past. “Let whatsoever I will, be that esteemed a canon,” spake Constantius.

Such a view would have been doctrinally consonant with the subordination of the Son to the Father in the theology of Arius. But it was not consonant with the Trinitarian equality of Father and Son in the mind of bishop Ambrose of Milan, who said to Theodosius, “The emperor is in the church, not above it,” when the unrepentant emperor came to take communion. This idea of imminent domain – that the respective kingdoms of Imperial Christendom and the Christian Church each had dominion over themselves when addressing their own affairs – may indeed have meant that the Christian West was about to begin a long and bloody relationship of church and state.

But it also made the distinction forever possible in the minds of Roman Christians and their descendants, a distinction not seen in the history of Islam, where a more rigid monotheism and a much less divine prophet would imply that the spheres of nation and faith need never be separate at all.

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