Pope Francis reopens an ancient Christian debate

Was Jesus really God?  For Christians everywhere, Jesus is unquestionably God, except Pope Francis might not agree. The October 9th issue of the Italian paper Republica quotes Pope Francis as saying Jesus of Nazareth was “a man of exceptional virtue” but “not at all a God.” (The Vatican subsequently issued a statement saying that it “cannot be considered as a faithful account of what was effectively said, but represent more a personal free interpretation of that which [the interviewer] heard.”) So, effectively said or not, what was Pope Francis alluding to with his comments?

The question of Jesus divinity had always been present among Jesus followers. Paul and the Gospel writers Mark, Matthew and Luke fundamentally took the position that Jesus was made God at inception (Luke  1:35) was born a man (Matthew 1:1-18) or promoted to being God at his baptism (Mark 1: 9-11). Paul said Jesus was declared to be the Son of God (Rom. 1:4) and Peter, one of Jesus’ key disciples said God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, (Acts 5:31). Much later the Gospel writer John took a different view saying, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Theologians and Bible scholars have interpreted this to mean that Jesus always existed as God.

The question persisted until the early 4th century when a Christian leader named Arius raised the questioned of Jesus divinity to a new level. He wrote a song which included the line “There was a time when he (Jesus) was not.” According to Alexander, the Bishop of Alexandria, when young women in indecent clothes began singing the song all over the place, Arianism became a big hit that further divided the Empire. The Emperor Constantine wanted unity. “I had hoped to lead back to a single form the ideas which all people conceive of the Deity; for I feel strongly that if I could induce men to unite on that subject, the conduct of public affairs would be considerably eased.” To resolve the issue, he called for a conference at Nicaea in 325 AD where bishops voted to approve Constantine’s motion that Jesus was the God of all time.

But not all had agreed, and more importantly naming Jesus as a God created new critical issues for Christianity. Ambrose the Bishop of Milan argued that if Jesus and the Holy Ghost could be God, just how many more Gods might there be? Athanasius of Alexandria saw clearly that Christianity’s claim to monotheism was destroyed by having multiple Gods. Without monotheism Christianity was just another sect of polytheism, and this was abhorrent to Christians at a time when polytheism was its key rival religion in the Roman Empire. For the next 50 years these questions continued to seriously divide Christians and the Roman Empire.

No resolution gained acceptance until Gregory of Nyssa, his brother and a friend wrapped God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost into a single God called the Trinity. But their solution only further divided Christians just as unity was needed to defend the Roman Empire from the invading barbarians.

The Roman Emperor then was a tough-minded military general named Theodosius who did what generals do: Make decisions! On February 27th in 380 AD Theodosius signed the edict Cunctos Populus into law. It opened with “It is our desire that all the various nations…believe in the one deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity.” The following year he issued “Episcopis tradi” putting the full force of Roman might behind the Triune God.

“We now order that all churches be handed over to the bishops who profess Father, Son, and Holy Spirit … and  who affirm the order of the Trinity by recognizing the Persons and uniting the Godhead.”

In less than 18 months, Theodosius ordered belief in the Trinity, defined the Catholic Church as believers in the Trinity, declared all others as heretics, and enacted laws allowing only believers in the Trinity to be priests, bishops, and clerics. He even required clerics to have a certificate of Triune orthodoxy before they could preach! Every Sunday since, Christians around the world have followed the commands of the Roman Emperor Theodosius when they proclaim the Trinity—In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Not all submitted to the Emperor’s orders. Two centuries later recalcitrant Christian groups that had rejected the Trinity contributed to the rapid rise of Islam by willingly converting from the unaccepted Theodosian Trinity to Muhammad’s Islamic monotheism.

Many believe Pope Francis is reforming the Church and his statements suggest that he wants to build it on something other than the 1600-year-old orders of a Roman Emperor.  To do so requires that Christianity revisit the question at its heart; Is Jesus God?   And perhaps that is what the Pope was alluding to in his interview.

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