And then there was Arius …
The Arian crisis of the fourth century dramatically changed the theological landscape of catholic Christianity. Historians of the past few decades have published important works on the crisis, shedding new light on the important personalities and events. We can no longer assume that the Council of Nicaea simply ratified a long-held doctrine of tri-personal divinity, as if Christians had always explicitly and formally believed in the consubstantial unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As we have seen, things were a lot murkier back in the first- through third-centuries (“Ante-Nicene Subordinationism“). The deity of Christ was most certainly affirmed yet typically parsed in the Hellenistic categories of graded divinity (St Irenaeus, perhaps, being an important exception). The pagan notion of degrees of divinity allowed believers to elide the fundamental biblical distinction between Creator and creature. As Robert Wilken puts it:
One of the ways to reconcile the apparent conflict between worshipping Christ as God and venerating the one God, i.e., to offer a rational account of the shape of Christian language and practice, was to draw directly on the Greek philosophical tradition. Because of the influence of Christianity and Judaism on western thought we are inclined to think of the divine as a category that has only one member (the one supreme God), but in antiquity the divine was a broad and expansive category of existence which included many different members. Within this tradition the most obvious way to deal with the “divinity” of Christ and the Holy Spirit was to conceive of a hierarchy of divine beings. One could acknowledge the existence of the one high God, while also venerating lesser deities, who, though they did not rule over the whole universe as did the one high God, were nevertheless considered divine. (“Not a Solitary God,” pp. 38-39)
When the catholic Church asserted the creatio ex nihilo, the notion of graded deity became ultimately unsustainable—at least that is my hypothesis. Once polytheism has been decisively rejected, once the absolute distinction between uncreated and created has been advanced, once God is confessed as the One who has brought the cosmos into being from nothing, how is it possible any longer to entertain a spectrum of divinity? That second- and third-century theologians nevertheless construed the Word and Spirit as lesser divine beings represents a critical shortcoming, and therefore instability, within early Christian reflection on God. The Arian crisis was thus inevitable; it was only a matter of time. I am not suggesting that every theologian felt or recognized this instability. Athenagoras comes close, for example, to celebrating the number of divine intermediaries between the one God and the created world (Apol. 10). St Justin Martyr no doubt happily believed that confessing Jesus as a lesser deity did not conflict with the unity of the one God. Ditto for Origen when he described the eternal Logos as a “second God,” deuteros theos (CCels 5.39). Yet the theological inadequacy, tension, and instability existed nonetheless.
Christians have always understood themselves as standing in profound theological unity with Israel’s great confession: “Hear, O Israel, The Lord our God is one Lord (Dt 6:4 LXX); yet they have simultaneously confessed “one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor 8:6). It may well, as a number of scholars have recently claimed, that the flexible monotheism of Second Temple Judaism allowed intermediate entities of various types to be regarded as divine. Bart Ehrman, for example, maintains that “even within Judaism there was understood a continuum of divine beings and divine power, comparable in many ways to that which could be found in paganism” (How Jesus Became God, p. 54; also see James McGrath, The Only True God). Richard Bauckham vigorously argues otherwise:
The evidence that Jews of this period could easily and were in the habit of drawing a firm line of clear distinction between the one God and all other reality is far more considerable than the small amount of evidence adduced by those who argue that so-called intermediary figures blur this distinction. … The question that needs to be addressed in the case of such figures is: By the criteria which Second Temple Jewish texts themselves use to distinguish the one God from all other reality, do these texts belong to the unique identity of God or do they fall outside it? Are they, so to speak, intrinsic to God’s own unique identity as the one God, or are they creatures and servants of God, however exalted. The criteria which count are the criteria by which Jews of the period themselves distinguished the unique identity of God, not other possible criteria which were not the decisive ones for them. Once these criteria are applied, it seems to me that in almost every case the question I have just asked is readily answerable. In other words, some of these figures are unambiguously depicted as intrinsic to the unique identity of God, while others are unambiguously excluded from it. (Jesus and the God of Israel, pp. 13-14)
The Jews knew their God in his unique identity. To them God had shared his personal name, YHWH; with them God had cut covenant and entered into a history of redemption and judgment; to him they offered daily sacrifice as divinely appointed in the holy temple in Jerusalem. But the Lord’s uniqueness was most clearly stated in the Jewish confession of God as Creator:
To our question, ‘In what did Second Temple Judaism consider the uniqueness of the one God to consist, what distinguished God as unique from all other reality, including beings worshipped as gods by Gentiles?’, the answer given again and again, in a wide variety of Second Temple Jewish literature, is that the only true God, YHWH, the God of Israel, is sole Creator of all things and sole Ruler of all things. While these characteristics are by no means sufficient to identity God (since they say nothing, for example, about his goodness or his justice), they are the features which most readily distinguish God absolutely from all other reality. God alone created all things; all other things, including beings worshipped as gods by Gentiles, are subject to him. These ways of distinguishing God as unique formed a very easily intelligible way of defining the unique of the God they worshipped which every Jew in every synagogue in the late Second Temple period would certainly have known. However diverse Judaism may have been in many other respects, this was common: only the God of Israel is worthy of worship because he is sole Creator of all things and sole Ruler of all things. Other beings who might otherwise be thought divine are by these criteria God’s creatures and subjects. (pp. 8-9)
The assertion of God as Creator directly challenges, must challenge, all pagan conceptions of divinity. It introduces into the religious mix of things an absolute distinction—between Creator and creature, uncreated and created:
The distinction in cultic practice between Jews and others who acknowledged a high god is, in fact, correlative with a difference in monotheistic conception. The typical Hellenistic view was that worship is a matter of degree because divinity is a matter of degree. Lesser divinities are worthy of appropriate degrees of worship. Philosophical monotheists who held that all other divine being derives ultimately from the one, nevertheless held the derived divinity of lesser divine beings to be appropriately acknowledged in cultic worship. The notion of a hierarchy or spectrum of divinity stretching from the one God down through the gods of the heavenly bodies, the daemons of the atmosphere and the earth, to those humans who were regarded as divine or deified, was pervasive in all non-Jewish religion and religious thought, and inseparable from the plurality of cultic practices in honour of a wide variety of divinities. Jews understood their practice of monolatry to be justified, indeed required, because the unique identity of YHWH was so understood as to place him, not merely at the summit of a hierarchy of divinity, but in an absolutely unique category, beyond comparison with anything else. …
Hence, in Second Temple Judaism, monolatry was not a substitute for the lack of a clear concept of divine uniqueness. It was the corollary of a notion of God’s unique identity which itself was carefully framed so as to indicate the absolute distinction betwen God and all other reality. … On the other hand, when some Hellenistic philosophical accounts of the one supreme God as the sole source of all other being and providential overseer of all things correspond quite closely to Jewish monotheistic ideas, the language of such accounts can be borrowed by some Jewish writers. In this case, the formal definition of the unique identity of the one God may be closely similar, but the Jewish claim that it requires exclusive worship heightens the significance of the distinction being made between the one God and all other reality. Whereas the tendency of non-Jewish thought is to assimilate such ideas of divine uniqueness to patterns of thought in which the supreme God is the summit of a hierarchy of divinity or the original source of a spectrum of divinity, the tendency of Jewish thought it to accentuate the absolute distinction between God and all else as the dominant feature of the whole Jewish worldview. (pp. 12-13)
The debate among scholars of Second Temple Judaism continues and will no doubt continue for the near future. Not everyone has been persuaded by Bauckham’s argumentation. As is so often the case in situations like this, I am too easily persuaded by whichever book I last read. My thesis, however, does not depend upon Bauckham being right. Even if his critics are correct, that only means that some or many first-century Jews possessed a fuzzy understanding of divinity analogous to the graded-divinity views of the idolatrous Gentiles. And just as Christians needed to confront, and reject, the notion of graded divinity, so eventually did rabbinical Judaism (see the 13 Principles of Faith, formulated by Maimonides in the 12th century). For both traditions the creatio ex nihilo was instrumental to the formulation of a strict philosophical monotheism. There is but one God, the Maker of heaven and earth.
It was only a matter of time before someone within the Church would force the radical question: If creatio ex nihilo excludes graded divinity, on which side of the Creator/creature divide do we properly locate Jesus?
And that takes us to the fourth century …