mystery of God in humanity
in the fourth century, while Bishop Alexander of Alexandria was expounding on the Trinity
to his flock, a theological tsunami was born.
A Libyan priest named Arius stood up and
posed the following simple question: "If the Father begat the Son, he that was
begotten had a beginning of existence." In other words, if the Father is the
parent of the Son, then didn't the Son have a beginning?
Apparently, no one had put it this way
before. For many bishops, Arius spoke heresy when he said that the Son had a
beginning. A debate erupted, led by Arius on the one side and by Alexander and his
deacon Athanasius on the other. Athanasius became the Church's lead fighter in a
struggle that lasted his entire life.
In 320, Alexander held a council of
Alexandria to condemn the errors of Arius. But this did not stop the
controversy. The Church had nearly split over the issue when the controversy reached
the ears of the Roman emperor Constantine. He decided to resolve it himself in a
move that permanently changed the course of Christianity.
The orthodox accused the Arians of attempting
to lower the Son by saying he had a beginning. But, in fact, the Arians gave him an
exalted position, honoring him as "first among creatures." Arius
described the Son as one who became "perfect God, only begotten and
unchangeable," but also argued that he had an origin.
The Arian controversy was really about the
nature of humanity and how we are saved. It involved two pictures of Jesus
Christ: Either he was a God who had always been God or he was a human who became
If he was a human who became God's Son, then
that implied that other humans could also become Sons of God. This idea was
unacceptable to the orthodox, hence their insistence that Jesus had always been God and
was entirely different from all created beings. As we shall see, the Church's
theological position was, in part, dictated by its political needs. The Arian
position had the potential to erode the authority of the Church since it implied that the
soul did not need the Church to achieve salvation.
The outcome of the Arian controversy was
crucial to the Church's position on both reincarnation and the soul's opportunity to
become one with God. Earlier, the Church decided that the human soul is not now and
never has been a part of God. Instead it belongs to the material world and is
separated from God by a great chasm.
Rejecting the idea that the soul is immortal
and spiritual, which was a part of Christian thought at the time of Clement and Origen,
the Fathers developed the concept of "creatio ex nihilo", creation out of
nothing. If the soul were not a part of God, the orthodox theologians reasoned, it
could not have been created out of His essence.
The doctrine persists to this day. By
denying man's divine origin and potential, the doctrine of creation out of nothing rules
out both preexistence and reincarnation. Once the Church adopted the doctrine, it
was only a matter of time before it rejected both Origenism and Arianism. In fact,
the Arian controversy was only one salvo in the battle to eradicate the mystical tradition
Origen and his predecessor, Clement of
Alexandria, lived in a Platonist world. For them it was a given that there is an
invisible spiritual world which is permanent and a visible material world that is
changeable. The soul belongs to the spiritual world, while the body belongs to the
In the Platonists' view, the world and
everything in it is not created but emanates from God, the One. Souls come from the
Divine Mind, and even when they are encased in bodily form, they retain their link to the
Clement tells us that humanity is "of
celestial birth, being a plant of heavenly origin." Origen taught that man,
having been made after the "image and likeness of God," has "a kind of
blood-relationship with God."
While Clement and Origen were teaching in
Alexandria, another group of Fathers was developing a countertheology. They
rejected the Greek concept of the soul in favor of a new and unheard of idea: The
soul is not a part of the spiritual world at all; but, like the body, it is part of the
mutable material world.
They based their theology on the
changeability of the soul. How could the soul be divine and immortal, they asked, if
it is capable of changing, falling and sinning? Because it is capable of change,
they reasoned, it cannot be like God, who is unchangeable.
Origen took up the problem of the soul's
changeability but came up with a different solution. He suggested that the soul was
created immortal and that even though it fell (for which he suggests various reasons), it
still has the power to restore itself to its original state.
For him the soul is poised between spirit and
matter and can choose union with either: "The will of this soul is something
intermediate between the flesh and the spirit, undoubtedly serving and obeying one of the
two, whichever it has chosen to obey." If the soul chooses to join with spirit,
Origen wrote, "the spirit will become one with it."
This new theology, which linked the soul with
the body, led to the ruling out of preexistence. If the soul is material and not
spiritual, then it cannot have existed before the body. As Gregory of Nyssa wrote:
"Neither does the soul exist before the body, nor the body apart from the soul, but
... there is only a single origin for both of them."
When is the soul created then? The
Fathers came up with an improbable answer: at the same time as the body - at
conception. "God is daily making souls," wrote Church Father Jerome.
If souls and bodies are created at the same time, both preexistence and
reincarnation are out of the question since they imply that souls exist before bodies and
can be attached to different bodies in succession.
The Church still teaches the soul is created
at the same time as the body and therefore the soul and the body are a unit.
This kind of thinking led straight to the
Arian controversy. Now that the Church had denied that the soul preexists the body
and that it belongs to the spiritual world, it also denied that souls, bodies and the
created world emanated from God.
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