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Arian, Aryan — What’s the Diff?

There’s an urban legend making the rounds about Pope Benedict’s visit to the United States. The story goes that Vice-President Cheney asked the pontiff what he’s been reading. The Holy Father replied that he’s been researching “the Arian heresy.” Cheney, thinking the pope meant “Aryan,” said, “That must be interesting for you, since you lived through it.” And Benedict responded, “I’m old, but I’m not that old.”

It’s a funny story, and I’m told it appeared in the London Times. But I’m afraid I couldn’t find confirmation anywhere on the Web.

So I went over the head of the World Wide Web and sought out an expert: the political scientist Dr. Joseph Heim of California University of Pennsylvania. And Joe put me on to the likely source. Cheney wasn’t the political figure; it was Boris Johnson, the mayor of London. And Boris didn’t flub the historical facts quite as badly as the urban-legendary Cheney; the media did. The true story is still very good, and it’s told with great theological precision by Christopher Howse in the London Telegraph, under the title “Boris Johnson and the Holy Trinity.”

Poor old Boris Johnson made a couple of jokes after his election as mayor of London that were mistaken by commentators for learned showing-off. “I am just totally fed up with this artificial distinction … this sort of Arian controversy about the old Boris and the new,” he had declared. “There is no distinction between the old Boris and the new Boris. They are indivisible, co-eternal … consubstantial.”

The Evening Standard was still quoting him on Tuesday as talking about an “Aryan” controversy, as if it were about racial theory. It was certainly “Arian”, for all he meant was that such distinctions were, as the cliché puts it, “theological”. Mr Johnson prefers avoiding clichés by making them concrete. So he jokingly pretended that his interlocutors were familiar with the Arian controversies of the fourth century.

I suspect that he himself is more familiar with Edward Gibbon’s account of the heresy promoted by the Egyptian bishop Arius, rather than with recent theological studies of Arianism. “The post-war period has been astonishingly fertile in Arius scholarship,” writes Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in his controversial book Arius: Heresy and Tradition. I say “controversial”, but the book was published by Dr Williams before homosexuality and sharia distracted the world’s attention from almost anything else he said.

Gibbon’s endeavour in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire had been to show that the whole controversy was ludicrous. His motive was hatred for the Christianity against which he had turned after a youthful period of devotion.

In recounting the fortunes of the Arians, Gibbon mocked the terminology in which theologians of the time were entangled. “I cannot forbear reminding the reader,” he remarks in a mischievous footnote, “that the difference between the homoousion and homoiousion, is almost invisible to the nicest theological eye.”

That can hardly be a very honest judgment. There is only one letter’s difference between the two Greek words, but so there is between the English food and wood, though the latter would be a disappointing dinner. All the marvels of computer science depend on the simple distinction between the two figures 0 and 1.

I don’t want to spoil Boris Johnson’s joke, but the question of whether Arius’s followers had got it right is no trifling matter. On those obscure Greek words depends the answer as to who Jesus Christ is. That is the central point of the Christian religion.

One often hears people saying things like, “Jesus wasn’t God. It says in the Bible he was only the Son of God.” Yet to the Christians of the first centuries, it was vital to recognise the Son of God as fully God and fully man. That is why the framers of the Book of Common Prayer in 1662 included the Athanasian Creed in it.

In the 19th century there was a hot argument about whether this creed should be recited in church. (That is another story.) The Prayer Book directs that its should be recited on solemn days, such as Whitsun, which falls tomorrow. After some difficult-sounding statements about God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, the Creed says: “He therefore that will be saved must think thus of the Trinity.”

It is no longer the style to claim that a specified faith is necessary to salvation (that is, going to heaven). Yet believers feel that they can pray more coherently if they have some idea of whom they are praying to when they say “Our Father”, or when they hear a Collect in the Prayer Book end: “Through Jesus Christ our Lord”.

The difficulty of saying anything true about God in limited human language is nothing new. St Augustine, the great north African bishop, wrote 1,600 years ago about the three-in-oneness of the God the Holy Trinity: “Three whats?” in God he asks. Human language can hardly express any answer. “One can reply, ‘Three persons’,” says Augustine, “less in order to say what is there than in order not to be reduced to silence.”

Still, we do know a little about what a person is. We know something of the relationship that distinguishes Son from Father, and of the relationship between lover and beloved (which distinguishes the Holy Ghost).

If Boris Johnson can say of himself that he is the same person as he ever was, it is partly because theologians have sharpened the concept of what being a person means.