Arius vs. Athanasius

The Son or the Man?

To understand who Jesus Christ is, let’s take a look at this simple sentence: “Lisa went to the store to buy a loaf of bread, but instead she came back with some milk,” whispered one 5 year old to another. As it travels from the mouth of one babe into the ear of another, the message changes to: “Liza went to the store with a loaf of bread, and then she drank some milk.” Now version 2.0 of the story is assimilated by child number 3, and the game of ‘telephone’ continues until we find Lori, at the end of the relay, on the floor milking some cows with her head!

Vindicating the maxim that everything we need to know really was taught in kindergarten, Karen Armstrong divulges an account of Jesus Christ in her iconic book, A History of God:

“After his death, his followers decided that Jesus had been divine. This did not happen immediately; as we shall see, the doctrine that Jesus had been God in human form was not finalized until the fourth century. The development of Christian belief in the Incarnation was a gradual, complex process. Jesus himself certainly never claimed to be God.”

In the same way that Lisa would never think to milk a cow on the floor, much less with her own head; similarly, Jesus would never dare claim himself to be God, at least according to Armstrong. She notes the following:

“Jesus himself used to call himself ‘the Son of Man’. There has been much controversy about this title but it seems that the original Aramaic phrase (bar nasha) simply stressed the weakness and mortality of the human condition. If this is so, Jesus seems to have gone out of his way to emphasize that he was a frail human being who would one day suffer and die.”

These are bold statements by Armstrong when compared with the Christian precepts offered today. Who is she to make such claims?

Armstrong is a former Catholic nun turned Jewish scholar who is recognized by the Muslim community as an authority on Muhammad. From Canterbury to Caledonia, Karen Armstrong’s work is accepted as both scholastically and spiritually sound. A winner of the ‘TED Prize,’ and an ambassador for the UN Alliance of Civilizations, she has written multiple best-sellers, the foremost of which, A History of God, follows the 4,000 year old Judeo-Christian doctrine and its synthesis of a personal God.

The Vedic version of spiritual life, having its origins in India, offers an understanding of spiritual reality that not only accommodates a Christ figure, but in fact, necessitates one.

Many Christians today understand heaven and hell in very black and white terms. Jesus is God Himself, non-different in quality or quantity. Jesus died to atone for the inherently sinful nature of man’s soul, and those souls may have their place in heaven restored. Anyone accepting this version will be rewarded with a return to God’s kingdom; those who do not accept Jesus as their ‘Lord and Savior’ in this life are eternally damned.

Chocolate or vanilla? Pepsi or coke? Eternal life or perpetual suffering? Appreciating and allowing for those individuals who follow Christ and yet do not espouse a ‘do or dead doctrine;’ this all-or-nothing spiritual proposition is commonly advocated by many modern Christians.

This thesis statement wasn’t written over night, yet it is taken for granted that such a philosophy has always defined Christianity. Actually, there was a great struggle to characterize Jesus for the sake of propagating his teachings. The controversy came to a climax in modern day Turkey, hundreds of years after Christ’s time here on Earth. The conclusion was ratified as the Nicene Creed as follows:

“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things, visible and invisible, and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance (ousia) of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance (homoousion) with the Father, through whom all things were made, those things that are in heaven and those things that are on earth, who for us men and for our salvation came down and was made man, suffered, rose again on the third day, ascended into the heavens and will come to judge the living and the dead. And we believe in the Holy Spirit.”

The Debate

Armstrong pivots this original Christ convention around two personalities, Arius and Athanasius. Both were charismatic, young presbyters; each posited a fundamentally different understanding of the nature of Jesus.

Arius, whose name Armstrong notes is now synonymous with heresy amongst Christians, had an attractively soft nature, and his visage is described as contemplative and melancholy. For Arius and his sympathizers, it was blasphemous for Jesus to be called God. Remember, Armstrong points out that “Jesus himself used to call himself ‘the Son of Man’… If this is so, Jesus seems to have gone out of his way to emphasize that he was a frail human being who would one day suffer and die.”

Arius asserted that Jesus was non-different from God. In fact, it is God Himself Who is to nullify the wonder of His activities. In essence, Arius asserted that if it’s God who died on the cross, so what? He’s God, the all-powerful. However, if it was one of ‘us’ that accepted nails being driven through our appendages, one of ‘us’ who accepted the burden of man’s transgressions against God, one of ‘us’ who forsook everything for the sake of others, that would be a mighty sacrifice indeed. This gives hope that reconciliation is possible even for the lowest of men. Though the rest of society is wayward and wanton, Arius posited that Jesus and the rest of humanity were created in the same capacity.

If such a portrayal of Christ sounds unfamiliar, that is because Athanasius won the battle for the story of Jesus. ‘Original Sin,’ another term now synonymous with Christianity, came into Christian theology as a maxim when St. Augustine extrapolated the conclusions of the Athanasius. Athanasius purported that man was too wretched to save himself. He was inherently incapable and completely dependent on God, devoid of the virtue and determination necessary for uplifting ourselves from this degraded position. Christ, fulfilling the need of saving hapless humanity, was God incarnate.

The battle between the two sides engrossed the public’s attention. Armstrong quips that “People were discussing these abstruse questions with the same enthusiasm as they discuss football today.” Emperor Constantine, indifferent to the theological implications of this conference on Christ, was simply happy to see a consensus had been reached when informed of the Nicene Creed.

One can imagine what distress this nation’s ‘leaders’ might be in if there was a resurgence in spiritual life that distracted fans from the NFL’s 32 teams, each worth $1.04 billion on average. Such was the anxiety of Constantine, whose citizens had, at least for a time, given up business for the sake of addressing these economically less productive questions.

Constantine’s situation was such that he cared little for the substance of the convention’s conclusion and instead only insisted there be one. Armstrong notes that by no means did signing of the creed end the debate, just as election results don’t stop the political discussion. It is readily apparent; though, that the theology of Athanasius was also politically advantageous long term. Armstrong writes,

“Jesus had never claimed that these divine ‘powers’ were confined to him alone. Again and again, Jesus had promised his disciples that if they had ‘faith’ they would enjoy these ‘powers’ too. By faith, of course, he did not mean adopting the correct theology but cultivating an inner attitude of surrender and openness to God.”

Jesus Christ Superstar, or Superman, God Himself, as Athanasius’s side claimed Him to be, is a much more palatable version of Christ for government leaders to support than the ‘average Joe’ picture of Arius and his supporters. What’s the need for government and all its girth if you have a bunch of saints for citizens? Arius wanted an accessible, approachable, even replicable Jesus. Knowing the end of Jesus’ story well, we know what governments naturally do to even one such person. These considerations, however, deserve their own article, and furthermore, focus on whom Jesus has become, which is not necessarily whom he is.

These are bold statements by Armstrong when compared with the Christian precepts offered today. Who is she to make such claims?

Understanding the Spiritual Teacher

To answer the question of whom Jesus is, it’s necessary to step away from the Christian paradigm. Though the Church of today would have the public believe otherwise, the reality of the situation 1700 years ago was, by Armstrong’s well accepted account, that “nobody could possibly prove anything definitively, one way or the other.” regarding the true nature of Christ. The debate was going on hundreds of years after his death, and only the anecdotal writings of his followers, which themselves were written no sooner than 40 years after his death, remained.

In either case, Divine by ordination or origination, Jesus was understood as an anomaly by all Western thinkers, Christian or otherwise, a virtuous one of truth and love in the sea of otherwise listless, loathsome humans. Imagine if Steve Jobs, rather than introducing ‘The Macintosh 128K’ as his first retail computer, offered the world an iPhone. Systemically, we can make sense of the iPhone because there was ‘The Macintosh 128K’ and everything in between. If an iPhone was the fist thing Jobs put out, we might have thought the 2nd coming was here.

So, is there a systemic way to understand a personality such as Christ? Or is it the case that in the many thousands of years before Christ, and the 2000+ after him, that an all merciful, all powerful, all loving God has not sent forth any other such messenger?

The Vedic version of spiritual life, having its origins in India, offers an understanding of spiritual reality that not only accommodates a Christ figure, but in fact, necessitates one. One of the essential verses in the Bhagavad-gita, which for purposes of expediency can be called the Vedic ‘Bible,’ is found in chapter 4. The 34th text of that chapter reads, “Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual teacher. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized souls can impart knowledge unto you because they have seen the truth.” We may be familiar with Jesus’ claim of being the Way, the Truth, and the Light, and that no one can come to the Father except through him?

Here in the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna is speaking the same truth, though the Bhagavd-gita is a text that predates the Bible by several thousand years. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the translator of the Bhagavad-gita As It Is, explains the necessity of a spiritual teacher through the example of a drowning man. A man drowning can only be saved by one who knows how to swim. So a man searching for spiritual perfection can only be brought out of his material condition by someone who is fully spiritually cognizant.

Similar to the Judeo-Christian idea that the plight of a person here in this material world is due to sinful activity stemming from a misapplication of free-will, the Vedas explain that the living entity or soul, which is an eternally spiritual being, is experiencing repeated suffering in this temporary material world due to improper desires. We want wine, women, cars, clothes, and the rest. Yet these things can only bring us temporary pleasure, and when obtained, often implicate us in the gross suffering and subjugation of others. The concept of the inescapable suffering associated with this material world, and the attempt to understand a reality beyond the temporary place, is the common thread shared among spiritual traditions.

The Vedas also speak about a transcendent reality, or ‘heaven,’ where the scourges of old age, disease, and death, which are associated with the temporary body, no longer trouble the eternal soul.

In a conversation with his own disciples, Swami Prabhupada mentions an interaction he had with seniors in the Roman Catholic Church of Australia. “They asked, ‘What is your idea of Christ.’ I told them, ‘He is our Guru. He is teaching God consciousness, so he is our spiritual teacher.’ The ministers very much appreciated that.”

It is understood through Vedic literature that God, as the supreme parent, always wants his wayward children to return to him. Therefore, he is constantly asking his children who are situated properly, to return to this place of temporary pleasure and perpetual pain in order to awaken the dormant God consciousness of their siblings.

Swami Prabhupada affirms the exalted position of Jesus, who used his life purely in the service of God. “We should not think of him as an ordinary human being. If Jesus Christ were an ordinary man, then he could not have delivered God consciousness.”

In the commentary of Visvanath Cakravati Thakur, a renowned Vedic scholar, it is explained that the spiritual teacher is ‘haritvena’ or non-different from Hari, a Sanskrit name for God. Swami Prabhupada further expounds the spiritual teacher as the representative of God, which means the spiritual teacher should be treated as good as God, just as the president of a nation is honored as an emissary for the entirety of its people. Furthermore, affirming the Arius version of Christ’s position, Swami Prabhupada says the spiritual teacher is a specially empowered living entity who is Godlike in quality, though not in quantity.

Understanding, through the Vedic concept, the essential need for a spiritual teacher and his divine essence, one can get a contextual grasp of Jesus that will easily satisfy any sincere inquirer. Yet the idea of Jesus being an exclusive personality, a one of a kind deal from the Divine, has not been sufficiently addressed, at least not in proportion to its propagation.

Confidently it is presumed any reader who has read this far has also completed the 4th grade. And with equal confidence it’s assumed that at least two such readers had different 4th grade teachers. And yet could it then be rationally said that one person’s promotion to the 5th grade was legitimate, while the other’s was a farce?

Time, Place, Circumstance

Bhaktivedanta Swami stresses that spiritual teachers teach according to time, place, and circumstance. Herein we can understand the exclusivity that Jesus, and all authentic spiritual teachers demand. Were anyone to do the work of a teacher and not their own work as a student, it would be unreasonable to think that they would be promoted to the next grade. Not that the work offered by any other teacher is unimportant or invalid, but the individual has been placed under the tutelage of a certain person according to time, place and circumstance, and their responsibility lies in completing that work. God also sends his teachers to different parts of the material world to speak to the people there and elevate consciousness for the purpose of restoring each individual’s personal place in God’s Kingdom.

Through this example of school, it can also be understood how a book like the Bhagavad-gita, which speaks of karma, reincarnation, and multiple material universes, can simultaneously affirm the essential teachings of the Bible and Jesus. The same principle applies to the reader, who upon reaching high school, was still using the arithmetic they learned in elementary school to solve math problems that suddenly had more letters than numbers.

The Vedic culture, which Lord Krishna came to speak in the form of the Bhagavad-gita, is the same culture that gave the world its first airplane designs, the root language of all modern tongues (Sanskrit), and the concept of zero, without which no computer could exist.

The people Jesus spoke to were living simple lives, seeking only their ‘daily bread’ through basic agriculture and trade.

“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.” – John 16:12. Amen.

Devin James O'Rourke

Devin about himself: "Grew up in Monroe, NC. Soccer was my life until I discovered wine and women in college. I worked 80hrs a week during my summers as a door-to-door salesman so I could party 80 hours a week while I was in school at NCSU. In between sips and rips I read philosophy. Upon graduating I decided to move from Americas 'best place to live,' Raleigh NC, to Detroit MI; whose noteriety needs no qualifier. It is there in the buckle of the Rust Belt that I met the Hare Krishnas, and was presented with a philosophy that demanded sobriety for comprehension. It is my struggle to both decipher and disseminate this ancient Vedic wisdom that has me writing for 16Rounds."


  • Reply December 14, 2012

    Carlos Reis

    The Lord Jesus Christ seems to be an insoluble problem for ISKCON and the vaishnavas in general: He has no relation with the movement, but is recognized as inescapable figure.
    From time to time there appears an article or a debate to try to clarify, in preference to his own disciples who they Master is…
    The problem is for that hare Krishnas use their sacred texts applied to a stranger to them, omit or downplay the sacred texts of Jesus’ disciples, or make use of external sources not authorized sacred sources in a disciplinary unbroken line of the Lord’s disciples.

    Is interesting to note that even among the Vaishnavas are no agreement with regard to the role, nature and origin of Jesus!!

    This article is an example of the contempt with which the Lord Jesus Christ is treated: refuse to listen to his disciples – who can speak with authority on a master but the disciples who follow a succession authorized?!

    The author applys analysis formulas to Jesus who refuse to apply to Krishna, to Prabhupada and to the Vedas – which Armstrong says about Krishna and Prabupadha?! We wonder.

    Jesus called himself many things, such Son of God in a unique way Matthew 11:27, John 5:23 and John 5:26…
    To speak about Jesus is chosen an external authority to Christianity, but then it is appealing to the Vedas and Prabhupada to support the author’s view: why not continue on the same line and make talk college experts about the Vedas and Prabhupada?

    With regard to Jesus Christ this article is pure speculation.
    Present the Lord Jesus Christ as caricature does not help the knowledge of God’s Love and its an invitation to do the same to the Hare Krishnas their belief system and their masters.

    • Devin James O'Rourke
      Reply December 14, 2012

      Devin James O'Rourke

      Your critique of my impersonal presentation of Christ is appreciated. I did so in an attempy to counteract the sentimental understanding of Jesus that has developed over the years. The antidote to venom is indeed, venom.
      A personal relationship with one of Gods pure representatives is essetial for perfection of our Human life, and the tremendous offenses committed sytemically by the Christian church are a direct result of explicit suppression of basic spiritual knowledge by the organization. If we examine the most recent edicts of the Church body, the pressures of materialistic scientific perception have reduced the churches concept of God to little more than an entity that got the ball rolling. A much more threatining proposition to the Love of Christ than any systemic analysis of his advent could ever be.

    • Reply December 15, 2012


      I agree very much with you. Jesus Christ is often compared to Lord Krishna because they both carry the same values of eternal, transcendental love by accepting God as divine love. Jesus Christ was my first spiritual master, and the only one I will ever call “pure and bona fide” because he was (supposedly) physically born pure from Virgin Mary. I never spoke with Christ but always felt him in my heart with extreme devotion to God.

      From my time in the Hare Krishnas I actually find that this type of devotion has been watered down due to the passion I have for the unseen presence (impersonal factor) of God being put down. This makes it hard to connect with any murti. Any argument I may have about disciplic succession is very heated. This is why I love Jesus; his teachings are pure from God and not convoluted by any man posing as a guru. Then again the Catholic church has cardinals and bishops all doing that same thing.

      That being said, I don’t know where I would be without learning about dharma, karma and reincarnation, and I don’t know where I would be without exposure to murtis. Christianity offers a lot to followers, but the lack of recognition of soul in animals and being taught to go to hell forever if I commit suicide are extreme flaws in Truth. Sanatana Dharma is and will always be the Ultimate Truth, and Jesus Christ’s teachings fall into this Truth. Jesus and Krishna are on par with one another due to their unending love for us.

  • Reply December 15, 2012

    Carlos Reis

    Thank you for attention.
    In fact there has been no response, but made ​​another attack on the disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.

    Is it possibly because on your spiritual journey you have not realized that the way in God’s Love is a continual struggle between the pursuit of holiness of life and the temptation to sin …

    Surely in 2,000 years of history you have many bad things to point to the disciples of Jesus, and the Lord will be easier to forgive us that are the non devotees to do so.

    However with all humility I must remember that not absolutely correspond to the wishes, orders and will of the Master is not unique to disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. In 50 years of foundation I do not really know if ISKCON can prove otherwise.

    Not wishing to offend you, but I think that you should understand what is being a disciple so I could not see my master caricatured.

    I wish for you and your community the greatest blessings in the way of God’s love and that even when fallen never lose faith that God’s love is stronger and bigger than our falls.

    • Alec Heumann
      Reply December 16, 2012

      Alec Heumann

      What is it about either this article or Devin’s comment that attacks on or is offensive toward either Jesus himself or his “disciples”? Both are simply pointing out the facts- that the modern view of Jesus as propagated by the Christian churches is not in any way the “original” view of who Jesus was, that this modern view was not in any way decided upon through strong philosophical or Biblical reasoning, and that actually when Jesus is looked at through the Vaishnava lens of understanding, his life and teachings make much more sense and perfectly parallel that which can be agreed upon by everyone rather than being some fanatically exclusivist doctrine.

      The truth of the matter is that it would be a stretch to really call anyone a disciple of Jesus in modern times because there is no disciplic succession that has come down from Jesus in tact, nor can one clearly point to what exactly his teachings were because the Bible was not compiled by anyone who had an authority to say what those teachings were, and if we look at the Bible and accounts of Jesus which were not included in the Bible we can get some pretty varied ideas of what Jesus taught and who he was. Just looking at the Bible alone, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke vary considerably from the Gospel of John, and what the Gospel of John says about Jesus actually completely contradicts what the other Gospels say. Add to this the fact that the Bible has been translated and revised hundreds of times over the last 1700 years and any strong credibility about Jesus is lost.

      As far as an agreement on who Jesus was, well, Srila Prabhupada did say that he was a person like you or me, but that he was empowered by Krishna to do the preaching he did. Prabhupada is my authority and the authority of those in Iskcon, so there is an agreement.

  • Reply December 16, 2012

    Carlos Reis

    With all due respect, I dare say that is a lack of humility to some devotees of krishna …

    It seems to me that sometimes some still know little of their own faith, and still feel entitled to criticize the masters and disciples of the masters of other paramparas from any authority relevant in an academic or spiritual source.

    The lightness, vulgarity and lack of knowledge about Christianity are very ofensive (for themselves).

    They may look more for ISKCON and for showing loyalty to its founder (or not) and then look with more humility to the disciples of Jesus.

    Once in the 60’s and 70’s ISKCON was more a religious movement in the West, we little known, but after 50 years, a lot has happened and happens … Falls, crimes, problematic revisions of sacred texts, founder ‘s hidden orders … would not be time to take a more humble way?

    As the Lord Jesus said ‘who is without sin cast the first stone’.

    It is not my intention to offend the Vaishnavas, but Vaisnavas should show a little more respect for someone who they say that they respect – how can you respect the master denigrating his disciples?

    May the Nativity of the Lord approaching all covers of many blessings.

    His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Founder Acarya of ISKCON and living Guru:

    Girl devotee: Is Jesus in the parampara?
    Srila Prabhupada: He says, “there is God. I am son of God”. That is parampara.

    (Bhagavad gita Lectures 1975)

    Tamal Krishna: Can a Christian in this age, without a Spiritual Master, but by reading the Bible, and following Jesus’s words, reach the…

    Srila Prabhupada: When you read the Bible, you follow the Spiritual Master. How can you say without? As soon as you read the Bible, that means you are following the instruction of Lord Jesus Christ. That means that you are following the Spiritual Master.

    Tamal Krishna: I was referring to a living Spiritual Master.

    Srila Prabhupada: Spiritual Master is not question of…Spiritual Master is eternal…[…] As you say that “by reading bible”, when you read Bible that means you are following the Spiritual Master represented by some priest or some clergyman in the line of Lord Jesus Christ.

    (Morning Walk, Seattle, 2.10.68.)

    Srila Prabhupada: Actually, one who is guided by Jesus will certainly get liberation.

    (Perfect Questions, Perfect Answers, chapter 9)

    Srila Prabhupada: “This is called Guru parampara, disciplic succession..This is our process. We are getting knowledge from Krsna, the most perfect. Or you get knowledge from Jesus Christ, that is also perfect, because source is perfect.”

    (Conversation, Germany 19.6.74)

    Bhaktivinoda Thakura, a 19th century Vaisnava saint wrote:

    “When we have occasion to be present at the place of worship of other religionists at the time of their worship, we should stay there in a respectful mood, contemplating thus: ‘Here is being worshiped my adorable highest entity God, in a different form than that of mine. Due to a different practice of a different kind, I cannot thoroughly comprehend this system of theirs. But seeing it, I am feeling a greater attachment for my own system. God is one. I bow down before His emblem as I see here and offer my prayer to my Lord who has adopted this different emblem so that He may increase my love toward Him in the form that is acceptable for me.”

    • Alec Heumann
      Reply December 17, 2012

      Alec Heumann

      I must request that you please use better grammar Carlos so that your writing is more intelligible. It’s hard to address a comment in its entirety when so much is beyond my ability to decipher.

      Regarding the content of your comment:
      First off, you allude that I and/or Devin are not humble, so would you care to define what it means to be humble? Because nothing that this article, or any of the comments that either of us has written, says has anything to do with anyone involved being or not being humble. There is nothing egotistical or self-centered about speaking and defending the truth. And what other than egoism would result in feeling offended by hearing the truth and an insistence on maintaining a world view which cannot be backed up by logic or any other kind of evidence?

      Second, I am not Iskcon. No one in Iskcon is Iskcon. Some people in Iskcon, and every other group of people in existence, have done some deplorable things but that has nothing more to do with me or anyone else in Iskcon who was not involved than it has anything to do with you. So don’t play that card as an argument for why we should pretend to be brainless when the truth is so obvious. And Jesus’s statement “He who is sinless cast the first stone” has absolutely nothing to do with this conversation.

      Third, to say anyone here is “denigrating Jesus’s disciples” is on the one hand accrediting to us something that just doesn’t exist as no one here said anything about Christians, what to speak of saying something denigratory about Christians, and on the other hand is completely ignoring the point I made about the ability for anyone to legitimately call themselves disciples of Jesus. Sure, I believe that anyone who follows the teachings of Jesus perfectly will make immense spiritual advancement. But the question of how to go about that is still relevant. As I mentioned, there is no disciplic succession which has survived in tact since Jesus was on the Earth 2000 years ago (and you would have to give me a complete list going back to the Apostles to refute that), the hundreds of sources for information on Jesus say different things and since there is no disciplic succession it is hard to say which if any of them is authoritative, and those sources which were dubiously decided upon as being authoritative and thus put into the Bible say contradictory things and have been changed hundreds of times by all sorts of people! Top it all off with the fact that the view of Jesus propagated by the Christian Church has no philosophical or even Biblical basis and you’ve got a whole mess to deal with if you want to be a “follower of Jesus”, what to speak of trying to call yourself his disciple.

  • Devin James O'Rourke
    Reply December 17, 2012

    Devin James O'Rourke

    Carlos, thank you for offering so many direct quotes from Srila Prabhupada regarding the special position of Lord of Jesus.

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