Severinus, we are told by Butler, “was educated in the catholic faith, at a time when the Arian heresy reigned in that country [Burgundy, which is now part of France].” Although there are some miraculous healings associated with Severinus (he healed a bishop who was a leper and, in a separate incident, a king by making the king wear his–Severinus’–cloak), it is this heresy that I want to discuss.
No, “Arian” is not the same as “Aryan.” The latter is associated closely with white supremacy (“the Aryan race”) and Nazism/neo-Nazism. This Arianism (the heresy so predominant during Severinus’ time) was a belief about Christ that Arius, a church leader who was later deemed heretic, then not heretic then a heretic. The controversy regarding Arius’s assertions about Christ were argued for centuries. To many of us living now, the debates may well seem quaint; yet such an assessment would be unduly facile.
Bear with me as we step through the controversy, please. Arius stated that if Jesus was the Son of God, then this must mean that there was a time that God existed prior to Jesus. That is, you cannot have a Father and a Son unless there was a time when there was no Son…because it would be meaningless to speak of a “son” that was alive throughout the entire time the “father” was alive. The logic of Arius’s position appealed to many, many people–it’s much easier to wrap one’s mind around than the idea that both a father and a son are co-eternal. After all, George Koch (my dad) was born in 1925. He was a baby then. He lived for 31 years, and then and only then did he become a father.
But, but, but argued (what later became) the orthodox, Arius’s assertion meant that Jesus was created at some point in time, and so the most he could ever be is a second god (like Zeus’s son, Ares). And that would make Christianity kinda sorta polytheistic. Uggh–headache time. Having both God and God, Jr., still makes for two Gods. So that just won’t do if you want to assert that there is one God, always only and eternal.
And yet Jesus spoke of his “heavenly Father” and lived, at least for a while, on the earth as a human being, and God was not “confined” to that one human body during those 33 years. So it would seem like you could not just slip an “equal sign” in and say God = Jesus = God. But then, we go back to my own father, George. And, at least from 1956 on, Son = George = Father. That is, since 1956, my father has been both a son and a father, all in one person.
All of this might seem like “just so much theological jibberish” and an elaborate attempt to take a jigsaw puzzle piece that doesn’t quite fit and pounding it down until it squishes into the allotted space and declaring it a “fit.” To do so, we’ll just ignore that, normally, fathers precede sons, look at the fact that a person can (like George for 62 years) simultaneously be both a father and a son, and ignore that the son to whom he is a father is not the same as he, nor is he the same as his father.
Again, we would make a grave mistake by consigning this argument to the scrapheap of historical inconsequence. If Arius had prevailed, then Christianity would have had to admit that it was, at most, an heir of Judaism but not the fulfillment of Judaism. Christianity would have had to admit that it was not “an eternal religion” but is like other religions that began at a certain point in time…an historical religion. If Arius was right, then Jesus was a child of God …and, perhaps, not the only child (both Zeus and George did have more than one child, after all).
If Arius was right, then people might well do better to listen to rabbis than bishops or popes (Zeus is a higher-order god than Ares, after all). If Arius was right, then Christianity could not be the only way, the only truth, the only path to life. If Arius was right, then, just possibly, orthodoxies and inquisitions and shunnings and crusades and Religious Freedom laws might not have had anything but quicksand to stand upon.
So death of Arius, who was perhaps more dangerous to Christianity than anyone in the religion’s history, was described by Socrates Scholasticus in this way:
As he approached the place called Constantine’s Forum, where the column of porphyry is erected, a terror arising from the remorse of conscience seized Arius, and with the terror a violent relaxation of the bowels: he therefore enquired whether there was a convenient place near, and being directed to the back of Constantine’s Forum, he hastened thither. Soon after a faintness came over him, and together with the evacuations his bowels protruded, followed by a copious hemorrhage, and the descent of the smaller intestines: moreover portions of his spleen and liver were brought off in the effusion of blood, so that he almost immediately died.
The death of Arius (which might have been poisoning) was widely celebrated as a miraculous punishment for his heresies. Meanwhile, our Trinitarian Severinus is today’s celebrated saint.