Early Church Reflection on the Deity of Christ

If you are very familiar with pop society of the past decade you have probably heard the claim that the deity of Jesus was not a confession or belief of the early church, but was rather an invention of the fourth century in accordance with Emperor Constantine’s desire for imperial unity.

Topics: History

If you are very familiar with pop society of the past decade you have probably heard the claim that the deity of Jesus was not a confession or belief of the early church, but was rather an invention of the fourth century in accordance with Emperor Constantine’s desire for imperial unity.

“Until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by his followers as a mortal prophet...a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless.” (Teabing, The DaVinci Code: Dan Brown)

“Jesus’ establishment as ”the Son of God“ was officially proposed and voted on by the Council of Nicaea.” (DaVinci),

It is not my intent to provide a defense against Dan Brown’s work (for two reasons: 1. Others have already done a solid job of this - see Dr. Darrell Bock’s Breaking the DaVinci Code 2. The book was released 6 years ago and is no longer that culturally significant though I think Tom Hanks and Ron Howard are teaming up again to make another movie in the series).  Rather I wanted to merely provide some early church quotations to highlight the historical fact that there is a consistent belief in the deity of Jesus Christ throughout the first four centuries of Christian history.

A.D. 66—“Looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” (Titus 2:13)

AD 95—“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:1, 14)

AD 110—“There is only one Physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first subject to suffering, then beyond it—Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Ignatius of Antioch)

AD 165—“And because he was God and is God...this is the Man who was sent by the Father to the world because he is God, both Man upon earth and God in heaven, and he is God over all creation.” (Melito of Sardis)

AD 180—“For we speak of His Word as God too and Son, and of the Holy Spirit likewise, united into one by power and divided in order thus: the Father, the Son, the Spirit.” (Athenagoras of Athens)

AD 190—“In as much as the Word was from the first, He was and is the divine source of all things... This Word, then, the Christ, the cause of both our being at first (for He was in God) and of our well-being, this very Word has now appeared as man, He alone being both, both God and man—the Author of all blessings to us.” (Clement of Alexandria)

AD 200—“So from spirit comes spirit, and God from God, as light is kindled from light... This ray of God...glided down into a virgin, in her womb was fashioned as flesh.” (Tertullian)

AD 245—“We do not fall into the opinion of those [monarchists], who reject that the Son is distinct from the Father... nor do we fall into the other impious doctrine which denies the divinity of Christ.” (Origen)

As you can see, it is simply untrue that the early church did not believe in the doctrine of the deity of Christ.  The church did struggle with articulating the concept of the relationship between Father and Son, but there is a huge difference between wrestling with how to express a truth and not believing that truth.

In light of a spreading heresy 4th century heresy known as Arianism which taught that Jesus was not divine, but was rather a creature, an ecumenical (meaning universal – churches from all over sent representatives) counsel was held to seek consensus on the Christian confession of the person of Jesus Christ.  Below is what was articulated:

The Nicene Creed (325 AD):
I believe in one God the Father Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son1; who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spoke by the Prophets. And one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.


Footnotes

1 The phrase “and the Son” was not accepted by the entire church and was a later addition which was a catalyst for the split between the Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Roman Catholic) churches. Theologians refer to this as the filioque clause from the Latin for “from the Son.”

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