Jesus as God in the Second Century
By Paul Hartog
Various cults claim that the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) inaugurated belief in Christ’s deity. The Da Vinci Code, a fictional work on the New York Times “Best Sellers” list, has recently popularized this view. The New Testament, however, explicitly uses the Greek term theos (“God”) in reference to Jesus Christ. Further, there was a consistent application of theos to Jesus Christ throughout the second century. Authors such as Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Melito, Athenagoras, and Irenaeus all spoke of Christ as “God.” They were equally convinced of an indispensable monotheism inherited from Judaism and of the deity of Jesus Christ, the risen Lord. Even though these second-century writers did not clarify the person and nature of Christ as precisely as subsequent theologians, their works demonstrate that the Council of Nicaea did not originate the doctrine of His deity. The early church witnessed developments in terminology and explanatory nuances regarding this doctrine, but a definite continuity of theology and worship related to it flowed throughout the first four centuries as well.
Many readers unwittingly have accepted the background data found in the fictional bestseller The Da Vinci Code as historical truth. Halfway through the novel, one of the characters, Sir Leigh Teabing, a former British Royal Historian, discusses the fourth–century Council of Nicaea. He explains, “Until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet…a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless. A mortal.” Teabing continues, “Jesus’ establishment as ‘the Son of God’ was officially proposed and voted on by the Council of Nicaea….Because Constantine upgraded Jesus’ status almost four centuries after Jesus’ death, thousands of documents already existed chronicling His life as a mortal man”1 (emphases in original).
Certain cults also claim that the deity of Jesus Christ was “created” by the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. For instance, Restoration Fellowship (Church of God) publishes a tract entitled “Who Is Jesus? Do the Creeds Tell Us the Truth about Him?” This work asserts that belief in the deity of Jesus Christ is not found in the Scriptures, but was only instituted by the Nicene Council in the fourth century, “well after the New Testament apostolic times.”2 The Way International contends that pagan concepts entered Christianity at the Council of Nicaea and “if Jesus is God…we have not yet been redeemed.”3 A Christadelphian pamphlet entitled “Jesus: God the Son or Son of God?” makes a similar case.4
Despite such claims, various New Testament texts do use the Greek term theos (“God”) to refer to Jesus Christ. Murray J. Harris has written an important introduction to this topic, entitled Jesus as God: The New Testament Use of Theos in Reference to Jesus. He lists the more probable uses of theos in reference to Jesus as John1:1,18;20:28; Romans9:5; Titus2:13; Hebrews1:8; and 2Peter1:1.5 This explicit application of theos to Jesus Christ can be traced from the New Testament period into the second century without interruption. Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Melito, and Athenagoras frequently used the term theos of Jesus, as did the early biblical theologian, Irenaeus of Lyons…
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