Popular religion sometimes makes controversial claims about Jesus, but the truth isn’t that hard to verify.
In the multimillion-selling publishing phenomenon The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, the hero and heroine race to solve mysterious clues as they narrowly escape the ruthless killers on their trail. In doing so, they reveal that Christianity is really an extraordinary worldwide conspiracy. A conspiracy, it is claimed, that dates back to Emperor Constantine in the fourth century A.D.
According to the character Teabing in the book, as one of the crucial steps in fusing pagan religion with Christianity, Constantine “held a famous ecumenical gathering known as the Council of Nicea. . . . At this gathering . . . many aspects of Christianity were debated and voted upon—the date of Easter, the role of bishops, the administration of sacraments, and, of course, the divinity of Jesus. . . . 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.”
Is this true? Did the followers of Jesus see Him only as a prophet? Was it only in the fourth century that Jesus was first recognized as divine? This article will outline some of the strong evidence that these allegations are not, in fact, true.
What is true is that the Council of Nicea made an important step in the way Christians understood Jesus. Let’s begin by going back to the very first glimpses of what early Christians were thinking in the earliest documents of Christianity.
The letters of Paul are among the first surviving documents of Christianity. Paul certainly had no problem thinking of Jesus as divine. Paul said that, though Jesus was in the “form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself . . . and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”1
There is little hesitation here, or elsewhere in Paul’s writings, in considering Jesus to be equal with God.
The Gospel of John also comes from the first century and thus predates the Council of Nicea by at least two hundred years. There can be no doubt that in John, Jesus is portrayed as fully divine. The words of Thomas as he met Jesus after the Resurrection were clear on this issue. When Jesus invited Thomas to put his fingers in the wounds of His hands, Thomas fell to his knees and exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”2
In doing this, Thomas summarized the portrayal of Jesus in the fourth Gospel. On the one hand, the Jesus of John is fully human. He gets tired on a journey, and He feels human emotions such as love and anger.3 Yet the Gospel that shows Jesus at His most human is also the Gospel that underlines His divinity. It is the only Gospel that records Jesus saying of Himself, “I and the Father are one.”4 In John, Jesus is the divine Word (Greek: logos) that came to earth in human flesh.5
The other Gospels are in agreement with this picture of Jesus. He was fully human: He had a human mother, He had human emotions, He lived and died in a real country, and those with whom He interacted are historical persons. Yet He also walked on water,6 He was transfigured so that His face and clothes shone more than the brightest whiteness imaginable,7 He raised the dead,8 and indeed, He rose from the dead.9 This is no ordinary man. The Jesus of the Gospels is not just a mortal prophet: He is the Son of God.
Thus it is just not true to say that before the Council of Nicea, Jesus was viewed only as “a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless. A mortal.” Quite the contrary. In fact, one of the very early mistakes made about Jesus was not about His divinity but about His humanity. Ignatius, writing in the first decade of the second century, spoke against those who thought Jesus was totally divine and only appeared to be a human.10 Apparently, this group, usually called Docetists, had no problems with a divine Jesus. Their problem was how a divine Jesus could also be human.
Council of Nicea vs. Arius
At the council of Nicea considerable attention was given to the nature of Jesus. One of the problems the bishops were facing was the agitation in the churches about the ideas of Arius, whose followers were called Arians. At the time the controversy arose, Arius was a presbyter (priest) in Alexandria who took offence at an exposition on the nature of Jesus given by his bishop. As these things occasionally do, the theological controversy that grew out of this debate spread widely—there were even songs sung about it among the workers in the dockyards.
In one of the letters that have survived from Arius and his supporters, he explains the starting point of his position: “We acknowledge One God, alone unbegotten, alone everlasting, alone unbegun, alone true, alone having immortality, alone wise, alone good, alone sovereign; judge, governor . . .”
In these words, one can begin to feel the persuasive power of Arius, who, together with his followers, stressed the uniqueness of God. They were masters of slogans, saying of Jesus, “There was when He was not,” for example. In other words, as the firstborn of creation, Jesus was a creature, who had a beginning. They also concluded that Jesus had no direct knowledge of His Father despite the fact that He was God’s wisdom and Word.
In emphasizing the uniqueness of God, Arius and followers were able to tap into a rich vein of biblical data. But it must also be said that in doing so, they ignored other biblical evidence. For example, in the same Gospel in which Jesus says, “The Father is greater than I,”11 He also says, “The Father and I are one.”12
Nicene Creed: Jesus is fully divine, fully human
Thus it was that when Constantine called together the bishops from the various regions of the Empire to discuss issues that were dividing the church, including Arianism, the bishops chose to emphasize two things about Jesus: He was both fully divine and fully human. As they said in their famous Nicene Creed: “We believe in One God, Father Almighty, the Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in One Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, God from God, Light from Light, Life from Life. Only-begotten Son, first-born of all creation, before all the ages.”
So, in this matter at least, the words of the character Teabing are true: The Council of Nicea did discuss the divinity of Jesus, and it did emphasize that He was divine. But this in no way implies that the concept was something new. Jesus was recognized as divine from the earliest times of the Christian church. What was new in the Nicene Creed was that the church was able to express this belief with clarity in the face of a serious challenge from Arius and his followers.
But what does it mean to say that Jesus was fully divine? It is to assert the uniqueness of Jesus and of His death and resurrection. Christianity claims that in Jesus, God became human and lived among humans subject to human limitations and conditions. It claims that the death and resurrection of Jesus have changed historical realities.
Jesus’ resurrection is the basis on which we all can be raised. His divinity gives Him the right to demand total commitment from His followers. When Jesus said, “Follow Me,” He spoke to every human, because He is Lord of every human being. His death and resurrection have provided forgiveness for our sins, and if we believe in Him, we have eternal life.
Jesus’ divinity affects us
Thus we are confronted with an extraordinary decision: Either Jesus is the Son of God or He is not. If He is, then, at His name, every knee in heaven and on earth—including ours—should bow.
There is no room in the Bible for the kind of Jesus suggested by the character Teabing. The description, “A mortal prophet . . . a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless. A mortal”—that is a picture of Jesus that comfortably fits Jesus within historical processes. This kind of Jesus might give guidance to our lives, but He would do so in a way that is within the course of our everyday experience.
The Jesus of the Bible, on the other hand, claims to be the Son of God, the turning point of history. If He was a mere man, He was deluded. But if He was indeed the Son of God as He claimed, our decision to believe in Him is by far the most important decision of our lives.
Just as when He was on earth Jesus came to people going about their daily business and interrupted them, saying, “Come, follow Me,” so also today He comes to each of us with the challenge, “Come, follow Me.” That Jesus, the Jesus described in the Bible, is not just a man. He is the Son of God, who came to earth to die in order that we might be saved from our sins.
The question for each of us is, How will we respond to His call to “Come, follow Me”?
Have you read The Da Vinci Code? What are your thoughts about its conclusions about Jesus? Write and let us know. You can write a letter to the editor and submit it online on the Letters to the Editors page.
Robert K. McIver is a senior lecturer in biblical studies in the Department of Theology at Avondale College in Cooranbong, New South Wales, Australia.