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Who Decided Jesus was God?

Updated on February 2, 2013
The Emperor Constantine
The Emperor Constantine | Source

The 4th Century AD was an important one in the history of the Church, and of all Western civilization. The emperor Constantine ended official persecution of the Christian Church because he had, purportedly, become a Christian himself. He also called the first imperially-driven Church council to decide a matter of doctrine. It was at this council (the council of Nicaea) that the Church officially condemned certain teachings about Jesus that denied that he was fully God.

Especially with the relativelyrecent popularity of The Da Vinci Code, many have come to the idea that no one really thought Jesus was God before the time of Constantine and the council of Nicaea. Some have said that at the council of Nicaea, Christians debated about whether Jesus was just a man, a prophet, or whether he was God; claiming that no one had really thought he was God beforehand. Are these assumptions historically accurate?

In brief: No. Not even close.

Where did the idea of Jesus being God come from?

First and foremost, we can see clearly that the New Testament teaches that Jesus is fully God. Most scholars agree that the gospel of John, probably the last gospel to be written, was written at the latest at the end of the 1st century. Some scholars think much earlier.

This gospel makes the most explicit references to Jesus being God, so we will focus on it:

John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

John 8:58: ““Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” (NIV).

This use of ‘I am’ seems to be a reference to the Old Testament where God tells Moses that his name is ‘I AM.’ By saying this Jesus is saying, unequivocally, I am God.

So, we can at least say that by the end of the first century, Christians were teaching that Jesus was God – even if we assume nothing in the gospels was actually said by Jesus.

Later epistles in the New Testament make similar claims:

Titus 2:13: “while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (NIV).

We know the epistles of the New Testament were written long before Constantine – other Christian writers make references to them for a couple of centuries before Constantine.

These are just a handful of the explicit references in the New Testament. There are many more. There are also implicit references, such as where Jesus is given titles (or himself claims titles) that in the Old Testament were reserved for God alone.

Early Christian theologians said the same thing (quotations from Learning Theology with the Church Fathers by Christopher Hall):

“Brothers, it is fitting that you should think of Jesus Christ as of God” –Clement of Rome (died either in 99 or 101 AD)

“For Christ is King, Priest, God, Lord, Angel, and Man.” –Justin Martyr (lived 100-165 AD).

“I pray for your happiness forever in our God, Jesus Christ.” –Ignatius (died, at the latest, 117 AD)

All of these writers lived 100-200 centuries before Constantine came to power.

Arius condemned at the Council of Nicaea
Arius condemned at the Council of Nicaea | Source

What was the Council Really About?

The council of Nicaea (325 AD) was called because of a theological conflict that arose in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. A presbyter (what we would call a priest today) named Arius was teaching that the Son of God was not the ‘same substance’ as God the Father. Basically, he believed that God the Father had created The Son before the rest of the universe. This Son had assisted God in the creation of the world (he is ‘the Word’ mentioned in John 1, the followers of Arius and others agreed). No Christians, including Arians (followers of Arius), in the 4th century were saying that Jesus was not in some sense divine. Both the Arians and those opposing them all agreed that he was a divine being, existing before the rest of the world. The question being argued about at the council was whether he was actually the exact same being as God. Was he completely, fully, God?

This idea of Arius’ was condemned at the council of Nicaea. At first this decision was not very popular among many Christian leaders. Many would remain Arian for several decades and even centuries. There were others, however, who were caught in the middle. Many who probably disagreed with Arius were still unhappy with the language used in the Council’s decisions because the word the council finally used to describe the relationship between The Father and The Son (the Greek term ‘homousios’ – meaning the same substance) had connotations from being used by earlier heretical groups, namely Sabelianists. These folks went too far the other direction and argued that there was no distinction between God the Father and God the Son – that God was just one person with different ‘masks’ or ‘manifestations.’

What the Christians were trying to articulate, and eventually would articulate, was that Jesus was The Son incarnated – and that the Son was fully the same being as God but a distinct person within the same being. This was the beginning of the articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity: God is three persons in one being. This is a complicated and mysterious idea for us to make sense of – but just because it is complicated and unusual from our cultural perspective is no reason to be unfair to their beliefs. The idea that Jesus was God was not a new idea in the 4th century and not inconsistent with the earliest teachings of Christianity.

Athanasius

A man named Athanasius became the bishop of Alexandria after the council of Nicaea. He is known as one of the most vocal defenders of the doctrine that was developed at Nicaea and in publicly critiquing Arius’ views. His famous writing, On The Incarnation of the Word of God is a classic of Christian theology. If you want to read this work and see for yourself what kinds of theological arguments were being made, you can read it here: http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/history/ath-inc.htm

In Conclusion...

The idea that a few random bishops and politicians, much less Constantine, arbitrarily decided that Jesus was God in the 4th century is just plain unhistorical. You don’t have to believe in Christianity to see this. The idea that Jesus was God has a long history dating back to the very beginnings of Christianity and that the arguments in the 4th century at the council of Nicaea were over the nature of Christ’s relationship to God – not whether he was a mere man or not. At the very latest, the idea that Jesus was God existed at the end of the first century – 70 years after Jesus’ death. And there is plenty of good evidence suggesting that it is earlier, but that is a discussion for another time. And if we believe that any of the statements in the gospel of John were actually spoken by Jesus (which I do believe), it is clear, then, that the idea started with Jesus himself.

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    • profile image

      newenglandsun 4 years ago

      http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2010/05/the-...

      Hopefully this will clear up some on Bart Ehrman and other atheists/agnostics.

      http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2011/10/what...

      This is a good definition of what Sola Scriptura is not.

      Just because the guy isn't a Christian and doesn't believe the Bible, doesn't mean he cannot teach it. I have seen Christians who are ignorant of the Bible (see also: Harold Camping). I have also seen Christians who are ignorant of church history as well as history in general (see: JW's and inquisition/holocaust deniers).

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 4 years ago from Chicago

      For the record, "NewEnglandSun," I rented an entire course from the Teaching Company about the New Testament that was taught by Mr. Ehrman and was appalled by his teaching. Someone who doesn't believe in the Bible should not teach the Bible; nor should Beelzebub teach the Bible, who believes it but will work his whole life to get you not to.

      If I did not believe airplanes could fly, I would not teach aerodynamics.

      I see Ehrman quoted all the time by young people who accept him as a "expert" because he is presented as one. Satan is an expert on the Bible too but I wouldn't want him teaching it--or I should say, unteaching it-- to my children.

    • profile image

      newenglandsun 4 years ago

      busillis22,

      Have you read R.P.C. Hanson's book The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381?

      http://www.amazon.com/Search-Christian-Doctrine-Go...

      He gets pretty good reviews. I am hoping to read it some time in the future. I have heard he has a lot to say against Athanasius.

      As far as I know of the development of the early church, it originally started with Jesus, then went to the apostles, then the early church fathers started to formulate and articulate more defined doctrines. This is when we start to get Gnostic heretics breaking out of the church. From my understandings of the church fathers, they do not come out explicitly Trinitarian in the modern understanding of the word until about the fourth century C.E. They use words like "Trinity" and "three" and how God, the Word, and Wisdom form a triad, but this is not the modern definition which is that God is three persons - the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

      I have had to read a book for one of my classes last semester which said that Arius derived his teachings from Justin Martyr. I have also seen people claim that Arius derived his teachings from Tertullian's Against Homogenes. I wouldn't be able to state that anyone "decided" that Jesus is God or not based on my knowledge, but neither would I be able to state that the modern day understanding of orthodoxy was present in the earliest stages of the church.

    • busillis22 profile image
      Author

      busillis22 4 years ago

      James: Thank you very much! I look forward to looking for your book! I am so amazed by the ignorance on basic information about the history of Christianity there is out there. I am so thankful that you are trying to tackle this head on!

      Also, I'd love any tips from you on how you have been so successful on here writing on these sorts of topics which, I had guessed, aren't easily the most successful.

      Blessings to you too!

    • profile image

      newenglandsun 4 years ago

      Hello, James A. Watkins. I am actually hoping in the future to read some of Ehrman's stuff. I have an NRSV at home that would more than likely agree with Ehrman's points on the New Testament being "forged" in some sense.

      I do not see Pagels or Ehrman as pseudohistorians and I do not believe you have actually read their stuff. Ehrman believes there is a lot of junk in The Davinci Code. He has a book refuting it. He does maintain to apotheosis (that Jesus gradually progresses to become more "divine" throughout the New Testament).

      Additionally, the Gnostic gospels were banned. However, I think Pagels receives a lot of criticism for not understanding why they are banned. I think Pagels and Ehrman are both good scholars.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 4 years ago from Chicago

      Thank you for this wonderfully made Hub. I agree with you wholeheartedly. Well put.

      I am working on finishing my first book. I have worked on it for three years and it is called: "Jesus in the World: The First 600 Years"

      I was moved to write it because of the comments I was getting on my Hubs (over 40,000 so far). I came to realize that far too many people BELIEVE stuff like "Constantine wrote the Bible" or "Paul invented Christianity" or "Jesus was just a man" or "Jesus was never a man" or "The Catholic Church invented the Bible to oppress women." So many actually believe the Da Vinci Code even when its author says it is fiction. So many believe Elaine Pagels that men conspired to keep out Gnostic Gospels just to denigrate women, in particular Mary Magdalene. So many believe Bart Ehrman when he, supposedly a "Scholar of the New Testament," says the New Testament is a fraud. So many believe that "all religions lead to the same place." Some of the most widely searched things on Google when it relates to the Bible are a combination of the word "Bible" with "lost books" "banned books" "missing books" "prohibited books" as if the whole thing is some vast conspiracy.

      I am working to set the record straight, in a way that anyone can enjoy and understand. I am not using theological terms, or big words such as "justification" or "soteriology" or "thaumaturgy" or even "eleemosynary."

      :D

      God Bless You!

      James

    • profile image

      newenglandsun 4 years ago

      No. You don't have to believe in Christianity to see that there were some who believed Jesus was God and others who did not. However, the verses that you quoted to "prove" that Jesus is God, are highly disputed. I would recommend reading more on them.

      http://www.heaven.net.nz/writings/trinitarian-tric...

      http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0761825568/ref=as...

    • April Reynolds profile image

      April Reynolds 4 years ago from Arizona

      Thank you!

    • busillis22 profile image
      Author

      busillis22 4 years ago

      April, I would be honored! I will link back!

    • April Reynolds profile image

      April Reynolds 4 years ago from Arizona

      well said busillis22, I really like how you explained Jesus as the Son incarnate. May I link this hub to one of my own about Aruis?

    • rajan jolly profile image

      Rajan Singh Jolly 4 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

      Very interesting.

    • busillis22 profile image
      Author

      busillis22 4 years ago

      Disappearinghead: Thanks very much!

      Thomas Swan: Thank you! Very stimulating thoughts. I do believe that the teaching of John is consistent with the Synoptics about Christ's deity, but even if it were not the synoptics (especially Matthew) are clear that Christ is the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament so, by Jewish standards, he was something unique and special - sent by God yet more than a man or even an angel. This mysterious account of the nature of the Messiah is consistent, I think, with Jewish Messianic thought.

    • Thomas Swan profile image

      Thomas Swan 4 years ago from New Zealand

      An informative hub. The thing about the gospel of John is it was written after the other three gospels. The first gospel (Mark) was around 30 years earlier. So you could argue that the development of the legend was occurring during the 1st century. The first gospel, is the only one that is close to being a first hand account of what Jesus actually said and did. It talks of Jesus as a man, but 30 years later John is talking about the son of God. It seems as if the story had been embellished a bit. The council could just as easily have been there to decide whether to accept this embellishment or reject it.

      Also, there is evidence that the Church doctored early writings to include bits about Jesus' divinity. I think this is more to do with accounts outside the gospels, such as Josephus. So it's a difficult subject to have any certainty on.

    • Disappearinghead profile image

      Disappearinghead 4 years ago from Wales, UK

      Excellent hub. Voted up.