In the Da Vinci Code Teabing claims that at the Council of Nicea the Emperor Constantine led the bishops to declare Jesus as Son of God by a vote – ‘a relatively close vote at that’ (page 315). This was a new idea because ‘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.’ In other words Christianity as we know it today was invented by Constantine who imposed the view of Jesus as a divine person on the church through the Council of Nicea in 325 AD.
As most people know little about the history of this period it might be helpful to take a closer look at Constantine and the debate between Arius and Athanasias at the Council of Nicea before looking at what the New Testament teaches about the nature of Jesus.
Diocletian, the Roman Emperor from 284-305 was the last great persecutor of the Christians under the Roman Empire. The main period of persecution was from 303 -305 during which time there were many martyrs and much destruction of the property and books of Christians. The death of Diocletian led to the rise of Constantine who was proclaimed emperor in 306 but was challenged by his rival Maxentius whom he defeated at the battle of Milovan Bridge in 312. At this point the Roman Empire was in danger of fragmenting. Constantine is reputed to have seen sign of cross at this battle and believed he conquered through the cross. So he took this as a sign that Christianity was the favoured religion which would unify the empire. He published the Edict of Milan in 313 formally ending Christian persecution and restoring confiscated church property to Christians.
Around this period a controversy had arisen amongst the Christians over the question of the divinity of Jesus. This centred on the teaching of Arius who was a bishop who lived in Libya from about 250 to 336. Arius’ position was certainly not the one put forward in Da Vinci Code – that Jesus just a great and powerful man. Arius had a view of Jesus as the Saviour who came from heaven and used the Bible, not the Gnostic gospels (which we will look at in the next chapter), in his arguments. However he proposed that if the Father begat the Son, the Son must have had a beginning, that there was a time when he was not, i.e. he was a created being. Arius was opposed by Athanasias who argued that ‘If Christ were not truly God, then he could not bestow life upon the repentant and free them from sin and death.’
Constantine wanted to use Christianity as a means of uniting the Roman Empire so he was not happy about this disagreement. Constantine himself was not so much interested in the finer details of doctrine as in ending the strife that was caused by religious disagreements. This resulted in him supporting various sides of theological issues depending on which side might help peace to prevail.
The issue was debated at the Council of Nicea where Athanasius showed from the scriptures and the witness of the early church fathers that Jesus is not a created being and exists from eternity being of ‘one substance’ with the Father. Athanasius won the debate and the Council agreed to the following statement about the identity of Jesus in the Nicene Creed: ‘I believe in one God, the Father almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, 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 and was incarnate and was made man; he suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.’
Constantine did not take part in this debate nor did he pressure the bishops as to how they should decide on this issue. As many of these men had come through the severe persecution of Diocletian they were not likely to cave in to pressure from the Emperor as to what they were to believe. In fact in later years Constantine was to side with Arius and his followers against Athanasius whom he banished in 336 AD.
There were certainly negative consequences for New Testament Christianity in Constantine’s involvement. He began process of unifying church and state which led the way to the established Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches and the church’s compromise of the truth of the Gospel in return for political power. He encouraged the process already at work of cutting the Christian movement away from its Jewish roots, separating Easter from Passover and fixing Sunday as the day of worship. He centralised power in Constantinople (modern Istanbul) in 330 leading to increasing imperial control of the church in the east. Following his death in 337 the empire was divided between his three sons leading to the division between the eastern empire ruled from Constantinople and the western empire ruled from Rome. Despite the political compromise which came out of the union of church and state which Constantine initiated, God overruled at Nicea regarding the doctrinal issue of the divinity of Jesus and ensured that the truth was enshrined in the creed of the church.
It is no accident that the concept of the Trinity was an issue of controversy at the time of the Council of Nicea. It remains today the aspect of the Christian faith most likely to be attacked by those outside the faith and most likely to be misunderstood by those within it. Jehovahs Witnesses expend considerable energy teaching against this belief and in fact follow an idea of who Jesus is which is very similar to the one put forward by Arius. They try to convince others that Jesus Christ is a created being, not having existed in eternity past with the Father, and not fully God.
Among the world religions, Islam specifically teaches against the Trinity. Chapter four of the Koran argues, Say not Trinity: desist: it will be better for you: for Allah is One God: glory be to Him: (far Exalted is He) above having a son (4:171). Although Muhammad seems to have wrongly believed that Christians taught that the Trinity consisted of God the Father, Mary the Mother, and Jesus the Son, they reject as sinful anything being made equivalent with Allah, especially Jesus.
The doctrine of the Trinity is central to the uniqueness of Christianity. It holds that the Bible teaches that God eternally exists as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and each person is fully God, and there is one God. Each play a part in our salvation. Jesus is the visible member of Godhead who became man in order to redeem us. As such for the time that He was on earth He was subordinate to the Father and will at the end of the age present the redeemed creation to the Father.
Verses pointing this out are often used to attack the view of Jesus’ divinity, in particular John 14.28 where Jesus says, ‘My Father is greater than I’ and 1 Corinthians 15.28 where Paul writes, ‘Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.’ The explanation of these verses is that for the purpose of His mission to save the human race Jesus humbled Himself to take the form of a servant and appear as a man. During this time He was submitted to the Father, with the ultimate aim that He would restore to God the present creation which is in disorder as a result of Satan’s rebellion against God and the human race falling into sin as a result of Adam’s disobedience.
This submission to the Father, like an astronaut’s submission to ground control during his mission, did not mean an inferior status to the Father. In John 10.33 Jesus states clearly, ‘I and My Father are one’, the implication of which was not lost on the Jewish opposition who took up stones to stone Him, ‘because You being a man make Yourself God.’ (John 10.36). At other points in John’s Gospel Jesus claims to be of one nature with the Father (John 5.17- 8, John 8.58, 14.1, 9). The opening verses of John make it clear that the author’s intention is to declare the divinity of Jesus: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him and without Him nothing was made that was made.’ Just in case you might miss the point about who John is referring to when he uses the term ‘the Word’ he writes in verse 14 ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.’ It stands to reason that if all things were made through the Word (Jesus) then He Himself was not made and is uncreated. So obvious is this fact that the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ translation of the Bible has to re write John 1.1 by saying ‘the Word was a God’ which is an interpretation to suit their idea not a valid translation from the original Greek text.
The issue that led to Jesus’ trial and crucifixion was His claim to be God. In His trial the High Priest asks Him ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed?’ If you put together Jesus’ reply recorded in Matthew 26.63-66, Mark 14.61-64 and referred to in John 19.7 it is clear that the Sanhedrin understood Jesus to be claiming to be:
- The Son of the Blessed
- The one who would sit at the right hand of power.
- The Son of Man who would come on the right hand of power.
Their response was to condemn Him to death for blasphemy.
Other relevant issues are:
- Jesus accepted worship as God (Matthew 8.2, 14.33, John 9.35-9, 20.27-9, Revelation 5). By contrast wherever anyone worships a created being in the New Testament they are told not to (Acts 10.25-26, 14.12-18, Revelation 19.10).
- He claimed authority to forgive sins which only God can do. Mark 2.5-7.
- Paul affirmed him as God. Philippians 2.9-11, Titus 2.13
- So did Peter. Matthew 16.15-17, Acts 2.36.
- So did Thomas. John 20.28
- So did Stephen. Acts 7.59.
- So did the Old Testament prophecies of the coming Messiah. Isaiah 7.14, 9.6, Micah 5.2.
In his book ‘Evidence that demands a verdict’ (page 111-112) Josh McDowell asks ‘If God became man what would you expect him to be like?’ The answer:
- He would have an unusual entrance into life.
- He would be without sin.
- He would manifest the supernatural in the form of miracles.
- He would have an acute sense of difference from other people.
- He would speak the greatest words ever spoken.
- He would have a lasting and universal influence.
- He would satisfy the spiritual hunger in humanity.
- He would exercise power over death.
Such an expectation was met uniquely and perfectly in the person of the Lord Jesus, the Messiah who is revealed as God made flesh in the New Testament and was believed as such by the church fathers long before the Council of Nicea. Ignatius wrote in his Epistle to the Ephesians in around 110 AD: ‘For our God Jesus Christ was conceived in the womb of Mary by the Holy Ghost.’ Aristides wrote in 125 AD ‘He Himself is Son of God on high, who was manifested of the Holy Spirit, came down from heaven, and being born of a Hebrew virgin took on His flesh from the virgin. He it is who was according to the flesh born of the race of Hebrews by the God-bearing virgin Miriam’.