Several years ago Dan Brown’s bestselling thriller, The DaVinci code, took the world by storm. It was adapted into a movie and gave a boost to discussions in pop culture about Jesus and church history. Though Brown’s book was fiction, it was taken seriously by many and popularized the notion that the deity of Jesus was not always accepted by Christians. Instead, it is claimed by some, that the earliest Christians did not believe that Jesus Christ was God and that the doctrine of Christ’s deity was invented by the council of Nicea in 325 A.D. Despite the fact that this notion has long since been debunked, this myth seems to have some staying power and I occasionally run into it from time to time.
Obviously some who disbelieve that Jesus is God eagerly latch on to such conspiracy theories to bolster their position. Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unitarians, and others who deny the deity of Jesus have a vested interest in whether or not this version of history is accurate. If it can be demonstrated that the early church did not believe that Jesus was God until a 4th century council, that would be a pretty significant detail in our understanding of the history of Christianity and the identity of Jesus. Did Christians not believe in the deity of Christ until over 300 years after His birth? What does history actually tell us?
Well, the fact of the matter is that the notion that a deified Christ was absent from Christianity until the 4th century is completely false and revisionist history.
Here are just a few quotes from some important figures in the early church before the 4th century that affirmed the deity of Jesus Christ.
Novatian of Rome (210–280) “For Scripture as much announces Christ as also God…Let them, therefore, who read that Jesus Christ the Son of man is man, read also that this same Jesus is called also God and the Son of God” (Novatian, On the Trinity, 11. ANF, V:620.)
Caius (180–217) “…there are writings of certain brethren older than the times of Victor, which they wrote…against the heresies of their time: I mean Justin and Miltiades, and Tatian and Clement, and many others, in all which divinity is ascribed to Christ. For who is ignorant of the books of Irenaeus and Melito, and the rest, which declare Christ to be God and man?” (Caius, Fragments, 2.1. ANF, V:601)
Tertullian (c. 160–225): For God alone is without sin; and the only man without sin is Christ, since Christ is also God.” (Tertullian, Treatise on the Soul, 41. ANF, III:221)
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–215): … He alone being…both God and man…(Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Heathen, 1. ANF, II:173)
Irenaeus (120-202) “Christ Jesus [is] our Lord, and God, and Savior, and King…” (Ibid., 1.10.1. ANF, I:330)
Justin Martyr (100-165) “Permit me first to recount the prophecies, which I wish to do in order to prove that Christ is called both God and Lord of hosts.” (Ibid., 36. ANF, I:212.)
Ignatius of Antioch (c. 50–117): “For our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived by Mary according to God’s plan… (Ignatius, Letter to the Ephesians, 18.2. Translation from Michael Holmes, Apostolic Fathers, 197)
Of course, we really don’t need quotes from these people to affirm the deity of Jesus. Why not go back to the founding documents and teachers of Christianity in the first place? It’s great to know that Polycarp embraced the deity of Christ, but why stop there? Why not go back to Polycarp’s mentor, the apostle John, who, unlike the previous people named, was actually inspired by the Holy Spirit in his written testimony about Jesus?
The Apostle John: (c. 70-100) In the beginning was the Word… and the Word was God. (John 1:1)
The Apostle Peter: (c. 64-67) …To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ: (2 Peter 1:1)
The Apostle Paul: …waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.(c. mid 60’s)
There are many, many more Scriptural references that clearly declare Jesus as God. But if I were to get into that this would be a book and not a blog article.
In short, we have ample evidence that from the very beginning of the church, Jesus’ followers acknowledge Him as the Lord God. We have the witnesses of the church fathers, and the witnesses of the very first believers in the Bible, and on top of all of that we have the testimony of Jesus Himself.
Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58)
Jesus didn’t have bad grammar. He wasn’t trying to say “Before Abraham was, I was.” Instead, Jesus declares Himself to be the great I AM of the Old Testament, God Himself, come in the flesh. His Jewish audience understood Jesus quite well which is why many picked up stones to kill Him (verse 59). There was no penalty in the law for claiming to be a few thousands years old (if he was merely a little older than Abraham.) He would have been regarded as insane, for certain. But no one would have thought such a bizarre claim would be worthy of death. But if, on the other hand, He claimed to be not just old, but eternal (such an implication is embedded in the very name “I AM”) then that would have been a claim to deity. What’s more, the name “I AM” was associated with God’s revelation to Moses at the burning bush when He revealed that special name to him.
So not only is Jesus claiming to be eternal (only God is eternal) but He’s also by implication identifying Himself with the burning bush, telling us that it He Himself was the God who appeared to Moses! Of course the penalty for claiming to be God was death. This is why they sought to kill Jesus after He made such an outrageous claim.
Of course, the claim is only outrageous if it’s a lie. And so now we must make a choice. Do we believe Jesus, or do we believe His persecutors that sought to kill Him and deny His deity?
Occasionally I’ve heard people acknowledge that there is a God, but they express uncertainty regarding who that God is. They wonder if one can really know God.
The good news is yes, you can really know God! Throughout ancient times God’s prophets told us about God and what God says. But we now live in an age where God has given us something better to reveal Himself to us. He has given us Himself!
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son… (Hebrews 1:1-2, ESV)
There is one God who exists in three persons. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit. Jesus is God the Son. Scripture also calls Him “The Word”, and Scripture calls this Word, “God”, and Scripture says, “…the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” (John 1:14) In other words, God became flesh and dwelt among us. In a few weeks, on December 25th, millions around the world will be celebrating that initial moment of God’s unique “in-breaking” into the world.
Open up a Bible, start with the Gospel of John, and discover more about this Word. See that God is indeed knowable through the person of Jesus Christ. Read about His life, His work, His love, His suffering, His death, His resurrection, and the salvation and life that is only found in a relationship with Him. And when you finish that final chapter of John, my prayer is that your response will be worship. Your response will be the same as the church fathers, the early church, the disciples, and even of “formerly doubting” Thomas himself… that at the end of it all you too will declare about Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”
Grace and Peace,