Was the Divinity of Jesus a Late Invention of the Council of Nicea? Probing Into What the Earliest Christians Really Believed
By Dr. Michael Kruger; January 25, 2016
One of the most common objections to Christianity is that the divinity of Jesus was “created” by later Christians long after the first century. No one in primitive Christianity believed Jesus was divine, we are told. He was just a man and it was later believers, at the council of Nicea, that declared him to be a God.
A classic example of this in popular literature can be found in the book The Da Vinci Code:
“My dear,” Teabing declared, “until that moment in history [council of Nicea], Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet… a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless. A mortal.” “Not the Son of God?” “Right,” Teabing said. “Jesus’ establishment as ‘the Son of God” was officially proposed and voted on by the Council of Nicaea.” “Hold on. You’re saying Jesus’ divinity was the result of a vote?” “A relatively close vote at that,” Teabing added.
Of course, there have been more sophisticated objections to the Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus. Bart Ehrman’s book, How Jesus Became God, argues that “It will become clear in the following chapters that Jesus was not originally considered to be God in any sense at all” (44).
Needless to say, there have been many responses to this claim by Ehrman (and The Da Vinci Code). A good place to start is the rebuttal volume to Ehrman, How God Became Jesus. And you can see my review of Ehrman’s book here.
But, it would still be helpful to revisit the question about when Christians began to conceive of Jesus as God. Was this belief “originally” (Ehrman’s word) part of early Christianity?
There are many ways to approach this question, but for the purposes of this short post, we will simply consider the teachings of the apostle Paul on this question. Why start with Paul? Larry Hurtado explains it best: “Pauline Christianity is the earliest form of the Christian movement to which we have direct access from undisputed firsthand sources” (Lord Jesus Christ, 85).
As we shall see, Paul didn’t simply believe Jesus was God in some marginal, semi-divine sort of way. Rather he viewed him as the one God of Israel, the pre-existent creator of the universe.
Let us consider just two examples that show that the highest of Christologies was present in our earliest sources. First, consider Paul’s language in 1 Cor 8:5-6:
For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
At heart of this statement—given in the context of food offered to idols—is Paul’s concern to uphold monotheism. There is only one God who is worthy to receive cultic worship, as opposed to the many false gods present in pagan worship.
Indeed, it is widely recognized that Paul is clearly drawing upon the core monotheistic confession of ancient Israel, the “shema” of Deut 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
What is noteworthy, however, is that Paul has now included the Lord Jesus Christ within the shema, even using the same word (“Lord”) to describe him. Paul is not adding Jesus to the godhead, as if there were now two gods, but rather he is including Jesus in the divine identity of Yahweh.
This is confirmed by the fact that Paul attributes to Jesus the very same act of creation that he attributes to God: “through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” Jesus is not the recipient of a creative act, but the one who performs the creative act.
Thus, Bauckham concludes, “A higher Christology than Paul already expresses in 1 Corinthians 8:6 is scarcely possible, and…[is] the common character of all New Testament Christology” (2008:30).
The other passage, not surprisingly, is Phil 2:6-11, one of the clearest and most profound declarations that Jesus is Lord over all. Not only does Paul affirm the pre-existence and incarnation of Jesus—“though in the form of God…made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men”—but he describes the highest possible exaltation of Jesus: “So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
This latter phrase draws explicitly on Is 45:23, where, in the original context, Yahweh declares, “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.” Paul takes the glory due to Yahweh alone and applies it to Jesus—showing that he considers the latter as fully part of the divine identity.
Thus, Hurtado has observed that when Phil 2:6-11 is viewed as a whole it describes the work of Christ in a “narrative sequence,” starting with his pre-existence, moving to his incarnation, then to his humiliation, and finally to his exaltation (Hurtado, 2003:123).
What is particularly noteworthy about both of these passages is that scholars have argued that each of them reflect even earlier Christian tradition that significantly predates Paul’s own letters. In the case of Phil 2:6-11, it is widely regarded as an earlier Christological “hymn” that Paul adapted for use within this particular letter. Likewise, 1 Cor 8:6 is considered to be one of the earliest creedal statements within the Pauline corpus.
Thus, not only do these passages show that the apostle Paul himself had a high Christology, but that this high Christology pre-dates Paul and appears in the very earliest layers of the Christian faith.
In the end, there are two choices for skeptics intent on rejecting the divinity of Jesus. On the one hand, they could argue that Christians were simply wrong about Jesus being God. And, on the other hand, they could argue that Christians never really believed that Jesus was God.
Based on the evidence above, it seems the former is a much better option than the latter. People are free to disagree with early Christians about what they believed about Jesus. But, there is little doubt that early Christians believed it.
Dr. Michael Kruger is President and Professor of New Testament of Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC. He blogs on CANON FODDER.