Nicea and the deity of Jesus
There can be no doubt that Jesus Christ is the most influential figure ever to have walked the earth. His life, death and resurrection have shaped the course of human history in more ways than we can possibly count.
Non-Christians have many responses to Jesus and the Church’s teachings about him, but there is one that has remained popular for many years, and is still utilised to this day by many people hostile to orthodox Christian teaching. It is the idea that Jesus was just an ordinary man, perhaps a great teacher and leader, but that in the 4th Century a few hundred men got together and, under the orders of a Roman emperor, voted on whether or not to start teaching that He was in fact God. The meeting where this was supposedly decided was something called the Council of Nicea, in 325 AD.
According to most versions of the theory, up until 325 AD nobody believed or taught that Jesus was God, but following this council the idea was forcibly promoted all across the Roman empire and those who disagreed were persecuted or silenced. This idea has spread like wildfire, mainly because it is useful to those who want to quickly destroy the foundations of Christianity.
Here are just a few examples of where you will find this idea-
Twenty Six Reasons why Jews Don’t believe in Jesus - Asher Norman “Many early Gentile Christians……. did not believe that Jesus was a deity. In the year 325 AD Emperor Constantine convened a church council at Nicea in Turkey and ordered the gentile bishops to decide the status of Jesus for his new state religion. At Nicea, Jesus was “elected god” by a vote of 218 to 2”
On the Muslim website “Answering Christianity" in the article “The false Jesus of Christianity” we read “....the title ‘Christ’ was distorted by the Catholic church to justify the pagan doctrine of the incarnation, which later developed into the Trinity. According to history, the council of Nicea deified Jesus and changed his status”
From the Jehovah’s Witness publication “Should you believe the Trinity?” section on the Council of Nicea: “Constantine’s role was crucial. After two months of furious religious debate, this pagan politician intervened and decided in favour of those who said that Jesus was God”
There are plenty more examples but these are a good representation.
What can we say or think when someone presents this argument? After all it’s such a widespread idea, and we know from history that there was a controversy about Jesus in the early church and the council of Nicea was called to resolve it. The answer is simple- the argument is a historical one, so we go to historical sources for our response.
The first place that we could look is in the writings of a man named Origen of Alexandria. In 230AD he wrote a book called “On First Principles” which was the church’s first systematic theology. In this book, Origen said this about Jesus-
“Although Christ was God, he took flesh; and having been made man, he remained what he was, God”
We could turn to Melito of Sardis, who was a bishop in Western Turkey. Around 170AD Melito sent a letter to the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in which he wrote
“We are not those who pay homage to idols, but to the only God who is before all and over all- moreover, we are worshippers of Christ, who is truly God the Word existing before all time”
In addition to this, in his writings on the nature of Christ he wrote-
“For the deeds done by Christ after His baptism, and especially His miracles, gave indication and assurance to the world Of the Deity hidden in human flesh. For being at once both God and perfect man, He gave us sure indications of His two natures”
So already we have Origen, writing a hundred years before the council of Nicea, and Melito of Sardis writing a hundred and fifty years before, who are very clearly using language about Jesus that shows that they considered Him to be God.
If we want to go further back we can look to an early church father names Ignatius, who was a bishop of Antioch. There is a traditional belief that he was actually a disciple of the Apostle John. Apart from the bible itself it would be difficult to get much closer to the teachings and beliefs of the early church than this
Around 107AD Ignatius wrote 6 letters to various churches, and an additional letter to his friend Polycarp.
Here are just a few of the mentions he makes of Jesus-
“There is one physician who is possessed of both flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh;….even Jesus Christ our Lord” (Ignatius, Letter to the Ephesians)
“For our God, Jesus Christ, now that He is with the Father, is all the more revealed in His glory” (Ignatius, Letter to the Romans)
“I glorify Jesus Christ, our God who made you so wise” (Ignatius, Letter to the Smyrnaeans)
The letters of Ignatius are some of the earliest church writings that we have outside the bible. When you read his letters, the references to Jesus being God are never presented as an argument in which he is trying to make his case or convince anyone. Rather, it is something that is mentioned in passing during the general flow of the letter. He is not trying to persuade anyone about Jesus' full deity. So, it would appear that the churches he is writing to are already in agreement with him.
In addition to these we have several non-Christian sources we could draw on. For example, in 112AD a Roman governer named Pliny the Younger, wrote to the Emporer looking for advice on how to deal with Christians in his district. He described what little he knew of the behaviour of these Christians, and at one point wrote
“They were wont, on a certain day, to meet together before it was light, and to sing a hymn to Christ as to a god”
Pliny did not say “as to God”, but rather “as to a god”- but remember that Pliny was a Roman and believed in Roman gods. As far as he was concerned there were dozens, if not hundreds, of gods to choose from. So the idea that there was just one God would have been absurd to him. But the important point is that he recognised that Christians in his province were worshipping Jesus.
These are just a few of many hundreds of historical sources, from the hundreds of years before the Council to which show that Jesus was specifically and repeatedly called God- it wasn’t that these men wrote things that suggest that he might have been God, they actually called Him God.
We can say, with confidence, that from the very beginning Jesus was worshipped as the One and only True God, the creator of all, the Lord of all. We can say that Christians have always believed this- it wasn’t a belief that spread after a great conspiracy in the 4th Century
With our confidence in these truths we can look right back at the life of Jesus as told in the Gospels- we can turn to John 20:28, where Thomas saw the risen Christ with nail marks in his wrists and a spear wound in his side, and fell down on his face and declared “My Lord and my God” and we can be convinced that from the earliest days of the church, Jesus has always been regarded as fully divine, fully God.