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The Deity of Christ in the Early Church

Part 3 of the Early Church History Sermon Series

Posted Sunday, July 30, 2006 by Charlie Trimm

This is the third installment of my sermon series on the early church. It went quite well, and I included a fun surprise in the middle of the sermon that helped people to wake up. I have noted it in the text below.

Have you ever gone somewhere and then forgotten why you went there? I do not do this too frequently, but I do still on occasion misplace my memory and then cannot remember where I put it. I had a friend in college who had a difficult time with his memory. He had a habit of forgetting events, appointments, duties, whatever. So his mom decides to help him, the kind of thing that moms do and for which children are usually thankful. She got him some vitamins that were supposed to help with his memory. He would take these vitamins routinely, and then his memory would get better. Well, one small problem: he kept on forgetting to take the vitamins!

Well, as you can guess by now, I have indeed forgotten something. Does anyone remember why I am doing this three week series on the early church? The main reason is in reaction to the Da Vinci Code. Dan Brown gets his early church history drastically wrong, and I wanted to use the Code as an excuse to tell about how life in the early church actually happened. But then, in my second sermon last week on the early church, I forgot to talk about the Code! Oops! So now I shall make up that lack by describing briefly what Dan Brown claims happened in the early church.

As far as women, he claims that the early church was not only not egalitarian with the genders being equal, it was also supposed to be matriarchal, with the women in charge. Constantine, who is the frequent target of Dan Brown, supposedly transformed the church from a matriarchy to a patriarchy. Here are two quotes from the book.

"Constantine and his male successors successfully converted the world from matriarchal paganism to patriarchal Christianity by waging a campaign of propaganda that demonized the sacred feminine."

                       Robert Langdon, The Da Vinci Code p.124

"According to these unaltered gospels, it was not Peter to whom Christ gave directions with which to establish the Christian Church. It was Mary Magdalene."

                                 Sir Leigh Teabing, The Da Vinci Code p.248

These claims are patently false, as we saw last week. We are not going to discuss the issue any further today, but if you have any questions, you can listen to the sermon from  last week or just ask me.

Our topic for tonight is the deity of Christ. Here is what Dan Brown has to say about the topic.

“My dear,” Teabing, declared, "until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet. . . a great and powerful man, but a man nevertheless.
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

                                                                   The Da Vinci Code p. 233

"Many scholars claim that the early Church literally stole Jesus from His original followers."

     Sir Leigh Teabing, The Da Vinci Code p. 233

The Council of Nicea, which Constantine called, is once again the culprit for Brown. Before Nicea, which occurred in 325, Jesus was viewed as simply a man. But then the idea occurred to Constantine to have Jesus be God, and so he forced the idea on the church. Is this the case? Well, that is what we are going to look at tonight. We are going to look briefly at the view of Jesus before Constantine, then learn about the Council of Nicea, and then finish with a brief look at the life of Athanasius, one of the most fascinating early church theologians. 

There are many lessons we can learn from the controversy. One of them is the importance of doctrine. These men and women were willing to literally put their lives on the line for their belief about Jesus. But the main point I want us to see is their faith. They loved God passionately, and they did not allow anything to stand in the way of their love for God and speaking correctly about God. We should have the same passion for God that reflects in our lives. Let us take a brief look at Hebrews 11 before we get started. That chapter contains a list of men and women who were full of faith and did great things and suffered great things because of their passion for God. But then this chapter is continued in chapter 12. Notice the first two verses there. Because of the example of those who have gone before, our lives should be strongly impacted in the way that we live and our perspective on life.

First, we will take a look at the NT and some early church fathers from before Constantine. Here are some verses from the NT that clearly show the deity of Christ.

John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.God the Holy Spirit

John Thomas answered and said to Him, "My Lord and my God!"

John 1:18 No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.

Acts "Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.

Romans 9:5 whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

Titus looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus,

2 Peter 1:1 Simon Peter, a bond-servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ:


1 John 5:20 And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding so that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.

John 8:58 Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am."

Philippians 2:6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,

Colossians 2:9 For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form,

Mark 2:5 And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven." 6 But some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, 7 "Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming; who can forgive sins but God alone?"


The early church was also fairly well agreed that Jesus was God. There was little in-depth discussion of the issue, as they were more interested in staying alive, but most of them took it for granted that Jesus was God. They actually had a harder time defending the humanity of Christ against the Gnostics, who said that Jesus only appeared to be human. That sounds strange to our modern eyes, doesn’t it, that the church had to defend the humanity of Christ?

Here are some quotes from early church fathers in relation to the deity of Christ. Ignatius was the bishop of Antioch, who wrote several letters we possess today which he wrote while on his way to Rome to be martyred. He died around 110, just 10 years after the book of Revelation was written. He said “God appeared in human form to bring the newness of life.”

Tertullian was a church father in Carthage, who is famous for his work on the Trinity. He lived about 200. He was the first to give a clear presentation of the Trinity. Here is an example of his views. “All [three – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost] are of One, by unity (that is) of substance, while the mystery of the dispensation is still to be guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three Persons – The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”

The idea of Jesus being God was not a new thought at the Council of Nicea. This had been standard Christian belief which even the heretics had believed up till that point. Constantine did not force the idea on the church at the Council of Nicea. But if the idea was so prevalent beforehand, why did the Council of Nicea occur? What was the big debate? What happened?

Well, it all started in Egypt.  The bishop of Alexandria was a man named Alexander. Alexandria (named after Alexander the Great) was the most important city in Egypt and one of the most important in the entire empire. One of the elders of the church in Alexandria was a man named Arius. Arius was a charismatic fireball whom people loved. Arius heard Alexander preaching about Jesus and did not like what he heard. Alexander preached a strong defense of the deity of Christ, too strong for Arius. Arius thought that Alexander was getting close to modalism, the heresy which states that God has only one person, but three modes in which God appears at various points of time. So God the Father died on the cross for us, according to modalism. Trying to explain the baptism of Jesus (Father speaking from heaven to Jesus while the Holy Spirit is descending) is difficult to explain for a modalist. Modalism is probably the heresy that most Western Christians tend towards most out of all the Christological heresies.

Arius himself was on the other side of the spectrum. Previously a belief called adoptionism had been condemned. Adoptionism believed that Jesus was a mere man whom God adopted to execute his plan. Arius differed from that view because he believed that Jesus was a great heavenly being and was existing before his birth. However, he was not God and there was a time when Jesus did not exist. Jesus was not God. This was helpful for Arius because it countered the heresy of modalism and kept the persons of the Trinity distinct. The belief of Arius is very similar to modern-day Jehovah Witness beliefs.

So Arius started a mini rebellion against Alexander. Perhaps part of the reason for doing this was that Arius himself wanted to be bishop, but we have no evidence of that. Arius saw the views of Alexander as threatening salvation itself, since Arius did not see how Jesus could actually be human in the view of Alexander. And if Jesus was not human, then he could not take our sins. Since Arius was charismatic, his ideas gained ground quickly and he acquired many followers. Alexander saw the views of Arius as very dangerous and started to teach and write against them. Alexander as well thought that the views of Arius threatened salvation. If Jesus was not God, then he could not pay for our sins and we would still be in our sins. When these mild measures of teaching and preaching did nothing to stop Arius, Alexander took more drastic measures and called a council to examine the views of Arius. If the council decided against Arius, then Arius would be removed from the church.

However, before the council could meet, Arius rallied his followers and they started marching through the streets, chanting slogans like modern day soccer and football fans. There were songs for the marchers, and the movement appealed strongly to the lower classes. The marchers went past Alexander’s church and home repeatedly, chanting “There was when the Son was not,” one of their favorite slogans. Then some of Alexander’s followers set out marching, and the two groups met in front of the cathedral of Alexander. When they met, they predictably did not meet on peaceable terms, and rioting occurred. We are not sure exactly what form the rioting took, but there was probably fighting between the groups and various acts of vandalism.

While neither side backed down, the council finally convened in 318. The views were presented, and the position of Arius was condemned and forced to leave the city. However, the battle was far from over. Arius went to visit his friend Eusebius. Now this is not the Eusebius who wrote the famous Church History, although he did live at the same time and also was a friend of Arius. The Eusebius that Arius went to was the Eusebius of Nicomedia. From Nicomedia, Arius and Eusebius began a PR campaign, writing letters to all the bishops who were not at the council. In response, Alexander wrote a letter to all the bishops as well.

Eventually, Constantine the emperor heard about the dispute. The bishops of the Eastern Church were being divided over the issue, and a schism was the last thing that Constantine wanted. He had just become emperor over all the empire and legalized Christianity. Now to have that Christianity divided, when it could give him much more support if it was unified, was not a happy thought. So in 325, seven years after Arius was condemned by the first council, Constantine decided to call another council, one that would be empire-wide and authoritative. This was the Council of Nicea.

Constantine had just decided to make his capital Constantinople, but the city was not ready yet, so the Council was held just outside the city at the smaller town of Nicea. The emperor invited all the bishops in the empire to come and paid for their travel to come. This was an incredible change from the massive persecution that the Christians had previously faced. Many of the bishops present at the Council still bore scars of persecution on their bodies. And now, the emperor was paying for them to meet together! The bishops who came were mostly from the East, although there were a few from the West. The records say that 318 bishops came.

The council discussed many issues, including how to determine the date of Easter, whether a eunuch could be ordained (they could be as long as they were not a voluntary eunuch), and how to deal with a bishop who moved to another area (something that was very out of the ordinary at that time, an odd concept to us highly mobile Americans). But the main topic of course was the issue of Arianism.

The bishops who came were divided into three groups. One group was strongly Arian and was led by Eusebius of Nicomedia. The second group was strongly anti-Arian and rallied behind Alexander and his young assistant Athanasius. The vast majority of the bishops, however, was undecided and did not really know the issues. Arianism did not seem that bad on the surface, since modalism was still a very active heresy, especially in the west. If Arianism defended against modalism, then maybe it was something that should be followed.

The council began with a call for the Arian group to give their view. Eusebius of Nicomedia stood to present their view, and they made a major tactical blunder. They clearly presented what they believed about Jesus, that he was only a creature and that he was not equal with the Father in any sense. Once the bishops understood what the Arians actually believed, the debate was effectively over. The reaction was immediate, as the other bishops started putting their hands over their ears and yelling for someone to stop the blasphemy. A bishop came up to Eusebius while he was still reading, ripped the manuscript out of his hands, tore it up, and trampled it on the ground. [At this point in my sermon, instead of saying this paragraph, I read some of the writings of Arius, which would be about what Eusebius would have said. I had several plants in the audience who actually acted this paragraph out, with many calls of heresy and much yelling, culminating in one man running up and yanking my paper out of my hands and ripping it to shreds.] A virtual riot broke out among the bishops, which was stopped only when the emperor gave the command for quiet.

The rest of council was taken up with deciding a way forward. They eventually made a creed that without question condemned the Arian view. Here is the creed.

We 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 from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through Whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth, Who because of us humans and because of our salvation came down and became incarnate, becoming human, suffered and rose again on the third day ascended to the heavens, and will come to judge the living and the dead. And in the Holy Spirit.

As you can see by the last phrase, the pneumatology of Nicea was a little weak yet, perhaps in reaction to the excesses of the Montanists in the realm of the Spirit. But they tried to make it as clearly anti-Arian as possible. Unfortunately, the creed did not solve the issue, it only made it worse.

While it did condemn Arianism, it left the door open to modalism. And it did not help that one of the main proponents of the wording of the creed was indeed a modalist, so that the creed became tainted afterwards. Constantine himself quickly became convinced that the creed was wrong and had to be rewritten. But “one little man stood in his way. For a time it was Athanasius against the world” (Olson 160).

Athanasius was the bishop after Alexander at Alexandria. Athanasius went to the Council of Nicea in 325, but did not play a big role. He became bishop in 328, just three years after the Council. Soon, the emperor turned against the Council of Nicea and essentially became Arian. He ordered Athanasius to reinstate Arius in his position as an elder. But Athanasius ignored the emperor and refused to do what he commanded. So Athanasius was sent into exile for the first time. He was bishop for 45 years and spent 15 of those years in exile. This first exile was two years, during which he lived in the westernmost part of the empire in Germany. He continued to write, and he interacted with many western bishops, bringing them even more strongly to the Nicean side. Two years later he returned from this exile when the emperor died. However, this was not to be the end. Because of his resistance to Arianism, the emperors continued to try to force him to change his mind.

There are various stories about him. One time the emperor came to Alexandria and snubbed Athanasius by not visiting him. In response, Athanasius went up to the emperor in the street, grabbed the bridle of his horse, and gave the Arian emperor a theology lesson. Another time he was in his cathedral in Alexandria, and imperial soldiers entered the church, prepared to arrest and perhaps kill him. The people in the church rose up and surrounded the bishop, allowing him to escape through a side door and out into the desert, where he lived with monks for the next five or six years until things calmed down. Near the end of his life, he was fleeing down the Nile when soldiers overtook him. They asked him if he had seen Athanasius. He said that he had, and that if they continued just a little farther they would overtake him.

The history of the issues goes on, although Athanasius does indeed essentially save the day for Nicean theology. If it was not for him, there is a good chance that orthodoxy today would be what the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe. Soon after the death of Athanasius, the issue was effectively settled for the church. However, other issues related to the nature and person of Jesus were still to be discussed. Unfortunately, we do not have the time to discuss those today, but you can read about them in your church history books you all bought awhile back.

The thing I want you to take away from this review of history is to be challenged in your passion for God. To go back to Hebrews 12:1-2, let us see once again how knowing what God’s people have done before should help us live more godly lives.


Statements of Arius.

The Son is God’s perfect creature, he is unlike any other creature. We say that he was created by God’s will; from the Father he received being and life. And Christ is not true God, but by participation even he was made God. The Son does not know the Father exactly, nor does the Logos see the Father perfectly, and neither does he perceive nor the Logos understand the Father exactly; for he is not the true and only Logos of the Father, but by a name alone he is called Logos and Sophia and by grace is called Son and Power.


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