Friday, April 05, 2013

Did Constantine and the council of Nicea invent the idea that Jesus is God in 325AD?

The Da Vinci Code (2003) is relatively harmless nonsense that I stayed up late into the night reading several years ago. The film is oddly less fun.
Dan Brown explicitly writes fiction but he builds his plot on re-writing actual history and that leads to some confusion (and opportunity for fresh clarity).
He has Leigh Teabing say:
“The fundamental irony of Christianity! The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great.”
The caper rests upon casting Christianity as Gnosticism. Gnostics, broadly, hated women and hated physicality... Great Christian leader Augustine was a Gnostic for a while until he found their worldview offered no answers or comfort for suffering - one of the vital questions for any worldview to answer.
By contrast to the Gnostics, the persecuted Christians honoured women and loved the beauty and physicality of this world. Followers of The Resurrected Man are hardly going to be against bodies or to think history doesn't matter. A God interested in physical things wasn't a New Testament thing either. Richard Dawkins mocks but we take it as a badge of honour: the God of the Bible cares about what you do with your genitals.

As Luther later put it:
"A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvellous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs."
"There is no colour in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice"
Meanwhile, Brown's initially intruiging story is finally stranegly uncompelling - leaving Sophie with an apathetic ambivalence... if the Brown story were the true story then the world just carries on regardless.
  • We love conspiratorial codes. Why? Jesus tells there is a mystery that he reveals. Good news for all people, classes and cultures.
  • We love the idea of schemes and stories. Why? Jesus tells us history is a great story, with a happy ending.
  • We love the idea of secret societies and inner rings. Why? - Jesus invites us to come and live in the Trinity.
  • We like the idea of a meaningful world. Why? Jesus opens our eyes to a meaning-drenched universe.
Dan Brown has Teabing voice the idea that the council of Nicea invented the idea of Jesus being God.
What's true? Jesus' divinity was the subject at that council of church leaders in Turkey. Incidentally that was a gathering of church leaders from the Middle East and north Africa, with some Europeans - forget Christianity being a Western power-play.
What's not true? They weren't meeting at Constantine's bidding to invent Jesus being God... they were responding to a virulent false teaching coming from a church leader in Egypt called Arius who was peddling a new idea by saying Jesus wasn't God. The council rejected Arius and affirmed 300 years of church history.

Rewind a little.
  • 303-305 it's really dangerous to be a Christian as Diocletian is persecuting the church viciously. 
  • 312 Constantine is converted to Christ - you could debate how real his conversion was and we probably can't know. But far from the idea that he backed a winner he was backing a persecuted group...  
  • 318 Arius begins to teach that Jesus isn't God. 
  • 325 the council is gathered at Nicea affirming what had already been believed that Jesus is "begotten not made of one being with the Father."
Nicea fits with the teaching of the documents we now call the New Testament - which had long since been widely distributed in the middle east, north Africa and Europe - which tells us that Jesus makes the Father known, that "in the beginning was The Word" and that Jesus was loved and glorified by his Father before the creation of the world. A view you can discern from the start of Genesis through to the last page of the book of Revelation. Eternal relational Trinity is the faith of the Bible.
  • Justin Martyr (100-165AD): Jesus is God and to be worshippped.
  • Ignatius- (35-1908AD): Jesus is God. God in flesh. Son of God.
  • Irenaeus (130-202AD): the Son is God.
Each quote and allude to the New Testament Documents... these Ante-Nicene Fathers sound very much like the later Reformers and contemporary Christians. They tell one story: God as Father is who you know when you know Jesus the Son.

Egyptian Christian leader Athanasius (298-373) later observed that Arius looked at creation and concluded that god is the unoriginate one. We however look at Jesus the Son and conclude God is Father. Fundamentally the church has always said God is relational in contrast to the unrelational definition that Arius and others since have peddled. Brown's view of a god who is disinterested in us and disgusted with our bodies sounds more like Arius than the Embodied God of Athanasius. Arius' god and his followers are into power more than service, a lonely community rather than an inviting community, a god to treat with fear or ambivalence...

Questions about Constantine and Nicea are a great opportunity to see for ourselves the remarkable teaching that the church has gathered around - a message quite unlike anything that anyone else has ever taught, a God like no god you've ever heard of. The God of loving community who invites us to enjoy his world with him. Which, as it happens, takes to the other great revelation of The Da Vinci Code... Jesus does have a wife, and he gave his life for her. Her name is the church.

Introducing Athanasius - MP3s from Mike Reeves


  1. Thank you, clear concise and well informed. Refreshed my memory in places and strengthened my faith in others. It's a shame that the originate/unoriginate heresy still has such a loud voice in society even today.

    1. Thanks Joe for prompting me to think. My questions or those from others are the provocation for me to write. Enjoy your own investigations into this.