Did Jesus become God in 325 A.D.?
What really happened at the
Council of Nicea?
Garry D. Nation
Dan Brown's rollicking historical thriller The DaVinci Code made an enormous splash when it was published in 2003 that carried on when it was came out as a blockbuster movie a few years later. Both spawned sequels that were profitable but could hardly measure up to the sensational impact of Code.
The crux of Brown's argument (or thesis, or plot device, or whatever) is that Christianity as we know it is the product of an imperial power play by the Roman emperor Constantine, who muscled the bishops gathered in the ancient city of Nicea into making radical changes to key doctrines.
One of his characters, Prof. Teabing, explains how this happened:
"During this fusion of religions, Constantine needed to strengthen the new Christian tradition, and held a famous ecumenical gathering known as the Council of Nicaea…At this gathering," Teabing said, "many aspects of Christianity were debated and voted upon—the date of Easter, the role of bishops, the administration of sacraments, and, of course, the divinity of Jesus."
"I don't follow. His divinity?"
"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 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…."By officially endorsing Jesus as the Son of God, Constantine turned Jesus into a deity who existed beyond the scope of the human world, an entity whose power was unchallengeable." 1
As a novelist, Dan Brown is the writer of compelling fiction. As a historian, Dan Brown is the writer of compelling fiction. How could anyone even take this assertion seriously? It would mean that the entire New Testament was forged in the 4th century, invented out of whole cloth! Not even the most radical skeptics propose that. Talk about suspension of disbelief!
Of course, there is no requirement that the writer of historical fiction must display historical veracity, only plausibility. Literature is replete with examples of novels and plays that have seriously distorted facts in the service of good story-telling.
The problem with The DaVinci Code is that the author, publisher, and filmmaker presented its fictional story as a true exposé, a valid alternative reading of historical evidence. One of the hallmarks of the publicity campaign for the book and the film was the author's insistence that the history behind his fictional story “is all true."2
Now, The DaVinci Code has been amply rebutted and debunked in both Christian and secular sources. Its most crucial "proof" has been demonstrated to be a confessed fraud. It is not my intent here to wage a point by point refutation of the book. A couple of good starting places for that, if it is what you're looking for, would be:
The true story of the Council of Nicea is no less dramatic than the fictional scenario Dan Brown envisions, but far more complex. It was an event in which political ambitions collided, both secular and ecclesiastical. There was genuine monastic spirituality on both sides of the aisle, and there was also ruthless material calculation, again on both sides of the aisle.
Certainly, politics was at work in the Council of Nicea, both secular and ecclesiastical. Those politics were both of the public and the behind-the-scenes type, and sometimes were ruthless. Nevertheless, the Council of Nicea was not primarily a political convention, and the dispute was not primarily about political power. The emperor Constantine was well-established by now, and there were no serious rivals.
At the core of Nicea was a theological dispute of monumental significance. We moderns have been conditioned to believe that all theological debates are essentially over trivial issues. Every so often some scholar or group comes up with a novel interpretation of Jesus, seemingly just to keep interest going. Sometimes the story of the Council of Nicea has been told so that it looks as if it all boiled down to an argument over one letter in one word expressing an arcane point that matters little to the simple "person in the pew." In fact, the argument was momentous—a truth that The DaVinci Code actually gets right (although, alas, it completely misses the true point of the argument, as we shall see).
How momentous? There was no way the Council could leave the status quo unchanged. It was compelled to define for the first time what previous generations had left reverently undefined about the nature of God and the nature of Christ. The pressure did not come from the emperor, but from a heretic. (Yes, I realize “heretic” is a judgmental word. It was the judgment of the Council—and that was not a narrow vote.) If the heretic had prevailed, he would have altered the Christian message drastically from its proclamation of three centuries. Paradoxically, in order to preserve the substance of the message, the council would have to alter the expression of it substantially.
Above all, however, the Council of Nicea represented a clash between two theologies, two visions. It was not merely a question of the identity of Jesus Christ, even though that became the main battleground. The key question, however, was not whether or not to call Jesus divine, but rather how to define his divinity.
More to the point, what was at stake in the controversy was the nature of salvation. The gospel that had been proclaimed since the Day of Pentecost is that Jesus of Nazareth, whose Messiahship was attested by many miracles, wonders and signs that God performed through him, died for our sins on a Roman cross. On the third day he rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, vindicated as the Son of God and the Lord of all. By his death and resurrection, he has won for mankind salvation from sin and offered eternal life to all who believe in him.
None of this was in question at Nicea. It is flatly false that "until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet…a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless. A mortal." The belief that Jesus was and is the Son of God was “catholic” in the original sense of the word—universal among the churches.
The question was rather, what does it mean that Jesus is God's Son. As I pointed out earlier, it was not an idle question. What kind of Son he is determines what kind of Savior he could be, and on that hinges our eternal destiny.
It was a controversy that got started with a rogue preacher from Alexandria, Egypt, named Arius, and the council was convened to determine what to say in response to the questions raised by this fellow and his novel approach to doctrine.
But before we get into the complexities of this 4th century theological debate, it would be useful to look at certain writings of two theologians of the 1st century: John and Paul. Two passages in particular kept showing up at the center of the debate. How do you interpret these passages?
From The Gospel of John, Chapter 1
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him; and without him was not anything made that hath been made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness apprehended it not.... There was the true light, even the light which lighteth every man, coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and they that were his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he the right to become children of God, even to them that believe on his name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth. John beareth witness of him, and crieth, saying, This was he of whom I said, He that cometh after me is become before me: for he was before me. For of his fulness we all received, and [l]grace for grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.
From The Epistle of Paul to the Colossians, Chapter 1
Giving thanks unto the Father, who made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; who delivered us out of the power of darkness, and translated us into the kingdom of the Son of his love; in whom we have our redemption, the forgiveness of our sins: who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him were all things created, in the heavens and upon the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through him, and unto him; and he is before all things, and in him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence. For it was the good pleasure of the Father that in him should all the fulness dwell; 20 and through him to reconcile all things unto himself, having made peace through the blood of his cross; through him, I say, whether things upon the earth, or things in the heavens.
1 Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code (NY: Doubleday, 2003), p. 233.
2 2003 CNN interview with Martin Savidge, cited in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Da_Vinci_Code.
The Ascension of Christ
Rembrandt van Rijn
The "True" Story vs. the Facts