So the divine Jesus and infallible Word emerged out of a fourth-century power-play? Get real.
By Collin Hansen | updated 04/26/2006
I guess Christians should be flattered. Who knew the Council of Nicea and Mary Magdalene could be this hot? Thanks in large measure to Dan Brown’s fictional thriller The DaVinci Code, early church history just can’t stay out of the news.
If only a more worthy work could have prompted such attention. Brown first grabbed the headlines and prime-time TV in 2003 with his theory that Jesus married Mary Magdalene. But The DaVinci Code contains many more (equally dubious) claims about Christianity’s historic origins and theological development. It’s left to the reader whether these theories belong to Brown’s imagination or the skeleton of “facts” that supports the book.
Brown claims “almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false.” Why? Because of a single meeting of bishops in 325, at the city of Nicea in modern-day Turkey. There, Brown argues, church leaders who wanted to consolidate their power base (he calls this, anachronistically, “the Vatican,” or “the Roman Catholic church”) created a divine Christ and an infallible Scripture—both novelties that had never before existed among Christians.
Watershed at Nicea
Brown is right about one thing (and not much more). In the course of Christian history, few events loom larger than the Council of Nicea in 325. When the newly converted Roman Emperor Constantine called bishops from around the world to present-day Turkey, the church had reached a theological crossroads.
Led by an Alexandrian theologian named Arius, one school of thought argued that Jesus had undoubtedly been a remarkable leader, but he was not God in flesh. Arius proved an expert logician and master of extracting biblical proof texts that seemingly illustrated differences between Jesus and God, such as John 14:28: “the Father is greater than I.” In essence, Arius argued that Jesus of Nazareth could not possibly share God the Father’s unique divinity.
In The Da Vinci Code, Brown apparently adopts Arius as his representative for all pre-Nicene Christianity. Referring to the Council of Nicea, Brown claims 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.”
In reality, early Christians overwhelmingly worshipped Jesus Christ as their risen Savior and Lord. Before the church adopted comprehensive doctrinal creeds, early Christian leaders developed a set of instructional summaries of belief, termed the “Rule” or “Canon” of Faith, which affirmed this truth. To take one example, the canon of prominent second-century bishop Irenaeus took its cue from 1 Corinthians 8:6: “Yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ.”
The term used here—Lord, Kyrios—deserves a bit more attention. Kyrios was used by the Greeks to denote divinity (though sometimes also, it is true, as a simple honorific). In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint, pre-dating Christ), this term became the preferred substitution for “Jahweh,” the holy name of God. The Romans also used it to denote the divinity of their emperor, and the first-century Jewish writer Josephus tells us that the Jews refused to use it of the emperor for precisely this reason: only God himself was kyrios.
The Christians took over this usage of kyrios and applied it to Jesus, from the earliest days of the church. They did so not only in Scripture itself (which Brown argues was doctored after Nicea), but in the earliest extra-canonical Christian book, the Didache, which scholars agree was written no later than the late 100s. In this book, the earliest Aramaic-speaking Christians refer to Jesus as Lord.
In addition, pre-Nicene Christians acknowledged Jesus’s divinity by petitioning God the Father in Christ’s name. Church leaders, including Justin Martyr, a second-century luminary and the first great church apologist, baptized in the name of the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—thereby acknowledging the equality of the one Lord’s three distinct persons.
The Council of Nicea did not entirely end the controversy over Arius’s teachings, nor did the gathering impose a foreign doctrine of Christ’s divinity on the church. The participating bishops merely affirmed the historic and standard Christian beliefs, erecting a united front against future efforts to dilute Christ’s gift of salvation.
“Fax from Heaven”?
With the Bible playing a central role in Christianity, the question of Scripture’s historic validity bears tremendous implications. Brown claims that Constantine commissioned and bankrolled a staff to manipulate existing texts and thereby divinize the human Christ.
Yet for a number of reasons, Brown’s speculations fall flat. Brown correctly points out that “the Bible did not arrive by fax from heaven.” Indeed, the Bible’s composition and consolidation may appear a bit too human for the comfort of some Christians. But Brown overlooks the fact that the human process of canonization had progressed for centuries before Nicea, resulting in a nearly complete canon of Scripture before Nicea or even Constantine’s legalization of Christianity in 313.
Ironically, the process of collecting and consolidating Scripture was launched when a rival sect produced its own quasi-biblical canon. Around 140 a Gnostic leader named Marcion began spreading a theory that the New and Old Testaments didn’t share the same God. Marcion argued that the Old Testament’s God represented law and wrath while the New Testament’s God, represented by Christ, exemplified love. As a result Marcion rejected the Old Testament and the most overtly Jewish New Testament writings, including Matthew, Mark, Acts, and Hebrews. He manipulated other books to downplay their Jewish tendencies. Though in 144 the church in Rome declared his views heretical, Marcion’s teaching sparked a new cult. Challenged by Marcion’s threat, church leaders began to consider earnestly their own views on a definitive list of Scriptural books including both the Old and New Testaments.
Another rival theology nudged the church toward consolidating the New Testament. During the mid- to late-second century, a man from Asia Minor named Montanus boasted of receiving a revelation from God about an impending apocalypse. The four Gospels and Paul’s epistles achieved wide circulation and largely unquestioned authority within the early church but hadn’t yet been collected in a single authoritative book. Montanus saw in this fact an opportunity to spread his message, by claiming authoritative status for his new revelation. Church leaders met the challenge around 190 and circulated a definitive list of apostolic writings that is today called the Muratorian Canon, after its modern discoverer. The Muratorian Canon bears striking resemblance to today’s New Testament but includes two books, Revelation of Peter and Wisdom of Solomon, which were later excluded from the canon.
By the time of Nicea, church leaders debated the legitimacy of only a few books that we accept today, chief among them Hebrews and Revelation, because their authorship remained in doubt. In fact, authorship was the most important consideration for those who worked to solidify the canon. Early church leaders considered letters and eyewitness accounts authoritative and binding only if they were written by an apostle or close disciple of an apostle. This way they could be assured of the documents’ reliability. As pastors and preachers, they also observed which books did in fact build up the church—a good sign, they felt, that such books were inspired Scripture. The results speak for themselves: the books of today’s Bible have allowed Christianity to spread, flourish, and endure worldwide.
Though unoriginal in its allegations, The Da Vinci Code proves that some misguided theories never entirely fade away. They just reappear periodically in a different disguise. Brown’s claims resemble those of Arius and his numerous heirs throughout history, who have contradicted the united testimony of the apostles and the early church they built. Those witnesses have always attested that Jesus Christ was and remains God himself. It didn’t take an ancient council to make this true. And the pseudohistorical claims of a modern novel can’t make it false.
For more on what the early church fathers can teach us about Jesus and the Bible, see our sequel to this article. To schedule an interview with Collin Hansen, please contact him contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Collin Hansen is an associate editor of Christianity Today magazine.