The centuries are falling away; we are heading back to the fourth century--nearly 300 years after Jesus died. Here we encounter the Emperor Constantine, master (from 312 C.E.) of the whole Roman Empire. He decides to unite his subjects under a single religion, Christianity. And so the question looms large: Did Constantine declare Jesus to be God?
In "The Da Vinci Code," Leigh Teabing outlines the achievement of Constantine. Here, abbreviated, is Teabing’s account: Jesus Christ was a figure of staggering influence, perhaps the most enigmatic and inspiring leader the world has ever seen. Three centuries after his crucifixion, his followers had multiplied exponentially. Constantine decided something had to be done. He could see that Christianity was on the rise, and he simply backed the winning horse. He needed to strengthen the new Christian tradition, and held a famous ecumenical gathering known as the Council of Nicaea. 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. Jesus’ establishment as "the Son of God" was officially proposed and voted on by the Council of Nicaea.
Is this right? To find out, we need to head back further still, to the first decades after Jesus lived and died. Jesus was Jewish. So were all his first disciples; so was the apostle Paul. It was the great principle of Judaism that there was one God and one only; God is to be worshipped, as is nothing and nobody else. God says, in the book of the prophet Isaiah, "I am God, and there is none other; for every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess God" (Isaiah 45.22–23).
In the 50s or 60s C.E.--30 years at most after the death of Jesus--Paul wrote to his converts in the city of Philippi. In his letter he quoted a hymn, perhaps one that he had written himself, perhaps one he had inherited. He seems to expect his converts in Philippi to recognize the hymn; perhaps, then, he taught it to them on his own visit to the city, some five years before.
The hymn is in two parts. The first speaks of Jesus’ willingness to humble himself: "He made himself empty, being born in the likeness of humans; he humbled himself and was obedient to the point of death--and death on a cross." And in the hymn’s second part Jesus is rewarded for his obedience: "Therefore God has highly exalted him and has given him the name above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow" (from Philippians 2.6–10).
Every knee shall bow at the name of Jesus: Within 30 years of his death, Jesus was being given the worship that could be given to God alone. Of all the startling things in early Christianity, this is the most remarkable of all.
It was indeed under Constantine, in the fourth century, that the churches’ leaders defined in the terms of Greek philosophy what status this Jesus had in relation to God himself. But the instinct was there from the earliest decades: Jesus must be worshipped as God alone is worshipped. Such worship, in itself, raises more questions than it answers; and it would be 300 years before the churches’ thinkers had worked through all the possible implications (and hazards!) of all the possible accounts they could give of this Jesus. Constantine required his bishops to endorse one such view, expressed in sophisticated and carefully ambiguous language.
And why was a formulation--this formulation--needed just then? Did the emperor coolly calculate what would serve his imperial aims? No. The churches were in crisis, and only the emperor could resolve it.
In 318 C.E. a dispute broke out in the churches that would blaze or smolder for a century. A brilliant teacher named Arius, in Alexandria in Egypt, proposed a view of Jesus Christ that was based in Scripture, logical, and, to anyone trained in Greek thought, reassuringly credible. It went as follows: There is one perfect and utterly transcendent God; he alone is eternal, wise, and ruler of all. He is the source and origin of everything that is created. There can be no question of his sharing his divine essence with anyone else.
So who or what was Christ? He was created by God to be the agent of God. He was, as Paul had said, the first-begotten of all creation (Colossians 1.15), and so was part of creation. To use the slogan ascribed to Arius: "There was when Christ was not." Christ the Son, then, is finite, and can have no real knowledge of the infinite Father; so he can relay to us no real knowledge of that Father. The Son was morally impeccable; but only by his own resolute will. This will bore him through suffering and death--from which God must clearly be immune. This Jesus may be many things; but he must be wholly distinct from God.
What stirred Arius into this polemic? Claims which were already being made for Jesus and which Arius was determined to refute.
Who knows the name Arius now? He is almost forgotten. But there are, I suspect, a great many informal Arians within and around the churches today. Such people respect--even revere--Jesus; they regard him as a perfect person and (in practice and probably in principle) unique. Arius delved into the details of the Son’s relation to the Father, as many modern Arians do not. But his clarity seems refreshing, and can seem far less confusing today than the churches’ later claims that Jesus was wholly God and wholly human.
Arius stirred up a storm. Just as Constantine was strengthening the churches as a power for unity and cohesion in his Empire, Arius was splitting those churches themselves down the middle. Constantine sought--and more or less demanded--unity at Nicaea among the Christian theologians who were effectively in his service. He won the agreement he wanted: Of the 220 bishops at the Council, 218 signed their agreement to the creed that Constantine proposed.
The agreement was clearly constructed from an earlier document. I have put in italics the clauses that are likely to have been inserted at the Council to rebut the claims of Arius. The Council was not inventing a claim that Jesus was God. Far from it. The Council was defending that claim--however hard it was to define it in detail--against a powerful attack. Here is the creed on which the bishops agreed:
We believe in one God, the Father, almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible.
(There was, then, no question of there being a great God and then a lesser, deceptive god responsible for the material world.)
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 the same substance with the Father.
The term "substance," ousia, bore many meanings. (It still does.) The ambiguities of the word turned out to be its great strength--different factions could agree that the Son is of the same substance with the Father without necessarily agreeing what it meant.
The creed continued. To make sure there was no wriggling-room for Arians, the meaning of those vital lines was clarified in a further paragraph:
But as for those who say, "There was when he was not," and "Before being born he was not," and "He came into existence out of nothing," or who assert that "The Son of God is a different substance, or is subject to alteration or change"--these the universal and apostolic church declares to be accursed.
The main body of this creed has a familiar ring to it. Christians still recite a version of it, only lightly amended, in services today. But its victory was not assured by the agreement at Nicaea. The Arians regrouped, and within 50 years had swept all before them. The allegiance of successive emperors--and the outcome of wars between them--was crucial. It would take a further counter-attack, political as much as theological, to restore the Nicene formula to the center of the churches’ life.
Leigh Teabing claims that a single declaration turned Jesus, in the Empire’s propaganda, from a man into a god. No. Within a few decades of Jesus’ death, the New Testament recorded that worship was being given to Jesus that could be given to God alone. Where that first generation of Christians led, all future generations of Christians would follow: such worship, they were sure, was owed to Jesus.
This posed the greatest question to confront the thinkers of the early churches: Who could--or must--Jesus have been, to be entitled to that worship? The struggle among theologians to define Jesus’ true standing was a struggle that, at Nicaea, still had 100 years to run. Jesus: man or God or both at once? To find an answer, Teabing shines a spotlight on a single Council, in 325 C.E., and leaves in darkness, all around it, 400 years of agonized thought and daily devotion.