One of the most common critiques of Christianity is that some of its major tenets are late inventions. Core Christian doctrines, we are told, were never believed in the earliest phases of the church but were developed only at a later time period. Orthodoxy, therefore, was not early but late.
The most obvious example of a doctrine that was purportedly added later (we will cover another such doctrine in a future post) is the divinity of Jesus. The popular internet-level narrative goes like this: Jesus was not God, nor did he claim to be God. He was just an ordinary man. At a later point, his followers began to assign attributes to him that were semi-divine–like an angel. And it wasn’t until even later, around the fourth century council of Nicea, that Christians began to conceive of Jesus as the one and only creator God of the universe.
Of course, this is not the place for a full-scale assessment of early Christology. But, it is worth noting that some of our earliest Christian sources outside the New Testament don’t at all seem confused about the divinity of Jesus, but affirmed that he was fully God in every sense of the word. One example is the second-century Epistle to Diognetus, a popular early Christian work that affirmed a very high Christology. Here are a few select passages:
But the truly all-powerful God himself, creator of all and invisible, set up and established in their [Christians’] hearts the truth and the holy word from heaven, which cannot be comprehended by humans. To do so, he did not, as one might suppose, send them one of his servants or an angel or a ruler…but he sent the craftsman and maker of all things himself, by whom he created the heavens, by whom he encloses the sea within its own boundaries, whose mysteries all the elements of creation guard faithfully, from whom the sun was appointed to guard the courses that it runs during the day, whom the moon obeys when he commands it to shine at night, whom the stars obey by following the course of the moon, by whom all things are set in order and arranged and put into subjection, the heavens and the things in the heavens, the earth and the things in the earth, the sea and all the things in the sea, fire, air, the abyss, creatures in the heights, creatures in the depths, and creatures in between–this is the one he sent to them. (7.2)
This is a remarkable description of Jesus–especially so early. Notice that the author expressly states that Jesus is NOT an angel, or any other divine servant. Moreover, the author goes out of the way to say that Jesus is the very creator of the universe. Indeed, the author drives this point home by examining every part of creation–heavens, sea, sun, moon, stars, animals, heights, depths–and showing that Jesus made it all.
Although angels received many attributes that made them seem semi-divine, there was one thing they were never given, namely the status as creator. For Jews, that was an attribute that God and God alone possessed.
In the very next passage, the epistles goes on to say:
So, then, did he [God], as one might suppose, send him [his Son] to rule in tyranny, fear, and terror? Not at all. But with gentleness and meekness, as a king sending his own son, he sent him as a king; he sent him as God; he sent him as a human to humans. So that he might bring salvation. (7.3-4).
Here we see the epistle invoke plain language that Jesus is the “Son” of God, and then expressly state that Jesus was sent “as God.” Ehrman’s translation of the Epistle to Diognetus translates this as “a god” (indefinite article and lower case) but there is no warrant in the Greek text for doing so. In fact, the original 1917 Loeb edition of the Apostolic Fathers translated this phrase as “he sent him as God.”
It is also worth noting that while the author fully affirms the divinity of Jesus, he also affirms the full humanity of Jesus when he says God “sent him as a human to human.” Here we see the beginning of the doctrine of the incarnation, namely that Jesus was fully God and fully man at the same time.
A final example:
The Word appeared to them [the apostles] and revealed things, speaking to them openly. Even though he was not understood by unbelievers, he told these things to his disciples, who after being considered faithful by him came to know the mysteries of the Father. For this reason he sent his Word, that it might be manifest to the world. This Word was dishonored by the people but proclaimed by the apostles and believed by the nations. For this is the one who was from the beginning who appeared to be recent but was discovered to be ancient, who is always being born anew in the hearts of the saints. This is the eternal one who “today” is considered to be the Son, through whom the church is enriched and the unfolding grace is multiplied among the saints. (11:2-4).
The author’s use of “Word” (logos) suggests he is familiar with John’s gospel, or at least teaching based on John’s gospel. His high view of Jesus as the pre-existent God is evident from the phrase: “the one who was from the beginning who appeared to be recent but was discovered to be ancient.” What a fabulous, and profound, way of describing how Jesus is both God and man.
Although more patristic sources could be called as witnesses, it is at least worth noting that this patristic source, the Epistle to Diognetus, has a a view of Jesus in the second century that supposedly was not invented until the fourth century.