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.
A high Christology was certainly present in the second century but it was one of a continuum of views and nuances that coexisted through the second century among Christians. Some of the church fathers of the second century would have been considered heterodox due to their Christology had they lived in the fourth century. I can ascribe to the high Christology of the Nicene Creed with no problem. But the unity of the second century church despite a wide variation of views on Christ’s divinity is still instructive to us today on the wideness of Christian unity. Anyone who today can make the Petrine confession, “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God,” should be fully accepted in Christian fellowship.
Well Gary, there were those in the fourth century who wouldn’t ascribe to the high Christology of the Nicene Creed, or who did so only officially, and continued to deny it in their churches. They also believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, but they argued that as a son, He couldn’t be God.
What unity can those who believe in the Godhood of the Word Who became flesh have with those who deny it?
“it was one of a continuum of views”
Could you point me to some 2nd century sources with an explicitly low Christology?
I can’t point you to explicitly low Christological views in the second century other than the Ebionites. But an implicitly low Christology in both the first and second centuries seems clear in such writings as James and the Didache. In the second century the Monarchialists were certainly at odds at times with those who explicitly espoused a high Christology but they were well within the fold of the church. I think the Monarchialists’ low Christology is more evident in what they did not affirm rather than in any explicit denial of high Christology. I don’t understand how Christian fellowship can legitimately be denied to anyone who will make any of the biblical confessions of the New Testament, the simplest one being that Jesus is Lord.
“Anyone who today can make the Petrine confession, “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God,” should be fully accepted in Christian fellowship.”
If this were the standard, Mormons would be counted among the brethren. Alas, being polytheists, they are far from Christian.
Going from my understanding of things…The critics cant have it both ways…if Jesus was married then he wouldnt be an angel & if He were an angel, blood would not have poured from his side.
Rev. Bryant J. Williams III says
Excellent post. Of course, you could have added more (I hope you do in “Continued Series”), but the implications are clear.
BTW, on related matter of the NT Canon. You should check out http://www.pastoralepistles.com in which Rick Brannon of Logos.com has the following comment:
I am pleased to announce that Tim Swinson’s book, What Is Scripture?: Paul’s Use of Graphe in the Letters to Timothy (Wipf & Stock) is now available (Amazon, publisher’s site). I was honored to write the foreword for this compelling book which argues that graphe in each instance in 1 & 2 Timothy includes in its reference at least some of the apostolic writings.
Here is the book summary from the publisher:
Analysis of the literary scheme of the letters to Timothy suggests that graphe, as it is employed in each letter, may legitimately be understood to include some of the apostolic writings that now appear in the New Testament. In affirming the Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles, Swinson argues that a form of the Gospel of Luke stands as the source of the second referent of graphe in 1 Tim 5:18. Second, Swinson contends that pasa graphe in 2 Tim 3:16 includes the apostolic writings extant in Paul’s day, specifically Luke’s Gospel and some of Paul’s own writings. These parallel lines of analysis demonstrate that Paul ascribes to his own writings and to those of his coworkers an authoritative standing equal to that of the sacred writings (ta hiera grammata) found in the Old Testament. While many questions surrounding biblical authority and the biblical canon remain, Paul’s use of graphe in 1 and 2 Timothy nevertheless advances a high view of both Old Testament and New Testament Scripture.
If his arguments hold (as I think they do), this book has significant implications in several areas. First, this is an important contribution to scholarship on the Pastoral Epistles. The careful exegesis, the discourse and semantic analysis, and the lexical study, not to mention his challenge to the typical reading of γραφη, make this a valuable resource for anyone working in these letters. Then, his thesis that apostolic writings were already recognized in the first century as “Scripture” on par with the Law, the Prophets and the Writings has major implications for our understanding of canon and current debates in that realm.
I think the problem is that scholars claim that “early” writings are after 150 years of Jesus’ death. No scholar would claim writings about Joseph Smith in 1990s would be “early” or writings about David Koresh in year 2140 would be early.
Early writings would be before Paul’s visions; anything related to James. Perhaps his letter, Galatians 2 excerpt, Reference how James’ church was, perhaps Didache. Any author who never met Jesus should be classified as “late”.
“Early” for scholars is anything in the first two centuries because of the establishment of the Church in the 4th cent. when there was an enormous explosion of writings and everything really jumped up to high gear. “Early Patristics” is referencing “earlier than ____ period”. Mormons are in a different situation because their entire religion has changed drastically in the last 100 years. However in 2000 years, Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War might be considered early if an entire culture grows up with Abraham Lincoln being the central figure and worshiped as a god. If we had more evidence for the early Christian church, the designations would probably be different.
The writings of the New Testament are still the earliest attestation of Christian belief regardless of when they are dated. And high Christology is found in the absolute earliest of the earliest representations of the early church.
Gary your response in no way supports your original claims.
You said there were church fathers who would be considered heterodox. Can you please cite some specific references?
You say the view of “Christians” was a continuum of views. Then you refer to ebionites. Are you saying they were Christian? by your definition? By the NT definition? By early church/fathers definition? By modern definition?
You said the unity of the second century church despite a wide variation of views on Christ’s divinity is still instructive to us today. Really? There was a unity of churches or fathers with varying views on Christs divinity? Pointing us to the ebionites and the monarchialists actually is self refuting. These groups demonstrate the opposite of unity.
So, would to be so kind as to simply substantiate the bold assertions you made in your original post?
So you refer here to ONE second century work that has a high Christology and say that proves that Christians all believed Jesus was divine? Gary is right, it is not nearly that simple. If it was, why was there even a fight over the topic all the way through the end of the fourth century?
And if one quote could be proved to show what was orthodox, how about Justin Martyr saying that it was heretics who believed that people go to heaven when they die? Would you suggest Christians give up their view of the afterlife because of one quote?
The fact is that early church fathers were all over the place on a wide variety of issues. What they have to say is interesting in figuring out the development of Christian beliefs, but it doesn’t make sense to point to one and say it is dispositive about what everyone believed, or even what we should believe today.
Michael Kruger says
Therpo, you need to learn to read articles or posts more carefully. Nowhere did I say that one second century work “proves that Christians all believed Jesus was divine.” You misrepresent my article with such a statement. If you read it again, you will see that my point is much more simple. For those who claim Christians didn’t think Jesus was divine until the fourth century, this historical account (the Epistle to Diognetus) at least shows that a high Christology goes back much further; well into the second century and even into the first if you consider the NT writings. Of course, there were other (competing) views of Christ’s divinity in various factions of early Christianity. Nowhere did I deny this, nor even imply the contrary. As to how widespread and established these other divergent views were, that is a topic for a different and longer post.
OK, Michael, but you imply that the scholarly consensus that high Christology developed over time is wrong. At best, this passage could demonstrate that high Christology was conceived and had some adherents as early as the second century. I’m not sure how that rebuts the scholarly consensus though, which readily states that Jesus’ status developed over time.
Clearly, the view of Jesus as divine was not a majority view, nor was it essential to identity as a Christian when this passage was written. Clearly, even this passage makes no mention of a Trinity, nor could such a view of God be derived from this writing.
Michael Kruger says
Therpo, you have deeply misunderstood the scholarly consensus on early Christology. While all scholars agree there were varying views of Jesus’ divinity, the idea that a high Christology “developed over time” (as you put it) is flat out wrong. Scholars like Bauckham and Hurtado, for example, have shown that the highest of Christologies was present from the very start, certainly by the 40’s of the first century. Even Bart Ehrman concedes this. So, I am not sure which “scholarly consensus” you referring to. Moreover, your claim that “the view of Jesus as divine was not a majority view” is absolutely stunning. Not only does such a statement show little familiarity with the historical evidence, but also little familiarity, again, with the scholarly consensus which says no such thing.
I don’t think Buchbaum and Hurtado are in the mainstream, unless you count the mainstream to include only evangelicals. An Ehrman’s view changed only recently.
When Jesus died, the movement became led by his brother James, who was also a respected member of the temple. If he taught that his brother was divine, I doubt he would have been such a revered figure among Jews.
I admit that a term like scholarly consensus is a bit slippery, and how you define divine is the key. Did early Christians think Jesus was exalted? Sure. But Dunn showed that they worshipped God through Jesus, not Jesus as God, and it took centuries until the current “second person of the Trinity” view was developed.
I think it’s important to note that everything you’ve stated is conjecture. Whatever scholarly consensus may or may not be, consensus could still be wrong in truth. This is especially true for a situation like that of James. Everything hinges on one single epistle from the man. That being said, there are numerous places in James where I think a hint of high Christology is seen:
1. The greeting calls Jesus “Lord and Christ”. And chapter 2 calls him “Christ, the Lord of Glory”.
2. Even if the greeting is claimed to not be original to the text, there are a couple of places where God is called, “the Father” implying that there is a Son of God. (1:27; 3:9)
3. If the greeting is original, it can be said that several places where James uses “Lord” are referring to Jesus and if that is the case, he is flat out calling him divine. Though I think James mixes Lord to refer to either the Son or the Father, I don’t think it’s certain that he is exclusively referring to the Father.
Cory, there was a ton of material written about James in antiquity, you should read Jeffrey Butz. When he was murdered, the Jews sent a delegation to Rome to protest. And it was said that the destruction of the temple was judgement for his murder. Exalted language was written about him, doesn’t make him divine.
Trying to grasp for a few Trinitarian straws in a letter that clearly is not is unbecoming. Nothing in the letter of James implies divinity when read in context, which is why many Christians through the ages do not like it.
I am not at all a Patristics scholar but I believe J.N.D. Kelly’s book Early Christian Doctrine is considered a reliable reference work. Kelly writes on p.4, “it is a commonplace that certain fathers (Origen is the classic example) who were later adjudged heretics counted for orthodox in their lifetimes.” It seems clear that a wider range of doctrinal views, including on Christology, were allowed within the fellowship of the church in the second century than in the fourth and later centuries. They did not necessarily coexist comfortably but there was no schism.
Even the Ebionites were not clearly outside of the fellowship of the wider church until well into the second century. Who was the originator of what became the Ebionites other than James and the Jerusalem church? Christological views that would later be labeled Ebionite obviously were in the mix of the church in the first and early second century church. No one, not even Paul, would have dared to try to directly brand James as a heretic during his lifetime.
The beginning of the church on Pentecost in Acts 2 should give pause to those who would restrict Christian fellowship to believers with a Nicene creed level of understanding. Of the 3,000 Jews who were baptized on Pentecost in Acts 2 how many of them understood at their baptism that Jesus is divine and coequal with the Father? Maybe none? Why would more be required today for salvation and Christian fellowship than was required when Christ’s church began?