By Bruce Mills
It is the Christmas season, so I would like to consider the message of Christmas—that God the Son became incarnate as the man Jesus, lived among us as God in flesh, and even died for us, atoning for our sins. Most of thhis material is not original with me. I found it several years ago, but I don’t recall where. So with that disclaimer, let me begin.
Of all the doctrines that we study and talk about in Christianity, the doctrine of the divinity of Christ is the one absolute foundational doctrine that a person must agree with or else that person cannot be called a Christian, even if in name only. This is the doctrine that Jesus, that baby in the manger, was God in human flesh. Unless a person considers Christ to be God, he cannot call himself a Christian.
So how did the early church establish the doctrine of the divinity of Christ? Let’s take a look. After the emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity in AD 312, he issued an edict that granted tolerance to the Christian religion and, in essence, proclaimed Christianity the religion of the empire.
He inherited a church that was seething with discussion regarding the person of Christ. To most modern American Christians, the study of theology is limited to a seminary or Bible college classroom, but in those days, everyone was caught up in the debate.
Constantine was confused by these theological debates, so he was persuaded to convene a general council at Nicaea to resolve the bitter disputes. He hoped a consensus could be reached and reconciliation brought about. If not, the church could not unite the empire. In those days, religious unity was the foundation for political unity.
There were two main views that were debated in various parts of the empire. The first view was that Jesus was a created being who was subordinate to the Father.
Back in the previous century (about AD 250), Origen, a theologian from Alexandria in Egypt, asserted that the Son was subordinate to the Father. He sometimes even referred to the Son as the Θέος Δεῦτερος—the second God. Yet strangely, he also claimed to believe in the deity of Christ. Exactly what he meant by the subordination of the Son to the Father is unclear.
Arius, a pastor in Alexandria, took Origen’s view a step further. He said if the Son has a different essence from the Father, it is logical to suppose that He is a created being. Arius said, “If the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence, and from this it was evident, that there was a time when the Son was not.”
Arius taught that the Son was created out of nothing, but that he was the first and the greatest of the beings brought forth by God. Through the Son the world was created. The Son was worthy of worship because He was adopted by God.
Arius’ views became quite popular within the culture of the day. He was very influential because he was skilled in communication. He put his ideas into jingles, which soon became popular with the common people in the marketplace or children at school.
Many cults today find their champion in Arius. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, believe that Christ is a god but not fully God. One of their founders, Charles Russell, said, “Being God’s first creation, he was with the Father in heaven from the beginning of all creation, Jehovah God used him in the creating of all other things that have been created.”
The opposite view was defended by the great theologian and apologist Athanasius (ca. 296–373). A champion of orthodoxy, he insisted that Jesus Christ was fully God and had the same essence as the Father. Specifically, he argued for the doctrine of the Trinity, that God was a tri-unity.
He affirmed that the following propositions could be held without contradiction: (1) Christ and the Holy Spirit are both fully God; (2) both are, in some sense, distinct from one another and from the Father; and (3) God is one.
Athanasius believed the three persons of the Godhead were not separate, which would lead to polytheism, but shared oneness of substance or essence. He realized that “only if Christ is God without qualification, has God entered humanity, and only then have fellowship, the forgiveness of sins, the truth of God, and immortality been certainly brought to men.”
So the stage was set for one of the most important church councils in history. The consideration of this matter should be of special concern to us at this time of year when we celebrate the incarnation of Christ. Who exactly was it that was born in Bethlehem on that starry night? Was it a created sub-god or God Himself in human flesh?
Now, Constantine realized that these differences were about to tear his Empire apart. He had chosen to move the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantium (later the city would be named Constantinople in his honor; the modern name is Istanbul). So he asked the delegates to come to Nicaea, just 25 miles from the new capital. Thus in AD 325, 318 bishops met to wrestle with the question of the diety of Christ and the Trinity.
Consider the circumstances. Here were men who had been persecuted for their faith just a few years before. Many of them could show scars of their days of torture. Yet now, because of the conversion of Constantine, they went openly to the council, all expenses paid by the emperor!
Arius was invited to state his views, that Christ was a created being, that he was the first and the greatest of the created beings, but created nonetheless. He forcefully proclaimed, “The Son had a beginning, but God is without beginning.” He argued his position at great length while the assembly of bishops listened in total silence.
One of the bishops listening that day became more and more upset as Arius presented his views. This bishop had been thrown into prison and suffered terribly for his faith under the reign of the last Roman emperor Diocletian, and he was outraged at what he was hearing.
Suddenly he got up, crossed the room, and slapped Arius across the face. That bishop was none other than Nicholas of Myra, the man we know today as St. Nicholas, whose name was pronounced Sinter Klaus by the Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam (New York City).
Because of his uncontrolled outburst of anger, Nicholas was briefly stripped of his authority as a bishop and imprisoned overnight, but shortly after the council concluded, he was restored as the Bishop of Myra.
But the important thing to remember about St. Nicholas, the man about whom the secular legend of Santa Claus later developed, is that he was a man who stood for the truth of the full divinity of Jesus Christ against the prevailing heresy of the day.
The rest of the council of bishops considered Arius’ arguments, and shortly thereafter agreed with Nicholas, denouncing it as heresy and blasphemy. That much was settled.
Athanasius then stood to present his position. At the time that Athanasius gave this great argument and helped establish for all time the fundamental truths of Christian orthodoxy about the divinity of Christ, he was only 29 years old! He was a young man! He had begun to study for the ministry at the age of 16 and by the age of 22, had distinguished himself for his theological essays he wrote which served as apologetics against various heresies and in favor of orthodox doctrine.
In fact, at the time of the Council of Nicaea, he wasn’t yet a bishop. He was a leader in the Alexandrian church, but he only accompanied his bishop to the council to present his theological position. It wasn’t until three years later when his bishop died that he was appointed bishop of Alexandria.
Athanasius stood before the council and argued that Christ was “true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father.” He was so forceful that after several days of debate, there was a consensus developing toward his view. So at that point, Constantine stepped in and sided with Athanasius. And thus the Nicene Creed emerged, which states, in part:
“I believe in one God the Father Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father…”
All but two of the bishops signed the creed. Those two, along with Arius, were sent into exile. But unfortunately, the debate was far from settled. Arianism continued to spread through many of the churches and subsequent emperors sided with whatever party had the majority at the time.
Athanasius continued to oppose Arianism with such tenacity that when told that everyone was opposing him, he said, “Athanasius against the world!” He was driven into exile five times, but he never wavered in his commitment to the full deity of Christ.
Later the Arians began to disagree among themselves and their influence waned. The council of Rome (341) and the council of Constantinople (381) ratified the Nicene Creed, which is the basis of orthodoxy to this day.
So why is this important? There are many today who say that debating and being dogmatic about doctrine is theological hairsplitting. But the theologians of past centuries understood that all other social and moral issues cannot compare with the significance of the doctrine of the deity of Christ. Because the real question to which the answer is crucial is this: Is Jesus Christ capable of being the Savior of mankind?
Even if Christ were the highest and most noble creature of God’s creation, God would then only be indirectly involved in the salvation of fallen man. Salvation would have cost God little. One of His creatures would have suffered for mankind; God would have simply delegated the “dirty work.”
But could salvation have been brought about if God had delegated the suffering to one of his creatures? No. Only God Himself can reconcile man to Himself. As the great Anglican bishop of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, H. C. G. Moule, put it: “A Savior not quite God would be like a bridge broken at the farthest end.” Only God can satisfy His own requirements. A savior less than God would be disqualified; God must do it Himself.
The deity of Christ must also be affirmed to keep us from idolatry. Christ here on earth accepted the worship and prayers of people without a hint of embarrassment. He also forgave sin. The Jews of His day understood the implications with clarity and asked, “Who can forgive sins but God only?”
If Christ is not God, then God has not saved us, and the worship that Christ accepted and his ability to forgive sins would have been blasphemous.
But this brings us to the question, why is it that thousands of people who believe in Christ will be lost? The answer is, they have believed in a Christ who is not qualified to save them. They believe in a mystical Christ, or a human Christ, or a created Christ. Or they believe in the cosmic power of the New Age movement that they call “the Christ.”
But the most sincere faith one can possibly have, if placed in a Christ who is unable to save, will not get us to heaven. The question comes back to, which Christ saves? And to answer that question, we must return to the Nicene Creed. Only an incarnate Christ who is fully God qualifies to be a Savior.
The deity of Christ, then, is the foundation of Christian doctrine. It is not enough to believe in Christ, but to believe in a Christ who is able to save. The amount of faith is not as important as the object of faith.
I recall being in New York at the Word of Life Conference Center one winter and looking out at Schroon Lake, all frozen over. The people there told me that every year they hold an ice fishing tournament on the lake and the ice freezes so thick that the fishermen drive their trucks out on the lake. But they also said that every year, there are fishermen who will go out a little too early in the winter, thinking the ice will hold them, but it isn’t quite thick enough yet, and their trucks end up going through the ice into the lake.
You see, their faith that the ice will support them isn’t nearly as important as the thickness of the ice itself. Faith alone does not save; only faith in a person qualified to save brings salvation to the human heart. Not all who say “Lord, Lord,” will enter into the kingdom of heaven. The Christ of the cults is unable to pay the penalty for sin. To believe in a Christ who is less than God is to have faith that is misplaced.
The Council of Nicaea divided Christendom forever. On the one side are those who speak well of Christ but affirm that He is less than God; on the other are those who believe He is “God of very God.” These two streams of thought flow in different directions never to meet.
We should be grateful that those men like Athanasius and Nicholas who have preceded us in the history of the church insisted that we believe in the Christ who is God. In His own person He unites God and man; in His death He reconciles man to God. Salvation or damnation; heaven or hell. That is what Nicaea was all about.