Contributed by Dan Barkman
Much has been written showing that Jesus understood Himself to be a divine person and that the authors of the New Testament held that same conviction. But is it possible that we have misunderstood what the apostles actually believed about Jesus? Could it be that the modern church is confused as to what it was that the apostles actually taught? To answer this question we will turn to the writings of the early church fathers (Christian writers writing shortly after the time of the apostles) to see how they understood the apostles’ teachings on the identity of Jesus Christ.
The first Christian witness that we will look at is Clement of Rome. Clement was a leader in the church of Rome in the last decade of the 1st century. In a letter written by Clement to the church at Corinth in about 95 A.D., Clement speaks of Jesus in the same manner that He is referred to by the apostles, “On account of the Love he bore us, Jesus Christ our Lord gave His blood for us by the will of God; His flesh for our flesh, and His soul for our souls” (Clement of Rome, 1st Clement, 49). Several early sources (Oregin, Clement of Alexandria, and Irenaeus) note that Clement was a disciple of the apostles-a fact that lends support to the idea that Clement was passing on apostolic teachings in his letter.
Ignatius of Antioch was a contemporary of the apostle John and was a bishop of a city that had been visited by the apostles Peter and Paul (Acts 15:22; Galatians 2:11-13). So presumably, both Ignatius and his congregation were familiar with the teachings of the apostles. Ignatius wrote several letters to various churches while being transported to his execution in Rome in approximately 110 A.D. In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Ignatius writes, “Let my spirit be counted as nothing for the sake of the cross, which is a stumbling-block to those that do not believe, but to us salvation and life eternal. “Where is the wise man? where the disputer?” Where is the boasting of those who are styled prudent? For our God, Jesus Christ, was, according to the appointment of God, conceived in the womb by Mary, of the seed of David, but by the Holy Ghost” (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians, 18). In the Introduction of his letter to the church at Rome, Ignatius writes, “…who are filled inseparably with the grace of God, and are purified from every strange taint, [I wish] abundance of happiness unblameably, in Jesus Christ our God” (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans, Introduction).
Writing in the middle of the 2nd century, the Christian apologist Justin Martyr also referred to Christ as deity. In his First Apology, Justin writes, “…nor to know that the Father of the universe has a son; who also, being the first-begotten Word of God, is even God” (Justin Martyr, First Apology, 63). The recognition of Christ’s divinity is mentioned twice elsewhere in Justin’s writings (Dialogue with Trypho, 64, 68).
Writing in about 180 A.D., Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons in France, wrote concerning Jesus, “…and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Jesus Christ, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King…” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 1, chapter 10). What is interesting is that Irenaeus was a personal student of Polycarp- who himself sat directly under the teaching of the apostle John. As Irenaeus noted, “I can even describe the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit and discourse— his going out, too, and his coming in— his general mode of life and personal appearance, together with the discourses which he delivered to the people; also how he would speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord; and how he would call their words to remembrance. Whatsoever things he had heard from them respecting the Lord, both with regard to His miracles and His teaching, Polycarp having thus received [information] from the eye-witnesses of the Word of life, would recount them all in harmony with the Scriptures” (Irenaeus, Fragments, 2). So in the testimony of Irenaeus we hear an echo of the teaching of the apostles to the divinity of Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, we have seen that the belief in the divinity of Christ was a belief taught not only by Jesus’ apostles but also by their earliest successors. It was a conviction that seemed to be at the center of their proclamation as well as their apologetic to unbelievers. Adherence to this doctrine is required for salvation (Romans 10:9) and remains one of the primary lines of demarcation between biblical Christianity and all other religions.
Originally posted on blogos.