A lot of confusion has arisen over exactly what took place at the Council of Nicaea, with some making the assertion that Christians voted to make Jesus God in 325 AD. This was a very tumultuous time period in early church history, and the scope of this article cannot address all the various facets of events which contributed to it. However, this article will focus on the early Christian understanding of Jesus in relationship to his divinity.
In part two of this series, I addressed some seemingly contradictory statements by Jesus as to his divinity. In the first two examples below, Jesus is making a clear distinction between himself and his Father.
“I ascend to my Father and your Father, and my God and your God.” (John 20: 17).
“Ye have heard how I said unto you, I go away, and come again unto you. If ye loved me, ye would rejoice, because I said, I go unto the Father: for my Father is greater than I.” (John 14:28).
And yet in these next two passages, Jesus accepts worship and the attribution of divinity, and claims equality with God.
“Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” (John 20:28-29)
“I and the Father are one.” The Jews picked up stones again to stone Him. Jesus answered them, “I showed you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you stoning Me?” The Jews answered Him, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God.” (John 10:30-33).
Note that in the Greek, there is no “the” before God, so verse 33 can also be translated, “You, being a man, make Yourself out to be divine.”
The question of how Jesus could be divine and yet still maintain belief in the monotheistic God of the Old Testament created a lot of confusion for the early church. What did begotten mean? Was Jesus a being created sometime in eternity past? How could his claims of divinity be reconciled with his acknowledgement of one God?
The Nicene Creed was formulated to address these questions, and has been accepted by all three of the major Christian denominations, Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. The opening of the Nicene Creed reads, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father (the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God,) Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father….”
We see from the Nicene Creed, the early Christians believed in one God – the Father. Yet they understood that Jesus, the Son of God, also held divinity. Deciding on how this was possible (what exactly begotten meant) was a prominent issue at this council. Their conclusion was that Jesus was of the exact essence, or uncreated substance, that made up God the Father. (At a future council, they determined that the Holy Spirit was also of this identical substance.)
From the Nicene Creed, we see that the early Christians believed that Jesus’ unique “begotteness” from the Father made him divine, without his being the one God, i.e. God the Father. While this may sound strange for those familiar with the phrase “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit” (which wasn’t coined for another several centuries), this is how the early church understood and defined the relationship between God and Jesus. Jesus is divine; he can accept worship, and he can claim equality in essence with the Father (in apologetic circles, this is referred to as the Ontological Trinity). And yet in person, or role, the Father is greater than Jesus (while less well-known, this is referred to in apologetic circles as the Economical Trinity).
In conclusion, did the Council of Nicaea vote that Jesus was God? No, the early Christians had believed in Jesus’ divinity since the very first disciples. The Council of Nicaea merely explained how Jesus could be divine while still maintaining the monotheistic belief of the Jewish God.