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Victor Paul Wierwille (the founder of The Way International) proclaimed, "When my life is over I think my greatest contribution may prove to be the knowledge and teaching that Jesus Christ is not God" (Williams, p. 50).
Wierwille believed the Church adopted the idea of Jesus being God and other "heresies" as a result of pagan influences that seeped into Christianity during the first four centuries (Williams, p. 66). He was convinced God had directly called him to return the Church from this "apostasy" which it had fallen into (Tucker, p. 226).
Jehovah's Witnesses likewise hold to an "apostasy" theory. For JWs, the Council of Nicea in 325 AD was the means for bring into Christianity the "heresy" of Jesus being equal to the Father (Mankind's, pp. 261-277).
Some liberal theologians also think Christians before Nicea did not profess the full deity of Jesus Christ (Don Cupitt in Goulder, pp. 31-40).
But are these claims true? What did the Church between the time of the apostles and the Council of Nicea regard the nature of Jesus Christ to be? The century immediately following the apostles is the most important of the post-apostolic period. Did the Christian leaders of the second century AD say Jesus is God? In answering this controversial question, it is best to let the Church Fathers speak for themselves. The rest of this article will consist of pertinent quotations from seven Church Fathers with only background information and short explanatory comments added.
Ignatius is the first Church Father to be listened to. Ignatius was a disciple of the apostle John and bishop of Antioch (Moyer, p. 203). In 117 AD, he was led ". . . from Antioch to Rome, having been condemned to death and expecting to be thrown to the wild beasts in the amphitheater on his arrival."
Along the way, he wrote seven epistles. Six of the letters were addressed to various churches and the seventh to Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna (Lightfoot, p. 97). What follows is short excerpts from four of these letters (Note: These epistles have been divided into chapters and verses, similar to the Bible. These references are in the parentheses.)
To the Ephesians: Ignatius opens his first epistle by telling the Ephesian church it is ". . . united and elect in a true passion, by the will of the Father and of Jesus Christ our GOD" (introduction). He commends them for ". . . having your hearts kindled in THE BLOOD OF GOD" (1:1 compare Acts 20:28).
Next comes a very interesting passage, "There is one only physician, of flesh and of spirit, generate and ingenerate, GOD IN MAN, true Life in death, Son of Mary and Son of God, first passible and then impassible, Jesus Christ our Lord" (7:2).
Some notes on this important verse:
1. "The antithesis of flesh and spirit is intended to express the human and divine nature respectively" (Lightfoot, quoted in Stevenson, p. 13).
2. "Generate and ingenerate" (Greek--gennetos kai agennetos) can also be translated "Originate and unoriginate" or "created and uncreated" (Stevenson, p. 13).
3. Passible means, "Capable of suffering; impassible, "Not subject to suffering or pain" (American, pp. 907, 504).
In a paragraph discussing Jesus, Ignatius exhorts, "Let us therefore do all things as knowing that He dwelleth in us, to the end that we may be His temples and He Himself may be in us as our GOD" (15:3).
The conception of Jesus is next discussed. "For our GOD, Jesus the Christ, was conceived in the womb by Mary according to a dispensation, of the seed of David but also of the Holy Ghost" (18:2).
Near the end of the letter, Ignatius explains the effect of the birth and death of Jesus. "From that time forward every sorcery and every spell was dissolved, the ignorance of wickedness vanished away, the ancient kingdom pulled down, when GOD appeared in the likeness of man unto the newness of everlasting life" (19:3).
To the Romans: Ignatius opens this letter, ". . . to the church that is beloved and enlightened through the will of Him who willed all things that are, by faith and love toward Jesus Christ our GOD . . . . abundant greetings in Jesus Christ our GOD in blamelessness" (introduction).
In the epistle, he writes, "Permit me to be an imitator of the passion of my GOD" (6:3). Note: Passion means, "The sufferings of Christ in the period following the Last Supper and including the Crucifixion" (American, p. 907). Remember, Ignatius is on his way to Rome to be executed.
To the Smyrnaeans: Ignatius begins this epistle by exclaiming, "I give glory to Jesus Christ the GOD who bestowed such wisdom upon you" (1:1).
To Polycarp: Ignatius tells Polycarp, "Await Him that is above every season, the Eternal, the Invisible, who became visible for our sake, the Impalpable, the Impassible, who suffered for our sake, who endured in all ways for our sake" (3:2). Note: Impalpable means, "Not perceptible to the touch: intangible. Not easily perceived or grasped by the mind" (American, p. 644; All quotations of Ignatius are from Lightfoot, pp. 137-162).
Polycarp was another disciple of the apostle John (Moyer, p. 331). After Ignatius was executed, Polycarp collected together his seven epistles and sent them to the church at Philippi at their request. In addition, he added one of his own (Lightfoot, p. 165).
In his epistle, Polycarp tells the Philippians they can "gain great advantage" by reading the letters of Ignatius (13:2). So we have a second disciple of the apostle John upholding and promoting the teachings of the previously quoted disciple.
Near the end of his short epistle, Polycarp prays, ". . . may He (God the Father) grant unto you a lot with and portion among His saints, and to us with you, and to all that are under heaven, who shall believe on our Lord and GOD Jesus Christ and on His Father that raised Him from the dead (12:2: Lightfoot, p. 181).
Around 155 AD, Polycarp, ". . . was burned at the stake, dying a heroic martyr for his faith" (Moyer, p. 331). Thus, both Polycarp and Ignatius were executed for their Christian faith. Both were disciples of the apostle John and both called Jesus God.
As his surname implies, Justin was executed for his Christian faith. While in Rome, ". . . about the year 166, he and six other Christians were seized, scourged, and beheaded (Moyer, p. 220). "After his death, he became known as Justin the Martyr or simple Justin Martyr" (Dods, p. 70). Justin defended the Christian faith over and against paganism. His major work is now known as The First Apology of Justin Martyr. In this book, he refers to Jesus as the Logos (or Word, see John 1:1).
In The Apology, he states that the Church proclaims, ". . . the teachings of the Logos, because he is divine." In reference to the Logos, he writes, "It is only reasonable that we worship him . . ." (Dods, p. 98).
Justin believed it was the Logos who spoke to Moses out of the burning bush saying, "I am that I am, the GOD of Abraham, the GOD of Isaac, the GOD of Jacob, and the GOD of your Fathers" (Dods, p. 105; see Exod 3:6, 14).
Justin further declares, ". . . the Father of the universe has a Son, who--since He is the First-Begotten Logos of God--is true Deity" (Dods, p. 106). Elsewhere, in his book, Dialogue with Trypho, Justin proclaims, "For Christ is King, and Priest, and GOD and Lord . . ." (Cetnar, p. 61).
"Melito, bishop of Sardis, was active during the reign of Marcus Aurelius" (161-180 AD; Fremantle, p. 396). In his "Homily on the Passion, " Melito exclaims, ". . . he rose from the dead as GOD, being by nature GOD AND MAN . . . . This is Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory to the ages. Amen" (Fremantle, p. 396).
The fourth century church historian, Eusebius, lists several books that were written by Melito. One of them was titled, GOD in Bodily Form (Eusebius, p. 186).
Irenaeus was a pupil of Polycarp; and remember, Polycarp was a disciple of the apostle John (Moyer, p. 204). In his book, Against False Gnosis, Irenaeus asserts that the Church believes ". . . in one Christ Jesus, our Lord, the Son of God, was incarnate for our salvation. . . that to Christ Jesus, our Lord and GOD and Savior and King, every knee should bow . . . (Fremantle, p. 338).
In one of his letters, Irenaeus wrote, "So GOD BECAME MAN and the Lord Himself saved us, giving the sign of the Virgin . . ." (Eusebius, p. 212).
Tertullian ". . . was a prolific writer and ardent preacher and a strong defender of the faith" (Moyer, p. 396). His major work was The Apology. ". . . Tertullian's Apology is one of the finest examples of an early Christian defense" (Bush, p. 85).
In Tertullian's day, Christians were being charged with being ". . . worshippers of a mere human being." Tertullian responded, "We must make, therefore, a remark or two about Christ's divinity."
He continues, "He is the Son of God and is called GOD from unity of substance with God. For God, too, is a Spirit . . . . Thus Christ is Spirit of Spirit and GOD OF GOD . . . . in His birth GOD AND MAN united". Later in the book, he asserts, "Surely Christ has a right to reveal Deity, which was in fact His own essential possession" (Bush, pp. 91-95).
In another book, Against Praxes, Tertullian declares, "this One was sent by the Father into the Virgin, and was born of her, MAN AND GOD, the Son of Man and the Son of God, and called Jesus Christ" (Fremantle, p. 345).
Around the turn of the second century, a man known as Artemon and his followers began denying the Deity of Jesus Christ. In response, The Little Labyrinth was written by a now unknown author. In introducing an extensive quote from the Labyrinth, Eusebius explains his purpose, ". . . there is extant a discussion pertinent to the historical period under review. For the assertion of the heresy in question, that the Savior was merely human, is exposed in this book as a recent invention . . ." (Eusebius, p. 235).
The passage Eusebius then quotes reads as follows ( in part):
This suggestion might perhaps have been credible if in the first place Holy Scripture had not presented a very different picture; and there are also works published before Victor's time (bishop of Rome 189- 199), written to defend the truth against both pagan criticism and current heresies--I mean by Justin, Miltiades, Tatian, Clement, and many more. In every one of these Christ is spoken of as GOD. For who does not know the books of Irenaeus, Melito, and the rest, which proclaim Christ as GOD AND MAN, and all the psalms and hymns written from the beginning by faithful brethren, which sing of Christ as the Word of God and address Him as GOD? (Eusebius, pp. 235f).
In summation, the following phrases (taken from previous quotations) are presented in answer to the question posed by the title of this article:
Ignatius: "For our GOD Jesus Christ was conceived in the womb"
Polycarp: "believe on our Lord and GOD Jesus Christ"
Justin Martyr: "For Christ is our King and Priest and GOD and Lord"
Melito: "(Jesus) rose from the dead as GOD"
Irenaeus: "So GOD became man and the Lord Himself saved us"
Tertullian: "In His birth GOD AND MAN united"
The Little Labyrinth: "sing of Christ as the word of God and address Him as GOD"
then, and see if the divinity of Christ be true.
If it be of such nature that the acceptance of it transforms
a man, and makes him truly good, there is implied
the duty of renouncing what is opposed to it as false"
Bibliography: (Note: all emphases in quotations are
American Heritage Dictionary. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985.
Bush, L. Russ, ed. Classical Readings in Christian Apologetics A. D. 100-1800. Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1983.
Cetnar, William. Questions for Jehovah's Witnesses. Kunkleton, PA: by the author, 1987.
Dods, Marcus, transl. The First Apology of Justin Martyr. Tyler, TX: Scroll Publ., 1989. This book is not available, but the same text is available in The First and Second Apology of Justin Martyr, translated by Leslie Barnard.
Eusebius. Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History. trans. G. A. Williamson. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1965.
Fremantle, Anne, ed. A Treasury of Early Christianity. New York: Viking Press, 1953.
Goulder, Michael, ed. Incarnation and Myth. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979.
Lightfoot, J. B. and M. R. Harmer, eds. Apostolic Fathers. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988.
Mankind's Search for God. New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1991.
Moyer, Elgin. rev. by Earle Cairns. The Wycliffe Biographical Dictionary of the Church. Chicago: Moody Press, 1982.
Stevenson, J. rev. by W. H. C. Frend. A New Eusebius. London: SPCK, 1987.
Tucker, Ruth. Another Gospel. Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1989.
Williams, J. L. Victor Paul Wierwille and The Way International. Chicago: Moody Press, 1979.
Who Said Jesus is God? - Let the Church Fathers Speak. Copyright © 1999 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.zeolla.org/christian).
The above article originally appeared in Darkness to Light
newsletter in 1991.
It was posted on this Web site in July 1996.
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