November 18, 2004
In the best seller
The Da Vinci Code, the English historian Tiebing gives the two main characters of the book, Langdon and Sophie, a lecture on Church history. He asserts that the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. was a turning point in the history of Christian belief. Before that Council, no one believed that Jesus was divine. His followers believed he was great man, a powerful man, but a mere mortal. At the Council, the new doctrine of Jesus was forged by a relatively small vote. The book is fiction. But from the lips of this historian, some readers may simply accept his statement as accurate. And with devastating consequences. Undermine Jesus’ divinity and the full weight of his authority collapses. Deny his divinity and he stands on the same ground as Buddha, Confucius, and Mohammed. Subtract the divinity of Jesus and his Church has as much right to interpret life, offer moral guidelines and shape history as any other group of likeminded individuals.
A critical reading of the New Testament documents readily uncovers reluctance on the part of Jesus’ first disciples to face the truth of who he was. It took time for those first followers to move from their experience of Jesus as divine to the expression of that experience in clear terms. Nonetheless, in the New Testament writings, their experience of Jesus as divine is recorded in a language we can unpack and articulate today in clear terms.
Diverse as those first disciples were, their common faith in one God and one God alone united them. Their longing for the Messiah and the coming of God’s kingdom opened them to the initial
kerygma announced by Jesus, “The kingdom of God is at hand” (
Mk 1:15). They attached themselves to Jesus because he taught with authority and not like the teachers of his day (
Mt 7:29). They were enthralled by his words, enthused by his deeds, but somewhat confused by the mystery that surrounded him. They sensed something radically new and refreshing in his words. They heard Jesus speak of God who makes his rain fall on the just and the unjust alike (
Mt 5:45). They reveled in his revelation of God as the Father who cares for and provides for each of them. And all the while, they sensed in Jesus’ words a personal intimacy between Jesus and God that was unique. God was truly Father to all his children. But Jesus was
the Son to whom the Father revealed all knowledge (
It did not take them too long to accept Jesus as their Messiah. But it did take time for them to understand how completely different this Messiah was from their expectations. Others worked healings as Jesus did. The prophets Elijah and his disciple Elisha healed the sick and multiplied food. Both prophets even raised the dead to life. But there was something more in Jesus. The mystery they could not touch, touched them. The day Jesus calmed the storm, he left their minds in turmoil. Any 1
st century Jew knew that, in Scripture, God alone controls the wind and the wave. In the Psalms, it is God who tramples the waters beneath his feet (
Ps 107). Yet, at Jesus’ word, the sea hushed into silence, and their souls cry out in awe and wonder, “Who can this be?” (
Mk 4:41). The death and resurrection of Jesus gave them the answer to their question. That is why the soldier at the Cross confesses, “Truly this is the Son of God!” (
Mk 15:39). That is why Thomas professes at the sight of the Risen Jesus, “My Lord and My God!” (
Jn 20:28). They were waiting for a political figure to overthrow their oppressors and establish God’s kingdom. They were witnessing God’s kingdom being ushered in by Jesus who refused the role of an earthly king. Not that he wasn’t a king. Rather he was the king whose power could not be limited to one time and one place.
Can we prove the divinity of Christ? This mystery lies far beyond human proof. But there is enough evidence to show it is not at all irrational to believe he is divine. Can we verify through historical critical research that the first followers of Jesus believe in his divinity? Most certainly! Even before the gospels were written, the Church was gathering in praise and worship of Jesus. By the time the gospels were penned, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John could use titles such as “Son of God,” Beloved Son,” and “Lord,” that the Church had already developed in the liturgy and catechesis to express the divinity of Christ.
While imprisoned in Ephesus, the capital of Roman Asia, on his third missionary journey, Paul writes to the Christians of Philippi. He had evangelized them about 7 years before. In his pastoral outreach to re-establish unity in belief and in love, Paul makes use of a primitive hymn. This hymn in Philippians 2:6-11 predates Paul’s letter to the Philippians. It is therefore earlier than any of our written gospels. And it gives evidence that the very first believers who spoke Aramaic had come to apply to Jesus Old Testament language used only of God (
Is 45:23). They were now worshipping Jesus with the very name God gave Moses in the burning bush (
Ex 3:14 --“
Yahweh,” or “
Kyrios,”-- in English, “Lord”). By centering themselves on Jesus exalted as Lord of all creation and not on themselves, Paul is teaching, the followers of Jesus will be of one mind and one heart.
At the Council of Nicea, 99% of the bishops joined in teaching the faith handed down from the apostles and taught that Jesus is divine. Professor Tiebing simply remains a fictional character in a popular novel. He is not an historian. Perhaps, just perhaps, his appearance on the scene is the result of a relativistic mentality, which is becoming ever more common, that reduces all religions to the common denominator of the human search for truth. Such a position claims the truth of God cannot be found in its completeness in any historical religion. But the Church teaches quite the contrary. Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, is “the way, the truth, and the life” (
In Jesus, the full revelation of divine truth is given. The Second Vatican Council taught that “the key, the center and the purpose of the whole of man’s history is to be found in [Jesus] its Lord and Master” (
Gaudium et Spes 10:3). Accepting Jesus as the Church teaches leads to one response--
“the obedience of faith” (
Rom 16:26). By this act, “man freely entrusts his entire self to God, offering ‘the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals’ and freely assenting to the revelation given by him” (
Dominus Iesus, 6). Could it be that the Tiebings of today deny the divinity of Jesus, because they recognize what believing in his divinity means? Nothing less that the Lordship of Jesus over all of life!