Early Christian Witnesses to the Deity of Christ

It is sometimes suggested that the deity of Christ was a doctrine that was thrust upon the Church by Constantine at the Council of Nicaea in 325, but is this really the case? Is this doctrine of the deity of Christ that the church universal holds so dear a much later invention?

While it is true that the precise expressions that we are familiar with about the deity of Christ were not outlined until after the Council of Nicaea and its Trinitarian creed, this does not mean that the council created a new doctrine. Outside the testimony of the New Testament, one can find  numerous early affirmations of this doctrine amongst the early church fathers. These early Christian writers provide an invaluable insight into the beliefs of early Christians immediately following the apostolic age.

Ignatius of Antioch

We may first look to Ignatius of Antioch (c.35/50 – c. 108). Little is known of his earlier life besides that he was the bishop of Antioch. What is known about him is that he was caught up in the persecution under Trajan (reigned 98 – 117) and was brought to Rome to be executed. While en route to Rome, Ignatius penned seven letters, six to different churches and one personal letter to the then deacon Polycarp. In his letter to the Ephesians, written in the year of his death as he was being transported to his execution, we find the following statements: 

There is one physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first subject to suffering and then beyond it, Jesus Christ our Lord[1]

For our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived by Mary according to God’s plan, both from the seed of David and the Holy Spirit. He was born and was baptized in order that by his suffering he might cleanse the water.[2]

Consider these two references in his letter to his friend Polycarp, written also during his journey to execution in Rome:

Be more diligent than you are. Understand the times. Wait expectantly for one who is above time: the Eternal, the Invisible, who for our sake became visible; the Intangible, the Unsuffering, who for our sake suffered, who for our sake endured in every way.[3]

I bid you farewell always in our God Jesus Christ; may you remain in him, in the unity and care of God. I greet Alce, a name very dear to me. Farewell in the Lord.[4]

Polycarp

Next in consideration is Polycarp (c. 69 – c. 155), who, as seen above, was also an associate of Ignatius. More importantly in this regard, however, is the fact that Polycarp was a disciple of the apostle John, having heard from the apostle directly. He also bears witness to the deity of Christ while serving as the bishop of the church in Smyrna in his epistle to the Phillipians:

Now may the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the eternal high priest himself, the Son of God Jesus Christ, build you up in faith and truth and in all gentleness and in all freedom from anger and forbearance and steadfastness and patient endurance and purity, and may he give to you a share and a place among his saints, and to us with you, and to all those under heaven who will yet believe in our Lord and God Jesus Christ and in his Father who raised him from the dead.[5]

Justin Martyr

Look also to Justin Martyr (c. 100 – c. 165), an early Christian apologist. At various points in time in Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho, dated to some time between 155 and Justin’s death, Justin explicitly refers to Jesus as God. Here are a couple of excerpts: 

Therefore these words testify explicitly that He [the Son] is witnessed to by Him [the Father]  who established these things, as deserving to be worshipped, as God and as Christ.[6]

And that Christ being Lord, and God the Son of God, and appearing formerly in power as Man, and Angel, and in the glory of fire as at the bush, so also was manifested at the judgment executed on Sodom, has been demonstrated fully by what has been said.[7]

Irenaeus of Lyons

Lastly, we will consider Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 202), who was the bishop of Lyons. He bears a close connection to the apostle John due to his connection to Polycarp: Irenaeus was a student of Polycarp’s, who, as mentioned above, was a disciple of John. Irenaeus here in his work Against Heresies, which was a defense of the faith and a polemic against Gnosticism, contains a quite extensive biblical investigation of the deity of the Son:

For this reason [it is, said], “Who shall declare His generation? ” since “He is a man, and who shall recognise Him? ” But he to whom the Father which is in heaven has revealed Him, knows Him, so that he understands that He who “was not born either by the will of the flesh, or by the will of man,” is the Son of man, this is Christ, the Son of the living God. For I have shown from the Scriptures, that no one of  the sons of Adam is as to everything, and absolutely, called God, or named Lord. But that He is Himself in His own right, beyond all men who ever lived, God, and Lord, and King Eternal, and the Incarnate Word, proclaimed by all the prophets, the apostles, and by the Spirit Himself, may be seen by all who have attained to even a small portion of the truth. Now, the Scriptures would not have testified these things of Him, if, like others, He had been a mere man. But that He had, beyond all others, in Himself that pre-eminent birth which is from the Most High Father, and also experienced that pre-eminent generation which is from the Virgin, the divine Scriptures do in both respects testify of Him: also, that He was a man without comeliness, and liable to suffering; that He sat upon the foal of an ass; that He received for drink, vinegar and gall; that He was despised among the people, and humbled Himself even to death and that He is the holy Lord, the Wonderful, the Counsellor, the Beautiful in appearance, and the Mighty God, coming on the clouds as the Judge of all men; -all these things did the Scriptures prophesy of Him.[8]

Final Thoughts

This has not been exhaustive by any means, but was intended to give a general idea of the climate regarding the deity of Christ in the 2nd century. Clearly, the doctrine of Jesus’s divinity is not a 4th century invention. From this survey, at least two leaders (Ignatius and Polycarp) in the church in the early 2nd century, who were also in communion with numerous other churches, believed in and taught the deity of Christ; a Christian apologist in the middle of the 2nd century (Justin Martyr) argued for this doctrine; and an influential late 2nd century Christian leader (Irenaeus) strongly contends for Christ’s deity as arising from the testimony of Scripture itself. Christians did indeed believe and teach the deity of Christ, all the way back to the apostles. 


[1] Ign. Eph. 7.2.

[2] Ign. Eph. 18.2.

[3] Ign. Pol. 3.2.

[4] Ign. Pol. 8.3.

[5] Phil. 12.2.

[6] Dial. 63.

[7] Dial. 126.

[8] Haer. 3.19.2.

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