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The First Christians and Christ

RECORDS OF BELIEFS and of teachings as well as of their historical progress are common to all men. The Church has its records. The first ones are inspired records, that is, the New Testament whose twenty-seven books testify to the life of Christ and the history of the early Church and Apostolic teaching to about 100 A.D. No one would doubt the truth of these documents, for they are vouched for by the Holy Spirit Himself. But they are also historical.

History and religion must not be separated. God has revealed Himself in and through history. Jesus Christ lived at a definite time in history; so did His Apostles. They wrote at a particular date in the history of the Church as well as of the world. What they wrote concerning the beliefs and teachings of the early Church is just as historical as what they wrote about the life of Jesus Christ.

That the early Church taught Jesus Christ to be divine is as historical as the fact that He was born at Bethlehem. Because this is a religious truth does not change the fact of its being taught and being accepted by the early Christians. There can be no doubt that the New Testament records the belief of the early Church in the divinity of Jesus Christ. On the very day of the birth of the Church in Jerusalem, before a large crowd, St. Peter had proclaimed that through His resurrection and exaltation God had proclaimed Jesus "whom you crucified" to be both "Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:32-36). St. Matthew wrote very early in the history of the Church; he is recording what he and some of the other Apostles taught to the Jews who became Christians. In chapter sixteen he points out that Peter in the name of all the Apostles professed Jesus Christ to be the "Son of the living God" (Matt. 16:16).

St. Paul wrote his epistles between the years 51 and 66, or certainly within 49 and 66. His epistles are filled with indications of what he taught his converts to believe concerning Jesus Christ (cf. Rom 1:4-9; 1 Cor. 1:7-9; Phil. 2:5-11). St. John wrote towards the end of the first century. He wrote his Gospel to show that Jesus Christ was the Son of God (John 20:31).

This brief summary is sufficient to indicate that the official teachers in the early Church, the Apostles, taught that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that the early Christians accepted this doctrine. "And they continued steadfastly in the teaching of the apostles. . ." (Acts 2:42).

HISTORICAL RECORDS OF THE CHURCH

After the death of the Apostles, we no longer have inspired records of the early Church, but we do have historical records. From these records we see the exact doctrine concerning the divinity of Christ that the Church taught. These records are true records, just as are the New Testament books. True, they are not inspired, but this does not change their historicity or their truth. The only inspired books are those of the Old and New Testaments, but they are not the only true books. If men only believed inspired books as historical and as true, there could be no real history outside the Scripture. No one accepts this.

An immediate link with the inspired records of the New Testament is the Epistle of St. Clement of Rome to the Corinthians. Today it is usually referred to as the "First" because there is another epistle to the Corinthians which some claim to be from St. Clement (cf. The Ancient Christian Writers, No. 1, 1946, p. 4). St. Clement was Bishop of Rome and successor to St. Peter. He was in office from approximately 92 to 101, and the date of this epistle is usually given as 96 (cf. The Ancient Christian Writers, No. 1, p. 3-4).

Turning page after page in this epistle we find such expressions as "the Lord Jesus Christ" (chapter 16, 2); "our Lord Jesus Christ" (chapter 20, 11); "Jesus Christ our Lord (chapter 49, 6); "His beloved Son Jesus Christ" (chapter 59, 2). In chapter 36 Jesus Christ is called the High Priest and the Son, as one Who mirrors God's countenance. St. Paul's first chapter to the Hebrews is quoted; in this chapter St. Paul is indicating the superiority of Christ over the angels because He is called Son whereas the angels themselves are merely called ministering spirits.

St. Ignatius of Antioch has left the Church a heritage of seven letters; his death by martyrdom is usually placed around 110. The holy Bishop was on his way to Rome, to his place of martyrdom, when he wrote these letters. In simple yet forceful language he writes of his beliefs, of his readiness to die for Christ, and of his own personal appreciation for all the many kindnesses shown to him on his captive journey to Rome.

Let us pick up passages pertaining to the divinity of Christ from the pen of this ardent champion of Jesus Christ. "Jesus Christ our God" (Epistle to the Ephesians, Introduction); "Jesus Christ our Lord" (same Epistle, chapter 7); "Jesus Christ, His (God's) Son" (Epistle to the Magnesians, chapter 8); "Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father" (Epistle to the Romans, Introduction); "Our God Jesus Christ" (same Epistle, chapter 3); "He (Jesus Christ) is the Son of God" (Epistle to the Smyrneans, chapter 1).

THE APOLOGISTS

As Christianity spread it was attacked on all sides. Its belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ was particularly under violent attack, and especially from scholars of the Jewish race. To refute them there arose in the Church "Apologists," the greatest of whom is St. Justin Martyr, who went to a martyr's death around 165. Of all the writings that have come down to us between 100 and 200, none are more important than those of this apologist. The best known is called "Dialogue with Trypho." This Trypho was a Jew; St. Justin in this "Dialogue" shows that Jesus Christ is the Messias predicted in the Old Testament, and he justifies the belief of the Christians in Jesus Christ, not only as the Messias, but also as God Who is to be adored. (cf. Dialogue with Trypho, chapters 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 48, 55, 63).

The Church was 270 years old in 300 A.D. The teaching of the Church concerning the divinity of its Founder was as clear as the teaching of Jesus Christ Himself. Yet it had not been "clear sailing" for this doctrine. Outside of the Church it met stiff opposition, as the Dialogue with Trypho indicates. In the Church itself there were to be found members who were tempted to speculate on this doctrine, and whose faith began to waiver. When St. Paul wrote to the Colossians from Rome around 63 A.D. he found it necessary to stress the nature of Christ. He insists that "He is the image of the invisible God . . . that in him all his (God the Father's) fullness should dwell . . . for in him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily" (Col. 1:15, 19; 2:9). Some time later, St. John writes that there were some who were denying that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. "He who believes in the Son of God has the testimony of God in himself. He who does not believe the Son, makes him a liar; because he does not believe the witness that God has borne concerning his son" (1 John 5:10; cf. 2:22-23; 4:2-3).

Thus far, however, a major crisis had not arisen. Around 300 A.D., however, there appeared in the Church a man whose teaching on Christ's divinity soon aroused a great controversy. This man was Arius. He was a priest, who, about 300 A.D., was appointed by the Bishop of Alexandria to teach the Sacred Scriptures.

THE TEACHING OF ARIUS

Around 320 the Bishop of Alexandria became aware of strange ideas concerning the divinity of Jesus Christ being taught by Arius. For Arius was saying that since Jesus Christ was the Son of God, He did not exist from all eternity; the argument of Arius stemmed from the notion of human generation, for the father exists before the son; so he said that God the Father existed before God the Son. But he went further. He denied that Jesus was the Son of God by nature, but only by adoption; therefore He was not God at all.

Arius further taught that the Word was created out of nothing by God, that He was God's Son by adoption only (not by nature), that this Word was the creator of the world, that this Word assumed a human body, and was the instrument of the redemption of mankind.

As can be seen from this brief summary the opposition between the teaching of the Church and of Arius was this: the Church said that Jesus Christ was God, true God, equal to God the Father in nature. Arius taught that Jesus Christ was not true God, but was below God the Father in nature.

Strife within the Church could only do harm, to the Church itself, and also to souls. This strife concerning Arianism grew day by day. The main harm came from the denial of a fundamental doctrine of the Church, the true divinity of Jesus Christ. Christ had died because He claimed to be the Son of God; the Church would die if it did not teach this doctrine.

In view of his famous edict that had given the Church the legal right to exist and to practice its beliefs, the Roman Emperor Constantine had indicated that he realized the peace of the empire could not be maintained as long as Christians were persecuted. There were too many of his subjects who were Christians. Now he realized that if strife continued in the Church itself, the peace of the empire would suffer, not to mention or consider for the moment what the Church would suffer.

The Emperor realized the seriousness of the situation, hence serious action had to be taken. This serious action was the calling of a meeting of the Bishops of the Church. In a letter addressed to the Bishops he called them to meet in the city of Nicaea, or Nice. This meeting took place in 325, and is known as the First Ecumenical Council of the Church. An Ecumenical Council is a meeting of the Bishops of the Church. The very fact that Constantine called the Bishops of the Church to meet at this time indicates how seriously he viewed the necessity of the Council.

THE COUNCIL REFUTES ARIANISM

Upwards of two hundred Bishops, and at times perhaps over three hundred, assembled in Nice to consider the teaching of Arius. Arius had his followers; the debate went on for some time. Finally the problem came down to this: Is Jesus Christ God as the Father was God or was He inferior to God in nature? Is He "consubstantial" -of the same nature-with the Father? The Council issued its Creed, that is known today as the Nicene Creed.

"We believe . . . in one Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, the only-begotten, born of the Father, that is, of the substance of the Father, God of God . . . true God of the true God. . . of one substance with the Father. . ." (Denzinger: Enchiridion Symbolorum, n. 54).

The Church had spoken; it had declared its doctrine concerning Jesus Christ, a doctrine Jesus Christ had taught, and that had been taught by the Apostles and their successors. This formula of the Council of Nice became the standard formula for the future of the Church. In 381, the Second Ecumenical Council of the Church, known as the First Council of Constantinople, declared its Creed in words almost identical with those of the Council of Nice. The word "consubstantial" was used instead of the phrase "of the same substance" (cf. Enchiridion, n. 86).

Truth is one, yet there are many ways of falsifying or of denying it. If the day is sunny, there is only one way of saying the truth about the sunny day. But I can falsify or deny it in many ways, such as saying it is not sunny, or that it is foggy, or that it is cloudy, or that it only appears to be sunny, but in reality it is not! After Arius came Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, who began in the year 428 to assert that the Blessed Mother was not the Mother of God. He said that he would never accept as God an infant of two months, and that it was not God Who died, but man. Nestorius would not admit that there is but one person in Christ, the divine person of the Word. Instead he said that there were two persons, the divine person, and the human person of whom Mary was the Mother.

Once again the Bishops of the Church met in the Council of Ephesus in 431. The Nicene Creed was the basis of the deliberations. Nestorius' doctrine was declared to be opposed to this Creed and hence he was condemned. On the Incarnation the Council of Ephesus asserted that the one person of the Word united the divine and human natures in Jesus Christ. The Son is Jesus Christ, and it is just and right and true to call Mary the Mother of God (Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum, 111a).

THE MONOPHYSITE HERESY

Within a few years trouble broke out again. This time it was Eutyches, a monk living near Constantinople; his heresy has come down to us under the name of the Monophysite heresy. The meaning of Monophysite is "one nature," for Eutyches taught that there was but one nature in Christ. Before the Incarnation, so he declared, there were the two natures, divine and human, but after the Incarnation, there was but one nature, and that was the divine nature.

Again a Council of the Church was called, the Council of Chalcedon, in 451. Over six hundred Bishops were present under the leadership of the representatives of the Pope, Leo the Great. Several years before this celebrated Pontiff had written such a clear and sublime explanation of the mysteries of Jesus Christ that those who heard what he had written, cried out that "Peter has spoken by the mouth of Leo." In substance he had said that Jesus Christ is the only-begotten eternal Son of the eternal Father, who had two perfect natures, that of a true man, and that of the true God (cf. Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum, nos. 143-144).

The Council of Chalcedon proceeded to condemn the Monophysite heresy and to define the teaching of the Church concerning the two natures of Christ. In part it declared, "Following the holy Fathers we teach that Jesus Christ, one and the same Son and Lord, is perfect in deity and perfect in humanity, true God and true man . . . consubstantial with the Father by reason of his deity.. ." (Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum, no. 148).

A glance at the decisions of the Councils of Nice, Ephesus, and Chalcedon shows that they are teaching the same doctrine the divinity of Jesus Christ. This doctrine is the same as had been taught by the Apostles, the Apostolic Fathers, and the Apologists. In turn it is the same doctrine that Jesus Christ proclaimed about Himself: that He is God, the Son of God, one with God, the Word Who became man. The Councils were called upon to define and to explain this doctrine because of erroneous explanations. There is a clarification and a development of the doctrine, but there is nothing new. As an example of this, call to mind the words of Jesus Christ: "I and the Father are one," whereas the Councils speak of Him as "one in substance" or "consubstantial" with the Father.

Since 451 the doctrine of the divinity of Jesus Christ has never been seriously attacked in the Catholic Church. Outside of the Church, however, there have been many who questioned this doctrine, many who have not been able to accept it, some who have deserted it because of rationalism, modernism, or secularism. But in the Church itself down through the centuries the teaching has not varied. The demands on the faithful to accept the doctrine have been the same as in the time of Christ Himself, as in the time of the Apostles and through the first years of the existence of the Church.

"For there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).

Courtesy of Catholic Information Network (CIN)
 

 

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