Each year Ligonier in conjunction with Lifeway Research puts out an excellent study on the State of Theology in Christianity. One aspect of the 2020 survey focused on the deity of Jesus. On the State of Theology website, they rightly note that, “Historically, evangelicals have affirmed the authority of the Bible and salvation by Jesus Christ. The Bible often testifies to the deity of Christ; He is God incarnate, the Word made flesh (John 1:1; 8:58; Rom. 9:5; Heb. 1:1–4). It may be unsurprising that the majority of the general U.S. population rejects the deity of Christ. Still, now almost a third of evangelicals agree that He was merely a great teacher.”
The study shows that fifty-two percent agree and thirty-six percent disagree Jesus was a greater teacher, but he was not God. The question of whether Jesus was a good man, teacher, or a liar is one that the Bible has a very clear answer on. The Gospel of John and his seven I Am statements to the miracles of Jesus in the Gospels, Paul’s epistles, and the other epistles all teach Jesus is fully God and fully man. It’s not only that Jesus is who He says He is and did what He said He would do, but that He will soon return in His second coming.
Church history has much to teach Christians today and provides examples of responses to the unorthodox doctrine with sound biblical doctrine. In what remains of this article, I’d like to help you, dear reader, understand how the deity of Jesus is not only biblical, but it is the position the Church has stood fast upon now for two-thousand and twenty-one years.
Nicaea, Chalcedon, and Athanasius
Throughout the first three hundred years of the church, various heresies had come and gone. Few if any of the heresies would cause significant issues like those of Arianism. Arius had been a presbyter in the Alexandrian Church. Jonathan Hill (History of Christian Thought. Downer Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006, 66) says:
“The Arians argued that God is by nature, essentially uncreated and owes his existence to nothing. That being so, they argued the Son could not be God, because he owes his existence to something else the Father. And if the Son was begotten by the Father, then there was a time when he did not exist, which is hardly compatible with being God. Moreover, how can there be two Gods?”
Arius’s belief centered on how the Son was not divine but rather a creature or an archangel. This caused conflict in the church because the church at this time believed that Jesus was both fully God and fully human, as Paul had taught in Philippians 2. The Council of Nicea was called to deal with the issues raised by Arius’ ex-communication and also to settle the meaning of what doctrine exactly was orthodox. The council at Nicaea ended up formulating a biblical response to Arius with the Nicene Creed.
No other figure in church history shines as brightly as Athanasius. Athanasius was born in 295 AD and quickly rose through the ranks of the Alexandrian Church. He became a personal assistant to the bishop and was there at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. This man had a strong faith and a sharp mind, and his argument was based on the belief that Father and Son are one (John 10:10).
Athanasius argued that the divine will has nothing to do with the decision of the will. Jonathan Hill (History of Christian Thought. Downer Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006, 68) writes, “It is the nature of the Father to beget the Son, just as it is in the nature of the Son to be begotten. This essentially means that the divine nature itself exists in this way, on the one hand, begetting, and on the other hand, begotten.” Athanasius was heavily persecuted throughout his life for upholding the deity of Christ and the Trinity.
At Nicaea, it was distinctly clarified what the Church would believe, and Arius’s views were soundly rejected. As the Church began to form, more attacks came against it, so the need to clarify precisely what was Scripture was becoming more critical. To determine what Scripture was, they used the following test. One, the writer had to have been with Christ during His earthly ministry, two, they had to have been apostles who believed to have been commissioned by Jesus Himself, and three were authorized to spread His teachings.
Further Conflict and Response to the Deity of Jesus
The controversy on the person and work of Jesus continued to rage between two of the East’s most influential churchmen, Cyril of Alexander and Nestorious Patriarch of Constantinople. Dr. Gonzalez (The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, no. 1 (New York: HarperCollins, 1984), 61) writes, “This debate primarily revolved around who Jesus was, was He fully God and fully man or not? Nestorious insisted Christ had two natures while Cyril, branding this belief in two Christ’s said he had only one.”
Dr. Hill (History of Christian Thought. Downer Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006, 78) writes:
“The Western church stepped into the situation when, Leo Bishop of Rome, wrote a famous letter to Flavian known as the Tome in which he approved of the condemnation of Eutyches. Leo spoke of the two natures of Christ, one divine and one human. He taught that even after the Incarnation, Christ retains these two natures, but he remains a single person identical with the Second Person of the Trinity.”
The controversy surrounding the person and work of Jesus was settled at the Council of Chalcedon, and Emperor Theodosius in 451 A.D. called this council to solve the problem. This council approved of Bishop Leo’s teaching from the Tome and put forth the Chalcedon Creed, an expansion of the Nicene Creed. Jonathan Hill (Handbook to the History of Christianity. Oxford: Lion Publishing, 2006, 98) says, “This creed agreed with Cyril that Christ was one person, identical with the pre-existent Son. Still, it also agreed with Leo that after the Incarnation, he possessed two distinct natures, one human and one divine.”
B.B. Warfield and Biblical Christianity
The great Princeton scholar B.B. Warfield’s work on the Bible is exceptional, but so is his work on the Lord Jesus’ person and work. Warfield (SSW, 1:50) said, “In proportion as the grace of saving God in Christ is obscured or passes into the background, in that proportion does Christianity slip from our grasp. Christianity is summed up in the phrase: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world with himself’” [2 Cor. 5:19}. Where this great confession is contradicted or neglected, there is no Christianity.”
Dr. Warfield is correct. Biblical Christianity is a revealed religion whereby God in Christ, as 2 Corinthians 5:19 states God in Christ has revealed Himself in Christ alone. In the Incarnation, what we see is Jesus, fully God and fully man, came on a rescue mission under a death sentence to save sinners (Matthew 1:21). At the Cross, Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Now Jesus pleads the merits of His blood on behalf of sinners, and they are saved through His death, burial, and resurrection (Acts 16:31; Romans 5:1-5). Jesus now serves as the High Priest over His people and lives to serve as their Advocate and Intercessor (1 John 2:1; Hebrews 7:25).
The State of Theology and the Church Today
As we now return to the State of Theology, the study shows that fifty-two percent agree and thirty-six percent disagree Jesus was a greater teacher, but he was not God. As we’ve considered in this article, it’s not only the Bible’s teaching that is clear but also the Church’s stand upon the Word that matters. To that point, what the study shows is how we view the Bible itself matters because it reveals the truth about God who has revealed Himself as the “I Am God.” Seven times in the Gospel of John, John has shown how true this statement with Jesus’ I Am statements (John 6:35; 41, 48, 51; 8:12; 10:7,9; 11:25; 10:11, 14; 14:6; 15:1, 5). The I Am God in Exodus 3:14 is now the Incarnate Son of God and Son of Man Jesus Christ.
Biblical Christianity grounds itself in the truth of all Scripture teaches. Scripture is clear as the morning sunrise testifying of the glory of Christ to come and Christ to return at the sunset of redemptive history. Christ is all, and throughout the Bible, from the first words in Genesis 1 to the last words in Revelation 22, Jesus is the centerpiece of all of Scripture.
The State of Theology is a critical study because it shows where we are at as the Church. The deity of Christ is critical to the health and well-being of the Church. Without the deity of Jesus, Christians may as well rip out the New Testament from its pages. The deity of Christ is everywhere in the Gospels, where we see it in the miracles and the teaching of Jesus. In the Epistles, we see it everywhere from Romans to Jude and in Revelation. As Christians, we don’t have merely a good teacher, but one in Jesus who is fully God and fully man. He is not only a good teacher, but He is also the God-Man who He alone can offer the forgiveness of sins because He alone is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).
Dave Jenkins is happily married to Sarah Jenkins. He is a writer, editor, and speaker living in beautiful Southern Oregon. Dave is a lover of Christ, His people, the Church, and sound theology. He serves as the Executive Director of Servants of Grace Ministries, the Executive Editor of Theology for Life Magazine, and is the Host for the Equipping You in Grace Podcast. He is the author of The Word Explored: The Problem of Biblical Illiteracy and What To Do About It (House to House, 2021). You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Parler, Youtube, or read his newsletter. Dave loves to spend time with his wife, going to movies, eating at a nice restaurant, or going out for a round of golf with a good friend. He is also a voracious reader, in particular of Reformed theology, and the Puritans. You will often find him when he’s not busy with ministry reading a pile of the latest books from a wide variety of Christian publishers. Dave received his M.A.R. and M.Div through Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary.