Friday, May 26, 2006

Council of Nicea and Theological Unitarianism:

Okay, I know that the DaVinci Code makes a lot of ahistorical claims, but one area where the DVC may be getting a bad rap is in its assertion about early disputes among Christians regarding whether Jesus was God, or something less than God. Some are absolutely outraged that the DVC asserts early Christians disputed the doctrine of Jesus Godhood.

In reality, my research tells me that at least some early Christians thought Jesus something less than God, that there was a pretty serious split on the issue. And the Council of Nicea officially "settled" the matter by deciding on the doctrine of the Trinity, and not permitting dissent.

I've neither read the book nor seen the movie, but plan on doing the latter. If the DVC argues that no one before the Council of Nicea believed Jesus to be God or that the doctrine was "made up" at that point, then they are wrong, or at least overstating the historical facts (is that what they argue?).

But for a long time in Christendom, especially during the Founding, theological Unitarianism has had a rich dissident history.

Indeed, anyone who follows my research on the Founding and Religion knows that our key Whig Founding Fathers were theological Unitarians, as were Newton and likely Locke, Milton and some others.

Because many of these Unitarians existed at a time when the rights of conscience were not recognized, these dissidents had to be "secret" about their belief in the doctrine. Publicly denying the Trinity could get one executed for heresy, which is exactly what happened to Michael Servetus, whom John Calvin, then governor of Geneva, ordered burned at the stake for his Unitarianism.

I'm researching the background of the vote on the Council of Nicea. Critics of the DVC say that while the book argues the vote was close, in reality, the vote was overwhelming in favor of the Trinity. As I've pointed out before, John Adams appeared to believe the vote was close as well, and joked about it in the following manner:

"The Trinity was carried in a general council by one vote against a quaternity; the Virgin Mary lost an equality with the Father, Son, and Spirit only by a single suffrage."

John Adams to Benjamin Rush, June 12, 1812.

In reading up on John Adams's religion, the following claim made by David L. Holmes, Professor of Religious Studies at the College of William and Mary, in The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, surprised me:

Unitarians asserted that they had restored the original Christian belief that Jesus was in some way commissioned or sent by God but that he remained subordinate to him.

At one point in early Christianity, the majority of Christians did not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity. Citing such passages as Proverbs 8:22 ("The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago"), Colossians 1:15 ("[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation"), and John 14:28 (where Jesus says, "If you love me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I"), they believed that God was a unipersonality to whom Jesus was subordinate. pp 73-4.

What surprised me was his assertion that at one point in early Christianity, the majority of Christians didn't believe in the Trinity. Is that right?


Mark said...

From what I understand one of the best resources for answers to your questions might be Mark Robert's site. I'd give a better link but right now it's down. I'm pretty sure that's a temporary situation.

Jonathan said...


I'll check it out.

Karen McL said...


have you read Bart Ehrman's "Misquoting Jesus" yet?

It seems "beyond dispute" (except of course to those Biblical literalist, non-historical, flat earthers types) that there were - In Fact - disputes of various sects practicing "Christianity" with differing views of *Jesus* and the nature of God.

Give that one a read through (along with the Fiction of DVC) and I think you' see how it fits.


Jonathan said...

Thanks Karen. I'll put that one on my list as well.

Karen McL said...

I put up a few quote from this book a while back Here in case you want to see.