The idea reads something like this: obviously, the Church at Nicaea believed Jesus was the Son of God in terms of deity, but the authors of the Bible didn’t think in that category. They believed Jesus to be Son of God in terms of Israel’s King. Theology progressed—that is unsurprising; but first and foremost the Gospel is a presentation of Jesus as Israel’s King.
Here’s a few quotes that bear markings of the proposition above. Some outright deny the claim that Jesus is God and should not be taken as representative of Christianity.
Dan Brown’s Teabing , a character in the Davinci Code, referring to the council at Nicaea:
“At this gathering,” Teabing said, “many aspects of Christianity were debated and voted upon—the date of Easter, the role of the bishops, the administration of sacraments, and, of course, the divinity of Jesus.” “I don’t follow. His divinity?” “My dear,” Teabing declared, “until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet…a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless. A mortal.” “Not the Son of God?” “Right,” Teabing said. “Jesus’ establishment as ‘the Son of God’ was officially proposed and voted on by the Council of Nicaea.” “Hold on. You’re saying Jesus’ divinity was the result of a vote?” “A relatively close vote at that,” Teabing added. “Nonetheless, establishing Christ’s divinity was critical to the further unification of the Roman empire and to the new Vatican power base. By officially endorsing Jesus as the Son of God, Constantine turned Jesus into a deity who existed beyond the scope of the human world, an entity whose power was unchallengeable. This not only precluded further pagan challenges to Christianity, but now the followers of Christ were able to redeem themselves only via the established sacred channel-the Roman Catholic Church.” Sophie glanced at Langdon, and he gave her a soft nod of concurrence. “It was all about power,” Teabing continued. “Christ as Messiah was critical to the functioning of Church and state. Many scholars claim that the early Church literally stole Jesus from His original followers, hijacking His human message, shrouding it in an impenetrable cloak of divinity, and using it to expand their own power.
Scot McKnight on what is the Gospel:
The gospel is to announce that the Story of Jesus, who is Messiah/King, Lord and Savior, fulfills or completes the Story of Israel. It is the good news that God’s promises have now been realized in Jesus Messiah, Lord and Savior.
…Our evangelism would be declaring what Peter declares in Acts 2, 3, 10-11 and what Paul declares in Acts 13, 14 and 17. And it would see that every passage in the Gospels is pure gospel. It would show how Romans explains how Gentiles now join Jews in God’s Story in this world, and it would show how they are both accepted on the same basis: in Christ. And they respond to that message by faith and by faith alone.
NT Wright on the clues to Gospel christology:
I suggest, in short, that the return of YHWH to Zion, and the Temple theology which it brings into focus, are the deepest keys and clues to gospel christology. Forget the ‘titles’ of Jesus, at least for a moment; forget the pseudo-orthodox attempts to make Jesus of Nazareth conscious of being the second person of the Trinity; forget the arid reductionism that is the mirror image of that unthinking would-be orthodoxy. Focus, instead, on a young Jewish prophet telling a story about YHWH returning to Zion as judge and redeemer, and then embodying it by riding into the city in tears, symbolizing the Temple’s destruction and celebrating the final exodus. I propose, as a matter of history, that Jesus of Nazareth was conscious of a vocation: a vocation, given him by the one he knew as ‘father’, to enact in himself what, in Israel’s scriptures, God had promised to accomplish all by himself. He would be the pillar of cloud and fire for the people of the new exodus. He would embody in himself the returning and redeeming action of the covenant God. N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 653.
Andrew Perriman’s non-Nicene creedal statement:
We believe in Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, Israel’s king;
Born under Augustus, executed under Tiberius;
Who died to save his rebellious people from destruction;
Who was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures and was exalted to the right hand of the Father;
Who was given the name which was above every name, for the sake of the glory of Israel’s God in the ancient world;
Who was made judge and ruler of the nations;
And through whom his persecuted followers came to inherit the empire and then the world.
Here’s a quote from myself regarding the Son of God language in regard to Christ:
Whereas you have a King being declared a functional son of God in regards to ruling and anointed, we now have Christ who was the sent Son with all these other entailments tied into His position. Whereas you have Adam, the Son of God, to be God’s vice-gerent over the created order yet fails dramatically bringing it all down with him, we now have Christ, the Son of God who dramatically obeys before the incarnation (setting aside what He didn’t have to steal: his divinity) becoming a servant obedient to death on the cross, raising again and bringing all of creation up with Him. Whereas you have Israel, the Son of God, as a nation of priests; we now have Jesus Christ, who is both priest and king.
Here’s William Kellly, a classic dispensational writer, on the Jewish expectation:
It would appear that, in John the Baptist’s preaching it, we have no ground for supposing that either he believed at this time, or that any other men till afterwards were led into the understanding of the form which it was to assume through Christ’s rejection and going on high as now. This our Lord divulged more particularly in Matthew 13. I understand, then, by this expression, what might be gathered justly from Old Testament prophecies; and that John, at this time, had no other thought but that the kingdom was about to be introduced according to expectations thus formed. They had long looked for the time when the earth should no longer be left to itself, but heaven should be the governing power; when the Son of man should control the earth; when the power of hell should be banished from the world; when the earth should be put into association with the heavens, and the heavens, of course, therefore, be changed, so as to govern the earth directly through the Son of man, who should be also King of restored Israel. This, substantially, I think, was in the mind of the Baptist.
I don’t mean that all the above quotes are teaching the same thing. Indeed, you’ll find William Kelly quickly affirming that Christ is God—you won’t find the same thing occurring with Andrew Perriman. And in all cases, Dan Brown’s character resides in a world of fiction while speaking from a position of pseudo-history that is actively being pushed on the masses.
It is simply impossible to trace the reasons how or why these positions are being put forward, or even if they’re correct in doing so, but one must look at their claims in light of Scripture. In other words: there is a lot being said but very little substantiation from the text.
That is not to say that there isn’t substantiation. For example, NT Wright uses the same exact texts everyone else uses but gives a historical milieu that changes the reading of the text. The trick is to hover above the text stating what the text says then dropping some casual information (as if established fact) to then deny what later theologians (and possibly everyone) have understood it to be saying. Lest you point that out, they quickly grant that there is no doubt that later theologians interpreted things in such a way, but that is not how the writers themselves understood those very same things.
For my own mind, I intend to examine this in several points. First a historical scan; second an overview of John’s Christology; third a look at Paul’s theological thinking; and finally an examination of the Synoptic writers.