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The Da Vinci Code: Con of Man or a Con-man?
“SO DARK THE CON OF MAN,” are the words Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu find scrawled across the face of the Mona Lisa. Explaining what this means, Langdon tells Sophie that the Roman Emperor Constantine (272-337 A. D.) and his male successors converted the world from pagan religions to Christianity. And in so doing, author Dan Brown purports Rome went from religions that placed the highest value on women and their fertility to an institution that valued only men and oppressed women. How does the author suggest Constantine accomplished this? Later in the story, Sir Leigh Teabing claims that at the first official church council organized by Constantine, known as the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.), scholars debated and voted on many foundational Christian beliefs, including whether or not Jesus was divine. Prior to the Council of Nicea, Teabing claims that Jesus was considered by his followers to be an extraordinary leader, but still only a mortal man and not God. According to author Dan Brown’s theory, Constantine and the Council of Nicea established the divinity of Jesus in order to combat pagan religions and unify the Empire under the authority of a divine male, the Son of God.
Moreover as Brown traces it, functionally, this authority came to reside in the Roman Catholic Church, the most powerful institution in the history of the world. This is the “con of man” that author Dan Brown alleges, an entire religion built on a historical fallacy and cover-up.
From alien encounters in Roswell, New Mexico, to Elvis sightings in the off-limit quarters of Graceland, everybody, including me, loves a good conspiracy theory. My personal favorite is how Bruce Lee faked his death in 1973 and is still alive and practicing his kung fu in the mountains of Southern China. Conspiracy theories intrigue us because they claim new hidden truth that shatters present thinking. In The Da Vinci Code, author Dan Brown has given us a conspiracy theory surrounding Christianity, not the first and certainly not the last. But is his theory grounded in historical fact? Is Christianity’s most central belief, that Jesus is God, only a result of early Roman politics? Dan Brown would have us believe that he has uncovered the truth and exposed the greatest cover-up in history. However, his account is a selective retelling which omits some very significant details.
The Da Vinci Code is correct that the Emperor Constantine called a church council in Nicea in 325 A. D. This council was comprised of church leaders, who were brought together to settle a particular theological dispute. The council produced the Nicene Creed, a historic document that Christians throughout history and even today confess. The Nicene Creed includes explicit statements about Jesus’ divinity:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father,
Only-begotten, that is, of the substance of the Father; God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made…
However, contrary to what is suggested in The Da Vinci Code, the Council of Nicea did not invent the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity in order to serve Constantine’s agenda to unify the Empire and destroy pagan religions. Prior to the Council of Nicea, Jesus’ followers did not believe that he was only a mortal man. On the contrary, historical writings from the second and third centuries attest to a common Christian belief that Jesus is God. Most significant are the writings of Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D.), Irenaeus (ca. 130-202 A.D.) and Tertullian (ca. 155-230 A.D.), arguably the three most significant and influential Christian teachers of the period before the Council of Nicea. Justin Martyr’s dialogue with the Jewish scholar, Trypho, argued for Jesus Christ’s divinity (Dialogue with Trypho, 150 A.D.). In addition Irenaeus affirmed the divinity of Jesus by teaching that Jesus eternally co-existed with God the Father (Against Heresies, Book II, 180 A.D.). Finally, Tertullian wrote that Jesus, the Son of God, is one in divine substance and power with the Father (Against Praxeas, 200 A.D.). Thus all three of these significant Christian teachers taught that Jesus is God before the determinations of the Council of Nicea.
Furthermore, another historical detail that The Da Vinci Code completely misrepresents is the purpose of the Council of Nicea. This council was not called to unify Rome under a “new Vatican power base.” Instead the specific reason the council met was to resolve the controversial teachings of a preacher named Arius (256-336 A.D.). Arius created quite a stir when he stated: “there was a time when he was not.” He claimed that Jesus Christ was a created being, not eternal, and therefore not equal with God. Arius’ teachings were quickly condemned by his local church, but debate continued until a council was called to deal decisively with his teachings.
The history of Arius is important for two reasons. First, Arius’ teachings were troubling precisely because he was breaking from a near consensus understanding within the church of Jesus as divine. The writings of Justin Martyr, Ireanaeus and Tertullian were very influential and Arius was clearly challenging this established tradition. Second, the Council of Nicea affirmed the divinity of Jesus Christ and concluded that Arius’ position was not consistent with the Bible. The Nicene Creed specifically rejects Arius’ teaching by stating that Jesus was “not made.” Moreover the Council of Nicea was not introducing a new belief about Jesus, but it merely affirmed the church’s long standing belief that Jesus is God, in response to the controversial teachings of Arius.
The Da Vinci Code claims that Christianity has pulled off the greatest con by deceiving sincere people into believing the greatest cover-up. But who is the real con-man? The historical evidence does not substantiate author Dan Brown’s account of the Council of Nicea. There was no cover-up. The divinity of Jesus Christ was not something invented for political purposes and there is no evidence to suggest such. Instead Christianity, from its inception, has always taught that Jesus is God. Throughout history we have seen times when Christians were called to defend the doctrine of Jesus Christ’s divinity, as was the case at the Council of Nicea, and it seems that that same call is just as important today.
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