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New Testament Theology

How Did Ancient Christians Understand the Divine Nature of God?

If your head is spinning, that’s alright. These are complex theological discussions.

Latter-day Saints and mainstream Christians differ in how they understand the natures of God and of Jesus Christ. For instance, the Jesus Christ in the Book of Mormon doesn’t always align with the Savior in the Bible. But those differences might not be as extreme as is often assumed. In this interview, BYU’s Jason Combs discusses efforts by early Christians to understand the nature of Jesus Christ as both human and divine.


Learn more in the book Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints.


Table of Contents


How did early Christians understand humanity to be different than divinity?

When we think of what it means to be human, chances are we think of the challenges of life and our imperfections. Humans fall and get hurt, experience sickness and death. Humans lack understanding and make mistakes. None of that describes how we understand “divinity.” God is immortal and glorious; God has perfect understanding and does not err.


How is the statement that Jesus is fully divine and human a paradox?

Despite the differences in these natures, the human and the divine, Christians have long affirmed that Jesus was (is) fully both human and divine. Understanding why this was necessary, what it means, and how it works are questions that have occupied Christians for millennia —including Christians in the Book of Mormon.

Some ancient Christians understood the difference between divine and human natures to be starker than I’ve described here. For instance, some Christians thought of the divine and human natures as not existing on a continuum, but in two totally different spheres.

That doesn’t mean what we think it means!

An analogy often used to describe this difference is that of a potter (someone who makes pots) and a pot. A potter “begets” a son but “makes” or “creates” a pot. In this analogy human beings are the pot. We might be created in the image and likeness of God, but we are still “created,” whereas the Only-Begotten Son is “begotten” by God and therefore shares all that God is.

I’ll say more about this below. And we can talk about how we differ from this view as Latter-day Saints.


What is modalism?

Modalism is an ancient Christian heresy (in our terms, “false doctrine”). Modalism is the belief that there is only one personage who is God, and that God manifests himself sometimes in the mode of the Father, sometimes in the mode of the Son, and other times in the mode of the Holy Spirit.

Modalism is also what many Latter-day Saints mistakenly think that other Christians believe. Sometimes I’ll hear Latter-day Saints say things like, “We don’t believe in the Trinity because we believe that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are three separate personages.” For the vast majority of Christians, that statement is nonsensical because their definition of the Trinity is that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are three separate persons who are equally God.

A diagram highlighting the belief of modalism in which God is a singular personage who manifests at different times as either the Father, Son, or Holy Ghost.
Trinitarianism is not modalism. Trinitarianism is the belief that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three distinct persons who are all equally God

In fact, the term Trinity (Latin, Trinitas) as applied to God’s threeness and oneness was coined by Tertullian as he argued against someone who affirmed a modalist position.

Yes, you read that correctly. The concept of the “Trinity” was Tertullian’s response to someone who affirmed that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were different manifestations of a single personage.


If most Christians don’t believe in modalism, what do they believe?

In broad terms, most Christians who are informed about their theological history believe something very close to what we Latter-day Saints mean by the Godhead. Of course, another way of saying this would be: the way we use the term Godhead in Church today is practically as a substitute for the word Trinity.


How is it different from what Latter-day Saints believe?

We sometimes say things like, the word Trinity isn’t found in the Bible, but “Godhead” is. That’s true. I just described above how Tertullian coined the term “Trinity.” But we should be careful to understand what the Bible means by “Godhead.”

“Godhead” only appears three times in the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, the official Bible of the English-speaking Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In Acts 17:29, it is a translation of the Greek to theion, “the divine” or “the deity.” And in Romans 1:20 and Colossians 2:9, “Godhead” is the KJV translation of the Greek, theiotēs and theotēs both meaning “divinity” or “divine nature.”

For instance, Colossians 2:9 states:

9 For in [Christ] dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.

That doesn’t mean that the three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—are all inside of Jesus; it means that Jesus is fully divine, that he has a divine nature.

Now, to be fair…

I think we’ve sometimes mistakenly assumed that “Godhead” in the KJV means something like God’s headship or leadership, when in fact “Godhead” is simply an old way of writing “Godhood”—it means “divinity” or “divine nature.” But again, the way we use the term Godhead in Church today is practically as a substitute for the word Trinity.

So, our differences from those who affirm God to be the Trinity, are fewer than we might think. But we Latter-day Saints really need to stop saying that we believe God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are three separate “beings.” That doesn’t mean what we think it means!

For ancient Christians (and modern Christians) the words “being” and “person” are not synonymous. For those familiar with the history of Christian theology, when they hear us say “three separate beings” it sounds like we’re saying: one is divine, another is something else, and the third is something entirely different. That’s not what we believe! We believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are all divine: three distinct persons, one Godhead.

I’d say that our biggest differences from other Christians on the subject of the nature of God have to do with:

  1. Our belief that God the Father has a tangible yet glorified body (Doctrine and Covenants 130:22).
  2. Our belief in a Heavenly Mother.
  3. Our belief that human nature is not entirely different from divine nature.

We don’t have time to explore these differences here, but in my chapter I discuss in some detail the origin of the belief that God is incorporeal, without a body. And there are discussions on ancient Christian beliefs about human nature in other chapters.

President Dallin H. Oaks talks about Latter-day Saints beliefs about the Godhead in a general conference address.

What did the Nicene Creed accomplish?

One of the main things that the Nicene Creed (AD 325) attempted to accomplish was to settle the debate that Arius and Alexander were having in Alexandria, Egypt. The debate between Arius and Alexander dealt directly with the earlier question you asked me. It had to do with the nature of God and human nature—focused especially on the nature of Jesus Christ.


What were Arius and Alexander debating?

People, such as Arius, were insisting that Jesus was subordinate to the Father and not fully divine. But Alexander, and eventually the Nicene Council, asked, if Jesus was not fully divine how did he have the power to reunite us humans fully with God?

Certainly no one but God has that power, they concluded. So, Alexander and the Nicene Council affirmed that the Son was just as divine as the Father, that they have the same divine nature or “being” even though they are different “persons.”


Did the Nicene Creed embrace modalism?

Absolutely not! Latter-day Saints sometimes misunderstand homoousios (translated as consubstantial or same substance/essence/being) as meaning “same person.” But for ancient Christians the words “being” (ousia) and “person” (prosopon) are not synonymous.

The Nicene Creed affirms that Jesus Christ is just as much “God” as God the Father is. The Nicene Council added the term homoousios because people, such as Arius, were insisting that Jesus was similar to the Father in divinity, but not fully divine. Adding the term homoousios was their way of affirming (contrary to Arius) that Jesus was just as divine as the Father.

Now, to be fair, the Nicene Creed does not clearly articulate that there is a difference between the persons of the Trinity (or Godhead)—it is assumed, but not explicitly stated.

A clearer statement came centuries later at the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), when they affirm that Jesus is not only homoousios with the Father as regards his divinity, but also homoousios with us human beings as regards his humanity. And no one thinks homoousios here means that all of us human beings are the same “person” as Jesus!


How do Latter-day Saint beliefs align with the Nicene Creed?

Latter-day Saints can happily affirm most everything in the Nicene Creed. That is because most everything in Nicene Creed comes directly out of the Bible!

“We believe in one God [see Deuteronomy 6:4], Father Almighty [Genesis 17:1], creator of all things both visible and invisible [see Colossians 1:16]. And in one Lord Jesus Christ [see 1 Corinthians 8:6], the Son of God [Mark 1:1], begotten from the Father, only-begotten [see John 1:14].”

If your head is spinning, that’s alright.

There is a great article by Lincoln Blumell titled, “Rereading the Council of Nicaea and Its Creed.” It is published in the book, Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy, edited by Miranda Wilcox and John D. Young. In that article, Lincoln includes a helpful chart that shows you line-by-line how Latter-day Saint scripture—including the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants—supports the affirmations of the Nicene Creed with very few exceptions.

In fact, the only exceptions are with terminology that does not appear in the Bible either, such as homoousios.


What complex terminology is involved?

Dyophysitism and miaphysitism

If this interview accomplishes nothing else, at least it will provide people with a lot of fancy words to casually drop at dinner parties. “Have you heard about dyophysitism?” “Let me tell you something about miaphysitism!” (On second thought, these are probably conversation stoppers.)

Anyway, these terms only sound fancy because we borrowed them from Greek. Miaphysitism is the belief that Jesus Christ has only one nature (mia = one and physis = nature), whereas dyophysitism is the belief that Jesus Christ has two natures (dyo = two and physis = nature).


Monophysitism

I have to introduce one more term to help us understand this debate: monophysitism. This too is from Greek (mono = single and physis = nature). And please do not confuse miaphysitism with monophysitism, our Orthodox Christian friends will not be happy. Let me explain.

Ancient Christians (and Christian Scripture) affirmed that Jesus is God (part of the Trinity or Godhead) and that Jesus became human. As we’ve seen, they also believed that divine nature and human nature are two different things. So, naturally, someone had to ask: did Jesus have two natures or only one? And if only one, which one?


What was the Council of Chalcedon?

The Council of Chalcedon came together in response to some Christians preaching monophysitism. Monophysitism was the belief that Jesus Christ had only one single nature after his incarnation—more specifically, that his human nature was swallowed up entirely by his divine nature (think of salt dissolving in water).

Theologian Mike Bird explains that the Council of Chalcedon resulting in a creed that explained how Christ’s humanity and divinity exist equally in the same person.

For other Christians, this idea was very problematic: if Christ did not bear our human nature to the cross how could he have redeemed us humans?

The response of the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) was dyophysitism, to define Christ as both fully human and fully divine, acknowledging two natures in the one person of Jesus Christ “without confusion, division, or separation.” How can one person have two natures?

Chalcedonian Christians might respond: That is the miracle and mystery of Jesus’s Incarnation (Jesus taking on flesh and becoming human).

Not all Christians accepted the Chalcedonian Definition. Christians to the East (Syriac, Coptic, etc.) agreed with the rejection of monophysitism. It was (is) just as important for them that Christ bore our humanity on the Cross. But when asked, how can one person have two natures? They responded, no one can! Their view, miaphysitism, affirms that Jesus Christ is human and divine, but that the miracle of the Incarnation was that those two natures came together in one nature in such a way that neither nature was swallowed up by the other.

If your head is spinning, that’s alright. These are complex theological discussions. But they are important discussions because they are born out of a close reading of Scripture and out of the desire to understand our Savior and his work of salvation.

We Latter-day Saints affirm that the Atonement of Jesus Christ is ultimately beyond our full human comprehension, but our modern-day prophets and leaders have also taught that we should seek to understand Jesus’s Atonement. And that might mean thinking through some challenging issues about what makes us human and what makes God, God.


How do Latter-day Saint beliefs align with the Chalcedonian Definition?

In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today, you’re probably not going to get in trouble with your bishop for saying that you think Jesus has two natures, human and divine, or for saying that you think Jesus has one nature that is human and divine—although, he might give you strange looks. As Latter-day Saints, we’re alright setting those theological issues aside so long as you have faith in Jesus Christ and his atoning sacrifice, and you strive to live your life accordingly.

Personally, coming from a Latter-day Saint background, I still find the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and most of the Chalcedonian Definition to be beautiful summaries of the biblical teachings about God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. And I can appreciate Christians who hold to either miaphysitism or dyophysitism.

They wanted to know God.

I think where we tend to disagree as Latter-day Saints has more to do with the often-unstated assumptions about divine nature and human nature.

Remember the pot and potter analogy that we talked about at the beginning? For Latter-day Saints who affirm that all human beings are literal spirit children of God, the distinction between humanity and divinity becomes less stark. To continue the pot-and-potter analogy, all humans become not the pot, but “begotten spirit children of heavenly parents.” In this view, divine and human natures seem to exist on a sort of continuum—we’re a little closer to an ancient Christian named Origen of Alexandria in this regard.

This view, of course, creates new theological questions. What precisely is the difference between our Lord Jesus Christ, a member of the Godhead (Trinity), and us human beings? If the difference is not one of nature, how do we account for the necessity of Jesus Christ as our savior?

I don’t have all the answers. But these are good questions to ponder as we study our scriptures and the teachings of modern prophets and apostles. Perhaps some of these questions will be answered through the Maxwell Institute’s new Christology Initiative.


Why was it important to ancient Christians to strive to understand the nature of God?

For all the same reasons that it is important to us. They wanted to know God, and they wanted to understand the character and attributes of God so that they could know how best to serve God.

At the end of my chapter, I answer this question about “why” by quoting Gregory of Nazianzus—a famous fourth-century Christian theologian. Ancient Christians affirmed with Genesis that we are created in the image of God and, therefore, that there is something God-like about us.

For Gregory of Nazianzus, one part of us that is definitely from God is our mind. He writes:

“In my opinion [the true essence and nature of God] will be discovered when that within us which is Godlike and divine, I mean our mind and reason, shall have mingled with its like, and the image [of God, you and I,] shall have ascended to the archetype [God himself ], of which it has now the desire. And . . . ‘we shall know even as we are known’ [1 Corinthians 13:12].”

Gregory of Nazianzus


For Gregory, seeking with our minds to know God and to know about God brings us closer to God. And He looks forward to the great day when, as Paul predicted, “we shall know even as we are known”:

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (1 Corinthians 13:12).

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About the interview participant

Jason Robert Combs is an assistant professor of Ancient Scripture and affiliate faculty of Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Brigham Young University. His areas of expertise include New Testament, Second Temple Judaism, History of Christianity (1st–4th centuries CE), and New Testament Apocrypha.


Further reading


Divine nature of Jesus resources

By Chad Nielsen

Biotech professional. Armchair historian. Latter-day Saint.

3 replies on “How Did Ancient Christians Understand the Divine Nature of God?”

Like your article however remember that most other churches teach that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are equal The Son is not inferior to the Father That is not what Jesus taught and is foreign to our theology

While the Son is not inferior to the Father, he still does the will of the Father because it is his selfsame will. The Father does not do the will of the Son. I don’t know if this places the Son in an inferior position or merely one of respect for his Father.

IMHO if the Son was willfully capable of any rebellion against the Father, he would not be our Savior. So while the Son is not inferior to the Father … there is a difference.

I loved this article, however, I think one additional clarification would make it even better. If I am correct in my understanding, after the ‘Eddict of Thessalonica’, any theological beliefs in the Roman Empire contrary to the Nicene Creed were outlawed. A simple theological test applied at the time to discover heresy was to simply ask the question if ‘God the Father ever existed alone, or did he preceded Jesus Christ’. If your answer was no, you were OK. If your answer was yes, you were branded as a heretic and at risk of persecution.

According to this question, our church’s theological beliefs would have condemned us as heretics due to our belief that Christ was ‘begotten’ by the Father, meaning God the Father preceded Jesus Christ.

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