Central to the claims of Christianity is that Jesus of Nazareth, who lived approximately two thousand years ago, was and is the incarnate Son of God – fully God and fully man – the second Person of the Holy Trinity. On this belief everything rises or falls; all other claims of the Christian faith hinge on the person and work of Jesus the Christ – his identity and nature and mission, and ultimately his death and resurrection. This belief is expressed succinctly in the Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God…” This doctrinal statement presumably goes all the way back to the apostolic Church, and it has cosmic significance, if true. First, however, was this, in fact, the understanding and confession of the apostolic and post-apostolic Church – that is, the earliest Church, just after the life and death and (alleged) resurrection of Christ?
Witness of the Early Church
In the Gospel of St. Matthew, when we come to Jesus asking his disciples what people in general were saying about his nature and identity, we then read, “He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’” The account given in St. Mark, however, only has Peter replying, “‘you are the Messiah.’” St. Luke goes just a bit further in recording, “Peter answered, ‘The Messiah of God.” The question is, then, did Peter – Simon bar Jonas – go so far as to say Jesus of Nazareth was “the Son of the living God,” or did he simply confess this Jesus as Messiah, or “the Messiah of God?”
Did the earliest Christians understand Jesus to be divine – Son of the living God – or the merely the anointed of God – Redeemer, Savior, and Messiah? Of course, St. Luke does report in his account of the Annunciation that the archangel Gabriel declares to the favored Virgin Mary, “‘you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High … therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.’” Of course, this may give rise to some difficulty, because Gabriel also informs Mary that “‘God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.’”
It is admittedly difficult to contend that Jesus of Nazareth actually, in any real sense, received the throne of David, which is why this promise has classically been spiritualized, i.e. he was not to physically ascend the throne of David and rule in a this-worldly sense; rather, Christ Jesus would assume the spiritual throne of David, the real throne of which the earthly throne was only a type and foreshadow. If this interpretation is valid, though, then surely St. Luke believed Jesus to be the holy Son of God, the Most High, great and majestic, whose kingdom is everlasting. This is important, because the whole of Christianity rests upon the proper identity of Jesus the Christ.
The Gospel of St. Mark, too, attributes to Jesus the same title. In fact, the author introduces his narrative with the words, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” So, then, there was evidently no hesitation among the Synoptic Gospel writers to apply the term “Son of God” to Jesus of Nazareth, and this was early enough to say something significant about the fledgling Christian faith, no later than 70 – 75 AD (or CE, if one prefers.) More than some wonder-working, travelling rabbi – quite likely anointed by God – the witness of the early Church attributed divinity to Christ, however naïvely that may have been appreciated.
We may also turn to the the Epistles of St. Paul, such as the Letter to the Galatians, likely written between the late 40s and early 50s. And what does this former persecutor-turned-passionate Christian say about Jesus? “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” The Apostle St. Paul had no reservation in applying the term “Son of God” to Jesus either, and this apostolic witness was ingested by the Church, of course, as one can see through a cursory glance of early Christian literature. Let’s take three examples: the Epistle to Diognetus, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Epistles of Ignatius.
Ignatius, writing sometime in the very early second century, commended the Smyrnaeans, saying:
I perceived that ye were perfected in immovable faith, as though ye were nailed to the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ in flesh and in spirit, and firmly fixed in love in the blood of Christ, being fully persuaded with regard to our Lord, that he was truly of the race of David according to the flesh, the Son of God according to the will and power of God…
And from the Epistle of Barnabas, also likely composed in the first part of the second century, if not earlier:
And when He chose His own apostles, who were to proclaim His Gospel, who, that He might show that He ‘came not to call the righteous but sinners,’ were sinners above every sin, then He manifested Himself to be the Son of God… (so) the Son of God came in the flesh to this end.
In the second century Epistle to Diognetus, we read:
He did not, as one might have imagined, send to men any servant, or angel, or ruler, or any one of those who bear sway over earthly things, or one of those to whom the government of things in the heavens has been entrusted, but the very Creator and Fashioner of all things; by whom He made the heavens; by whom he enclosed the sea within its proper bounds; whose ordinances all the stars faithfully observe; from whom the sun has received the measure of his daily course to be observed ; whom the moon obeys, being commanded to shine in the night, and whom the stars also obey, following the moon in her course; by whom all things have been arranged, and placed within their proper limits, and to whom all are subject; the heavens and the things that are therein, the earth and the things that are therein, the sea and the things that are therein; fire, air, and the abyss; the things which are in the heights, the things which are in the depths, and the things which lie between. This [messenger] He sent to them… As a king sends his son, who is also a king, so sent He Him; as God He sent Him…
Obviously, an impressive and resplendent doxology to Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, believed and confessed by early Christians to be the Son of God. Other examples could be added here, including the Apostles’ Creed, which dates from at least the end of the second century as a common baptismal formula in the West, if not the beginning of that century. From the earliest times, then, it would seem Christians gave the same Matthean answer of Peter as to the identity of Jesus, that he was and is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. What many modern treatments of Jesus the Christ, Son of God, seem to miss or simply ignore is the continuity of the teaching and understanding of the faith community, emphasizing instead controversies and, thus, discontinuity.
However, if one is discussing the transmission of faith-belief within the same identifiable community, then there can never be complete discontinuity; there must also be continuity. In this case, there is greater continuity in the handing down of that “faith, which was once for all delivered to the saints.” Yes, there were controversies and conflicts; this drove the growth of Christological understanding. This does not mean, though, that the Christology in the early Church was a free-for-all – many equally valid and appealing, competing understandings of Jesus of Nazareth. No, there seems to have been a multi-faceted, non-contradictory – albeit embryonic – communal comprehension to begin with and, thus, from which to deviate. But why is this comprehension — or, more accurately, why did this become — so crucial, so cosmically important?
Significance of Jesus the Christ, Son of God
We do not come to the Petrine confession of Jesus immediately, though. Instead, the Lord first asks his disciples what other people are saying about him, and he does this because he wants to lead them to a deeper understanding and conviction of who and what he is in his fullness. And so he asks first about the general opinion of the people. “And he said not, ‘Whom say the Scribes and Pharisees that I am?’ often as these had come to him, and discoursed with him,” as St. John Chrysostom points out. “But ‘whom do men say that I am?’ inquiring after the judgment of the people.” Why? Because they were unbiased. “For though their opinion was far meaner than it should (have been), yet it was free from malice, but the other was teeming with much wickedness.”
After the answer is given to this inquiry, Jesus then asks the second question: “Whom do you say that I am?” In other words, “You who have seen me work so many miracles, who are always with me, and have yourselves done mighty deeds by me; who do you say that I am?” And once again it is Peter who “leaps forward with fervor and confesses that he is truly the Son of God.” And it’s well to note that he says, “the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Jesus is “not a son by grace, but he who is begotten of the same essence as the Father.” And it is, of course, this recognition and confession that stands as the centerpiece of the Creed, the whole of the Christian faith-religion.
He is Himself in His own right, beyond all men who ever lived, God, and Lord, and King Eternal, and the Incarnate Word, proclaimed by all the prophets, the apostles, and by the Spirit Himself, (and) may be seen by all who have attained to even a small portion of the truth. Now, the Scriptures would not have testified these things of Him, if, like others, He had been a mere man.
It is the confession of this truth “that separates the Christian faith from all other religions,” as 20th century Protestant Bible scholar and minister, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, claims:
Their founders, while important, are not absolutely essential to them. If Buddha had never existed, you could still have Buddhism. If Muhammed had never lived, you could still have Islam. In other religions it is the teaching that matters and the person is not essential; other persons might have done it equally well, and the teaching would remain unaffected. But that is not the case with the Christian faith. Christianity … is Christ himself.
Indeed, in classic (orthodox) Christianity’s eschatological understanding of creation, Christ is the “alpha and omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Through him all things were created, and he now stands as the goal of the whole of the created order, as the seventh century (Eastern/Byzantine) Church Father, St. Maximus the Confessor, explains:
For it was fitting for the Creator of the universe, who by the economy of his incarnation became what by nature he was not, to preserve without change both what he himself was by nature and what he became in his incarnation… This is the great and hidden mystery, at once the blessed end for which all things are ordained. It is the divine purpose conceived before the beginning of created beings. In defining it we would say that this mystery is the preconceived goal for which everything exists, but which itself exists on account of nothing. With a clear view to this end, God created the essences of created beings, and such is, properly speaking, the terminus of his providence and of the things under his providential care. Inasmuch as it leads to God, it is the recapitulation of the things he has created. It is the mystery which circumscribes all the ages, and which reveals the grand plan of God (cf. Eph. 1.10-11), a super-infinite plan infinitely preexisting the ages. The Logos, by essence God, became a messenger of this plan (cf. Isa. 9.5, LXX) when he became man and, if I may rightly say so, established himself as the innermost depth of the Father’s goodness while also displaying in himself the very goal for which his creatures manifestly received the beginning of their existence.
God the Son, according to the will of the Father and by the power of the Holy Spirit, became what we are by nature that we, believing in him and being filled with the self-same Spirit, might become “partakers of the divine nature.” God made the struggle of humanity with darkness, sin and death his own struggle; in becoming the Human, pure above all of humanity, Christ overcame darkness by his own eternal Light, sin by his own righteousness, death by his own death and resurrection. Consequently, uniting himself to us intimately by taking on our nature, and by winning victory over darkness, sin and death, those who believe in him and are filled with his Spirit share in his victory and are enlivened with life abundant and everlasting.
This, at least, is the declaration of Christianity, pure and unadulterated, but one might justly wonder how many professing Christians (at least in the West, and particularly in North America) realize this truth, not to mention the centrality of this truth. We should explore this question… It may very well have an awful lot to do with the continuing demise of Christianity in Western civilization.
 Matthew 16.15-16 NRSV
 Mark 8.29b, Luke 9.20b NRSV
 Luke 1.31-32a, 35b RSV
 Luke 1.32b-33 RSV
 Mark 1.1 NRSV
 Cf. Warren J. Moulton, “The Dating of the Synoptic Gospels,” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 37, 1-19; also “The Synoptic Gospels,” at http://www.biblica.com/en-us/bible/online-bible/scholar-notes/niv-study-bible/the-synoptic-gospels accessed on May 11, 2015; for the Gospel of St. Mark dating between 64 – 70 AD, see Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (ODCC), 1039; for the Gospel of St. Matthew dating between 80 – 90 AD, and not by an eyewitness, see ODCC, 1057; for the Gospel of St. Luke having “to require a date after AD 70,” see ODCC, 1005; Note: the Gospel of St. Matthew, however, was considered by the post-apostolic Church to be the first written, and that before the fall of Jerusalem, originally in Aramaic
 M. Coogan, ed. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 309 NT; cf. also Maxim Cardew, “Introduction to Galatians,” at http://www.ntgateway.com/paul-the-apostle/galatians/introduction-to-galatians accessed May 11, 2015; David and Pat Alexander, eds. Eerdmans’ Handbook to the Bible, 601
 Galatians 2.20 RSV
 Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 1.1b Roberts-Donaldson trans.
 Epistle of Barnabas 5. 9, 11 Roberts-Donaldson trans.
 New Advent, “Origin of the Creed,” as accessed on May 11, 2015; also JoHannah Reardon, “The Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds,” Christianity Today: Christian Bible Studies, July 30, 2008, as accessed on May 11, 2015
 For an easy overview of Christologies of the infant New Testament church, cf. John P. Galvin, “Jesus Christ,” Systematic Theology: Roman Catholic Perspectives, F. S. Fiorenza and J. P. Galvin, eds., 1.256-262
 Jude 1.3b RSV
 Bl. Theophylact, Gospel of Matthew, 139
 St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew, Nicene/Post-Nicene Fathers (NPNF) 1.10:332
 Bl. Theophylact, Op Cit, 139
 St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 3.19:2, Ante-Nicene Fathers (ANF) 1:449
 M. Lloyd-Jones, Great Doctrines of the Bible, vol. 1, God the Father, God the Son, 245-246
 Revelation 22.13 RSV
 St. Maximus the Confessor, Ad Thalassium 60, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, 125
 II Peter 1.4 ESV
 Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, 57-60