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The Da Vinci Code's Ancient Heresies
The best-selling novel recycles beliefs long ago condemned by Christians.


posted September 15, 2004

For the last nine months, Christian History and Biography's "Breaking The Da Vinci Code" has ranked among the ten most-read articles among the thousands posted at ChristianityToday.com. Why? The best-selling novel by Dan Brown makes many startling claims about Jesus and Christianity, such as:

  • Jesus was married—he married Mary Magdalene
  • They produced children who became a royal bloodline in France
  • Jesus was only a man whom the Council of Nicea narrowly voted to declare as God
  • The Christian church has worked aggressively, suppressing various gospels, to cover up these "facts."

Many books have been published, answering those claims.

Behind all the squirrelly beliefs in The Da Vinci Code lie two ancient heresies, both long ago addressed by the church.

Arianism

The Da Vinci Code claims that the early Christian Council of Nicea was a power play among bishops, who invented the idea that Jesus was not just a man, but God. Dialogue from the novel:

Leigh Teabing: "Jesus' establishment as 'the Son of God' was officially proposed and voted on by the Council of Nicea."

Sophie Neveu: "Hold on. You're saying that Jesus' divinity was the result of a vote?"

Leigh Teabing: "A relatively close one at that."

Thus, The Da Vinci Code votes for the belief that the Council of Nicea voted down, the ancient heresy of Arianism.

The newly converted emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325 to stop the controversy caused by Arius and his many followers. According to Robert Payne's fascinating account, Arius wanted to correct the heresy of his aging bishop, Alexander, "a heresy that involved a belief in the unity of God at the expense of the reality of the Trinity." Alas, Arius fell into a new heresy, for he announced, "If the Father begat the Son, then he who was begotten had a beginning in the existence, and from this follows there was a time when the Son was not."

The idea quickly became popular and was put to rhyme; people sang, "There was a time when the Son was not." Payne writes, "Against this conception, Alexander and Athanasius rebelled, and they seem to have been perfectly aware that the heresy had the power to destroy the church as they knew it."

Alexander issued an encyclical saying that Arius's views were wrong, but the heresy spread. Athanasius fought vigorously alongside Alexander, writing, "At one and the same time—this is the wonder—as man, he was living a human life; and as Word, he was sustaining the life of the universe; and as Son, he was in constant union with the Father."

Constantine, furious at the dissension in his newly-embraced church and his empire, called the bishops to Nicea to end their quarrel. About 400 bishops arrived from across the empire, including one "Theophilus the Goth, a flaxen-haired Scythian from somewhere in Russia."

The bishops made little progress until Hosius suggested they might come to agreement by drawing up a creed. There was a strong tradition in the church affirming Christ's deity, as historian Bruce Shelley points out. When Constantine came to the side of Alexander, the bishops were able to add a few phrases, firmly anti-Arius, to an older creed. The creed affirmed the Son was "begotten of the Father, only begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father." Slowly, over the next century, the creed became more poetic, and now, instead of a tool against heresy, it is a statement of Christian unity, said by millions of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant believers around the world.

Still, Arianism thrived. Fifty years after Nicea, only one small congregation in Constantinople was non-Arian. Athanasius, the resolute defender of orthodoxy against the Gnostic challenge, was exiled five times by five emperors for a total 17 years. But thanks to Athanasius and the Council of Nicea, the belief that Christ was fully God and fully man is now understood as basic Christian doctrine.

"Since Arius, it has been impossible for Christians to say that the Son of God is not co-eternal with the Father, according to Scripture," writes Thomas C. Oden in Christianity Today. These are landmarks that remain for Christians of all subsequent times and places, since once challenged they had to be met with serious exegetical debate and consensual definition of Christian truth, which is orthodoxy."

Gnosticism

The Da Vinci Code claims that Constantine and early Christian leaders suppressed the true and superior Gnostic gospels (because they spoke of Christ's human traits) in favor of the Bible's Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In truth, as scholar Craig Keener has written, "No 4th-century imperial directive was needed to suppress these works; the church had long ago disavowed them as Scripture."

What were these Gnostic writings, and why did Christians reject them?

Gnostics (a diverse group with many different beliefs) generally held that the body was evil and, in order to be freed from it, one must discover a secret knowledge. They denied Jesus' bodily Resurrection, some even the entire Old Testament. And by denigrating the body and material world, Gnostics became either spiritual escapists—in the extreme, refusing to bathe, because that meant contact with water—or moral profligates, having frequent immoral sexual encounters, since what happened in the body could not touch the spirit. Further, by emphasizing secret knowledge for the elite, Gnostics undercut grace to all who would come to Christ.

"Of all the differing interpretations of Christianity, none was as dangerous, nor as close to victory as was Gnosticism," writes Justo Gonzalez in "Finding the Truth." Like Arianism, Gnosticism also provided the opportunity to define truth—and in this case, the New Testament canon.

A well-known Gnostic teacher, Marcion, gathered a following in Rome. Marcion believed the god of the Old Testament was not the same as the Father of Jesus. He asserted that the Old Testament God, Jehovah, had created the evil material world, while the New Testament God is loving and forgiving. This view led Marcion to disregard the Old Testament books and some "Jewish" New Testament books. Gonzalez writes, "For a number of years, this rival church achieved a measure of success, and even after it was clearly defeated, it lingered on for centuries."

Because Christians had no official canon—no officially recognized list of sacred writings—Marcion's attempt to produce one was the first. However, once again, there was a tradition, and church leaders looked to that when they decided to form their Bible. "The church at large began to compile a list of sacred Christian writings. This was not done in a formal manner, through a council or special meeting. A consensus developed gradually." The church, spurred by Marcion's heresy, produced a basic canon by the end of the second century: the four Gospels, Acts, and Paul's epistles.

Today, the books of Elaine Pagels and others have renewed interest in Gnostic views. The Matrix series of movies put the ancient heresy into spectacular cinema. The Da Vinci Code casts yet another vote for Gnostic teaching. But Christians who know their history know that the New Testament as received best represents the belief of the early church.

The gifts of heresy

Today, heretical works like The Da Vinci Code may actually do believers a service. It's ironic but true that heresies often force Christians to better understand orthodox truths.

"Heretics often provided a great service to the church," writes Tony Lane. "Marcion rejected the Old Testament and the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John, thus forcing the church to define the New Testament canon. Arius, in denying the deity of Christ, made the church articulate the doctrine that became the most crucial to Christianity."

—Rob Moll is assistant editor of Christianity Today.