Over at the excellent Thinking Christian blog, Tom Gilson has written an very good, short piece about the book of Colossians and it's implictions to the idea that Jesus was deified by the early church. Entitled Colossians and the Implausibility of the Fable Theory, he makes the point that the book does't make sense if Jesus was only later deified by the church.
I really like the following point he makes in terms of evaluating the Epistle in light of the idea that if Jesus was deified by the early church, it must have been to some purpose. Tom's answer is short and resounding:
Is there any hint that Christ is being used as a means to an end? None whatever. Rather he is the end himself, the object of reverence and worship. It seems implausible that the early church community would have built up a Christ-fable as a means to their survival under persecution, without some taint of that intention touching documents like this.
Absolutely. That seems so stunningly obvious that we apologists sometimes forget it in our zeal to defend every jot and tittle. But add the following to Tom's thought: why should the early church bother to make up a story at all if the church wasn't really dedicated to the belief that Jesus was truly God? What in Jesus' teachings was so new or outstanding that the church felt it needed to deify Him to protect that teaching? After all, with only a few exceptions almost everything that Jesus taught about morality or God could be found in the teachings of the Old Testament. The major thing that Jesus taught that distinguished Him from the Old Testament was His teaching about who He was/is, i.e., His self-identification as the Son of God (and even that teaching is grounded in the Old Testament).
No, it isn't sensible that the church should develop through the Kerygma the idea that Jesus was God. Rather, the only reason for the church to develop and to survive in the face of persecution was because the belief that Jesus was and is God pre-existed the church.