This is the fourth article in the series on the historical development of the Trinity doctrine. These first articles discuss the views of the church fathers in the first three centuries to determine whether they understood God to be a Trinity; One Being but three Persons. The previous articles were An Introduction, which defined the Trinity, followed by analyses of the teachings of Polycarp and Justin Martyr. The current article reflects the thoughts of Ignatius of Antioch.
Ignatius of Antioch (died 98/117) wrote
“In Christ Jesus our Lord, by whom and with whom be glory and power to the Father with the Holy Spirit for ever” (n. 7; PG 5.988).
Trinitarians quote this because it mentions the triad of three Persons together. However, as previously stated, mentioning them together does not mean that they are one or that they are equal. It only means that they are related. In Ephesians 4:5, Paul mentions “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God.” That means that these four form a logical group; not that they are equal or the same.
Ignatius contradicted the Trinity theory earlier in the same work when he identified the Father alone as God:
Thou art in error when thou callest the daemons of the nations gods. For there is but one God, who made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all that are in them; and one Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, whose kingdom may I enjoy. (Martyrdom of Ignatius 2)
Ignatius here seems to interpret 1 Corinthians 8:4-6, which reads:
“Even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth … yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.”
These statements explicitly identify the one God as someone distinct from the one Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, the Father is the one God.
The only true God
Ignatius further wrote:
But our Physician is the only true God, the unbegotten and unapproachable, the Lord of all, the Father and Begetter of the only-begotten Son
We have also as a Physician the Lord our God Jesus the Christ;
the only-begotten Son and Word, before time began,
but who afterwards became also man, of Mary the virgin. For ‘the Word was made flesh.’
Being incorporeal (intangible), He was in the body;
Being impassible (incapable of suffering or feeling pain), He was in a passible body;
Being immortal, He was in a mortal body;
Being life, He became subject to corruption, that He might free our souls from death and corruption, and heal them, and might restore them to health, when they were diseased with ungodliness and wicked lusts.
(Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The ante-Nicene Fathers, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975 rpt., Vol. 1, p. 52, Ephesians 7.)
According to this quote, before the Son became human, He was the only-begotten Son and Word, incorporeal, incapable of suffering, immortal and being life. To say that He was incorporeal and incapable of suffering seem to be speculations, for such things are not mentioned in the Bible:
The description of the Son as “being life” is perhaps explained by the statement, “Just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself” (John 5:26). On the one hand, it means that He received “life in Himself” from the Father, which means that He is subordinate to the Father. On the other, there are only two Beings who have “life in Himself,” which testifies of a close relationship and similarity.
The statement that the Son was immortal seems to contradict the statement that the Father alone “alone possesses immortality” (1 Tim. 6:16), but there are two kinds of immortality; conditional and unconditional. The Father alone is essentially (unconditionally) immortal, while humans will become immortal “when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:54).
Before time began
For Ignatius, as per the previous quote, the Father is “unbegotten” and the “Begetter of the only-begotten Son.” This is an important distinction between the Father and Son. Later Arius would conclude that the Son, therefore, had a beginning; that there was a time when the Son was not. For Ignatius the Son was begotten “before time began,” which implies that He existed as long as time existed. But this does not mean that the Son is equal to the Father. To explains:
Time was created. There exists an infinity outside time, for God exists beyond time. In that infinity beyond time, the Son was Begotten, according to Ignatius. If we use the word “before” not in a literal time sense, then we can say that the Father existed “before” the Son.
“Begotten” is human language for something that humans are unable to even begin to understand.
In the quote above, both the Father and Son are called physicians. Later in the quote, Ignatius describes the sinner as “diseased” and the work of the Physician is not to judge, but to “heal … restore … to health.” “Physician” is a most appropriate description of God’s attitude towards sinners, for He is not an independent Judge, but a kind Father.
Our God Jesus the Christ
In the quote above, Ignatius describes the Son as “our God.” Some apologists use such phrases to argue that the church fathers before Nicene believed Jesus is God. But in the previous sentence, Ignatius described the Father as “the only true God,” which means that the Son is not “true God.” This confusion does not exist in the original text but is caused by the translation. To explain:
In modern English, we use the word “God” to identify one specific being. It functions as a proper name for the Almighty.
The ancient languages did not have the modern differentiation between lower and upper case letters. They only had words (theos in Greek) that are equivalent to our word “god.” The word “god” does not identify one specific being, but a category of beings. The Christian God was regarded as one of the gods.
The following are examples from the Scriptures to show that the Hebrew mindset had no problem applying the word for “god” to:
● Moses (Exodus 7.1),
● Angels (Psalm 8.5; cf. Hebrews 2.7),
● The divine council (Psalm 82.1, 6),
● Israel’s judges (Exodus 21.6, 22.8),
● The Davidic king (Psalm 45.6),
● Appetite (Philippians 3.19),
● Those who receive the word of God (John 10.34-35), and even to
● Satan (2 Corinthians 4.4).
Also outside the Bible, in the Greco-Roman world, they had a plethora of gods, including the emperors. Paul confirmed, “indeed there are many gods and many lords” (1 Cor. 8:5).
In other words, during the early centuries of Christianity, the word theos (god) had a flexible meaning. And since “every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:11), it was quite natural and appropriate for the first Christians to refer to the Son as theos.
Translation causes confusion
So the original text is clear. All we have in the Greek Bibles is the word theos. It says that the Father is the only true “god” and the Son is our “god.” The confusion is caused by the theology of the translators. When translators think that the Almighty is intended, they translate theos as “God.” Since most translators are Trinitarians, they also translate the instances, where Jesus is referred to as theos, as “God.” When theos does not refer to the Father or to the Son, they translate the same word as “god.”
Ignatius’ translator similarly assumed that Jesus is God, in the Trinitarian sense of the word. Therefore, the translation refers to Him as “our God.”
However, the phrase “only true God” is illogical, for the word “God” is not a category name. It would have been more logical to translate this phrase as “the only true god” or as “the only God.” The same applies to John 17:3, where Jesus says that the Father is “the only true god.”
Similarly, the translations should refer to the Son as “our god” (small “g”). A more literal translation would have reduced the confusion significantly. For a more complete explanation, see The Meanings of the Word THEOS.
The word “God” did not exist in ancient times.
Which instances of theos are translated as “God” is substantially dependent on the theology of the translator.
Ignatius describes only the Father as “unapproachable.” This is a quote from 1 Tim. 6:16, which says that the Father “alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light.” Since, for Ignatius, the Father is “the only true god,” unbegotten and unapproachable, the Father is in a category all by himself. For him, the Father and Son are not equal, as Trinitarians propose. Rather, the Son is subordinate to the Father.
Ignatius made a clear distinction between God and Jesus Christ: The Father is the only true God, the unbegotten and unapproachable, the Lord of all, who “made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all that are in them.” He is ”the Father and Begetter of the only-begotten Son.”
There are a number of statements in the quotes from Ignatius that people use to prove that the Son is equal to the Father:
Ignatius describes the Son as “our God,” but he identified the Father as “the only true God,” which means that the Son is not “true God.” As explained, the word “God” did not exist in ancient times. Literally translated, the original text describes the Son as “our god” and the Father as “the only true god.” Which instances of theos are translated with a capital “G” (“God”) depends on the theology of the translator.
Ignatius wrote that the Son was begotten “before time began.” This means that He existed as long as time existed. But this does not mean that the Son is equal to the Father, for there exists an infinity beyond time, in which the Son was begotten by the Father.
Ignatius describes the Son as “immortal,” but this also does not mean that He is equal with the Father, for the Father “alone possesses (essential) immortality,” being immortal in terms of His being.
Ignatius wrote that the Son is “life,” but He received that life from the Father.
For Ignatius, the Father and Son are not equal, as Trinitarians propose. Rather, the Son is subordinate to the Father. There is no evidence in the quotes above that Ignatius thought that the Holy Spirit is self-aware, that the three Persons are equal, that they consist of one substance, that they are one Being or that Jesus has both a divine and a human nature.