Church fathers described Jesus as “our god” but it is translated “our God.”

Introduction

A number of the Christian writers of the first 300 years referred to Jesus as “our God.”  Trinitarian apologists use such phrases to argue that the church fathers, even before Nicene, believed that Jesus is God.  To prevent a repetition of the explanation of this practice, this article focuses on this topic.

This article focuses specifically on the early church fathers, but various other articles are available on this site that discuss the references to Jesus as God in the New Testament, including, Is Jesus called God?, Romans 9:5, Hebrews 1:8, John 1:1, John 1:18, John 20:28, and Is Jesus called God in John?       

Jesus is our God

IGNATIUS

Ignatius of Antioch describes the Son as “our God” but the Father as “the only true God.”

Irenaeus, similarly, referred to Christ Jesus as “our God.”  But he similarly also wrote:

We received the faith in “One God, the Father Almighty.”

Lord God of Abraham … who art the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God … who rulest over all, who art the only and the true God, above whom there is none other God (Against Heresies 3.6.4)

He, the Father, is the only God and Lord, who alone is God and ruler of all… (Against Heresies 3.9.1)

This confusion does not exist in the original text but is caused by the translations.  To explain:

The modern word “God”

In modern English, we use the word “God” to identify one specific being.  It functions as a proper name for the Almighty; the One who exists without Cause.

The ancient word “god”

The ancient languages did not have the modern differentiation between lower and upper case letters.  Consequently, they did not have a word that is equivalent to the modern word “God.”  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. 

For example, in the Graeco-Roman world, they had a plethora of gods. Even the emperors were called as gods.  Paul confirmed, “indeed there are many gods and many lords” (1 Cor. 8:5).  The Christian God was regarded as one of the gods.

Describes many different beings

Words such as theos, therefore, had a much broader meaning than the modern word “God.”  For example, the following are called “god” in the Bible:

Moses at the burning bush

● 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
● Satan (2 Corinthians 4.4).

Outside the Bible, the ancients also applied theos and similar words to exalted people and to the pagan gods, such as Zeus, the god of the sky, Apollo, god of the sun, Hermes, god of the roadways, and Hades, the god of the underworld. 

Theos in the Bible

Since such ancient words, such as those, were used to refer to a wide variety of beings, the writers of the New Testament very frequently added the definite article (the – ho in Greek) to indicate that the only true God is intended.  Sometimes they described Him as “the true god” or “the only god.”

Since the ancient word theos (god) had such a broad meaning and since “every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:11), it was quite natural and appropriate for the Bible writers and the first Christian apologists to refer to the Son as theos.  However, for them, the Father remained the only true god.

Translations cause confusion

So the original text is clear.  All we have in the Greek Bible is the word theos.  Literally translated, Ignatius wrote that the Father is “the only true god” and the Son is “our god.” 

The confusion is caused by the translations.  Ancient words such as theos are translated as “god” or as “God.” It depends on the context. When modern translators think that the Almighty is intended, they translate theos as “God.” 

Most translators are Trinitarians which means that they assume that Jesus is equal to the Almighty Father; the Uncaused Cause of all things.  Therefore, they also translate theos as “God” when it refers to Jesus.  Consequently, the translations refer to Jesus as “God” rather than “god.”  That, however, does not accurately reflect the meaning of these ancient writers.

Furthermore, 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.”  The same applies to John 17:3, where Jesus says that the Father is “the only true theos.”  This should be translated “only true god.”

Is Jesus God or god?

Whether we translate this as “God” or as “god” depends on what we mean by the word “God” and by whom we understand Jesus to be:

Ignatius described the Father as the only true god.  If he lived today, I think he would have preferred to translate his reference to Jesus as “god.”

However, Ignatius also described Jesus Christ in very elevated terms.  He is “the only-begotten Son.” This sets Him infinitely above all other beings, for it means that He came forth from the being of the Father.  He was begotten “before time began” and Himself was “being life.”  He described only the Father as “unbegotten.” In other words, only the Father exists without cause.  But still, Jesus is extremely close to the Father.  It is therefore quite possible to define the modern word “God” to include “the only-begotten Son.”  Then we can translate theos, when it refers to Jesus, as “God.”  That, however, would not make us Trinitarians, for the Father and the Son are not equal and they are not one Being.  

This is all very confusing and complex.  I guess my simple main point as follows: The fact that the translator capitalized the “G” cannot be used to support the Trinity doctrine for it is an interpretation that assumes the Trinity doctrine.  For a further explanation, see The Meanings of the Word THEOS.

Summary

The word “God” did not exist in the ancient Greek texts. We use the modern word “God” as the proper name for the One who exists without cause. 

The ancients did not have such a word.  They only had the word “god” (theos in Greek).  This word was used for a wide variety of beings, such as Moses, angels, Israel’s judges, appetite, those who receive the word of God, Satan and obviously also for the only true god. 

The ancient writers described Jesus as “our god” and the Father as “the only true god.”  The translators capitalize the “G,” when theos refers to Jesus, but that is an interpretation.  It is an application of the Trinity doctrine; not proof of it.  It must not be used to support the Trinity doctrine.

Articles in this series

Christology of the persecuted church (First 300 years)
 – Introduction
 – Polycarp
 – Justin Martyr 
 – Ignatius of Antioch
 – Irenaeus
 – Tertullian – work in progress

 – Origen – work in progress
 – Jesus is our god. – Current Article
Fourth Century (State Church)
 – Council of Nicaea – A.D. 325 
 – The Nicene Creed Interpreted 
 – Fourth Century Arianism 

 – What did Arianism believe in the fourth century?
 – Long Lines Creed – one of the creeds during the Arian period
 – Death of Arianism – Emperor Theodosius
Fifth Century
 – Fall of the Western Roman Empire
 – Why the Roman Empire fell 
 – The Fall of Rome proves Daniel as a true prophecy.
Middle Ages

 – The massacres of the Waldensians

Was the early church father Irenaeus (died 190) a Trinitarian?

This is the fifth article in the series that discusses the Christology of the main Christian authors of the first three centuries after Christ.  The previous articles were an Introduction, which defined the Trinity doctrine and gave an overview of the conceptual and historical development of it.  This was followed by articles discussing the views of Polycarp, Justin Martyr and Ignatius of Antioch.  This fifth article discusses the view of Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (115-190).  He wrote as follows:

The Church … has received … this faith … (in)
One God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in
One Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in
the Holy Spirit

To Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Savior, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, ‘every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess; to him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all … (Against Heresies X.l)

Summary

Irenaeus identified the Father as the “Almighty,” in contrast to Jesus Christ.  That implies that the Son is not the Almighty. 

He believed that the Father is “the only and the true God.”  But he also referred to Christ Jesus as “our God.”  This is discussed in the article, Jesus is our god.  In summary, to capitalize the “G” of “god” is a translation that assumes and applies the Trinity doctrine and must not be used to support the Trinity doctrine.

Both the God of the Old Testament and Jesus are called “Lord.” This is also not proof that Jesus is God.  Firstly, the “one God” statements make a clear distinction between the “one God” (the Father) and the “one Lord, Jesus Christ.”  Secondly, the Greek word translated “lord” has a wide range of meanings.  It can simply be a respectful form of address to somebody in a more senior position but gods were also addressed as “lord.”

Every knee should bow” before Christ Jesus because that is “the will of the invisible Father;” not because Jesus is the Almighty.  That Jesus is worshiped because it is the Father’s will implies that the Son is subordinate to the Father.  Irenaeus explicitly refers to the Father as “the Head of Christ.”

These concepts will now be discussed in more detail.

Almighty

Irenaeus identified the Father as the “Almighty,” in contrast to Jesus Christ.  That implies that the Son is not the Almighty.  It is also not possible for two Almighty beings to exist, for then one would limit the might of the other.

Does the Nicene Creed declare the Son to be fully EQUAL to the Father?

SUMMARY

Analysts often claim that the Nicene Creed declares the Son to be equal with the Father.  However, the creed starts by saying,

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of all things visible and invisible
,”

This identifies the Son as subordinate to the Father in four ways:

      1. If the Father is the “one God” in which we believe, that excludes the Son.
      2. If the Father is Almighty, then the Son is not Almighty, for two Almighty beings is impossible.
      3. The Father/Son terminology also identifies the Son as subordinate to the Father.
      4. The Father is the “Maker of all things.” The creed later adds that all things were made BY the Son, but it remains the Father that made all things.  The Son is the Father’s hands through whom the Father made all things.

The creed makes a fundamental distinction between the Son and the created cosmos by saying that the Son is “begotten, not made;” even the “only Begotten.”   This also implies that the Son is SUBORDINATE to the Father, for He generated (begat) the Son. 

VERY GOD

The creed describes the “one Lord Jesus Christ” as “very God of very God,” but this is an inappropriate translation.  It should read “very god of very god,” for the word in the creed, that is translated “god,” is the common word for the immortal Greek gods.  In contrast, the word “God” is a modern invention, with a very different meaning.

HOMOOUSIOS

The creed adds that the Son was begotten “of the essence of the Father” and is “of one substance with the Father.”  This implies that the Son is equal with the Father in terms of substance or nature or being (ontological equality), but He subordinate to the Father in all other respects.  The Father is the only One who exists without cause and who is the Cause of all things that exist.

NO TRINITY DOCTRINE

The Nicene Creed does not contain the Trinity doctrine, for it does not describe the Holy Spirit as God and there is no mention of the One-ness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The issue before the council was not the unity of the Godhead, but the nature of the Son, relative to the Father.

The most famous and the most controversial word in the Nicene Creed is homoousios. It means “of the same substance:” 

In the time before the creed was formulated, this term meant likeness of substance.

Later Catholic theologians interpreted it as ‘identically the same substance.’ In other words, that the Father and Son not only have similar substance; exactly the same substance of the Father is also the substance of the Son.  This implies His numerical identity with the Father. 

But this article proposes that the council did not agree on the meaning of Homoousios.  The emperor himself proposed the term Homoousios and applied pressure on the council to accept this term.  For this reason, different bishops probably chose to interpret the term in different ways.

TEXT OF THE NICENE CREED

The Nicene Creed, according to Wikipedia, reads as follows:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Son of God, begotten of the Father
the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father,

God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God,
begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;
By whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth];

And in the Holy Ghost.

But those who say:
‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and
‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or
‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—
they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.

IS THE SON SUBORDINATE?

Analysts often claim that this creed declares the Son to be equal with the Father.  In this section, that statement is evaluated and qualified.

The Nicene Creed starts by saying,

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of all things visible and invisible
,”

but later adds

And in one Lord Jesus Christ …
very God of very God

Does this mean that the Son is EQUAL with the Father?

DIFFERENCE BETWEEN God and god

But first, it is important to note, for the discussion of these phrases, that the original language of the creed did not distinguish between upper and lower case letters.  Consequently, the word “God” could actually also be translated as “god.”  There is a huge difference between these two words:

God – “God” is a modern word.  We use it today as the proper name for the “unbegotten,” as the ancients used to say; that is, the One who exists without cause.  The creed (and the New Testament) does not contain any one word that is exactly equivalent to the modern word “God.” 

god – The word which the creed uses is the common title for a Greek god (theos) and simply means a supernatural, immortal being, like the “gods” of the Greek pantheon.  It should be translated as “god,” unless the context indicates or implies that the Unbegotten is intended.

For a further discussion of the words “God” and “god,” see the articles Ignatius of Antioch or Arianism or THEOS.  With this information, the wording of the creed is discussed below:

THE ALMIGHTY FATHER

The creed identifies the Father as “Almighty.” This means that ONLY the Father is “Almighty,” for two “Almighty” beings is impossible.  This also means that the Son is not “Almighty.

The creed also says that “we believe in one god, the father.” (For the reasons above, to more accurately reflect the meaning of the text, capital letters have been converted into small caps.)  That statement means that we do not believe in many gods, but in only one god, and that is the One to whom Jesus referred as “Father.”  It excludes the Son as the “one god” in which we believe.  They are both gods, but only the Father is “Almighty.”  

The Father is the “Maker of all things visible and invisible.”  The New Testament often states that God created all things THROUGH the Son (John 1:3; Col. 1:16; Hebr. 1:2; “by” in 1 Cor. 8:6 – NASB).  The creed similarly says that all things were made BY the Son, but it remains the Father that made all things.  The Son is the Father’s hands through whom the Father made all things.

THE ONLY-BEGOTTEN SON

The Lord Jesus Christ is called “the Son of God” while the Almighty is His “Father.”  On their own, the terms “Son” and “Father,” imply that the Lord Jesus Christ is SUBORDINATE to the Father.

To say that the Son is “very god of very god” (or “true god of true god” in other translations) merely says that both the Father and the Son truly are supernatural, immortal beings.  It is a MUCH LOWER CLAIM that being the Almighty.  It does not even mean that they are the only gods.  Jesus even referred to humans, “to whom the word of God came,” as “gods” (same word – John 10:34-35).  To translate this as “true God of true God” misrepresents the meaning of the creed, for only the Almighty qualifies to be “God” in modern nomenclature.

The creed also says that the Son is “begotten, not made.”  The word “of,” in the phrase, “very god of very god,” is related to this concept.  This also implies that the Son is SUBORDINATE to the Father, for He generated (begat) the Son. 

The creed adds that the Son is the “only Begotten.”  In other words, no other being was “begotten” by the Father.  This implies a fundamental difference between the Son and “all things.”  All things were “made,” according to the Nicene Creed, but only the Son was “begotten.”

The creed adds that the Son was begotten “of the essence of the Father” and is “being of one substance with the Father.”  This is probably derived from the concept that He is begotten, for the Bible does not discuss the substance of the Father or of the Son. 

MADE OUT OF NOTHING

The creed condemns all who say that “He was made out of nothing.”  Since He was begotten, one could perhaps argue that He was made of the substance of the Father.  However, such arguments are dangerous because the Bible says nothing about this and this is not something which humans are able to understand.

Nevertheless, the implication of the Nicene Council is that all other things were made out of nothing.  However, Einstein taught us that things cannot be made out of noting (E=mc2, where E stands for Energy, m for mass and c for the speed of light).  The Father, therefore, did not use other materials to make “all things.”  Rather, all things are brought forth from His own being. He provided from His own being the energy which He converted into the material from which He made all things.  The claim that the Son is the only-begotten, is humanly incomprehensible but sets the Son apart from all other things.

CONCLUSION

On the one hand, the creed identifies the Son as subordinate to the Father:

      1. We believe is only “one god; the Father.”
      2. Only the Father is “Almighty.”
      3. The Lord Jesus is called “Son;” in contrast to the Father.
      4. The Son has been “begotten“ by (generated by) the Father.
      5. The Father made all things through the Son.

On the other hand, the Son is “of one substance with the Father,” which implies that the Son is equal with the Father in terms of substance or nature or being (ontological equality), but He subordinate to the Father in all other respects.  Also bear in mind that this concept, that the Son is of the same substance as the Father, is an interpretation, of the word “begotten,” and is not directly stated as such in the Bible.

We can compare the Father and the Son to a human father and son, who are of the same substance, and say that the human son is subordinate to the human father, but this comparison breaks down, for the Father did not only generate the Son: The Father is also the only One who exists without cause and who is the Cause of all things that exist.

NO TRINITY IN THE NICENE CREED

The Nicene Creed does not contain the Trinity doctrine.  This statement is justified as follows: 

Firstly, in the Trinity doctrine, the Holy Spirit is a separate Person, equal with the Father and the Son, but the Nicene Creed merely and very briefly mentions the Holy Spirit together with the Son and the Father, to indicate a belief in the Triad (three Persons) of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  It says nothing about the Holy Ghost being “true God” or being of the same substance.

Secondly, in the Trinity doctrine, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one Being, but there is no mention of the One-ness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Nicene Creed. 

The Athanasian Creed, formulated more than a century later, expresses the trinity concept explicitly, including with the phrase, “the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity:”

Note: Most often today, we use the word “Trinity” as a SINGULAR REFERRING TERM (meaning that it refers to a single being), for, in the Trinity doctrine, God is One Being, consisting of three Persons.  The word “Trinity” in the Athanasian Creed and in Tertullian and in many other church fathers, in contrast, is actually a PLURAL REFERRING TERM, meaning that it refers to a group of three distinct Beings.  It is, rather, the word “Unity,” in the Athanasian Creed that emphasizes their One-ness.  The word “Trinity” in the Athanasian Creed should, therefore, be rendered with a lower case “t.”

Thirdly, as Millard J. Erickson stated, the issue before the council, it is virtually universally agreed, was not the unity of the Godhead but rather the coeternity of the Son with the Father, and his full divinity, as contrasted with the creaturehood that the Arians attributed to him (God in Three Persons, p82-85).

DOES HOMOOUSIOS MEAN ONE BEING?

This section is adapted from Millard J. Erickson (God in Three Persons, p82-85).

The most famous and the most controversial word in the Nicene Creed is homoousios (consubstantial in Latin). It means “of the same substance” or “of one being.”  The Nicene Creed uses this term to say that the Son is “of one substance” or “of one being” with the Father, namely that He was begotten “from the substance of the Father.”  This is often understood to mean that the Son is fully equal to the Father.  But what did it actually mean to the council? Three possibilities are considered:

SAME TYPE OF SUBSTANCE

If this was the meaning, then the creed says that the Son is utterly unlike creatures in substance, but it does not mean that they share the same substance (numerically the same substance), as required by the Trinity doctrine.  This view is supported by the following:

Firstly, before Nicaea, homoousios meant likeness of substance. This is how Origen and his followers used the term. In that sense, it could signify the kind of substance or stuff common to several individuals of a class.  We could say, for example, that all humans consist of the same substance.

Secondly, if it was used to mean numerical identity of substance, the Eusebians would have identified it as Sabellianism and would have resisted it vigorously. (Sabellianism is the belief that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are THREE DIFFERENT MODES or aspects of God.)

Thirdly, the great issue at Nicaea was the SON’S FULL DIVINITY and not the unity of the Godhead.  The word Homoousios, therefore, would have been understood to signify the Son’s full divinity; His total likeness in substance to the Father and total unlikeness to creatures in substance.

Lastly, later on—after the numerical identity of substance became a standard part of Christology—some orthodox theologians still used the word homoousios in the sense of the same type of substance.

NUMERICALLY (EXACTLY) THE SAME SUBSTANCE

For later Catholic theologians, Homoousios meant ‘identically the same substance’:

The Cappadocian Fathers “made extensive use of the formula “one substance (ousia) in three persons (hypostaseis)” (McGrath, Alister (1998), Historical Theology). 

In other words, the Father and Son not only have a similar substance; exactly the same substance of the Father is also the substance of the Son.  This implies His numerical identity with the Father.  (That they are the same being.)  Arguments that are used for this view include the following:

(a) It would seem to be unnatural” for monotheists to admit two divine ousiai (substances).

(b) Origen used the word to mean SIMILAR SUBSTANCE, but for Origen, the Son was INFERIOR to the Father, (The Triune God, Edmund J. Fortman, p 66-70).  Since the intent of the council was to affirm the Son’s equality with the Father, would they use the word Homoousios with the meaning which Origen attached to it?

(c) If Hosius of Cordova influenced the adoption of the term, would he have failed to indicate to the Nicene Fathers that for him and the West it signified ‘identity of substance’?

In recent years there is a growing tendency to reject the numerical identity view. 

NO AGREEMENT

As discussed in another article, the emperor himself proposed the term Homoousios and exerted pressure on the council to accept the term.  Since there were three different factions at the meeting with three different views, and because of the pressure applied by the emperor, different bishops probably chose to interpret the term in different ways, depending on their theological tendencies (e.g. Marcellan neo-monarchianism or Eusebian subordinationism).  In other words, THE COUNCIL DID NOT AGREE ON THE MEANING OF HOMOOUSIOS.

CONDEMNATIONS

The creed describes certain people that “are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.”  However, to condemn people with different views is inconsistent with the Christian principles of love and humility.  This is made worse by the fact that the nature of Christ is a humanly incomprehensible subject, and not explicitly taught in the Bible.

Furthermore, people are saved by their faith (trust) in God; not by believing the right doctrines.  The creed makes itself a criterion for the true faith.  All that the Bible requires from believers is stated in John’s summary of his gospel:

These have been written so that you may believe
that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God
;
and that believing you may have life in His name

(John 20:31).

It always amazes me how important Christology became in the fourth century.  Why did the church, in the fourth century, elevate the nature of Christ to be the most important doctrine?  I would like to venture that, during the first 300 years, the enemy of the faith attacked the church from outside, through persecution.  After the church has been legalized in 313, the enemy entered the church.  It was now inside the church and saw in this topic fertile ground for causing division in the church.  He still today uses this topic very effectively for that purpose.

CATHOLIC CHURCH

The condemnations in the creed refer to “the holy catholic and apostolic Church.”  The word “catholic,” here, simply means ‘universal’.  During the 11th century, the East-West schism permanently divided Church. That schism resulted from a dispute on whether Constantinople or Rome held jurisdiction over the church in Sicily, followed by mutual ex-communications in 1054.  Since that event, the Western (Latin) branch of Christianity has since become known as the Catholic Church, while the Eastern (Greek) branch is called the Orthodox Church.  In this way, “Catholic Church” became the name of one particular denomination.  When used as such, the “c” in both ‘catholic’ and “church’ are capitalized; Catholic Church.

 

Did Fourth Century Arianism believe that the Son was a created being?

SUMMARY

In the fourth century, the church transformed from being persecuted to being the official religion of the Roman Empire.  At the same time, a huge controversy raged with respect to the nature of Christ.  To prevent a split in the empire, the emperors could not allow disunity in the church.  They forced the church to formulate creeds, and, true to the nature of the empire, persecuted church leaders with other views.

ARIUS

We are not sure what Arius taught, for his books were destroyed after Nicaea, and we should not trust what his opponents wrote.  Athanasius claimed that Arius said that “there was a time when the Son was not,” but Arius wrote that the Son existed “before time.” 

FIFTY-YEAR ARIANISM

The Nicene Creed of 325 makes the Son equal to the Father, but soon the church consensus shifted to Arianism, and it remained so for the next 50 years.  During that fifty-year period, Arianism was refined.  Consequently, it is important to understand what Arianism believed after these intense debates.

GOD AND THEOS

Today, we use the modern word “God” as the proper name of the One who exists without a cause.  There was no equivalent word for “God” in ancient Greek.  The original Bible and other ancient Greek writings use the word THEOS, which is equivalent to our modern word “god.”  The word “God,” in our translations, is an interpretation, and should only be used to refer to the One who exists without a cause. 

When THEOS refers to Jesus, it can only be translated as “God” if one assumes Nicene Christology.  In Arianism, THEOS, when it describes Jesus, or to any being other than the Father, is translated as “god.”

ARIANISM

In Arianism:

The Father is the “only one God.” He is “the unbegotten,” which means to exist without a cause, and therefore to be the ultimate Cause of all else. 

The Son is our god, but the Father is His god.  The Son is the maker of all creation.  This elevates Him infinitely above pagan gods.  As the “only-begotten,” the Son was not created but is subordinate to the Father.

The Holy Spirit is not a Person, but as a power; subject to the Son.

PURPOSE OF THIS ARTICLE

Metamorphosis – The fourth century was a remarkable period.  In it, the church changed from being PERSECUTED to being the OFFICIAL RELIGION of the Roman Empire.  For all practical purposes, the church became part of the state, with the emperor as the HEAD of the church.  Adopting the character of the empire, the church PERSECUTED church leaders that do not abide by official church doctrines.

Emperor Constantine standing before the bishops

Arian Controversy – In that century also, a huge controversy raged with respect to the NATURE OF CHRIST.  The Nicene Creed—formulated in 325 at the city of Nicaea—essentially stated that the Son is EQUAL to the Father.  But within a few years, the church reverted to Arianism, which dominated the church for the next 50 years, and which taught that the Son is SUBORDINATE to the Father.  This Arian period was brought to an end when Theodosius became emperor in the year 380.  He was an ardent supporter of Nicene Christology and IMMEDIATELY declared Arianism illegal and Nicene Christology to be THE ONLY religion of the empire.  He then replaced the Arian church leadership with Nicene leaders.

Purpose – The purpose of this article is to analyze what Arianism believed in the fourth century.  Some of the historical facts mentioned in this article are described in more detail in other articles.

CONFLICTING EVIDENCE IN THE BIBLE

To understand the war between Nicene Christology and Arianism, we must appreciate the conflicting evidence in the Bible about the nature of Christ.  Many statements describe Him as divine, but many others imply that He is subordinate to God, for example:

DIVINE SUBORDINATE
All things have been created through Him.”  He “upholds all things by the word of His power,” has “life in Himself,” sent the Holy Spirit to His disciples, is “the first and the last,” and owns everything which the Father has.  “All will honor the Son even as they honor the Father.”  In Him, all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form.  “At the name of Jesus, every knee will bow.” Only He knows the Father. (Col. 1:16; John 5:26; Luke 24:49; Rev. 1:17; Heb. 1:3; John 5:23; John 20:28; John 16:15; Col. 2:9; Mt. 11:27; Phil. 2:10) Only the Father knows the “day and hour” of His return.  Everything which the Son has, He received from the Father, including to have “life in Himself.”  The Father sent Him and told Him what to say and do.  The NT consistently makes a distinction between Jesus and God.  For example, Jesus is today at the right hand of God.  The “one God” and “the only true God” is always the Father.  The Father is His God and He prayed to the Father.  (Mt. 24:26; John 5:22, 26; John 7:16; Philemon 1:3; 1 Cor. 8:6; 1 Tim. 2:5; Eph. 4:4-6; John 17:3; Rev. 3:12; John 17; Acts 7:56).

WHAT ARIUS BELIEVED ABOUT CHRIST

Arius – The words Arian and Arianism are derived from the name of Arius (c. 250–336); a church leader who had significant influence at the beginning of the fourth century.  His teachings initiated the Arian controversy and Emperor Constantine called the council at Nicaea specifically to denounce Arius’ teachings. 

We are not sure what Arius taught. After Nicaea in 325, the emperor gave orders that all of Arius’ books be destroyed and that all people who hide Arius’ writings, be killed.  Very little of Arius’ writings survived, and much of what did survive are quotations selected for polemical purposes in the writings of his opponents.  Reconstructing WHAT Arius actually taught, and—even more important—WHY, is, therefore, a formidable task.  There is no certainty about the extent to which his teachings continued those of church fathers in previous generations.

Letter to Eusebius – We have a brief statement of what Arius believed in a letter he wrote to the Arian archbishop of Constantinople; Eusebius of Nicomedia (died 341).  He wrote as follows:

We say and believe … that the Son is not unbegotten, nor in any way part of the unbegotten; and that he does not derive his subsistence from any matter; but that by his own will and counsel he has subsisted (existed) before time and before ages as perfect as God, only begotten and unchangeable, and that before he was begotten, or created, or purposed, or established, he was not. For he was not unbegotten. We are persecuted because we say that the Son has a beginning but that God is without beginning. — Theodoret: Arius’s Letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia, translated in Peters’ Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe, p. 41

BRIEF REFLECTIONS ON ARIUS’ VIEW

Distinction – Arius made a clear DISTINCTION between the Son and God, for he wrote:

The Son existed “as perfect as God” and
“The Son has a beginning but that God is without beginning”.

The unbegotten is that which exists without a causeSince the Son is the only-begotten, He is not part of that which exists without a causeFor Arius, the Father alone is unbegotten. 

He does not derive his subsistence from any matter for He derived His subsistence (existence) only from God. 

He existed by his own will and counsel, which means that He existed as an independent Person with His own will; distinct from God. 

He existed before time and before ages, which may be understood to mean that He was begotten by God before time began.

He existed as perfect as God, only begotten and unchangeable.  The phrase “only begotten” identifies the Son as unique.  There is no other like Him.  He is as perfect as God and unchangeable.  This indicates the extremely high view of the Son which Arius.  Sometimes people say that Arius taught that the Son was a created being.  That statement misrepresents Arius.

Before he was begotten, or created, or purposed, or established, he was not. For he was not unbegotten. Here, Arius implies that HE DOES NOT KNOW HOW the Son was begotten.  That is hidden in the mystery of the infinite.  But it remains clear that He was not unbegotten.  In other words, He exists by the will of God, the Father.

The Son has a beginning but God is without beginning.  We explain below how the Son can have a beginning if He existed before time.

A TIME WHEN THE SON WAS NOT

In the fourth century, Athanasius was the arch-enemy of Arianism and the great advocate of the homoousian (Nicene) theology.  He quoted Arius as saying:

“If the Father begat the Son,
then he who was begotten had a beginning in existence,
and from this, it follows there was a time when the Son was not.”

Today, this quote by Athanasius is quite famous and is still used to characterize Arius’ teaching. But Arius wrote to Eusebius—in the quote above—that the Son existed “before time.”  This seems to contradict what Athanasius wrote.  We do not know whether Arius really wrote the words quoted by Athanasius or whether they were an emphasis put on Arius’ words to discredit him.

Since the Trinity doctrine is generally accepted in the church today, most Christians regard Athanasius as the hero of the fourth century who stood for ‘the truth’ when ‘the whole world’ was Arian.  Athanasius is counted as one of the four great Eastern Doctors of the Church in the Catholic Church. On the other hand, in his own time, the church accused him of horrible crimes.  We are not able to judge either way today, but Athanasius was a prolific writer, and we can judge his spirit by his writings.  For this purpose, listen to the following podcasts:

Assessing Athanasius and his Arguments
Athanasius’s On the Nicene Council

THE SON HAS A BEGINNING

Eternal generation – In the Trinity doctrine today, the Son had no beginning but always existed with the Father.  The Bible is clear that He is begotten by the Father but that is explained with the concept of eternal generation: The Father always was the Father; there never was a time that the Father was not the Father.

Arius, as quoted above, wrote that “the Son has a beginning but … God is without beginning.”  But in the same statement, he wrote that the Son existed “before time and before ages.”  Did Arius contradict himself?  I wish we had Arius’ book to explain his own words but would like to propose the following explanation:

God created time.  God is that which exists without a cause, and time exists because God exists.  God, therefore, exists outside time, cannot be defined by time and is not subject to time.  We cannot say that God existed ‘before time’, for the word “before” implies the existence of time, and there is no such thing as time before time.  Therefore, we prefer to say that God exists ‘outside time’.

Since God created time, time had a beginning and is finite.

God created all things through the Son.  Therefore, God created time through the Son.  It follows that there never was a time when the Son did not exist.  Arius, therefore, could validly write that the Son existed “BEFORE TIME.”

There exists an infinity beyond the boundaries of time.   All the power and wisdom that we see reflected in this physical universe, comes out of that incomprehensible infinity beyond time, space and matter. In that infinity beyond time, Arius wrote, “THE SON HAS A BEGINNING.” This is not a beginning in time, for there is no such thing as time in infinity.

This explains why Arius could both claim that the Son existed before time and had a beginning.  Also following this line of thinking, Arius never said that “there was a time when the Son was not,” as Athanasius claimed.

ARIANISM DEVELOPED AFTER NICAEA

Forced unity – Under the stern supervision of the emperors, who demanded unity in the church to prevent a split in the empire, the fourth-century church fathers were unable to allow different views about Christ to co-exist within the church.  The church’s view of Christ changed from time to time, but, nevertheless, it always formulated a view of Christ and, through persecution, forced all Christians to abide by the formal church doctrine.

Numerous synods – The fifty-year Arian period resulted in numerous synods, including at Serdica in 343,  Sirmium in 358 and Rimini and Seleucia in 359.  The pagan observer Ammianus Marcellinus commented sarcastically: “The highways were covered with galloping bishops.”

Numerous creeds – The best-known creed today is the Nicene Creed, but no fewer than fourteen further creeds were formulated between 340 and 360, depicting the Son as subordinate on the Father, e.g. the Long Lines Creed.  Historian RPC Hanson lists twelve creeds that reflect the Homoian faith—one of the variants of Arianism—including the creeds of Sirmian (357), Nice (Constantinople – 360), Akakius (359), Ulfilas (383), Eudoxius, Auxentius of Milan (364), Germinius, Palladius’ rule of faith (1988. The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God. Edinburgh: T&T Clark. pp. 558–559).

Arianism evolved – During the fifty years between Constantine and Theodosius, Arianism was refined and nuanced, relative to what Arius believed.  Consequently, although Arius’ views are important, it is far more important to understand what version of Arianism the church adopted after Arius’ views and the Nicene Creed were intensely debated in the decades following Nicaea.

THE WORD GOD IS AMBIGUOUS

Before we discuss what Ulfilas wrote, we need to explain the difference between the word “God” and the words used in the New Testament:

In modern languages, we differentiate between the words “god” and “God:”

When we use a word as a proper name, we capitalize the first letter.  The word “God” therefore has a very specific usage: It is the PROPER NAME of one specific being; the One who exists without cause.

The word “god,” on the other hand, is a general category name used for all supernatural beings.  It is even for human beings with exceptional qualities.

Only capital letters – The capital “G” therefore makes a huge difference.  But, when the Bible was written, and also in the fourth century, there were no capital letters.  Or, more precisely, the ancients wrote only in capital letters.  The distinction between upper and lower case letters did not yet exist.  According to the article on the timeline of writing in Western Europe, the ancients used Greek majuscule (capital letters only) from the 9th to the 3rd century BC.  In the following centuries, up until the 12th century AD, they used the uncial script, which still was only capital letters. Greek minuscule was only used in later centuries.

THEOS

Since the word “God” is a name for one specific Being, the original New Testament does not contain any one word with the same meaning as “God.”  The New Testament writers used the word THEOS, which is the same word that was used for the plethora of Greek gods and which is equivalent in meaning to our modern word “god.”  The word theos was also used for beings other than the one true God, even for “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4) and for human judges (John 10:35). Therefore, by describing the Father and the Son as “god,” the Bible and the fourth-century writers only indicated that the Father and the Son are immortal beings; similar to the immortal Greek gods.  The word “god’” DOES NOT ELEVATE THE FATHER AND THE SON ABOVE THE PAGAN GODS.

The word “God,” in the translations of the New Testament and other ancient Greek writings, is, therefore, an INTERPRETATION.  When the translator believes that THEOS refers to the One who exists without a cause, THEOS is rendered as “God.”  But when Paul wrote spoke about the THEOS of the pagan nations, the New Testament translates that as “god.”  And when they translate THEOS, when it refers to Jesus, as “God,” they do it on the assumption of Nicene Christology.

TRUE GOD

To indicate that the Unique Being is intended, the Bible writers added words such as “only,” or “true” or “one” to THEOS.  Most often they added the definite article “the” to THEOS to indicate the Father. 

In the Nicene Creed, both the Father and the Son are “true god.” The Bible never identifies the Son as “true god.” In the Bible, the “true god” is always the Father.  For example:

You, the only true God, and
Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3)

You turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God,
and to wait for His Son from heaven” (I Thess. 1:9-10).

So that we may know Him who is true;
and we are in Him who is true,
in His Son Jesus Christ.
This is the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20).

But then translators translate the Greek equivalent of “true god” as “true God.”  Not only is this faulty translation, the word “true” in the phrase “true God” is SUPERFLUOUS, for there is only one “true God.”  Since “God” already indicates the only true god, “true god” should be translated “true god” or “God.” 

ULFILAS’ CHRISTOLOGY

Germanic missionary – The Goth Ulfilas (c. 311–383) was ordained as bishop by the Arian Eusebius of Nicomedia and returned to his Gothic people to work as a missionary.  He translated the New Testament into the Gothic language and is credited with the conversion of the Gothic people, which resulted in the wide-scale conversion of the Germanic peoples. 

Ulfilas’ Arianism – What he believed is perhaps a good reflection of the Arianism that was generally accepted in the church between Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381).  He wrote:

I, Ulfila … believe in only one God the Father, the unbegotten and invisible, and in his only-begotten Son, our lord/master and God, the designer and maker of all creation, having none other like him. Therefore, there is one God of all, who is also God of our God; and in one Holy Spirit, the illuminating and sanctifying power … Neither God nor lord/master, but the faithful minister of Christ; not equal, but subject and obedient in all things to the Son. And I believe the Son to be subject and obedient in all things to God the Father (Heather and Matthews. Goths in the Fourth Century. p. 143 –  Auxentius on Wulfila).

DISCUSSION OF ULFILAS’ CHRISTOLOGY

THE FATHER – ULTIMATE CAUSE OF ALL ELSE

Only one God – Ulfilas believed in “only one God,” who he identified as the Father.  Actually, this was the standard opening phrase of all ancient creeds.  The Nicene Creed starts with the words, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.”  But then it continues to perhaps contradict this opening phrase by adding that the Son is “true god from true god”.

The unbegotten – The Father is “the unbegotten.”  Arius also mentioned “the unbegotten,” which is that which exists without a causeThat also means that the Father is the ultimate Cause of all else.  

Invisible – Ulfilas adds that the Father is invisible.  This is also stated a number of times in the New Testament.  Certainly, in the past, there were appearances (theophanies) of God, but an appearance is vastly different from God Himself.  An appearance does not contain God in His fullness.  It is not possible for God in His fullness to be seen, for He exists outside this visible realm.

ONLY-BEGOTTEN SON

Unique – Ulfilas also believed “in his only-begotten Son, our lord/master and God, the designer and maker of all creation, having none other like him.” The phrases “only-begotten” and “none other like him” identify the Son as utterly unique. 

Not created – Arius wrote that the Son was “begotten, or created, or purposed, or established.”  In other words, Arius did not make a clear distinction between begotten and created.  But after Nicaea, Arianism emphasized that the phrase “only begotten” means that the Son was NOT CREATED.  See, for example, the Long Lines Creed.  Ulfilas similarly wrote that the Son is the “designer and maker of all creation.”  If He made all things, presumably then He was not made Himself.  

Same substance – “Begotten” implies that the Son came from the being or substance of the Father in a way that humans probably are unable to understand:

Equal – In Nicene Christology, just like a human son is of the same substance as his father, the Son is of the SAME SUBSTANCE as the Father.  The Nicene Creed uses the Greek word homoousian; from homós (same) and ousía (being or essence).  In Latin it is consubstantial.  The idea is, since the Son is of the same substance as the Father, that He is in all respects EQUAL with the Father.

Subordinate – In Arianism, on the other hand, “begotten” means that the Son’s existence was caused by the Father, and that He is dependent on the Father, who alone is the uncaused Cause of all things.  Arianism claims that the Bible reveals Him as SUBORDINATE to the Father; both before and after His existence as a human being. 

THE FATHER IS GOD OF OUR GOD.

Our God – The Son is “our … God” in this translation of Ulfilas’ statement, but this is faulty translation.  It should be rendered “our god,” with a small “g.”  As explained above, the word “God” did not yet exist when Ulfilas wrote.  He merely used the general word for the pagan gods.  To say that the Son is “god” simply means that He is supernatural, like the pagan gods.  What really sets Him apart from the pagan gods is not the title “god,” but that He is “the designer and maker of all creation.”

God, the Father – All instances of the word “God” in the quote from Ulfilas should be translated “god;” even when referring to the Father.  Ulfilas made a distinction between the Father and the Son and the pagan gods in HOW he described Him, namely as the “only one god” who is “god of all” and also “god of our god.” 

God of our God – As Ulfilas wrote, “there is one God of all, who is also GOD OF OUR GOD.”  In other words, the Father is the Son’s god.  The Bible similarly describes Jesus as “only-begotten god” (John 1:18) and “mighty god” (Isaiah 9:6); the Lord of the universe (1 Cor. 8:6), but the Father as Jesus’ “God” (e.g. Rev. 3:2, 12; Heb. 1:8-9; John 20:17).  Paul described the Father is the Head of Christ. 

Subordinate – Ulfilas closed by saying, “I believe the Son to be subject and obedient in all things to God the Father.” 

HOLY SPIRIT IS NOT A PERSON.

Subject and obedient – Ulfilas furthermore believed “in one Holy Spirit, the illuminating and sanctifying power … Neither God nor lord/master, but the faithful minister of Christ; not equal, but subject and obedient in all things to the Son.” That the Holy Spirit is “neither God nor lord” implies that Ulfilas did not think of the Holy Spirit as a Person, but as a power, and a power that is subject and obedient in all things to the Son.

Therefore, the Son is SUBORDINATE to the Father and the Holy Spirit is SUBORDINATE to the Son. 

NO TRINITY IN THE FIRST FOUR CENTURIES

Ulfilas did not believe is the Trinity.  For him:

The Father alone was God. 
The Holy Spirit is not a Person.
There is no mention of three Persons in one Being.

It is often said that Arians do not believe in the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, which is true.  However, the concept of the Trinity, as we know it today, did not yet exist in Arius’ day. 

First 300 years – In the first three centuries, the church fathers did not think of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three Persons in one Being.  Tertullian did use the word “trinity,” but he used it to refer to a group of three distinct beings; not use in the sense of a single being. 

Nicene Creed – Neither does the Nicene Creed contain the Trinity concept, as a careful reading of that creed will show.  The purpose of that creed was to say that the Son is equal to the Father; not say that they are one Being; the same God.  It does say that they are homoousios (of the same substance), but that does not mean that they are one being.  We may argue that human beings are of the same substance, and that does not make us all one being. 

The Trinity doctrine was formulated later in the fourth century, perhaps by the Cappadocian Fathers, probably in response to the Arian criticism that the Nicene Creed creates the impression of two gods and can be accused of polytheism.

THREE FORMS OF ARIANISM

In fact, as debates raged during the five decades after Nicaea, in an attempt to come up with a new formula, different forms of Arianism developed.  Three camps are identified by scholars among the opponents of the Nicene Creed:

The Homoiousios Christians (only an “i” added to “homoousios”) accepted the equality and co-eternality of the persons of the Trinity, as per the Nicene Creed, but rejected the Nicene term homoousios.  They preferred the term homoiousios (similar substance).  They were called “semi-Arians” by their opponents. (See homoousia).

Homoian Arianism maintained that the Bible does not reveal whether the Son is of the same substance as the Father, and we, therefore, should not speculate about such things. They avoided the word ousia (substance) altogether and described the Son as homoios = like the Father.  Although they avoided invoking the name of Arius, in large part they followed Arius’ teachings.  RPC Hanson (The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God. Edinburgh: T&T Clark. pp. 557–559) lists twelve creeds that reflect the Homoian faith in the years 357 to 383.

A third group explicitly called upon Arius and maintained that the Son is of a different substance than the Father.  They described the Son as unlike (anhomoios) the Father.

In the fourth century, these differences were taken quite seriously and divided the church; similar to the denominations in Christianity we know today.  Emperor Constantius, for example, wavered in his support between the first and the second party, while harshly persecuting the third.

Historians, unfortunately, categorize all three positions as Arianism, but there are important differences between these views.