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,” including Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Ignatius of Antioch, and Irenaeus. 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 in various articles, 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 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”

The term “God” is defined as “the supreme or ultimate reality” (Merriam-Webster), as “a being conceived as the perfect, omnipotent, omniscient originator and ruler of the universe” (The Free Dictionary) and as “the Supreme Being; the Creator and Ruler of all that is; the Self-existent One who is perfect in power, goodness, and wisdom” (GotQuestions.org).

As such, 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 (unconditionally).

The ancient word theos

The ancient languages did not have the modern differentiation between lower- and upper-case letters. And since the Old Testament name of God (YHVH) does not appear in the New Testament, the New Testament Greek and the ancient church fathers 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 is used for a category of beings. Greek philosophers did have a sense of a supreme Being, that is the Origin of all else, and to whom we would refer as God, but did the Greeks not have a special word for that Being.

For example, in the Graeco-Roman world, they had a plethora of gods. Even the emperors were called gods. Paul confirmed, “indeed there are many gods and many lords” (1 Cor 8:5). Given this meaning of theos, the God of the Bible is one of the “gods” beings identified as theos (.

Describes many different beings

Words such as theos and the Hebrew equivalents, therefore, had a much broader range of meaningd than the modern word “God.” In additional to the gods of the nations, for example, the Bible refers to the following as “god:”

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 (Exo 21:6, 22:8),
● The Davidic king (Psalm 45:6),
● Appetite (Phil 3:19),
● Those who receive the word of God (John 10:34-35) (see the article in this verse), and
● Satan (2 Cor 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 theos was used to refer to a wide variety of beings, the writers of the New Testament used a variety of techniques to refer to the one true theos. The main technique is simply the context. Very frequently, they added the definite article (the – ho in Greek) to indicate that the only true theos is intended. Sometimes they described Him as the “only true theos” (John 17:3) or as “the one and only theos” (John 5:44) or as the “one theos” (1 Cor 8:6).

Given that the ancient word theos (god) basically means a powerful, immortal being, it was quite natural and appropriate for the Bible writers and the first Christian apologists to refer to the Son as theos. Nevertheless, 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 which has a broad range of meanings. Literally translated, Ignatius wrote that the Father is “the only true god” and the Son is “our god.” Virtually all orthodox theologians prior to the Arian controversy in the latter half of the fourth century were subordinationists to some extent (Badcock, Gary D. (1997), Light of Truth and Fire of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit, p. 43.) Origen, arguably the greatest theologists before the fourth century, was a subordinationist, meaning he believed that the Father was superior to the Son (La Due, William J. (2003), Trinity Guide to the Trinity, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, p. 38) (Olson, Roger E.; Hall, Christopher A. (2002), The Trinity, p. 25.) 

The translations cause the confusion:

When translators understand, given the context, that the Almighty is intended, they translate theos as “God.”

The Trinity doctrine, which describes Jesus as co-equal with the Almighty Father; the Unconditional Cause of all things, is generally accepted in the church. Given this doctrine, when theos refers to Jesus, translators also translate it as “God” rather than as “god.”

Whether that is correct depends on whether the Trinity doctrine is valid. But the point is that translations are driven by a doctrine of the church rather than by the literal meaning of the text.

To translate John 17:3, where Jesus identifies the Father as “the only true theos,” as the only true God” is illogical because the word “God” is not a category name. It would have been more logical to translate this as “the only true god.” Alternatively, since there is but one true god, the phrase “the only true theos” may be translated simply as “God.”

Is Jesus God or god?

Whether we should translate theos, when it describes Jesus, as “God” or as “god” depends on what we mean by the word “God” and by whom we understand Jesus to be. Ignatius of Antioch, for example, 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.”

Nevertheless, 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.”

Ignatius described the Father alone as “unbegotten.” In other words, only the Father exists unconditionally 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.  

Perhaps this is all very confusing and complex. I guess my simple main point is this:

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 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 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 first article was an Introduction, which defined the Trinity doctrine and gave an overview of its conceptual and historical development. 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).

SUMMARY

Almighty

Irenaeus identified the Father alone as the “Almighty.” That implies that the Son is not the Almighty. 

God

Irenaeus wrote that we received the faith in “One God, the Father Almighty.” But, according to the translation, Irenaeus also referred to Christ Jesus as “God.” However:

(1) The word that is translated as “God” is theos, and has a wide range of meanings, including:

      • An immortal being with supernatural powers;
      • Beings empowered by God to represent Him, and
      • People “to whom the word of God came.” (John 10:35).

(2) While we use the word “God” to refer to the Almighty, the pre-Nicene fathers viewed Jesus as subordinate to the Father.

For these reasons, theos, when used by these early church fathers for Jesus, should not be translated as “God.” To translate theos, in such instances, as “God,” rather than as “god” is an application of the Trinity doctrine; not proof of it. 

Lord

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 as “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

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.”

– END OF SUMMARY –

The Almighty

Irenaeus wrote:

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
(Against Heresies X.l)

In this quote, in contrast to Jesus Christ, Irenaeus identified the Father alone as the “Almighty.” In other words, the Son is not the Almighty. Actually, this is also how the opening phrase of the Nicene Creed reads:

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 (Earlychurchtexts)

It is impossible for two Almighty beings to exist, for one would limit the might of the other.

The word “Almighty” appears only 10 times in the New Testament. Nine of those are in the book of Revelation. The other one is in 2 Corinthians 6:16-18, where Paul quotes from the Old Testament and identifies “God” as “the Lord Almighty.” Revelation never refers to Jesus as “Almighty.” On the contrary, three times Revelation makes a distinction between the Son and the Almighty:

The Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns.
Let us rejoice … for the marriage of the Lamb has come

(Rev 19:6).

The Word of God (Jesus) …
treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God,
the Almighty
” (Rev 19:13-15).

I saw no temple in it,
for the Lord God the Almighty
and the Lamb are its temple
” (Rev 21:22).

For a more detailed discussion, see – Is Jesus the Almighty?

Jesus is our God.

As quoted above, Irenaeus wrote that we received the faith in “One God, the Father Almighty.” But in the next paragraph, Irenaeus also referred to Christ Jesus as “God:”

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)

Trinitarian apologists use such phrases to argue that the church fathers before Nicene did believe that Jesus is God. Since many writers in the first 300 years referred to Jesus as ‘God’, this is discussed in a separate article; Jesus is our god.

In summary, we use the word “God” as the proper name for the One who exists without cause. But when Irenaeus lived, the distinction between upper- and lower-case letters did not yet exist. Consequently, the distinction which we today make between “God” and “god” did not yet exist. 

Irenaeus used the Greek word theos which is equivalent to our modern English word “god.” In the Greek culture, theos was used for any immortal being with supernatural powers.

When Greek became the common language in the Roman Empire, the Jews translated elohim as theos. Since elohim was used for the true God but also for beings who were empowered by God to represent Him, such as Moses (Exo 7:1) and people “to whom the word of God came” (John 10:35; cf. Psalm 82), theos took on the same meanings. (See, the article on theos.)

With this broad range of meanings, the pre-Nicene fathers were able to declare their faith in the “One God, the Father Almighty” but also refer to Jesus as theos. However, theos, when used by these early church fathers for Jesus, should not be translated as “God.” To translate theos, in such instances, as “God” rather than as “god” is an application of the Trinity doctrine; not proof of it. Such translations must not be used to support the Trinity doctrine. One has to ask what view these ancient writers had of Christ.

One Lord, Jesus Christ

As quoted above from Against Heresies X.l, in contrast to the “one God,” Irenaeus referred to “one Christ Jesus.”  This is an adaptation of the “one God / one Lord” slogans in the Bible:

For us there is but one God, the Father,
f
rom whom are all things and we exist for Him;
and one Lord, Jesus Christ,
by whom are all things, and we exist through Him

(1 Cor 8:6)

There is … one Lord,
one faith, one baptism,

one God and Father
of all
who is over all and through all and in all
” (Eph 4:4-6).

There is one God,
and one mediator also between God and men,
the man Christ Jesus
” (1 Titus 2:5).

In other words, Irenaeus referred to Jesus as “one Christ Jesus” in contrast to the “one God.”

These “one God” slogans have their origin in the Old Testament Shema, which reads, “The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!” (Deut 6:4).  Jesus quoted this as, “HEAR, O ISRAEL! THE LORD OUR GOD IS ONE LORD” (Mark 12:29).

Jesus, therefore, by quoting the Shema, referred to the God of the Old Testament as the “ONE LORD.” Since the New Testament also refers to the Son as “one Lord,” Trinitarians use this as support for the view that Jesus is God. However:

The word “LORD” in the Shema, in the Hebrew Old Testament, is actually God’s name (YHVH). In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the LXX) YHVH was translated with the Greek word kurios (lord). God’s name YHVH is never mentioned in the New Testament. It uses kurios instead.

But kurios has a wide range of meanings. On the low end of the scale, it can simply be a respectful form of address to somebody in a more senior position, similar to “sir” or “master.” On the other end, it is also be used exalted beings, such as kings and gods.

Given the wide range of meanings of the word kurios, we have to ask in what sense the New Testament refers to jesus as kurios. Since the “one God” statements quoted above make a clear distinction between the “one God” (the Father) and the “one Lord, Jesus Christ,” Jesus is not “Lord” in the same sense as the Father.

I like to think of Philippians 2:9-11 as an indication of what that name is. It says:

“God highly exalted Him,
and bestowed on Him the name
which is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
EVERY KNEE WILL BOW …
and that every tongue will confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”

In other words, this exalted name which God bestowed on Him identifies Him as “Lord” or “Master” of all the beings in the universe. But it is “God” who bestowed this name on Him

 

Worship

Irenaeus’ wrote, quoted above, that “every knee should bow” before “Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Savior, and King.” This statement also comes from Philippians 2. As Irenaeus quoted from Philippians 2:9, every knee will bow to Christ because that is “according to the will of the invisible Father.” According to that verse, every knee will bow to Jesus because “God highly exactly Him.” 

We see also read in Hebrews 1:6 that the Father commanded the angels to worship Jesus. Again, the point is that Jesus is worshiped because that is the will of the Almighty God; not because He Himself is the Almighty. This implies that the Son is subordinate to the Father; not equal to Him, as Trinitarians claim.

This is confirmed by the following quote from Irenaeus, which describe the Father as “the Head of Christ:”

And thus one God the Father is declared,
who is above all, and through all, and in all.
The Father is indeed above all,
and He is the Head of Christ;

but the Word … is the living water, which the Lord grants to those who rightly believe in Him, and love Him” (Against Heresies 5.18.2)

Here Irenaeus quoted from 1 Corinthians 2:3, which reads:

Christ is the head of every man,
and the man is the head of a woman,
and God is the head of Christ
.”

A fundamental tenet of the Trinity doctrine is the co-equality of the three Persons. The famous Athanasian Creed, which is taught by many denominations today, for example, reads as follows:

Nothing in this trinity … is greater or smaller;
in their entirety, the three persons
are coeternal and coequal with each other.

Since Irenaeus presented the Son as subordinate to the Father, he was not a Trinitarian.

Creator

Above, Irenaeus identified “God, the Father,” as the “Almighty” Creator, but he also wrote that “God, the Father” created “by” (through) Jesus Christ:

John, proclaiming one God, the Almighty,
and one Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten,
by whom all things were made,
declares that this was the Son of God
(Against Heresies 1.9.2)

Those who regard Jesus as a mere human being, who did astounding things, such as Dr. Tuggy (e.g. podcast 268 – Philippians 2 and podcast 258 – Who is the one Creator?), explains this to mean that Christ Jesus is God’s “Word” or power through which He created; not a separate Person. This approach can perhaps, with difficulty, explain John 1, Hebrews 1:2 and 1 Cor. 8:6, but Hebrews 1:10 says of the Son, “you, Lord, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the works of your hands.” Listen to Dr. Tuggy’s podcasts 258 and 259, where he attempts to show that Christ Jesus was not involved in the creation, but actually provides much evidence to the contrary.

Triadic passages

Irenaeus mentions the “One Christ Jesus,” “the Holy Spirit” and the “One God” together in a single passage. However, that does not mean that the Three are one or that they are equal. It simply means that they are highly related. 

Conclusion

Irenaeus believed that the Father is “the only and the true God,” who also created all things. He alone is “Almighty.” In his view, Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit are highly related to the “One God,” but still distinct. He wrote that “every knee should bow” to Jesus because that is “the will of the invisible Father.” Irenaeus saw Christ as distinct from God and subordinate to the Father, explicitly quoting from the Bible that the Father is “the Head of Christ.” None of the quotes say that the Holy Spirit is self-aware. There is no mention of one substance or of Christ’s dual nature.

According to what I quoted above from Irenaous, he simply quoted the Bible, but he emphasized verses which Trinitarians do not like to quote.

The purpose of the mini-series of articles is to determine whether the church fathers in the first three centuries believed in the Trinity. If we use Irenaeus, writing in the late second century, as a norm, then the answer must be a loud and clear “no.” 

ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES

FIRST 300 YEARS

FOURTH CENTURY

FIFTH CENTURY

LATER DEVELOPMENT