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.

Ignatius of Antioch described the Son as our God, immortal and being life.

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 were Trinitarians; whether they thought of God as One Being but three Persons.  The previous articles were An Introduction, which defined the Trinity doctrine, followed by analyses of the teachings of Polycarp and Justin Martyr.  The current article reflects on the thoughts of Ignatius of Antioch (died 98/117).

Triadic Passages

Ignatius 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 and other triadic passages because it mentions the triad of three Persons together.  However, as stated in the discussion of Polycarp’s Christology, mentioning them together does not mean that they are one Being 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.

One God

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 (the words and phrases in bold are discussed below the quote):

There is only one true GodBut 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 afterward became also man, of Mary the virgin. For ‘the Word was made flesh.’
Being incorporeal, He was in the body;
Being impassible, 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.)

Unbegotten and Unapproachable

The Father is “unbegotten” in contrast to Jesus, who is “begotten.” “Unbegotten” means to exist without cause.  See Long Lines Creed.

Unapproachable” is a quote from 1 Tim. 6:16, which says that the Father “alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light.” 

Afterward became also man

Not all Christians believe that Jesus existed before He became a human being.  See, for instance, Dr. Tuggy’s Case Against Preexistence.  But Ignatius did believe in Christ’s pre-existence.

Incorporeal and Impassible

According to this quote, before the Son became a human being, He was incorporeal (intangible) and impassible (incapable of suffering or feeling pain).  This seems like to be speculation, for such things are not mentioned in the Bible.

Being life

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 which makes the Son very similar to God.

Immortal

The statement that the Son was immortal seems to contradict the statement that the Father alone “alone possesses immortality” (1 Tim. 6:16).  However, there are two kinds of immortality; conditional and unconditional.  Only the Father exists without cause and is therefore essentially (unconditionally) immortal.  The Son derives His immortality from the One that exists without cause.  Even created beings will become immortal “when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:54).  

Only-begotten Son … Before time began

For Ignatius, as per the quote above, the Father is “unbegotten” and the “Begetter of the only-begotten Son.”  This is an important distinction between the Father and Son.  Later Arius allegedly concluded that the Son 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 outside time.  In that incomprehensible infinity beyond time, the Son was Begotten, according to Ignatius.  If we use the word “before” metaphysically (not in a literal time sense), then we can say that the Father existed “before” the Son.

That the Son was “begotten” is human language for something that humans are unable to even begin to understand.

Physician

In the quote above, both the Father and Son are called physicians.  Later in the quote, Ignatius describes the sinner as “diseased.

In other words, Ignatius does not describe the work of the only-begotten Son as to judge.  He describes Him as a Physician who aims 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 passionate Father.

Our God Jesus the Christ

Ignatius describes the Son as “our God.”  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 “our god,” this is discussed in the article, Jesus is our god.

In summary, they described Jesus as “our God” and the Father as “the only true God.”  Actually, 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 translators decided to 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.

Summary

Ignatius condemns by Trajan. Polycarp, Justin Martyr, and Ignatius all died for their faith.

In Ignatius’ view, Jesus, before He became a human being, was “being life.”  This 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).

Ignatius described Jesus as the “Only-begotten Son … before time began.”  This means that Jesus existed for as long as time existed.  But it does not mean that the Son is equal to the Father, for there is an infinity outside time: God Himself exists outside time.  In that incomprehensible infinity beyond time, the Father begat the Son.  The Father alone is “Unbegotten;” the Uncaused Cause of all things.

For Ignatius, the Father is “the only true god, the unbegotten and unapproachable.”  This puts the Father in a category all by himself; infinitely above the only-begotten Son.  For Ignatius, the Father and Son are not equal, as Trinitarians propose. 

Conclusion

Ignatius had an extremely high view of Christ, but only the Father is the Uncaused Cause of all things.  There is also no evidence in the quotes above that Ignatius thought of the Holy Spirit as a self-aware Person, or that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit consist of one substance, or that they are one Being or that Jesus has both a divine and a human nature.

Articles in this series

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

 – Origen – work in progress
 – Jesus is our god.
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

Justin Martyr viewed the Son as distinct from God and subordinate to the Father.

This article continues the discussion of the Christology of the early church fathers.  The introduction to this series defined the Trinity doctrine and gave a historical and conceptual development of this doctrine.  The second article discussed the views of Polycarp.  This third article discusses the Christology of Justin Martyr.

Justin MartyrJustin Martyr was an early Christian apologist. He was born around AD 100. Most of his works are lost, but two apologies and one dialogue did survive. The First Apology, his most well-known text, passionately defends the morality of the Christian life and provides various arguments to convince the Roman emperor to abandon the persecution of the Church. But apparently he failed, for he himself was martyred, more or less in the year 165, alongside some of his students.  It is for that reason that he is called Justin Martyr.

In Justin’s view, the Greek philosophers had the most essential elements of truth but derived it from the Old Testament. Thus he declared that many historical Greek philosophers, such as Socrates and Heraclitus, in whose works he was well studied, were unknowing Christians (Apol., i. 46, ii. 10). However, in his view, the Greek philosophers had only a part of the Logos (the Word or the Wisdom), while the whole is in Christ.

CHRISTOLOGY

Summary

According to Justin Martyr, Jesus is the same as the Old Testament Angel of the LORD

He wrote that God begot Jesus “before all creatures a Beginning.”  Perhaps we can understand this as something more than ‘the first’, but the Beginning from whom all created things flowed.  In other words, the “Beginning” already contained everything in the creation.  “Through the Word, God has made everything.”  In other words, it is still God who created, but God begot the “Word” as the means through Whom God created.

Justin proposed that God begot Jesus “from Himself;” “born of the very substance of the Father.”  This harmonizes with the word homoousios (same substance) in the Nicene Creed.  However:

He defined the Logos as “numerically distinct from the Father.”  Justin used the sun and the light from the sun as a metaphor to explain the relationship between the Father and the Son; highly related but still distinct.

Justin also described the Father as “God” and as “Lord of the universe” in contrast to “our Savior Jesus Christ.”  This implies that the Son is subordinate to the Father.  Justin explicitly stated that Jesus is “in the second place” next to God. This is inconsistent with the Trinity theory.

Justin did not mention that Jesus has both a divine and a human nature or that the Holy Spirit is self-aware.  These concepts developed in later centuries.

These concepts will now be discussed in more detail:

Angel of the Lord

Angel of the LORDJustin Martyr identified Jesus with the Logos of John 1 and Revelation 19,  He also identified Jesus with the Angel of the LORD and with many other Theophanies of the Old Testament.  He used this argument to convince Jews of the truth of Christianity.

Origin of Christ

Justin Martyr described Jesus as follows:

God begot before all creatures a Beginning, [who was] a certain rational power [proceeding] from Himself(Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 61).  He was “born of the very substance of the Father.”

To describe the Word as “a Beginning” implies that God’s purpose, in begetting the Son, was to create all things.  We often read in the Bible about “the beginning,” such as that “in the beginning, God created heaven and earth.”  But Justin Martyr thought of Jesus Himself as the Beginning.  Jesus is also described as “the beginning” in Colossians 1:18, and Revelation refers to Him as “the Beginning of the creation of God” (Rev. 3:14).

Since the Word is “rational,” He is a separate Person.

He was “born of the very substance of the Father.”  This aligns with the word homoousios (same substance) in the Nicene Creed

Creation

Justin Martyr wrote, “through the Word, God has made everything.”  In other words, it is still God who created, but the “Word” was the means through Whom God created.

Distinct

Justin Martyr described the Logos as “numerically distinct from the Father;”  “Numerically distinct” is a phrase that philosophers use in contrast to “qualitatively distinct.” Two things are “numerically distinct” if they are two different things, even when they are extremely similar; qualitatively the same.  Justin used the sun and the light from the sun as a metaphor to explain the relationship between the Father and the Son: The sun and the light from the sun are highly related but still distinct entities.

For Justin Martyr, the Father is God.  This is seen in the statement quoted above that “through the Word, God has made everything.”  That also means that Jesus is also distinct from God.

Subordinate

In Matthew 28;19 Jesus told His disciples to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Justin similarly wrote:

For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water” (First Apol., LXI).

This expands Matthew 28, for Justin replaced “the Father” with “God, the Father.”  This confirms the distinction between God and Jesus. 

Justin also added in a few words to exalt the Father over the Son and over the Holy Spirit.  The description of the Father as “God” and as “Lord of the universe” and implies that the Son is subordinate to the Father.

Justin continues to speak about baptism in the next paragraph.  He again equates God with the Father, in distinction to Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, and describes God alone as ineffable (indescribable):

The Cross of ChristNo one can utter the name of the ineffable God…And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost” (First Apology 61)

In his First Apology 8, Justin explicitly states that Jesus is “in the second place” next to God.  This clearly evidences his view that the Son is subordinate to the Father.

Matt Slick quoted Justin’s version of the baptismal creed because it mentions all three Persons, but the way in which the church fathers in the second and third century used these triadic passages makes a distinction between God and His Son and declares the Father to be superior over the Son.

Conclusion

Justin Martyr’s understanding of Christ and the Trinity may be summarized as follows:

The Father, who is God, begot the Son before all creatures.  The Father begot Him as a Beginning; born of the very substance of the Father; a rational power that proceeded from God; numerically distinct from God and subordinate to the Father.  Through Him, God has made all things.  In Old Testament times the Son appeared as the Angel of the LORD. 

Justin understood the Son to be “born of the very substance of the Father,” but still distinct from and subordinate to God, the Father.  Justin did not mention that Jesus has both a divine and a human nature or that the Holy Spirit is self-aware.  These concepts developed in later centuries.

Articles in this series

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

 – Origen – work in progress
Jesus is our god.

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