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.