Was the pre-Nicene church father Irenaeus 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 introduces the discussion, 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 (c. 115-190).

Irenaeus became a bishop at Lyons about 178 AD. There are two major works by him known to us:

      • Against Heresies and
      • Proof of the Apostolic Preaching

This article discusses Irenaeus’ view of the nature of Christ (his Christology). In the quotes below, “P” stands for Proof of the Apostolic Preaching while “I” to “V” stands for the first five books of Against Heresies. Where I used more than one quote from a page, I added a, b or c.

Irenaeus’ writings are available from Earlychristianwritings.com. The text of the quotes from his works, that are referred to in this article, are listed at the end of this article.

Summary

The analysis of Irenaeus’ writings below concludes that the Father created all things but He created all things “through Christ Jesus.” Irenaeus describes the Father as the “One God, the Almighty,” as the only God and as the true God who “contains all things.”

By describing the Father as the Supreme God Almighty, the Most High, God of all, as ruling over all, who alone knows the very day and hour of judgment (II,28), Irenaeus indicated that the Son is subordinate to the Father. This is emphasized by statements such as that:

Jesus Christ became flesh according to the good pleasure of the Father” (I,9,2), that

He has received dominion over all creation from His Father (III,6a), and that

The Father is greater than Christ (II,28) and the Head of Christ” (V,18; cf. 1 Cor 2:3).

Although Irenaeus described the Father as the “one God” and as the “only God,” and the Son is subordinate to the Father, Irenaeus also described Jesus Christ as “eternally co-existing with the Father” (e.g. II,30) and as “God” (e.g. I,10,1). However, even in the phrases which referred to Jesus as God, Irenaeus described the Son as subordinate to the Father God. For example:

“He who suffered under Pontius Pilate,
the same is Lord of all, and King, and God, and Judge,
receiving power from Him who is the God of all” (III,12a).

Irenaeus gave two reasons why the Son is called God, namely:

    • He is the visible image of the invisible Father and
    • “That which is begotten of God is God” (P47).

To understand why Irenaeus was able to refer to the Son as “God” but still as subordinate to the Father, we need to understand the meaning of the Greek word which Irenaeus used, which is the word theos:

One of the possible meanings of theos is “God,” which is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a being conceived as the perfect, omnipotent, omniscient originator and ruler of the universe.” But theos also has a range of other possible meanings, such as:

          • Beings 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).

To describe a being as theos, therefore, does not mean that that being is God. A being is God if He is the almighty originator of the universe, as Merriam-Webster defined the title. Irenaeus described only the Father as such.

– END OF SUMMARY –

The Father

Irenaeus repeated the same concepts many times over. The following is one of his typical statements about the Father:

“The beginning of all things is God.
For He Himself was not made by any,
and by Him all things were made.
And therefore, it is right first of all to believe that
there is One God, the Father,
who made and fashioned all things” (P4).

This statement is explicitly about the Father and says that:

The Father created all things.

He is the uncaused Cause of all things. Elsewhere, Irenaeus refers to the Father as “Maker of heaven, and earth,” and that He “created all things,” or “grants existence to all” (I,10,1; II,1; III,1; III,6b; III,8; III,12c; IV,5,1-2; IV,20,2b,c; P6).

The Father is “One God.”

Irenaeus was quite fond of the phrase “one God,” also expressed as “One God, the Almighty” (I,9,2; cf. I,10,1; III,1; III,12c; IV,1; IV,6b; IV,20,2a,b,c; V,18; V,22; P5). This is related to the New Testament’s “one God”-statements in which the “one God” always refers to the Father (John 5:44; 1 Cor 8:6; Eph 4:5-6; 1 Tim 2:5). Irenaeus also quoted these verses, for example:

“The Apostle Paul in like manner (stated),
‘There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism,
One God and Father, who is above all,
and through all, and in us all'”
(IV,32; cf. Eph 4:5-6).

The following is another one of Irenaeus’s typical statements:

“There is shown forth One God, the Father, not made, invisible, creator of all things; above whom there is no other God, and after whom there is no other God. And, since God is rational, therefore by [the] Word He created the things that were made.” (P5)

This statement again refers to the Father as “One God” and as the Creator. But it adds the following:

The Father is the only God.

As Irenaeus stated, above and after the Father there is no other God. Irenaeus frequently stated that the Father is the only God. For example, he would describe Jesus Christ as “the only-begotten Son of the Only God” (I,9,2) or state, “the Father, is the Only God and Lord, who Alone is God and ruler of all” (III,9a; cf. II,1; II,28; III,6b; III,6c; III,9b; III,25; IV,Preface; IV,1).

That the Father is the only God seems to be the meaning of the “one God” statements above. These two thoughts are integrated in categorical statements such as:

    • “There is One Almighty God” (III,11a)
    • “There is One God, the Maker of this universe” (III,11b; III,12b)

The Father is the true God.

Irenaeus identified the Father as the “true God” and as the “only true God” (III,15). For example:

“The apostles taught the Gentiles that they should leave vain wood and stones … and worship the True God, who had created and made all the humanity … and that they might look for His Son Jesus Christ” (III,5; cf. V,22).

The Father created all things by the Word.

As quoted above from P5, “by [the] Word He [the one God] created the things that were made.” Elsewhere, Irenaeus stated this principle as that:

    • “Through Him all things were made by the Father” (P5) or,
    • The Father created all things “through Christ Jesus” (III,4; cf. III,11a; IV,20,1; IV,20,2b)

The Father “contains all things.”

This interesting quote from (IV,20,2c) makes me think of the principle that God is not somewhere in the universe, rather, the universe is somewhere in God. Elsewhere, Irenaeus described “God the Creator” as “the Only God … alone containing all things” (II,1). Perhaps a related statement made by Irenaeus is that “the Father Himself is Alone called “God”, who has a real existence” (II,28). In other words, the existence of everything else is dependent on the Father’s existence.

Christ Jesus

Irenaeus contrasted Jesus Christ to the Father with phrases such as:

“The Church … has received … this faith:
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 …” (I,10,1; cf. I,9,2; III,1; IV,6b)

This sounds very similar to the opening phrase on the Nicene Creed, formulated more than a hundred years later:

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)

The One Christ Jesus

In Irenaeus’ statements, Jesus is the “one Christ Jesus” or the “one Jesus Christ” in contrast to the Father, who is the “One God.” The New Testament does not refer to Jesus as “one Christ Jesus” or as “one Jesus Christ,” but, in contrast to the “one God,” the New Testament does refer to Jesus as “one Lord” (Eph 4:5-6; 1 Cor 8:6). Apparently, the New Testament’s “one God” and “one Lord” statements were foundational for Irenaeus’ Christology. This is how it should be, for these statements are specifically formulated to explain the relationship between the Father and the Son. Theologians often mistakenly rely on less clear statements to formulate faulty Christologies. 

The Father is Supreme.

As indicated by the following quotes, Irenaeus described the Father as above all, God Almighty, the Most High, God of all, the Supreme King, God over all, and as ruling over all:

“The Father is above all things for ‘the Father,’ says He, ‘is greater than I'” (II,28).

The Father is “God Almighty, The Most High, The Creator, The Maker” (II,35; cf. P8) – “the God of all, the Supreme King” (III,5).

“He it is who is God over all” (IV,5,1-2; cf. P5).
“God the Father (is) ruling over all” (III,6a)

“Therefore One God, the Father is declared, who is above all” (Book V,18; cf. IV,20,2a).

The Father is Almighty.

Irenaeus used the term “Almighty” frequently, but always only for the Father; never for Christ. For example, the following is a quote by Irenaeus from 1 Corinthians 8:6, to which he added “Almighty” to the description of the Father, as well as “a firm belief in the Spirit of God:”

“A full faith in One God Almighty,
of whom are all things,
and in the Son of God,
Jesus Christ our Lord,
by whom are all things …
and a firm belief in the Spirit of God” (IV,33).

Since Irenaeus identified the Father alone as the “Almighty,” the Son is not Almighty. For a discussion of the title “Almighty” in the New Testament, see – Is Jesus the Almighty?

The Son is subordinate to the Father.

Irenaeus described the subordinate position of the Son in phrases such as:

      • Jesus Christ “became flesh” “according to the good pleasure of the Father” (I,9,2).
      • Every knee will bow to Jesus “according to the will of the invisible Father” (I,10,1).
      • “The Father alone knows the very day and hour of judgment” (II,28; cf. Matt 24:36)
      • “‘The Father,’ says He, ‘is greater than I'” (II,28; cf. John 14:28).
      • “His Son … has received dominion from His Father over all creation” (III,6a)
      • “’He shall he great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest’” (III,16);
      • “The Father is indeed above all, and He is the Head of Christ” (V,18; cf. 1 Cor 2:3).

The Son always existed.

Although the Son is subordinate to the Father, He always existed:

    • “Pre-existing with the Father,
      begotten before all the creation of the world” (P30);
    • “Eternally co-existing with the Father”
      (II,30; cf. IV,6; IV,20,1; IV,20,2a);

I have found that people struggle to understand how Christ could be eternal but still be subordinate to the Father. We need to remember that, to say that Jesus always existed means that He existed for as long as time existed, but time had a beginning – 13 billion years ago with the big bang (NASA). There is no time in the infinity beyond this universe. But that Infinity contains the real substance of our existence because it is the Source of the power and intelligence that brought forth this universe. In that infinity, the Son was begotten of the Father. But beyond that, we should say nothing of that infinity because that has not been revealed to us.

The Son is God.

Although he described the Father as the “one God” and as the “only God,” and described the Son as subordinate to the Father, Irenaeus described the Son also as “God” (I,10,1; III,15; III,19,2; IV,5,1-2; IV,6c; P40; P47). However, even in the phrases which refer to Jesus as God, Irenaeus described the Son as subordinate to the Father God:

“To Christ Jesus, our Lord,
and God, and Saviour, and King,
according to the will of the invisible Father,
every knee should bow” (I,10,1).

“The apostles of freedom called no one else ‘God,’ or named him ‘Lord,’ except the Only true God, the Father, and His Word” (III,15).

“He who suffered under Pontius Pilate, the same is Lord of all, and King, and God, and Judge, receiving power from Him who is the God of all” (III,12a).

Irenaeus gave two reasons why the Son is called God:

“The Father is the invisible of the Son, but the Son the visible of the Father. And for this reason all spoke with Christ … and they named Him God” (IV,6c).

“That which is begotten of God is God” (P47).

The translation of theos

To understand why Irenaeus was able to refer to the Son as “God” but still as subordinate to the Father, we need to understand the meaning of the Greek word which Irenaeus used, which is the word theos.

The title “God” defined

Merriam-Webster defines the term “God” as “a being conceived as the perfect, omnipotent, omniscient originator and ruler of the universe.”

Only one “omnipotent” (almighty) Being is possible. If there were more than one, one would limit to the power of the other. There can also only be one “originator … of the universe.”

Sola Gratia proposes a different definition for “God.” He says that any being that has “the exact same nature with the Father” is God. However, we cannot each have his or her own definition of “God.” That is what dictionaries are for. If we have different definitions for the same word, we will talk past one another.

Consider the historical development of the title “God:”

The meaning of theos

The Greek word, that is translated as “God,” is theos. In the ancient Greek culture, theos was used for the pantheon of the Greek gods such as Zeus, the god of heaven, Hera, Queen of the gods, Poseidon, God of the seas, and many others. The gods were thought of as immortal beings with supernatural powers over nature and mankind.

When Greek became the common language of the Empire, the Jews translated the Hebrew elohim as the Greek theos. Since elohim, in the Hebrew culture, was used for the true God but also for a range of other beings, theos took on the same meanings in Jewish and Christian writings, which included:

    • Any immortal being with supernatural powers;
    • Beings 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).

See the article on theos for a discussion of the meanings.

The meaning of “God”

The original New Testament, written in Greek, was written only in capital letters. The same applies to Iranaeus’ writings. (He wrote in Greek.)

But, over the centuries, the distinction between upper- and lower-case letters developed. With that, over time, came the practice to capitalize the G and to use the word “God” to refer to one specific being, namely the One who exists without cause. In other words, we use the word “God,” with an upper case G, as the name for one specific Being, namely the One who exists without cause.

How the ancient writers distinguished

However, when the original New Testament as written, and when Irenaeus wrote, these writers did not have a word that is equivalent to God. Given the broad range of meanings of the word theos, Irenaeus and the other pre-Nicene fathers could refer to both the Father and Jesus Christ as theos. But they distinguished the Father from the other theos-beings in various other ways. Irenaeus (and the Bible writers), for example, as quoted above, described the Father as:

      • The “one God,”
      • “The only God,”
      • “The Almighty,”
      • “One God … who is above all” and
      • “The True God,” and
      • “The Father … who Alone is God.”

To make sure that the reader understands, Irenaeus stated this also negatively, namely, “there is no other God” (P5).

How to translate theos

By means of such techniques, and by describing the Father as the Head of Christ, and as greater than Christ, Irenaeus represented Christ as subordinate to the Father. The point is that, as Irenaeus described Him, the Son is not “God” as defined above by Merriam-Webster, namely the omnipotent (almighty), omniscient originator of the universe. Given this definition, and given Irenaeus’ Christology, only the Father is “God” in modern English. Consequently, theos, when used by Irenaeus for Jesus, should not be translated as “God.”

On the other hand, to translate theos as “god” when it describes Jesus is also not acceptable because, in Christian circles, the title “god” is often understood as referring to false gods. That is a dilemma for translators to sort out.

God from God

Consider again the statement which Irenaeus made in P47: “That which is begotten of God is God.” This reminds me of the Nicene Creed, which reads:

God from God,
light from light,
true God from true God

Since the word theos, which is translated four times in this verse as “God,” merely means “god,” and in the ancient Greek language, simply means an immortal being with supernatural powers, all that Irenaeus meant was that, since the Father is an immortal being with supernatural powers, and since Jesus Christ is the only begotten of God, He is also an immortal being with supernatural powers. If that is correct, then Irenaeus’ statement must be translated as “That which is begotten of god is god.”

However, the Nicene Creed adds the word “true” before “theos.” As we have seen, both the New Testament and Irenaeus use the phrase “true theos” only for the Father (III,15; III,5; V,22; John 17:3; 1 Thess 1:9; 1 John 5:20). (For a discussion of 1 John 5:20, see the article on theos.)

Therefore, the question is, what does the Nicene Creed mean by “true theos? Does it mean that Jesus Christ is “God” in the modern sense of the word, or that He truly is an immortal being with supernatural powers? For a discussion, see the article on the interpretation of the Nicene Creed

Lord

In the quotes above, Irenaeus used the title “Lord” many times and for both the Father and for Jesus Christ. This is also not proof that Jesus is “God” as defined above. The same principles that apply to the title “God,” also apply to the title “Lord,” namely that Irenaeus applied the title “Lord” to the Father in a special sense, for he refers to the Father as the “only Lord” and as “the true Lord:”

“The Father, is the Only God and Lord” (III,9a).

“God the Creator … since He is the Only God, the Only Lord, the Only Creator, the Only Father” (II,1).

“It was the true Lord and the One God … the same did Christ point out as the Father” (V,22).

Similar to theos, the Greek word that is translated as “lord” (kurios) has a wide range of meanings:

On the low end of the spectrum, it can simply be a respectful form of address to somebody in a more senior position, similar to “sir” or “master.”

But exalted beings, such as kings and gods were also addressed as “lord.”

Given the exalted view which the New Testament and Irenaeus have of “the only-begotten Son of the Only God” (I,9,2), such as that He “eternally co-existed with the Father” (II,30) and “has received dominion from His Father over all creation” (III,6a) so that every knee in heaven and on earth must bow to Him (I,10,1), Jesus Christ is most appropriately called “Lord.”

However, given the clear distinction between the “one God” (the Father) and the “one Lord, Jesus Christ” that is made by the “one God” statements (e.g., 1 Cor 8:6; Eph 4:4-6; 1 Titus 2:5), Jesus is not “Lord” in the same sense as the Father. Rather, “every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:11).

Triadic passages

One of the major ‘proofs” of the ‘divinity’ of Christ and of the Trinity is the triadic passages, which are passages in which the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are mentioned together, for example, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19). Irenaeus also mentions the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit many times together in a single passage (e.g. I,10,1; IV,6b; IV,20,1). These passages do include the Son and the Holy Spirit in “the divine identity,” if I may borrow a term from Richard Bauckham. However, we need to respect the clear statements in both the New Testament and Irenaeus’ writings that the Father is the “only true God” (III,15; John 17:3).

Conclusion

Irenaeus believed that the Father is “the only and the true God,” who also created all things. He alone is “Almighty.” 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 also no mention of one substance or of Christ’s proposed dual nature.

According to what I quoted above from Irenaeus, he was no philosopher. He simply takes the Scriptures as they are. However, he emphasized verses that Trinitarians avoid.

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.” 

List of quotes

Below are quotes from Irenaeus’ writings. For the full text, see Irenaeus of Lyons (earlychristianwritings.com).

Against Heresies

The following is quoted from Irenaeus’ voluminous work, Against Heresies.

John, proclaiming One God, the Almighty,
and one Jesus Christ, the only-begotten,
by whom all things were made …
the only-begotten Son of the Only God,
who, according to the good pleasure of the Father,
became flesh for the sake of men. (I,9,2).

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 … (I,10,1)

To Christ Jesus, our Lord,
and God, and Saviour, 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 (I,10,1).

God the Creator,
who made the heaven and the earth,
and all things that are in it …
since He is the Only God, the Only Lord, the Only Creator, the Only Father, alone containing all things, and Himself commanding all things into existence (II,1).

This God is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul the apostle also has declared,
“There is One God, the Father, who is above all, and through all, and in all” [Eph 4:6]. (II, 2).

Since the Father Himself is Alone called “God“,
who has a real existence …
the Scriptures acknowledge Him Alone as “God,” …
the Lord confesses Him Alone as his own Father (II,28)

The Lord, the very Son of God, allowed that the Father Alone knows the very day and hour of judgment, when he plainly declares, “But of that day and that hour knows no man, neither the Son, but the Father Only.” (II,28)

The Father … has been declared by the Lord alone to know the hour and the day … we may learn through him that the Father is above all things. For “the Father,” says He, “is greater than I.” (II,28).

The Son, eternally co-existing with the Father, from of old, yea, from the beginning, always reveals the Father to Angels, Archangels, Powers, Virtues, and all to whom he wills that God should be revealed. (II,30)

All the other expressions likewise bring out the title of One and the same being; as, for example … God Almighty, The Most High, The Creator, The Maker, and such like. (II,35).

These [Apostles] have all declared to us that there is One God, Creator of heaven and earth … and one Christ the Son of God. (III,1).

The ancient tradition, believing in One God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, through Christ Jesus, the Son of God (III,4).

Our Lord … acknowledged as God, even the God of all, the Supreme King, too, and his own Father (III,5)

The apostles taught the Gentiles that they should leave vain wood and stones … and worship the True God, who had created and made all the humanity … and that they might look for His Son Jesus Christ (III,5).

God the Father ruling over all, and His Son who has received dominion from His Father over all creation (III,6a)

I do also call upon You, LORD God of Abraham, and God of Isaac, and God of Jacob and Israel, who IS the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ … that we should know You, who has made heaven and earth, who rules over all … above whom there is no other God, do grant, by our Lord Jesus Christ, the governing power of the Holy Spirit, to every reader of this book to know You, that You Alone are God, to be strengthened in You (III,6b)

“We know that an idol is nothing, and that there is no other God but One. For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, yet to us there is but One God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we through Him, and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him.” (III,6c)

He indeed who made all things can alone, together with His Word, properly be termed God and Lord (III,8).

He, the Father, is the Only God and Lord, who Alone is “God” and ruler of all. (III,9a)

There is therefore One and the same God, the Father of our Lord. (III,9b).

There is One Almighty God, who made all things by His Word … that by the Word, through whom God made the creation, He also bestowed salvation on the men included in the creation (III,11a)

There is One God, the Maker of this universe … the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (III,11b).

He who suffered under Pontius Pilate, the same is Lord of all, and King, and God, and Judge, receiving power from Him who is the God of all (III,12a)

The One and the same God … that He was the Maker of all things, that He was the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (III,12b)

To the Greeks they preached One God, who made all things, and His Son Jesus Christ (III,12c)

The apostles of freedom called no one else “God,” or named him “Lord,” except the Only true God, the Father, and His Word. (III,15)

The angel said … He shall he great, and shall be called the Son of The Highest … And David … confessed him as Lord, sitting on the right hand of The Most High Father. (III,16).

He [Jesus] is … God, and Lord, and King Eternal, and the Incarnate Word … He had … in Himself that pre-eminent birth which is from the Most High Father. (III,19,2)

Their Creator, who is both God Alone, and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. (III,25).

There is none other called God by the Scriptures except the Father of all, and the Son, and those who possess the adoption. (IV,Preface).

No other God or Lord was announced by the Spirit, except Him who, as God, rules over all, together with His Word (IV,1)

Our Lord … did also command us to confess no one as Father, except Him … who is the One God and the One Father (IV,1).

Whom Christ confessed as His Father. Now He is the Creator, and He it is who is God over all (IV,5,1-2)

Christ Himself, therefore, together with the Father, is the God of the living, who spake to Moses, and who was also manifested to the fathers. (IV,5,1-2).

The Son, being present with His own handiwork from the beginning, reveals the Father to all  (IV,6a)

There is One God, the Father, and one Word, and one Son, and one Spirit, and one salvation to all who believe in Him. (IV,6b).

And through the Word Himself who had been made visible and palpable, was the Father shown forth … all saw the Father in the Son: for the Father is the invisible of the Son, but the Son the visible of the Father. And for this reason all spoke with Christ when He was present [upon earth], and they named Him God. (IV,6c).

For with Him were always present the Word and Wisdom, the Son and the Spirit, by whom and in whom … He made all things, to whom also He speaks, saying, “Let Us make man after Our image and likeness.” (IV,20,1)

The apostle say, “There is One God, the Father, who is above all, and in us all.”…. the Word, namely the Son, was always with the Father; and that Wisdom also, which is the Spirit (IV,20,2a)

There is therefore One God, who by the Word and Wisdom created and arranged all things. (Book IV,20,2b)

There is One God the Father, who contains all things, and who grants existence to all (IV,20,2c).

The Apostle Paul in like manner (stated), “There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father, who is above all, and through all, and in us all.” (Book IV,32). (Eph 4:5-6)

A full faith in One God Almighty, of whom are all things, and in the Son of God, Jesus Christ our Lord, by whom are all things … and a firm belief in the Spirit of God  (IV, 33). (1 Cor 8:6)

And therefore 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. (V,18; cf. 1 Cor 2:3).

It was the true Lord and the One God … the same did Christ point out as the Father, whom also it compels the disciples of Christ, alone to serve. (V,22)

Proof of the Apostolic Preaching

The following excerpts are from the translation by J. Armitage Robinson.

The beginning of all things is God. For He Himself was not made by any, and by Him all things were made. And therefore it is right first of all to believe that there is One God, the Father, who made and fashioned all things (P4).

There is shown forth One God, the Father, not made, invisible, creator of all things; above whom there is no other God, and after whom there is no other God. And, since God is rational, therefore by [the] Word He created the things that were made (P5).

The Word called the Son, and the Spirit the Wisdom of God. Well also does Paul His apostle say: One God, the Father, who is over all and through all and in us all. For over all is the Father; and through all is the Son, for through Him all things were made by the Father (P5)

This then is the order of the rule of our faith, and the foundation of the building … God, the Father, not made, not material, invisible; one God, the creator of all things (P6).

The Father is called Most High and Almighty and Lord of hosts (P8).

[The prophets] instructed the people and turned them to the God of their fathers, the Almighty; and they became heralds of the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God … pre-existing with the Father, begotten before all the creation of the world (P30).

Thus then the Word of God in all things hath the pre-eminence, for that He is true man and Wonderful Counsellor and Mighty God (P40).

So then the Father is Lord and the Son is Lord, and the Father is God and the Son is God; for that which is begotten of God is God.  (P47).

ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES

FIRST 300 YEARS

FOURTH CENTURY

FIFTH CENTURY

LATER DEVELOPMENT

The Decline and Fall of the Western Roman Empire

This article summarizes the key events and circumstances that caused the Decline and Fall of the Western Roman Empire; more or less in chronological sequence. This is to support another article, which shows that the prophecies of Daniel correctly predicted HOW the Western Roman Empire was to fall. 

Much of this article is a summary of Wikipedia’s articles about that period.

Summary

The Roman Empire reached its zenith in the 2nd century. Thereafter it slowly declined. 

Emperor Theodosius’ Death (395)

Theodosius was the last emperor to rule the entire Roman Empire; east and west. He died in 395. Rome was sacked by barbarians in 410. This indicates how weak the empire has become in the only 15 years since Theodosius died. Theodosius’ death initiated a series of major changes, as described below, and was a major turning point in the history of the Roman Empire. Rome was again sacked in 455 and the last Western Emperor was deposed in 476, but the real change occurred before 410. 

Crossing of the River Rhine (406)

The eagles were a popular symbol among the Goths.
GOTHIC SYMBOL

From the fourth century onward, the Empire was less able to repel invading barbarians. Throughout the 4th and 5th centuries, large numbers of barbarians migrated into Roman territories. In the year 376, an unmanageable number of Goths and other non-Roman peoples migrated into the Empire. But during the 15 years after Theodosius’ death, in 406, the Crossing of the River Rhine by Germanic tribes was a decisive event in the Migration Period.

To become part of the Empire – These barbarians did not enter the Empire to tear it down or to replace it with something new, but to become part of the Empire. They sought permission to settle in Roman territory, and Imperial authorities also granted such permission, on certain severe conditions. In other words, these “barbarians” were absorbed into the empire.

Second-class citizens – These barbarians were accepted into the Empire, but as second-class citizens or even, what we could say, as migrant laborers or slaves. However, the Goths resisted and sought full and equal citizenship.

Barbarians controlled the Roman army.

Recruited – Many barbarians were recruited into the Imperial Forces. The Imperial Forces became dependent on the service of Goths. Historians speculate about why barbarians were allowed into the army. But the Roman Empire required a strong army, for its armed forces were the basis for its power.

Top Generals – Some of the barbarians became generals and even top generals.

Emperors were figureheads.

The real rulers in the West always were the military strongmen. The top generals of the armies often also became the emperor. After the ‘barbarians’ gained control of the army, in the 5th century, Western Emperors became mere figureheads.

Compete for control of the empire

There always remained friction and even hatred between the original Graeco-Roman inhabitants of the Empire and the increasingly dominant Barbarian peoples as they competed for control of the Empire. At times, the Graeco-Romans massacred the barbarians. However, if we combine the two principles, namely that the top generals were the real rulers and that the barbarians became top generals, then we can see that the barbarians were progressively in control of the empire.

Not foreign armies – For that reason, it was not foreign armies that sacked Rome in 410 and 455, or that deposed the last Roman Emperor in 476: It was the Gothic section of the Roman army that eventually gained the upper hand in the struggle for control of the Empire.

Civil wars – The Empire was not only threatened by barbarian invasions, but also by civil wars between the Romans themselves. 

The Western Roman Empire did not fall.

Based on the analysis above and the more detailed discussion below, the Western Roman Empire did not come to an end in 476 when Odoacer deposed the last emperor. A more appropriate description of what happened is that the Germanic faction of the Roman Empire became strong enough to take over control of the army, and therefore of the Western Empire itself. This is confirmed by the continuation of Roman power and practices after the emperor was deposed.

Conclusion

In summary, what happened, over more than 100 years, is that the barbaric faction in the Roman Empire became stronger and stronger, while the Gracio-Roman control of the Empire became progressively weaker until the barbarians took over control of the Western Roman Empire. 

The barbaric faction did not use its military supremacy to replace the political and legal structures of the Roman Empire with a different system, but to become part of it: They continued the culture and practices of the empire. 

The sack of Rome in 410 did not cause the fall of the Western Roman Empire; the sack of Rome was an indication of how far the Roman Empire has declined by then.

The Western Roman Empire, therefore, did not fall. Bowersock (2001) described the process as a complex cultural transformation, rather than a fall.

– END OF SUMMARY – 

Barbarians were accepted into the empire.

From the fourth century, the Empire’s military capacity was insufficient to repel or exterminate the invading barbarians. Throughout the 4th and 5th centuries, various Germanic tribes from southern Scandinavia and northern Germania migrated into the Empire’s territories in Western Europe and Northwestern Africa, in what is sometimes called the Migration period

I do not like the term “barbarian” because these people were the forbearers of the French, German and other peoples, but the literature often refers to them as such and this term is useful to refer to a diverse group of people. 

As an early example of this migration, in the year 376, an unmanageable number of Goths and other non-Roman people migrated into the Empire. Emperor Valens allowed Goths to settle within the borders of the Empire. However, the local Roman administrators mistreated them. They revolted, resulting in the first war against the Visigoths which climaxed in the Battle of Adrianople in 378, in which the Visigoths defeated a large Roman army and also killed Emperor Valens himself.

The important point is that imperial authorities admitted potentially hostile groups into the Empire and:

      • allotted to them lands (typically in devastated provinces),
      • allocated them a status (e.g. unfree workers (coloni) for Roman landowners), and
      • duties (sometimes, to defend a border) within the imperial system.

Cultural assimilation followed over the next generation or two. In other words, these “barbarians” became part of the empire.

Empire divided into East and West

Emperor Theodosius I died in 395. He was the last emperor to unite the western and eastern halves of the Empire under the authority of a single emperor. After his death, the empire progressively subdivided into several separate identifiable political entities.

ivory diptych, thought to depict Stilicho with his wife Serena
STILICHO

At his death, Theodosius’ two underage sons became the emperors of the two halves of the Empire. Honorius became emperor in the West with General Stilicho as his guardian while Arcadius was placed on the Eastern throne in Constantinople with Rufinus the power behind the throne. However, Rufinus was soon suspected of being in league with the Goths and was killed. (The Roman Empire did not fire leaders; they killed them.)

These two parts of the empire were administered fairly independently; even in opposition to one another. For example, in 406, General Stilicho demanded the return of the eastern half of Illyricum (which had been transferred to the administrative control of Constantinople by Theodosius), threatening war if the Eastern Roman Empire resisted.

A Goth ruled in the East.

Most of this article describes events in the Western Empire, but this subsection briefly mentions the rise and fall of the Goth Gainas in the East, for it highlights some of the principles we wish to emphasize.

Gainas was a Gothic leader who commanded the barbarian contingent of emperor Theodosius’ army in 394. After Theodosius’ death, in the year 399, he was promoted to magister militum (literally, master of the military) in the Eastern Roman Empire.

Gainas was required to suppress the insurrection of the Ostrogoths in Asia Minor but failed. The Ostrogoths continued to devastate Asia Minor. Gainas advised emperor Arcadius to accept the terms set by the Ostrogoths. But then Gainas showed his true colors by openly joining the Ostrogoths with all his forces. In this way, he forced the emperor to sign a treaty whereby the Goths would be allowed to settle in Thrace, entrusted with the defense of that frontier against the barbarians beyond the Danube. 

Backed by the Ostrogoths and given his position as top general of the Eastern Roman Empire, Gainas was now very powerful. He proceeded to install his forces in Constantinople (the capital of the Eastern Empire) and to depose all the anti-Goth officials.

However, the Graeco-Roman populace intensely resented both Goths and Arian Christians, and Gainas and his men were both. After a few months, in 400, the citizens of Constantinople revolted against Gainas and massacred 7,000 armed Goths and as many of his people and their families as they could catch. Some Goths built rafts and tried to flee across the strip of sea that separates Asia from Europe (the Hellespont), but their rag-tag ad hoc fleet was destroyed by another Goth in Imperial service; Fravitta By the beginning of 401, Gainas’ head rode a pike through Constantinople.

A half-Vandal reigned the Western Roman Empire.

We will now turn our attention to the West.

Stilicho was the son of a Vandal cavalry officer and a Roman mother, but he considered himself to be nothing but Roman. He joined the Roman army and rose through the ranks during the reign of Theodosius I. Theodosius promoted him to general and, seeing in him a man that would be able to lead the empire, appointed Stilicho as guardian of his son Honorius. Thus, after Theodosius died in 395, the underage Honorius became Emperor of the Western Empire, with Stilicho as his caretaker. Stilicho came to be the real commander-in-chief of the Roman armies in the west. In 400 Stilicho was accorded the highest honor within the Roman state by being appointed consul. He was now the most powerful man in the Western Roman Empire. Some regard this as the high point of Germanic advancement in the service of Rome. 

Visigoths rose to threaten Rome.

Alaric first appeared as the leader of a mixed band of Goths and allied peoples who invaded Thrace in 391 but were stopped by the Roman general Stilicho. In 394, Alaric led a Gothic force of 20,000 under the Roman Emperor Theodosius. Despite sacrificing around 10,000 of his men, Alaric received little recognition. Disappointed, he left the Roman army and was elected to be the first king of the Visigoths in 395. The Visigoths then marched toward Constantinople until they were diverted by Roman forces. Nonetheless, the Eastern emperor appointed Alaric magister militum (general in the Roman Army; literally, master of the military).

NOTE: The Visigoths were an early Germanic people who, along with the Ostrogoths, constituted the two major branches of the Goths. These tribes flourished and spread throughout the late Roman Empire in Late Antiquity, or what is known as the Migration Period.

In 401 and again in 402 Alaric invaded Italy but was defeated, although he did force the Roman Senate to pay a large subsidy to the Visigoths.

Massive immigration of barbarians

To protect Italy, the Empire had depleted the Rhine frontier of forces. The Crossing of the River Rhine on 31 December 406 by Germanic tribes (including the Vandals, Burgundians, Alans, and the Sueves) was a key event in the Migration Period. This brought unmanageable numbers of Germanic and Alan barbarians into Gaul. For the next few years, these barbarian tribes wandered in search of food and employment, devastating Gaul’s provinces, while Roman forces fought each other in the name of Honorius and Constantine III, who was competing for the imperial throne. The barbarians ravaged Gaul, initiating a wave of destruction and pillaging of Roman cities. Some moved on to the regions of Hispania and Africa. The Empire would never regain control over most of these lands. This was a climactic moment in the decline of the Empire and a serious setback for Stilicho’s reputation.

The revolt in Britain challenged the emperor.

In 406, the provinces of Roman Britain revolted. The garrisons chose as their leader a man named after the famed emperor of the early fourth century, Constantine the Great, who had himself risen to power through a military coup in Britain. Constantine was a common soldier, but one of some ability. 

Early in 407, the Roman military in Britain acclaimed Constantine as emperor. Constantine promptly moved to Gaul and took with him all of the mobile troops left in Britain, to confront the various Germanic invaders who had crossed the Rhine the previous winter. Constantine’s forces won several confrontations with the Vandals and quickly secured the line of the Rhine.

With the knowledge that Constantine III was a threat to his position as emperor, the Western emperor, Honorius, ordered Stilicho to expel Constantine. Stilicho’s forces defeated two of Constantine’s generals, but Constantine sent another army and Stilicho’s troops retreated into Italy, Constantine now controlled all of Gaul and garrisoned the Alpine passes into Italy. Stilicho had failed to quash Constantine III’s rebellion.

In the summer of 408, the Roman forces in Italy assembled to attack Constantine. But Constantine struck first. He sent his general Gerontius towards Hispania, where he defeated the last Roman force to try to hold the borders of Hispania.

Stilicho’s death led to the sack of Rome.

Stilicho’s death

After many years of victories against many enemies, both barbarian and Roman, the series of political and military disasters described above finally allowed Stilicho’s enemies in the court of the emperor to remove him from power, culminating in his execution in 408.

The Western Emperor Honorius furthermore incited the Roman population to massacre tens of thousands of wives and children of Goths serving in the Roman military. The Gothic soldiers then defected en masse to Alaric, increasing the size of his force to around 30,000 men, and joined his march on Rome to avenge their murdered families.

The first siege of Rome

The Visigothic leader thereupon laid siege to Rome in 408. Alaric attempted to secure a permanent peace treaty and rights to settle within Roman territory. Alaric’s military operations centered on the port of Rome, through which Rome’s grain supply had to pass. His siege caused dreadful famine within the walls. Eventually, the Senate granted him a substantial subsidy and liberated all 40,000 Gothic slaves in Rome. That payment, though large, was less than one of the richest senators could have produced. The super-rich aristocrats made little contribution. Rather, pagan temples were stripped of ornaments to make up the total. Besides, Alaric hoped for promotion to magister militum – commander of the Western Roman Army, but Honorius refused.

Constantine becomes joint consul

Given that the Gothic army under Alaric roamed unchecked in northern Italy when Constantine’s envoys arrived to negotiate, Honorius accepted Constantine’s demands, and the two were joint consuls for the year 409. After military setbacks, Constantine abdicated in 411 but was captured and executed shortly afterward.

NOTE: Consuls were mere symbolic representatives of Rome’s republican heritage and held very little power and authority; the Emperor acted as the supreme authority.

The second siege of Rome

In 409 Alaric again tried to negotiate with Honorius. He demanded frontier land and food but Honorius responded with insults. Alaric ravaged Italy outside the fortified cities (which he could not garrison), and the Romans refused open battle (for they had inadequate forces). Late in the year, Alaric expressed his readiness to leave Italy if Honorius would only grant his people a supply of grain. Honorius flatly refused. The Visigoths again surrounded Rome. Alaric lifted his blockade after proclaiming Attalus Western Emperor.

Third siege and sack of Rome

In the summer of 410, Alaric deposed Attalus and besieged Rome for the third time. According to some accounts, allies within the capital opened the gates for him, and for three days his troops sacked the city. The city of Rome was the seat of the richest senatorial noble families. Although the Visigoths plundered Rome, they treated its inhabitants humanely and burned only a few buildings, which is surprising given the massacre of Gothic women and children. In some Christian holy places, Alaric’s men even refrained from wanton wrecking and rape.

Conclusions

The death of Stilicho has been included in this section under the heading of the sack of Rome because many historians argue that the removal of Stilicho was the main catalyst leading to this monumental event. The city destroyed its own protection. It is also interesting to note the similarities between the massacre of the Gothic soldiers and their families in Constantinople and the massacre of Gothic women and children in the West. It shows the level of hate that existed between the Graeco-Roman people and the Gothic invaders. 

The sack of Rome did not cause the decline of the Roman Empire. Rather, the decline of the Roman Empire caused the sack of Rome. 

The fact that barbarians were able to roam unchecked in the Italian countryside and sack Rome are indications of the decline; not only of the Western Roman Empire but of the Empire as a whole. 

The Western Empire never recovered. Rome was sacked a second time in 455; this time by the Vandals. Although the capital in the West, by this time, has moved to Ravenna, Rome remained the West’s largest city and its economic center.

Visigoths settled in Spain.

After they sacked Rome, the Visigoths first settled in southern Gaul. They also extended their authority into Hispania, where they founded the Visigothic Kingdom and maintained a presence from the 5th to the 8th centuries AD. In 507, their rule in Gaul was ended by the Franks under Clovis I, who defeated them in the Battle of Vouillé. After that, the Visigoth kingdom was limited to Hispania. In or around 589, the Visigoths under Reccared I converted from Arianism to Nicene Christianity, gradually adopting the culture of their Hispano-Roman subjects.

Last emperor in the Western Roman Empire

from a 19th-century illustration
Romulus resigns the Crown

In AD 476, Odoacer—a Germanic chieftain—deposed the last emperor in Italy (Romulus Augustus). This did not require a major battle, for by then barbarian kingdoms had established their own power in much of the area of the Western Empire, leaving the Emperor with negligible power and no effective control. The circumstances were as follows:

Romulus usurps the throne.

The Western Roman Emperor Julius Nepos appointed Orestes as Magister militum in 475. However, before the end of that year, Orestes rebelled, drove Emperor Nepos from Italy, and proclaimed his own young son Romulus as the new emperor Augustulus. Nepos reorganized his court in Dalmatia and received affirmation from Zeno—the emperor in Constantinople. Zeno refused to accept Augustulus but branded Romulus and his father as traitors and usurpers.

Odoacer leads the barbarian revolt.

At about that time the foederati in Italy rebelled. Foederati were barbarians whom the Roman Empire allowed to remain within the Empire in exchange for military assistance. They had grown weary of this arrangement. They petitioned Orestes to grant them lands and to settle them permanently in Italy. Orestes refused.

Odoacer was an officer in what remained of the Roman Army; rising through the ranks. The foederati turned to Odoacer to lead their revolt against Orestes. Odoacer and his troops quickly conquered the whole of Italy, killed Orestes, proclaimed Odoacer king of Italy, captured Ravenna (by then, the capital city of the Western Empire) and compelled the 16-year-old emperor Romulus to abdicate.

No emperor in the West

But Odoacer chose neither to assume the title of Emperor himself nor to select a puppet emperor. He, rather, proclaimed himself the ruler of Italy. He sent the Imperial insignia to Constantinople and requested the Eastern Emperor Zeno to reign over both the eastern and western parts of the Empire. Zeno agreed to this arrangement, setting Nepos’ claims aside and legalizing Odoacer’s position as Imperial viceroy of Italy. In other words, the Eastern Emperor granted Odoacer legal authority to govern Italy in the name of the Empire.

The message was clear: The title Emperor no longer had value. The emperors in the West in the fifth century were, in any case, mostly figureheads, and this arrangement made an end of the puppet emperors in the West. 

Zeno was now, at least in name, the sole Emperor of the entire Empire. Odoacer was careful to observe form and made a pretense of acting on Zeno’s authority, even issuing coins with both his image and that of Zeno. He also maintained Roman institutions, such as the consulship.

Odoacer solidus struck in the name of Emperor Zeno, testifying to the formal submission of Odoacer to Zeno.

Zeno did suggest that Odoacer should receive Nepos back as Emperor in the West, “if he truly wished to act with justice,” but Odoacer never returned any territory or real power to Nepos. Nepos remained in Dalmatia until his death.

Ostrogothic Kingdom

rose from the ruins of the Western Roman Empire
OSTROGOTHIC KINGDOM

Concerned with Odoacer’s success and popularity, Zeno started a campaign against him. In 488, Zeno authorized another troublesome Ostrogoth, Theoderic (later known as “the Great”) to take Italy from Odoacer. After several indecisive campaigns, in 493 Theoderic and Odoacer agreed to rule jointly. They celebrated their agreement with a banquet of reconciliation, at which Theoderic’s men murdered Odoacer’s, and Theoderic personally cut Odoacer in half. The Ostrogoths then founded their own independent Ostrogothic Kingdom in Italy under the rule of king Theodoric

Roman Senate – The largely powerless but still influential Western Roman Senate continued to exist in the city of Rome under the rule of the Ostrogothic kingdom and, later for at least another century, before disappearing in the early 7th century.

Other Articles

TABLE OF CONTENTS