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).
“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.
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):
But 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
– Justin Martyr
– Ignatius of Antioch – Current Article
– 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
– Fall of the Western Roman Empire
– Why the Roman Empire fell
– The Fall of Rome proves Daniel as a true prophecy.
– The massacres of the Waldensians