Did the church fathers describe Jesus as “god” or as “God?”

Summary

According to the English translations, the pre-Nicene church fathers referred to Jesus as “our God,” which implies that He is the Almighty; the Ultimate Reality.

But those same church fathers referred to the Father as “the only true God,” which implies that the Son is not “true” God. This article shows that this confusion is caused by the translations:

The Greek word theos, which is translated as “God” or “god,” has a wide range of meanings. The basic meaning is an immortal being with supernatural powers, for example, the ancient Greek gods, such as Zeus, Apollo, Hermes, and Hades. 

The Bible uses this same Greek word for God, but also for many other beings, such as people who are called by God to speak for Him (e.g., Exo 7:1; John 10:34-35). Even Satan is called the theos of this world (2 Cor 4.4).

The pre-Nicene fathers did not regard the Son of God as the Almighty Ultimate Reality. They had a very high view of the Son but all of them regarded Him as subordinate to the Father. Therefore, if the modern term “God” refers to the Ultimate Reality alone, when the pre-Nicene fathers refer to Him as theos, it should not be translated as “God.”

Since the Greek word theos basically means an immortal being with supernatural powers, it was quite natural and appropriate for the first Christian apologists to refer to the Son as theos. Nevertheless, for them, the Father remained the only true theos.

The reason many translations of the writings of the ancient fathers translate theos as “God” when referring to the Son is that the translators, generally, accept the Trinity doctrine, which describes Jesus as co-equal with the Almighty Father. Such translations, therefore, are an application of the Trinity doctrine and they should never be used as proof of the Trinity doctrine.

– END OF SUMMARY – 


The Son is our God.

According to the English translations, several Christian writers of the first three centuries, including Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Ignatius of Antioch, and Irenaeus, referred to Jesus as “our God.”

The word “God”

While English uses the term “god” for a range of different beings, dictionaries define the term “God” as a proper name for one specific Being, namely the Almighty; the Ultimate Reality:

“The supreme or ultimate reality” (Merriam-Webster),

“The perfect, omnipotent, omniscient originator and
Ruler of the universe” (The Free Dictionary), or as

“The Supreme Being;
the Creator and Ruler of all that is;
the Self-existent One who is perfect in power, goodness, and wisdom” (GotQuestions.org).

“God,” therefore, refers to the One who exists without a cause and who is the cause of everything that exists. So, if the Son is “God,” then He is the Almighty; the Ultimate Reality.

The Father is the only true God.

But the pre-Nicene fathers referred to the Father as “the only true God:”

Ignatius of Antioch describes the Father as “the only true God.”

Irenaeus wrote:

We received the faith in “One God, the Father Almighty.”

Lord God of Abraham … the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ … (is) the only and the true God. (Against Heresies 3.6.4)

So, if the Father is the only true God, how could the Son also be “God?” The remainder of this article shows that this is based on biased translations:

The Greek word theos

In the Bible, the terms “God” and “god” are translated from the Greek word theos. Most of the pre-Nicene church fathers wrote in Greek. The Latin church fathers used the Latin equivalent deus.

Combining Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance and Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, theos has the following possible meanings:

      1. The gods in general
      2. The true God;
      3. A person granted authority by God to represent Him (e.g., John 10:34-35; Exo 7:1);
      4. An immortal being with supernatural powers, such as the ancient Greek gods;
      5. An idol or image that symbolizes a god (e.g., Acts 7:43);
      6. A thing that opposes God, for example, “the god of this age” (2 Cor 4:4); and
      7. Qualitatively, a being who is ‘godlike’.

Note that most of these seven meanings are ways in which the Bible uses the term. If we eliminate the Biblical uses to determine what the term meant for the Greeks before the Bible was written, then we are left with: “An immortal being with supernatural powers, such as the ancient Greek gods.”

Greek gods

The Graeco-Roman world had a plethora of gods (beings called theos). They used the term theos for exalted people such as emperors and for their gods, such as:

      • Zeus, the god of the sky,
      • Apollo, god of the sun,
      • Hermes, the god of the roadways, and
      • Hades, the god of the underworld.

Biblical uses

In the Bible, Paul confirms, “Indeed there are many gods (theoi)” (1 Cor 8:5). The Bible uses the term theos and its Hebrew equivalents mostly for the Ultimate Reality but also for, for example:

      • Moses (Exodus 7:1),
      • Angels (Psalm 8:5; cf. Hebrews 2:7),
      • The divine council (Psalm 82:1, 6),
      • Israel’s judges (Exo 21:6, 22:8),
      • The Davidic king (Psalm 45:6),
      • Appetite (Phil 3:19),
      • Those who receive the word of God (John 10:34-35) (see – Did Jesus claim to be God or the Son of God?), and
      • Satan (2 Cor 4.4).

The God of the Bible

Note that ‘Ultimate Reality’ or ‘God’ is only one of the possible meanings of theos. The Bible and the ancient Greek writers did not have a Greek word specifically for the one true God. They did not differentiate between upper- and lower-case letters as we do in modern languages and they did not use the Hebrew name of God.

Therefore, the writers of the New Testament and the pre-Nicene fathers used other techniques to identify the Father as the one true theos:

      • The main identification is simply the context.
      • Very frequently, they added the definite article (the) to indicate that the only true theos is intended.
      • Or they described the Father as the:
          • “Only true theos” (John 17:3);
          • “One and only theos” (John 5:44) or as the
          • “One theos” (1 Cor 8:6).

The Son is Subordinate.

However, the pre-Nicene fathers did not regard the Son of God as the Almighty; the Ultimate Reality. Although they had a very high view of the Son, all of them regarded Him as subordinate to the Father. Since this may be surprising to many readers and because it is such an important point, I provide several quotes from respected scholars:

The “conventional Trinitarian doctrine with which Christianity entered the fourth century … was to make the Son into a demi-god … a second, created god lower than the High God” (R.P.C. Hanson).

Virtually all orthodox theologians prior to the Arian controversy in the latter half of the fourth century were subordinationists to some extent.1Badcock, Gary D. (1997), Light of Truth and Fire of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit, p. 43.

Origen, arguably the greatest theologian of the first three centuries, was a subordinationist, meaning he believed that the Father was superior to the Son.2La Due, William J. (2003), Trinity Guide to the Trinity, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, p. 38) (Olson, Roger E.; Hall, Christopher A. (2002), The Trinity, p. 25.

“With the exception of Athanasius, virtually every theologian, East and West, accepted some form of subordinationism at least up to the year 355; subordinationism might indeed, until the denouement (end) of the controversy, have been described as accepted orthodoxy” (RH, xix).3Bishop RPC Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

“There is no theologian in the Eastern or the Western Church before the outbreak of the Arian Controversy, who does not in some sense regard the Son as subordinate to the Father” (RH, 63).

“’Subordinationism’, it is true was pre-Nicene orthodoxy”4Henry Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers p. 239.

“The initial debate was not about the rightness or wrongness of hierarchical models of the Trinity, which were common to both sides” (RW, 109).

Therefore, if the modern term “God” refers to the Ultimate Reality alone, when the pre-Nicene fathers refer to Him as theos, it should not be translated as “God.” Only when they refer to the Father as theos should theos be translated as “God.”

The Son is theos.

Furthermore, since the ancient word theos (god) basically means an immortal being with supernatural powers, it was quite natural and appropriate for the Bible writers and the first Christian apologists to refer to the Son as theos. Nevertheless, for them, the Father remained the only true theos

An Application of the Trinity Doctrine

The reason many translations of the writings of the ancient fathers translate theos as “God” when referring to the Son is that the translators are Trinitarians, meaning that they accept the Trinity doctrine, which describes Jesus as co-equal with the Almighty Father; the Unconditional Cause of all things.

Such translations, therefore, are an application of the Trinity doctrine. It does not reflect the literal meaning of the text and it should never be used as proof of the Trinity doctrine.

How theos should be translated

So, the original text is clear. All we have in the Greek Bible and in the church fathers is the word theos and this word has a broad range of meanings. It is difficult to determine how it should be translated. It is not only a translation from one language to another; it is also a translation from a very different mindset:

The ancient Greeks believed in a multitude of gods. If you asked an ancient Greek, do you believe in God, he would have responded: ‘Which God’?

Today, if you ask the same question, the person would most probably think that you refer to the one Ultimate Reality and give you a different answer.

It is not easy to reflect the ancient meaning of the term theos in modern languages:

Even though the Son is subordinate to the Father, theos, when referring to the Son, should probably not be translated as “god” because that term, in modern English, has the connotation of a false god.

To translate the phrase “the only true theos” as “the only true God” is illogical because the word “God” is not a category name; it identifies one specific Being: Only one God exists. It would have been more logical to translate the phrase “the only true theos” simply as “God.”

One option is to translate Ignatius as saying that the Father is “the only true god” and the Son is “our god,” without capitalization. That may perhaps reflect the ancient meaning of the term theos better.

Conclusion

I do not have a solution for the translation, but my main point is this: The fact that English translations of ancient Greek documents describe the Son as “God” cannot be used to support the Trinity doctrine for it is an interpretation that assumes the Trinity doctrine.

For a further discussion, see The Meanings of the Word THEOS.


Other Articles

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:

      • John 1:1 5Some regard this verse as the clearest declaration of the Son’s deity.
      • The Greek word theos 10The Bible refers to Jesus as theos but that Greek word has a wide range of meanings. One possible meaning is reflected by the English word “God,” which refers only to the Ultimate Reality. But the term is also used for any immortal being with supernatural powers. In what sense of theos does the New Testament refer to Jesus?
      • John 1:18 The Only Begotten God 11Scholars are not sure what John actually wrote here. Many ancient manuscripts of this verse refer to Jesus as “son” and not as theos (god).
      • John 20:28 My Lord and my God! 12Thomas here refers to Jesus as his theos but, just a few verses earlier, Jesus refers to the Father as His theos (John 20:17). In what sense of theos did Thomas address Jesus?
      • Romans 9:5 Paul never refers to Jesus as God. 13This is most significant. The only possible exception is Romans 9:5 but the translation of this verse depends on punctuation, which is interpretation.
      • Hebrews 1:8-9 14Verse 8 refers to Jesus as theos but the next verse shows that He is not God because it says that God is His God.
      • Overview of these articles 15To translate theos as “God,” when it refers to Jesus, is an application of the Trinity doctrine; not proof thereof.
      • John’s gospel – The word theos 16Did John use the term theos for both the Father and the Son?

Other Articles

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
  • 2
    La Due, William J. (2003), Trinity Guide to the Trinity, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, p. 38) (Olson, Roger E.; Hall, Christopher A. (2002), The Trinity, p. 25.
  • 3
    Bishop RPC Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987
  • 4
    Henry Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers p. 239.
  • 5
    Some regard this verse as the clearest declaration of the Son’s deity.
  • 6
    Possible translations include:
    The Word was God,
    The Word was a god, and
    The Word was divine.
  • 7
    This is the Jehovah’s Witness translation of this verse.
  • 8
    To defend their translation, Jehovah’s Witnesses argue that “God” is a count noun. Is this a valid argument?
  • 9
    This translation interprets theos as definite, but John 1:1c uses theos in a descriptive sense, meaning that the Word was like God.
  • 10
    The Bible refers to Jesus as theos but that Greek word has a wide range of meanings. One possible meaning is reflected by the English word “God,” which refers only to the Ultimate Reality. But the term is also used for any immortal being with supernatural powers. In what sense of theos does the New Testament refer to Jesus?
  • 11
    Scholars are not sure what John actually wrote here. Many ancient manuscripts of this verse refer to Jesus as “son” and not as theos (god).
  • 12
    Thomas here refers to Jesus as his theos but, just a few verses earlier, Jesus refers to the Father as His theos (John 20:17). In what sense of theos did Thomas address Jesus?
  • 13
    This is most significant. The only possible exception is Romans 9:5 but the translation of this verse depends on punctuation, which is interpretation.
  • 14
    Verse 8 refers to Jesus as theos but the next verse shows that He is not God because it says that God is His God.
  • 15
    To translate theos as “God,” when it refers to Jesus, is an application of the Trinity doctrine; not proof thereof.
  • 16
    Did John use the term theos for both the Father and the Son?
  • 17
    For the first more than 300 years, the church fathers believed that the Son is subordinate to the Father. The Trinity Doctrine was developed by the Cappadocian fathers late in the fourth century but the decision to adopt it was not taken by the church. This is a list of all articles on the Arian Controversy.

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