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,” including Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Ignatius of Antioch, and Irenaeus. 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 in various articles, 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, similar to Ignatius, he 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. And since the Old Testament name of God (YHVH) does not appear in the New Testament, the New Testament Greek and the ancient church fathers do 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 gods. Paul confirmed, “indeed there are many gods and many lords” (1 Cor 8:5). Given this meaning of theos, the God of the Bible is of the beings identified as theos (“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 (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 the article in this verse), and
● Satan (2 Cor 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 theos was 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 “only true god” (John 17:3) or as “the one and only God” (John 5:44) or as “one god” (1 Cor 8:6).

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 which has a broad range of meanings. 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. Whether theos is translated as “god” or as “God” depends on the context. When translators think that the Almighty is intended, they translate theos as “God.” 

Translators are mostly Trinitarians. That means that they assume that Jesus is equal to the Almighty Father; the Uncaused Cause of all things. Therefore, when theos refers to Jesus, they also translate theos as “God.” Consequently, the translations refer to Jesus as “God” rather than “god.”  That, however, does not accurately reflect the meaning of these ancient writers.

Furthermore, since the word “God” is not a category name, the phrase “only true God” is illogical. It would have been more logical to translate John 17:3, where Jesus says that the Father is “the only true theos,” as “the only true god.”

Is Jesus God or god?

Whether we translate theos, when it describes Jesus, 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.”

Nevertheless, 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.”

Ignatius 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.  

Perhaps this is all very confusing and complex. I guess my simple main point is this:

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 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 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 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 (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.”

– END OF SUMMARY –

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.

The word “Almighty” appears only 10 times in the New Testament. Nine of those are in the book of Revelation.  The other one is in 2 Corinthians 6:16-18, where Paul quotes from the Old Testament and identifies “God” as “the Lord Almighty.”  Revelation never refers to Jesus as “Almighty.”  On the contrary, three times it makes a distinction between the Son and the Almighty:

The Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns.  Let us rejoice … for the marriage of the Lamb has come’” (Rev 19:6).

The Word of God (Jesus) … treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty” (Rev 19:13-15).

I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Rev 21:22).

For a more detailed discussion, see Is Jesus the Almighty?

JESUS IS OUR GOD.

Irenaeus above wrote that we received the faith in “One God, the Father Almighty.”  But in the next paragraph, Irenaeus also referred to Christ Jesus 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.

ONE CHRIST JESUS

In contrast to the “one God,” Irenaeus referred to “one Christ Jesus.”  This is an adaptation of the “one God” slogans in the Bible:

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” (1 Cor 8:6)

There is … one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:4-6).

There is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Titus 2:5).

In other words, Irenaeus referred to Jesus as “one Christ Jesus” in contrast to the “one God.” 

LORD

These “one God” slogans have their origin in the Old Testament Shema, which reads, “The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!” (Deut 6:4).  Jesus quoted this as, “HEAR, O ISRAEL! THE LORD OUR GOD IS ONE LORD” (Mark 12:29).

Jesus, therefore, by quoting the Shema, referred to the God of the Old Testament as the “ONE LORD.”  Since the New Testament also refers to the Son as “one Lord,” Trinitarians use this as support for the view that Jesus is God.  However:

Firstly, the “one God” statements quoted above make a clear distinction between the “one God” (the Father) and the “one Lord, Jesus Christ.”  

Secondly, the word “LORD” in the Shema, in the Old Testament, is actually God’s name (YHVH).

Thirdly, the Greek word translated “lord” has a wide range of meanings.  On the low end of the scale, it can simply be a respectful form of address to somebody in a more senior position.  It then means “sir” or “master.”  On the other end, it can also be used exalted beings, such as kings and for gods.

Due to this wide range of meanings, we should not assume that Jesus is equal to the Father simply because both are called “Lord.” 

WORSHIP

Irenaeus’ wrote, quoted above, that “every knee should bow” before “Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Savior, and King.”  This statement is also derived from Philippians 2.  Irenaeus stated that every knee will bow to Him because that is “according to the will of the invisible Father.”  This also comes from Philippians 2, which states that every knee will bow to Jesus because “God highly exactly Him” (v9).  Also in Hebrews 1:6, we see that the Father gave the command, “Let all the angels of God worship him.” Jesus receives worship because that is the will of the Almighty God; not because He Himself is the Almighty. This implies that the Son is subordinate to the Father; not equal to Him, as Trinitarians claim.

This is confirmed by the following quote from Irenaeus, which describe the Father as “the Head of Christ:”

And thus 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;
but the Word … is the living water, which the Lord grants to those who rightly believe in Him, and love Him” (Against Heresies 5.18.2)

This is a quote from 1 Corinthians 2:3, which reads, “Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.”  A fundamental tenet of the Trinity doctrine is the co-equality of the three Persons. The famous Athanasian Creed, which is taught by many denominations today, for example, reads as follows:

Nothing in this trinity … is greater or smaller;
in their entirety, the three persons
are coeternal and coequal with each other.

Since Irenaeus presented the Son as subordinate to the Father, he was not a Trinitarian.

CREATOR

Above Irenaeus identified “God, the Father,” as the “Almighty” Creator, but he also wrote that “God, the Father” created “by” (through) Jesus Christ:

John, proclaiming one God, the Almighty, and one Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten, by whom all things were made, declares that this was the Son of God (Against Heresies 1.9.2)

Those who regard Jesus as a mere human being, who did astounding things, such as Dr. Tuggy (e.g. podcast 268 – Philippians 2 and podcast 258 – Who is the one Creator?), explains this to mean that Christ Jesus is God’s “Word” or power through which He created; not a separate Person.  This approach can perhaps, with difficulty, explain John 1, Hebrews 1:2 and 1 Cor. 8:6, but Hebrews 1:10 says of the Son, “you, Lord, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the works of your hands.”  Listen to Dr. Tuggy’s podcasts 258 and 259, where he attempts to show that Christ Jesus was not involved in the creation, but actually provides much evidence to the contrary.

TRIADIC PASSAGES

Irenaeus mentions the “One Christ Jesus,” “the Holy Spirit” and the “One God” together in a single passage but that does not mean that the Three are one or equal.  It simply means that they are highly related. 

CONCLUSION

Irenaeus believed that the Father is “the only and the true God,” who also created all things.  He alone is “Almighty.”  In his view, Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit are highly related to the “One God,” but still distinct.  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 no mention of one substance or of Christ’s dual nature.

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.” 

ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES

FIRST 300 YEARS

FOURTH CENTURY

FIFTH CENTURY

LATER DEVELOPMENT