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 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 (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.
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)
– Justin Martyr
– Ignatius of Antioch
– 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
– The massacres of the Waldensians