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 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”
The term “God” is defined as “the supreme or ultimate reality” (Merriam-Webster), as “a being conceived as the perfect, omnipotent, omniscient originator and ruler of the universe” (The Free Dictionary) and 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).
As such, 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 (unconditionally).
The ancient word theos
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 did 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 is used for a category of beings. Greek philosophers did have a sense of a supreme Being, that is the Origin of all else, and to whom we would refer as God, but did the Greeks not have a special word for that Being.
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 one of the “gods” beings identified as theos (.
Describes many different beings
Words such as theos and the Hebrew equivalents, therefore, had a much broader range of meaningd than the modern word “God.” In additional to the gods of the nations, for example, the Bible refers to the following as “god:”
● 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 used a variety of techniques to refer to the one true theos. The main technique is simply the context. Very frequently, they added the definite article (the – ho in Greek) to indicate that the only true theos is intended. Sometimes they described Him as the “only true theos” (John 17:3) or as “the one and only theos” (John 5:44) or as the “one theos” (1 Cor 8:6).
Given that the ancient word theos (god) basically means a powerful, immortal being, 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 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.” Virtually all orthodox theologians prior to the Arian controversy in the latter half of the fourth century were subordinationists to some extent (Badcock, Gary D. (1997), Light of Truth and Fire of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit, p. 43.) Origen, arguably the greatest theologists before the fourth century, was a subordinationist, meaning he believed that the Father was superior to the Son (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.)
The translations cause the confusion:
When translators understand, given the context, that the Almighty is intended, they translate theos as “God.”
The Trinity doctrine, which describes Jesus as co-equal with the Almighty Father; the Unconditional Cause of all things, is generally accepted in the church. Given this doctrine, when theos refers to Jesus, translators also translate it as “God” rather than as “god.”
Whether that is correct depends on whether the Trinity doctrine is valid. But the point is that translations are driven by a doctrine of the church rather than by the literal meaning of the text.
To translate John 17:3, where Jesus identifies the Father as “the only true theos,” as “the only true God” is illogical because the word “God” is not a category name. It would have been more logical to translate this as “the only true god.” Alternatively, since there is but one true god, the phrase “the only true theos” may be translated simply as “God.”
Is Jesus God or god?
Whether we should 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 of Antioch, for example, 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 the Father alone as “unbegotten.” In other words, only the Father exists unconditionally 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