What did Fourth Century Arianism believe?

Summary of this article

In the first three centuries after Christ, the Roman Empire persecuted the church. In the fourth century, the church was first legalized (AD 313) and later became the official religion of the Roman Empire (AD 380). During that period, a controversy raged in the church with respect to the nature of Christ. The emperors could not allow disunity in the church because a split in the church could split the entire empire. The emperors, therefore, forced the church to formulate creeds, and, true to the nature of the empire, banish church leaders who were not willing to accept the creeds.

Arianism was named after Arius.

We are not sure what Arius taught, for his books were destroyed after Nicaea, and we cannot trust what his opponents wrote about him. For example, Athanasius claimed that Arius said that “there was a time when the Son was not,” but below we quote Arius saying that the Son existed “before time.” 

‘Arianism’ dominated the church for 50 years.

Many erroneously understand the Nicene Creed of 325 to say that the Son is equal to the Father but, after 325, the consensus in the church was that the Son is subordinate to the Father. What the church believed at the time was different from what Arius believed, but it is practice today to describe anything that is not perfectly consistent with the Trinity doctrine as Arianism. Therefore, since, in the Trinity doctrine, the Son is co-equal to the Father, it is common for people to the refer to the belief in the fourth century, that the Son is subordinate to the Father, as Arianism.

This ‘Arianism’ remained the dominant view in the church for the next 50 years. During those fifty years, this ‘Arianism’ evolved and divided into a number of branches. It is, therefore, important to understand what the church believed after the intense debates of those years.

God and theos

Today, we use the modern word “God” as the proper name of the One who exists without a cause. The ancient Greek word, in the Bible and other ancient documents, such as the Nicene Creed, that is translated as “God” is theos. But theos is the common name for the Greek gods and means “god” in Eglish. When it refers to the One who exists without a cause, it is correctly translated as “God.” In instances where theos refers to Jesus, it can be translated as “God” only if one assumes the Trinity doctrine. In Arianism, in which only the Father is the One who exists without a cause, theos, when it describes Jesus, or to any being other than the Father, must be translated as “god.” See the article – theos – for a further discussion.

What the Arian church believed

In Arianism:

The Father is the “only one God.” In contrast to the Son who is the “begotten,” the Father is “the unbegotten,” which means that He exists without a cause and, therefore, is the ultimate Cause of all else. 

The Son is our god, but the Father is His god. God created all things through the Son. Since the Son was begotten” by the Father, which is understood to mean that He was born of the Being of the Father, He was not created but, nevertheless, subordinate to the Father.

The Holy Spirit is not a Person, but as a power; subject to the Son.

– END OF SUMMARY – 

Purpose of this article

The Metamorphosis of the Church

The fourth century was a remarkable period in which the church changed from being PERSECUTED to being the OFFICIAL STATE RELIGION of the Roman Empire. For all practical purposes, the church became part of the state and, as will be explained, the emperor became the head of the church. Adopting the character of the empire, the church changed from being persecuted to persecuting church leaders who do not accept the official church decrees.

Arian Controversy

Emperor Constantine standing before the bishops

In that fourth century, a huge controversy raged with respect to the NATURE OF CHRIST. The Nicene Creed—formulated in the year 325 at the city of Nicaea—described the Son as “true theos from true theos” and as of the “same substance” as the Father. Many today interpret these phrases as that the Son is EQUAL to the Father. The article on the Nicene Creed shows that this interpretation is wrong and that that Creed described the Son as subordinate to the Father.

After the creed was formulated in the year 325, for the next 50 years, the church was dominated by teachings in which the Son is SUBORDINATE to the Father. This Arian period was brought abruptly to an end when Theodosius became emperor in the year 380. He was an ardent supporter of Nicene Christology and, on ascending the throne, IMMEDIATELY declared Arianism to be illegal and Nicene Christology to be THE ONLY religion of the empire. He then replaced the Arian church leadership with Nicene leaders.

Purpose of this article

The purpose of this article is to analyze what Arianism believed in the fourth century. Some of the historical facts mentioned in this article are described in more detail in other articles.

Conflicting evidence in the Bible

To understand the war between Nicene Christology and Arianism, we must appreciate the seemingly conflicting evidence in the Bible about the nature of Christ. Many Bible statements describe Him as equal with the Father, but many others imply that He is subordinate to God, for example:

EQUAL SUBORDINATE
He “upholds all things by the word of His power” (Heb 1:3) has “life in Himself” (John 5:26) sent the Holy Spirit to His disciples (Luke 24:49), is “the first and the last” (Rev 1:17) and owns everything which the Father has (Matt 11:27). “All things have been created through Him” (Col 1:16) and “all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father” (John 5:23). In Him, all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form (Col 2:9). “At the name of Jesus, every knee will bow” (Phil 2:10). Only He knows the Father. (Matt 11:27) Only the Father knows the “day and hour” of His return (Matt 24:26). Everything which the Son has, He received from the Father, including to have “life in Himself” (John 5:22, 26). The Father sent Him and told Him what to say and do (John 7:16). The NT consistently makes a distinction between Jesus and God (e.g., Philemon 1:3). For example, Jesus is today at the right hand of God. The “one God” and “the only true God” is always the Father (1 Cor 8:6; 1 Tim 2:5; Eph 4:4-6; John 17:3). The Father is His God and He prayed to the Father. (Rev 3:12; John 17; Acts 7:56).

What Arius believed about Christ

Arius

The words Arian and Arianism are derived from the name of Arius (c. 250–336); a church leader who had significant influence at the beginning of the fourth century. His teachings initiated the Arian controversy and Emperor Constantine called the council at Nicaea specifically to denounce His teachings. 

We are not sure what Arius taught. After Nicaea in 325, the emperor gave orders that all of Arius’ books be destroyed and that all people who hide Arius’ writings, be killed. Very little of Arius’ writings survived, and much of what did survive are quotations selected for polemical purposes in the writings of his opponents. Reconstructing WHAT Arius actually taught, and—even more important—WHY, is, therefore, a formidable task. There is no certainty about the extent to which his teachings continued those of church fathers in previous centuries.

Letter to Eusebius

We have a brief statement of what Arius believed in a letter to the Arian archbishop of Constantinople; Eusebius of Nicomedia (died 341). He wrote as follows:

We say and believe …
that the Son is not unbegotten,
nor in any way part of the unbegotten;
and that he does not derive his subsistence from any matter;
but that by his own will and counsel
he has subsisted (existed) before time
and before ages as perfect as God,
only begotten and unchangeable,
and that before he was begotten, or created, or purposed, or established, he was not.
For he was not unbegotten.
We are persecuted because we say
that the Son has a beginning
but that God is without beginning.

(Theodoret: Arius’s Letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia, translated in Peters’ Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe, p. 41)

Brief reflections on Arius’ view

The Son is not unbegotten,
nor in any way part of the unbegotten.

Unbegotten” is how the ancients described the Being who exists without a cause (the Father). Since the Son is begotten, Arius argued that He is not part of that which exists without a cause. For Arius, only the Father is unbegotten.

He does not derive his subsistence from any matter.

ARIUS INTERPRETATION
NOT UNBEGOTTEN
The Son is not unbegotten, nor in any way part of the unbegotten.
Unbegotten” is how the ancients described the Being who exists without a cause. Since the Son is begotten, Arius reasoned that He is not part of that which exists without a cause. For Arius, only the Father is unbegotten. 
ONLY BEGOTTEN
He does not derive his subsistence from any matter.
The phrase “only begotten” identifies the Son as unique. There is no other like Him. “Begotten” indicates that His being came from the being of the Father. He was not created from other matter.
BEFORE TIME
By his own will and counsel he has subsisted before time and before age.
He existed as an independent Person with His own will; distinct from the will of God. He was begotten by God before time began.
PERFECT
as perfect as God … unchangeable
This shows the extremely high view which Arius had of the Son. Created beings change over time due to influences, but God and the Son are “unchangeable.”
HE WAS NOT.
Before he was begotten, or created, or purposed, or established, he was not. The Son has a beginning but God is without beginning.
Firstly, here, Arius indicates that he does not know what it means that the Son was begotten. Nevertheless, since He was is begotten, or created, or purposed, or established, He exists by the will of God (the Father) and “was not” before He was “begotten.”

Arius seems to contradict himself. Above, he wrote that the Son “subsisted before time.” But he also wrote that the Son “was not” before He was begotten and that the Son “has a beginning.” It is a pity that we do not have Arius’ book that he can explain himself. Below, I propose how these statements can be reconciled.

A time when the Son was not

In the fourth century, Athanasius was the arch-enemy of Arianism and the great advocate of the homoousian (Nicene) theology. He quoted Arius as saying:

“If the Father begat the Son,
then he who was begotten
had a beginning in existence,

and from this, it follows
there was a time when the Son was not.”

Today, this quote by Athanasius is quite famous and is still used to characterize Arius’ teaching. But Arius wrote to Eusebius—in the quote above—that the Son existed “before time.” This seems to contradict what Athanasius wrote. We do not know whether Arius really wrote “there was a time when the Son was not” or whether this was a straw man created by Athanasius.

Today, Trinitarians regard Athanasius of Alexandria as a hero who stood for ‘the truth’ when ‘the whole world’ was Arian. Athanasius is counted as one of the four great Eastern Doctors of the Church in the Catholic Church.

But in his day, he was a highly controversial character in his day. The church accused him of horrible crimes and exiled no less than five times. We are not able to judge either way today, but Athanasius was a prolific writer, and we can judge his spirit by his writings. For this purpose, listen to the following podcasts:

Assessing Athanasius and his Arguments
Athanasius’s On the Nicene Council

The Son had a beginning.

Eternal generation

In the Trinity doctrine today, the Son had no beginning but always existed with the Father. The Bible is clear that He is begotten by the Father but that is explained with the concept of eternal generation, namely that the Father always was the Father, that there never was a time that the Father was not the Father.

Arius, as quoted above, wrote that “the Son has a beginning but … God is without beginning.” But in the same statement, he wrote that the Son existed “before time and before ages.” Did Arius contradict himself? I wish we had Arius’ book to explain his own words but would like to propose the following explanation:

God created time. God is that which exists without a cause, and time exists because God exists. God, therefore, exists outside time, cannot be defined by time and is not subject to time. We cannot say that God existed ‘before time’, for the word “before” implies the existence of time, and there is no such thing as time before time. Therefore, I prefer to say that God exists ‘outside time’.

Since God created time, time had a beginning and is finite.

God created all things through the Son (e.g. 1 Col 8:6). Therefore, God created time through the Son. It follows that there never was a time when the Son did not exist. Arius, therefore, could validly write that the Son existed “BEFORE TIME.”

But, there exists an infinity beyond the boundaries of time. All the power and wisdom that we see reflected in this physical universe, comes out of that incomprehensible infinity beyond time, space and matter. In that infinity beyond time, Arius wrote, “THE SON HAS A BEGINNING.” But this is not a beginning in time, for there is no such thing as time in infinity.

This explains why Arius could both claim that the Son existed before time and had a beginning. If this was Arius’ thinking, he could not that written that “there was a time when the Son was not,” as Athanasius claimed.

Arianism evolved after Nicaea.

Forced unity

Under the stern supervision of the emperors, who demanded unity in the church to prevent a split in the empire, the fourth-century church fathers would not allow different views about Christ to co-exist within the church. The church’s view of Christ changed from time to time, but, nevertheless, it always formulated a view of Christ and, through persecution, forced all Christians to abide by the formal church doctrine.

Numerous synods

The fifty-year Arian period after Nicaea resulted in numerous synods, including at Serdica in 343, Sirmium in 358 and Rimini and Seleucia in 359. The pagan observer Ammianus Marcellinus commented sarcastically: “The highways were covered with galloping bishops.”

Numerous creeds

The best-known creed today is the Nicene Creed, but no fewer than fourteen further creeds were formulated between 340 and 360, depicting the Son as subordinate on the Father, e.g. the Long Lines Creed. Historian RPC Hanson lists twelve creeds that reflect the Homoian faith—one of the variants of Arianism—including the creeds of Sirmian (AD 357), Nice (Constantinople – 360), Akakius (359), Ulfilas (383), Eudoxius, Auxentius of Milan (364), Germinius, Palladius’ rule of faith (1988. The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God. Edinburgh: T&T Clark. pp. 558–559).

Arianism evolved.

During the fifty years between Constantine and Theodosius, Arianism was refined and nuanced, relative to what Arius believed. Consequently, although Arius’ views are important, it is far more important to understand what version of Arianism the church adopted after Arius’ views and the Nicene Creed were intensely debated in the decades following Nicaea.

The word “GOD” is ambiguous.

Before we discuss what Ulfilas wrote, we need to explain the difference between the word “God” and the words used in the New Testament:

Modern English

In modern languages, we differentiate between the words “god” and “God:”

When we use a word as a proper name, we capitalize the first letter. The word “God,” therefore, has a very specific usage: It is the PROPER NAME of one specific being; the One who exists without cause.

The word “god,” on the other hand, is a general category name used for all supernatural beings. It is even for human beings with super-human qualities.

Ancient Greek

The capital “G,” therefore, makes a huge difference. But, when the Bible was written, and also in the fourth century, there were no capital letters. Or, more precisely, the ancients wrote only in capital letters. The distinction between upper and lower case letters did not yet exist. According to the article on the timeline of writing in Western Europe, the ancients used Greek majuscule (capital letters only) from the 9th to the 3rd century BC. In the following centuries, up until the 12th century AD, they used the uncial script, which still was only capital letters. Greek minuscule was only used in later centuries.

Te Greek word theos

Since the word “God” is a name for one specific Being, the original New Testament does not contain any one word with the same meaning as “God.” The New Testament writers used the word theos, which is the same word that was used for the pantheon of Greek gods. The word theos, therefore, is equivalent in meaning to our modern word “god.”  The word theos was also used for beings other than the one true God, even for “the god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4) and for human judges (John 10:35). Therefore, by describing the Father and the Son as “god,” the Bible and the fourth-century writers only indicated that the Father and the Son are immortal beings; similar to the immortal Greek gods. Consequently, the word “god” does not elevate the Father or the Son above the pagan gods.

The word “God,” in the translations of the New Testament and other ancient Greek writings, therefore, is an INTERPRETATION. When the translator believes that theos refers to the One who exists without a cause, theos is rendered as “God.”  But when Paul wrote spoke about the theos of the pagan nations, the New Testament translates that as “god.” And when it translates theos, when it refers to Jesus, as “God,” it does that on the assumption of the Trinity doctrine.

True god

To indicate that the Unique Being is intended, the Bible writers added words such as “only,” or “true” or “one” to theos. But most often they simply added the definite article “the” to theos to indicate that the God of the Bible is intended. 

In the Nicene Creed, both the Father and the Son are described as “true god.” The Bible never identifies the Son as “true god.” In the Bible, the “true god” is always the Father.  For example:

You, the only true God, and
Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3)

You turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God,
and to wait for His Son from heaven” (I Thess 1:9-10).

So that we may know Him who is true;
and we are in Him who is true,
in His Son Jesus Christ.
This is the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20).

But then translators translate the Greek equivalent of “true god” as “true God.” Not only is this faulty translation, the word “true” in the phrase “true God” is SUPERFLUOUS, for there is only one “true God.”  Since “God” already indicates the only true god, “true theos” should be translated either as “true god” or as “God.” 

Ulfilas’ Christology

Germanic missionary – The Goth Ulfilas (c. 311–383) was ordained as bishop by the Arian Eusebius of Nicomedia and returned to his Gothic people to work as a missionary. He translated the New Testament into the Gothic language and is credited with the conversion of the Gothic peoples, which resulted in the wide-scale conversion of the Germanic peoples. 

Ulfilas’ Arianism – What he believed is perhaps a good reflection of the Arianism that was generally accepted in the church between Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381). He wrote:

I, Ulfila … believe in
only one God the Father,

the unbegotten and invisible,

and in his only-begotten Son,
our lord/master and God,
the designer and maker of all creation,
having none other like him.

Therefore, there is one God of all,
who is also God of our God;

and in one Holy Spirit,
the illuminating and sanctifying power …
Neither God nor lord/master,
but the faithful minister of Christ;
not equal, but subject and obedient in all things to the Son.

And I believe
the Son to be subject and obedient in all things
to God the Father

(Heather and Matthews. Goths in the Fourth Century. p. 143 –  Auxentius on Wulfila).

Discussion of Ulfilas’ Christology

The Father – Ultimate Cause of all else

Only one God

Ulfilas believed in “only one God,” who he identified as the Father.  Actually, this was the standard opening phrase of all ancient creeds. The Nicene Creed also starts as follows:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of all things visible and invisible
.”

But then it continues to perhaps contradict this opening phrase by adding that the Son is “true god from true god“.

The unbegotten

Ulfilas identified the Father as “the unbegotten.” Arius also mentioned “the unbegotten,” which is that which exists without a cause. That means that the Father is the ultimate Cause of all else.  

Invisible

Ulfilas added that the Father is invisible. This is also stated a number of times in the New Testament (e.g. Col 1:15). Certainly, in the past, God appeared to people (theophanies), but an appearance is vastly different from God Himself. An appearance does not contain God in His fullness. It is not possible for God in His fullness to be seen, for He exists outside this visible realm.

Only-begotten Son

Ulfilas also believed in:

His only-begotten Son,
our lord/master and God,
the designer and maker of all creation,
having none other like him
.”

Our God

In this translation of Ulfilas’ statement, the Son is “our … God,” but this is faulty translation. It should be rendered “our god,” with a small “g.”  As explained above, the Greek of the New Testament does not have a name for the God of the Bible. It uses theos; the common word for the pagan gods but added words such as “the” or “only” or “true” to identify “the only true god” (John 17:3). To say that the Son is “god” simply means that He is a immortal being, like the pagan gods. Consequently, Ulfilas followed up His description of the Son with the following explanation:

Therefore, there is one God of all,
who is also God of our God;

In this phrase, “our God” again refers to Jesus. This is similar to Hebrews 1:8-9, which also refers to Jesus as theos, but then says that the Father is His theos.

The phrases “only-begotten” and “none other like him” identify the Son as utterly unique. 

Maker of all creation

Ulfilas described Son as the “designer and maker of all creation.” If He made all things, presumably, He was not made Himself.  

Arius wrote that the Son was “begotten, or created, or purposed, or established.” In other words, Arius did not make a clear distinction between begotten and created. But after Nicaea, Arianism emphasized that the phrase only begotten” means that the Son was not created. See, for example, the Long Lines Creed.

Only-Begotten

Ulfilas described the Son as the “only-begotten Son” of the “only one God the Father, the unbegotten.” The word “begotten,” which means that the Father gave birth to the Son, implies that the Son came from the being or substance of the Father. “Only-begotten” means that He is the only being that ever was born of God. 

Because He was “begotten” of the being or substance of God, the Nicene Creed described the Son as homoousios with the Father. This word comes from homós (same) and ousía (being or essence) and means “same substance.” In Latin, it is consubstantial. In other words, the Nicene claimed that the Son is of the “same substance” as the Father.

In Arianism, this means that the Father and the Son have the “same substance,” just like we as people have the “same substance,” but remain different persons with different skills and capacities.

Trinitarian theology replaces the word “same” with “one” and understands homoousian as that the Father and Son have “one substance;” like three Persons with one body.

In his description of the Father and the Son, Ulfilas does not mention substance at all, which is a good thing, for that concept is not revealed in the Bible (Deut 29:29). It was an unfortunate addition to the Nicene Creed, probably due to the insistence of the emperor, who presided over the proceedings. (Listen to Kegan Chandler on the term “homoousios.”)

Subordinate

In Trinitarian theology, the Son is in all respects equal with the Father. In contrast, in Arianism, “begotten” means that the Son’s existence was caused by the Father, and that He is dependent on the Father, who alone is the uncaused Cause of all things. Arianism claims that the Bible reveals Him as subordinate to the Father; both before and after His existence as a human being. See the article – Subordinate.

The Father is God of our God.

What really sets Him apart from the pagan gods is not the title “god,” but that He is “the designer and maker of all creation.”

God, the Father – All instances of the word “God” in the quote from Ulfilas should be translated “god;” even when referring to the Father.  Ulfilas made a distinction between the Father and the Son and the pagan gods in HOW he described Him, namely as the “only one god” who is “god of all” and also “god of our god.” 

God of our God – As Ulfilas wrote, “there is one God of all, who is also GOD OF OUR GOD.”  In other words, the Father is the Son’s god.  The Bible similarly describes Jesus as “only-begotten god” (John 1:18) and “mighty god” (Isaiah 9:6); the Lord of the universe (1 Cor. 8:6), but the Father as Jesus’ “God” (e.g. Rev. 3:2, 12; Heb. 1:8-9; John 20:17).  Paul described the Father is the Head of Christ. 

Subordinate – Ulfilas closed by saying, “I believe the Son to be subject and obedient in all things to God the Father.” 

The Holy Spirit is not a person.

Subject and obedient – Ulfilas furthermore believed “in one Holy Spirit, the illuminating and sanctifying power … Neither God nor lord/master, but the faithful minister of Christ; not equal, but subject and obedient in all things to the Son.” That the Holy Spirit is “neither God nor lord” implies that Ulfilas did not think of the Holy Spirit as a Person, but as a power, and a power that is subject and obedient in all things to the Son.

Therefore, the Son is SUBORDINATE to the Father and the Holy Spirit is SUBORDINATE to the Son. 

No Trinity in the first four centuries

Ulfilas did not believe is the Trinity.  For him:

The Father alone was God. 
The Holy Spirit is not a Person.
There is no mention of three Persons in one Being.

It is often said that Arians do not believe in the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, which is true.  However, the concept of the Trinity, as we know it today, did not yet exist in Arius’ day. 

First 300 years – In the first three centuries, the church fathers did not think of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three Persons in one Being.  Tertullian did use the word “trinity,” but he used it to refer to a group of three distinct beings; not use in the sense of a single being. 

Nicene Creed – Neither does the Nicene Creed contain the Trinity concept, as a careful reading of that creed will show.  The purpose of that creed was to say that the Son is equal to the Father; not say that they are one Being; the same God.  It does say that they are homoousios (of the same substance), but that does not mean that they are one being.  We may argue that human beings are of the same substance, and that does not make us all one being. 

The Trinity doctrine was formulated later in the fourth century, perhaps by the Cappadocian Fathers, probably in response to the Arian criticism that the Nicene Creed creates the impression of two gods and can be accused of polytheism.

Three Forms of Arianism

In fact, as debates raged during the five decades after Nicaea, in an attempt to come up with a new formula, different forms of Arianism evolved. Three camps are identified by scholars among the opponents of the Nicene Creed:

Different Substance

One group, similar to Arius, maintained that the Son is of a different substance than the Father. They described the Son as unlike (anhomoios) the Father.

Similar Substance

The Homoiousios Christians (only an “i” added to “homoousios”) accepted the equality and co-eternality of the persons of the Trinity, as per the Nicene Creed, but rejected the Nicene term homoousios. They preferred the term homoiousios (similar substance). This is very close to the different substance view of the Arians. Therefore, they were called “semi-Arians” by their opponents. (See homoousia.)

No speculation about Substance

Homoian Arianism maintained that the Bible does not reveal whether the Son is of the same substance as the Father, and we, therefore, should not speculate about such things. They avoided the word ousia (substance) altogether and described the Son as homoios = like the Father. Although they avoided invoking the name of Arius, in large part they followed Arius’ teachings. RPC Hanson (The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God. Edinburgh: T&T Clark. pp. 557–559) lists twelve creeds that reflect the Homoian faith in the years 357 to 383.

None of these groups, therefore, adopted the Trinitarian approach of “one substance.”

In the fourth century, these differences were taken quite seriously and divided the church; similar to the denominations in Christianity we know today. Depending on the interpretation supported by Emperor Constantius, for example, wavered in his support between the first and the second party, while harshly persecuting the third.

Historians, unfortunately, categorize all three positions as Arianism, but there are important differences between these views.

 

Hebrews 1:8 refers to Jesus as “GOD.” Does this mean that He is God?

Summary

Hebrews 1:8 refers to Jesus as “GOD” but the next verse refers to the Father as His “GOD:”

“1:8 Of the Son He says,
YOUR THRONE, O GOD,
IS FOREVER AND EVER
1:9THEREFORE GOD, YOUR GOD,
HAS ANOINTED YOU WITH THE OIL OF GLADNESS ABOVE YOUR COMPANIONS.
” (NASB)

The reference to Jesus “GOD” in verse 8, for the following reasons, does not mean that Jesus is God in the modern sense of the word:

(1) Jesus is described as theos but that does not mean He is the Almighty.

Firstly, as discussed in the article on theos, there is no word in the original Greek that is exactly equivalent to the modern word “God:”

We use the word “God” for the Almighty; the one who exists without cause and who caused all others things to exist.

The word “God” in Hebrews 1:8 is translated from the Greek word theos but it has a much wider range of meanings. Originally, it was used by the Greeks for their gods, such as Zeus. When Greek became the lingua franca – the bridge or common language – in Europe during the centuries before Jesus was born, the Jews began to use this same word for YHVH (the God of the Old Testament). But theos also retained its much broader meaning. The New Testament, therefore, still uses theos for the gods of the nations (e.g., 1 Cor 8:5) and even for Satan (2 Cor 4:4).

Therefore, when the translator thinks that a specific instance of theos refers to God Almighty, it is translated as “God.” In other instances, it is translated as “god.” 

In the NASB, the word “GOD” is in all caps because it is a quote from the Old Testament. However, in other instances where theos refers to Jesus, for example John 20:28, it might be translated as “God,” indicating that Jesus is God Almighty. But that reflects the interpretation of the translator. It is an application of the Trinity doctrine; not proof of that doctrine.

If one understand Jesus as the Son of God, through whom God created all things, and who still upholds all things by the word of His power (Heb 1:2-3), but who received His existence from His Father, then references to Jesus as theos may be translated as “god,” with a lower “g.”

However, in a Christian context, the words “God” and “god” have assumed special meanings which one would not find outside the church, namely that “god” refers to a false god. For that reason, we do not want to translate theos, when it refers to Jesus, as “god.” Perhaps we should rather translate it as “Son of God.” But the important point remains that the readers must understand that, the fact that the Bible refers to Jesus as God, does not prove that He is the Almighty; the One who exists unconditionally.  

(2) God is Jesus’ God.

Secondly, “GOD” in the next verse (Heb 1:9) refers to the Father. In that verse, the phrase “GOD, YOUR GOD” means that Jesus has a God over Him. God is also Jesus’ God. We find this principle, that Jesus is God, in many other places in the Bible John 20:17; Heb 1:9; 2 Cor 11:31; Eph 1:3, 17; 1 Peter 1:3; Rev 1:6; 3:2, 12). If the Father is Jesus’ God, Christ is subordinate to the Father, which is contrary to the Trinity doctrine, in which they are co-equal. 

(3) The king is also called god.

Hebrews 1:8-9 is a quote from Psalm 45. That psalm refers to the king of Israel as “god.” Hebrews 1 refers to Jesus as “god” because it interprets the king in the psalm as a type of Christ and because the psalm refers to the king as “god.

The word that is translated “God” in Psalm 45 is elohim. As shown by the fact that Psalm 45 refers to the king as elohim, this word is similar to theos in that it is used both for the true God and for certain superior human beings. 

(4) Better than angels

A main purpose of Hebrews is to exalt Jesus. The author does this in a number of ways. For example, Hebrews says that the Son has become “much better than the angels” (Heb 1:4). If the writer of Hebrews thought that the Son is the Almighty God, while would the writer try so hard to show that Jesus is “better than the angels?” He could simply have stated that Jesus is God.

(5) Jesus is distinct from God.

Several times, Hebrews explicitly distinguishes, not only between the Father and the Son, but between “God” and “His Son.” For example:

God … has spoken to us in His Son” (Heb 1:1).

Jesus … has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2).

If only the Father is “God,” then Jesus is not “God.”

6. Jesus is subordinate to God

In several ways, Hebrews describes the Son as subordinate to God. For example, the Son “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb 1:3). The equality of the Father and the Son is the cornerstone of the Trinity doctrine. If the Son is subordinate to the Father, then the Trinity doctrine collapses.

Indications that Christ is God

The following are other aspects in Hebrews 1 that might be understood as saying that Jesus is God:

7. Only Begotten

Hebrews 1:5 quotes from Psalm 2, saying of Jesus, “you are my son, today I have begotten you.” 

A human son is of the same substance as the human father but we must not assume, since Jesus is the Only Begotten Son of God, that this means that Jesus is equal to the Father. He is called the Only Begotten Son of God to show that He has a very unique relationship with God AS FAR AS HIS ORIGIN IS CONCERNED. To describe Jesus as the “only begotten Son” is an attempt to explain something in human language which human minds cannot comprehend, for it is hidden in the mystery of the infinity.

8. Worship the Son

God commanded all angels to worship the Son (Heb 1:6). 

We must worship Jesus, for God created all things through His Only Begotten Son. The Son “upholds all things by the word of His power” (Heb 1:1-3; cf. John 1:1-3; Col 1:15-17).  In Him (Jesus) all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Col. 2:9). Everything that God does, He does through the Son.

However, the word that is translated as “worship” simply means to show honor. In the Bible, there are many examples where this Greek word is used to say that one person gives honor to another human being, such as to a king. Furthermore, since God had to command the angels to worship Jesus, Jesus is not the ultimate Source of all things.  The Son must be worshiped but He still is subordinate to the Father. 

Conclusion

That Jesus is called theos does not prove that He is God, for theos can also be translated as “god” with a small “g.”  But translators are Trinitarians, and therefore believe that Jesus is God. To translate theos as “God,” with a capital “G,” rather than with a small “g,” when it refers to Jesus, is an implementation of the Trinity doctrine; not proof of it.

This article touches on various aspects that are discussed in other articles to show that Jesus is distinct from and subordinate to the Father. See the full list of available articles at the end of this article.

 – END OF SUMMARY –

Purpose

Hebrews 1:8-9 refers to Jesus as “GOD:”

8 But of the Son He says,
“YOUR THRONE, O GOD, IS FOREVER AND EVER,
AND THE RIGHTEOUS SCEPTER
IS THE SCEPTER OF HIS KINGDOM.
9 “YOU HAVE LOVED RIGHTEOUSNESS AND HATED LAWLESSNESS;
THEREFORE GOD, YOUR GOD, HAS ANOINTED YOU …”

GOD” in verse 8 refers to Jesus. “GOD” in verse 9 refers to the Father: He is Jesus’ God.  Since Hebrews 1:8 refers to Jesus as “God,” the question in this article is whether this proves that He is God. 

All bold, underlining, UPPERCASE, font sizes, and italics in this article were added by myself.  Bible quotes are from the NASB.

For the following reasons, Hebrews 1:8-9 does not mean that Jesus is God in the modern sense of the word:

1. JESUS IS IDENTIFIED AS THEOS.

There is no word in the original Greek text that is exactly equivalent to the modern word “God:”

In modern English, we use the word “God,” to identify one specific Being; namely, the uncaused Cause of all things.  This word functions as A PROPER NAME FOR THE SUPREME BEING.

The word “God” in Hebrews 1:8 is translated from the Greek word theos, but this is the normal Greek word for the Greek gods, such as Zeus.  This word does not identify any specific being, but a CATEGORY OF BEINGS.  That category includes the true God of the Bible but also includes other beings.  For example, Satan is also called theos, namely “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4). 

Theos can be translated either as “god” with a lower case “g” or as “God.”  It depends on who it refers to. When the translator understands a specific instance of theos to refer to the God of the Bible, theos is translated as “God.” In other instances, it is translated as “god.” 

Therefore, whether to translate theos as “God” or as “god” depends on the translator’s interpretation. Translators render theos, when it refers to Jesus, as “God” with a capital “G” because they, generally, are Trinitarians.  If one does not assume the Trinity theory, the handful of references to Jesus as theos in the New Testament may also be translated as “god.”  The fact that Hebrews refers to Jesus as “God” is an implementation of the Trinity Doctrine; not proof there-of.

It is a form of collective circular reasoning: First, the Trinitarian translator capitalizes the “G.” Then the readers exclaim, SEE, it says “God!  Therefore, Jesus is God!”  For a further discussion, see – The Meanings of the Word THEOS.

2. JESUS HAS A GOD OVER HIM.

Verse 9, actually, proves that Jesus is not God, for it says to Jesus, “GOD, YOUR GOD, HAS ANOINTED YOU.”  In other words, Jesus has a God over Him.  God is also Jesus’ God.  This is similar to John 20.  That chapter also refers to Jesus as “God” (v17) but in the same chapter Jesus refers to God as His God:

I ascend to My Father and your Father,
and My God and your God” (John 20:17).

For a further discussion, see – Did Thomas call Jesus “my God” in John 20:28?

3. PSALM 45

Hebrews 1:8-9 quotes from Psalm 45:6-7. Psalm 45:1-2 reads:

1 … I address my verses TO THE KING
2 … GOD HAS BLESSED YOU forever

This makes a distinction between God and the king of Israel.  But verses 6 to 9 addresses the king of Israel as God:

6 YOUR THRONE, O GOD, IS FOREVER AND EVER …
7 You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
Therefore GOD, YOUR GOD, HAS ANOINTED You

9 Kings’ daughters are among Your noble ladies;
At Your right hand stands the queen.
” 

The mention of the king’s wives in verse 9 confirms that “God” in verse 6 refers to the king of Israel as God. The words, “GOD, YOUR GOD, has anointed You” means that the true God is also the God of the king of Israel.

Hebrews 1 refers to Jesus as “GOD” because it interprets the king of Psalm 45 as a symbol of (a type of) Christ and because the king is called “God” in Psalm 45.  This does not prove that Jesus is “God” in the modern sense of the word, for the word that is translated “God” in Psalm 45 is elohim and this word, similar to theos, is used for both the true God and for certain superior human beings. This is confirmed by the fact that Psalm 45 refers to the king as “god.”  Another example is in Exodus 7:1, where “The LORD said unto Moses, See, I have made you a god [elohim] to Pharaoh.” The NASB translates elohim about 250 times with a small case “g” “god” or “gods.

For more information, see the separate article on elohim.  Literally, it is a plural word (gods).  Strong’s defines elohim as “God” with a capital “G,” or “god.”   

INDICATIONS FROM THE CONTEXT IN HEBREWS 1

So far, we have discussed three aspects from verses 8 and 9, namely:

    • The word theos,
    • The fact that the Father is identified as Jesus’ God and
    • Psalm 45, which these verses quote.

The next three points are from the context of Hebrews 1:8-9 in Hebrews 1:

4. Better than angels

A primary purpose of Hebrews is to exalt Jesus.  The letter, for example, commences by saying that:

      • God appointed His Son as “heir of all things” (1:2).
      • Through the Son, God, “made the world” (1:2).
      • The Son “is … the exact representation of God’s nature” (1:3).
      • Jesus “upholds all things by the word of His power” (1:3).
      • The Son “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (1:3).
      • Christ became “much better than the angels” (1:4).

If the writer of Hebrews thought that the Son was God, then there would have been no need to try so hard to show that Jesus is “better than the angels.” He could simply have said that Jesus is God.

5. DISTINCT FROM GOD

Hebrews several times explicitly distinguishes between “God” and “His Son.” For example, it says that “God … has spoken to us in His Son” (1:1) and identifies “God” as “the Majesty on high” (1:3).  If the Son is distinct from God, then the Son is not God, if we use the word “God” in the way that the New Testament normally uses it.

6. SUBORDINATE TO GOD

In several ways, Hebrews describes the Son as subordinate to God. For example, the Son “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (1:3).  Other examples claim that God is the:

      • Original Owner, because He “appointed” His Son as the heir of all things (1:2).
      • Creator, for He made the world “through” the Son (1:2).
      • True glory, for the Son is the radiance of His glory (1:3).

The equality of the Father and the Son is the cornerstone of the Trinity doctrine. The entire remainder of the Trinity doctrine, such as that the Son has both a human and a divine nature, has been developed to reconcile this supposition with the Bible.  If the Son is subordinate to the Father, then the entire Trinity doctrine collapses.

So far, we have discussed six aspects:

    1. The word theos,
    2. The fact that the Father is identified as Jesus’ God,
    3. Psalm 45, which these verses quote,
    4. Hebrews tries very hard to prove that Jesus is better than the angels,
    5. Jesus is distinct from God, and
    6. He is subordinate to God.

The next two points are further aspects from the context in Hebrews 1 that might be interpreted to saying that Jesus is God:

7. TODAY I HAVE BEGOTTEN YOU

In verse 5, Hebrews 1 quotes from Psalm 2, saying of Jesus, “you are my son, today I have begotten you.”  We must not assume that this means that Jesus is equal to the Father, in the same way that a human son is of the same substance as the human father.  He is called the Only Begotten Son of God to reveal to us that He has a very unique relationship with God AS FAR AS HIS ORIGIN IS CONCERNED.  To describe Jesus as the “only begotten Son” attempts to explain something in human language which human minds cannot comprehend, for it is hidden in the mystery of the infinity.  He was not begotten as humans are.  We should not give a literal interpretation to this symbolic language. We should allow the Bible to interpret it for us.  For a further discussion, see Only Begotten Son of God.

8. WORSHIP THE SON.

According to Hebrews 1:6, God commanded all angels to worship the Son.  This is similar to Philippians 2:9-10, where we read,

God highly exalted Him (Jesus),
and bestowed on Him the name which is above EVERY NAME,
so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW …
and that every tongue will confess
THAT JESUS CHRIST IS LORD,
TO THE GLORY OF GOD THE FATHER.

We must worship Jesus, for God created all things through His Only Begotten Son. The Son still “upholds all things by the word of His power” (Heb. 1:1-3; cf. John 1:1-3; Col 1:15-17).  “In Him (Jesus) all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Col. 2:9).  Everything that God does, He does through the Son.

THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT JESUS IS GOD.

Firstly, in both Hebrews 1:6 and Philippians 2, it is God who commands all beings to worship Jesus.  Philippians 2, for example, says that “God exalted Him.” If Jesus was God, then there would not have been any need for God to COMMAND His creatures to worship Him.

Secondly, in Philippians, “every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”  In other words; they will NOT confess Jesus as God.

Thirdly, the word that is translated “worship” (the Greek word proskuneó) has a much wider meaning than the English word “worship.”  The word “worship” implies that the one who is worshiped is God, but there are many examples in the Bible where this Greek word is used to say that one person gives honor to another human being, such as to a king.  Proskuneó simply means to show honor.  Literally, it means “to kiss the ground when prostrating before a superior.”  For example, the three wise men came looking for the “King of the Jews” (Mt. 2:2).  When they found Him, “they fell to the ground and proskuneó Him” (v11); not because He is God, for they did not think of Him as God, but because He is “born King of the Jews.”

Fourthly, in Philippians 2, Jesus is worshiped “to the glory of God the Father.”  He is not worshiped independently from God, but “to the glory of God.”  To glorify the Son is to glorify the Father.  We worship the Father through the Son.

CONCLUSION

Even though the Son is worshiped, He is still subordinate to the Father.  For a further discussion, see Jesus is worshiped.

CONCLUSION OF THE WHOLE ARTICLE

That Jesus is called theos does not prove that He is God, for theos can also be translated either as “god” with a small “g.”  But translators, generally, are Trinitarians, and therefore believe that Jesus is God.  To translate theos as “God,” with a capital “G,” rather than with a small “g,” when it refers to Jesus, is an implementation of the Trinity doctrine; not proof of it.

For a further discussion, see, God is the Head of Christ.

TOPICS DISCUSSED IN THIS ARTICLE

      • Does Hebrews 1:8 prove that Jesus is God? (main topic)
      • The meanings of the Greek word theos (God or god)
      • Implications of the fact that Hebrews 1:8-9 quotes Psalm 45.
      • The meaning of the Hebrew word elohim (brief);
      • Jesus is distinct from God in Hebrews 1.
      • Jesus is subordinate to God in Hebrews 1.
      • Jesus is begotten by God (brief).
      • Jesus is worshiped in Hebrews 1 and in Philippians 2;
      • Why we must worship Jesus (brief).

Available Articles – Christology

SUMMARIES

SPECIFIC BIBLE BOOKS

SPECIFIC BIBLE PASSAGES

ORIGIN OF THE SON

SUBORDINATE

EQUALITY

JESUS IS CALLED GOD.

      • Overview – Overview of the verses that refer to Jesus as theos.
      • Theos – The meaning of theos – the word translated “God.”
      • John 1:18 – The original text of this verse is in dispute.
      • John 20:28 – Did Thomas say that Jesus is God?
      • John’s gospel – Discussion of theos in this gospel.
      • Romans 9:5 – The translation depends on punctuation.
      • Hebrews 1:8 – The next verse says that God is His theos.

JOHN 1:1

OTHER

If you are interested in Christology, I recommend Dale Tuggy’s podcasts, even though he understands Christ vastly different from me.