What did the Ante-Nicene Church Fathers Believe About Jesus?

بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْم

What did the Ante-Nicene Church Fathers Believe About Jesus?

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“…but of His Son the Master said thus, Thou art My Son, I this day have begotten thee. Ask of Me, and I will give Thee the Gentiles for Thine inheritance, and the ends of the earth for Thy possession.”[1]

Nicaea_icon
Figure 1: An “icon” depicting the emperor Constantine and bishops of the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. Ironically, the “creed” they are holding is from the Council of Constantinople in 381 CE. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nicaea_icon.jpg.

The “Ante-Nicene” church fathers were the leaders of the growing Christian community in the centuries leading up to the famous Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. Some Trinitarian Christians claim that these pivotal figures in the history of Christianity were “orthodox” Trinitarians themselves and believed that Jesus (peace be upon him) was both “God” and man and a “co-equal” and “co-eternal” person of the trinity. But what does the evidence show? Did the Ante-Nicene fathers all believe that Jesus was “divine” or just a man, or both? Did they all believe that Jesus was “co-equal” with the “Father” or merely “second” to him? In this article, we will examine the evidence from the extant writings of the fathers, starting with Clement of Rome and ending with Eusebius of Caesarea (the latter attended the Council of Nicaea). The evidence presented will demonstrate that the fathers were not “orthodox” Christians. In fact, they had a variety of beliefs regarding Jesus, and some could even be accused of holding “heretical” beliefs.

The Ante-Nicene Fathers: From Clement of Rome to Eusebius of Caesarea

  • Clement of Rome (c. 95/96 CE)
Clement I
Figure 2: Clement of Rome. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Clemens_Romanus.jpg.

In an epistle to the Corinthians, known as 1 Clement (2 Clement is not considered to be by the same person),[2] Clement discussed many issues facing the young church. Of course, theology was one of them. While Clement referred to Jesus as the “Son” (1 Clement 36:4), the late scholar Geza Vermes compared this to the “Pauline and deutero-Pauline phraseology”, in that it does not mean that Jesus was “God” or “coequal” with Him.[3]

Rather, according to Vermes, Clement’s Jesus was “inferior” to God. Clement’s God was the “Master” who “speaks about his ‘Son’ of not quite the same status…”[4] This can be seen in 1 Clement 36:4, where Clement differentiates between the “Master” (God) and the “Son” (Jesus):

“…but of His Son the Master said thus, Thou art My Son, I this day have begotten thee. Ask of Me, and I will give Thee the Gentiles for Thine inheritance, and the ends of the earth for Thy possession.”

Per Vermes, Clement’s theology went “beyond the Didache” (which regarded Jesus as a mere “servant” [pais] of God) and was similar to Paul in seeing Jesus as the “son of God without any further specification”.[5]

  • Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110 CE)
Ignatius
Figure 3: Ignatius of Antioch. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hosios_Loukas_(south_west_chapel,_south_side)_-_Ignatios.jpg.

According to Vermes, Ignatius’ letters “were the first to declare the divinity of Jesus…in plain words as well as in images.”[6] Jesus was referred to as “our God” and existing “with the Father from before the ages”.[7] Also, while Ignatius mentioned the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together, Vermes noted that “no theological reflection was attached to this imagery”.[8] In other words, Ignatius did not develop the theology of the trinity. As Vermes puts it, it doesn’t seem as if “these changes were actually thought through”.[9]

Nevertheless, Ignatius did seem to distinguish between God and Jesus and made no attempt to reconcile referring to both as “God”. For example, in his Letter to the Ephesians, he wrote:

“But our Physician is the only true God, the unbegotten and unapproachable, the Lord of all, the Father and Begetter of the only-begotten Son. We have also as a Physician the Lord our God, Jesus the Christ, the only-begotten Son and Word, before time began, but who afterwards became also man, of Mary the virgin.”[10]

  • Polycarp (d. 155/156 CE)
Polycarp
Figure 4: Polycarp of Smyrna. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Burghers_michael_saintpolycarp.jpg.

According to Vermes, Polycarp did not offer anything “original” in “the domain of Christology”. He did refer to Jesus as “Savior”, “eternal Priest”, and “Son of God”.[11] However, in the “Martyrdom of Polycarp” (obviously written after his death), Jesus was still referred to as “Servant” (pais), just like in the Didache.[12]

  • Epistle to Diognetus (c. 150–200 CE)

This anonymous letter identified Jesus, without directly naming him, as the “Demiurge” or “Craftsman”, through whom everything was created, echoing the Logos of the Gospel of John. The term was borrowed from Philo of Alexandria and Platonism. The same being is referred to as “Servant” and “Son of God” who was sent by God. However, God sent him as a “king” and “as God”.[13]

  • Justin Martyr (d. 165 CE)
Justin Martyr
Figure 5: Justin Martyr. Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/8d/Justin_Martyr.jpg/220px-Justin_Martyr.jpg

In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin attempted to show that Jesus was a divine being. However, as Vermes explains, Justin spoke of Jesus as “another God” besides God the Father and saw him “as being not quite the same standing as the Creator…”[14] Despite this, Justin would have fervently denied being a polytheist. Nevertheless, in the First Apology, he put Jesus in “second place” to God, while the “prophetic spirit” was in “the third” place:

“…and that we reasonably worship Him, having learned that He is the Son of the true God Himself, and holding Him in the second place, and the prophetic Spirit in the third…”[15]

Vermes rightly notes that even if this was taken to be a “trinitarian concept”, it is clearly a subordinationist statement (i.e., the “persons” were NOT “co-equal”).[16] Subordinationism is defined as:

“[t]he doctrine that in essence and status the Son is inferior to the Father, or the Spirit is inferior to the Father and the Son.”[17]

Vermes also notes some other “peculiar” and “unorthodox” beliefs that Justin Martyr held. One such belief was that the “divine Sonship of Christ” was derived from
“his wisdom rather than from his being God’s specially begotten Offspring”.[18] Another belief was in the “self-generation of the Logos in a virgin”.[19]

  • Melito of Sardis (d. late 2nd century)
Melito
Figure 6: Melito of Sardis. Source: https://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/wp-content/authors/Melito-93.jpg

The bishop of Sardis believed in the simultaneous divinity and humanity of Jesus, who was prophesied in the Old Testament. Melito also believed that the “Son” was “existent and active from before the start of the creation” and was also “responsible for the making of the heavens, the earth and humanity”.[20]

  • Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130–200 CE)
Irenaeus
Figure 7: Irenaeus of Lyons. Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/13/Saint_Irenaeus.jpg.

Irenaeus’ Jesus was “Son of God” and the “incarnate Word/Logos” but also as a human. Ironically, Irenaeus, the “heresy hunter”, himself seemed to have a “heretical idea, namely that in the incarnate Christ two persons, a divine and a human, were active”.[21] Thus, Irenaeus was an early proponent of what later became known as “Nestorianism”, the “heretical view in effect dividing Christ into two persons, divine and human”.[22]

  • Tertullian (c. 160–222 CE)
Tertullian
Figure 8: Tertullian. Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/e/e9/Tertullian.jpg/220px-Tertullian.jpg.

For Tertullian, Jesus was “completely divine” and “completely human”. According to Vermes, he also “prefigured” the councils of Nicaea (by affirming the divinity of Christ), Ephesus (believing that Jesus “shared” divine “substance” with the Father), and Chalcedon (believing that Jesus had two natures).[23]

However, Tertullian did not believe in a “co-equal” trinity of persons. As Vermes puts it, “there existed a difference of degree between the persons of the divine Triad.”[24] Tertullian also did not believe that the son was “co-eternal” with the Father. This is clearly stated in a passage from Against Hermogenes:

“There was a time when neither sin, nor the Son co-existed with the Deity. Sin made God into a judge, and the Son made him into a Father…Just as he became Father through the Son and judge through sin, so God also became Lord by means of the creatures he had made in order to serve him.”[25]

Also, like Justin Martyr, Tertullian regarded the “Son” as “second to the Father”, thereby admitting to a subordinationist position.[26]

  • Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–215 CE)
Clement of Alexandria
Figure 9: Clement of Alexandria. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Clement_alexandrin.jpg.

For Clement, the “Son” was the “Father’s face, being the revealer…”, and similar to Justin Martyr, he believed that the Logos was the cause of “his own incarnation”.[27]

  • Origen (c. 185–254 CE)
Origen
Figure 10: Origen. Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/20/Origen.jpg/220px-Origen.jpg.

One of the most well-known theologians of early Christianity, Origen believed that the Logos/“Son” was “preexistent”. However, he insisted that only the Father “was fully entitled to be called ‘the God’ (ho theos)” and that the “Son”, who is called “God” (theos) was the “recipient of divinity from the Father”.[28] This confusing distinction was made by Origen in his Commentary on John (emphasis ours):

“God on the one hand is Very God (Autotheos, God of Himself); and so the Saviour says in His prayer to the Father, “That they may know Thee the only true God; “but that all beyond the Very God is made God by participation in His divinity, and is not to be called simply God (with the article), but rather God (without article). And thus the first-born of all creation, who is the first to be with God, and to attract to Himself divinity, is a being of more exalted rank than the other gods beside Him, of whom God is the God, as it is written, “The God of gods, the Lord, hath spoken and called the earth.” It was by the offices of the first-born that they became gods, for He drew from God in generous measure that they should be made gods, and He communicated it to them according to His own bounty. The true God, then, is “The God,” and those who are formed after Him are gods, images, as it were, of Him the prototype. But the archetypal image, again, of all these images is the Word of God, who was in the beginning, and who by being with God is at all times God, not possessing that of Himself, but by His being with the Father, and not continuing to be God, if we should think of this, except by remaining always in uninterrupted contemplation of the depths of the Father.”[29]

Also, to Origen, both the “Father” and “Son” were “almighty” and “great”, but the “Son” essentially received these traits from the Father. In fact, the Father was “greater” than the “Son”. As Vermes states, Origen had a “subordinationist understanding”, like “all his precursors”.[30] In fact, Origen referred to the “Son” as the “second God” (deuteros Theos), while also explicitly denying that there are “two Gods”.[31]

As for the “Holy Spirit”, Origen was unsure whether it was “begotten and could be called Son of God”.[32] What he was sure about was that “the Father was the source of the Son and the Spirit”.[33]

  • Eusebius of Caesarea
Eusebius of Caesarea
Figure 11: Eusebius of Caesarea. Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/ba/Eusebius_of_Caesarea.jpg/220px-Eusebius_of_Caesarea.jpg.

Like his teacher Origen, Eusebius was also a subordinationist. Per Vermes, he was “unwilling to place Father and Son on an equal footing in the divine hierarchy”.[34] He even avoided using the word “consubstantial” in his writings, even after the Council of Nicaea. Rather, to Eusebius, the “Son” was the “servant” (pais) of the Father and a “second God” who was “subject to the dominating Lord, God the Father”.[35]

Nor did Eusebius believe that the “Son” was “co-eternal” with the Father. Contrary to Origen, Eusebius:

“…assigned the Son’s coming into being as a single act of the Father’s will rather than to an eternal, continuous and necessary begetting, inherent to the nature of the Father. In his mind, the birth of the Son was a unique event, not a perpetually lasting process.”[36]

Perhaps it was for these beliefs that Eusebius was even excommunicated before the Council of Nicaea, though Constantine intervened and canceled the excommunication.[37] It also appears that Eusebius did not whole-heartedly accept the Nicene Creed, since he did it “for the sake of peace”.[38]

Conclusion

            In this article, we have seen evidence that the ante-Nicene fathers displayed a shocking lack of uniformity in their beliefs about Jesus (peace be upon him), especially in light of the later Nicene creed. Most of the church fathers were in one way or another subordinationists. The term “second God” turns up again and again, though the same fathers would vehemently deny that they were polytheists. They were also clearly not what modern Christians would call “orthodox Trinitarians”. While a primitive belief in a “divine triad” was postulated by some, it was not elucidated and did not conform to the later Nicene Creed. For example. Tertullian, who probably came the closest to postulating “orthodox” Christian theology, nevertheless still did not believe in the “co-eternality” of the “Son”.

It also seemed as if many of the fathers were confused as to what they should even believe. Origen, for example, admitted that he was uncertain if the “Holy Spirit” had been “begotten” like the “Son”. This sort of confusion reigned until the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, but even that was not the end of it. Arianism, the belief that Christ was the “highest of the created beings”,[39] continued to persist for centuries, even after it was outlawed in 381 CE by Theodosius I.[40]

The questions to ask are: why was there such confusion? Why didn’t the ante-Nicene fathers have such disparate beliefs? Why did it take a council, in which the emperor Constantine’s political presence may have forced many of the congregants to sign their names (as Eusebius did “for the sake of peace”), to finally explain what Christians should believe? These are uncomfortable questions that most modern Christians are not willing to even ask, as they have been led to believe that the fathers were in agreement on a uniform theology. The evidence shows the exact opposite.

And Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) knows best!


[1] Clement of Rome, 1 Clement 36:4, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/1clement-lightfoot.html.

[2] While a second “epistle” has been attributed to Clement, the late Geza Vermes stated that it was not written by the same person as 1 Clement. And while this “epistle” has a “high Christology” and Jesus’ divinity is hinted at, there are no trinitarian allusions. Vermes notes only a “single doxology” at the end of the document, in which God is the object of praise, and no mention is made of the son and the holy spirit (Geza Vermes, Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30–325 [London, England: Penguin Books, 2012], p. 165).

[3] Ibid., p. 162.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p. 170.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., p. 171.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians, chapter 7, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/ignatius-ephesians-longer.html.

[11] Vermes, op. cit., p. 172.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., p. 175.

[14] Ibid., p. 184.

[15] Justin Martyr, First Apology, chapter 13, http://earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-firstapology.html.

[16] Vermes, op. cit., pp. 188-189.

[17] Millard J. Erickson, The Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology, Revised Edition (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2001), p. 192.

[18] Vermes, op. cit., p. 189.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., p. 192.

On a side note, Melito evidently wanted to establish the canon of the Old Testament. His list of accepted books did not contain the book of Esther (Ibid., p. 189).

[21] Ibid., p. 196.

[22] Erickson, op. cit., p. 135.

[23] Vermes, op. cit., p. 207.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Against Hermogenes 3, as cited in Vermes, op. cit., p. 207.

 [26] Tertullian, Against Praxeas 7, http://earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian17.html.

[27] Vermes, op. cit., p. 213.

[28] Ibid., p. 220.

[29] Origen, Commentary on John 2, http://earlychristianwritings.com/text/origen-john2.html.

[30] Vermes, op. cit., p. 221.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid., p. 224.

[35] Ibid., pp. 224-225.

[36] Ibid., p. 225.

[37] Ibid., p. 229.

[38] Ibid., p. 233.

[39] Erickson, op. cit., p. 16.

[40] Vermes, op. cit., p. 234.

10 thoughts on “What did the Ante-Nicene Church Fathers Believe About Jesus?

  1. Fools,Chinese Japanese, South Korea Australia, Canada and US come to Europe to commission their industries and factories, while Muslims come to
    Europe to commission Mosques and Refugees camps., buy and beg for help.
    2 years ago, Turkish president Erdoğan, after begging German investors to come to Turkish to invest, he drove straight to Koln to commission the biggest Mosque in Europe.
    During press conference, he was asked does Turkish who are running away from Turkey for better life , need Golden Mosque ?. Same question was possed to Moroccan King , who came to Germany to borrow money to build Mosque.
    Even you bloggers, why can you go back to your country?. Fools , the sane World are busy thinking about next technology while Muslims are busy promoting a cheap lying, hypocrite, deceptionist, corrupt, terrorist, child Abuser , murderous prophet Muhammad.
    A common Thief . A proven gangstar, who took 5% and the best Bounty in every bedouins rad.
    Aren’t you murderous Muslims ashamed of Muslim Refugees, begging to be recognised as a human beings?.
    4 in every 5 Refugees are murderous Muslims ☪️ 🙄.
    When will you Muslims debate about factories and industry in your Blogs?.
    Every where in the world, you will see Muslim beggars., why?.
    When will murderous Muslims bloggers talk about inovations in their blogs?.
    Life is a little bit better than death in every Muslim Enclaves.
    Muslims think people are laughing with them, no they are just laughing at you.
    Go to Nigeria millions of Muslims are basically leaving in the Southern streets, no Education, no skill at all , yet Muslims are the rulers.
    Go to the north, more than 10 million Muslims kids are out of school, millions are leaving in Refugee and IDP camps with absolutely no future.
    The world is sick and tired of 100billion as you claimed but 900billion are beggars and consumers.
    No disrespect meant just the truth.

    Like

  2. stewjo004

    @ Rambling Randy

    God, you’re dumb down the line here:

    1. “Chinese Japanese, South Korea Australia, Canada and US come to Europe to commission their industries and factories, while Muslims come to Europe to commission Mosques and Refugees camps.”

    The first point is there is a difference between ethnic groups and religious ones. “Muslim” does not equal Middle Eastern and guess what many Muslims such as myself are born in the West and have no foreign relatives whatsoever (gasp!). ALL of these countries have Muslims dumb@$$ and I guarantee I make more money than you. (PS there isn’t anything in Europe barring Germany who’s basically holding up the whole EU. Its full of old, outdated sh!t and is basically just some tourist attractions of ” this was really nice in the year of our Lord…”. You guys (I’m assuming you’re a Brit) haven’t been relevant in almost 100 years when you had you’re little claim to fame on the speck of human history and have otherwise just been backwater hellholes)

    2. “2 years ago, Turkish president Erdoğan, after begging German investors to come to Turkish to invest, he drove straight to Koln to commission the biggest Mosque in Europe.”

    I hope to God you’re not referring to the Cologne Central Mosque in amazingly Germany. As he did not “commission” anything about it, he simply “inaugurated” nit. Again I know those were probably too big of words for you so you can try and Google them and come back. Also, ALL countries petition foreign investors hence you’re first statement about Chinese, Australian etc . coming to Europe. That’s not “begging” that’s “selling” (again please refer to Google for definitions)

    3. “Even you bloggers, why can you go back to your country?”

    Because the vast majority of us here are born and raised here dumb@$$ and the other ones are in their countries? My turn for a question, how many times did your mother poke you in the “soft spot” on your head when you were a baby?

    4. I would ask you to back up all these claims you made but you clearly can’t even a form a proper coherent thought. You said all that about Prophet Muhammad(saw) but still, at the end of the day, he’s considered one of the most influential people who ever lived while you’ll more than likely be forgotten in a nursing home by your kids as the dementia forms into full-blown Alzheimer’s.

    5. “4 in every 5 Refugees are murderous Muslims…”
    Care to quote a source because as you know 7 out of 10 statistics are made up.

    6. “Every where in the world, you will see Muslim beggars., why?.”

    Because Muslims are approx 1/4th the world population and poor people live everywhere?

    7. “Muslims think people are laughing with them, no they are just laughing at you.”

    Again care to quote a source?

    8. “Go to Nigeria…yet Muslims are the rulers.”
    First Nigeria has nice stuff. Next, the rulers are not just Muslim they are a family that is mixed with Muslims and Christians. Muslims tend to rule the North while the Christians tend to rule the South but generally speaking they don’t really “clash” all like that.

    9. “The world is sick and tired of 100billion as you claimed but 900billion are beggars and consumers.”
    When did any of this get said? Also majority of the world are consumers or beggars that has nothing to do with religion wth are you talking about?

    Long story short you’re a retard from some poor European country that’s sad that it’s getting phased out of existence because nobody gives a sh!t about it (hence why you’re speaking English) No disrespect meant just the truth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Johan

      Also,these countries are poor because of resource extraction and unequal exchange by the west.I saw a scientific paper that said 1/3 of the western economy is directly based on the labor of the global south.

      Liked by 2 people

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