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The Father, the Son, and the Spirit

In the Post-Apostolic Church: Part One

By Gary F. Zeolla

How did Christians immediately after the time of the apostles explain the relationship of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit? What did they believe about the nature of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit? This two-part article will study various documents of the post-apostolic Church to answer these vital questions.

Ignatius (d.117 AD)

Ignatius was a disciple of the apostle John. In 117 AD he was led from Antioch to Rome to be martyred for his faith. Along the way, he wrote seven letters - six were addressed to various churches, the seventh to Polycarp, another disciple of John (Lightfoot, p.97). In these letters, he refers to Jesus as "God" twelve times.

The following is the most important of these references, "There is one only Physician, of flesh and of spirit, generate and ingenerate, GOD in man, true Life in death, Son of Mary and Son of God, first passible and then impassible, Jesus Christ our Lord" (Lightfoot, p.139).

For clarification, passible means, "Capable of suffering" and impassible, "Not subject to suffering" (American, pp.907, 504). Also, "generate and ingenerate" (Greek, gennetos kai agennetos) can also be translated "created and uncreated" (Stevenson, p.13). Using these simpler terms, Ignatius' statement will be diagrammed.

     There is one only Physician

    of spirit      of flesh
true Life      
       Son of God      Son of Mary
not subject to suffering      capable of suffering

    Jesus Christ our Lord

So Ignatius apparently believed Jesus was both GOD AND MAN. And these ideas he received from his mentor, the apostle John (see John 1:1,14; 4:6; 5:18; 8:40; 11:33-35; 12:27; 20:28; 1John 1:1-3; 4:1-3; 5:20; 2John 7). Ignatius further believed Jesus retained His full humanity even after His death and resurrection.

Ignatius wrote in reference to Jesus' crucifixion:
For He suffered all these things for our sakes (that we might be saved); and HE SUFFERED TRULY, as HE ALSO RAISED HIMSELF TRULY; not as certain unbelievers say, that He suffered in semblance .... For I know and believe that HE WAS IN THE FLESH EVEN AFTER THE RESURRECTION (Lightfoot, p.157; Luke 24:36-45; John 2:18-22; 19:28-35; 20:19-28).

"On the Martyrdom of Polycarp" (155 AD)

In 155 AD, Polycarp was burned at the stake for being a Christian. The details of his martyrdom were recorded in a work known as, "On the Martyrdom of Polycarp." This document was very popular in the early Church. As such, it probably reflected the beliefs of many Christians of the time (Lightfoot, pp.185-187).

The writer first recounts the story of Polycarp's arrest and conviction. He then quotes Polycarp's somewhat lengthy prayer spoken after being tied to the stake.

Polycarp ends this prayer with the following words to God the Father:
I praise Thee, I bless Thee, I glorify Thee, through the eternal and heavenly High-Priest, JESUS CHRIST, They beloved Son, through whom WITH HIM AND THE HOLY SPIRIT BE GLORY both now and ever and for the ages to come. Amen. (Lightfoot, p.208; Rev 5:13).

After this prayer, the author records what happened when the executioners attempted to burn Polycarp - the flames made a wall around Polycarp, but did not touch his body! So an executioner had to stab him in order to kill him. When his blood came forth, it extinguished the flames! The writer declared, "And all the multitude marveled that there should be so great a difference between the unbelievers and the elect" (Lightfoot, p.208).

CrownThe narrative of this document ends with the following:
Now the blessed Polycarp was martyred on the second day of the first part of the month of Xanthicus .... in the reign of THE ETERNAL KING JESUS CHRIST. TO WHOM BE THE GLORY, honour, greatness, and eternal throne, from generation to generation (cp. Rev 5:8-12).

The document ends with the writer declaring it is his hope:
... that THE LORD JESUS CHRIST may gather me also with His elect into His heavenly kingdom; TO WHOM BE THE GLORY WITH THE FATHER AND THE HOLY SPIRIT for ever and ever. Amen (Lightfoot, p.210; John 17:1-5; Rev 21:22,23; 22:3-5).

So throughout this document, both Polycarp and the writer ascribe glory to the Father, the Son, AND the Holy Spirit. If Jesus was believed to be of inferior nature to the Father, would they have combined praise to both together? If the Spirit was believed to be just "God's active force" (as Jehovah's Witnesses teach), would it have made sense for them to have ascribed glory to IT along with the Father and Son?

Justin Martyr (c.100-165 AD)

Justin had been a philosopher until he, "met a venerable old Christian. This humble Christian shook his confidence in human wisdom and pointed him to the Hebrew Prophets." After his conversion he, "devoted himself wholeheartedly to the vindication and spread of the Christian religion." As his surname implies, Justin, like Ignatius and Polycarp, became a martyr for his faith in Christ (Moyer, p.220).

One of Justin's most important writings is now titled, The First Apology of Justin Martyr. In this work, he explains the early Christian's attitude towards the three Members of the Godhead.

He first declares:
We worship the Maker of the universe." He then explains that Christians do not believe they need to offer blood sacrifices to God to be accepted by Him. Instead, "We petition Him that, after we die, we might be resurrected to an incorruptible life, THROUGH FAITH IN HIM.

Justin then explains how Christians know they are saved by faith, not works:
The Person who taught us these things is none other than JESUS CHRIST Himself, who was brought into the world for this very purpose .... It is only reasonable that WE WORSHIP HIM, since we have learned He is the very Son of the true God Himself." So Justin tells us the early Christians worshipped Jesus (see Matt 28:9).

Justin now explains their attitude towards the three members of the Godhead:
WE HOLD HIM (JESUS) IN THE SECOND PLACE AND THE PROPHETIC SPIRIT IN THE THIRD. We realize that you think us insane to give a crucified Man a place second to the unchangeable and eternal God, the Creator of all. But that's because you do not discern the mystery of these things. However, I will make it plain to you, and I only ask that you pay attention to what I am about to tell you (Dods, pp.98, 99).

Before looking at what Justin says about Jesus here, the statement about the Spirit needs to be noted. If the Spirit was believed to be just a force, how could IT be given a "place" behind Jesus? (compare Matt 28:19; 2Cor 13:14).

But what does Justin mean by Jesus being "second" to God? Before jumping to any conclusions, it is important to do what Justin says to do, "pay attention to what I am about to tell you."

In the next several pages, Justin explains how demons have tried to mislead the Greeks and Romans through pagan mythology. He then begins a discussion about how the Jews are even confused in their beliefs about God.

He states, "The Jews still teach that the nameless God spoke directly to Moses." They have this misconception, "Because the Jews neither know the Father nor His Son ..." (Matt 11:27; John 8:19).

Moses and burning bushJustin next explains who really spoke to Moses, "THE ANGEL OF GOD SPOKE TO MOSES in a flame of fire out of the bush SAYING "I AM THAT I AM, THE GOD OF ABRAHAM, the God of Isaac, the God of your Fathers'" (see Exod 3:1-6,14).

For Justin, "The Angel of God" is also known as "the Logos of God" or "God's Son." So, according to this Church Father, it was the Son who spoke out of the burning bush. And be sure to note the words attributed to Jesus, "I AM THAT I AM!" There is no stronger ascription of Deity possible.

Also, the words said to have been spoken by the Son from Exodus 3:6,14, in their original contexts, were spoken by the LORD (Jehovah). Thus, Justin clearly believed and taught Jesus is Jehovah!

Justin further states:
Those who think the Son is the Father are shown never to have really been acquainted with the Father. Nor do they known that the Father of the universe has a Son, who - since He is THE FIRST-BEGOTTEN LOGOS OF GOD - IS TRUE DEITY (Ps 2:7; Prov 30:4; Col 2:9; above quotes from Dods, pp.105, 106).

So - even though Jesus is in some way "in second place" - there is no doubt Justin believed in the full Deity of Jesus Christ. Also , he believed there is a distinction between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit (Matt 3:16,17; John 8:17,18).

Irenaeus (120-203 AD)

Irenaeus was a pupil of Polycarp. And remember, Polycarp was a disciple of the apostle John. Like Justin, Irenaeus was a strong defender of the Christian faith. He also taught many similar ideas to Justin's. This can be seen in his work, Against All Heresies.

Irenaeus opens this book with a general discussion of God and the creation of the universe. He states that God created all things, that there is only one God, and that nothing is above this one God (Bush, pp.67-70; Gen 1:1; Exod 8:10; Isa 43:10).

Irenaeus then writes:
He (God) formed all things by His Word that NEVER WEARIES. For this is a peculiarity of the pre-eminence of God, not to stand in need of other instruments for the creation of those things which are summoned into existence. His own Word is both suitable and sufficient for the formation of all things... (Bush, p.71).

There are couple of important points that should not be missed here. First, Irenaeus says the Word [i.e. Jesus] "never wearies." This is an attribute God (see Isa 40:28).

Second, Irenaeus teaches, "all things" were formed by the Word; so the Word could not have been one of the things which were formed (John 1:1-3; Col 1:16,17).

Irenaeus ends his discussion on the creation by quoting Genesis 1:1 and commenting, "But neither gods nor angels had any share in the work" (Bush, p.71). Thus, since God created through the Son, Jesus cannot be "a god" or just an angel (Isa 44:24; 48:12,13; Heb 1:1-14).

Near the end of the book, Irenaeus quotes Genesis 19:24, "Then the LORD rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah fire and brimstone from the LORD out of heaven." He then comments, "For it here points out THE SON WHO HAD BEEN TALKING WITH ABRAHAM, had received power to judge the Sodomites for their wickedness."

But Genesis 18 records conversations between the LORD (Jehovah) and Abraham. Also, Genesis 19:24 states Jehovah destroyed Sodom but Irenaeus says the Son did.

So, like Justin, Irenaeus must have believed Jesus is Jehovah! Even further, a careful reading of Genesis 19:24 will show there are TWO Persons named Jehovah! ("the LORD ... from the LORD" - see also Isa 48:16; Zech 2:6-3:2).

Irenaeus then quotes Psalm 45:6,7, "Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever; the scepter of Thy kingdom is a right scepter. Thou hast loved righteousness and hated iniquity; therefore God, Thy God, has anointed Thee."

He then comments, "For the Spirit designates BOTH of them BY THE NAME OF GOD - both Him who is anointed as Son, and Him who does anoint, that is, the Father." So now Irenaeus says there are two Persons called "God."Earth

Psalm 50:1 is next quoted, "The GOD of gods, the LORD hath spoken, and hath called the earth." Then Irenaeus asks the question, "Who is meant by God?" He then quotes Psalm 50:3 ("God shall come openly, our God shall not keep silent.") and answers his own question, "THE SON, who was manifested to men."

Irenaeus closes his discussion on this subject by declaring:
Herefore, as I have already stated, NO OTHER IS NAMED AS GOD, OR IS LORD, EXCEPT HIM WHO IS GOD AND LORD OF ALL, who also said to Moses, "I AM THAT I AM." And 'Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel: He who is, hath sent me unto you' (Exod 3:14); and His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who MAKES THOSE WHO BELIEVE IN HIS NAME THE SONS OF GOD. And again, WHEN THE SON SPEAKS TO MOSES, He says, "I am come down to deliver this people" (Exod 3:8; above quotes from Bush, pp.80,81).

First, it should be noted that like Justin, Irenaeus teaches belief in Christ is all that is needed to become a child of God. Second, this passage again shows the early Church attributed the words of Jehovah to Jesus (see Exod 3:7).

The confusing part here is Irenaeus' claim there is only ONE who is "GOD and LORD of all." He had previously given TWO distinct Persons these names.

The only possible way to reconcile these statements is Irenaeus believed in one way the Son and the Father are equal and one; but in some different way they are distinct and separate. The other Church Fathers studied also held similar beliefs. And they based these convictions on the teaching of the Scriptures.

But how can this equality yet distinction of the Father and Son be explained? And, more generally, how should God's "three-in-oneness" be defined?

To answer these questions requires a look at the distinction between "Person" and "essence." This and other relevant subjects is discussed in Part Two of this article.

LORD" in most Bible versions is a rendering of the Hebrew, personal name for God, traditionally pronounced "Jehovah" though "Yahweh" is probably a better pronunciation.

Scripture quotations appear as they are seen in the translation of the Church Father quoted from. Otherwise, Scripture references from: The New King James Version. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982, unless otherwise indicated.

All emphases in quotes are added.

See end of Part Two.

The Father, the Son, and the Spirit in the Post-Apostolic Church - Part Two

The Father, the Son, and the Spirit in Post-Apostolic Church. Copyright 1999 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.zeolla.org/christian).

Books and eBooks by Gary F. Zeolla, the Director of Darkness to Light

The above article originally appeared in Darkness to Light newsletter in 1994.
It was posted on this Web site in July 1996.

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