Note: This article is a condensed version of chapter seven of the author's book One Lord, One Faith (Horizon Publishers, 1996). The complete version, along with all references, can be found in the book.
THE SON'S SUBORDINATION TO THE FATHER IN EARLY CHRISTIAN WRITINGS
Michael T. Griffith
@All Rights Reserved
Like the New Testament, the writings of the early church fathers clearly affirm that Jesus is subordinate to Heavenly Father and that they are two separate and distinct beings.
The apostles received the gospel for us from Jesus
Christ, and Jesus Christ was sent from God. So Christ is from God, and the
apostles are from Christ: thus both came in proper order by the will of God. (1
Let all the heathen know that thou [the Father]
art God alone, and that Jesus Christ is thy Servant. . . . (1 Clement 59:4;
Note Clement's pronounced positional monotheism. The Father is "God alone," the "one God," yet next to him we have "one Christ" and "one Spirit."All three are "alive": The Father lives, and the Lord Jesus Christ lives, and the Holy Spirit lives. The apostles came from Christ, and Christ came from the Father: "both came in proper order by the will of God." The plain sense of Clement's message here is that just as Christ and the apostles were separate individuals, so also are Jesus and Heavenly Father separate individuals. Indeed, according to Clement, the Father chose Jesus, and through him chose us to be his people. The Savior is the "Servant" of the Father.
It is hard to overstate the importance and authority of Ignatius (A.D.
50-115). Ignatius's letters were highly prized by the ancient Christians.
Ignatius was the second bishop of
The ancient church historian Eusebius says
Ignatius was appointed as the second bishop there [
Ignatius believed strongly in the separateness of the Father and the Son and in Jesus' subordination to his Heavenly Father. When Ignatius did speak of the unity of the Savior and the Father, he made it clear he was referring to a oneness of purpose and will, and not to some mystical, unexplainable oneness of "substance":
Jesus Christ . . . is the expressed purpose of the
Father, just as the bishops who have been appointed throughout the world exist
by the purpose of Jesus Christ. (The Letter of Ignatius to the Ephesians 3:2;
. . . you may sing with one voice through Jesus
Christ to the Father, so that he may both hear you and recognize you, through
what you do well, as members of his Son. (The Letter of Ignatius to the
Be subject to the bishop and to one another, as
Jesus Christ in the flesh was subject to the Father and the apostles were
subject to Christ and the Father, so that there may be unity both fleshly and
spiritual. (The Letter of Ignatius to the Magnesians
All of you are to follow the bishop as Jesus Christ
follows the Father, and the presbytery [the elders] as the apostles. (The
Letter of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans 8:1;
Polycarp (ca. A.D. 70-155) was the bishop of
The high regard in which he was held is explained
by the fact that he had been a disciple of the Apostles. Irenaeus
. . . [bishop of
Polycarp not only accepted the separateness of the Father and the Son, but he even referred to the Father as the Savior's "God":
Now may the
God and Father of our Lord Jesus
Christ . . . give you a lot and portion with his saints, and to us along
with you, and to all men who are under heaven who will believe in our Lord
Jesus Christ and in his Father who raised him from the dead. (The Letter of
Polycarp to the Philippians 12:2;
According to historian William P. Barker, Justin Martyr (ca. A.D. 100-165) was one of the early church's "ablest defenders" (162). Justin was awarded the name "Martyr" for his heroic witness before the Roman Prefect Rusticus. Justin was put to death because he refused to deny his testimony of Christ.
Justin taught many things about the Godhead which flatly contradict three-in-oneism. He taught over and over again that Jesus was subordinate to the Father. Justin declared that the Son "is a reality distinct from the Father" and that Jesus was "begotten" by the Father for the creation of the world (Norris 6). Justin explained that the god of the Old Testament was not the same deity as God the Father (Roberts and Donaldson 1:223, 263). Indeed, one of Justin's chapter headings reads, "God Who Appeared To Moses [i.e., Jehovah] Is Distinguished From God The Father" (Roberts and Donaldson 1:223).
Justin not only recognized the Father as a deity separate from (and superior to) Jehovah, but he correctly identified the Father as the ultimate creator. This can be seen in statements he made to a Jewish critic named Trypho:
I shall attempt to persuade you, since you have understood the Scriptures, of the truth of what I say, that there is, and that there is said to be, another God and Lord subject to the Maker of all things. . . . (223)
Reverting to the Scriptures, I shall endeavor to persuade you, that he who is said to have appeared to Abraham, and to Jacob, and to Moses [i.e., Yahweh], and who is called God, is distinct from him who made all things--numerically, I mean, not in will. (223)
It must be remembered that although Christ is sometimes spoken of in scripture as the creator, his creative work was done under the Father's direction. Hebrews 1:1-3 and Ephesians 3:9 point out that it was Jesus "by whom" the Father "made the worlds." Therefore, Justin's teaching was entirely scriptural.
Justin rejected the proposition that the Father and the Son are of the same undivided substance. In so doing, he repudiated an analogy which is still popular among modern three-in-oneists, namely, that Jesus is to the Father as a ray of light is to the sun (Roberts and Donaldson 1:264). Justin asserted that the Savior was "numerically distinct" from the Father (Roberts and Donaldson 1:264, emphasis added). He pointed out that the Father's begetting of Christ was not by some form of abscission or decreasing of the Father's substance. Instead, Justin, in a marvelous analogy, compared this divine process to fires kindled from a fire, "which we see to be distinct from it" (Roberts and Donaldson 1:264)! In harmony with this, Professor Grant points out that Justin described the Son ". . . as a second God, one who proceeded from the Father before creation. . . ." (Grant 109, emphasis added). Henry Chadwick, a renowned authority on the early church, summarizes Justin's deity theology:
Justin had boldly spoken of the divine Logos [Christ] as "another God" beside the Father, qualified by the gloss, "other, I mean, in number, not in will." In arguing against hellenized Jews who held that the divine Logos is distinct from God only in the refined sense in which one can distinguish between sun and sunlight, Justin had argued that the analogy of one torch lit from another was a much more satisfactory picture because it did justice to the independence . . . of the Logos. (85-86, emphasis added)
Not surprisingly, ancient three-in-oneists like the Monarchians saw Justin's deity theology "as a clear threat to monotheism" (Norris 7).
In a fascinating passage, Justin speaks of a being who is the Father's "elder":
But to the Father of all, who is unbegotten, there is no name given. For by whatever name he be called, he has as his elder the person who gives him the name. (Roberts and Donaldson 1:190)
THE SHEPHERD OF HERMAS
The Shepherd of Hermas, written between A.D. 100
and 150, was greatly prized by the ancient Christians. "The writing called
the Shepherd of Hermas," says Albert C. Sundberg, "was highly regarded in the early church in
both East and West" (1221). Sundberg continues,
"Irenaeus cited it with approval; Clement of
Alexandria regarded it as divinely spoken and by revelation" (1221). (Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria were both prominent,
respected theologians in the early church. More will be said about them later.)
Other ancient Christians also believed the Shepherd to be inspired (Sundberg 1221). The Shepherd of Hermas
was not seriously questioned until the fourth century; and even then, it was
viewed by some noted theologians of that period as "profitable" (
Here are a few of the statements in the Shepherd of Hermas concerning the Father and the Son:
The Son of God does not appear in the guise of a
slave, but appears withgreat powerand
authority. . . .BecauseGod plantedthe
vineyard . . . and he turned it over to his Son. And the Son appointed the
angels to protect every one of them [Christ's followers]. . . . (59:1-2;
. . . the Son of God . . . was counselor to his
Father in his creation. (89:2;
THE EPISTLE OF BARNABAS
The Epistle of Barnabas is another text that was highly regarded in the
ancient Christian church. The epistle may have been written in the first century;
it began to be circulated in the early part of the second century (Sparks 263).
The Epistle of Barnabas has some important things to say about the Father and the Son. Among other things, it speaks of Jesus' role in the creation and says that he acted under the Father's direction:
And furthermore, my brethren, consider this: . . .
the Lord submitted to suffer for our souls--he who is Lord of the whole world,
to whom God said at the foundation of the world: Let us make man in accord with
our image and likeness. . . . (5:5;
The Scripture is speaking about us when he [God]
says to the Son: Let us make man in accord with our image and likeness, and let
them rule over the beasts of the earth and the birds of heaven and the fish of
the sea. . . . These things he [God] said to the Son. (6:12-13;
The Father is making all things clear concerning
his Son Jesus. . . . David himself . . . prophesies: The Lord said to my Lord,
"Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet
[Psalm 110:1]." (12:8, 10;
Written between A.D. 120 and 180, the Didache is
viewed by many scholars as "the most important document of the subapostolic period" (Quasten
1:30). The book's actual title in ancient times was "The Lord's
Instructions to the Gentiles Through the Twelve Apostles." The text was
unknown until it was discovered by Philotheos Byrennios in a monastery in
The Didache repeatedly speaks of Jesus as the Father's "Servant":
We thank you, our Father, for the holy vine of
David your servant, which you have made known unto us through Jesus your
We thank you, our Father, for the life and
knowledge, which you have made known to us through Jesus your Servant. Glory to
you forever! (9:3;
Mathetes (ca. A.D. 75-135), an early Christian apologist, made a striking comparison between the Father and Jesus and a king and his royal son. Mathetes compared a king's sending his royal son as a second king to the Father's sending Jesus into the world:
As a king sends his son, who is also a king, so sent he him; as God he sent him; as to men he sent him; as a Savior he sent him, and as seeking to persuade, not to compel us; for violence has no place in the character of God. (Roberts and Donaldson 1:71, emphasis added)
The meaning of Mathetes's statement here is undeniable: Just as a king sends his son, who is also a king, so Heavenly Father sent Jesus, who is also a deity. The Father sent the Savior "as God." He also sent him "as a Savior."
Lactantius (ca. A.D. 260-340), an early Christian writer and apologist, believed the Son to be "the second God," who was made "visible and tangible" by the Father (Roberts and Donaldson 7:105). Lactantius said the Savior was called "counselor" because "He is endowed by God the Father with such wisdom and strength, that God employed both his wisdom and hands in the creation of the world" (Roberts and Donaldson 7:105).
Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 115-200) was born in
Irenaeus was a strong subordinationist, that is, he believed the Son was subordinate to the Father. He taught that Son was inferior to the Father in divine knowledge (Roberts and Donaldson 1:402).Throughout Irenaeus's writings we see the theme of the one God, the Father, as the supreme member of the Triad, and after him, the Son, Jesus Christ. Indeed, Irenaeus was more emphatic than many other early Christian writers about the Father's primacy and supremacy:
For faith . . . endures unchangeably, assuring us that there is but one true God, and that we should truly love him forever, seeing that he alone is our Father. (Roberts and Donaldson 1:399-400)
. . . the Father himself is alone called God. . . . the Scriptures acknowledge him alone as God; and yet again . . . the Lord confesses him alone as his own Father, and knows no other. . . . (Roberts and Donaldson 1:400)
. . . this is sure and steadfast, that no other God or Lord was announced by the Spirit, except him who, as God, rules over all, together with his Word, and those who receive the spirit of adoption, that is, those who believe in the one and true God, and in Jesus Christ the Son of God; and likewise that the apostles did of themselves term no one else God, or name no other as Lord; and, what is much more important, since it is true that our Lord acted likewise, who did also command us to confess no one as Father, except he who is in the heavens, who is the one God and the one Father. (Roberts and Donaldson 1:463)
Irenaeus referred to John's ". . . proclaiming one God, the Almighty, and one Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten, by whom all things were made. . . ." (Roberts and Donaldson 1:329). Irenaeus even went so far as to refer to Christ as "the only-begotten God" and he pointed out that Revelation 1:12 is speaking of the glory which the Savior received from the Father (Roberts and Donaldson 1:491).
Origen (ca. A.D. 185-254) was one of the greatest theologians and apologists
of the early church. Of course, Origen did not have all of the truth, and some
of the things he taught were in error. But, in several cases, Origen was closer
to original Christian teaching than any of peers or later traditional critics.
According to Chadwick, "Origen stands out as a giant among the early
Christian thinkers" (100). When the pagan critic Celsus
wrote a challenging critique of Christianity, many members of the church asked
Origen to reply to it, which he did. Origen was blessed to have been raised by
devout Christian parents. After the death of his father during a persecution,
Origen stepped in as leader of a group of new converts. With the approval of
the bishop of
Origen was clear on the separateness of the Father and the Son and on the Savior's subordination to Heavenly Father. Origen taught that Jesus was a deuteros theos, i.e., a secondary god (Norman 1977:311, citing Migne 14:108-110). He also said the Son was "a distinct being" (Prestige xxvii). Origen referred to the Word (Logos) as "a created being" (Prestige 133). Not surprisingly, three-in-oneists see this as one of Origen's doctrinal "indiscretions."
William G. Rusch has said the following about Origen's teachings on the Father and the Son:
Origen wished to indicate the distinction between the Father and the Word. He insists that the Son is other in subsistence than the Father. They are two things in respect to persons (On Prayer 15.1; Cel. 8.12). The Father and Son differ from each other in hypostasis (Commentary on the Gospel of John 2.2.10). Originally, hypostasis and ousia [substance] were synonyms. . . . Origen even speaks of the Word as a second God to stress the distinction (Cel. 5.39). (14)
Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. A.D. 260-342) is often called "the father of
church history." He wrote a summary of Christian history up to A.D. 325
which is still one of the best records of the early church. Eusebius also wrote
many exegetical and apologetic works. He served as bishop of Berytus and later as bishop of
Eusebius was a strong subordinationist. Eusebius's deity theology is another good example of positional monotheism, for he clearly identified Jesus as a separate divine being who was subordinate to the supreme member of the Godhead. G.L. Prestige paraphrases Eusebius's teachings on the subject as follows:
Although we confess two Lords, he [Eusebius] says, yet we do not employ similar explanations of deity ("theologies") in the case of both. As piety requires, we place them in order. We have been taught that the supreme Father and God and Lord is also the God and Lord of the Second, and that the Word of God is the Second Lord, the master of all that is beneath him, but not in like manner master of him who is greater than he. For God the Word is not the Lord of the Father nor the God of the Father, but his Image and Word and Wisdom and Power. He [Jesus] is the Master and Lord and God of those that come after him; but the Father is the Father and God and Lord of the Son. (143)
William G. Rusch provides us with an equally helpful summary of Eusebius's teachings on the Father and the Son:
For Eusebius of Caesarea, the Father was an indivisible monad beyond reality. . . . The Logos, a distinct hypostasis, begotten before all ages, is the Father's intermediary for creating. The Logos [Christ] has no direct contact with the Father's being. . . . The unity of the Son with the Father consists of sharing his identical glory. (20)
Tertullian (ca. A.D. 165-225), known historically as the first great Latin theologian of the early church, wrote numerous defenses and expositions of the Christian faith. Although a number of modern three-in-oneists appeal to Tertullian as an ally, some ancient advocates of monarchianism and modalism (which have much in common with three-in-oneism) accused him of making too much of a distinction between the Father and the Son. In later centuries, some Catholic theologians made the same accusation. It was statements like the following which did not sit well with Tertullian's critics:
Thus the Father is distinct from the Son, being greater than the Son, in as much as he who begets is one, and he who is begotten is another; he, too, who sends is one, and he who is sent is another; and he, again, who makes is one, and he through whom the thing is made is another. (Roberts and Donaldson 3:604)
So it is either the Father or the Son, and the day is not the same as the night; nor is the Father the same as the Son, in such a way that Both of them should be One, and One or the Other should be Both. (Roberts and Donaldson 3:604)
. . . while I recognize the Son, I assert his distinction as second to the Father. (Roberts and Donaldson 3:602)
. . . the Father is not the same as the Son, since they differ one from the other in the mode of their being. (Roberts and Donaldson 3:603, emphasis added)
According to trinitarians, Tertullian's teaching that the Father and the Son shared the same "substance" supports three-in-oneism, but a careful examination of his statements shows that this is not necessarily the case. Tertullian's comments on this subject must be considered within the context of his doctrine of the "divine economy." Christian historian Justo L. Gonzalez argues that to Tertullian the word "substance" meant property and the right to use it, not some mysterious "divine essence" expressing itself in three undefinable "persons." Gonzalez explains:
In order to respond to the claims of Praxeas [an ancient heretic], Tertullian develops the trinitarian doctrine, making use of the juridical terminology of his time. According to him, Praxeas affirms that the distinction between the Father and the Son destroys the "monarchy" of God, but does not realize that the unity of the monarchy does not require that it be held by only one person. The "monarchy," that term which is so cherished by Praxeas and his followers, means simply that a government is one, and does not prevent the monarch from having a son or from managing his monarchy as he pleases--what Tertullian calls the divine "economy."
Furthermore, if the father wishes, the son may share in the monarchy without thereby destroying it. Therefore, the divine monarchy is no reason to deny the distinction between Father and Son. . . .
But this does not suffice to refute Praxeas, for it is necessary to explain how it is possible
that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit be one God and that they,
however, be different. Here Tertullian appeals once again to his legal
background and introduces two terms that the church would continue using for
many centuries: "substance" and "person." "Substance" is to be understood
here, not in its metaphysical, but rather in its legal sense. Within this
context, the "substance" is the property and the right that a person
has to make use of it. In the case of the monarchy, the substance of the
Emperor is the Empire, and this is what makes it possible for the Emperor to
share his substance with his son--as was in fact common in the
On the basis of this concept of substance and person, Tertullian affirms the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit without denying their distinction: the three share in a single and undivided substance, but this does not prevent them from being three different persons. (178-179, emphasis added)
Since Tertullian used the word "substance" in its legal sense, as in property and the right to use it, he could with complete consistency say both that the Father and the Son shared in a single, undivided substance, and that they were two separate persons. This makes perfectly good sense. Similarly, I can say that my brother and I share in the same property ("substance") but that we are still two different human beings.
1. James Barker, Apostasy From The Divine Church (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, Inc., 1984, reprint of 1960 edition), pp. 231-271.
2. Keith Norman, "Ex Nihilo: The Development of the Doctrines of God and Creation in Early Christianity," BYU Studies (Spring 1977), pp. 309-318.
3. Daniel C. Peterson and Stephen Ricks, Offenders For A Word: How Anti-Mormons Play Word Games To Attack The Latter-Day Saints (Salt Lake City, Utah: Aspen Books, 1992), pp. 62-69, 80-89.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:†
Michael T. Griffith
holds a Masterís degree in Theology from The Catholic Distance University, a
Graduate Certificate in Ancient and Classical History from American Military
University, a Bachelorís degree in Liberal Arts from Excelsior College, and two
Associate in Applied Science degrees from the Community College of the Air
Force.† He also holds an Advanced
Certificate of Civil War Studies and a Certificate of Civil War Studies from
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