God the Father and Jesus Christ: Ignatius of Antioch and the Economy of God, Part 1

I. Introduction

I believe in the fully deity of Christ, recognizing the temporal distinction created between the Father and Son during the Incarnation. I reject anti-biblical words in branding my theology, preferring rather ‘economist‘. I attempt to govern my doctrine by two simple principles – is it Scriptural and is it verified by the generation(s) after the Apostles. The historical ‘modalist’ and modern ‘oneness’ view fails this test, as neither makes room for the temporal distinction between Father and Son during the brief moment of the Incarnation. I will attempt to define a more sure doctrine of the Economy by using the works of Ignatius, contemporary of Polycarp, and one who had touched the Apostles.

Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. But Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.” When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. (Matthew 17:1-8 NKJV)

The proper exegesis of this passage must first begin in Hebrews 1.1-2,

God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; (Hebrews 1:1-2 NKJV)

It was not that the Father disappeared, but that instead of the Law and the Prophets, it was now the position of the Incarnation (the Word) which was the Father’s voice.

Many Oneness Pentecostals consider themselves ‘Jesus-Only,’ with the phrase in use taken (erroneously) from this passage in Matthew. The issue with that, is that they create a fatherhood for Jesus where none is intended. We must first acknowledge that the modern application of ‘father’ to God (or Jesus in this case) is one removed from the Apostles and the earliest Christian writers. Dr. Kelly, in Early Christian Doctrines, exposes us to some of the early writers who readily defined God as one, as Creator and as Father only in the aspect of His creator ship. He states (pg83) that “‘Father’ (in this period) referred primarily to His role as creator and author of all things. This comes at the end of a series of statements where Hermas writes (88-97) that the first commandment is to ‘believe that God is one, Who created and established all things, bringing them into existence out of non-existence’. Moving to Clement of Rome (88-99), we read that Clement saw God as ‘the Father and creator of the entire cosmos’ while for Barnabas (c100), He is ‘our maker’. Kelly acknowledges that this ideas derived directly from the Bible and from latter-day Judaism, and rarely from the philosophy of the day.

Kelly then goes on to mention Theophilus and Athenagoras in describing creation ex nihilo. It is interesting to here Theophilus’ description of God, which Kelly relates,

‘Without beginning because uncreated, immutable because immortal, Lord because He is Lord over all things, Father because He is prior to all things, most high because He is above all things, almighty because he holds all things; for the heights of the heavens, the depths of the abysses and the ends of the world are in His hands’.

It is noteworthy because of what is lacking: any notion of a ‘Son’ and thus a traditional understanding of the Father-Son relationship in the Trinity. We also see that the notion of ‘Father’ and ‘Almighty’ is in line with Clement of Alexandria and Barnabas. Even here, in the philosophers, we fail to find any mention of the Father as described in the Trinity.

The biblical understanding of Father was not as used in the Father-Son relationship, but used to describe, much like Judaism, the Creator or sole principle. Trinitarians and Oneness believers alike, however, understand ‘Father’ in parental contexts.

Ignatius of Antioch (c.30-50 to c.98-117) was the third Bishop of Antioch (with Peter being the first, Evodius the second) as well as a student to at least two Apostles – Peter and John. On his way to his martyrdom for the name of Christ, he wrote a series of letters which has survived more or less intact, although there is at the moment two recensions – short and long. (For this study, I will use only the short, preferring what is undoubtedly the closest to the original).  It is important to read Ignatius as he is the closest, besides Polycarp, to the Apostles – having set in tutelage from those that had walked with Christ. Further, it is important that any doctrine that one so holds be found at some other point in history – and the closer that history is the the Apostles, the more firm the doctrine.

Ephesians

Nowhere in the Gospels do we see the application of the term ‘Father’ to Christ – the same is said with the Apostolic Fathers. In Ignatius’ letter to the church at Ephesus, we see several instances in which term ‘God’ is applied to Christ, but when it comes to ‘Father’ it is applied directly to God – which Jesus remaining separate. In the introduction, we read ‘being united through the true passion by the will of the Father, and Jesus Christ, our God.’ God is not distinctly applied to the Father, but to Christ. In chapter 7, Ignatius says refers to God/Christ as the ‘one Physician who is possessed of both flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in the flesh…even Jesus Christ out Lord.’ In chapter 18, he refers to Christ again as God, ‘For our God, Jesus Christ, was, according to the economy of God, conceived in the womb by Mary, of the seed of David, but also by the holy Spirit.’

Ignatius connects the name of God to the name of Christ several times in his letter to the Ephesians. In chapter one, we read of the ‘name of God’, while in chapter 3 we note that he considers himself bound (perhaps his current state of imprisonment) because of the name of Christ. In chapter 7, the Bishop is critical of those who carry the name of Christ in ‘wicked guile,’ practicing things unworthy of God. This is not mere folly or invention on Ignatius’ part, as it is based on the fact that he considered Christ as God in the flesh. Further, we read in John 17.6 that Christ manifested the name of the God on earth.

Ignatius’ Incarnational motif is a central theme underpinning his letter of hope and steadfastness to his fellow Christians. We start in chapter 4 were we find the bishop urging the congregation to sin with one voice ‘to the Father through Jesus Christ.’ This is parallel to John’s Gospel which quotes Christ as saying Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” In the previous chapter, Ignatius writes, ‘For even Jesus Christ, our inseparable life, is the manifested will of the Father’, harkening back to the entire passage in John 14 concerning the relationship of the Father and Son. In chapter 19, we see the bishop of Antioch applied the birth of Christ to the manifestation of God on earth (the Incarnation), as he wrote, ‘How, then, was He (God – speaking about the mysteries of renown) manifested to the world?’ and ‘God Himself being manifested in human form for the renewal of eternal life.’ For the mediator of the abolition of death is applied to God as well.

In chapter 5 we see a much deeper Incarnational and Ecclesiology ideal applied to Christ and His Church. The Bishop writes, ‘joined to him (bishop) as the Church is to Jesus Christ, and as Jesus Christ is to the Father.’ The Church is the Body of Christ carrying His name (chapter 7) just as Christ is the Incarnation of God, carrying His name (see above). (1st Corinthians 12.27; Ephesians 4.12 and Romans 16.26; Colossians 1.26; 1st Timothy 3.16; Hebrews 10.5) We see at once that Ignatius had no disputation with Paul who wrote, ‘He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, (Colossians 1.15).’

Magnesians

The letter to the Magnesians centers on unity, ‘fleshly and spiritual’, and in doing so, Ignatius calls attention to the distinction of the Father and Son and yet the supreme unity as enjoyed by the Father and Image, Harmony, and Inseparable Spirit, Jesus Christ. It would be wrong to take these writings of Ignatius as a step by step outline of doctrine; instead, we should look at it as his thoughts broken and defined in the same letter. He no doubt wrote these letters in a relatively short time, perhaps hours, days, or weeks – as personal encouragement, like the Pastorals, and not as theological treatises, such as Romans or Galatians. It was his attempt, the last attempt, that he could do express the call for a unity among the congregations, uniting each the lay and clergy into one solid body.

The idea of a unity between the Father and Jesus Christ starts in chapter 6 but is defined in chapters 7 and 8 with the distinction highlighted in chapter 13. In chapter 6 Ignatius writes that the ministers are ‘entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father before the beginning of time, and in the end was revealed’. He defines this in chapter 7 with the thoughts ‘As therefore the Lord did nothing with the Father, being united to Him,’ and ‘Therefore run together as into one temple of God, as to one altar, as to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from one Father, and is with and has one to One.’ Finally, in chapter 8, we read ‘being inspired by His grace to fully convince the unbelieving that there is one God, who has manifested Himself in Jesus Christ His Son, who is His eternal Word, not proceeding forth in silence, and how in all things pleased Him that sent Him.’ Thus, what was begun in chapter 6 with Christ (qualified in chapter 8 as the Word eternal) with the Father we understand now as a manifestation of the one God.

In a chapter devoted to prosperity in unity, Ignatius writes ‘be subject…as Jesus Christ to the Father, according to the flesh, and the apostles to Christ, and to the Father, and to the spirit; that so there may be a union both fleshly and spiritual.’ In this thought we find that subordination existed between Father and Son during the Incarnation – and by that we know that a distinction must have existed.

Ignatius ends his letter with ‘Fare well in the harmony of God, you who have obtained the inseparable Spirit, who is Jesus Christ.’ Thus, we see no distinction in the unity of the one God.

Trallians

Ignatius’ letter to the congregation in the city of Tralles is one of little theological value, as he himself said that he considered the congregation as ‘babes in Christ.’ He does, however, have three phrases that are worth mentioning. In chapter 1, he notes of only one ‘will of God and Jesus Christ’ while in chapter 3, he again sets up the Church government with an eye to Christ, with the phrase ‘let all reverence…the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father.’ This must be misunderstood to reflect later Roman doctrine to mean that the bishop (Pope) acts in the stead of Christ, but that the minister answers to Christ in the manner that Christ answered to the Father in John 17. Finally, in chapter 7, he again stresses unity with the overseer of the congregation as he writes, ‘and continue in intimate union with Jesus Christ our God.’ Ignatius was a product of the persecution that was descending upon the Church, and he knew that only with a strong unity around the ministry (doctrine) could the Church survive.

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11 Replies to “God the Father and Jesus Christ: Ignatius of Antioch and the Economy of God, Part 1”

  1. Hi Polycarp,

    Did you mean to use the word ‘not’ in this phrase: ‘it was not the position of the Incarnation (the Word) which was the Father’s voice’? If so, what did you mean?

  2. Polycarp,

    You’re welcome.

    Let me preface my comment by saying: I agree without doubt that God the Father is the creator; Christ is God; and Christ is distinct from God the Father. Yet I am a trinitarian.

    OK. I’m trying to understand your position. However, when I look at the comment I originally wrote (but did not submit), I see it is actually a defense of the Father-Son position.

    So. I’m going to try again, trying to use questions instead of making statements (at least at first).

    You wrote, “The biblical understanding of Father was not as used in the Father-Son relationship, but used to describe, much like Judaism, the Creator or sole principle.”

    What makes you think the Biblical understanding of Father did not include Father as loving parent of a family?

  3. Polycarp,

    I hope you had a good time with the family. Mine is on their way back from visiting my dear mother-in -law and step-father-law. Please pray for them – he’s been going downhill and its stressful for her mom, to say the least. But God had my wife accurately diagnose him with gout (he apparently had it for a very long time and no one caught it due to other issues) and got his doctor to give him a prescription and he’s at least feeling better, though his heart is still not functioning well. Its been a good week for me, but I’ll be glad to have them safely home.

    I agree the Judaic understanding of God the Father was not one that included a familial understanding. But they also did not have an understanding of the Messiah as being the Son of God either. Just because they did not have that understanding does not mean it was not a mystery that was revealed in the New Testament writings, which appears to be the case.

    I say this because Christ and John both used the symbolism of Father as the loving, providing, leader of a family (Matthew 5:45; Matthew 7:11; Matthew 12:50; Luke 11:11-13; John 3:35; 1 John 5:18-21). I think Christ used the metaphor purposefully – not just to bring to mind the idea of creator, but to encourage the idea of a relationship with God that is similar to that of a child and parent. Christ is God’s Son, fully God and fully human in his incarnation, distinct from God the Father. Yet there is only one God (1 Corinthians 8:6; Galatians 3:20; Ephesians 4:6; 1 Timothy 2:5; James 2:19), so Christ, in His deity, is part of the God head as well.

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