Studies in the Economy – The Two Hands of God

I have been working on this for some time, so please, let it rip.

God is one, of this, there cannot be any doubt in Christianity. Many would assume that this dismisses the idea of emanations of divinity (Arianists; Jehovah’s Witnesses) or would assume that there many lesser deities which are named Son and Spirit (Gnostics; Mormons) yet the Scriptures are clear that God is a monad.

If we hold to a doctrine, proclaiming that doctrine as one held by the Apostles then it would be well reasoned that in the generation following the Apostles, that same doctrine can be easily seen. A ‘traditional’ ‘oneness’ belief would have us utter the phrase ‘Father in Creation, Son in Redemption and Holy Ghost in Regeneration’, yet according to the Scriptures, it was not the Father who was active in Creation, but the Logos who was incarnated as the Son. I have stated before that I am uncomfortable with the ‘oneness’ label as I am with the ‘modalist’ label, and have opted for a third, economic. In the following article, I attempt to examine a little of Irenaeus and Theophilus of Antioch in their attempts at understanding the Apostle’s doctrine of the ‘oneness’ of God.

We first acknowledge what our beloved Bishop of Antioch, Ignatius, wrote to the Ephesians,

For our God, Jesus Christ, was, according to the economy of God…

The idea is simple and in line with the Apostles, in that Jesus Christ was God, and yet according to the economy of God, became man. The logos that preceded the Incarnation eternally existed with God and was God, even as the word of a man is the man. Throughout the Old Testament and the Deuterocanon, the power of God’s spoken word is emphasized (Ps. 33:6, 107:20; Is. 55:11; Jer. 23:29; 2 Esd. 6:38; Wisdom 9:1-2). “Judaism understood God’s Word to have almost autonomous powers and substance once spoken; to be, in fact, ‘a concrete reality, a veritable cause.'” (Richard N. Longenecker, The Christology of Early Jewish Christianity , 145.) But a word did not need to be uttered or written to be alive. A word was defined as “an articulate unit of thought, capable of intelligible utterance.” (C. H. Dodd, Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, 263.

Not only do we have the understanding of the Word of God, but we also see that Judaism developed a foundational idea for the Wisdom of God as well:

“The LORD possessed me at the beginning of His way,
Before His works of old. I have been established from everlasting,
From the beginning, before there was ever an earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth,
When there were no fountains abounding with water. Before the mountains were settled,
Before the hills, I was brought forth; While as yet He had not made the earth or the fields,
Or the primal dust of the world. When He prepared the heavens, I was there,
When He drew a circle on the face of the deep, When He established the clouds above,
When He strengthened the fountains of the deep, When He assigned to the sea its limit,
So that the waters would not transgress His command,
When He marked out the foundations of the earth, Then I was beside Him as a master craftsman;
And I was daily His delight
Rejoicing always before Him,

(Proverbs 8:22-30 NKJV)

These personifications “must be understood within the context of the ancient Jewish concern for the uniqueness of God, the most controlling religious idea of ancient Judaism.” ( Larry W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism) The idea is not to create a separate deity, or a tripartite monad – instead, the Jewish writers, sages, and theologians understood the personification of the Word and Wisdom of God as emanations from Him, rightly being what God is – ‘and was God.’ “What pre-Christian Judaism said of Wisdom and Philo also of the Logos, Paul and the others say of Jesus. The role that Proverbs, ben Sira, etc. ascribe to Wisdom, these earliest Christians ascribe to Jesus.” James D. G. Dunn, Christology in the Making , 167.

It is not uncommon for biblical writers to group the Wisdom and Word of God into one,

“O God of my fathers and Lord of mercy, who hast made all things by thy word, and by thy wisdom hast formed man, to have dominion over the creatures thou hast made, (Wisdom 9:1-2 RSVA)

This conception of Wisdom parallels a  general Jewish explanation of how a transcendent God could participate in a temporal creation. The Aramaic Targums resolved this problem by equating God with His Word: thus in the Targums, Exodus 19:17, rather than saying the people went out to meet God, says that the people went out to meet the word of God, or Memra. N.T. Wright observes in Who Was Jesus? that Jewish monotheism “was never, in the Jewish literature of the crucial period, an analysis of the inner being of God, a kind of numerical statement about, so to speak, what God was like on the inside.” Rather, it was “always a polemical statement directed outwards against the pagan nations.” Rabbis of Jesus’ time had no difficulty in personifying separate aspects of God’s personality – His Wisdom, His Law (Torah), His Presence (Shekinah), and His Word (Memra), for example. This division had the philosophical purpose of “get(ting) around the problem of how to speak appropriately of the one true God who is both beyond the created world and active within it.”

Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament , 21, states, “2 Enoch 33:4, in an echo of Deutero-Isaiah (Isa. 40:13), says that God had no advisor in his work of creation, but that his Wisdom was his advisor. The meaning is clearly that God had no one to advise him. His Wisdom, who is not someone else but intrinsic to his own identity, advised him.” Mr. Bauckham, and those mentioned above, cite references indicating  ‘intrinsic’ attributes of God – His Word and Wisdom. Irenaeus and Theophilus, who like Ignatius two generations before him, a Bishop of Antioch would agree.

Irenaeus writes (Irenaeus, Against Heresies IV, 20.1),

For God did not stand in need of these , in order to the accomplishing of what He had Himself determined with Himself beforehand should be done, as if He did not possess His own hands.


For with Him were always present the Word and Wisdom, the Son and the Spirit, by whom and in whom, freely and spontaneously, He made all things, to whom also He speaks, saying, “Let Us make man after Our image and likeness;

Further, the bishop of Lyons said,

And this is He of whom the Scripture says, “And God formed man, taking clay of the earth, and breathed into his face the breath of life.” It was not angels, therefore, who made us, nor who formed us, neither had angels power to make an image of God, nor any one else, except the Word of the Lord, nor any Power remotely distant from the Father of all things.

Irenaeus did not see a stand alone unit of God, nor anything else but an emanation of God – His Word – that accomplished the Creation of Man. For Irenaeus, the Word of God was equal with God in that the word was God.Again, Irenaeus cites a predecessor,

“Through the extension of the hands of a divine person (διὰ τῆς θείας ἐκτάσεως τῶν χειρῶν— literally, “through the divine extension of hands.” The old Latin merely reads, “per extensionem manuum.”), gathering together the two peoples to one God.” For these were two hands, because there were two peoples scattered to the ends of the earth; but there was one head in the middle, as there is but one God, who is above all, and through all, and in us all.

Irenaeus writes,

(God)  has come within reach of human knowledge (knowledge, however, not with regard to His greatness, or with regard to His essence—for that has no man measured or handled—but after this sort: that we should know that He who made, and formed, and breathed in them the breath of life, and nourishes us by means of the creation, establishing all things by His Word, and binding them together by His Wisdom — this is He who is the only true God),  – 3.24.2

Here is a clear picture of Irenaeus’ concept of God – that there is one Person with two hands which accomplishes the heavenly things, and that person is God alone. He was not alone in this description of God. Theophilus the sixth Bishop of Antioch, preceded Irenaeus by a half a generation, but promoted the same idea  – that the Wisdom and Word of God was His hands, as opposed to the developed notion that they were Persons themselves.

Theophilus was a convert to Christianity (as opposed to being born into a Christian family). Like Justin Martyr, he had converted from Greek philosophy by reading and studying the Jewish scriptures. He never forgot this as at times he referred to the synagogue as the place of the church’s development. He deplored the pagan culture that surrounded them, urging his readers to forsake it and turn to Christianity. He, like Irenaeus after him, sought to explain the ability of a transcendent God to operate in a temporal world. He focused on the two hands of God, and is often thought of the predecessor that Irenaeus mentioned. Theophilus used the Greek word for wisdom 27 times in his writing, To Autolycus, while quoting Proverbs 8.22.27 five times.

Theophilus, in chapter seven on his only extent work, writes,

This is my God, the Lord of all, who alone stretched out the heaven, and established the breadth of the earth under it;

As he begins his rhetoric, continues by describing the our sin sickness,

But, if you will, you may be healed. Entrust yourself to the Physician, and He will couch the eyes of your soul and of your heart. Who is the Physician? God, who heals and makes alive through His word and wisdom. God by His own word and wisdom made all things; for “by His word were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth.” Most excellent is His wisdom. By His wisdom God founded the earth;

This is not the place for this discussion, but Wisdom is often used in the Fathers, as theology developed, to symbolize the pneuma (Spirit).

In chapter 18, Theophilus, in regards to the creation of man,

But as to what relates to the creation of man, his own creation cannot be explained by man, though it is a succinct account of it which holy Scripture gives. For when God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness,” He first intimates the dignity of man. For God having made all things by His Word, and having reckoned them all mere bye-works, reckons the creation of man to be the only work worthy of His own hands. Moreover, God is found, as if needing help, to say, “Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness.” But to no one else than to His own Word and wisdom did He say, “Let Us make.” And when He had made and blessed him, that he might increase and replenish the earth, He put all things under his dominion, and at his service; and He appointed from the first that he should find nutriment from the fruits of the earth, and from seeds, and herbs, and acorns, having at the same time appointed that the animals be of habits similar to man’s, that they also might eat of an the seeds of the earth.

I would disagree with Theophilius in assigning the audience of God to His Word and Wisdom, however, the creation story brings us to an interesting point,

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. (Genesis 1:26-27 NKJV)

The Greek word for wisdom is ‘sophia’, and in the original, it is feminine (as is the counterpart in the Hebrew). While this matter is one left for a deeper discussion, we may perceive in the creation account in Genesis the idea that God created a male and female which is united into one flesh, as we have two hands of God with one God. Although this is not to say that the Spirit is uniquely feminine, but Wisdom is referred to in the feminine while the Word is always masculine. (Except for the instance when Christ declares Himself Wisdom (Luke 7.35))

The idea that a transcendent God operates in this world through His hand(s) is not uncommon to the Scriptures. The phrase occurs six times in the Hebrew Old Testament (1st Samuel 5:11; 2nd Chronicles 30:12; Job 19:21; Job 27:11; Ecclesiastes 2:24; Ecclesiastes 9:1;). Each time it refers to the power of God in dealing with humanity, which is exactly what the Incarnation was. In the New Testament, the phrase occurs nine times, with adjective ‘right’ attached. ( Mark 16:19; Acts 2:33; Acts 7:55-56; Romans 8:34; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 10:12; 1st Peter 3:22; 1st Peter 5:6). In the New Testament, it refers to the power of Christ on the Throne of God.

But now, O LORD, You are our Father; We are the clay, and You our potter; And all we are the work of Your hand. (Isaiah 64:8 NKJV)

But now, O Lord, you are our father, and we are the clay; we are all the work of your hands (NETS  – English Translation of the LXX)

In Isaiah 64.8, the Hebrew is limiting to God to one hand, whereas the Greek Septuagint understands the Hebrew to mean the two hands.  Further in Psalms 98.1, we read of further anthropomorphizing of the transcendent Lord,

Oh, sing to the LORD a new song! For He has done marvelous things; His right hand and His holy arm have gained Him the victory.

Beyond the simple attribution of human features to God, we find two distinct emanations from the Diety, but not separate nor distinct, yet operating out from God. Both Irenaeus and Theophilus used the Jewish personification of Wisdom and the Word and anthromorphised them into the hands of God, giving to them the works of creation – old and New – while allowing for the sole praise to belong to God as Originator.

You Might Also Like

4 Replies to “Studies in the Economy – The Two Hands of God”

  1. Hi P.

    I think that i might like this Irenaeus fellow…

    For God did not stand in need of these [beings], in order to the accomplishing of what He had Himself determined with Himself beforehand should be done, as if He did not possess His own hands.


    For with Him were always present the Word and Wisdom, the Son and the Spirit, by whom and in whom, freely and spontaneously, He made all things, to whom also He speaks, saying, “Let Us make man after Our image and likeness;

    Further, the bishop of Lyons said,

    And this is He of whom the Scripture says, “And God formed man, taking clay of the earth, and breathed into his face the breath of life.” It was not angels, therefore, who made us, nor who formed us, neither had angels power to make an image of God, nor any one else, except the Word of the Lord, nor any Power remotely distant from the Father of all things.

    Man Alive!I cant wait to get “back” to church! I may have to move to West Virginia P!

  2. I like the early Fathers, although they have been coopted by others. Once I started studying them, I had to abandon the classic oneness creed that God was the Father in Creation, the Son in Redemption, and the Spirit in Regeneration. I find great strength in those men of old, and great truth in their understanding of the Apostle’s doctrine. I make it a point to measure my doctrine against those that followed the Apostles. How many times have you heard that a particular doctrine ceased with the Apostles only to be raised up in these last days? But that is simply not true. Christ said that His church would never die out. This is why I continue to study, to show myself approved before God and before men.

    Come on down, YtLoG. We are actually having an old fashioned tent revival in May, the weekend after Mother’s Day, I believe.

  3. Joel,

    Interesting…?  But, it is not really what Irenaeus and Theophilus said or felt, Jewish personification or anthromorphic, etc. But the real question is always the Text…Scripture! And I can find not one Judeo-Christian text that uses the reality of “distinct emanations” of God!

    The fact that God cannot reveal His “economy” without also still being His own ontology (being & substance) is the Immutability of God, both One & Triune. We must always make the explicit attempt to combine the static with the dynamic, to preserve the category of state while being open to that of event in God. But we too must aviod the rationalism of an essentialist ontology not by giving priority to the idea of ‘process’ (emanate), but rather by retaining the full ontological of God.

    Fr. Robert +++

Leave a Reply, Please!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.