Trinitarians frequently claim that the trinitarian theology has been essential to Christianity from the beginning; whatever changes or developments there have been, we are told, are only refinements in the way this doctrine is expressed, and not changes to the actual doctrine itself. These claims, however, must be seen as representing either an ignorance of what the theological landscape of the early church actually looked like, or else brazen disregard for historical truth. We may easily recognize in the writings of the early fathers a clear development of doctrine respecting the identities of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and the relationships between them, involving not only massive changes in terminology, but also substantial changes to the underlying concepts themselves.

Firstly, we must note that early Christian writers, until the middle of the fourth century, were nearly unanimous in affirming that the one God is one person, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ [1]; the main exceptions to this being gnostics and modalists [2]. Early Christianity was home to a great deal of diversity, and while views that would lead into later trinitarianism developed slowly throughout the second through fourth centuries, the majority of Christians did not believe that Jesus literally pre-existed [3]. Development in the direction of trinitarianism was advanced in the second century by the logos-theorists and apologists, such as Justin Martyr and Tertullian. Departing from the majority of Christians, they asserted that Jesus Christ was the logos and wisdom of God, begotten by God prior to or at the time of creation [4]. Writers in this era spoke of the Son as being both ‘begotten’ and ‘created’ by the Father, using these terms interchangeably [5]. The Son was viewed as being subordinate to the Father in several senses: as being chronologically after the Father [6], owing his existence to the Father [7], being under the authority of the Father and serving the will of the Father [8], not sharing the the transcendent divine attributes of the Father [9], and as being lesser than the Father in honor and glory [10]. The Logos was seen as God’s instrument in the creation of the cosmos, and although this Logos was the Image of God who shared God’s own likeness, the Logos could do things that were, due to the transcendence of God, impossible for the one God to do, like appear to men as the Angel of the Lord [11]. Although this Logos was “God” and “Lord”, he was expressly stated to be numerically distinct from the one God [12], ‘the Maker of all things’ [13], ‘the Most High’ [14], and ‘the Almighty’ [15], (all of which titles were reserved for the Father) and was sometimes referred to as ‘another God’ and a ‘second God’ besides the one God, the Father [16].

In the third century, Origen elevated the Son to the status of being co-eternal with the Father by popularizing a view called ‘eternal generation’, which came to eventually replace the temporal view of the Son’s generation held by earlier proto-orthodox writers [17]. Origen also helped shape the language that would later be used to articulate trinitarian doctrine, including the use of the term ‘hypostasis’ to refer to a single discrete individual being, declaring that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were three hypostases [18]; only the hypostasis of the Father, the one God, however, was uncreated, with the Son being the greatest and eternal creature of the Father, and the Holy Spirit being next, having been created by God through the Son [19].

In the fourth century previously existing tensions between Origen’s views and the views of earlier logos-theorists boiled over in the Arian controversy. Arius was condemned for denying the Son’s eternality (as so many logos-theorists had) [20], and the Son was declared to be ‘of the same essence’ as the Father in the Nicene Creed. This vague terminology was employed to exclude Arius and his followers, but did not have a single clear meaning, but rather had many possible interpretations, acceptable to the many different non-Arian viewpoints represented at Nicea. In the following decades, however, fierce controversy broke out over how the term was to be understood. The term ‘homoousias’, ‘same being’, could be understood to either indicate generic sameness of nature among multiple individuals (as the alternative “semi-arian” term ‘homoiousias’ also indicated), or to indicate that the Father and Son were one individual [21]. Recognizing the latter as modalistic [22], the conservative majority of bishops opted to replace the Nicene formula with another that could not be taken in such a modalistic way; this found expression through a number of non-nicene councils; for a couple decades, the Nicene Creed was totally repealed, and the pro-nicenes appeared to have lost [23]. During this time important changes took place within the pro-nicene camp; whereas previously the pro-nicenes had advocated that ‘homoousias’ should be understood and accepted only in a generic sense [24], some pro-nicenes began to adapt nicene theology to affirm by this term that the Father and Son were together the same individual being and the same one God [25].

In this same era, some pro-nicene bishops began to advocate the doctrine that the Holy Spirit is also God and co-essential with the Father, thus introducing the concept of a trinity of persons all sharing one divine being; up until this point, a great deal of diversity had existed on how the Holy Spirit was viewed [26]. By 381, with the older generation of pro-nicenes like Athanasius dead, a newer generation had taken the helm of the pro-nicene party, and for the first time in history advocated a triune God, or one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit [27], repudiating the older view that the one God is uni-personal, the Father, and that the Son is a numerically distinct individual besides Him [28]. Due to a change in imperial politics, this small party was thrust into power, and was thus able to define orthodoxy for the entire Roman Empire. While many bishops continued to hold a subordinationist christology and/or denied the Godhood of the Holy Spirit, the opinion of these conservatives was ignored, and the new revised ‘Nicene Orthodoxy’ became the official trinitarian orthodoxy of the church moving forward. Enforced by the sword, dissent was slowly killed by force as the Roman Empire crumbled and, with the eventual defeat of (the previously ‘orthodox’) Homoian unitarian subordinationism among the Barbarians in the 8th century, Europe entered the Dark Ages firmly trinitarian [29].

Ultimately the fact that trinitarianism as we know it today is the result of a long and painful process of theological evolution is unavoidable from the historical data. Leaving behind the Bible’s own answers to questions of christology, proto-trinitarian speculation resulted in centuries of bitter infighting among professing Christians, which was only finally resolved by the violent intervention of Roman Imperial authorities in favor of the newly christened ‘orthodoxy’ of trinitarianism. The history of this development sees one significant conceptual change after another, with those holding to an older stage of development quickly becoming the heretics of the next generation. It is the job of those seeking the true religion of Jesus and his apostles to distinguish between these later wildly speculative developments and the religion of the Jewish man, Jesus the Nazarene.

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Footnotes

[1] See the ‘rule of faith’ as attested to by Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen, as well as the Creed of Nicea, the Macrostich, the Homoian Creed, all of which begin with the confession “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty…” as well as a collection of testimonies from the writings of various nicene and ante-nicene fathers available here. See a comparative chart of the ‘rule of faith’ as given by various early authors here.

[2] “I know that there is one God, Jesus Christ; nor except Him do I know any other that is begotten and amenable to suffering.” Zephyrinus (d. 217 CE), a Sabellian, as recorded by Hippolytus in Refutation of All Heresies, Book 9. Gnostic denial of the identity of the one God with the Father, and the ‘catholic’ unitarian position against this, is especially clear in Irenaeus’s Against Heresies.

[3] “For there are some, my friends,” I said, “of our race [Christians], who admit that He is Christ, while holding Him to be man of men; with whom I do not agree, nor would I, even though most of those who have the same opinions as myself should say so; since we were enjoined by Christ Himself to put no faith in human doctrines, but in those proclaimed by the blessed prophets and taught by Himself.” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho, 48) “A second class are those who know nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified, considering that the Word made flesh is the whole Word, and knowing only Christ after the flesh. Such is the great multitude of those who are counted believers.” (Origen, Commentary on John 2.3)

[4] See Justin Dialogue With Trypho Ch 61 and 129; Theophilus of Antioch To Autolycus, 2.22; Tatian Address to the Greeks, Ch 5.

[5] See Tertullian, Against Hermogenes Ch 3 and 18; Origen, Commentary on John, 2.6.

[6] See Novatian On the Trinity, Ch 31; Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, Ch 10, and Against Noetus, Ch 10-11; Tertullian, Against Hermogenes Ch 3.

[7] See Justin, Dialogue With Trypho Ch 29, 61, 62, 128; Novatian On the Trinity Ch 31; Origen Commentary on John 2.6; Tatian Address to the Greeks, Ch 5; Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, Ch 10.

[8] “When Scripture says, ‘The Lord rained fire from the Lord out of heaven,’ the prophetic word indicates that there were two in number: One upon the earth, who, it says, descended to behold the cry of Sodom; Another in heaven, who also is Lord of the Lord on earth, as He is Father and God; the cause of His power and of His being Lord and God.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 29) “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; who is also called an Angel, because He announces to men whatsoever the Maker of all things— above whom there is no other God — wishes to announce to them.” (Ibid, Chapter 56) See also Justin Dialogue With Trypho, Ch 29, 56, 60, 61, 113, 125, 126, 127; “Moreover, the Son does nothing of His own will, nor does anything of His own determination; nor does He come from Himself, but obeys all His Father’s commands and precepts; so that, although birth proves Him to be a Son, yet obedience even to death declares Him the minister of the will of His Father, of whom He is. Thus making Himself obedient to His Father in all things, although He also is God, yet He shows the one God the Father by His obedience, from whom also He drew His beginning.” Novatian On the Trinity, Ch 31.

[9] See Justin Dialogue With Trypho, Ch 56, 60, 127; Irenaeus Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching; Tertullian Against Praxeas Ch 16; Novatian On the Trinity Ch 17, 18.

[10] See Tertullian Against Hermogenes, Ch 18.

[11] See Justin Dialogue With Trypho, Ch 56, 60, 127; Irenaeus Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching; Tertullian Against Praxeas Ch 16; Novatian On the Trinity Ch 17, 18.

[12] “You perceive, my hearers, if you bestow attention, that the Scripture has declared that this Offspring was begotten by the Father before all things created; and that which is begotten is numerically distinct from that which begets, any one will admit.” Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 129; see also Ibid, Ch 128.

[13] “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; who is also called an Angel, because He announces to men whatsoever the Maker of all things— above whom there is no other God — wishes to announce to them.” Justin Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 56.

[14] “Grant that there may be some individuals among the multitudes of believers who are not in entire agreement with us, and who incautiously assert that the Saviour is the Most High God; however, we do not hold with them, but rather believe Him when He says, “The Father who sent Me is greater than I.” We would not therefore make Him whom we call Father inferior — as Celsus accuses us of doing — to the Son of God.” Origen Contra Celsum, 8.14.

[15] See the ‘rule of faith’ as attested to by Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen, as well as the Creed of Nicea, the Macrostich, the Homoian Creed, all of which begin with the confession “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty…”. See a comparative chart of the ‘rule of faith’ as given by various early authors here.

[16] “And although we may call Him a second God, let men know that by the term second God we mean nothing else than a virtue capable of including all other virtues, and a reason capable of containing all reason whatsoever which exists in all things, which have arisen naturally, directly, and for the general advantage, and which reason, we say, dwelt in the soul of Jesus, and was united to Him in a degree far above all other souls, seeing He alone was enabled completely to receive the highest share in the absolute reason, and the absolute wisdom, and the absolute righteousness.” Origen, Contra Celsus, Book 5.39; see also Justin, Dialogue With Trypho, Ch 56.

[17] See Origin First Principles, 1.4, compare Novatian On the Trinity, Ch 31; Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, Ch 10, and Against Noetus, Ch 10-11; Tertullian, Against Hermogenes Ch 3.

[18] See Commentary on John, 2.6 and 10.21.

[19] “We consider, therefore, that there are three hypostases, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit; and at the same time we believe nothing to be uncreated but the Father. We admit, as more pious and as true, that the Holy Spirit is the most honored of all things made through the Word, and that he is [first] in rank of all the things which have been made by the Father through Christ. Perhaps this is the reason the Spirit too is not called son of God, since the only begotten alone is by nature a son from the beginning. The Holy Spirit seems to have need of the Son ministering to his hypostasis, not only for it to exist, but also for it to be wise, and rational, and just, and whatever other thing we ought to understand it to be by participation in the aspects of Christ which we mentioned previously.” (Origen, Commentary on John 2.6)

[20] “But as for those who say, ‘There was when He was not’, and, ‘Before being born He was not’, and that He came into existence out of nothing… or is subject to alteration or change, these the Catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes.” (Anathemas of the Nicene Council) While Arius possibly innovated in saying that the Son was created ‘ex nihilo’, out of nothing, he was certainly not the first to teach that there has been a point before the person of the Son existed, see footnote #6.

[21] Hilary of Poiters clearly distinguishes between these multiple ways of taking ‘co-essential’ in his De Synodis. That Hilary acknowledges that what he and the pro-nicenes actually mean by ‘same essence’ is the same thing as the later so-called ‘semi-arians’ meant by ‘like essence’ is very significant, for this reveals that at this time, ‘like essence’ was not considered heresy by the pro-nicenes, but just was only rejected by them as being a poor way of expressing the same idea they intended by ‘same essence’. Later condemnation of the ‘Homoiousian’ ‘semi-arians’ by triniatarians, then, really represents a condemnation of the early pro-nicenes like Athansius as well, since they acknowledged an agreement of doctrine with these “semi-arians” in all but wording. See also Athanasius, De Synodis, 41.

[22] Even Hilary, Athanasius, and Basil recognized a numerical or individual unity of essence as Sabellian, (that is, modalistic). “For neither do we hold a Son-Father, as do the Sabellians, calling Him of one but not of the same essence, and thus destroying the existence of the Son.” Athanasius, Statement of Faith. And Basil the Great said “This term [co-essential] also corrects the error of Sabellius, for it removes the idea of the identity of the hypostases, and introduces in perfection the idea of the Persons. For nothing can be of the same substance with itself, but one thing is of same substance with another.” (Letter LII) These quotes demonstrate that the numerical or individual sense of ‘co-essential’ was seen as Sabellian, and that Athanasius and Basil saw the term’s intended meaning as a generic unity of nature only. They were sure that the term ‘homoousias’, despite being open to this Sabellian meaning, would always be properly qualified as a conceptual equivalent to ‘homoiousias’; we see that within only the span of a generation, however, their pet term was already being taken in the modalistic sense that their opponents warned it would be.

[23] A number of local councils first contravened the Nicene Creed, before finally, in 359, the then ‘ecumenical’ councils of Ariminum & Seleucia officially took the Nicene Creed off the books and replaced it with the ‘Homoian’ formula, which eschewed the philosophically dense language of ‘ousia’ in favor of simply defining the Son as ‘like the Father’ and allowing a more ante-nicene view, like that of the logos-theorists, to flourish again for a brief time.

[24] See Hilary, De Synodis, 66-72, Athanasius De Synodis 41, and footnote #22 above.

[25] See Hilary in On the Trinity, where we can see his drastic departure from the careful anti-Sabellian qualification he gave in his earlier De Synodis. “I and the Father are One John 10:30, are the words of the Only-begotten Son of the Unbegotten. It is the voice of the One God proclaiming Himself to be Father and Son; Father speaking in the Son and Son in the Father.” (On the Trinity, Book 2). See also the writings of Marius Victorinus and Gregory Nazianzen.

[26] “But of the wise men amongst ourselves, some have conceived of him as an Activity, some as a Creature, some as God; and some have been uncertain which to call Him, out of reverence for Scripture, they say, as though it did not make the matter clear either way. And therefore they neither worship Him nor treat Him with dishonour, but take up a neutral position, or rather a very miserable one, with respect to Him. And of those who consider Him to be God, some are orthodox in mind only, while others venture to be so with the lips also. And I have heard of some who are even more clever, and measure Deity; and these agree with us that there are Three Conceptions; but they have separated these from one another so completely as to make one of them infinite both in essence and power, and the second in power but not in essence, and the third circumscribed in both; thus imitating in another way those who call them the Creator, the Co-operator, and the Minister, and consider that the same order and dignity which belongs to these names is also a sequence in the facts.” Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 31. We see here that Gregory, a Cappadocian and one of the leading figures arguing for the view that the Holy Spirit is God, makes no attempt to claim his position as the historical orthodoxy of Christians, but freely admits great diversity of opinion on the matter. Of those who thought the Spirit was a creature, we may especially recall the influential Origen, see Commentary on John 2.6.

[27] See Augustine’s writings in On the Trinity and in his Debate with Maximinus (a Homoian), wherein the one God is expressly treated as a single personal entity who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. See also Hilary in On the Trinity, where we can see his drastic departure from the careful anti-Sabellian qualification he gave in his earlier De Synodis. “I and the Father are One John 10:30, are the words of the Only-begotten Son of the Unbegotten. It is the voice of the One God proclaiming Himself to be Father and Son; Father speaking in the Son and Son in the Father.” (On the Trinity, Book 2). See also the writings of Marius Victorinus and Gregory Nazianzen on the Trinity, and the later pseudo-athanasian creed which came to summarize this modalistic trinitarianism.

[28] This repudiation of the view that the one God is one person, the Father of Jesus, and Jesus another distinct from the one God, can be seen especially in Augustine’s interactions with Maximinus in their Debate, and in the ruling if the council of Rome in 382 as recorded by Theodoret; see Church History, 5.11. Eunomius’s reaction to the nicene victory under Theodosius I also indicates that the opponents of the Nicene party saw themselves as arguing against a theology which taught that the one God is triune, and not particularly the Father; so also with Maximinus in his debate with Augustine.

[29] See the proscriptions of heresy in the Theodosian code. Byzantine anti-heresy laws gradually strengthened against all non-trinitarian views, as the Western Roman Empire fell to the Homoian Goths and Vandals, giving a brief respite of religious liberty, before the restored rule of catholics under the Franks again brought strict medieval ante-heresy laws, forcing non-trinitarians underground until the Protestant Reformation.

38 comments

  1. Mr. Davis

    Which of these apostolic church fathers (clement of rome, polycarp, ignatius of antioch and papias of heirapolis) denies the pre existence of christ ?

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    1. Out of those you listed, none but Ignatius make any mention of Jesus having literally pre-existed in their surviving writings. We have no trace of literal pre-existence in the writings of any of these early authors, with the possible exception of Ignatius of Antioch. The problem with his writings is that they have been badly and obviously corrupted; at least three significantly different versions exist of the letters Eusebius records he authored. So while they do mention pre-existence, and seem to teach a fourth-century-esq Homoian or Homoiousian christology, this is clearly not a reliable source of discovering what the actual first century Ignatius of Antioch thought on the matter.

      Of the authors you mentioned, Clement of Rome by far leaves us the greatest volume of surviving material, and it’s fascinating to look at how he treats passages and issues that are typical linked to literal pre-existence later on by it’s proponents; for example, when he mentions Gen 1:26 in reference to God’s creation of man, he makes no mention of the “Us” having anything to do with Jesus; when he echoes Paul’s argument for humility in imitation of Christ from Philippians, he makes no mention of Christ’s example involving an incarnation; and when he argues for the superiority of Christ over angels in a manner parallel to Hebrews 1, he clearly never mentions anything to do with Christ having literally pre-existed or been involved in creation. In a way, we can see Clement as providing an early commentary on Hebrews 1 and Phil 2 here, and showing us how a first-century companion of Peter and Paul interpreted these passages- seemingly, as having nothing to do with literal pre-existence, just as modern BUs argue they should be interpreted.

      In Christ,

      Andrew

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      1. Can you site here the evidences that clement of rome, polycarp and papias never believe in the pre existence of christ

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      2. 2 Clement 9:5
        If Christ the Lord who saved us, being first spirit, then became
        flesh, and so called us, in like manner also shall we in this flesh
        receive our reward.

        Now may the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the eternal high priest himself, the Son of God Jesus Christ, build you up in faith and truth…and to us with you, and to all those under heaven who will yet believe in our Lord and God Jesus Christ and in his Father who raised him from the dead.[1]

        Polycarp, Philippians, 12:2.

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      3. I think we need to be careful about having too high of expectations on something like this; if these authors didn’t believe in literal pre-existence, it’s unlikely they would have mentioned it at all; there would be no reason to expect to see them disclaiming the view. The silence of these authors doesn’t concretely prove where they stood on the position one way or the other; they neither explicitly claim nor disclaim a belief in literal pre-existence; but it does mean that we have no reason to think they believed literal pre-existence, as there is literally no evidence in favor of it. Their silence on the issue is exactly what we’d expect to see if they were BUs and the doctrine of literal pre-existence hadn’t yet become popular.

        I did, however, mention several portions of Clement of Rome’s epistle above that heavily imply that he did not believe literal pre-existence. You can view those for yourself in 1 Clement Ch 16, 33, and 36. Most scholars agree that ‘2 Clement’ is not be authored by Clement of Rome, but is a later work by another author.

        As for the passage you cited from Polycarp’s epistle, I don’t think there’s any sign of belief in literal pre-existence there. ‘Eternal’ in ‘eternal High Priest’ would best be understood as ‘eternal’ in the sense of perpetual, everlasting, (like in the phrase ‘eternal life’) not in the sense of absolute eternity; especially when we consider the parallel with the Bible’s teaching that Jesus became a perpetual High Priest after his ascension to the right hand of the Father. This doesn’t mean he was always High Priest -we’re told there was a time he became High Priest- but simply that he is High Priest forever. Polycarp calling Jesus ‘God’ (or ‘a god’) is not something that would indicate pre-existence or a belief in a triune God either; throughout the Bible, human rulers and angels are called “gods” on account of their dominion, and I believe it is on this same account (God-given authority) that Jesus Christ, the human Son of God, who has been given “all authority in heaven and earth”, is also rightly called ‘God’ or ‘a god’ in the New Testament. We can just reason from the lesser to the greater; if human rulers and judges in the OT can be called “gods”, then how much more can the Messiah who has been given authority over the whole world after God, and has been given to judge all men also be called a god? And by that same reasoning we can see just as human judges and rulers being called ‘gods’ in the OT doesn’t indicate they are the one God, YHVH, the Almighty, so also Jesus the Messiah being called a God doesn’t indicate that he is the one God, YHVH, the Almighty.

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      4. I’m not aware of Polycarp doing so in the brief and only letter that we have from him. But we do see this in the contemporary text of the NT. For instance, the author of Hebrews quotes Psalm 8:5, which speaks of “gods” (lit. ‘elohim’) and says this is speaking of angels (Heb 2:7). There’s no reason to think that Polycarp is speaking differently than the Old and New Testaments do.

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      5. Hmm questionable

        Some unitarians says that the holy spirit is not distinct/separate person

        And you said that holy spirit is a distinct person

        Which of you are correct ?

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      6. How about these early writings?

        2 Corinthians 8 English Standard Version (ESV)
        9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.

        There is no record of Christ’s affluence on earth—from His birth to His death.

        John 6:62 English Standard Version (ESV)
        62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?

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      7. The first passage here begs the question- this could be the very place where we are told of Christ coming from an affluent family. He is, after all, in the royal lineage, so it’s not inconceivable that his family had some wealth. Even if they didn’t before he was born, the costly gifts from the wise man provided him and his family with considerable riches when he was very young.

        The second passage is a bit enigmatic. We may see a connection here with Jn 3:13, that tells us that Jesus had already ascended and descended from heaven. How we want to take that may vary, but it seems obvious that this doesn’t fit with an incarnation- Jesus (a man) not only descended, but ascended before that. This may also tie in with other statements in Jn 6 about Jesus having come from heaven, and particularly that his body, the bread from heaven, came down. None of that fits well with incarnation theories. The best explanation I’ve seen is John Biddle’s idea that Jesus did, as a man, ascended to heaven before his ministry, where he there saw God, received his kingdom from God (the vision of Dan 7 occurring at this time), etc, and then, as the Christ of God, came back down, and humbled himself to his earthly ministry and sufferings, although he already had the status of Messiah and right to all things in heaven and earth as such.

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      8. I don’t think you can sustain the thesis that Jesus may have come from an affluent family. He was derided as a carpenter by those He grew up with, and I think it more likely than not that if He had surrendered His earthly wealth for the ministry, we would have been told about it. But if He literally came from Heaven, then the passage makes perfect sense.

        Your second paragraph includes an indirect reply to the other passage I cited (Jn. 3:13) where Jesus said He was in Heaven at the same time He was on earth. As I cited, the evidence is overwhelming that the longer reading is genuine. Coupling His statement of location with ascending and descending, including the fact that He literally ascended after His resurrection and that the angels stated that He would return in the same manner as He departed, it is extremely unlikely that He was using a metaphor. Moreover, an appeal to a metaphor must be consistent. If His descending was a metaphor, then His appearance is also a metaphor which is more in line with Gnosticism.

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      9. Well, I’d note that you didn’t address the expensive gifts Jesus was given by the magi. Even if his family was poor at the time he was born (which I think is likely), the fact that he was given these gifts fit for a king, one of which was pretty much just money (gold), and the other two valuable items that could be sold for money, it seems quite possible that he would have had some wealth that could be in view here. But the text in 1 Corinthians just isn’t that detailed to be able to say for sure.

        I’m not sure where the metaphor idea is coming from- my suggestion was that the ascending/descending language in John could be referring to a literal event in which Jesus bodily ascended then descended prior to his ministry. That would explain the data in John better than an incarnation theory, IMO, as an incarnation theory has room only for Jesus having come down, but not for Jesus already having ascended prior to his ministry and having seen God, etc. I tend to agree with the critical text, and as such, take the shorter reading of Jn 3:13.

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      10. I didn’t “address” the magi gifts because it’s a leap to assume that they were so substantial as to make Joseph’s family rich. If they were rich, there would have been no need to continue the carpenter’s trade. There are no scriptural earmarks of affluence for Joseph’s family, and like I said, had He laid aside earthly wealth, I think it’s likely the Scriptures would have mentioned it, especially juxtaposing it with His command to the rich young ruler.

        I’m not sure where the metaphor idea is coming from- my suggestion was that the ascending/descending language in John could be referring to a literal event in which Jesus bodily ascended then descended prior to his ministry. That would explain the data in John better than an incarnation theory, IMO, as an incarnation theory has room only for Jesus having come down, but not for Jesus already having ascended prior to his ministry and having seen God, etc. I tend to agree with the critical text, and as such, take the shorter reading of Jn 3:13.

        Because of your tying His descending with the manna in Jn:6. We do not imagine manna being produced in Heaven and then transported in some way to the earth. We rather see manna as having its origin in Heaven because God directly created it. Similarly, Christ’s flesh is merely likened unto manna because it will in some measure give life to the world. Thus, IMO, a metaphor (looking at it from your perspective) is the only reasonable rejoinder to the literal reading that prior to Christ’s birth, He was in heaven. Otherwise, the comparison with manna fails to be consistent.

        The evidence is overwhelming that the longer reading of Jn. 3:13 is the original one. I think you’re obligated to engage the evidence to state why you think the shorter reading is actually the original, and it shouldn’t be because it happens to agree with your theology. Several modern versions are patently dishonest when they state that “some” manuscripts contain a longer reading. Actually, the overwhelming majority of them contain the longer reading, and they’re not from just one text-type either. I won’t reproduce it all here, but my link demonstrates that it’s not even a close call.

        If the longer reading is the original, then Jesus was in heaven and on earth simultaneously. What then explains the implication that Jesus in some way went up to heaven? Well, for one He isn’t the only to have “ascended” into Heaven (see Ge. 5:24, 28:2, 2 Ki. 2:11, He. 11:5). If we accept the inspiration of the Scriptures, Christ’s “ascension” is restricted to a particular sense. Given that the context relates to man’s salvation, and given that you’re citing a scholar’s opinion on what makes more sense, I think JFB says it well: “The perfect knowledge of God is not obtained by any man’s going up from earth to heaven to receive it – no man hath so ascended – but He whose proper habitation, in His essential and eternal nature, is heaven, hath, by taking human flesh, descended…” He just told Nicodemus, “If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?” His being in Heaven simultaneous with His earthly manifestation thus explains His knowledge of heavenly things because Heaven is His dwelling place.

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    2. Hmm questionable

      Some unitarians says that the holy spirit is not distinct/separate person

      And you said that holy spirit is a distinct person

      Which of you are correct ?

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      1. Yes, historically this view (that the Holy Spirit is a third distinct person, a spirit) has been a ‘minority report’ among Biblical Unitarians. John Biddle and Claude of Savoy, for instance, were a couple of noteworthy reformation era unitarians who shared this view.

        Basically, much of the biblical language about the Holy Spirit is not obviously personal, or, at least, does not need to be seen as necessarily indicating that the Holy Spirit is a distinct person. For me though, the fact that the Holy Spirit is under the authority of the Son, only speaks what the Son gives him to speak, is sent by the Son, etc, demonstrates not only that the Spirit is distinct from the Son, but also that the Spirit cannot in some way be the Father, because the Father is not under the authority of the Son (or of anyone), but is Most High, the Almighty, having supreme rule and authority over all. God is the head of Christ, and if we say that the Father is under the authority of the Son in some way, then we’ve turned that on it’s head; so the Holy Spirit cannot be the Father in some way, when the Spirit is under the authority of the Son, but God is under the authority of no one. That for me is one of the primary reasons for thinking that the Holy Spirit is actually a third distinct person.

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      2. and also other unitarians says that the “Holy Spirit” is not a distinct person/individual, believe it or not

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    1. This is partly answered in the above reply; based on the evidence we have, we have no reason to believe that Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Papias, or the author of the Didache believed that Jesus literally pre-existed his conception in Mary. Unfortunately, we have relatively little preserved of first and second century Christian writings; and what was preserved, was seemingly influenced strongly by what was later considered to be orthodox, with ‘proto-orthodox’ writing being preserved while those advocating different views were destroyed. Because of that, it’s hardly surprising that we don’t find more early authors advocating a purely human christology- we know they existed based on their opponents, but their writings have not survived. Among them we know of Artemon, Theodotus, Beryllus of Bostra, Paul of Samosata, and Photinus. We also have record that the law keeping Jewish Christians, the Ebionites, who seem to be the descendants of the NT ‘Judaizers’ Paul opposed, did not believe in literal pre-existence either. The evidence can be read multiple ways, but there also exists a strong case that the Nazarenes, the descendants of the apostolic Jewish Christian community in Judea, also denied literal pre-existence, while affirming the virgin birth.

      In Christ,

      Andrew

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  2. Do you have any concrete evidence that a Christian who was neither gnostic nor a Judaizer (i.e., someone who imposed the Law of Moses on Gentiles) held a BU-type Christology before Theodotus of Byzantium?

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    1. I suppose the answer to that partly depends on what one is willing to see as ‘concrete evidence’. We don’t typically get statements expressly disclaiming a belief in literal pre-existence, but that’s not what we would reasonably expect to see either. Due to selective preservation of early writings alone, we couldn’t reasonably expect works opposing literal pre-existence in the ante-nicene era to have survived (even those of more well known BUs like Photinus are all lost); but another important consideration is that before the beginning of the third century when Thedotus was condemned, we have no record of BU views (dynamic monarchianism) being considered heretical at all; affirmation of literal pre-existence was not yet a condition for fellowship. (For evidence of this, see Justin’s reference to Christians that didn’t believe in literal pre-existence, who he seems to regard as Christians nonetheless (see Dial. 48).) The only reason later dynamic monarchians are noted historically is as heretics being written against; but if prior to the condemnation of Theodotus they were considered to be within the fold of normal catholicism, then we wouldn’t expect to find those sorts of references that alert us to the existence of these later teachers. That means that there could have been many Christians who openly taught and even wrote in favor of BU views, and the historical record would look like it does, with basically no special note of them.

      That said, in the New Testament, which is earlier than these other early writers, you see the author of Matthew referring to Jesus’s miraculous conception and virgin birth as his “origin” (Matt 1:18), and you have Paul speaking of Christ “coming into being” from a woman (Gal 4:4). These can be read as indicators that these authors held BU christology, as they seem to deny literal pre-existence, and Matthew expressly affirms the virgin birth. We also have something similar with Clement of Rome, where while he never expressly speaks against literal pre-existence, he says and doesn’t say some things that would be pretty odd for someone who believed in it. For example, in quoting Gen 1:26, he is silent respecting the Son being involved in creation; when echoing Paul’s call to the Philippians to imitate Christ’s humility, he never marshals an incarnation as part of that example of humility; and when he parallels Hebrews’ arguments concerning the superiority of Christ to angels, is silent on any sort of literal pre-existence or participation in creation. These must strike us as odd if Clement read Phil 2 and Hebrews 1 as teaching literal pre-existence and using the doctrine as part of their arguments- why cut literal pre-existence out, when it would help the points he is trying to make? To me this is a good indicator that Clement (and the original audience of these writings in general) were not interpreting them in the way that later became the traditional trinitarian interpretation, and that Clement did not use the pre-existence of Christ to bolster these arguments because he did not believe in it.

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      1. Well, that’s because it’s not an outright denial. Clement isn’t engaging with someone who believes in literal pre-existence and saying ‘you’re wrong’. Rather what he’s doing is making observations and arguments that give us an indication of the viewpoint from which he is approaching these issues. For example, with his appeal to imitate Christ’s humility; he mentions Jesus being the Messiah, and the perfect image of God, and having glory in that capacity and then humbling himself, whereas if he believed in literal pre-existence, we’d expect him to have used that to bolster his case, since an incarnation would ostensibly be a greater example of humility than simply suffering indignity and death when you’re God’s appointed king. If your whole point is to use Christ’s humility as an example to follow, you’re going to want to highlight that humility on Christ’s part as much as possible; which he does, by extensively quoting Isaiah 53, but never by mentioning that Jesus was actually an incarnate spirit-being who humbled himself to even become man in the first place. It’s a very strange omission for someone who believes in literal pre-existence, but makes perfect sense if Clement was a BU.

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      2. other unitarians says that the “Holy Spirit” is not a distinct person/individual, believe it or not, tnx

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      3. By “concrete evidence,” I mean any primary or secondary source indicating that Pauline Christians existed before Theodotus of Byzantium who denied the literal preexistence of Christ. In particular, I am looking for something that admits of no alternate explanation. For example, there is no way to read 2 Clement 9:5 as anything other than literal preexistence. Do you have any explicit testimonies that someone who accepted Paul as an apostle held a BU-type Christology before Theodotus of Byzantium?

        You have a point that if denying literal preexistence was not heretical back then, we would not expect to see people condemning Pauline Christians who deny the preexistence. But on the flip side, if there were no Pauline Christians denying the preexistence, then we would not expect to see anyone condemning them either; why oppose a belief no one holds?

        It is hypothetically possible that works composed by people with a BU-type Christology before Theodotus were destroyed, but when this sort of thing happens, the author still makes an indelible imprint on history. None of Theodotus of Byzantium’s writings are still extant, but we know who he was and what he taught because of the storm he generated by claiming Jesus Christ is simply a human being. Why don’t we see this for authors before Theodotus? Bishops don’t just decide to break the status quo and excommunicate people at leisure. Pope Victor I had a reason for expelling Theodotus from the Church. It was one thing for the Ebionites and gnostics to claim Jesus is simply a human being, but when someone within the true Church started promoting that idea, it was nipped in the bud quickly.

        Whether Justin considers people who deny the literal preexistence of Jesus Christ as Christian hinges on the phrase “there are some of [y]our race who acknowledged Him to be Christ” (48.4). The version you are reading (i.e., the ante-Nicene Fathers series) says “our race,” but some other versions (e.g., the Catholic University of America) say “your race.” If Justin said “our race,” then he is acknowledging people who believe Jesus is the Messiah but deny the literal preexistence as Christian. But if Justin said “your race,” then he is contrasting Jews with Christians, placing people who accept Jesus as the Messiah but deny his preexistence in the former category. If this is the case, Justin does not view the men he is describing as Christians. This seems to be a manuscript issue which will ultimately have to be resolved by examining the context. In my judgment, the evidence points decisively toward “your race” being the correct reading:

        1) In 48.2, Justin says “I am aware that my assertion must seem paradoxical, especially to you Jews, who were never in the least interested in knowing or doing the things of God.” So Justin expects those who are uninterested in knowing or doing the things of God to deny the divinity of Jesus Christ and His incarnation. But Christians are exactly the kind of people who are interested in knowing and doing the things of God. So it is unlikely that Justin thought Christians were denying the divinity of Jesus Christ and His incarnation, or if they were, that he would esteem them as Christians.

        2) In 48.4, Justin says concerning those who deny the preexistence: “I naturally disagree with such persons, nor would I agree with them even if the majority of those who share my opinions were to say so.” Justin speaks of a hypothetical reality in which the majority of Christians thought Jesus is simply a human being. Because this is a hypothetical situation and not real, the opposite must have been historically the case: the majority of Christians in Justin’s day did not believe Jesus is simply a human. This entails one of two things: either Pauline Christians with a BU-type Christology were in the minority, or no Pauline Christian actually held a BU-type Christology. (By the way, this indicates that the “second class” described by Origen probably refers to modalists).

        3) Trypho says those who believe Jesus is the Messiah but deny his preexistence “speak with greater acumen than you and yours who say what you now affirm” (49.1). Trypho thus places people who believe Jesus is the Messiah but deny his preexistence in a category antagonistic to “yours” (i.e., Justin’s). It would make little sense for Trypho to describe these as two opposing sides if Justin had just claimed they were on the same side.

        We may summarize the evidence as follows. First, Justin thinks one would have to be uninterested in knowing or doing the things of God to claim Jesus is only a man, which is not descriptive of Christians at all. Second, Justin’s comments presuppose that Pauline Christians who denied the literal preexistence were either the minority or nonexistent in his day. As a bonus, this strongly suggests that “the second class” in Origen’s commentary refers to modalists, not unitarians. Finally, Trypho places those who affirm Jesus is the Messiah but deny the preexistence in a distinct category opposed to “yours” (i.e., Justin’s), which is best explained by “your race” being the correct reading in 48.4.

        What conclusions may we draw from this? If “your race” is the correct reading, as I have argued, then Justin regards the people he is describing as Jews, whom he places in a distinct category from Christians. Now we must ask ourselves: who believed Jesus is the Messiah, denied his preexistence, practiced Jewish customs, and failed to meet Justin’s definition of a Christian in the chapter immediately preceding? The only logical conclusion is the Ebionites, whom Justin describes as “your people” despite believing Jesus is the Christ (47.3). In fact, if you look at the footnote on the ANF version of the Dialogue with Trypho, you’ll find: “Some read, ‘of your race,’ referring to the Ebionites.”

        You wrote, “That means that there could have been many Christians who openly taught and even wrote in favor of BU views, and the historical record would look like it does, with basically no special note of them.” But this is highly implausible. Even with an imperial edict to destroy all Arian writings, we have tons of Arian material still extant. Why did so much of this survive when none of the alleged BU writings did? Not only that, but there is no record of their existence before Theodotus of Byzantium. The only possible exception is Justin Martyr’s comment in Dial. 48, which I have already shown must have referred to the Ebionites.

        A relevant quote to consider is by St. Irenaeus: “The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith … one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation …” (AH 1.10.1). According to Irenaeus, it was the universal teaching of the Church throughout the world that Jesus Christ became incarnate for our salvation, and he made it especially clear that you will not find a single exception to this rule. He does not seem to be aware of any Pauline Christians who denied the incarnation, and by extension the preexistence of Christ which the incarnation presupposes. The only people he ever mentions as denying the preexistence are Ebionites and certain gnostics (AH 1.26.1-2).

        The trouble with discussing 1 Clement is that he tends to stick closely to biblical language, which means however you interpret the New Testament will align with how you read 1 Clement. If you do not see preexistence in the New Testament, you will not see it here either. Similarly, if I see preexistence in the New Testament, I will see it here also. For example, Clement writes in chapter 16: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Sceptre of the majesty of God, did not come in the pomp of pride or arrogance, although He might have done so, but in a lowly condition, as the Holy Spirit had declared regarding Him.” I read “Our Lord Jesus Christ … did not come” in the same way I read the expression “I have come” in the synoptic gospels: Christ came from heaven to earth. But you do not see this the same way because you read the Bible very differently.

        I freely grant that 1 Clement does not explicitly proclaim the preexistence of Christ in the same way 2 Clement and the epistle of Barnabas do, which is why I would not use it as evidence that Christians immediately after the apostolic age believed in the preexistence of Jesus Christ. But the most you can do with this is make arguments from ignorance that take the form of, “Clement didn’t believe X, because he didn’t mention it anywhere” or “Clement would have said X if he believed X,” which are not only unpersuasive but fallacious.

        I’d rather not discuss all the New Testament passages you quoted, since this comment is already long and your post was originally about the alleged development of the Trinity after the New Testament. Our whole discussion centers around the plausibility of reading the New Testament the way you do in light of how the Christians who lived immediately after the apostles understood it, so getting into the weeds of biblical interpretation would defeat the entire purpose of talking about this.

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      4. The apostle Matthew and Justin Martyr are both clear witnesses to early BU beliefs. Matthew accepted Paul as an apostle, according to Acts, and also spoke of the “origin” of Jesus Christ being his miraculous conception and subsequent virgin birth. That’s right there in the NT, from the mouth of an apostle. Beyond that, we have Justin, whose testimony cannot be dismissed as you attempt to.

        //You have a point that if denying literal preexistence was not heretical back then, we would not expect to see people condemning Pauline Christians who deny the preexistence. But on the flip side, if there were no Pauline Christians denying the preexistence, then we would not expect to see anyone condemning them either; why oppose a belief no one holds?//

        True; that means that the silence doesn’t support either side then. So you can’t try to argue then that’s its somehow a point against the BU view that more explicit early testimony doesn’t exist, if you’ve just conceded that the silence doesn’t help or hurt either side.

        //It is hypothetically possible that works composed by people with a BU-type Christology before Theodotus were destroyed, but when this sort of thing happens, the author still makes an indelible imprint on history.//

        The people making “an indelible imprint on history” did so as ‘heretics’ being written against as such; so prior to BU views being considered heresy, there’s not going to be any ‘imprint’. Again, there’s two kinds of testimony to early BU views we’d expect- their own writings, and people writing against them as heretics. Prior to the beginning of the third century we have no basis upon which to expect the latter, since BU views weren’t counted as heresy, and again, selective preservation accounts well for the former. We barely have anything written by the proto-orthodox from the era (consider for example how few of Irenaeus’s writings have come down to us), of course we aren’t going to have works that were considered heretical preserved. People who didn’t care to preserve the writings of Papias, the Hebrew Gospel by Matthew, or the history of Hegesippus certainly aren’t going to have preserved anything written against literal pre-existence.

        //You wrote, “That means that there could have been many Christians who openly taught and even wrote in favor of BU views, and the historical record would look like it does, with basically no special note of them.” But this is highly implausible. Even with an imperial edict to destroy all Arian writings, we have tons of Arian material still extant. Why did so much of this survive when none of the alleged BU writings did?//

        This is simply factually false; we have next to nothing of Arian writings. Fragments gleaned from the works of opponents, quotes included in ancient histories, and a few letters are all that remain of them, to my knowledge, which is next to nothing. And the Arian controversy came at a time when more works in general were preserved than in the ante-nicene era. If you can’t acknowledge that selective preservation is a real problem here, I don’t know what to say to you; we are dealing with a fraction of what was written in the ancient church, and mostly only works amenable to later orthodoxy in some way were preserved. For instance, no one doubts that Photinus was influential and had a large following in the fourth century, yet we have nothing of his writings. We also have very few of the hundreds or thousands of Homoian writings, and almost nothing from the Homoiousians. I question how you can be familiar with the church fathers and say things like this.

        Irenaeus’s summary of the rule of faith is interesting, but doesn’t much effect the BU case; we know there were versions of the rule (like the ‘apostles creed’) that make no mention whatsoever of literal pre-existence.

        //But the most you can do with this is make arguments from ignorance that take the form of, “Clement didn’t believe X, because he didn’t mention it anywhere” or “Clement would have said X if he believed X,” which are not only unpersuasive but fallacious.//

        There’s nothing fallacious about noting that it’s very, very odd for someone who believes in literal pre-existence to leave it out in places where it would substantially strengthen the points and arguments he is making. I agree that Clement is echoing the apostles, but he does so in such a way that doesn’t make any mention or implication of pre-existence; so, follow that logic back and it will tell you something about the apostles he is echoing.

        Finally, to address the passage from Justin, your attempt to dismiss his testimony hinges upon misreading and/or simply changing what the text says. To respond to you points in order:

        1) Justin said “I know that the statement does appear to be paradoxical, especially to those of your race, who are ever unwilling to understand or to perform the[requirements] of God, but[ready to perform] those of your teachers, as God Himself declares.” That’s not a statement about the moral character of people who deny literal pre-existence, it’s a jab at the Jews for preferring their traditions to the will of God. That’s it.

        2) Nice try? Justin said “with whom I do not agree, nor would I, even though most of those who have[now] the same opinions as myself should say so;”, not “even if”; so the whole argument you tried to build on the word “if” that isn’t there is worthless. Rather, you point us to an observation useful to my case: Justin’s words imply that the majority of Christians don’t believe in literal pre-existence! Perhaps this difference between “if” and “though” is a translational difference? Even if that’s so, it would mean your point is moot as it could go either way.

        3) “Yours” could just mean those who hold his opinion; this would make nothing for your case; but here again, I wonder where you’re even getting this from? The translation I have doesn’t say that, but only “”Those who affirm him to have been a man, and to have been anointed by election, and then to have become Christ, appear to me to speak more plausibly than you who hold those opinions which you express.” No “you and yours” there. If it’s a translation issue, then, all the more, it goes to show this doesn’t make anything for your case.

        All that said, your attempt to re-interpret Justin isn’t a success. We’re left with no reason to favor the reading “your race” over “our race”. But let’s look at Justin’s overall point here too: his point is that even if Trypho isn’t persuaded about literal pre-existence, he should still believe in Jesus as the Christ. That doesn’t make sense for an orthodox person to say, does it? For modern orthodox trinitarians, it’s completely worthless for someone to believe that Jesus is the Christ apart from believing that he is God incarnate; you’ll never hear a trinitarian say that if you can’t accept the trinity, alright, you should still accept Jesus as Christ, because in their mind, both a confession of his incarnation and his being Christ is required for salvation and both are essential to Christianity, so one without the other is worthless. But Justin doesn’t say that at all; for Justin, it’s still worthwhile for Trypho to believe in Jesus as Messiah, even if he doesn’t accept literal pre-existence. That heavily implies that Justin thinks Trypho can be saved and be a Christian without believing in literal pre-existence, and clearly presents Justin’s belief in literal pre-existence as an issue separate from the gospel itself.

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      5. Therefore these words testify explicitly that He [Jesus] is witnessed to by Him [the Father] who established these things, as deserving to be worshipped, as God and as Christ.

        Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 63. ANF, I:229.

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    2. Yes, Justin is making observations off of Psalm 45, where Christ is called ‘God’ and receives worship. The passage addresses the Christ as “God” and then says to him “God, your God, has anointed you”; so notice there, that while Jesus is called “God” (or ‘a god’), he also still has a God above him. I don’t think Jesus being called ‘God’ or ‘a god’ does anything to support trinitarianism; you can see some of my thoughts on what it means to be ‘god’ here: https://contramodalism.com/2018/07/04/the-meaning-of-the-term-god/

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      1. Justin Martyr, who died about 165 C.E., called the prehuman Jesus a created angel who is “other than the God who made all things.” He said that Jesus was inferior to God and “never did anything except what the Creator . . . willed him to do and say.”

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  3. I should also add John 3:13,

    13 No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man [b]who is in heaven.

    The argument that the shorter reading is the original is without merit.

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  4. Origen never mentions the eternal generation of the Son in any of his works that are preserved in the original Greek.
    Eternal generation only appears in Tyrannius Rufinus’ translation of Origen’s First Principles. Jerome accuses Rufinus of purposefully mistranslating Origen’s works in order to conform the translation to Trinitarian Orthodoxy. I highly suspect that the reference to eternal generation is an interpolation from Rufinus.

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