The Riddles of John – Part 1, Ignatius and Origen

Irenaeus records for us a tactic that the Gnostics had used when dealing with scripture:

When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous

An appeal to obscurity or ambiguousness is often the starting point for apologists of non-scriptural doctrines. It was true in the days of Irenaeus and its true now. This article, by Paul Anderson, makes the case that that Trinitarian theology is the logical answer to the so-called riddles found in John. Much of his case depends on the idea that within John are found dialectical tensions, that are such that something like the trinity comes to be needed in order to to resolve them. I think this is problematic.

He doesn’t make a big point out of it, but early on in his article, Anderson touches on the theologies of Ignatius and Origen saying:

As early as the letters of Ignatius, God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit (Letter to the Ephesians 9:2) are associated together, building on the threefold associations in the New Testament (Matt 28:19; Lk 10:21; Eph 1:17; 1 Pet 1:2). In the early third century, Origen refers to the Son’s relation to the Father as being of one essence (homoousios)—on the basis of the Johannine Prologue, and while he maintains three hupostases (persons) of the same essence, he seeks to preserve the Son’s dependence on the Father—also based on John’s Father-Son relationship.

It may seem like I’m nit picking, but I feel it’s important to point out problems in what might be considered small issues, because small issues sometimes lay a precedent for future argument and often add up to large problems. In Ignatius’ Ephesians 9, God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are associated with each other, but not in any way that could serve as the starting point for a Trinitarian theology, or anything like it. The verse in question says:

forasmuch as ye are stones of a temple, which were prepared beforehand for a building of God the Father, being hoisted up to the heights through the engine of Jesus Christ, which is the Cross, and using for a rope the Holy Spirit; while your faith is your windlass, and love is the way that leadeth up to God. 9:2 So then ye are all companions in the way, carrying your God and your shrine, your Christ and your holy things, being arrayed from head to foot in the commandments of Jesus Christ.

There is nothing there that would even hint at a precursor to a Trinitarian theology. The reason this is important to point out is that sometimes the idea is given that the raw data for the Trinity was there all along, and the councils just put them together. If this claim is to be true, we have to look at the actual raw data. What about Origen? Well let’s see what Origen says in his commentary on John about the relationship between Jesus and God, in Book 1 Chapter 22 of his commentary on John Origen says:

So many meanings occur to us at once of the word Arche. We have now to ask which of them we should adopt for our text, “In the beginning was the Word.” It is plain that we may at once dismiss the meaning which connects it with transition or with a road and its length. Nor, it is pretty plain, will the meaning connected with an origin serve our purpose. One might, however, think of the sense in which it points to the author, to that which brings about the effect, if, as we read, “God commanded and they were created.” For Christ is, in a manner, the demiurge, to whom the Father says, “Let there be light,” and “Let there be a firmament.” But Christ is demiurge as a beginning (arche), inasmuch as He is wisdom. It is in virtue of His being wisdom that He is called arche. For Wisdom says in Solomon: “God created me the beginning of His ways, for His works,” so that the Word might be in an arche, namely, in wisdom. Considered in relation to the structure of contemplation and thoughts about the whole of things, it is regarded as wisdom; but in relation to that side of the objects of thought, in which reasonable beings apprehend them, it is considered as the Word. And there is no wonder, since, as we have said before, the Saviour is many good things, if He comprises in Himself thoughts of the first order, and of the second, and of the third. This is what John suggested when he said about the Word: “That which was made was life in Him.” Life then came in the Word. And on the one side the Word is no other than the Christ, the Word, He who was with the Father, by whom all things were made; while, on the other side, the Life is no other than the Son of God, who says: “I am the way and the truth and the life.” As, then, life came into being in the Word, so the Word in the arche.


Now God is altogether one and simple; but our Saviour, for many reasons, since God set Him forth a propitiation and a first fruits of the whole creation, is made many things, or perhaps all these things; the whole creation, so far as capable of redemption, stands in need of Him.

So it’s clear that Origin was not some kind of proto-Trinitarian who just saw the son as subservient in some way, he was following Philo’s logos theology. The son was a different being than God according to Origen, the son was created. However, what about being of the same essence? Let’s look in Book 2 Chapter 2:

In some cases he uses the article, and in some he omits it. He adds the article to the Logos, but to the name of God he adds it sometimes only. He uses the article, when the name of God refers to the uncreated cause of all things, and omits it when the Logos is named God. Does the same difference which we observe between God with the article and God without it prevail also between the Logos with it and without it? We must enquire into this. As the God who is over all is God with the article not without it, so “the Logos” is the source of that reason (Logos) which dwells in every reasonable creature; the reason which is in each creature is not, like the former called par excellence The Logos. Now there are many who are sincerely concerned about religion, and who fall here into great perplexity. They are afraid that they may be proclaiming two Gods, and their fear drives them into doctrines which are false and wicked. Either they deny that the Son has a distinct nature of His own besides that of the Father, and make Him whom they call the Son to be God all but the name, or they deny the divinity of the Son, giving Him a separate existence of His own, and making His sphere of essence fall outside that of the Father, so that they are separable from each other. To such persons we have to say that God on the one hand is Very God (Autotheos, God of Himself); and so the Saviour says in His prayer to the Father, “That they may know Thee the only true God; “but that all beyond the Very God is made God by participation in His divinity, and is not to be called simply God (with the article), but rather God (without article). And thus the first-born of all creation, who is the first to be with God, and to attract to Himself divinity, is a being of more exalted rank than the other gods beside Him, of whom God is the God, as it is written, “The God of gods, the Lord, hath spoken and called the earth.” It was by the offices of the first-born that they became gods, for He drew from God in generous measure that they should be made gods, and He communicated it to them according to His own bounty. The true God, then, is “The God,” and those who are formed after Him are gods, images, as it were, of Him the prototype. But the archetypal image, again, of all these images is the Word of God, who was in the beginning, and who by being with God is at all times God, not possessing that of Himself, but by His being with the Father, and not continuing to be God, if we should think of this, except by remaining always in uninterrupted contemplation of the depths of the Father.

So in what way are they of one essence? Well, it seems quite clear that it means that Jesus is in full agreement with God and an Image of him. It does not mean that they are in some way ontologically one being at all. There is nothing in Origen that would, in any way, contradict Philo’s Logos theology, in fact Origen uses much of the same language and argumentation as Philo (such as stressing the use of the article before Θεὸς). Neither Ignatius, Nor Origen were proto-Trinitarians. People like Origen (or Justin Martyr for example) include the idea of a first created logos, an only begotten son, through which the rest of creation was made, which we find in Philo as well, who can in a certain way be called God. That position is not proto-Trinitarian; it is in fact incompatible with Trinitarianism. Ignatius does call Jesus God (along with other early Church fathers), but this doesn’t get one to Trinitarianism necessarily, as long as we allow for the obvious fact that the term “God” doesn’t always have to refer to Yahweh. I’m not trying to make a strawman here, as the article is not arguing for the trinity on the basis of the Church fathers, I’m just pointing out a common fallacy that is often made when attempting to create a logical progression from scripture through the fathers to the creedal trinity, it simply isn’t there.

Read Part 2 here.

The Riddles of John – Part 1, Ignatius and Origen

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