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This question is slightly related to How do Unitarians respond to quotations from Ignatius of Antioch that seem to show Ignatius believes Jesus is God? but I think I am presenting a unique challenge.

Biblical Unitarians, by necessity, believe that the apostles taught that Christ was not God, but a messianic figure and the Son of God (of course this position is further nuanced). However, quotes from the early church tell us that the earliest Christians, even those instructed and taught by the apostles, believed in the divinity of Christ.

St. Ignatius (who was instructed by the Apostle John):

“For our God, Jesus Christ, was conceived by Mary in accord with God’s plan: of the seed of David, it is true, but also of the Holy Spirit” (ibid., 18:2).

“Ignatius, also called Theophorus, to the Church at Ephesus in Asia . . . predestined from eternity for a glory that is lasting and unchanging, united and chosen through true suffering by the will of the Father in Jesus Christ our God” (Letter to the Ephesians 1 [A.D. 110]).

“[T]o the Church beloved and enlightened after the love of Jesus Christ, our God, by the will of him that has willed everything which is” (Letter to the Romans 1 [A.D. 110]).

Aristides:

“[Christians] are they who, above every people of the earth, have found the truth, for they acknowledge God, the Creator and maker of all things, in the only-begotten Son and in the Holy Spirit” (Apology 16 [A.D. 140]).

Tatian the Syrian:

“We are not playing the fool, you Greeks, nor do we talk nonsense, when we report that God was born in the form of a man” (Address to the Greeks 21 [A.D. 170]).

Melito of Sardis:

“The activities of Christ after his baptism, and especially his miracles, gave indication and assurance to the world of the deity hidden in his flesh. Being God and likewise perfect man, he gave positive indications of his two natures: of his deity, by the miracles during the three years following after his baptism, of his humanity, in the thirty years which came before his baptism, during which, by reason of his condition according to the flesh, he concealed the signs of his deity, although he was the true God existing before the ages” (Fragment in Anastasius of Sinai’s The Guide 13 [A.D. 177]).

Irenaeus:

“For the Church, although dispersed throughout the whole world even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and from their disciples the faith in one God, Father Almighty, the creator of heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them; and in one Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became flesh for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who announced through the prophets the dispensations and the comings, and the birth from a Virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the bodily ascension into heaven of the beloved Christ Jesus our Lord, and his coming from heaven in the glory of the Father to reestablish all things; and the raising up again of all flesh of all humanity, in order that to Jesus Christ our Lord and God and Savior and King, in accord with the approval of the invisible Father, every knee shall bend of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Against Heresies 1:10:1 [A.D. 189]).

“Nevertheless, what cannot be said of anyone else who ever lived, that he is himself in his own right God and Lord . . . may be seen by all who have attained to even a small portion of the truth” (ibid., 3:19:1).

You can find more quotes here.

According to Biblical Unitarians, why was there a sudden shift from the Unitarian belief among the apostles to the deification of Christ within a generation of the gospel?

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    Please no mini answers in the comments.
    – Ken Graham
    Nov 28, 2022 at 10:49
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    Your question seems to assume that tradition is just as -- if not more -- important than the Bible. Since most Biblical Unitarians are not Orthodox or Roman Catholic, it's pretty likely that they come from the Protestant -- i.e. Sola Scriptura -- tradition.
    – RonJohn
    Nov 28, 2022 at 20:48
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    @RonJohn. I don't think he is saying it should be believed because the early Church believed it but rather, "how do a Unitarian explain why early Church believed it?" The Trinitarian answer is: because it is the apostolic teaching. And then it remains to Trinitarians to show that it is indeed so from Scripture. If the Unitarian says it is not Scriptural, it still does not answer the question: "why did the early church then believe it?" Nov 29, 2022 at 4:57
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    Unitarians and other non trinitarians explain the early Church extrabiblical doctrines as being the start of the great apostasy. The blending of Greek philosophy and mythology into Christianity.
    – User 14
    Nov 29, 2022 at 13:34
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    @LukeHill "The earliest Christians, those cited, would have had direct access to the apostles" This is just wrong. Maybe Iggy, although that's iffy. The others? Nope, not this time - not a chance! Nov 30, 2022 at 0:34

4 Answers 4

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There are a couple major issues here. 1. How ought we to understand the use of terms like 'theos' in early texts such as St. Ignatius of Antioch's? 2. What were the beliefs of the early church, and how did those change leading upto the official adoption of Trinitarianism, which happens hundreds of years later? These two questions are obviously inter-related, where our understanding of each will impact the other.

Behind this is the ambiguity of the phrase 'divinity of Christ', used by the OP. What does it mean? Does it include Unitarians like Arius, who held Jesus was 'theos' but not co-equal with the Father? Does it include Unitarians who hold Jesus is at the right hand of the Father and given all authority in Heaven? I would say yes. Some would say no. So the question is ambiguous.

The first thing to note is that terms like 'theos' (Greek) and 'elohim' (Hebrew) didn't map neatly on to our English term 'God'. The words were more flexible, and could be used of heroes, angels, 'gods', or God Himself.

This leads to another point, which is that the ancient Jewish understanding of sender and sent was different than ours. Agent-identity (sender and sent) was closer linguistically to what we think of as ontological-identity (two names for the same being). This is reflected in the general use of the term 'elohim' ('God'), which is applied to heroes, kings, judges, or angels, in addition to God Himself. Why? These figures, as far as they were 'elohim', stood in an agent-relationship with God.

For an example of this kind of conceptualization in the NT, consider where in 2 Gospels a centurion has messengers speaking, but in 1 Gospel it is the centurion himself speaking. Well, which is it? To the ancient Jewish mind, the distinction was not as great as to our mind, because the language was just being used functionally, and the point in this case was the centurion's intentions - whether identified as being spoken proximally by a messenger or the centurion didn't really matter.

Not surprisingly, we don't have to go to St. Ignatius of Antioch (or later writers) to get 'theos' used apparently to describe Jesus. The main source for this is the Gospel of John, in particular John 1:1 (Word = Jesus, Word = theos) and John 20:28 (Thomas says to Jesus "my Lord and my theos"). You also have at least one other place where this is arguable (Hebrews), although we have issues of textual variants and grammatical ambiguity in (almost?) all cases.

With that prelude, let's talk about what happened. The first is a matter of history. The early Christian church, as far as we can tell with surviving theological works, was overwhelmingly Unitarian up until around the time of Arius (and then significantly Unitarian straight through to the 7th century, when Spain's King converted to Trinitarianism - so > 600 years of Unitarian tradition in the 'early Church', and then re-emerged very rapidly after greater theological freedoms with the Protestant Reformation, such that there is ~1,150 years of Unitarian tradition within Christendom). Arius, himself a Unitarian, claimed to simply be passing on received tradition, and this is plausible because of the theological record we have.

Jesus was a 'theos' to many of these Unitarians, because they believed He was a pre-existent logos being, a 'god', who was not co-equal with the Father but above a 'mere man'. This is very important. The works of various early Church theologians in the first 200 years after Christ, such as those quoted in the OP, when inspected carefully, typically don't show Binitarianism (or Trinitarianism), but logos-theory Unitarianism or something similar. 'Theos' is an ambiguous term whose meaning in early Church writing must be determined by context, not proof-texts (as is also the case with the NT and OT!).

So the real question for a contemporary Biblical Unitarian, who holds Jesus is entirely a man and doesn't pre-exist - is why these early Unitarians, such as logos-theorists, went wrong and went wrong so quickly (it's only later on that these errors lead to further errors with Binitarianism and then Trinitarianism).

This is confused by a couple issues. The first is that saying Jesus is 'theos' or 'elohim' (as Moses is described, Ex. 4:16, 7:1) could mean the author is claiming an agent-role, not an ontological-role. Plausibly for BUs, this is what Thomas is doing at John 20:28, recognizing that Jesus is indeed the agent of the Father and that, therefore, when he sees Jesus he sees the Father.

The second is that 'theos' or 'elohim' can be applied not just for a man who is an agent, but also an angel or logos-being.

The first sort of interpretation of early Church writers wouldn't actually be an error for BUs. So the question is really why logos-theorists, who held to Jesus being something like an angel (similar to JWs nowadays) or logos-being, developed in the early Church - and indeed, we know this happened quickly.

The standard answer is the explosion of theologians in the Church who simultaneously were strongly influenced by Greek philosophy, and who were weaker at understanding ancient Jewish ways of thinking. It was this one-two punch which knocked the early Church off its course, and launched the logos-theorists.

So what happened with these early Unitarians, who held not only that Jesus was 'theos' (a BU could hold the same thing in the proper sense), but that Jesus was a pre-existent logos-being?

The answer is a) they didn't understand the ancient Jewish idea of ideal pre-existence properly (in particular, that the name of the Christ or Messiah pre-existed before the foundation of the world as an idea in God's mind), b) they misunderstood the strong idea of agency that was reflected in John's Gospel (exemplified by John 20:28), and c) they imported a philosophical preconception which required an intermediary between the Father and the world in order to retain the Father's 'purity' from the world but enable the Father to act in the world, i.e., a 'Son' or 'Logos' figure. These 3 strands combined to form Unitarian logos-theorists, who sprung up very quickly once the Apostles died and an explosion of Greek philosophy-informed Christian theologians arrived in the early Church.

So, a) when Jesus speaks of the glory He had with the Father before the foundation of the world (John 17:5), instead of seeing this as a statement of ideal pre-existence of the name of the Messiah (as in the Babylonian Talmud), they thought it was a claim by Jesus of literal pre-existence.

This is a talk by Bill Schlegel where he articulates the basic BU view of John 17:5, including ideal pre-existence and the prophetic past in ancient Hebrew.

When b) Thomas says to Jesus "my Lord and my God", being unfamiliar with the Jewish idea of agency, they saw this as Thomas literally claiming Jesus is a god (again, the logos-being who pre-exists and is a go-between), instead of seeing it as agency talk, with Thomas recognizing that Jesus is the agent of the Father, i.e., of God.

When c) the narrator starts talking of a 'logos' through whom 'all' come to be in John 1, they saw this in terms of a 'demiurge' or go-between, a lesser deity in Greek philosophy, and so the logos is 'a god'.

For c) here, BU views about John 1's prologue differ, so views about which exact error was made by early Church logos-theorists will differ. Some, like John Schoenheit, hold the logos is a 'plan' here. Others, like Dale Tuggy, hold the logos is a personification of God's creative power (similar to the personification of Wisdom in other parts of the Bible). Finally, others, such as Bill Schlegel, hold the logos is a title for Jesus (and I fit in this last category) and so are closer to typical Trinitarian views, but that the 'beginning' is the new beginning of Jesus' ministry (so, Socinian) and so doesn't speak to a pre-existent logos-being. So, to some extent, views on what went wrong in the early Church with John 1 are going to be indexed to different views on what the correct interpretation of John's prologue is, and so will vary amongst BUs.

However, all BUs hold that the broad swath of scripture teaches that Jesus is wholly man, and did not pre-exist as some sort of other being, and so will agree that John 1 is a key place where people in the early Church veered into error, leading to logos-theorists -> Binitarians -> Trinitarians. From the BU perspective, the original sin here is not Trinitarianism, but 'Jesus is a god' Unitarianism. It is anachronistic according to standard BU views to think a 2nd century writer was thinking in Trinitarian categories.

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    I have several issues with your argument. First of all your interpretation of history is completely false. Trinitarian theology was wide spread in the early church far before the 7th century, evidenced by the council of Nicea in 300 AD. Along with this, your argument regarding the use of theos can be pretty easily refuted with more quotes from the linked website where there are multiple mentions of an incarnation doctrine. I’d be glad to provide those if necessary. Finally, my question was not in regards to Trinity/Binitarian theology, but the deity of Christ.
    – Luke Hill
    Nov 29, 2022 at 1:27
  • @LukeHill I'm not saying Trinitarianism wasn't widespread before the 7th century. Of course it was, that was what displaced the final major centre of Unitarianism in Europe in ~650. Rather, there's no evidence of widespread Trinitarianism before the 300s (as I say, up until around the time of Arius). Nov 29, 2022 at 3:49
  • @LukeHill "your argument regarding the use of theos can be pretty easily refuted with more quotes from the linked website where there are multiple mentions of an incarnation doctrine" Which argument? Nov 29, 2022 at 3:50
  • @LukeHill "deity of Christ" Well, what of it? The 'divinity of Christ' is a matter of definition, because it's ambiguous. I would hold (as a BU) that Jesus is God (in the sense of agency) and is divine. So what? Nov 29, 2022 at 3:51
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    when Origen says "Although he was God, he took flesh; and having been made man, he remained what he was: God” (The Fundamental Doctrines 1:0:4 [A.D. 225])." It's pretty clear what he means
    – Luke Hill
    Nov 29, 2022 at 18:27
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The simple answer to the OP's main question is that Biblical Unitarians make a distinction between what the Bible teaches and what the Church Fathers taught. Moreover they would probably disagree with the OP's statement that the early church quickly accepted Christ's divinity, since there is evidence the this doctrine continued to be an issue in the church for many decades, even centuries.

Disclaimer: "Biblical Unitarians" is a term that encompasses a number of usually loosely organized denominations as well non-affiliated Unitarian Christians, so the following should not be considered as a "one size fits all" response.

Philadelphians - the Bible is Sufficient

To take one example, the Christadelphians define themselves as "a world-wide community of Bible students whose fellowship is based on a common understanding of the Scriptures." They do not appeal to the authority of the early church but consider themselves competent to interpret the Scriptures, which are "complete and self-sufficient to instruct us in the way of salvation."

Christadelphians state that

The Bible, consisting of the Scriptures of Moses, the prophets, and the apostles, is the only source of knowledge concerning God and His purposes at present extant or available in the earth, and that the same were wholly given by inspiration of God in the writers, and are consequently without error in all parts of them, except such as may be due to errors of transcription or translation.

A small problem in the OP is that it states: "Biblical Unitarians... believe that the apostles taught that Christ was not God." This is true only for those apostles whose teachings address the issue Christ's humanity or divinity. They do not claim to know what other apostles taught.

Why the "Sudden Shift?"

The OP asks a second question: "According to Biblical Unitarians, why was there a sudden shift from the Unitarian belief among the apostles to the deification of Christ within a generation of the gospel?" My research did not discover an answer to this question from Biblical Unitarians, but they might well take issue with the OP's claim that there was a shift sudden, since the earliest fathers did not all deal with the issue of Christ's divinity; nor did they all write within a generation of the gospel. A Biblical Unitarian might also point out that the institutional church destroyed the writings of early Christians who believed in Christ's humanity (as opposed to his divinity), so that the writings of the church fathers are not representative of the entire early church. This question deals with this issue. The Ebionites are one example of an Early Christian group mentioned by several church fathers and which denied the divinity of Christ. The same may be said of those who taught the Adoptionist Heresy. Thus Biblical Unitarians can argue that the early church did not really adopt the doctrine of Christ's divinity as universally and quickly as the OP suggests.

The response of Biblical Unitarianism to the OP's main question would be that the Bible is sufficient to inform believers, and believers do not need church authorities, ancient or otherwise, to interpret it for them.

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Following the Bible

Whenever truths of great importance are involved, there is sure to be some source of confusion as the Enemy of all mankind seeks to keep us from understanding that truth. If even Peter, the disciple of Jesus, could be rebuked by Jesus for allowing himself to speak Satan's tempting words to Jesus, then Christians everywhere know it is important to be Bereans--to study and prove the truthfulness of anything that anyone else might say, even if the speaker is the Apostle Paul himself.

That said, as a Bible-believing Christian, I would be leery of accepting without question any uninspired author or theologian. St. Ignatius' views have no weight with me. The Bible, and the Bible alone, is to be the standard for every belief and doctrine.

The Spirit of Antichrist

The question itself regarding what the early church believes shows the classic Trinitarian bias, because it is the Trinitarian, and not the Unitarian, who has left the safety of Sola Scriptura to elevate apostolic tradition in its place. The Apostle John warned us of this very thing.

2 Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: 3 And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world. (1 John 4:2-3, KJV)

Christians are warned to beware of the "spirit of antichrist" which was to come, "and even now already is it in the world." In other words, theological problems were to begin early. Early church fathers were not immune from doctrinal errors.

Looking more carefully at John's statement reveals exactly what the problem is.

God is a Spirit, Jesus is Not

John tells us to beware of those who do not confess that Jesus Christ had come "in the flesh."

But why would anyone try to say otherwise? Actually, it turns out that by trying to call Jesus God, one must, at the same time, deny that he had come "in the flesh." This is because Jesus taught that God is "spirit" and that a spirit does not have flesh.

Consider these two verses:

God is a Spirit*: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit* and in truth. (John 4:24, KJV)

Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit* hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have. (Luke 24:39, KJV)

Both of those verses quote Jesus directly. In both verses, Jesus uses the Greek word "pneuma" for each of those marked by the asterisk (*).

Spirits Do Not Have Flesh

Jesus taught plainly that while God is a spirit, and a spirit does not have flesh, he did have flesh and was therefore not a spirit/God.

Anyone who claims Jesus is God must deny that he had flesh, because God, who is spirit, does not have flesh. And this is the very claim that is said to be of "the spirit of antichrist."

Therefore, any member of the early church who came claiming that Jesus is God was already fulfilling John's prediction that this spirit was to come, and, indeed, was already present.

Conclusion

The early church beliefs provide no safety at all, theologically or spiritually. The only safety a Christian has is in following a "thus saith the Lord"--looking to the Word of God itself as the basis for every belief, every practice, and every doctrine. The "spirit of antichrist," represented by claiming Jesus was God (and therefore could not have come "in the flesh"), was prophesied to come imminently--a prophecy whose fulfillment is easily seen by the record of the church fathers listed in the question.

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    1 John 4 was written to combat Docetism not Trinitarianism. Nov 28, 2022 at 13:26
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    @MikeBorden Where did John tell us that he had written to combat "Docetism" and not "Trinitarianism"?
    – Biblasia
    Nov 28, 2022 at 15:08
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    The question was not in regards to what the Bible taught, but rather why a sudden gap between the apostles and their followers emerged.
    – Luke Hill
    Nov 28, 2022 at 15:09
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    @LukeHill The Bible predicted that "falling away" (2 Thess. 2:3)--that "spirit of antichrist" (1 John 4:2-3) which was coming fast upon them. That is the answer I have presented. In other words, the Bible foretold the gap. Shall I clarify this in the answer?
    – Biblasia
    Nov 28, 2022 at 15:45
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    @Mr.Bond I tend to think John is the least likely candidate to try to pin Trinitarianism on. He is the one who says "no one has seen God at any time" (but of course people have seen Jesus); and John says in plain terms, quoting Jesus, that the Father is "the only true God." That excludes the Son, or anyone else. John writes that Jesus said the Father was both his God and our God. No, John was not a Trinitarian...far from it. I think you're the one needing to explain how it could be otherwise.
    – Biblasia
    Dec 3, 2022 at 20:16
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the fact that the early church (EC) accepted the divinity of Christ?

This is only a credible premise if one regards the 'early church' as the one which offers and demands such a 'fact' to be valid. The OP categorises the EC by a premise unrelated to the Scriptures - which provide a quite different set of facts. Facts spoken by the son of God and his Apostles.

We note the quote from Aristides which can be aligned perfectly with the Bible and the teachings of the Apostles (the Holy Spirit is not defined here, but the Apostles and the Gospels do not attribute personhood to the HS).

After that, we move on to the other ideas that have little to no basis in scripture but are rather more imaginative and heretical - departing from the frank and consistent message of the Gospels and Epistles about a human Jesus who always had, and still has, the same God we do.

Having a God, as we do, rules out very quickly the construct that Jesus is also the one God and therefore cannot be a 'divinity' as God is a divinity. There is only one God (the Father as Jesus points out quite explicitly John 17:1-3, John 20:17) and Jesus is not Him.

We have sufficient data to show the EC was afflicted by a political offensive that sorely influenced the teachings, principles and doctrines. The EC went in several different directions and as history repeats itself with alarming regularity, Christianity was no different to Israel which fractured and was largely lost with just the Jews (allegedly) being evident today. That which purports to be the 'True Church', supposedly based on the EC and thus on the Apostles, is evident today as being quite unlike the Apostolic church era.

Biblical Unitarians are so called because they seek to honour the Scriptures before anything or anyone else. There is no valid scriptural reference which explicitly states Jesus is God unless it is read in or reliant on biased translations with added/changed words and even a new verse to support a trinitarian construct.

The premise then, the fact that the early church accepted the divinity of Christ?, is false, and a BU response is simply to point to the Bible for the facts and refuse those comments from unimportant men (quoted) if they defy the plain truth God has amply provided. Paul affirms this guidance.

Therefore, as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, 7having been firmly rooted and now being built up in him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude. 8See to it that there is no one who takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception in accordance with human tradition, in accordance with the elementary principles of the world, rather than in accordance with Christ. Col 2:6-8

challenge? There is no challenge if one is to abide by the words of God and not the words of men who have no authority whatsoever under God to alter that which He provided already.

why was there a sudden shift from the Unitarian belief among the apostles to the deification of Christ within a generation of the gospel? According to non-Trinitarians, why did God allow trinitarianism to become the mainstream understanding of His nature?

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    Again, the question is not whether the Bible teaches Unitarian theology. The question is why there is an undeniable gap between apostolic views on the divinity of Christ and the EC view on the divinity of Christ within a generation of teaching.
    – Luke Hill
    Nov 28, 2022 at 15:12
  • @Luke - then consider not asking so many different Q's within the one. The title and the last are quite different.
    – steveowen
    Nov 28, 2022 at 20:44

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