Is God the 'Father-only'?

"But to me not merely the syllables, but all the letters, and the mouths of babes and sucklings, nay the very stones, cry out, One God the Father, and his Christ the Lord Jesus; for there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; and, To us there is one God, who is the Father,. . .and one Lord, Jesus Christ." (Michael Servetus, On the Errors of the Trinity, p. 43, The Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity, translated by Earl Morse Wilbur).

It is common, in conversing with Unitarians, to hear an argument of this format:

  1. The Father is God.
  2. There is only one God.
  3. Therefore, the Father only is God: i.e., the Son cannot be God, the Holy Spirit cannot be God.

Statements 1.) and 2.) are true; the conclusion, 3.), is unfounded. It is not adequate to assume Unitarianism; it must be proved. The Bible teaches that the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God, and that there is only one God. It must be proved, it cannot just be assumed, that these propositions are mutually contradictory! Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not 'three gods,' but rather only One. There is an unstated assumption here: 2b.) if there is only one God, then that God is unipersonal, which awaits proof.

According to the Unitarians, it's self-evident:

"Channing was not surprised at the anthropomorphic tendency of 'the popular theology,' but he was still 'astonished that any man can read the New Testament, and avoid the conviction, that the Father alone is God.'" (Richard W. Fox, Jesus in America, Kindle location 2927).

Is it?:

Lord and God God the Father
Witnesses Worship One

"But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him." (1 Corinthians 8:6).

Lord and God

'Lord' and 'God' are the two pre-eminent Old Testament titles of the living God. 'Lord' is very much of a divine title too, employed in the New Testament in place of the Divine Name in the Old, in citations of scripture like, "For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God." (Romans 14:11, Isaiah 45:21-23).

Attentive readers of scripture had already noticed by the first century that the Old Testament does not allot the divine names 'God' and 'Lord' at random; there's a method to it. Modern textual critics imagine that a new author comes on stream when the title changes; Philo, an attentive student of scripture, thought rather these two names were the proper names of two uncreated powers or attributes of the living God. While Philo's scheme does not conform to the New Testament pattern where 'God' is allotted specially to the Father and 'Lord' to the Messiah, here are some thoughts by Philo on the subject of 'God' and 'Lord':

"...the one in the middle [at Mamre, Genesis 18] is the Father of the universe, who in the sacred scripture is called by his proper name, I am that I am; and the beings on each side are those most ancient powers which are always close to the living God, one of which is called his creative power, and the other his royal power. And the creative power is God, for it is by this that he made and arranged the universe; and the royal power is the Lord, for it is fitting that the Creator should lord it over and govern the creature. Therefore, the middle person of the three, being attended by each of his powers as by body-guards, presents to the mind, which is endowed with the faculty of sight, a vision at one time of one being, and at another time of three..." (Philo, On Abraham, XXIV, 121-122).

"But the ark is the depository of the laws, for in that are placed the holy oracles of God, which were given to Moses; and the covering of the ark, which is called the mercy-seat, is a foundation for two winged creatures to rest upon, which are called, in the native language of the Hebrews, cherubim...But I myself should say, that what is here represented under a figure are the two most ancient and supreme powers of the divine God, namely, his creative and his kingly power; and his creative power is called God, and his kingly power is called Lord, by which he rules over the beings whom he has created, and governs them with justice and firmness; for He, being, the only true living God, is also really the Creator of the world; since He brought things which had no existence into being; and He is also a king by nature, because no one can rule over beings that have been created more justly than He who created them." (Philo, On the Life of Moses, II, XX, 97-100).

Philo is not counted an inspired author by either church or synagogue, but he is illustrative of his period.


Although Philo's scheme (Father-God-Lord) does not match New Testament theology (Father=God, Son=Lord, Spirit), it does show that first-century Bible-readers were willing to entertain the thought that 'God' and 'Lord,' the two pre-eminent divine titles of the Old Testament, differed somewhat in meaning. Here is how that principle was applied by Christian Bible students:

"There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all." (Ephesians 4:4-6).
"For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live." (1 Corinthians 8:5-6).
Jesus Christ is Jehovah

On most occasions the New Testament uses 'Lord' of Jesus Christ, the Son. In some cases, however, it is specifically the Father who is addressed as 'Lord': "In that hour Jesus rejoiced in the Spirit and said, 'I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them to babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight.  All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.'" (Luke 10:21-22). A classic proof that the LORD of the Old Testament is Father, Son and Holy Spirit comes from Isaiah 6:1-3, combined with John 12:41-42 and Acts 28:25-27, Isaiah's Temple Vision.

Three Witnesses

Study of Isaiah's temple vision serves as a good corrective for the tendency many people have to assume, perfectly unself-consciously, that the God of the Old Testament is the 'Father-only.' This tendency crops up within the church as well as outside of it: "'I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.' Here the wise worshipper will celebrate the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, knowing that this confession of him as 'father' resonates back to the Jewish scriptures and that the delight in him as maker of all, heaven and earth, puts us on a level not only with the author of Genesis 1, but also with such majestic writings as Psalm 19. . .and Isaiah 40. This is, in particular, the Israelite and Jewish confession of faith. . ." (N. T. Wright, How God Became King, p. 264). When we march on to the next clause of the Apostle's Creed, do we discover that the Son also is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Um, no; we discover only that He was the prophesied Messiah. But Jesus implied he was acquainted with Abraham. Why does John think that Isaiah saw Jesus in the temple, when Isaiah plainly saw the God of Israel? This author is eager to correct everyone else's misconceptions, and sometimes he does; but he introduces his own for good measure, lest we be left without any. The God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New Testament; He does not change. He is triune. The God of neither Testament is unipersonal.


God the Father

As proof-text for 'Father-onlyism', the Jehovah's Witnesses and 'Oneness' Pentecostals offer the New Testament idiom of using 'God', 'theos', with especial frequency of God the Father.  For example: "...yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live." (1 Corinthians 8:6).  But it is not evident that this passage intends to rob Deity from Jesus Christ, given that the Old Testament titles of God, 'Lord' and 'God', are here split up and apportioned respectively to Son and Father. The Nicene Creed uses this passage as its template

If it were true that addressing one person of the Trinity specifically as 'God' in the presence of the others assigns Deity exclusively to Him so named, then 2 Corinthians 13:14 becomes a typical proof-text for 'Father-onlyism': "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen."  But on the same principle, does Hebrews 1:8, where the Father addresses the Son as God, then become proof-text for 'Son-onlyism'?: "But to the Son He says: 'Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your kingdom.'"?  Or Acts 5:3-4 a proof-text for 'Holy Spirit-onlyism'?: "But Peter said, 'Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself?...You have not lied to men but to God.'"?  Because each of the Three is expressly named as 'God' in the Bible, it cannot be the intent of this Biblical idiom to shuffle Deity around like the pea in a shell-game, now one grabbing it away from the other.  Perhaps it was exactly to prevent people from thinking there were three 'Lords' that the title 'Lord,' while most commonly belonging to the Son, is not His alone, and to prevent them from thinking there are three 'Gods' that Son and Holy Spirit also share this title.

"Let those, then, who love soberness, and are contented with the measure of faith, briefly receive what is useful to be known. It is as follows:--When we profess to believe in one God, by the name God is understood the one simple essence, comprehending three persons or hypostases; and, accordingly, whenever the name of God is used indefinitely, the Son and Spirit, not less than the Father, is meant.  But when the Son is joined with the Father, relation comes into view, and so we distinguish between the Persons.  But as the Personal subsistences carry an order with them, the principle and origin being in the Father, whenever mention is made of the Father and Son, or of the Father and Spirit together, the name of God is specially given to the Father.  In this way the unity of essence is retained, and respect is had to the order, which, however derogates in no respect from the divinity of the Son and Spirit." (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, Chapter XIII, 20.)


Unitarians like the 'Oneness' Pentecostals advance the thesis that the God of the Old Testament is the 'Father-only', versus the orthodox 'Father, Son and Holy Spirit'. According to this way of thinking, 'the Son' and 'the Holy Spirit' are new-comers who first show up in the New Testament, not having previously been encountered. They take it for granted that everybody agrees with them on this. And indeed those acquainted with these groups are familiar with lists of quotations from various Reformation and early church figures. But where can we find a witness for the idea that Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament, is the 'Father-only'?

John Calvin? This rather grim figure, a gray eminence looming over anxious Geneva, is in vogue nowadays, oddly enough: "For even though the majesty of King and Judge is extended to the whole person of the Mediator, yet unless he had been God manifested in the flesh he could not have been raised to such a height...And Paul best settles this controversy, teaching that he was equal to God before he humbled himself under the form of a servant [Phil. 2:6-7].  Indeed, how would this equality stand had he not been the God whose name is Jah and Jehovah, who rides above the cherubim, who is King of the whole earth, and King of the ages?  Now no matter how they grumble they cannot take away from Christ what Isaiah says elsewhere: 'He, he is our God; we have waited for him'." (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, Chapter XIII, Section 24); "...we shall truly say: the God who of old appeared to the patriarchs was no other than Christ." (John Calvin, Institutes, Book I, Chapter XIII, Section 27).

Martin Luther?: "Did we in our strength confide Our striving would be losing, Were not the right Man on our side, The Man of God's own choosing. Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He - Lord Sabaoth His name, From age to age the same - And He must win the battle." (A Mighty Fortress is Our God, Martin Luther).

Justin Martyr?: "The Jews, accordingly, being throughout of opinion that it was the Father of the universe who spake to Moses, though He who spake to him was indeed the Son of God, who is called both Angel and Apostle, are justly charged, both by the Spirit of prophecy and by Christ Himself, with knowing neither the Father nor the Son.  For they who affirm that the Son is the Father, are proved neither to have become acquainted with the Father, nor to know that the Father of the universe has a Son; who also, being the first-begotten Word of God, is even God. And of old He appeared in the shape of fire and in the likeness of an angel to Moses and to the other prophets; but now in the times of your reign, having, as we before said, become Man by a virgin, according to the counsel of the Father, for the salvation of those who believe on Him, He endured both to be set at nought and to suffer..." (The First Apology of Justin, Chapter LXIII, 7-8).

Athanasius? "When the Seraphim glorify God, saying thrice, 'Holy, holy, holy Lord Sabaoth,' they are glorifying Father, Son and Holy Spirit...For it is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who is Lord of hosts." (Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, Chapter 10, 789, p. 340, The Faith of the Early Fathers, Volume I, William A. Jurgens).

Hilary of Poitiers?: "The fact is obvious from His own words.  For He says to Hosea the prophet, I will no more have mercy upon the house of Israel, but will altogether be their enemy.  But I will have mercy upon the children Judah, and will save them in the Lord their God.  ["For I will no longer have mercy on the house of Israel, But I will utterly take them away.  Yet I will have mercy on the house of Judah, Will save them by the LORD their God, And will not save them by bow, Nor by sword or battle, By horses or horsemen.'" (Hosea 1:6-7).]  Here God the Father gives the name of God, without any ambiguity, to the Son, in Whom also He chose us before countless ages." (Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, Book 4, Chapter 37).

So who will say 'Amen' to the new religious movements' contention that the God of the Old Testament is the 'Father-only', the Son and the Holy Spirit having embarked upon an extended vacation during that period? It is the Bible which persuades, not uninspired and fallible authors; but the Bible is no more with them that are the sources they cite. There's only One true and living God; He is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and He does not change:

"For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed." (Malachi 3:6).

Worship One

Believers who innocently agree with the new religious movements that Jehovah is the 'Father-only' have set up a Catch-22 for themselves.  The Old Testament criminalizes worship of any but Jehovah, who alone is the Living God:

"I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.  You shall have no other gods before Me." (Exodus 20:2-3).

Yet even angels are commanded to worship the Son: "But when He again brings the firstborn into the world, He says: 'Let all the angels of God worship Him.'" (Hebrews 1:6).  Already in the Old Testament, the people are commanded to worship the Messiah: "So the King will greatly desire your beauty; because He is your Lord, worship Him." (Psalm 45:11).  So the Bible criminalizes worship of any but Jehovah, nor has this commandment been rescinded under the New Testament dispensation; it is reiterated by the Lord Himself in Mark 12:29-30.  Yet the same Bible commands worship of the Son.

The way out of this dilemma proposed by the new religious movements is no way out at all.  The Jehovah's Witnesses and Unitarian Universalists defy the Bible's command to worship the Son, invoking the command to worship Jehovah alone.  The 'Oneness' Pentecostals adopt the 'Father-onlyism' of the Jehovah's Witnesses, but then identify Jesus as 'the Father'...Jesus, at His own right hand!  Nor can they, even by willingly extinguishing the light of reason in their minds, observe all that the Bible commands.  What's left out is the Lord's command to worship the Son even as we worship the Father:

"For the Father judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son, that all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father.  He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him." (John 5:22-23).

Getting out from under the Bible texts portraying a relation and distinction between Father and Son impels them to adopt an inherently degrading definition for 'the Son': that He is 'the flesh' of Jesus of Nazareth.  Demeaning the Son as 'the flesh' is the polar opposite of honoring Him just as we honor the Father.

Mount Sinai, El Greco

What way out of this dilemma? Avoid it altogether! The dilemma does not arise if we understand the God of the Old Testament to be Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  So the Bible teaches, explicitly naming Jesus as 'Jehovah our Righteousness': "'Behold, the days are coming,' says the LORD, 'That I will raise to David a Branch of righteousness; A King shall reign and prosper, and execute judgment and righteousness in the earth.  In His days Judah will be saved, And Israel will dwell safely; Now this is His name by which He will be called: THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.'" (Jeremiah 23:6).  When we worship the Father through the Son in the communion of the Holy Spirit, neither Moses nor Jesus testifies against us.



The Bible-believing reader will encounter 'Father-onlyism' from Muslims of course, but also from self-described Christians including Unitarians and anti-trinity new religions like the Jehovah's Witnesses. The Mormons, however, throw a curve-ball; they think the God of the Old Testament is 'Jesus-only'! If asked to prove that the God of the Old Testament is not triune, these people will indignantly deny the burden of proof should rest upon them. This is convenient, because as it happens they cannot prove any such thing.

Another group that generally subscribe to 'Father-onlyism' are the liberals:

"The New Testament writers are really quite careful at this point. Jesus is not the God of Israel. He is not the Father. He is not Yahweh. An identification of Jesus with and as Yahweh was an early attempt to resolve the tensions indicated above; it was labelled as 'Modalism,' a form of 'Monarchianism' (the one God operating first as Father and then as Son), and accounted a heresy." (James D. G. Dunn, Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? Chapter 4.7, Kindle location 2813).

Notice that this modern author is here taking it for granted that 'Yahweh'='Father-only.' Compare with, ". . .the Master also teaches us, who in his way sought to persuade the Jews, saying, The [Yahweh] of whom ye say that he is your God, he is my Father." (Michael Servetus, On the Errors of the Trinity, p. 58, The Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity, translated by Earl Morse Wilbur). To James D. G. Dunn, "Modalism" is the "heresy" of believing that the God of the Old Testament is triune. These people generally are driven to find that the early Christians must have believed something that is logically incoherent, like one-and-a-half gods, or altogether inconsistent with Biblical monotheism, like a big god and a little god. The idea that Jesus Himself professed to be God, of course, drives them into gales of laughter. In the end what will these people say?: 'Jesus is God. . .kind of. . .but not really. . .or maybe a god or something. . .divine, almost. . .' This is not the faith of the Christian church, and it's surprising some people are willing to accept this watered-down substitute in place of the real thing.

If modalism is the belief that Jesus is Yahweh, then all the major Christian theologians were modalists. As for believing that Jesus is the Father, this really is modalism, and of course they weren't that. The reader may recall that the unlettered Arabian prophet, Mohammed ibn Abdallah, thought that God was one of the three persons of the trinity; in a similar vein, one modern scholar speaks of Jesus alongside of God: "In fact, it is this pattern of cultic devotion, with Jesus included programmatically alongside the one God, that probably comprises the most characteristic and most notable feature of earliest Christianity." (Larry W. Hurtado. How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus (Kindle Locations 314-315).) Believe it or not, that is not quite right. The demand these people make, that whatever the early Christians believed, it must have been heretical and unbiblical, is not reasonable. Christians like Paul would have been the first to label worship of a created angel as idolatry; accusing them of what they would have found an abomination is not a helpful or reasonable way of doing history. They should first find out what the church actually believes; believing that Jesus is Yahweh is not "modalism"; then go from there in reconstructing the early years.