The Early Church’s Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible’s Use of Plural Pronouns for God

There are four places in the inspired OT writings where the one true God employs plural pronouns to describe himself:

“Then God said, ‘Let US make man in OUR image, after OUR likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’” Genesis 1:26

“Then the LORD God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of US, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever.” Genesis 3:22

Come, let US go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” Genesis 11:7

“And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go FOR US?” Then I said, Here am I! Send me.’” Isaiah 6:8

These verses have been traditionally and historically understood by the Church to be places where the Holy Spirit was preparing God’s people for the revelation of the Trinity, unveiling the fact of the one true God existing as a plurality of divine Persons.

Therefore, in this post I will be citing the writings of the Apostolic and Ante-Nicene Fathers to show that the very first Christians interpreted these texts as inspired allusions to God’s eternal Triune nature. These quotations will also highlight that the early Church took Genesis 1:26 to be a rather clear reference to the Father addressing the other divine Members of the Godhead, particularly the Son, whom the inspired NT authors describe as the One the Father employed to create and sustain the entire creation:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people… He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” John 1:1-4, 10, 14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

“yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” 1 Corinthians 8:6

“He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for IN HIM ALL THINGS were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—ALL THINGS were created THROUGH HIM and FOR HIM. He IS before all things, and IN HIM all things hold together.” Colossians 1:15-17

“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high… And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, ‘Let all God’s angels WORSHIP HIM.’… But of the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O GOD (ho Theos), is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom… In the beginning, LORD (Kyrios), you founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of YOUR HANDS; they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like clothing; like a cloak you will roll them up, and like clothing they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will never end.’” Hebrews 1:1-3, 6, 8a, 10-12 NRSV

“Yet Jesus has been counted worthy of as much more glory than Moses as the builder of a house has more honor than the house. (For every house is built by some one, but the builder of all things is God.)” Hebrews 3:3-4

All bold, capital and underline emphasis will be ours.

Epistle of Barnabas

Chapter 5. The New Covenant, Founded on the Sufferings of Christ, Tends to Our Salvation, But to the Jews’ Destruction.

For to this end the Lord endured to deliver up His flesh to corruption, that we might be sanctified through the remission of sins, which is effected by His blood of sprinkling. For it is written concerning Him, partly with reference to Israel, and partly to us; and [the Scripture] saith thus: “He was wounded for our transgressions, and braised for our iniquities: with His stripes we are healed. He was brought as a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb which is dumb before its shearer.” Therefore we ought to be deeply grateful to the Lord, because He has both made known to us things that are past, and hath given us wisdom concerning things present, and hath not left us without understanding in regard to things which are to come. Now, the Scripture saith, “Not unjustly are nets spread out for birds.” This means that the man perishes justly, who, having a knowledge of the way of righteousness, rushes off into the way of darkness. And further, my brethren: if the Lord endured to suffer for our soul, He being Lord of all the world, to whom God said at the foundation of the world, “Let us make man after our image, and after our likeness,” understand how it was that He endured to suffer at the hand of men. The prophets, having obtained grace from Him, prophesied concerning Him. And He (since it behoved Him to appear in flesh), that He might abolish death, and reveal the resurrection from the dead, endured [what and as He did], in order that He might fulfill the promise made unto the fathers, and by preparing a new people for Himself, might show, while He dwelt on earth, that He, when He has raised mankind, will also judge them. Moreover, teaching Israel, and doing so great miracles and signs, He preached [the truth] to him, and greatly loved him. But when He chose His own apostles who where to preach His Gospel, [He did so from among those] who were sinners above all sin, that He might show He came “not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Then He manifested Himself to be the Son of God. For if He had not come in the flesh, how could men have been saved by beholding Him? Since looking upon the sun which is to cease to exist, and is the work of His hands, their eyes are not able to bear his rays. The Son of God therefore came in the flesh with this view, that He might bring to a head the sum of their sins who had persecuted His prophets to the death. For this purpose, then, He endured. For God saith, “The stroke of his flesh is from them;” and “when I shall smite the Shepherd, then the sheep of the flock shall be scattered.” He himself willed thus to suffer, for it was necessary that He should suffer on the tree. For says he who prophesies regarding Him, “Spare my soul from the sword, fasten my flesh with nails; for the assemblies of the wicked have risen up against me.” And again he says, “Behold, I have given my back to scourges, and my cheeks to strokes, and I have set my countenance as a firm rock.”

Chapter 6. The Sufferings of Christ, and the New Covenant, Were Announced by the Prophets.

… Since, therefore, having renewed us by the remission of our sins, He hath made us after another pattern, [it is His purpose] that we should possess the soul of children, inasmuch as He has created us anew by His Spirit. For the Scripture says concerning us, while He speaks to the Son, “Let Us make man after Our image, and after Our likeness; and let them have dominion over the beasts of the earth, and the fowls of heaven, and the fishes of the sea.” And the Lord said, on beholding the fair creature man, “Increase, and multiply, and replenish the earth.” These things [were spoken] to the Son

Ignatius of Antioch 

Chapter 2. The true doctrine respecting God and Christ

For Moses, the faithful servant of God, when he said, The Lord your God is one Lord, and thus proclaimed that there was only one God, did yet immediately confess also our Lord when he said, The Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrha fire and brimstone from the Lord. And again, And God said, Let Us make man after our image: and so God made man, after the image of God made He him. And further In the image of God made He man. And that [the Son of God] was to be made man [Moses shows when] he says, A prophet shall the Lord raise up unto you of your brethren, like me. (The Spurious Epistles, Epistle to the Antiochians) 

Justin Martyr

Chapter 62. The Words “Let Us Make Man” Agree with the Testimony of Proverbs

“And the same sentiment was expressed, my friends, by the word of God [written] by Moses, when it indicated to us, with regard to Him whom it has pointed out, that God speaks in the creation of man with the very same design, in the following words: ‘Let Us make man after our image and likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the heaven, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creeping things that creep on the earth. And God created man: after the image of God did He create him; male and female created He them. And God blessed them, and said, Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and have power over it.’ And that you may not change the [force of the] words just quoted, and repeat what your teachers assert,-either that God said to Himself, ‘Let Us make,’ just as we, when about to do something, oftentimes say to ourselves, ‘Let us make;’ or that God spoke to the elements, to wit, the earth and other similar substances of which we believe man was formed, ‘Let Us make,’ -I shall quote again the words narrated by Moses himself, from which we can indisputably learn that [God] conversed with some one who was numerically distinct from Himself, and also a rational Being. These are the words: ‘And God said, Behold, Adam has become as one of us, to know good and evil.’ In saying, therefore, ‘as one of us,’ [Moses] has declared that [there is a certain] number of persons associated with one another, and that they are at least two. For I would not say that the dogma of that heresy which is said to be among you is true, or that the teachers of it can prove that [God] spoke to angels, or that the human frame was the workmanship of angels. But this Offspring, which was truly brought forth from the Father, was with the Father BEFORE ALL THE CREATURES, and the Father communed with Him; even as the Scripture by Solomon has made clear, that He whom Solomon calls Wisdom, was begotten as a Beginning BEFORE ALL HIS CREATURES and as Offspring by God, who has also declared this same thing in the revelation made by Joshua the son of Nave (Nun). Listen, therefore, to the following from the book of Joshua, that what I say may become manifest to you; it is this: ‘And it came to pass, when Joshua was near Jericho, he lifted up his eyes, and sees a man standing over against him. And Joshua approached to Him, and said, Art thou for us, or for our adversaries? And He said to him, I am Captain of the Lord’s host: now have I come. And Joshua fell on his face on the ground, and said to Him, Lord, what commandest Thou Thy servant? And the Lord’s Captain says to Joshua, Loose the shoes off thy feet; for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. And Jericho was shut up and fortified, and no one went out of it. And the Lord said to Joshua, Behold, I give into thine hand Jericho, and its king, [and] its mighty men.’” (Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Chapters 55-68)

Irenaeus

4. For as the serpent beguiled Eve, by promising her what he had not himself, so also do these men, by pretending [to possess] superior knowledge, and [to be acquainted with] ineffable mysteries; and, by promising that admittance which they speak of as taking place within the Pleroma, plunge those that believe them into death, rendering them apostates from Him who made them. And at that time, indeed, the apostate angel, having effected the disobedience of mankind by means of the serpent, imagined that he escaped the notice of the Lord; wherefore God assigned him the form and name [of a serpent]. But now, since the last times are [come upon us], evil is spread abroad among men, which not only renders them apostates, but by many machinations does [the devil] raise up blasphemers against the Creator, namely, by means of all the heretics already mentioned. For all these, although they issue forth from diverse regions, and promulgate different [opinions], do nevertheless concur in the same blasphemous design, wounding [men] unto death, by teaching blasphemy against God our Maker and Supporter, and derogating from the salvation of man. Now man is a mixed organization of soul and flesh, who was formed after the likeness of God, and moulded by His hands, that is, by the Son and Holy Spirit, to whom also He said, “Let Us make man.” This, then, is the aim of him who envies our life, to render men disbelievers in their own salvation, and blasphemous against God the Creator. For whatsoever all the heretics may have advanced with the utmost solemnity, they come to this at last, that they blaspheme the Creator, and disallow the salvation of God’s workmanship, which the flesh truly is; on behalf of which I have proved, in a variety of ways, that the Son of God accomplished the whole dispensation [of mercy], and have shown that there is none other called God by the Scriptures except the Father of all, and the Son, and those who possess the adoption. (Against Heresies, Book IV, Preface)

Chapter 20 That one God formed all things in the world, by means of the Word and the Holy Spirit: and that although he is to us in this life invisible and incomprehensible, nevertheless he is not unknown; inasmuch as his works do declare him, and his Word has shown that in many modes he may be seen and known.

1. As regards His greatness, therefore, it is not possible to know God, for it is impossible that the Father can be measured; but as regards His love (for this it is which leads us to God by His Word), when we obey Him, we do always learn that there is so great a God, and that it is He who by Himself has established, and selected, and adorned, and contains all things; and among the all things, both ourselves and this our world. We also then were made, along with those things which are contained by Him. And this is He of whom the Scripture says, “And God formed man, taking clay of the earth, and breathed into his face the breath of life.” It was not angels, therefore, who made us, nor who formed us, neither had angels power to make an image of God, nor any one else, except the Word of the Lord, nor any Power remotely distant from the Father of all things. For God did not stand in need of these [beings], in order to the accomplishing of what He had Himself determined with Himself beforehand should be done, as if He did not possess His own hands. For with Him were always present the Word and Wisdom, the Son and the Spirit, by whom and in whom, freely and spontaneously, He made all things, to whom also He speaks, saying, “Let Us make man after Our image and likeness;” He taking from Himself the substance of the creatures [formed], and the pattern of things made, and the type of all the adornments in the world.

Origen

For the Son of God, the First-born of all creation, although He seemed recently to have become incarnate, is not by any means on that account recent. For the holy Scriptures know Him to be the most ancient of all the works of creation; for it was to Him that God said regarding the creation of man, Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness. (Against Celsus, BOOK V, Chapter 37)

Tertullian

Chapter 8. Man the Image of the Creator, and Christ the Head of the Man. Spiritual Gifts. The Sevenfold Spirit Described by Isaiah. The Apostle and the Prophet Compared. Marcion Challenged to Produce Anything Like These Gifts of the Spirit Foretold in Prophecy in His God.

“The head of every man is Christ.” What Christ, if He is not the author of man? The head he has here put for authority; now “authority” will accrue to none else than the “author.” Of what man indeed is He the head? Surely of him concerning whom he adds soon afterwards: “The man ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image of God.” Since then he is the image of the Creator (for He, when looking on Christ His Word, who was to become man, said, “Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness“), how can I possibly have another head but Him whose image I am? For if I am the image of the Creator there is no room in me for another head… (Against Marcion, Book V)

Chapter 12. Other Quotations from Holy Scripture Adduced in Proof of the Plurality of Persons in the Godhead

If the number of the Trinity also offends you, as if it were not connected in the simple Unity, I ask you how it is possible for a Being who is merely and absolutely One and Singular, to speak in plural phrase, saying, Let us make man in our own image, and after our own likeness; whereas He ought to have said, Let me make man in my own image, and after my own likeness, as being a unique and singular Being? In the following passage, however, Behold the man has become as one of us, He is either deceiving or amusing us in speaking plurally, if He is One only and singular. Or was it to the angels that He spoke, as the Jews interpret the passage, because these also acknowledge not the Son? Or was it because He was at once the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, that He spoke to Himself in plural terms, making Himself plural on that very account? Nay, it was because He had already His Son close at His side, as a second Person, His own Word, and a third Person also, the Spirit in the Word, that He purposely adopted the plural phrase, Let us make; and, in our image; and, become as one of us. For with whom did He make man? And to whom did He make him like? (The answer must be), the Son on the one hand, who was one day to put on human nature; and the Spirit on the other, who was to sanctify man. With these did He then speak, in the Unity of the Trinity, as with His ministers and witnesses. In the following text also He distinguishes among the Persons: So God created man in His own image; in the image of God created He him. Why say image of God? Why not His own image merely, if He was only one who was the Maker, and if there was not also One in whose image He made man? But there was One in whose image God was making man, that is to say, Christ’s image, who, being one day about to become Man (more surely and more truly so), had already caused the man to be called His image, who was then going to be formed of clay — the image and similitude of the true and perfect Man. But in respect of the previous works of the world what says the Scripture? Its first statement indeed is made, when the Son has not yet appeared: And God said, Let there be light, and there was light. Immediately there appears the Word, that true light, which lights man on his coming into the world, and through Him also came light upon the world. From that moment God willed creation to be effected in the Word, Christ being present and ministering unto Him: and so God created. And God said, Let there be a firmament,…and God made the firmament; and God also said, Let there be lights (in the firmament); and so God made a greater and a lesser light. But all the rest of the created things did He in like manner make, who made the former ones — I mean the Word of God, through whom all things were made, and without whom nothing was made. Now if He too is God, according to John, (who says,) The Word was God, then you have two Beings — One that commands that the thing be made, and the Other that executes the order and creates. In what sense, however, you ought to understand Him to be another, I have already explained, on the ground of Personality, not of Substance — in the way of distinction, not of division. But although I must everywhere hold one only substance in three coherent and inseparable (Persons), yet I am bound to acknowledge, from the necessity of the case, that He who issues a command is different from Him who executes it. For, indeed, He would not be issuing a command if He were all the while doing the work Himself, while ordering it to be done by the second. But still He did issue the command, although He would not have intended to command Himself if He were only one; or else He must have worked without any command, because He would not have waited to command Himself. (Against Praxeas)

Chapter 6. Not the Lowliness of the Material, But the Dignity and Skill of the Maker, Must Be Remembered, in Gauging the Excellence of the Flesh. Christ Partook of Our Flesh.

… In the first place, because all things were made by the Word of God, and without Him was nothing made. Now the flesh, too, had its existence from the Word of God, because of the principle, that here should be nothing without that Word. Let us make man, said He, before He created him, and added, with our hand, for the sake of his pre-eminence, that so he might not be compared with the rest of creation. And God, says (the Scripture), formed man… (On the Resurrection of the Flesh)

Novatian

But from this occasion of Christ being proved from the sacred authority of the divine writings not man only, but God also, other heretics, breaking forth, contrive to impair the religious position in Christ; by this very fact wishing to show that Christ is God the Father, in that He is asserted to be not man only, but also is declared to be God. For thus say they, If it is asserted that God is one, and Christ is God, then say they, If the Father and Christ be one God, Christ will be called the Father. Wherein they are proved to be in error, not knowing Christ, but following the sound of a name; for they are not willing that He should be the second person after the Father, but the Father Himself. And since these things are easily answered, few words shall be said. For who does not acknowledge that the person of the Son is second after the Father, when he reads that it was said by the Father, consequently to the Son, Let us make man in our image and our likeness; and that after this it was related, And God made man, in the image of God made He him? Or when he holds in his hands: The Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrha fire and brimstone from the Lord from heaven? Or when he reads (as having been said) to Christ: You are my Son, this day have I begotten You. Ask of me, and I will give You the heathens for Your inheritance, and the ends of the earth for Your possession? Or when also that beloved writer says: The Lord said to my Lord, Sit on my right hand, until I shall make Your enemies the stool of Your feet? Or when, unfolding the prophecies of Isaiah, he finds it written thus: Thus says the Lord to Christ my Lord?… (Treatise Concerning the Trinity, Chapter 26. Moreover, Against the Sabellians He Proves that the Father is One, the Son Another)

Unless noted otherwise, biblical citations taken from the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Holy Bible.

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