The Subordinationist Revision of Melito of Sardis
Updated: Nov 17
Michael R. Burgos
Within our present moment, there is perhaps no early patristic writer as
underappreciated as Melito of Sardis (ca. A.D. 100-180). The little that remains of Melito’s
corpus bears remarkable literary artistry that portrays both the beauty and genius of the
Christian faith. Indeed, his writings stand as one of the great collections of the ancient
church. His formidable gifts were not missed by his contemporaries. Polycrates (ca. AD 125-196), the bishop of Ephesus, noted that Melito “lived altogether in the Holy Spirit.” Generations after Melito’s death, Eusebius asked, “For who does not know the works of Irenaeus and of Melito and of others which teach that Christ is God and man?”
Among his extant corpus, On Pascha is the largest work. The text is a sermon
detailing the typology of Exodus 12 as it relates to the Christ. His fragmentary writings, although limited by lacunae, present a deep pool of Christian spirituality. One of the consistent motifs featured in nearly all of his writings is a trinitarian Christology that accords utterly with the Symbol of Chalcedon. Indeed, when the synod claimed to have drawn upon “the holy fathers,” the reader would do well to assume that the ghost of Melito was lurking nearby.
Theological and historical revisionism within the Christian context, whether that of higher Pentateuchal criticism or the various quests for the “historical Jesus,” entails that one usurp commonly accepted viewpoints in favor of a novel interpretation of the data. Among contemporary expressions of non-trinitarian Christianity, there are myriad attempts at revising the theology of the early church. These attempts recast the fathers in distinction to the views of the church catholic in an effort to support the antiquity of the relevant theological position. Subsequently, Jehovah’s Witnesses find an early church that accords with their views just as Oneness Pentecostals and Mormons find their faith reflected in the early church. Inasmuch as those pursuing the historical Jesus have recast the evidence in their own image, heterodox groups have done much the same to the early church.
Treading steadily in this vein is Dale Tuggy. While leveraging his considerable expertise in philosophy to promote Christological subordinationism, Tuggy has consistently asserted the subordinationism of not a few notable church fathers, Melito included. This study will provide a brief summary of the Christology found in both On Pascha and in Melito’s fragmentary writings. Thereafter, an analysis and refutation of Tuggy’s claims regarding Melito will be provided.
II. The Christology of On the Pascha
Melito viewed the risen Son as “being by nature God and Man” (θεός ὡς φύσει καί ἄνθρωπος). He is the “Alpha and Omega” who “sits at the Father’s right hand.” The Son became man for the sake of the elect: “This is the one that was incarnated (σαρκόω) in a virgin, that was hanged on a tree.” Christ preexisted in heaven and incarnated himself: “It is this one who, coming from heaven to earth for the sufferer, and clothing himself in the same through a virgin’s womb, and proceeding as a man, he received the pain of the sufferer.”
Melito viewed Christ as nothing less than the Creator and Sustainer of all things: The Son “formed (πλασσω) man upon the earth” and gave humanity life. The Son is he who “made heaven and earth.” Whereas John noted that all the world’s books “could not contain” (χωρέω) all the things that Jesus did (John 21:25) “Christ…has contained (χωρέω) all things.”
III. The Christology of the Fragments
It is Christ who became man and while arrayed in human nature, he continued to sustain the universe. The Son “fashioned a body like ours” and while he trod the earth he occupied the heavens. The Son was “carried in Mary’s womb” and he was simultaneously “clothed with his Father.” That is, the Son possessed the nature of his Father. The suffering of Jesus constituted “God” who “suffered by an Israelite right hand.” The murder of Christ was the murder of Israel’s covenant God.
For Melito, Christ is God by nature and not adoption: “And because he was God and is God…this is the man who was sent by the Father to the world because he is God… both Man upon earth and God in heaven, and he is God over all creation.” Christ is the Creator: the “former of man and who is all in all.” He is eternal and immaterial according to his divine nature: “Though immaterial, he formed for himself a body of our own kind.”
IV. Melito a “Unitarian Subordinationist”?
In On Pascha, section 82, he [i.e., Melito] refers to the logos as “The firstborn of God begotten before the morning star.” Right, he is a two-stage logos theorist. He thinks that when it was time to create, God emanated out this second and lesser divine being and he had to create through the mediation of that being…
Elsewhere, Tuggy defined “logos theorist:”
[For logos theorists] the Logos existed from all eternity as an attribute of God, and was only at a certain time, just before or at the time of God’s creation, expressed, so as to exist as another alongside God (cf. Proverbs 8), by means of whom God created the cosmos.
Tuggy has done his audience a disservice by mischaracterizing Melito’s text. Melito did not mention the logos in the relevant pericope but instead identified Christ as the “sovereign” who created Israel. Israel wrote Melito, failed to “see God” unlike Jacob, and did not “recognize the Lord” (i.e., the Son of God; cf. Gen. 32:30; 35:1). Without meaningful interaction with the relevant passage or any attempt to substantiate his construal, Tuggy has attributed a concept completely foreign to Melito, namely, that the Son (or Word) is merely an “attribute of God” who was created as a "second and lesser divine being." Melito never claimed the Son to be an attribute of God but God himself. He is the eternal and immutable Creator of all things.
The phrase “firstborn of God” (πρωτότοκος τοῦ θεοῦ) is indicative of the Lord’s utter preeminence and not a title of subordination. That Melito calls Jesus “firstborn of God” within a context that attributes the entire creation to Jesus cannot be an indication that he is a creature. Rather, the Son is the one “who hung the earth” and “made the angels.” Moreover, while πρωτότοκος can refer to the one born first, it also has a frequently used figurative meaning in Scripture that refers “to having special status associated with a firstborn.” Thus when Yahweh said, “Israel is my firstborn son” (Exod. 4:22 LXX), Yahweh has asserted that Israel receives all of the preeminence and favor from God as if it was his firstborn son. This figurative use occurs again in the Septuagint’s rendering of Jeremiah 31:9, where Yahweh calls Ephraim (Joseph’s biologically firstborn was Manasseh) his “firstborn.” Yahweh said of King David, “And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth” (Psalm 89:27). Thus Jesus, the true Israel, is identified as “the firstborn of God” to identify his utter preeminence.
The phrase “begotten before the morning star” is a quotation from Psalm 109:3 LXX (110:3 MT). This verse was used by Melito not as evidence of the Son’s finitude, but of his eternal generation before creation was made (cf. “begotten of the Father before all worlds” in the Nicene Creed). Melito posits both the eternality of the Son and his generation just as ancient writers of undisputed trinitarian orthodoxy. His use of the Psalm within the broader context of On Pascha implies a classical trinitarian hermeneutic, although he does not exposit the passage. Subsequently, Tuggy’s assumption regarding Melito’s use of the Psalm leads one to wonder whether he believes the psalmist is also a “two-stage logos theorist.”
After quoting On Pascha v. 104, Tuggy went on to assert, “[Melito] still distinguishes Jesus from the Father and the Father here is assumed to be the one true God.” Melito claimed that the Son was the one “through whom the Father did his works from the beginning to eternity,” That is, the Son is the instrumental agent through whom God brought about both creation and redemption. Again, Tuggy assumed a unitarian reading of Melito from the outset, despite his claim to the eternality and creatorship of the Son.
Fragment 2 states: “We are not worshipers of stones which have no understanding but we are worshippers of the only God, who is before all things and over all things, and his Christ who is the Word of God before the ages…” Of this passage, Tuggy claimed: “[On Melito’s view] God is before all, including the logos. God is overall, including the logos. When he is talking about the only God here, he is talking about the Father; so he is a unitarian subordinationist.”
Instead of attempting to substantiate his claim by providing any explanation of how Melito could affirm that Christ is both God and man by nature, or how he could assert that the death of Christ was the murder of God, Tuggy has merely read subordinationism into the relevant passage. Melito claimed the Son is the Creator of all things and is thus before all created things (cf. John 1:3): “[Christ] made all things;” “He is God over all creation.” Further, Melito explicitly claimed the Son to be the eternal true God: “[The Son is the] true God existing before time” (αληθής θεὸς προαιώνιος ὑπάρχων).
Melito’s writings present an ancient example of orthodox trinitarian Christology. Despite the clarity, repetition, and force with which Melito communicated the eternal deity of the Son, Tuggy has sought to recast Melito’s Christology in his own image (i.e., unitarian subordinationism). With transparency, Tuggy has sought to achieve this end through the introduction of foreign theological concepts and bald eisegesis. Despite his confident insistence, Tuggy’s contention is mitigated by a perfunctory reading of Melito’s works.
 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 5.24:5 (NPNF2 1:242).  Ibid., 5:28:4 (NPNF2 1:247).  E.g., 1990. “Against Knowledge—Falsely Called,” The Watchtower: Announcing Jehovah’s Kingdom, 21-3; 1992. “Did the Apostolic Fathers Teach the Trinity Doctrine?,” The Watchtower: Announcing Jehovah’s Kingdom, 19-23.  E.g., David K. Bernard, A History of Christian Doctrine, Vol. 1 (Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press, 1995), 21-30, 43-86; Marvin M. Arnold, Apostolic History Outline (n.p., 1991), 14-15, 17, 19.  E.g., Hugh W. Nibley, Mormonism and Early Christianity, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol. 4 (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret, 1987); D. Charles Pyle, I Have Said Ye Are Gods: Concepts Conducive to the Early Christian Doctrine of Deification in Patristic Literature and the Underlying Strata of the Greek New Testament Text, Rev. ed (North Charleston, SC: Createspace, 2018).  William L. Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 423.  I am indebted to Hall’s versification for Peri Pascha and Frag. II, although I have provided my own translations throughout this study. Stuart George Hall, Melito of Sardis: On Pascha and Fragments (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1979).  Peri Pascha v. 8.  Ibid., v. 105.  Ibid., v. 70. Cf. vv. 100, 104.  Ibid., v. 66.  Ibid., v. 82.  Ibid., v. 79.  Ibid., v. 104.  Ibid., v. 5.  Frag. 13. Cf. Frag. 17; New Frag. II. vv. 4, 17.  Frag. 14.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Frag. 7.  Peri Pascha v. 96. Frag. 7.  New Frag. II v. 22.  Frag. 15.  Frag. 14.  Dale Tuggy. 09/14/2020. “Podcast 303: Rauser’s review of Is Jesus Human and not Divine?,” Trinities. https://trinities.org/blog/podcast-303-rausers-review-of-is-jesus-human-and-not-divine/.  Dale Tuggy. 03/02/2013. “trinitarian or unitarian? 3 – Irenaeus’s 2-stage Logos theory,” Trinities. https://trinities.org/blog/trinitarian-or-unitarian-3-irenaeuss-2-stage-logos-theory/.  Frag. 14 and 15 resp.  W. Bauer et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2000), 894. Melick observed that of the eight times πρωτότοκος occurs in the NT, “It is clearly used literally of primogeniture only once [i.e., Luke 2:7]. The rest of the occurrences are figurative, and they are far removed from any idea of birth.” Melick Jr., Richard R., Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1991), 216.  For similar applications of this verse see Clement of Alex., Protr. 9 (ANF 2:196); Athanasius, Decr. 3.13 (NPNF2 4:158); Augustine, Enarrat. Ps. 59.10 (NPNF1 8:543).  “He [i.e., the Son] existed before the morning star...Creator of creatures” New Frag. II v. 18. Cf. Frag. 15.  E.g., Gregory of Nazianzus, Or. 30.19 (NPNF2 7:316); Augustine, Trin. 15.47 (NPNF1 3:225).  Tuggy, “Podcast 303: Rauser’s review of Is Jesus Human and not Divine?,” Trinities.  Peri Pascha, v. 104.  Tuggy, “Podcast 303: Rauser’s review of Is Jesus Human and not Divine?,” Trinities.  New Frag. II v. 20.  Ibid., v. 23.  Frag. 6.