The early Church Fathers on the "sons of God"
Judging by the number of times the early church fathers
referred to Genesis 6:1-4 it would appear that the
passage stirred their interest then as much as it does
modern readers. The identity of the “Sons of God” was
clearly a controversial subject. In the early centuries of
the church there were three main positions to choose
from (unlike today when the number has increased to
nine or more).
For them the choice appears have been between identifying the “Sons of God” as fallen angels or as the
descendants of Seth.
Justin Martyr and Lactantius believed in the latter, identifying two classes of fallen spirits: the fallen angels and their offspring. Tertullian likewise believed that some of the angels fell through lust for women and referred to their offspring as a “more wicked demon-brood”.Irenaeus’ writings are ambiguous on the subject but appear to indicate that he believed in two separate angelic falls. In one of the earliest references to the passage Irenaeus draws heavily on 1 Enoch 6-9 when he writes the following:
And wickedness very long-continued and widespread
pervaded all the races of men, until very little seed of
justice was in them. For unlawful unions came about on
earth, as angels linked themselves with offspring of the
daughters of men, who bore to them sons, who on
account of their exceeding great were called Giants.
The angels, then, brought to their wives as gifts
teachings of evil, for they taught them the virtues of roots
and herbs, and dyeing and cosmetics and discoveries
of precious materials, love-philtes, hatreds, amours,
passions, constraints of love, the bonds of witchcraft,
every sorcery and idolatry, hateful to God; and when this
was come into the world, the affairs of wickedness were
propagated to overflowing, and those of justice
dwindled to very little.
Tatian, Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian all
echo Irenaeus’ statements and his use of 1 Enoch in
attributing to the fallen angels the origin of the magic
arts and cosmetics. It is not difficult to account for the
influence of 1 Enoch on the early church writers. After all
it was the only (what we now call) apocryphal book
explicitly cited in the New Testament (Jude 14, cf. 1
Enoch 1:9). The Ethiopian church accepted the
book into its canon and the writer of the Epistle of
Barnabas approved of it, as did Tertullian, even
though the majority rejected it. Interestingly some of
the later Fathers doubted the canonicity of Jude
precisely because it cited apocryphal books such as
Enoch. The influence of the Book of Enoch and the
popularity of the Septuagint (which translated “sons of
God” as “angels”) in the early church may explain why
no Christian writer challenged the view that the Sons of
God were angels until the third century AD. With the
rejection of the canonicity of Enoch there was a
corresponding decline in the ‘angel’ interpretation of the
‘sons of God’. In a similar way the idea of a fall (or
second fall) of the angels prior to the Flood drops out of
theological history after the time of Lactantius. From that
point on the view that the Sons of God were purely
human - the descendants of Seth - began to dominate.
The other early references to the Sethite theory were found in Jewish sources that few of the early Christian would have had access to. It was not until after the middle of the second century that a Christian writer (Julius Africanus) suggested that the 'sons of God' were Sethites.
The early Church Fathers on the sons of God
Today the debate seems to have gone full circle. with
the majority of modern scholars now holding to the
angel interpretation. This view finds support in Psalm
29:1; Job 1:6; 2:1; & 38:7 and New Testament
references to the antediluvian world in Jude 6, 1 Peter
3:19-20 and 2 Peter 2:4. Those who reject this
identification point to a saying of Jesus found in all three
synoptic gospels which they claim proves that angels
are sexless, and therefore incapable of interbreeding
with human women under any circumstances (Matt.
22:30; Mark 12:24-25; Luke 20:35-36). F.B. Huey in his
discussion of these passages writes:
...a careful, unprejudiced reading of that text reveals that
Jesus was making an analogy. He was not talking about
procreation but about relationships. He was saying that
the relationship of resurrected Christians will be
different from the relationship experienced in marriage
on earth. He was no more saying that angels are
sexless than he was teaching that resurrected
Christians will be neither male nor female.