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Were Early Christians Trinitarians?

Historical Accuracy and the WTB&TS Booklet "Should You Believe in the Trinity"

In 1989, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society published a small booklet entitled "Should You Believe in the Trinity?" (SYBT). This booklet is still published and distributed by the Watchtower as part of its on-going efforts to challenge and discredit the doctrine of the Trinity.

A book would be required to adequately address all the claims put forth in SYBT ( 1 ). I will limit my response to the claims in SYBT concerning the beliefs and teachings of early Christians. If it can be demonstrated - as SYBT attempts to do - that early Christians knew nothing of the Trinity or of the full divinity of Christ, it would be a significant blow to Trinitarians. Early Christians were close to the actual events recorded in the New Testament. They read and understood the original languages of the Bible far more fluently than any modern scholar. In many cases, they received direct Apostolic instruction. Though neither Trinitarians nor Jehovah's Witnesses consider the works of early Christians doctrinally authoritative (both claim the Bible as sole authority), the beliefs of early Christians can be powerful secondary evidence of what the writers of the New Testament intended.

Let’s consider the issue surrounding the correct translation of John 1:1. The Watchtower’s New World Translation renders the third clause of this verse: "The Word was a god." The Watchtower and its apologists justify this translation by citing context ("The Word cannot be the God He is with") and a host of grammatical suppositions ( 2 ). Numerous scholars refute the Watchtower’s position on the same grounds of context and grammar ( 3 ).  An effective argument can also be made by considering what early Christians believed about Jesus and His divinity. Most of them were fluent in the Koine Greek of the Fourth Gospel, and, in the case of Ignatius of Antioch (see below), were instructed by John the Apostle himself. Thus, if their writings reflect the Son as a secondary god or created angel, the Watchtower position is strengthened. However, if their writings present Jesus as fully divine and co-equal with the Father, Trinitarian scholarship gains powerful support.

In SYBT, the Watchtower has presented the testimony of the Early Church as foundational to their claim that the Trinity is not a Biblical concept.  Further, it has focused its attention specifically on what the Early Church Fathers wrote about the Son of God.  The Watchtower, must therefore believe that what the Early Church believed and taught regarding Christ is a topic worth honest investigation, and that demonstrating the proper view of the first Christians about the Person and Nature of Christ is fundamental to the veracity of the doctrine of the Trinity. Such is my purpose in this paper.

The remainder of this paper will present quotations from SYBT, followed by a response. As you’ll notice, virtually all of the responses contain a complete quotation of something the Watchtower has not quoted in its entirety. As others have noted ( 4 ), the practice of selective quotation, quoting out of context, and "creative" use of ellipses, seems endemic with Watchtower publications, and this practice is unfortunately evident in SYBT. We may naturally question why the Watchtower must resort to such tactics. If the Trinity is indeed a pagan concept foisted on Christianity in the 4th Century, the historical evidence should be obvious and overwhelming. There should be no need for selective (and frankly deceptive) quotation. Unless, of course, the evidence is against the Watchtower and they have no recourse but to use whatever methods they can to shore up their intellectual house of cards.

If you are a Jehovah’s Witness, I ask only that you read this paper with an open mind, and if you believe the Watchtower incapable of misleading its readers in SYBT, use the notes at the end of this paper to do your own research. The truth is not something to fear; for, as Jesus tells us, "the truth will set you free" (John 8:32). Lies, on the other hand, always enslave.

A. Early Christian Teachings

SYBT: "’At first the Christian faith was not Trinitarian…It was not so in the apostolic and sub-apostolic ages, as reflected in the N[ew] T[estament] and other early Christian writings’ – Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics" (pp. 6-7).

The first part of this quotation is cut off in mid-sentence. It reads in full:

"At first the Christian faith was not Trinitarian in the strictly ontological reference. It was not so in the apostolic and sub-apostolic ages, as reflected in the NT and other early Christian writings. It should be observed that there is no real cleavage or antithesis between the doctrines of the economic and the essential Trinity, and naturally so. The Trinity [or essential Trinity] represents the effort to think out the [economical] Trinity, and so to afford it a reasonable basis ( 5 )."

The terms "economic" and "essential" may be defined as follows:

Economic Trinity: The observed activity of God in the World (that is, early Christians perceived and believed God to have directly intervened in history in the persons of the Father, Son and Spirit),

Essential Trinity: A more formal understanding of the essential nature or being of God as Triune, as presented in creedal statements.

The article quoted is basically drawing a distinction between the concept of the Trinity held by early Christians, based on their observations and the traditions they received from the Apostles and sub-Apostolic Fathers, and the concept of the Trinity as more formally described in later creeds. It must be stressed that this article in no way states or implies that early Christians would have denied the "essential" or formal understanding of the Trinity. In fact, it states "there is no real cleavage or antithesis" between the two.

This same article proclaims: "If the doctrine of the Trinity appeared somewhat late in theology, it must have lived very early in devotion" ( 6 ).

B .  The Ante-Nicene Fathers

SYBT: "The Ante-Nicene Fathers were acknowledged to have been leading religious teachers in the early centuries after Christ's birth. What they taught is of interest" (p. 7).

Thus, it appears that the Watchtower Society considers the writings of the Fathers to be valid representations of what the early Christian Church believed. I should emphasize that Trinitarians do not consider the writings of the Fathers to be inspired by God, and therefore are not authoritative with regard to doctrine. Some, like Justin, attempted to explain their new faith to a Greek audience, using terms and concepts from contemporary Philosophy. Others, like Clement and Origen, attempted to unify Greek Philosophy and what they found in the Scriptures, believing the Greeks had either been influenced by Hebrew scriptures (Clement) or had received something of a "natural" theology (Origen). However, overall the Fathers offer a "window" into the beliefs of the earliest Christians, and those beliefs, having derived from the Apostles themselves, are of significant interest.

Many scholars note what they will term the "development" of the Trinity doctrine during the first few centuries of the Christian era, culminating in the Creeds of Nicea and Chalcedon.  The WT often points to this "development" as proof that the doctrine of the Trinity did not exist in early Christianity, but was a theological invention of later times, as this quote and others in SYBT demonstrate.  We should note, however, that the term "development" is not synonymous with "invention."  While some scholars have attempted to show how the influence of Platonism was responsible for the development of the Trinity (6a), most who use the term "development" are referring to a gradual refinement of terminology, not of core belief (6b).  The need for increasingly precise terms was necessitated by the growing numbers of heretical sects that were able to twist the meaning of earlier statements of faith so that they could appear orthodox, while retaining their heterodox views.  Thus, the question here is not so much did the Fathers teach the Trinity in the precise terms of the Nicene Creed (they admittedly did not, with the possible exception of Tertullian ( 7 )), but whether their beliefs are more congruent with Trinitarian theology, or with that of the Watchtower.

Finally, I should note that Patrology (the study of what the Fathers taught) is vast.  No one would expect SYBT to cover each Father in detail, and it is impossible for me to do so in this paper.  However, we would hope that the WT summaries of the teachings of each Father is congruent with what they actually taught, and such is my intent here.  I am indebted to those who have pointed out mistakes in previous versions of this paper, and I will be indebted to you if you notice any further errors and call them to my attention.


SYBT: Justin Martyr, who died about 165 C.E., called the prehuman Jesus a created angel who is "other than the God who made all things." He said that Jesus was inferior to God and "never did anything except what the Creator . . . willed him to do and say" (p. 7).

Notice that the words "a created angel" and "inferior to God" are not in quotation marks. This is because they are Watchtower statements and not found in any of Justin's writings. Justin, in fact, taught that the pre-human Jesus was God, not an angel. He did say that Christ was called an angel, but explained that this was because Christ took on the appearance of an angel in certain passages in the OT (as the Angel of the Lord), or served as a "messenger" (the literal translation of the Hebrew mal’ak (8 )).

Like most of the Fathers, Justin's Christology (his concept of Christ's nature) is not fully spelled out in his writings.  It is true that he refers to Christ as a "second God" in his dialog with Trypho.  He refers to the origin of the the Pre-Incarnate Christ (the Logos) as "begotten before all creation."  

It would be a mistake, however, to read later Arian thought back into Justin's words.  Justin's term "second God" occurs in his dialog with Trypho, a Jew.  Justin is trying to demonstrate to a devout monotheist that there is another Person in the Bible who is called "God" (8b).  He does so by citing various theophanies in the OT (Dialog with Trypho, ch 56), by citing passages in which two "Gods" appear in the OT (IBID, ch 58, 60, 126), as well as evidence from the NT, such as Heb 1:8 in which the Father calls the Son "God"  (IBID, ch 56).  It must be noted that in each of these references, the implicit meaning is that the Logos is truly God - distinct from the Father and subordinate to Him, yet essentially one with Him as well.  This meaning becomes explicit when Justin discusses passages in which LORD (YHWH) is ascribed to "two Gods:"  "It must be admitted absolutely that some other one is called Lord by the Holy Spirit besides Him who is considered Maker of all things" (IBID).

Regarding the origin of the Logos, Justin provides two brief explanations (like the other Fathers, Justin is not writing a systematic theology):

The first explanation centers on the word "begotten" or its synonyms.  Justin says the Logos is "begotten before all creation" (Dialog with Trypho, ch 129), the "First-Begotten of God" (First Apology, ch. 58), and "Firstborn of God" (First Apology, ch 46).  He contrast the Logos as Begotten with the Father, who is Unbegotten.  Nevertheless, he did not teach that the Logos was "created," as the WT states.  While he doesn't specifically contrast the two terms, Justin avoids using the term "created" in reference to the Logos (though he does quote Trypho using poiew of Him [Dialog with Trypho, ch 64]), and he clearly has this contrast in mind when he employs the second of his explanations of the origin of the Logos.

The second explanation is to use the analogy of light from the sun (Dialog with Trypho, ch 128).  He thereby expresses his conviction that the Son is of one substance with the Father - light from light - and yet distinct from Him.  Thus, like most of the Early Fathers, Justin believed the the Father is the source of divinity, for when the sun sets, the light is gone.  The Son has no independent existence apart from the Father, and so while Justin says there are Two Gods, he also says there is one Source, and thus he is not a ditheist.  Justin is careful to point out that while this analogy is useful, it is not a complete picture.  By "begetting" the Light of the Logos, the Light of the Father is in no way diminished.  He therefore attempts a second analogy, that of fire (IBID).  For while one fire can kindle another, it is not itself diminished by the kindling.  There can be no diminishing or cutting off of God - He is eternally unchanged by the begetting of the Son.  Finally, Justin offers the analogy of the spoken word, which does not diminish the speaker when is is spoken, but yet which is comprised of the very Reason of the one who Speaks.

Justin never precisely defines when the begetting of the Son takes place, and this ambiguity has led some to speculate that Justin did not conceive of the Logos as being eternal (8a)..  However, since Justin does not address this issue directly, it is impossible to be dogmatic on this point.  Justin speaks of the Son being "begotten" before all creation, and thus all we can say with any certainty is that for Justin, whenever creation took place, the Logos already existed.  Further, as we have seen, Justin did not believe that Logos was a created being, and indeed called him a "second God" (not an Arian "secondary god") alongside the Father (there were, of course,  no capital letters in the original Greek, but context makes the distinction clear).

Thus, for Justin, the Son is "begotten, not made" of the same substance as the Father.  The begetting of the Son precedes creation.   The Father is the source of the Godhead (or Divinity).  In his Christology, then, Justin anticipates the later creeds, particularly that of Nicea:

"[We believe] in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made..."

Consider what Justin taught:

"The Father of the universe has a Son, who also being the first begotten Word of God, is even God." - First Apology ch. 63 ( 9 ).

"Christ is called both God and Lord of hosts." - Dialogue with Trypho ch. 36.

"Moreover, in the diapsalm of the forty-sixth Psalm, reference is thus made to Christ: 'God went up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet." - Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 37.

[Trypho to Justin] " say that this Christ existed as God before the ages, and that He submitted to be born and become man" - Dialogue with Trypho, ch.48.

Justin quotes Hebrews 1:8 to prove the Deity of Christ. "Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever." - Dialogue with Trypho ch. 56.

"Therefore these words testify explicitly that He [Christ] is witnessed to by Him who established these things, as deserving to be worshipped, as God and as Christ." - Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 63.

"And Trypho said, "You endeavor to prove an incredible and well-nigh impossible thing; [namely], that God endured to be born and become man...some Scriptures which we mention, and which expressly prove that Christ was to suffer, to be worshipped, and [to be called] God, and which I have already recited to you, do refer indeed to Christ." - Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 68.

"Now I have proved at length that Christ is called God." - Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 124.

Finally, Justin believed in and implicitly taught the Trinity:

"But both Him, and the Son (who came forth from Him and taught us these things, and the host of the other good angels who follow and are made like to Him), and the prophetic Spirit, we worship and adore." - First Apology ch. 6 ( 10 ).


"Worship God alone." - First Apology ch. 16.
"Whence to God alone we render worship." – First Apology ch. 17.


SYBT: "Irenaeus, who died about 200 C.E., said that the prehuman Jesus had a separate existence from God and was inferior to him. He showed that Jesus is not equal to the ‘One true and only God,’ who is ‘supreme over all, and besides whom there is no other’" (p. 7).

Once again, make careful note where the quotation marks are and where they are not. Irenaus was actually contrasting the "one true and only God" with the false gods of Gnostic heresies. In fact, he defended a view of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that was implicitly Trinitarian. His views gain further significance when one considers that Irenaus was a student of Polycarp, a disciple of the Apostle John.

(Quoting John 1:1) "’...and the Word was God,’ of course, for that which is begotten of God is God." - Against Heresies, Book I, ch. 8, section 5( 11 ).

"Christ Jesus is our Lord, and God, and Savior, and King." - Against Heresies, Book I, ch. 10, section 1.

"But the Son, eternally co-existing with the Father, from of old, yea, from the beginning, always reveals the Father to Angels, Archangels, Powers, Virtues..." - Against Heresies, Book II, ch. 30, section 9.

"And again when the Son speaks to Moses, He says, ‘I am come down to deliver this people,’ (Exodus 3:8 - the burning bush). For it is He who descended and ascended for the salvation of men." - Against Heresies, Book III, ch. 6, section 2.

" that He indeed who made all things can alone, together with His Word, properly be termed God and Lord: but the things which have been made cannot have this term applied to them, neither should they justly assume that appellation which belongs to the Creator." - Against Heresies, Book III, ch. 8, section 3.

"For I have shown from the Scriptures, that no one of the sons of Adam is as to everything, and absolutely, called God, or named Lord. But that He is Himself in His own right, beyond all men who ever lived, God, and Lord, and King Eternal, and the Incarnate Word, proclaimed by all the prophets, the apostles, and by the Spirit Himself,...Now, the Scriptures would not have testified these things of Him, if, like others, He had been a mere man." - Against Heresies, Book III, ch. 19, section 2.

"God, then, was made man, and the Lord did Himself save us, giving us the token of the Virgin." - Against Heresies, Book III, ch. 21, section 1.

"Christ Himself, therefore, together with the Father, is the God of the living, who spake to Moses, and who was also manifested to the fathers." - Against Heresies, Book IV, ch. 5, section 2 ( 12 ).

"And for this reason all spake with Christ when He was present [upon earth], and they named Him God." - Against Heresies, Book IV, ch.6, section 6

"God formed was not angels, therefore, who made us...neither had angels power to make an image of God." - Against Heresies, Book IV, ch. 20, section 1 ( 13 ).

"Wherefore the prophets, receiving the prophetic gift from the same Word, announced His advent according to the flesh, by which the blending and communion of God and man took place according to the good pleasure of the Father, the Word of God foretelling from the beginning that God should be seen by men, and hold converse with them upon earth." - Against Heresies, Book IV, ch. 20, section 4

"The Word, that is, the Son, was always with the Father." - Against Heresies, Book IV, ch. 20, section 3.

"There is but one God. He created all things. He is the only God, the only Lord, the only Creator." - Against Heresies, Book II, ch.1, section 1.


"Christ Jesus, the Son of God, because of His surpassing love for His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin." - Against Heresies, Book III, ch. 4, section 2

If, according to Irenaus, creation belongs to Jesus ("His creation"), then Jesus must be the only God, only Lord, and only Creator.


SYBT: "Clement of Alexandria, who died about 215 C.E., called Jesus in his prehuman existence ‘a creature’ but called God ‘the uncreated and imperishable and only true God.’ He said that the Son ‘is next to the only omnipotent Father’ but not equal to him.

Again, note the selective quotes. Clement, as demonstrated below, taught the exact opposite of what is implied here.  Clement learned his theology in the Alexandrian "school" which was said to have been founded by Apollos and the Apostle Mark, so not only are his words of great value because they were penned so early, but also because they may well reflect Apostolic teaching.

"The Divine Word, He that is truly most manifest Deity, He that is made equal to the Lord of the universe..." – Exhortation to the Heathen, ch. 10.

"There was; then, a Word importing an unbeginning eternity; as also the Word itself, that is, the Son of God, who being, by equality of substance, one with the Father, is eternal and uncreate." - Fragments, Part I, section III.

"I understand nothing else than the Holy Trinity to be meant; for the third is the Holy Spirit, and the Son is the second, by whom all things were made according to the will of the Father." - Stromata, Book V, ch. 14.

"Now, O you, my children, our Instructor is like His Father God, whose son He is, sinless, blameless, and with a soul devoid of passion; God in the form of man, stainless, the minister of His Father’s will, the Word who is God, who is in the Father, who is at the Father’s right hand, and with the form of God is God." – Instructor, Book I, ch. 2.

"His Son Jesus, the Word of God, is our Instructor…. He is God and Creator." - Instructor, Book I, ch. 11.

"This very Word has now appeared as man, He alone being both, both God and man." – Exhortation to the Heathen, ch. 1.


SYBT: "Tertullian, who died about 230 C.E., taught the supremacy of God. He observed: ‘The Father is different from the Son (another), as he is greater; as he who begets is different from him who is begotten; he who sends, different from him who is sent.’ He also said: ‘There was a time when the Son was not. . . . Before all things, God was alone’" (p. 7).

The phrase: "There was a time when the Son was not" has been much discussed in the literature, and some scholars consider it indicative of Tertullian's belief that the Logos did not exist prior to "proceeding" from the Father, though whether Tertullian believed this procession took place in time is doubtful.  Others, such as Bishop Kaye, see Tertullian's words to refer specifically to the title "Son." ( 14 ). Tertullian, says Bishop Kaye, argued that the Word and the Father were always God, but the titles Father and Son only become applicable after the Incarnation: "For He could not have been the Father previous to the Son, nor a judge previous to sin" (Against Hermogones, Ch. 3).  This view seems to best harmonize with what Tertullian writes about the Son and the Trinity elsewhere.

The phrase "Before all things God was alone" appears in a different work in which Tertullian stresses that the Word existed eternally alongside God and was equal to Him ( 15 ).

In reality, Tertullian not only believed in the Trinity, he formulated the basic terminology used in formal expressions of the doctrine.

"There is one only God, but under the following dispensation, or oikonomia, as it is called, that this one only God has also a Son, His Word, who proceeded from Himself, by whom all things were made, and without whom nothing was made. Him we believe to have been sent by the Father into the Virgin, and to have been born of her — being both Man and God, the Son of Man and the Son of God, and to have been called by the name of Jesus Christ; we believe Him to have suffered, died, and been buried, according to the Scriptures, and, after He had been raised again by the Father and taken back to heaven, to be sitting at the right hand of the Father, and that He will come to judge the quick and the dead; who sent also from heaven from the Father, according to His own promise, the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, the sanctifier of the faith of those who believe in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost. That this rule of faith has come down to us from the beginning of the gospel, even before any of the older heretics." - Against Praxeas, ch. 2.

"All the Scriptures give clear proof of the Trinity, and it is from these that our principle is deduced...the distinction of the Trinity is quite clearly displayed." - Against Praxeas, ch. 11.

"[God speaks in the plural ‘Let us make man in our image’] because already there was attached to Him his Son, a second person, his own Word, and a third, the Spirit in the substance in three coherent persons. He was at once the Father, the Son, and the Spirit." - Against Praxeas, ch. 12.

"That there are, however, two Gods or two Lords, is a statement which at no time proceeds out of our mouth: not as if it were untrue that the Father is God, and the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God, and each is God." - Against Praxeas, ch. 13.

"The connection of Father and Son, of Son and the Paraclete [Holy Spirit] makes three coherent Persons, who are yet distinct One from Another. And these three are one essence; not one person." - Against Praxeas, ch. 25.

"The Spirit is God, and the Word is God, because proceeding from God, but yet is not actually the very same as He from whom He proceeds.." – Against Praxeas, ch. 26.

"He will be God, and the Word — the Son of God. We see plainly the twofold state, which is not confounded, but conjoined in One Person — Jesus, God and Man.." –Against Praxeas, ch. 27.

"Thus the nature of the two substances displayed Him as man and God, — in one respect born, in the other unborn;." - On the Flesh of Christ, ch. 5.

"Never did any angel descend for the purpose of being crucified, of tasting death, and of rising again from the dead." - On the Flesh of Christ, ch. 6.

"So too, that which has come forth out of God is at once God and the Son of God; and the two are one…. In his birth he is God and man united." - Apology, ch. 21.

SYBT: "However, this [the use of the word trinitas] is no proof itself that Tertullian taught the Trinity. The Catholic work Trinitas – A Theological Encyclopedia of the Holy Trinity, for example notes that some of Tertullian’s words were later used by others to describe the Trinity. Then it cautions: ‘But hasty conclusions cannot be drawn from usage, for he does not apply the words to Trinitarian theology’"(pp. 5-6).

This quote makes it appear that Tertullian did not use the word trinitas of God in a Trinitarian context. This is simply not true! In fact, the encyclopedia says Tertullian did use trinitas of God. It is another word entirely - SUBSTANTIA – which the encyclopedia says is not used in reference to the Trinity:

"The great African fashioned the Latin language of the Trinity, and many of his words and phrases remained permanently in use: the words Trinitas and persona, the formulas ‘one substance in three persons,’ ‘God from God, light from Light.’ He uses the word substantia 400 times, as he uses consubstantialis and consubstantivus, but hasty conclusions cannot be drawn from usage, for he does not apply the words to Trinitarian theology" ( 16 ).


SYBT: "Hippolytus, who died about 235 C.E., said that God is ‘the one God, the first and the only One, the Maker and Lord of all,’ who ‘had nothing co-eval [of equal age] with him. . . . But he was One, alone by himself; who, willing it, called into being what had no being before,’ such as the created prehuman Jesus" (p. 7).

The description "created prehuman Jesus" is not in quotation marks because no such statement exists in the writings of Hippolytus.

"He who is over all, God blessed, has been born, and having been made man. He is God forever. For to this effect John also has said, 'Which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.' And well has he named Christ the Almighty." - Against Noetus, Part 6 ( 17 ).

"He [God], while existing alone, yet existed in plurality." - Against Noetus, Part 10.

"Let us believe then, dear brethren, according to the tradition of the apostles, that God the Word came down from heaven,... He now, coming forth into the world, was manifested as God in a body, coming forth too as a perfect man.." - Against Noetus, Part 17.

"The Logos is God, being the substance of God." – Refutation of all Heresies, Book X, ch. 29.

"For Christ is the God above all..." - Refutation of all Heresies, Book X, ch 30.


SYBT: "Origen, who died about 250 C.E., said that "the Father and Son are two substances . . . two things as to their essence," and that "compared with the Father, [the Son] is a very small light."

Unlike the other Fathers quoted in SYBT, the Watchtower is not being overtly deceptive in its citation of Origen, for it is true that in many ways, Origen's writings reflect a departure from the orthodox view of the Trinity.  There is a lot, however, the Watchtower is not telling us about Origen and his beliefs.  Origen taught a "generic unity" in the Godhead, if not a numerical one; he believed that the Father and the Son were of the same nature but separate in being, and that the Son was subordinate to the Father ( 18 ). Origen did not teach that the Son was a created being, nor an angel. He always held to the Son’s eternal nature, which he shared with the Father, and to His complete participation in the Godhead ( 18a ).  If the Watchtower thesis is correct, and Trinitarian beliefs arose late in the history of the Church, one would expect to see something like the reverse of the development we see in Origen's beliefs - moving from henotheistic orthodoxy to some sort of Trinitarian heresy.  The fact that we see the opposite is significant, particularly in light of Clement's teachings.

"Nothing in the Trinity can be called greater or less, since the fountain of divinity alone contains all things by His word and reason, and by the Spirit of His mouth sanctifies all things which are worthy of sanctification." – De Principis, Book I, ch. 3, section 7.

"Saving baptism was not complete except by the authority of the most excellent Trinity of them all, i.e., by the naming of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." - De Principis, Book I, ch. 3, section 2.

"The holy Apostles, in preaching the faith of Christ, treated with the utmost clarity of certain matters which they believed to be of absolute necessity to all believers...The specific points which are clearly handed down through the Apostolic preaching [are] these: First, that there is one God who created and arranged all things...Secondly, that Jesus Christ himself was born of the Father before all creatures...Although He was God, He took flesh, and having been made man, He remained what He was, God" – De Principis, Preface, sections 3 – 4.

"For we do not hold that which the heretics imagine: that the Son was procreated by the Father from non-existent substances, that is, from a substance outside Himself, so that there was a time when He did not exist." – De Principis, Book V, Summary, section 28.

"We worship one God, the Father and the Son." – Against Celsus, Book VIII, section 12 ( 19 ).

Scholar Edmund Fortman, cited approvingly by SYBT, says of Origen: "Origen is Trinitarian in his thought" (20 ).


One early Father conspicuous by his absence from SYBT is the bishop of Antioch, Ignatius ( 21). Ignatius wrote a number of letters detailing his belief in "our God, Jesus Christ" (there are a number of spurious letters as well, but those quoted below are accepted as genuine). Ignatius is a significant source on early Christian thought, not only because he lived so early (he died circa 107 a.d.), but because he was a disciple of the Apostle John.

"There is only one physician, of flesh and of spirit, generate and ingenerate, God in man, true Life in death, Son of Mary and Son of God, first passible and then impassible, Jesus Christ our Lord" - Letter to the Ephesians 7.

This statement is perhaps one of the most profound Christological statements in all the Patristics. "Generate" (born of Mary) and "ingenerate" (not born or created, the Son of God), passible (human and subject of change) and impassible (unchangeable - an attribute ascribed by the Fathers only to the True God).

"Ignatius, who is also Theophorus, unto her that hath found mercy in the bountifulness of the Father Most High and of Jesus Christ His only Son; to the church that is beloved and enlightened through the will of Him who willed all things that are, by faith and love towards Jesus Christ our God; even unto her that hath the presidency in the country of the region of the Romans..." - Letter to the Romans 1.

"Nothing visible is good. For our God Jesus Christ, being in the Father, is the more plainly visible. The Work is not of persuasiveness, but Christianity is a thing of might, whensoever it is hated by the world." -Letter to the Romans 3.

"I give glory to Jesus Christ the God who bestowed such wisdom upon you" - Letter to the Smyraeans ( 22 ).

"By the will of the Father and of Jesus Christ our God." – Letter to the Ephesians ( 23 ).

C. Conclusion

All of these men lived and wrote in the 2nd and 3rd centuries and taught the "economic" (if not the "essential") Trinity, whereas SYBT states on page 8 that the doctrine was not formulated until the 4th century. The Watchtower has presented its case by misrepresenting what scholars and the Ante-Nicene Fathers wrote. Why would God’s Organization use such tactics?

If, after reading this paper, you remain convinced that the Watchtower is a reliable source of spiritual truth, consider carefully: Either the sources quoted in SYBT are credible witnesses of early Christian faith or they are not. If you believe them to be credible, the Watchtower has been deceptive about what each wrote concerning the Trinity. If the sources are not credible, the Watchtower has been deceptive in citing them in the first place.

Facts speak for themselves. Early Christians wrote eloquently and often of their belief in the full deity of Christ and in the "Trinity in Unity" of the One God. Equally important, there is no evidence that early Christians believed anything resembling Watchtower theology. The heresies arising in the first few centuries of the Christian era bear little or no resemblance to the teachings of the Watchtower. The teaching of the Watchtower is perhaps closest to Arianism, which taught that the Son was a secondary god. But Arius lived in the 4th century, did not claim to derive his beliefs from Apostolic teaching, and held that the Spirit was a Person similar in nature to the Son. On the other hand, there is ample evidence that early Christians believed and taught the essential truth of the Trinity.



Click on number to return to the text.

( 1 )  Robert Bowman has indeed written an excellent book-length response, entitled Why You Should Believe in the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1989). I am indebted to Mr. Bowman’s work throughout.
( 2 )  See, for example, Greg Stafford, Jehovah’s Witnesses Defended: An Answer to Scholars and Critics (Huntington Beach: Elihu Books, 1998).
3 )  E.g., Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996); Murray J. Harris, Jesus as God: The New Testament Use of Theos in Reference to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1992).
4 )  E.g., Bowman; James White, “Historical Honesty and the Watchtower Society” (available at:
5Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Vol. 12, p. 461.
6 )  Ibid., 458-459.  This point is crucial.  The Watchtower's interpretation of history is diametrically opposed to the quoted statement from the Encyclopedia:  "For many years, there had been much opposition on Biblical grounds to the developing idea that Jesus was God" (SYBT, page 8, emphasis added)The Encyclopedia clearly states the idea of Jesus as God "lived very early in devotion," and was thus far from a "developing idea" in the fourth Century.  Now, no one would argue that the Watchtower must accept the Enclyopedia's position regarding the origin of the Trinity; honest people may view the same historical evidence and arrive at different conclusions.  However, such does not seem to be the case here.  The Watchtower has quoted the Encyclopedia selectively (cutting off a quote in mid-sentence) to make it appear that the writers of the Encyclopedia are saying something they, in fact, are not.  If this were the only case of misquotation in SYBT, we might forgive the Watchtower for an honest mistake (if they admitted it).  Sadly, it is not.
( 7 )  As I believe the evidence will show, the Fathers taught the “economic” Trinity.  That is, they taught implicitly what would later be made explicit in the Creeds.  Several passages, as you will see (particularly in the case of Tertullian), border on - or move strongly into - the realm of the "essential" Trinity.
( 8 )  The word “angel” is a transliteration (not a translation) of the Latin Angelus, itself a transliteration of the Greek Aggelos.  The meaning of the Greek is the same as the Hebrew, literally “a messenger.”
( 8a)  So, Purves:  "The Logos, then, according to Justin, was not personally eternal" (Purves, The Testimony of Justin Martyr to Early Christianity, London: Nisbet & Company, 1896, p. 150).  However, Purves goes on to say, "Yet, as He [the Logos] was not created but begotten...he must have been to Justin essentially one with the Father of all; and their numerical distinctness from each other must have been as to personality, not as to substance....Consubstantial with the Father of all, He was made numerically distinct from Him, and undertook to carry out His will" (IBID, pp. 151-152).
(8b)  "Person," of course, is perhaps too strong a word in this context; Justin does not articulate the distinction between "Person" and "Substance" as clearly as later Fathers would.  However, Goodenough states:  "So far as I know, Justin is here the first to attempt a term for the personalities in the Godhead.  He frequently uses heteros arithmw, which is always, and on the whole wisely, translated 'numerically distinct,' but which meant to Justin 'different in person'"(Goodenough, The Theology of Justin Martyr, Amsterdam: Philo Press, 1968, p. 146).  See also Purves in note 8a.
( 9 )  All references to the works of the Ante-Nicene Fathers from The Sage Digital Library, The Christian Heritage Edition v. 1.0, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, volumes 1-7 (Albany: Sage Software, 1997).
( 10 )  Do not confuse what Justin means by referring to “other good angels who follow and are made like to Him.” Justin did not teach that the Son was a “created angel” as the Watchtower claims.  Rather, he says that the Son is rightly called “Angel” because He appeared as the Angel of the Lord in various Old Testament passages.  Justin repeatedly  teaches that the Son is fully God:  “'He is called God, and He is and shall be God.' And when all had agreed on these grounds, I continued: ‘Moreover, I consider it necessary to repeat to you the words which narrate how He who is both Angel and God and Lord, and who appeared as a man to Abraham, and who wrestled in human form with Jacob, was seen by him when he fled from his brother Esau’” (Dialog with Trypho, ch. 58).  Further, Justin taught that Jesus was “God incarnate” (Other Fragments, X), a term and concept the Watchtower would have us believe was foreign to 2nd Century Christianity.
( 11 )  The entire passage reads:  “John, the disciple of the Lord, wishing to set forth the origin of all things, so as to explain how the Father produced the whole, lays down a certain principle, — that, namely, which was first-begotten by God, which Being he has termed both the only-begotten Son and God, in whom the Father, after a seminal manner, brought forth all things. By him the Word was produced, and in him the whole substance of the Aeons, to which the Word himself afterwards imparted form. Since, therefore, he treats of the first origin of things, he rightly proceeds in his teaching from the beginning, that is, from God and the Word. And he expresses himself thus: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God; the same was in the beginning with God.’  Having first of all distinguished these three — God, the Beginning, and the Word — he again unites them, that he may exhibit the production of each of them, that is, of the Son and of the Word, and may at the same time show their union with one another, and with the Father. For ‘the beginning’ is in the Father, and of the Father, while ‘the Word’ is in the beginning, and of the beginning. Very properly, then, did he say, ‘In the beginning was the Word,’ for He was in the Son; ‘and the Word was with God,’ for He was the beginning; ‘and the Word was God,’ of course, for that which is begotten of God is God.”
Note that Ireneaus indicates that the Word and God (whom he identifies with the Father) are at once “distinguished” and in “union.” He says John writes of “the origin of things” and that “from the beginning” is synonymous with “from God and the Word.”  Finally, he clearly states that Jesus, as Son and Word, is God.
( 12 )  Compare to this statement about the Father: “He the Creator, He the Lord of all; and there is no one besides Him, or above Him, either has He any mother, as they falsely ascribe to Him; nor is there a second God, as Marcion has imagined” (Against Heresies, Book II, ch. 30, section 9).  Irenaus says there are no “second” gods beside the Father, but that Christ together with the Father is “the God of the Living.”  Whose teachings do these statements more closely resemble, the Watchtower or orthodox Christianity?
( 13 )  This passage reads in its entirety:  “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.’”  Notice that the Son and Spirit were “always present” with the Father, the Father “made all things” through them, and the Father speaks to them as though the Spirit was just as much a Person as the Son.  This passage, therefore, contradicts Watchtower theology in several important ways, while manifesting implicitly Trinitarian beliefs.
( 14 )  Bishop Kaye, “Account of the Writings of Tertullian,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3, p. 1181.  This section includes the following statements that summarize Bishop Kaye’s understanding of Tertullian: “Tertullian’s opinions were generally coincident with the orthodox belief of the Christian Church on the great subject of the Trinity in Unity” (p. 1180); “the Reason and Spirit of God, being the substance of the Word and Son, were co-eternal with God” (p. 1181); “He [Tertullian] really believed that the very hypostasis which is called the Word and Son of God is eternal” (p. 1182).
( 15 )  The quote, in context, reads:  ‘There are some who allege that even Genesis opens thus in Hebrew: “In the beginning God made for Himself a Son.’ As there is no ground for this, I am led to other arguments derived from God’s own dispensation, in which He existed before the creation of the world, up to the generation of the Son. For before all things God was alone — being in Himself and for Himself universe, and space, and all things. Moreover, He was alone, because there was nothing external to Him but Himself. Yet even not then was He alone; for He had with Him that which He possessed in Himself, that is to say, His own Reason…. I may therefore without rashness first lay this down (as a fixed principle) that even then before the creation of the universe God was not alone, since He had within Himself both Reason, and, inherent in Reason, His Word, which He made second to Himself by agitating it within Himself” (Against Praxeas, ch. 5).  Thus, Tertullian taught that God was alone only in the sense that there was nothing external to Himself, but within him existed from eternity, the Word.  In the same letter, Tertullian writes:  “All are of One, by unity (that is) of substance; while the mystery of the dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God, from whom these degrees and forms and aspects are reckoned, under the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Against Praxeas, Ch. 2).
( 16 )  Trinitas – A Theological Encyclopedia of the Holy Trinity, p. 208.
( 17 )  Thus Hippolytus, who lived in the late 2nd Century, who read John’s Apocalypse in his native language, who studied under Ireneaus (himself a student of Polycarp, a disciple of the Apostle John) believed and taught that Revelation 1:8 referred to Christ.  The Watchtower says otherwise. You may decide, given the evidence presented here, which of these witnesses you find most credible.  The Watchtower, of course, must consider Hippolytus credible, otherwise they would not have included him in SYBT.
( 18 )  Even if Origen’s later writings do not reflect completely orthodox views of the Trinity, he admits that others in the Christian community of his day do: “Grant that there may be some individuals among the multitudes of believers who are not in entire agreement with us, and who incautiously assert that the Savior is the Most High God” (Against Celsus, Book VIII, ch 14).  This statement lends further credence to the pervasiveness of Trinitarianism in the early Church.
( 18a ) Jehovah's Witnesses may cite Origen's writings in support of their view that the Son was not considered equal with the Father in the early Church.  As has been pointed out in note 18, even Origen himself admits that his beliefs were not pervasive.  Some Jehovah's Witness apologists use the same grammatical arguments put forth by Origen to underline a distinction in being between the Father and the Son.  In his discussion of the Fourth Gospel, Origen writes: "He [John] uses the [Greek] article, when the name of God refers to the uncreated cause of all things, and omits it when the Logos is named God"  (Commentary on the Gospel John, Book II).  As has been demonstrated by Murray Harris, the evidence shows that the article is not always applied to the Father, while it is occasionally used in reference to the Son (Harris, Jesus as God, p. 53); therefore, Origen's conclusion is ill-founded.  Further, Origen's thought in this regard, as has been widely recognized, is dependent upon an underlying Platonism (e.g., JND Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, p. 131-132; Prestige, God in Patristic Thought, p. 144).  More importantly, when examined closely, even Origen's more "unorthodox" writings do not reflect anything remotely reflecting Watchtower theology.  Origen emphasizes that though he had come to believe in an ontological distinction in being between the members of the Godhead, he continued to teach that the Son was eternal, uniquely "begotten" by the Father out of His own substance (not ex-nihilo, as all other things were created):  "The true God, then, is 'The God,' and those who are formed after Him are gods, images, as it were, of Him the prototype. But the archetypal image, again, of all these images is the Word of God, who was in the beginning, and who by being with God is at all times God, not possessing that of Himself, but by His being with the Father, and not continuing to be God, if we should think of this, except by remaining always in uninterrupted contemplation of the depths of the Father" (Commentary on the Gospel of John, Book II, emphasis added).  Henri Crouzel, perhaps the greatest living Origen scholar, writes that Origen's writings should never be understood through the lenses of the later Arian/Trinitarian controversies.  Rather, Crouzel argues that Origen is essentially orthodox in his beliefs, but was striving always to emphasize the distinction between Father and Son in the face of the modalistic heresies against which he wrote (cf., Henri Crouzel, Origen).
( 19 )  This letter admittedly qualifies this statement as follows: “while they are two, considered as persons or subsistences, are one in unity of thought, in harmony and in identity of will.”  Whether the term “subsistence” carried the same meaning as “substance” or “being” for Origen is debatable (for a full discussion, see the Introduction to Origen’s Works, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, volume 4, p 473).
( 20 )  Edmund Fortman, The Triune God (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972.) p 58.
( 21 )  Other noteworthy absentees include Mathetes (died c. 130 a.d.),  Tatian (died c. 170 a.d.), Athenagoras (died c. 177 a.d.), Cyprian  (died c. 258 a.d.), and Novatian (died c. 280 a.d.).
  Mathetes: “He did not, as one might have imagined, send to men any servant, or angel, or ruler, or any one of those who bear sway over earthly things, or one of those to whom the government of things in the heavens has been entrusted, but the very Creator and Fashioner of all things…. As a king sends his son, who is also a king, so sent He Him; as God (To Diognetus, ch.7).
  Tatian: “The Logos Himself also, who was in Him [The Father], subsists” (Address to the Greeks, ch. 5).
  Athenagoras:  “Who, then, would not be astonished to hear men who speak of God the Father, and of God the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and who declare both their power in union and their distinction in order, called atheists? “ (A Plea for the Christians, ch. 10).
  Cyprian: “God is mingled with man. This is our God, this is Christ, who, as the mediator of the two, puts on man that He may lead them to the Father” (Treatise 6, section 11).
  Novatian: “Why, then, should man hesitate to call Christ God, when he observes that He is declared to be God by the Father according to the Scriptures?” (Concerning the Trinity, ch. 12).  “Believe also on the Holy Spirit, once promised to the Church” (Concerning the Trinity, ch. 29).  “Although we call Christ God, and the Father God, still scripture does not set forth two gods, any more than two lords or two teachers” (Concerning the Trinity, ch. 30).
( 22 )  In the original Greek, the word “God” in this passage is articular (that is, it is preceded by the definite article): “Ihsoun Criston ton qeon.”  The Watchtower and its apologists have frequently argued that in the First Century, the articular form of “qeos” was applied only to the One True God, and not to the secondary “god,” Jesus Christ.  If the Watchtower were correct, we would not expect to find Ignatius, student of John that he was, applying the articular qeos to Jesus, unless (of course) he believed that Jesus was the One True God.  Other examples of the articular usage in Ignatius and in other Ante-Nicene Fathers can be multiplied.
( 23 )  Another example of qeos with the definite article: “Ivhsou Cristou tou qeou hmwn.”