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Latest JW Argument from Col. 1:15
Some JWs have argued from the word “prototokos” in Col. 1:15, that this establishes two points favoring the WT’s view that Christ was the first of God’s creations. They argue that the word is “partitive” thereby requiring the conclusion that Christ be a member of creation, and secondly that the term means “first in time” thus establishing Him as the first creature in the category.
However it need only be pointed out that the Trinitarian view can accommodate taking “prototokos” as partitive with no problems at all. Actually the JW assumption here is a strawman. Why? Because establishing Christ as a member of creation provides no more support for the JW position than Trinitarianism. It is a fundamental tenet of the Trinity that at a certain point in history the Logos “became flesh”, both sides agreeing that He possessed a truly human nature (creature). So the fact that Christ can be shown to be a member of creation tells us nothing whatsoever about His pre-existence before he “became flesh”, or his ultimate identity (John 1:14 cf. Phil. 2:1-6). But what about the second JW claim, that the term “prototokos” also requires the “first in time—first in series” meaning. Is that true? No it is not.
Although certain witnesses like Wes Williams and Greg Stafford have quoted extensively from the LXX to demonstrate that the term HAD the “first in time...first in the series” meaning, they also make the point that this meaning constitutes the overwhelming majority of uses, thereby providing them with an argument based on Scriptural precedence. However, as I am about to show, they have grossly overstated their case. These “overwhelming examples” from the bible do not give them the precedence they really need. Since the witnesses have appealed to Colossians 1:15 to prove THEIR case, all we would really need is a single example where “prototokos” was applied without a numerical significance (first in time or series), and they would lose the argument. For such would show that there is no necessity for the term to bear that sense. Yet, as I am about to show, the Scripture provides much more than a just single example, it actually shows a pattern on Jehovah’s part of not being “bound” by men’s customs in the making of His choices. We must keep in mind at this point that if the Witnesses cannot prove from Col. 1:15 that Christ was the first of God’s creations, they must come to verses 16 and 17 empty-handed as far as having established their premise (from the context) for the logic used to justify the NWT’s rendering “ta panta” as “all OTHER things” in these verses.
So the question is, does “prototokos” always carry the “first in time and series” connotation? No it does not, for we can show examples where the term was applied when numerical significance was NOT the issue, status or rank was. In addition we can show a figurative use of the term in Hebrew culture, a usage that did NOT require the first in time or series meaning. In fact the Scripture starts early to show a pattern on Jehovah’s part of not relying on numerical order in the making of his choices of individuals for certain uses.
What saith the Scripture?
Abraham’s actual firstborn was Ishmael and Isaac came later. Yet we read in Hebrews 11:17 that Isaac was Abraham’s “monogenes”. This is sometimes rendered “only begotten”, but Issac was not Abraham’s only begotten, but he was Jehovah’s choice, the unique one, the one of a kind son of promise through whom Abraham’s “seed” was to come. Although the term “prototokos” is not used here, it does show an early illustration that God could not be held hostage to numerical order in the making of His choices. Another example that does apply “prototokos” is found by comparing Genesis 41:51 with Jeremiah 31:9, for here, Joseph had two sons, Manasseh was the first and Ephraim the second. Yet we read in Jeremiah 31:9, “I have become to Israel a Father, and as for Ephraim, he is my firstborn.” Here we find another example of Jehovah making His choices without regard for numerical order, first in time etc. Yet we see the term “prototokos” being applied.
Another example appears in Job 18:13 where the phrase “firstborn of death” is applied, NOT to the first disease, but to the deadliest of diseases. Once again we see that numerical order was not the emphasis, status was.
Consider Jacob and Esau. Esau was actually the first numerically, yet the promised “seed” was to come through Jacob, and so he acquired the right (status) of the firstborn and did so within the permissive will of God, in perfect accord with God’s plan of salvation. It had been predicted that “the older will serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23). We could not ask for a better example to show that Jehovah was not bound by men’s customs in the making of his choices.
In fact I am not alone in recognizing this pattern set by Jehovah. It may surprise the rank & file witnesses but the WT Society actually agrees with me on this point. In the same context with the gaining of the birthright by Jacob, the WT says the following:
“...By this means Jehovah God made clear that his choice of individuals for certain uses is not bound by the usual customs or procedures conforming to men’s expectations”. (Insight on the Scriptures, Vol. #1, page 856)
So the numerous examples cited by the witnesses of human customs or “men’s expectations” with the term “prototokos” cannot be accepted as showing the proper precedence to prove their claims from Col. 1:15. Instead, as the WT agrees, Jehovah made it clear that he was NOT bound by such traditions and customs of men. So when Trinitarians give greater weight to what “Jehovah made clear”, if the witnesses want to complain, they should take up their complaint with the WT Society. After all, do they think they know better than the Organization? Do they consider themselves right and the Organization wrong?
As if the above weren’t enough, another example which illustrates that Jehovah was not bound by men’s traditions of numerical order in the making of his decisions can be seen with King David. He was neither Jesse’s first child nor Israel’s first king, yet we read that Jehovah called him “firstborn” in Psalms 89:27, thus “...I myself shall place him as firstborn, The most high of the kings of the earth”. Once again we have the WT’s agreement that this term can have the emphasis of “preeminence”. Did they say “preeminent”? Yes they sure did. In the Aid to Bible Understanding book, page 584, they had said: ((although they must have thought better of it later when writing the Insight Volumes, for there under the same entry they strangely “lose” the term preeminent;-)). hmm...nevertheless in the Aid book they had said:
“David, who was the youngest son of Jesse, was called by Jehovah the “first-born”, due to Jehovah’s elevation of David to the preeminent (here it is) position in God’s chosen nation and his making a covenant with David for a dynasty of kings (Ps. 89:27). In this position David prophetically represented the Messiah.----Compare Psalm 2:2, 7 with 1 Samuel 10:1; Hebrews 1:5.
Now let’s put our thinking caps on for a moment. Notice above how even the WT appealed to Psalms 2:2 and 7 when discussing Jehovah’s placement of David as “firstborn”, David whom the WT says, “prophetically represented the Messiah”. So what does Psalms 2:2 and 7 refer to? Note....
“...The kings of earth take their stand And high officials themselves have massed together as one Against Jehovah and against his anointed one,
“......He has said to me: ‘You are my son; I, today, I have become your father.
But let’s not stop here in verse 7, as the WT did. Let’s go one more verse to see what it says:
“...Ask of me, that I may give nations as your inheritance And the ends of the earth as your own possession”
Yes indeed, the WT Society made the above associations with David’s being called “firstborn” by Jehovah. Please look at them again. First they said David “prophetically represents” the Messiah from this preeminent position “firstborn”, then they reference to Psalms 2:7 which is cited in Hebrews 1:5. Does this refer to Christ’s creation according to the witnesses? In context after the statement “Today I have begotten you, it says immediately “Ask of me, that I may give nations as your inheritance” (italics mine). Now consider, folks, does this remind us of Christ’s being “appointed” heir of all things? You bet it does! The WT Society says that Jesus Christ was “spiritually begotten at the time of his baptism...” (Insight, Vol.#1, page 837), and in the WT’s big reference bible, under Psalms 2:7 they reference Matt. 3:17 (Christ’s baptism) along with Heb. 1:5. So according to even the WT Organization, David’s being placed as “firstborn” prophetically represented Christ’s baptism which constituted a spiritual begetting, also referenced in Heb. 1:5 and 5:5. I invite the witnesses to look this up in their own reference bible under Psalms 2:7-8....
Thus the application of “prototokos” to Christ in Col. 1:15 merely shows his preeminent position, and He deserved such because in reality all creation came into existence through him...without even a single exception (cf. John 1:3). Paul agrees by saying “He is before all things (pantwn)”. If the Witnesses STILL try to save the argument by claiming the partitive genitive in verse 15, as mentioned earlier this poses no problem for the Trinity, for Christ entered the creature category at Bethlehem. So we see how the witnesses have been huffing and puffing at a straw man. It’s not enough to argue that Christ was “among” creation, or even belonged to the category, but they must prove that He was the first creation, and Col. 1:15 fails to get the job done for them.
Some witnesses, seemingly frustrated by the above argumentation, have in the last resort attempted to save face by portraying the figurative usage of terms in a somewhat negative light. Thus they choose their words carefully, they say “but YOU have to adopt the figurative use of the term”...etc. Indeed one gets the impression that if it were possible they would even throw in a little body English with it. The truth is that the examples cited above show that God did it... and it’s a beautiful thing! There are plenty of examples in Scripture where various titles are applied figuratively to Christ, some of them even seemingly self-contradictory. Would we say, for example, that Christ was not the Shepherd because he was the Lamb? Was he not the Priest because he was the Sacrifice? We soon discover that Christ was both Shepherd and Lamb, Priest and sacrifice, King and slave, Son of God and Son of man. So we should not be surprised to find that the One who was “appointed heir of all things” is also called “firstborn of all creation”, not because he was numerically the first creature, but because all things came into existence through him and for him, and are held together by him (synestiken). And naturally because as Paul said “he is before all things”.
Paul says the same thing here as John does in John 1:1-3, as we might expect. Right after applying “theos” to the Logos, John then immediately portrays him as the one through whom all things came into existence. He says there were no exceptions to this, not even one! This means that even the first thing that ever came into existence did so through the Logos. And due to the generic language and the explicit denial of even a single exception, the burden is on any who would claim that “all” doesn’t mean “all” here. Pointing to other places where “all” didn’t mean “all” will not satisfy the burden, for they must show that it doesn’t mean “all” here in John 1:3, especially since this passage states no exceptions (oude hen…not even one thing!). This is a hard thing for the average witness. Not that he doesn’t see the obvious, but that he doesn’t want to accept it.
In response to the “literal and figurative uses of ‘firstborn”, Greg Stafford says on page 217 of JWD, “The notion of temporal priority in the OT (LXX) use of prototokos is not in dispute, neither is the notion of primacy of status, which was accorded to the firstborn.” However, as shown above, the notion of temporal priority with the use of “prototokos” in the OT was rejected by Jehovah God Himself in the making of his choices of individuals, as even agreed to by the WT Organization. Does Stafford know better than God’s “Authority” on these matters? Does he consider himself superior to the Organization at recognizing Jehovah’s pattern? I make my appeal here to the average JW who may be considering these things. When Stafford says it’s not in dispute, how does that jive with the WT’s statement that, “By this means Jehovah God made clear that his choice of individuals for certain uses is not bound by the usual customs or procedures conforming to men’s expectations” (Insight.., Vol. 1, page 856…Italics mine). Now stop to think: Jehovah was either “bound” to the customs and expectations of men, or He wasn’t. What did the WT Organization say about this? And is it not amazing that, after having said that the notion of temporal priority “is not in dispute” in the OT, he then goes on to actually cite the very examples that caused the WT to recognize that Jehovah God was not “bound” by men’s customs and expectations?
Seemingly sensing the weakness in his position at this point, Stafford goes on to acknowledge the application of “firstborn” to David...that it did not intend temporal priority. He therefore admits a figurative application as a possible fulfillment of Psalms 89:27, but tries to retrieve himself at the last minute by asserting that Christ is “not said to have been ‘placed as’ or ‘given’ the position of ‘firstborn’. However, the Scripture reveals that Christ was appointed heir of all things (Heb. 1:2), and Psalms 2:7-8 is actually cited in the Hebrews context, but what did we read at Psalms 2:7-8? We read as plain as day that “You are my son; I, today, I have become your father. Ask of me, that I may give nations as your inheritance And the ends of the earth as your own possession.” (WT references Psalms 89:27 at this point) So how much difference is there between being “placed”... and being “appointed”? Can the reader not see that Stafford is grasping at straws here? He tries to distinguish on the basis of “political figures” (as per the kings in Ps. 89:27), yet the WT still references Ps. 89:27 with Ps. 2:7 where the inheritance is expanded to include “nations as your inheritance”, and recall Christ’s being “appointed heir of all things” (Heb 1:2). So with the WT’s referencing Ps. 89:27 with Ps. 2:7, we cannot miss the easy connection with Col. 1:15-17 where Paul likewise includes the phraseology “...the things visible and the things invisible, no matter whether they are thrones or lordships or governments or authorities” (italics mine).
The Witness of the Early Church
Now that we have shown Jehovah’s pattern as set forth in the Scripture of not being “bound” by human customs or “the expectations of men” in the making of his choices of individuals for certain uses, and now that we have seen how even the WT Society acknowledged this pattern and said so, it is appropriate at this juncture to consider the beliefs of the early Christians who lived just after the apostolic generation. Did they approach their terms with pedantic literalism?
On page 7, under the heading, “What the Ante-Nicene Fathers Taught” the “Should You believe in the Trinity” Booklet (a booklet produced by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society) had this to say about the credentials of these great men:
“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.” (bold and underline mine)
So in light of the WT’S own comments it would be of interest to see how the early Christians might shed some light on our subject. Apparently in NT times, as well as the generations immediately following, the expression “firstborn of....” became stereotyped.
POLYCARP studied at the feet of St. John, and of course John was contemporary with the Apostle Paul and inspired by the same Holy Spirit. Polycarp died in the year 155. But he wrote an epistle to the Phillipians recorded in Vol. 1, page 34 of the Ante-nicene Fathers by Roberts and Donaldson:
Chapter VII--...”For whosoever does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is antichrist, and whosoever does not confess the testimony of the cross, if of the devil; and whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts, and says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan. “(bold and underline mine)
Note that the subject of the idiom here is left hypothetical (whosoever) by Polycarp. Well then, what’s happened to the time-element with the meaning of this title? It has dropped off, and is no longer the emphasis of the idiom. But what has remained is the status or rank. Polycarp’s meaning is exceedingly obvious to the most casual observer, Satan would be proud of whoever would do this...like his firstborn son.
What about the authenticity of Polycarp’s epistle? Let me read from Vol. 1, pages 31-32 of Roberts and Donaldson’s, “Ante-Nicene Fathers” concerning this epistle:
“The authenticity of the following Epistle can on no fair grounds be questioned. It is abundantly established by external testimony, and is also supported by the internal evidence. Irenaeus says (Adv. Haer., iii. 3): ‘There is extant an Epistle of Polycarp written to the Phillipians, most satisfactory, from which those that have a mind to do so may learn the character of his faith,’..etc. This passage is embodied by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History (iv.14); and in another place the same writer refers to the Epistle before us as an undoubted production of Polycarp (Hist. Eccl., iii. 36). (bold and underline mine)
Other ancient testimonies might easily be added, but are superfluous, inasmuch as there is a general consent among scholars at the present day that we have in this letter an authentic production of the renowned Bishop of Smyrna”.
The bottom line here is that as long as any of the above uses is even possible, the witnesses have failed to establish their case. They must therefore come to Col. 1:16-17 empty-handed as far as having established their premise (which is also their conclusion...Christ was the first creature). After all is said and done the witnesses find themselves in the same predicament here as in John 1:1-3. Like it or lump it, they must take their premise for granted (Christ was the first creature), a premise which also happens to be their ultimate conclusion. They must ASSUME it, then reason as if it were so in order to explain the context in both places. Either that or they must bring in disputed passages from outside with their own conclusion assumed correct. But such reasoning begs the question by making what they would prove the presupposition of their exegesis. The Orthodox position is superior at every turn. We can reach our conclusion that Christ was not the first creation by the actual wording in the context in both places, and we don’t have to assume it at the outset. Therefore the Orthodox position has a vastly superior claim to comporting with the natural meaning of the context in both places.
The witnesses’ complaints notwithstanding, there are in fact many titles and metaphors applied figuratively to Christ throughout Scripture, so another one at Col. 1:15 would add only to the JW burden. They can’t handle it because they need the argument . But again, recall the WT’s cross referencing Ps. 89:27 through Ps. 2 to Christ’s baptism as per Matt. 3:17, and also recall the WT’s pointing to Christ’s baptism as a “spiritual begetting” on page 837, Vol. #1 of Insight. So my JW friends, let’s put it all together. Psalms 89:27 calls David “firstborn” in prophetic anticipation of Christ, this goes back to Psalms 2:7-8 wherein is mentioned Christ’s “inheritance”…this is then crossed to Matt. 3:17 which is Christ’s baptism, which the WT admits was a “spiritual” begetting. And to top it all off, the “inheritance” mentioned at Ps 2:8 crosses also to Heb. 1:2 (appointed heir of all things). Let me requote the WT’s statement about Christ’s baptism to make it easier for the reader: Again, this is found in Vol. #1, page 837: “Figurative and Symbolic Use. ((did they say figurative?)) Jesus Christ was spiritually begotten at the time of his baptism…” Very well, then, so much for this latest attempt by JWs to supposedly prove that Christ was the first of God’s creations.
In times past I have accepted the partitive interpretation of the genitive in Col. 1:15 only for the sake of the argument and to show JWs that the argument is in reality a strawman, because the inclusion of Christ in the category of creation no more supports the JW view than the Trinity view, as some JWs have been assuming. We also believe that Christ entered the category as per John 1:14. Therefore the witnesses have been boxing the air with this one when their REAL burden is to prove that Christ was the first of God’s creations. I adopted the partitive interpretation also in my debate with Wrench, and the ensuing discussion demonstrates that he was unable to make any headway by showing an advantage for his view over mine. But in reality I’m more inclined to interpret the genitive in Col. 1:15 as a genitive of subordination (firstborn over all creation). This interpretation fits well with the immediate context showing that from start to finish Christ was hand’s on responsible for all creation in the first place, and also responsible for its reconciliation in the last place.
Yet He deserves the designation “firstborn” because as Paul said, “He is before all things” thus harmonizing with John 1:3. This is even more clear when understood against the background of the Colossian heresy that there were many “aions” or mediators. Only Christ could be the true Mediator because only He could identify with both sides of the spectrum. Only He could be a truly sympathetic Mediator because only He knows firsthand what it’s like to actually BE both… truly human and truly God. I respectfully urge my JW friends to open their minds to the plain sense of God’s Word and be willing, against any earthly religious organization, to honor/value the Son “just as” they honor/value the Father (John 5:23). Our JW friends explain that the reason they use God’s name is to honor Him, yet the bible tells us that if we do not honor/value the Son “just as” we do the Father, we aren’t honoring the Father either. The reason we are told that all judgment has been committed to the Son is so that (hina w/subj. timwsi) we may recognize His true and ultimate identity. Who but the Creator, Jehovah, could be the judge of all creation? So if all judgment has been committed to the Son, who must He be? Think about it. I’m NOT saying here that the Son is the Father, but only that Jehovah ultimately includes the Son and the Holy Spirit. They are that single Authority in whose name believers were to be baptized (Matt. 28:19).
I will close for now, but in closing let me echo the sentiments of Dr. Robert Gundry in “The Church and the Tribulation”… it is hoped that these pages will contribute to an understanding and appreciation of the Trinitarian position, and that they will do so in a manner characterized by “the wisdom from above...first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, and without hypocrisy” (James 3:17).
Click here for a dialog between Ray and a Jehovah's Witness on the topics raised in this article.