by Steve Berg
(Part 1 of a 2 part series on the doctrine of the Trinity, originally printed in the September/October 1995 MCOI Journal)
One of the major reasons the Jehovah’s Witnesses are considered to be outside the realm of orthodox Christianity is because of their outright denial of the doctrine of the Trinity. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society has made it very clear how much they detest this doctrine held so dear by Christians throughout the centuries. Not only do they attempt to disprove the Trinity Biblically, but they go to great lengths to impugn the integrity of its development, by making it appear that the early Church threw open the door to pagan philosophies and completely apostasized from the faith within the first few centuries after the death of the apostles. The Watchtower Society devotes much space in its publications to their false version of the Trinity’s history.
Since the word “Trinity” never appears in the Bible, and was not made an official doctrine until the 4th century, and since it utilized terms borrowed from Greek philosophy, the Watchtower has concluded that the doctrine of the Trinity is the invention of man and is certainly not Biblical. In their famous booklet, “Should You Believe in the Trinity?” they expend great effort to link Christianity with paganism and Greek philosophy in an attempt to prove the Trinity is the result of anti-Christian sources. Consider the following quote:
“Throughout the ancient world, as far back as Babylonia, the worship of pagan gods grouped in threes, or triads, was common. That influence was also prevalent in Egypt, Greece, and Rome in the centuries before, during, and after Christ. And after the death of the apostles, such pagan beliefs began in invade Christianity… While [Plato]I did not teach the Trinity in its present form, his philosophies paved the way for it. Later, philosophical movements that included triadic beliefs sprang up, and these were influenced by Plato’s ideas of God and nature.” (Should You Believe in the Trinity? p. 11)
The Watchtower’s argument can be summed up as follows:
1) The Trinity is not mentioned in the Bible.
2) Ancient pagan religions believed in “Triads” or “Trinities.”
3) The Trinity did not develop until four centuries after Christ.
4) Greek (Platonic) philosophy heavily influenced the Trinity.
Therefore, the Trinity is the unbiblical, pagan invention of man.
On the surface, the Society’s argument looks convincing. But the question we have to ask is, “Is it fair, or are there other factors to consider, which the Watchtower has failed to mention?” In other words, are there missing pieces to this argument that would provide us with a better understanding of the origin of the Trinity?1 Even a cursory reading of Church history will reveal that the Watchtower’s portrayal of the events surrounding the development of the Trinity is incomplete and slanted. It readily has been proven that despite the Watchtower’s allegations, the theologians of the first few centuries (known as the early Church Fathers) long before the doctrine was made official, virtually all accepted the fact that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, were each God.2 Also, despite the Watchtower’s charge that the Trinity is like other pagan conceptions of God, it is actually one of the major distinctives of the Christian faith, making it unique among all other religions of the world. While many religions may attempt to imitate the Trinity in some form or another, they are easily identified as counterfeits. Just because other religions may worship “triads of gods,” none legitimately can be called a “Trinity.” Such a point also is irrelevant, since it contributes nothing to the validity of the Trinity. Are we justified in calling the Jehovah’s Witnesses Muslims because they, too, worship a unipersonal God?
However, due to its complex nature, the divine trinity has been a long debated issue. Since the infinite God of the universe is so transcendent to our puny little existences on this puny little planet, it only makes sense we would not be able to fully comprehend His nature. This is a stumbling block the Watchtower just can’t seem to overcome. While it would be absurd to adhere to an actual contradiction (such as saying that God is one person at the same time that He is three persons, or He is one God at the same time that He is three Gods), we can take what we know and explain it the best way we can. If the Bible is true and if it teaches that God is somehow both one and three at the same time, such an apparent contradiction cannot be actual one. It may be a paradox, but not a contradiction. This is exactly what the ancient Church had to deal with.
Even though Jehovah’s Witnesses may dispute the Biblical evidence supporting the Trinity, the fact is that the original formulaters of the doctrine back in the 4th century did believe it was Biblical. And it was for this reason they developed the formal doctrine of the Trinity, not because they were apostates, deliberately trying to fuse Christianity with pagan philosophy.3 All the reliable literature on Church history affirms this, even those sources cited by the Watchtower. Yet, this fact is something conveniently left out of their publications since it would demolish their theory that “apostate Christendom” had more evil intentions. The truth is, since the early theologians were convinced that the Bible teaches that somehow the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all fully divine and yet teach that somehow there is only one God, they wanted to find an adequate way to reconcile this apparent contradiction. What follows after this is a gradual development of the Trinity that grew clearer in conception, yet was forever to remain a mystery.
As the early Church saw it, God made a radical revelation to us regarding Himself with the addition of the New Testament Scriptures. This new concept of God as portrayed in the Bible presented the early theologians with a unique challenge, that is, how to describe a God who is somehow both one and three at once. In addition, various other interpretations cropped up that were deemed unbiblical, such as Sabellianism (which held that God is only one person who is sometimes called the Father, sometimes called the Son, and sometimes called the Holy Spirit) and Arianism (the belief that only God the Father is God and that the Son is a created being; a belief identical to Watchtower theology today). Because of such heresies these theologians wanted to be more precise in their explanation of God’s nature in order to make it clear that these other interpretations were unorthodox. If these heresies had never developed, a formalized doctrine of God’s nature may never have developed either, since it probably would not have been necessary. Thus, while some form of a triune God was already accepted prior to the 4th century, there was no formalized doctrine to explain it. The Watchtower would have us believe that the Nicene Council, where the deity of Christ was first officially affirmed, was nothing but a political ploy designed to incorporate paganism into Christianity. In reality, however, it was a meeting designed to spell out more precisely what the church had already believed for centuries but had never clearly defined, since there had not been a need until these heresies developed around it. Contrary to the Watchtower’s teaching, Arianism (the 4th century counterpart to Watchtower theology) was a relatively new theology. In fact, it can be said that Arian/Watchtower theology is actually younger than Trinitarian theology, another fact conveniently left out of Watchtower literature.4
In one sense, the Watchtower is right. The Trinity was influenced by Greek philosophy. But is it fair to assume that 1) philosophy is by nature evil and that 2) philosophy produced the doctrine of the Trinity?
The situation is a little more complex than the Watchtower would have us believe. Christianity sprang onto the scene right in the midst of Greek culture and thought. Hence, it is not surprising to see how extensively the Greeks influenced Christianity. Without their language and philosophy, our understanding of God’s nature would probably be vastly limited and confused. Moreover, it would be absurd to think that Greek philosophy would have had no affect on Christian theology whatsoever, as it was so immersed in that culture. In fact, the Greeks played a major role in our very understanding of God as infinite, transcendent, unchanging, supreme Love, and absolute Truth. We see this clearly in St. Augustine’s expression of God whose language, though thoroughly Greek, the Watchtower would find nothing to disagree with:
“for the essence of Cod, whereby He is, has nothing changeable, neither in eternity, nor in truth nor in will: because there the truth is eternal, love is eternal; there the love is true: and there eternity is loved, truth is loved (De Trinitate, 4).
The only way to reconcile the apparent contradictory evidence in the Bible was to use the language of the day, which happened to be heavily influenced by Greek philosophy. Many of the New Testament writers themselves used Greek philosophical terms like the apostle Paul in Colossians 2:9 as well as the apostle John in the first chapter of his Gospel clearly shows. (The term logos or “Word” in reference to Jesus, was originally a Neo-Platonic concept.) Thus, the Watchtower’s disregard for philosophy seems to be more of a superstitional fear than a valid concern. Just because Greek was used in explaining the three in one nature of God is really irrelevant to the discussion of whether God truly is three in one.
Secondly, the Platonic philosophers of the day would have been appalled by the conception of the Trinity. Saying that “the logos was God” would have made no sense to them. This only serves to further illustrate the fact that the Trinity was not an outgrowth of philosophy.
Therefore, although Greek philosophy played a major role in explaining Christian doctrine, it cannot be said that the former conceived the latter. Greek philosophy was only able to help us understand the infinite God. Yet it was Christianity that added the concepts of personality and plurality. Contrary to the Watchtower, instead of Christians syncretizing pagan beliefs into their faith and manufacturing an artificial doctrine, the Trinity did not add any new information to the Biblical text. Rather, it merely synthesized the Scriptural data of God’s nature into a convenient framework in which to explain it. In fact, if we wanted to, we could throw out all the philosophy and not discuss “the Trinity” at all. Instead, we could just discuss the deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as taught in the Bible.
With this new information left out by the Watchtower, we can now add the following statements to our earlier syllogism:
5) The Early Church Fathers believed in the deity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
6) The formulators of the Trinity sincerely believed it was Biblical.
7) Philosophy played a passive yet vital role in the development of the Trinity by merely providing us with the language necessary to explain it.
With the addition of these premises, the Watchtower’s original conclusion is no longer justified since it is in consistent with the facts. A more logical conclusion, but one the Society couldn’t accept is:
“Therefore, the doctrine of the Trinity is not the invention of pagan philosophy, but is the elucidation of the paradoxical nature of God as presented in the Bible.”
- Note: This article is not a defense of the Trinity, but is rather a response to the Watchtower’s claim that the Trinity is pagan in origin. ↩
- See Robert Finnerty’s Jehovah‘s Witnesses on Trial ↩
- An interesting note on this point is that the canon of Scriptural books was not officially decided upon until fourth century either, And yet the Jehovah’s Witnesses accept as inspired the same books of the Bible that “Christendom ” does. Thus, if the Trinity if the product of an apostate Church, then so is the selection of the books in the Bible. ↩
- The next article in this series will expand on the Watchtower‘s hypocritical portrayal of Church history, showing precisely the origin of their theology and Arius’ own heavy reliance upon philosophy. ↩