The History of the Trinity: Will the Real Pagans Please Stand Up?

By Steve Berg

(Part 2 of a 2 part series on the doctrine of the Trinity, originally printed in the November/December 1995 MCOI Journal. Read Part 1)

Much has been written on the influence of Greek philosophy on Christian theology. Even from its inception. Christianity has found many similar concepts in Platonic and Neo-Platonic thought. Having been immersed in Greek culture, such an influence is entirely understandable. But is it excusable? Should the whole of Christianity be thrown out because of this fact? Many would have us think so. Some, while not concluding that Christianity itself should be rejected, say that only the corrupted version of it should be. They maintain that true Christianity was unstained by philosophic speculations and interpretations.

The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the governing body of the sect known as Jehovah’s Witnesses, is one of these groups. Due to their rejection of many orthodox Christian doctrines they conclude that pure Christianity was lost some time shortly after the Apostles. By allowing the syncretization of Greek philosophy with Christianity, such doctrines like the Trinity and the immortality of the soul are purported to have arisen, despite the clear teachings of the Bible and the Apostles. On numerous occasions, the Watchtower has traced the supposed pagan and philosophical roots of Trinitarian theology, drawing the conclusion that it is not Biblical. They capitalize on the fact that the formalized doctrine of the Trinity was a later development and, hence, imply that their theology is the only true, orthodox, and historic Christian faith.

However, we never see anything more beyond these implications. The Watchtower has never provided a very detailed, positive analysis proving that the early Christians were the equivalent to the Jehovah’s Witnesses today. They have never traced the development of their theology, as it has merely been assumed that it extends all the way back to the New Testament. Yet, is it true that Watchtower theology has been preserved from the influence of Greek philosophy? While the previous article illustrated the mere passive influence of Greek thought on Christian theology, this article will attempt to demonstrate the more direct evolution of pagan philosophy into current Watchtower theology.

While Greek philosophy may have played a part in helping us to understand what the Bible teaches about God, the Watchtower’s theology actually is more consistent with it. In fact, the Greeks would have found the concept of a triune God to be a very strange one, whereas the unipersonal monad of current Watchtower theology would have been much more greatly accepted.

Neo-Platonism

In tracing the roots of current Watchtower theology regarding the nature of God and showing its connection with ancient pagan concepts, we must first begin with an overview of a pagan philosophy known as Neo-Platonism and one of its major proponents, Plotinus. Plotinus, quite independent from Christian theology, postulated an ultimately transcendent God.1 This God is the One, who is beyond all thought and all being. He is utterly ineffable and incomprehensible. He also believed that this one God cannot be multiple or divided in any sense. God is the One, beyond all distinctions whatsoever. He cannot even distinguish Himself from Himself and so, is beyond self-consciousness.2 Obviously, Plotinus would have flatly rejected the Trinity and would have been much more in line with the Arians, who refused to accept the notion of the coequal nature of the Son with the Father, had he a seat at the Nicene Council in 325 A.D.

In addition to this, Plotinus also held to the Neo-Platonic doctrine of emanations. He maintained that the world issues from God or proceeds from God by necessity.3 In other words. Plotinus believed in a great chain-of-beings that began from God and emanated down to the lowest form of created beings. We will see how this important concept influenced later precursors to the Watchtower’s theology.

Origen

The next figure we must look at, in the evolution of Watchtower theology, is a brilliant thinker by the name of Origen. Origen, living during the third century, was a very significant figure in the history of both orthodox and unorthodox theologies. He was later condemned in the fifth century as a heretic. While it is true that Origen did play a major role in the eventual formulation of the Trinity, his influence on later Watchtower theology was heavy as well.4 However, as it will be demonstrated, it is the non-Biblical, purely philosophical components of Origen’s thought that will more directly influence the precursors of the Watchtower’s theology today. These precursors took one element of Origen’s theology to one extreme, whereas the Trinitarians focused on a different aspect. This element, evident in Origen’s conception of the Godhead, is the separate and subordinate nature of the Son to the Father.

Origen was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, particularly Middle and Neo-Platonic thought. As previously mentioned, the Neo-Platonists believed there was a vast descending series of beings from God down to man.5 These emanations provided intermediary links between God and the world. The Logos, or reason of God, commonly was thought to be the highest of these emanations.6 Origen then adapted this concept into a Christian context.

His rather unique theology involved the pre-existence of souls, which illustrated this Neo-Platonic chain-of-being concept. He believed that the transcendent God generated a world of spirit beings who were given the free will to obey God or not. These spirit beings became too comfortable and satiated with God’s love so that, through neglect, their love subsided and they fell into varying degrees of existences, forming a sort of hierarchy of being with the Logos (who, of course, never fell) at the top and angels and men coming underneath him. Christ is the pre-existent Logos, the Mediator between God and man and to whom it is proper to pray. Yet, while not being another God alongside the Father, Origen avoided polytheism by saying he is a lesser God, subordinate in nature to his Father, but at the same time uncreated and eternally begotten. Hence, out of this, we can see Origen’s distinct doctrine of subordinationism developing from the Middle and Neo-Platonic conceptions of emanations.

Arius

The next link in our theological chain is a man named Arius, who often is referred to in Church history as an arch-heretic because, despite the fact that he acquired quite a following, his teachings were condemned by the early Church numerous times. Arius’ connection to Origen can be seen in the latter’s conception of subordinationism. Arius picked up on Origen’s subordinationism and took it to even greater extremes by pushing God so far into transcendence that nothing could be said to share in his nature.7 Hence, everything else had to be utterly separate and created by Him. Therefore, God created the Logos who in turn, created “everything else. This Logos had a totally separate nature from God though, in some sense, could still be considered God (or even a god). As a result, Arius slightly distanced himself from Origen by rejecting the eternal generation concept of the Logos.8 Arius was also strongly motivated against both polytheism and modalism, yet could not accept Origen’s conception of the relationships within the Godhead. To him, separate divine persons tire distinct beings altogether. So. while Arius strayed radically away from Origen who, no doubt, would have disowned the Arians himself, his thought certainly was an outgrowth of Origen’s theology. The ties between Middle Platonic emanations, to Origenic subortionationism and to Arian subordinationism is not so much a difference in kind as it is in degree. In oher words, we’re not talking aobut the differences between apples and oranges here, but rather the difference between a big apple and a little one. In fact, one author has said, “Consciously or not, Arius is a post Platonian.9

Thus, we actually see that Middle Platonic thought is very much intrinsic to Arianism while Trinitarianism merely utilized Greek philosophical language to explain a Biblical concept. In other words, without Middle Platonism, Arianism would not have arisen. Arian thought hardly grew independent of Greek philosophy. And whereas Trinitarianism uses Greek thought to explain Christian concepts, it seems as though Arianism takes Christian theology and applies it to Greek philosophy. Another church historian sees this connection fairly clear enough:

“Arius had, of course, discarded certain of Origen’s ideas, notably his doctrine of eternal generation, and he had carried his subordinationism to radical lengths, reducing the Son to creaturely status. In doing so, he was following, despite his consciously Biblical starting-point, a path inevitably traced for him by the Middle Platonist preconceptions he had inherited.”10

Watchtower Theology

How exactly does current Watchtower theology square with Arianism from the fourth century? Does the Watchtower, itself, currently link their own thought with the Arians? The Watchtower, though indirectly, definitely identifies itself with the Arians of the fourth century. For instance, in their recent polemic against the doctrine of the Trinity entitled, “Should You Believe in the Trinity?,” they attempt to trace the history of the development of the Trinity and, in so doing, link themselves positively to those who believed Jesus was created.
This is an obvious reference to the Arians at the time of Nicaea.

In another recent work entitled, “Mankind’s Search for God,” a more detailed discussion regarding the Council of Nicaea ensues with an even closer inference being made:

“Some favored the Biblically-supported viewpoint that Christ, the Logos, was created and therefore subordinate to the Father. . .Among these was Arius. a priest in Alexandria, Egypt.”11

By calling Arius’ viewpoint the Biblically supported one, they obviously are trying to identify themselves along with him. Yet, in so doing, they are unwittingly linking themselves to Arius’ theology. Interestingly enough, however, the Watchtower makes no mention of the fact that the Arians. the so-called “Jehovah’s Witnesses” of that time, believed in the full personality of the Holy Spirit, In fact, while Arius may not have held to a modern conception of the Trinity, he did have his own version of it; the main difference being the creation of the Second Person.12 If the Jehovah’s Witnesses of the fourth century believed that the Holy Spirit was a personal being and not just a magical force, why have the Jehovah’s Witnesses of today apostasized from true Christianity?

In terms of Watchtower theology, the reminiscence of Arius is quite clear. Arius believed that the Logos (the Son) was a created being who, in turn, created everything else. This is exactly in line with what the Watchtower says about the Son. In their handy, mini-systematic, theology text called, Reasoning from the Scriptures, under the heading of “Jesus Christ,” they define Him as:

“The only begotten Son of God, the only Son produced by Jehovah alone. This Son is the firstborn of all creation. By means of him all other things in heaven and on earth were created. He is the second-greatest personage in the universe.”,13

A famous motto adopted by the Arians would be something the Watchtower would have been proud to cite as well, “There was a time when the Son was not.”14 This phrase clearly emphasized the Arian belief in Christ’s finite nature and comes awfully close to the following Watchtower statement regarding Jesus* essence.

“The Bible is clear and consistent about the relationship of God to Jesus. Jehovah God alone is Almighty. He created the prehuman Jesus directly. Thus, Jesus had a beginning and could never be coequal with God in power or eternity.”15

Last of all, we see the two groups using the same passages of scripture to support their veiws. Associating the Logos with Wisdom, the Arians often appealed to Proverbs 8:22 to demonstrate his creation out of nothing. In addition, Colossians 1:15 speaks of Christ as the firstborn of all creation, which they suppose implies a series of created beings, the Son being the first.

Needless to say, (he Jehovah’s Witnesses have not been shy in citing these references as well: “Jesus, in his prehuman existence, was the first-born of all creation (Colossians 1:15).”16 Therefore, the identification of the Jehovah’s Witnesses sect today with the fourth-century Arians is easily established. Since the former view themselves as the only true Christians and they view the latter as the only true Christians of their day, this kinship is difficult to deny.

However, upon further examination of the historical evidence regarding Arius and his theology, this connection is not a fact the Watchtower would want to have exposed beyond the common belief in the Son’s createdness. As we have seen, Arius himself was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy. However, the Watchtower effectively has kept knowledge of Arius primarily hidden in obscurity. Why is it that we never hear them report on the beliefs of Plotinus and the Neo-Platonists? Why do they not delve further into Arius1 background and mention the fact that not even lie denied the personality of the Holy Spirit, as they themselves do? The fact is, the Watchtower fails to cite any advocates of their theology before the great apostasy. Is this a mere oversight? Or could it be due to the plain, historical fact that the whole of the Watchtower’s distinctive theology has no basis in Church history’ whatsoever? They may find representatives who held certain beliefs in common, but none whose entire theology matched theirs. Another point of oversight on the Watchtower’s part is the fact that, despite Nicaea, Arianism rose to extreme prominence in the Roman empire soon after Constantine. It was his own son, Constantius (as well as another Arian Emperor, Valens, who often is referred to as a rabid Arian) who banished Athanasius and made Nicene theology illegal. Athanasius actually was exiled five times in his lifetime due to the injustices of the fourth century “Jehovah’s Witness” politicians who controlled the empire at the time. Such opposition led to the famous saying of Athanasius, “Athanasius against the world” and “the world against Athanasius.” Thus, if there was anyone who suffered persecution, it surely was not Arius. It took the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. to finally settle this issue once and for all.

Conclusion

In summary, we can see that the Watchtower’s reason for rejecting orthodox Christianity because of its syncretization with pagan Greek philosophy is totally invalid. If Christendom is guilty of such a charge then, so too, if not more so, is Watchtower theology. However, Trinitarianism is surely not the result of philosophy (see previous article ). In fact, down through the history’ of philosophy and theology, the dominant contention has always been that the doctrine of the Trinity could not be result of philosophical speculation, but could only be due to divine revelation. So while Arius’ theology fits very nicely with purely pagan philosophical conceptions of God, true Trinitarianism would he foreign to Plato and his later adherents. In fact, two of the most influential proponents of Trinitarianism, Tertullian and Athanasius, spoke rather unfavorably toward Greek philosophy. The former of these two (who is even credited with inventing the term Trinity) hated it so much that he has become well-known for asking, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” It would appear then that, in the Watchtower’s attempt to link orthodox Christianity with paganism and Greek philosophy, and to find a non-Trinitarian advocate during the early period of the Church, they actually have flown right into the arms of paganism themselves.

steve berg
Steve Berg was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and left when the Bible got in the way of their theology. He currently is working on his MA at Trinity International University.

  1. Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy, Vol 1 New York: Doubleday. 1993, p. 464.
  2. Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy, Vol 1 New York: Doubleday. 1993, p. 465
  3. Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy, Vol 1 New York: Doubleday. 1993, p. 466
  4. Gamble, Richard C The Ancient Church 95 A.D. – 600 A.D., Recorded Lecture Series. Grand Rapids, MI: Outreach. Inc. 1989, Lecture VII
  5. Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy, Vol 1 New York: Doubleday. 1993, p. 466.
  6. Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy, Vol 1 New York: Doubleday. 1993, p. 466
  7. Gamble, Richard C The Ancient Church 95 A.D. – 600 A.D., Recorded Lecture Series. Grand Rapids, MI: Outreach. Inc. 1989, Lecture VII
  8. Kelly, J. R D. Early Church Doctrines. New York: Harper Collins Publishers. 1978, p. 228
  9. Williams, Rowan, Arius: Heresy and Tradition, London: Oarton, Longman, and Todd. Ltd., 1987, p. 224
  10. Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, “Should You Believe in the Trinity?,” New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.. 1989, pp. 7, 8
  11. Gwatkin. Henry Melvill, The Arian Controversy, New York: AMS Press, 1979. p. 7
  12. Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. Reasoning from the Scriptures, 1985. p.209
  13. Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. Reasoning from the Scriptures, 1985. p.20914) Kelly, p. 228
  14. Kelly, J. R D. Early Church Doctrines. New York: Harper Collins Publishers. 1978, p. 228
  15. Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, “Should You Believe in the Trinity?”. p. 16
  16. Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, “Should You Believe in the Trinity?”, p. 14

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