Trinity: Have the JW’s withdrawn their objection?
I’ve given Roman Catholic theology a few critiques, so it’s only fair that I publish something different. I recently wrote this essay to refute the 1989 Jehovah’s Witness tract entitled, “Trinity: Should you believe it?”
My overall answer is that the tract was badly misleading and inaccurate. It certainly is reasonable to believe in the Trinity, and I offer a defence of it. In the process I found that the JW work was not merely mistaken, but deceitful and/or terribly low-quality scholarship.
As I formatted the essay for publication here on the blog, I noticed that the link:
(http://www.testigosdejehova.org/e/ti/index.htm?article=article_01.htm) no longer works! A bit more scratching around the Internet, and on the JW site, reveals that they appear to have withdrawn the publication! Not only so, but they appear to have scrubbed all possible trace of it from the Internet. It is being erased from history. All that remains is everybody’s refutation of it, all over the net.
Here is one refutation which includes the original text: Exposed
Well, I suppose I’ll chalk that up as a win.
I’m available for post-match interviews.
I’ll be in my trailer.
The Jehovah’s Witness publication sets out explicitly to convince Christians that the doctrine of the Trinity is false. They give their main reasons essentially as: The Bible does not explicitly describe a Trinity, nobody understands it anyway, and it sounds like polytheism.
Although the argument is poorly constructed, in fact the occasional strong point appears to be made in support of a non-Trinitarian position. Unfortunately, the seemingly strongest of them rely on deliberately misquoting either historical figures or Biblical passages. When dealing with “Proof Texts”, the opportunity for a solid point is thereby squandered amid convoluted and misguided argumentation.
The mixture of deceitful arguments, flawed logic, illogical structure, straw-man arguments, etc. could be dissected almost endlessly. But as the Lord said, “wisdom is justified by all her children” (Luke 7:35), and so it remains simply to look at the ironic conclusion of the tract itself:
A pantheon of Gods, of which the (inaccurately named) “Jehovah God” is “alone supreme”. It escapes the authors that this conclusion is a direct affront to the premise, that the monotheism of the Hebrew faith is their primary concern.
Further, the Trinity doctrine itself is attacked as being incomprehensible in the tract, so a framework dubbed “the divine drama” is presented here as a viable starting point for comprehending both the nature of, and the reason for, a true Trinitarian understanding of the One True God. It comes from two aspects:
Firstly, it draws on the philosophical observations of Llull and Adret, who argue that the nature of God requires that there be at least three distinct “personae” present, as the “agent”, the “patient”, and the “act”. Briefly, this view says that for God to be loving, without having to rely on the Creation or anything outside of Himself, God must be lover, beloved, and love. Since the Bible says, “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8), all that remains is to see that in the very same passage, the Father and Son are visible in verse 9 as “lover” and “beloved”, and by verse 12 we can well understand that “God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” is a reference to the ministry of the Holy Spirit as the “act” of loving.
This first point emphasises the necessity of knowing three separate “Personae” as forming the Godhead, so as not to fall into Sabellianism.
Secondly, to emphasise the unity of the Godhead, this paper uses the Tertullian conception of a divine “drama”, in which God is demonstrating Himself to us through three roles: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In His “Son” character, God, as divine actor, can be uncertain, tired, and even dead. But God Himself is not suffering a lack of certainty, energy or life.
This second point emphasises the necessity of comprehending the unity of the One True God, so as not to fall into polytheism.
If the reader can comprehend that, whether or not you believe it, a central premise of the JW argument has been defeated.
The view that Jesus is non-divine, and that there is no “Trinity” are potentially valid theological points of view, because it can be argued that neither of those assertions is explicitly presented in Scripture. Many have argued such a position through the ages, and Trinitarians have needed to work to define and defend their doctrines. But the Jehovah’s Witness (JW) theologians misunderstand and misrepresent the Trinity as we know it, which has the effect of creating a straw-man argument.
The JW assertion that the Trinity has been considered by many to be “Beyond the grasp of Human Reason”, is a fair observation in itself, but such a dim view is not universally held. For the sake of an alternative, I will propose a comprehensible Trinitarian viewpoint which sees the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as constituent elements of a divine drama. This builds on the Tertullian of Carthage’s use of the term, “personae”, now commonly translated “person”, but which contemporaneously held additional connotations including that of characters in a theatrical play. The Middle Ages’ Llull and Adret exposed the rationality of the existence of such divine personae in terms of functional relations: “agent”, “recipient”, and “act”, all of which, they argue, are necessarily contained in a self-sufficient God. Erickson refers to similar concepts, and early 20th Century AD Balthasar used this kind of contemplation to comment on the nature of theatre in Theodrama,
According to this divine-drama framework, God has chosen to act as Father, Son and Holy Spirit as a method of self-revelation, in the same way that a theatrical playwright contrives set, props, characters and events in order to develop their plot, and present the moral of the story. Through these roles in the divine narrative, object, subject, and agent for all of God’s “relative” attributes are present.
Such “acting” creates actual distinctions between the “persons” in one sense, including that Jesus really is a man in every way, but does not diminish the singularity of God’s identity in another, in that he is also God’s chosen Son-Character, played by God himself.
We are the audience, called to participate in a divine pantomime which draws us meaningfully into the plot as it develops. In this way the divine-drama maintains transcendence and immanence, God’s sovereignty and our individual will, and a general balance between theocentric and humanistic contemplation.
We turn now to the tract, addressed under its own headings:
“Should You Believe It?”
A false dichotomy is suggested, between Trinitarian Christians and the Unitarian JWs. It ignores Binitarian formulations and other views. It also attempts to establish that a “correct” view of the nature of God is necessary in order for followers to be faithful, citing John 17:3 for support. But Jesus was deliberately very enigmatic in teaching about the nature of God and his kingdom, preferring parables over systematic theology (Matthew 13:34). This is a serious blow to the central JW insistence that a “correct” doctrine is what God requires in the first place.
“How is the Trinity Explained?”
Simply because people are confused by something does not indicate that it is inherently “confusing”. Peter observed that Paul’s writings are “hard to understand”, but this does not give license to “the ignorant” who “twist” them (2 Peter 3:16). When a theologian says that we “do not understand” something, they mean that it is not been reduced to irrefutable certitude. By the JW logic, the universe must not exist because scientists still “do not understand” some aspects of physics. It’s a logical fallacy.
This argument reaches its climax in the final subheading, “Not a God of Confusion”, which itself is a misappropriation of Scripture because 1 Corinthians 14:33 refers to interpersonal behaviour in church, not doctrinal disagreements. These are quite distinct concepts.
The final paragraph betrays a lack of comprehension about the nature and purpose of doctrine. Doctrine is formulated in response to divergent interpretations over time. McGrath succinctly explains:
The relative absence of extensive discussion of the role of the holy Spirit in the first three centuries reflects the fact that theological debate centered elsewhere.
Is It Clearly a Bible Teaching?
Again in this section there is a logical fallacy: Because the Bible doesn’t seem “clearly and consistently” to spell it out, the Trinity must be false. But one of Paul’s central and most vehement arguments was the universal nature of the Gospel message, and this was a teaching which was most certainly not considered “clearly and consistently” evident in Scripture by the Jews of his day. Paul therefore described it as “hidden” (Ephesians 3:4-6). Similarly, “theocracy” is not mentioned in the Bible, but any JW would affirm its conceptual validity (so Rhodes).
The JW tract is misleading under “Taught by Early Christians?”, in implying that these issues were unheard of by early Christians. But Pliny reported that Christians sang hymns to Christ “as to a god”, and from as early as 200AD we have the diary of Perpetua in which there are allusions to Trinitarian thinking, and no uncertainty about the deity of Jesus. The quotes used in the JW tract are erroneous, deliberately deceptive, or irrelevant.
Some the references to Ante-Nicene Fathers are highly selective: Athanasius is a glaring omission, for example, as are his allies. Further, the Tertullian [mis]quote deliberately inverts the original meaning.
This section is also heavily ironic: one of the major concerns of the Nicene meeting was to resolve the Christological dispute of Jesus’ divinity. The resolution was against the Arian deniers, which reveals that the ante-Nicene Fathers actually disagree with the JWs, on the whole.
How Did the Trinity Doctrine Develop?
At least the Western Church, the later formulation of the Trinity was already assumed (so Gonzalez), before Nicaea. So then, whereas the Athanasian Creed probably was constructed later as suggested, the basic formulation was already in use for a hundred years or so by 325AD.
The JW tract sets out to discredit Constantine, to blame him for the anti-Arian decision, and to represent the signatures of the bishops as having been gained under duress. Gonzalez describes the Council quite differently, with the Arians, “a small group” from the start, with extraordinary personal access to Constantine resulting in a later reversal of policy. This is more likely, given that non-Arian bishops were subsequently excommunicated.
There follows a long section on “apostasy”, attempting to use Bible references which cannot credibly be said to have anything to do with the question of Trinity, but rather deal with contemporaneous issues such as Charismatic deceivers, schismatics, deniers of Jesus, Gnostics, antinomians, “fables and endless genealogies” (1 Tim 1:4). Further, the JW tract cites Pagan belief systems which could not conceivably have influenced early Christian thinkers (so Rhodes).
That “God’s Prophets” did “not teach it” is also a spurious argument. For example, it is difficult to find the New Testament ideas surrounding the afterlife reflected in Old Testament documents, either. But we understand Biblical revelation to be progressive, and so a later development can be quite valid, but can never contradict an earlier one.
What Does the Bible Say About God and Jesus?
It suffices to recognise the straw-man attempt to depict the Trinity as polytheism under “God Is One, Not Three”, and just ignore it. But the tract then rightly ponders the possible importance of Old Testament plural references to God (as “elo·him”), as do Trinitarian scholars. These are far from being conclusive about the question of Trinity by themselves, and the JWs admit that they must rely on a broader Biblical context. Trinitarian theologians do likewise, arriving at different conclusions.
The question, “Could God Be Tempted?”, is irrelevant under our working model of the divine-drama. The Story-Character “Jesus Christ”, played by God, could be tempted but would not yield, according to the Script[ures].
“How Much Was the Ransom?”, states that Jesus was “a perfect human”, but fails to explain how the death of such a human would in any way benefit any other person. To die without sin is to succeed at one’s own life. It does not purchase anybody else’s life. As stated, “A basic principle even of human justice is that the price paid should fit the wrong committed”. Only if Jesus was “part of a Godhead”, and therefore paid a price “infinitely higher than what God’s own Law required”, would it have any redeeming effect on other people. This is a critical and fundamental flaw of the argument of a non-divine Jesus: No salvation for other people is achieved by such a Jesus.
Under “How the ‘Only-Begotten Son’?”, the Webster dictionary explanation defines the term “only-begotten” to mean “unoriginated”, but the tract deliberately distorts and mocks the explanation, resorting to precisely the formulation that the Nicene creed anathematises, “Jesus … had a beginning to his life”.
The section, “Was Jesus Considered to Be God?”, simply ignores what scholars find to be the case: The early believers did consider Jesus to be God, found no specific problem with respect to their monotheism, but only barely began to describe how that works (so Wainwright).
Is God Always Superior to Jesus?
This question is meaningless in the context of our Trinitarian formulation of divine-drama. Jesus and God are one, but the persona of Jesus plays the role of subordinate to the persona of his Father. This conveniently also renders moot the question of Jesus’ apparently limited knowledge. It was limited purely “in character”, for the sake of the unfolding drama.
With a final assertion that “Jesus Never Claimed to Be God”, the tract simply ignores the occasions when Jesus arguably did precisely that. Those instances are left for a later section called “What About Trinity ‘Proof Texts’?”.
The Holy Spirit—God’s Active Force
Only after the matter of Jesus’ divinity was settled did the Church formulate the doctrine concerning the Holy Spirit. The conclusion was that the Holy Spirit constitutes a third persona of the Trinity, and this is reflected in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381. This section of the tract reuses the vacuous argument that such a late development of doctrine implies falsehood. Further, as early as 200AD Tertullian described the Holy Spirit in distinctly Trinitarian, and arguably personal terms.
What About Trinity “Proof Texts”?
The argument under “Three in One” rightly finds that there is no explicit Trinity in the passages cited. The following sections resort to increasingly convoluted means of explaining away seeming references to Jesus’ divinity, culminating in a fanciful look at “The Word Was God” from John 1:1.
It is agreed by Greek scholars that Colwell’s rule alone does not provide any rigid solution to the question of John 1:1. But in the Biblical context, to translate this as the JWs do as, “the word was a god”, supposes multiple gods. They openly affirm this under “No Conflict” below, but this is polytheism by definition, which contradicts their stated concern for monotheism.
Whenever a great many passages need to be referenced in order to defend one point it is useful to assess the whole picture, having carefully analysed each individual item. Countess did so, concluding:
The excisive character of the translators of NWT [“New World Translation”] has been much in evidence in this chapter, and this truncation was seen to be “in support of a preferred religious view.”
In other words, even if each of the translations could be sustained individually, the combination of them reveals a pre-determined doctrinal position instructing the translation choices. This constitutes eisegesis, and represents less than acceptable scholarly rigour.
Under “No Conflict”, the contorted argument concludes that Jesus is “a god” among many gods, of which “Jehovah (sic)” is greatest. Besides the clear polytheism, this poses other logical problems, as Rhodes points out. The translation of Psalm 8:5 is notoriously difficult with a range of scholarly opinions, Psalm 82:6-7 is clearly not a reference to divinity but to authority, as is 2 Cor 4:4. A better way to construct their argument would be to insist that John 1:1 is similarly an expression of the authority of “? ?????”. Had they done so, they could successfully have argued that Jesus’ divinity is not proved by these references, yet avoided their polytheistic conclusion that, rather than being God “alone”, “Jehovah God alone is supreme”.
In summary, the Jehovah’s Witnesses appear to have begun with a laudable goal in mind: to please God by defending monotheism in the face of their misapprehensions about the Trinity doctrine. The end result is a poorly argued, frequently deceitful tract which ironically ends up commending an explicit polytheism, despite it being labelled otherwise. If their theologians engaged more honestly in the scholarly discourse, they might be able to sustain a non-Trinitarian position without such problems, but the church has arrived at the Trinity doctrine by contemplation over the passage of time and with much debate. The onus remains on non-Trinitarians to refute it. This tract completely fails to do so.
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James Limburg, Psalms, 1st ed., Westminster Bible Companion. (Louisville, Ky.: Westminister John Knox Press, 2000), 25.
Judah Kraut, “The Birds and the Babes: The Structure and Meaning of Psalm 8,” Jewish Quarterly Review 100, no. 1 (2010): 23.