My Lord and My God: Faith of Our Fathers

For an introduction, explanation and links to the entire work, click here.

When we engage any group that has missed an important essential of the truth, we usually start with the Bible. If the group with which we are discussing[1] things accepts the Bible as authoritative, then things are to some extent simpler; it becomes a matter of interpretation. If this is not the case, then we either need to discover the truth in that material which they consider authoritative or take another route to arriving at the truth.

When we deal with the Watchtower, we start with the former condition; the Watchtower claims to regard the Bible as an authoritative book. Things get a little complicated when the subject of translation comes up; we can deal with the written Word in their translation as easily as with any one else’s. A more serious consideration is that  the Watchtower claims, in effect, magisterium. This means that the organisation claims to be able to both interpret the Scriptures authoritatively and to further speak for God on various issues.

To actually show whether the Watchtower or any other organisation can claim magisterium is beyond the scope of this work, which proceeds with the following two premises:

  • Christianity is not an “institutional” religion. God never intended any organisation to obtain an exclusive franchise for His plan of salvation or revelation. In the present dispensation God’s first dealings with people are on an individual basis, by imparting to people one at a time the new birth in Jesus Christ; those who receive it come together to form the Church, the body of people called out by His name.
  • The Bible is true because God made provisions for its revelation, transmission, and finalisation of the canon, or list of authoritative books. It is not true because an organisation said that it was (see first premise.) We also need to emphasise that the Bible is “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16, KIT) and God is not “Bible-breathed”; this is a source of confusion amongst many people. God is at the centre of all things and our thinking and actions need to reflect this.

Having made these assertions, we can proceed to begin our exploration of the matter at hand.

Who are the fathers of the church?

As we said before, in engaging any group of people in a search for the truth, we usually start with the Bible. We certainly plan to spend a lot of time in the written Word, but it would be useful at this point to make an excursion into some “new” territory, namely that of the Fathers of the Church.

Many reading this will be surprised that such “fathers of the church” even exist. Most evangelicals look at church history in a very specific way; there were first New Testament times, then there was the Reformation, and now there’s us. This results in a gap of about a millennium and a half between significant events; surely something happened in that length of time! The Watchtower stretches this concept even further because the Society was founded a little less than four hundred years after the Reformation; their concept of “dead time” for Christianity is even wider!

Fortunately there was a lot going on in the years after the Apostles died and rejoined their Master. The saving power of God was in force and people’s lives were being changed all through that period. The course of church history may not be to everyone’s taste but God’s plan was and is not going to be defeated. It was a time when, as the Egyptian church father Origen had to say:

And if we observe how powerful the word has become in a very few years, notwithstanding that against those who acknowledged Christianity conspiracies were formed, and some of them on its account put to death, and others of them lost their property, and that, notwithstanding the small number of its teachers, it was preached everywhere throughout the world, so that Greeks and Barbarians, wise and foolish, gave themselves up to the worship that is through Jesus, we have no difficulty in saying that the result is beyond any human power, Jesus having taught with all authority and persuasiveness that His word should not be overcome.[2]

When Our Lord came into the world, the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea (this includes such places as the Holy Land, Egypt, North Africa, Spain, France, Italy, Greece and what is now Turkey) were part of the Roman Empire. It was the command of that same Empire which caused Mary and Joseph to return to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus: “Now in those days a decree went forth from Caesar Augustus for all the inhabited earth to be registered…and all people went travelling to be registered, each one to his own city.” (Luke 2:1,3). Now Caesar’s intention was not simply to make a list of the people but to tax them, the inevitable activity of governments.

The Roman Empire would continue to rule this area for a little more than four hundred years after Jesus walked on this earth. The Empire’s existence was both a boon and a bane for Christianity. It was a boon because it provided a large area of land and people to spread the Gospel without the hindrance of borders or nationalistic considerations. It also was the final manifestation of the ancient world, the place where the pagan gods grew tired and people yearned for new meaning and purpose. It is for these reasons that we read “But when the full limit of the time arrived God sent forth his Son, who came to be out of a woman and who came to be under law, that he might release by purchase those under the law, that we, in turn, might receive the adoption as sons.” (Galatians 4:4,5)

The bane part was that Christianity was illegal for the first three centuries after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The reason for this is very simple: the Roman Empire and Jesus Christ both demanded the highest and best allegiance and obedience from people, who in turn could give this to only one or the other. In the early years the persecution that resulted was sporadic, because Christianity was small and the Roman state had enough vestiges of its Republican past to take the edge off its absolute monarchy. As Christianity became more important and the Roman state became more despotic, the stage was set for a head on collision of the two. This took place in the third centuries, when emperors such as Decius and Diocletian attempted the extermination of Christianity.

The Emperor Constantine finally resolved this by issuing the Edict of Milan in 313; this legalised Christianity in the Roman Empire. About this time Arius began his work of denying the deity of Jesus Christ; in response Constantine called the Council of Nicea in 325 to resolve this question.

This is a lot of history but it is necessary to bring some things into focus. We see that Christianity overcame hostility and even attempts at annihilation to become a legal (and later official) religion of the greatest state the world had ever known. We also see that there is in fact an historical continuity from the church of the New Testament forward; those who lived in a period that close to the Apostles deserve some study and respect.

We finally see that the major break came in the early fourth century; having to deal with both legalisation and a major theological issue such as the deity of Christ are important, life-changing types of events in the history of the church. Those from the Watchtower tell us that the confluence of these two events was a major leap into “apostasy,” the place where Christianity fell into such serious error that it took the creation and perpetuation of an organisation such as theirs to bring it upright again. Is this a reasonable position?

While the effects of Nicea and of Christianity’s legalisation on the fidelity of Christianity to the faith of the Apostles is a complex question and beyond the scope of this presentation, let us for the moment lay it aside and restrict ourselves to a brief examination of the opinions of those people usually referred to as the “Ante-Nicene Fathers.” By this set of valiant men we mean those “Fathers of the Church,” eminent men who both wrote about Christianity and frequently led the church as pastors and bishops before the Council of Nicea. In doing this we are accruing to ourselves several advantages:

  • They would be free from any after effects of the Council of Nicea, or for that matter the legalisation of Christianity.
  • They (the Greek fathers at least) had as their native tongue the same language the New Testament/Christian Greek Scriptures were written in. Most of the Ante-Nicene Fathers had Greek as their first language; the Latin fathers such as Tertullian, Novatian, Cyprian, etc. were the exceptions, and most of them knew Greek as well.
  • They lived in basically the same cultural milieu as that of the New Testament, though this fades with time.

So we have here a group of people who actually put their thoughts to paper and who were in an historical and cultural position to say something of importance about Christian belief and practice. Can they be successfully marshalled to defend the Watchtower’s denial that Jesus is God? Or what is their real position on the subject?

Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr (114-165), born in Nablus (on the West Bank), was one of the first Christian “apologists” in that he defended the faith against attacks by others. His moniker is explicit that he gave his life for Jesus Christ. His Dialogue with Trypho is an exposition of Christianity relative to Judaism. The following statement from that work looks to be favourable both to the Jews and to the Watchtower:

I replied again, “If I could not have proved to you from the Scriptures that one of those three (who appeared to Abraham) is God, and is called Angel, because, as I already said, He brings messages to those to whom God the Maker of all things wishes [messages to be brought], then in regard to Him who appeared to Abraham on earth in human form in like manner as the two angels who came with Him, and who was God even before the creation of the world, it were reasonable for you to entertain the same belief as is entertained by the whole of your nation.…Reverting to the Scriptures, I shall endeavour to persuade you, that He who is said to have appeared to Abraham, and to Jacob, and to Moses, and who is called God, is distinct from Him who made all things,–numerically, I mean, not[distinct] in will. For I affirm that He has never at any time done anything which He who made the world–above whom there is no other God–has not wished Him both to do and to engage Himself with.”[3]

Unfortunately a little later in the same work he says the following:

“Have you perceived, sirs, that this very God whom Moses speaks of as an Angel that talked to him in the flame of fire, declares to Moses that He is the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob?”[4]

And since they are compelled, they agree that some Scriptures which we mention to them, 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, but they venture to assert that this man is not Christ.[5]

Justin’s point was that the appearances of God in the Hebrew-Aramaic Scriptures were in fact appearances of Jesus Christ before His incarnation. Serious students of these scriptures will identify the “God of Abraham, Isaac and of Jacob” as Jehovah.

Irenaeus

Irenaeus (120-202) was Bishop of Lyons, in France. He was a student of Polycarp, who in turn was a student of the Apostle John. The following statement is very interesting for those who contend that the only God is the Father:

…what is much more important, [since it is true] that our Lord [acted likewise], who did also command us to confess no one as Father, except Him who is in the heavens, who is the one God and the one Father…[6]

However, earlier in the same work he has already said the following:

For He fulfils the bountiful and comprehensive will of His Father, inasmuch as He is Himself the Saviour of those who are saved, and the Lord of those who are under authority, and the God of all those things which have been formed, the only-begotten of the Father, Christ who was announced, and the Word of God, who became incarnate when the fullness of time had come, at which the Son of God had to become the Son of man.[7]

So the Arian must turn elsewhere for consolation.

Clement of Alexandria

Clement of Alexandria (153-217) was a leading Christian teacher; he was Origen’s main instructor. The following statement should give some consolation to those who deny that Jesus is God:

Why then command as new, as divine, as alone life-giving, what did not save those of former days? And what peculiar thing is it that the new creature the Son of God intimates and teaches?[8]

However, he also has this to say:

But nothing exists, the cause of whose existence is not supplied by God. Nothing, then, is hated by God, nor yet by the Word. For both are one–that is, God. For He has said, “In the beginning the Word was in God, and the Word was God.”[9]

Clement combines both the idea that the Father and the Son are God and are one.

Tertullian

Tertullian (145-220) was without a doubt the greatest of the Ante-Nicene Latin fathers. He was from what is now Tunisia in North Africa. He is also one of the most controversial, not only because of his harsh style (he was a lawyer and many of his works are styled like an argument in a legal case) but because in his later years he was a Montanist, i.e., an adherent of a movement that believed in and practised prophecy and the gifts of the Spirit. In his Against Hermogenes he makes a statement that should be very congenial to the Watchtower:

For He could not have been the Father previous to the Son, nor a Judge previous to sin. There was, however, a time when neither sin existed with Him, nor the Son; the former of which was to constitute the Lord a Judge, and the latter a Father. In this way He was not Lord previous to those things of which He was to be the Lord.[10]

The idea that there was a time when Jesus Christ the Son was not is a key contention for any kind of Arian theology, Watchtower or otherwise. He also makes the following statements in his Against Praxeas that the Watchtower finds interesting:

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.[11]

Thus the Father is distinct from the Son, being greater than the Son, inasmuch as He who begets is one, and He who is begotten is another; He, too, who sends is one, and He who is sent is another; and He, again, who makes is one, and He through whom the thing is made is another.[12]

But the Arian who seeks consolation in Against Praxeas lives dangerously; it was in this work that Tertullian first introduced the term “Trinity” to the world, and worked out the theology of God as one essence but three persons that made Arianism unpopular in Latin Christianity when it was in vogue in Greek. He makes a very clear (and dare we say Pentecostal) statement in this work:

For we, who by the grace of God possess an insight into both the times and the occasions of the Sacred Writings, especially we who are followers of the Paraclete, not of human teachers, do indeed definitively declare that Two Beings are God, the Father and the Son, and, with the addition of the Holy Spirit, even Three, according to the principle of the divine economy, which introduces number, in order that the Father may not, as you perversely infer, be Himself believed to have been born and to have suffered, which it is not lawful to believe, forasmuch as it has not been so handed down. 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; but because in earlier times Two were actually spoken of as God, and two as Lord, that when Christ should come He might be both acknowledged as God and designated as Lord, being the Son of Him who is both God and Lord.[13]

Hippolytus

Hippolytus (170-236) was an eminent Italian prelate. He wrote the following that the Watchtower should find of comfort:

The first and only (one God), both Creator and Lord of all, had nothing coeval with Himself; not infinite chaos, nor measureless water, nor solid earth, nor dense air, not warm fire, nor refined spirit, nor the azure canopy of the stupendous firmament. But He was One, alone in Himself.[14]

But elsewhere he says this:

Many other passages, or rather all of them, attest the truth. A man, therefore, even though he will it not, is compelled to acknowledge God the Father Almighty, and Christ Jesus the Son of God, who, being God, became man, to whom also the Father made all things subject, Himself excepted, and the Holy Spirit; and that these, therefore, are three. But if he desires to learn how it is shown still that there is one God, let him know that His power is one. As far as regards the power, therefore, God is one. But as far as regards the economy there is a threefold manifestation, as shall be proved afterwards when we give account of the true doctrine.[15]

This isn’t very helpful to our Arian friends either.

Origen

The Bible translator and commentator Jerome said about the Egyptian Origen (185-254) “…all but the ignorant acknowledge (him) as the greatest teacher of the Churches next to the Apostles.[16]“  The Watchtower might be willing to agree with this statement in view of the following:

To such persons we have to say that God on the one hand is Very God (Autotheos, God of Himself); and so the Saviour says in His prayer to the Father, “That they may know Thee the only true God;” but that all beyond the Very God is made God by participation in His divinity, and is not to be called simply God (with the article), but rather God (without article). And thus the first-born of all creation, who is the first to be with God, and to attract to Himself divinity, is a being of more exalted rank than the other gods beside Him, of whom God is the God, as it is written, “The God of gods, the Lord, hath spoken and called the earth.” It was by the offices of the first-born that they became gods, for He drew from God in generous measure that they should be made gods, and He communicated it to them according to His own bounty. The true God, then, is “The God,” and those who are formed after Him are gods, images, as it were, of Him the prototype.[17]

God the Father is light incomprehensible. In comparison with the Father, Christ is a very small brightness, though to us by reason of our weakness he seems to be a great one.[18]

The following, however, will doubtless temper their enthusiasm:

His birth from the Virgin and His life so admirably lived showed Him to be more than man, and it was the same among the dead.[19]

We worship one God, the Father and the Son, therefore, as we have explained; and our argument against the worship of other gods still continues valid. And we do not “reverence beyond measure one who has but lately appeared,” as though He did not exist before; for we believe Himself when He says, “Before Abraham was, I am.” Again He says, “I am the truth;” and surely none of us is so simple as to suppose that truth did not exist before the time when Christ appeared. We worship, therefore, the Father of truth, and the Son, who is the truth; and these, while they are two, considered as persons or subsistences, are one in unity of thought, in harmony and in identity of will.[20]

Ignatius of Antioch

Up to this point, we have considered authors whom the Watchtower has considered to be favourable to their position relative to the deity (or lack of it in their consideration) of Christ. At this point we should introduce one more witness, namely Ignatius of Antioch (30-107), who was doubtless acquainted with some of the Apostles themselves. He also provides us with some of the most direct statements about the deity of Christ amongst the Ante-Nicene Fathers that one could want:

For the Son of God, who was begotten before time began, and established all things according to the will of the Father, He was conceived in the womb of Mary, according to the appointment of God, of the seed of David, and by the Holy Ghost. For says [the Scripture], “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and He shall be called Immanuel.”[21]

I pray for your happiness for ever in our God, Jesus Christ, by whom continue ye in the unity and under the protection of God.[22]

Conclusions

This survey of the Ante-Nicene fathers is brief, but sufficiently long to underscore two of their beliefs:

  • Jesus Christ the Son is God. The way they express this varies, as does their concept of what it means, but their belief in this central fact is quite clear.
  • Jesus Christ the Son is subordinate to the Father, that is to say He is below the Father in rank, to use a military analogy. The way in which they conceive this also varies, but it is a belief that is consistent amongst the Ante-Nicene Fathers.

These beliefs raise several important questions, which will be the focus of the rest of this work:

  • Does the Bible support either or both of these propositions?
  • What is the real nature of the relationship between the Father and the Son? And the Holy Spirit?
  • What is the real reason for the failure of Arianism? Was it just because the government suppressed it? Or is there something else that turned Christianity against it? What significance does this have in our own day, especially when we have an Arian institution (the Watchtower) propagating essentially the same beliefs?


[1]This is the polite term in many cases. Too often such dialogues disintegrate into a shouting match.

[2] Origen, On First Principles, IV, 1.

[3]Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 51

[4] Ibid., 59

[5]Ibid., 68

[6] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, IV, 1

[7]Ibid, III, 16.

[8] Clement of Alexandria, Who Is The Rich Man That Shall Be Saved?, XII

[9]Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, I, 8.

[10]Tertullian, Against Hermogenes, 3

[11]Tertullian, Against Praxeas, 5

[12]Ibid, 9

[13]Ibid, 13.

[14] Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, X, 28.

[15] Hippolytus, Against Noetus, 8

[16] Jerome, Preface to Hebrew Names.

[17] Origen, Commentary on John, II, 2

[18] Origen, On First Principles, I, 2, cited by Jerome, Letter 124 (To Avitus), 2

[19] Origen, Commentary on John, I, 34

[20] Origen, Against Celsus, VIII, 12.

[21] Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians, 18

[22] Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to Polycarp, 8

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