This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 18, number 3 (Winter 1996).
The Watchtower Society (Jehovah’s Witnesses) claims to be the sole religious group faithful to the teachings of Christ and the apostles today. The Witnesses believe that the Christian church, which they refer to as “Christendom,” fell into a great apostasy after the death of the apostles and became corrupted with the doctrines and ideas of Greek paganism and philosophy. Among the doctrines corrupted was the nature of Christ, whom they maintain was the first creation of Jehovah God. The Witnesses further claim that there has always existed, since the time of the apostles, a group of faithful, anointed men who taught and believed as they do today. They often cite passages from the early church fathers to demonstrate that these men held the same beliefs as contemporary Jehovah’s Witnesses. However, examination of the writings of the early church fathers provides no evidence to substantiate the claim that a great apostasy occurred in the church following the death of the apostles. Moreover, the church fathers refute rather than support Watchtower teachings about Jesus Christ.
From the very establishment of the Christian church by Jesus Christ and His apostles, alternative formulations of the faith have been proposed by countless individuals and sects. Such groups have often adopted the language and concepts of New Testament Christianity, while amalgamating them with ideas and beliefs from secular society, philosophy, or non-Christian religions. This trend manifests itself today in the contemporary scene, much as it did many centuries ago. It is especially evident in groups such as the Mormon church and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, both of which claim to be the only true expression of Christianity in the present age.
In order to validate their claim to be the true bearers of the Christian faith, such sects usually assert that orthodox Christianity lost its way and became “apostate” in early church history. Thus, both the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses interpret their doctrinal differences from historic Christian teachings as a restoration of the apostolic faith, long ago lost by the apostasy of “Christendom.” They often point to the relatively late development of the doctrine of the Trinity, and the affirmation of doctrine by church councils, as evidence that Christendom lost the true gospel by absorbing Greek paganism and philosophy.
The claim that the true Christian faith has been lost for 18 centuries does pose some rather severe difficulties, however. One significant problem has to do with establishing a historical link between the sect and apostolic Christianity. The Mormons attempt to bypass this issue by claiming new revelation — the angel Moroni revealed the restored Christian faith to Joseph Smith. Jehovah’s Witnesses, on the other hand, try to maintain a historical link with the apostolic church. They hold that since the death of the apostles, there has always existed a “faithful and discrete servant” class — a group of 144,000 anointed Christians (which began with the 12 apostles and reached 144,000 in 1935) who are Jehovah’s appointed channel for understanding and interpreting the Scriptures. This group is now embodied in the rapidly dwindling Governing Body of the Watchtower Society (those who became a part of this class during or prior to 1935 are dying of old age).
The Watchtower Society turns frequently to the Christian literature of the postapostolic period — those writers commonly known as the church fathers — to bolster their claim to be the true restoration of apostolic Christianity. This two–part series will review the evidence for their position by examining the early church literature pertaining to the central doctrines of the Christian faith.
THE CHURCH FATHERS
In the first few centuries after the death of the apostles, the literary efforts of certain esteemed leaders and teachers of the church served to communicate and defend the faith. These writings were held in high regard, often being circulated with copies of the Scriptures themselves. They became an integral part of the spiritual literature of the growing Christian communities, and were frequently utilized in worship. The authors, generally known as the apostolic or church fathers, provide us with valuable understanding of the history and development of Christian life, beliefs, and doctrine in the postapostolic age.
These writings were prompted by a number of circumstances. Some were written to explain and defend Christianity to pagan authorities (e.g., kings) in an attempt to deflect persecution. Others were intended to encourage, teach, and correct wayward churches. Many were written to defend the church against heresies from inside and outside the Christian community.
Some of the most valuable insights from these writings relate to the formation of orthodox Christian doctrine, particularly as it developed in response to heresy. Study of the history and development of orthodox Christian doctrine reveals that several very important doctrines, such as the Trinity and the nature of Christ, were refined over an extended period. These teachings were to some extent implicitly understood by the early church, and later were more explicitly defined. Since false teachers distorted these and other doctrines, church fathers directed much of their attention to refuting them with apostolic teaching based on Scripture. Hence, the writings of the church fathers provide an important resource for determining what Christians believed in the first few centuries after the apostles.
THE ALLEGED “APOSTASY” OF CHRISTENDOM
A recent Watchtower magazine expounds the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ view that orthodox Christianity (“Christendom”) underwent a great apostasy after the death of the apostles: “The death of the apostles removed a restraining influence, allowing a widespread apostasy to develop. (2 Thessalonians 2:7, 8) An organization grew up that unworthily professed to be God’s congregation. It falsely claimed to be the holy nation anointed with God’s spirit to rule with Jesus.”1
The Witnesses believe that the influx of pagan converts brought in doctrines and concepts from Greek philosophy and religion which were then integrated into the Christian faith, resulting in such “false” teachings as the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the immortality of the soul, and eternal punishment in hell. According to the Watchtower Society, Christendom lived in darkness for 18 centuries after this apostasy. Yet they believe there were always individuals who were faithful to divine truth — a truth more fully unveiled when their founder, Charles Russell, began to study the Bible in earnest in the 1870s. To support this view, Watchtower literature regularly cites passages from the church fathers to demonstrate that, even after the apostasy, there were some who believed as Jehovah’s Witnesses do today.
In light of this line of argumentation, it is worthwhile to examine the writings of the early church fathers. If indeed such writings reveal that early Christians believed as Jehovah’s Witnesses do today, then surely a reevaluation of orthodox Christian teachings is needed. If these writings fail to support Watchtower claims, however, then one must conclude that Jehovah’s Witnesses represent a new religious tradition of the late 19th century, with no historical connection to apostolic Christianity.
The body of literature of the postapostolic church is substantial, and a full review would be outside of the scope of a limited survey such as this. The most critical period is that prior to the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, because it is historically closest to the apostles. Part One of this series will examine writings from this period that relate to the question of whether the church underwent a great apostasy. It will also investigate what the church fathers say about one of the most critical doctrines of the Christian faith — the divine nature of Christ. Part Two will review other important doctrines of the faith, such as the nature of the Holy Spirit, the soul, and the fate of the wicked.
Did a Great Apostasy Occur?
Was the true faith taught by the apostles lost or corrupted within the first generation after the apostles? If so, then the true faith was not successfully transmitted anywhere in the evangelized world of the first and second centuries — including churches established by the apostles, with leadership appointed personally by them. A “great apostasy” would require an extraordinary event: the simultaneous loss of faith by an entire generation of Christians throughout the civilized world. Included in this apostasy would be disciples of the apostles themselves, as well as those who witnessed the thousands of martyrs who, just a short time previously, refused to deny Christ, either explicitly or by worshiping pagan gods.
A great apostasy, wherein the doctrines of Greek pagan philosophy replaced apostolic teaching, would most likely have begun in areas where the church was accepting a large number of converts with backgrounds in Greek religion and philosophy, such as Alexandria, Egypt. The prominent western churches established directly by the apostles, such as those in Rome and Antioch, would likely have fallen into heresy more slowly. But the historical facts do not support this (or any other) scenario of a “great apostasy.” Had a great apostasy begun immediately after the death of the apostles, as the Watchtower claims, a mixture of “true Christianity” (i.e., Watchtower–type teachings) and “pagan heresy” (i.e., orthodox Christian teachings) would be discernible in the literature of the early church, which was widespread in its geographical points of origin.
Is it possible that all the writings of the followers of the “true faith” were completely destroyed by the paganized church? Such a view is highly improbable. Many manuscripts have survived from Gnosticism (a widespread religious movement of this period which combined elements of Greek paganism and eastern mystery religions), despite several centuries of concerted attack and condemnation by the church. Yet not a single document exists pointing to a group who believed as the Jehovah’s Witnesses do today.
The absence of such early “Watchtower” literature causes one to doubt the existence of the so-called “faithful and discrete servant class.” After all, the stated purpose of these 144,000 anointed servants in Jehovah’s plan is to provide “meat in due season” — that is, literature that imparts “accurate knowledge” about the Bible. If these early Jehovah’s Witnesses were true to the kingdom gospel, handed down to them by the apostles, they would have written sufficiently to provide the faithful with an understanding of the Scriptures. Keep in mind that the Watchtower Society teaches that the Scriptures cannot be properly understood without such aids.2 Yet where is the Watchtower literature of the first and second centuries — or for that matter, of any century prior to the 1870s? Its absence is most telling, and highly damaging to the claim of a general apostasy with just a few of the dedicated faithful surviving.
Perhaps the most compelling argument against a universal early apostasy may be found in the commissioning and empowering of the apostles themselves. If a universal apostasy occurred immediately after the death of the apostles, we would have to judge the apostles as incompetent or negligent evangelists who utterly failed to accomplish Jesus’ commission to make disciples. Such an apostasy would reflect poorly on Jehovah God as well, whose “holy spirit” was unable to preserve His followers for even a single generation.
There is, therefore, no reason to believe that a great apostasy occurred following the death of the apostles, with the resulting loss of the “true” Christian faith for over 1800 years. This conclusion seems undeniable in view of the Great Commission, the power of the Holy Spirit, the absence of literary evidence for an alternative group of believers with a gospel similar to that preached by Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the implausibility of the required simultaneous loss of faith by an entire generation of geographically dispersed Christians.
THE CHURCH FATHERS AND THE DEITY OF CHRIST
Jehovah’s Witnesses deny that Jesus Christ is YHWH (or Jehovah) in the flesh, maintaining that he is the first creation of Jehovah. The Witness book used for instruction of potential converts, You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth, explains: “Did Jesus ever say that he was God? No, he never did. Rather, in the Bible he is called ‘God’s Son.’ And he said, ‘The Father is greater than I am.’ (John 10:34-36; 14:28)…Thus the Almighty God and Jesus are clearly two separate persons. Even after his death and resurrection and ascension to heaven, Jesus was still not equal to his Father.”3
The Witnesses further claim that Jesus was not raised bodily from the dead, but was raised as a spirit creature who assumed different material bodies after his resurrection when interacting with the disciples: “Since the apostle Thomas was able to put his hand into a hole in Jesus’ side, does that not show that Jesus was raised from the dead in the same body that was nailed to the stake? No, for Jesus simply materialized or took on a fleshly body, as angels had done in the past.”4
Watchtower teaching regarding the time and manner of Christ’s return also differs markedly from historical Christian teaching. Witnesses believe that Christ established an invisible “presence” on earth in the year 1914, seen only by those with “eyes of understanding” — that is, those who understand and follow the divine truths and Bible teaching put forth by the “faithful and discrete servant” of the Watchtower Society. We read in Paradise on Earth: “What was the manner of Jesus’ leaving?…The departing Jesus, therefore, became invisible to [the disciples]…Thus his return also would be invisible, in a spiritual body.”5
The Watchtower often insists that the church fathers believed as they do on such doctrines. For example, in their booklet Should You Believe in the Trinity?6 they cite several early Christian fathers, claiming that they did not believe Jesus was God, but rather was a created being. An examination of the patristic literature (i.e., writings of the church fathers) will reveal whether such claims are true.
The Fathers and Apostolic Authority
We begin with the recognition that the church fathers frequently pointed to apostolic teaching as the source of their faith. Many patristic writers stressed the importance placed by the early church on gathering and preserving every teaching and saying of Jesus and the apostles. They constantly maintained that their beliefs originated from these sources. Furthermore, such claims did not occur in a vacuum. The early Christian fathers wrote in an environment where many were already familiar with apostolic teaching; many had been taught by disciples of the apostles or even the apostles themselves. Hence, the introduction of nonapostolic doctrine would undoubtedly have raised much opposition from those who knew the truth firsthand.
The preeminence of apostolic authority and teaching is seen throughout the patristic literature. For example, Irenaeus, speaking of Clement of Rome, said, “He had seen the apostles and associated with them, and still had their preaching sounding in his ears and their tradition before his eyes — and not he alone, for there were many still left in his time who had been taught by the apostles.”7 Matthetes, speaking to Diognetus, said, “I am not speaking of things that are strange to me…for I have been a disciple of apostles, and now I am becoming a teacher of the Gentiles.”8 Irenaeus declared, “Now the Church, although scattered over the whole civilized world to the end of the earth, received from the apostles and their disciples its faith in one God, the Father Almighty…and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was made flesh for our salvation, and in the Holy Spirit.”9 Origen affirmed, “The holy Apostles, in preaching the faith of Christ, treated with the utmost clarity certain matters which they believed to be of absolute necessity to all believers.”10
It is reasonable to assume, in view of the above, that, when it comes to the essentials of the Christian faith, the church fathers are a good source for discerning apostolic teaching and doctrine. Hence, one may look to them for insight as to what the first–century church believed about Jesus Christ. We will now consider the ante–Nicene church fathers’ treatment of Christ as the Author of Scripture, their explicit statements about His deity, their defense of His uncreated and eternal nature, and their beliefs about His return.
Christ as the Author of Scripture
Early Christians took from their Jewish heritage the conviction that the Old Testament Scriptures were inspired and authored by YHWH, through His Holy Spirit. Yet the apostolic fathers often attributed the authorship of Scripture to Christ. By so doing they demonstrated their conviction about Christ’s deity. In 1 Clement, for example, we read, “For this is how Christ addresses us through his Holy Spirit: ‘Come, my children, listen to Me, I will teach you the fear of the Lord.’”11 In 2d Clement we read, “But how do we acknowledge Him?…By honoring Him [Christ] not only with our lips, but with all our mind and our heart. And He says in Isaiah as well, ‘This people honors me with their lips but their heart is far from me.’”12 Likewise, Irenaeus said, “The Scriptures are certainly perfect, since they were spoken by the Word of God [Christ] and by His Spirit.”13 Such attribution would be inconceivable if the patristic writers had not believed that Jesus is God.
The patristic writers also directly identified Christ with YHWH. This they did by interpreting many passages of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) that speak of YHWH as references to the preincarnate Christ. Justin Martyr, a converted philosopher of the early second century, exemplifies this approach: “Although the Jews were always of the opinion that it was the Father of all who had spoken to Moses, it was in fact the Son of God…who spoke to him…They who assert that the Son is the Father are proved to know neither the Father, nor that the Father of all has a Son, who is both the first-born Word of God and is God.”14 Moreover, Justin said, “What was said out of the bush to Moses, ‘I am He who is, the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob and the God of your fathers,’ was an indication that they though dead still existed and were Christ’s own men.”15 Hence, the early Christian writers not only attributed the words of Scripture to Christ, but specifically identified Him with the YHWH of the Old Testament.
Explicit Statements about the Deity of Christ
As we saw with Justin Martyr above, the church fathers also explicitly declared the divine nature of Jesus Christ. Ignatius, a prominent martyr of the early second century, wrote seven letters to the churches of Asia Minor that are replete with statements affirming that Jesus is God: “The source of your unity and election is genuine suffering which you undergo by the will of the Father and of Jesus Christ our God.”16 “There is one only physician — of flesh yet spiritual, born yet unbegotten, God incarnate, genuine life in the midst of death, sprung from Mary as well as God…Jesus Christ our Lord.”17 “For our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived in the womb by Mary…of the Holy Ghost.”18
Such direct statements about Christ’s deity were not unique to Ignatius, but can be seen in other early church literature. Polycarp, a direct disciple of the apostle John, declared: “May He grant unto you a lot and a portion among His saints…who shall believe in our Lord and God Jesus Christ and in His Father that raised Him from the dead.”19 Irenaeus likewise declared, “He is Himself in His own right God and Lord and Eternal King and Only begotten and Incarnate Word, proclaimed as such by all the Prophets and by the Apostles and by the Spirit Himself…The Scriptures would not have borne witness to these things concerning Him, if, like everyone else, He were mere man.”20 Mellito of Sardis similarly affirmed, “The activities of Christ after His Baptism…gave indication and assurance to the world of the Deity hidden in His flesh. Being God and likewise perfect man, He gave positive indications of His two natures…He concealed the signs of His Deity, although He was the true God existing before the ages.”21 Hippolytus added, “Only His Word is from Himself, and is therefore also God, becoming the substance of God.”22 And Tertullian affirmed, “God alone is without sin. The only man without sin is Christ; for Christ is also God.”23
Examples such as these abound. There can be no doubt that the early church, well before the Council of Nicea and indeed beginning with disciples of the apostles themselves, believed that Jesus Christ possessed the very same nature and substance as God.
Jesus Not Created, Nor an Angel
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ idea that Jesus was a created being and an angel was common to pagan and Gnostic religions, and the early Christian apologists made a point of explicitly refuting it. For example, in The Epistle of Barnabus we read, “God himself, who from heaven established the truth, and the holy, incomprehensible word among men…Nor, as one might suppose, did he do this by sending to men some subordinate — an angel, or principality…Rather he sent the Designer and Maker of the universe Himself…God sent him to men.”24 Athenagorus likewise affirmed, “The Son of God is the Word of the Father…the Father and the Son being one.…The Son…is the First-begotten of the Father, not as having been produced — for from the beginning God had the Word in Himself…”25 Irenaeus in like manner said, “[The Gnostics] transfer the generation of the uttered word of men to the eternal Word of God, attributing to Him a beginning of utterance and a coming into being in a manner like to that of their own word. In what manner, then, would the Word of God — indeed, the great God Himself, since He is the Word — differ from the word of man, were He to have the same order and process of generation?”26 Tertullian similarly wrote, “‘But Christ,’ they say, ‘also bore the nature of an angel.’ For what reason? And why did He take human nature?…Christ bore human nature in order to be man’s salvation.…There was no such reason why Christ would take upon Himself angelic nature.”27 And Origen declared, “Although He was God, He took flesh; and having been made man, He remained what He was, God.…For we do not hold…that some part of the substance of God was converted into the Son, or that the Son was procreated by the Father from nonexistent substances, that is, from a substance outside Himself, so that there were a time when He did not exist.”28
While Witnesses assert that pagan influences produced the doctrine of Christ’s deity so forcefully stated at the Council of Nicea, it was in fact the pagans, not the Christians, who claimed He was created. The origins of Watchtower Christology are found not in apostolic teaching, but rather in Gnostic speculation.
The Return of Christ
There is likewise no support in early Christian literature for the idea that Jesus would return in some invisible, spiritual manner. As with the idea that Jesus was a created angel, the notion of a “spiritual” postresurrection body of Christ was prominent in Gnosticism. The Gnostics viewed the flesh as inherently evil. The fathers, in contrast, expressed the hope that the church held from the time of the apostles, that Jesus would return in the flesh, in a glorious and triumphant manner. The Epistle of Barnabus, written shortly after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, expressed this common hope of all Christians: “Set your hope on Him who is about to be manifested to you in the flesh, even Jesus.…For they shall see Him in that day wearing the long scarlet robe about His flesh, and shall say, ‘Is this not He, Whom we once crucified and regarded as nothing and spat upon; verily this was He.’”29
The patristic literature makes no mention of an invisible “presence” of Jesus — a central doctrine of Witness theology and chronology. This Watchtower teaching does not derive from the writings of the early church, and must be judged as originating far outside of apostolic Christianity.
The Fathers Denied That Christ Is a Created, Lesser God
Witnesses often attack the doctrine of the Trinity, asserting that the belief in three Persons in one God goes against reason. While Christianity holds that the Trinity accurately describes the self-revealed nature of God, the tension between the distinctness of the Persons and the unity of God has always presented a challenge to those who reason about the nature of God. The early Christian apologists frequently had to explain and defend the fact that Christ is divine by nature and yet personally distinct from the Father. Those who challenged them — both those coming from the polytheistic background of Greek philosophy and religion, and those whose amalgamation of philosophy and Christianity led them astray — often resorted to a formulation in which Christ was a created, lesser god. Hence, in many ways the early Christian writers faced a similar situation as those evangelizing Jehovah’s Witnesses today.
The early postapostolic church strongly held that Christ was of the very substance of God, and was not a lesser, created god. Athenagorus, a Christian philosopher of the second century, addressed this issue in a manner typical of many of the early fathers: “If, moreover, it is claimed that, just as hand, eye, and foot are constituent parts of a single body, so God’s unity is made up from two or more gods, this is equally false.…But God is uncreated, impassible, and indivisible. He does not, therefore, consist of parts.”30 Moreover, “The Son…is the first offspring of the Father. I do not mean that he was created, for since God is eternal mind, he had his Word within himself from the beginning, being eternally wise…Who, then, would not be astonished to hear those called atheists who admit God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and who teach their unity in power and their distinction in rank?”31 As with other aspects of the Watchtower doctrine of Christ, there is no support in the literature of these early Christian authors for a Christ who was a lesser, created god, the first creation of Jehovah.
An Absence of Evidence
The Watchtower Society has selectively quoted the literature of the early church fathers in an attempt to demonstrate that, while the church fell into apostasy at an early date, nonetheless many early Christians believed as they do today. When the literature of this period is examined in depth, however, it becomes clear that there is virtually no evidence that a great global apostasy occurred immediately following the death of the apostles. Furthermore, there is no evidence that a group preaching the preeminence of Jehovah’s name went door–to–door distributing the writings of a small body of anointed men, while proclaiming the invisible presence of Christ and a coming earthy kingdom. The Witnesses’ claim to be the sole bearers of true apostolic Christianity does not stand.
The writings of the early fathers explicitly and repeatedly refute the Christ of the Watchtower, and confidently assert His deity and uncreated nature. The created angelic deity of the Watchtower bears much resemblance to the speculations of Gnosticism and Greek paganism, but has no resemblance to the incarnate Word of God preached by the apostles.
What of the other important teachings of the faith? In Part Two I will examine such doctrines as the Holy Spirit, the nature of the soul, the Resurrection, and the destiny of the righteous and wicked. As in the present article, Watchtower teachings will be compared and contrasted with those of the ante-Nicene church fathers to test their validity and historical accuracy.
Robert U. Finnerty, M.D., is a practicing physician in Tacoma, WA and is the author of Jehovah’s Witnesses on Trial: The Testimony of the Early Church Fathers (P&R Publishing, 1993). He may be reached “on–line” via the internet at [email protected].
- The Watchtower, 15 June 1992, 19.
- The Watchtower Society, while claiming to use the Bible alone, actually teaches that the Bible cannot be understood without the aid of the “meat in due season,” the literature provided by the Society — its interpretation of Scripture being the only valid one. See The Watchtower, 15 September 1910, 298; 15 August 1981, 28.
- You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, 1982), 39–40.
- Ibid., 144.
- Ibid., 145–46.
- Should You Believe in the Trinity? (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, 1989).
- Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.3, in Cyril C. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers (New York: Macmillan, 1970).
- Ibid., 11.
- Ibid., 1.10.1.
- Origen, Fundamental Doctrines, 1. Pref. 3–4; 1.2.1; 4.4.1, in W. A. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers, vol. 1 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1979).
- Ibid., 22.
- Ibid., 3.
- Ibid., 2.28.2.
- Ibid., 63.
- Ignatius, Ephesians, 1. In Richardson.
- Ibid., 7.
- Ibid., 18, in J. B. Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer, The Apostolic Fathers (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984).
- Ibid., 12.
- Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.19, 1–2, in Jurgens, vol. 1.
- Melito, Guide, 13, in ibid.
- Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, 10.33, in ibid.
- Tertullian, The Soul, 41.3, in ibid.
- The Epistle to Diognetus, 7, in Richardson.
- Athenagoras, Intercession on Behalf of the Christians, 10, in Jurgens, vol. 1.
- Ibid., 2.13.8.
- Ibid., 14.1.
- Origen, Fundamental Doctrines, 1, pref. 3–4; 1.2.1; 4.4.1, in ibid.
- Epistle of Barnabas, 6.7, in Lightfoot and Harmer.
- Ibid., 8, in Richardson.
- Ibid., 10, in Richardson.