We just passed the feast of St. Nicholas yesterday (at the time I began this post). So it seems like a good time to discuss the biggest difference between the religion of my past, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and pretty much the rest of Christianity – the Trinity.
In yonder days of yore I was one of the biggest opponents of the Trinity. As one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, it was my absolute favorite topic to discuss with people. I would always get the ‘you don’t believe in Jesus’ line from people, then absolutely destroy them with anti-trinitarian arguments that would show them that it was they, in fact, that didn’t believe in Jesus, I on the other hand believe in the REAL Jesus, not the one the Church made up 300 years later at the diabolical Council of Nicea (cue scary music).
I have always thought that in a debate between two opposing ideologies there is no use arguing over the small issues. Go for and break their strongest argument and the rest will fall. It’s funny how what comes around goes around……because that is exactly what happened to me. It was when the very foundations of my arguments against the Trinity started to fall apart that my exit from the Witness organization was all but assured.
This will not be deep theologically here. As I never wanted this blog to be just enjoyed by me. But if you want to get deeper in the weeds of trinitarian vs anti-trinitarian arguments with Jehovah’s Witnesses please email me!
First some insider knowledge. For as much noise as Jehovah’s Witnesses make about being the only true Christians in the world because of rejecting such beliefs such as the Trinity, very few of them actually know anything about it. I would say about 97% of them that come to your door have about a kindergarten child’s understanding of the Trinity and that is being generous. Even myself, who was very adept at debating Trinitarians, still up to the end had many misconceptions of what the term really meant.
We were not taught hardly anything about it except in derogatory terms. And while in times past JW literature might have spent a few pages discussing what they termed a ‘false religion’ and then showing why it wasn’t true, nowadays (at least for the past 15 or so years) their literature doesn’t even hardly address other views, only showing what they believe. In other words, they used to spend time showing you what was false to show why what they teach is true, now they just go straight to teaching their ideas. I think in many ways this has hurt the average Witness because they are not as prepared as they used to be to persuade people. For example, on the subject of the Trinity, their latest book that they use to study with people only brings up the subject in one small appendix at the back of the book in which they use only ONE verse in the Bible to support their view.
Witnesses are taught a strawman version of the Trinity. They will mash together ideas and quotes from various places and form it all into a deformed version of the belief that they assume everyone who believes in the Trinity accepts. I was guilty of this all the time. Mocking people for believing in 3 gods in one (not accurate at all), pointing out verses that clearly show the Father and Son being different persons (which is not even a conflict trinitarian-wise) , and my personal favorite, pointing out the ‘fact’ that neither the word Trinity nor the explicit doctrine is found in the Bible. In fact you won’t find it clearly stated until the 4th century when they had to literally invent a word to put in their creed.
So what changed? In short, learning history. Real history, not the imagined one filled with apostacy and conspiracies that the Witnesses say happened to the Church in the first few centuries. When I read the early church Fathers, some of their writings coming within a few decades of the apostles, I got my first real sense of what the early church believed about Jesus. The ironic part is that I read it in a Watchtower magazine.
You see, I was engaged in a email debate with a pastor over the Trinity among other topics, and he brought up a couple of quotes from the pre-Nicean Church fathers. Well two can play at this game I thought so I did some ‘research’ in the JW literature and found a 4 part series of articles done in the 90’s about what the early church said about the topic of the Trinity. (You would never see those type of articles printed today in the Watchtower. The fact that they ever were printed is mind-blowing, as they were a big catalyst for me leaving.)
Basically the articles made the case with quote after quote from the 1st 3 centuries that, ‘while yes, the early church acknowledged Jesus’ divinity and called him God over and over again that’s still doesn’t prove the Trinity because that language wasn’t used till much later, and even if Jesus and the Father were viewed as equals that at most is a bi-nity not a Trinity because the Holy Spirit is left out.’ Oh ok that makes sense…………wait, What?! That is still a HUGE blow to my whole argument.
OK, OK, its alright. I still have Nicea. That was a big conspiracy where the concept of the Trinity was officially FORCED upon the Church by Constantine, right? RIGHT?!
You can see where this is going. The more I looked into it the less I could argue that he early church didn’t have a concept of a Trinity. They may had not used the precise language until the 4th century but the ideas were their. They only needed to clarify it more BECAUSE of heresies popping up. It would be like insisting letters and documents from the 1600s contain the words and phrases of the 21st century.
In fact if you looked at what happened at Nicea it becomes obvious what the vast majority of the Church already believed. Arius had a convincing argument on the surface and used the scriptures to support his claims, however when the Arians made their case officially before the council it became immediately clear how blasphemous the Arian ideas of Christ was. Legend has it that St Nicholas himself even slapped or punched Arius or one of his followers upon hearing the claims they were making. (Probably didn’t actually happen, but it is still an awesome story, and clearly indicates the mood of most of the bishops there.) The only ‘controversy’ at the council was deciding exactly the precise language to use in the creed, other than that the vast majority of bishops were already in agreement against the Arian position.
But as regard to my previous beliefs though, one thing is correct. You cannot gain the full fledged doctrine of the Trinity from the scriptures alone. Nor are we intended to. Sure you can glean various parts and hints towards it in many places, and you can make a strong Trinitarian argument from the scriptures. However you can also use the scriptures to make a strong anti-Trinitarian argument if you wanted to. It’s what Arius and others did centuries ago and its what groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to do today. Therein lies the problem with Sola Scriptura (scripture alone), you can make it say pretty much what you want it to. Thankfully we have so much more. We have the ‘witness’ of the early church, from the days of the apostles to Nicea down to today. The record is absolutely clear. The Church has always taught the Trinity, and its through that lens we interpret the scriptures.
So cheers to St Nick and the rest of the Fathers of the Church for giving me the punch in the face I needed.