Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Wrestling With the Watch Tower: Athanasius and Apostasy

In "Development of the Trinity," we examined the Watch Tower's claims that it was not until the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD that the Church first started teaching that Jesus is "of one substance" with the Father, that they did not include the Holy Spirit in this shared substance, and that the pagan Roman emperor Constantine forced the attending bishops to agree to a new view of the relationship between God and Jesus that had not previously been held. We discovered that in each case the Watch Tower utterly lies: the vast majority of the Council already agreed that Jesus and the Father were equal and "of one substance," and differed only in the terminology they felt should be used; they did include the Holy Spirit, though not as explicitly because His divinity was not called into question, as was the Son's; and Constantine merely proposed a Greek term that was a translation of a Latin term that had already been used by the Church for a century.

Their brochure, "Should You Believe in the Trinity?", continues in the section entitled, "How Did the Trinity Doctrine Develop?" under the heading, "The Athanasian Creed:"


"THE Trinity was defined more fully in the Athanasian Creed. Athanasius was a clergyman who supported Constantine at Nicaea. The creed that bears his name declares: 'We worship one God in Trinity . . . The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God; and yet they are not three gods, but one God.'

Well-informed scholars agree, however, that Athanasius did not compose this creed. The New Encyclopædia Britannica comments: 'The creed was unknown to the Eastern Church until the 12th century. Since the 17th century, scholars have generally agreed that the Athanasian Creed was not written by Athanasius (died 373) but was probably composed in southern France during the 5th century. . . . The creed's influence seems to have been primarily in southern France and Spain in the 6th and 7th centuries. It was used in the liturgy of the church in Germany in the 9th century and somewhat later in Rome.'

So it took centuries from the time of Christ for the Trinity to become widely accepted in Christendom. And in all of this, what guided the decisions? Was it the Word of God, or was it clerical and political considerations? In Origin and Evolution of Religion, E. W. Hopkins answers: 'The final orthodox definition of the trinity was largely a matter of church politics.'"

The Watch Tower is correct in saying that the Athanasian Creed further developed the definition of the Trinity, but as was demonstrated in the previous entries in this series, the theology itself had been around since well before Nicaea. The Athanasian Creed simply rewords the doctrine in an attempt to make it clearer, just as the Nicene Creed was an attempt to communicate it more clearly than before. This evolution in the terminology that nevertheless always communicated the same theology is evident when one compares them:

"three Persons— the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost...of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God" (Tertullian, Against Praxeas, Chapter 2)

"We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God...being of one substance with the Father...And in the Holy Ghost." (Nicene Creed)

"We worship one God in Trinity . . . The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God; and yet they are not three gods, but one God." (Athanasian Creed)

Yes, these descriptions of the Trinity differ in their words. But do they differ in their meaning? Tertullian, preceding Nicaea, said there is "one God" and "three Persons," who are "the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost," who are "of one substance." The Council of Nicaea later declared that there is "one God," who is "the Father Almighty," "the Son of God" and "the Holy Ghost," and that the Son is "of one substance with the Father." And the Athanasian Creed still later says Christians worship "one God," who is "the Father...the Son...and the Holy Ghost." Though clarification is added in each case, does the meaning ever change? No, clearly not.

That Athanasius was not likely the author of the creed is also true. However, the creed that bears his name, as we've seen, teaches the same thing as the Nicene Creed, which Athanasius staunchly defended. The heresy that Jesus was created by God appeared in the Church about 10 years before Nicaea, and in fact was what prompted Constantine to assemble the Council. Before Arius, the Church had been united in belief that Jesus was eternal and equal with the Father. After Nicaea, the Church began to swing increasingly toward Arianism, and Athanasius fought that trend with vigor.

The point is twofold: First, Athanasius would not have objected to the creed that bears his name because it teaches the very doctrine he had defended with zeal, which of course was the doctrine that had been taught for centuries. Second, if for some time after Nicaea the Church was not united when it came to the Trinity, and therefore the Athanasian Creed, that's only because it had largely strayed from orthodoxy following Nicaea, before which it had been united in belief in one God, three Persons. In other words, it took time not to unite, but to return, to the Trinity. The Watch Tower simply rewrites history.

Their brochure continues:


"THIS disreputable history of the Trinity fits in with what Jesus and his apostles foretold would follow their time. They said that there would be an apostasy, a deviation, a falling away from true worship until Christ's return, when true worship would be restored before God's day of destruction of this system of things...

Jesus himself explained what was behind this falling away from true worship. He said that he had sowed good seeds but that the enemy, Satan, would oversow the field with weeds. So along with the first blades of wheat, the weeds appeared also. Thus, a deviation from pure Christianity was to be expected until the harvest, when Christ would set matters right. (Matthew 13:24-43)"
I've excluded a couple of paragraphs pointing to prophesies of apostasy because we've already seen that, until 10 years before Nicaea, the Church was firmly united in Trinitarian doctrine, and were still in agreement at Nicaea, but thereafter began swinging in the direction of heresy. It wasn't until decades later that the Church began to return to orthodoxy. So if the biblical prophesies foretelling apostasy are relevant to this discussion at all, the period of time between the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople are what were foretold, with a small remnant, including Athanasius, remaining true and fighting against the apostasy.

Therefore, there's no need to examine each of the passages cited. However, the Watch Tower applies Jesus' parable of the tares to the Church, saying there would be a deviation from true, biblical doctrine until the sower's return. A quick look at that parable and the interpretation Jesus gives proves otherwise:

"Jesus presented another parable to them, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away. But when the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also. The slaves of the landowner came and said to him, "Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?" And he said to them, "An enemy has done this!" The slaves said to him, "Do you want us, then, to go and gather them up?" But he said, "No; for while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat with them. Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, 'First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.'"'" (Matthew 13:24-30)

"Then He left the crowds and went into the house And His disciples came to Him and said, 'Explain to us the parable of the tares of the field.' And He said, 'The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, and the field is the world; and as for the good seed, these are the sons of the kingdom; and the tares are the sons of the evil one; and the enemy who sowed them is the devil, and the harvest is the end of the age; and the reapers are angels.'" (Matthew 13:36-39)

Now, within the historic Christian faith there has been debate as to the meaning of "the end of the age" and the reaping that would take place at that time. Many Christians have viewed this language as applying to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. As such, we cannot be certain that this apostasy would continue beyond that point and stretch all the way into recent history.

More importantly, read the parable and Christ's interpretation of it again, closely. Is there any indication that the majority of Christendom would apostatize, and that it would do so to such an extent that the message of Christianity would be largely lost until the return of Christ? No, not at all. "But when the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also." All the parable indicates is that some would become apostates, not all, not a majority. And Jesus indicates no different in His interpretation of His parable.

Indeed, this is all that was foretold concerning a future apostasy, that many would leave the faith, with no indication that it would be to such an extent that the Church would be largely in darkness for millennia. Paul, in writing to Timothy, said, "But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith;" some, not most, not all (1 Timothy 4:1). In fact, Paul suggests that the Church will always be intact and giving glory to God forever: "to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever" (Ephesians 3:21).

Consider also that in warning of a future apostasy, the New Testament authors admonish their readers to "let no one in any way deceive you" (2 Thessalonians 2:3). They urge the Church to "continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of" (2 Timothy 3:14) and to "remember the words spoken beforehand by the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken by your apostles" (2 Peter 3:2). Implicit in these admonitions is the assurance that much of the Church will remain intact, as a result of heeding the apostles' warnings.


We're nearing the Watch Tower's biblical case against Scripture in "Should You Believe in the Trinity?". It is then that the debate will be most meaningful. However, it is important to note that, as we've seen, every single plank of the Jehovah's Witnesses case against the Trinity has thus far been demolished. A house of cards falls when just one card is removed from the bottom; we've seen them all removed. The house is coming down.

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