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Is the Trinity a Pagan Doctrine?

Answers to Jehovah’s Witnesses #7

Summary: Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that the Trinity is an apostate doctrine borrowed or adapted from pagan religious beliefs in triads of gods. However, the doctrine of the Trinity owed nothing to pagan triads of deities and was formulated by Christians on the basis of the teachings of Scripture.

This article is one of a series of articles explaining in detail the doctrines of Jehovah’s Witnesses and showing why those teachings are not in harmony with the facts and teachings of the Bible. For an overview, see our article on what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe.

What the Watchtower Teaches

According to the Watchtower Society, “The Trinity doctrine, their concept of God himself, is borrowed from pagan sources and was developed in its present form centuries after Bible writing was completed.”1 Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught that belief in the Trinity arose as part of the worldwide apostasy fomented by Satan:

But Satan sowed false disciples, like weeds, in among these true followers of Jesus. Thus, as Jesus himself foretold, during the centuries after his death, false disciples appeared. These promoted apostate teachings, such as the Trinity, the idea that there are three persons in one God.2

The Watchtower’s polemics against the doctrine of the Trinity have repeatedly claimed that it originated from paganism. This claim is supported by two very different arguments. Most commonly, Jehovah’s Witnesses have pointed to apparent examples of divine triads, or groups of three gods, in various ancient religions as demonstrating the pagan nature of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. So, for example, a 2013 article in the Watchtower magazine compared the doctrine of the Trinity to ancient Babylonian religion:

The religious triad, or trinity, was a prominent feature of worship in Babylon. One Babylonian triad was composed of Sin (a moon-god), Shamash (a sun-god), and Ishtar (a goddess of fertility and war).3

Over the years, the Watchtower Society has quoted from a wide array of publications that agree, or that appear to agree, that Trinitarian theology originated from paganism.

Second, the Watchtower Society has blamed the influence of pagan Greek philosophy for the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. In one article, for example, the Society criticizes the term homoousios (“of one substance”) in the Nicene Creed as an “unbiblical Greek philosophical term.”4 Here again, the Watchtower frequently quotes from a variety of publications to marshal apparent scholarly support for their criticisms of the doctrine of the Trinity. We will examine an example later in this article.

What about the Bible? The Watchtower asserts that the early church fathers who developed the doctrine of the Trinity did not care about what the Bible taught due to their love of Greek philosophy:

An example of an important Christian belief that they corrupted with a pagan idea is the doctrine, or teaching, about who Jesus Christ is. The Bible calls him the Son of God, but those who loved Greek philosophy taught that he is God. Later, church leaders argued about this doctrine at several church councils. They could easily have found the answer to the question about the identity of Jesus Christ if they had looked in the Scriptures. But most of them did not think that what the Bible said was important enough.5

Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that their doctrine is the clear and obvious teaching of the Bible. They reject the idea that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three co-eternal, fully divine persons. The view they espouse in place of the doctrine of the Trinity is summed up briefly in the following comment on Matthew 28:19, which Christians historically have understood to refer to the Trinity:

To be baptized as a genuine Christian and one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a person must acknowledge the supremacy of the Father, Jehovah, as well as the position and authority of God’s Son, Jesus. The baptism candidate must also believe that the holy spirit is God’s active force, not part of a Trinity. (Gen. 1:2) An individual who continues to believe in the Trinity cannot be baptized in symbol of a valid dedication to Jehovah God.6

The Watchtower doctrine summarized above consists of the following beliefs:

  1. Jehovah alone is the Father, the Almighty God. He alone has always existed without beginning. Christians should pray to Jehovah the Father only, never to Christ.
  2. Jesus Christ, before his human life on earth, existed as a created angelic being, the first and only direct creation by Jehovah God. This “firstborn son” of Jehovah was Michael the archangel.7 After Jehovah made Michael, he authorized him to make the rest of the world and the creatures in it by Jehovah’s power and design. Michael’s life force was transferred into the human organism of Mary’s son Jesus. After Jesus died, he was re-created by Jehovah as a spirit or great angel again. Jesus Christ was and is “a god,” a divine being, but not God.
  3. There is no person called the Holy Spirit. Rather, Jehovah God has an invisible, active force that the Bible calls spirit or holy spirit. Jehovah uses this active force to exert his power and influence throughout the world.

The Watchtower’s Pseudo-Scholarship on the Origins of the Doctrine of the Trinity

The Watchtower’s frequent quotations present the veneer of thorough historical scholarship regarding the background and origins of the doctrine of the Trinity. However, their handling of the ancient sources as well as modern scholarly reference works is so poor and so distorted that we may fairly describe it as pseudo-scholarship. Moreover, abuse of scholarship has been a serious problem in Watchtower literature for many decades.8

The Watchtower’s penchant for comparing the doctrine of the Trinity to various triads of deities in other religions is an excellent example of its shallow and misleading use of scholarship. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that the polytheistic religions of Babylon or other pagan nations had any influence on the development of Trinitarianism. Consider, for example, the alleged Babylonian “trinity” of Sin, Shamash, and Ishtar. These were not one God in any sense, but were viewed as three different gods. Moreover, these gods were just three among many gods in Babylonian thought. In another publication, the Watchtower actually gave this point away when discussing the origin of astrology, offering the following quotation from the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

The movements of the sun, moon and five planets were regarded as representing the activity of the five gods in question, together with the moon-god Sin and the sun-god Shamash, in preparing the occurrences on earth.9

Historically, Babylonian polytheism simply has nothing to do with the theology of the church fathers in the second, third, and fourth centuries AD. The Babylonians lived in a different part of the world two thousand years before the church fathers. Theologically, the only possible point of comparison between the Babylonian triad of Shamash, Sin, and Ishtar (the sun, moon, and earth deities) and the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is the number three, as B. B. Warfield pointed out a century ago:

Triads of divinities, no doubt, occur in nearly all polytheistic religions, formed under very various influences…. It should be needless to say that none of these triads has the slightest resemblance to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity embodies much more than the notion of “threeness,” and beyond their “threeness” these triads have nothing in common with it.10

The Watchtower’s polemic against the doctrine of the Trinity has at least some relationship to fact with regard to the claim that the doctrine was influenced by Greek philosophy. The factual element here is that the church fathers lived in a thoroughly Hellenistic (culturally Greek) society in which Greek philosophical terms and categories were part of the way educated people thought and spoke. Everyone who participated in discussions about the nature of God did so in that context, even those whose primary language was Latin. Both Trinitarians and non-Trinitarians in the third and fourth centuries employed Greek terms. Here again, however, the Watchtower has frequently misrepresented the work of scholars in order to make it seem as though the doctrine of the Trinity substituted Greek philosophical beliefs for the biblical teachings. An interesting example is the following statement in a 2002 article:

One reference work states: “Trinitarian theology required the aid of Hellenistic concepts and categories for its development and expression.”11

Here the Watchtower article does not even bother to inform the reader as to the source of this statement. It comes from a book on the history of heresy by a Christian scholar named Harold O. J. Brown. As is very often the case, the quotation cuts off the source in mid-sentence. Here is what Brown actually wrote:

It is evident that Trinitarian theology required the aid of Hellenistic concepts and categories for its development and expression, but they were the tools by means of which the implications of the New Testament were realized; they were not foreign concepts imposed upon an essentially simple message.12

The Watchtower Society’s claim that the church fathers did not even bother to consult the Bible to learn about the identity of Jesus Christ because “most of them did not think that what the Bible said was important enough” is a shockingly blatant lie. The church fathers derived their belief about Jesus Christ as God from the Bible. In their writings on the doctrine of the Trinity, they gave close attention to various biblical passages of relevance.

One of the principal defenders of the doctrine of the Trinity was the fourth-century theologian Athanasius. His main book pertaining to the subject was On the Incarnation of the Word, which expounds the doctrine of the deity of Christ from Scripture, citing dozens of biblical texts. Right at the beginning, Athanasius sets aside erroneous views of God and creation from Platonism and other Greek philosophies that are inconsistent with the teachings of Scripture. At the end of the book, he writes:

Let this, then, Christ-loving man, be our offering to you, just for a rudimentary sketch and outline, in a short compass, of the faith of Christ and of His Divine appearing to usward. But you, taking occasion by this, if you light upon the text of the Scriptures, by genuinely applying your mind to them, will learn from them more completely and clearly the exact detail of what we have said. For they were spoken and written by God, through men who spoke of God. But we impart of what we have learned from inspired teachers who have been conversant with them, who have also become martyrs for the deity of Christ, to your zeal for learning, in turn.13

Athanasius’s comment here is quite representative of the thinking of the church fathers. The authority for doctrine was “the text of the Scriptures,” nothing else. They learned biblical doctrine as the books of the New Testament were handed down and their doctrine taught by Christian teachers who in some cases literally gave their lives for their belief in “the deity of Christ.” Such teachers obviously were not interested in compromising the Christian faith to make it palatable to pagan intellectuals. The church fathers saw Trinitarianism as opposed to Greek philosophies such as Platonism, not as an accommodation to those philosophies.

Biblical Response

The doctrine of the Trinity encompasses a great deal of the subject matter of the Bible. We will only be giving a brief overview here.14

1. There is one God, Yahweh (Jehovah), who alone is the creator and maker of everything else.

The fundamental doctrine revealed in the Old Testament is that one God, called Yahweh (Jehovah, the LORD), created all things. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). In Isaiah, Yahweh says, “I am Yahweh, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who by myself spread out the earth” (Is. 44:24). Yahweh was not simply the architect of creation, but its only creator and maker. In contrast to the popular pagan religions of the time that credited a group of deities with making the world, the biblical prophets in Israel clearly taught that one God had made everything (see also Neh. 9:6; Ps. 102:25; Isa. 37:16; 40:25-26; 42:5; Jer. 10:16; 51:19). The New Testament affirms this basic biblical doctrine that one God “created all things” (Rev. 4:11; see also Acts 4:24; 14:15; 17:24).

On the basis of his being the sole creator of heaven and earth, the Bible insists that Yahweh is the only true God. “To you it was shown, that you might know that Yahweh is God; there is no other besides him…. Yahweh is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other” (Deut. 4:35, 39; see also 1 Kings 8:60; Isa. 45:18-22). As Jeremiah put it, “Yahweh is the true God; he is the living God and the everlasting King…. The gods who did not make the heavens and the earth shall perish from the earth and from under the heavens” (Jer. 10:10, 11). When Gentiles came to faith in Christ, they accepted this belief in one true God as they “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9).

2. The Son, who became the man Jesus Christ, is himself eternal God.

The doctrine of the Trinity does not teach that Jesus is God the Father, or that the Father and the Son are two different roles played by the same person. Rather, the doctrine affirms both that Jesus, the Son, is God and that he is personally distinct from God the Father.

The Old Testament contains brief glimpses—one might even describe them as hints—that the Messiah would be God himself (Isa. 7:14; 9:6). The Old Testament also sometimes speaks of the “wisdom” (Prov. 1:20; 8:12) and the “word” (Gen. 15:1, 4; Ps. 33:6; Jer. 43:12; etc.) of God in ways that come close to sounding like references to a distinct person, but which in context are colorful ways of speaking about God’s attribute of wisdom and his activity of speaking to perform actions or to reveal himself. The idea that the Messiah was God was directly revealed only when Jesus came, died, and rose from the dead. Several of the New Testament writers refer to Jesus as God (John 1:1; 20:28; Acts 20:28; Rom. 9:5; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:8; 2 Peter 1:1; 1 John 5:20). John 1:1 is especially notable here because it speaks of Christ before creation as God:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. (John 1:1-3 NASB)

Here John tells us that the Word (a term now being used to refer to a distinct person) existed “in the beginning” and was already “God.” The Word is clearly on the “creator” side of existence, because rather than having been created himself, “all things came into being through Him” (v. 3). This idea that Christ was involved in making all things is found elsewhere in the New Testament (Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2, 10). Yet the Bible, as we have seen, also teaches that Yahweh alone made the world. The conclusion follows that Jesus is Yahweh.

The Watchtower Society has found it necessary to translate most of these texts in different ways to avoid their referring to Christ as God. One text they were not able to reword was John 20:28, where Thomas, upon seeing the risen Christ, said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Jehovah’s Witnesses have long struggled to explain this statement. Was Thomas simply crying out to Jehovah in heaven in surprise, as when a person today says “O my God!” That won’t work because Jews had strong scruples against such use of divine names and in any case no one would say “My Lord and my God” in that way. Was Thomas referring to Jesus and the Father, with “my Lord” meaning Jesus and “my God” meaning the Father? That doesn’t work, either, because John tells us that Thomas’s whole statement was directed to Jesus (John 20:28a).

Although the name Yahweh does not appear in the New Testament, the Greek text commonly uses the word kurios (“Lord”) in place of “Yahweh” in quotations using the divine name in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament.15 In numerous places, the New Testament calls Jesus Christ “Lord” in contexts that clearly identify him as the Lord Yahweh of the Old Testament (e.g., Mark 1:3; Rom. 10:9-13; 1 Cor. 8:6; 1 Peter 2:3; 3:13-15). For example, Paul writes:

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:9-11)

Many modern readers of the English text mistakenly think that the “name that is above every name” is the name Jesus, but this is incorrect. The exalted name that is “bestowed” on Jesus is the name Lord, since Paul says that what God wants everyone to confess is “that Jesus Christ is Lord.” In Paul’s Jewish religious context, this use of the term “Lord” would clearly be understood as standing for the name Yahweh. For Jews, the name Yahweh was indeed “the name that is above every name,” as Jehovah’s Witnesses also agree. Moreover, Paul’s wording here is drawn from one of those exclusive monotheistic passages in which Yahweh asserts that he alone is God and there is no other: “Turn to me and you shall be saved, those from the end of the earth. I am God and there is no other…. To me every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess to God” (Isa. 45:22, 23 LXX).16

Jehovah’s Witnesses generally object that Paul cannot be identifying Jesus as Yahweh because Paul says that God “highly exalted” Jesus and “bestowed” on him the name that is above every name. What this objection misses is that Christ had humbled himself by taking human nature and living out the role of the Servant in order to die on the cross for us (Phil. 2:5-8). Having humbled himself in this way, Christ did not then exalt himself, but rather looked to God the Father to exalt him. “Highly exalted” here does not mean that Christ changed into a different kind of being, but that the Father honored him greatly. In effect, the Father declared to the world who Jesus really was and summoned the world to give Jesus the honor that was due to him. Bestowing a name on someone in this context was not a mere matter of assigning a label to that individual, but of expressing one’s respect and honor toward that person.

Most of the objections that Jehovah’s Witnesses bring against the doctrine that Jesus is God make one of two mistakes. First, their objections often assume erroneously that Trinitarian theology teaches that Jesus is the Father. One often hears Jehovah’s Witnesses ask if we think Jesus prayed to himself, for example. Such questions misunderstand the doctrine of the Trinity to mean that the Son is the Father.

Second, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ objections often miss the point that Christian theology does not view Jesus as simply God, but as both God and man. Jesus is God incarnate (in the flesh), God the Son come into the human race for our redemption. The classic way of expressing this idea is to speak of Jesus Christ as one person (the Son) existing in two natures, deity and humanity. This idea actually explains a number of paradoxes about Jesus in the New Testament. For example, the New Testament affirms both that Jesus was tempted (Heb. 4:15) and yet could only do what the Father did (John 5:19); that Jesus died (Phil. 2:8) and yet no one could take his life away from him (John 10:18); that he did not know the day or the hour (Mark 13:32) and yet that he knew all things (John 16:30). The best explanation for these paradoxes comes directly from the New Testament itself: Christ was in the form of God but had humbled himself to take on the form of man (Phil. 2:6-8; see also Col. 2:9).

The New Testament reveals the deity of Christ in numerous ways. We are to honor the Son just as we honor the Father (John 5:23). This means worshiping Christ along with all of the angels and redeemed peoples of the world (Heb. 1:6; Rev. 5:14), praying to Christ (John 14:14; Rom. 10:12-13; 2 Cor. 12:8-9; Rev. 22:20-21), and showing him the same “fear of the Lord” as the Old Testament says we should show toward Yahweh (Eph. 5:21; 1 Peter 3:14-16; see Prov. 1:7; Isa. 8:12-13). He is eternal or uncreated (John 17:5; Heb. 7:3), immutable or unchanging in his divine nature (Heb. 1:10-12), omnipresent (Matt. 18:20; 28:20; Eph. 4:10-11), and possesses all of the other attributes of God (Col. 2:9; Heb. 1:3). He is the King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev. 17:14; 19:16; see Deut. 10:17; Psa. 136:2-3) and the Savior of the world (John 4:42; Titus 2:13; 2 Peter 1:11; 1 John 4:14). He speaks with divine authority (Matt. 24:35; Luke 4:32; John 4:26), so that his word is the “word of the Lord” (Acts 8:25; 13:44, 48-49; 1 Thess. 4:15). He forgives sinners of all their sins (Matt. 9:1-8; Acts 5:31; Col. 3:13). Along with the Father, Christ the Son is the source of all spiritual blessings (Eph. 1:2-3; 1 Tim. 1:2; 2 John 2; Rev. 1:4). He sits on the very throne of God, ruling forever over all creation (Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:19-22; Heb. 1:2-3, 8; Rev. 22:1, 3). When all of these aspects of New Testament teaching are considered together, the conclusion that the authors considered Jesus Christ to be God is overwhelming.17

The idea that Jesus is God clearly did not come from pagan religion. It came from the Bible.

3. The Holy Spirit is a divine person distinct from the Father and the Son.

Just as there is very little in the Old Testament that refers explicitly to the Son as a divine person distinct from the Father, there is also very little if anything in the Old Testament that reveals the Holy Spirit to be a distinct divine person. In fact, the Old Testament has relatively little to say about the Spirit as compared to the New Testament. There are less than a hundred references to the Spirit in the whole Old Testament, whereas in the much shorter New Testament there are roughly 270 references to the Spirit. Most likely, the Old Testament did not speak clearly about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as distinct persons because its focus was on teaching Israel to believe in and worship the one God who made and rules the world, a notion that cut across the grain of their polytheistic civilization.

Although Jesus spoke about the Holy Spirit during his public ministry (e.g., Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10, 12), he waited until the Last Supper to speak in explicit terms about the Holy Spirit as someone distinct from himself and the Father. On that occasion, the night before his death, Jesus spoke at length to his disciples in a speech found in John 13-17 that scholars describe as his “farewell discourse.”18 In such a discourse, the speaker gathers with those he is about to leave behind, explaining that he is about to leave them, exhorting them to continue following his instructions and example, and offering them assurances about their future after his departure. This is exactly what Jesus does in John 13-17. The best example of such a farewell discourse in the Old Testament is the Book of Deuteronomy, in which Moses informed Israel that they were about to enter the land and that he would not be able to enter it with them.

The common feature of many ancient farewell discourses of importance here is that the speaker typically named a successor, someone who would pick up where he left off as a teacher, leader, or ruler. In the case of Deuteronomy, Moses named Joshua as his successor (see especially Deut. 31:1-8). In John 13-17, Jesus named the Holy Spirit as his “successor,” as it were:

“Then I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it does not see him or know him. But you know him, because he resides with you and will be in you” (John 14:15-16 NET).

The word translated here as “Advocate” (also in the NIV, NLT, NRSV, etc.; see also 1 John 2:1 in most English versions) is also translated in other versions as “Comforter” (KJV) or “Helper” (ESV, NASB). The Greek word paraklētos was a personal noun that generally referred to someone who advocated or interceded for a person in need by testifying on that needy person’s behalf, either in a legal setting or more broadly by approaching a wealthy or powerful patron whose help was needed.19 Jesus refers to the Spirit as “another Advocate,” implicitly referring to himself as an Advocate (as in 1 John 2:1) whose place will be taken by this second Advocate. The clear point here is that the Spirit is someone—a divine person other than Jesus who will come in Jesus’ place. The Spirit in this passage is not an impersonal force like electricity, but a divine person like Jesus.

Jesus goes on in the Upper Room Discourse to speak about the Holy Spirit in ways closely paralleling what the Gospel of John says about Jesus. God “gave” his Son (John 3:16) and “will give” the Spirit (14:16), The Son was “with” his disciples (14:9) and after he left the Spirit would be “with” them (14:16). The world did not “know” the Son but his followers did (16:3; 17:3); the world would not “know” the Spirit but Jesus’ followers would (14:17). The Son is the Truth (14:6); the Spirit is the Spirit of the Truth (14:17; 15:26; 16:13). The Father “sent” the Son (14:24; 15:21; 16:5); the Father and the Son would “send” the Spirit (14:26; 15:26; 16:7). The Son came in the Father’s name (5:43); the Spirit would come in the Son’s name (14:26). The Son and the Spirit both came “from the Father” (15:26; 16:28). The Son “taught” the disciples (6:59; 7:14, 28); the Spirit “will teach” them (14:26). The Son “testifies” (13:21); the Holy Spirit “testifies” to the Son (15:26). The Son did not speak or act “on his own” (5:19; 7:18); the Holy Spirit would also not speak “on his own” (16:13). The Son came to “glorify” the Father (14:13; 15:8; 17:1, 4); the Holy Spirit would come to “glorify” the Son (16:14). Thus, Jesus taught that the Spirit would come in his stead and perform personal functions comparable to the things Jesus himself did while he was physically present with his disciples.

We see Jesus’ teaching about the coming of the Holy Spirit fulfilled in the Book of Acts. Just before he ascended, Jesus told his disciples that they would receive power to be his witnesses when the Holy Spirit came upon them (Acts 1:8). When the Jewish authorities challenged Peter for preaching about Jesus, Peter told them, “And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit that God has given to those who obey him” (5:32). This is precisely what Jesus said the Holy Spirit would do with the disciples (John 15:26-27). Luke reports on several occasions that the Spirit spoke to the disciples (Acts 8:29; 10:19-20; 13:2, 4; 21:11). Especially noteworthy here is that the Spirit speaks in the first person when he says, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (13:2; see also 10:20). Throughout the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit is presented as an active, personal participant in the ministry of the apostles and their associates, directing the mission, calling people into service, and guiding the apostles’ decision making (see especially 15:28; 16:6-7; 20:28).

This person called the Spirit or the Holy Spirit is not a semi-divine being, separate from or inferior to God. Rather, the Holy Spirit is himself God (e.g., Acts 5:3-4). Thus, the New Testament teaches that the Holy Spirit is a third divine person, alongside the Father and the Son, and yet that there is only one God.20

4. The Christianity of the New Testament is Trinitarian in structure.

As every Jehovah’s Witness knows, the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible. However, the idea arises from everything that the Bible, especially in the New Testament, says about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We see this not just in various passages that talk about the deity of Christ or the person of the Holy Spirit, but in a pervasive pattern throughout the New Testament in which the three persons are presented alongside one another as divine. There are too many examples to list them all here; we will look at just a few of the more telling.

After his resurrection, Jesus commissioned his disciples to take the gospel to all nations, telling them to baptize people “into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught that this statement means that people are to be baptized in the name of Jehovah the Almighty, his first created angelic son, and his invisible active force. This highly implausible interpretation completely breaks down with regard to the Holy Spirit, whom the Watchtower denies is even a person. The text makes much more sense as meaning that new disciples are to be baptized in the name of the three divine persons called the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Two passages from Paul’s writings, out of the many that could be highlighted, are especially important to notice:

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.
And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord.
There are varieties of activities, but the same God who works all things in all.”
(1 Cor. 12:4-6)

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,
and the love of God,
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.”
(2 Cor. 13:14)

In both of these passages, divine blessings are said to come from God (the Father), the Lord (Jesus Christ), and the (Holy) Spirit. The order in which the three are named doesn’t even seem particularly important. In 2 Corinthians 13:14, Paul has evidently written an explicitly Christian version of the famous priestly benediction in the Old Testament:

“The Lord [Yahweh] bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”
(Numbers 6:24-26)

The apostle Peter in his first epistle invokes the names of all three divine persons in his salutation:

“…elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father,
in the sanctification of the Spirit,
for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace be multiplied.”
(1 Peter 1:2)

These are just a handful of the dozens of passages in which this threefold pattern of God—Christ—Spirit or Father—Son—Holy Spirit appears (for a few more good examples, see Matt. 1:18-23; Luke 1:35; Luke 3:21-22; John 14:26; Acts 2:33; Rom. 8:9-11; Gal. 4:4-6; Eph. 1:3-14; 4:4-6; Titus 3:4-6; Heb. 2:3-4; Jude 20-21; Rev. 1:4-5). These many passages confirm that the deity of Christ and the divine personhood of the Holy Spirit are not ideas mistakenly read into isolated proof texts but aspects of the New Testament’s pattern of belief.21

Conclusion

The doctrine of the Trinity is not a pagan doctrine in any sense. No pagan religion ever taught any doctrine that even resembles the doctrine of the Trinity except in the most superficial manner. The church fathers who developed the formal, systematic doctrine of the Trinity from the second to the fourth centuries were Christians, in some instances eventual martyrs for their faith, who were zealously seeking to uphold the teachings of Christ and the apostles in the New Testament. In formulating the doctrine of the Trinity, the early church established a view of God that was radically opposed to Greek philosophical notions about the divine. In doing so, they naturally used language and categories of their Hellenistic culture to express what the New Testament teaches. They could not do otherwise, just as we cannot avoid speaking in modern Western cultural terms (such as “relationships” or “individuals”) when explaining what we understand the Bible to teach on this subject. Far from being a pagan doctrine, the Trinity is the distinctively Christian conception of God as he has revealed himself in the New Testament in the persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

 

NOTES


1. Reasoning from the Scriptures (Watchtower, 1995), 204.

2. Real Faith—Your Key to a Happy Life (Watchtower, 2010), 24.

3. “Do You Appreciate Our Special Heritage?” Watchtower, 15 Feb. 2013, 9.

4. “Should You Believe in the Trinity?” Awake! Aug. 13, 2013, 12.

5. “True Christians Respect God’s Word,” Watchtower, 15 Jan. 2012, 5-6.

6. “Do You Appreciate Our Special Heritage?” Watchtower, 15 Feb. 2013, 9; the substance of this material is repeated later in the study question-and-answer part of the article (11).

7. We explain biblically why this identification of Jesus Christ as Michael the archangel is incorrect in part 8 of this series, “Is Jesus Michael the Archangel?

8. I have discussed several examples in a series of recent articles: “S. H. Hooke: A Sumerian or Babylonian Trinity?” (2014); “Levi Paine and the Evolution of Trinitarianism” (2014); and “Lyman Abbott’s Dictionary on the Trinity” (2017). These articles, among others, can be found at “Scholarly Sources Quoted Out of Content on the Doctrine of the Trinity” (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research). I considered additional examples in an earlier work, Why You Should Believe in the Trinity: An Answer to Jehovah’s Witnesses (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989).

9. “Fate,” in Reasoning from the Scriptures (Watchtower, 1995), 144–45, quoting Encyclopaedia Britannica (1911), 2:796.

10. Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity,” in Biblical and Theological Studies, ed. Samuel G. Craig (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1968), 23 (22–59). This essay was originally published in 1915.

11. “The Paradox of Tertullian,” Watchtower, May 15, 2002, 31.

12. Harold O. J. Brown, Heresies: The Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 146. The book was later published with the title Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1988).

13. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word 56, trans. Archibald Robertson, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature, 1892), 4:66.

14. Some readers may be interested in the author’s multi-page resource, “The Biblical Basis of the Doctrine of the Trinity: An Outline Study” (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2011).

15. See Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Was the Name Jehovah Originally Used in the New Testament?” Answers to Jehovah’s Witnesses #5 (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2017).

16. This is quoted from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament with which Paul and other New Testament writers frequently quoted.

17. For a full treatment of this subject, see Robert M. Bowman Jr. and J. Ed Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007).

18. Of the many works that discuss this point, a noteworthy study is John Carlson Stube, A Graeco-Roman Rhetorical Reading of the Farewell Discourse, Library of Biblical Studies (London: T & T Clark, 2006).

19. Antony Billington, “The Paraclete and Mission in the Fourth Gospel,” in Mission and Meaning: Essays Presented to Peter Cotterell, ed. Antony Billington, Tony Lane, and Max Turner (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1995), 90–115; Tricia Gates Brown, Spirit in the Writings of John: Johannine Pneumatology in Social-scientific Perspective, JSNTSup 253 (London:  T&T Clark International, 2003), 23–61.

20. For a much more detailed study on this subject, see Robert M. Bowman Jr., “The Personhood of the Holy Spirit in John and Acts: A Narrative Approach” (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2014).

21. See further Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Triadic New Testament Passages and the Doctrine of the Trinity.” Journal of Trinitarian Studies and Apologetics 1 (Jan. 2013): 7-54.