Is the Trinity a pagan doctrine?
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.
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.5
The Watchtower doctrine summarized above consists of the following beliefs:
- 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.
- 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.6 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.
- 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.7
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.8
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.9
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.”10
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.11
The doctrine of the Trinity encompasses a great deal of the subject matter of the Bible. We have already dealt with much of the relevant subject matter in our earlier articles on Christ and the Holy Spirit. We will only be giving a brief overview here.12
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).
Jehovah’s Witnesses actually deny this biblical understanding of monotheism in their doctrine of Christ by claiming that he was a created angel who created everything else.
2. The Son, who became the man Jesus Christ, is himself eternal God.
We have already given quite a bit of attention to the Watchtower’s doctrine about the person of Christ, as we should considering the centrality of Christ to the New Testament. The Watchtower erroneously teaches that Christ was God’s first creature and the only creature that God made directly or immediately. After he made Christ, Jehovah supposedly empowered and instructed him to make the rest of creation as Jehovah’s assistant. We examined the biblical texts that the Watchtower misuses to support this doctrine and showed that the Bible teaches no such thing. We also explained why it is erroneous to identify Jesus as Michael the archangel.
We also showed in another article that the New Testament repeatedly refers 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) and as “Lord,” meaning Yahweh or Jehovah (e.g., Mark 1:3; Rom. 10:9-13; 1 Cor. 8:6; Phil. 2:9-11; 1 Peter 2:3; 3:13-15). For example, Paul writes:
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.
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.
As we saw in our article on the Holy Spirit, the New Testament provides a much richer revelation of the Holy Spirit. Just before his crucifixion, Jesus himself revealed to his disciples the existence of the Holy Spirit as a distinct divine person like himself (John 14–16). His promise concerning the coming of the Holy Spirit was fulfilled in the early church as reported in the Book of Acts (e.g., Acts 1:8; 5:32; 8:29; 10:19-20; 13:1-4; 15:28; 16:6-7; 20:28; 21:11).
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.13
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.”
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.14
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.
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. “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. 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).
8. “Fate,” in Reasoning from the Scriptures (Watchtower, 1995), 144–45, quoting Encyclopaedia Britannica (1911), 2:796.
9. 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.
10. “The Paradox of Tertullian,” Watchtower, May 15, 2002, 31.
11. 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).
12. 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).
13. 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).
14. 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.