Welcome everyone to Deeper Waters where we are diving into the ocean of truth. We’ve been going through the Watchtower booklet known as “Should You Believe In The Trinity?” Right now, we’re dealing with what the early church fathers said. Today, we’re going to be looking at Tertullian.
Our look begins with what the Watchtower says:
Tertullian, who died about 230 C.E., taught the supremacy of God. He observed: “The Father is different from the Son (another), as he is greater; as he who begets is different from him who is begotten; he who sends, different from him who is sent.” He also said: “There was a time when the Son was not. . . . Before all things, God was alone.”
Both of these quotes exist. Let’s look in Chapter 9 of against Praxeus for the first:
Bear always in mind that this is the rule of faith which I profess; by it I testify that the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit are inseparable from each other, and so will you know in what sense this is said. Now, observe, my assertion is that the Father is one, and the Son one, and the Spirit one, and that They are distinct from Each Other. This statement is taken in a wrong sense by every uneducated as well as every perversely disposed person, as if it predicated a diversity, in such a sense as to imply a separation among the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit. I am, moreover, obliged to say this, when (extolling the Monarchy at the expense of the Economy) they contend for the identity of the Father and Son and Spirit, that it is not by way of diversity that the Son differs from the Father, but by distribution: it is not by division that He is different, but by distinction; because the Father is not the same as the Son, since they differ one from the other in the mode of their being. For the Father is the entire substance, but the Son is a derivation and portion of the whole,x as He Himself acknowledges: “My Father is greater than I.” In the Psalm His inferiority is described as being “a little lower than the angels.” Thus the Father is distinct from the Son, being greater than the Son, inasmuch as He who begets is one, and He who is begotten is another; He, too, who sends is one, and He who is sent is another; and He, again, who makes is one, and He through whom the thing is made is another.
But what is this about? It is about the idea of modalism. This was the belief that the Father, Son, and Spirit were identical in person. Here is what Tertullian said in the second chapter of the same book:
Him we believe to have been sent by the Father into the Virgin, and to have been born of her — being both Man and God, the Son of Man and the Son of God, and to have been called by the name of Jesus Christ; we believe Him to have suffered, died, and been buried, according to the Scriptures, and, after He had been raised again by the Father and taken back to heaven, to be sitting at the right hand of the Father, and that He will come to judge the quick and the dead; who sent also from heaven from the Father, according to His own promise, the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, the sanctifier of the faith of those who believe in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost.
As if in this way also one were not All, in that All are of One, by unity (that is) of substance; while the mystery of the dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three Persons — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God, from whom these degrees and forms and aspects are reckoned, under the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. How they are susceptible of number without division, will be shown as our treatise proceeds.
Tertullian is in fact writing out a defense of the Trinity. Now there are still some ideas to be worked out, but we see the formation of the doctrine coming along. It could be that Tertullian is wrong in what he taught, but we cannot be wrong in saying that he taught it.
In fact, Tertullian even says in the third chapter that he and fellow Christians are often accused of worshiping three gods. Anyone who has dialogued with JWs knows that they often present the Trinity as if it was a triad, which seems to be the exact same idea that Tertullian was having to argue against in his day!
What about the other? It’s in chapter 3 of Against Hermogenes:
He adds also another point: that as God was always God, there was never a time when God was not also Lord. But it was in no way possible for Him to be regarded as always Lord, in the same manner as He had been always God, if there had not been always, in the previous eternity, a something of which He could be regarded as evermore the Lord. So he concludes that God always had Matter co-existent with Himself as the Lord thereof. Now, this tissue of his I shall at once hasten to pull abroad. I have been willing to set it out in form to this length, for the information of those who are unacquainted with the subject, that they may know that his other arguments likewise need only be understood to be refuted. We affirm, then, that the name of God always existed with Himself and in Himself–but not eternally so the Lord. Because the condition of the one is not the same as that of the other. God is the designation of the substance itself, that is, of the Divinity; but Lord is (the name) not of substance, but of power. I maintain that the substance existed always with its own name, which is God; the title Lord was afterwards added, as the indication indeed of something accruing. For from the moment when those things began to exist, over which the power of a Lord was to act, God, by the accession of that power, both became Lord and received the name thereof. Because God is in like manner a Father, and He is also a Judge; but He has not always been Father and Judge, merely on the ground of His having always been God. For He could not have been the Father previous to the Son, nor a Judge previous to sin. There was, however, a time when neither sin existed with Him, nor the Son; the former of which was to constitute the Lord a Judge, and the latter a Father. In this way He was not Lord previous to those things of which He was to be the Lord. But He was only to become Lord at some future time: just as He became the Father by the Son, and a Judge by sin, so also did He become Lord by means of those things which He had made, in order that they might serve Him. Do I seem to you to be weaving arguments,
Tertullian is not talking about existence here but titles. The Son did not always exist as Son for Tertullian. That does not mean I agree, but let us be clear on his position. He is saying the Father is not always Lord for there was not always something for him to be Lord over, and with that I agree. This does not constitute a change in the substance of God but a change of relation.
We see Tertullian’s Trinitarianism again however in response in chapter 25 of Against Praxeus:
Thus the connection of the Father in the Son, and of the Son in the Paraclete, produces three coherent Persons, who are yet distinct One from Another. These Three are, one essence, not one Person, as it is said, “I and my Father are One,” in respect of] unity of substance not singularity of number
And in Chapter 27:
But the truth is, we find that He is expressly set forth as both God and Man; the very psalm which we have quoted intimating (of the flesh), that “God became Man in the midst of it, He therefore established it by the will of the Father,” — certainly in all respects as the Son of God and the Son of Man, being God and Man, differing no doubt according to each substance in its own especial property, inasmuch as the Word is nothing else but God, and the flesh nothing else but Man. Thus does the apostle also teach respecting His two substances, saying, “who was made of the seed of David;” in which words He will be Man and Son of Man. “Who was declared to be the Son of God, according to the Spirit;” in which words He will be God, and the Word — the Son of God. We see plainly the twofold state, which is not confounded, but conjoined in One Person — Jesus, God and Man.
I conclude that while there are some statements that can be seen as problematic, there are many more that are much harder for the Witnesses to explain. While we may not agree with all Tertullian said in this regard, we can be sure that he would not be on the side of the Watchtower today.
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