Hippolytus and the Watchtower

by Luke Wayne
5/13/16

The Watchtower publication “Should You Believe in the Trinity?" makes the claim that the early church father named Hippolytus did not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity. The paragraph reads:

"Hippolytus, who died about 235 C.E., said that God is 'the one God, the first and the only One, the Maker and Lord of all,' who, 'had nothing co-eval (of equal age) with him...But he was One, alone by himself; who, willing it, called into being what had no being before.' such as the created prehuman Jesus."

It should be immediately noted that the last phrase "such as the created prehuman Jesus" is not part of the actual quote from Hippolytus, but is rather an interpretation added after the quote by the Watchtower authors. The actual quotes they offer simply explain that there is only one eternal God, that nothing is eternal with Him, and that He made all things out of nothing. This is completely consistent with the doctrine of the Trinity, which plainly states that there is only one God who created all things and that this one being that is God eternally existed in three distinct persons. The doctrine of the Trinity is not a doctrine of three Gods or God and two other eternal beings, but of one eternal God who exists as one being in three persons. Nothing in the actual quotes from Hippolytus above contradicts this. The Watchtower writers seem to simply assume that Jesus is a created being and then to force that into a quote that says nothing of the kind.

Affirmations of the Trinity

In Hippolytus work "Against the Heresy of one Noetus" he is writing to address the doctrine of a false teacher who had been spreading a form of modalism, or the mistaken idea that Jesus is the same person as the Father, that the Father came down and died on the cross, etc. Rejecting this error, Hippolytus corrects him, explaining:

"We accordingly see the Word incarnate, and we know the Father by Him, and we worship the Holy Spirit"1

He goes on to elaborate:

"These things, brethren, are declared by the scriptures. And the Blessed John, in the Testimony of his Gospel, gives us an account of this economy and acknowledges this Word as God when he says, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God." If, then, the Word was with God and was also God, what follows? Would one say that he speaks of two gods? I shall not indeed speak of two gods, but of one; of two persons, however, and of a third; the grace of the Holy Ghost. For the Father indeed is one, but there are two persons, for there is also the Son; and then there is the third, the Holy Spirit. The Father decrees, the Word executes and the Son is manifested, through whom the Father is believed on. The economy of harmony is led back to one God, for God is one. It is the Father who commands, and the Son who obeys, and the Holy Spirit who gives understanding: The father is above all, the Son is through all, and the Spirit is in all. And we cannot otherwise think of one God but by believing in the truth of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit"2

Indeed, as one reads this work through, it is plainly explained multiple times that Hippolytus believes that God is a Trinity, and believes it on the basis of Scripture. He also declares in his concluding remarks of his larger work, "The Refutation of All Heresies" that:

"For Christ is the God above all, and He has arranged to wash away sin from human beings, rendering regenerate the old man"3

Was the Word "Brought Forth First?"

In all fairness and honesty, however, Hippolytus may not have been a fully consistent Trinitarian. There is one difficult passage that must be acknowledged and dealt with openly:

"Therefore this solitary and supreme Deity, by an exercise of reflection, brought forth the Logos (word) first; not the word in the sense of being articulated by voice, but as a ratiocination of the universe, conceived and residing in the divine mind. Him alone He produced from existing things; for the Father Himself constituted existence, and the being born from Him was the cause of all things that are produced. The Logos was in the Father Himself, bearing the will of His progenitor, and not being unacquainted with the mind of the Father. For simultaneously with His procession from His Progenitor, inasmuch as He is this Progenitor’s first-born, He has, as a voice in Himself, the ideas conceived in the Father. And so it was, that when the Father ordered the world to come into existence, the Logos one by one completed each object of creation, thus pleasing God."4

He goes on to explain about the Word, or Logos, that:

"The Logos alone of this God is from God himself; wherefore also the Logos is God, being the substance of God. Now the world was made from nothing; wherefore it is not God"5

While Hippolytus' writings against Noetus were arguing from Scripture and were clear and straightforward, here he is being more philosophical and can be more difficult to understand. It is clear that he is saying that, unlike all the created things that God brought into existence out of nothing, the Logos comes forth from and shares in God's own mind and substance. The Word is the same essence or being as God Himself. But the language at least sounds like it is saying that the Word did not always exist distinctly as the Word. It is possible that Hippolytus is suggesting that God chose to become a Trinity prior to creation, but had not eternally been so. If this is how we are to understand Hippolytus' words, then it seems that Hippolytus deviated from his own teacher, Irenaeus, and from other prominent Christian teachers before him like Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria, all of whom taught that God had eternally been a Trinity. This would give us no reason to doubt the Trinity. It would simply show us a place where Hippolytus was in error.

Hippolytus may, however, have meant something different. He may not have been talking about a chronological beginning of the Word, but rather attempting to describe the relationship between the Word and the Father in terms that would have made sense to the hearers in his day but are more difficult for us now. Formulations of the doctrine of the Trinity after Hippolytus' time would often speak of the Son as "eternally generated," "eternally begotten," and "begotten, not made." The idea is this: while the Son and the Father have always existed together, there is a both logical and personal relationship between them in which the Son has always, so to speak, come forth from the Father. It is in the eternal nature of the Father that He begets the Son, and in the eternal nature of the Son that He is begotten of the Father. The Son is the divine Word that has always been spoken. He is forever brought forth from God the Father. This relationship of Father and Son, Speaker and Word, Sender and Sent, One revealing and One revealed; this relationship is eternal. It has always been in the very substance and nature of God before anything outside of God was ever brought into existence, even time itself. If this is what Hippolytus meant, and many scholars have understood him to have meant this,6 then even here he was upholding the doctrine of the Trinity.

Either way, even if Hippolytus accepted an error that was not held by any Christians before him and believed that God became the Trinity at some point in time, he clearly arrived at this mistake for philosophical rather than biblical reasons. His biblical arguments point plainly and unanimously to the historic Christian understanding that the one and only true God exists in three distinct persons. Hippolytus is just one more early testimony, even if an imperfect testimony, that the doctrine of the Trinity is biblical.

  • 1. Hippolytus, "Against the Heresy of one Noetus" section 12
  • 2. Hippolytus, "Against the Heresy of one Noetus" section 14
  • 3. Hippolytus, "The Refutation of All Heresies" Book 10, Chapter 30
  • 4. Hippolytus, "The Refutation of All Heresies" Book 10, chapter 29
  • 5. Hippolytus, "The Refutation of All Heresies" Book 10, Chapter 29
  • 6. Roberts, Alexander, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds. The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Novatian, Appendix. Vol. 5. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886) 161