Irenaeus and the Watchtower

by Luke Wayne

The Jehovah's Witness brochure “Should You Believe in the Trinity?" claims that the early Christian writer Irenaeus did not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity.  The paragraph reads:

"Irenaeus, who died about 200 C.E., said that the pre-human Jesus had a separate existence from God and was inferior to him.  He showed that Jesus is not equal to the 'One true and only God,' who is 'supreme over all, and besides whom there is no other.'"1

Most of this paragraph is mere assertion. They simply tell you that Irenaeus said these things about Jesus without quoting him or telling you where he is supposed to have said them. The few quotes they do offer, namely the phrases "One true and only God" and "supreme over all, and besides whom there is no other" are uncontroversial. The biblical doctrine of the Trinity is clear that there is one and only one true and living God, and that besides the one true God there is no other, and that He is supreme over all. There is nothing that contradicts this in the biblical claim that the one and only being that is God has eternally and uniquely existed in three distinct persons. In fact, this is what Irenaeus himself believed.

In his primary work, "Against Heresies," Irenaeus wrote:

"There is one God, the Creator—He who is above every Principality, and Power, and Dominion, and Virtue: He is Father, He is God, He the Founder, He the Maker, He the Creator, who made those things by Himself, that is, through His Word and His Wisdom"2

Note that God's "Word and Wisdom" are synonymous with "Himself" and are distinct from creation. We see this explained later in the same section when Irenaeus writes of the Word:

"His Word, who is His Son, through Him He is revealed and manifested to all to whom He is revealed; for those only know Him to whom the Son has revealed Him. But the Son, eternally co-existing with the Father, from of old, yea, from the beginning, always reveals the Father to Angels, Archangels, Powers, Virtues, and all to whom He wills that God should be revealed."3

The Word is the Son. He has eternally existed with the Father and makes the Father known even to archangels, the category of being to which the Jehovah's Witnesses wish to diminish the Word. There is only one God. God made all things by Himself through His eternal Word, not through the agency of any created being. Irenaeus doesn't stop there, however. He also writes later in the same work:

"I have also largely demonstrated that the Word, namely the Son, was always with the Father; and that Wisdom also, which is the Spirit, was present with Him before all creation"4

So there is one God, and before all creation, this God was Father, Word, and Wisdom. The Word is the Son, and Wisdom is the Spirit. Therefore, God was eternally Father, Son, and Spirit. These three are distinct from one another and have their respective roles, but they are one and only one God. This is the doctrine of the Trinity. Despite the Watchtower assertions to the contrary, Irenaeus is just one of many ancient Christians whose writings testify that the earliest churches believed and taught this biblical doctrine.

  • 1. Should You Believe in the Trinity (Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, 1989) 7
  • 2. Irenaeus, "Against Heresies," Book 2, XXX, 9
  • 3. Irenaeus, "Against Heresies," Book 2, XXX, 9
  • 4. Irenaeus, "Against Heresies," Book 5, XX, 3