Origen and the Watchtower

Luke Wayne
4/7/17

In the Jehovah's Witness publication "Should You Believe in the Trinity?" they have a section on the Ante-Nicene Fathers, or the early church leaders prior to the council of Nicaea in 325 AD. The publication attempts to argue that various ancient church writers contradicted Jesus' divinity. Among them was a third-century Alexandrian philosopher named Origen. About him they say:

"Origen, who died about 250 C.E., said that 'the Father and Son are two substances...two things as to their essence," and that "compared to the Father, [the Son] is a very small light."1

Interestingly, another Jehovah's Witness publication asserts that:

"By mixing Bible teachings with Greek Philosophy, Origen's theology became littered with error, and the consequences were disastrous for Christendom,"2

This assessment makes Origen an odd choice for them to turn to for a testimony of what we should believe about Jesus. Indeed, they ironically also credit Origen with helping to, "lay the foundation for the unbiblical doctrine of the Trinity."3 So, depending on which Jehovah's Witness publication you read, Origen is either an early voice against the Trinity or he is one of its architects! Let's take a look at what he actually said:

Two Substances? Two things in Essence?

The first reference the Jehovah's Witnesses appeal to in their supposed refutation of the deity of Christ is:

"the Father and Son are two substances...two things as to their essence."

While they offer no citations for where this quote allegedly comes from, Origen does make reference to Jesus' relationship to the substance and essence of the Father in his work "First Principles." He writes:

"We do not say, as the heretics suppose, that some part of the substance of God was converted into the Son, or that the Son was procreated by the Father out of things non-existent, i.e., beyond His own substance, so that there once was a time when He did not exist," (Origen, De Principiis, Book 4, Section 27).

Here Origen says that the Son is not formed from a mere piece of God's substance, nor is He a creation made entirely outside of God's substance. If He is not a separate substance from God and is not merely a piece of God's substance, then Origen can only be saying that the Son is wholly of one substance with the Father. Indeed, He goes on to say in the same section:

"How, then, can it be asserted that there once was a time when He was not the Son? For that is nothing else than to say that there was once a time when He was not the Truth, nor the Wisdom, nor the Life, although in all these He is judged to be the perfect essence of God the Father; for these things cannot be severed from Him, or even be separated from His essence."

The Son is eternal, without beginning, and is the essence of the Father. Origen did not say they were two substances or two essences, but one. He said precisely the opposite of what the Watchtower asserts. Origen similarly said:

"What belongs to the nature of deity is common to the Father and the Son," (Origen, De Principiis, Book 1, Chapter 1, Section 8).

And:

"The omnipotence of Father and Son is one and the same, as God and the Lord are one and the same," (Origen, De Principiis, Book 1, Chapter 2, Section 10).

Going on to explain:

"God is the Father. The Savior is also God; so also, since the Father is called omnipotent, no one ought to be offended that the Son of God is also called omnipotent," (Origen, De Principiis, Book 1, Chapter 2, Section 10).

Origen also compares the Son's relationship to the Father to one's own reflection in a mirror. The reflection is not an image of you because it is very much like you or chooses to imitate you. Rather, the reflection is your image because it does exactly what you do. It does so because it is you. It is a projection of your very being. The reflection's motions really are your motions. It is not merely a close copy or a good imitation. The reflection is you visibly present in another location. Origen explains that:

"the work of the Son is not a different thing from that of the Father, but one and the same movement."4

He further expounds that:

"There is no dissimilarity whatever between the Son and the Father.  How, indeed, can those things which are said by some to be done after the manner in which a disciple resembles or imitates his master, or according to the view that those things are made by the Son in bodily material which were first formed by the Father in their spiritual essence, agree with the declarations of Scripture, seeing in the Gospel the Son is said to do not similar things, but the same things," (Origen, De Principiis, Book 1, Chapter 2, Section 12).

In other words, Jesus doesn't "do what the Father does" the way a disciple imitates His master, nor does He merely do physically what the Father has already done or commanded spiritually. Rather, Jesus action really is the Father's action! Indeed, Origen plainly identifies Jesus as the God of the Old Testament who sent the prophets, saying that He:

"before that appearance of His which He manifested in the body, sent the prophets as His forerunners, and the messengers of His advent; and after His ascension into heaven, made His holy apostles, men ignorant and unlearned, taken from the ranks of tax-gatherers or fishermen, but who were filled with the power of His divinity, to itinerate throughout the world, that they might gather together out of every race and every nation a multitude of devout believers in Himself," (Origen, De Principiis, Book 2, Chapter 6, Section 1).

The Son and the Father are one in essence and Being. They are both Jehovah God, and there is but one Jehovah God.

A small light?

The second reference that the Watchtower publication uses to bolster their claim that Origen denied the deity of Christ is:

"compared to the Father, [the Son] is a very small light,"

This appears to be a paraphrase taken from Origen's book, "Against Celsus," where he writes:

"Those, indeed, who worship sun, moon, and stars because their light is visible and celestial, would not bow down to a spark of fire or a lamp upon earth, because they see the incomparable superiority of those objects which are deemed worthy of homage to the light of sparks and lamps.  So those who understand that God is light, and who have apprehended that the Son of God is “the true light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world,” and who comprehend also how He says, “I am the light of the world,” would not rationally offer worship to that which is, as it were, a spark in sun, moon, and stars, in comparison with God, who is light of the true light," (Origen, Against Celsus, Book 5, Chapter 11).

The Watchtower authors have misunderstood Origen's point. He is saying that those who worship the sun, moon, and stars are worshiping tiny, insignificant lights compared to the true, glorious light of the Father and the Son. Origen goes on immediately to say:

"we perceive the inexpressible superiority of the divinity of God, and that of His only-begotten Son, which surpasses all other things."

And concludes the section by urging the pagans to turn from worshiping the stars and instead:

"pray to the Word of God (who is able to heal him), and to His Father, who also to the righteous of former times 'sent His word, and healed them, and delivered them from their destructions.'”

Again, we are to pray to the Son (the Word) as well as the Father. The singular divinity of the Father and the Son surpasses all things. This passage is affirming rather than denying the deity of Christ.

God's Living Wisdom

In Origen's typical imaginative and acontextual approach to applying unrelated Scriptures to his discussions, he allegorically applies Proverbs 8:22-25 to Jesus,5 just as a Jehovah's witness would do. However, he immediately goes on to explain:

"And who that is capable of entertaining reverential thoughts or feelings regarding God, can suppose or believe that God the Father ever existed, even for a moment of time, without having generated this Wisdom?  For in that case he must say either that God was unable to generate Wisdom before He produced her, so that He afterwards called into being her who formerly did not exist, or that He possessed the power indeed, but—what cannot be said of God without impiety—was unwilling to use it; both of which suppositions, it is patent to all, are alike absurd and impious," (Origen, De Principiis, Book 1, Chapter 2, Section 2).

He also remarks:

"John, however, with more sublimity and propriety, says in the beginning of his Gospel, when defining God by a special definition to be the Word, 'And the Word was God, and this was in the beginning with God.'  Let him, then, who assigns a beginning to the Word or Wisdom of God, take care that he be not guilty of impiety against the unbegotten Father Himself, seeing he denies that He had always been a Father, and had the Word, and had possessed wisdom in all preceding periods, whether they be called times or ages, or anything else that can be so entitled," (Origen, De Principiis, Book 1, Chapter 2, Section 3).

So, while Origen (treating the text as an allegory) identifies Jesus as the "wisdom" figure in the book of Proverbs, he is clear that this symbolic connection cannot be stretched to imply that Christ is a created being any more than one would say that God once did not have wisdom and only later acquired it. He also asserts that Christ is "without any beginning,"6 and was "never at any time non-existent."7. He explains:

"That is properly termed everlasting or eternal which neither had a beginning of existence, nor can ever cease to be what it is.  And this is the idea conveyed by John when he says that 'God is light.'  Now His wisdom is the splendor of that light, not only in respect of its being light, but also of being everlasting light, so that His wisdom is eternal and everlasting splendor.  If this be fully understood, it clearly shows that the existence of the Son is derived from the Father but not in time, nor from any other beginning, except, as we have said, from God Himself," (Origen, De Principiis, Book 1, Chapter 2, Section 11).

To Origen, Jesus is, in a figurative sense, "brought forth," by the Father, but one has to understand this as meaning that the Son has eternally "come forth" or derived His nature and being from the Father. The Son has always existed, and the Father has forever begotten Him. Speaking of the Father, Son, and Spirit together, Origen notes:

"When we use, indeed, such terms as “always” or “was,” or any other designation of time, they are not to be taken absolutely, but with due allowance; for while the significations of these words relate to time, and those subjects of which we speak are spoken of by a stretch of language as existing in time, they nevertheless surpass in their real nature all conception of the finite understanding," (Origen, De Principiis, Book 1, Chapter 3, Section 4).

Origen saw the Father, Son, and Spirit (and their relationship to one another) as surpassing time and beyond linguistic expression.

Origen and the Trinity

Origen also understood the Holy Spirit to be a person, not a mere force or essence. He said, for example:

"The Holy Spirit is an intellectual existence and subsists and exists in a peculiar manner," (Origen, De Principiis, Book 1, Chapter 1, Section 3).

Origen speaks of the Holy Spirit as an eternal, divine person alongside the Father and Son, and believed that our redemption is dependent on this reality:

"The Holy Spirit would never be reckoned in the Unity of the Trinity, i.e., along with the unchangeable Father and His Son, unless He had always been the Holy Spirit.  When we use, indeed, such terms as “always” or “was,” or any other designation of time, they are not to be taken absolutely, but with due allowance; for while the significations of these words relate to time, and those subjects of which we speak are spoken of by a stretch of language as existing in time, they nevertheless surpass in their real nature all conception of the finite understanding," (Origen, De Principiis, Book 1, Chapter 3, Section 4).

"He who is regenerated by God unto salvation has to do both with Father and Son and Holy Spirit, and does not obtain salvation unless with the co-operation of the entire Trinity," (Origen, De Principiis, Book 1, Chapter 3, Section 4).

"As now by participation in the Son of God one is adopted as a son, and by participating in that wisdom which is in God is rendered wise, so also by participation in the Holy Spirit is a man rendered holy and spiritual.  For it is one and the same thing to have a share in the Holy Spirit, which is (the Spirit) of the Father and the Son, since the nature of the Trinity is one and incorporeal," (Origen, De Principiis, Book 4, Section 32).

To Origen, the Trinity is not only a truth about God; it is a necessary truth of the Gospel. Origen does often use language that seems to rank the three persons, but in context, such expressions are dealing with the work of the persons and the scope of their distinct operation in creation. The Father and the Son exercise authority over all beings, including saints, sinners, animals, and even non-living things.8 The Spirit, however, works only in the sphere of the redeemed.9 The Son, as the Word or Reason, must be operating in all rational beings or such beings could not be rational.10 All sense of wisdom or justice, even in a pagan, is the work of Christ.11 He explains:

"Let no one indeed suppose that we, from having said that the Holy Spirit is conferred upon the saints alone, but that the benefits or operations of the Father and of the Son extend to good and bad, to just and unjust, by so doing give a preference to the Holy Spirit over the Father and the Son, or assert that His dignity is greater, which certainly would be a very illogical conclusion.  For it is the peculiarity of His grace and operations that we have been describing.  Moreover, nothing in the Trinity can be called greater or less, since the fountain of divinity alone contains all things by His word and reason, and by the Spirit of His mouth sanctifies all things which are worthy of sanctification," (Origen, De Principiis, Book 1, Chapter 3, Section 7).

He also says:

"there is no difference in the Trinity, but that which is called the gift of the Spirit is made known through the Son, and operated by God the Father," (Origen, De Principiis, Book 1, Chapter 3, Section 7).

According to Origen, the Father gives existence to all things, and in this, His work is most glorious. The Son gives rationality and wisdom to those creatures that possess them.12  The Spirit sanctifies those who repent and believe, leading them to pursue holiness.13 It is a distinction in their work, not in their nature. In this way, Origen often refers to the Father as greater than the Son, and in turn the Son greater than the Spirit, but this has to do with the scope of their work and the breadth of their authority in their respective roles over creation. Origen is not saying that the Son or Spirit are inferior beings to the Father.

Still, Origen's doctrine of the Trinity does seem to deviate from the orthodox, biblical doctrine of the Trinity in at least one meaningful sense. Origen believes and puts great emphasis on an idea that the Son and Spirit are dependent on the Father as the true source of their being. It is in the very nature of the Father to bring forth and possess His personal Word and His personal Spirit, and they share fully in His substance and essence, but there is some sense in Origen's thinking that the Father is the central reality from which the Son and Spirit are derived. For example, he writes:

"It is not to be imagined that there is a kind of blasphemy, as it were, in the words, “There is none good save one only, God the Father,” as if thereby it may be supposed to be denied that either Christ or the Holy Spirit was good.  But, as we have already said, the primal goodness is to be understood as residing in God the Father, from whom both the Son is born and the Holy Spirit proceeds, retaining within them, without any doubt, the nature of that goodness which is in the source whence they are derived," (Origen, De Principiis, Book 1, Chapter 2, Section 13).

In spite of this unique speculation that deviates from all the major Trinitarian Christians before him, Origen still affirms the basic tenants of one God who has eternally existed in three eternal persons. As such, his testimony is far more in favor of classic biblical Christianity that it is the speculations of Jehovah's Witnesses.

  • 1. Should You Believe in the Trinity (Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, 1989) 7
  • 2. Watchtower, April 15, 2001, pg 31
  • 3. ibid
  • 4. Origen, De Principiis, Book 1, Chapter 2, Section 12
  • 5. Origen, De Principiis, Book 1, Chapter 2, Section 1
  • 6. Origen, De Principiis, Book 1, Chapter 2, Section 2
  • 7. Origen, De Principiis, Book 1, Chapter 2, Section 9
  • 8. Origen, De Principiis, Book 1, Chapter 3, Section 5
  • 9. Origen, De Principiis, Book 1, Chapter 3, Section 5
  • 10. Origen, De Principiis, Book 1, Chapter 3, Section 6
  • 11. Origen, De Principiis, Book 1, Chapter 3, Section 6
  • 12. Origen even identifies Michael the Archangel as one of the rational beings to whom the Son gives wisdom and the power to reason, thus clearly distinguishing the Son from Michael both personally and in nature and form of being, (Origen, De Principiis, Book 4, Section 29). This, too, directly contradicts Jehovah's Witness theology.
  • 13. Origen, De Principiis, Book 1, Chapter 3, Section 6