Tertullian and the Watchtower

by Luke Wayne

In the Jehovah's Witness brochure “Should You Believe in the Trinity?" there is a section on the Ante-Nicene Fathers in which the author appeals to the early church leader Tertullian as a voice supposedly against the Trinity. The paragraph reads:

“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 he who is begotten; He who sends different from he who is sent.' He also said: 'was when the Son was not…before all things God was alone.'1

While Tertullian was not in every way orthodox, any fair reading of his writings undeniably shows that he believed in the Trinity. The Watchtower Society itself even admits this in another publication and contradicts its own previous claims, stating:

“As Tertullian erroneously sought to prove the divinity of Jesus by means of another theory, he coined the formula 'one substance in three persons.' Using this concept, he attempted to show that God, his Son, and the holy spirit were three distinct persons existing in one divine substance. Tertullian thus became the first to apply the Latin form of the word “trinity” to the Father, the Son, and the holy spirit.”2

So what, then, are we to make of the quotes used in the pamphlet first cited in this article? Let us briefly observe:

The Father is Greater

The first quote comes from the work “Against Praxeas” in which Tertullian is defending the doctrine of the Trinity and refuting the teachings of a proponent of modalism, or one who taught that the Father, Son, and Spirit are not only one God, but are in fact the same person in differing roles. Thus the Father came to earth and became the Son and was crucified, etc. In this context, Tertullian is arguing for both the unity and the distinction of the persons in the Godhead. In chapter 9 he opens:

“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.”3

It is in this chapter that he goes on to write what the pamphlet quoted from above:

“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. Happily the Lord Himself employs this expression of the person of the Paraclete, so as to signify not a division or severance, but a disposition, of mutual relations in the Godhead.”4

Note that he is careful not to call the Son a thing that "is made," but rather the one through whom things are made. Even more to the point, he is clear that he is not describing any "division or severance," but only the "disposition of mutual relations within the Godhead." Tertullian’s point is simply that the persons of the Trinity are distinct, simultaneous, and interactive. His reference to the Father being “greater” has to do with the Father’s function as Father and the Son and Spirit’s respective roles in submission to the Father. By showing their mutual roles, Tertullian emphasizes that they are indeed distinct persons, which his modalist opponent would deny. But remember his opening warning, “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.” These statements of distinction must be understood within the context of the perfect union in substance and being.

A Time when the Son was Not?

The second quote put forward in the pamphlet is “There was when the Son was not…before all things God was alone.” This appears to be a conflation of two different quotes from two different writings of Tertullian. While Tertullian nowhere said the exact phrase “there was when the Son was not” he did say something quite like that in his work “Against Hermogenes” in which he is writing to refute a teacher who is claiming that matter is eternal and uncreated and coexisted in eternity past with God. In chapter 3 of this work, Tertullian deals with Hermogenes claim that for God to have eternally been Lord, there must be something for Him to have eternally been Lord over, so there must be a lesser thing eternal with God, and that thing is matter. Tertullian opposes this by arguing that most of God’s titles are related to the state of things after creation and not before. He states:

“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.”5

If this were the only writing we had of Tertullian’s, it would certainly seem to us that he believed the second person of the Trinity came into existence at a point in time. This, we will see, however, is not Tertullian’s point. As with the previous quote, Tertullian is talking about the relationships of the persons within the Trinity. Tertullian viewed the titles “Father” and “Son” in terms of what he called God’s “economy” and what theologians today still call “the economic Trinity.” That is to say that, in God’s governing of creation and His work of redemption, the different coequal and co-eternal persons of the Trinity have taken up different functional roles that they did not have or need when there was no creation to govern or redeem. The final citation from the Watchtower pamphlet will help us further flesh this out.

God was Alone?

The phrase “before all things God was alone” comes again from Tertullian’s “Against Praxaes.” In chapter 5, he writes:

“I am led to other arguments derived from God’s own dispensation, in which He existed before the creation of the world, up to the generation of the Son. For before all things God was alone—being in Himself and for Himself universe, and space, and all things. Moreover, He was alone, because there was nothing external to Him but Himself. Yet not even then was He alone; for He had with Him that which He possessed in Himself, that is to say, His own Reason. For God is rational, and Reason was first in Him; and so all things were from Himself. This Reason is His own Thought (or Consciousness) which the Greeks call λόγος, by which term we also designate Word or Discourse.”6

He goes on to argue from lesser to greater, that even our imperfect human reason and speech gives us somewhat of a picture of how God’s Word shares His nature as a distinct person eternally. He writes:

“Thus, in a certain sense, the word is a second person within you, through which in thinking you utter speech, and through which also, (by reciprocity of process,) in uttering speech you generate thought. The word is itself a different thing from yourself. Now how much more fully is all this transacted in God, whose image and likeness even you are regarded as being, inasmuch as He has reason within Himself even while He is silent, and involved in that Reason His Word! I may therefore without rashness first lay this down (as a fixed principle) that even then before the creation of the universe God was not alone.”7

So to Tertullian, the term “Son” is a functional title for the relationship between the first and second person of the Trinity in their respective roles after creation. For this reason, he can say that there was a time when there was no Son. But even when the second person of the Trinity was not “the Son” (in Tertullian’s manner of using that term) He was still a distinct person from the Father and yet was in the Father and sharing the divine nature with the Father as the Word. So even though Tertullian limits the use of the specific terms “Son” and “Father” in a manner that we would not, he still makes clear that he is speaking of one God who was eternally, and ever remains, the Trinity. One God and only one God, eternally in three persons.

  • 1. Should You Believe in the Trinity (Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, 1989) 7
  • 2. Watchtower 5/15 2002, (Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 2002) 30
  • 3. The Ante-Nicene Fathers – Vol. 3 – Fourth Printing (Hendrickson Publishing, 2004) 603
  • 4. ibid, 604
  • 5. ibid, 478
  • 6. ibid, 600
  • 7. ibid, 601