Repost: The Early Church Fathers on Jesus

mike


When the Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) come to your door, if you get into a conversation with them on who Jesus is, you can expect them to leave a tract with you titled, Should You Believe in the Trinity?[1] At first look the tract seems well researched. It is when one begins to look more closely at it that it becomes obvious that the Watchtower is misleading its own followers and readers of the tract. In some places, the misleading appears intentional. In others, it is unclear whether deception is involved or scholarship is lacking. While this is not the place to critique the tract fully, since the topic of what the early Church Fathers said about Jesus has been raised, this is an appropriate time to answer what the tract states about their beliefs.

Ignatius and Polycarp

Two of the earliest Church Fathers, Polycarp and Ignatius taught the deity of Christ. The early Church father, Irenaeus (circa AD 120-190) wrote that Polycarp was “instructed” and “appointed” by the apostles, “conversed with many who had seen Christ,” “having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles,”[2]the accounts which he gave of his intercourse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord. And as he remembered their words, and what he heard from them concerning the Lord, and concerning his miracles and his teaching, having received them from eyewitnesses of the ‘Word of life’.”[3] So his view of Jesus is very important. In The Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians, he mentions “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” and “our Lord and God Jesus Christ.”[4]

Now may the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the eternal High Priest himself, the Son of God Jesus Christ, build you up in faith and truth and in all gentleness and in all freedom from anger and forbearance and steadfastness and patient endurance and purity, and may he give to you a share and a place among his saints, and to us with you, and to all those under heaven who will yet believe in our Lord and God Jesus Christ and in his Father who raised him from the dead.

Thus, Polycarp agrees with the teachings of the apostles that Jesus is God.[5]

Ignatius was the Bishop of Antioch at the same time Polycarp was the Bishop of Smyrna. He wrote seven letters to the Churches while en route to his execution in Rome around the year AD 110. In Ignatius’ Letter to the Ephesians 18:2 he states:

For our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived by Mary according to God’s plan

In 19:3 he states:

Consequently all magic and every kind of spell were dissolved, the ignorance so characteristic of wickedness vanished, and the ancient kingdom was abolished, when God appeared in human form to bring the newness of eternal life

In 7:2 he states:

There is only one physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first subject to suffering and then beyond it, Jesus Christ our Lord.

And in 1:1:

Being as you are imitators of God, once you took on new life through the blood of God you completed perfectly the task so natural to you.

In his letter to the Smyrnaeans 1:1 over whom Polycarp was Bishop he states:

I glorify Jesus Christ, the God who made you so wise

Thus, Ignatius and Polycarp both referred to Jesus as God.

The later Church Fathers also commented on who Jesus is. In the Watchtower tract we are considering, six major Church Fathers are cited in support of the view that the deity of Jesus was a heretical doctrine not taught until several centuries after Jesus. We have already seen that this is false, having considered Polycarp and Ignatius. Let’s look at these other Church Fathers individually, viewing what the Watchtower claims they say, then looking at what the particular Church Father really said about Jesus.

Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr was a major defender of the Christian faith during the second century. The Watchtower tract says, “Justin Martyr … called the prehuman Jesus, a created angel who is ‘other than the God who made all things.’ He said that Jesus was inferior to God and ‘never did anything except what the Creator … willed him to do and say.”[6] The Watchtower failed to provide any references documenting where Justin or any of the Church Fathers made the statements they attribute to them. However, today’s technology has made it somewhat easy for us, since the entire works of the early Church Fathers are available on CD and search capabilities are present.[7] The Watchtower has loosely translated what the Fathers said and it is sometimes difficult to find the particular quotes they cite. A search of the terms “created” and “angel” reveal that Justin nowhere referred to Jesus as a “created angel.” Neither does he write anywhere that Jesus is “other than the God who made all things.” The closest reference is found in Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho, where he says, “the Scripture has declared that this Offspring was begotten by the Father before all things created; and that which is begotten is numerically distinct from that which begets, any one will admit.”[8] What did Justin mean by saying that Jesus is “numerically distinct” from the Father? This will become clearer as we see what else Justin wrote.

Did Justin claim that “Jesus was inferior to God and ‘never did anything except what the Creator … willed him to do and say’” as the tract claims? This reference is likewise from Dialogue with Trypho:

Then I replied, “Reverting to the Scriptures, I shall endeavor to persuade you, that He who is said to have appeared to Abraham, and to Jacob, and to Moses, and who is called God, is distinct from Him who made all things, – numerically, I mean, not [distinct] in will. For I affirm that He has never at any time done anything which He who made the world – above whom there is no other God – has not wished Him both to do and to engage Himself with.”;[9]

It is striking to note that this statement by Justin falls within the 21 chapters in his Dialogue where he is setting out to prove that Jesus is God![10] Notice that Justin did not say that Jesus was inferior to God. Here he writes that the God who appeared to the patriarchs and prophets is distinct numerically from the Creator who is also God. But who was it whom Justin believed “appeared to Abraham, and to Jacob, and to Moses, and who is called God…?“:

And that Christ being Lord, and God the Son of God, and appearing formerly in power as Man, and Angel, and in the glory of fire as at the bush, so also was manifested at the judgment executed on Sodom, has been demonstrated fully by what has been said.[11]

[T]he Father of the universe has a Son; who also, being the first-begotten Word of God, is even God. And of old He appeared in the shape of fire and in the likeness of an angel to Moses and to the other prophets; but now in the times of your reign, having, as we before said, become Man by a virgin[12]

Justin says that the person who appeared in the burning bush to Moses, to the prophets and patriarchs, and who is called “God” is the Son. Therefore, it is striking to note that the very passage that the Watchtower cites in order to support their claim that “Justin said that Jesus was inferior to God” comes immediately after Justin says that Jesus is God and is within his 21 chapters where he sets out to prove that Jesus is God![13] Notice what else Justin says concerning Jesus:

For if you had understood what has been written by the prophets, you would not have denied that He was God, Son of the only, unbegotten, unutterable God.[14]

What about the numerical distinctness between God the Father and Jesus? It is clear that Justin believed that Jesus is God. Yet he viewed Jesus as distinct from God the Father in his person, but never distinguished Jesus and God in terms of their essence. Such fits in with the Christian view of the Trinity and not with the belief that Jesus was a created angel as the JWs believe.

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