The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of the Jehovah’s Witnesses produced a booklet titled Should You Believe In the Trinity where they sought to prove that not only is the Trinity not a biblical doctrine, but that it wasn’t even taught by the pre-Nicene church fathers/writers.

For instance, they claim that North African church apologist and theologian Tertullian believed that there was a time when the Son did not exist:

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 him who is begotten; he who sends, different from him who is sent.” He also said: “There was a time when the Son was not. . . . Before all things, God was alone.” (Should You Believe In the Trinity?, Is It Clearly a Bible Teaching?)

Typical of this booklet, no page number or book title is given which would allow the readers to personally verify the accuracy of these citations. And it is obvious why no such details are provided since when we do examine the context of these statements we will see that the Society has shamelessly misquoted their sources. This is especially the case with Tertullian.  

Here is the context of Tertullian’s claim that there was a time “when the Son was not”:

Chapter 3. An Argument of Hermogenes. The Answer: While God is a Title Eternally Applicable to the Divine Being, Lord and Father are Only Relative Appellations, Not Eternally Applicable. An Inconsistency in the Argument of Hermogenes Pointed Out

He adds also another point: that as God was always God, there was never a time when God was not also Lord. But it was in no way possible for Him to be regarded as always Lord, in the same manner as He had been always God, if there had not been always, in the previous eternity, a something of which He could be regarded as evermore the Lord. So he concludes that God always had Matter co-existent with Himself as the Lord thereof. Now, this tissue of his I shall at once hasten to pull abroad. I have been willing to set it out in form to this length, for the information of those who are unacquainted with the subject, that they may know that his other arguments likewise need only be understood to be refuted. We affirm, then, that the name of God always existed with Himself and in Himself — but not eternally so the Lord. Because the condition of the one is not the same as that of the other. God is the designation of the substance itself, that is, of the Divinity; but Lord is (the name) not of substance, but of power.

maintain that the substance existed always with its own name, which is Godthe title Lord was afterwards added, as the indication indeed of something accruing. 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. In this way He was not Lord previous to those things of which He was to be the Lord. But He was only to become Lord at some future time: just as HE BECAME THE FATHER BY THE SON, and a Judge by sin, so also did He become Lord by means of those things which He had made, in order that they might serve Him. Do I seem to you to be weaving arguments, Hermogenes? How neatly does Scripture lend us its aid, when it applies the two titles to Him with a distinction, and reveals them each at its proper time! For (the title) God, indeed, which always belonged to Him, it names at the very first: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth; Genesis 1:1 and as long as He continued making, one after the other, those things of which He was to be the Lord, it merely mentions God. And God said, and God made, and God saw; but nowhere do we yet find the Lord. But when He completed the whole creation, and especially man himself, who was destined to understand His sovereignty in a way of special propriety, He then is designated Lord. Then also the Scripture added the name Lord: And the Lord GodDeus Dominus, took the man, whom He had formed; Genesis 2:15 And the Lord God commanded Adam. Genesis 2:16 

Thenceforth He, who was previously God only, is the Lord, from the time of His having something of which He might be the Lord. For to Himself He was always God, but to all things was He only then God, when He became also Lord. Therefore, in as far as (Hermogenes) shall suppose that Matter was eternal, on the ground that the Lord was eternal, in so far will it be evident that nothing existed, because it is plain that the Lord as such did not always exist. Now I mean also, on my own part, to add a remark for the sake of ignorant persons, of whom Hermogenes is an extreme instance, and actually to retort against him his own arguments. For when he denies that Matter was born or made, I find that, even on these terms, the title Lord is unsuitable to God in respect of Matter, because it must have been free, when by not having a beginning it had not an author. The fact of its past existence it owed to no one, so that it could be a subject to no one. Therefore ever since God exercised His power over it, by creating (all things) out of Matter, although it had all along experienced God as its Lord, yet Matter does, after all, demonstrate that God did not exist in the relation of Lord to it, although all the while He was really so. (Against Hermogenes; bold emphasis mine)

Tertullian was addressing a heretic named Hermogenes who taught that God did not create matter, and used the title “Lord” to show that matter must be eternal for God to have eternally existed as Lord. After all, lordship implies sovereignty over something or someone and if God was eternally alone then he could not have always been Lord.

Tertullian responds by arguing that lordship and fatherhood are not essential characteristics of Deity and therefore God didn’t always exist as Lord or Father. God only became Father when he begot the Son from out of his own being, from his very own substance, and began ruling as Lord only after creating matter from nothing.

That Tertullian did not think that the Person of the Son was created or brought into existence from nothing or from things created, is clearly demonstrable by what this Apologist wrote elsewhere:

Chapter 5. The Evolution of the Son or Word of God from the Father by a Divine Procession. Illustrated by the Operation of the Human Thought and Consciousness

But since they will have the Two to be but One, so that the Father shall be deemed to be the same as the Son, it is only right that the whole question respecting the Son should be examined, as to whether He exists, and who He is and the mode of His existence. Thus shall the truth itself secure its own sanction from the Scriptures, and the interpretations which guard them. There are some who allege that even Genesis opens thus in Hebrew: In the beginning God made for Himself a Son. As there is no ground for this, 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 EVEN NOT 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 and therefore it is now usual with our people, owing to the mere simple interpretation of the term, to say that the Word was in the beginning with God; although it would be more suitable to regard Reason as the more ancient; because God had not Word from the beginning, but He had Reason even before the beginning; because also Word itself consists of Reason, which it thus proves to have been the prior existence as being its own substance. Not that this distinction is of any practical moment. For although God had not yet sent out His Word, He still had Him within Himself, both in company with and included within His very Reason, as He silently planned and arranged within Himself everything which He was afterwards about to utter through His Word. Now, while He was thus planning and arranging with His own Reason, HE WAS ACTUALLY CAUSING THAT TO BECOME WORD which He was dealing with in the way of Word or Discourse. And that you may the more readily understand this, consider first of all, from your own self, who are made in the image and likeness of God, Genesis 1:26 for what purpose it is that you also possess reason in yourself, who are a rational creature, as being not only made by a rational Artificer, but actually animated out of His substance. Observe, then, that when you are silently conversing with yourself, this very process is carried on within you by your reason, which meets you with a word at every movement of your thought, at every impulse of your conception. Whatever you think, there is a word; whatever you conceive, there is reason. You must needs speak it in your mind; and while you are speaking, you admit speech as an interlocutor with you, involved in which there is this very reason, whereby, while in thought you are holding converse with your word, you are (by reciprocal action) producing thought by means of that converse with your word. 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, since He had within Himself both Reason, and, inherent in Reason, His Word, WHICH HE MADE SECOND TO HIMSELF by agitating it within Himself

Chapter 7. The Son by Being Designated Word and Wisdom, (According to the Imperfection of Human Thought and Language) Liable to Be Deemed a Mere Attribute. He is Shown to Be a Personal Being

Then, therefore, does the Word also Himself assume His own form and glorious garb, His own sound and vocal utterance, when God says, Let there be light. Genesis 1:3 This is the perfect nativity of the Word, WHEN HE PROCEEDS FORTH FROM GOD— formed by Him first to devise and think out all things under the name of Wisdom — The Lord created or formed me as the beginning of His ways; Proverbs 8:22 then afterward begotten, to carry all into effect — When He prepared the heaven, I was present with Him. Thus does He make Him equal to Him: FOR BY PROCEEDING FROM HIMSELF He became His first-begotten Son, BECAUSE BEGOTTEN BEFORE ALL THINGS; Colossians 1:15 and His only-begotten also, because alone begotten of God, in a way peculiar to Himself, FROM THE WOMB OF HIS OWN HEART — even as the Father Himself testifies: My heart, says He, has emitted my most excellent Word. The Father took pleasure evermore in Him, who equally rejoiced with a reciprocal gladness in the Father’s presence: You are my Son, today have I begotten You; even before the morning star did I beget You. The Son likewise acknowledges the Father, speaking in His own person, under the name of Wisdom: The Lord formed Me as the beginning of His ways, with a view to His own works; before all the hills did He beget Me. For if indeed Wisdom in this passage seems to say that She was created by the Lord with a view to His works, and to accomplish His ways, yet proof is given in another Scripture that all things were made by the Word, and without Him was there nothing made; John 1:3 as, again, in another place (it is said), By His word were the heavens established, and all the powers thereof by His Spirit — that is to say, by the Spirit (or Divine Nature) which was in the Word: thus is it evident that it is one and the same power which is in one place described under the name of Wisdom, and in another passage under the appellation of the Word, which was initiated for the works of God Proverbs 8:22 which strengthened the heavens; by which all things were made, John 1:3 and without which nothing was made. John 1:3 Nor need we dwell any longer on this point, as if it were not the very Word Himself, who is spoken of under the name both of Wisdom AND OF REASON, and of the entire Divine Soul and Spirit. He became also the Son of God, and was begotten WHEN HE PROCEEDED FORTH FROM HIM. Do you then, (you ask,) grant that the Word is a certain substance, constructed by the Spirit and the communication of Wisdom? Certainly I do. But you will not allow Him to be really a substantive being, by having a substance of His own; in such a way that He may be regarded as an objective thing and a person, and so be able (as being constituted second to God the Father,) to make two, the Father and the Son, GOD and the Word. For you will say, what is a word, but a voice and sound of the mouth, and (as the grammarians teach) air when struck against, intelligible to the ear, but for the rest a sort of void, empty, and incorporeal thing. I, on the contrary, contend that nothing empty and void could have come forth from God, seeing that it is not put forth from that which is empty and void; nor could that possibly be devoid of substance which has proceeded from so great a substance, and has produced such mighty substances: for all things which were made through Him, He Himself (personally) made. How could it be, that He Himself is nothing, without whom nothing was made? How could He who is empty have made things which are solid, and He who is void have made things which are full, and He who is incorporeal have made things which have body? For although a thing may sometimes be made different from him by whom it is made, yet nothing can be made by that which is a void and empty thing. Is that Word of God, then, a void and empty thing, which is called the Son, who Himself IS DESIGNATED GOD? The Word was with God, and the Word was God. John 1:1 It is written, You shall not take God’s name in vain. Exodus 20:7 This for certain is He who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God. Philippians 2:6 In what form of God? Of course he means in some form, not in none. For who will deny that God is a body, although God is a Spirit? John 4:24 For Spirit has a bodily substance of its own kind, in its own form. Now, even if invisible things, whatsoever they be, have both their substance and their form in God, whereby they are visible to God alone, how much more shall that which has been sent forth FROM HIS SUBSTANCE not be without substance! Whatever, therefore, was the substance of the Word that I designate a Person, I claim for it the name of Son; and while I recognize the Son, I assert His distinction as second to the Father. (Against Praxeas; bold and capital emphasis mine)

Admittedly, the way Tertullian formulated the generation of God’s eternal Word/Wisdom or his belief that the Father has a substantial body or bodily substance is not how later Christian writers/theologians/apostles would express the church’s understanding of God’s nature as Spirit or the eternal begetting of the Son. However, Tertullian’s statements do show that he clearly believed that the divine Person who later became the Son, thereby making God a Father, was not created ex nihilo.

Tertullian explicitly and emphatically affirmed that the prehuman Jesus is God’s very own uncreated Reason/Word/Wisdom who has always existed in/with God, being an essential, eternally intrinsic aspect of God’s uncreated substance.

As such, Tertullian was neither an Arian nor a Modalist. Rather, he was a Trinitarian who did the best he could to articulate the eternal distinctions and relationships which the God-breathed Scriptures testify exist among the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.


Tertullian and the Doctrine of the Trinity




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