Historical Dishonesty and the Watchtower Society
A Review of the Watchtower’s Comments Concerning the View of Ignatius of Antioch and the Deity of Christ
By James White, B.A., M.A.
Adjunct Professor Teaching Church History, Grand Canyon University
During the summer of 1989, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society distributed, through its District Conventions, a new pamphlet entitled “Should You Believe in the Trinity?” This booklet was sub-titled, “Is Jesus Christ the Almighty God?” The booklet was interesting for many reasons, one being the fact that it contained no footnote references for its many supposedly scholarly claims. Another aspect of the booklet that caught the attention of many Christian reviewers was its attempted treatment of the writings of the early Fathers of the Christian faith, such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, and Origen (“Should You Believe in the Trinity?” p. 7). The statements made by the Watchtower Society regarding the views of these men were so far removed from the truth that entire books began appearing on the market, all easily refuting, directly from the writings of the Fathers, the claims made by the booklet.
One early Father conspicuous by his absence from the “Trinity” booklet was the bishop of Antioch, Ignatius. The reason seemed fairly obvious: the statements by Ignatius regarding the deity of Christ are clear and legion, and hence Ignatius did not fit into the purpose of the Society’s publication. Admitting that such an early Father as Ignatius (he died around A.D. 107) spoke often of “our God, Jesus Christ” would not suite the Society’s position. Hence, no mention was made of him in the booklet.
We were quite surprised, then, to learn that the February 1, 1992 Watchtower magazine contained an article that attempted to deal with the teachings of Ignatius of Antioch regarding the Deity of Christ. We knew that a series of articles had begun in the November 1, 1991 Watchtower entitled “Did the Early Church Teach That God is a Trinity?” We felt that this series was an attempt to buttress the tremendously flawed material that had appeared in the “Trinity” booklet two years earlier. In the second part of this series, which is to be found in the February 1, 1992 edition of the Watchtower, pages 19-23, we find an attempt to deal with The Didache, Clement of Rome’s letter to the Corinthians, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Hermas, and Papias. The article shows unconstrained bias in its dealing with each of these patristic sources, but we will focus our attention in this article upon the comments that take up all of page 21, those comments that deal with Ignatius of Antioch.
Ignatius, a bishop of Antioch, lived from about the middle of the first century C.E. to early in the second century. Assuming that all the writings attributed to him were authentic, in none of them is there an equality of Father, Son, and holy spirit.
Please note that the author (no names indicating authorship are ever given in Watchtower publications) introduces the issue of authenticity right at the beginning, and necessarily so. As we will see, the writer had available to him eight “pseudo-Ignatian” epistles, that are recognized by scholars to be later works, as well as a “longer recension” or version of Ignatius’ true epistles. This longer version contains a great deal of material that gives internal evidence of having come from a later time period. We say that our writer had to introduce the issue of authenticity, for he will quote *exclusively* from either the pseudo-Ignatian epistles, or from the longer recension of the genuine epistles, to make his case. Further note that the author asserts that in “none” of the Ignatian writings (and we must assume he includes the genuine shorter version) do we find an equality of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Even if Ignatius had said that the Son was equal to the Father in eternity, power, position, and wisdom, it would still not be a Trinity, for nowhere did he say that the holy spirit was equal to God in those ways. But Ignatius did not say that the Son was equal to God the Father in such ways or in any other. Instead, he showed that the Son is in subjection to the One who is superior, Almighty God.
We must note the direct assertion that Ignatius “did not say that the Son was equal to God the Father” in eternity, power, position, or wisdom. As we examine the genuine Ignatian materials, we will see the importance of this claim. Following this paragraph, the Watchtower article goes on to provide three paragraphs of quotations from the longer version of the seven genuine Ignatian epistles, as well as from the pseudo-Ignatian epistles. *No citations are provided from the earliest, Greek versions of the genuine Ignatian writings.* These citations will be examined in their place.
It seems that the author is aware that he is leaving out a great deal of testimony to the deity of Christ, for he goes on to say,
True, Ignatius calls the Son “God the Word.” But using the word “God” for the Son does not necessarily mean equality with Almighty God. The Bible also calls the Son “God” at Isaiah 9:6. John 1:18 calls the Son “the only-begotten god.” Being vested with power and authority from Jehovah God, the Father, the Son could properly be termed a “mighty one,” which is what “god” basically means.–Matthew 28:18, 1 Corinthians 8:6; Hebrews 1:2.
We will examine, later, the validity of this claim with reference to Ignatius’ use of the term “God.”
At this point the author introduces the issue of the authenticity of the Ignatian literature that he has cited:
However, are the 15 letters attributed to Ignatius accepted as authentic? In _The Ante-Nicene Fathers_, Volume I, editors Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson state:
“It is now the universal opinion of critics, that the first eight of these professedly Ignatian letters are spurious. They bear in themselves indubitable proofs of being the production of a later age…and they are now by common consent set aside as forgeries.”
“Of the seven Epistles which are acknowledged by Eusebius…,we possess two Greek recensions, a shorter and a longer….Although the shorter form…had been generally accepted in preference to the longer, there was still a pretty prevalent opinion among scholars, that even it could not be regarded as absolutely free from interpolations, or as of undoubted authenticity.”
We note again that our author, though providing this information, does not directly tell his readers that *all of the citations he provided earlier were taken either from the longer version of the genuine epistles, or from those epistles that, by the “universal opinion of critics” are set aside as spurious.* In fact, in the concluding paragraph, he says that “some” phrases that show Christ as subordinate to God are eliminated by using only the genuine Ignatian writings. Actually, *all* of the author’s citations are eliminated by sticking with the original writings of Ignatius. We read,
If we accept the shorter version of his writings as genuine, it does eliminate some phrases (in the longer version) that show Christ as subordinate to God, but what is left in the shorter version still does not show a Trinity. And regardless of which of his writings are genuine, they show at best that Ignatius believed in a duality of God and his Son. This was certainly not a duality of equals, for the Son is always presented as lesser than God and subordinate to him. Thus, regardless of how one views the Ignatian writings, the Trinity doctrine is not to be found in them.
Note that the author does not openly admit that if he were limited to the genuine Ignatian writings that *all* of his citations would be removed from him. Further, he asserts that the “shorter version still does not show a Trinity.” He further says that “the Son is always presented as lesser than God and subordinate to him.”
Thus we have the presentation of the Watchtower Society on the beliefs of Ignatius, bishop of Antioch. Millions of people world-wide have now read these words, and believe implicitly that the ancient Father Ignatius did not say “that the Son was equal to God the Father” in any way. Before we examine all the claims made by this article, we will stop to allow the true Ignatius to speak for himself.
Ignatius on the Deity of Christ
Early in the second century, Ignatius made a journey from his home in Antioch to Rome, where he expected a certain death as a martyr for his testimony to Jesus Christ, his Lord. While visiting Smyrna, he wrote letters to the churches of the Ephesians, Magnesians, Trallians, and Romans. Later on in his journey, while at Alexandria Troas, Ignatius wrote three more letters, one to the Smyrneans, one to Polycarp, and one to the Philadelphians. These seven letters make up the true Ignatian corpus. As was mentioned above in the quotation from Roberts and Donaldson, two recensions of these letters exist. The longer recension bears the unmistakable evidence of a much later time-period than the early second century, and hence are seen as later productions. The shorter version is representative of what Ignatius felt was important to say to the churches as he went to a certain death. We note again that the Watchtower article *did not once quote from the true Ignatian materials.* Why? A review of the following quotations should provide our answer.
The following quotations are taken from J.B. Lightfoot’s translation. The same material, with minor translational differences, will be found in Roberts and Donaldson, ANF I:49-96. Emphasis is added.
Ignatius, who is also Theophorus, unto her which hath been blessed in greatness through the plenitude of God the Father; which hath been foreordained before the ages to be for ever unto abiding and unchangeable glory, united and elect in a true passion, by the will of the Father and of *Jesus Christ our God*; even unto the church which is in Ephesus [of Asia], worthy of all felicitation: abundant greeting in Christ Jesus and in blameless joy (Ephesians 1).
My spirit is made an offscouring for the Cross, which is a stumbling-block to them that are unbelievers, but to us salvation and life eternal. Where is the wise? Where is the disputer? Where is the boasting of them that are called prudent? *For our God, Jesus the Christ,* was conceived in the womb by Mary according to a dispensation, of the seed of David but also of the Holy Ghost; and He was born and was baptized that by His person He might cleanse water (Ephesians 18).
From that time forward every sorcery and every spell was dissolved, the ignorance of wickedness vanished away, the ancient kingdom was pulled down, *when God appeared in the likeness of man* unto newness of everlasting life; and that which had been perfected in the counsels of God began to take effect (Ephesians 19).
Ignatius, who is also Theophorus, unto her that hath found mercy in the bountifulness of the Father Most High and of Jesus Christ His only Son; to the church that is beloved and enlightened through the will of Him who willed all things that are, by faith and love *towards Jesus Christ our God*; even unto her that hath the presidency in the country of the region of the Romans…(Romans 1).
Ignatius wrote to the Romans so as to ask them not to interfere with his martyrdom. It is in this context that he wrote,
Only pray that I may have power within and without, so that I may not only say it but also desire it; that I may not only be called a Christian, but also be found one. For if I shall be found so, then can I also be called one, and be faithful then, when I am no more visible to the world. Nothing visible is good. *For our God Jesus Christ, being in the Father, is the more plainly visible.* The Work is not of persuasiveness, but Christianity is a thing of might, whensoever it is hated by the world (Romans 3).
To the Smyrneans he wrote,
I give glory *to Jesus Christ the God who bestowed such wisdom upon you;* for I have perceived that ye are established in faith immovable, being as it were nailed to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, in flesh and in spirit, and firmly grounded in love in the blood of Christ, fully persuaded as touching our Lord that He is truly of the race of David according to the flesh, but Son of God by the Divine will and power, truly born of a virgin and baptized by John that all righteousness might be fulfilled by Him, truly nailed up in the flesh for our sakes under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch (of which fruit are we–that is, of His most blessed passion); that He might set up an ensign unto all the ages through His resurrection, for His saints and faithful people, whether among Jews or among Gentiles, in one body of His Church (Smyrneans 1).
Let no man be deceived. Even the heavenly beings and the glory of the angels and the rulers visible and invisible, if they believe not *in the blood of Christ [who is God],* judgment awaiteth them also (Smyrneans 6).
Aside from directly calling Jesus Christ “God,” Ignatius gives us a number of other indications of his strong belief in the deity of Christ. For example, in writing to the Smyrneans he said,
For He suffered all these things for our sakes [that we might be saved]; and He suffered truly, *as also He raised Himself truly*; not as certain unbelievers say, that He suffered in semblance, being themselves mere semblance.
Here Ignatius attacks the docetic teachers of his day, and in doing so makes reference to the Lord Jesus raising *Himself* from the dead. As modern Christians often assert, the entire Godhead was involved in the resurrection–the Father is said to have raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 4:24), and Jesus’ words in John 2:19-21 are clear as well. Ignatius here asserts the Son’s role, and in his letter to the Trallians (9) he confesses his belief that the Father raised Christ from the dead as well.
Another vital passage is to be found in Ignatius’ letter to Polycarp: Await Him that is above every season, the Eternal, the Invisible, who became visible for our sake, the Impalpable, the Impassible, who suffered for our sake, who endured in all ways for our sake (Polycarp 3).
Here Ignatius describes the Son as eternal, invisible, impalpable and impassible. One is reminded of Paul’s words to Timothy (1:17),
Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
Surely Ignatius had no problem in describing the Son in this way. In fact, one of the highest Christological statements to be found in the early patristic literature is to be found in his letter to the Ephesians:
There is only one physician, of flesh and of spirit, generate and ingenerate, God in man, true Life in death, Son of Mary and Son of God, first passible and then impassible, Jesus Christ our Lord (Ephesians 7).
Such a confession of faith shows a keen insight into the person of Jesus Christ, for it shows that Ignatius was fully aware of the dual nature of Christ–“God in man” is the way he put it. Fully man and fully God–the Christian faith being confessed barely ten years after the death of the last apostle.
Finally, with reference to the three Persons of the Trinity, we note the following passage that comes close on the heals of the above:
…forasmuch as ye are stones of a temple, which were prepared beforehand for a building of *God the Father*, being hoisted up to the heights through the engine of *Jesus Christ*, which is the Cross, and using for a rope the *Holy Spirit*…(Ephesians 9).
One is immediately reminded of similar constructions found in the New Testament in such places as Matthew 28:19, 1 Thessalonians 1:2-5, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, 1 Corinthians 2:2-5, 6:11, 12:4-6, 2 Corinthians 1:21-22, 13:14, Romans 8:26-27, 14:17-18, 15:16, 15:30, Colossians 1:6-8, Ephesians 2:18, 3:16-17, and 4:4-6.
Let us summarize Ignatius’ view. Seven times Ignatius directly calls Jesus Christ “God.” Four of these times he uses the phrase “our God” or its equivalent. He expresses his belief that Jesus Christ raised Himself from the dead, and in describing Him, uses such terms as “eternal,” “invisible,” “impalpable,” and “impassible.” He speaks of Christ as “God in man,” “true life in death,” and as “Son of Mary and Son of God.” To any serious investigator, Ignatius’ belief in the deity of Christ could not be more clear.
It is truly incredible that anyone could write an article that allegedly gives an accurate view of Ignatius’ view of Christ *without* citing the above passages, or even mentioning their existence! The deception is only compounded by the fact that the real Ignatian beliefs are hidden behind citations of non-Ignatian materials! We turn now to an examination of the claims made in the article itself.
Examination and Refutation
It is recognized by patristic scholars that the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, including the epistles of Ignatius, were not meant to be read as systematic theologies. We have not attempted to make Ignatius believe anything that he did not clearly express in his own words. But we must realize that the letters he wrote were not meant to be a full confession of his faith, nor are they to be thought of as an exhaustive representation of the theology of the bishop of Antioch early in the second century.
The author of the Watchtower article, however, does not seem to be aware of this. As he attempts to press each of the Fathers into a Witness mold, he makes statement after statement that would require him to have the gift of omniscience to make with certainty. He does the same with Ignatius. In the very first paragraph we read,
Assuming that all the writings attributed to him were authentic, in none of them is there an equality of Father, Son, and holy spirit.
We have seen that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are joined together in the one work of redemption by Ignatius in Ephesians 9, cited above. We noted how reminiscent this is to New Testament examples, such as that at Ephesians 4:4-5 and 2 Corinthians 1:21-22. Further, we must rightly assert that Ignatius was not a “henotheist;” that is, Ignatius was a monotheist, and did not believe in “secondary” gods. Hence, when Ignatius refers to “our God, Jesus Christ,” he is not speaking of “our secondary god, Jesus Christ.” Therefore, the equality of the Father and Son is to be found in Ignatius.
But Ignatius did not say that the Son was equal to God the Father in such ways or in any other.
We have already seen that Ignatius directly asserted the full deity of Christ. He described Christ as being eternal (Polycarp 3) and ingenerate (Ephesians 7). The term “ingenerate” is the Greek “agennetos”, a common patristic description of the uncreated, eternal nature of the one God. Obviously, then, with reference to eternity, the Father and the Son would be equal. How, then, does the Watchtower writer attempt to substantiate his claims? He presses into service the pseudo-Ignatian epistles, as well as the longer recension of the true Ignatian letters. The first quotation presented comes from the longer version of the epistle to the Ephesians, ironically enough, section 7. We have seen above that the real epistle contains at this point a tremendously strong Christological confession, wherein Christ is called “generate and ingenerate” and “God in man.” Here is the citation as given in the Watchtower article:
Ignatius calls Almighty God “the only true God, the unbegotten and unapproachable, the Lord of all, the Father and Begetter of the only-begotten Son,” showing the distinction between God and His Son.
Note the following items: First, in the true epistle, the term “ingenerate” used here of the Father (and clearly showing His eternal deity) is used of Christ. Second, it is highly educational to note the very next sentence in the quotation from the longer recension, a quotation, again, conveniently skipped by the Watchtower:
We have also a Physician the Lord our God, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son and Word, before time began, but who afterwards became also man, or Mary the virgin.
Even here the clear deity of Christ is proclaimed, and that in the very materials that the article asserts “always presents” the Son as “lesser than God.” Thirdly, we note that the Watchtower is quite adept at misrepresenting the doctrine of the Trinity in its writings. While at times giving accurate definitions, the writers of the Watchtower often confuse the issue with statements such as the one we see above, “…showing the distinction between God and His Son.” The distinction that is clear in Ignatius, and is clear in the doctrine of the Trinity as well, is between the Father and the Son. Many Witnesses believe that the doctrine of the Trinity presents a modalistic or Sabellian view of God–that is, they believe that Christians feel that the Father is the Son, and the Son is the Spirit, etc. There are some groups who believe like this–the United Pentecostal Church (UPC) for example, preaches a “Jesus Only” or “Oneness” theology–but such a viewpoint is not reflective of true Trinitarian doctrine. The Father is not the Son, nor is the Son the Father; therefore, to show a “distinction” between Father and Son is to say nothing more than what the doctrine of the Trinity has said all along. So pervasive is the misunderstanding of the doctrine of the Trinity amongst Witnesses that the article can go on to make the following statements:
He speaks of “God the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.” And he declares: “There is one God, the Almighty, who has manifested Himself by Jesus Christ His Son.”
The first quotation is from the conclusion of the longer version of the epistle to the Ephesians, and the second is from the longer version of section 8 of the epistle to the Magnesians. Though neither is genuinely Ignatian in origin, neither causes us the slightest problem with reference to the doctrine of the Trinity, either. Only by *assuming* a modalistic view of the Godhead can one find a problem in either of the citations.
Keeping in mind the true Ignatian reference to the eternity of Christ (Polycarp 3), we are amazed to read the next false assertion by the Watchtower: Ignatius shows that the Son was not eternal as a person but was created, for the has the Son saying: “The Lord [Almighty God] created Me, the beginning of His ways. The citation is from the spurious epistle to the Tarsians, section VI. Note that the author says, “Ignatius shows…”; yet, can we possibly believe that he did not notice that on page 105 of the volume of the _Ante-Nicene Fathers_ from which he is quoting, we have the heading, “Introductory Note to the Spurious Epistles of Ignatius”? How can he quote the “universally admitted” opinion of critics that this epistle to the Tarsians was *not* written by Ignatius, and yet say,
Ignatius shows…”? He compounds the error in the next sentence: Similarly, Ignatius said: “There is one God of the universe, the Father of Christ, `of whom are all things;’ and one Lord Jesus Christ, our Lord, `by whom are all things.’
This is from the spurious epistle of Ignatius to Philippians, section I. Again, we need not belabor the point that the author was well aware that Ignatius did not say this, yet he uses the phrase, “Ignatius said.” We note in passing that since this is, in fact, nothing but Biblical language taken almost directly from 1 Corinthians 8:6, it does not cause the doctrine of the Trinity a moment’s unrest. We see again that the Witness reader of this article is *expected* to operate with a false (modalistic) view of the Trinity. This is the “straw man” argument at its best.
As the next two citations in the article are given without comment, and do not in any way impact the doctrine of the Trinity (nor provide support for the assertion made by the article to begin with), we will move on to the attempt by the writer to deflect the *one* admitted instance of Ignatius calling the Son “God.” We read,
True, Ignatius calls the Son “God the Word.” But using the word “God” for the Son does not necessarily mean equality with Almighty God.
The author fails to provide us with a reference to this usage regarding Christ being “God the Word” (although all other citations are referenced). One such instance can be found in the spurious letter to the Tarsians, section IV. We pause to again express amazement that the author could so glibly give his readers the impression that this is the *only* time Ignatius refers to Christ as God. When we admit the longer versions and the spurious epistles to the conversation, the occurrences of this construction is multiplied, *yet there is no mention of this by the writer.* We cannot see any possible excuse for such misrepresentation.
The attempt on the part of the Watchtower Society to deflect the description of Christ as “God” in various Biblical passages (Isaiah 9:6, John 1:1, 1:18) by saying that the basic meaning of “god” is “mighty one” is tremendously weak. First, Biblically speaking, the contexts in which Christ is called God make is painfully clear that the author is not simply saying that He is a “mighty one.” But specifically in the context of Ignatius’ writings, our writer does not even attempt to make a case that there is a basis for reading Ignatius’ use of the term “God” with reference to Jesus Christ as nothing more than a description of Him as a “mighty one.” A brief examination of the citations above reveals the following: In Ephesians 1, Ignatius speaks of “the will of the Father and of Jesus Christ our God.” The divine will is predicated of Christ. In Romans 1 we see Ignatius speaking of “faith and love towards Jesus Christ our God.” One does not have faith in “mighty ones,” and the greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength” (Mark 12:30). In the introduction of the letter to the Smyrneans, Ignatius gives *glory* “to Jesus Christ the God who bestowed such wisdom upon you.” One does not give glory to a secondary “mighty one,” and one does not speak of wisdom being bestowed by anyone but the true God. There is no question that Ignatius viewed the Son has having the very *fullness of Deity* that Paul ascribed to Him as well (Colossians 2:9).
We read into the record once again the concluding statements of the Watchtower’s attempt to present their doctrines under the name of the bishop of Antioch:
And regardless of which of his writings are genuine, they show at best that Ignatius believed in a duality of God and his Son. This was certainly not a duality of equals, for the Son is always presented as lesser than God and subordinate to him. Thus, regardless of how one views the Ignatian writings, a Trinity doctrine is not to be found in them.
We have seen that the Watchtower has been dishonest in dealing with the issue of authenticity with regards to Ignatius’ writings. We have seen that the author of this article *never* cites the actual writings of Ignatius, but relies solely on materials that his sources clearly indicate are later writings. Further, the writer passes over in silence citation after citation that deals a death blow to his entire thesis, compounding his error by misleading his readers into thinking that Ignatius but once identifies the Lord as “God the Word.”
It is obvious to any semi-impartial reader that the Watchtower is not the least bit interested in what Ignatius *actually* believed about Jesus Christ. It is their purpose to make Ignatius into one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Just as the Watchtower Society has smuggled their doctrines into the Bible by mistranslating numerous passages (John 1:1, 8:58, Colossians 1:16-17, 2:9, Titus 2:13, 2 Peter 1:1, Revelation 3:14, etc. and etc.), so they show a willingness to grossly misrepresent an early Father of the Christian Church regarding his belief in the deity of Christ. We cannot possibly accept any excuses for this kind of deceptive writing–poor scholarship is one thing, but this goes far beyond simply poor scholarship. This article shows definite, pre-meditated deception. It’s purpose is to misrepresent Ignatius’ beliefs, and in so doing confirm millions of Jehovah’s Witnesses world-wide in their beliefs. When we think of the fact that the vast majority of those individuals do not have recourse to Ignatius’ actual writings, so as to discover the truth for themselves, the grave responsibility that lies upon the shoulders of the Watchtower Society for this deception becomes clear.
The venerable bishop of Antioch at the turn of the first century of the Christian era believed heartily in the deity of Jesus Christ. As he often confessed Christ to be His God, he was but following the Apostolic example seen in Thomas (John 20:28), John (John 1:1), Paul (Titus 2:13) and Peter (2 Peter 1:1). No amount of misrepresentation can hide the truth of the Christian belief summarized so well by Paul, “For in Him dwells all the fullness of Deity in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9).