Jehovah’s Witnesses on Trial: The Testimony of the Early Church Fathers. By Robert U. Finnerty. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1993. 164 pp. Paper, $8.95.
Robert Finnerty writes specifically over the early church fathers’ views of the Trinity, Jesus’ deity, the Holy Spirit’s personality, the soul, bodily resurrection and eternal punishment. As the title implies, he points out how the early church fathers held what Evangelicals today teach in contrast to what Jehovah’s Witnesses teach. This is important as the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that the early church taught Jehovah’s Witnesses doctrine, but then later fell into false doctrine. The author produces a strong case from the quotes of the early church fathers that they believed that the soul exists after death, that Christ was resurrected bodily, that they expected to go to heaven immediately after death, and that the fate of the wicked is eternal torment in hell and not annihilation. Every early father quoted, as well as many others not quoted, by the Jehovah’s Witnesses testifies clearly and unambiguously that Jesus is God.
Finnerty points out that during the first three centuries the church fathers wrote primarily in reaction to heretical views of Christ. These included Docetism and Gnosticism (which both denied Christ’s humanity), Elkesaites (declared Christ to be a higher angel), and Ebionism (a denial of Christ’s deity). Opposition also came from Monarchianism which took two forms: (1) Adoptionism which denied the deity of Christ, and (2) Modalism which denied the personality of the Son and the Spirit.
Arianism arose in 318 A.D. and taught that Christ was created by God and was a lesser god. Since the heresies up to this time were primarily over Christ and His relationship to the Father, the early church fathers responded to that. There is not a developed view of the trinity until after the Council of Constantinople in 381. However, the rudiments of the Trinity were present in their writings mostly in the form of baptismal formulas. Their strong affirmation of the deity of Christ is evidence that they always held the Trinity even though they had not written it all out formally. Their writings also evidenced a view of the Spirit as personal. It was not until after the Council of Nicea (325), when the deity of Christ was established, that the fathers started writing over the relationship of the Spirit to the Father and the Son.
The Watchtower Christology is virtually indistinguishable from Arianism. Arian did deny the deity of the Holy Spirit but believed him to be a personal, though created being. There is however silence from Arius on Jehovah’s kingdom, the nature of the soul, the invisible return of Christ, and the afterlife. In the writings of the early church fathers there is no evidence that anyone ever contended for the doctrines of the present day Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their faith bears no resemblance t that established by Christ and his apostles, a faith foreign as well to the church that they established. The closest historical antecedent for the Jehovah’s Witnesses is found in Arianism. Arius, however, did not come on the scene until early in the fourth century. This fact leads Finnerty to conclude that the source of Jehovah’s Witnesses doctrine is Charles Taze Russell from the late nineteenth century.
This book gives another possible insight into how we can reach Jehovah’s Witnesses with the Gospel. Since their own works contend that they are in line with the early church fathers and quote from them favorably, it might sow seeds of doubt if one were to patiently read through quotes from these church fathers on the deity of Christ as well as the other subjects mentioned. Besides being a historical defense of the deity of Christ, the Trinity, and the afterlife, it is an excellent summary of the history of the events that took place in the first three centuries of the church. This book is very encouraging and well worth reading.
R. Michael Duffy