The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Jehovah's Witnesses often make the charge that the doctrine of the Trinity should be rejected because it was formulated as a late doctrine in the history of the Church. Does this charge hold any water? This brief article will respond to this specific charge.
Although it is true that the doctrine of the Trinity was not officially formulated as a doctrine until the fourth century, this in no way detracts from the fact that the Church did hold to a Trinitarian pattern of belief prior to that time. For example, there is certainly a clear threefold pattern of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the New Testament record (for example, to name just a few of the more well known: Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14; 1 Cor. 12:4-6).
As well as the biblical pattern of Trinitarianism, there is also ample evidence that the early Church, immediately after the New Testament period, held to a Trinitarian pattern. For example, Throughout his first letter Clement uses a three fold Trinitarian pattern whereby he speaks of "God's will..., the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ..." and "the confidence of the Holy Spirit". (J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Hermer, The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd. ed., 1 Clement 22 42:2-3). As with Clement, a Trinitarian pattern of writing can be discerned in Ignatius' letters. For example, he declares how "...Our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived by Mary according to God's plan, both from the seed of David and of the Holy Spirit." (Ephesians, 18:2). When writing to the Magnesians he encourages them to prosper "...in the Son, and Father and Spirit." (Magnesians, 13:2).
It was only in the fourth century when the Church was challenged by Arius of Alexandria who asserted that Christ was not God but rather a creation, that the debate around the Godhead really began. Prior to the challenge of Arius, the Church had never before had to contend with such a concentrated attack, which eventually escalated to mammoth proportions. But the point is that the Church had to have already had a belief in the Deity of Christ before it could be attacked. Christ's Deity was always believed by the Church but was officially declared at the Council of Nicea in 325. The same is true for the related doctrine of the Trinity. It was inevitable that the storm which surrounded the doctrine of the Deity of Christ would eventually lead to discussion about the Holy Spirit as well. Eventually, the Personhood, and Deity of the Holy Spirit was asserted at the Council of Constantinople in 381 in response to a number of Church leaders who disputed this. However, as with the Deity of Christ, there could not have been a dispute about the Deity of the Holy Spirit if there hadn't already been an existing belief which followed this pattern.
Something else to consider is that if Jehovah's Witnesses reject a doctrine, or concept, because it was formulated late then they would have to reject the New Testament canon as well as it was also formulated late, in the fourth century! Another point to make is that the same people who defended the Deity of Christ and the Trinity, such as Athanasius, were also responsible for the formulation of the New Testament canon. So the very canon of the New Testament which Jehovah's Witnesses carry with them was actually put together by Trinitarians late in Church history!*
Jehovah's Witnesses might also be reminded that if they are to reject the doctrine of the Trinity on the basis that it was formulated late, then they should also reject some of their own unique teachings. For example, the Watchtower two class system of 144,000 in heaven and the Great Crowd on earth, did not originate as an official formulated doctrine until 1935. Jehovahs Witnesses may object that even though this was the case, the actual doctrine is implicitly taught in the Bible, and point to various texts in the book of Revelation, for example. Even though Christians would dispute the interpretation of the passages which Jehovah's Witnesses would offer to support this view, the point is that the Watchtower has formulated a late doctrine, for which they feel there is biblical support. This is exactly the case with the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity.
In conclusion it can be said that the Watchtower contention that the Trinity should be rejected because it was formulated in the fourth century, does not stand up under scrutiny. There is a threefold pattern threaded throughout the New Testament and the early Church Fathers, which only had to be specifically highlighted as correct pattern of belief when certain individuals rose up to stand against it.