Friday, November 25, 2005

Reply to Robert Bowman's Comments on the Fathers


In _Why You Should Believe in the Trinity: An Answer
to Jehovah's Witnesses_ (pp. 27-29), Robert Bowman
makes some comments pertaining to Justin Martyr's
Christology or his belief respecting the Father, Son
and Holy Spirit. Bowman ultimately claims that
Jehovah's Witnesses (in their "Trinity" brochure) have
"misrepresented" what Justin and other early Fathers
say regarding the Son. However, do Bowman's
asseverations hold true when examined in the light of
pre-Nicene history? We shall address this question

First, Bowman endeavors to discount the theological
value of the pre-Nicene testimony. The fathers, he
states, are not completely orthodox in matters
relating to God-talk (Why You Should, 27-28).
Moreover, he writes that some "Christian theologians"
have supposedly criticized Justin for commingling
pagan thinking and Christian beliefs. Bowman does not
see fit to tell us who these anonymous theologians

Second, one reads that the documents produced by
Clement of Alexandria have not been taken seriously
since the fourth century and Origen of Alexandria was
labeled a heretic "for some of his views" (Ibid., 28).
Bowman caps his argument in this portion of his book
by asserting that the pre-Nicene citations found in
the Trinity brochure, for the most part, "reflect not
the general theological beliefs of common Christians
in their day," but wrongheaded and brilliant
speculations of intellectuals attempting to seriously
interact with their new faith (Ibid). What should one
think concerning these claims? Let us now dissect them
in the next few paragraphs.

(1) The standard view of Justin Martyr is that he is a
subordinationist who nonetheless pioneered the
ontological dogma of the Trinity: he did not teach the
Trinity doctrine per se. Hence, from Bowman's
vantage-point, Justin might be unorthodox
theologically. His objection to Wiutnesses using
Justin hardly makes any sense, however, in light of
the Trinity brochure's stated purpose. It is a fact
that Trinitarians have tried to employ Justin Martyr
to prove that early Christian writers did affirm God's
triunity or the deity of the Son (See _A Dictionary of
Early Christian Biography, page 625). One cannot have
it both ways. Either Justin was orthodox respecting
his Christology or he was unorthodox. The Trinity
brochure is merely replying to what Trinitarians
themselves have said about Justin and it does a fair
job of addressing those who argue for a proto-form of
the Trinity in Justin. The brochure's treatment of
Justin is not perfect. Yet, there are good and
legitimate reasons why the Trinity brochure invokes
Justin Martyr as a witness. Gerald O'Collins writes:

"Justin made an invaluable, initial contribution to
trinitarian teaching . . . His sense of the ineffable
transcendence of the Father and Creator of all things
led to a certain subordination of the Son--and of the
Holy Spirit, to the extent that the Spirit was thought
of. At the same time, Justin held that the Son,
sharing in the essence (OUSIA) and mind of God was/is
truly divine" (_The Tripersonal God: Understanding and
Interpreting the Trinity__. New York/Mahwah, NJ:
Paulist Press, 1999), 95-96.

O'Collins adds: "Justin's trinitarian faith was
literally a matter of life and death" (Ibid., 96).

With scholarly estimations like these, is it any
wonder that the Trinity brochure invoked Justin
Martyr? Supposedly, his trinitarian faith is markedly
apparent in his writings.

(2) I would be interested in knowing where Bowman
learned that Clement of Alexandria was considered
irrelevant from the fourth century onwards. Charles
Thomas Cruttwell relates that "The great reputation
achieved by Clement, combined with his gentle and
peaceable character, raised him high in the estimation
of the Church" (_A Literary History of Early
Christianity Including the Fathers and the Chief
Heretical Writers of the Ante-Nicene Period_ . New
York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1893), 461. Compare
_Historia Ecclesiastica_ 5.11. Vide _A Dictionary of
Early Christian Biography_, p. 176-182.

(3) Bowman maintains that Origen of Alexandria was
considered a heretic for some of his teachings.
However, the fact is that Origen never was deemed a
heretic by any church council, not even the second
council of Constantinople. Rather, some of his views
were condemned, but many today still think of Origen
Studer. Trinity and Incarnation: The Faith of the
Early Church_. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1993. Page 78.)
While Frank Sadowski (S.S.P.) does report that the
anti-Origenists thought of Origen as a heretic because
he erred in some things, he nonetheless contends:
"Origen was not a heretic. He taught some things as
speculations and he always made it clear that if he
erred, he would welcome correction of the Church"
(_The Church Fathers on the Bible: Selected Readings_.
New York: Alba House, 1987), 267.

(4) It is of interest that Tertullian believes the
SIMPLICES failed to apprehend theology aright
(Adversus Praxean 3). History informs us that modalism
(i.e. the belief that there exists three
hypostatically identical divine persons) held sway in
the West prior to Nicea. Therefore, according to
Tertullian, Bowman may have his analysis reversed.


David Waltz said...

Hi Edgar,

Robert Bowman’s (as well as virtually all of Walter Martin’s ‘step-children’) reading of the Church Fathers is certainly skewed. Bowman is, first and foremost, an Evangelical polemicist, this fact, coupled with his anachronistic lens, prevents him from ascertaining what the CFs actually taught in their original context.

Grace and peace,


Edgar Foster said...

Hi David,

Bowman probably needs to study the Fathers in more earnest. It is my belief that his treatment of the ANF is primarily based on what secondary sources report about the Fathers. Thanks again!

Pax tibi,