Witnessing to Jehovah’s Witnesses: Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience

Knock, knock. Ruff, ruff! My wife answered the door to find two well-dressed men on our front porch being sniffed over by our dog, Cooper. One had a King James Bible and a little yellow book entitled “What does the Bible Really Teach?” The other gentleman had a very new and nice looking “New World Translation” in his hand. Both were obviously Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW’s) and they wanted to discuss the Bible with us. I invited them in to sit by the warm fire in our den on this cool early November Monday.

knocking-at-the-door

After a couple of minutes of small-talk, I said that I gathered they were JW’s from the little yellow book. The one who held it in his hand was surprised that I was familiar with it. I told him that I actually had a couple of versions of my own that I had perused a time or two. He asked what I thought about the title, what I thought it might imply. I said it obviously implies that this book will tell the readers what the Bible actually says versus what they may have been misled to believe that it says, and then I cut to the chase.

First, I told them that I believe all genuine Christians desire for their faith to be grounded in and in harmony with what the Bible actually teaches, with the exception of some very liberal Christians who openly admit that they think Scripture is just wrong and to be ignored in certain respects (i.e. Dan Via in the book Two Views on homosexuality). I also told them that most importantly I myself am very concerned about my faith being in harmony with Scripture. I also told them that I read and study the Bible daily and read it through in its entirety every year at least. At this point I let them know that I am also a pastor. Then, I shared with them that at one time I made many of the very same arguments that they make with regards to the nature of God and the person of Jesus Christ.

I was involved with an anti-Trinitarian group called The Way International (TWI) for over a decade, I shared. Although the doctrine of TWI was a bit different, we had used basically the same arguments and proof-texts (that means pulling scripture out of context to support a preconceived notion that is often foreign to Scripture itself). We pitted the human nature against the divine nature of Christ as revealed in Scripture and dismissed the paradox by explaining away the later. I shared with them that I too at one time was convinced that Jesus could not be God, but came to believe that I was indeed wrong after a period of self-examination and reevaluation that I entered into after a miracle that occurred with our daughter Anna after an emergency C-section (Read about that here). I told them that I came to believe that I had been exalting my own reason and logic above the revelation of the Bible and that I realized that there are many things, especially the nature of God, that may be beyond human comprehension, but not illogical. Incomprehensibility and irrationality are two different things.

That’s really the biggest objection to the Trinity, whether it be from JW’s, TWI, Unitarian Universalists, or Muslims; that it is illogical. That would be true if Trinitarians actually taught that there is one God and three God’s, but that is not what the Trinity teaches. It teaches that there is one God in three persons, thus God is one in a particular sense, in His nature or being, and three in another sense, in persons. It is certainly ultimately beyond full human comprehension, but it is not technically illogical. One of the gentleman actually agreed that there are many things that are beyond our comprehension. How much more the God who created everything that is! This is not to say that there is no need to think about these things, to the contrary, the Triune God and His ways require us to love him with all of our mind while knowing that we will never grasp everything about Him and His ways (see Psalm 139, Isaiah 55:8-9 & Romans 11:33).

The other gentleman, apparently none too impressed, piped up and said, what do you do about Colossians 1:15, which says Christ is the firstborn of all creation, which they interpret to mean the first created being, who the created all other things. I pointed out that the phrase is a figure of speech to refer to Christ’s preeminence over all of creation. I also pointed out that John 1:3 was very insistent that not one thing came into existence without him as their own translation attests. If he himself was created by the Father, Jehovah, then one thing did indeed come into existence without him. In that same passage back in Colossians 1 in verse 16 it also emphatically says that all things in heaven and earth, visible and invisible, were created by him, although the NWT (the JW’s own translation) unjustifiably adds the word “other” to make it appear to be saying that Christ created everything else after he himself was created. There is no credible reason to do that and it is quite curious that the NWT translators added the word “other” in Colossians 1:16, but not in John 1:3.

Next he says what about Proverbs 8:22 which he said clearly says Christ was created. I didn’t really go into the details of this with them, but I simply said there is much more going on in that passage in Proverbs 8 that must be considered. First of all, some translations say “possessed” rather than “created” in Proverbs 8:22. The translation “created”, however, does seem to fit best in this particular context. Nevertheless, the passage, as well as much of Proverbs, is using the figure of speech personification to speak of the very abstract concept of wisdom. Wisdom is personified as a woman who brings blessing and life to those who welcome and embrace her. My JW guests agreed with me that God Himself would never have been without wisdom, one of his many attributes. On another note, while Christ was certainly considered to be the wisdom of God in the flesh in the New Testament and by the early church fathers, it may be going a bit far to completely identify wisdom in Proverbs with Christ. Another aspect to consider here, and I am speculating, is that the wisdom here referred to as “created” is the logical code upon which the universe and everything in it is what it is and does what it does. One might say here the natural law embedded in the universe that declares the glory of the Lawgiver, namely God, (compare Psalm 19; also it is interesting to note that later Jews would identify wisdom with Torah as Christians would with Christ) who would later be revealed to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who created all things together. At any rate, Proverbs 8 is a very figurative passage and it is hard to discern and tease out the specific possible referents, namely wisdom as an attribute of God and as the logic embedded within physical reality and the interplay between them. What I have in mind is the distinction between the full wisdom of God and the specific wisdom formulation of natural law that governs the universe. This too is “knowledge [is] too wonderful for me” (Psalm 139:6).

That being said, what is clear is that John 1:3 and Colossians 1:16 indicate that Christ created all things period. Moreover, there is nothing in the New Testament or in Genesis 1 for that matter, to indicate that God created a being who then created everything else. Genesis 1 identifies God as the creator of all things and John 1:1 identifies the Word that became flesh (1:14) as God, not “a god” as the NWT would suggest. JW’s teach that Jesus, as the first created being was an archangel who was divine in a lesser sense than Jehovah. Hebrews chapter 1:8-11, as I pointed out to them identifies the Son not as an angel (especially see the context), but as God (Hebrew would be Elohim) and as the Lord (Jehovah or Yahweh, the name of God in the OT). Verse 8 may be explained away as Christ simply receiving the title “Elohim” as God’s representative, but it is much more difficult to explain away verses 10-11, which has God the Father applying Psalm 102:25-27 to the Son. The Son is identified, not as an angel or created wisdom, but as the eternal Lord, Jehovah Himself who laid the foundation of the earth and crafted the heavens.

I also shared with my visitors that I finally confessed Jesus as Lord and God (see John 20:28) and put my faith in Him as such when reading through Philippians 2 a few months after the miracle with our daughter Anna and during my time of reexamining my life and beliefs. I finally saw that verse 6 means what it says when it speaks of Christ being in “the form of God” and having equality with God and accepted it for what it actually says. The passage goes on to speak of Christ becoming something that he was not before, namely a human slave, which is what John 13:1-17 also reveals about the Word that was God (1:1) that became flesh (1:14). Before Christ became human he wasn’t simply a forethought in God’s mind as TWI teaches or an angel of a lower nature than God the Father as JW’s teach, but he was in the form of God and equal with God. As John 1:1 simply puts it, He was God. Philippians 2 goes on to speak of Christ in human form further humbling himself in obedience to the Father by giving his life on the cross, for which God exalted Him and gave him the name that is above every name. Then echoing Isaiah 45:23 that speaks of every knee bowing and every tongue confessing to God, Paul says that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess “that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Philp 2:11). There’s no good reason to think that this would mean Lord in a lesser sense than Hebrews 1:10-11. I told my guests that I finally did what this passage calls us to do. I humbled myself and confessed Jesus as Lord in the highest sense of the term and put my faith in Him as such even though exactly how it is so is beyond my full comprehension.

The gentleman carrying the little yellow book objected and said that this was a very controversial passage. I said that anything can be made complicated and claimed to be controversial, but that doesn’t make it so. “What name would be above every other name?” I asked. After a moment of hesitation I said what about what Jesus says of Himself in John 8? There in an argument with the religious leaders who had scolded him for saying he saw Abraham, Jesus said, “Before Abraham came into existence, I am!” (John 8:58 NET). My guest objected that Jesus was simply claiming preexistence, not to be God. Their NWT does render the last phrase “I have been” rather than “I am”, but it is most certainly wrong to do so. Without dispute the Greek manuscripts clearly show that “I am” is the proper translation of ego eimi, which is clearly the present tense indicative form. “I am” may sound odd because it is grammatically incorrect if Jesus was simply saying that he preexisted Abraham as an angel or lesser divine being, but it makes perfect sense if Jesus was in fact claiming for Himself the name of God that was revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Ex 3:14) as the negative reaction of the religious leaders would indicate. When I pointed out that the Greek was clearly present tense indicative, he began to try to rationalize it in another way and I gently called him on it.

That’s really the issue. As I explained to them before and as I explained to them at this point again, it’s not that the Scriptures don’t really teach us that Jesus Christ is God; the problem is that how this is so in a metaphysical sense is beyond our comprehension and in pride we assume that because it doesn’t make sense to us then it can’t possibly make sense at all. This is an example of when we love to exalt our reason and logic above the revelation of God in the Bible. Jesus is not only revealed to be Lord and God in the highest sense of those terms in a few statements in a few passages, but also in the way he acted and the way he spoke. When Jesus said things like “You have heard that it was said, but I say unto you” (i.e. Sermon on the Mount Matthew 5) and “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28 KJV), he was speaking with an authority far greater than the ordinary prophet. Ordinary prophets would simply say, “Thus saith the Lord” or call people to return to the Lord not to them. Jesus, however, speaks without reference to a higher authority and calls people to Himself. Jesus divinity is also revealed when he calms storms on the sea (Matt 8 & Matt 14) and walks on water (Matt 14), powers that are attributed to Jehovah God in the Old Testament (see Psalm 107:28-29 & Job 9:28). When his disciples in wonder asked, “What manner of man is this, that even the winds and sea obey him?” The answer isn’t a semi-divine angel, but as the Psalm indicates the correct answer is that He is the Lord, Jehovah, or as Matthew would say, Emmanuel, which means God with us.

There is much more I could have told my guests and much more I could say here, but I hoped to get them to see that the problem is not that the Bible doesn’t really teach that Jesus is God, but that we have a hard time humbling ourselves to the reality of Someone Who is so far beyond our comprehension. It takes humility to have that kind of faith.

Of course they continued to throw out the standard objections, “If Jesus was God then who did he pray to?” “If Jesus was God then why did he say the Father is greater than him?” (John 14:28). The misunderstanding with the first may be cleared up by recognizing a couple of different things about the Trinity and about the incarnation. First, the Trinity is NOT teaching that the Father is the Son and the Son is the Father. They share the same divine nature with all of the attributes of divinity including omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence and they share the same will, but they are eternally distinct persons who act in coordination with one another but also in distinct ways. John 1:1 indicates as much when it speaks of the Word being “with God” and at the same time simply stating that “the Word was God.” There is a real unity but also a real distinction in the persons. As someone has said, God is one what and three Who’s. So the persons can and do communicate with each other, hence the Son praying to the Father. The other reality is that Trinitarians also recognize the full humanity of Jesus. He truly became human, and as a human he could and would pray to the Father as well. Both of these realities could also explain why Jesus said the Father is greater. First the Father could be considered greater in terms of their roles in salvation history, but still equal in terms of nature and divine attributes. A boss, for example, could be considered greater than an employee in terms of her roll within a company, but equal in terms of their shared humanity. Another way to think about it is that the Father would be greater in light of the incarnation. That is in terms of Jesus human nature. Either is a plausible solution to the paradox we find in Scripture that Jesus is both equal with the Father as we have seen and somehow less than the Father. Anyway, for what it’s worth, I also shared with my guests that I eventually realized that in the past I wasn’t really arguing against the Trinity. The arguments that I made and that they were making and that their little yellow book makes is actually against an ancient heresy called modalism, which Trinitarians also reject.

Again the problem is not that the Bible really doesn’t teach that Jesus is God. The problem is the all too human tendency to pride that causes us to exalt our limited human reason above Divine revelation. The former, without the healing balm of the gospel and the guiding light of the Bible, John Wesley called “the blind leader of the blind” (Sermons, Vol. 1, p. 209). I also shared with my guests that it is equally wrong to exalt tradition above Scriptural revelation as well, a point with which they readily concurred. It is also wrong to exalt one’s own personal experience or feelings above the word of God. In terms of authority, in the Methodist tradition this is often called the Wesleyan quadrilateral, but is more accurately seen as “a unilateral rule of Scripture within a trilateral hermeneutic of reason, tradition, and experience” (Randy Maddox, Responsible Grace, p. 46).

When my guests realized that the conversation wasn’t going as they had hoped they politely made their way to the door.  I wished them well and asked them to really ponder the possibility that they might be exalting their own reason above the revelation of God.  I’m not sure what may come of it, but I am thankful for the opportunity to witness to Jehovah’s Witnesses and bear witness to the light, “the true light, who gives light to everyone” (John 1:5 NET). May their hearts also be flooded with that light as mine was almost 9 years ago; and may they too confess by the Holy Spirit that truly Jesus is their Lord and their God (John 20:28) in the highest sense of those terms to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

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3 thoughts on “Witnessing to Jehovah’s Witnesses: Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience

  1. Your post took me back to last year when I encountered the Heidelberg Catechism, and, as a result, a book about it “Body & Soul” by M. Craig Barnes. The big takeaway from the book itself was that our biggest problem is accepting the fact that God is God and we are not. That made me realize that in challenging things like the mystery of the Trinity, all we are doing is minimizing the fact we cannot comprehend or control God. One of my favorite quotes from the book is “The minute we accept the virgin birth, we lose control”. And he is absolutely right. I went on to read a couple of more books by Barnes and, as a result, one of my descriptions of God is
    an unfathomable God of mystery;
    and thanks to Wesley, I add to that
    who loves even me more than I could ever think about loving myself.
    And that is all I need to know. But truthfully, I am still working past my own need to be in control; Barnes was also right that there is nothing harder.

    Barnes gives a very good summary of God and our problem with him in another book–words in brackets are my modification based on my experience:

    …To live with the sacred God of creation
    means we conduct our lives with a God who does not explain himself to us.
    It means that we worship a God who is often mysterious—
    too mysterious to fit our formulas for better living.
    It means that God is not our best friend,
    our secret lover or
    our good luck charm.
    He is God.
    The sacred can never be contained by
    our fervent prayers,
    our theological boxes or
    our great need to have someone on our side.

    God will not be leashed.
    He will not speak on command…

    …Essentially, the Pharisees’ problem, and ours, is in understanding the difference between knowing God and knowing about God. We easily confuse the two. One implies information, while the other is a vital relationship…

    Typically Protestant churches are better at helping people know [some] things about God than we are at helping them know God as people who live with him.

    It should come as no surprise that when Christians really need their faith, if [some] knowledge is all they have, they will soon wander away in search of a God worth worshiping. [The church version will no longer “do”]…

    …The challenge to people of faith is to learn how to follow.
    Central to that task is giving up the expectation of knowing where we are going.

    M. Craig Barnes, When God Interrupts: Finding New Life in Unwanted Change

  2. Pingback: My Testimony Part 5: Humility and Salvation | Wall to Wall Faith, Hope, & Love

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