Thursday, December 11, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Watchtower and the Word, by Stephen J. Bedard

Christian apologist Stephen J. Bedard recently sent me a PDF copy of one of his books, The Watchtower and the Word: A Guide to Conversations with Jehovah’s Witnesses (see here for Amazon’s page about the book).  He was hosting a giveaway on his blog, and I was fortunate to receive a copy.  He asked that I post a review of his book, so I will do so here.

In the Watchtower and the Word, Bedard explores the historical background and the doctrines of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Although Bedard disagrees with a number of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ doctrines, he acknowledges that Jehovah’s Witnesses and evangelical Christians share common ground, such as a commitment to the authority of Scripture.  Bedard also notes that evangelicalism is coming to overlap with Jehovah’s Witnesses in emphasizing the future resurrection and the coming new earth rather than the immortality of the soul (though Bedard later in the book actually uses this concept to argue against the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ belief that the 144,000 will go to heaven).  Bedard’s goal is respectful dialogue, not attacking Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Bedard talks about what he calls “Samaritan Beliefs,” which are identity markers that Jehovah’s Witnesses hold, but which do not pertain to salvation.  Bedard calls them “Samaritan Beliefs” because of a scene in John 4, in which Jesus is bringing up spiritually significant topics to the Samaritan woman at the well, and the woman changes the subject by asking where people should worship: Jerusalem, or the mountain where Samaritans worship?  Jesus is hitting a little too close for home, and so the Samaritan woman changes the subject!  Bedard offers his opinion on these Samaritan Beliefs—-which include Jehovah’s Witnesses’ belief in addressing God as Jehovah, their opposition to blood transfusions, their view that Jesus died on a stake rather than a cross, their refusal to keep holidays that they believe are pagan (i.e., Christmas, Easter), their view that one should pray to Jehovah and not Jesus, their refusal to participate in politics, and their organizational system that requires submission to a central church authority.  (On the last one, I was interested to learn that Jehovah’s Witnesses’ official publications do not name the authors of their articles, and Bedard says that the reason for this is that the authority is believed to belong to the Watchtower organization, not individuals.)  Bedard does not believe that evangelicals who talk with Jehovah’s Witnesses should get sidetracked by these Samaritan Beliefs, but should instead focus on important issues.  For Bedard, these important issues include the deity of Christ and the Trinity, which Jehovah’s Witnesses deny, and also the idea that the Kingdom of God was breaking into the world at Christ’s first advent, not starting in 1914, which is when the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the end-times began and Jesus returned (or came to be present).

Here are some of my thoughts about Bedard’s interaction with Jehovah’s Witnesses doctrines:

1. Bedard's best arguments, in my opinion, occurred when he was looking at Greek grammar and doing word studies.  The Jehovah's Witnesses translate John 1:1 to say that the Word who became Jesus Christ was "a" god rather than God, their rationale being that the Greek word for god there lacks a definite article.  Bedard, however, refers to a place in the New Testament where a noun lacks a definite article yet appears to be definite (Son of God in Matthew 27:54).  Bedard also explores the meaning of the Greek word monogenes, which is translated as "only begotten" in some versions and "only" in others, as well as the concepts of the firstborn and begettal.  Bedard looks at the New Testament and also II Esdras 6:58 and Sirach 36:17.  Bedard is arguing against any idea that the pre-existent Jesus' being begotten means that he was a created being, since Jehovah's Witnesses teach that God created the pre-existent Jesus.  Bedard demonstrates that begettal and the status of firstborn can often relate to God's choice of someone for a task or the preeminence of the person or group, not necessarily to the question of when (or if) someone came to exist.  Bedard acknowledges, however, that the Nicene Creed has a different understanding of the Son's being begotten----as the Son's eternal emanation from the Father.  Either way, Bedard notes, calling the pre-existent Jesus begotten or the firstborn does not imply that God created him and that he came to exist at a certain point in time, for these concepts are compatible with Jesus being eternal.

2.  Bedard quotes a number of scholars, including evangelical ones.  At times, this appeared to be an argument from authority, and I doubt that this by itself would persuade Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Perhaps, however, the views of scholars would influence them to take what Bedard calls another look at the evidence.

3.  In John 17:3, Jesus calls the Father the only true God, and I Corinthians 8:6 affirms that there is one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ.  Do these passages indicate that the Father is God whereas Jesus is not?  On John 17:3, Bedard appeals to scholar Raymond Brown and states that “it is clear that Jesus is not attempting to give a precise theological definition of the nature of God but rather to glorify his Father.”  On I Corinthians 8:6, Bedard quotes scholar Gordon Fee’s statement that “Paul’s concern is not with philosophical theology, but with its practical implications for the matter at hand”—-namely, the question of whether Corinthian Christians should eat meat offered to idols.  I have problems with these sorts of arguments, maybe because they appear to be circumventing what the text says by appealing to context, or they contradict my literal-mindedness (i.e., John 17:3 affirms that the Father is the one true God, so why not take that at face value?).  At the same time, Bedard does raise considerations that show that these texts may be more complex than a number of Jehovah’s Witnesses (and hyper-literalizing me) might think: that the New Testament applies things to Jesus that are said about God in the Old Testament, and that calling Jesus “Lord” is significant because “Lord” is a designation for God.

4.  Reading Bedard’s book made me curious about the Christology of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Bedard states that Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus was Michael the archangel, yet he also says that they do not take that to mean that Jesus himself was an angel, but rather had authority over the angels.  Bedard successfully argues on the basis of Hebrews 1 that Jesus was not an angel, but, if the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe that Jesus was an angel, why make that argument?  Moreover, Bedard refers to Hebrews 1:3, which affirms that the Son “is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (NRSV).  But could a Jehovah’s Witness claim to accept that and still maintain that the Son was a created being?  Human beings are in God’s image, yet they were created by God.

5.  There was a question going through my mind as I was reading Bedard’s defenses of the deity of Christ and the Trinity: Can one believe that Jesus is somehow God, without believing that he was always God, within a Trinity?  Some say that Jesus was a man who became divine—-after all, Philippians 2 says that it was at his exaltation that God gave Jesus a name above every name.  Some point to examples in Jewish literature in which a person bears the name of God and receives some divine authority.  I would not expect for Bedard to deal with these thorny issues in this book head on, for he is writing about Jehovah’s Witnesses who do not believe that Jesus was God, and that is the question with which he interacts.  Plus, I would not be surprised if he has thought about such issues; he does refer to indications in the New Testament that the Son pre-existed and was even in the form of God (Philippians 2).  I was just wondering about other ways to account for Christ’s deity that are not Trinitarian, and if there may be diversity in how the New Testament approaches this topic.

6.  Bedard asks how Jehovah’s Witnesses can question the Trinity while accepting the canon of Scripture.  Both, after all, were promoted by Athanasius (who gave us the first canonical list of the books of the New Testament).  This reminded me of a Roman Catholic critique of Sola Scriptura: How can Protestants say that we should believe only in the Bible (and not the church or church tradition) as authoritative for faith and practice, when they themselves accept the canon of Scripture set forth by the church (on some level)?  I wonder if Jehovah’s Witnesses would respond to Bedard’s question as many Protestants would reply to Catholics: that the church recognized the books of the canon as authoritative but did not make them authoritative, for their authority comes from their divine inspiration.

7.  At one point, in discussing the Trinity, Bedard says that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not three parts of God.  For Bedard, we should not see the Trinity as 1+1+1=1, but rather as infinity+infinity+infinity=infinity.  I wonder in what sense God is infinite, though.  God has to have boundaries, right?  Otherwise, would not everything and everyone be God?

8.  Bedard regards the deity of Christ and the Trinity as important issues—-even salvation issues.  He should have explained why he believes this to be the case, though.  Perhaps he should have referred to John 8:24, which states: “you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he” (NRSV).  Jesus may be saying there that people’s sins are not forgiven if they do not accept that Jesus is “I Am,” which could be a name for God (Exodus 3:14).  Rather than just saying that the church has regarded the deity of Christ as orthodox teaching, Bedard should have laid out a case for why that belief is important.

9.  I was intrigued, albeit not entirely satisfied, with Bedard’s discussion of Christian observance of holidays, which Jehovah’s Witnesses claim have pagan origin.  Bedard said that the Israelites used gold from Egyptian idols to construct the Tabernacle, and that God can use holidays to teach God’s people spiritual truth.  That is interesting, but Bedard should have addressed Deuteronomy 12:3-4, 30, where God seems to forbid the Israelites to worship God in the manner that the pagans worship their gods.

Those are just my questions and thoughts, and I am open to correction.  I enjoyed reading this book, and I especially appreciated Bedard’s respectful tone.

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