Wednesday, April 13, 2011

bringin' in the big dawgs

I've been meeting with some Jehovah's Witnesses off and on for about 17 months now.  We met regularly for 6 months and then took a break for the summer. We met a few more times and then I asked if we could wait until April and meet to talk about the Trinity.

I have learned a lot from Lula. She is a godly woman, dedicated to the ministry, who really knows her Bible.  She has refused to be intimidated by my 6 years of formal Bible training and knowledge of both Greek and Hebrew.  Though not formally educated herself and not paid a dime for her ministry, she has continued to come week after week to meet with me and study the Bible.  Each time we meet she brings along someone different, always another woman volunteer. Can I make a confession?  For a long time now I've wondered when she would call in her supervisor. Today she finally did.

Kevin is the district substitute superintendent for the entire Charlotte area all the way to Spartanburg.  Like Lula, he is mystified that anyone could actually read the Bible and persist in believing in the Trinity.  Often I tell them that I can see how they could read the passage in the way that they do, but that I understand it differently. Today Kevin finally asked me (in exasperation?), "If a straightforward reading of the Bible implies that Jesus is not God, but sent from God as his representative, then what would motivate you to elevate him further?"

I was so glad he asked.  I pointed immediately to a brochure Lula had given me last year entitled, Should You Believe in the Trinity? They do a good job of introducing the topic, and I especially like this: "If the Trinity is true, it is degrading to Jesus to say that he was never equal to God as part of a Godhead. But if the Trinity is false, it is degrading to Almighty God to call anyone his equal ..." (3). This is why it matters: because right worship depends on knowing God as He really is.

Though there is a number of passages that seem to suggest that Jesus was not equal to the Father (John 14:28; 1 Cor 11:3; 15:27), there are many other indications in Scripture that Jesus was more than just God's representative (John 1:1; 17:21; Acts 2:21 with 4:12). Jesus did things that only God can do.  He forgave sins, he raised the dead, he healed a man blind from birth. Jesus also made claims that were tantamount to claiming deity.  He called himself the "light of the world" (John 9:5 with Isa 60:1-2), the "good shepherd" (John 10:11 with Eze 34), the "son of man" (Matt 17:9 with Dan 7:9-10, 13-14; Rev 1:12-18), and the "I am" (John 8:54-59 with Ex 3:3-4). These claims caused great consternation among the Jewish leaders, and in several cases they tried to stone him for blasphemy! His followers worshipped him (see John 9:38), and he did not object.

I recommended two books that have been helpful for me on this issue.  One is Donald Fairbairn's Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers. Not only is it written simply and beautifully, it is changing the way I think about salvation.  I highly recommend it!  Fairbairn explains that the earliest followers of Jesus saw salvation as an invitation to share in the life of the Trinity the way the Father and Son share life together.

The other book is Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament's Christology of Divine Identity. This one is not quite as easy to read, but terribly profound. Bauckham argues that Jesus' actions and claims about himself prompted his early followers to include him within their concept of "one God." The first century Jewish idea of monotheism was flexible enough to allow for Jesus' inclusion in the deity without seeing God as "more than one." At the end of our discussion, Kevin admitted that he needed to go back and reexamine some things in the Bible.  And that's what every good Bible discussion should do -- push us back to the Scriptures with fresh eyes to see once again what God has revealed and how we are to respond.  Please pray for Kevin, and for me and Lula as we continue to study the Bible and discuss what it teaches.


  1. Thank you so much for posting this! I studied with a woman in my area for about a year before deciding to end it. I just felt like we would go around in endless circles. I will say though that nothing has ever sent me deeper into God's Word than the challenge presented by trying to minister to them. It was a blessing to be held actively accountable each week for what I had learned. I'm looking forward to reading your book recommendations and seeing if that can help clear up my own personal areas of fuzziness. I never realized how many theological concepts I held without having a clear understanding of them before I met with the JWs. Thank you again for posting this, and please, please, please keep us updated with any new revelations you may have in your studies about how to witness to a Witness.

    P.S. Any thoughts on their translation of John 1:1, "the Word was with God and the Word was A god." Thanks!

  2. Ciara,

    Thank you for your comment! After this week I'd like to sit down and right a proper response to your question about John 1:1. It's such an important verse to both sides of the debate and I do have thoughts on it, but I want to do it with my notes in front of me so that I can answer accurately.

    As far as how to witness to a Witness, I don't feel like I have discovered any magic key, and I don't have any clear results to show from all the hours I've spent with them (other than my own deepened understanding of our faith). I do think, though, that it has been helpful to respond point by point and verse by verse to their claims, showing them that I understand their position but that I read that passage differently. They seem baffled that there is another way to understand these things. I try not to be rude or pushy, and I do consider Lula a friend. The other thing that has helped me is not to think in terms of individual proof texts but rather with big picture theology in mind. My other posts on JW's will explain what I feel some of the big issues are. I'm convinced that they are missing the forest for the trees.

    I'll write more on John 1:1 later!