Saturday, December 27, 2008

JW Study Meeting #13

Today Uriah and I had our thirteenth meeting. My girlfriend's staying here for the week, so she was present. The three of us--I haven't seen a JW other than Uriah for quite some time now--made some small-talk here and there; I mentioned that I'd finished reading the second volume of Studies in the Scriptures (the one called The Time is at Hand), plus the 1986 book Worldwide Security Under the "Prince of Peace", and now I was tackling Jehovah's Witnesses: Proclaimers of God's Kingdom. Also some talk of computers, and assorted stories that now slip my mind. We finished the fifth chapter of What Does the Bible Really Teach? without too much difficulty, and it was relatively uncontroversial, though I added some clarifications to the effect that Christ's life and death were not simply a one-for-one trade-off with what Adam forfeited. The next chapter, regarding the fate of the dead, will naturally be much more fun.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

JW Study Meeting #12

The fun ain't over! Uriah and I had our latest meeting today. We spent a lot of time making assorted small-talk and discussion. He brought me the latest copies of The Watchtower and Awake!--nothing terribly interesting in either so far as I can see--as well as copies of two new books: Knowledge That Leads to Everlasting Life, their previous study book, and a thick hardback that I've been eagerly awaiting, Jehovah's Witnesses: Proclaimers of God's Kingdom. Uriah told me how, before he was a JW but when his wife was, he used to look through that book and others seeking points to write up for debate. Then he'd prepare all sorts of flowcharts and get into multi-hour debates with Jehovah's Witnesses on all sorts of things. It's no wonder he's the JW I get to meet with. This morning, I had finished watching the third of the videos that Uriah let me borrow. This one was about the persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses in Nazi Germany, and it included numerous stories from JW Holocaust survivors. Pretty interesting stuff, but like most Watchtower-produced films, it eventually grew boring and excessively lengthy. I returned the movie to him today.

Some of the other things we spoke of were reading (I mentioned that I'm shooting for 100 books in 2008, which is somewhat plausible since this morning I made it to 93) and some current-event types of things, like this and this. Oh, and computer problems. We've both been having plenty of computer problems lately, though at least--unlike his--mine hasn't actually crashed, per se. (I still say that requiring several hours and about forty tries to access the Internet is rather extreme, though...)

He told me some interesting tales of running across a Baha'i household in door-to-door witnessing once. (At least, I think it was Baha'i. The name he said sounded a lot like it, as did a description of their teaching and methods.) I forget exactly how we managed to get on that subject, but it was a pretty interesting story. He mentioned how Witnesses get maps of sections of the neighborhood to cover and then turn them back in for another section map so that they don't harass the same people too often. On the back of the map for that section was a note saying that newly baptized Jehovah's Witnesses should avoid that household; evidently the Baha'i man was a fairly eloquent and persuasive speaker if the listener wasn't being sufficiently critical. I told a brief story, then, about the time I attended a World Religion Day celebration at a small Baha'i meeting. Interesting time, that.

Oh, and I told Uriah some interesting stories about a debate foe of mine, especially concerning the trouncing he received in this thread at TheologyWeb. I believe the phrase, "most brainwashed individual I have ever encountered" rolled off my tongue. See, I was explaining to Uriah that my academic advisor persuaded me to spend next semester applying for a Fulbright, and I've decided that my proposal is going to be to travel to the Philippines and do a study of Iglesia ni Cristo theology for nine months. I'm pretty excited at the possibility, quite naturally, especially because it could be the perfect solution to my problems with procuring INC materials. But, we'll see where that goes.

Eventually, Uriah and I turned to the section of What Does the Bible Really Teach? that we've been working on and got through another piece of the chapter on the atonement. Nothing terribly controversial so far, although I might have qualified a few things here and there. The one paragraph emphasized that being made in the image of God does not mean that we physically resemble God, and that "Jehovah does not have a body of flesh and blood" (p. 48). I quipped that Mormons would probably find that paragraph fairly objectionable, and Uriah remarked that he's never been able to get a Mormon to stick with the study past maybe the second chapter at the furthest.

Afterwards I think I went off on a brief tangent about how certain Church Fathers (*cough*-Gregory-of-Nyssa-*cough*) developed the ransom imagery for the atonement in some difficult directions, and I emphasized that the varying images for the crucifixion used in the New Testament (sacrifice, ransom, penal substitution, victory, etc.) all need to be integrated and taken together as part of the immensely multifaceted solution of God to the creation's problem of rebellion, corruption, and death.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

JW Study Meeting #11

Uriah dropped by today, and I was caught off-guard a bit because I was upstairs, browsing TheologyWeb through the mysterious wireless Internet access that my laptop sometimes gets and for which I'm sure not the one shelling out any cash. After hopping downstairs, I let Uriah in, and we made a bit of small talk at the start. I told him how I'd watched two of the videos he'd let me borrow, Jehovah's Witnesses: The Organization Behind the Name and No Blood: Medicine Meets the Challenge. The second one is all about, needless to say, the medical progress being made in developing bloodless surgical techniques to accomodate, not just Jehovah's Witnesses, but also any other individuals who have a preference for avoiding blood transfusions for some reason or other. One case given as an example of this technology in action was a young JW girl who needed surgery to deal with a very severe case of scoliosis, and for whom they used the substitute techniques of hemodilution and use of a Cell Saver. The other video, which I'd initially hoped would cover some of the history of the organization, was really more about the operation as it stood in the late 80s... so there was plenty of footage from inside Bethel and the related complex, including an extremely lengthy tour of the printing presses. It was pretty interesting at first, and I especially enjoyed checking out brief clips of the library and information on how their publications come to be written... but by the time I was about halfway through, I was bored out of my mind.

I was chatting with Uriah for a bit, and he was telling me about a tour of Bethel he took a year or so ago, and we were discussing the computer technology they have, and he was mentioning how impressive the presses are. Then he mentioned that while there, he got to take photographs of Russell's and Rutherford's personal Bibles, and that reminded me to show him my copy of Russell's The Divine Plan of the Ages, which I'd discovered in a box in the basement a few weeks ago and which he was delighted to see. Then I showed him the chart in front, which was Russell's "pyramid scheme" (forgive the pun), and I talked for a while about all the cool stuff I have in PDF format, including Harvest Gleanings, Russell's will, some of his earlier writings, and collections of his comments arranged by verse--which, it occurred to me, is just the sort of thing that I'd be likely to do.

From there, I asked about some of the books I'd asked for and some others that interest me. Uriah's ordered in a copy of Jehovah's Witnesses--Proclaimers of God's Kingdom, whereas "The Word"--Who is He? According to John is proving to be a rather elusive fellow. He could've sworn he'd already transferred a copy of Knowledge That Leads to Everlasting Life to me last time he was here, but I don't have record that he did, so he thinks it might still be at home, in which case I'll receive it next time. I then mentioned that I'd seen a two-volume work called Insight on the Scriptures, which is sort of their current Bible encyclopedia. He's going to look into the possibility of finding me a copy. He explained how he uses it, and he gave as an example a time recently when he was curious about the meaning of 1 Peter 3:19 and found some answers in the Insight book. Around here, we got on a tangent of discussing Mormonism--evidently the Mormons don't visit him anymore. At first they get excited, but after they realize that he's interested in the Bible and not the Book of Mormon, they tend to wander away. We then spent some time discussing Mormon doctrine, such as eternal progression and exaltation, and he brought up how he had a book on Mormonism (I don't think he remembered the title), and he questioned them on the relative recentness (is that a word?) of admitting blacks to the priesthood. I've always wanted to see a Jehovah's Witness and a Mormon throw down. When we found ourselves back on books, I asked about Aid to Bible Understanding, and he actually wasn't sure what it was, though he recalled that the cover had blue lettering and a yellowish/goldish background. He said it was pretty old, but he'll see if maybe he can find one somewhere. From the sounds of it, nobody really uses it anymore, so it sounds perfect for me. Jehovah's Witnesses these days don't really read the older material too much, since they're busy getting through the newest and latest. I eventually asked about the difference between the Emphatic Diaglott and the Kingdom Interlinear, and he didn't seem entirely certain, actually. From the sounds of it, they don't really use either very much, or at least he doesn't. The Diaglott, he said, is arranged in three columns, each a different language, with one frequently empty depending on which testament the page is. He wasn't sure about any specifics of the Kingdom Interlinear, but he's going to look into the possibility of getting one for me. I can buy an Emphatic Diaglott from one of the Christadelphian bookstores, since the translator of the Diaglott, Benjamin Wilson, was a Christadelphian.

Somewhere in here, we went on some tangents, first about Joyce Meyer and how she insists that if people don't believe that Jesus was tormented in hell by demons for three days to further atone for our sins, they can't be saved, and then second about the bailouts, which both Uriah and I think was a rather abysmal decision.

Also, Uriah told an interesting story about how full-time Pioneers get a chance now and then to attend a special two-week school (I asked if it was Gilead, but then I remembered that that's specifically a missionary training school), and one time, an instructor there had his class spend a day in the field with nothing but their Bibles. No tracts, no study helps, just Bibles. Uriah said that the purpose was to remind them to teach the Bible, not the study book, which at least comes across as an atypical JW sentiment, considering their organization's history of insisting that the Scriptures need to be clarified through the organization's helps. (Uriah's remarks at this point sounded very... Protestant, at least for a JW. It was interesting.)

After almost an hour, Uriah and I finally turned to What Does the Bible Really Teach?, and after we determined where we were, we decided to just do two paragraphs and call it a day. We're getting into the fifth chapter, which is on the atonement. Should be interesting. Nothing controversial so far. It's just introductory material saying little more than that the atonement brought by Christ was the greatest gift that we could ever receive. No argument there! So we talked about it for a while, and then prepared to part ways. I wished Shem well, and Uriah mentioned that although we don't pray together at our studies, he does still pray for me, and that he thinks I've got a lot of potential.

Oh, also, he gave me the latest two issues each of The Watchtower and Awake!. While I think I'll thoroughly enjoy many of the articles in the November Watchtower, since they primarily concern the issue of hell, my attention was immediately drawn to the 1.5-page article on pp. 24-25, concerning John 1:1. My favorite! It basically contains a single argument to the effect that the Sahidic Coptic translation of the Gospel of John, being very early, supports their position, because the Coptic equivalent of theos in John 1:1c has the indefinite article. Unfortunately for this article, I've already run into this very same argument in other literature--I think it might've been in "The Word"--Who is He? According to John, though I could be totally mistaken--and I know its fatal flaw. Although Coptic scholar Thomas Lambdin is quoted in the article as saying, "The use of the Coptic articles, both definite and indefinite, corresponds closely to the use of the articles in English", I'm extremely confident that he's been misunderstood and/or taken out of context--probably both. Why? Because while the similarity to English is that it has both definite and indefinite articles, the Coptic indefinite article has some quirks, such as attaching to nouns that wouldn't ordinarily get it in English. Hence, just a few verses later in the same copy of the Gospel of John, we get references to being "baptized in a water". Once one understands exactly how the Coptic indefinite article functions, it becomes clear that it doesn't at all support the JW rendering of John 1:1.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

JW Study Meeting #10

Nothing terribly much to tell for this one. Uriah and I basically spent nearly an hour and a half in chitchat and never got around to the study part. He's letting me borrow three VHS tapes: one about blood transfusions, one about what the JWs went through in the Holocaust, and another about how the organization works. He also got me a copy of Reasoning from the Scriptures and a couple article-type things on questions I'd had: one about John 20:25 which gave a very unconvincing rationale for the plurality of nails within the JW notion of Christ's crucifixion, and another one on the "faithful and discreet slave". We spent much of the rest of the time discussing illness, cats, annoying neighbor kids, etc. Uriah's a nice fellow.

Monday, October 13, 2008

JW Study Meeting #9

I was at a denominational missions conference on October 11th (WorldFest 2008, to be precise) and so wasn't able to meet with my JW friends then; thus, we agreed upon today as a good alternative, since I'm on fall break. After getting the house tidied up a bit and showering, I decided to begin to jot down some questions I wanted to discuss. As I was continuing to think, the doorbell rang, so I said a quick prayer as I walked to the door.

Only Uriah was there this time; as I found out later, Shem's father passed away a couple days ago. So we began with some assorted chitchat about my cats, about the contemporary Obamessianic craze, about the Clinton family, and so forth. We then agreed to move on from the Trinity topic to other things, such as the next chapter in What Does the Bible Really Teach?, but we didn't actually get around to the chapter; we managed instead to occupy well over 90 minutes with just the material I wanted to discuss at the beginning!

I first asked Uriah if he'd had a chance to look into John 20:25. (To remind everyone: I pointed out that Thomas states in that verse that he won't believe unless he sees the prints of the nails - emphasis on the plural - that pierced Jesus' hands. Yet in JW portrayals of the crucifixion, invariably it portrays a single nail fixing both wrists to the 'torture stake', between Jesus' head and the INRI sign.) He said that he'd looked for about 15 minutes or so, but then had forgotten all about it, so he said that he'd look into it more next time.

For my next topic, I wanted to discuss the issue of the Watchtower Society's authority, so I asked him to clarify again for me what Jehovah's Witnesses believe about the Society. He answered that the Society is the "faithful and discreet slave" appointed by Jesus. Publishing began c. 1880 C.E., and then in 1914, Jesus returned invisibly to choose a religion that was being faithful to Jehovah's requirements. This could have potentially been any group. It was seen that other Christian sects were acting in explicit disobedience to John 13:34-35, since Christians should hardly kill Christians in war. The Bible Students, however, were being faithful to even this command, as well as others. Until around 1919, some of the Bible Students, even among its leadership, misbehaved; they became haughty and political, using resources for themselves. Uriah gave as an example the case of a member in England who was in charge of the Society's presses there; he went apostate and started trying to collect disciples around himself, but was removed. After the purification was completed in 1919, Jesus began to oversee the Society, and so from then onward, the organization as a whole will not be corrupted.

As an example, in 1974, a group of Witnesses began proclaiming that 1975 would be the long-awaited end; the slogan was, "Stay alive 'til '75!" Many even borrowed money against their homes, believing that they'd never have to pay it back since this system of things was concluding so swiftly. Uriah said that the Society never actually said this, but it was actually a rumor that the Society warned against. Still, 1976 came and many of these Witnesses fell away because the end hadn't come.

I asked Uriah about whether Society literature since the coming of Jesus was fully truthful. He replied that everything in Society literature since 1919 was good at the time, but that the light has continually been getting brighter. As an example, he mentioned that just two weeks ago, the Society 'refined' their understanding of the parable of the fishing nets (Matthew 13:47-50). Whereas once the Society reasoned that the net was the message and those caught were the saved, the organization's people, they now realize that just as many of the fish caught are bad and must be thrown away, so even some of those caught won't ultimately make it. As a second example, Uriah said that two years ago or so, the Society refined its understanding of the word "generation" (as in, "this generation shall not pass away"). Once, "this generation" was understood as those who were literally alive in 1914 and shall be alive until the Great Tribulation. Now, Uriah says, the Society understands "this generation" to be any contemporaries of those people. In other words, whereas they once believed this:

(1914) -------------this generation------------- (Tribulation)

they now believe this:

(1914) ------------------------
_____________________-----this generation----- (Tribulation)

I asked about the reasoning for the change, and Uriah said that while he remembered them giving it, he couldn't recall off-hand what it was. However, he said he's gonna try to find me an article from The Watchtower about it.

After we went through that for a while, I asked when the Society came to understand itself as the "faithful and discreet slave". He answered that he believed it to be around 1919, and when I asked if it might've been later, he said that he didn't think so. I then revealed that the reason for me asking this was that I'm currently reading The Harp of God (1921) by Joseph F. Rutherford, and I came across a statement to the effect that his predecessor Charles Russell, and not the Society as a corporate body, was himself the "faithful and wise servant":

Without a doubt Pastor Russell filled the office for which the Lord provided and about which he spoke, and was therefore that wise and faithful servant, ministering to the household of faith meat in due season. Pastor Russell finished his earthly course in 1916. (The Harp of God, p. 239)
This fact--I didn't have the quotation on hand at the time, though--caught Uriah a bit off-guard. He had a slightly confused look on his face and laughed, saying that if Rutherford had said that, then Rutherford was simply wrong. So I asked further about why this statement was there, and he went into a discourse about Russell's ex-wife, who (allegedly) separated from Russell because the latter was too generous with their wealth, while she wanted to retain her prestige; she then purportedly printed things that he would've disagreed with. Of course, this didn't really pertain to a statement from one of Rutherford's books at a time when it should've been clear that Russell was, as a person, not the "faithful and wise servant", and so when I inquired further, Uriah said that there are times when the Society's humans run ahead of what they really know, so a person or group can be wrong and Jesus might let it go for a while so that they can be corrected more gently in his own time. As an example, Uriah mentioned, we had already discussed how Russell believed in a rather bizarre interpretation of the Great Pyramid as a symbol laying out God's plan of salvation; Uriah didn't remember all the details, so I filled in what I could remember. Thus, as the "faithful and discreet slave", the Society is a perfect organization filled with imperfect people.

(Somewhere in all of this--it's out of order in my notes--we discussed how last January, the Society decided to begin publishing two versions of The Watchtower, one regular and one study edition. The reason behind this, Uriah said, was because the study edition could then more directly challenge Jehovah's Witnesses to live up to biblical standards and thus be more frank about various problems, and also so that they could refer to JWs as God's people without offending those who might be receiving The Watchtower for the first time.)

I didn't press too much further on that point about the Society, but Uriah agreed to look up that paragraph in The Harp of God and discuss it further with me next time. I then asked a question about allowable disagreement with statements in contemporary Society literature. The answer was that the allowable amount of disagreement is, well, zero. Jehovah's Witnesses, he says, are never told what to believe, only what the Bible says; those who find things to doubt are told to hang on and pray about it, then to research it in the Bible and wait for God to act. In 1973, he said, the Society first declared tobacco use to be a sin. Everyone was given six months to quit, but some refused and were consequently disfellowshipped. Disfellowshipping, Uriah said, isn't for sinning, but rather for refusing to repent of the sin.

It wasn't entirely clear, but I pressed forward, asking how long the zero-disagreement policy had been in place. He said that it had been so since 1919, he imagines, but with an acknowledgment that people make mistakes. Thus, in the disfellowshipping process, first come a series of reasoned meetings, and the elders then visit annually to ask about the possibility of a return.

Most of the examples that had been used were cases of immorality--Uriah says he thinks that out of about seven million JWs in the world today, around 35,000 are annually disfellowshipped for immoral conduct--and so didn't really touch at the heart of what I was getting at, so I made myself a little clearer by asking him to consider a scenario--I projected it back a few years, since I don't think he thinks it could happen today--where the Society said something that, from today's perspective, is not just "old light" but wrong. (For example, someone might've disagreed with Rutherford's aforementioned statement.) So what would happen in the case of someone disagreeing and being correct in doing so? It was an interesting thought experiment, and Uriah's answer was that if they had Bible principles to back up their belief, there simply wouldn't be consequences for them. Jesus would watch over them and protect them by adjusting the Society's teachings to be more in line with the truth through a dose of new light.

I tried to raise a couple examples. First, I mentioned that I had heard that vaccines used to be prohibited, but Uriah denied that this was ever the case, so perhaps I need to look that up again. I then asked about the use of blood fractions, and his answer seemed fairly satisfactory. Jehovah's Witnesses, as many know, are prohibited from receiving a blood transfusion. However, these days, a serum can be manufactured out of certain blood fractions, and a Witness is allowed to receive such serums if his or her conscience permits it. Uriah showed me his blood card which allows him to list fractions he's willing to accept, or what sort of measures within certain limits can be taken. (Another example of a possibility is an extension of the circulatory system whereby blood is circulated out of the wound through a tube, put through a cleaning process in a machine, and then recirculated through an IV back into the body. Since the process can be viewed, in a sense, as merely extending one's circulatory system without removing the blood in the first place, it's considered allowable.) Uriah used the analogy of a pizza: if pizza were prohibited by God, it might be the case that tomato sauce or cheese would be nonetheless permitted. I inquired as to the change, since I was aware that at one time these fractions were prohibited also, and Uriah answered that this had come about with the advance of technology, such that technology probably had a slight but ultimately less-than-significant lead. And, he said, no one has ever died from not having a blood transfusion; rather, people have died from the lack of some procedure that puts an acceptable fluid into the bloodstream, which may include other substances as well.

We meandered on from here through some other brief topics, and he mentioned that apostates sometimes make charts of how to trip up JWs. Jehovah's Witnesses are not to argue with such people, since Paul directs Christians not even to greet apostates; thus, if put into confrontation with someone armed with that sort of thing, Jehovah's Witnesses frequently lose because they're up against the power of Satan and they're already in disobedience by virtue of having disobeyed the biblical injunction against dealings with apostates. Sounded rather 'convenient' to me.

At some point here, we adjourned, and he handed me the latest issues of The Watchtower and Awake! for reading. I also informed him that next fall I'll probably be studying in Athens, so I'm looking forward to visiting the Areopagus and meeting with Greek JWs (they have their Greek HQ in Maroussi, a suburb of Athens, on Kifissias Avenue). I then followed him out to his car to receive a couple books he'd brought me. There was a brochure called Jehovah's Witnesses: Who Are They? What Do They Believe?, as well as two books: The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived, which is about the life of Jesus, and Revelation--Its Grand Climax At Hand!, which is (obviously) about Revelation. Uriah told me some humorous stories about the 2.5-year book study he'd led with some other JWs on that book, particularly since one of the older women in the group was having some difficulty understanding it. Uriah and I then had a brief discussion about the history of JW interpretation of Revelation, and I mentioned that either Russell or Rutherford had taken a historicist interpretation of the seven churches, seeing the 'angels' as historical figures beginning with Paul and John and then moving through Arius to Luther, Wycliffe, and eventually (lo and behold) to Russell himself. Uriah remarked that it might've been Russell, because folks should've known better by Rutherford's time.

Anyway, Uriah is still trying to get me a copy of "The Word"--Who is He? According to John and also waiting for a copy of Reasoning from the Scriptures for me; he's also now going to get me a copy of Knowledge That Leads to Everlasting Life and hopefully eventually a copy of Jehovah's Witnesses--Proclaimers of God's Kingdom. He also plans to bring me two movies, one about the blood policy and another about the Nazi persecution of JWs. We're planning to meet again on November 1st.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

JW Study Meeting #8

So 1:30 PM, the appointed time, came and went. I was pacing back and forth in my house, talking to myself, as I often do. About a half hour later, I heard some faint noises outside of my door, catching my attention; a moment or two later, the doorbell rang, and after trying to overhear a few snippets of the conversation going on outside (and, unfortunately, failing), I opened the door to find Uriah and another new guy, "Ananias". I invited them in, and it wasn't long before they became distracted by my cats. Ananias, like Uriah, is a cat person, and so after they sat down at the table, my cat Enoch jumped up and laid down in front of Ananias while Moses, another of my cats, bothered Uriah and Ananias from the floor between them. We made some small-talk for a bit, where I explained what I'd been doing the past couple weeks, including cleaning up my portion of my dorm room last night, since, as I put it, "My trash can did to my desk what Germany did to Poland."

We started without prayer, which surprised me a little, but I let it go. More on this later. Uriah had looked through at least some of my paper--I didn't inquire as to precisely how much--and had a couple of suggested alterations. First up was a minor complaint about my designation in the second paragraph of the Watchtower Society's view as "neo-Arian". The point behind the complaint, it seemed, was that the phrasing made it seem as though I were pre-emptively dismissing their view as manmade, I suppose.

Second came a comment on my catena of quotes from Watchtower publications in which the Trinity is insulted over and over again. After having listed all of these things, I write:

While this sort of rhetoric saturates a great deal of Watchtower literature, neither side has a monopoly on harsh polemic directed toward the other.
After some remarks about how the Watchtower Society is not infallible but is merely approved by Jehovah, Uriah said that they have a directive from God to critique error, and he cited 1 Timothy 6:3. I didn't feel like hassling with a fairly minor point, so I let the matter go, but had I gone into it I would've said that: (1) harsh polemic means more than critiquing error; (2) I'm not saying that harsh polemic is wrong; and (3) just a few visits earlier, Uriah had complained about the use of the word "against".

From there, we moved forward to a couple statements where I quote a few Watchtower publications on the problems in certain critiques of the Trinity:
It should not be objected that this would require the Word to simultaneously be with a person and be that person. This objection is found in several Watchtower publications:

"Note, however, that here again the context lays the groundwork for accurate understanding. Even the King James Version says, 'The Word was with God.' (Italics ours) Someone who is 'with' another person cannot be the same as that other person." (Should You Believe in the Trinity?, p. 27)

"How, then, could the Son be part of Almighty God? John also states that the Word was 'with God.' But how can an individual be with someone and at the same time be that person?" (What Does the Bible Really Teach?, p. 203)

The primary problem with this objection to the Trinitarian understanding of John 1:1, of course, is that the idea described is not the Trinitarian understanding.
Uriah was somewhat confused; apparently he had thought, from his previous dealings with professing Trinitarians and in spite of our previous discussions of the subject, that this was how Trinitarians understand John 1:1. So I took some time explaining that Trinitarianism is not modalism, and Uriah remarked to Ananias that I was perhaps the first professing Trinitarian he'd met who wasn't actually a modalist. Uriah also mentioned the common water analogy he gets from folks trying to explain the Trinity, and then I went on for a bit about why I don't use analogies like those.

(Uriah said he couldn't find many corrections he'd make in my paper, partly because I quoted Watchtower publications so frequently. That's the idea, eh?)

At this juncture, Uriah asked me the question of what had made me request this Bible study with them when I was at the Kingdom Hall. I responded by saying that I really am interested in learning more about what Jehovah's Witnesses believe, and that while I can read plenty of Watchtower literature, it's not quite the same as actually meeting personally with Jehovah's Witnesses and talking about these sorts of things. I also said that I'm always looking for a chance to study the Scriptures with someone, regardless of who they are, because the Scriptures are the living and powerful word of God. Uriah was happy with the answer. I suppose he'd feared that perhaps I was solely looking for battle.

We then moved on to a list of passages he'd compiled lately and was interested in getting my perspective on. He had drafted up a much longer list once before, a long time ago, but this largely came out of his recent personal studies. First up was, of course, Proverbs 8:22-31, with focus on vv. 22-23. After noting that some people aren't so confident that this applies to Jesus but that I disagree on this one, I mentioned that the Hebrew verb qanah, which the New World Translation renders as "produced", also covers the semantic range of "get"/"possess", as seen in Proverbs 4:5 (which I was pleasantly surprised to recall off the top of my head), and that this was how I read the passage. I then stated that this was an eternal relationship between YHWH and his Wisdom, and I briefly went on a mini-tangent about patristic consideration of the 'Word internal' and the 'Word external'.

Eventually, we somehow managed (partly through a discussion of eternity past and eternity future, I think) to get to the topic of the death of Jesus, and I affirmed my belief that, since I believe that death is not immediate annihilation, the answer to who ran the universe during the time between the crucifixion and the resurrection is quite simply the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. At this point, I decided to go on a little tangent and ask about the appropriateness of the word "cross" as a translation of stauros. Uriah shook his head, and he and Ananias went on a talk about the cross being a symbol of the Babylonian god Tau and an Egyptian symbol, and that it surely must please Satan to have people think that Christ died on a pagan symbol. I then pointed out that in Hymns of Millennial Dawn, some of the hymns there were pretty crucicentric (is that a word?). They nodded and noted also that the crown-and-cross logo appears on early literature like that. Uriah said that he thinks it might've been 1938 when the Watchtower realized the truth about the cross and switched to the idea of a torture stake. I then asked how many nails were used in Christ's hands, and Uriah was of the opinion that it was just one. I mentioned that that was how I'd seen it in Watchtower literature, and I found a sample picture on page 18 of Should You Believe in the Trinity?; but then I turned to John 20:25 and asked why Thomas spoke of the nails in Christ's hands, rather than "nail" in the singular. And for that, they had no answer, but were instead somewhat befuddled, so I asked Uriah to check on that for me and let me know if he finds anything out.

Through a discussion of the mechanics of Roman crucifixion as a method of execution, we eventually found our way back on track, and Uriah brought up 1 Corinthians 2:16 as showing a distinction between the Father's mind and the Son's mind. I agreed and explained again the personal distinctions between the persons of the Trinity. We then moved to 1 Corinthians 3:23, where Christ belongs to God, and I had no problem with this either, but instead noted that the analogy of church:Christ::Christ:Father does not require that Christ be other than God, only other than the Father. After a bit of discussion of this, Uriah decided to drop his next couple Scriptures, since I had basically already answered those with my explanation to 3:23, so the next verse up was one we'd already discussed before: 1 Corinthians 11:3. I merely said that my same explanation would be in play here.

From there, Uriah mentioned Mark 13:32, and so before even turning there, I looked at the ceiling and mentioned which verse I was pretty sure it was. Of course, I was correct, which pleased me; I said that since I was dealing with many of the same passages in my research, I was starting to get the hang of the references. My explanation of this drew on Thomas Morris' theory of the incarnation, by which the incarnate Christ has two ranges of consciousness, one human and one divine, such that Christ retained his omniscience in the divine range of consciousness while remaining genuinely unknowing of the precise time of his parousia in his human range of consciousness, which was operative more saliently before his resurrection. I'm not totally sure that I explained this one quite as well as I could have, because it is a rather complex issue. We then went to Matthew 20:20-23, and I explained that, in my opinion, the reason Jesus did not have the authority to appoint the sons of Zebedee to positions above the rest of the Twelve was that the Father had not directed it, and the Son was in willing submission to the Father's authority.

At this point, Uriah said that he always had to remind himself that I'm a Trinitarian, because he's not used to Trinitarians capable of recognizing a distinction of persons and functional subordination. (Heh, at one point, Uriah quipped to Ananias that he's sometimes confused how I know so much and am still so wrong! I smirked and decided not to turn that one around on 'em.) He then asked for some clarification, basically, on the differences we have, and so I pointed out that there's a big difference between eternal, uncreated, uniquely divine things and temporal, created, non-divine things; and that we can be certain that the Father belongs on the former side, while much of what exists is on the other; and that, when I see testimony in the Scriptures that refer to the Son and the Spirit as God, or as eternal, or imply that they share the unique identity of YHWH, then I cannot classify them among temporal, created things but rather on the other side; and then, since I remain a steadfast monotheist, I must say that they are one God in three persons, since I also cannot deny the personal distinctions between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. The Watchtower, as I said, removes the Spirit from the field as a non-person and classifies the Son as among the temporal things, albeit as close to the divine side as possible. Therein, then, lies the issue.

Around here, Uriah said that that's what he thought, and he asked a question about the possibility, taking the Trinity out of account, whether the Father could have created a son who reflected him and would exist forever from that point on, to which I said yes, though I doubted whether the reflection of the Father would ever be what it is in Jesus. Somewhere in here, Uriah said that the reason we hadn't opened in prayer was that, since it's becoming clearer now that we have fundamental disagreement about who God is, he can't be quite as sure that we're praying to the same god, and thus he can't pray together with me, though we can pray for one another. I didn't really have a problem with that, since I pray before they get here anyway.Things were really winding down, but I kept them for a little bit longer. I handed Uriah a list of Watchtower literature that I'd like:
  • Reasoning from the Scriptures
  • "The Word": Who is He? According to John
  • Revelation--Its Grand Climax at Hand!
  • The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived
  • Jehovah's Witnesses--Proclaimers of God's Kingdom
Technically, I couldn't recall the precise title of the fifth one, and while I remembered that it started with "Jehovah's Witnesses" and maybe had the word "Kingdom" somewhere, Uriah didn't seem totally sure what I was talking about; but as for the other four, Uriah is fairly sure that he can get me copies of each, plus a few videos he'd like me to see. One is on the history of the Watchtower Society, and another is on the experiences of Jehovah's Witnesses in Nazi Germany. I'm always looking for new DVDs to watch up at college with some of my friends.

And as for the books, technically I'm borrowing "The Word": Who is He? According to John through InterLibrary Loan and have already finished it, while I just today got the used copy of Reasoning from the Scriptures that I'd ordered from Amazon. For those who don't know, the former is a 1962 booklet/tractate that deals a lot with John 1:1, and very poorly at that; while the latter is the book they use as a reference guide on prooftexting, basically. It has a surprisingly large section on the Trinity, so I'm looking forward to digging into that. In the meantime, I'm gonna see about scanning "The Word": Who is He? so I can transfer it to my laptop and obviate the need to keep my own soon-to-come copy on campus.

I then inquired about Charles Russell, and Uriah explained that he founded a group called the Bible Students in the 1870s and that this later became the Watchtower Society. He even predicted the 1914 invisible parousia 37 years before it happened. As Uriah said, Russell wrote a lot of great stuff, but he was far from perfect and in fact got quite a bit wrong, especially his views on the Egyptian pyramids; and Uriah also mentioned the dwelling in California for the resurrected saints, although I think that might've been during Rutherford's time. (The place was called Beth Sarim, and it was built in San Diego for the patriarchs to live in when they rose from the dead in 1925; in practice, if I'm not mistaken, it might've served as Rutherford's mansion.) Russell wrote the Millennial Dawn series, but God didn't let him finish the seventh, which was then completed posthumously by a team under Rutherford. Russell's writings are valued as of historical value, but hold little other significance for contemporary Jehovah's Witnesses.

I also brought up the Millions Now Living Will Never Die talk/booklet by Rutherford, and Uriah thought it was from 1928. (It was actually from 1920, but then again Uriah also thought that Russell died in 1915, when he actually passed away on Halloween in 1916.) Uriah affirmed his belief that millions who were alive then will not pass away before Armageddon comes, and indeed he believes that within his own lifetime, the American government will ban religion, and this started a chain of Ananias and Uriah talking about how the past few years have seen several attempts by governments in Canada and France, as well as the United Nations, to do away with religion. It was... interesting.

Anyway, a little after that, they departed, having stayed for about 90-100 minutes in total. I'm planning to continue work on my paper; in fact, once I get back to campus in a couple days, I'm gonna perhaps post it as an attachment in this thread as it currently stands, because I'd like to get some reflections on it, maybe. Also, I've decided that I'm gonna try to develop this into a full-blown published book sometime in the next decade. In fact, what I was discussing with myself earlier before they arrived were various segments of that. Anyway, I'm really hoping for some feedback on how this meeting appears to have gone from my description. My next meeting with them will probably be on October 11th, so I've got some time off.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Thank God for Research Applications International

I don't think I mentioned it before, but a little while ago I finally broke down and ordered two very important CD-ROMS from Research Applications International: "The Pastor Russell Anthology" and "Rutherford's Rainbow" (2nd ed.). They've since arrived, and so now I have PDF versions of plenty of older literature by Russell and Rutherford. And let me just say that it has been an immense help; my paper has grown phenomenally thanks to the material in there. I'm particularly fascinated by Russell's exegesis of Psalm 82, personally. I have never seen any counter-JW Trinity book that treats Russell's own use of that passage, even those that deal with Psalm 82 in contemporary Witness usage. And so now my paper is weighing in at around 57 pages, including bibliography. Standard font size, single-spaced. And I'm thinking... if I keep working on this for a few years or so, really go at it, why should I not be able to publish it as a book someday? I mean, really, if I were to do some more interaction with a broader range of anti-Trinitarian literature and add a section on, say, John 8:58 (assuming that further analysis reveals that it's a worthwhile text to use to this end), plus maybe an appendix on pneumatology... it should be long enough. Especially so if I expand it by explaining things at greater length for simplicity's sake. And I'm confident that I could get blurbs for the back from J. P. Holding and David A. Reed, and possibly also from Robert M. Bowman, Jr. So why on earth shouldn't I? Heh... now that I'm seriously considering this avenue, I'm even more determined.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

JW Study Meeting #7

So "Uriah" and "Shem" arrived on today at around 1:30 PM. Truth be told, I had forgotten exactly what time we'd said, so I was caught slightly off-guard. Still, it didn't take me long to grab the latest copy of my paper, now titled "A Comparative Evaluation of Trinitarian and Neo-Arian Christological Models". Uriah approved of the new title, and so we made small-talk for a while. Their convention had gone pretty well; Shem had actually gotten a good night's sleep; and Uriah had gone on a rather unfortunate camping trip. Also, Uriah brought me quite a few new things, including like 30 copies of Should You Believe in the Trinity? (he'd expected to not have them until later because they take a while to get ordered in, but when he was checking inventory, he found an overstock of these because JWs don't get to hand them out quite so much; so, as it turned out, I got my copies and in doing so, Uriah brought the inventory right back down to where it should be), that DVD to borrow (it's actually called "Pursue Goals That Honor God"), and five new books that Uriah had found in a stash somewhere:
  • Is This Life All There Is?
  • True Peace and Security: How Can You Find It?
  • Survival into a New Earth
  • Worldwide Security Under the "Prince of Peace"
  • United in Worship of the Only True God
Glancing through this last one now that the meeting is over, I find some interesting anti-Trinitarian remarks (pp. 15-18) to use for updated editions of my paper. Heh... you know, even if nothing else were to come of all this, at the very least my library is growing. Anyway, after some further banter--in which Shem mentioned that he'd told one of the other guys at the Kingdom Hall that hearing me explain the Trinity made him less likely to be a Trinitarian, although he couldn't really explain why that was so--we got down to business.

I read from the new introduction to my paper a brief summary of the Watchtower belief on the matter, which Uriah confirmed was rather accurate. The statement was:

The Watchtower Society’s view, which is perhaps best designated as “neo-Arian”—in light of their perspective’s similarity to that of Arius, the Alexandrian presbyter whose views were rejected at the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325—holds that God is unipersonal, being solely the Father, and that the initial temporal creation of the Father was the Son, who is thus a created spirit being independent of the Father. All other things that were created were then brought into existence through the agency of the Son. The Son is thus not properly called “God”, though by virtue of his exalted status he may suitably be termed “a god”, even a “mighty god”. The Son is neither ternal nor omnipotent and omniscient. At the appropriate point in time, the Father transferred the Son’s “life force” into the womb of the Virgin Mary as a sinless man, Jesus Christ. Prior to this, the Son existed as the Archangel Michael [WDBRT 219]. (The identification of Jesus with Michael is also held by some Trinitarians, notably the Seventh-Day Adventists.)
Uriah's only suggested alteration was a statement to the effect that prior to the resurrection, Jesus was mortal, but was then awarded immortality by the Father. He then asked me to show him how I might go about demonstrating the Trinity from the Scriptures, so I first elaborated on the various components of Trinitarian doctrine (i.e., monotheism, three persons, and the full deity of all persons). I then explained why I typically set aside pneumatology until I've worked through the issue of Christology, and then we got into some discussion of how so often professing Trinitarians turn out in practice to be unwitting modalists or tritheists, or at least leaning far too strongly to one or the other.

I then got into John 1:1 and explained the results of Philip Harner's article, reading them a couple of quotations that, basically, might as well scream, "The full deity of the Word is preached in John 1:1!!!!!!". After that, I got to explain what is meant by "essence", and then I gave Uriah and Shem a brief introduction to the First Council of Nicaea, esp. the distinction between homoousios and homoiousios.

Somewhere around here, Uriah inquired as to what sort of difference it makes on a practical level to believe in the Trinity, since I understand both sides quite well. I then began to speak of what it's like to know that God, not some exalted creature, was the one who suffered on the stauros; and that God, not something less, was the pivotal agent in the redemptive and atoning deed; and that, in my understanding of the atonement, for anything less to have been done would have been insufficient to truly atone for all sins. (Somewhere in here I managed to rant a little about Islam, and how in my opinion, the problem with the Islamic Allah isn't so much a lack of love as a lack of justice; setting aside whether Allah is loving, it should be clear that he doesn't take sin nearly seriously enough.) Uriah then inquired as to whether or not I think a neo-Arian Christology can sustain a sufficient soteriology (well, he didn't say it in those exact terms, but you get the idea), to which I said that I think not, though I can at least entertain the idea that other atonement models could accomodate such a thing; I then asked whether it would have been sufficient, from a JW standpoint, for God to have created a perfect, sinless man distinct from the Son in order to sacrifice such a man for our sins. Uriah's response was no insofar as that it was required that the sacrifice be something most prized and held dear by God, and that the Son was the only suitable candidate. We then agreed that, within our respective Christological models, we each maintain that the only suitable candidate was the Son, and that with the possible exceptions of modalism or tritheism, we each represented one of the two highest Christological perspectives on the market.

I think around here the conversation began to wind down. The three of us were too busy petting one of my cats, Enoch, who'd jumped up onto the table. Uriah gave me the latest copies of The Watchtower and Awake!, which he'd gotten sooner than expected, and since I wasn't sure what weekend I'd be home again, I promised to e-mail Uriah with the information. He also took the latest edition of my paper and said that over the next couple weeks he'd probably have enough time to read it through more seriously.

All in all, I think it was a fairly productive meeting. We both have a fairly clear idea at this point of where we disagree, and these guys are definitely, I think, a cut above the typical JWs. Unlike many folks, Uriah can follow along; he gives things thought; and he's willing to read stuff, at least provided it isn't apostate literature. I'm not totally sure where Shem is, since he's so quiet, but next time around I might try posing various questions to him.

My hope and prayer is that, after Uriah has read through my paper more completely, we'll be able to have a deeper discussion on whether or not it establishes at least the deity of Christ. There may be hope for this guy. And I'm definitely gonna try to print an extra copy of my paper to get it into Shem's hands.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

JW Study Meeting #6

Before today's meeting, my girlfriend Sarah and I got everything prepared and in order. After I had printed the latest edition of my paper, we sat and waited for Uriah and Shem to arrive. They showed up quite promptly at 12:40 PM, and we began with some small-talk. Uriah mentioned that he's preparing for an upcoming convention, and that he's been quite busy between that and work lately. Shem, in the meantime, had to transfer to another plant at work, and so his driving distance had doubled, and his neighbors were still as unpleasant as ever. I showed them the copy of Let God Be True that I'd managed to pick up at the booksale, and Uriah mentioned a DVD he'd wanted to bring to show me of a re-enactment sort of movie of the relationship between Paul and Timothy, called "Pursue God's Goals". From there, we eventually circled around to beginning the study with a prayer.

After that, I inquired of Uriah if he'd had a chance to look into the paper I'd given him. He said he had skimmed at least part of it, but that he took some issue with the title ("A Vindication of Trinitarian Christology Against the Neo-Arian Christology of the Watchtower"), as he generally puts down things that are "against", and from there he began to discuss his reflections. I agreed, incidentally, to change the title to something more moderate and to do the same to various apparently agressive remarks here and there throughout. In reality, the tone of the paper is extremely mild, especially in comparison to classic Watchtower rhetoric against "Christendom", but hey, if a few alterations that don't affect the substance will gain a better hearing, why not?

He first pointed to Matthew 24:45-46 and affirmed his belief in the Watchtower Society as the "faithful and discreet slave" who provides him with "food at proper time". This, he said, did not indicate that he was not to double-check their teachings with the Scripture (he says he does this) or that the Watchtower Society is inherently superior (he said that it was merely the obedient vessel that was doing best when God chose to entrust it with the fullness of the gospel), but nonetheless inclines him to accept its teachings as the truth of God. Uriah then turned us to Romans 16:17-18, concerning divisive people in the church, and then to 2 John 9-10, regarding the importance of remaining in the teaching of Christ.

When I had a chance to reply, I proposed a hypothetical scenario. After quoting a portion from Should You Believe in the Trinity? about the importance of having the right stance on this teaching, I asked whether, if some organization claimed to be the "faithful and discreet slave" yet got the matter wrong, they could still be the "faithful and discreet slave". Uriah's answer was that, perhaps 50 years ago when the "light" was not as bright, that could be a possibility, but that at this juncture in time, with the coming consummation of the age, such an organization would not be the "faithful and discreet slave". This should lay the groundwork for me to emphasize next time that a doctrinal analysis must be allowed to be logically prior to a judgment as to the Watchtower Society's status.

From there, we went on to a couple fairly unobjectionable paragraphs in the What Does the Bible Really Teach? book, and got to talking a bit about the incarnation. We then turned to Luke 1:30-35, and Uriah inquired as to how a Trinitarian could view this passage, because wouldn't God be giving the throne of David to himself? After a discourse on the distinction between ontological and functional subordination, I pointed out that on a modalistic reckoning, that would be the case, but that an orthodox Trinitarian reading would be God the Father giving the throne to God the Son. Uriah affirmed his previous remark that I'm essentially the only real Trinitarian he's ever met, because many can't hold that distinction in mind. We both lamented the fact that many Trinitarians in the churches don't have much idea about what Trinitarian doctrine really is. I sketched out the famed diagram of Trinitarian relationships, with the "is not" lines bordering the triangle and the "is" lines leading inward from the circles representing the three persons to the central circle representing the divine nature. I then showed with this diagram how various alternative views of the Godhead are really just removals of one or two central factors in the diagram. After my explanation of everything, Uriah asked if I knew other Trinitarians who would have this understanding, and I affirmed that I'm not the only real Trinitarian out there, and that (for example) a number of my associates at college would have given the same answer.

At this point, the conversation basically meandered off, and we agreed to devote the next session 100% to the Trinity. Uriah said that he'd be willing to discuss that one with me for as long as I'd like, even up to a couple years, in order for us to be satisfied with our pursuit of the heart of the matter, since he can sense my sincerity. I also told him of the plans I have for founding a new campus organization (Mars Hill) for discussion-based stuff, mentioned that we're going to have a Trinity discussion night, and asked if he could provide extra copies of their Trinity brochure and maybe even come to give a brief talk. He said that he can hopefully have the booklets in a few weeks, and he seems willing to come give an address. Should be a good experience for everyone. When they left, I realized that Uriah had forgotten his copy of my paper, and so I ran out quickly and returned it to him, saying that if he comes across a verse as he researches for the subject a bit more, he can check through the paper to see if I've already given some thoughts on it.

I'm thoroughly anticipating the next encounter on the 30th. I think that since we'll then be off of the text of What Does the Bible Really Teach?, we can focus on the various Scriptures I'd like to discuss, so perhaps I'll start us off with the Johannine Prologue. We haven't gotten to that text yet in anything, and so I'm looking forward to it very much.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

JW Study Meeting #5

The next encounter was today, and after that I attended a church picnic of sorts to welcome my church's new pastor. After I had gotten everything more or less in order, the appointed time arrived, and I opened the door to find Uriah. No Shem, no Mephibosheth, just Uriah flying solo for a time. And so I invited him in and asked how the other two guys were doing. Shem's been having some problems with partying drunkard neighbors, as it turns out, and so he's been losing a lot of sleep lately; only got like 1.5 hours the previous night, which was why he couldn't make it. As for Mephibosheth, he's dealing with some conflict at home. He remarried in March, and he gets his daughter during the summers, I guess, and the daughter doesn't appreciate having to share daddy's attention with the new lady. So I think the both of these guys could use some prayers from you folks.

Anyway, my mother had been doing some baking for the picnic, and so we waited to get things started until she had finished mixing the cake batter/mix/whatever the heck state cake is in before it gets taken out of the mixer. Don't ask me, I'm the world's worst cook. Anyway, while we waited for this to get done, Uriah and I made small talk, and he gave me the book he'd promised to bring, Pay Attention to Daniel's Prophecy!, plus the latest issues of Awake! and The Watchtower. (The latest issue of the latter has a defense of their insertion of the Tetragrammaton into the NT text, for example.)

Finally we began with a prayer and moved on to the first paragraph of the section in What Does the Bible Really Teach?. Just covered the pre-existence of Christ, so there was nothing objectionable, as he expected. After he read the next paragraph, though, we got right into the issue of whether or not Christ is a created being, and I'd say I did a large amount of the talking, including reading the section on Colossians 1:15 from last week's edition of the essay I'd been writing.

(Somewhere in here, Uriah inquired as to my preferred translation of the Bible. I responded that I'm somewhat partial to my NIV and my NRSV, but that I first and foremost try to reference the original language text whenever possible, and that I also use the Modern KJV and the original text in parallel on my computer. And I added that in this sort of context, I also check the NWT to see what sort of take the Watchtower has on a passage.)

From there, I think I spent ages rambling about the distinction between eternal, uncreated, divine things and temporal, created, non-divine things, using a little chart, and I explained that, drawing on the categories current in the first-century of divine hypostases, the earliest Christians had been led (taking their cue from Jesus himself) to place him in the first portion of the graph instead of the second, and that as centuries of theological reflection in the face of challenges led Christians to consider the implications of having done so (especially over against challenges from blokes like Arius), they eventually realized that the only suitable formulation for the truth they'd found was the Trinitarian formula of three co-essential persons constituting the one and only true God. At some point during this, I read a number of quotations from the second-century Church Fathers to demolish the argument in Should You Believe in the Trinity? to the effect that the Christians in this period did not believe in the full deity of Christ.

Eventually, I managed to bring my speech to a close, and Uriah offered two points of observation--first, he commended me for my thorough, cogent research and respectful, non-mocking presentation and especially a willingness to read through a large amount of disagreeable literature from the Watchtower, and said that he'd never met a Trinitarian who had that kind of handle on the material, and even conceded that many Jehovah's Witnesses were definitely beneath my level by miles; and second, he quoted Mark 7:7-8a to apply it to the situation at hand. (Granted, it didn't really fit...) Then he asked me to offer some words from my heart about what it's like for me to read a "simple Bible", and so I simply stated that my passion is to understand God's self-revelation in its written form by allowing the text to confront me and by seeking to comprehend it as it would have been comprehended in its earliest setting, and then he and I managed to go off on a tangent about the nature of analogical language in theology for a while, both agreeing that it's quite necessary.

At some point we actually managed to proceed to the next paragraph from What Does the Bible Really Teach?, which confronted the issue of whether or not Jesus is God. It makes three fundamental arguments: (i) Jesus is created (see prior verse) but Jehovah is eternal (Psalm 90:2); (ii) the Father is greater than the Son (John 14:28; 1 Corinthians 11:3); and (iii) Jehovah alone has the title "God Almighty" (Genesis 17:1). We only managed to cover (i) and (ii); I think he totally forgot that (iii) was even there. I noted, in my treatment of the paragraph, that (i) relied on the previous section, which we'd already discussed--and, while I didn't point it out, he never managed to demonstrate that Colossians 1:15 establishes the Watchtower position, although he tried to ask some leading questions about "firstborns" in human families, which is when I led us on a trek down analogy lane and ended up discussing the manner in which Christ is begotten of the Father. I also noted that the same kind of language used in Psalm 90:2 is used of Wisdom (the pre-incarnate Christ, as the Watchtower accepts it) in Proverbs 8:23. But, of course, since Proverbs 8 hadn't come up in the conversation, I led us on to (ii), where I explained the distinction between essence and function/'authority' and offered two possible understandings of 1 Corinthians 11:3 that preserve a Trinitarian understanding.

From 1 Corinthians 11:3, he actually wanted to take some time (I think he might've needed a bit of a breather) to track off to the issue of biblical teaching on men and women, so we tossed that around for a while, and he was pleased to see that I'm relatively egalitarian, unlike some Christian men he'd met. Sometime after this point, my mother brought us each slices of freshly baked banana bread, and so we chowed down as the conversation turned from the issues of Scripture and more to some anecdotes from Uriah from his door-to-door witnessing. For example, one time he led a study in a house that had about 42 iguanas, of which only around 12 were caged, and Uriah can't stand reptiles. But he persisted, and one time the family asked for two weeks off because company was coming... and then, when Uriah returned for the scheduled study, the family had moved out! In another story, he had asked a Trinitarian woman to explain the doctrine, and she just shouted, "I don't need to know!" In yet another story, he had been leading a study with a family, and they invited a 7-ft. tall, 120-lb. man named Solomon to join them one day... and in the middle of the study, Solomon shrieked, stood up, knelt on the flood, and prayed for the blood of Christ to protect the Christian family from these JW "apostates". Not exactly the most tactful incident in human history...

At any rate, I told Uriah that we could study again on the 16th, and that my girlfriend would be joining us... and then, of course, I rambled for a few moments about how wonderful she is, but eventually I managed to focus again. We agreed to continue with the next paragraph in What Does the Bible Really Teach?. Also, at the end of the study, I offered Uriah my print-out of my essay to read over and research, and he accepted it, slipping it into his satchel. Given that reading opposition literature isn't exactly held by the Watchtower in terribly high esteem, I was a tad surprised but quite pleased. In the meantime, I determined to work on beefing up my electronic copy of the essay so that I can print out a more powerful version for next time.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

JW Study Meeting #4

Toay they showed up 45 minutes late. Evidently something in their schedule had changed or something, and they'd had something else they needed to do. Alright, so be it. They're darn lucky I was still (for some reason) waiting for them, especially since I'm not exactly known for this "patience" thing that I've heard mentioned in the fables... Anyway, "Shem" was no longer the second guy; now it was a fellow I'll call "Mephibosheth". I like that name.

Erm, so they showed up at quarter of 1, at long last, and I had all my materials on the table, because today was Chapter 4 from the What Does the Bible Really Teach? book: "Who Is Jesus Christ?" As I think I might've mentioned, I'd been meaning to prepare an essay defending the orthodox view of Jesus against various objections and such. Well... I'm a procrastinator, and so I had to do the bulk of it yesterday in a rush for probably about seven or eight solid hours, and add some more this morning, carefully rationing my time. (I used my opening statement from a debate I had a while back as a template.) After it came to around 24.5 pages, I set it to print and then went for a shower. So thus I had my materials prepared, plus some print-outs from Let God Be True and the Should You Believe in the Trinity? booklet.

Returning to the story at hand, I mentioned after a prayer that I had looked through the chapter and found some disagreeable portions, so we might have to deviate from the ordinary routine in some fashion. "Uriah" asked which part of the chapter I'd found questionable, and so I leafed through it and informed him that it was pp. 41-42, remarking "cuz we're Trinitarian folk 'round here". Uriah was quite surprised; his memory must've been failing, 'cuz he coulda sworn I was a non-Trinitarian. Oopsies. Anyway, since I also surprised them a bit by not having any real objections to most of the rest of the chapter, we agreed to spend this meeting on everything up through page 40, and then to tackle the meaty stuff the next time.

So, no real big excitement this time around, at least not the sort of excitement that would involve me spending an hour debating theology with folks. The material basically just covered the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, that he was proclaimed at his baptism, and a couple messianic OT texts (Micah 5:2 and Daniel 9:25). I talked a fair amount of the time--explaining first-century Jewish messianic expectations, mentioning various perspectives on who Jesus was/is, and likewise elaborating on some of the ridiculous suggestions atheists come up with for the miracles of Jesus. I also mentioned some stuff about Daniel 7, and so Uriah said that next time he'd bring me a book of some sort about Daniel, a point-by-point interaction with critical scholarship. Sounded interesting, and it goes without saying that I'm always ready to augment my library with something new and interesting. Oh, and Uriah told a story about a non-Trinitarian woman he met who didn't think her church believed in the Trinity, and who got a rather incredulous response from her pastor when she mentioned it... since the word "Trinity" was part of the name of the church.

Mephibosheth was pretty quiet during most of the meeting. His reading wasn't quite as polished as Uriah's, either, so I figured he might be a bit new to the whole thing. So at the end of everything, I asked Mephibosheth to tell me his story, and so he did, and it actually went on for a while. Basically, he was raised as a Jehovah's Witness, but when he was around 13, his parents fell away. He basically followed suit, as did the rest of the kids, save for the two oldest. Many years later, he had a daughter, and I'm guessing that he and his wife divorced by this point. His daughter was 3, and one day he was seized with thoughts about his daughter's future, and so he called his older sister and said he needed to get his life back on track. That was about six years ago, since his daughter is 9 now, and he was baptized four years ago. That story drew the meeting to a close, and we've agreed to meet again at 12:40 PM on August 2nd.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

JW Study Meeting #3

My newest tale is of another meeting with my favorite Jehovah's Witnesses, Uriah and Shem. Chapter 3 of What Does the Bible Really Teach? concerns the restoration of the earth. In short, since I agree that our ultimate hope is not some ethereal, disembodied existence in another realm but rather bodily resurrection and a renewed earth inundated with the glorious presence of YHWH, there was fairly little disagreement, which actually seemed to catch Uriah off guard, if anything. He kept having to ask, over and over again, if I was sure I didn't disagree with what the book said (which primarily consisted of Scripture quotes, at those parts). Ordinarily, you see, that chapter is one of their hardest to get through with folks, and even with me, they figured it might take two sessions instead of just one. Oh, and we did have a brief tangent on the subject of hell, in a sense, and I basically got them to accidentally concede one of their typical arguments against conscious, eternal punishment. At any rate, before they left, I told them that the next chapter would provoke some controversy, and that they should come prepared. Uriah just smiled, and I have a feeling that he seriously underestimates the coming storm. But, either way, the next meeting will be 26 July. I've been slacking too much to be ready on the 12th, and on the 19th I'll be meeting up with a bunch of guys from the Guys' Bible Study at college to spend a day working through Philippians.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

JW Study Meeting #2

Today my afternoon began with yet another meeting with the Jehovah's Witnesses. Chapter 2 of What Does the Bible Really Teach? was fairly uncontroversial in our context, since it covers the Bible being the Word of God. So this was a very peaceful meeting--so peaceful that Uriah had to play devil's advocate a bit at the end to get things a bit stirred up.

I did ask about books that had been used prior to What Does the Bible Really Teach?. I managed to draw out some confirmation that, a couple books previously, they had been working with Let God Be True. I have a PDF copy of it on my laptop, and it's a pretty interesting resource. (The other weekend, aside from goofing around, Daniel and I sat in front of my laptop, reading to each other from the Trinity section in Let God Be True and laughing. I managed to confirm a lot of quotes in Walter Martin's The Kingdom of the Cults, since he cites Let God Be True fairly often.)

At any rate, Uriah, Shem, and I have settled into a routine. Reading the prescribed paragraphs from the chapter in a rotation (me, then Shem, then Uriah), and after each paragraph (or two), Uriah reads the footnoted discussion questions, and I answer. They're always extremely easy and obvious questions, so I can halfway zone out pretty easily if I want to let my mind wander a little bit here and there. Sometimes Uriah or I will bring up various related things for discussion, but not terribly often.

I told Uriah and Shem that we could tackle Chapter 3 (a basically biblical section on the promise of new creation) on July 5th, and we agreed to begin the study with some prayers for guidance. Should be interesting to see if I can slip a somewhat Trinitarian prayer in there. I also procured another copy of their pamphlet Should You Believe in the Trinity?, since as I said before, somewhere along the line I managed to lose my old one.

Uriah told me a story, after I asked for the pamphlet, of a recent case where he knocked on a door and the woman who answered was very interested in discussing the Trinity. As Uriah told it, he then said to her, "Okay, let's say the Trinity is true. Can you show me where it is in the Bible?" She replies, "Well, it's all over the place!" Uriah then says, "Alright, well let me see an example." Sadly, she wasn't able to do it, told the JWs to go away, and then refused to accept a copy of their pamphlet when they offered her Should You Believe in the Trinity?. He and I agreed that Christians should be competent at defending their beliefs from the Scriptures... although I'm not totally sure if Uriah remembers just what an interest I happen to have in defending that particular doctrine from the Scriptures.

The next meeting should be fairly subdued--I checked through Chapter 3, and there's no cause in there for complaint--but after that comes the fun, since Chapter 4 gets into Christology and tries to argue a bit against the deity of Christ. My plan is to let them know at the beginning of that session that I looked through the chapter ahead of time and found some disagreeable things, and so rather than work through the chapter in the usual way, I'd be interested in hashing out some of those issues for one or two weeks, and then we can move on once we find some resolution. If we eventually reach an impasse after a couple of discussion sessions on the issue, I may suggest that we move on to the next few chapters and then revisit the issue of Christology. Of course, the next few chapters--dealing with atonement and the afterlife respectively--are bound to produce some interesting disputes as well.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

JW Study Meeting #1

Now that I've managed to persuade the Jehovah's Witnesses to start coming back, I found that--slightly to my surprise--this time around they kept their word, and so this today I got a little visit. Of the two, Uriah has been a constant throughout my experiences with them; the other guy (to be known as "Shem"), I met at the Kingdom Hall, I think. Now I'm doing a study with them, I suppose, and one through which I hope to be able to challenge them at the appropriate points. Today we went through the first chapter of the classic study guide, What Does the Bible Really Teach?. Nothing terribly controversial there, especially considering that I'm the guy known in the area who makes an effort to incorporate some pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton into my various divine addresses when praying. So it was fairly uneventful. I'd say I was roughly as articulate as I ever am when speaking extemporaneously (meaning, not very, in my opinion, though some beg to differ). We occasionally went off on very slight tangents here and there--for example, we talked a bit of the problems inherent in blind faith, and we had some great discussion of God's commitment to solving the problem of evil throughout salvation history, and I also went off for a bit to explain briefly how the phrase "image of God" would have worked in ANE thought--but other than that stuck to the 'script'.

At the end of it all, though, I had a chance to ask the two of them how they came to be involved with the JWs. Both had interesting stories. For Shem, he lived an immoral life as a drunkard for many years, until finally one night in a barn, one of his drinking buddies stood up and, for no apparent reason, shot himself in the head. Shem came from a Witness family, so the next day Shem asked for a Bible study, and so it began. Uriah was raised as a Methodist, and as time went on, he began presenting his pastor with questions. Alas, his pastor had no answers, and so after enough of that, Uriah gave the pastor a call and asked to be removed from membership rolls. The pastor essentially said, "Yeah, fine, just submit a letter." So Uriah did, and a few years later he started studying with Jehovah's Witnesses. A year after that, he was one of them, and that was over a decade ago. Does this not critically underscore just how crucial it is to have our clergy sufficiently trained to be the intellectual/theological shepherds of their flocks, as well as the 'spiritual' shepherds?

Another sobering tale: Shem recounted a story of when the two of them, in their door-to-door witnessing, came upon a retired pastor who said that he was retired and so didn't have to worry about studying the Bible any more. (Of course, I doubt the man phrased it quite that way. Or at least, I sure hope not...)

I'll be seeing the pair of them again on the 21st to go over the next chapter, dealing with the Bible. Shouldn't be long until Chapter 4: "Who Is Jesus Christ?". I intend to advise them to come prepared for a very interesting, very challenging discussion, because I sure as heck will. Which leads me to my current project. Haven't gotten terribly far in it, but I'm working bit by bit on drafting up sort of an article on Christology, defending Trinitarianism against JW criticisms and offering a positive case as well. The bulk of it, in my vision, is a section under the massive heading "Objections", in which I articulate all the different objections, counter-arguments, etc., that I've ever come across--and believe me, I've found many--and reply to all of them. (So far, I've done... three. Yeah. Three. Like I said, I've made very little progress, because I'm too lazy to bring most of my books downstairs to reference.) I've got some time, at least, and some decent resources, but I want to ask my JW discussion partners if they can procure me a new copy of Should You Believe in the Trinity?, because that'll be an invaluable reference. In the meantime, I'm also re-reading the 100-page section on the Jehovah's Witnesses in Walter Martin's classic Kingdom of the Cults. Not the greatest (although decently comprehensive, for the scope of the work as a whole), but it does at least quote a lot of issues of The Watchtower to which I don't, regrettably, have access.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

A Trip to the Local Kingdom Hall

After church today, my best friend Daniel dropped by, and we embarked on... well, it turned out to be quite an adventure of a road trip, considering how navigationally impaired we both are. We discussed a variety of things during the course of it, ranging from N. T. Wright to career plans to interpretations of Romans. But we finally made our way to the nearest Kingdom Hall just in time for the Jehovah's Witnesses' meeting. Hence, having paid a visit, I can now give some reflections. First of all, everyone was extremely warm and friendly. Frankly, it quite nearly made me ashamed at how cold and impersonal even my own church seems in comparison--and there are very many loving, outgoing folks in my congregation. Of course, the Witnesses were few in number--83 folks were in attendance today--and it was quite clear that neither Daniel nor myself were from among their number. I'd brought my New World Translation; Daniel didn't have anything. After being greeted by at least ten people and engaged in conversation, we found some available seats. Finally, it was time for the weekly 'Bible talk', delivered by "Uriah", the JW who had for a long time been visiting me sporadically, and who had extended the invitation for today's talk. He did a very excellent job with the speech, which really wasn't terribly objectionable. It began, though, in an unexpected way. To paraphrase: "You remember the good old days? Our grandparents remember the good old days too, and so do our parents, but they're an entirely different set of good old days? So how can they all be the good old days? Well, the world keeps getting worse and worse." The talk went on to highlight five major areas in which all human governments inevitably fail but in which Jesus succeeds, with illustrations from the Scriptures. There was even a bit of democracy-bashing, the sort Daniel and I were unused to in church. Of course, the both of us are more-or-less monarchists, of a sort, so we were fairly pleased. There was also an interesting point at which it was said (to paraphrase, perhaps): "This isn't true just because I'm saying it. This isn't true just because the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society is saying it. It's true because the Bible says it." (Of course, the verse in question was actually a quotation from Satan during Jesus' temptation in the wilderness, which made me laugh a bit inside.)

Anyway, after the Bible talk came the first hymn (they would've called it a 'song'), #172 in the hymnal Sing Praise to Jehovah. Daniel and I both looked around for such a book, but neither of us could find one; evidently, the JWs each have their own. The woman in front of us, thankfully, was kind enough to let us borrow hers, while she shared with her husband. The hymn was actually very good. Better, in my personal opinion, than a lot of the songs from my church. The Scriptural theme of the song was Psalm 2. After this came... well, a curious thing for which I'm not sure I have a name. Each week, evidently, they go over an article in the latest issue of The Watchtower. This week's was about Jesus as the "greatest missionary", being sent from heaven by Jehovah to compassionately teach the people. The majority of the article was unobjectionable, although one could see beneath the surface a notion of Christ as a created being, as the archangel Michael. The Kingdom Hall meetings use a study edition of The Watchtower, with numbered paragraphs and questions in footnotes. One man read a paragraph or two at a time; then he stopped and another man in the "pulpit" area asked the question from the footnotes, and called on people who raised their hands. Two men took microphones around to everyone, and often quite a bit of time was spent on each question. It was... well, a tad boring. The questions were very, very simple, sometimes capable of being answered perfectly in a single word, and the people answering often seemed to use the same words as in the paragraph, as if it were soaking into them. Very strange. 'Course, then I was struck by a frightening thought: most Bible studies I've seen have been even less intelligent than the discussion we found there. Also, on one page of the article, there was a picture of Jesus teaching a crowd, and we paused to analyze the facial expressions of the people. As it turns out, Daniel and I both have interpretive instincts very contrary to what the JWs had. The drawing rather amused me, though. Finally, after working through the rest of the article, there was one last song (#72) which included a reference to us all going door-to-door witnessing. Well, that was a tad awkward... but I think that the whole experience, especially those songs, made me really understand better what life might be like through JW eyes. There finally came a prayer, led by Uriah, and finally we were dismissed. There was much more conversation to come, of course; probably about six or seven other people introduced themselves to us, and we got to talk to folks for a while before finally making our way to Uriah and chatting with him a bit. He'll be keeping in touch, and hopefully we'll get to start having more study-oriented meetings once June begins.

I found that a few key words kept cropping up as distinctives: "Jehovah". "Kingdom". "Theocracy". "Organization". "Governing Body". "Training". "Christendom", once. And in place of the typical "accept Christ as your personal savior" bit that most modern churches churn out, there was a replacement phrase along the lines of "accept Jesus as the reigning king". A superior phrasing, if you ask me. The songs also refused to simply gloss over notions of divine judgment; such was quite clearly retained, even if perhaps a bit disturbing at times in connection with the soft, almost cheery tune of the music itself. The JWs were quite obviously eager to have Daniel and myself return to visit again sometime, preferably soon. And I do think that, someday, I would enjoy visiting on another Sunday. It was... a very different experience. One both foreign and familiar, alien and human. Seeing everyone milling about in conversation, people of all ages, even little children darting around in the aisles under the affectionate watch of adults... it was a very human sort of thing, one that could take place in any church, one that's at home in any church. The hymns were beautiful, the prayers were exalted and--I dare say--a bit more Christocentric than those in many Trinity-affirming congregations. The speech was unobjectionable, and--aside from a few overly negative aspersions on political participation--would have actually made a rather suitable sermon in any church, better than many I've heard. In the course of the service, I could definitely sense a perception of superiority over "Christendom". Christendom's agents are lazy and short on faith, but Jehovah's Witnesses give their own time and work to spread the gospel, paying for their own transportation and facing apathy and prejudice on a regular basis. Christendom's missionaries get involved in local politics and lose sight of the gospel, but Jehovah's Witnesses are genuinely focused on serving God alone and spreading nothing but the good news. That sort of thing.

At any rate, Daniel and I had quite the experience once we left there, headed back to my house, grabbed my stuff, and headed back up to college. For one, Daniel kept missing the roads we were supposed to take, and sometimes we'd have to spend five minutes going the wrong way and having no clue. We actually got into a bit of an accident on the way back. Some mentally defective bloke decided to make a three-point turn in the 55-mph section of a major road, and when we swerved to avoid him, we realized that there was a car parked at the side of the road, so we were basically forced to drive off the road and, well, into a tree. Daniel's car only got a minor dent, and I was pretty much laughing hysterically, but that's because I'm insane. We eventually made it to the right town in one piece, stopped to split a large pizza at the local pizza shop (ran into another of our friends there and had to spend some time annoying her, too), and ended at campus. It's good to have a best friend as strange as Daniel.