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.