This is the fourth part in a series on apologetics to Jehovah’s Witnesses. This series focuses on defending the deity of Christ to Jehovah’s Witnesses who come knocking at the door. It’s important to remember that the Watchtower tells them that Evangelicals are rude, unloving, nasty people who will slam doors in their faces; let’s prove them dead wrong on that front, too!
Today I want to give you a little background on the theology of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. When I first started talking to them as an adult I was surprised to realize what they actually believe, and why all my old arguments for the deity of Christ are ineffective in conversation with them. There was a brief period where my mind was even opened to the idea that Jesus is not in fact God! It was only after re-searching the scriptures with these new issues in mind that I re-discovered the supremacy of Christ over all things. So what had me reconsidering?
The first thing you need to understand is that the Jehovah’s Witness who comes knocking at your door is ‘not’ a polytheist. He is a henotheist. That is to say that he believes that there is only one God, whom he calls “Jehovah”. Yet, he believes that Jesus is a god — a being more powerful than every ‘other’ created thing. In their own words:
God’s name is Jehovah
Christ is God’s Son and is inferior to Him
Christ was first of God’s creations
While the polytheist believes there are multiple gods of equal power, the henotheist believes there is one supreme God, but that there may be lesser deities as well. This is not so unlike classical theism, where the existence of all manner of angels and demons far more powerful than humans is considered plausible. And in fact the Witness theology even holds Jehovah as the creator of all things, not merely the most powerful among them — they are much closer to Christian orthodoxy than you might think.
But neither does the Witness deny the divinity of Christ, or his participation in the creative act, or many other things you might think indicate the supreme deity of Christ. The Witnesses believe Jehovah created Jesus first, that Jesus is more powerful than everything else, and that it was through Jesus that Jehovah God created the cosmos.
This allows them to fully embrace “theos” as a description for Jesus. When you turn to your favorite verse in the Greek scriptures that proves the deity of Christ, chances are it uses the Greek word “theos”. Even the classical debate over John 1:1 (about which, of course, I side with the Christians — see here and here.), if won, is ineffective to prove the deity of Christ to the Witness. It only attributes theo–ness (godhood) to Jesus, and not Jehovah–ness (Godhood). And Jehovahness is their criterion for supreme deity.
Understanding Trinitarian Theology
In order to adequately defend the deity of Christ, you have to be able to precisely articulate the doctrine of the Trinity. The reason is that when the Witness shows you scriptures that highlight the distinction between Jesus and the Father, you cannot allow yourself to be pushed into the theological errors that lie on either side of the narrow road of orthodoxy. On one hand, they are trying to prove that Jesus is so distinct from the Father that he does not share in His deity. But you do not want to push back so hard that you end up conflating the distinctions between the persons of the Godhead either.
So here are the basic affirmations about the trinitarian nature of God that Christians have historically made, which I believe make logical sense out of the Biblical data:
1. There is only one being who is God.
2. The Father is God.
3. The Son is God.
4. The Spirit is God.
5. The Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct persons.
[Update: Another blogger laid it out well here. Also, I wanted to add this thought — we need to remember to try to use words the Witness on the street can understand, or else be prepared to explain our language, and to defend our right to be a little bit philosophical when describing the nature of God. Witnesses have a tendency to eschew anything that seems complicated or confusing at first blush because “God is not a God of confusion, and even the first century fisherman understood everything Jesus had to say” (which will be treated in another post).]
For further reading go check out how the early Christians worded this in the Athanasian Creed. But if you only have time to read one source on the trinity, stop reading this blog now and go read John’s gospel!
Going one step further, you have to be able to precisely articulate the nature of Christ. On the one hand, you have to get his humanity right, or else he cannot be an appropriate substitutionary sacrifice for any human. Failing to affirm the true humanity of Jesus will result in a beating from the Witness who comes knocking, as there is verse after verse that demands it. On the other hand, you have to get his deity right, or else Jesus cannot afford to be a sacrifice for all humans. The affirmation of the deity of Jesus is the most fundamental distinction between the Christian and the Witness. The Witness will tell you that worshipping anything but Jehovah is idolatry, but he needs reminding that refusing to worship someone who is truly God is just as grievous an error. Jesus Himself says that if we reject Him, we reject the Father.
These two natures of Christ must be kept distinct (He is not what geneticists call an “F1 hybrid”). Yet these two natures cannot be separated into two persons (or else, how could the merely human Jesus be worshipped or the God-but-not-human Jesus serve as a sacrifice in the stead of humans?). So:
1. Jesus is truly God.
2. Jesus is truly human.
3. These two natures are distinct from one another.
4. These two natures are united in a single person.
For an elaboration on this you can read how the early believers put it in the Chalcenonian Definition. Though if you only have time for one source on the nature of Jesus, stop reading this blog and just read Colossians. And Hebrews.
Now when the Witness at your door argues that Jesus makes a distinction between himself and the Father, prays to the Father, and worships the Father, that there is only one God, and that Jesus is God’s son, you can show him with ease how all of these things are true, and yet none of them are incompatible with the deity of Christ.
In future posts we will look at how to show the Witness, on their own terms, that Jesus is Jehovah (even though “Jehovah” is a Hebrew word that does not show up in the Greek New Testament manuscripts). We will also be considering other arguments against the deity of Christ, such as that he is called the “firstborn”, that other beings are called “sons of God”, that no human has seen God yet many have seen Jesus, that Jesus does not know the day or hour of his return yet God is omniscient, that the Father is greater than the Son, that the Trinity is confusing yet God is not a God of confusion, and more!