Most of the really interesting attempts to defend Jehovah’s Witness theology do not come in official Watchtower literature, which is generally rather superficial in its argumentation. The most interesting defenses come from individual Jehovah’s Witnesses producing their own blogs, websites, and in rare instances books. (I began doing research and writing on Jehovah’s Witness doctrine nearly forty years ago, when such individuals were producing their defenses on typewriters!)
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Lessons from a Non-Trinitarian Defense
Roman Montero, a Jehovah’s Witness blogger, recently published a series of four blog posts that provide some good object lessons on how not to defend JW theology—lessons that we as evangelicals can also apply to ourselves. Roman was responding to my article in which I challenged non-Trinitarians to defend their position. The article was recently re-posted on Fred Anson’s blog Beggar’s Bread.
I started my article with the following statement of its purpose: “I am going to tell you exactly what you need to do in order to defend your non-Trinitarian position as a superior alternative to the Trinitarian view.” Here are the five guidelines I provided:
- Refute one or more of the essential propositions of the doctrine of the Trinity.
- Present a clear alternative to the doctrine of the Trinity.
- Identify the religion associated with that alternative to Trinitarian Christianity.
- Show that your alternative theology does not suffer from the defects you claim to find in Trinitarianism.
- Demonstrate that your theology explains the full range of biblical information better than the doctrine of the Trinity.
Montero devotes most of his first three articles to critiquing two of the essential propositions of the doctrine of the Trinity—that there is one God and that the Son is God. In the fourth article, he briefly presents an alternative that he claims is superior (his response to requirements 2, 4, and 5).
With this brief summary in place, let’s look at the issues raised here and some lessons we can learn from how Montero addresses the issues. In doing so, I will be using American football as a metaphor or analogy. The use of a sports analogy is not meant to trivialize the subject. The Apostle Paul’s use of sports analogies is well known (1 Cor. 9:24–26; Gal. 2:2; 5:7; Phil. 2:16; 2 Tim. 2:5; 4:7; see also Heb. 12:1).
Lesson #1: Don’t Shift the Goalposts
A distinction crucial to my article is that there is a difference between expressing objections to someone else’s view and showing that one’s own view is preferable. There is nothing wrong with the former, but it is not a substitute for the latter. Showing that there are problems with neo-Darwinian evolution is all well and good, but that isn’t enough to establish the truth of a particular form of creationism. If I give some reasons for questioning that Jesus is Michael the archangel (as Jehovah’s Witnesses believe), I have not yet shown that Jesus is God. Similarly, if you’re a Jehovah’s Witness, you can defend your theology only by showing that Jehovah’s Witness theology is superior to orthodox theology.
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This is exactly where Montero’s four-part response fails. He should have presented a clear alternative to the doctrine of the Trinity. Instead, Montero asserts that this demand “is unnecessary because one could argue that there is no obvious, or clear alternative, but that we know that the trinity is not a possible option.” Already Montero has moved the goalposts and in so doing changed the object of the game without acknowledging it. What my article discusses is precisely how to defend an alternative theological position. If you don’t have one that you are prepared to defend, then you have forfeited the game.
Of course, not everyone has an alternative theology. Skeptics, for example, can argue that they don’t accept any theology. Buddhists can maintain that all Christian theologies are flawed. Montero, however, claims to be a Christian. If he has a better theology, why wouldn’t he want to defend it? In any case, if he’s not interested in meeting my challenge he should just say so.
Lesson #2: Be a Team Player
Montero even more strongly rejects my third guideline: “Identify the religion associated with that alternative.” According to Montero, this is an invalid requirement because, for example, it would have barred the Protestant Reformers from advancing their theology:
Robert Bowman, being a protestant, would have to insist (if his principle is to hold) that the earliest reformers would have to have pointed to an existing denomination for their objections to Catholicism to be valid; I don’t think he’s ready to affirm that.
Montero missed the point entirely. Here’s what I actually said:
It’s no good telling us that you believe X, Y, and Z instead of the Trinity, if this “alternative” is your own private confection of beliefs. I say this because the true doctrine of God will be held by a community of believers in Jesus Christ—by the church. Theologies do not exist in a vacuum, or in isolation. You are either part of a church that teaches the theology you espouse, or you are picking and choosing what you will believe from others and not committing yourself to a way of life that puts a set of teachings into practice.
The point is that those who espouse a particular theology must offer some meaningful religious context in which that theology belongs. If your religion is brand new, fine—tell us what it is, who its other adherents are if any, and why we should accept it. If yours is so far a religion of one, have the courage of your convictions. Boldly present yourself, as Joseph Smith did, as the founding prophet or teacher or sage of the new religion.
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Montero’s citation of the Protestant Reformers displays woeful ignorance of history. The Reformers were not advocating a different religion than the Catholic faith. They were Catholics, calling for a return to the standard authority of Christianity, the Bible. Moreover, the Reformers were not teaching a new theology. They accepted the same ancient creeds (Apostles, Nicene, and Chalcedonian) as the Catholic Church. They believed in the same God—the triune God revealed in Scripture as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They believed in the same Jesus Christ—the incarnate, eternal Son of God, fully God and fully man by nature. In support of their reforms they not only appealed to Scripture but also noted precedents for their positions in the teachings of the church fathers, especially Augustine. Protestantism is a different stream of the same religion, not a different religion. And of course the Reformers were not secretive about their agenda or their larger theological and religious commitments.
The Catholic Church refused to make the proper reforms and excommunicated the early Reformers (chiefly Luther, Zwingli, and Cranmer). As a result, the Reformation led to the formation of separate ecclesiastical bodies (the Protestant denominations). However, Protestants classically still consider themselves “catholic” though not part of the Roman Catholic Church.
Lesson #3: Wear the Uniform
Whatever one wishes to say about the Reformers, the fact is that Montero is not advancing a new theology but is an adherent to an existing theology taught by a well-known religion. Although Montero is a Jehovah’s Witness, one would never know this from his own blog. I had to find his full name, which he doesn’t give openly on the blog, and then search for his name online. Eventually I found a comment he made on someone else’s blog in which he admitted being a Jehovah’s Witness. I say “admitted” because in his response to my challenge to anti-Trinitarians, Montero explicitly refuses to identify the religion that teaches his theological alternative to the Trinity.
Here was a perfect opening for Montero to promote his religion, which claims to be “the true religion.” The Watchtower claims that its organization is the “agency” through which Jehovah God provides the only reliable “spiritual food.” It tells its members that they must be “loyal” in order “to have Jehovah’s favor and blessing.” If those claims are true, then everyone needs to know—and such knowledge is supposedly indispensable to knowing the truth about such issues as the doctrine of the Trinity. It’s disingenuous for Montero to assert that we don’t need to know what his religion is if we are to assess his view. The fact is that the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ beliefs about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are part of a larger theological system that gives those beliefs their context.
Lesson #4: Don’t Tackle Your Own Quarterback
Most of Montero’s series presents objections to two of the basic propositions of the doctrine of the Trinity I’ve defended. Some of his objections even conflict with the official teachings of the Watchtower Society.
Take, for instance, Montero’s criticism that my arguments supposedly misunderstand biblical texts in “Aristotelian” categories. Montero says that Psalm 86:8 is not “making a statement about some Aristotelian concept of an essence of God.” He further argues that none of the other texts describing God as unique make “a metaphysical statement about Aristotelian categories.” He says references to angels as gods simply mean that they are powerful beings, “no Aristotelian metaphysics necessary.” I had argued that 1 Corinthians 15:27-28 does not deny that the Son is “equal in nature” to the Father. Montero claims that I was guilty here of “arbitrarily adding in the non-biblical Aristotelian category of ‘nature’ into the text when no such thing is there.”
There is nothing distinctively “Aristotelian” about the distinctions between nature and function, any more than that the law of non-contradiction is somehow an invention of Aristotle. In any case, Montero doesn’t seem to realize that he is undermining the teaching found in official Jehovah’s Witness publications. According to the Watchtower Society, human beings and animals have different natures, and spirit persons also have “a different nature.” Jesus’ statement that God is a Spirit (John 4:24) “reveals a basic truth about God’s form, or nature,” whereas anthropomorphic language about God in Scripture is not a literal description of “the nature of God.” Likewise, “Gender distinction is unique to physical creatures and is a linguistic device that reflects the limitations of human language to capture fully the essence of Almighty God, Jehovah.”
Lesson #5: Try Not to Trip over Your Own Two Feet
According to Montero, Psalm 86:8 is not a categorical statement about Yahweh being the only God but merely part of David’s “love song” to Yahweh:
It’s David declaring that for him, there is only one God he turns to, the one he can trust, it’s a Doxology, it’s a divine love song, in the text itself in verse 8 it acknowledges other Gods, but there are none like Yahweh. I can say the same thing about my wife, there are many women out there, but none like her.
By this reasoning, it would have been perfectly fine with David for other people to love, trust, revere, pray to, and worship other gods. Yahweh just happened to be his God, the one he personally loved. If we were to apply this thinking consistently, Montero could have no objection to evangelicals loving Jesus as “their” God, the one they trust and adore. (Of course, evangelicals do love Jesus as their God, but not to the exclusion of the Father or the Holy Spirit.)
Jesus meets all of the qualifications Montero sets up (and more):
- We must put our trust (faith) in Jesus (e.g., John 1:12; 3:15-18; 14:1; Acts 16:31; Rom. 10:11; 1 Peter 2:6).
- Jesus is also the rightful object of our unqualified, absolute love (Matt. 10:37; Luke 14:26; John 14:15, 21; 15:10; Eph. 6:24).
- Jesus is a divine figure to whom we should give praise in doxologies (2 Tim. 4:18; Heb. 13:20-21; 1 Peter 4:11; 2 Peter 3:18; Rev. 5:12-13; cf. 1 Chron. 29:11-12).
- We should sing songs of devotion to Jesus (Eph. 5:19; Rev. 5:9-10).
David flatly contradicts Montero’s interpretation in the immediate context of the statement under consideration here:
There is none like you among the gods, O Lord,
nor are there any works like yours.
All the nations you have made shall come and worship before you, O Lord,
and shall glorify your name.
For you are great and do wondrous things;
you alone are God. (Ps. 86:8-10 ESV)
David affirms that one day all the nations that the Lord (not some other god!) had made will worship the Lord and glorify his name, because he alone is God. This is a love song, all right, but it is one that calls all of humanity to join David in loving the same God.
According to Montero, my “fundamental error” is viewing the word God as “a special category of being,” so that “anything which is not Yahweh cannot properly be called a god.” Not quite. There are a few places in the Old Testament where the term “gods” (always in the plural) may designate supernatural beings in the heavenly or divine “council.” This is one possible interpretation of the “gods” in Psalm 82, for example (a different view than the Israelite judges interpretation I discussed in my outline study on the Trinity). Almost always, however, in the Old Testament a God or god is an object of religious devotion.
Contrary to Montero’s complaint, there is nothing unclear or ambiguous about religious devotion. It is a stance of fear (reverence), faith (trust), worship (humble submission), and love (loyalty, desire to please) toward a supernatural figure. Religious devotion is expressed in prayer, sacred ritual (including initiation rites, sacrifices, sacred meals), and hymns and other verbal forms of praise and honor. The Old Testament emphatically teaches that Yahweh is the only God who is properly the object of such devotion, because he alone made and rules the world. This was at the core of the Jewish faith.
However diverse Judaism may have been in other respects, this was common: only the God of Israel is worthy of worship because he is sole Creator of all things and Ruler of all things…. God alone created, and no one else had any part in this activity.
Montero is not alone in tripping over his own feet in his view of Jesus Christ. Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that Christ may properly be designated “a god” (as their New World Translation renders John 1:1) while still regarding him as a creature inferior to Jehovah. They argue, as does Montero, that Jesus can be called a god because a god is simply a powerful or mighty being, of which there are many. In taking this position, however, Jehovah’s Witnesses empty the biblical affirmations of monotheism of any meaning. If a god is simply a mighty being, then Jehovah is clearly not the only god in that sense. Yet the Bible states some two dozen times that there is only one God, usually identifying him in the context explicitly as Jehovah. One need not be a devotee of Aristotle to see the problem here.
Lesson #6: Playing Defense Is Not Enough
Montero’s second and third parts focus on whether Jesus is God. Montero agrees that it is obvious that “in various places [in Scripture] Jesus is given the title of God.” He then adds that “the question is what does that mean.” Believe it or not, Montero never answers this question.
In part 4, Montero finally gets around to discussing his own alternative theology, which he calls “the pre-existent but created logos alternative.” Yet he still does not explain what it means for the pre-existent but created Logos to be called a god. He simply insists that it does not mean he is Jehovah. Montero cites only one text in support of his view, Psalm 110:1, and doesn’t even bother quoting it or explaining how it supports his position. Somehow, he imagines that one biblical reference without any exposition or engagement with other interpretations is sufficient to show that his view explains the whole teaching of Scripture better than the Trinity.
This brings us back to a point made at the outset of this discussion. It’s not enough to try to find problems with the theological position of someone with whom you disagree. Nor is it sufficient to assert that your view is obviously better. You need to have a positive alternative that answers the pertinent questions in a meaningful way. You can’t fight something with nothing. Playing defense is not enough; you must be prepared to move the ball down the field in the right direction.
- See especially Robert M. Bowman Jr., Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jesus Christ, and the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989); Why You Should Believe in the Trinity: An Answer to Jehovah’s Witnesses (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989); Understanding Jehovah’s Witnesses: Why They Read the Bible the Way They Do (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991); Jehovah’s Witnesses, Zondervan Guide to Cults and Religious Movements, ed. Alan W. Gomes (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995); and much of Sense and Nonsense about Heaven and Hell, with Kenneth D. Boa (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), and Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ, with J. Ed Komoszewski (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007). ↩
- Robert M. Bowman Jr., “What about This View? How to Defend an Anti-Trinitarian Theology,” FAQ about the Trinity #3 (Grand Rapids: Institute for Religious Research, 2014), accessed Oct. 7, 2015, http://bib.irr.org/what-about-view-how-defend-anti-trinitarian-theology. ↩
- Robert M. Bowman Jr., “How to Defend an Anti-Trinitarian Theology,” Beggar’s Bread (blog), Sept. 5, 2015, accessed Oct. 7, 2015, http://beggarsbread.org/2015/09/05/how-to-defend-an-anti-trinitarian-theology/. ↩
- On Jesus and Michael, see Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman Jr., Sense and Nonsense about Angels and Demons (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 62-66. ↩
- Roman Montero, “Robert Bowman’s Anti-Trinitarian Challenge—Part 1,” Theology and Justice (blog), Sept. 29, 2015, accessed Oct. 7, 2015, https://theologyandjustice.wordpress.com/2015/09/29/robert-bowmans-anti-trinitarian-theology-challenge-part-1/ ↩
- Roman Montero, “Robert Bowman’s Anti-Trinitarian Challenge—Part 4,” Theology and Justice (blog), Oct. 5, 2015, accessed Oct. 7, 2015, https://theologyandjustice.wordpress.com/2015/10/05/robert-bowmans-anti-trinitarian-theology-challenge-part-4/. ↩
- See C. Michael Patton, “The Rise of the Roman Catholic Church in a Nutshell,” Credo House (blog), July 19, 2012, accessed Oct. 7, 2015, http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2012/07/the-rise-of-the-roman-catholic-church-in-a-nutshell/. ↩
- Roman Montero, comment on Dale Tuggy, “Podcast Episode 67—Is Christmas a Pagan Holiday?” Trinities (blog), Dec. 22, 2014, accessed Oct. 8, 2015, http://trinities.org/blog/podcast-episode-67-is-christmas-a-pagan-holiday/. ↩
- Reasoning from the Scriptures (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1995), 203-205; “Who Really Is the Faithful and Discreet Slave?” Watchtower, July 15, 2013, 21; “Are You Moving Ahead with Jehovah’s Organization?” Watchtower, May 2014, 29-30. For a detailed overview of Jehovah’s Witness doctrine with documentation from currently used Watchtower publications, see Robert M. Bowman Jr., “What the Watchtower Society Teaches” (Grand Rapids: IRR, 2014), accessed Oct. 8, 2015, http://wit.irr.org/what-watchtower-society-teaches. ↩
- See Bowman, Understanding Jehovah’s Witnesses, 91-93. ↩
- Robert M. Bowman Jr., “The Biblical Basis of the Doctrine of the Trinity: An Outline Study” (Grand Rapids: Institute for Religious Research, 2009), accessed Oct. 9, 2015, http://irr.org/biblical-basis-of-doctrine-of-trinity-introduction. ↩
- Montero, “Robert Bowman’s Anti-Trinitarian Challenge—Part 1.” ↩
- Roman Montero, “Robert Bowman’s Anti-Trinitarian Challenge—Part 3,” Theology and Justice (blog), Oct. 3, 2015, accessed Oct. 9, 2015, https://theologyandjustice.wordpress.com/2015/10/03/robert-bowmans-anti-trinitarian-theology-challenge-part-3/. ↩
- “Nature,” in Insight on the Scriptures (Brooklyn: Watchtower, 1988), 2:474. ↩
- “What Is the Nature of God?” Awake!, Oct. 2008, 24-25. ↩
- Montero, “Robert Bowman’s Anti-Trinitarian Challenge—Part 1.” ↩
- Bowman and Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place, 32-35, 55-63, 69-70. ↩
- Montero, “Robert Bowman’s Anti-Trinitarian Challenge—Part 1.” ↩
- Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism & Christology in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 11, 12. ↩
- Deut. 4:35, 39; 32:39; 2 Sam. 22:32; 2 Kings 5:15; Is. 37:20: 43:10; 44:6-8; 45:5, 14, 21-22; 46:9; John 5:44; Rom. 3:30; 16:27; 1 Cor. 8:4-6; Gal. 3:20; Eph. 4:6; 1 Tim. 1:17; 2:5; James 2:19; Jude 25. ↩
- Roman Montero, “Robert Bowman’s Anti-Trinitarian Challenge—Part 2,” Theology and Justice (blog), Oct. 2, 2015, accessed Oct. 9, 2015, https://theologyandjustice.wordpress.com/2015/10/02/robert-bowmans-anti-trinitarian-theology-challenge-part-2/. ↩
- Montero, “Robert Bowman’s Anti-Trinitarian Challenge—Part 4.” ↩