In a way, the Jehovah’s Witnesses really are the ones who first nudged me in the direction of the Catholic Church back when I was an Evangelical. They nudged me hard. That’s because the Jehovah’s Witnesses insist that their “gospel” is the original one. When they come to your door, they will hand you a pamphlet addressing one of their doctrines and urge you to sit down with the pamphlet in one hand and the Bible in the other hand and document from Scripture that everything that they say is true. It’s very impressive. They have Scriptural backing for absolutely everything they teach. Protestants cannot refute Jehovah’s Witness doctrine by telling them to “just read the Bible” because that is exactly what they are doing – every doctrine of theirs is backed by multiple references from the Old and New Testament, and some of it looks mighty convincing, most especially their denial of the Trinity. Some people have always found the doctrine of the Trinity to be unbelievable. How can Jesus be God if He was a man? How could God die? How can there be three Gods and yet at the same time one God???? It’s easy to see why Jehovah’s Witness teaching on the Trinity is so appealing to them, because it confirms what they have always suspected – that God cannot be Three in One! I was appalled when I realized that Protestants could not prove the doctrine of the Trinity from the Bible. For every verse that I gave the Witnesses (and no verse in the Bible states directly that Jesus is God), they have a counter-verse which demonstrates that Jehovah is God, Jesus is the being whom God created, and the holy spirit is “God’s active force.” Isaiah and Jeremiah are absolutely chockfull of verses in which Jehovah insists with great vehemence that He alone is God; there is no other. He is the only Judge; He is the only Righteous One; He brought all things into being. “Are you saying that God was lying?” they ask you….
They then direct you to Philippians 2: 5-11 –
Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted Him, and given him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth: and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
They see this as proof that Jesus was NOT God, but merely IN THE FORM OF GOD (i.e., merely an exalted, created being). They are not denying Scripture, they say; they are taking it at face value. There are many, many other verses like this. They also can “prove” from Scripture that there is no such thing as a literal Hell – when unbelievers die, they will tell you, they will merely cease to exist. Of course, Protestants can pull out many verses demonstrating that unrepentant sinners will go to a literal Hell. But it’s our verses against theirs. What it finally boils down to isn’t “Who has the most Bible verses?” – the real question is:
Who is interpreting those Bible verses the way they were originally meant?
When I was struggling with how to refute Jehovah Witness claims, I stumbled upon a book called Jehovah’s Witnesses on Trial: The Testimony of the Early Church Fathers by Protestant author Robert U. Finnerty. Dr. Finnerty writes:
The Bible, which can be a challenge to understand, is easily misinterpreted by those who rend its parts out of context to “prove” their doctrinal presuppositions…. The writings of the apostolic fathers are less susceptible to such misinterpretation. The Fathers often state quite plainly those things upon which the Scriptures (particularly individual verses taken out of context) seem at times to equivocate.
Since Jehovah’s Witnesses can match Christians literally verse for verse on many disputed subjects, I recognized that it is absolutely imperative that we demonstrate that the earliest Christians did not hold Jehovah’s Witness doctrines. Not that the Christians of the first, second or third century were infallible, obviously, but if a particular doctrine is nowhere mentioned in their writings (and they left us TONS of writings) and if teachings to the contrary of Jehovah’s Witness doctrine are found in the writings of many if not all of the extant documents, then chances are pretty darn good that Jehovah’s Witnesses are proclaiming “another gospel.” It sounded like a plan….
Dr. Finnerty’s book led me to quotation after quotation from the writings of the early Church Fathers demonstrating their belief in the deity of Jesus Christ – exactly what my Jehovah’s Witness friends denied the Bible taught. I also found quotations on the subject of the reality of hell. And these quotations weren’t from the 5th or 6th century, when one might claim that heresy had crept in – they were from the first two centuries A.D. What I found was that the early Christians from east to west over a period from A.D. 70 to 185 and beyond believed that Jesus was God – Jehovah’s Witnesses can produce NO writings in which the early Christians clearly distinguished between Jehovah as God Who is to be worshipped and Jesus whom He created and sent to die for us. This leaves Jehovah’s Witnesses with one of two options:
Either the first Christians all apostatized from the very beginning, and these apostates were all teaching unheard-of doctrines such as the divinity of Jesus Christ and the existence of a literal hell
The writings of the earliest Christians when they concur on a given point must be said to provide an accurate reflection of ‘the faith once delivered to all the saints’ (Jude 3).
Therefore, we do not need to prove that the writings of the earliest Christians were Holy Scripture (which they were not) or that they wrote infallibly (which they did not). It is enough to show that they spoke unanimously, and that no denial of the deity of Christ or the existence of hell can be found in their writings. If Jehovah’s Witnesses tell us “The Scriptures clearly state …” we can answer with an authoritative “You are misinterpreting the Scriptures, and we can prove this because those Christians who lived in the same era as the apostles, spoke the same language as the apostles, and were of the same cultural background as the apostles knew nothing of the doctrines you teach! You are reading your preconceived theology into these verses!”
As an Evangelical, I was tickled pink. What a wonderful way to settle the issues of the divinity of Christ and the reality of Hell! The first Christians SAID that Jesus was God. It was not until the end of the third century that the Arian controversy arose claiming, as Jehovah’s Witnesses do, that Jesus was a creature subordinate to God. The first Christians took for granted that the unrepentant were going to a fiery Hell – no one ever wrote any words to the contrary. I considered this witness of the early Christians a very powerful tool on the side of orthodoxy, and I loved it.
I had, however, forgotten a very pertinent old maxim:
A double-edged sword cuts both ways!
As I delved into the writings of the first Christians, I came to appreciate their tremendous unity on a number of topics. It was clear that the apostles had taught certain doctrines which that generation then taught to the next. The first Christians said that there is a literal hell to which unrepentant sinners will be consigned. The first Christians said that Jesus was God. The first Christians said that the Mass was a sacrifice, and that the bread and the wine of Holy Communion actually become the very Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.
The first Christians wrote that baptism regenerates, actually washing away sins, or as the Bible says, “Baptism… now saves you.”
Well, that’s awkward!
The first Christians wrote that works and final perseverance were quite necessary for salvation.
Okay, hold on just a minute! The writings of the first Christians weren’t infallible!!
Correct, the writings of the first Christians weren’t infallible, but remember our argument against the Witnesses: If a particular doctrine is nowhere mentioned in the writings of the first Christians (and they left us TONS of writings) and if teachings to the contrary of Protestant doctrine are found in the writings of many if not all of the extant documents, then chances are pretty darn good that….
Whoa… whoa… WHOA!!! What doctrines are you referring to??
A symbolic understanding of Holy Communion and of baptism are found NOWHERE in the writings of the first Christians. No early Christian ever even whispers anything reminiscent of the “faith ALONE” or the “once saved/always saved” doctrines. In every discussion of Holy Communion and of baptism, the first Christians express the beliefs taught by the Catholic Church. And as our argument further stated:
Either the first Christians all apostatized from the very beginning, and these apostates were all teaching unheard-of doctrines such as the sacrifice of the Mass and the necessity of faith plus works
The writings of the earliest Christians, when they concur on a given point, must be said to provide an accurate reflection of ‘the faith once delivered to all the saints’ (Jude 3).
Thus, Catholics do not need to prove that the writings of the earliest Christians were Holy Scripture (which they were not) or that they wrote infallibly (which they did not). It is enough to show that they spoke unanimously, and that no denial of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist or the necessity of final perseverance can be found in their writings. If Protestants say, “The Scriptures clearly state …” Catholics can answer with an authoritative “You are misinterpreting the Scriptures, and we can prove this because those Christians who lived in the same era as the apostles, spoke the same language as the apostles, and were of the same cultural background as the apostles knew nothing of the doctrines you teach! You are reading your preconceived theology into these verses!”
Dang, that blade is sharp!
On the memorial of St. Isidore the Farmer
Deo omnis gloria!