Several posts ago, I wrote about the morality of other Christians referring to Mormons as non-Christian without explaining their non-standard use of the word “Christian.” Far from claiming that they should call us “Christians” I suggested how they could morally call us “non-Christians” without misrepresenting our beliefs.
That article was actually a heavily modified letter I had written to an Evangelical in defense of Jehovah’s Witnesses, not Mormons. In retrospect it was a mistake for me to change it to be a defense of Mormons because it brought the subject matter too close to home and, I suspect, caused people to miss my point. This new article is also a letter to a Protestant friend in defense of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. This time I’m going to learn from my mistakes and just leave it as a defense of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It should be obvious how this topic relates to Mormonism.
What I am really exploring here is the morality of representing or misrepresenting another religion and the value of taking religions on their own terms rather than your terms. I have changed the names in this letter and modified any words of the person I was writing to so that I am not giving out private communications
You said the following about the Jehovah’s Witnesses beliefs: “I have a concern with Jehovah’s Witnesses saying that they believe Jesus is Divine. As you know, they believe Jesus is Michael the Archangel, not God. They do call him “a god” but they distinctly see him as lesser than God in his divinity. To a Christian that believes in the Trinity doctrine, it is very truthful to say JWs deny the divinity of Christ. We believe in One Triune God. Saying Jesus is not part of that Triune God is, to us, the same as saying Jesus is not Divine at all. To a Trinitarian, the Jehovah’s Witnesses view of Jesus is not only not divine, it’s just a myth. It’s false. False is fiction. The opposite of True is False. That’s why we say they deny His Divinity.
Now it seems to me you make several very good logic points that any honest and logical Jehovah’s Witness should really have to consider and respond to. It seems to me that you are correct that JWs do not see Jesus as part of “God” in the same sense that either you or I believe. (And we don’t believe in it in the same way either, though there seems to be more similarities between us than between us and them since both Protestants and Mormons accept that Jesus is fully divine.) Thus I can see why, from your point of view, the JW belief could be rightly said to be “the same” as denying the divinity of Christ.
And yet, this isn’t the truth because in fact Jehovah’s Witnesses affirm the divinity of Christ. For you to tell people they deny the Divinity of Christ leaves a false impression about their beliefs. For instance, it seems likely people that heard you say that would think it meant Jehovah’s Witnesses believe Jesus is just a normal human prophet. But we both know their beliefs about Jesus go far beyond this.
But how can they affirm the Divinity of Christ at all considering what they actually believe about Jesus? Well, I don’t want to speak for the JWs, but it seems possible that they are either using a different sense of the word “divine” than you are, or it’s possible they might believe a contradiction.
Now let’s take the worst possible case here and assume they believe a contradiction. The fact that they believe a contradiction does not really give us the right to sum up their beliefs as “Jehovah’s Witnesses deny the divinity of Christ.” In truth, we could only say that their beliefs are a contradiction and explain how.
I’m guessing you’ll ask “But Bruce, what’s the difference?”
It seems to me that it’s the entire difference between true and lying. Let me explain with an example.
We just had a discussion about the doctrine of Trinity and the difference between yours and my interpretations of this. I called it a “seeming contradiction from a human point of view” or something like that. When I said the Trinity doctrine was a contradiction I actually had the Athanasius Creed in mind, not the Nicean Creed. We haven’t talked about the Athanasius Creed so I don’t know if you accept it or not.
Regardless of how you feel about the Athanasius Creed, let’s pretend that you accept it as true for the sake of this example. Here is the version of the text I am using.
Now let’s say you made friends with a Muslim, named Dan, who asks you what you believe about God. And let’s say you whip out the Athanasius Creed and you say “Dan, here is what I believe about God.”
So Dan reads it over and says “Jill! You’re a polytheist!”
You would naturally respond “No, I’m not! I’m no polytheist! See right here in the Athanasius Creed is says: ’16. And yet they are not three Gods: but one God.'”
So Dan looks at the Athanasius Creed and says “Yeah, but it says right here: ‘5. For there is one Person of the Father: another of the Son: and another of the Holy Ghost.’ so you see, Jill, this says that you actually do believe in three Gods, logically speaking. Because this contradicts the other statement.”
So you and Dan go back and forth and Dan creates what he feels is a logical proof for you.
Quoting from William F. Vallicella, PhD, who happens to believe in the doctrine of Trinity by the way –
The problem, to put it schematically, is to prove the consistency of the following set of propositions:
a) P1 is numerically distinct from P2.[Bruce’s Note: G = God P1 = Person 1, etc.]
b) P2 is numerically distinct from P3.
c) P1 is numerically distinct from P3.
d) P1 is G.
e) P2 is G.
f) P3 is G.
If the ‘is’ in the last three propositions is the ‘is’ of identity, then a contradiction is easily derivable. (Verify this for yourself.)
This suggests that the solution must lie in the direction of reinterpreting the ‘is’ as it occurs in the last three propositions. Say what you want about Bill Clinton, he rendered a great service to philosophical logic by insisting that much depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is. And he saved his hide to boot!
Reading the ‘is’ as the ‘is’ of predication won’t cut it. Suppose you take ‘The Father is God’ to mean ‘The Father is divine’ where the ‘is’ expresses predication and ‘divine’ picks out the property of divinity. Then what you are saying in effect is that the Father exemplifies or instantiates divinity. And similarly in the cases of the Son and the Holy Ghost. But if each exemplifies divinity, then each is a god, and the result is tritheism.
The trick is to maintain monotheism while also maintaining the distinctness of Persons.
Okay, back to our example. Dan, now convinced that he’s proven the Athanasius Creed is a contradiction, goes around telling everyone that will listen, “Hey, did you know Jill is a polytheist!” or “Can you believe Jill believes in polytheism?” or “Christians are Polytheists!”
If later someone approaches Dan and says “Hey, I talked to Jill, and she believes in only one God, please stop lying about Jill!” Dan might counter and say “Hey, Jill believes a contradiction, thus to me she’s a polytheist! Besides, to us Muslims, this is the same as polytheism, since we believe in a single person in God. The opposite of True is False. That’s why I say she denies the one True monotheistic God.”
Would this be a valid argument? Let’s be honest here: this hypothetical Muslim, who knows full well what you really believe, is lying. There is simply no truth in what he’s saying. If indeed you believe a contradiction, this is not the same as you believing in polytheism. Now why is that true?
Couldn’t it be said that in a sense he isn’t lying because to him you are a polytheist? But what gives him the right to choose which side of the contradiction, from his point of view, represents your beliefs the best? And for that matter, can we really say he’s representing you in truth if he’s leaving out the other side of the contradiction all together? And clearly for the sake of being able to persecute you, nonetheless.
Dan might counter that according to his definition of polytheism, Jill qualifies. But isn’t he really misrepresenting your beliefs since most people listening to him would mistakenly think you were a polytheist in the sense that the Greeks or Romans were? (And aren’t you clearly not the same as Greeks and Roman polytheists?) He’s not really attempting to be careful that his audience understands how he defines his terms, so this counter would ultimately still be a lie.
And this begs a much more important question: why in the world do I or anyone else care how Dan chooses to translate your beliefs and theological views into his terminology and theological view? All he’s really doing is grabbing one concept from your religion while ignoring all the other related ones, and translating only that one concept. This strikes me as disingenuous at best and a lie at worst. Now surely I can understand why he might say “I can’t accept this Trinitarian belief of yours personally, for I see it as a contradiction.” But what right does he have to unilaterally interpret your beliefs as polytheistic?
While you may personally see Jehovah’s Witnesses beliefs as contradicting the idea of the divinity of Jesus (I do too, by the way) I do not believe it’s appropriate for us to boil this down to “Jehovah’s Witnesses deny the divinity of Jesus” for exactly the same reasons it’s wrong for “Dan” to call you a polytheist.
–End of letter to Jill.–
Afterwards, Jill and I discussed morally appropriate ways to accomplish her purpose without misrepresenting the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The following possibilities come to mind:
- Jehovah’s Witnesses are not Trinitarians
- Jehovah’s Witnesses believe Jesus is less Divine than God
- Jehovah’s Witnesses believe Jesus only atoned for the sins, directly, for the 144,000. (Though all that live on the paradisaical earth benefited from it.) Thus they do not believe Jesus is our savior in the same sense Protestants believe it.
- Jehovah’s Witnesses believe Jesus isn’t the Great Jehovah, he’s Michael the Archangel.
- Jehovah’s Witnesses believe Jesus is “a god” but he is not “the God.”
- Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in the Divinity of Jesus in the same sense Protestants believe in the Divinity of Jesus.
None of the above list would be rejected by Jehovah’s Witnesses. In fact, I was told each of these by a knowledgeable Jehovah’s Witness who still insisted they believe Jesus is divine in some sense. And yet any of the above accomplished Jill’s purpose of explaining to others that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe Jesus is divine in the same sense she believes He is.