When doctrine trumps Scripture

This is the first in a series of columns addressing Jehovah’s Witnesses and their understanding of Jesus.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have a high regard for Scripture. They believe the Bible is the Word of God. They base their beliefs and practices on it. And they prove themselves adept at using select Bible passages to weave convincing arguments for their unique doctrines – particularly doctrines that place the Watch Tower outside the margins of historic Christianity. These include a denial of the Trinity, the belief in Jesus as a created being, and the depiction of the “holy spirit” as an impersonal force.

Jehovah’s Witnesses display a commendable fervor for sharing the Bible, amassing millions of hours each year in door-to-door “publishing” across 240 nations. So, why do they reject basic Christian doctrines the church has embraced since the days of the apostles – most notably, the deity of Christ?

For starters, it’s because Watch Tower forefather Charles Taze Russell and his successors rejected certain biblical teachings that conflicted with their human reasoning. Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that Christianity fell into general apostasy under Emperor Constantine in the fourth century A.D. To restore pure worship, Jehovah appointed Russell to provide spiritual manna for His true worshipers.

This so-called heavenly bread featured, among other things, a denial of the deity both of the Son and Holy Spirit. The July 1882 issue of Zion’s Watch Tower said, “Our readers are aware that while we believe in Jehovah and Jesus, and the holy spirit, we reject as totally unscriptural, the teaching that these are three Gods in one person or, as some put it, one God in three persons.”

Russell later wrote, “The clergy’s God is plainly not Jehovah but the ancient deity, hoary with the iniquity of the ages – Baal, the Devil Himself.”
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Should we take the Bible literally?

Sometimes, Christians are asked if we believe the Bible is literally true.

After all, whether eating Christ’s flesh and drinking His blood is a plunge into cannibalism, or a figurative expression of full devotion, depends on how we understand the language of Scripture.

In one sense, we might say the Bible is divinely inspired literature through which God speaks to human beings in our own language. This naturally includes a range of literary devices, from narrative to hyperbole.

So, what does it mean to take the Bible “literally”?
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What’s wrong with the Christmas story?

Christians love to hear and tell the traditional Christmas story. The birth of Jesus includes Mary and Joseph seeking shelter on a winter night, no room in the inn, a baby born in a stable, and angels visiting lowly shepherds nearby.

But our modern telling of the account in Luke 2:1-20 embraces critical flaws, according to Kenneth E. Bailey, who spent 40 years teaching the New Testament in the Middle East and who authored Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels.

According to Bailey, a careful reading of the text, along with an understanding of Jewish culture, illuminate five biblical truths that challenge our Westernized version of the Christmas story:
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Have Christians corrupted the gospel?

Muslims believe in the Injil, or gospel, but define it differently than evangelical Christians do. Further, they claim the church has corrupted the biblical texts so that only the Qur’an preserves the genuine good news.

In defining the gospel, Muslim commentator Yusuf Ali writes that “the Injil spoken of by the Qur’an is not the New Testament. It is not the four Gospels now received as canonical. It is the single Gospel which, Islam teaches, was revealed to Jesus, and which he taught.”

In other words, the gospel is the prophetic teaching of Jesus as captured in the Qur’an, directing all people to submit to the will of Allah.

Further, Muslims argue that Christians have altered the New Testament texts, resulting in doctrinal errors such as the deity of Christ, the Trinity, and original sin.

But a careful look at the Qur’an shows that Islam’s most holy book affirms the inspiration, preservation, and authority of the Gospel record. At the same time, it exposes the inconsistency of Muslim teachings about the Bible.
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The deity of the Holy Spirit

This is the second in a two-part series on the personhood and deity of the Holy Spirit. 

In the previous column, we examined the biblical evidence for the personhood of the Holy Spirit; that is, the Spirit is a He, not an it. Once the Spirit’s personality is established, His deity is a biblically faithful next step.

For starters, the Spirit is active in creation (Gen. 1:2; Ps. 104:30), omniscient (1 Cor. 2:10-11), and omnipresent (Ps. 139:7) – qualities that establish Him as co-equal and co-eternal with the Father and the Son.

What’s more, the Spirit shares the divine name with the other members of the triune Godhead (Matt. 28:19).

Perhaps the most-cited passage that illustrates both the personality and deity of the Holy Spirit is found in Acts 5. After Ananias and Sapphira fraudulently claim to have given the full proceeds of a land sale to the church, Peter confronts Ananias.

“Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the proceeds of the land?” Peter asks. “Wasn’t it yours while you possessed it? And after it was sold, wasn’t it at your disposal? Why is it that you planned this thing in your heart? You have not lied to people but to God” (vv. 3-4).

To whom did Ananias lie: the Holy Spirit, or God? The answer, of course, is that he lied to both. To lie to the Holy Spirit is to lie to God since the Spirit occupies an equal position in the Trinity with the Father and Son.
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