"You Roman Catholics," says the Jehovah’s Witness at the door, "claim the Bible teaches your doctrines, yet your own theologians deny this.
"A Catholic priest, John L. McKenzie, S.J., in his Dictionary of the Bible, shows how the Trinity, for instance, is not a Bible doctrine.
"He says: 'The Trinity of God is defined by the Church as the belief that is God are three persons who subsist in one nature. The belief as so defines wad reached only in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. and hence is not explicitly and formally a biblical belief.' So one of your own priests admits the Trinity isn't in the Bible."
What's the typical Catholic to say? He probably doesn't have McKenzie's Dictionary of the Bible on hand to check out the quotation. The missionary has caught him unarmed. All he can do is hope the passage is being cited properly.
In situations like this, a little knowledge of how Catholic sources are misused by Jehovah's Witnesses is essential if Catholics are going to defend their faith.
The witnesses use a number of other passages from McKenzie's Dictionary of the Bible to attack Christian doctrines such as the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the immorality of the soul. For example, in their Reasoning From the Scriptures, McKenzie is quoted as follows:
"The Trinity of persons within the unity of nature is defined in terms of 'person' and 'nature,' which are Greek philosophical terms; actually the terms do not appear in the Bible. The Trinitarian definitions arose as the result of long controversies in which these terms and others such as 'essence' and 'substance' were erroneously applied to God by some theologians."
The Witnesses want to make it appear that McKenzie is saying two things: (1) the Trinity isn't a biblical doctrine and (2) it originated in Greek philosophy rather than in Scripture. Yet McKenzie doesn't say either.
Consider his comment that the Trinity isn't "explicitly and formally a biblical belief." This means nothing more than that we won't find the formula "three persons in one God" in the Bible in so many words. But the substance of the doctrine--the belief the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit possess the same divine nature--is taught in Scripture, and Fr. McKenzie affirms this.
He states: "The elements of the Trinity of persons within the unity of nature in the Bible appear in the use of the terms Father, Son, and Spirit . . . [The New Testament] offers no room for a statement of the relations of Father, Son, and Spirit which would imply that one of them is more or less properly on the divine level of being than another" (Dictionary of the Bible, 899-900).
What about the charge that the Trinity originated in Greek philosophy? McKenzie says the "elements of the Trinity of persons within the unity of nature in the Bible appear in the use of the terms Father, Son, and Spirit." In other words, while the Bible doesn't use philosophical language about the Trinity, it does teach the doctrine by the way it speaks of the Father, Son, and Spirit.
Rather than claiming the Trinity originated in Greek philosophy, McKenzie asserts that two Greek philosophical terms, "person" and "nature," were employed to elaborate and develop a doctrine taught by the Bible.
Similarly, the Witnesses misconstrue the New Catholic Encyclopedia's article on the Trinity. In their pamphlet Should You Believe in the Trinity? they quote the following passage as evidence the early Christians didn't believe in the Trinity:
"The formulation 'one God in three Persons' was not solidly established, certainly not fully assimilated into Christian life and its profession of faith, prior to the end of the fourth century. . . . Among the apostolic Fathers, there had been nothing even remotely approaching such a mentality or perspective."
Should this be taken to mean the early Christians and the apostolic Fathers didn't believe in the Trinity? Hardly. This quotation indicates only that the apostolic Fathers didn't use the precise formula "one God in three Persons," not that none of them believed that the one divine being was Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
R. L. Richard, the author of the article, distinguishes between a strict, dogmatic formulation of the Trinity, which took centuries of reflection upon Scripture to achieve, and an elemental Trinitarianism which was present in the earliest Christian writings.
He writes: "If it is clear on the one side that the dogma of the Trinity in the stricter sense of the word was a late arrival, product of three centuries' reflection and debate, it is just as clear on the opposite side that confession of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--and hence an elemental Trinitarianism--went back to the period of Christian origins" (New Catholic Encyclopedia, XIV, 300).
The Witnesses also attack another doctrine, the divinity of Christ, using McKenzie's Dictionary of the Bible. Reasoning From the Scriptures tries to bolster the Witnesses' translation of John 1:1 ("the Word was a god") with the following quotation from McKenzie's entry on God: "John 1:1 should rigorously be translated 'the word was with the God [=the Father], and the word was a divine being.'"
The Witnesses believe John 1:1 teaches Jesus was a lesser god, but not the Almighty God. They're willing to say Christ was (and is) a divine being, but not the supremely Divine Being. Their citation of McKenzie is an attempt to show how even a Catholic Scripture scholar admits John 1:1 teaches this.
(The Witnesses stress how McKenzie's remarks are published with a nihil obstat and an imprimatur from the Archdiocese of Chicago, as if this lends official Catholic support for their rendering of John 1:1.)
While McKenzie agrees with the Witnesses that the Word, Jesus, was a divine being, he doesn't mean by this what the Witnesses mean. McKenzie is actually affirming the divinity of Christ. After explaining why the New Testament doesn't usually refer to Christ as God, he writes:
"This is a matter of usage and not of rule, and the noun is applied to Jesus a few times. John 1:1 should rigorously be translated 'the word was with the God [=the Father], and the word was a divine being.' Thomas invokes Jesus with the titles which belong to the Father, 'My Lord and my God' (John 20:28). 'The glory of our great God and Savior' which is to appear can be the glory of no other than Jesus (Tit. 2:13)" (Dictionary of the Bible, 317).
Mckenzie concludes his comments on God and Christ by noting, "In Jesus Christ therefore not only the word of God is made flesh, but all of the saving attributes of Yahweh in the Old Testament" (Dictionary of the Bible, 318).
McKenzie points to a number of texts where Christ is called God as evidence of Jesus' divinity. In no way is he saying Jesus is a lesser god. This conclusion is underscored when we remember McKenzie's observation that the New Testament doesn't place the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit above or below one another on the divine level of being.
The Trinity and the divinity of Christ aren't the only Christian doctrines the Witnesses attack by citing Catholic sources. The immortality of the soul is also challenged.
The Witnesses believe that when the Bible talks about the soul, this is merely another way of referring to something living, whether human or animal, or to the life possessed by a human being or animal. They deny man has an immaterial.aspect to him which survives death.
Reasoning From the Scriptures asks, "Do other scholars who are not Jehovah's Witnesses acknowledge that this is what the Bible says the soul is?" The answer is a quotation from W. E. Lynch's article on the use of "soul" in the Bible:
"There is no dichotomy [division] of the body and soul in the Old Testament. The Israelite saw things concretely, in their totality, and thus he considered men as persons and not composites. The termnepes [ne phesh], though translated by our word soul, never means soul as distinct from the body or the individual person. . . . The term [psyche] is the New Testament word corresponding with nepes. It can mean the principle of life, life itself, or the living being" (New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. XIII, 449-450).
The witnesses claim this passage concedes the Bible never speaks of the soul as distinct from the body and that there is no afterlife. But look carefully at what it actually says.
Lynch says the Hebrew word nepes, despite being translated as soul, "never means soul as distinct from the body." This may be true of the word nepes, but is Lynch saying the Bible nowhereteaches there's an immaterial existence after death? No. A few paragraphs later he says otherwise:
"At death, the nepes goes to Sheol, a place of an insensitive, shadowy existence. Many psalms pray for the rescue of one's nepes from death, where the rescue means to be saved from dying, not to be raised from the dead. Happiness after death is known only in late Old Testament revelation." So neither the more primitive nor the more developed Old Testament understanding of death means non-existence, which is what the Witnesses teach.
Also misleading is the Witnesses' use of the New Testament section of Lynch's article. They cite the first part of this paragraph, but leave off the last sentence:
"The term [psyche] is the New Testament word corresponding with nepes. It can mean the principle of life, life itself, or the living being. Through Hellenistic influence, unlike nepes, it was opposed to body and considered immortal" (New Catholic Encyclopedia, XIII, 450). Why do the Witnesses omit the last sentence? Because it says the New Testament teaches the immortality of the soul.
So much for the Witnesses' claim that this article supports their view of the soul. They can defend their doctrines by using Catholic sources only when they don't accurately represent the tenor of the writings they cite.
What are some things to note from this brief survey?
First, the Witnesses aren't interested in what the authors they cite actually say, but only in what they can be made to appear to say. Theirs is not an interest in scholarship for scholarship's sake (or for truth's sake).
Second, whenever possible, you must check the Witnesses' quotations of Catholic works to be sure the quotations haven't been taken out of context, misinterpreted, or otherwise twisted.
Third, when you can't double-check a quotation, never give the Witnesses the benefit of the doubt. Don't concede anything to a quotation you can't substantiate.
The last point is important. A technique employed by the Witnesses to dismiss your use of damaging excerpts from their own sources (such as The Watchtower or Awake!) is to claim the excerpts have been taken out of context. Since the original sources aren't usually on hand, and since the Witnesses aren't willing to take your word that the excerpts have been given properly, this effectively neutralizes whatever point is raised.
Turnabout is fair play. Since the Witnesses are unwilling to rely on your quotation of their documents, don't trust their citations of Catholic sources. This will make it harder for them to make their case.
Groups such as the Jehovah's Witnesses don't flinch at mistranslating even the Bible itself, so it's not surprising they feel free to misuse the writings of people of faiths other than their own. When dealing with the Witnesses, the best approach is expressed in the words of Jesus: "Be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves" (Matt. 10:16).