Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Behold, They Stand at the Door and Knock, Part 4

After surveying the history and theology of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and comparing their Christology with that of the Bible, the most recent post in our series on engaging and evangelizing Jehovah’s Witnesses dealt with a particular text: Titus 2:13. There, we learned that Paul calls Jesus “our great God and Savior.”

I mentioned in that post that because the Bible so clearly proclaims Jesus as God, it is a little surprising to find out that someone who claims to believe the Bible denies the deity of Christ. To do that, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have to play around with some very clear texts. And if we are going to be able to engage them in helpful ways, we need to be equipped to examine their understandings of some key Christological texts and contrast such understandings with a consistently Biblical interpretation.

Hebrews 1:8: The Everlasting God

Another clear text that supports the deity of Christ is Hebrews 1:8: “But of the Son [God] says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever…’”

In this text,
the writer of Hebrews declares that God Himself testifies that the Son, Jesus, is God. However, the NWT translates this text, “God is your throne forever and ever.” The modern translations treat it as the Father addressing the Son as God, while the NWT translates “God” as the subject of the sentence, because they’re trying to avoid identifying “the Son” as “God.” And so they argue that the text is teaching that “God is the ‘throne,’ or Source and Upholder of Christ’s kingship” (Reasoning from the Scriptures, 422).

Nominative and Vocative

Technically, both renderings are grammatically possible, because in Greek the form of direct address—known as the vocative case, which gives us the reading: “O God”—is sometimes identical to the form of the subject of the sentence—known as the nominative case, which gives us the reading: “God is your throne.” This is one of those instances where they’re the same. And so on the surface it seems that either interpretation is valid.

But what helps us here is that this particular sentence wasn’t originally written in Greek. The writer of Hebrews is quoting a Greek translation of Psalm 45:6. Three verses earlier in the same psalm, the person being talked about is addressed as dunate (“O Mighty One”), which is in the distinctive form of the vocative case. Unlike the text in Hebrews 1:8 and Psalm 45:6, there is no ambiguity in Psalm 45:3. The writer is directly addressing the recipient.

And so if the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ interpretation of Hebrews 1:8 is correct, we would have to say that Psalm 45:6 contains a nominative (the case for the subject) and not the vocative (the case for direct address). But if that was so, that means that we would have a vocative in Psalm 45:3 and a nominative in Psalm 45:6. That kind of switch ignores the context and militates against the guidelines of parallelism in Hebrew poetry. If Psalm 45:3 reads, “O Mighty One,” it is inconsistent to translate verse 6 (and thus its quotation in Hebrews 1:8) as anything other than, “O God.”

Even if You Don’t Know Greek

Once again, though, while it’s important for Christians to be equipped with such tools as we engage Jehovah’s Witnesses, you don’t need to know Greek to demonstrate the validity of the orthodox translation and interpretation of Hebrews 1:8.

Proper biblical interpretation is founded upon what the original author was intending to communicate to the original audience, and what his purpose was in doing so. In Hebrews 1, the author was clearly trying to demonstrate Christ’s distinct superiority and supremacy over all things. The Witnesses’ argument that Hebrews 1:8 simply teaches that God is the source of Jesus’ authority fails to demonstrate that superiority, because the angels, the prophets, and Moses also derived their authority from God. If that’s what the author of Hebrews was trying to say, then he was not contributing anything to his original argument.

But of course that was not what the author of Hebrews was trying to say, because it’s foreign to the context to say something about Jesus that is also true of the angels to whom He is superior, and from whom He demands worship (Heb 1:6).

Here again the Christian must challenge the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ understanding on both textual and contextual grounds. Use the Greek. It’s there for you to understand and instruct others. But recognize that even the English is clear enough to show that the Witnesses’ interpretation of Hebrews 1:8 is foreign to the context.

1 comment:

Matthew said...

Hi Mike,

I once showed some Greeks (secular and Christian) that Titus text (2:13) in the original language and they both said that it certainly refers to the one Person. The word structure allows for no other interpretation.

That is until you throw a little New World Translation into the mix and you come up with a perversion of the text.

Keep up the good writing on here!