Journey with a Jehovah’s Witness – Who Is God?
A series by Malcolm Goodwin
Setting the Scene
The Jehovah’s Witness understanding of God derives from a superficial approach to Scripture. In writing this short multi-part article, I want to do more than simply furnish the reader with a set of rote answers. Anyone can do that and, in reality, no one benefits much. I hope, rather, to engage with the reader to give you a taste for the theology behind the question; Who is God? The aim is that you are not only educated but have a better handle on the context of the question; that you get a feel for the inter-connectivity between the sub-themes.
Ultimately, we will get to asking “What was it about this Jesus that caused an otherwise staunchly monotheistic Jewish community to revere Jesus as God without compromising their monotheism?”
Ultimately, I would argue that it was their recognition that he was that same God, (amidst them in the flesh,) that caused the shift. This is the purpose of revelation (even self-revelation) namely to bring about a change in those to whom God reveals himself. I want to unpack this by taking us on a “journey of identification” of God and of Jesus. It is a journey every Jehovah’s Witness needs to make, a recognition of this same truth. I hope in this short series to ignite your thirst to discover more as I try to reconstruct a potted history of the primitive Christian realisation and development of their understanding.
Who is God? An Introduction
“Who is God?” It is a question Jehovah’s Witnesses purport to comprehensively answer. To many it may seem like a strange question to ask. We are more prone perhaps to ask “What is God?” or “How is God?” or even “Where is God?” But, it is no mistake that the first time God describes and introduces himself fully in scripture to Moses, in the burning bush, he elicits the question from Moses, “who shall I say has sent me?” On the face of it, it seems as obvious as a pantomime dame asking where the giant is (he’s behind you!); surely Moses knew that this was God?
We often forget that our hindsight is easy wisdom that was not available to the mighty faithful’s of old; they had to learn the hard way – they didn’t have the scriptures that we have, back then! We can see the story unfolding through the Bible’s pages – but they were part of that living drama as it unfurled before their often mystified eyes.
The God of Abraham
In the Burning Bush episode, God gives Moses three elements of individual, personal identification. He gave him first a point of reference [what I call the “referential element of identification”] “I am the God of your forefathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” It was against a pagan and henotheistic backdrop that God introduced himself to Moses, and began the journey into Monotheism that the Jew’s were to embark upon; and they were to falter on, too, long into their history. Nonetheless, God chose to use Moses’ family connection as a point of reference in explaining who he was, and that He was deeply rooted in Moses’ family line. Whichever other god’s were vying for priority around Moses time, this God had both his attention, and a family link. There was a relationship here.
The Self-Existent God
The other element of identification he uses is a bit more mystical and perhaps erudite. “Tell them that I AM has sent you.” This “existential element of identification” literally means more than English can easily render (I will come back to the linguistics in a later article.) The tense used has a backward view to the “God of your forefathers” (I was who I was); it has a present reality, (I am who I am) and it also has a future hope (I shall be who I shall be).
In the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Septuagint aka LXX) used around the time of Jesus, the text reads here “Ho Ohn” – “the One”, “the self existing being”. In later Latin Vulgate, it is translated “Qui est”, “The one who is”. It is this tradition that most modern day translations follow simply because in English there is no easy tense that renders the continuous timeline enabled in Hebrew. But, it is an overarching reference to God’s endurance with his people that is to be embraced here. He is the God of promise – he will be with you, Emmanuel. But this promise is based on his historical and present relationship. He has “form” in telling the truth and holding to his word. But, above all…he has the power to be. He will be effective in keeping his word!
The Personal God
Finally, God uses a personal name represented by the Tetragrammaton [what I call the “nominal element of identification” – a name!], and leaves it as an eternal name and title for all generations. This completes the three elements of “who” God is:
The active God of history and relationship
The eternal God of space, time, and existence
The personal God who has made himself known by name.
Thus, the three elements used in presenting personal identification – relational, existential and nominal – come together in wholeness to express how God described himself to Moses; how He said “Who” He is.
‘Who do You Say I Am?’
Similarly, early in his ministry, Jesus asks of his disciples “Who do you say I am?” 1 There was much popular speculation about the Messiah at this time, but also there was much theological debate and discussion about folklore, and disagreement about the strange appearances of YHWH in the Hebrew Scriptures as to who it was and how they could appear etc, which I shall return to at a later date. But, for now, I want to simply highlight that the question of WHO God is and WHO Jesus is, was of supreme importance. We need to get to grips with this from an historical and theological point of view as it will help us inform not only our own understanding but the discussions with Jehovah’s Witnesses that will follow.
Jehovah’s Witness Theology is not Systematic
It is salient that one of the greatest systematic theologians of our time, Karl Barth, opens his tome on systematic theology about God by asking “who is God?” not what, how or whether. In contrast, what I find quite strange about Jehovah’s Witness publications is, despite their systematic and structured approach to study, they have a rather scatter gun rather than a systematic approach to theology.
To my knowledge, Jehovah’s Witnesses have never published a systematic theology, though one could argue that “All Scripture Is Inspired of God and Beneficial” was an attempt to explain their own theology. I think that if a systematic theology was written, then at least some Jehovah’s Witness doctrines would be undone! I will demonstrate this later when considering who Jesus is in Jehovah’s Witness theology as it highlights the inconsistencies we find when their teachings are considered in parallel.
The typical approach taken by the orthodox Christian theologians, namely setting out a systematic theology, has no equivelant in Jehovah’s Witness literature (to my knowledge,). Their interaction with such tomes, academic papers, and the like are left wanting. When they do refer to orthodox writings, it is not from a systematic academic approach, nor very often by way of refutation, but merely as a source of quotation (often taken out of context,) in order to underline a predefined argument. This gives the appearance of wide reading, but is in reality a very superficial approach. I would caution the reader about taking the same approach to their own theological understanding.
In this series, I would like to open up the subject of “Who is God,” and “Who is Jesus,” by reviewing Ex.3:14 regarding the Burning Bush and the pertinent texts found in John’s Gospel (with some focus on the prologue.) I want to set this against the theological development of Jewish thought, which was climaxing while the Bible was being compiled as a recognised corpus revered by the people of God. I hope you enjoy this journey we take together.