Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Foster's Christology & the Trinity: Chapter 1

The first chapter of Foster's volume (the chapters are not enumerated) is entitled "Christology and the Trinity: An Exploration," like the volume itself. After reading this first chapter, I had several thoughts. First, there is no question this is a Jehovah's Witness (JW) interpretation. Particular words and passages from Scripture are invested with a significance they don't have for the mainstream of orthodox Christianity. For instance, the fact that Jesus of Nazareth is called God's "only-begotten (monogenes) Son" (Jn 1:18; 20:28-31) is tacitly assumed to support his subordinate, non-divine status and nature. The typical Nicene distinction ("begotten, not created") is not recognized.

Second, the seemingly random and gratuitous use of Latin and Greek terms and phrases, often left un-translated, not only makes for a choppy, unwieldy effect, but may leave the reader wondering what the author means and why he does this. There are places where the original Greek or Latin term can bring clarity, as when one is stating that the Persons of the Trinity have one nature (ousia). Sometimes the term is translated variously in different versions of the Nicene Creed -- as "being" or "substance" or "nature," and so forth -- and it is helpful to have the Greek original in this case. But this usage of foreign language appears to be the exception rather than the rule here. What one gets instead are un-translated references to "the divine aion prothesis" and the "Creator of ta panta," where the language, rather than illuminating, either clouds the meaning for the reader, or, if he knows Greek (in this case), adds nothing that would not have been apparent in plain English. When Foster tells us that "a Christological renovation (instauratio) is needed," it is not clear what he expects the reader to derive from the parenthetically inserted "instauration" that isn't already evident in the English "renovation." But these details are, perhaps, beside the point.

And what is the point? Well, I suppose it is Christology. And there are plenty of bones to pick with Foster as to his Christology. But it is always difficult to know how much energy to invest in picking at every little cavil about particular interpretations of Bible verses, since the difference between a JW interpretation and an orthodox Trinitarian interpretation isn't, in the final analysis, about the Bible verses themselves, but about whose tradition of interpretation one trusts and accepts. Surely there are external checks on an interpretation provided by the objective text. A legitimate interpretation cannot do violence to a text. But just as surely, the framework of interpretation that guides one's reading of Holy Scripture determines how one reads it. In the Catholic tradition, Holy Scripture is primarily received by way of hearing when it is proclaimed in and by the Church, its guardian and authoritative interpreter. It is not primarily a text book from which the reader is to deduce whatever he thinks God's requires of him by means of his own private study. The proliferation of quasi-Christian sects in the late 19th century in New England, all of which claimed in one way or another to be Christian, is itself ample testimony that Scripture, when taken out of the Church's custody, easily becomes something of a Rorschach blot that a subject may interpret nearly any way he pleases. Having said that, I suppose it is still necessary to say something -- if not everything one would like -- about various particular points, all the while keeping in mind that the issue will not be settled here.

Just a few points, then. First, in note 10 on page 8, Foster refers to the "preexistent Son of God, who was the first creation of YHWH." Thereby he asserts his JW conviction that the Son (1) is not God (i.e., "YHWH," the transliterated consonants for the Name of God, from which the Christian term "Jehovah" arose as a false reading of the name as it is written in the current Hebrew text); (2) preexisted in some form before His earthly incarnation as Jesus, and (3) is a creature. He then calls the words of Christ in Rev. 3:14 to witness, the "words ofthe Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God's creation." These, of course, are the words the Apostle John attributes to Jesus Christ, who is called "the faithful witness" in Rev. 1:5, and JWs take Christ's reference to Himself as "the beginning of God's creation" in the verse above to indicate that Christ was created, that He is not the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, as Catholic Tradition insists, but the first creature of God.

For the sake of the argument, let us try to give this reading the benefit of a doubt. Let us try to imagine how such a reading might be devised. If found ourselves in the JW tradition in which we assumed that Christ is not divine, and if we came to this passage with this mind-set, it is not hard to see how it could be interpreted, even if perhaps out of context, as supporting the view that Christ is no more than a creature. After all, the verse has Christ referring to Himself as "the beginning of God's creation." That seems to be the literal meaning, does it not? Now the essential problem with this approach to the text is not simply that it prescinds from the greater grammatical-semiological context of the Book of Revelation, but that it occurs within a JW tradition that prescinds from the greater hermeneutical context of the authoritive interpretive tradition of the Church. The problem is not necessarily the literalism of the JW reading; although one could well ask by what standard JWs take a literal view one place and not another (for example, John 6: 53-58, where Jesus solemnly assures us that if we do not "eat the flesh of the Son of man, we have no life" in us). Rather, the immediate problem is that without the anchor of the apostolic tradition preserved by the Church, a verse (like the whole of the Bible itself) may be interpreted with apparent coherence in utterly divergent and contradictory ways. So how should Jesus' reference to Himself as "the beginning of God's creation" in Rev. 3:14 be interpreted in keeping with apostolic tradition? In what sense is Christ "the beginning"?

Certainly in one sense, Christ was the beginning of all creation in the sense the He is the principle and source of all creation. Not only was He who was in the beginning with God also Himself God, in the opening verses of the Gospel of John so hotly contested by the modern stepchildren of Arius, but the Apostle declares (in John 1:3) that "all things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made." Moreover, another dimension of the reference's significance is found in Rev. 1:5, where Jesus is described as "the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead," a description reiterated in Col. 1:18, where He is also called "the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything He might be preeminent." In this sense, Christ can be called the "beginning of God's creation" in conformity with His assertion that He "makes all things new," that is, the first-born of God's new creation. In this sense, Paul describes Christ as "the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation . . . the head of the body, the Church . . . the first-born from the dead" (Colossians 1:15, 18). As the first-born from the dead, of course, Christ is the "beginning" of God's new creation, the "first-born of all creation," as the New Adam, "the Alpha and the Omega," as Christ describes Himself in two places in the Book of Revelation itself (Rev. 1:8 and 21:6), echoing the terms used by YHWH in reference to Himself in Isaiah 44:6-- "Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no God'" (cf. Rev. 2:8).

The think I find most interesting in Foster's first chapter is the following speculation (p. 9):
"... it seems that during the post-apostolic period, several Christian believers started to speculate vis-a-vis the divine being (ontos) of Christ Jesus: 'Could Jesus be Almighty God,' they penetratingly asked with sincere wonderment. The answers that these professed followers of Christ Jesus proposed to such questions radically shaped the Christian view of our Lord for centuries to come."
Foster, of course, assumes that this is the point from which the Church's tradition diverged from the original truth of the Christian message as understood by Jehovah's Witnesses. Yet he touches upon a significant point, which is the fact that Christ's identity remained an enigma even to many of those closest to Him throughout most of the years of His earthly ministry. The post-resurrection story of the two disciples who failed to recognize Him on the road to Emmaeus is well known (Luke 24:13-32; Mk 16:12-13). But if His disciples had trouble recognizing that the resurrected Christ was the same Jesus who had walked and talked with them before His death, it likely took some time longer for the full significance of His identity as God's Son to begin to penetrate their consciousness. How and at what point it dawned upon them that Jesus, the Son of God, was an incarnation of God Himself I do not know. But it is an empirically observable fact that the full implications of an event, an idea, or a doctrine, are not immediately grasped but only apprehended gradually and over time as implications unfold. So it may have been true indeed, as Foster suggests, that at one point the Apostles may have looked at one another and asked, in astonishment, "Could Jesus be Almighty God?!!"

In the remainder of his first chapter, Foster falls into the common JW pattern of selectively singling out the NT texts in which Jesus is portrayed as subordinate to the Father (the "subordination texts"), and citing them in support of the JW contention that Jesus is not merely to be distinguished from the Father, but to be distinguished from the Father's divinity--viz., that Jesus is not God. But in doing so, Foster also follows the JW pattern of disregarding (and elsewhere explaining away) those passages that portray Jesus as equal to the Father, not as to His Person but as to His divinity (the "equality texts"). The traditional Catholic understanding of these texts, of course, is that the "subordination texts" speak to Jesus' Sonship vis-a-vis His heavenly Father, while the "equality texts" speak to His identity to His Father with respect to His divine nature.

Hence, Foster follows the traditional JW line of reasoning when he writes (p. 10):
"According to the Bible, however, Jesus is apparently not Almighty God: He is the only-begotten Son of God who is qualitatively (i.e. essentially) distinct from the Father (Mt 16:14-17; Jn 3:16; 17:3; 1 Cor 11:3; 15:24-28; Rev 21:23).
Furthermore, he goes on to single out the Gospel of John as "one Bible book that appears to contain pronouncements manifestly at odds with the Trinity doctrine." He writes (p. 10):
"For instance, the apostle John specifically indicates that the Son of God is subordinate to the Father and in fact calls Him 'My God.' More importantly, Jesus starkly addresses his Father in prayer as 'the only true God' (Jn 14:28; 17:3; 20:17).
What Foster does not address at this point is the fact that the Gospel of John has traditionally been regarded by Catholic tradition as containing among the most theologically profound attestations to the divinity of Christ found in the New Testament. Notwithstanding the fact that JWs have by now a substantial tradition of attempting to explain away these passages in the Gospel of John, often by means of the most convoluted arguments, it may be worth simply enumerating the key Johannine texts at the conclusion of this post for the convenience of future reference:
  • John 1:1 -- In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

  • John 5:18 -- This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God.

  • John 8:58-59 -- Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am." So they took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple.

  • John 10:30 -- [Jesus said] "I and the Father are one." The Jews took up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, "I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of these do you stone me?" The Jews answered him, "It is not for a good work that we stone you but for blasphemy; because you, being a man, make yourself God." Jesus answered them, "Is it not written in your law, 'I said, you are gods'? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came (and Scripture cannot be broken), do you say of Him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, 'You are blaspheming,' because I said, 'I am the Son of God'"?

  • John 14:9 -- Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, 'Show us the Father'?"

  • John 20:28 -- Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"