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Uncovering the Hermeneutics and Methodology of the Watchtower by Jason Wright

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Uncovering the Hermeneutics and Methodology of the Watchtower Society

By Jason Wright

Introduction 

Did you know that when you read a newspaper, hear a story or analyze an event, you employ the art of hermeneutics (interpretation)? Our interpretation of life, how we make sense of each day, stems from our world view (metanarrative). Consequently, each day we unconsciously filter every event through our world view; none of us are free of such presuppositions.

Likewise we employ a hermeneutical method when we read the Bible, so Inevitably our presuppositions will affect how we interpret the text. For example an atheist will interpret Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” as myth because an atheistic world view allows for no other interpretation, whereas for the Christian, Genesis 1:1 is axiomatic because God does exist. Confused? I hope not!

In essence, the world view we employ helps to construct our presuppositions, these in turn affect how we interpret scripture. This is particularly true of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They claim to believe the Bible is sufficient for doctrine and practice. Yet the way they interpret scripture contradicts this claim. This article will explore ten principles of interpretation that Jehovah’s Witnesses unknowingly employ which regularly violate the text. Overall it will be argued that a biased metanarrative forms the basis through which the Watchtower Society interprets scripture. We will explore how individual Jehovah’s Witnesses are conditioned to read and interpret the scriptures according to Watchtower doctrine. Our conclusion will show how a faulty methodology leads invariably to faulty interpretations.

Watchtower Interpretive Methodology

We begin our study with the May 2014 Watchtower that carried an article “How should we answer each person”?[1] Point 7 of the article noted:

“The Bible is, of course, our primary tool in the ministry. It enables us to be “fully competent, completely equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16, 17) Much of our effectiveness in the ministry depends, not on the number of scriptures we read, but on the way we reason on and explain those we do read. (Read Acts 17:2, 3.)”

Herein lip service is given to the Bible while the real focus of effective ministry depends on “the way we reason on and explain those [scriptures] we do read” , this is a crucial point to note. The Watchtower presents an exegetical method. To arrive at meaning, they say that one must know the correct way to reason on a scripture.It is at this juncture that the world view of the Jehovah’s Witness begins to dictate the way or method of interpretation. The only way a Witness can “reason on a scripture” is by employing the Watchtower’s unique belief system. In other words, The Society is encouraging the Witness to overlay the said text with Watchtower reasoning. This is a subtle but effective way of changing the original meaning of a text to suit the polemics of the Jehovah’s Witness. In this way the scriptures are made to bend and twist to fit the Watchtower’s doctrinal mold.

You may also have noticed that Witnesses are encouraged to read Acts 17:2-3. These pericope are posited as biblical evidence that learning “the way to reason on scripture” is necessary for effective ministry. Certainly Paul reasoned with many people. However a perusal of these pericope reveals that Paul’s method of reasoning was far different from the method suggested by the Watchtower. Paul’s objective was to prove to his Jewish brethren that Jesus had risen bodily from the dead.[2] To do so, Paul may have employed midrash[3] methodology. His objective was not to imbue the OT text with his own reasoning or the reasoning of a religious system, but rather to let scripture interpret scripture. In fact midrash methodology guarded against abuse of the text. Therefore Acts 17:2-3 do not serve as proof for ambiguous reasoning.

In the same Watchtower article a scenario is presented which serves as an interesting example of the misuse of “reasoning” and eisegesis.

Scenario 1: In our ministry, we meet someone who believes that Jesus is equal to God. What scriptures could we use to reason on the matter? We might invite the person to read John 6:38, where Jesus is quoted as saying: “I have come down from heaven to do, not my own will, but the will of him who sent me.” After considering that verse, we could ask the person: “If Jesus is God, who sent him down from heaven? Would that One not be greater than Jesus? After all, the sender is superior to the one who is sent.”

Please note the scenario. The Witness has met a Trinitarian (a term they avoid) whom upholds the orthodox Christian position, i.e. Jesus is God. The method employed to dissuade the Trinitarian is known as “proof texting”. In all fairness to the publishers if the text is presented in context, then a proof text is admissible. However oftentimes the proof-text model relies on a naïve reading of the text. Consequently, this method is vulnerable to: allegorization, psychologization, spiritualization, and other forms of quick-and-easy adjustments of the scriptural words to alter meaning; thus ignoring their intended purpose and usage as determined by context, grammar, and historical background.[4] The million-dollar question is, does John 6:38 in context disprove Jesus’ deity? Or in context does John 6:38 have a different meaning? Let us exegete the verse:

John 6:38 “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.”

This verse comprises part of the “bread of life” narrative, viz. v.6:22-59. Crowds of people were seeking Jesus out for food, perhaps the same crowds who had experienced the miraculous feeding of the 5000, but Jesus urges them to seek “the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.” (v.27). Herein Jesus is pointing to himself as the source of life; sealed and approved by the Father. Jesus urges them to believe in him, but the crowds seek only a sign (v29-30). The Jewish expectation was that when the Messiah arrived he would once again provide manna. Thus the crowds demand a sign similar to Moses. However Jesus pointed them beyond Moses to the true source, namely God.

Interestingly, Jesus did not say he had the bread of life but that he was that bread. He claimed to be able to satisfy completely as bread and water satisfy physically. In verse 35 Jesus employs the expression “I AM” (Gr. ego eimi, “I am,” plus a predicate).[5] The grammar suggests Jesus was making an ontological statement concerning his essence and origin. Next in v.37 Jesus speaks in terms of salvation. The Father’s will was that the Son should lose no individual. Preserving them includes raising them from the dead to eternal life. Therefore John 6:37-40 contains Jesus’ explanation of the process of personal salvation. These are among the most profound words Jesus ever spoke, and we cannot hope to plumb their depths completely. He explained that salvation involves both divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Thus Jesus words in v.38 have nothing whatsoever to do with his deity. Jesus was simply highlighting his incarnation (John 1:1, 14) and proclaiming his desire to accomplish his Father’s will.

The fact that the Father sent the Son has no bearing on their ontological unity. Yet the Watchtower amazingly suggests:

” After considering that verse, we could ask the person: “If Jesus is God, who sent him down from heaven? Would that One not be greater than Jesus? After all, the sender is superior to the one who is sent.”

This is actually infantile reasoning and a red herring. If the Watchtower had honestly explored the Trinitarian position they would known that the Father is not the same person as the Son, who is not the same person as the Holy Spirit, who is not the same person as the Father. Each is divine, yet there are not three gods but one God. There are three individual’s or persons, each have subsistence.The word “subsistence” means something which has a real existence.The word “person” denotes individuality and self-awareness[6]. They each have a different role; including subordinate roles such as Jesus’ subjection to the Father.

What the Watchtower has actually done with John 6:38 is in complete violation of the context. The Watchtower has used John 6:38 as a proof text, which is stripped of its context, then imbued with an alien meaning (eisegesis). Always remember the way a Jehovah’s Witness reasons is dictated by their Watchtower metanarrative and its presuppositions. In this instance, because the Watchtower denies Jesus’ deity they are obliged to find ways to support this position. By focusing on Jesus subordination to the Father, the Watchtower attempts to discredit the deity of the Son of God.[7]

The article ends with a comment from an active Witness who expresses gratefulness for the articles:

“From these articles, I’m learning how to steer a conversation in the right direction, how to ask thought-provoking questions, and how to respond properly to the person’s answers. I’ve always been a ‘show-me’ kind of learner, and the ‘Conversation’ articles do just that.”

What can we glean from this grateful Witness? Firstly the Witness is reliant on Watchtower literature to “steer a conversation in the right direction”. We can note that the conversation articles do not equip members with exegetical tools but rather work to reinforce their own metanarrative. This abject reliance on The Society’s literature sadly robs the Jehovah’s Witness of critical thinking ability. Cult experts regard this type of manipulation as mind control,[8] as Witnesses are unable to deal with paradoxical scriptures. Hence instead of dealing with problematic text rationally, they choose to reinterpret verses that do not adhere to Watchtower doctrine. I remember listening to Chuck Missler relate a conversation he had with two Jehovah’s Witness ladies who called at his home. He shared with them Isaiah 41:4, 44:6 and 48:12. Herein God calls himself ‘the first and the last,’ a description often applied to him in the Scriptures, one that properly expresses God’s eternity. Happily the Witnesses agreed that the text referred to Jehovah who is the eternal God. Then Chuck shared with them Revelation 1:17-18 and 2:8. The verses read:

“When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades… Rev 2:8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.”

Chuck asked who they thought the “First and the Last” was in this text. The Witnesses wanted to say Jehovah but they could not’t because the text related to Jesus. Dumbfounded the one lady turned to the other and asked, “Could Jehovah have made a mistake here”? The women simply could not comprehend what the text was saying because of their Watchtower presuppositions. Barnes commentary notes that It is remarkable that this expression, “first and last” which so obviously implies proper eternity, is applied to the Lord Jesus in Revelation 1:17. Why is it applied to Jesus? Because he is God.

Here then are ten principles of Watchtower interpretation all of which do violence to the sacred scriptures.[9]

  • The Watchtower seeks to justify the interpretation that best fits their doctrines instead of seeking to know the interpretation which best fits the context.
  • The Watchtower usually interprets a biblical text deductively based on their doctrinal system, rather than inductively based on the particulars of the text.
  • Typically the Watchtower does not consider whether their interpretation best fits the precise wording of the text.
  • The Watchtower often regards unusual variations or ancient versions as supporting their incorrect renderings, when if anything they constitute evidence against them.
  • The Society often abuses the concept of “context” by broadening it to include their hypothetical reconstructions of how a statement was understood originally, rather than basing their interpretation on the immediate context.
  • The Watchtower often cites scholarly sources selectively and out of context, usually to support a conclusion opposite to that supported by the source.
  • The Watchtower frequently allegorizes prophecies and visions in scripture to make them refer to events in the history of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, always with no basis in the text itself.
  • The Watchtower is often forced to interpret simple expressions in highly figurative fashion, with no warrant from the context, to maintain their doctrinal position.
  • The Watchtower invariably pits one part of scripture against another to force the Bible to agree with their doctrine. Cf. John 1:1, 14
  • The Watchtower interprets the spiritual realities spoken of in the Bible in an overly rationalistic manner. In other words, they demand a comprehendible God and thus deny or explain away all paradox.

Tragically, Jehovah’s Witnesses are not truly on Jehovah’s side (Exodus 32:26). Though they mouth his name, they: distort his word, diminish his greatness, and deny his incarnation in the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus the Watchtower and its adherents are unfaithful to God in their interpretation of the Bible.[10]

How then should we read the Bible? The first imperative is that the reader be truly born again and filled with the spirit. Many people read the Bible, many people write about the Bible; but only those who have God’s spirit can fully plumb the spiritual depths of the scriptures. Consequently, we must have the Holy Spirit’s guidance to interpret correctly (John 14:26, 16:12-15; 1 Corinthians 2:10-13).

Secondly, we can employ methods that limit external bias. As pointed out earlier, no one is free of presuppositions. The points below are not exhaustive or authoritative but following these basic rules will help with your biblical exegesis.

  • Understand the Bible is divine revelation. From Genesis to Revelation, God is revealing himself to mankind, which includes you. Thus expect embryonic ideas and themes to develop through each Bible book culminating in the revelation of Jesus.
  • Understand that the Bible is a composite whole; each book builds upon the previous and oftentimes its authors present interpretations of earlier scripture (this is known as Biblical theology).
  • Understand that the theme of the Bible is redemption in Christ. From creation to consummation Jesus is the center of the Bible.
  • Always read scriptures in context. Read the surrounding verses, indeed read the surrounding chapters if necessary.
  • Ask yourself, what is the genre of the literature I’m reading? Is it Law, History, poetry, apocalyptic – In this way you will keep the text in context.
  • Always accept the plain literal meaning of the text, avoid allegorization and over spiritualization. Obviously the Bible is filled with symbolism and figurative language, but be sure you know which is which before engaging in interpretation.
  • Ask yourself, what is the author’s intent and who is his audience? In this way you will locate the text within its sitz-im-leben ( historical life setting).
  • Work with the text in context until a satisfactory conclusion is reached. Only then should you broaden your study to the other parts of the Bible which may shed further light on the text.
  • Be careful not to change the original meaning of the text either by way of your own presuppositions, misuse of other scriptures or allegory.
  • In your studies, be aware that commentaries and systematic theologies carry their own bias (Calvinism, Arminianism, etc.) Try and compare multiple commentaries from different theological perspectives to get a fully rounded point of view.
  • Try using Greek or Hebrew concordances that bring out the depth of meaning in the original languages. However be careful not to read too much into the words.
  • Background commentaries are particularly useful in unlocking the historic, geological and sociological setting of any given text.
  • Be very selective when using the Internet. Always check who has written any given article, what is their presupposition? Recommended sites include: Bible.org, Galaxie Journals[11], Bibliotheca Sacra[12] (journals will require subscription) and Logos Bible software[13].
  • Use more than one Bible translation to get a flavor of the text, avoiding biased and over paraphrased versions.
  • If you are a Jehovah’s Witness, know that you can understand the scriptures without the Watchtower!

Conclusion

As we know, Jehovah’s Witnesses genuinely want to do “Jehovah’s will”. Yet , when it comes to interpretation of scripture, the conclusions they arrive at are derived from outside of scripture. Jehovah’s Witnesses rely upon their organization to teach them the “way we reason on and explain” scriptures. Jehovah’s Witnesses honestly think that the way they “reason on the scriptures” is a correct hermeneutic. Contrary to that claim, we have discovered that it is the Watchtower’s belief system or metanarrative that lies at the heart of Watchtower hermeneutics. For a Jehovah’s Witness this critique may seem unfair, after all, Witnesses always answer questions by quoting scriptures. Surely then they are “reasoning on the scriptures”? This is true, but that is the problem! An isolated proof text does not necessarily justify or prove a truth claim and more than a list of proof texts is required. The question must always be asked, is the proof text I am presenting in context and therefore admissible? Or am I imbuing the text with my own ideas or religious beliefs and thereby adulterating the original meaning (eisegesis)? This essay has demonstrated that proof texting is at best naïve and at worst notoriously dangerous. When assessed in light of the Jehovah’s Witnesses hermeneutic, the use of “proof texting” as an interpretive method contributes to their on going heresy.

Ironically, Jehovah’s Witnesses, who hold the Bible in such high esteem, are actually robbed of its truth. The scriptures are placed within the straight jacket of Watchtower doctrine. Consequently critical thinking abilities are subdued, perhaps even non-functional, thus your average Witness is unable to exegete a verse of scripture without some reference to Watchtower literature. Even for Witnesses who do try and read the Bible independently, they will invariably interpret what they read through the world view they have adopted. I remember a Jehovah’s Witness telling me he regularly used Strong’s concordance, but as he did so he had to ignore or reinterpret comments that were contrary to his metanarrative. This is a reflection on the inability of witnesses to engage in objective research. While Jehovah’s Witnesses tacitly acknowledge scripture, when it comes to interpretation they have their own unique metanarrative that controls hermeneutical procedure. It is at this juncture that the hermeneutical method fails and succumbs to faulty interpretation.

By highlighting the ten principles of Watchtower interpretation I pray that my Christian brethren will better understand how and why the Jehovah’s Witnesses interpret the Bible the way they do. In a practical sense I pray my suggestions on how to read, study and interpret the Bible will prove useful. In no way do my suggestions negate the importance of the illumination and work of the Holy Spirit.

Finally, if you are an active Jehovah’s Witness I pray that this article will challenge your beliefs. To be set free your beliefs must be shaken. I pray that the Lord Jesus will open your eyes to his word and truth and that you will abandon the unstable foundation upon which your faith is built.

As Christians, let us intercede for all Jehovah’s Witnesses and pray that by God’s grace scores of people will come to know the incomparable and infinitely amazing God of the Bible, Amen, Amen!

Shalom

Jason Wright

FOOTNOTES:

[1] http://www.jw.org/en/publications/magazines/w20140515/how-to-answer-each-person/

[2] This is ironic as Jehovah’s Witnesses deny Jesus was raised physically – thus they deny Paul’s argument.

[3] Jewish midrash begins with a literal interpretation of the text, moving on to: remez (deeper meaning), derash (comparative meaning) and sod (hidden meaning). However at all levels of meaning the basis was always the plain literal meaning. See Richard Longenecker’s “Biblical exegesis in the Apostolic Period” 1975, p66-78, W.b. Eerdmans.

[4] Kiaser Jr, Walter, C. & Silva Moises, 2007 “Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics” Page 33, Zondervan

[5] For a detailed study of this term see James White excellent article. http://vintage.aomin.org/EGO.html

[6] http://carm.org/what-trinity

[7] If you have a browse over the May 2014 Watchtower article; “How Should We Answer Each Person”, you will read an outrageous misrepresentation of Trinitarian and orthodox Christian beliefs. Watchtower literature is riddled with such polemics.

[8] Steven Hassan has identified four basic categories of mind control: behavioral control, information control, thought control and emotional control. All four of these are used by the Watchtower to control its members.

[9] Bowman Jr, Robert, M. (1991) “Understanding Jehovah’s witnesses – How they read the Bible the way they do” Page 97-108, Baker Book House

[10] Bowman, p.122.

[11] http://www.galaxie.com/journals

[12] http://www.dts.edu/publications/bibliothecasacra/

[13] https://www.logos.com

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