Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jesus, and the Spirit

In a former entry, we looked at several  questions raised by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, also known as Jehovah’s Witnesses. I wanted to return to some of those questions by zeroing in on question 18:

Who is [referred] to prophetically at Prov. 8:22-31?

Let’s review the content of the passage:

“The LORD possessed me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of old.
Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth,
before he had made the earth with its fields,
or the first of the dust of the world.
When he established the heavens, I was there;
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master workman,
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the children of man.
(Proverbs 8:22-31 ESV)

Sadly, this passage has been hotly debated throughout the course of church history. It’s one of the chief passages from which Arius argued for during the council of Nicea in 325 AD. As the understood by the JWs, Proverbs 8 “prophetically” speaks of Jesus, the “first of [God’s] acts of old.” According to Watchtower Bible and Tract Society doctrine, Jesus Christ is Michael the Archangel, and the first created being of God. Through Michael/Jesus, on their view, God created all other things.

Though others have responded to this challenge is ways quite different from my own, I remain persuaded in thinking that the proper response is straightforward. The JW insistence that Lady Wisdom is Jesus reveals a glaring ignorance of Hebrew poetic literature. Proverbs 8 is not speaking of the pre-incarnate Christ; it is a Hebraic literary device known as personification. Leland Ryken define personification as follows:

Personification—ascribing personal action or characteristics to a nonpersonal thing—is a prevalent figure of speech in the Bible. From the blood of Abel that cries from the ground (Gen.4:10) to the tongues of the arrogant that strut through the earth (Ps.73:9), biblical writers use personification often. Rivers clap their hands (Ps.98:8), God’s light and truth guide pilgrims to the temple (Ps.43:3), Babylon is a prostitute (Rev.18), and money is a rival deity (Matt.6:24).

In much the same way, “wisdom” is portrayed as a female. And surely we don’t want to apply that literary device to say that Jesus was a female!

Now, I would leave my response there, if I didn’t know better. But I’ve discussed this answer to real Witnesses and I’ve been frustratingly impressed with their ingenuity. And this is how it’s done: above I’ve claimed the JW error in regard to Prov. 8 is a mistaken reading of metaphorical and anthropomorphic language as 1) as a prophecy, and 2) as semi-literal. To (some creative) Witnesses this is exactly what orthodox Christians do in regarding to the Holy Spirit. We claim that Scripture addresses the Holy Spirit in personal ways (he feels, speaks, can be lied to, can be grieved, etc.), therefore the Spirit is, contrary to JW theology, a He, not an it. JWs may be tempted to think that personalized language of the Holy Spirit is likewise a case of personification. Therefore, some may argue, we’re doing the very same thing that we accuse them of doing.

But this isn’t the case. Why? They aren’t playing by the rules. The claim that Jesus is doing with the Holy Spirit what I claim the author of Proverbs is doing with Lady Wisdom (personification) is guilty of genre confusion. Proverbs is poetic literature (that’s why it’s grouped along with the Psalms of other like books in our Bibles) and thus communicates using the standard tools of poetic literature: personification, metaphors, similes, parallelism, etc. The various literary genres of Scripture dictate the proper means of interpreting them. In contrast, the Gospels are historical narrative. The “rules” of interpretation are different, though the astute reader is probably aware of more rules for interpreting narrative than they’re aware of. When Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit, he does so in the same fashion he would speak about Peter, James, or John. There is no literary cue that something else is going on. In closing, Ryken notes the counterintuitive nature of this type of genre confusion:

Is the Holy Spirit a personification? Well, did that possibility ever occur to you until it was suggested by someone? The plain meaning of the passages is that they describe a divine person. There is nothing in the passages to signal that they are figurative rather than literal. They do not obey the ordinary rules of personification. In fact, to read them as personifications is beyond most people’s power of comprehension.

I agree. Orthodox Christians aren’t employing a double standard when they interpret Prov. 8 as personification and accept Jesus’s (and Paul’s, and Peter’s, etc.) language of the Spirit as literal and historical.

Here is the article by Leland Ryken titled, “Is the Holy Spirit a Personification?” (though his target is not the JWs)


Posted on June 7, 2012, in Jesus Christ and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. This section in RS ends with the following paragraph: The correct identification of the holy spirit must fit ALL THE SCRIPTURES that refer to that spirit. With this viewpoint, it is logical to conclude that the holy spirit is the active force of God. It is not a person but a powerful force that God causes to emanate from Himself to accomplish His holy will (p. 381; emphasis in original).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: