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Jehovah's Witnesses and the Catholic Doctrine of the Incarnation

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The Jehovah's Witness denomination, a.k.a. the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society sends its "pioneers" out to spread the gospel (as they understand it) fervently. You have probably had an opportunity to engage these dedicated Jehovah's Witnesses, sometimes at the most inopportune times. While their zeal is to be commended (if only we were so eager), their basic message denies the Trinity, eschews holidays (you won't likely see a JW color an Easter Eggs or decorate a Christmas tree), and convinces those who don't know any better (including many uninformed Catholic) that other, more historical forms of Christianity are corrupt. This means that the Watchtower claims that Catholic, Orthodox, and classical Protestant Christians are part of a corrupt system, while their system, founded in the later 1800s, is the true one. This article examines the beliefs and practices of the Jehovah's Witnesses in light of their denial of the Incarnation, and how this influences their faith at multiple levels.

I have always been fascinated by the Jehovah's Witnesses. I did not grow up Catholic, but rather evangelical Protestant. When I was in 8th grade, I was embracing the Christian faith for myself, as I had just been "saved" in November of 1989 at age 11. I became, for lack of a better word, overbearing. My parents wanted me to calm down, and stop being so ridiculously zealous, but I was convinced that I was the only one around who was truly "on fire" for God. One of my main interests was cults, especially the Jehovah's Witnesses. I read a lot about them, which was somewhat unique considering I was only 13. My favorite book was Why I Left Jehovah's Witnesses by Ted Dencher, although I also enjoyed other books, including one by John Ankerberg (who, unlike other "cult" books I was reading, included the Catholic Church as a "cult").

I even tried some of my book learning on real, live, Jehovah's Witness girls my age, who like most people my age, didn't seem too interested in debate. Even though I later moderated, eventually becoming Catholic (and, until later in college, effectively abandoned any Christian faith I had, partly because of how I came to view my youthful fundamentalist period as pretty silly), I still have an interest in the theology of the Jehovah's Witnesses.

Back in 1991, I was convinced that JWs simply "misread" the Bible, and I (of course) read it correctly. I would never use this argument today, because I am aware that every Christian group out there claims to simply "read the Bible correctly," which leads to a lot of arguing in circles. While I believe the New World Translation is a seriously biased translation, and that the Jehovah's Witnesses do read the Bible incorrectly (since they read it outside of any historical or Apostolic context), most JWs themselves would obviously disagree, assuming the way they read Scripture is the way it has always been interpreted.

Nowadays, as a Catholic and teacher, I tend to see the Jehovah's Witnesses in their proper historical context, as simply one of many American sects rooted in late-19th century apocalyptic hysteria. These groups (which include the Adventists and Christian Scientists), besides embracing a certain futurist interpretation of the New Testament, have been heavily influenced by the Enlightenment, which means that they, like the Gnostics of old, elevate the "mind" over physical things, and as such, embrace now outdated scholarship from that time which traced the roots of many Christian practices to pagan origins. Because of this mindset, they shun ritual, tradition, mystery, sacraments, and externals.

From both a Catholic and historical standpoint, Watchtower claims make little sense. That God's organization is headquartered in Brooklyn shows just how American and novel this denomination is. Even as an evangelical, I never seriously considered the concept that the Church immediately after Christ went into apostasy, and then was restored in a sect in America in the late 1800s, although quite a few denominations founded in this period make this claim. Again, an American sect founded in the late 1800s is neither universal (catholic) nor historical. Besides, Christ claimed that the gates of Hades would not prevail over his Church, and if we are to believe the claims of various restorationist movements, the Gates of Hades overcame the Church almost immediately.

Many Jehovah's Witness practices are not very Catholic or historical either. The practice of allowing only "the 1914 generation," i.e. the 144,000 from the Book of Revelation, to receive communion, is rather odd, and seems to be a practice based entirely on failed prophecy; the Watchtower claimed that the 144,000 of Revelation were alive on earth during the "return of Jesus" in 1914. Later they claimed Jesus returned invisibly, since, as is obvious, nobody saw Jesus return in 1914. I can't imagine that very many Witnesses from that time are alive today, and actually receive communion, but considering the rationalistic, enlightenment background of the Watchtower, I doubt rituals are viewed as that important anyway. However, if I were a Witness today, I would wonder why virtually nobody receives the communion that Christ commanded his followers to continue receiving after his death. Certainly a ritual attested to in all four gospels, and so prominent in early Christian practice, would seem important.

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As is widely known, Jehovah's Witnesses do not celebrate holidays. The Witnesses I knew in grade school did celebrate "Teddy Bear Week," but not much else, although I am sure there is a website somewhere detailing the supposed pagan origins of Teddy Bear Week! I have written on the so-called pagan origins of Christian holidays before, but I think something NanaR, a former JW blogger wrote, gets at the heart of why the JWs do not celebrate holidays, and why they their theology is so peculiar: they don't believe in the incarnation (that God himself became human in Jesus Christ). I definitely agree with her, and to expand her point, I think the Jehovah's Witness denial of the incarnation, and thus the implications of the incarnation, explain a lot of their theology and praxis.

I would argue that most Christians whose churches were founded during the 1800s do not have a strong theology of the Incarnation (and this includes many fundamentalists and evangelicals), which prevents them from understanding the Catholic, Orthodox, and ancient Christian love of mystery, ritual, externals, festivals, fasts, and so forth. Even Protestants from the 16th and 17th century seem surprisingly Catholic, ritualistic, and sacramental compared to Protestant movements of the 19th century, and I think this is mainly because the secular enlightenment strongly influenced Protestantism.

Even as a 13 year old evangelical, immersed in writings that defended the divinity of Christ, I rarely thought about the Incarnation. There is a difference between believing Jesus is God, and exploring the full implications of God becoming human. The Gnostics could in some sense affirm that Jesus was divine, but not that God came in the flesh. I am sure most of the books I read back in 1991 took the Incarnation for granted, but the fact that it and its implications were rarely discussed shows me that many of those writing against the Jehovah's Witnesses probably come from denominational traditions that owe a lot to the Enlightenment trends that contributed to the founding of the Watchtower. In other words, I don't think many evangelical writers fully understand the implications of the Incarnation either

However, I think it is impossible to understand the Jehovah's Witnesses unique theology and practice without looking at their views about the incarnation (or really, a lack of a theology of the Incarnation). Many of their ideas flow from the denial of this doctrine: opposition to sacraments, dislike of the cross, refusal to celebrate holidays, avoidance of blood transfusions, believing that Jesus was resurrected spiritually, their prophecy-heavy futurism, etc. Like the ancient Gnostics, all of these beliefs show a strong dislike of the physical world, and a total denial of the belief that God would become flesh. The question remains, do the Jehovah's Witnesses dislike the Incarnation because they have a strong dislike of the created world, or does the dislike of material things flow from their lack of an Incarnational theology? It is hard to say, since both are so intertwined. Either way, while they are Christological heirs to the ancient Arians (in denying that Jesus is fully God), they are also the heirs to the ancient Gnostics and Docetists.

In the early Church, the Gnostics and Docetists denied the Incarnation. While they did not have a problem with Christ's divinity per se (as the JWs do), they had serious issues with the created world. That God would become flesh in this evil world was so troubling that they believed that Jesus only appeared human. Orthodox Christians throughout history have seen things differently, although there have been Gnostic tendencies even among the orthodox. Saint John the Apostle and Ignatius of Antioch (105 AD) both took great pains to emphasize that while Jesus was God, he was also fully human, pre-and-post Resurrection. Ignatius incorporated the following hymn into his Letter to the Ephesians:

There is one Physician
who is possessed both of flesh and spirit;
both born and unborn;
God existing in flesh;
true life in death;
both of Mary and of God;
first passible and then impassible,
- Jesus Christ our Lord (Letter to the Ephesians VII).

Ignatius doesn't concern himself with trying to philosophically explain the way in which Jesus is both God and Man, or how both Jesus and the Father are God (the details of the Trinity were worked out at later Church councils). Ignatius is concerned with stating the Truth of Christian revelation and experience, which is that Jesus is both God and man. Unlike later enlightenment thinkers who denied Jesus was God, and denied the possibility of paradox, Ignatius emphasizes the paradox of Jesus' nature, embracing the mystery of it all. Note too that Ignatius is not merely speculating on spiritual matters here, but ties the Incarnation to Jesus' role as physician and healer.

During the 8th century, when the Iconoclast controversy was raging, similar debates were raised as were during the time of the Gnostics. Was it appropriate to create images of Jesus? Were statues and Christian art permissible? What St. John of Damascus and others pointed out was that we are, for better or worse, material beings, and on account of the Incarnation, God redeemed material things for His use. In his On Holy Images, John of Damascus writes about how it is through the visible, created order, that we learn of, worship, and encounter the invisible God, since we are material beings:

For the invisible things of God since the creation of the world are made visible through images. We see images in creation which remind us faintly of God, as when, for instance, we speak of the holy and adorable Trinity, imaged by the sun, or light, or burning rays, or by a running fountain, or a full river, or by the mind, speech, or the spirit within us, or by a rose tree, or a sprouting flower, or a sweet fragrance.

Thus, unlike the Gnostics who focused exclusively on spiritual formulas and secret prayers, Catholic and Orthodox Christians understand that God uses physical things, and physical people, for salvation: sacraments, the cross, people, the Bible, and of course, the physical incarnation of God Himself! Flowing from this comes an appreciation of physical things, like icons, foods, incense, relics, and even holidays and holiday customs. Again, if a person lacks a theology of God truly becoming flesh in our physical world, then he is not going to have context to understand how someone can take a tree into one's home at Christmas, and decorate it in honor of Christ. He will have no understanding of the importance of taking bread and wine, blessing them, and through God's blessing, the bread and wine are transformed substantially into the body and blood of Christ. I have raised this point on the Per Christum Blog before, but I believe that the main difference between denominations founded in the late 1800s, heavily influenced by the enlightenment, and Catholicism and Orthodoxy, is a sacramental mentality, which is rooted in the incarnation. The former denominations seek to ignore or even escape the physical world (whether through an over-focus on future prophetic events or denying the possibility of sacraments, and so forth), while Catholics and Orthodox recognize that God not only redeemed creation, he uses it for his purposes! God could have sent an angel to save the world, sending him with some secret intellectual formula for salvation and liberation from the physical world, but instead, he sent his own Son, himself fully God, into the created world, becoming one of us! A theology rooted in intellectual formulas, and lacking the Incarnation, not only denies the reality that God created us with bodies and souls, but makes God impersonal (since God couldn't be bothered to become one of us to save us, sending instead an angel). However, the Catholic view recognizes that God works in the created order, the order that he created and saw was "good." God's entrance into the created order demonstrates that his nature is personal and that he seeks out a relationship with his creatures, created in his own image.

While the denial of the incarnation is certainly not the only reason why Jehovah's Witnesses believe and practice as they do, I believe it is a major factor, a factor rooted in enlightenment American religion at the time the Jehovah's Witnesses were founded.

This article appeared in a less developed form at the Per Christum Blog

Last updated 09-14-2008

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