The Theological Freight of a Cult’s Hymns

On a recent mission trip to Detroit, I came across a treasure house of used books with over a million volumes, jammed into four floors and a basement in an old glove factory. I couldn’t resist a visit, indeed two, and among the books I purchased were four on the Jehovah’s Witness faith, one of them a hymnbook.1 A pastor with whom we were working had asked us to do a Q&A session with some new believers, and some had JW backgrounds. So I wanted to study up.

watchtowerThe first three books made the predictable, non-Christian moves, such as those documented in apologetical tracts and flyers.2 But my attention was drawn especially to the song book. Unlike the Mormon version, which draws heavily on traditional Christian hymns, as it seeks to pass itself off as genuinely Christian,3 the JW collection of 225 songs is totally unique as best I can tell, though some have similar names—“Balsam in Gilead” instead of “There is a Balm in Gilead.”

It’s been said that we Christians, particularly Protestants, learn our theology from hymns, such as Amazing Grace, And Can It Be?, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, and In Christ Alone. The same could be said of JWs, as these samples show:

Jesus was created and is not eternally divine with God the Father.4 Playing off Hebrews 1:6 (which simply calls Jesus the “firstborn”), Hail Jehovah’s Firstborn! denies Christ’s divinity and renders him a mere creature: “Let’s hail, Jehovah’s Firstborn—God’s Heir he has been made—Who since he was created, His Father’s voice obeyed.” This is the ancient heresy of Arianism. Bless Our Christian Brotherhood references 1 Peter 2:17 (“Love the brotherhood”), and assigns Jesus the humble job of model: “He showed love in real brotherhood, With zeal for righteousness, Set patterns of humility, Of love and faithfulness.”

You are saved by your works. Working from Revelation 12:17, Meeting God’s Requirements features, “If we make straight paths for our feet, With Kingdom joys we’ll be replete.” They like the part of verse 17 which identifies the saints with those “who keep the commandments of God” but avoid the part about those who “hold to the testimony of Jesus,” which includes His divinity and grace. Lacking grace and mercy, JWs need to be spurred to sing Do More—As the Nazirites Did (Numbers 6:8): “Their lifestyle was simple. Self denial was their role . . . Close to God it surely did bring them. Could we too have such a goal?”5

There are three possible destinies after death. Only 144,000 will make it to heaven, but decent, Christ-respecting people, will inherit an earthly paradise, or else be annihilated, for there’s no eternal hell. One of the three destinies is pictured in God’s Promise of Paradise (from Luke 23:43, with Christ’s words to the thief): “A Paradise the earth will be, With eyes of faith this we can see.” Another destiny is pictured in Proclaiming Jehovah’s Day of Vengeance (Isaiah 61:2).

Earthly government has no claim on your loyalty. JWs’ famous refusal to pledge allegiance to the American flag is reflected in Theocracy’s Increase (Isaiah 9:6, 7), in Loyally Submitting to Theocratic Order (1 Corinthians 14:33), and in No Part of the World (John 17:16), which reads, “Because our God set us apart, It is to him we give our heart. No part of Satan’s world are we; Like Christ, our Lord, we choose to be.”

A tour through their hymnbook makes one all the more happy that ours includes the messages of Come Thou, Almighty King, Amazing Grace, When We All Get to Heaven, and, yes, in our case, America. How fortunate we are to sing praise and thanks regarding God in Christ, the Gospel, the hope of all the redeemed, and the blessings of life in a “sweet land of liberty” where we are still free to worship.

 

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Endnotes:

1 All were published by their Watchtower Bible and Tract Society: Happiness: How to Find It (1980); You Can Live Forever in Paradise (1982, 1989); Knowledge That Leads to Everlasting Life (1995); and Sing Praises to Jehovah (1984).

2 http://www.4truth.net/fourtruthpbnew.aspx?pageid=8589952841 (accessed May 15, 2014).

3 For example, All Creatures of Our God and King, God of Our Fathers, Whose Almighty Hand, How Great Thou Art, I Know that My Redeemer Lives, Joy to The World, Count Your Blessings, Onward Christian Soldiers, https://www.lds.org/music/library/hymns?lang=eng (accessed May 15, 2014).

4 They have notoriously robbed John 1:1 of its power with their own New World Translation, which calls Jesus “a god” rather than simply “God.”

5 Door-to-door evangelism is a very familiar aspect of their ministry for reward. They undergird this practice in song, drawing on Acts 20:20 (which pictured the rotating fellowship of the early church): From House to House: “From house to house, from door to door, Jehovah’s Word we spread.” They press on, though comedians regularly make fun of them in this connection. Here’s a sampling from http://www.jehovahs-witness.net/jw/experiences/199125/1/Best-JW-Joke#.U2mEIMf8EUU: “Why don’t Jehovah’s Witnesses get killed during an earthquake? They’re always in your doorway” (Johnny Carson); “What does Hannibal Lector call a Jehovah’s Witness? Free delivery!” (Jay Leno); “Hey, I tell you I get no respect! The other day a Jehovah’s Witness came to my door, and he said he wasn’t interested” (Rodney Dangerfield) (accessed May 15, 2014).


How Many Bible Passages Speak to Homosexuality?

On a predictably regular basis, someone publishes a book claiming that the Bible only speaks to homosexuality in a handful of places and that if those references are explained away, Scripture can be viewed as “open and affirming” toward same-sex relationships. Most recently, Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian focused on six Scripture passages that condemn homosexuality.1 Similarly, Adam Hamilton’s Making Sense of the Bible references five passages that depict same-sex intimacy. In 2012, homosexual bibleactivists produced the Queen James Bible, a version of the Bible with eight key verses edited to prevent “homophobic interpretations.” Before that, Jay Bakker’s Fall to Grace identified three “clobber passages” in the New Testament that are used to “beat people over the head” regarding homosexuality. The list could go on—you get the idea.

But is the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality limited to just a smattering of references? In short, no. All of these “open and affirming” interpretations do violence to the plain meaning of the verses in question, and Christian scholars have demonstrated that to be the case.2 Yet there is a broader issue. Not only do specific passages condemn homosexuality; many of the Bible’s major themes, metaphors, precepts, and commands assume that monogamous heterosexual marriage is the norm. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible leaves no doubt about God’s intentions regarding marriage and sexuality. Consider the following:

– The Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 15:1-6) depended on God’s people marrying and producing offspring for its fulfillment.

– In the Decalogue, the fifth, seventh, and tenth commandments all assume a backdrop of traditional family structure, with a husband, a wife, and children (Exodus 20:12, 14, 17).

– The entire book of Song of Solomon assumes the inherent beauty of male-female marriage. In at least two places, the book depicts a man describing his wife’s female anatomy in admiring detail (Song of Solomon 4:1-5; 7:1-9)—a phenomenon with no homosexual parallel in Scripture.

– In both Testaments, God’s relationship with His people is compared to the relationship between a husband and wife. Whether it’s Isaiah 1:21, Jeremiah 2:1-37, Ezekiel 16:1-63, or Hosea (chapters 1-3) in the Old Testament or Paul in the New Testament (Ephesians 5:22-33), the authors of Scripture believed heterosexual marriage provided an apt metaphor for God’s tender care of His people and their gracious commitment to love Him.

– The New Testament’s pervasive references to the church as God’s household presumed that a traditional family structure was normative. In Paul alone, the terms “brother” and “sister” are used 139 times; “Father” is used 63 times in reference to God; and Christians are referred to as “sons” 17 times.3

– The character of candidates for church leadership was to be gaged by the faithfulness of their participation in heterosexual marriage (1 Timothy 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6).

– The relationship between the persons of the Trinity is reflected by the intimacy between a husband and wife (1 Corinthians 11:2).

So don’t let anyone convince you that the Bible’s case against homosexuality is dependent on just a handful of verses. Marriage lies at the heart of Scripture, providing the best earthly analogy of God’s passion for His people. When we accept any distortions of God’s plan in this area, we begin to lose our understanding of what it means to have intimacy with Christ.

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Endnotes:

1 For a biblical response to Vines, see R. Albert Mohler Jr., ed. God and the Gay Christian? A Response to Matthew Vines (Louisville, KY: SBTS Press, 2014), http://www.sbts.edu/press/ (accessed May 7, 2014).

2 See, for example, Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001).

3 Joseph Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 77.


Work as the Christian Calling—Paul Helm

paulhelmPaul Helm teaches theology and philosophy at Regent College, Vancouver, following his retirement as professor of the history and philosophy of religion at Religion at King’s College, London. In his writing on the scriptural teaching about “calling,” he underlines the significance of human labor for Christians. Daily employment is not “just a job;” it is rather a calling from God to serve Him in the world. Moreover, the Christian is to take pleasure in his work, just as the Creator God delights in all that He has made.

[W]ork is part of a Christian’s calling . . . The Christian is not called to be a workaholic, someone for whom only his work matters. What makes for difficulty for the Christian is that there is not one supreme duty which he has to fulfill but there are numerous competing duties and interwoven relationships each of which claims time, energy and commitment. But one relationship may help another, offering support and strength, as marriage may support work, and work marriage. On the other hand they may compete with each other, and a Christian will have to think seriously about which obligations, in a certain set of circumstances, come first. Ought he to work overtime, or be at home with his wife and family?

The old, misleading, sacred/secular distinction relegated much work to the spiritual margins, but the Reformers taught that all labor accepted as a calling and performed “as unto the Lord” was noble. Grasp of this truth has slipped dramatically both in the Church and the culture.

Work is part of a Christian’s calling, part of his ‘vocation’ . . . [T]his biblical idea has had a profound influence in Europe and North America since the Reformation but has largely been forgotten, due to the eclipse of the influence of the Christian gospel from national life, or has been distorted through ridicule and caricature . . . [T]he Bible gives great prominence to the idea that human lives are lived in the sight of God, and this thought includes a Christian’s daily work, as Paul explicitly notes when he reminds Christians that they have a Master in heaven (Eph. 6:9). It is not that the ‘spiritual/religious’ part of a man’s life must be lived before God, those times when he is on his knees, or reading the Bible, and that the remainder of his life is his own affair. The basic motive for serving other men in work is that one is a servant of God.

A Christian’s work is not therefore ‘just a job’, something burdensome which he attempts to make easier by being slipshod or second rate. It is part of his calling, his service to God. Yet this may at first seem rather ridiculous. How could a person whose job it is to serve dinners at school, or to make parts for sewing machines, or to manage people on a factory floor, be serving God? Is not such language merely religious rhetoric? Is it not pious talk which amounts to little? Such language can merely be pious talk but it need not and ought not to be.

–The BibleMesh Team

Water and Shade in a Thirsty, Sun-Baked Land

On a tour of Jordan, as our bus made its way north from Petra to Amman, the guide kept touting the great lunch awaiting us in the capital with the words, “Many salads!” This puzzled us until we realized that, in a desert region, an abundance of leafy green vegetables, tomatoes, and cucumbers was a rare treat.

desert waterAs we traversed the Holy Land—through the Negev, the Judean wilderness, the Dead Sea region, and even the grassy districts of Jezreel and Sharon—we gained a greater appreciation of much of the Bible’s imagery. If God had settled the Israelites in the Arctic or the Amazon Basin, we would be reading more about the benefits of warmth and dryness, than of blessings particularly desired in an arid region:

Water and Vegetation: Psalm 1:3 speaks of those who are “like a tree planted by streams of water” and Revelation 7:17 promises “springs of living water.” Isaiah points to a day when

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad;
the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus . . .1
For waters break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes. (35:1, 6b-7)

Shade: In a sun-parched land, we are able toabide in the shadow of the Almighty (Psalm 91:1); as if in “the shade of a great rock in a weary land (Isaiah 32:2); for

The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night. (Psalm 121:5-6)

Of course, each of these features can typify something fearsome. Noah’s deadly flood was made of water, and the Psalmist seeks comfort in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. But the over-arching imagery is one of comfort and safety in the presence of water and shade.

Last week, I had lunch with an immigrant from the Middle East, a man who served as translator for our troops in the region. He and his wife have Muslim backgrounds, but they may be coming to faith in Christ. At any rate, they’ve turned to my wife and me and for help in crisis, now that they’ve gotten the frightening word that she has a malignancy and that surgery is imminent.

They’re well acquainted with literal desert, but now they find themselves in a desert of dismay, and I see little evidence that they’re finding water or shade for their souls in Allah or their circle of friends at the mosque. And so, over lunch last week, I took him to the Bible, where we read the “Be anxious in nothing” passage in Philippians 4:6, and I gave my testimony of how God does not always give us bread when we ask for it, but gives us bread or its equal—and not a stone (Matthew 7:7-11).

I gave him an inexpensive paperback version of the Bible and showed him it was okay to mark it up, as I had done with mine. We turned, then, to Psalm 23 where David spoke to those who had received Yahweh as God: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.”

This poor couple is parched by circumstances, but it is our prayer that they will not only find the water of physical healing on earth, but also the living water of salvation for eternity.

 

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Endnote

1 Some argue, with good cause, that the modern state of Israel has benefited the actual land in her day, causing “the desert to bloom.”


The Decline of Biblical Languages

In 1816, Harvard University published a circular letter in response to enquiries about admissions standards for ministry students. Candidates for admission, it said, “must be thoroughly acquainted with the grammar of the Latin and Greek languages” and “be able properly to construe and parse any portion” of the Greek New Testament.1 Fast forward to the year 2000, when it was only “recommended” that candidates for admission to Harvard Bible_GreekDivinity School have an “elementary” knowledge of one ancient or modern language. To graduate with a master of divinity, the main graduate degree typically sought by pastors, a student needed only to demonstrate “intermediate” proficiency in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, French, German, or Spanish.2 Apparently being able to ask “¿Como está usted?” had become as valuable in ministry as being able to read Romans in its original Greek.

Harvard isn’t an anomaly. Across America, there has been a marked decrease of biblical language training for Christian ministers over the past 200 years. Consider Princeton Theological Seminary, where as recently as 1950 candidates for the bachelor of divinity (the precursor to the master of divinity) were required to take exams in Greek competency before beginning their course of study, and take remedial classes if they didn’t pass.3 By 2013 though, language study was no longer even a required portion of the master of divinity curriculum at Princeton.4 Indeed, one of the main accrediting bodies for theological schools in the US and Canada, the Association of Theological Schools, does not require a seminary to offer Greek or Hebrew in order to have an accredited master of divinity program.

The most powerful preachers and theologians of ages past likely would regard this as ministerial malpractice. For, instance, Augustine of Hippo, the great theologian and North African bishop, said men who “speak the common tongue” need “two other languages for the study of Scripture: Hebrew and Greek.” The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther said that “we will not long preserve the gospel without the languages . . . the sheath in which the sword of the Spirit is contained.”5

Of course, language study is not required of all faithful ministers. For example, a bivocational pastor who works 40 hours in a factory on top of shepherding a church and leading a family may not have time to study Greek. And doing so might keep him from more important responsibilities. Or there may be ministers with learning disabilities that prevent them from grasping language study. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary founder James P. Boyce rightly observed that learning “interpretation of the text in the English version” is “all that is actually necessary to . . . preach the gospel.”6 Still, Boyce would have agreed with Charles Spurgeon that every minister who is able should aim at “tolerable proficiency” in Hebrew and Greek.7

But aiming at “tolerable proficiency” is a far cry from what’s happening today. Some ministers who have opportunity to study biblical languages opt instead to study managerial techniques and advertising methods—both of which have their place, but neither of which feeds the church spiritually like biblically faithful preaching generated from study of Greek and Hebrew texts. Two surveys of preaching from the 1990s found that only 24.5% of sermons had content and organization determined by the biblical passage under consideration.8 Surely, the percentage would rise if more pastors took their cues from the original languages.

Those who spend years studying for ministry yet avoid the languages need to rethink their educational priorities. Refusing to study a topic that helps them teach Scripture more effectively contributes to the ministry’s becoming what one author has called a “new order of sacred fools.”9

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Endnotes:

1Circular Letter Relating to Harvard University,” The American Monthly Magazine and Critical Review 3 (1818): 297, (accessed April 21, 2014).

2 Harvard Divinity School Catalog, 2000-2001 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2000), 47-48.

3 Princeton Theological Seminary Catalog, 1950 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Theological Seminary, 1950), 15-16.

4 Princeton Theological Seminary Catalog, 2012-2013 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Theological Seminary, 2012), 35.

5 See video at BibleMesh Biblical Languages homepage, (accessed April 21, 2014).

6 James Petigru Boyce, “Three Changes in Theological Institutions,” an inaugural address delivered before the board of trustees of Furman University, July 31, 1856, (accessed April 21, 2014).

7 See video at BibleMesh Biblical Languages homepage, (accessed April 21, 2014).

8 David F. Wells, No Place for Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 251.

9 Ibid., 245.

So England Is Populated by the Lost Tribe of Ephraim?

One afternoon in a Chicago used bookstore, I ran across a booklet with the intriguing title, Britain in Prophecy.1 I’d heard about something called “British Israelism” and of some connections with Herbert W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God. I was curious, so I plunked down my $6.00.

The author, Brian Williams, told this story: The southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin were allowed to return to the Promised Land from their captivity in Babylon. The 10 northern tribes—“Israel”—failed to make it home from Assyria and were dispersed among the nations. But prophecy demands that, in the end, they will be part of the Kingdom, so LostTribesthey must still exist. In this connection, Ephraim and Manasseh made their way to England and America, where they have been a blessing. (The general notion has appealed to some pretty famous people, including Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy, New Zealand Prime Minister William Massey, and Yale professor C. A. L. Totten.) As for Williams’s rationale, here are some items of his so-called “proof”:

1. Geography: Isaiah 31:8 and 14 speak of nations to the north and west, and verse 15 calls for glorification of “the name of the Lord God of Israel in the isles of the sea” (KJV).2 Unfortunately, the ESV and other modern translations render the “isles” of Isaiah 31:15 as “coastlands,” which could fit all sorts of non-British locales, including Finland and France.

2. Chronology: Taking his cue from Revelation 12:6-14, where prophecy links a count of three and a half to 1,260 days (meaning “years”), and then drawing on Leviticus 26:24 to set Israel’s penalty at a factor of seven (or double the three and a half), Williams gets a span of 2520 years. Counting from the beginning of the Assyrian captivity in 721 BC, he says that God’s judgment on Israel expired in AD 1800, at the time of the rise of the British Empire.

3. Genealogy: Working from Genesis 48, he says that Jacob’s blessing the younger Ephraim before his elder brother Manasseh means that Americans are from the latter tribe. The order of blessing made Manasseh the 13th child, and 13 figures prominently into American history, with its 13 colonies. Furthermore, verse 19 says that Manasseh shall become “a people” (America), while Ephraim shall become “a multitude of nations” (the British Commonwealth).

4. Etymology & Symbology: The name for the English county of East Anglia came from the Hebrew word, eglah, “meaning heifer or ox, which was the tribal symbol of Ephraim.” And then there’s the American seal, with its eagle, heavenly bodies, shield, arrows, and olive branch—all symbols connected with ancient Israel. (I’m surprised he didn’t link up with the first battle of the Civil War, Manasseh, especially since the other name for that conflict is Bull Run, which can be tied to the bullocks sacrificed in Israelite worship.)

The mind reels at this prime example of eisegesis (reading what you wish into the text), as opposed to the legitimate practice of exegesis (unpacking what is actually in the text). Williams has scoured the Bible for anything he can enlist, however remotely, to bolster his fantastical claims. But questions crop up everywhere, e.g., “Why don’t native Englishmen seem Semitic?” Of course, this imaginative game can be fun: Maybe Turkey to the northwest, with its Ottoman Empire and moon-and-star flag is Israelite. Or why not identify Asher with America since there is a Mt. Carmel in several states,3 and Tyre connects with “tire,” manufactured by the American corporations, Goodyear, Goodrich, Firestone, and General—all based in Akron, whose Greek cognate, akrou, appears respectively as “uttermost” and “top” in Mark 11:27 and Hebrews 11:21.

Yes, the UK and US are fine places, but this doesn’t mean that Jenkins and Smiths are Hebrew. The Bible certainly doesn’t teach that.

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Endnotes:

1 Brian Williams, Britain in Prophecy (Birmingham, England: Brian Williams Evangelistic Association, Ltd.: undated)

2 Also, Hosea 11:9-10 says something about Ephraim and about children trembling at the Lord’s lion-like roar in the west.

3 Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, and Utah