JWs and Authority to Interpret Scripture

I have to bring up something similar to what I asked about a year ago, and that is a question about the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the question of authority in relation to Scripture. Before I ask the question, some context from a chat a my JW friend and I had should help people understand where I am coming from.

We had a rather longish chat on Facebook, since he no longer lives around my area due to university, which was in German, but I shall translate the relevant bits for you. Everything in blue are my messages, things in red are his.

The context of these messages is a question I asked about JWs and voting in countries where there is an obligation (as opposed to a right) to vote.

sends file with Watchtower quotes on voting

quotes from said document
“[The Witness] will make sure not to violate his neutrality [when complying with the obligation]” So you aren’t allowed to vote?

You can, if your conscience allows, but it is incompatible with the Bible.

But are you allowed to?


But if a Witness’ conscience permits him to vote, and he still believes everything the WT teaches, he won’t be disfellowshipped?

The Watchtower doesn’t teach.


It explains. The Bible teaches.

OK, then I shall reformulate. But if a Witness’ conscience permits him to vote, and he still believes the Watchtower’s interpretation of the Bible, he won’t be disfellowshipped?

I think it’s funny how one can express the same thing in two different ways, but say something entirely different. …] By that I mean: One can use similar words to explain the same situation, but achieve an entirely different effect.

Here comes the thing pertaining directly to the question.

I would still view the expression “the Watchtower’s interpretation of the Bible” critically, because that means that there are multiple interpretations, all of which are looked at as equally valuable. But I don’t see it that way, and I don’t believe you do either. At the same time I can understand that that you don’t want to say that the rules we have all conform to the Bible as I said they did. [In which he is correct, that is exactly what I was saying, since I won’t grant the “the Bible teaches” rhetoric.]

Well, it can’t be denied that there are thousands of interpretations to there. It is evident that not all are correct and that two mutually exclusive ones cannot be correct at the same time.

That’s where it basically ended, because he suggested immediately after this sentence we “peacefully co-exist until a higher Power decides”, to which I proposed peacefully co-existing but discussing this important and interesting question further. We were basically getting to who has the authority to interpret Scripture.

If I get to pose the question “What authority does the WT have?” directly, and having eliminated their 1914 thingy as grounds for it since it argues in a circle, I see myself running into the assertion: “Well, if you study the Scripture properly, only one interpretation will really make sense. The others will all fail at one point or another. You just have to study long enough to get it right.”

How would a Catholic respond to such an assertion, and – as a second question – how else might one go about talking about authority with him, given the basis we have in the above exchange?

I think I would have to continue down the line of thought that you both have in common - that is “to peacefully co-exist”. Apparently he thinks there is a common ground that you both are currently co-existing peacefully. So how is this peace defined? Can this same peace be experienced with out the civil laws in society? If not where does he expect these laws to derive from? He will say “the bible” and you will have to go from there.


Ask, “where does scripture say that?”

Jesus had “authority” - at his word the disciples jumped (as did the demons).
Jesus gave his “authority” to Peter especially, and the others. So at their words their followers jumped, as did demons and illnesses.
Peter and the others appointed deacons and bishops, giving this “authority” to them.
Jesus, Peter and the others, deacons and bishops, continuing down to today are the only authority in settling a question of the meaning of Scripture. On top of that, they are wise in giving full explanation of the meaning so that we also understand and can live out the meaning.
As one of the originals said, “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness”. Now, this does not tell you that Scripture is for you to study yourself and find the meaning if you “study properly” on your own. It says Scripture is a tool of the Church, of your Pastor, who has authority to “teach” you what is true, “reprove” you authoritatively for sin, “correct” you with proper penance and instruction, and “training you in goodness (righteousness)”. Your pastor uses the tool of the Scriptures, asks you to read along and learn from him. But as the “authorized one” in your parish, he authoritatively uses the tool of the Scriptures.

Others who think they can interpret the Scriptures on their own have, in effect, “stolen” the holy books of the Church, the Bible which the Church assembled into its Holy Scripture for its own use as a tool. When Luther and the other Protesters (Protestants) left the Catholic Church, they took books with them (Bibles) as if the Bible were somehow powerful on its own. They then decided they were smarter than the people who assembled the books into the Bible (the Catholic Church) and they tore out some books, as if they had some kind of “authority” over the Bible.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are no different; they consider the Scripture some kind of supernatural book (rather than the property of the Catholic Church as its tool) and that they have discovered the special key to understanding.

John Martin

Well, I would respond in two ways. First, by showing him what the Watchtower society has to say. (This is also for us to realize how hard it is to dialogue with members of this cult). Then, by showing him what the Scripture and the Church Fathers have to say, and asking for his reasons to follow the teaching of the anonymous authors of the Watchtower.

The words of the “baptism” of a new witness speaks of membership “in association with God’s spirit-directed organization”. Someplace else on the Watchtower website we read: “In our own case, if we continue to be led by God’s spirit, we will be privileged to learn about him forever.” What is WT telling its members: you will learn about God only in association with the Watchtower Society. Now some quotes.

We are in full agreement with J-'s Word, the Bible, and with the explanation of the Bible that now he reveals to us through his earthly channel, the Watchtower (Watchtower, 1/7/1940)

The visible organization of J- under Christ is a channel to bring the divine interpretation of his Word to devout people.(Watchtower, 15/7/1950)

Those who acknowledge the visible theocratic organization of J- must therefore acknowledge and accept the election of the ‘faithful and discreet slave’ and be subject to him. (Watchtower 1/10/1967)

Only the organization of J- on earth is directed by the holy spirit or active force of J-. Only to her the Sacred Word of J-, the Bible, is not a sealed book. (Watchtower 1/7/1973)

We cannot understand the Bible alone. We need help …] J-, anyways, though his oeganization, has today allowed his faithful servants to understand its meaning. (Watchwtower 1/10/1994)

With someone who has been convinced to believe this, there can be no argument. They do not strictly believe Sola Scriptura, but vinculate the understanding of Scripture to their draft of a magisterium. However, the Watchtower Society fails on two major points:

  • anyone can wake up and call themselves the only group led by God’s force and able to understand the Bible (in fact, this is just what happened with Russel and Rutherford about a hundred years ago). However you need to prove it to your followers. Telling them the world is going to end on the exact date of A, B, C, D…and changing it every five to ten years, for instance, is not a good piece of evidence. Having only 7 million followers all around the world after a century isn’t either.

  • the human heart is restless until it rests in Christ. The Watchtower drives men away from Christ whom, they say, is a creature, the angel Michael, who after death “resurrected as the spiritual being he was in the beginning”. No, worse - their founder Russel declared: “the man Jesus is dead, dead forever.” God’s redemptive work is declared null and void, and the soul is left aching after the Bread of Life. Which is why this cult has one of the lowest retention rates of all sects, 37%.

Now, what does Scripture say about understanding Scripture? Is it conceivable that up to this day nobody was given understanding of the Bible? Would God leave almost 2 billion Christians without a visible authority to teach Scripture until the XX Century?

Let us see what the Lord said to His chosen 12 apostles.

Judas saith to him, not the Iscariot: Lord, how is it, that you manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?

And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given."

Again he said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”

“Father …] As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.”

“Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me.”

Now, we of course all agree that the apostles, mortal men, died some 20 centuries ago. Would Christ say the words we read above if they referred to the 12 alone? Clearly not. Do they then refer to all baptized Christians? No, for I am quoting three separate occasions where the Lord is talking specifically to the 12, not to all disciples, not to all the people.

How, then, would this apostolicity (from the Greek apostellein, “sent forth”) be transmitted and preserved through history? By ordination of successors.

The ministry the presbyters is mentioned in the New Testament (Acts 15:6, 23). They were ordained by the laying on of hands (1 Tm 4:14, 5:22), they preached and taught the flock (1 Tm 5:17), and they administered sacraments (Jas 5:13-15).

Bishops (episcopoi) have the care of multiple congregations and appoint, ordain, and discipline priests and deacons. Examples of first-century bishops include Timothy and Titus (1 Tim. 5:19–22; 2 Tim. 4:5; Titus 1:5). Presbyters have the responsibility of teaching, governing, and providing the sacraments in a given congregation (1 Tim. 5:17; Jas. 5:14–15). Deacons (diakonoi) are the assistants of the bishops and are responsible for teaching and administering certain Church tasks, such as the distribution of food (Acts 6:1–6).

Scripture already reveals a visible Church, in fact called “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15) to which God adds daily those who are to be saved (Acts 2:47).

I would then read what some of the earliest Christians had to say, for instance here and here.

At this point a message is clear: there is a Magisterium. Is it that of the visible, apostolic, universal Church found all around the world with 1.2 billion faithful and over 500,000 successors of the apostles, or is it that of the Watchtower Society headquartered in Columbia Heights, Brooklyn?

Brilliant!!! My thoughts exactly!

When we visited Rome together with some other friends yesterday, he told me that all the Church Fathers were misguided by Satan. I fear that will be his response again.

Do you have a reference for that quote, so I can provide it to him?

Same here, those two quotes are really good! :slight_smile:

Thanks for your very extensive post! I’d like to discuss as little Scripture with him as possible, since we always end up in Bible ping-pong and get nowhere, much rather sabotaging future possibilities of theological discussion. That’s why I prefer the general and historical question of authority, in logical deduction. Of course it won’t work without Scripture, so what might be helpful are verses that Witnesses and Catholics are close on, or verses that are unambiguous.

Specifically, do you have references for the indestructibility of the Church Christ founded, and maybe some that refute the idea of a tiny minority of “true believers” in a world of “false religion”? The latter is what the Witnesses claim, I think. Finally, perhaps some references I could use to show that one actually needs authority to properly interpret Scripture.

Thanks again, I look forward to further answers! :slight_smile:


Jehovah’s Witnesses

International headquarters in Brooklyn, New York
Classification Restorationist
(Christian primitivism)
Organizational structure Hierarchical
Geographical areas Worldwide
Founder Charles Taze Russell
Origin 1870s: Bible Student movement
1931: Jehovah’s witnesses
Pennsylvania and New York, US
Branched from Bible Student movement
Congregations 111,719
Members 7.78 million

Official website www.jw.org
Statistics from 2013 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses[1]

For a sect that is supposed to be the one true church, they sure are a tiny portion of the world population.

Which they explain with “Narrow is the path that leads to eternal life and few find it”.

Without a correct understanding of the Incarnate Word of God made flesh it is impossible to have a correct understanding of the inspired word of God made available to us through humane agents as the written word of God in the Bible.

I was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses for 11 years before returning home to the Catholic Church by the end of the 1980s.

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe and take pride in the fact that their religion is based solely on the Bible. Because of this it is vital in their mind to have the exact or “only one interpretation” of the Bible that it is correct. For them the proof, or truth of their religion is Holy Scripture. It is the ultimate revelation as far as they are concerned.

Now I am not sure where you are in your faith journey or what faith you are really declaring in your profile, but here is the way I deal with this as a Catholic:

I tell them that the religion of Catholics is not based on the Bible. Our religion, I explain, is based on Jesus Christ. For us religion has to be based on everything he taught, everything he did, all the information he left entrusted to the apostles. Even the Bible admits it is an incomplete source for all that Christ revealed at John 20:30 and 21:25. For Catholics the measure of religious truth is a Person, Jesus, and he is the ultimate revelation. Our religion is not based on the Bible, rather the Bible is based on our religion.

Just like Judaism is not based on its Scriptures (the Scriptures are actually based on and a product of a functioning Judaism), Christianity is not a faith that comes from a Book, even if that Book is inspired of God. Just as we cannot ignore the Jewish faith and its tradition if we are to understand the Hebrew Scriptures when we read them, we cannot ignore Apostolic Tradition if we are to fully grasp the meaning of the Christian texts.

The Bible cannot be read in a vacuum. It didn’t exist first by itself, then stumbled upon by the apostles who said: “Let’s base our religion on what we read inside!” If you want that, try Mormonism–it is based on a book! When it comes to the Bible the religion came first, and its tenants must be used to define what one reads in Scripture.

Is the Bible the truth that leads to everlasting life or is Jesus that Truth? “I am the way and the truth and the life,” said Jesus at John 14:6. He didn’t say the way to the Father was a book. Instead he said: “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Many can read the Bible and not get life. But no one who comes wholeheartedly to Jesus will be lost.

The JW you are speaking with may not know what to do next. They are not equipped to deal with people who do not accept what they view as the highest authority, namely the Written Word. The reason they have such backward beliefs from reading the Bible alone without believing in the Tradition that shaped it is because the Bible is a reflection of the religions that wrote it and the Tradition that canonized it.

And as has been said before, anyone who reads a reflection will only get things backwards.

Great Post!!!
That’s it in a nutshell!

First, welcome back home! (If I can say that as a still-non-Catholic…) :slight_smile: Glad to hear you took the step.

Thanks for the great post, it gives a good explanation. You suggest the JW I am talking to “May not know what to do next”. I have not really gone down that road yet, that is, “what authority do you, the Watchtower or Russell have?” and the matter of sola scriptura. In time, that will come. He’s very much into going into their “Watchtower Library” application, copying articles and sending them to me, so perhaps there will be some kind of answer.

I have that same application on my computer, which he doesn’t know, and it’s handy to do some research on them, especially flip-flops in doctrine (if they didn’t alter the publications).

Thanks again! :slight_smile:

I just tried to go down this road with a JW friend of mine and it became a circular argument. He agreed that lineage of truth was important so I kept trying to get him to name JWs back to Christ but he couldn’t give me anything but generic “there were many of them” statements. I asked why would the Watchtower would quote St. Augustine and other Catholics when trying to promote their point at hand but couldn’t quote any JWs prior to Russell – no answer. They will also bash the “Early Church Fathers” in an article which becomes contradictory to their quotes used elsewhere…When I kept trying to establish the authority of the canon and the “who” was involved with this, all he understood was, from the Watchtower, “it was established by use in the actual congregations”. This is where the circular loop began.:whacky:

I hope you can do better than I did.


I think that is already quite good, since one shouldn’t expect them to go “Oh my gosh, you’re right and the Watchtower is wrong!”. You got him into giving contradictory, insufficient or illogical answers, which might (might!) have shown him something he didn’t let you know was getting through to him. Maybe there’s a seed planted.

You’re welcome, and thank you.

The problem of “copying articles” and sending them as a means of argument is also something you have to avoid with the JW discussions.

In the art of apology and logistic methodology there are “no authorities,” only truths. This is not meant to suggest that Christ is not considered the ultimate authority by Christians, but that when trying to prove a point one does not make a point by quoting an authority. One makes a point by proving, through testing, what another has said has said. Something is only true if you can repeatedly prove it true, not if it is quoted by someone who others call an authority.

If you notice the expert apologists on this site as well as those of history, they “prove” their point. They don’t end an argument by merely quoting an authority but by demonstrating how valid a point is. Even scientists do this (called the “scientific method”). One tests a hypothesis by placing it in the hands of a disinterested party to see if they get the same results when trying the point.

You must demand the JW to do more than “quote” texts. You must demand them to prove the quotes they pull out as arsenal. For one example on how to do this one can ask how their doctrine of living in the last generation and regarding 1914 has proved to be true over the years now that we are one year away from 2014. Offering quotes from other people who think we are living in the time of the end doesn’t prove that the JWs are right about their beliefs regarding the end. Even history demonstrates that the JWs got nothing about 1914 and the final generation right as they have had to correct themselves over and over again over the past 100 years.

Truths don’t change over the years, they become more established. One need not take an authority at their word for a truth. One can see a truth play out through history.

This will soon end the discussion with the JW. They will either leave off due to not being able to deal with the cognitive dissonance this creates for them (they prefer their self-created world of ambiguity intolerance) or they will be brave enough to fight this off and make a change…but don’t expect change to come overnight if it does.

For now it sounds like the JW has chosen to fight with mud and you agree to their terms. I suggest abandoning their choice of approach and fight back with soap and water.

God bless your efforts!

Thanks very much. :slight_smile:

He says he likes logic and philosophy. He even considered studying it, but then decided against it.

I’ll see how we continue. They’ve just had one of their big conventions, so we haven’t talked any further yet. If something happens, I’ll keep this updated.

I agree with all of this except it does presuppose the JW you are speaking to understands and appreciates logic and reason. Otherwise you will continue in the circular arguments based on what is published by the Watchtower.

Peace bro!!!

Sound advice. :thumbsup:

BTW, JW’s cannot ascribe to anything from the pagan world therefore logic derived from Aristotle and probably Socrates in null to them. The funny thing is they use the logic formulas and don’t even know it.:shrug:


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