One Bible, Many Interpretations

Mormons teach that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three Gods, and that we too can become Gods in our own right someday.

You may reply to them, for instance, with James 2:19, “You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble,” but Mormons will have some explanation for that New Testament passage which fits their theology.

Oneness Pentecostals teach that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not three persons but three manifestations of one divine person, God.

You may ask them who Jesus is praying to in Matthew 26:39 when he says in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will,” yet Oneness Pentecostals will offer some answer for why Jesus is not praying to another person.

Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that Jesus is not God, not divine, but God’s first and greatest creature, and that the Holy Spirit is not a person but the active force of God the Father in the world.

You may answer with the beginning and end of the Gospel of John: with John’s prologue where we see “the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … And the Word became flesh,” and the gospel’s climax, John 20:28, “Thomas answered and said to [Jesus,] ‘My Lord and my God!'” However, Jehovah’s Witnesses will surely have some reply for these verses.

A diagram of the ancient, orthodox, Christian conception of the Holy Trinity

A diagram of the ancient, orthodox, Christian conception of the Most Holy Trinity: One God, Three Divine Persons

In my personal experience, advocates of Mormon polytheism, Oneness Pentecostal modalism, or Jehovah’s Witnesses Arianism-esque theology have all been sincere, friendly, rational, and not unintelligent people. They were all well-versed in the Bible, regarded it as God’s infallible Word, and used it to support their beliefs. They all proudly claimed the name of “Christian.” However, the undeniable fact that their theologies contradict each other proves that these admirable personal traits are not enough to guarantee a true understanding of the Christian Faith. The problem is that there seems to be more than one possible internally-coherent interpretation of the Bible. Just as texts out of context can suggest several defensible, though incorrect, meanings; interpreting biblical texts outside the context of Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church leads to many errors.

Last week, two very nice Jehovah’s Witnesses visited me at my rectory and we spoke for a couple of hours. I believe we were debating whether one of Jesus’ “I Am” statements in John’s Gospel was a profession of his divinity when one of my guests remarked, “We can’t really be certain what he meant.” I replied to the effect, “You’re right!–If your opinion and my opinion are all we have to go on, if there’s no visible authority on earth with power from Jesus Christ to infallibly answer biblical questions, then we can never be certain our interpretations are true–since many sincere, reasonable, and even scholarly Christians firmly disagree. Without a clear, external teaching authority within the Church, we are left as sheep without a shepherd, and will inevitably scatter.” Most Christians revere the Holy Scriptures as God’s infallible Word, and this is right and good, but for some reason many of them reject the Catholic Church through which the Scriptures come.

Recall that Jesus wrote nothing in the Gospels (except perhaps something in the dust near the woman caught in adultery,) but Jesus did establish a Church. Through this Church the New Testament was written, collected, canonized, and revered. However, this process was certainly not completed in the first century AD. In the early Church there was much debate over which New Testament writings were inspired and should be included in the canon. The Shepherd of Hermas? The Book of Revelation? The Didache? The Letter to the Hebrews? The Epistle of Clement? Some early Church Fathers included works such as these in their lists of Bible books, while others left them out. It was the Catholic Church that ultimately canonized the New Testament books which all Christians acknowledge today.

One teaching shared by Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses is the belief that a Great Apostasy occurred in the early Church. The New Testament contains verses which warn about false teachers arising who will mislead many. A great deception, those religions say, happened soon after the death of the apostles and explains why the majority of self-professed Christians in history have held core doctrines widely different from their own. I would agree that false teachers and heresies arise in every age, but was there a Great Apostasy soon after the apostles that devastated Christ’s Church and caused his central teachings (like the true nature of God) to be discarded and forgotten?

Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter by Pietro Perugino (detail)

Jesus entrusting the keys of his Kingdom to St. Peter (Matthew 16:19)

All Christians will agree that Jesus was a wise man. Jesus was a wise man, indeed, who built his house on rock. Jesus declared to Simon, “‘I say to you, you are Peter [that is, you are “Rock” (in Greek)] and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.'” (Matthew 16:18) If Jesus was a wise man who built his house on rock, we can be assured that even though “the rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house–it did not collapse; [his Church] had been set solidly on rock.” (Matthew 7:24-25)

After building his Church on Peter for some forty years, did Jesus let it go into shambles and fail to repair it for about eighteen centuries, until Joseph Smith or The Watchtower came along? If so, Jesus really dropped the ball. If the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses are right, then God managed to get all of the New Testament books infallibly written, correctly canonized, and faithfully preserved throughout millennia, but could not maintain the truth about himself in his Church on earth in the hearts and minds of believers much beyond the death of the apostles.

More likely, our Lord Jesus Christ succeeded in preserving his teachings and the visible hierarchical authority he gave to his Church, from St. Peter (the first pope) and the apostles to Pope Francis and the bishops in communion with him today. A clear and necessary line of teaching authority running though the centuries, by the laying of hands and apostolic succession. You may encounter people who will present you with internally-consistent but very different interpretations of Scripture. Do not let your hearts be troubled. There are good reasons for everything we believe as Catholics. They may “know” the Bible, but we are blessed to know God’s Church from which the Bible comes.

If you love Jesus Christ, love his Catholic Church. As even St. Joan of Arc, who personally experienced the complexities of the Church as a divine and human institution, said, “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they are just one thing and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.” If you love Jesus’ Church, you will love him well. Jesus Christ is risen and his Catholic Church, though ancient, has never died. Christ’s Church, the Bride he protects and for whom he laid down his life, is very much alive.

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10 Responses to “One Bible, Many Interpretations”

  1. Sarah Says:

    A very thoughtful post. I would hesitate, however, to put Oneness Pentecostals in the same trajectory as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Yes, they accept a heretical theology of the Trinity by embracing modalism. But Oneness Pentecostals are otherwise comparable in their theology and practice to mainstream Pentecostals (as far as I understand), whereas Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses fall well outside the confines of orthodox Christianity in a host of ways (some of which you mention here). A quibble, perhaps, and not the point of your post, but thought I would put that out there. Thanks!

  2. Jack Says:

    JWs explain away John 1:1 in their New Word Mistranslation by rendering it “The Word was a god.” (Note the lower case.)

    So JWs are polytheists, too. They have this big god they call Jehovah, and this little g “god” they call Jesus.

    Sounds to me like they have one god too many.

  3. Hank Says:

    Oh dear. I find that I have forgotten the explanation of the Trinity. Again.

  4. gghd Says:

    Generally, non-Catholics witnessing to Catholics want to pull people out of the Catholic Church.

    If a known murderer showed up, and wanted to kill the physical body, people would be very careful.

    Devout Catholics meet people all the time, some of these people want to bring eternal death to the soul.

    Know the Catholic faith; know that the devil and his evil spirits prowl the earth seeking the ruin of souls.

    Catholics need to be vigilant, and careful. The ~second largest church group in the USA are Catholics, that have stopped going to Church.

    Catholics are obligated to witness the True Christian Faith to other people. The Graces found in the Sacraments and a sincere prayer life help keep us safe at ~home within the Catholic Church.

    We should all be wary of the snares of the darkness found in this world.

  5. drpruner Says:

    “Last week, two very nice Jehovah’s Witnesses visited me at my rectory”. Very good. If we aren’t nice we get fired! :-)
    You write, “if there’s no visible authority on earth with power from Jesus Christ to infallibly answer biblical questions…”. We believe there is: it’s the Bible itself, and that’s the claim it makes for itself. 2 Tim 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21 and many others. In fact, Peter follows that teaching immediately with a warning: “However, there also came to be false prophets among the people, as there will also be false teachers among you.” Paul wrote similarly, “I know that after my going away oppressive wolves will enter in among you and… from among you yourselves men will rise and speak twisted things to draw away the disciples after themselves.” (2 Peter 2:1 ff; Acts 20:29,30) Therefore anyone who brings a teaching that cannot immediately be shown to be biblical must be considered possibly one of these, until that teaching is tested against scripture. (Acts 17:11)
    You say we “… used [the Bible] to support [our] beliefs.” Indeed; I’ve often heard it called ‘The Bible we gave you!’ by Catholics. Can we not use it, then?
    You write, “Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that Jesus is not God, not divine, but God’s first and greatest creature” That we do, often by quoting Colossians 1:15, “He is the image of the unseen God, the first-born of all creation,” from the Jerusalem Bible in this case.
    You cite “John’s prologue” (John 1:1), “the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” It’s important—essential—for the Trinitarian to point to the capital-G in the second clause. As a clergyman, trained, educated and scholarly you will no doubt post a separate blog for your disciples explaining that the oldest and best mss. are in all-caps, so any modern spelling is the choice of the translator. (One such eminent person, Edgar J. Goodspeed, wrote “The Word was divine” in his American Translation.]
    I notice that you refer to John 20:28 as “the Gospel’s climax” and “end of the Gospel”. But the online JB at http://www.catholic.org/bible/ has four more verses in Ch. 20, and another entire chapter. John says, at John 20:31, “These [signs] are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life through his name.” “The Son of God”, not “God”.
    Finally, Jesus himself calls his Father, Jehovah, “the only true God” at John 17:3. Please look it up.

    • Fr. Victor Feltes Says:

      Though we continue to see things differently, I thank you for your concern for the truth and for others’ salvation.

      “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching…” (2 Tim 3:16) but ‘useful’ is different than ‘sufficient’ or saying that the Bible is ‘all that you need’ to find the truth. Indeed, Bible-alone Christians find a multitude of conflicting interpretations. While Sacred Scriptures are from God as St. Peter says (2 Peter 1:21) there remains the problem of knowing which texts belong to Scripture, particularly when books have pseudonymous authors. The Catholic Church perfectly defined the New Testament canon long after the death of the apostles because it is “the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim 3:15) established and soundly-built by God.

      Just as the Last Supper Discourse appears to end twice (John 14:31, 17:26) so John’s Gospel seems to conclude in both chapters 20 and 21, as though additional content and an epilogue were added while leaving the previous text intact. (The Catholic Church reveres the whole as inspired.) Thus, Thomas’ profession, “my Lord and my God,” and the following verses appear to be the original, climactic end of the Gospel, and the key for properly understanding its beginning, “and the Word was God.” (New Testament manuscripts being written in all-caps Greek has no bearing on this traditional capital-G translation.) To say that describing Jesus as “the Son of God” shows that he is not divine begs the question at hand. If St. John wished to teach us that Jesus is not consubstancial with the Father but only God-like, he left plenty of reason for this misinterpretation (such as Jesus’ “I Am” statements, “The Father and I are one,” St. Thomas’ profession, etc.)

      If God gave us infallible Scriptures and preserved them through the centuries, would he not give us an infallible Church and preserve it until today? Surely, God’s Church and her teachings are at least as important as God’s book. If a church does not claim the authority to teach infallibly (for instance, that “these books” are the canon) I do not see how that church could be God’s Church. This, in part, is why I am a Catholic Christian.

  6. otterwithkids Says:

    Just to clarify, the Wikipedia page you linked to defines polytheism as:

    “the worship of or belief in multiple deities usually assembled into a pantheon of gods and goddesses, along with their own religions and rituals”

    While this definition could certainly be twisted to encompass the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the clear implication is definitely not indicative of Latter-day Saint doctrine. A more accurate term would be “monolatrism,” which Wikipedia defines as follows:

    “Monolatrism or monolatry (Greek: μόνος (monos) = single, and λατρεία (latreia) = worship) is the recognition of the existence of many gods, but with the consistent worship of only one deity. …

    “Monolatry is distinguished from monotheism, which asserts the existence of only one god, and henotheism, a religious system in which the believer worships one god alone without denying that others may worship different gods with equal validity.”

    Put more succinctly, Latter-day Saints believe that while we don’t know exactly what constitutes a “god,” it is apparent from the scriptures that there is more than one. However, only One God—our Heavenly Father—is deserving of our worship.

    Hope that helps!

    • Fr. Victor Feltes Says:

      Thanks for your note.

      I classified The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ beliefs as polytheist in the broadest sense: “the… belief in multiple deities…” Do Mormons consistently worship both God the Father and God the Son? If so, then polytheism would seem a better description than monolatrism.

      I do wonder why a Mormon should not worship the other holy and true gods revealed in their religion, such as the Heavenly Mother–the mother of human spirits and the wife of God the Father. (tinyurl.com/lnq6u3l) The commandment to honor our father and mother would seem to apply here. Even as finite human beings; loving, thanking, and praising our mothers does not make us love our fathers any less.

      • otterwithkids Says:

        Fr. Victor,

        Thanks for the response. Actually, no, Latter-day Saints do not worship the Son at all. We honor Him; we revere Him; we remember Him; we try to emulate Him. We pray in His name; we bless in His name; we act in His name. But despite all this, we do *not* worship Him. We worship the Father, as Christ has commanded, in His (Christ’s) name.

        Regarding Heavenly Mother, it’s not rare to hear discussions among Latter-day Saints as to why we don’t reference Her nearly as frequently as we do Father. While there is certainly no shortage of theories and postulations, the only safe answer is that no one really knows. We know She’s there, we know She loves us, we know She cares about us, but we’re instructed to address our prayers to Father instead of Mother. Why? I’m sure we’ll know, someday, but we’re just not there yet.

        Again, HTH!

  7. St. Augustine and St. Joan of Arc on Jesus Christ and the Church | the five minute Catholic Says:

    […] —I also came across the quote from St. Joan of Arc at the end of the Parishable Items blog post: One Bible, Many Interpretations […]

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