Thursday, 6 September 2007

The Watchtower on interpretation

[T]he Watch Tower Organisation calls upon Jehovah’s Witnesses to pass over its errors, asserting that these are counterbalanced, and outweiged, by other more favorable factors. Yet it does not apply that standard in its dealing with those under its authority. If they hold any view, even though minor, that does not coincide with the Watch Tower’s teachings, this is not viewed just as human “error” which may in time be corrected, but instead is deemed a basis for disfellowshipping. The fact that the overall picture may show that the individual who disagrees clearly manifests genuine Christian qualities is not considered relevant. He must agree with the organisation.

Raymond Franz, In Search of Christian Freedom (Atlanta: Commentary Press, 1991), p.29.

On November 1st, 1946, the Watch Tower magazine carried a remarkable defence of individual freedom in interpretation, even engaging briefly with traditional Roman Catholic arguments against Protestantism, and strenuously denied setting itself up as ‘the one holding the magisteruim or teaching office and hence the divinely appointed Custodian and Interpreter of the Bible’.

While there is more to say on that subject – and more interaction necessary with the idea of tradition (in RC, Orthodox and Protestant discourse), the relationship between primary and secondary doctrines and different types of disagreement with professing Christians – and while the plonking in of 1 Tim 3:15 [“Thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God…”] to somehow back up the implication that freedom of interpretation under God and Christ will lead us all to the right answer really [classic Watchtower ‘failure to specify’ in its proof-texting and decontextualisation] is dubious – my purpose is not to criticise the 1946 article, because its stand is clear and commendable.

Which makes the statements made in a Scottish Court in 1954 all the more shocking. In a case centering on whether or not a JW elder counted as an ordained minister of religion, three of the most senior members of the Watch Tower Organization testified publicly that the Watch Tower was precisely the divinely appointed arbiter of 'Truth' and correct Biblical interpretation (Franz reproduces court transcipts on pp.18-28). One of those Witness witnesses was the author of the 1946 article!

But the sectarian spirit of control was there almost from the start, at the end of te 19th century. It is remarkably difficult to defend freedom of interpretation and conscience while remaining in charge of a religious organisation… The founder of the JWs, Charles Taze Russell, who actually came off quite well in Franz’s first book, Crisis of Conscience (benign dictator) published his views on the subject late in life, asserting that reading his Bible Study material was more important than reading the Bible itself and that mere reading of Scripture was essentially unprofitable. Repeatedly his interpretations are held up as the correct ones, as guided by God, as necessary for keeping people on the straight and narrow (Watch Tower, September 15th, 1910, in Franz, Christian Freedom, pp.30-31). Sounds just like the Roman Catholic church, bugbear of Protestants and sectarians everywhere...

Frightening, but true. The rhetoric of freedom, but no reality.