Charles Taze Russell was nothing if not troubled. Much of his life was motivated by fear. It is said that as a young man he would walk the streets of Pittsburgh, writing “There is no hell!” on the sidewalks in chalk. His fear of hell dominated his thinking and profoundly affected his theology. He was also troubled by what he could not understand. What could not be discerned through human reason was unacceptable to him. For instance, the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity was nonsense to him. It is no surprise then that when he founded the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society in Pittsburgh in 1884 that the denial of hell and the rejection of the Trinity became hallmark doctrines of this organization. To this day the Jehovah’s Witnesses reject what they cannot understand or accept as rational.
Russell’s story and JW theology illustrate a very important point about heresy. Heresy often is a human endeavor to try to make sense of truth that is difficult to understand or accept. It is an attempt to explain what is above human reason, as well as a rejection of what rational thought cannot explain. Notice I said that the truth we are talking about is above human reason. It is not irrational. It is not unreasonable. It is simply something that is above the finite limits of human understanding. It is actually supra-rational, beyond our ability but understandable by a reason greater than our own.
A perfect example of this is one of the cardinal Christian doctrines that Russell rejected—the Trinity. It is truly difficult to conceive of there being one God in three distinct Persons. Our minds cannot wrap about the full concept. In order to try to explain the biblical presentation of the Godhead people tend to swing back and forth between extremes. Some focus completely on the Threeness of God, and assert that the Trinity is actually a group of three gods (e.g. in Mormonism). Or some go in the opposite direction and stress the Oneness of God and virtually deny the Threeness. They may posit that there is only Person in the Godhead who manifests himself in three ways (e.g. Oneness Pentecostals). Or they may teach that God the Father is One and the Son is a lesser, created being (e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Way International, Iglesia ni Christo, etc.). However, with either extreme we miss the true biblical teaching of God. What we see in Scripture is that God is BOTH One and Three. The true understanding is not either/or, rather it is “both/and.”
As we delve into the beautiful and majestic depths of Christian doctrine we see quite a few of these “both/and” teachings. Is Christ God or Man? He is both, God and Man. Is Christ in His resurrection state a physical or spiritual being? He is both physical and spiritual; He lives in a spiritual body. Is God sovereign; or do humans have responsibility for their actions? Both are true. God is truly sovereign; we do have true choice. Is God a Being far away, or very near? God is both transcendent and immanent. Are the Scriptures the product of human endeavor or are they a divine work? The Bible is both human and divine in its composition. See what I mean? One of the keys to understanding our faith is to accept the “both/and” reality of Christian doctrine.
But there is something in human nature that doesn’t like what we can’t fully understand or explain. We want to put our knowledge in neat little logical boxes, wrapped up in pretty rationalistic ribbons. So we simplify the difficult teachings of the faith. Hence, heresy arises. Heresy often is a result of an attempt to simplify the challenges of orthodoxy. But what actually results is a twisting and distorting of the truth. But its seeming “simplicity” is so appealing.
Let me elaborate on this point. I think its apparent simplicity is what makes heresy so attractive. It is simple. It is understandable. We like things that we can grasp, grab hold of with our minds. Yet, there is another factor that makes heresy engaging. It appeals to our pride. Pride? Yes, indeed. I have seen and heard it. I have had someone say something like this to me: “You Christians are foolish for believing in the Trinity. What a ludicrous idea. Obviously God would not expect us to believe in something that we cannot fully understand and explain through our reason. That is ridiculous! On the other hand, I know the truth. And it is so easy and simple to understand. God is One. That’s it. The Trinity is a man-made, silly idea.” Perhaps they have not used these exact words, but pretty close to it. You see, our ego loves to boast (even if only internally) about our great understanding, our superior knowledge. (Reminds one of Genesis 3:5, doesn’t it?) Admitting that there are some things we do not fully understand is rather humbling. Which actually is good for us.
Two final thoughts about this idea. First, you will notice I have several times said that these “both/and doctrines” are ideas that we do not fully understand. I have purposefully used the adverb “fully” repeatedly. The reason is this: Just because we do not entirely comprehend the “both/and doctrines” does not mean that we have no understanding about them at all. Let’s again take the Trinity as an example. We cannot expect to completely plumb the sublime depths of what it means that God is both One and Three. This is beyond us. There is much here that simply must be accepted by faith. But at the same time, there is also a great deal of truth here that I can grasp. Understanding the Tri-une nature of the Deity demonstrates the priority of relationships. I understand how the statement “God is love” makes sense. I can make sense of the principles of love, sacrifice, submission to authority, undertaking particular roles in relationships, and a host of other relational concepts. And I can appreciate that the one God who dwells in eternal fellowship wants to love and have relationship with me. I am enriched in so many ways intellectually, spiritually and relationally by my certain (though limited) knowledge of the Trinity.
The other point concerns the idea of the simplicity of heresy. Actually to say that heresy is simple is inaccurate. Heresy is really not simple, it is simplistic. It is overly and excessively simple. It seeks to make difficult doctrine simple, but in its rejection of divine revelation (and thus divine reason) it only results in error, not simplified truth. What it does not understand, and cannot explain, it twists into falsehood. As we noted earlier, the fundamental doctrines of our faith, most of which fall into the “both/and” category, are not irrational, they are supra-rational. They are above and superior to our reasoning. They are in no way unreasonable, or even difficult, for God to understand. Indeed, to Him they are most likely the very essence of simplicity itself. We cannot see this because of our finite rational ability. But suppose that for just a moment we could understand as God understands, see as He sees. We would probably look at the Trinity, or the dual nature of Christ, or the conundrum of divine sovereignty and human free agency, and declare: “Oh, now I see! It all makes sense. And it is all so simple! Why, it is the most clear and simple thing I have ever seen.”
Truth Builders is a ministry initiative of Advancing Native Missions. However, the content of this site is the personal opinion of Victor Morris, and does not necessarily reflect the opinions, views or conclusions of Advancing Native Missions, its leaders or staff