Just recently, I had a very cordial and interesting discussion with a Jehovah’s Witness. We shared our respective beliefs on Jesus Christ, authority, and the Scriptures. I remarked to him that neither one of us was going to convert the other, but that it was important to share what we believed to be true, and learn each other’s views. What I learned was that there is a fundamental difference between Jehovah’s Witnesses and the orthodox beliefs of Christians. They believe that Jesus is not “one in being” with the Father, in other words, that Jesus was a created being. Also, they do not believe in the Trinity. The missionary said something to the effect that, “we have to be careful not to teach things about Jesus beyond what Jesus said about himself.” He then took some passages out of the New Testament that would seem to support his arguments against Jesus as God, and against the Trinity (a word never used in the Bible, he said).
I asked him “by what standard does one interpret the Bible?” If there is no objective standard to decide what a good interpretation of the Bible is, and what a bad interpretation of the Bible is, then there are as many interpretations as there are interpreters. All of his arguments hinged on the claim that widely used translations of the Scriptures are incorrect, and maybe deliberately made incorrect to serve a political-religious purpose.
The fact of the matter is that the Church was around before the New Testament was written. In fact, someone had to use an accepted standard in order to decide which books would be included in the New Testament at all. This was something that did not happen until the 4th century. Arguments are made that in the 4th century, the Emperor Constantine created Catholicism (and, I would suppose, Orthodoxy as well). Such a claim brings us to the heart of the matter: God’s truth exists through the Church, and we cannot make it disappear because of our ignorance, sinfulness, persecution, or all of the above.
Why do we believe this? Jesus promised Peter that He would be the rock on which His Church would be built. Jesus told Peter that He would give Him the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus told Peter that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church. This is all in Matthew 16. Peter, therefore, is guaranteed special grace to be a standard of truth for all of the faithful. Peter does not merit this gift. It is given to him by Jesus Himself, and Jesus is not a liar. Catholics believe that authority was passed down from Peter to his successors, the Popes. When interpreting the truth about Jesus Christ, the Pope and his brother Bishops are the sure standard for knowing Jesus’ tradition.
Further, Jesus commissioned His Apostles to be His witnesses and teachers, and to bring new believers into a membership of faith. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells His Apostles:
Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore,* and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.* And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
And so, who are the original Jehovah’s Witnesses? The Apostles, of course! They did not have a book on Jesus to page through. They had the Scriptures of their Jewish forefathers to read, certainly. They saw that those Scriptures were fulfilled in their Lord Jesus Christ. They went out and spread this good news faithfully. They wrote Gospels and Letters. They celebrated what we have come to call Sacraments. They passed on their authority to successors, who in turn would pass that authority on to others.
In following centuries, when time came to resolve a dispute within the membership of believers (that is, the Church), by what standard did those early Church leaders resolve the dispute? By their own personal genius? No. They had recourse to the Apostles’ testimony of Jesus Christ, faithfully passed down through generations. Thankfully, the early Bishops of the Church thought enough to give us a New Testament in keeping with that Tradition. Now, in one book, the Bible, we can know the truth about who God is, and how to follow God. But the interpretation of the Bible must be in harmony with that tradition of the Apostles, which has been faithfully passed down by their ordained successors, the Pope and Bishops.
God does not want to be a mystery to us! God wants us to know the truth that sets us free. He was made plainly visible through Christ. Christ gave the Apostles a message to be proclaimed, a truth to be given. Jesus did not plant a secret in the ground to be unearthed years later. For this truth to be confidently held by all the faithful, we need people in our Church that have authority to teach the truth about Jesus Christ. That authority is not a proud boast, or a force of power. It is a service. This is why we need priests, for priests bring this truth of teaching to people. This truth of teaching is most properly taught by the Pope and all the other Bishops in union with him. But priests make that teaching accessible at a level closer to the people. We need priests, not because we need triumphal boasters, but because we need faithful servants to the greatest story ever told, the story of Jesus Christ!