You will never understand the doctrinal foundation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW) as a religious organization apart from its founder – Charles T. Russell. Of course, JW claims that Jehovah is their founder and that they are faithfully following the teachings of Jesus. And yet, by close and careful biblical scrutiny, you will realize that their claims can’t hold water. Why? The main reason is this:
Charles T. Russel seriously contradicted and rejected the essential doctrines of the Scriptures by strongly holding on to his personal interpretation believing that it is faithful to the teaching of Jehovah and of Jesus Himself.
There are two basic arguments to support and explain this premise.
Spiritual and Moral Integrity of Charles T. Russell
In the study of Logic, part of the logical fallacies that a thinker or a debater must avoid is what is called “Argumentum ad Hominem.” You commit this logical fallacy when you ignore the issue or the claim by attacking the character of the person instead his arguments. In the secular academe this rule is strictly followed; it is an important academic conduct. But when it comes to the life and death theological issues in religion, this rule is not always valid. For example, when Jesus solemnly warned his disciples to “beware of the false prophets” and that “ye shall know them by their fruits” (Mt. 7:15-16), the immediate context of the warning points to the dynamic importance of spiritual and moral integrity of the person, not only of his theological soundness (7:17-27). According to Jesus, a wise person is he who hears and do God’s word. Hearing and doing are not separated. For this reason, Paul admonished Timothy – the pastor of Ephesus to,
Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee. (1 Tim. 4:16 KJV)
From a Christian perspective then, doctrine and life are not separated. Of course they are distinct, but they are closely related. In fact, it is the doctrine that makes the person. Therefore, we don’t commit a logical fallacy when we consider the life of Charles T. Russell who claimed to be a teacher of God’s word. Rather, we are following the biblical warning that will help us to logically understand the “cause-effect” issues that influenced Russel to hold on strange doctrines that Evangelical Christianity labels as heresies. Again, Jesus said, “ye shall know them by their fruits.” The “fruits” here refer not only to action but to the beliefs that motivate the action. There is always an idea behind an action.
Respected Baptist theologian and biblical expositor John Hill said,
By “fruits” are meant, not so much their external works in life and conversation; for a false prophet may so behave, as not to be discovered thereby. So the Pharisees were outwardly righteous before men; and false teachers among Christians may have the form of godliness, and keep it up, though they are strangers to, and even deny the power of it: but their doctrines are here meant, and the effects of them. (John Hill, Commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, 7:15)
Hence, we should not belittle theology, for life and death depends on it.
Now, the main difference between secular and Christian logic is this: The authority of the secular mind derives from human reason, while the authority of the Christian mind derives from Biblical revelation. Thus, by examining the life of Charles T. Russel, we are trying to discern if his life will pass the test of Matthew 7:15-27, together with its implied theological principles.
However, it must be said that by saying “examination,” we are not looking for spiritual and moral perfection – for no one is perfect even the most spiritual saint – but we are looking for the evidences of what I call “evangelical grace.” In other words, we want to know, from the point of view of the Gospel if Charles T. Russel was indeed a Christian; if he was truly a servant of Jehovah and an approved minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Charles T. Russell was born in 1852 in Pittsburg, USA. He was a son (the second son among the five children) of a wealthy owner of a chain of textile stores – Joseph Russel. The Russel family was religiously devout and respected members of a Presbyterian local Church. Charles himself at his young age showed a great deal of religious enthusiasm. The fact that they were active members of a Presbyterian church (an evangelical denomination known for its creedal and historic theological position) somehow makes you to wonder how Charles doctrinally went wrong later on in his life. In fact, when he was a teenager, his local church already saw in him an evangelistic talent. He would often go to public places with a chalk on his hand to teach and preach topics about sin and divine judgment – something that many of our young people in the Church today are afraid and ashamed to do. However, sadly, the spiritual root of his Christian commitment was tested when he was engaged in a debate with a friend who successfully convinced him to question the trustworthiness of the Christian Faith. This spiritual crisis led him to search and dabble in many Eastern religions. Yet, later on, he personally found all of them unconvincing. And it was the Adventist teaching that brought him back to Bible study again. As usual, he became an avid student of this denomination, but it was not long enough that he once again experienced a spiritual struggle. This time, he questioned the doctrine of eternal punishment in Hell. For him this teaching is doctrinally improper and betrays the character of the merciful God. Seemingly, since his mind had already been exposed to and mixed with other non-Christian beliefs, although he did not again question the reliability of the Bible, but he strongly questioned the doctrinal tradition or Christian Creeds that define and describe historic Christianity. As a result, he began to think and hold views and interpretations which were non-Conservative or outside the bounds of the essential doctrines of the Christian Faith. His spiritual crisis in the past contributed to this new way of thinking and approach to the Bible.
Thus, even though Russell was a good and sincere religious seeker, but he became spiritually lost when he doubted and denied fundamental Christian doctrines such as:
The Doctrine of the Trinity
The Doctrine of the Deity of Christ
The Doctrine of the Deity of the Holy Spirit
The Doctrine of Salvation by Faith in Christ Alone
The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment
- The Theological Foundations of Russel’s Biblical Interpretation
Inevitably, since Russel already rejected the historical and fundamental teachings of the Church, he will need a new foundation where he can lay his interpretation. But unlike the Charismatic Movement and other Cult movements, Russel didn’t appeal to extra-biblical revelation like claiming to receive mystical dreams and visions. His error was not Charismatic but Hermeneutic.
The main tenets of his teachings are all written in his published seven volume work, Studies in the Scriptures. Concerning this, one author wrote,
“In it he attacks all churches and calls them the ‘work of Satan.’ His ego knew no limits; He claimed that it would be better to leave the Bible unopened and to read his commentary on it than to omit the commentary and read only the Bible… He claimed to be a Greek scholar, but it was proved in court that he did not even know the Greek alphabet! Though he did not know Greek or Hebrew and had never taken any course in Theology, he claimed all Bible translations were unreliable except his own New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures which was translated by seven men of questionable scholarship.” (Alex Wilson and Christine Tetley (1992) – Witnessing to the Cults)
Obviously, this is the consequence of “private interpretation.” When a person begins to see himself or his organization as the “only” source of true interpretation and divine approval, it’s already a big and clear sign of a crouching heresy. And that is what happened to Charles Russel. By denying the apostolic foundation of traditional Christian doctrines, he relied on his private interpretation and made it his doctrinal authority. He might believe it as divine inspiration or scripturally faithful, but because he disregarded the Checks and Balances of biblical interpretation by means of time-tested Christian Creeds and Confessions, he dived into various speculations that were both strange and self-made. That’s the serious error and root-cause of Russel’s theological heresies. He was enchanted by his own self-interpretation than to submit to the biblical doctrines which the Holy Spirit scripturally, historically, and communally protects and proclaims through the time-tested doctrinal and evangelical confessions of the Church.