An Interview: Talking about God, Jesus and discovering truth

Yesterday evening I had the privilege of being interviewed By the Pneuma Hermenutics Group about Christadelphians, the Trinity and my own journey of faith and scriptural rediscovery. I was asked about how and why I came to change my views about God and Jesus. Although the interview ran a little more loosely than set out here, these are the questions and the answers which I prepared.

1. How did you become a Christadelphian?
My parents were Christadelphians and I was brought up in that denomination, going to Sunday School and youth group and attending the Sunday services, being part of the community. I was baptised when I was 17.

2. How did you view Jesus while you were a Christadelphian?
I subscribed to the Christadelphian view of the Godhead, which is that Jesus is fully human, the son of Mary by a miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit such that God was Jesus’ Father. This means denial that Joseph was the human father of Jesus. I believed Jesus was not God incarnate and did not pre-exist before his conception, except in the mind and purpose of the Father and was not the agent of creation (contra Jehovah’s Witnessess). Christadelphians believe that Jesus has only one nature, the human, however in some way that is never clearly articulated, he was empowered to be sinless as a result of also being God’s Son, but his accomplishment was essentially by his own effort.

3. What made you question Christadelphian beliefs?
I accepted the Christadelphian interpretation and the arguments against mainstream Trinitarian doctrine — or at least what was presented as Trinitarian doctrine. The arguments seemed very reasonable, and very scriptural, and it must be admitted, the whole Christadelphian doctrinal package is consistent within itself. That means if you question one part of the complex edifice, you have to question nearly all of it, which is difficult.
However, I became increasingly uneasy with the Christadelphian assertion that the church began to deviate from apostolic teaching almost immediately after the death of the apostles and that the apostasy persisted unchecked until the full truth was rediscovered in the mid 19th century by John Thomas, the Christadelphian founder. It seemed to me incredible that God would have allowed 1900 years’ worth of Christians to perish from false doctrine and that generations of sincere and educated seekers after truth, with a high view of scripture, could have been ignorant of the truth until this man came along with no particular gifted insight or Spirit inspiration and finally got it right. I became increasingly unconvinced by arguments that mainstream Christians were willfully ignorant, or biased by church authority and tradition, or simply didn’t read their Bibles enough, especially as I began to engage with the wider Christian community.

I began to question whether Christadelphians really had it right, whether we were the only ones who really read and understood Scripture free from traditional biases, and whether we were correctly representing the beliefs of mainstream Christians which we so vehemently rejected. That discomfort and curiosity led me to go to Bible College to learn more about mainstream doctrines and to study Scripture, original languages and church history in depth. This study, along with a lot of prayerful reading, led me to two conclusions.
Firstly, that the Christadelphian position arises from an inappropriate hermeneutic that leads to a downplaying of the role of Jesus in the biblical salvation narrative. Secondly, Christadelphians consistently misrepresent mainstream Trinitarian doctrine when they argue against it, which means they haven’t proved their case at all. When I began to understand how the whole Bible must be understood with the incarnation in a central and defining position, and understood what the Trinitarian concept of the Godhead actually was and where it came from, scripturally and historically, I adopted this position and rejected the Christadelphian position.

4. After starting to question Christadelphian beliefs, how long did it take you to come to a Trinitarian view of God, and how did it happen?
It didn’t happen quickly, and it was no easy decision. I think I had subliminally been questioning the premise of some beliefs, such as the exclusivity of having “the truth,” for a long time. When I had children of my own in my early 30s it really brought home to me the need to set them on the right path. As I mingled with more mainstream Christians particularly through the godly people I met at the girls’ school I began to see Christadelphianism in a different perspective. Eventually that led to me beginning Bible College, in my late 30s. I still remained in the Christadelphian community but felt increasingly on the outer. It is very hard to break free from communities like the Christadelphians because they provide such a solid community, long standing friendships and powerful loyalty ties. These are positive things, and I certainly did not experience the ostracism which some others have. Nevertheless, questioning of doctrines is not welcomed, although I resigned voluntarily well before the issue of disfellowship would have arisen. Family circumstances were such that we moved away from the community in which I had grown up and in hindsight this was a blessing. It relieved me of the pressure of defending still imperfectly formed beliefs whilst still in the community, and the potential for friction that would have caused. I had freedom to visit other churches and complete my studies. I was in my early 40s when I recommitted myself to the Lord with a genuine understanding of his person and work and formally resigned from the Christadelphians.

5. What role did Trinitarian Christians play in your conversion?
I believe that God was teaching me from his word, but he also brought me within the orbit of some wise and Godly Christians. What I respected most was a lack of aggressive argument; no one attacked me or tried to “convert” me, I was just gently and convincingly led to the truth. I was accepted into Bible College even though I was open about my background. I was there to learn, not to push my own ideas. I also associated with a number of very Godly people who taught by example and demonstrated how beautifully integrated their lives were with their doctrines. I felt ashamed of the arrogance with which I had formerly argued my Christadelphian position and the way I had looked down on those who thought differently. I learnt a tremendous amount from my Bible College tutors and by reading Christian authors such as Don Carson, John Stott, Millard Erickson, Wayne Grudem and Gerald Bray. I know that lot of people prayed for me and that was very encouraging. But ultimately, conversion is a work of God and I can look back and see his influence.

6. Which specific passages convinced you of the full ontological deity of Jesus Christ?
It’s difficult to narrow down; it was more a change in how I viewed Scripture and how I changed my hermeneutic from an Old Testament dominated, verse-by-verse approach to a more contextualised approach that identified the centrality of Christ as the foundation of the biblical message. I already had a good head knowledge of Scripture, but I had been looking at it entirely the wrong way. Surprisingly, the most convincing passages were not the key Trinitarian “proofs” that I had been schooled to refute, and had believed critical to demolishing the doctrine. A lot of it was seeing how the New Testament writers applied the Old Testament scriptures about God to Christ, as well as examining what Jesus said about himself and how astounding those claims which he makes are. For example, Hebrews 1 exalts the Son as God by quoting Old Testament referents to God as applicable to Christ. John 12:39–41 states that Isaiah’s vision of God in ch 6 was a vision of Christ. Jesus is worthy of worship, a prerogative of God alone throughout the Old Testament, the God who will not share his glory with another. Jesus takes up the names, descriptors and prerogatives of YHWH and when the promised Lord God shows up to redeem his people, it’s Jesus.

Another factor was looking at the New Testament in the original Greek and realising that key words and phrases actually conveyed different concepts from what I had previously thought. Examining the depth and breadth of Paul’s use of the title kyrios, Lord, was eye-opening, as was a consideration of the root of the “I AM” sayings in Isaiah. Another important aspect was understanding the essential link between Christ’s work and his person. When I understood the nature of the atonement and how essential it was for the incarnate Son to be our Saviour, everything fell into place.

7. How did this change in theological conviction affect your family life?
As a member of a couple of ex-Christadelphian discussion groups, I am aware that some people have had a very difficult time leaving the community, whether voluntarily or being excommunicated, and this has had a profoundly negative effect on their families. I have been very blessed in this respect, the experience was almost entirely positive. My mother remained a staunch Christadelphian (my father was already dead) and she was worried about me going to Bible College. She hoped I wouldn’t be led astray from what she deeply held to be “the truth.” She died before I really changed my core beliefs, so I never had a chance to properly articulate what I now believe, and why. I would have wanted her to read my book, and I am confident she would have done so. My children grew up learning the Bible and have fond memories of Christadelphian Sunday School. By the time they needed to be thinking more doctrinally, we had already changed our church affiliation. I think the effect on my family would have been significant if we had not happened to have moved interstate, or if the children had been old enough to appreciate the life-changing paradigm shift I was undergoing. I took care to shield them from that at the time, but am open about it now they are older. I still regard a number of Christadelphians as friends, but a lot of them have distanced themselves from me. Part of that is the tyranny of distance, but I think many of them feel threatened and they truly believe I have apostasised and that consequently my opinions aren’t worth considering.

8. What is your advice to those who doubt the deity of Christ?
Firstly, challenge your assumptions. If you belong to a non-mainstream denomination or sect, think hard about the reasonableness of your group being the only ones to have discovered “the truth.” Do you really think that the founders and leaders of your group have better scriptural insight, read the Bible more, or have some special giftedness or revelation that justifies such a major doctrinal difference with the mainstream church over the centuries? Do you really understand enough about how the doctrines you criticise were debated and articulated from the earliest days of the church, and how Christians have wrestled with understanding and explaining these concepts? Do you really think that all mainstream Christians through the ages rejected the Bible in favour of superstition? If so many wise and godly and knowledgeable scholars made such a fundamental mistake, could not your own founders and leaders have been fallible too? Be prepared to break out of your comfort zone.

Secondly, make sure that you actually correctly understand any doctrine, such as the Trinity, that you critique. Most Christadelphian material on the Trinity actually profoundly misrepresents the doctrine. It refutes something that is not the way the Trinity is actually understood, but more like Apollinarianism or Docetism. If you take the time to study the arguments for the Trinity as presented by Trinitarian theologians, not by other anti-trinitarians, you will notice the difference. It’s a courtesy to allow someone a fair hearing.

Thirdly, try to read the Scriptures afresh, asking different questions of the text than you are probably used to. We are told to exalt the Lord Jesus and honour him as we honour the Father (John 5:23). What does that look like? Read through the New Testament specifically looking for passages, in context, that exalt Jesus and that describe his relationship to the Father. Think about how radical they must have seemed to the first readers and therefore what the text is actually claiming. Look at the original context of Old Testament passages that are applied to Jesus in the New Testament, and see how they originally applied to YHWH God. Appreciate how Jesus fulfils all that God said he himself would do. When you read about the workings of the Holy Spirit, think about whether the best fit is someone personal, or an impersonal force.

9. What were the major obstacles that you had to overcome in order to accept the Trinitarian view of God, and how did you overcome them?
Interestingly, when I came to understand what the doctrine of the Trinity really expressed and not what I thought it did, the “problem” passages were no longer problematic. For example, great stress is laid on the humanity of Christ in Christadelphian circles. I used to think that this discounted Jesus being fully God, and that to believe the Trinity was to deny the full humanity of Christ, for which there is so much scriptural evidence. When I realised that the correct understanding of the Godhead and the person and work of Christ requires the full humanity of Christ, the problem simply went away. Similarly with coming to grips with the unity of the Godhead as being intrinsic to, and not adverse to, the correct understanding of the Trinity.

But I think, deep down, the hardest part was accepting that I had been wrong for much of my life, and that the tradition in which I had grown up, and the beliefs of people I still loved and respected were wrong. In our pride we tend to kick against that. Another difficult thing for Christadelphians, which I experienced, was the idea that to adopt the Trinity was to apostasise, to adopt all that was and had been wrong with “the church” throughout the ages. It was viewed akin to becoming a medieval Roman Catholic and believing in indulgences! That’s partly because there isn’t a very nuanced understanding among Christadelphians of differences in doctrine and practice in wider Christianity, they can all be lumped together as “Christendom Astray.” To make Christ equal to the Father was seen as blasphemous, a very serious doctrinal error, particularly for a group that insists that correct doctrine (in enormous detail) is essential for salvation. You can’t undertake such a change lightly. What helped me was a reliance on God to reveal his will to me through perseverance with the Scriptures, and accept his steady directing and enlightening. Seeing that Trinitarians loved the Bible, knew it well and handled it aright was important.

10. Which were the major passages that you once considered as a major challenge to the doctrine of the Trinity, and how do you think about them now?
Probably the main ones were those which can be taken to imply a sort of adoptionism, that the human Christ had to undergo a testing and proving of himself before exaltation (Acts 2:22, 36; 17:31; Rom 1:4; Heb 1:9). Also those that demonstrated the functional subordination of the Son which can so easily be misinterpreted as ontological inferiority (John 14:28; 1 Cor 11:3; John 7:16). If these passages are considered in isolation, and from a predetermined non-Trinitarian perspective, they can be very convincing. We can tend to overlook or downplay passages that testify to the Son’s supremacy, preexistence and ascriptions of deity, explaining them way or interpreting them metaphorically. For example, Christadelphians assert, Christ pre-existed only “in the mind and purpose of the Father” and he is only permitted to be worshipped as God now that he is exalted. When I realised that Scripture should not be treated that way, and that Scripture should be allowed to explain Scripture, not having to “explain away” certain passages, the troublesome passages could be seen in context as not troublesome at all. I want to stress that the hermeneutic is key in all of this. As I said before, other passages that Christadelphians think are challenging to the Trinity, such as God is one and Christ as fully human, actually do not challenge the doctrine, when it is correctly understood.

11. What role should church history play in our conviction about the Trinity?
This is a very important question. Christadelphians have a low view of the value of church history and remain largely ignorant of it. They selectively cite historical theological writings to demonstrate what they believe is a continual deviation from the second century away from apostolic doctrine and practice (for example, the succession of creeds). They at times cite other non-trinitarian historical groups as their predecessors, sometimes assuming that these groups thought the same as Christadelphians in all major doctrinal areas.
For me, church history was enlightening. I was struck by the consistency of belief, from the very earliest times, in the deity of Christ. I came to see how the theological development and the articulation of doctrine came about largely as a response to various needs and heresies within the church, and creeds must be interpreted in light of the purpose for which they were written. They are not meant to replace scripture Doctrinal statements and expositions need to be appraised in terms of their scriptural basis and the historical context of their development. For example, if it is understood that the phrasing of the Chalcedonian Definition is designed to counteract specific heresies, it can be rightly understood as defining boundaries, rather than promulgating a new “apostasy.” Also, Christadelphians should be wary of alleging continuity of doctrinal conviction with other groups, to bolster their theological position and underplay its uniqueness. It is important to know all there is to know about those other groups. For example, it was once common to find Christadelphians alleging great commonality of doctrine with the Anabaptists, but this has now been thoroughly debunked. But we should be careful not to fall into the trap of placing church tradition above scripture, and believing that a doctrine such as the Trinity must be true primarily because the church has always taught it.

12. Which were the least convincing arguments from the Trinitarian side?
The least convincing arguments were those that were based on wrong ideas about non-trinitarian views! It works both ways. If Trinitarians try to argue against a Christadelphian or Jehovah’s Witness position with simplistic verse-by-verse polemics and an inadequate or inaccurate understanding of the beliefs they try to combat, it is every bit as bad as non-trinitarians attacking an inaccurate doctrine of the Trinity. For example, insisting that all non-trinitarians must believe that Joseph was the natural father of Jesus is plain wrong; Christadelphians don’t believe that. The least convincing arguments for the Trinity are typically the most simplistic, decontextualised, proof-texting arguments, such as repeating Jesus’ claim that “My Father and I are One,” as if that’s all that needs to be said. Other non-convincing arguments, for me, were those that derived from weak analogies, or non-scriptural writings such as ancient philosophies or the mere opinions of church fathers.

13. What are the strongest passages that, when taken together, point to the truthfulness of the Doctrine of the Trinity?
You have to look at the whole package. Just proving Jesus is divine doesn’t prove the Trinity. The same verses could be used by Modalists or Adoptionists or Docetists. There are plenty of passages that testify to the divinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit specifically and individually. Taken alone these could be interpreted tritheistically. But put together with the assertions that God is one we have to have a model, if you like, that explains how God can be one and yet three. Obviously, one in a different sense from which he is three. That’s what Scripture teaches, and whether we label this doctrinal understanding as “Trinity” and use ancient terms like ousia and hypostasis, or whether we come up with different terminology, such as Richard Baukham’s “divine identity,” the combination is what Scripture teaches. We cannot sacrifice diversity and threeness to support unity, nor sacrifice unity to support threeness. When we understand these bases, then triadic formulae and the ease with which the ideas of “Lord God” and “Lord Jesus” become interchangeable become very powerful.

14. Why should we reject modalistic explanations?
Modalism attempts to uphold the oneness of God and the equality of Father, Son and Spirit by downplaying the distinctiveness of the three. It avoids the heresies of subordinationism and tritheism, but it blurs or obliterates the distinction between Father, Son and Spirit. Ironically, Christadelphians come close to modalism with their doctrine of “God Manifestation,” which sees the man Christ Jesus as manifesting the person of the Father, not a separate person of the Son. But the Father sent the Son. The Son submitted to the Father, the Father and Son send the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit leads us to Christ, they glorify each other. The Bible never equates Jesus with the Father; yes they are one in the unity of the Godhead, but they are also distinct.

15. What is the connection between the Trinitarian view of God and the Gospel?
This is a really important connection and one which was life-changing for me. If we don’t correctly understand the person of Christ, we cannot correctly appreciate his work, and vice versa. If Jesus Christ is not God incarnate, then God used a third person, a mere human, to accomplish his saving work. God stands at arms length and salvation is a human accomplishment. Jesus becomes merely a representative of sinners rather than an effective substitute. He gets condemned and bears the punishment as a man among equals, although he did not deserve it. This becomes a cruel parody of atonement. God is portrayed as being appeased by a sacrificial victim, and his love becomes the result, not the cause, of the atonement.

However, if Jesus is God, then God himself has personally intervened in his wayward creation to redeem it. He bears our sins and their consequences in himself, exactly as Isaiah 53 explains. Only God could bear the sin of the world and propitiate his own wrath in this way. He did for us what we could not do for ourselves. The Son became incarnate, took on real humanity so that he could overcome temptation and die, and in doing so destroy sin in the very flesh in which it usually reigned. Although Jesus had to be fully human, and he was, he also had to be God in order to truly defeat sin. No mere human could overcome temptation and never sin, and what achievements he had in this respect would necessarily be as a mere puppet, his human nature overridden, or a work of the flesh alone. There would be uncertainty as to whether a mere man could pull it off, unless he were fully coerced. Our salvation would depend on imitation of Christ’s perfection, on works, rather than as a free gift of grace. Whereas the Bible presents salvation as wholly an act of God, from beginning to end and in this lies the Christian’s assurance.

16. What is your advice to Trinitarian apologists who are interacting with Christadelphians, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other non-trinitarians?
Firstly, know your scriptures really thoroughly. You need to be able to think clearly and comprehensively and be able to argue from the whole of Scripture in an authentic and balanced way. Do not just rely on a “kit” of disconnected verses or proof texts. Address the larger metanarrative of Scripture, and keep the discussion in its scriptural context. If you present anything to a biblical monotheist or unitarian that is not thoroughly saturated with Scripture you won’t get past first base. They know their stuff.

Secondly, understand Christian doctrine thoroughly. Do not make the mistake of misrepresenting the doctrines, for example using modalistic analogies to explain the Trinity. When a non-trinitarian presents an anti-trinitarian argument, you must ensure they are not demolishing a “straw man,” an inaccurate version of the doctrine. Spot the error and be equipped to gently but firmly correct it.

Thirdly, understand the other person’s doctrinal position, thoroughly. Otherwise you will misrepresent them and argue against something different from what they actually believe. You need to read actual Christadelphian works to properly understand the Christadelphian position. You need to read Watchtower publications to understand the JWs’ position. Don’t just read what mainstream Christians say that Christadelphians or JWs or anyone else believe, because they often get it wrong. Use primary sources and make sure they are the best, most respected authorities from those denominations. Choose which arguments to focus on and don’t spread yourself too thinly by being distracted by a different doctrinal error if it crops up.

Fourthly, maintain a relationship of mutual respect. Assume that all those in the discussion want to love and honour God and value his word and show that you do too. Critique the doctrines, not the people. Find some common ground. This may mean being willing to use the JWs’ New World Translation when speaking with them, although you should have an understanding of its specific inaccuracies. Speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15) — Burning heretics has never been the right approach!

Finally, and most importantly, remember that it is not we who “convert” others, it is God’s Holy Spirit, through his word. No one likes to consider they may be wrong. Our job is not to win the argument or force people to see their flaws in a way that belittles them. These arguments are not mere points of objective fact, they touch on the things that define our view of God and salvation, they define our very selves. To question people’s beliefs and encourage them to do so will seem to them initially like an invitation to apostasy. Rome is not built in a day. Our job is to present scriptural truth, to preach the Gospel, not to win the argument. And to win the person is the work of God, not our cleverness or conviction. At the end of the day, we are just God’s humble servants. The power and the glory are all his.

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