Island Life

Christadelphians live on a theological island. They are a small denomination, perhaps 60 000 worldwide, with distinctive beliefs. Whilst a few other groups share a similar form of monotheism, these other groups do not share all the doctrinal distinctives of Christadelphia.[1] Christadelphian beliefs, both positive (what constitutes their view of saving truth) and negative (doctrines to be rejected as false) are found in their Statement of Faith. Some of the doctrinal differences from mainstream Christianity are significant; they are non-Trinitarian, deny the immortality of the soul and a personal devil. Other beliefs are shared with current or historical groups, such as believers’ baptism, annihilationism and a focus on the restoration of the kingdom of Israel. Still other doctrines arose from intra-denominational issues, are anachronistic or of minor contemporary relevance, and some arguably are not widely understood or believed within the denomination itself. Yet, at least in the more rigorist Christadelphian ecclesias, adherence to the complete Statement of Faith is a prerequisite for baptism, for continued fellowship, and for salvation.

How important is it that a denomination claiming to have “the Truth,” as opposed to the rest of “Christendom,” or the churches at large, is so tiny? Deuteronomy 7:7–8 states that God did not choose the Israelites because they were more numerous than other nations, but because he loved them and swore an oath to their forefathers. There is certainly a “remnant” theology within the biblical record, and sometimes true believers have been in the minority (2 Kgs 19:18, 31; Isa 10:22; 37:32; Luke 12:32; Acts 15:17; Rom 11:5). The majority is not always right! Nevertheless, Jesus predicted great things for his kingdom, that it would grow and fill the earth and comprise innumerable people from all nations on earth (Psa 22:27; 102:15; Isa 2:2–3; Matt 13:31–33; 16:18; Mark 13:10; Gal 3:8; Rev 7:9–10). On the other hand, Jesus also predicted a lapse in faith in the latter days and that the faithful would not necessarily be the most influential (Matt 24:10–13; Luke 18:8; 1 Cor 1:26–29). In the last days, perilous times would come; the Gospel would not be attractive. Furthermore, false teachers would come in, appealing to what people wanted to hear rather than teaching sound doctrine (Matt 7:15–23; 24:11; Acts 20:29–30; 2 Thess 2:10–12; 2 Tim 3:1–7; 4:3–4; 2 Peter 2:1–2; 3:3; 1 John 4:1–3).

Christadelphians will sometimes apply these verses to the “last days,” which they regard as the present time, but will also use them to support a theory of mass apostasy within the Christian church soon after the apostles passed from the scene.[2] It is outside the scope of this essay to argue about which verses might apply to persecution by Jews and Romans, early Christian heresies, the Roman apostasy or a latter day de-Christianisation of the world. Whilst it is reasonable to assume that different verses might apply to different periods and situations, it’s unreasonable to assume that they had no relevance at all to the early church (as opposed to an unimaginable time nearly 2000 years in the future). In fact, some of the false doctrines can be shown to be quite consistent with early heresies such as Judaizing, Ebionism, Gnosticism and Docetism. It is quite likely that the verses also have some timeless application to a number of periods in Christian history and that the worst may still be to come.

It seems, therefore, that whether a group is large or small is irrelevant to the issue of whether they have “the truth.” Nevertheless, traditional Christadelphian dogma is that Christendom went astray from apostolic teaching very soon after the death of the apostles. This allegedly coincided with the withdrawal of the Holy Spirit as a direct and obvious influence on the church, because the church now had the writings of the apostles (which it allegedly chose to ignore). Some Christadelphian writers like to trace the emergence of Roman Catholicism from a very early stage and effectively blame it for every doctrine with which they disagree, especially the Trinity and the immortality of the soul. [3] This historical syncretism is illegitimate. The doctrine of the Trinity  was articulated well before what could be regarded as the “Roman Catholic Church,” and it was accepted by both Greek and Latin thinkers.

Nevertheless, an important foundation of Christadelphian confidence that their small group possesses “the Truth” is the “widespread apostasy of Christendom” theory. What is seldom considered is that this would seem to negate Jesus’ promise that his kingdom would steadily grow and that the “gates of Hades” would not prevail against his church (Matt 13:31–33; 16:18; 28:19–20; Eph 3:21; 5:29; Heb 12:28). Rather, Christadelphians are happy to accept that Christian truth lay hidden for some 1800 years until one John Thomas rediscovered it. By his own and his followers’ assertion, John Thomas had no special theological training or gifting. He received no new revelation, had no Spirit empowerment, no special insight. Unencumbered by the baggage of church doctrinal authority and with no need of Spiritual guidance, he simply applied his intellect and reason to the Scriptures, as no one before him had done, and rediscovered Apostolic truth. It was simply a matter of approaching the Bible with an open mind, and apparently anyone can do this. And if they do, they should expect to independently come up with the full set of Christadelphian doctrines. The reason the great Reformers like Luther and Calvin and other theologians who applied themselves to Bible study, once the Scriptures became widely available, did not fully rediscover truth, was that they were still held in thrall by Roman Catholic doctrine and church tradition. This blinkered approach allegedly persists today across seminaries, theological colleges and most mainstream churches.

Whilst many Christadelphians have been comfortable with this explanation, particularly the Pioneers and early to mid 20th century proponents of the faith, this confidence has not been universal, even if the emperor’s nakedness is difficult to openly discuss. For Christadelphians who have much contact with mainstream Christians who have a genuine faith in Christ and love his Word, it seems difficult to understand how they could not see the Scriptures the way Christadelphians do. The traditional response was that such sincere Christians were under the “strong delusion” which enables them to believe a lie (2 Thess 2:11–12), or more likely they just don’t read the Bible as extensively and as often and as deeply or as independently as Christadelphians. That was certainly what I used to think (please God forgive my arrogance). But not all Christadelphians are prepared to completely disregard mainstream Christian theological learning, even if they are selective about what they accept and what they reject. The problem for some time, particularly before the internet but even now in the more closed Christadelphian communities, is a lack of understanding of what mainstream Christians actually believe, and why they believe it. When you only learn about someone’s views second or third-hand from a party who disagrees with those views, there’s a danger that the information is inaccurate. Traditional Christadelphian writings, and even contemporary ones, regularly misrepresent orthodox Christian doctrine. What is presented as Trinitarian belief might be Apollinarianism or even Docetism or Nestorianism. This misrepresentation is then torn apart with a few “proof texts” and it’s Game Over. Theological writings are dismissed as “unscriptural” without a rigorous and honest, engagement with their actual positions. All this results from living on the theological island, particularly if one never travels to the mainland, something difficult to avoid in the age of the internet.

There are two other ways to relieve the unease of island culture. The first became popular from the mid 1970s with the publication of Alan Eyre’s book, The Protesters.[4] This is the idea that the truth didn’t completely disappear between the first and nineteenth centuries, but was actually preserved from generation to generation amongst small faithful remnant groups. These groups, like the Bereans of old and like John Thomas, searched the Scriptures “independently” and rejected the doctrines of Christendom. They were little known because they were persecuted and their writings suppressed. But nevertheless, the Truth lived on and Christadelphians are the modern heirs of that legacy. Eyre’s book primarily focused on the Anabaptists and their views on baptism and the nature of the church, with an implication that their doctrines overall were very similar to those of Christadelphians — at least the main ones. The latter part of the book discusses the rise of unitarianism and concludes with John Thomas and “the Faith at the End of the Age.” The preface praises Eyre’s work, to which the small community of Christadelphians is indebted, for “It is a matter of great encouragement to us, whose religious views are regarded as unorthodox by our contemporaries, to find that in a number of cases where major doctrines are concerned, these early believers had come to the same conclusions as ourselves.”

There’s just one problem. The groups of “devout believers” discussed in the book shared hardly any doctrines in common with Christadelphians. The Anabaptists were Trinitarian and the unitarians had differing views on the nature of Christ, as well as other doctrines. The same unitarian forebears are claimed by groups significantly different from Christadelphians. None of these early “believers” would be welcome in fellowship with Christadelphians today. In fact, there is no extant evidence of any group, fellowship or denomination, or even prominent teacher, who subscribed to the majority of the Christadelphian corpus of beliefs, until the mid 1900s. Not Wycliffe, Hus or Tyndale, not the Vaudois, not the Waldenses or the Cathari. Not Servetus, not the Anabaptists or the Mennonites, not even the Socinians (although they were closest in their antitrinitarian views). The island is isolated, it is not part of a chain.

The other perspective has been advanced more recently. This is the view that a considerable number of mainstream theologians are now moving toward the “Christadelphian position,” having evidently seen the light. One Christadelphian apologist claims that what he has discovered “is already enough to demonstrate that mainstream Christian theology has been gradually moving towards Christadelphian theology over the last 40 years. We’ve been waiting for them for almost 100 years, and it’s good to see they’re finally catching up.” (J Burke, pers com. 7/9/17) In other words, Christadelphians have been right all along, and some enlightened individuals are now realising this. The mainlanders are moving to the island!

But this is really the “Protesters” problem all over again. Certainly some, perhaps even many, mainstream theologians hold opinions that cohere with some Christadelphian beliefs. This is not surprising given the same Scriptures are being discussed. But Burke goes too far in claiming “the majority of standard scholarly sources” cohere with his views. There is most definitely common ground, but this is hardly coherence with the whole “Christadelphian position.” Rather than a unidirectional movement from orthodoxy to Christadelphia, it is more a starburst of diversification, some of which intersect the Christadelphian trajectory. Burke also fails to note that (a) many “mainstream” or formerly mainstream theologians have been also proposing and promulgating theologies that are very different from the Christadelphian position, such as process theology, liberation theology, feminist theology, deconstructive theology, universalism, theology of community and so forth. For example, he quotes Clark Pinnock as an annihilationist, without noting that Clark is hardly “mainstream” in his process theology views, nor remotely “Christadelphian” in his denial of the foreknowledge of God. Departure from orthodoxy does not flow in one direction. Also, (b) Christadelphians are leaving the denomination, as presumably some always have. Where do they go? Some become atheists or agnostics, some get carried about by winds of doctrine, and some become mainstream Christians. What does that prove? Certainly, some give up on God, but others search the scriptures diligently for answers to doctrinal questions and find different answers from those they had previously been given. If the basis of John Thomas’ discovery of “truth” was independent scriptural study, why could not others’ independent scriptural study be equally valid?

A comprehensive examination of all of the references and scholars Burke[5] enlists to support his “mainstream movement toward the Christadelphian position” assertion would require an extensive thesis in itself. A closer look at a few will establish the flimsiness of an argument for the validity of doctrinal claims on the basis of such an accumulation of “allies.” Burke cites Leon Morris,[6] as supporting a dichotomy between representative and substitutionary aspects of the atonement. But Morris’s position is much more nuanced than this, as his well-regarded book [7] presents in detail. Morris defends, against Dunn, the understanding of Christ’s propitiatory work as a turning away of God’s wrath (pp 151–176). He also emphasises the many faceted nature of atonement, which encompasses representation as well as substitution and by no means excises the substitutionary aspect, concluding “Christ stood in our place and we are free” (p203). Nor do Morris, or other mainstream atonement theologians, exclude a participatory aspect from substitutionary atonement, by which Burke misrepresents the doctrine. To quote John Stott, (whom Burke elsewhere recruits for his annihilationist stance) “Just so, as our substitute Christ did for us what we could never do for ourselves: he bore our sin and judgment. But as our representative he did what we by being united to him have also done: we have died and risen with him.” [8] The benefits of Christ’s atoning work are applied to us as we participate in him; to assert that substitutionary atonement denies participation is a gross misrepresentation. The published works of Morris and Stott should be uniformly investigated in order to see that their position on the atonement is quite different from Burke’s.

Granted, Burke does not, in the work under discussion, invoke Stott in support of Christadelphian atonement theology, but he does correctly note Stott’s support for annihilationism. Fair enough, but as with the old “Protesters” strategy, Stott’s theology has been selectively mined. Stott may agree with Burke on the principle of annihilationsim, but he is Trinitarian through and through. Furthermore, Stott, although an annihilationist, did not reject the concept of the intermediate state between death and resurrection [9] which Christadelphians do. James Dunn, with whom a number of “mainstream” theologians disagree, is a theologian who has come onto Christadelphian radar as a potential anti-trinitarian ally. But Dunn himself, when asked what are the three main misrepresentations of his position, replied “(1) That I deny or diminish the divinity/deity of Christ in questioning the usual concept of his pre-existence; (2) that in the ‘new perspective on Paul’ I deny Paul’s/the Reformation’s basic teaching on justification by faith’; (3) that I diminish or deny the authority of scripture.” [10] Reading Dunn’s actual works in full will show that his position is much more nuanced and “orthodox” than one might expect from Burke’s out-of-context quotation of Dunn’s statement on kyrios as a way of distinguishing Jesus from God. [11] My point is, coherence on one aspect of doctrine does not imply an endorsement of the whole spectrum or even a handful of Christadelphian central beliefs. Dunn, for example, in the same work argues that Paul believed in supernatural heavenly beings that opposed God (p 104–110). He’s not a Christadelphian advocate, far from it.

Burke also writes on early Christian baptism and cites many scholars who agree that the early Christians baptised predominantly by total immersion. There’s nothing new here. Many mainstream churches practice baptism by immersion. What Burke does not emphasise is that scholars endorsing immersion of believers would not necessarily advocate the full Christadelphian position, which is the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation, the absolute necessity for a full assent to a complex set of “correct” doctrines beforehand, and baptism’s regenerative character (i.e. that the act of baptism itself is the point of becoming a Christian). [12] Nor does Burke acknowledge that these advocates of the “Christadelphian” view of baptism hardly share Christadelphians’ other beliefs. For example, in Thomas Schreider’s book,[13] which Burke quotes in support of (obviously) adult baptism, “Baptism is to be administered in (eis, lit. into) the name (singular) of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, one of the most explicit Trinitarian formulas in the entire NT” and that “baptismal regeneration… clearly runs counter to biblical teaching.” The work also notes that baptism is one facet of becoming a Christian, as is the gift of the Spirit, which is received at conversion, contra Christadelphians. The implication, then, that agreement by mainstream scholars on selected aspects of theology constitutes a movement toward “the Christadelphian position” is unsustainable. There is no significant link between the Island and the Mainland and we should not pretend there is. Christadelphianism is novel and it is unique.

Why should anyone care about this (apart from Christadelphians themselves)? Christadelphians are virtually unknown to mainstream Christians, even well informed theologians. Christadelphians make little contribution to broader theological or biblical discussion, eschew theological academia and make limited social contribution (apart from that of individuals) beyond their own “missionary” efforts. As has been wryly observed, “Scholars out there are not debating the merits of Christadelphian theology, as they are with Catholic theology, Reformed theology, Orthodox theology, etc. No one is doing a doctoral dissertation on the theology of John Thomas or Robert Roberts… because Christadelphian theology is not on the radar. Christadelphians have not yet made the case that their theological system merits serious scholarly attention” (T Farrar pers. com 6/7/17).

I care about Christadelphian theology, because I have a personal investment, having undergone a major journey of faith, in which I studied these issues in depth. I care because I have good friends who are Christadelphians and who love the Lord. I care because when people leave Christadelphia they often forsake God, turning away from Christianity because they can’t accept the mainstream doctrines which have been thoroughly misrepresented and poisoned to their thinking. Christadelphians should question their island mentality if they are to survive as a denomination, and do their acknowledged duty to be lightstands; they should not adopt a defensive stance that assumes their small and recently emerged community exclusively holds “The Truth.” Nor should they seek legitimacy in the false assumption that they stand in continuity with other similar faith traditions.

Why don’t Christadelphians get theologically educated? Why not find out what others actually believe before assuming they are wrong? Are Christadelphians scared of what they might find? Surely, if they do have the truth, they have nothing to fear from engaging in study of original biblical languages, historical and contemporary theology, biblical studies, pastoral care and missiology. Are they so confident in their beliefs that they feel it is a waste of time to listen to anyone else’s, that all those centuries of scholarship and godly application to Scripture, the legacy of Christian history, count for nothing against the non-Spirit-inspired, tradition-rejecting reliance on human reason advocated by a nineteenth century doctor? There’s some very dangerous thinking underlying these isolationist attitudes and it’s a far cry from the Bereans searching the scriptures to see if what others said was true (Acts 17:11). Rather, “when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding” (2 Cor 10:12).

Christadelphians may be happy on their island, but at the very least they should keep their heads out of the sand.

 

 

References
1. Rob J Hyndman, “Biblical Monotheism Today,” in Thomas E Gaston, ed., One God, the Father. East Boldon, UK: Willow, 2013. This author is no longer a Christadelphian.
2. This is the thesis of the seminal work by Robert Roberts, Christendom Astray From the Bible, 1884. Repr. West Beach, Aus: Logos, 1984.
3. Percy E.White, The Doctrine of the Trinity Analytically Examined and Refuted, 1913. Repr. Torrens Park, Aus: Christadelphian Scripture Study Service, 1996.
4. Alan Eyre, The Protesters. Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 1975.
5. Jonathan Burke, Apostolic Teaching Series; Modern Scholars acknowledging apostolic teaching; http://berea-portal.com; topics discussed are “The state of the dead: Modern scholarship” (although by modern he means works from as far back as 1976) “What do modern scholars say about the atonement?”(back to 1904) “Did the earliest Christians believe Jesus is God?” “The state of the dead: 20th century views” and “How did the early Christians baptize?”
6. Leon Morris, “Atonement,” in Wood & Marshall (eds.) New Bible Dictionary (3rd ed. 1996), 103
7. Leon Morris, The Atonement (Leicester, IVP, 1983)
8. John Stott, The Cross of Christ, 2nd ed. Nottingham: IVP, 1989, 320.
9. John Stott, “Judgment and Hell,” in DI Edwards & J Stott, Essentials: A Liberal–Evangelical Dialogue, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988, 317.
10. Interview with James DG Dunn http://frankviola.org/2012/06/25/ jamesdgdunn/ accessed 16/9/17.
11. James GD Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998, 254
12. Thomas Farrar, The Christadelphian Baptismal Examination (Interview) Purpose and Content 22nd June 2016; The Christadelphian Baptismal Examination (Interview) A theological critique; 26th September 2016. Dianoigo, http://blog.dianoigo.com/search?q=baptism accessed 16/9/17.
13. TR Schreiner & SD Wright, Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, Nashville: B&H, 2006)

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Island Life

  1. Many Anabaptists and baptists were non-trinitarian. In Belgium several baptists in the 16th century even where killed at the fire-stake for their beliefs in One God. In the 1990 all over the world, lots of Baptists started transferring to an other denomination, Jehovah Witnesses, church of God, Church of Abrahamic Faith, Nazarene Friends and/or Christadelphians because the Southern Union Baptist pushing more and more for its trinitarian conviction.

    Like

    1. That may be the case, but the Anabaptists, apart from those who went on to become unitarians, were not known as anti-trinitarian. This is particularly so of the early Anabaptists discussed in Alan Eyre’s book. Once again, the non-trinitarians are the outliers, and their other beleifs do no mesh with “the Christadelphain postion.” These groups may share anti-trinitarianism with Christadelphians, but they are not proto-Christadelphians.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s