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Sunday, 29 June 2014

"The Socinian Challenge to Nicea" by Alan Spence: food for Christadelphian thought

Christology is the discipline within theology which seeks to understand and explain the person of Christ. In his book Christology: A Guide for the Perplexed (2008, T&T Clark), Dr. Alan Spence gives an introduction to historical christology.

Spence begins by describing the paradox which gave rise to the discipline of christology: that Jesus, a human being in history, was considered worthy of divine honour by Christians "from around the time the first churches came into being" (p. 5). Spence explains that the church sought to explain coherently why Jesus is worthy of this status while preserving his true humanity, which was seen as vital to his redemptive work.

He takes us through the subsequent christological developments and controversies which led to the crystallization of orthodoxy in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (4th century) and later the Chalcedonian Definition (5th century). These classical christological formulations remained unchallenged until the 16th century. Even the most prominent theologians of the Protestant Reformation, such as Calvin and Luther, raised no objections to orthodox christology. Others, however, "offered a far more radical critique of established theology" (p. 78). Following the execution of the Spanish anti-Trinitarian Michael Servetus, anti-Trinitarians sought refuge in Poland and became known as Socinians after their eminent theologian Faustus Socinus.

Spence's chapter on Socinian christology, entitled "The Socinian Challenge to Nicea", is highly relevant to Christadelphians because Socinians are the truest known forebears of Christadelphian christology down through the ages.1 The Socinians held that Jesus was merely human by nature. Spence points to the Racovian Catechism, first published in 1605, as the definitive presentation of Socinian theology (including christology).

Spence's discussion of Socinian christology features the same measured approach found throughout his book. While he does not think Socinian christology can account for the biblical testimony concerning Christ's incarnation and pre-existence, he does not shy away from identifying strengths in their arguments or weaknesses in the arguments of their orthodox opponents.

Spence notes with interest the controversy that erupted between Socinians concerning whether or not Christ should be offered divine honour in worship. A dispute which arose in 1574 led to the condemnation of the teachings of a leading Socinian theologian, Francis David, who "argued publicly that Christ could not with propriety be addressed in prayer since he was not God by nature" (p. 81). While the Racovian Catechism firmly supported the appropriateness of addressing Christ in prayer, Spence asks whether Socinians "have provided an explanation of Christ's being which can properly account for the worship that they believe is his due" (p. 82). He expresses sympathy for Francis David, whose "argument that it was inappropriate to offer prayers and worship to a Christ who was not truly God appears to be far more logical than that of his fellow Socinians" (p. 82). This could serve as a discussion point for Christadelphians, among whom I have perceived a certain ambiguity about the propriety of offering worship and prayer to Christ.

The Racovian Catechism describes the position of classical christology that Christ had a divine and a human nature as "repugnant to right reason and Holy Scripture." Spence says this suggests "the Socinian methodological principle that theology ought to be determined by the examination of Scripture and the application of right reason” (p. 83). This entailed taking the post-Reformation watchword sola scriptura to such an extent that "no authority should be granted to the voice of tradition" and indeed that the creeds and other historical formulae of the Church "were deemed to have no value or place in theological construction other than as the false position of an adversary" (p. 83).

Spence makes an important observation concerning the Socinians' sola scriptura approach:

“Now the laudable idea that the text should be allowed to speak for itself can sometimes be a cover for a certain sleight of hand that is so deceptive that even its practitioners often fail to recognize it.” (p. 83)

He gives a fictional, illustrative example which is worth quoting in full:
“A Unitarian evangelist passes a copy of the Racovian Catechism to a seventeenth-century friend who worships in an English village church. She encourages him to read the book, and carefully look up all the relevant texts, so that hi view of Christ might be shaped directly by the Scriptures and not by the liturgy, hymnology or recited creeds of his local worshipping community. He is attracted by the eminent reasonableness of the proposal and looks forward to studying a theology that is unencumbered by ancient church dogma and tradition and determined only by Scriptures. But the book that he has just been given as a guide is itself a well-developed interpretive theory of what the Bible actually means. It has been formed by 50 years of vigorous intellectual discussion within the Socinian community and refined through sharp debate with Protestant and Catholic theologians. The young Anglican’s reading of the relevant scriptural passages at the book’s recommendation will be mediated by what is in effect a carefully honed Socinian theology. There is, of course, always some form of mediation taking place whenever the Scriptures are studied in that there is always some interpretive framework, conscious or unconscious, that is being brought to the text and which plays a part in shaping our understanding. The mediation described in the story above is a ‘closed’ mediation in that it does not allow or suggest other mediating voices and disguises its own mediating function. And this is the congenital difficulty with any theology which purports to be wholly shaped by Scripture – it fails to acknowledge the mediating traditions that have determined its own construction and it often struggles to listen with any attentiveness to what other Christians might have discovered about the truth of the Bible. And these failures are, one could say, the besetting weaknesses of all sectarian theology.” (pp. 83-84)
Besides being very incisive, this illustration closely parallels Christadelphian evangelistic methodology using literature such as The Great Salvation or Bible Basics.

He notes that the Socinians have bequeathed a heritage to modern christology, namely “a propensity to discard all past christological achievement or dogma and to begin the whole project anew with scant regard to the work of others” (p. 85). One detects the same propensity in the writings of John Thomas, the founder of Christadelphians.

Spence also discusses the Socinian appeal to the idea of 'reasonableness'. Spence acknowledges some merit in the Socinians' critique of self-contradictory and even nonsensical statements from orthodox theologians. However, he challenges the Socinian claim that the concept of a person who is truly both divine and human is repugnant to right reason. He very astutely points out that
“Christians have historically believed the incarnation to be a unique, foundational event. They have used it to reinterpret both their understanding of the manner of God’s being and their assessment of what it is to be truly human. The person of Christ, as one who is both fully human and fully divine, is in this sense the Church’s key hermeneutical principle. In a context where Christ is considered as the central interpretive reality, there is no weight to the argument that he does not satisfy some pre-existing criterion of what it means to be a person. The task of the Church is rather to submit to Christ as he is made known by the Spirit through the witness of the Scriptures and to bring its understanding about existence, the future, meaning and personhood into some sort of conformity to its mature reflection on the reality of Jesus.” (p. 86)
Spence's observation can be brought to bear with equal force upon Christadelphian dismissals of orthodox christology as illogical. Those making such arguments have not properly appreciated the uniqueness and definitiveness of the Christ-event.

In concluding this chapter, Spence writes that the Socinians posed theological questions which many of their contemporaries were ill-equipped to answer. However, in Spence's view, "In their critique of the orthodox understanding of Christ [the Socinians] were unable to provide a coherent alternative christology to that of Nicea" (p. 88).

In his conclusion to the book, Spence criticizes two extremes: on the one hand, “the hubris of the theologian who would begin theology completely afresh without regard for the tradition of the Church” and on the other hand, “those who, looking only to antiquity, would close their minds to the insights gained from modern theological discussion” (p. 155). He instead advocates a humble approach which includes "a willingness to recognize the significant accomplishments of both the ancient and the more recent and to build on them with both care and responsibility” (p. 155).

In building an ecumenical christology for today, he declares, "We must insist with the Socinians that Jesus was a man wholly dependent on the Holy Spirit in every aspect of his life but deny that this precludes him from being the eternal Son of God made flesh” (p. 159). This does not require that we repudiate classical, Nicene-Chalcedonian christology because “The tradition has within itself the theological resources to integrate these two perspectives in a coherent way.”

I think Spence's measured critique of Socinian christology provides Christadelphians with a good deal of food for thought.

1 (Earlier heterodox christologies such as Ebionitism and Arianism are less compatible with Christadelphian doctrine since the former apparently denied the virgin birth and the latter affirmed Christ's personal pre-existence).

Monday, 9 June 2014

The Rich Man, Lazarus and Hell

Few parables of Jesus have fostered more theological debate through the centuries than the parable of the rich man (often referred to as Dives, the Latin word for 'rich') and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). The theological debate is mainly about what this parable teaches about the fate of the wicked. There are basically four views, and they are about as different as can be.

The first view, which might be called the traditional one, holds that this parable provides a literal depiction of the fate of the wicked: what befalls Dives in the parable is very much like what awaits those who behave like him. The second view holds that the parable was intended to teach what the fate of the wicked is not like (by parodying the view held by some of Jesus' Jewish contemporaries). The third view holds that the parable was not intended to teach anything about the fate of the wicked. The fourth view holds that this parable does teach something about the fate of the wicked, but the details of the parable cannot be pressed as a literal description of that fate.

The first view has little credence among scholars today. Snodgrass remarks that "in most scholarly treatments we find the caution that the parable is not intended to give a description of life after death."1 In his commentary on the parables of Jesus, Hultgren agrees that revealing the conditions of the afterlife is not the purpose of the parable.2 Even Yarbrough, a proponent of the traditionalist view of hell, cautions that "It is widely accepted that this story is parabolic and not intended to furnish a detailed geography of hell."3

As to the second view, it has been defended by the lay Christadelphian writer Thomas Williams, who concluded that "Jesus told the jealous, self-exultant Pharisees the parable of the rich man and Lazarus to confound them using their own false doctrines concerning the afterlife."4 More recently, Papaioannou proposed in scholarly fashion that the parable's description of Hades contained absurdities and theological discrepancies designed to undermine the credibility of contemporary Jewish beliefs about the afterlife.5

In Jeremias' commentary on the parables, he identified four "double-edged parables" (including the Rich Man and Lazarus) and argued that in each case the emphasis falls on the second half.6 Hultgren further notes that the emphasis naturally lies at the end of a parable.7 In this case, the second half (and the end) is Dives' request that Lazarus be sent to warn his brothers, and Abraham's reply. This part of the parable is about the sufficiency of Scripture and the futility of a resurrected messenger trying to convert Dives' brothers; it is scarcely about the afterlife at all. If the parable's main message is not about the afterlife, then both the first and second views would seem to be excluded, since both of these views suggest that the parable was intended primarily to teach about the afterlife (whether positively or negatively).

Papaioannou acknowledges that the parable's main thrust is at the end. However, he argues that the first part of the parable had an element of surprise that would "arrest the attention to the second part of the parable where the main message of the parable is delivered."5 This is unconvincing since a surprise unrelated to the main message - indeed one that reduced the story to absurdity - would be more likely to distract than to focus the audience's attention on the serious message at the end of the parable.

A number of scholars have defended the third view. Fudge, a leading Evangelical proponent of conditionalism (sometimes known as annihilationism), states that this parable "likely was not intended to teach anything" on the subject of hell torments.8 Wright (not N.T.) concludes that "In this parable Jesus no more provides information about the intermediate state than, in other parables, does he provide instruction on correct agricultural practices or investing tips."9

Two main arguments have been made in defense of the third view. Firstly, as Bauckham showed in his extensive discussion of extra-biblical parallels, this parable draws on two narrative motifs familiar at this time in history: (1) a reversal of fortunes experienced by a rich man and a poor man after death; and (2) a dead person's return from the dead with a message for the living.10 Wright argues, like Papaioannou, that Jesus deliberately subverts these motifs.9 The denial of Dives' request that Lazarus be sent to his brothers seems an obvious subversion of the second motif, but it is not clear that the first part of the parable subverts the reversal of fortunes motif. Papaioannou points to 'absurdities' in the description of Hades, such as the idea that a tongue engulfed in Hadean flames could be soothed with a drop of water carried on a fingertip.11 Yet this is better explained as hyperbole than as an attempt to render the story absurd.

Other 'absurdities' Papaioannou sees in the story, such as the use of a term for mental anguish (odunaō) for what should be physical pain, are exaggerated.

The theological discrepancies in the story (noted by Papaioannou12 as well as Fudge13) include the location of the abode of the righteous within earshot of the abode of the wicked, and the setting of the story in Hades, which in the New Testament is usually a temporary place of confinement until the resurrection.14 This implies that Dives undergoes fiery torment immediately after his death, whereas elsewhere Jesus teaches that the fiery punishment of the wicked occurs after the final judgment, in Gehenna (e.g. Matthew 13:42; 18:8-9; 25:41).

Both of these 'discrepancies' can be explained as adaptations necessary for Jesus' didactic purposes. Situating the two abodes within earshot allows for the dialogue between Dives and Abraham (with Lazarus), while situating the story in the intermediate state allows for Dives' attempted intercession on his brothers' behalf while they are still alive.

Thus there is nothing in the parable's depiction of Hades that suggests Jesus intended to subvert contemporary ideas either about the reversal of fortunes motif in particular or eschatological punishment in general. Indeed, Jesus' teachings elsewhere in this Gospel are consistent with the reversal of fortunes motif (e.g. Luke 6:20-26; 13:28-30; 14:8-14). Moreover, his teachings about eschatological punishment contain both fire imagery (see passages cited above) and the idea of duration (Matthew 18:34 and probably Luke 12:59). Lehtipuu states that Jesus' "description of the otherworldly conditions is believable according to the parameters of his cultural world."15

The second argument in favour of the third view is that, as was mentioned above, the main thrust of this parable is at the end, in Abraham's response to Dives' request that Lazarus be sent to warn his brothers. Since this part of the parable is not about the afterlife, it is contended that the parable does not teach about the afterlife. However, just because the primary emphasis is on the closing section (vv. 27-31) does not mean that the earlier part of the parable was not intended to teach anything.

Because the parable in Luke 15:11-32 is another "double-edged parable" and closes with the elder son's resentment, some scholars argue that this bears the parable's main message. But few would argue on this basis that vv. 20-24 were not intended to teach about the value of repentance and God's great compassion and mercy.

The didactic content of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus lies in Dives' two requests to Abraham and Abraham's two refusals (vv. 24-31). We must therefore ask what teaching Jesus intended to convey with the first exchange in vv. 24-26. One observes that the parable would still cohere if this section were omitted. Suppose that v. 24 read, "And he called out, 'I beg you, Father Abraham, to send Lazarus to my father's house...'" and then continued from v. 28. The message conveyed in vv. 28-31 would hardly be compromised. We are thus compelled to conclude that Jesus' intended to convey another message with the first request and refusal in vv. 24-26. And that message could only be about the fate of the wicked. In short, the denial of even the most pathetic of requests from the rich man highlights the total, uninterrupted misery of the damned and the absolute, irrevocable reversal of fortunes that has occurred in contrast to Dives' and Lazarus' earthly lives. The severity of Dives' fate is declared to be just.

Hence, other scholars - rightly, in my view - argue for the fourth view, namely that the parable does teach about the fate of the wicked. As Snodgrass puts it:
“Are any conclusions about the afterlife possible? Although the caution about reading the details too literally is needed, the parable’s eschatological relevance cannot be wiped away. The themes of reversal and judgment must be given their due. The parable is a warning to the rich and emphasizes the importance of what humans do with the present, and it still teaches that humans will be judged for the way they lived and that the consequences will be serious.”16
Similarly, Lehtipuu writes that
"the audience of Jesus (as well as the readers and listeners to the gospel) naturally are appraised of the severe otherworldly consequences of an undesirable lifestyle, which is the main point of Luke’s description."17
Furthermore, as Peterson points out,18 the parable unmistakably equates fire with enduring torment and in this respect it sheds light on Jesus' use of fire imagery elsewhere when depicting the fate of the ungodly.

On the whole, then, while it cannot be said decisively that the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus teaches a doctrine of eternal torment for the wicked, it does favour a traditional view of hell as a place of enduring misery.

1 Snodgrass, K. (2008). Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 430.
2 Hultgren, A.J. (2002). The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
3 Yarbrough, R. (2004). "Jesus on Hell." In Hell under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment, ed. C.W. Morgan & R.A. Peterson. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, p. 74.
4 Williams, T. (1906). Hell Torments: A Failure, a Fallacy and a Fraud. Christadelphian Advocate Publications.
5 Papaioannou, K.G. (2004). Places of Punishment in the Synoptic Gospels. Ph.D. dissertation, Durham University, p. 155.
6 Jeremias, J. (1972). The Parables of Jesus. Charles Scribner's Sons, p. 131.
7 Hultgren, A.J. op. cit., p. 85.
8 Fudge, E. (2011). The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, 3rd ed. Wipf and Stock Publishers, p. 148.
9 Wright, T. 2008. “Death, the Dead and the Underworld in Biblical Theology: Part 2.” Churchman 122(2), p. 114.
10 Bauckham, R. (1991). "The Rich Man and Lazarus: The Parable and the Parallels." New Testament Studies 37, pp. 225-246.
11 Papaioannou, K.G. op. cit., p. 153.
12 Papaioannou, K.G. op. cit., p. 154.
13 Fudge, E. op. cit., p. 153.
14 Bernstein, A.E. (1993). The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. p. 139.
15 Lehtipuu, O. (2007). The Afterlife Imagery in Luke’s Story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Leiden: BRILL, p. 299.
16 Snodgrass, K. op. cit., p. 432.
17 Lehtipuu, O. op. cit., p. 302.
18 Peterson, R.A. (1994). “A Traditionalist Response to John Stott’s Arguments for Annihilationism.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37(4), p. 559.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Christadelphian Myths about Mainstream Christianity (1)

I've associated with Christadelphians all my life. I grew up attending Christadelphian meetings every Sunday and was a baptized member of Christadelphian ecclesias for over a decade. During the past few years I've also gained an increased awareness of the beliefs and practices of Christians outside Christadelphia. This has occurred through reading books by Christian authors, through interacting with Christian people, and through firsthand experience as I've now been a member of two different Evangelical Christian churches (one non-denominational and one Baptist).

One thing that experience has taught me is that many Christadelphians have a very warped impression of what other Christians are, do and think. I think there are a couple of reasons for this. In the literature and minds of some Christadelphians, Christianity has remained static for the past 160 years while in reality, the Church has undergone important developments during that period. Second, Christadelphians have defined their identity in opposition to the apostate teachings of 'mainstream Christianity'. As such, any information that serves the Christadelphian narrative of a corrupt, apostate Church is accepted and propagated by some Christadelphians uncritically. Third, Christadelphian information about the broader Christian community comes from some dubious sources, such as televangelists, or firsthand reports from Christadelphian converts who have left other churches. (The latter are not necessarily unreliable reports, but one would not expect glowing reports about any religion from those who have left it!)

The misrepresentations of Christianity that remain popular among Christadelphians are unfortunate as they contribute to isolationism where dialogue is sorely needed. I want to draw attention to several myths about 'Christendom' or 'mainstream Christianity' that I have encountered among Christadelphians over the years. The word 'myth' here is used in its popular sense of a widely held but false idea and not in its technical, religious sense.

Myth #1: Mainstream Christianity is Homogeneous

Christadelphian polemical literature and talks distinguish between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, with criticism of the Roman Catholic Church being particularly vitriolic. Occasionally other sects such as Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons are also singled out for criticism. However, one rarely encounters much acknowledgment of the vast diversity that exists under the umbrella of 'Protestantism'. Instead terms like 'mainstream Christianity', 'popular Christianity' and 'Christendom' are thrown around as though this is a homogeneous entity with a distinct set of doctrinal beliefs. In reality, within Protestantism one finds different views on many issues such as the inspiration and authority of Scripture, the means of salvation, the role of free will and election, the destiny of the unsaved, availability of Holy Spirit gifts, the mode and significance of baptism, the doctrine of the atonement, creation and evolution, the existence of miracles, demons and spirits, the structure of church government, the continuing place of natural Israel in God's purpose, the role of women in the church, different styles of worship, homosexuality, the Rapture, the millennium, and the list goes on. 

Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to identify any doctrine or characteristic that is shared unanimously within 'mainstream Christianity' and not by Christadelphians (apart, perhaps, from the Trinity, if one excludes Oneness, Unitarian and biblical unitarian movements from the definition of 'mainstream').

Most of the myths that will be discussed in the following posts are related to this first one, because they are generalizations about a 'mainstream Christianity' which, as a homogeneous entity, does not actually exist!

I believe there have been improvements on this front over the past few decades, as Christadelphians have begun to read more widely and have, in many cases, become more knowledgeable about (and sympathetic toward) at least some other Christian traditions. Nevertheless, this myth that we have a simple choice between 'us' (Christadelphians) or 'them' (mainstream Christianity) persists in some quarters. 

Christadelphians would do well to adapt their understanding of themselves and other Christians to reflect the reality that they are a tiny branch within a very large and diverse tree called Christianity. Some other branches are quite similar to theirs while others are extremely different. It could be that some branches are living and others are dead. However, the tree should be approached with the complexity that it deserves and not oversimplified to give the illusion of a straightforward, black-and-white choice.