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Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Christadelphian ecclesial deism (2): five counterarguments

This article continues from the previous post on ecclesial deism, which could be defined as a doctrinal position which minimizes present divine activity in the Ecclesia and regards her work as almost exclusively a human responsibility. The previous post emphasized that Christadelphians have traditionally held to a radical version of this ecclesiology as a corollary of their view that the Holy Spirit has been inactive since shortly after the apostles died. We noted that Christadelphian literature tends to take an earthbound view of the Ecclesia, emphasizing what kind of Ecclesia we ought to be without emphasizing what the powerful presence of the Head of the Body of Christ causes the Ecclesia to be.

The last part of the post began a critique of Christadelphian ecclesial deism, noting that it is out of sync with abundant biblical testimony about the perpetual presence of the Holy Spirit and God's ongoing role in building, nourishing and protecting the Ecclesia. It seems to reflect a pessimistic lack of faith concerning Christ's promises to His Bride. There is, quite simply, no biblical warrant for ecclesial deism. In this post we will continue the critique of Christadelphian ecclesial deism with five additional lines of argument.

If we hold that the Ecclesia was established by Christ with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the promise of the Father, which endured throughout the days of the apostles, but that the Holy Spirit ceased operations shortly thereafter, an important theological question we need to answer is why this happened. If Christ loves and nourishes His Ecclesia, why would He have withdrawn this gift? I am aware of two main explanations that have been proposed by Christadelphians. In fact, both of them can be found in the writings of Robert Roberts, although they seem to be mutually exclusive.

The first explanation holds that the Holy Spirit was withdrawn because it was no longer needed. It had been given to get the Ecclesia up and running, so to speak. With the Ecclesia off to a running start and with the apostolic writings having been divinely inspired, the Holy Spirit's work was complete and the gift could safely lapse.

Robert Roberts explains it this way:
If the early churches, consisting of men and women fresh from the abominations and immoralities of heathenism, and without the authoritative standard of the completed Scripture which now exists, had been left to the mere power of apostolic tradition intellectually received, they could not have held together. The winds of doctrine, blowing about through the activity of "men of corrupt minds," would have broken them from their moorings, and they would have been tossed to and fro in the billows of uncertain and conflicting report and opinion, and finally stranded in hopeless shipwreck. This catastrophe was prevented by the gifts of the spirit... In this way the early churches were built up and edified. The work of the apostles was conserved, improved, and carried to a consummation. The faith was completed and consolidated by the voice of inspiration, speaking through the spiritually-appointed leaders of the churches. By this means the results of gospel-preaching in the first century, when there were no railways, telegraphs, or other means of a rapid circulation of ideas, instead of evaporating to nothing, as, otherwise, they would have done, were secured and made permanent, both as regards that generation and succeeding centuries. 
But it must be obvious that the case stands very differently now. There is no manifestation of the Spirit in these days. The power of continuing the manifestation doubtless died with the apostles; not that God could not have transferred it to others, but that He selected them as the channels of its bestowment in their age, and never, so far as we have any evidence, appointed "successors."1
How plausible is this explanation? To begin, Roberts' contrast between converts to Christianity in the apostolic period and thereafter is completely backwards. Firstly, the first generation of Christians was predominantly made up of Jews. It was only toward the end of the first century that the Ecclesia became predominantly Gentile.2 Moreover, scholars who regard Acts as historically accurate generally conclude, like Skarsaune, that 'The Christian mission continued for a long time to work primarily among the God-fearing Gentiles surrounding the Diaspora synagogues.'3 Skarsaune explains how this changed in the second century:
Most of the first Gentile converts to Christianity, the God-fearers, had this break with paganism behind them when they became Christians. In the second century this changed. An increasing number of converts came directly from paganism. They went, so to speak, directly from the ‘table of the demons’ (1 Cor 10:21) to the table of the Lord. This posed a challenge to the growing church.4
To summarize, then, in the apostolic period the Ecclesia was made up largely of (a) Jews, and (b) God-fearing Gentiles, neither of which were 'men and women fresh from the abominations and immoralities of heathenism'. As the apostolic period drew to a close, Gentiles became the majority, and in the second century, the Ecclesia increasingly evangelized 'raw' Gentiles who were still steeped in paganism. Hence, according to Roberts' own reasoning, the second-century Ecclesia needed the Holy Spirit more than the first-century Ecclesia did!

A further contradiction ensues when one recalls that, according to the Christadelphian meta-narrative, the Great Apostasy shifted into high gear in the late first and early second centuries. So it is being claimed on the one hand that the Ecclesia no longer needed the Holy Spirit, and on the other hand that as the Holy Spirit faded, the Ecclesia was progressively engulfed by apostasy.

Nor is it apparent that modern advances in technology have rendered the Holy Spirit surplus to the Ecclesia's requirements, as Roberts suggests. If anything, modern technology has been a secularizing force which has made faith in a theistic God more difficult, augmenting the need for divine activity in the Ecclesia! And in another place, contradicting his position here, Roberts admits that 'It would be an unspeakable source of comfort and strength to see the gift of the Spirit again restored.'

So much for the first explanation (though one aspect of it, that it was specifically the writing of the New Testament that rendered the work of the Holy Spirit complete, will be considered below). Perhaps sensing its weakness, Roberts elsewhere put forth a completely different explanation for why the Holy Spirit was withdrawn:
The apostasy prevailed more and more, as the Apostles, by the Spirit, predicted would be the case (2 Tim. 4: 1-4; 2: 17), until all trace of primitive truth disappeared, and the Spirit of the Lord was withdrawn from all association with an empty Christian name. Whatever genuine profession may have existed since then, has not been honoured by a return of the Spirit's witnessing and governing presence.5
Elsewhere, commenting on the Lord's threat to the ecclesia at Ephesus to 'remove your lampstand out of its place' (Rev. 2:5) unless they repent, Roberts clarifies further:
Oil symbolically used stands for the Spirit of God, as proved in many ways which we need not refer to. The Spirit of God was bestowed upon the ecclesias in the first century. It was this that constituted them the Spirit's candlesticks. Hence the threat was a threat of the withdrawal of the Spirit. The threat was duly carried into effect. The reformation desired did not set in. The Apostasy, which Paul declared to be in active progress before his death, got the upper hand everywhere, and the candlesticks were removed in all senses, since which day, the light of inspiration has been extinct, except in so far as it survives in the writings of the Spirit -- the oracles of God which are to us a treasure beyond price.6
Roberts' second explanation for why the Holy Spirit was withdrawn, then, is that it was a punishment inflicted on the Ecclesia for disobedience and apostasy. We will first consider whether this can be inferred from Revelation 2-3, and then offer some broader objections.

One can begin by observing that oil is never mentioned in Revelation 2-3. The Lord's threat was not to withdraw the oil from the candlestick, but to remove the candlestick. And, as Rev. 1:20 plainly states, 'the seven lampstands are the seven churches'. The threat, then, is not to withdraw the Spirit from the ecclesia but to withdraw the ecclesia itself! And one must not overlook that this threat was issued to one local ecclesia at Ephesus, not to the Ecclesia universally, nor even to these seven ecclesias of Asia. While the tenor of Jesus' letters to the seven ecclesias in Revelation 2-3 is one of rebuke, two of the seven ecclesias addressed (Smyrna and Philadelphia) receive no rebuke at all. Hence, we can conclude that in this passage (i) the threat is not to withdraw the Spirit, but to remove the ecclesia; and (ii) the threat is not to the universal Ecclesia but to one local ecclesia. Of course the Lord Jesus would never threaten to remove the universal Ecclesia, since to do so would renege on His promise that the gates of Hades would not overpower her (Matt. 16:18). Revelation 2-3 provides no evidence that Christ ever threatened to withdraw the Holy Spirit from the Ecclesia, much less that He ever carried out this threat.7

A broader objection is that surely not all ecclesias and believers were apostate. Christadelphians themselves typically maintain that the true body of Christ has persisted as a remnant through all the ages of darkness and apostasy. Thus, while it is entirely plausible that Christ would withdraw the Spirit 'from all association with an empty Christian name' in apostate ecclesias, the punishment explanation offers no plausible reason why Christ should also, at the same time, withdraw the Spirit from all association with the elect remnant that faithfully bore Christ's name! There is just no logic to it.

In view of the implausibility of the two reasons proposed by Robert Roberts, my challenge to hyper-cessationist Christadelphians today is to offer a reasonable explanation for why Christ withdrew the Holy Spirit from His Bride at a time when she was under great duress due to persecution, heresy, and an increasing number of converts directly from paganism.

We have so far discussed the 'why' of the alleged withdrawal of the Holy Spirit from the Ecclesia. What of the 'how'? According to a standard Christadelphian account, only the apostles received the power to transfer the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands. Thus, once the apostles died, no one else could receive the Holy Spirit, and so the Holy Spirit's activity dwindled into nothingness as those on whom the apostles had bestowed the gift gradually died out.

Remarkably, this entire version of events is reconstructed ex silencio from a few passages in Acts that describe the apostles laying their hands on others for the bestowal of the Holy Spirit. Of particular note is Acts 8:17-21:
Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was bestowed through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give this authority to me as well, so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. (NASB)
Hyper-cessationist Christadelphians take 'the Spirit was bestowed through the laying on of the apostles' hands' to be an exclusive, universal statement: the Spirit was only ever bestowed through the laying on of the apostles' hands. But this is to read into the text something that is not there. Indeed, Peter's response offers no hint that Simon's request for this authority was intrinsically impossible because he was not an apostle. Rather, it focuses on the bad state of Simon's heart. Other passages in the New Testament suggest that non-apostles could have the authority to bestow the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands. Paul instructs Timothy not to neglect 'the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed on you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery' (1 Tim. 4:14). While this ordaining body seems to have included the apostle Paul himself (2 Tim. 1:6), the emphasis in this passage is on the presbytery or council of elders, which was surely not made up only of apostles. Moreover, 1 Tim. 5:22 presupposes that Timothy himself, a non-apostle, now had the authority to carry out the rite of the laying on of hands, and the context provides no basis for differentiating this laying on of hands from that which bestowed the Holy Spirit. Finally, the Book of Hebrews, probably not written by an apostle or to apostles, refers to 'instructions about washings and laying on of hands' among the 'elementary teachings' or, to use KJV and traditional Christadelphian language, 'first principles'. This gives the impression that 'laying on of hands' was a widespread practice in the early Ecclesia apart from the apostles themselves.

This Christadelphian argument for the total cessation of the Holy Spirit also rests on the premise that the laying on of hands is the only means by which the Holy Spirit can be bestowed on a person. Yet following the example of Christ, we must regard regeneration in baptism as a work of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19; Mark 1:8-10; John 3:5; 1 Cor. 12:13; Tit. 3:5); hence all Christians have the Holy Spirit poured out in their hearts (Rom. 5:5; 1 Cor. 12:13; 2 Cor. 1:22; 3:3; Gal. 4:6). Much more could be said on this subject, but it is sufficient for us to conclude that the argument from silence offered for the cessation of the Holy Spirit carries no weight, in view of the many, many New Testament passages that presuppose the Holy Spirit as a going concern in the Ecclesia.

If the Christadelphian version of events is true, then after the last apostle died (traditionally understood to be John, c. 100 A.D.), the Ecclesia would have been aware that no further bestowal of the Holy Spirit was possible and that the heavenly gift would cease as soon as those individuals died on whom the apostles had laid their hands. If this were the case, we could reasonably expect Christian writings from the early second century to make reference to: (1) an expectation of the Holy Spirit's withdrawal; and (2) special attention paid to those last remaining individuals who had the Holy Spirit.

In fact, we find nothing of the kind in second century Christian literature. Although there is an awareness of the apostles' uniqueness (which the Ecclesia has always maintained), there is no mention anywhere of the idea that Holy Spirit activity died out with them, or would soon do so. It may be claimed that this is an argument from silence, but one can also point to abundant positive evidence that the post-apostolic Ecclesia regarded the Holy Spirit as still active.

Here is a quick survey of this positive evidence, which ranges in date roughly from the late first century to the middle of the second century. (For dates of individual texts, see my blog series on supernatural evil in the Apostolic Fathers.)
  • The Didache contains a whole section devoted to distinguishing between true and false prophets (chapter 11), which presupposes ongoing prophetic activity
  • The author of 1 Clement refers to the 'full outpouring of the Holy Spirit' that 'came upon everyone' in the Corinthian ecclesia (1 Clement 2.2),8 and later asks, 'Do we not have one God, and one Christ, and one gracious Spirit that has been poured out upon us...?' (1 Clement 46.6). He begins a statement with, 'For as God, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit all live...' (1 Clement 58.2). Near the close of the letter he says, 'For you will make us joyful and happy if you become obedient to what we have written through the Holy Spirit and excise the wanton anger expressed through your jealousy' (1 Clement 63.2).
  • In his Epistle to Polycarp, Ignatius of Antioch instructs Polycarp to pray that the invisible things may be revealed to him and that he may 'abound in every gracious gift (charismatos)' (2.2). In the prescript of the Epistle to the Philadelphians Ignatius asserts that the bishop, presbyters and deacons are 'those who have been securely set in place by his [Jesus Christ's] Holy Spirit according to his own will'. In his Epistle to the Ephesians Ignatius uses the following metaphor: 'For you are being carried up to the heights by the crane of Jesus Christ, which is the cross, using as a cable the Holy Spirit' (9.1). He also describes his relationship with the bishop in Ephesus as 'an intimacy that was not human but spiritual' (5.1).9
  • The Epistle of Barnabas opens thus: 'So great and abundant are the righteous acts of God toward you that I am exceedingly overjoyed, beyond measure, by your blessed and glorious spirits. For you have received such a measure of his grace planted within you, the spiritual gift! And so I share your joy all the more within myself [Or: I congratulate myself all the more], hoping to be saved; for truly I see that, in your midst, the Spirit has been poured out upon you from the abundance of the Lord's fountain' (Barnabas 1.2-1.3) Later, having emphasized that the habitation of our heart was formerly a house of demons, the writer states that now, 'God truly resides within our place of dwelling - within us' (Barnabas 16.8).
  • The Martyrdom of Polycarp reports that when Polycarp, at his martyrdom, was stabbed with a dagger, a dove came out (16.1). In view of the story of Jesus' baptism, this is probably to be understood as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.10 
  • The Shepherd of Hermas contains clear references to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in Mandates 5.1.2-5.1.3, 5.2.5-5.2.6, 10.2.5, 11.1.8-11.1.9. For instance, 'For if you are patient, the holy spirit that dwells in you will be pure and will not be overshadowed by another, evil spirit; but dwelling in a broad place it will rejoice and be glad with the vessel it inhabits, and it will serve God with great cheerfulness, flourishing in itself. But if any irascibility should enter in, immediately the holy spirit, which is sensitive, feels cramped; and not having a pure place it seeks to leave.' (Hermas, Mandates 5.1.2-5.1.3; cf. Mandates 5.2.5-5.2.6, 10.2.5).11 The Visions and Similitudes  sections of the work consists of revelations which the author claimed to have received in the Spirit.
  • The Epistle to Diognetus says, 'This is the eternal one who "today" is considered to be the Son, through whom the church is enriched and unfolding grace is multiplied among the saints. This grace provides understanding, manifests mysteries, proclaims the seasons, rejoices in the faithful, and is given to those who seek, among whom pledges of faith are not broken and the boundaries of the fathers are not transgressed' (Diognetus 11.5)
  • Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue with Trypho, tells Trypho, 'You should realize from the fact that among us Christians the charisms of prophecy exist down to the present day that the gifts that previously resided among your people have now been transferred to us' (Dialogue 82.1),12 and, 'Now if you look around, you can see among us Christians both male and female endowed with charisms from the Spirit of God.' (Dialogue 88.1)13
  • There are some second century writings, such as 2 Clement and Polycarp's Epistle to the Philippians, that make no unambiguous mention of the Holy Spirit (though see Polycarp Philippians 5.3). However, we can no more interpret this silence as a belief that the Holy Spirit had lapsed than we can interpret the Epistle of James' silence as a belief that the Holy Spirit had lapsed in the first century.
There is thus abundant evidence that Christians soon after the apostolic period held a robust belief in the continuing activity of the Holy Spirit, with no hint of expectation that this activity would soon cease. Of course, some Christadelphians may want to claim that these writers were all apostate and deceived, but such persons ought to admit that their hyper-cessationist views cannot be found in early Christian texts.

As we saw in the previous post, Christadelphians have taught that the definitive product of the Holy Spirit's activity in the first century was the New Testament, and that once this was written, the Holy Spirit was no longer needed. As Robert Roberts stated in the passage quoted above, the early Ecclesia needed the Spirit because they lacked 'the authoritative standard of the completed Scripture which now exists'. Hinton wrote that 'Within two generations from the apostles, the New Testament had been written, and the purpose for which the Holy Spirit was given had been accomplished', while Crawford explains, '1 Cor. 13:10 demonstrates that the manifestations of the Holy Spirit mentioned in 1 Cor. 12 "will be done away", i.e. when the canon was completed.' The Agora Bible Commentary, by Christadelphian George Booker, comments on 1 Cor. 13:10:
The canon of Scripture was completed in first century. Therefore, the main purpose of Holy Spirit (i.e. to produce and confirm inspired Bible) was accomplished.
One can note in passing that Booker provides no evidence for his claim that the production and confirmation of the Bible was the main purpose of the Holy Spirit (or for the implicit corollary that once the Bible was complete, the Holy Spirit was surplus to requirements). However, it is important that Booker here acknowledges that not only the production but also the confirmation of the biblical canon was the work of the Holy Spirit. Hence, by Booker's own admission, we must conclude that the Holy Spirit was active in the Ecclesia until the complete New Testament canon was confirmed. The all-important question, then, is when this occurred.

It may be granted that all the individual books that now form the New Testament were produced (i.e. written) by the first century, according to the traditional dating. However, the development from individual books to 'the authoritative standard of the completed Scripture' was a gradual process. The exact details of this process remain a subject of much debate among scholars.14 Du Toit describes the general contours of this process according to four stages:
Phase 1 ('latter part of first century CE'): 'Creation of various early Christian documents'
Phase 2 ('roughly from the close of the first century to the middle of the second'): 'Growing recognition of the normative character and collection into groups of a basic number of writings'
Phase 3 ('ca. mid-second century to 190 CE'): 'The New Testament canon becomes a reality... by now the idea of the canon has materialized; its broad base is fixed, but uncertainty still exists over the books on its periphery'
Phase 4 ('ca. 190-400 CE'): 'The closing of the canon'15
It may be eye opening to some Christadelphians to know how little use the Apostolic Fathers (writing from the late first to mid second centuries) made of the New Testament writings. The standard work in this respect is still The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers (NTAF, which is in the public domain), published in 1905,16 although contemporary scholarship is more conservative about attributing New Testament parallels in the Apostolic Fathers to direct literary dependence.17 NTAF helpfully provides a fourfold classification system which classifies the use of a New Testament book in an Apostolic Father as 'A' (beyond reasonable doubt), 'B' (highly probable), 'C' (less probable), and 'D' (possibly, but without reliable evidence).18 NTAF further provides a helpful table in the appendix giving the authors' results for each Apostolic Father. Consider these below, remembering that contemporary scholarship would be more conservative:
Barnabas: B - Rom.; C - Eph., Heb.; D - Matt., 1 & 2 Cor., Col., 1 & 2 Tim., Tit., 1 Pet.; Unclassed - Luke, John, Rev.
Didache: B - Synoptic tradition; C? - Matthew; D - Luke, 1 Cor., 1 Pet.; D? - Acts, Rom.; Unclassed: John, Heb., Jude.
1 Clement: A - Rom., 1 Cor., Heb.; C - Acts, Tit.; D - 2 Cor., Gal., Phil., Col., 1 Tim., 1 Pet., 1 John, Apoc.
Ignatius: A - 1 Cor.; B - Matt., John, Eph.; C - Rom., 2 Cor. (?), Gal., Phil., 1 & 2 Tim., Tit.; D - Mark (?), Luke, Acts, Col., 1 & 2 Thess. (?), Philem. (?), Heb., 1 Pet.
Polycarp: A - 1 Cor., 1 Pet.; B - Rom., 2 Cor., Gal., Eph., Phil., 2 Thess., 1 & 2 Tim.; C - John, Acts, Heb., 1 John; D - Col.
Hermas: B - 1 Cor., Eph.; C - Matt., Mark, Heb., Jas; D - Luke, John, Acts, Rom., 1 Thess., 1 Pet.
2 Clement: C - Matt., Heb.; D - Luke, 1 Cor., Eph., Jas, 1 Pet.; Unclassed: Rom., 1 Tim., 2 Pet., Jude19
Of course, absence of evidence that a writer knew a New Testament book is not proof of the writer's ignorance of that book. However, it is clear that these leading Christians in the late first through mid second centuries were not writing with anything remotely like a 27-book New Testament open next to them.

It is apparent that something approaching our New Testament was in place by the late second century (particularly if the widely held but disputed second-century date for the Muratorian fragment is correct). Indeed,
The specific designation “New Testament” for Christian Scripture began to be used in the late second century, as the church began to select those documents that bore authentic witness to God’s act in Christ.20
However, the earliest extant listing of the 27 books which now form the New Testament canon occurs in a letter from Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, in 367 A.D.21 (Yes, this is the same Athanasius who was a passionate defender of Trinitarian orthodoxy.) He is also the earliest writer to use the Greek word for 'canon' with reference to that list. The earliest extant listing of our 27-book New Testament in a communal decision comes from the regional Council of Carthage in 397 A.D. In other words, the earliest date when we could plausibly say the New Testament canon was complete and normative is the end of the fourth century.22 23 Hence, by Booker's reasoning, we are required to conclude that the Holy Spirit was active in the Ecclesia - specifically, the catholic Ecclesia - until at least the end of the fourth century.

This highlights two fundamental inconsistencies in the Christadelphian account of early Christian history. The first inconsistency is the claim that, on the one hand, the Holy Spirit ceased to be active in the Ecclesia by the mid second century but that, on the other hand, the New Testament canon that was set around the end of the fourth century infallibly defines the boundaries of Scripture.24 The foundational article of the Christadelphian Statement of Faith takes the canon of Scripture as an a priori:
That the book currently known as the Bible, consisting of the Scriptures of Moses, the prophets, and the apostles, is the only source of knowledge concerning God and His purposes at present extant or available in the earth, and that the same were wholly given by inspiration of God in the writers, and are consequently without error in all parts of them, except such as may be due to errors of transcription or translation.25
This proposition cites several Scripture passages in support (2 Tim. 3:16; 1 Cor. 2:13; Heb. 1:1; 2 Pet. 1:21; 1 Cor. 14:37; Neh. 9:30; John 10:35), but none of these passages tell us which books constitute 'Scripture'. None of them prove that Scripture consists exactly of 'the book currently known as the Bible'. Hence, Booker rightly asserted that the Holy Spirit needed not only to produce the books of the Bible but also to confirm them; and this confirmation, as we have seen, was only completed in the fourth century at the earliest. Christadelphians must either deny the infallibility of the New Testament canon, or else must affirm that the Holy Spirit was active in the Ecclesia at least until the late fourth century.

The second fundamental inconsistency in the Christadelphian account of early Christian history is this: on the one hand, Christadelphians accept as infallible the New Testament canon as first mentioned in the second half of the fourth century (by a Trinitarian bishop). On the other hand, Christadelphians assert that the Ecclesia was hopelessly apostate long before the fourth century (the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. being regarded as a particularly egregious embrace of apostate doctrine). Hence, Christadelphians accept a canon that, in their view, was defined by an apostate Ecclesia that had long since abandoned the essentials of the gospel. Again, Christadelphians are faced with a difficult choice. They must either deny the infallibility of the New Testament canon, or else must affirm that the Holy Spirit was active in the Ecclesia in the late fourth century, in which case they can hardly regard the fourth century Ecclesia as apostate. It would be arbitrary to claim that the Holy Spirit guided the fourth century Ecclesia to an infallibly correct definition of the New Testament canon but allowed the fourth century Ecclesia to completely misunderstand its contents.

Having looked at these historical issues, the bottom line is this: one cannot have ecclesial deism of the Christadelphian variety and also have a divinely sanctioned New Testament canon. Logically, one must allow either for Holy Spirit activity in the Ecclesia through the fourth century, with all that this entails, or else one must give up the foundation on which the entire Christadelphian Statement of Faith rests - the idea of an infallible New Testament canon.26

Besides the logical inconsistencies in the Christadelphian narrative of early Christian history, there is an additional theological problem that should be mentioned. The Christadelphian narrative implies the existence of a 'dark age' during which the Ecclesia had neither the Holy Spirit nor a canonical New Testament. This state of affairs would have existed from the time when the Holy Spirit passed off the scene (mid second century) until the canon was effectively closed (late fourth century). The problem would have been particularly acute in the mid second century when the Holy Spirit was extinct and yet even the idea of a New Testament canon had not yet developed (as far as we have evidence). It is as though the Lord abandoned His Bride for a time; and this abandonment had devastating effects, since - according to the Christadelphian paradigm - this was precisely the time when the great apostasy became entrenched in the catholic Ecclesia.

If the Bible 'is the only source of knowledge concerning God and His purposes at present extant or available in the earth', as the BASF asserts, then how can one know that one's theological understanding of the Bible is correct? This question is very pertinent given the proliferation of competing, mutually exclusive doctrinal systems, particularly over the past two centuries. The ecclesial deism paradigm is closed to answers given by Protestants (one can know through the internal witness of the Holy Spirit) and Catholics (one can know through submission to a visible, divinely sanctioned ecclesiastical authority). In fact, in answering this question the ecclesial deist can appeal to no higher authority than himself. I can be as confident in the soundness of my theology as I am confident in my own intellectual prowess and honesty. Indeed, if I am confident in my theology, it is perfectly reasonable for me to boast about it (and I may even give my magnum opus the title, 'I have found it', Eureka!, like any other natural scientist might.)

We noted in the previous post how Robert Roberts emphasized Dr. Thomas' natural qualities as a major factor in his rediscovery of the Truth. For an ecclesial deist to cross the hermeneutical bridge from Scripture to theology, it is necessary to put confidence in man - whether that man is oneself, Dr. Thomas, or someone else. When asked if we understand the Scriptures, we are not allowed to ask, with the Ethiopian eunuch, 'Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?' (Acts 8:30 NASB) We must simply study harder, and avoid the fatal risk of wresting the Scriptures (2 Peter 3:16) apparently through sheer willpower.

It should be clear that the epistemology of ecclesial deism is radically humanistic, and it ultimately confronts the seeker of divine truth with one of two options. The first option is to elevate myself, regarding my own interpretations of Scripture as more trustworthy than anyone else's. If I want to maintain that I understand the true gospel while the vast majority of professing Christians do not, and yet that the true gospel is understood through a purely human process of reflective Bible study, then I must either maintain that my own intellectual qualities are extraordinarily good, or that the intellectual qualities of the masses are extraordinarily bad while mine are ordinary. Either way, I am elevating myself relative to the masses. This is theological narcissism or elitism.

The second option is a retreat from dogma. Why is this? If I am unwilling to elevate myself, then I cannot be confident that my theology is sound. Neither, for that matter, can anyone else, since all are in the same boat. Hence, if I am to maintain my Christian profession, I must assert that sound theology really doesn't matter. All Jesus cares about is our sincere belief in an absolute minimum of the gospel, and/or our character. Theologizing beyond that is at best an interesting hobby and at worst a Pharisaical distraction. However, given the widespread concerns about false doctrine in the New Testament, it is clear that sound theology matters to Jesus.

In short, for the hyper-cessationist, the ecclesial deist, there is no logical basis for being theologically humble and confident at the same time.

In this article, following on the brief critique of ecclesial deism in the previous article, we have given five reasons why ecclesial deism is biblically, historically, and epistemologically untenable. To recap: (1) Ecclesial deists are unable to provide a principled, internally consistent reason why the Holy Spirit should have become inactive in the early Ecclesia. (2) The New Testament did not teach that the Holy Spirit would become inactive. (3) Second century Christians, as exemplified by the Apostolic Fathers, continue to presuppose the activity of the Holy Spirit and do not show the slightest awareness that the gift had ceased or would soon cease. (4) Ecclesial deists have no epistemological basis for maintaining an authoritative New Testament canon, since the canon was defined at a time when, according to the narrative of ecclesial deism, the Holy Spirit had ceased and the Ecclesia had been almost totally corrupted. (5) An ecclesial deist cannot appeal his/her interpretation of Scripture to any higher authority than his/her own natural intellect. Hence, one must either elevate oneself, or belittle others, or both.

Hopefully the reader is convinced that ecclesial deism is not a viable ecclesiology, just as hyper-cessationism is not a viable pneumatology. If Jesus is Lord, then the Holy Spirit must be active in His Ecclesia until the end of the age, just as He promised. I would like to make an appeal to Christadelphian readers who find themselves in agreement with the previous sentence. You belong to a sect founded on a very specific theological system. The founders of the sect, Dr. John Thomas and Robert Roberts, were emphatic proponents of hyper-cessationism and ecclesial deism, among other distinctive theological positions. If you now acknowledge they were seriously mistaken in this area of their theology, might it not be time for a more critical look at other aspects of Christadelphian theology? After all, by their own testimony, the founders of this system were not led by the Spirit in their interpretation of Scripture.


  • 1 Roberts, Robert. Christendom Astray
  • 2 'One of the remarkable features of the early church was its transition from a Jewish Christianity to a Gentile Christianity in the Greco-Roman world. Jesus himself, of course, was a Jew, deeply rooted in the faith and traditions of his people. The earliest believers after the resurrection were Jews, natives of Palestine and inhabitants of the diaspora. But it was not long before there were evangelizing efforts among those who were not Jews... In the course of the first century the Christian church moved from its Jewish Christian beginnings to become a new and distinct religion, predominantly Gentile, seeking to find a place in the Greco-Roman world.' (Cwiekowski, Frederick J. (1988). The Beginnings of the Church. Mahwah: Paulist Press, p. 199)
  • 3 Skarsaune, Oskar. (2002). In the shadow of the temple: Jewish influences on early Christianity. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, p. 83.
  • 4 op. cit., p. 228
  • 5 Roberts, Robert. A Guide to the Formation and Conduct of Christadelphian Ecclesias.
  • 6 Roberts, Robert. Thirteen Lectures on the Apocalypse, p. 17
  • 7 It seems that the threat was not carried out even in the case of Ephesus, since this ecclesia is the recipient of a letter from Ignatius of Antioch only a few years or decades later.
  • 8 Unless otherwise indicated, translations of Apostolic Fathers passages are from Ehrman, Bart D. (2003). The Apostolic Fathers (2 vols.). Harvard: Cambridge University Press.
  • 9 See also Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians 17.2.
  • 10 See also Martyrdom of Polycarp 7.3.
  • 11 Similarly, 'The holy spirit does not speak when the person wants to speak, but when God wants him to speak. When, then, the person who has the divine spirit comes into a gathering of upright men who have the faith of the divine spirit, and a petition comes to God from the upright men who are gathered together, then the angel of the prophetic spirit lying upon that person fills him; and once he is filled, that one speaks in the holy spirit to the congregation, just as the Lord desires. In this way the divine spirit will be evident to you. This, then, is the kind of power that the divine spirit of the Lord has.' (Hermas, Mandates 11.1.8-10)
  • 12 trans. Slusser, Michael. (ed.). (2003). St. Justin Martyr: Dialogue with Trypho: translated by Thomas B. Falls, revised and with a new introduction by Thomas P. Halton. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, p. 128).
  • 13 trans. Slusser, op. cit., p. 137.
  • 14 'The question of how, when, and why the New Testament came into being – a firmly delimited collection of precisely 27 documents – is still very much in dispute among biblical scholars and church historians.' (Gamble, Harry. (2004). Literacy, Liturgy, and the Shaping of the New Testament Canon. In Charles Horton (Ed.), The Origins and Transmission of the Earliest Christian Gospels – The Contribution of the Chester Beatty Gospel Codex P45 (pp. 27-39). London: T&T Clark International, p. 35).
  • 15 Du Toit, Andrie B. (1993). Canon. In Bruce M. Metzger & Michael David Coogan (Eds.), The Oxford Companion to the Bible (pp. 98-104). Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 102-103.
  • 16 A Committee of the Oxford Society of Historical Theology. (1905). The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • 17 Williams, in a review of a more recent work entitled The Reception of the New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers, notes that 'As would be expected, they generally find fewer certain references of the NT in the Apostolic Fathers' than the 1905 volume (Williams III, H. Drake. (2009). Review of Gregory & Tuckett, eds. ‘The Receptionof the New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers’. Themelios, 34(2), 232-234; here p. 233.)
  • 18 The NTAF description of the classification system is as follows: 'It was decided to arrange the books of the New Testament in four classes, distinguished by the letters A, B, C, and D, according to the degree of probability of their use by the several authors. Class A includes those books about which there can be no reasonable doubt, either because they are expressly mentioned, or because there are other certain indications of their use. Class B comprises those books the use of which, in the judgement of the editors, reaches a high degree of probability. With class C we come to a lower degree of probability ; and in class D are placed those books which may possibly be referred to, but in regard to which the evidence appeared too uncertain to allow any reliance to be placed upon it.' (op. cit., p. iii.)
  • 19 op. cit., p. 137.
  • 20 Boring, M. Eugene & Craddock, Fred B. (2009). The People’s New Testament Commentary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 2. Clark-Soles similarly notes, 'By the end of the 2nd century, many of the New Testament books in the canon today were being used scripturally' (Clark-Soles, Jaime. (2010). Engaging the Word: The New Testament and the Christian Believer. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 91).
  • 21 This letter is 'most widely remembered... for its inclusion of an inventory of the 27 books of the New Testament that is the first mention of the canonical list as it has been used ever since. It also features the earliest use of a form of the Greek word for "canon" applied to that list.' (Gallagher, Eugene V. (2014). Reading and Writing Scripture in New Religious Movements. New York: Palmgrave McMillan, p. 1.
  • 22 Debate still continued thereafter, in some quarters, for several centuries; and no ecumenical, magisterial pronouncement on the canon of Scripture was made until the Council of Trent in the 16th century.
  • 23 'The North African Council of Carthage in 397 CE asked for Rome's approval of the list. So, by the close of the 4th century, we have our New Testament. However, not all Christian congregations and individuals agreed with that list or ceased using other books that they had considered authoritative.' (Clark-Soles, op. cit.)
  • 24 I have not dealt with the issue of the Old Testament canon here, since Christadelphians might plausibly claim that this was fixed by the end of the first century.
  • 25 The Christadelphian pioneers, Dr. John Thomas and Robert Roberts, seem never to have opened the canon to any serious scrutiny.
  • 26 An objection that might be raised is that the New Testament canon is somehow self-evident. But if this was not the case for the early Ecclesia (as evinced by the gradual development of the canon, the extensive debate that took place over certain books, and the adoption of narrower or wider canons in, for example, the Nestorian and Ethiopian churches), it is unclear why it should be the case today.

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