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Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Christadelphian apologetics, modern scholarship, and the historicist interpretation of Revelation

Introduction
The appeal to mainstream biblical scholarship in Christadelphian apologetics
Modern scholarship and the historicist view of Revelation
Response in Christadelphian apologetics
Conclusion

The purpose of this article is to point out an inconsistency in recent Christadelphian apologetics, namely the tendency to appeal to mainstream biblical scholarship to 'confirm' the validity of Christadelphian exegetical and theological positions, but to dismiss or even ignore mainstream biblical scholarship where its conclusions contradict Christadelphian exegetical and theological positions. This seems to be a straightforward case of confirmation bias, 'in which people selectively attend to evidence that supports their conclusion and overlook contrary evidence.'1


In some Christadelphian circles, modern critical scholarship of the Bible is being pressed into service as a tool for apologetics. This seems to be particularly characteristic of the work of Jonathan and Dave Burke, two of the foremost Christadelphian apologists. Jonathan Burke has devoted a ten-part series of blog posts to advocating the use of 'scholarly literature' in Christadelphian biblical interpretation and apologetics. Here, Burke claims that his proposal is nothing new: 'Professional scholarship has long been used by Christadelphians to help interpret the Bible and to defend our faith.'

Moreover, the Christadelphian apologetics periodical Defence and Confirmation, for which both Burkes serve as editors, recently devoted an entire issue to discussing how modern, mainstream scholarship has, over the last century, 'increasingly supported the Christadelphian view on most of our doctrines'. The issue contains articles highlighting support in modern scholarship for Christadelphian beliefs in five areas: Jesus' self-understanding, baptism, the immortality of the soul, the atonement, and Satan/demons. These appeals to modern scholarship are problematic for several reasons,2 but my purpose here is simply to note the form of the argument.

If increasing scholarly support for a Christadelphian viewpoint leads to increasing confidence in this position, to what does decreasing scholarly support for a Christadelphian viewpoint lead? We will revisit this question after demonstrating its relevance using a case in point.


Christadelphians have traditionally held to the continuous historical or historicist interpretation of the Book of Revelation, which interprets the visions from chapter 4 onward as a long-term forecast of world history from the end of the first century through the present and into the eschatological future. This view was introduced to the Christadelphians by Dr. John Thomas (1805-71), the movement's founder, whose magnum opus was Eureka: An Exposition of the Apocalypse, a three-volume work written toward the end of his life. Dr. Thomas appears to have regarded the historicist interpretation of Revelation as virtually an article of faith. A Statement of Faith provided by Dr. Thomas to the editor of a magazine in 1869 included the following among the propositions that Christadelphians 'from the very first most surely believed and [which have been] taught by their recognized scribes and their literature':
19. They regard the Roman church as “the Mother of Harlots;” and the papal dynasty as “the name of blasphemy,” seated on the seven heads of Rome (Rev. xiii. 1; xvii. 9,) and the paramour of the Old Mother. They hold, also, that their harlot-daughters answer to the state churches of Anti-Christendom; and the “abominations of the earth,” to all the dissenting names and denominations, aggregately styled “names of blasphemy,” of which the European body politic, symbolized by the eight-headed scarlet-coloured beast, is said to be “full.” – (Rev. xvii. 3.) 
24. They teach we are living in the period of the sixth vial, in which Christ appears upon the theatre of mundane events; and that the two great leading and notable signs of the times are the drying-up up of the Ottoman Power, and the imperial French Frog Power in its political operations in Rome, Vienna, and Constantinople, during the past twenty-one years. – (Rev xvi. 12, 16)3
It seems Dr. Thomas took it for granted that all Christadelphians agreed with these interpretations of apocalyptic symbols. However, the Birmingham Statement of Faith authored by Robert Roberts after Dr. Thomas' death in 1871 omitted any explicit reference to symbols from Revelation, presumably reflecting a view that these did not form part of the core doctrines of the 'One Faith' necessary for fellowship. Consequently, the continuous historical view of Revelation has never been enforced as a boundary marker for Christadelphian fellowship (with the exception of certain ultra-conservative ecclesias.)4

Nevertheless, while not enforced as a matter of fellowship, the continuous historical view has dominated Christadelphian interpretation of Revelation. Jonathan Burke helpfully provides a table summarizing interpretations of Revelation through history. Among the Christadelphian expositors listed there are 48 historicists (49 if we count Burke himself), three futurists, one 'partial futurist', one preterist, one 'partial preterist', and two unknowns. Thus, according to this tally, over 85% of Christadelphians who have written on the Book of Revelation have advocated the continuous historical view. Indeed, no non-historicist Christadelphian appears in the table before 1956. This suggests that the continuous historical view enjoyed unchallenged status for the first century of Christadelphian history. Its popularity may be waning, however: of the nine Christadelphian works since 1980, plus Burke's own, only six (60%) have been historicist.


Quotations from a few scholars will suffice to establish the unfavourable verdict that modern scholarship has passed on the historicist interpretation of Revelation. Osborne writes as follows:
Because of its inherent weaknesses (its identification only with Western church history, the inherent speculation involved in the parallels with world history, the fact that it must be reworked with each new period in world history, the total absence of any relevance for John or his original readers; see also Beale 1999; 46), few scholars today take this approach.5
Pate:
The primary strength of this view lies in its attempt to make sense of Revelation for the interpreter by correlating the prophecies directed to the seven churches of Asia Minor with the stages comprising church history. The vast majority of scholars agree, however, that this single strength is far outweighed by its many weaknesses.6
Boring:
The major problems [with the historicist view], of course, are apparent: (a) The book would have meant nothing to its first readers, who would have to wait centuries before it could be properly understood; (b) it misunderstands prophecy by reducing it to prediction; (c) the variety of interpretations cancel each other out and invalidate the method. Although widely held by Protestant interpreters after the Reformation and into the twentieth century, no critical New Testament scholar today advocates this view.7
In a popular-level book, Wagner and Helyer write:
The historicist interpretation has an impressive list of proponents from the past, including Martin Luther, John Wycliffe, John Knox, William Tyndale, Sir Isaac Newton, John Wesley, and C.H. Spurgeon. However, like disco music and tapered jeans, the historicist approach is out of style today. Few people in the twenty-first century subscribe to this perspective.8
In his book Apocalypse and Millennium: Studies in Biblical Eisegesis (note the last word in the title), Newport remarks on 'how central historicism has been, and continues to be, to the Millerite-Seventh-day Adventist-Davidian/Branch Davidian tradition'.9 He continues:
it is clear from the evidence that while historicism and mainstream scholarly biblical studies were destined to go their separate ways during the course of the nineteenth century, historicism itself continues to live on, indeed to thrive, in this narrower, largely non-critical context.10
Response in Christadelphian apologetics

We observed earlier that Christadelphian apologists have recently been claiming that Christadelphian theology has increasingly been vindicated by mainstream biblical scholarship. However, we are now faced with a clear counterexample: a case where a traditional Christadelphian hermeneutic, despite enjoying reasonable popularity in centuries past, has now been abandoned by mainstream biblical scholarship.

How do Christadelphian apologists respond to this counterexample? Largely, it would seem, by dismissing or ignoring it. For instance, Jonathan Burke, the most vocal proponent of the 'vindication by modern scholarship' apologetic, published a table of interpretations of Revelation through history which we referred to above. Burke's list extends through 2007 and yet it omits virtually all the mainstream, technical commentaries on Revelation from the past 50 years, of which there have been plenty.11 Alongside numerous Christadelphian writers, Burke includes four non-Christadelphian defenders of the historicist view in his table from the past 50 years. They are as follows:
  • Francis Nigel Lee, a Presbyterian systematic theologian and Church historian whose books on eschatology seem to have been published by obscure denominational publishers.12 Lee was unquestionably a learned man and an ardent defender of the historicist view (or 'historicalist', as he preferred to call it). In his book John's Revelation Unveiled, Lee included a list of defenders of the 'historicalist' view down through history.13 The list is quite impressive through the nineteenth century but then conspicuously thins out!
  • David Pio Gullon, a Seventh Day Adventist exegete (apparently a faculty member at the Universidad Adventista del Plata in Argentina) who wrote a paper on the interpretation of Revelation in a SDA denominational peer-reviewed journal. Gullon notes that the historicist view has been gradually rejected by the mainstream but comments, 'It is difficult to say just why the historicist school of interpretation faded in popularity'.14 Gullon thus appears sympathetic to the historicist view (unsurprisingly, given his denominational affiliation), but he does not defend it in this article.
  • Alan Campbell, who apparently authored a webpage (now defunct) entitled Opening the Seals of the Apocalypse.
  • E.G. Cook, a Baptist who apparently wrote a work in 1970 (no bibliographical information is provided by Burke)
On another website, Burke has provided detailed information about 'historicist exposition' of specific sections and symbols within Revelation. For seven distinct sections within the book, Burke provides a separate table summarizing interpretation of the symbols down through history. Each page bears the subtitle 'Expositors Agree'. Curiously, though, each table truncates in the mid-twentieth century, and sources cited from the 20th century are mostly Christadelphian.

In short, Burke's work on Revelation shows a distinct interest in non-Christadelphian support for the historicist view, but an equally distinct failure to acknowledge the rejection of the historicist view by contemporary, mainstream biblical scholarship. It is not merely that Burke fails to critically engage with mainstream scholarship on Revelation; he seems to act as though it didn't exist! Yet Burke claims that Christadelphians have traditionally 'quick to identify and use scholarly Bible commentary (even from apostate theologians)'. Why has he been so slow to identify and use scholarly Bible commentary on the interpretation of the Apocalypse?

While one cannot presume to know Burke's motives, it seems entirely possible that mainstream biblical scholarship has been ignored in this case precisely because its unfavourable verdict on the historicist view of Revelation clashes with his apologetic narrative in which mainstream biblical scholarship progressively vindicates Christadelphian theology.

Dave Burke has published a paper online entitled Revelation: Four Interpretive Models. Perhaps written as an academic assignment, this paper is more forthright about the decline of historicism, acknowledging that it has been 'widely abandoned' and 'long overtaken in popularity by futurism'. However, he adds that 'it retains strong support among some conservative Christian denominations and sects, including Baptists, Presbyterians, Seventh Day Adventists, and Christadelphians'. Burke does not cite a single Baptist or Presbyterian (or Seventh Day Adventist) in support of this statement, and also appears not to draw any distinction between scholarly and non-scholarly support here (odd in an academic paper). Burke does not appear to have appreciated historicism's complete lack of support within mainstream biblical scholarship today.

After describing the four models and their historical pedigrees, Burke moves on to evaluation. He judiciously asserts, 'None of the exegetical models reviewed by this paper is without its problems, however minor.' However, he then proceeds to lambast the preterist, futurist and idealist views, describing them with terms like 'demonstrably partisan', 'suspect', 'arbitrary', 'highly subjective', 'dubious', '[having a] severe weakness', and 'ad hoc'. When he gets to historicism, though, he does not admit any problems. Acknowledging its widespread abandonment, he dismisses this because 'it was the prevailing model for at [sic] 1,700 years'. Thus Burke thrusts aside modern scholarship via an appeal to tradition - the precise opposite of the approach favoured in Defence and Confirmation, where tradition is thrust aside via an appeal to modern scholarship! Moreover, Burke virtually ignores scholarly criticism of the historicist view.15

Conclusion

By comparing the 'appeal to mainstream scholarly opinion' argument used by prominent Christadelphian apologists with same apologists' neglect of or disdain for mainstream scholarly opinion on the historicist view of Revelation, what do we learn? We learn that the 'confirmation from mainstream scholarship' argument carries little weight, because it is a case of confirmation bias. Where scholarly opinion drifts toward the Christadelphian position on a particular exegetical or theological issue,16 it is heralded and celebrated; where scholarly opinion drifts in the other direction, it is dismissed or ignored.

If increasing scholarly support for a position held by Christadelphians is construed as strengthening the dogmatic posture of Christadelphians, but decreasing scholarly support for a position held by Christadelphians is not construed as weakening the dogmatic posture of Christadelphians, then the appeal to scholarship is arbitrary and tendentious.

This kind of engagement with scholarly literature contains little scope for self-criticism, and that is what makes it particularly dangerous. Indeed, while Burke says Christadelphians have traditionally been quick to 'use' biblical scholarship, often with an explicitly apologetic goal,17 Christadelphians have not traditionally been quick to do biblical scholarship - that is, to participate in it and make meaningful contributions to it. Christadelphians have traditionally 'used' biblical scholarship from the sidelines. Here, the apologist can weave together a literature review (often highly selective) that gives his claims the appearance of scholarly rigour, whilst remaining exempt from criticism by the scholarly community itself. Such use of critical scholarship is unfortunately not very critical or scholarly.

However, there is perhaps some reason for optimism. On Revelation specifically, non-historicist interpretations seem to be gaining ground among Christadelphians. On the broader issue of Christadelphians' relationship to mainstream biblical scholarship, it appears that the number of Christadelphians undertaking formal biblical and/or theological studies is on the rise (the Burkes included, I believe). Christadelphians seem poised to begin moving from the grandstand of biblical scholarship into the arena. This will no doubt be to the benefit of scholarship, which will be challenged by a fresh perspective in a number of areas, and to Christadelphian theology, which may finally have its day in the court of academic opinion.

Footnotes

  • 1 Prinstein, Michael J. (Ed.) (2013). The Portable Mentor: Expert Guide to a Successful Career in Psychology (2nd ed.). New York: Springer, p. 128.
  • 2 Not least of these, in the area of Satan and demons, is the failure to acknowledge that the 'accommodation theory' of the Synoptic accounts of demon possession and exorcism has no standing in mainstream scholarship.
  • 3 Quoted in Hemingray, Peter. (2003/2008). John Thomas: His Friends and His Faith (2nd ed.). The Christadelphian Tidings, pp. 335-338.
  • 4 The Republic, Missouri Unamended Ecclesia has added articles to the Doctrines to be Rejected portion of its Statement of Faith explicitly rejecting the futurist and preterist views of Revelation and, indeed, rejects the notion 'that any theory that radically departs from the "continuous historical intepretation" as generally elaborated by John Thomas in Eureka is to be received.' The following qualifier is added: '(This does not require unqualified acceptance of the interpretation of all events  and symbols-simply that the events "which must shortly come to pass" began to transpire shortly after the Apocalypse was given to the Apostle John in Patmos and that they have continued to unfold in the nearly 1900 years since that divine revelation.)'
  • 5 Osborne, Grant R. (2002). Revelation. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p. 19. Emphasis added.
  • 6 Pate, C. Marvin. (2009). Reading Revelation: A Comparison of Four Interpretive Translations of the Apocalypse. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, p. 9. Emphasis added. He continues, listing the weaknesses of the historicist view: 'The historicist outline applies only to the history of the Western church, ignoring the spread of Christianity throughout the rest of the world. Since images such as the beast of Revelation 13 are always identified with people and events contemporary to the interpreter, the historicist reading of Revelation is constantly being revised as new events occur and new figures emerge. Most problematic for historicism is the complete lack of agreement about the various outlines of church history. History is like a moving target for those who want to read Revelation in this way, and there is no consensus about what the book means, even among interpreters within the same school of interpretation.'
  • 7 Boring, M. Eugene. (2011). Revelation. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, pp. 48-49. Emphasis added.
  • 8 Helyer, Larry R. & Wagner, Richard. (2008). The Book of Revelation for Dummies. Hoboken: Wiley, p. 74. Emphasis added.
  • 9 Newport, Kenneth G.C. (2000). Apocalypse and Millennium: Studies in Biblical Eisegesis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 17.
  • 10 ibid. Emphasis added.
  • 11 Beale, Osborne, Mounce, Aune, Kistemaker, Thomas, Patterson, Prigent, Witherington, Harrington, Ford, Thompson, Roloff, Kraft, etc.
  • 12 Lee's book John's Revelation Unveiled scarcely interacted with contemporary technical commentaries on Revelation, and appears to have been ignored or gone unnoticed by subsequent scholarship (for instance, Google Scholar finds only one citation of it).
  • 13 Lee, Francis Nigel. (2000). John's Revelation Unveiled. Lynwoodrif: Ligstryders, p. 6.
  • 14 Gullon, David Pio. (1998). Two Hundred Years from Lacunza: The Impact of His Eschatological Thought on Prophetic Studies and Modern Futurism. Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 9(1-2), 71-95. Here p. 79 n. 46. Gullon suggests 'excessive date-setting' and 'diversity in its interpretations' as possible explanations, but does not mention the first reason given by Boring, which seems to me to be the primary reason for scholars' rejection of historicism.
  • 15 Burke interacts with just one critic (Herrick) of historicism, and on just one point of criticism - which is relegated to a footnote. Burke's reference list is, moreover, noticeably light on scholarly commentaries on Revelation. The only book-length commentaries on Revelation he cites are those of Garrow and Cory, neither of which could be described as technical.
  • 16 One might go as far as to say, whenever support for a Christadelphian position is found in scholarship!
  • 17 As Burke writes, 'Professional scholarship has long been used by Christadelphians to help interpret the Bible and to defend our faith.'

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