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Saturday, 21 May 2016

Journeys from Christadelphia to orthodoxy: Guest article by Ruth Sutcliffe

This guest article by Ruth Sutcliffe is the first in a series of personal accounts from former Christadelphians who have embraced Christian orthodoxy.1 Ruth was raised as a Christadelphian and was a baptized member of the movement for 26 years before resigning in 2008. She now attends Willows Presbyterian Church. Holding a Master of Veterinary Studies degree (Murdoch University, 2007) and a Master of Divinity degree (Australian Theological College, 2012), Ruth is now enrolled in a PhD programme at Christ College, Sydney with patristic theology as her area of research. Married with two daughters, she resides in Townsville, North Queensland, Australia. Readers interested in a detailed scriptural and historical defence of the beliefs Ruth now holds in common with mainstream Evangelical Christianity, and a critique of Christadelphian theology, may visit her blog, The Trinity Hurdle. Alternatively readers may wish to contact her privately by email.

I was born in 1965, the only child of parents who were first generation committed Christadelphians. I grew up reading the Bible at home and going to Sunday School. Lessons covered Bible heroes and events in the history of Israel. The life and teachings of Jesus featured one year in five, with maybe one or two lessons on his death and resurrection and nothing from the NT epistles. I vaguely understood that when you grew up you got baptised, but baptism, like weddings, seemed very remote. I learnt I should have faith in God, like the Bible heroes did, but nothing about a personal relationship with Jesus. I knew Jesus saved you when you got baptised, but I didn’t understand how. I was taught that the key to understanding salvation was the complex doctrine of God manifestation. The notion of substitutionary atonement, meanwhile, was anathema. I figured that getting into The Kingdom was about believing the Bible and following God’s rules and being good.

Sadly, the ecclesia of my childhood withered almost overnight as its dynamics changed and the families moved away. At this time my Dad suffered a ten year crisis of faith and I became a rebellious adolescent. As an only child, with no close relatives and that peculiar distancing from children “Outside” the exclusive ecclesial community, I had no real friends and no social skills. I still read the Bible, but it was an enjoyable obligation, an acquisition of knowledge for a nerdy child whose sense of self-worth was invested in school work and solo activities. God’s word had no impact on my life in any meaningful way. Then I started attending another Christadelphian Sunday School and youth group and suddenly I had friends! I was the odd one out, a nerd, an awkward loner with, paradoxically, a good Bible knowledge. Incredibly, I was accepted and to this day I thank God for a group of open minded, warm-hearted friends who exerted a positive peer pressure that kept me on the rails.

I so wanted to be like my young Christadelphian friends. This was a great influence on my behaviour and it definitely changed me for the better and I have no doubt God was working through them. Eventually, we reached our late teens and became old enough to learn “First Principles” with the not-so-hidden agenda of preparing for baptism. Of course, that’s what I intended to do, when I knew enough and felt “ready.” You got baptised because the Bible said you had to, to be saved. But you had to know the Truth thoroughly first, as a friend of mine discovered when she “failed” her first baptismal interview. It was then that I really appreciated how different we were, as custodians of the Truth against the “churches” who had gone astray because they didn’t know their Bibles as well as we did, but accepted the teachings of the apostate church. Because I wanted to obey God (I’m not sure that I really loved him, I don’t know that I really understood what that meant) and to be like my adult mentors, I became a vigorous defender of Christadelphian doctrine and an equally vigorous opponent of my mainstream Christian acquaintances’ beliefs. Join a school Christian fellowship group who just wanted to “praise God” and have “fellowship” and not even debate doctrines? No way! How pathetic!  Personal relationship with Jesus? Far too touchy-feely and shallow.

The narrow way to acceptance with God was clearly defined for me, in doctrine and in behaviour, and I was determined to walk it. I was baptised at 17, within a year or two of most of my friends. I remember being frustrated with myself because after the warm feelings and the novelty of being welcomed as “Sister” died down, I felt nothing had really changed. I still sinned, and even though I knew I could now pray to God and ask for forgiveness, it strangely didn’t seem to make much difference to my life. (In line with Christadelphian tradition, I had been taught that the Holy Spirit doesn’t directly work in Christians’ lives today.) So I resolved to work harder at it and squeeze more firmly into the mould. Then I went to University. That wasn’t unheard of, but still a bit left-field for a young Christadelphian woman in the 80s, especially as I actually intended for it to become a career. I continued to keep my distance from Christian Union and anything to do with “the churches” and threw myself wholeheartedly into the Christadelphian youth scene. I brought friends along to Christadelphian youth events and Sunday night lectures occasionally, but couldn’t understand why they held no appeal; these things were my life!

Once I got talking to a young man who told me he was trying to renounce his life of alcohol-fuelled sin and come to know Jesus. I had no idea how to deal with that, but I told him I went to church and he actually wanted to come along. So I brought him, delighted that I was actually “preaching” to someone. It was Sunday morning. He was wearing torn jeans and a tee shirt and had long hair. We were ushered into the cry room because his appearance might cause offence to the older folk. He sang too loudly, raised his arms in praise and said things like, “Amen!” out loud during the exhortation, so someone had a quiet word with him afterwards. He never came back.

This and a few other incidents began to bother me, but I didn’t know what to do about it. We had some spirited discussions, my friends and I, but in the end it was easier to accept the status quo “out of love for our brothers and sisters.” Going anywhere else was never an option for me at this time. I couldn’t understand how anyone could leave “the truth,” and it pained me when some of my acquaintances did. Especially when they joined “other churches.” How could they do that, when those churches’ beliefs were so obviously wrong? Sure, the other churches did a lot of things that I wished we Christadelphians would do, like charitable stuff and welcoming people regardless of how they dressed, and knowing what to actually say to people who were drug addicted or who had sinned sexually and needed help. But it wasn’t right to sacrifice “The Truth” to do any of those things, was it?

One incident stays with me. It was some sort of a “preaching weekend,” in support of a country ecclesia’s “special effort.” We leafleted and held a lecture in a hall and even did some door-knocking. Coincidently, one of the local evangelical churches was also doing some sort of witnessing event and we all came face-to face in a car-park. I talked to the minister, expecting a good old verse-by-verse doctrinal debate, which of course I would win. (May God forgive my arrogance!) Not surprisingly, this minister wasn’t up for it (so I assumed!) but what DID surprise me was that he was mainly concerned to pray for me. Pray for me?! Why did I need anyone to pray for me, especially someone who would be praying directly to Jesus!! (How unscriptural!) He prayed for me then and there, in public, kindly, inoffensively, with an ease and a natural manner that I had rarely heard. Afterward, he just smiled warmly and said, “You’ll be back one day.”
Hah, no way! I thought. But he was right.

I met my future husband, a former nominal Anglican who was interested in attending church regularly. He “came in from Outside” and was baptised. We were married and had two children. We taught them the Bible and took them to Sunday School. We were thoroughly involved in ecclesial life. But for some time God had been working inside my head and heart. I loved my Christadelphian brothers and sisters and I still believed as they did. But because of my career, and our diverse interests outside of the Christadelphian community we were never completely “inside the box” socially. The girls went to a Christian school and we associated with genuinely Christian people. The girls began to ask challenging questions about beliefs. To cut a very long story short, I began to realise that mainstream Christians did not in fact have two heads. That many of them actually read their Bibles at least as much as Christadelphians did. The Christian world had scholars, real Bible scholars whose life’s work was to engage with Scripture and Christian thought. I began to engage with the wider Christian world and its thinking (as, incidentally, did some of my friends at this time). Because I worked shifts, I didn’t always fit into the standard Sunday morning and Wednesday night formula and so finally crossed The Line. I went to other churches occasionally, rather than miss out on Christian assembly altogether. I was exposed to the actual Gospel for the first time.

I cannot say I ever had an Ah-hah moment and just suddenly accepted the doctrine of the Trinity (or other doctrines I’ve now come to accept, such as substitutionary atonement.) But what I did start to seriously appreciate was that these Christians found their beliefs in the reading of Scripture. They were not finding them elsewhere and they were not placing any other authority over Scripture. I had some bad church experiences, yes, with TV-evangelism style “healings” and some pretty shallow teaching. But I began to see that they were not all tarred with the same brush. The real clincher for me though, was absolutely not that they were “nicer” or “kinder” or freer in their style of dress, behaviour or worship, or offered more opportunities for women, or they did more “good works.” Because mainstream churches vary in those respects too, as do Christadelphians. Those are not the issues. Certainly the biblical groundedness of mainstream churches varies. No argument with any of that. Those are not reasons why I began to leave Christadelphia.

The thing that really started me moving away, in a process that took several years and an enormous amount of thought, Bible reading and prayer, was, “Why do we believe what we believe when most others believe something else?” More particularly, how do mainstream Christians find their beliefs in the Bible, while we find completely different doctrines there? Are we really the only ones with The Truth? If that is the case, why do all the other Christians who accept the Bible as God’s infallible inspired word and who earnestly search for truth in its pages, believe something completely different? Would God really have allowed The Truth to remain hidden for nearly 2000 years? Perhaps the answer lay in a review of church history; perhaps there were plenty of Christadelphian-like Protesters through the centuries (there weren’t, actually). This deep dissatisfaction with simplistic responses such as “other people don’t know the Bible as well as us” or “They just don’t read all of the Bible as objectively as us” or “they are still blinded by apostasy and church tradition,” was combined with a growing restlessness to know more of the meat of Scripture. I wanted to learn more about the Bible, about church history, I wanted to learn to read it in its original languages. So I did the obvious thing. I went to Bible College.

I thank God that he led me to a thoroughly Bible-based, welcoming Bible College. They accepted me with a smile and a prayer, heretic as I was. Nobody argued with me, they just asked interested questions and discussed issues. They never coerced me, just pointed to God’s word. They prayed with me. I studied the Bible as I’d never studied it before. Everything was open to prayerful, biblically oriented discussion. I learnt what mainstream Christian doctrine actually taught and why, and found I had never understood correctly what others believed. I learnt what key words and phrases actually meant in the original Greek and it opened up a whole new world of interpretation. I learnt the history of the church and its doctrinal development and what the creeds really meant (as opposed to what I assumed they did). I understood the biblical basis of the doctrines that mattered and the ones that were open to interpretation. I understood how heresies arose. I learnt to view the Bible as a whole, under the overarching movement of the story of salvation in Christ and came to understand his absolute centrality. No more verse-by verse patchwork.

Probably the biggest challenge was the revelation that I had never really understood God’s grace and the assurance it supplied. My mother had always worried that she would not be found “worthy” at the judgement, and almost every Christadelphian with whom I had discussed “assurance” said they couldn’t be sure they’d be in the Kingdom. When I first read about Christadelphians in a book on different sects, one thing stood out. Not all the stuff we didn’t believe, I got that. But the statement that Christadelphians advocated a works based salvation. “No we don’t!” I remember saying adamantly to someone. “The Bible says we are saved by grace not works, and we believe the Bible!” But then it all started coming back to me. Doctrines to be rejected, number 24, “That the Gospel alone will save, without the obedience of Christ’s commandments.” That Christ died as our representative, whom we must emulate in order to please God; he did not take our punishment. That a certain way of life and manner of behaviour was necessary to win God’s love and favour. Snippets of conversation; “If we are found worthy...” “I will do that, I want to be in the kingdom too, you know.” A rejection of the belief in “Jesus is Lord” as adequate for salvation but instead a heaping of burdens grievous to be borne. I now realise that the official Christadelphian view of the atonement does rely on an inadequate works basis, because it is built on an inadequate understanding of the person and sufficient work of Christ. It requires salvation by identification and imitation; it requires faith itself to be a “work” by which we assent to a specific set of beliefs, and it provides no real assurance.

I have no axe to grind. My experiences as a Christadelphian were predominantly positive and I still count a number of them as friends, albeit somewhat estranged by distance. I did not leave the Christadelphians because they offended me, or rejected me, or were too boring, or didn’t let women do stuff in the church, or because I had been led astray from the Bible or just found “a nice church” and wanted to fit in — each of these accusations has been levelled at me. I left the Christadelphians because I discovered that the emperor has no clothes. Their beliefs about things of eternal consequence are wrong and that burdens me, which is why I spent years researching and writing. I discovered what the Bible really teaches about fundamental doctrines and what it means for Christ to be my Lord and Saviour. I left Christadelphia because I studied the Bible and prayed more, not less, and because I was prepared to try to understand others’ beliefs and do the Berean thing. I searched the Scriptures. I prayed that God would show me “the truth of the matter.” And he did. I did what that minister knew God could make happen, but my hard heart could not; I came back.


Footnotes

  • 1 'Orthodoxy' is defined in terms of the classical creeds of Nicea-Constantinople and Chalcedon.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Shawna Dolansky on 'How the Serpent Became Satan'

In this post I want to offer a few comments on a recent article by Shawna Dolansky entitled How the Serpent became Satan from Biblical Archaeology magazine. In this article, Prof. Dolansky puts forth two main theses to a popular audience. First, she argues from a history of religions point of view that the serpent of Genesis 3 cannot be identified as Satan, 'for the simple reason that when the story was written, the concept of the devil had not yet been invented'.

She proceeds to describe in outline the development of the concept of Satan, beginning with the noun satan in the Hebrew Bible, and proceeding through intertestamental Judaism and early Christianity. She then arrives at her second thesis, that 'there is no clear link anywhere in the Bible between Satan and Eden’s talking snake'. She does not suggest a theory on when a 'clear link' was first made, but does note that Justin Martyr (died 160s C.E.) assumed this association. 

While some Christian readers may find Dolansky's article startling (or even offensive, judging from some of the comments), from a biblical studies point of view she is for the most part stating the obvious. Few biblical scholars today would defend an identification of the serpent with Satan using historical-critical exegesis of Genesis 3.

Dolansky's overview of the development of the Satan concept begins with the Hebrew Bible. She acknowledges, as is widely agreed among Old Testament scholars, that there are numerous passages where the Hebrew word satan simply means a human adversary, but that in four passages the word denotes a divine being. In particular, she acknowledges that in Job 1-2 and Zechariah 3:1-2, the satan is a member of YHWH's heavenly council, and also notes the debate around whether satan functions as a proper name in 1 Chronicles 21:1 (the weight of scholarly opinion today probably favours a 'no').

Hence, she rightly and uncontroversially asserts that 'the idea of an evil prince of darkness' was not in the consciousness of the Israelites in the Old Testament period. Referring to a handful of intertestamental texts, she traces out the development of the 'devil' concept. Dolansky is willing to allow that the serpent is linked with an angel in 1 Enoch and possibly with the devil in Wisdom of Solomon (though the meaning of diabolos in this text is very much debated). Her only contention is that the serpent is not yet linked with Satan. 

Again, her summary of the 'adoption' of the Satan/devil concept by the early church is brief but uncontroversial (though I would give the early church, and the historical Jesus in particular, more credit in founding a distinctly Christian concept of Satan than the word 'adopt' suggests).

Coming to Dolansky's second thesis, the statement that there is no 'clear link' between the serpent and Satan even in the New Testament turns on the qualifier 'clear'. Certainly there is no explicit assertion that the serpent of Eden was Satan or was used by Satan. However, there are a number of New Testament texts in which some link between the two seems to be presupposed. Of these, Dolansky mentions only Revelation 12:9 and 20:2, where the great red dragon of the apocalyptic vision is identified as 'the ancient serpent, called Devil and Satan'. While it is true that divine combat myths lie in the background of the dragon/serpent imagery, there is good reason to think that an allusion to the serpent of Eden is also in view. The picture of eternity in Revelation draws heavily on allusions to the Garden of Eden (Revelation 2:7; 22:1-2, 14, 19). The immediate context of the vision in which the dragon/serpent is introduced, moreover, is fairly laced with allusions to Genesis 3. The antagonists are a woman and a dragon/serpent. The serpent is identified as 'the one that deceives the whole world'; deceit is of course the serpent's modus operandi in the Garden of Eden ('the serpent deceived me', Genesis 3:13). Then, of course, there is the conflict between the dragon/serpent and the seed of the woman (the singular, male child and 'the rest of her seed', Rev. 12:5, 17), which can hardly be other than an allusion to Genesis 3:15. Hence, Dolansky's assertion that 'the reference in Revelation 12:9 to Satan as “the ancient serpent” probably reflects mythical monsters like Leviathan rather than the clever, legged, talking creature in Eden' (emphasis added) is a false dilemma. Both form part of the background. Hence, while it is debatable whether in Revelation the author seeks to actually identify the serpent of Eden with Satan, there certainly is a 'clear link' between the two.

There are a number of other passages in which a link is arguably presupposed between the serpent and Satan. Scholars debate the source of Paul's allusion in Romans 16:20 ('The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet'), but Genesis 3:15 is one of the primary candidates, along with Psalm 110 and Psalm 8 (the options may again not be mutually exclusive). In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul may reflect a Jewish tradition in which Satan disguised himself as an angel of light in the Garden of Eden (though the age of this tradition is debatable, since it is attested only in the later Life of Adam and Eve, which may be of Christian provenance). In John 8:44, the reference to the devil as the father of lies and a murderer from the beginning seems to implicate the devil in the events of Genesis 3 (the deceit of Eve) and possibly Genesis 4 (Cain's murder of Abel). Indeed, in 1 John 3:12 the same writer describes Cain as having been 'of that evil one', which clearly assumes the devil's existence in the primeval world. By ignoring the allusions to Genesis 3 in Revelation 12 and failing to take note of these other texts, Dolansky understates the evidence for a link between Satan and the serpent of Eden in the New Testament.

While Dolansky does not say so explicitly, her conclusion gives the impression that she thinks the direct identification of the Edenic serpent with Satan was a post-New Testament, Christian innovation. This is problematic not only because of the New Testament evidence summarized above, but also because such an identification can be found in rabbinic literature. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan to Genesis 3:6 describes an encounter between Eve and the serpent and then with Sammael, the angel of death (although no explicit link is made between the serpent and Sammael). In later rabbinic tradition, Sammael is closely associated or even identified with Satan. The ninth-century rabbinic work Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer clearly identifies the serpent with Samael, a satanic angel figure. Tracing out the tradition-history behind this identification, Dulkin writes that 'there exists sufficient cumulative evidence to prove that Samael/Satan is a known, recognizable figure in rabbinic sources generally and in the case of Gen. Rab. 20:5 is represented in early rabbinic depictions of Genesis 2–3'.1 The Jewish pseudepigraphon 2 Enoch, dated by some scholars to the first century C.E. (and by others much, much later), identifies a fallen angel named Satanail as the seducer of Eve. Hence, either an identification between Satan and the serpent developed separately in Judaism and Christianity, or this idea was present before the 'parting of the ways'. The evidence of the New Testament suggests that the latter is a more likely scenario.

Hence, it is plausible that later Church Fathers who place Satan in the Garden of Eden were not merely making a conflation that 'seemed natural', but were handing down a tradition received from the first century Church.

Returning to Dolansky's first thesis, if it is untenable for biblical scholars using modern exegetical methods to read Satan into Genesis 3, and if the early church nevertheless did read Satan into Genesis 3, where does that leave today's church? Enter theological interpretation. The Church does not limit her reading of Scripture to historical-critical interpretation, but reads Scripture through the lens of Christian faith. An analogy may help. There is a long and venerable tradition in the Church of reading Genesis 3:15 as a veiled Messianic prophecy. Yet if someone were to stand up at a Society of Biblical Literature meeting and suggest that the 'seed of the woman' refers to Jesus Christ, they would be met with disbelief and probably loud laughter - and rightly so, from a history-of-religions point of view. This interpretation is every bit as anachronistic as the interpretation that identifies or associates the serpent with Satan. The same is true of many other alleged Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament, such as Isaiah 7:14. One must read the Old Testament with the eyes of Christian faith in order to find Christ there. The same is true (albeit on a far lesser scale) with Satan.


Footnotes

  • 1 Dulkin, Ryan S. (2014). The Devil Within: A Rabbinic Traditions-History of the Samael Story in Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer. Jewish Studies Quarterly, 21(2), 153-175. Here p. 174.