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Wednesday, 22 June 2016

The Christadelphian baptismal examination (interview): purpose and content

In this post I discuss one of the most distinctive religious practices of the Christadelphian community, namely the baptismal examination (or baptismal interview).1 This article will be largely descriptive; in a subsequent post I hope to evaluate the practice theologically.


1. What is a baptismal examination?

In the Christadelphian community, the baptismal examination is a vetting procedure for people who have expressed a desire for baptism. Typically, two or more mature male members of the local congregation (ecclesia) meet with the candidate and conduct an interview to ascertain whether he or she is ready for baptism, based on the criteria of motive, doctrinal understanding, and moral standards.

There is a widespread Christian tradition, past and present, of pre-baptismal instruction (catechesis). Moreover, Christadelphians are by no means the only religious group that conducts baptismal interviews.2 What makes the Christadelphian pre-baptismal procedure unique is the examination of candidates on a broad range of topics and the notion that doing so safeguards the validity of the baptism.3 Christadelphians have no standardized procedure for conducting examinations;4 various sets of guidelines exist. Perhaps the oldest and most well-known guidelines are those in The Ecclesial Guide, written by Christadelphian pioneer Robert Roberts. Numerous schedules or scripts of interview questions have been produced in the Christadelphian community; a few will be analysed below.5

The rigour of the baptismal examination differs markedly from one ecclesia to another. For instance, this writer underwent two baptismal examinations: a preliminary interview with a relative followed by the 'official' interview with three brothers from the ecclesia's Examining Committee. There was even a running joke that depending which of three senior brothers led the examination, you could expect it to run one, two or three hours, respectively. At the other extreme, the writer also has personal experience with an ecclesia which did not conduct baptismal examinations at all and appeared to disapprove of the practice.6 Nevertheless, it is probably fair to say that the baptismal examination is an established tradition that continues to be observed fairly rigorously by the majority of Christadelphian ecclesias. (It would be interesting if Christadelphian readers could share in the comments section about practices followed in their own ecclesia).

The need to 'pass'7 an examination may be daunting or even intimidating to a person contemplating baptism. However, many Christadelphians look back on the experience with fond memories. The interviewers often try to make the candidate feel at ease by keeping the conversation slightly informal and providing encouragement. In the vast majority of cases, the examination ends with a 'pass' decision from the panel, hugs, smiles all around, and perhaps a slice of cake. There are, of course, rare cases where a person 'fails' the examination and is advised that more study or spiritual maturity is needed before he or she is ready for baptism.

2. The purpose of the baptismal examination

Two doctrines form the primary basis for the Christadelphian baptismal examination. The first is that of baptismal regeneration, i.e. that the way to 'take on the Name... of Christ' is 'by being...immersed in water.'8 Baptism is what it signifies, and is therefore 'necessary to salvation.'9 The second is that 'a knowledge of the Truth is... necessary to make baptism valid.'10 In Christadelphian parlance, 'the Truth' refers specifically to the fundamental tenets of the gospel as spelled out in the BASF,11 and hence 'as distinguished from [the beliefs of] all other professing Christians.'12

If baptism regenerates, but only when the baptizand knows and believes 'the Truth', then a crucial question that arises each time a person requests baptism is, 'does this person understand and believe the Truth'? The basic purpose of the baptismal examination is to answer this question. As Roberts wrote in The Ecclesial Guide under the heading Examination of Applicants for Immersion:
There is, of course, a need for ascertaining whether an applicant for immersion understands and believes the truth. The validity of immersion depends upon believing the truth... We must find out the truth of a man's profession when he claims fellowship with us; and the genuineness of his faith when he asks to be immersed; and this now-a-days cannot be done without crucial test; for words have become so flexible, and mere phrases so current, that a form of words may be used without any conception of the idea which it originally and apostolically represented.
More recently, the Australian Christadelphian Bible Mission approved a set of baptism guidelines at a national conference which explained:
The purpose of the interview is to make sure that candidates fully understand what they are taking on and have sufficient knowledge of the Truth to make baptism valid.
A more recent edition of The Ecclesial Guide describes three prerequisites for baptism to be 'valid and effective':
1) a serious disposition to follow God and a heartfelt repentance for the errors, misdeeds and ignorance of the past
2) a sound knowledge of “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) commensurate with the age and intelligence of the candidate.
3) “fruits meet for repentance” that is, a clear indication that the candidate intends to rise to newness of life, a life based upon the life and example of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The document then stresses 'the duty of the ecclesia to ensure by means of a careful interview of each candidate that these requirements are met'. Roberts, in The Good Confession, also expresses the matter negatively: if no examination were held, there would be baptisms of people who did not understand and believe the Truth. Due to its negligence, the ecclesia would be morally responsible for the invalidity of such baptisms:
We are under the law of Christ: that law requires of us not to baptize or receive into fellowship those who do not believe the truth, on pain of being held responsible for their unbelief. (p. 2)
An additional function of the baptismal examination is that it helps maintain doctrinal homogeneity within an ecclesia. Lamenting the prevalence of heresies and disturbances within the Christadelphian community in 1889, Roberts declared examining brethren to be 'largely responsible' due to their 'accommodative' examining practices, and urged examining brethren to 'deal with all the points of doctrine', 'In the gentlest manner, but with the firmness which the importance of the occasion requires'.13 One recent, pastoral document about preparing for baptism suggested that doctrinal homogeneity was the purpose of the interview (or 'confession', as the writer preferred to call it).14

3. The content of the baptismal examination

Christadelphian baptismal examinations usually follow a schedule of questions to ensure that all necessary topics are covered. There is no official or standard schedule of questions used throughout the community. Thus, to get a better idea of the content of examinations I located nine relevant documents online. Eight include a schedule of baptismal interview questions while the ninth is a guide that lists topics to be covered with less specificity.15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23

The number of questions per interview schedule ranges from 79 to 270, with a mean of 153 and a median of 133. Three of the schedules provide answers to the questions while the others do not. Below I have attempted to categorize content according to how many of the nine documents cover a certain topic or issue. This is not an exact science because of differences in wording, and it's possible I've overlooked things. However, it gives an idea of the Christadelphian consensus on the core topics to be addressed in the interview. It also highlights certain topics that seem obscure or peripheral but are nonetheless considered important enough by some Christadelphians to cover in the interview.

It should be noted that the inclusion of a topic within a baptismal interview schedule does not necessarily indicate that knowledge of it is believed to be essential for a valid baptism. Some topics may be included for other reasons, for example to ensure that all members of the community meet desired standards of morality and general Bible knowledge.24 There may also be a tendency to lengthen the interview to err on the side of caution, since the potential negative consequences of omitting an essential topic are dire;25 the potential negative consequences of including a non-essential topic seem trifling by comparison.

3.1. Topics/Issues covered in all nine documents
  • Promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David
  • Future kingdom of God on earth
  • Regathering of Jews into land of Israel
  • God's nature and character
  • Rejection of Trinity
  • Holy Spirit is God's power, not a person
  • Jesus is Christ, Son of God
  • Jesus shared our human nature
  • Jesus did not personally pre-exist and is not co-equal with God
  • Jesus died, rose from the dead, ascended to heaven
  • The Fall; sin
  • Satan; devil
  • State of the dead; no immortal soul
  • Return of Christ
  • Resurrection of the dead and judgment
  • Personal motive for wanting baptism
  • Meaning and function of baptism
  • Necessity of obedience after baptism
3.2. Topics/Issues covered in majority of documents but not all
  • Nature and inspiration of Bible
  • Infallibility, inerrancy and/or sufficiency of Scripture
  • Kingdom of God existed in the past
  • History / purpose of Law of Moses / old covenant
  • General knowledge of Old Testament narrative / Israelite history
  • Holy Spirit power/possession/gifts unavailable today
  • Angels
  • Evolution is false
  • Jesus born of a virgin
  • Jesus' present function as high priest and mediator
  • Nature of atonement (representative, not substitutionary)
  • Symbolic meaning of breaking of bread
  • Breaking of bread is on first day of week
  • Salvation is impossible outside of Christ
  • Meaning of hell
  • Demons / evil spirits
  • Resurrectional responsibility (based on knowledge)26
  • Literal millennial reign
  • Infant baptism / sprinkling is invalid
  • Knowledge of gospel is prerequisite for valid baptism
  • Separation from other churches
  • No politics, military service, police work, jury duty, litigation, etc.
  • Marriage outside community forbidden
  • Divorce
  • Remarriage after divorce
3.3. Topics/issues covered in three or four of the documents
  • Christ had condemned nature / sinful flesh
  • Nature of serpent in Garden of Eden
  • Kingdom of God not a present reality
  • Earth will not be destroyed
  • Mortality to continue during millennium
  • No 'immortal emergence' / instant immortality after resurrection
  • Salvation is by grace
  • Gambling is sinful
  • Tobacco use is sinful
  • Extramarital sex is sinful
  • Homosexual behaviour is sinful
  • Doctrine of fellowship
  • Sisters must wear head coverings
  • Complementarianism (men and women have different roles; women in subjection to men)
  • Need for preaching and witness
3.4. Topics/issues covered in one or two of the documents
  • Candidate must show evidence of repentant behaviour prior to baptism
  • Name original languages in which Bible was written
  • God has shape, form, eyes, ears, face
  • God manifestation
  • God's Spirit not needed to understand Bible
  • When creation took place
  • Jesus benefited from his own death
  • Jesus had to offer sacrifice for his own 'sin in the flesh'
  • Jesus could have sinned (not impeccable)
  • Mary not immaculate
  • Jesus not immortal when he emerged from the tomb
  • Only baptized believers may may partake of memorial bread and wine
  • Twofold definition of sin
  • Serpent of Eden was not sentient and did not intend to deceive Eve
  • Doctrinal significance of Genesis 3:15
  • Animal sacrifice will recommence during millennium
  • Knowledge is to be tested by means of interview prior to baptism
  • Act of baptism has no intrinsic virtue
  • Prayer and Bible reading necessary for eternal life
  • Orthodox churches do not believe gospel
  • Any other religious body besides Christadelphians teaches true Gospel?27
  • Belonging to clubs, lodges, secret societies is forbidden
  • It is forbidden to take oaths
  • Duties of employees to employers
  • Witchcraft is forbidden
  • Theatres, dance halls, baseball games, other forms of entertainment28
  • No clergy
  • Sabbath observance no longer required
  • Meaning of the word 'Christadelphian'
  • Dress and makeup
  • Familiar with and accept Christadelphian Statement of Faith
3.5. Noteworthy omissions from all documents

Having discussed what we do find in these Christadelphian baptismal interview schedules, I will also mention a few noteworthy topics that we do not find in any of them.

a.  The present work of the Holy Spirit

As we saw above, most of the interview schedules solicit the candidate's denial of the present availability of the Holy Spirit gifts or power, or the very possession of the Holy Spirit today. Not one of the schedules balances this denial by soliciting any affirmation of Holy Spirit activity in the believer's heart or in the Ecclesia today. This is consistent with the idea of Christadelphian hyper-cessationism which I've discussed previously.

b. The present reality of the kingdom of God

All of the interview schedules explore the doctrine of the kingdom of God in considerable detail, placing emphasis on its future consummation. Most also discuss the kingdom of God as a past reality during the Israelite monarchy. When it comes to the kingdom of God as a present reality, some of the schedules solicit denial of specific teachings about a present kingdom of God, but not one prods the candidate to affirm that the kingdom of God presently exists in any sense. This is suggestive of a radically futuristic eschatology.

c. Ecclesiology

While some of the interview schedules touch on issues related to ecclesiology such as fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the requirements for entry into the Ecclesia, none of them deals with the doctrine of the Ecclesia/Church as such. The candidate is not prompted to discuss the nature, purpose, authority/privileges, 'catholicity', or symbolism of the Ecclesia/Church. Indeed, the longest of the interview schedules does not use the word 'ecclesia' or 'church' in any of its 270 questions! This omission is consistent with Christadelphian ecclesial deism which I've discussed previously.

d. Book of Revelation and Antichrist

None of the interview schedules ask the candidate to identify the correct method for interpreting the Apocalypse of John. Similarly, none of the interview schedules discuss the identity or significance of the antichrist. Thus, although there is an identifiable traditional Christadelphian position on both of these issues, there appears to be a strong consensus that freedom of conscience is permitted in these areas.

4. Conclusion

The Christadelphian baptismal examination practice distinguishes them from virtually all other Christian movements. An analysis of the purpose and content of these examinations provides insight into their theological basis. In a subsequent post I plan to discuss some theological problems with this practice. For now, I leave the reader with two hypotheses about the sociological effects of this practice upon the movement.
  1. The baptismal examination has resulted in a high standard of biblical literacy and a high degree of theological uniformity among baptized members of Christadelphian ecclesias where the practice is implemented rigorously.
  2. The baptismal examination practice has been a significant check on the growth rate of the Christadelphian community, indeed a major reason reason why the movement's growth did not keep pace with other restorationist and adventist movements that arose within the same historical milieu (mid-19th century English speaking world), e.g. Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Stone-Campbell movement (Churches of Christ and Disciples of Christ), etc.

Footnotes

  • 1 'Interview' seems to be the more common term in contemporary Christadelphian usage. I have made 'examination' the primary term here for two reasons. First, some ecclesias give the candidate the option of an oral or written examination (see e.g., the Procedure for Baptism of the Simi Hills ecclesia). Second, 'examination' brings out the distinctive purpose and function of the Christadelphian practice as compared to other groups that practice baptismal interviews.
  • 2 For example, Mormons conduct a baptismal interview according to a standard six-question script. However, a Mormon source stresses that the purpose is to make the candidate feel more comfortable and that it is 'a test of your heart, not a test of your knowledge.' Similarly, Ada Bible Church (nondenominational) conducts a 'brief' pre-baptismal interview which it describes as a 'very casual, relaxed conversation'. Athens Church (nondenominational) provides a list of eight questions for baptismal interviews. Its constitution gives no explanation of the practice. Bethlehem Baptist Church describes its baptismal interview process as follows: 'After both the candidate and sponsor have indicated the candidate’s readiness to move ahead with baptism, the candidate will be interviewed in order to confirm a credible profession of faith and clear understanding of the meaning and significance of baptism. The interview team will include an elder, an adult leader (i.e. Sunday School teacher, small group leader) and, when available, an older youth who is a member. During this interview the candidate gives his or her testimony and responds to informal questions concerning faith and church membership.' Catholic parishes generally conduct interviews with parents' prior to the baptism of their infant.
  • 3 Not that the examination is thought to literally validate the baptism or be essential to its validity, but that knowledge validates baptism and the examination assesses whether the candidate has the necessary knowledge.
  • 4 The Christadelphian Bible Mission of the Americas notes in its Field Worker Guidelines that 'Baptismal interview procedures vary greatly.'
  • 5 The original version of The Ecclesial Guide refers to a fictional conversation, separately published under the title The Good Confessionwhich Roberts thought might serve as a pattern to follow.
  • 6 There may have been an informal conversation consisting of one or two questions like 'Why do you want to be baptized?' and 'Do you believe in Jesus?'; my memory is fuzzy on this point. I do recall mentioning that some people might question the validity of the baptism; this concern was dismissed as laughable.
  • 7 I put this word in inverted commas to acknowledge that some Christadelphians are uncomfortable with using pass/fail language to describe the outcome. Certainly euphemistic language would be adopted in cases where a candidate 'failed'. I retain the 'pass/fail' language here because it concisely captures the two possible outcomes of an examination, and because this language is used informally among Christadelphians pertaining to these outcomes.
  • 8 BASF, article 16
  • 9 Expressed negatively, in BASF, Doctrines to be Rejected, article 30: 'We reject the doctrine - that baptism is not necessary to salvation.'
  • 10 Expressed negatively, in BASF, Doctrines to be Rejected, article 31: 'We reject the doctrine - that a knowledge of the Truth is not necessary to make baptism valid.' The principle is also implicit in article 16 of the main statement: 'That the way to obtain this salvation is to believe the Gospel they preached, and to take on the Name and service of Christ, by being thereupon immersed in water.'
  • 11 As the Baptismal Review Book of Berean Christadelphians Australia states, 'Examination before immersion ascertains whether an applicant understands and believes the truth. The validity of immersion depends upon believing the truth. Examination implies a recognized basis of fellowship; that is, a definition of the doctrines set forth by the teachings of Christ and his apostles referred to in the New Testament as "the truth"... This Truth is defined in A Statement of the Faith forming our Basis of fellowship...' (p. 1)
  • 12 This expression is taken from the subtitle of the 1877 Birmingham Statement of Faith.
  • 13 Roberts, Robert (presumed author). (1889). The Good Confession. The Christadelphian, Vol. 26, pp. 444-445. Reprinted in The Berean Christadelphian, Vol. 52, No. 9 (September 1964), pp. 30-32.
  • 14 'The purpose of the interview to ensure that there is some commonality between brethren and sisters that fellowship together. You can imagine the chaos that would ensue if in fact there were no necessary common shared beliefs amongst brethren. We would either water down the truth to nothing, or we would tear each other apart. Probably there would be a bit of both. So it’s in everyone’s best interest to have this discussion before baptism.' The document makes no reference to the interview's traditional purpose of ensuring sufficient knowledge for a valid baptism. However, the writer does state, 'To say that you do not know enough about the Bible to be baptized could be a very valid (though hopefully temporary) reason not to be baptized.'
  • 15 Growcott, Rene. Christadelphian Baptismal Interview. Antipas Christadelphians.
  • 16 Roberts, Robert. The Good Confession
  • 17 Christadelphian Books Online. Baptismal Questions.
  • 18 Christadelphian Bible Mission Handbook (UK). (2009). Suggested Interview Questions. pp. 69-74.
  • 19 Carelinks Ministries. Questions for Interviewing Candidates for Baptism.
  • 20 Sale Christadelphians. Baptismal Interview Questions.
  • 21 Australasian Christadelphian Bible Mission - Baptismal Guidelines. Topics for Consideration in the Interview. (phrased as propositions, not questions)
  • 22 Berean Christadelphians Australia. Baptismal Review Book.
  • 23 Shelburne Christadelphians. Baptismal Interview Guide. (a point-form checklist of topics to be covered, not a schedule of questions or propositions)
  • 24 Otherwise it is difficult to account for the inclusion in some of the schedules of moral questions (e.g. 'What is the duty of employees to their employer?') and biblical minutiae (e.g. 'How many sons did Jacob have? Name 6') that seem to have no bearing on even the broadest definition of 'the Truth.'
  • 25 If an essential topic were omitted, and the baptizand 'passed' the interview despite ignorance or error in that area, the result would be an invalid baptism which both the baptizand and the ecclesia mistakenly believed to be verifiably valid. Unless the oversight were noticed at some later stage and a re-baptism performed, the individual would pass his or her worldly probation ignorant of the awful fact that he or she had never actually taken on the name of Christ.
  • 26 None of the interview schedules analysed were from the Unamended community, but it is quite certain that this idea would not be asked in Unamended baptismal interviews since the Unamended fellowship does not make the doctrine of 'resurrectional responsibility through knowledge' a test of fellowship.
  • 27 Presumably expects a negative answer
  • 28 Presumably disapproved of

Friday, 17 June 2016

'The things concerning' (Acts 8:12) in Christadelphian theology: a critical assessment


There are probably few passages of Scripture that have done as much heavy lifting in Christadelphian dogmatic theology as Acts 8:12. In the KJV the verse reads thus:
But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.
The phrase 'the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ' has taken on a life of its own in Christadelphian usage. For example:
  • The 1877 Birmingham Statement of Faith took its title from this verse: 'A Statement of the Things Concerning the Kingdom of God and the Name of Jesus Christ, Set Forth in a Series of Thirty-Four Scripture-Attested Propositions'
  • The same Statement of Faith was structurally built around this phrase, with its articles divided into two sections covering 'the things of the kingdom of God' and 'the things concerning the name of Jesus Christ' respectively
  • The phrase still functions as an overarching structure in the Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith (BASF) used by the majority of Christadelphian ecclesias today. Articles 17 and 18 state:
  • 17. That the Gospel consists of "The things concerning the Kingdom of God and the Name of Jesus Christ."
    18. That the "Things of the Kingdom of God" are the facts testified concerning the Kingdom of God in the writings of the prophets and apostles, and definable as in the next 12 paragraphs.1
  • Some Christadelphian 'first principles' teaching materials have taken their titles from this verse2 
  • Numerous Christadelphian websites quote this phrase to summarize their beliefs.3
The traditional Christadelphian view has been that one must understand 'the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ' prior to baptism for the baptism to be valid (i.e. regenerative).4 This idea can be traced right back to the book that launched the Christadelphian movement, Elpis Israel (originally published in 1848). There, Christadelphian founder Dr. John Thomas emphasizes,
The difficulty lies, not in getting men to be dipped, but in first getting them to believe "the things concerning the kingdom of God and the Name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 8:12)5
One major section of the book is subtitled, 'The Things of the Kingdom of God, and the Name of Jesus Christ'. Here, Dr. Thomas explains:
As a whole "the truth" is defined as "the things concerning the Kingdom of God and the Name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 8:12). This phrase covers the entire ground upon which the "one faith," and the "one hope," of the gospel are based; so that if a man believe only the "things of the kingdom," his faith is defective in the "things of the name;" or, if his belief be confined to the "things of the name," it is deficient in the "things of the kingdom." There can be no separation of them recognised in a "like precious faith" (2Pet. 1:1) to that of the apostles. They believed and taught all these things; God hath joined them together, and no man need expect His favour who separates them; or abolishes the necessity of believing the things He has revealed for faith.6
He thus infers that 'The gospel is not preached when the things of the kingdom are omitted.'7 And finally:
God's salvation is placed in the name of Jesus; and this name is accessible to mankind only upon the condition of believing the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus," and being baptized by his name.8
The simple but radical corollary of this doctrine is that those who lack, or disagree with, any point of Christadelphians' systematic, propositional understanding of 'the things concerning' at the time of their baptism are ontologically non-Christian, because they are not validly baptized.

There are positives that should be recognized in Christadelphian use of the phrase 'the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ'. There is, of course, nothing wrong with the phrase itself; it is an excellent summary of the Christian faith. Moreover, its use has helped preserve a salvation-historical and eschatological emphasis in Christadelphian teaching that is marginalized or absent in the teaching of many churches. Its use as a minimum standard of Bible knowledge has also helped to ensure a high level of biblical literacy in Christadelphian congregations that few other movements or denominations could match. However, the polemical stance described above is problematic because it imposes extremely narrow criteria for identifying who can be called a Christian. Dr. Thomas' unwillingness to recognize as a fellow Christian anyone who did not share his distinctive interpretation of the biblical devil is a case in point:
A man who believes in the Devil of the religious world and that he has the powers of disease and death, etc., is ignorant of "the things of the Name of Jesus Christ."... No one should be recognized as one of Christ's brethren who is not sound in the first principles of the Gospel before immersion.9
In the previous post, I pointed out that the Christadelphian polemical interpretation of Acts 8:12 has required them to deny the adequacy of Paul's definition of the gospel in 1 Cor. 15:1-5. I noted that some of Paul's readers were ignorant of basic doctrinal ideas that Christadelphians would classify as 'first principles of the gospel' (e.g. the resurrection of the dead), and that Paul nonetheless considered these ignorant people to be fellow believers. This provides some external motivation for a reexamination of Acts 8:12. This is the task to which we now turn.

2. A fresh reading of Acts 8:12


A key assumption of the Christadelphian reading of Acts 8:12 has been that 'the things concerning the kingdom of God' and 'the things concerning the name of Jesus Christ' represent two distinct sets of facts which together form the gospel. As one Christadelphian website puts it,
We believe in the gospel message as preached by Christ and his followers in the 1st Century. This message consisted of two parts: The things concerning the kingdom of God [and] Those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ.
Support for this two-part gospel is found not only in Acts 8:12 but also in Acts 28:23 and 28:30-31:
When [the Jewish leaders in Rome] had appointed a day for [Paul], they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets... [Paul] lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance. (Acts 28:23, 30-31 ESV, emphasis added)
In these texts, as in Acts 8:12, there is a bifurcation of gospel content into 'the kingdom of God' and 'Jesus'. To interpret these as two distinct sets of facts comprising a two-part message sounds plausible. However, if we argue that the writer divided the content in two specifically to show that the gospel consists of two distinct parts, consistency dictates that we apply the same intentionality to the pairs of verbs used. That is, 'testifying' and 'persuading'10 in v. 23 should refer to two distinct activities, as should 'proclaiming' and 'teaching' in v. 31. However, this is not very plausible; it appears the use of two verbs is largely for stylistic variation. They function in synonymous parallelism. If this is the case, we ought to consider the possibility that 'the kingdom of God' and 'Jesus' refer to essentially the same content in two different ways. In other words, both phrases capture the essence of the gospel message and they can thus be used interchangeably; they do not denote two separate parts of the message.11

If Luke regards 'the kingdom of God' and 'Jesus' as essentially interchangeable descriptors, each of which adequately captures the core content of the Christian message, we would expect him to use just one or the other on occasion to denote the gospel message. This is precisely what we do find: the content of the Christian proclamation can be described simply as 'the kingdom of God' (Acts 1:3; 19:8; 20:25) or, on the other hand, simply as 'Jesus' or 'Christ' (Acts 8:5; 8:35; 9:20; 11:20; 17:3). These texts do not refer to only half of a two-part gospel being proclaimed. Rather, all of this terminology refers to one, indivisible gospel: proclaiming the kingdom of God is proclaiming Christ, and vice versa.


Looking now at the text of Acts 8:12, the latest critical texts of the Greek New Testament yield further evidence against taking 'the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ' as two separate sets of facts. The famous KJV phrase translates the Greek of the Textus Receptus: euangelizomenō ta peri tēs basileias tou theou kai tou onomatos tou iēsou christou. However, in the NA28 and SBL critical texts, ta ('the things') is omitted at the beginning.12 Thus, according to the latest biblical scholarship, Acts 8:12 does not refer to 'the things' at all.13 Once 'the things' are removed, the verb euangelizomenō takes on added emphasis. The verb euangelizō means 'to proclaim good news', but the corresponding noun euangelion in the early church became a technical term for their message to the world, their 'good news'. Hence, one should translate euangelizomenō with 'proclaiming good news' or, better yet, 'proclaiming the gospel' rather than with 'preaching' as the KJV does. Put these points together and we have something like the NRSV translation:
But when they believed Philip, who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.
Or, as Peterson notes, a literal translation of our phrase would be 'gospelling about the kingdom of God and the name of the Lord Jesus Christ'.14 This is not exactly an earth-shattering change, but it is significant in that it leaves no room for inferring two distinct sets of 'things', understood to be facts about the kingdom of God and facts about the name of Jesus Christ respectively. Rather, there is a single proclamation of good news which integrates the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ.15


Luke does not give us Philip's proclamation in Acts 8 in speech form, but only in two brief summary statements. In 8:5 we read that Philip 'proclaimed to them the Christ', and then in 8:12 we read that he was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ. Luke does not report any of Philip's actual words here, and we cannot pretend to know exactly what he said. The best we can do is a conjectural reconstruction of his message based on clues found in the context.

Firstly, the audience consisted of Samaritans. The Samaritan Bible consisted only of an edited version of the Pentateuch. No prophets, no 'writings', no Davidic covenant. Hence, we can be reasonably confident that Philip's proclamation did not appeal to 'the facts testified concerning the Kingdom of God in the writings of the prophets',16 as the apostles did on other occasions. Philip would have drawn on common ground he shared with his audience, just as Paul did in Athens (Acts 17:22-31). This included a Messiah concept (cf. John 4:25), a figure the Samaritans referred to as Taheb; hence Philip's emphasis on proclaiming (Jesus as) 'the Christ' (Acts 8:5).17

Secondly, the setting within which Luke places the proclamation to the Samaritans is that of a power struggle of sorts between two wonder workers, Philip and Simon. In vv. 6-8 we read that the crowds paid attention to what Philip said on account of the signs that he did, consisting of healings and exorcisms. In vv. 9-11 we read that Simon had also amazed the Samaritans with his magic. Significantly, the 'aside' about Simon in vv. 9-11 begins with an adversative (de, 'but'), as does v. 12. This suggests that v. 12 represents a decision on the part of the Samaritans to align with Philip rather than Simon. If so, v. 12 suggests that it was Philip's message that set him apart from Simon: he offered a more compelling interpretation of his wonders than Simon did of his.

This makes it likely that the main thrust of Philip's proclamation to the Samaritans was an exposition of the meaning of his signs and wonders. Hence, arguably the best approach to reconstructing the content of his message is to draw on other narratives in Luke-Acts which comment on the kingdom of God and/or the name of Jesus in relation to healings or exorcisms just performed. In Luke 10:9, Jesus instructs his disciples to 'Heal the sick... and say to them, "The kingdom of God has come near to you."' The disciples returned from their mission 'with joy, saying, "Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!"' (v. 17) Similarly, in Luke 11:20, Jesus interprets his exorcisms as the arrival of the kingdom of God: 'But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.' Again, in Acts 3-4, the apostles repeatedly emphasize that their miracles are performed through the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 3:6; 3:16; 4:10; 4:30), while in Acts 16:18 and 19:13-17, the name of Jesus is shown to have power over spirits, leading to 'the name of the Lord Jesus' being extolled. Hence, it is probable that the good news 'about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ' proclaimed by Philip focused primarily on the arrival of the kingdom of God and the power of Jesus in their midst attested by healings and exorcisms.18 Unfortunately, the 'active power of Jesus' is precisely what is missing from 'the things concerning the name of Jesus Christ' defined in the BASF.

What of Philip's proclamation about the kingdom of God? By comparing with Jesus' proclamations of the kingdom of God made in the context of healing and exorcism, we can be confident that Philip's emphasis lay heavily on the present reality of the kingdom of God.19 Again, this stands in contrast with the BASF, which speaks of the kingdom of God exclusively as a future phenomenon. The only mention of the kingdom of God as a present reality in the BASF is in the Doctrines to be Rejected section.20 

Very likely, Philip passed on other basic truths such as the death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus and the future consummation of the kingdom of God. However, Acts 8:12 gives us no information as to the extent of his teaching on these topics prior to the Samaritans being baptized en masse. Surely there is no reason to assume that these converts had an understanding approaching the level of detail in the propositional definition of the 'things concerning' offered in the BASF.21 Moreover, we have good reason to conclude that Philip placed a strong emphasis on present realities (the inaugurated kingdom of God; the active power of Jesus) that are absent from the BASF. Parsons' highly plausible reconstruction of Philip's proclamation to the Samaritans is as follows:
Philip and Simon are both active in a Samaritan city (8:5, 8, 9). They both perform wondrous deeds (8:6-7, 9, 11) and make speeches (8:6, 9). Large numbers of the Samaritans paid close attention to both of them (8:6, 10, 11). Simon is called the "Great Power" (8:10) and amazes (8:9, 11) the Samaritans, while Philip works great miracles (8:13) and amazes Simon (8:13; see Spencer 1992b, 88-89). The similarities between Simon and Philip serve only to bring out in bolder relief their differences. Luke uses an encomium/invective synkrisis in which to praise Philip and his message while condemning Simon (cf. Acts 3:13-15; Hermogenes, Prog. 19, trans. Kennedy 2003, 84). Simon's deeds point to himself as an act of self-aggrandizement and self-gain (8:9, 19); Philip's signs point to the kingdom of God and corroborate his proclamation of the Christian gospel (8:5-6). What was the content of this message? Luke fills it out later in the narrative claiming that Philip was preaching about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ (8:12). So to preach the gospel for Philip was to proclaim that Jesus was the "Christ," the one God had anointed "for doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil" (as Peter would put it in 10:38). Hence, Philip's signs and wonders - the healings and exorcisms - were outward signs reinforcing his message: Satan is being overcome, and the kingdom of God is being established (Garrett 1989, 65).'22
3. Conclusion

We have seen that the Christadelphian tradition has placed great emphasis on the phrase 'the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ' (Acts 8:12 KJV) as the definition of the gospel. The phrase has been understood by Christadelphians to divide the content of the gospel message into two parts, each of which consists of a set of facts. 'The things concerning the kingdom of God' are thought to be facts about a future kingdom that will be established at the second coming of Christ. 'The things concerning the name of Jesus Christ' are thought to be facts about the person and work of Jesus. While Christadelphians do not regard the two parts of the gospel as unrelated, they have nonetheless conceived of the possibility of proclaiming only 'the things of the kingdom' or only 'the things of the name', which in their view would be no gospel at all.

Our conclusions here are threefold. First, I argued that the gospel in Luke-Acts is not dualistic but monistic. That is, 'the kingdom of God' and 'the name of Jesus Christ' are not two parts that must be combined to form the gospel. Rather, they are two interchangeable ways of describing the gospel message, which is the story of God breaking decisively into history in the person of Jesus to redeem the world. In Acts, 'the kingdom of God' and 'Jesus'/'Christ' are each adequate on their own to summarize the content of the gospel. Alternatively, on three occasions the two aspects are placed in synonymous parallelism, but nowhere in Acts or the rest of the New Testament are they treated as two distinct sets of facts as they are in the BASF.

Second, I noted that according to recent critical texts of the New Testament, the words 'the things' have no basis in the Greek of Acts 8:12. This further undermines the contention that Luke is referring to two sets of propositions, one set about the kingdom of God and one set about the name of Jesus Christ. While it is not wrong to represent the gospel message propositionally, there is no evidence that these or other converts mentioned in Acts had a systematic, propositional understanding of 'the kingdom of God' and 'the name of Jesus Christ' respectively prior to baptism.

Third, I extended the above observations by looking more closely at Acts 8:12. I noted that Philip proclaimed the gospel to a Samaritan audience with very limited biblical background and in the context of his miracles and exorcisms. His message set him apart from Simon, a rival wonder worker in Samaria, and thus probably offered a compelling theological interpretation of his signs. By comparison with other interpretations of signs in Luke-Acts that involved the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus, I suggested that Philip's message probably emphasized the present reality of the inaugurated kingdom of God and the active power of Jesus' name. Both of these emphases are quite foreign to traditional Christadelphian interpretations of Acts 8:12.

The most important implication of this study is that Acts 8:12 does not support the claim that one must possess a systematic, propositional understanding of 'the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ' prior to baptism for one's baptism to be valid. This issue lies at the heart of Christadelphians' sectarian stance, because it is the logical basis by which Christadelphians have traditionally regarded nearly all professing Christians outside their community as ontologically non-Christian. Hopefully a reexamination of Acts 8:12 will lead some Christadelphians to rethink their relationship to the wider Christian Church.

Footnotes

  • 1 The BASF no longer explicitly identifies a group of articles as declaring 'the things concerning the name of Jesus Christ', but this would still seem to be the implicit claim for articles 2-16.
  • 2 e.g. one Christadelphian periodical, the Christadelphian Advocate, has a regular supplement entitled 'Things Concerning' devoted to doctrinal fundamentals, which have subsequently been published in a book; there is a separate Christadelphian 'first principles' manual entitled 'The Things of the Kingdom and the Things of the Name'.
  • 3 E.g. theChristadelphians.org: 'Christadelphians base their faith on the things which were believed and taught by Jesus Christ and his apostles about 2,000 years ago. These things are summarised in the New Testament as "the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ".' Newbury Christadelphians: 'The name 'Christadelphian' means "Brothers in Christ" and describes men and women who believe "the things concerning the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ".'
  • 4 Christadelphian Bible Mission teaching materials explain: 'The two fundamental themes of the Gospel message are a. The things concerning the Kingdom of God, and b. The things concerning the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 8:12)... To believe and obey the Gospel one must have an understanding of these Bible truths (Mark 16:15-16).' Similarly, the website Christadelphians Online defines baptism as 'immersion in water following a confession of faith in the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 8:12)'. The website of The Christadelphian magazine explains, 'To be saved a man must acknowledge his belief in the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ. He must demonstrate his belief and need of forgiveness by asking for God’s pardon, and by being baptised by full immersion in water, confessing his sins. He now belongs to God and has become an heir of the promises made to Abraham. As such he waits in patience for God’s coming kingdom.'
  • 5 Thomas, John. (1866/2000). Elpis Israel (4th ed.). Findon: Logos Publications, p. 136.
  • 6 op. cit., p. 193.
  • 7 op. cit., p. 196. Hence, 'a man may believe that Jesus is the Son of God; that he was sent of God as a messenger to Israel; that there is remission of sins through the shedding of his blood; that he is the saviour; and that he rose from the dead: — if he believe these things, but be ignorant, and consequently faithless, of "the things of the kingdom," he cannot obtain glory, honor, incorruptibility, and life in that kingdom. The condition of salvation is the belief of the whole gospel and obedience to it.' (op. cit., p. 198)
  • 8 op. cit., p. 206.
  • 9 Quoted in Roberts, Robert. My Days and My Ways, p. 115.
  • 10 These are two present participles in Greek; 'trying to convince' is not a literal translation.
  • 11 'As to the substance of the kingdom-message proclaimed by Philip and Paul, Luke supplies few details. What information is provided, however, all points to Jesus. Philip's proclamation of God's kingdom is placed alongside his witness to "the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 8.12), and, likewise, Paul's is conjoined with convincing the Jews "about Jesus" (28.23) and teaching "about the Lord Jesus Christ" (28.31)' (Spencer, F. Scott. (1992). The Portrait of Philip in Acts: A Study of Roles and Relations. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, p. 40). 'In the preaching of the apostles, the kingdom of God was related to the person of Christ...Preaching the kingdom, then, is preaching Jesus' (Jabini, Franklin S. (2010). Preaching Christ in a pluralistic world: the message and method of the mission to Samaria in Acts 8. Conspectus, 9, 51-68, here p. 59). 'The things relating to the kingdom which form the theme of [Jesus'] postresurrection teaching at the beginning of Acts are identical with "the things relating to the Lord Jesus Christ" which form the theme of Paul's teaching in Rome at the end of the book (28:31). When they told the story of Jesus, the apostles proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God - the same good news as Jesus himself had announced earlier, but now given effective fulfilment by the saving events of his passion and triumph.' (Bruce, F.F. (1988). The Book of Acts. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 32)
  • 12 The final tou before iēsou is also omitted, but this is of no exegetical significance.
  • 13 ta is the definite article (i.e. 'the'). Because it stands alone here and does not modify a substantive, it functions like a substantive. Because it is neuter and plural, it means 'the things'.
  • 14 Peterson, David G. (2009). The Acts of the Apostles. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 283.
  • 15 We do read elsewhere in Acts of 'the things concerning (ta peri) the kingdom of God' (1:3) and 'the things concerning (ta peri) the Lord Jesus Christ' (28:31), so the point is not that describing the message in terms of 'things' is uncharacteristic of Luke (indeed, the expression ta peri occurs more in Luke-Acts - 11 to 15 times, depending on text-critical decisions - than in the rest of the New Testament combined: Luke 22:37(?); 24:19; 24:27; Acts 1:3; 8:12(?); 13:29; 18:25; 19:8(?); 23:11; 23:15; 24:10; 24:22; 28:15; 28:23(?); 28:31; Eph. 6:22; Phil. 1:27; 2:19; 2:20; 2:23; Col. 4:8). Rather, the point is that Luke uses a variety of ways of describing the proclamation of the gospel, and none of them implies a division of the gospel into two distinct sets of facts. Some of Luke's language includes: 'preach the good news of the kingdom of God' (Luke 4:43); 'proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God' (Luke 8:1); 'proclaim the kingdom of God' (Luke 9:1, 9:60); 'spoke to them of the kingdom of God' (Luke 9:11); 'speaking the things concerning the kingdom of God' (Acts 1:3); 'proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ' (Acts 8:12); 'reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God' (Acts 19:8); 'testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus' (Acts 28:23); 'proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ' (Acts 28:31); 'preached boldly in the name of Jesus' (Acts 9:27); 'preaching the gospel' (Luke 9:6, 20:1, Acts 8:25, 40, 14:7, 21, 16:10), 'testify to the gospel of the grace of God' (Acts 20:24); 'preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ' (Acts 10:36); 'teaching and preaching the word of the Lord' (Acts 15:35); 'preaching Jesus and the resurrection' (Acts 17:18); 'proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead' (Acts 4:2); 'proclaimed the Christ' (Acts 8:5); 'proclaimed Jesus' (Acts 9:20); 'repentance and forgiveness of sins... proclaimed in his name' (Luke 24:47).
  • 16 BASF, article 18.
  • 17 Samkutty comments, 'There is a logical progression of the content and result of his message: Christ (v. 5), Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ (v. 12); the result is: people paid attention (v. 6), believed and were baptized (v. 12). It implies that Philip starts with the messianic concept of the Samaritans and then presents Jesus as the fulfilment of their hope.' (Samkutty, V.J. (2006). The Samaritan Mission in Acts. London: T&T Clark, p. 132)
  • 18 'the mention of believing in the name of Jesus refers to responding to his power and occurs several times in Acts (2:38; 3:6; 4:8-10; 8:12; 10:48; 16:18).' (Bock, Darrell L. (2007). Acts. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p. 328); 'The name of Jesus is a term for the active power of Jesus, visibly at work in the healing of disease and in spiritual healing also. His name is invoked, men and women are baptized in his name; faith is thereby expressed and saving power is appropriated.' (Barrett, C.K. (1994). Acts 1-14. London: T&T Clark, p. 408); 'Au sein d'un judaïsme qui prie "Dieu, sauve-moi par ton nom" (Ps 54,3), proclamer le "nom de Jésus Christ" est apparu comme un acte dangereux. Blasphématoire, même. Les démêlés des apôtres avec le sanhédrin en Ac 3-5 restituent ce souvenir. Parler de Jésus Christ comme du Nom qui sauve fut cependant l'une des formulations théologiques précoces des premiers chrétiens, ce dont l'hymne pré-paulinien de Philippiens 2,6-11 est un bon témoin (cf. 2,9-10). La formule en tō onomati Iēsou Christou (dans ou par le nom de Jésus Christ) est une christologisation de en tō onomati tou theou (dans ou par le nom de Dieu), par quoi les traducteurs de la Septante ont rendu beshem YHWH. Cette formulation, complètement inusitée en grec, hérite de la polysémie du B hébraïque, qui a une valeur autant locale (dans) qu'instrumentale (par). L'ambivalence sémantique se comprend à partir de la conception du Nom: représentatif de la personne, le Nom dégage une sphère de puissance dans laquelle et par laquelle le Seigneur agit.' (Marguerat, Daniel. (2007). Les Actes des apôtres (1-12). Genève: Labor et Fides, p. 145; Greek and Hebrew characters have been replaced by transliterations)
  • 19 'in Philip modelling the ministry of Jesus, just as Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom of God inextricably involved miracles, especially exorcism, so Philip's miracles, especially exorcism, were a "visible and audible enactment" of the kingdom of God. In other words, for Luke, the exorcism formed a symbiotic relationship with the message, each requiring the other for their completeness and comprehension.' (Twelftree, Graham H. (2007). In the Name of Jesus: Exorcism among Early Christians. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p. 145); 'As to the vexed question of whether the announced kingdom is a present reality or future hope, the primary stress in Acts seems to fall on the former, since the good news of the Christian message obviously includes the promise of immediate benefits such as the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit (Acts 2.38; 10.43; cf. Lk. 24.47). The possibly future-oriented exhortation to "enter the kingdom of God" in Acts 14.22 is a lone exception in Luke's account of the early church's kerygma.' (Spencer, op. cit., p. 41)
  • 20 'We reject the doctrine - that the Kingdom of God is "the church"' (DTBR 12)
  • 21 The BASF contains twelve articles which are said to define the 'Things of the Kingdom of God' mentioned in Acts. However, for example, articles 26-30 contain a detailed description of the millennium, a subject which receives no attention in Luke-Acts.
  • 22 Parsons, Mikeal C. (2008). Acts. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p. 115.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Defining the Gospel: Acts 8:12 vs. 1 Cor. 15:3-4 in the Christadelphian Statement of Faith

The Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith contains a clear judgment on the relative valuation of the definitions of the gospel found in Acts 8:12 and in 1 Cor. 15:3-4. Specifically, one article of the BASF is devoted to affirming that Acts 8:12 adequately defines the gospel,1 while another is devoted to denying that 1 Cor. 15:3-4 adequately defines the gospel.2 In the older 1877 Birmingham Statement of Faith, the antithesis is explicit: 'the Gospel is not the death, burial and resurrection of Christ merely, but "the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ."'3

When we compare Acts 8:12 to 1 Cor. 15:3-5,4 which of the two carries more weight as a definition of the gospel? Acts 8:12 summarizes a particular proclamation of the gospel within an historical narrative. The narrator gives no indication that his description here is weightier than his various other ways of summarizing the content of the apostolic kerygma. Nor does Luke explicitly identify the propositional content that is abbreviated in Acts 8:12. It must be reconstructed by conjecture; and the definition of 'the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ' offered in the BASF does not seem to be the most plausible reconstruction, for reasons I hope to explore in a subsequent post. By contrast, in 1 Cor. 15:1-3, Paul explicitly states his intention to remind the readers of the gospel that he preached to them, and by which they are being saved. He then offers a series of propositions which he declares to be 'of first importance', namely, 'that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.'

In order to subordinate 1 Cor. 15:3-4 to Acts 8:12 in the way the BASF does, one must assert that for Paul, 'the things concerning the kingdom of God' (and, indeed, other 'things concerning the name of Jesus Christ') are also 'of first importance' in his gospel, essential to understand and believe prior to baptism. Now, every Christadelphian would agree that the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead is a vital component of 'the things concerning the kingdom of God'.5 If Paul, too, regarded this doctrine as a prerequisite for valid baptism, we would expect him to regard anyone ignorant of this doctrine as effectively unbaptized, i.e. non-believers. Yet this is precisely what Paul does not do.

Immediately after reminding his readers of his gospel, Paul addresses some 'of you' who 'say that there is no resurrection of the dead' (1 Cor. 15:12). 'You', of course, refers to 'the church of God that is in Corinth... those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints' (1 Cor. 1:2). There are members of the church in Corinth who do not believe in the resurrection of the dead. The problem appears not to be apostasy (cp. 2 Tim. 2:17-18), but simple ignorance: 'some have no knowledge of God' (1 Cor. 15:34).
[Paul] does not question their loyalty to the gospel... but seeks to establish at the outset their common ground. They are not willfully perverting what he preached but are confused about a central tenet... The Corinthians' belief is confused, which suggests that they accepted the gospel without fully understanding the facts that lie at its foundation'6
How does Paul treat these ignorant people? Does he have strong words for them? Yes: 'Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.' (1 Cor. 15:34). 'You foolish person!' (1 Cor. 15:36) Does he correct their error decisively and expect them to fall into line with his teaching? Absolutely. But does he question their standing in Christ or order them to be re-baptized? No. Does he in any way exclude them from his primary audience, 'the church of God that is in Corinth'? No: they are among his addressees. He has grounded the whole discussion in a declaration of his gospel 'by which you are being saved' - that which 'we preached and you believed' (v. 11). He repeatedly presupposes his interlocutors' 'faith' (vv. 14, 17) and even interchanges first person with second person pronouns: 'if in Christ we have hope in this life only'. In the midst of his diatribe against the notion that 'the dead are not raised', he possibly addresses his interlocutors as 'brothers' (v. 31).7 Further along, he addresses his audience as 'brothers' (v. 50) and finally exhorts them as 'my beloved brothers' (v. 58), again without distinguishing between those who believe in the resurrection of the dead and those who do not.

Indeed, this is not even the only place in the letter where Paul is prepared to countenance as brethren those who are in astonishing doctrinal ignorance. In 1 Cor. 8:7-11, after offering a fundamental confession about the non-existence of idols and the one God and one Lord in vv. 4-6, Paul notes that 'not all possess this knowledge'. As Garland states, 'The knowledge in 8:7 includes the knowledge alluded to in 8:1, namely, that God is one, and idols have no existence, plus the inference that this truth permits them to eat idol food as ordinary food'.8 This is pretty foundational knowledge for a Christian not to possess! Yet, remarkably, here too Paul does not regard such persons as unbelievers who need to be re-baptized, but as weak brethren ('the brother for whom Christ died... your brothers', vv. 11-12). 

Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians is very difficult to reconcile with the idea that 'the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ', understood as two sets of facts defined in the BASF, are necessary prerequisites for valid baptism. If Paul's summary of his gospel in 1 Cor. 15:3-5 is indeed adequate, then it may be necessary to revisit the traditional Christadelphian reading of Acts 8:12. This I hope to do in a subsequent post.

Footnotes

  • 1 Article 17 - 'That the Gospel consists of "The things concerning the Kingdom of God and the Name of Jesus Christ."'
  • 2 DTBR 13 - 'We reject the doctrine - that the Gospel is the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ merely.'
  • 3 Fables to be Refused, article 24
  • 4 I regard the quoted tradition as continuing to the end of v. 5, a tradition which Paul then supplements with other reports of appearances. See Garland, David E. (2003). 1 Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p. 684.
  • 5 See BASF articles 23, 29.
  • 6 Garland, op. cit., pp. 682-83.
  • 7 The word adelphoi is text-critically uncertain, retained in square brackets in NA28.
  • 8 Garland, op. cit., p. 380.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Rules of Engagement for Online Theological Discussions

Most people who engage in online theological discussions do so because they are passionate about theology, believing the issues they discuss to be of eternal significance. Theological commitments are deep-rooted and emotions run high when they are challenged. Over nearly two decades of observing and participating in online theological discussions, I've found that they very often become rancorous. Such discussions reflect badly on the Christian religion and are of little edifying value. However, I have seen instances where people who passionately disagree in their theology are able to do so with civility and goodwill, serving the cause of unity and peace even when disagreements are not resolved.1

I confess that I personally have often fallen short of the mark in the way I've conducted myself in online theological discussions. With a view to personal growth and more productive and edifying discussions, I've come up with twelve rules of engagement. (I've written these rules myself but did take some ideas from other sets of rules I found on the web.2) First and foremost, they represent a standard to which I commit myself going forward. However, I also call on potential dialogue partners to commit to the same standard when entering into an online theological discussion with me, whether on this blog, on Facebook, or in a web discussion forum.

Here goes:
  1. Jesus and the apostles passed dogmatic judgments on the character and eternal destiny of their opponents. In the context of online discussions, I relinquish any claim to the moral authority that enabled them to do so. Rather, I will always assume my interlocutor's honesty, sincerity, intelligence and general virtue, and will refrain from accusations and insinuations targeting the character or motives of my interlocutor, or the moral quality of his or her actions and words.

  2. I will avoid the condescending practice of accusing my interlocutor of committing a logical fallacy, unless I am certain there is no other way to express why I find his or her argument unconvincing.

  3. I will avoid having a discussion about the discussion, remaining focused on the issue at hand as far as possible.

  4. I will avoid introducing unrelated topics or reintroducing past topics of discussion that distract from the issue at hand.

  5. I will take care to accurately represent my interlocutor's viewpoint, and avoid careless extrapolations and generalizations thereof.

  6. I will seek common ground and try to build relationship with my interlocutor.

  7. I will not be hyper-critical but will be quick to acknowledge goodness in my interlocutor's position and merit in his or her argument. In the same vein, I will be self-critical by readily acknowledging weaknesses and limitations in my own position and argument.

  8. I will avoid straightforward identification of my opinions with truth and my interlocutor's with falsehood. I will instead use the qualified language of academic discourse. Contrast "Your interpretation is obviously wrong" with, "I don't find that interpretation convincing."

  9. I will freely make use of humour and wit that is neutral or, better yet, self-deprecating. I will, however, refrain from anything that could be construed as mocking or insulting my interlocutor, his viewpoint, or his ecclesiastical tradition. This would include words, memes, emoji's, etc. that are sarcastic, satirical, derogatory or vulgar.

  10. I will seek to exemplify the virtues of humility, charity and respect throughout the discussion.

  11. I will make unity and truth the goals of the discussion and will subordinate my own interests and desire for vindication to these ends.

  12. These rules are to be self-policed. Accordingly, I will not cite them in order to accuse my interlocutor of hypocrisy (see rule 1).
That's it! Note: I reserve the right to edit or add to these rules at a later stage.

Footnotes