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Saturday, 15 July 2017

What "Yetzer in the Wilderness"? A response to Jonathan Burke on the Devil in the Synoptic Gospels

Burke’s series The Yetzer in the Wilderness

Christadelphian apologist Jonathan Burke and I have had several written exchanges over the years, especially on the subject of (the) Satan. Much of it has focused on the wilderness temptation narrative from the Gospels (Matt. 4:1-11; Mark 1:13; Luke 4:1-13).1 One of Burke’s main contributions to this exchange has been an eight-part series entitled The Yetzer in the Wilderness: Jesus and the Evil Inclination. Burke subsequently pointed out that I had responded "to just one of [his] arguments." This was true,2 and there is a reason for it. I had long intended to do a detailed study of the Second Temple Jewish background of New Testament Satanology, and it made sense to reserve comment on Burke's arguments in this area until my study was complete. After much ado I submitted this study to the Journal of Theological Studies, which has accepted it for publication. Copyright rules prevent me from reproducing material from the manuscript here, so I will respond directly to Burke’s arguments here while referring the reader to my forthcoming publication for more detailed and fully referenced argumentation on some of the relevant Second Temple texts.
 
The Yetzer in the Wilderness does not commence with an introduction explaining the purpose, thesis or methodology of the study, nor does it end with a conclusion summarising the findings. The first installment, Literary genre of the wilderness temptation (to which I have responded in painstaking detail previously) jumps straight into the question of the genre of the Gospel temptation stories. The second installment, Identifying the adversary, reads somewhat like an introduction. Here Burke acknowledges that the entity referred to as “the devil” in the temptation stories is regarded by most scholars as a supernatural evil being. He states that “This conclusion is vulnerable to criticism” but does not state his own position up front. One can infer from the title of the series (and his other writings) that he identifies “the devil” with the yetzer ra, the evil inclination within each person’s heart.
 
Burke then offers three “lines of evidence” that, in his view, make the typical interpretation of the Satan in the Synoptic Gospels (as a transcendent being) untenable:
1. “the most common terms used in pre-Christian Second Temple literature for a supernatural evil being, are not used in the Synoptics… In contrast, the [Satanological] terms used in the Synoptic temptation accounts have almost no pre-Christian witness in Second Temple literature as a reference to a specific supernatural evil being.”
2. “Ethical dualism and psychological dualism are dominant in the Synoptics, rather than the cosmological dualism which would be expected if a supernatural evil being was present in the temptation accounts.”
3. “There are no Old Testament or Second Temple parallels to the temptation accounts; the earliest analogs appear in the Tannaitic literature of the second century.”
The third “line of evidence” is not a line of evidence at all, but an argument from alleged silence. Burke cites no scholarship in support of the alleged silence—and in fact there are several important Second Temple parallels to the temptation accounts.3
 
The second “line of evidence” is likewise an opinion not substantiated with any evidence. The eighth and final part of Burke’s study is entitled Dualism in the Synoptics, and it is here that one expects to find his second claim defended. Surprisingly, this section merely defines three types of dualism (cosmological, ethical and psychological) and then abruptly ends, offering no argumentation for Burke’s previously stated claim that ethical and psychological dualism are dominant in the Synoptics rather than cosmological dualism. One can add here that the claim itself is rooted in a false dilemma: it sets ethical and psychological dualism in antithesis with cosmological dualism, whereas all of these kinds of dualism are compatible. A similar false dichotomy (between anthropological and mythological aetiologies of evil) underlies and invalidates Burke’s methodology in his peer-reviewed article on Satan in the Apostolic Fathers.4
 
This leaves us with Burke’s religion-historical claim about terminology to address—the only one of his three claims for which he provides any supporting argumentation! The five remaining parts of The Yetzer in the Wilderness discuss four specific Satanological terms (Satan, the devil, the evil one, the tempter) followed by a summary. Before addressing Burke's arguments in detail, I need to point out some methodological problems with his study.

Methodological problems with Burke’s study

(1) Burke overemphasises terms to the neglect of concepts.
 
For example, Second Temple literature features figures—such as "Mastema" in Jubilees and Belial and related figures in Qumran texts—who are leading transcendent opponents with considerable conceptual similarity to the Synoptic Satan. Are these parallels irrelevant as religion-historical background to the Synoptic Satan merely because this leading transcendent opponent has a different designation?
 
(2) Burke neglects the wider Synoptic context of the Satanological terms he discusses.
 
Mark’s account of Jesus’s wilderness temptation (1:13) uses one Satanological term—satanas—that occurs five other times in this Gospel (3:23 [twice]; 3:26; 4:15; 8:33). Matthew’s account (4:1-11) uses three Satanological terms—peirazōn, satanas and diabolos—of which satanas occurs thrice more (12:26 [twice]; 16:23) and diabolos occurs twice more (13:39; 25:41). Luke’s account (4:1-13) uses only diabolos, which occurs once more in his Gospel (8:12) and twice in Acts (10:38; 13:10). If one concedes the equivalence of diabolos and satanas for Luke (which should be obvious from his redaction of Mark 4:15 in Luke 8:12), we can add Luke’s seven uses of satanas (Luke 10:18; 11:18; 13:16; 22:3; 22:31; Acts 5:3; 26:18).
 
Obviously, this data—the same terms, used by the same authors, within the same documents—is of crucial importance to correctly interpreting how the Synoptic writers understood the entity that tempted Jesus. Yet Burke’s study inexplicably ignores it!
 
The most extensive Satanological pericope in the Synoptic Gospels apart from the wilderness temptation is undoubtedly the Beelzeboul controversy and accompanying parable of the strong man (Mark 3:22-27; Matt. 12:24-29 cp. 9:34; 10:25; Luke 11:15-22). Here, Jesus implicitly identifies the Satan as the prince of demons, the strong man whom he is overcoming through his exorcisms.5 This pericope, present in all three Synoptic Gospels, presents a fundamental problem for Burke’s view that the Satan is the anthropological yetzer—a problem Burke's study makes no effort to address. Similarly, Matthew depicts the Devil as the object of eschatological punishment along with “his angels” (Matt. 25:41).6 That the Devil leads a group of angels clearly identifies him as a supernatural being rather than an anthropological abstraction, yet once again Burke’s study ignores this evidence. Luke reports Jesus’s statement, “I saw the Satan fall like lightning from heaven,” made in response to the disciples’ joyful report about their successful exorcistic ministry (Luke 10:17-19).7 The demons are implicitly identified with “the power of the enemy,” so here too the Satan is implicitly identified as a heavenly being who rules demons. Yet again, Burke neglects to explain how this passage squares with his view that the Satan is reducible to the evil yetzer within human nature.
 
(3) Burke relies heavily on negative arguments.
 
As the title of Burke’s study suggests, his central claim is that the Satan/Devil/tempter in the Synoptic wilderness temptation narrative is the yetzer ra, the evil inclination within the human heart. However, his study focuses primarily on arguing against interpreting the Satan/Devil/tempter as a supernatural opponent on the grounds of insufficient religion-historical precedent. Even if this negative argument were successful—as we shall see, it is not—we would still not have a "yetzer in the wilderness"; we would simply have a weaker case for a supernatural opponent (albeit one that could still stand based on the contextual data on the Satan/Devil within the Gospels). The positive evidence Burke offers from Second Temple Jewish literature for his yetzer interpretation is confined to two brief passages: Sir. 21:27 and 11QPlea for Deliverance 19.15 (discussed below).
 
These methodological shortcomings are already sufficient to invalidate Burke’s claims concerning the opponent in the Synoptic Gospels. Nevertheless, let us proceed to examine his discussion of four specific Synoptic Satanological terms.
 
Burke's religion-historical survey of Synoptic Satanological Terms
 
(1) (the) Satan
 
Burke states that “In Second Temple Period literature the term ‘satan’ (whether in Hebrew or Greek), is predominantly used as a common noun rather than a personal name.” I would agree that ‘satan’ does not clearly appear as a personal name in pre-Christian literature. Indeed, in my forthcoming study in JTS I argue that ho satanas is probably a title rather than a name in most New Testament occurrences, better translated “the Satan” than “Satan.” However, whether ‘satan’ is used as a personal name is distinct from whether ‘satan’—when preceded by the article—designates a particular transcendent being, the Adversary par excellence. Stokes, who also does not find evidence of ‘Satan’ as a personal name in Second Temple literature, nonetheless firmly asserts the latter point:
The Hebrew Scriptures contain several different kinds of satans. They speak of humans in the capacity of attackers or executioners as satans. They speak of heavenly satans, serving the Deity as executioners of the wicked. They also speak of a particular satan, the Satan, who serves God as attacker or executioner of the wicked and, in the case of Job, as attacker of a righteous person. While it was this individual, the Satan, who especially piqued the imaginations of earlier interpreters and who would become the best known of the satans, early Jewish literature would continue to speak of other satans as well… authors continued to use the title ‘the Satan’ to speak of a particular superhuman individual. This title seems to have been replaced by others in certain works, such as ‘the Prince of Mastema’ in Jubilees and ‘Belial’ in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It remained popular in other circles, such as those that produced the New Testament. In these writings, the title appears transliterated as ὁ Σατανᾶς or translated as ὁ διάβολος.8
Burke begins his discussion of the religion-historical background of ‘satan’ with Sirach, inexplicably neglecting to discuss the Hebrew Bible, which is obviously a crucial source for understanding this term. In the Hebrew Bible, as is well known, śāṭān appears numerous times as a common noun referring to humans. In Numbers 22:22, 32 it is used descriptively, though not as a designation, for the angel of YHWH. In 1 Chr. 21:1 the anarthrous term probably denotes an anonymous celestial adversary, though a minority of scholars regard this being as human. Most important for our purposes are the occurrences of the arthrous word haśśāṭān in Job 1-2 and Zech. 3:1-2, which are—besides Sir. 21:27—the only unambiguously arthrous and pre-Christian occurrences of ‘satan.’9
 
There is a scholarly consensus that the setting of Job 1-2 and Zech. 3:1-2 is YHWH’s divine council, and that haśśāṭān in both passages is therefore a celestial being. This is weighty evidence in support of interpreting ho satanas in the Synoptic Gospels as a supernatural being—the more so since the Synoptic writers likely regarded Job and Zechariah as Scripture10—so it is incomprehensible that Burke ignores it. (Numerous scholars have identified the Satan’s “demand” or “request” in Luke 22:31 as an echo of Job’s prologue.)11
 
Two points concerning haśśāṭān in Job 1-2 and Zech. 3:1-2 that are disputed amongst scholars12 are the figure’s moral character and whether the term denotes a specific being or an office or role that hypothetically could be filled by different beings. Most scholars regard haśśāṭān in Job and Zechariah as either morally ambiguous or evil; all agree however that haśśāṭān is subservient to YHWH. Burke makes much of the moral character issue (in 1 Enoch, since he does not discuss the Hebrew Bible), but it is not very important. The Satan remains subservient to God in the New Testament,13 and his evil character in the New Testament can be understood as an interpretive resolution of the moral ambiguity in Job and Zechariah. Whether haśśāṭān in Job and Zechariah designates a specific personal being or merely a specific portfolio in the divine council is also not very important, since later Second Temple texts (see below on Jubilees, Parables of Enoch and the LXX) and the New Testament clearly understand the Satan as a specific being.
 
Burke states as though factual that in Sir. 21:27, “the Greek term [ho satanas] is used of the evil inclination,” citing two scholars who take this position. This is far from factual, however. Burke fails to observe that numerous scholars regard ho satanas as denoting the proverbial (human) adversary here.14 I offer detailed exegesis of this text in my forthcoming JTS study, arguing that the original Hebrew (which does not survive at this point) probably used śāṭān for a generic human adversary, but that the Greek translator has taken it to refer to the Satan, a particular celestial being. I further argue that the translator does not oppose belief in the celestial Satan per se, but opposes cursing the Satan. This is all to some extent conjectural, given the very limited context we have for interpreting Sirach’s ho satanas, but I believe my interpretation is less conjectural than the ho satanas = evil yetzer interpretation. After all, Sirach uses the term yetzer in 15:14 (cf. Heb. MS A; Greek translation has diaboulion), and could have used it here had the author wished to make such an identification.
 
Burke states,
In 1 Enoch the term appears only four times (41:9; 53:3; 54:6) [sic],15 and is not used as a proper name; instead Shemihazah and Azâzêl are the names of the supernatural evil opponent. Additionally, the satan in 1 Enoch is an obedient servant of God, not an evil adversary.
Burke neglects to distinguish between the different parts of the Enochic corpus. This is significant since Shemihazah only appears in the Book of the Watchers (chapters 1-36), while the term satan occurs only in the Book of Parables (chapters 37-71), which was composed centuries later (usually dated to around the time of Herod the Great).16 Furthermore, Burke erroneously states that “All references to satan are found in the Aramaic texts at Qumran”. In fact, none of the references to satan are found in the Aramaic texts at Qumran. The Book of Parables survives only in Ethiopic; no fragments of it have been discovered at Qumran.
 
Azazel (Asael in the original Aramaic of the Book of the Watchers) is common to both the Book of the Watchers and the Book of Parables. In the Book of the Watchers he is one of the Watchers’ leaders, while in the Book of Parables he is the main supernatural opponent. The plural satans in 1 En. 40.7 and 65.6 are undoubtedly supernatural beings.17 The singular ‘[the] Satan’ seems to be a specific supernatural being in 1 En. 53.3 and 54.6, a point Burke apparently concedes since he contests only whether “the satan” is obedient or evil. In fact, “the Satan” may actually be a title of Azazel in 1 En. 54.6,18 in which case he is unambiguously evil. It is also worth noting here the striking parallel between 1 En. 54.5-6 and Matt. 25:41 (concerning fiery eschatological punishment prepared for the wicked angels), which has led some scholars to assert Matthew’s literary dependence on this text.19 In 1 En. 53.3 [the] Satan seems to be cast in the role of punisher of wicked humans, which also has New Testament parallels (e.g., 1 Cor. 5:5; 10:10; Heb. 2:14; 11:28).20
 
Coming to Jubilees, Burke deals with this important text in just one sentence:
In Jubilees 10:11 the term ‘satan’ as a proper name was interpolated into the text by later scribes; textual evidence indicates the original word was Mastema, and all other instances of the term in Jubilees (23:29; 40:9; 46:2; 50:5), use it as a common noun.
I agree with Burke that the last four occurrences of the word ‘satan’ in Jubilees are common nouns. They may refer to human or supernatural opponents or both. Concerning Jub. 10.11, Burke states as though factual that the original word was Mastema. I think it likely that the original text at Jub. 10.11 referred to “the Satan,”21 but the point is not important enough to pursue here. Certainly the primary designation for the supernatural opponent in Jubilees is Mastema, which is more correctly understood as a title, “the prince of hostility” (Heb. שר המשטמה, a term preserved in the Book of Asaph the Physician as well as in 4QPseudo-Jubilees, which depend on Jubilees.) This figure is important to interpreting the Synoptic Satan for two reasons. First, his designation as “prince” and his role as ruler of demons correspond to Beelzeboul in the Synoptic Gospels, who is identified by Jesus with the Satan. Second, the words “mastema” and “satan” derive from cognate Hebrew roots,22 so “Mastema’s” designation is probably dependent on the biblical haśśāṭān. More certain is the dependence of “Mastema’s” functions in Jubilees on the role of haśśāṭān in Job, which has been noticed by many scholars especially in Jubilees’ rewriting of the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac from Gen. 22.23 Thus in Jubilees we have a supernatural opponent with important connections to both “the Satan” in the Hebrew Bible and “the Satan” in the Synoptic Gospels—surely an important link between the two, but one that Burke’s study overlooks.
 
Significantly, the authors of both Jubilees and the Parables of Enoch appear to have understood haśśāṭān in the Hebrew Bible as a specific transcendent being. Therefore, regardless of whether the authors of Job and Zechariah themselves understood haśśāṭān as a specific individual, such an understanding of haśśāṭān is attested in pre-Christian Second Temple Judaism.
 
Burke rules three other texts—the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Testament of Job and the Greek Apocalypse of Moses—out of court, although they all use the term ho satanas for a supernatural opponent, because of uncertainties about their date and provenance. This is a sensible, conservative methodological step, and one I also take in my JTS study: I do not rely on these texts to reconstruct the pre-Christian background of the term ‘satan’ due to the risk of anachronism. However, Burke should be wary of making an opposite error. If he wished to argue from silence that “the Satan” positively did not denote a supernatural opponent in pre-Christian Judaism, the mere possibility that some of these works are pre-Christian or preserve pre-Christian Satanological traditions would pose a significant risk.
 
Concerning the Qumran literature, Burke probably correctly states that the word ‘satan’ “is used rarely, and only as a common noun.” However, he goes on to claim concerning the Plea for Deliverance, “Tigchelaar has argued that here [‘satan’] is used of the evil inclination.” In Burke’s later summary this changes to a factual statement: “in 11Q5 xix 13-16 (the ‘Prayer for Deliverance’), [the word ‘satan’] refers to the evil inclination.” In fact, not only does Burke have little scholarly backing for this interpretation; he appears not even to have the support of Tigchelaar, the only scholar he cites in support!24
 
A final notable omission from Burke’s religion-historical survey of the Synoptic term satanas is the Pauline corpus. The generally accepted Pauline epistles, which almost certainly pre-date the Synoptic Gospels and come from the same movement within Second Temple Judaism, use the term (ho) satanas seven times (Rom. 16:20; 1 Cor. 5:5; 7:5; 2 Cor. 2:11; 11:14; 12:7; 1 Thess. 2:18). If one is willing to accept disputed epistles as Pauline there are up to three additional occurrences (2 Thess. 2:9; 1 Tim. 1:20; 5:15). While exegesis of these passages cannot detain us here, several of them (e.g., 2 Cor. 11:14, 12:7, 1 Thess. 2:18 and 2 Thess. 2:9) appear to clearly depict the Satan as an external, quasi-angelic opponent and seem irreconcilable with an identification of the Satan with the anthropological yetzer.
 
(2) The Devil
 
Coming to the Greek term ho diabolos, Burke discusses the Septuagint and a few later texts. I agree with him that the relevant data is fairly meagre, but he has overlooked some important points.
 
In both Job and Zechariah, the LXX translators have rendered haśśāṭān with ho diabolos. As Wieger points out, ho diabolos (“the slanderer”) has a pejorative connotation that haśśāṭān lacks,25 indicating that the translator understood haśśāṭān to be evil. Furthermore, since “the slanderer” is an unlikely title for a portfolio in the divine council, it appears the translator (like the authors of Jubilees and Parables of Enoch) understood haśśāṭān as the designation of a particular being rather than as an office or role. Nevertheless, in the LXX ho diabolos is not yet a technical term reserved for the Satan, as it arguably is by the time of the NT. This is evident from the use of this term for Haman in Esth. 7:4, 8:1 LXX.26
 
Burke erroneously attributes the term ho diabolos to several other Second Temple texts where diabolos is actually anarthrous (1 Chr. 21:1 LXX; Ps. 108:6 LXX; 1 Macc. 1:36; Wis. 2:24). Of these, Wis. 2:24 has been identified as referring to the Devil, though as Burke observes this interpretation is increasingly challenged by scholars.27 I do not consider any of the proposed interpretations conclusive, but would not rely on Wis. 2:24 to reconstruct pre-Christian Jewish ideas about the Devil.
 
Burke mentions a reference to the Devil in Philo’s Questions and answers on Genesis (which survives only in an Armenian version), but relies on Yonge’s dated translation; Marcus’s more recent work omits this sentence,28 which looks like a late interpolation since Philo nowhere else refers to the Devil.
 
Burke again conservatively rules a number of texts out of evidence due to uncertain/late date and/or provenance (Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Ascension of Isaiah,29 Greek version of Jubilees, History of the Rechabites, Greek Apocalypse of Moses, Testament of Solomon, etc.) or text-critical problems (Joseph and Aseneth 12.9). I have no objections here. I think Burke’s discussion of the Ascension of Moses is highly problematic, but while I deal with this text in some detail in my JTS study, the literary-historical problems with study of this text are too complicated to treat here. Anyway, regardless of the source of Jude’s allusion to a quarrel between Michael the archangel and the Devil (Jude 9), the allusion shows that the source existed in the first century and influenced the early church. The idea of a being who quarrels with an archangel must therefore be considered as part of the pre-Christian Jewish background on the term ho diabolos. This is significant since a quarrel between an archangel and an evil angel is a far more plausible scenario in a Second Temple Jewish setting than a quarrel between an archangel and the evil inclination.
 
(3) The Tempter
 
Burke states—correctly, as far as I can tell—that the term “the tempter” (Greek: ho peirazōn) has no pre-Christian Jewish witness. This is not very important, since peirasmos (testing or temptation) is unquestionably one of the Satan’s functions in Job 1-2. What the Satan proposes to God and then executes (Job 1:9-11; 2:4-5) is clearly a test of Job’s loyalty to God, even if the word peirasmos does not occur in the LXX text. The role of the anonymous satan in 1 Chr. 21:1—inciting a righteous man to commit a sinful act—can likewise clearly be described as temptation, as can some of the exploits of “Mastema” in Jubilees (cf. 17.15-18.12), Belial in the Damascus Document (cf. CD 4.12-19) and “the satans” in 1 En. 65.6. Here again, Burke focuses myopically on a term rather than the concept it denotes.
 
One can add that Matthew is not the first writer to use “the tempter” as a Satanological designation—Paul does so in 1 Thess. 3:5. Thus, what was said above about ho satanas in the Pauline corpus is also relevant here.
 
(4) The Evil One
 
I am not entirely sure of Burke’s rationale for discussing this Satanological term: he otherwise limits himself to terms that appear in the Synoptic wilderness temptation accounts and ignores other Synoptic Satanological terms that appear only outside the wilderness temptation accounts.30 Nevertheless, let us consider what he says about this term:
The term ‘the evil one’ (ton ponērou), has no Second Temple pre-Christian witness as a reference to a supernatural evil being.
To begin with, “ton ponērou” mangles the Greek, combining an accusative article with a genitive adjective. But what can we say of Burke’s assertion that “the evil one” is not attested as a Second Temple Jewish designation for a supernatural being? I will not object too strenuously to Burke’s dismissal of the instances in Jubilees—the term “evil one” is generic here and it is ambiguous whether it refers to human or supernatural opposition or both. Due to problems of date, provenance and text, I am happy with his dismissal of the instances in 2 Enoch, the Story of Ahikar, Pseudo-Ezekiel, History of the Rechabites, 2 Baruch and Odes of Solomon. I would, in similar fashion, dismiss his late Talmudic evidence.31 I will not quibble either with Burke’s dismissal of 1 En. 69.15, which possibly refers to “the evil one” but is text-critically problematic and can be interpreted in other ways.32
 
Burke misses some important evidence, however. Most significant is the apparent reference to Belial in 4QBerakhot as הרשע, “the evil one” (4Q286 7 ii 5; the fragmentary text truncates before the ayin, but no other construction seems possible).33 What is odd about this omission by Burke is that he cites Black, one of the scholars who pointed out this reference to “the evil one,” but erroneously cites him as supporting the claim that this Satanological designation has no pre-Christian witness.34
 
The name Melkiresa (literally “ruler of evil,”) which occurs in two Qumran texts (4QCurses and 4QVisions of Amram), is a close analogue of “the evil one”—both at least are Satanological designations with “evil” as the operative word. Finally, Philo refers to unholy angels as hoi ponēroi (“the evil ones”) in On the Giants 17.35
 
Burke states that the lack of Second Temple Jewish precedent for “the evil one” has prompted “many scholars to argue that ton ponērou [sic] should not even be read as ‘the evil one’ in Matthew.” He does not cite any of these “many scholars.” However, while a Satanological referent is uncertain in Matt. 5:37, 6:13 and 13:38 due to the ambiguous gender of the genitive tou ponērou,36 the nominative ho ponēros in Matt. 13:19 is unambiguously masculine and unquestionably refers to Satan, being a redaction of ho satanas in Mark 4:15.
 
The attestation of “evil one” for supernatural opponents in Second Temple Jewish literature is very sparse, but not absent as Burke claims. Moreover, even apart from religion-historical precedent, “the evil one” is a rather obvious way to refer to the ultimate opponent and leader of forces of evil. Burke's skepticism that “the evil one” was used as a Satanological designation by Matthew is unwarranted given that this designation occurs in numerous other early Christian texts.37
 
Conclusion
 
As noted earlier, the structure of Burke’s study does not seem to have a true conclusion. However, the following comes closest to a concluding statement:
The combined weight of this lexical evidence casts serious doubt on the suggestion that the original audience of the Synoptic temptation accounts would have understood the satanological terminology as a reference to a specific supernatural evil being well known within Second Temple Period Judaism and the early Judeo-Christian milieu.
In line with our methodological criticism earlier, we can again note the negative nature of this statement. Despite Burke’s study being entitled The Yetzer in the Wilderness, he does not even draw a positive conclusion about the Synoptic Satan being identifiable as the yetzer to the original audience. He restricts himself to “cast[ing] serious doubt” on whether the original audience would have understood the Satanological terminology as referring to a supernatural evil being.
 
Has Burke succeeded in even this more modest objective of casting serious doubt on the standard identification of the Synoptic Gospels’ wilderness tempter? In my judgment, not at all. First, he focuses exclusively on terminology whereas he should also consider concepts. Second, he incomprehensibly ignores the broader Synoptic Gospel context of the Satanological terminology used in the temptation stories. Third, his religion-historical survey of the terms “Satan,” “Devil,” “tempter” and “evil one” understates their footprint as Satanological terminology in Second Temple Jewish literature. Concerning “the Satan,” Burke ignores the important witness of the Hebrew Bible, takes as factual a disputed interpretation of ho satanas in Sir. 21:27 and an unattested interpretation of śāṭān in the Plea for Deliverance, downplays the significance of the Parables of Enoch, fails to recognise Jubilees’ “Mastema” as an intermediate development between “the Satan” of the Hebrew Bible and that of the New Testament, and neglects the evidence of the Pauline corpus. Concerning “the Devil,” Burke misses important clues in the LXX translation of Job and Zechariah, too easily dismisses the evidence of the “Ascension of Moses” and fails to properly address the evidence of Jude 9’s source (evidence that bears weight irrespective of the problem of identifying this source). Concerning “the tempter,” Burke focuses exclusively on the term and fails to notice that the function of temptation or testing is repeatedly attributed to superhuman opponents in Second Temple literature. Concerning “the evil one,” Burke misses the crucial evidence of 4QBerakhot.
 
On the whole, Burke’s study can be described as a methodologically flawed and exegetically tendentious effort to find a religion-historical foothold for Christadelphians’ idiosyncratic reading of the Gospel temptation narrative, and more broadly their unique doctrine of the biblical Devil. If these are the best exegetical arguments that can be mounted, one wonders that there are not more Christadelphians calling for an internal review of the matter. The traditional Christian doctrine of the Devil as a transcendent opponent has been vindicated by biblical scholarship of the past century—not that it was ever in doubt among those for whom the teachings of the Church, faithfully transmitted through the ages, are authoritative.


Footnotes

  • 1 Following a critique of Christadelphian interpretations of the temptation narrative that I wrote in December 2013 and a couple of blog articles on the subject thereafter (The temptations of Jesus and Roman law and Who tempted Jesus in the wilderness? Ten points to ponder), Burke wrote an eight-part online series under the heading The Yetzer in the Wilderness: Jesus and the Evil Inclination as well as a seven-part series under the heading Satan & demons: Thomas Farrar’s commentary. Most of the parts of the latter series do not advance any exegetical or theological arguments that merit a response. I have provided a detailed response to his comments on “the angels that sinned” (2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6). Responding to one line of Burke's argument in The Yetzer in the Wilderness, I then wrote a four-part blog series entitled Form, Genre, and Historicity of the Wilderness Temptations of Jesus in the Gospels: A Response to Jonathan Burke (parts 1, 2, 3 and 4). Burke responded further with an article entitled Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, to which I in turn responded with A further reply to Jonathan Burke on the devil in the Gospel temptation stories.
  • 2 I would note, however, that I have numerous studies on Satan and demons going back to 2014 that have interacted critically with Burke's nearly 200-page tome Satan and Demons: A Reply to Anthony Buzzard (a comprehensive apologia for the Christadelphian position on this subject), to which to my knowledge neither Burke nor any other Christadelphian has responded to date. I would highlight, in particular, The Enemy is the Devil: The parables of Jesus and Christadelphian satanology and ‘When an unclean spirit goes out of a person’: An Assessment of the Accommodation Theory of Demon Possession and Exorcism in the Synoptic Gospels.
  • 3 Some of these are mentioned in part two of my series on Form, Genre, and Historicity of the Wilderness Temptations of Jesus in the Gospels.
  • 4 Jonathan Burke, "Satan and Demons in the Apostolic Fathers: A Minority Report," Svensk Exegetisk Årsbok 81 (2016), 127-68. For an excellent critique of such false dichotomies, see James P. Davies, "Evil’s Aetiology and False Dichotomies in Jewish Apocalyptic and Paul," in Chris Keith and Loren T. Stuckenbruck (eds.), Evil in Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity (WUNT 2/417; Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016), 169-89.
  • 5 For further discussion of Beelzeboul and the strong man, see Thomas J. Farrar and Guy J. Williams, "Diabolical Data: A critical inventory of New Testament Satanology," JSNT 39 (2016), 46-47, 51.
  • 6 For a refutation of Christadelphian attempts to construe these angels as human "messengers," see my article When is an angelos not an angel?.
  • 7 For a survey of possible interpretations of the saying in Luke 10:18, see Simon J. Gathercole, "Jesus' Eschatological Vision of the Fall of Satan: Luke 10,18 Reconsidered," ZNW 94 (2003), 143-63.
  • 8 Ryan E. Stokes, "What is a Demon, What is an Evil Spirit, and What is a Satan?", in Jan Dochhorn, Susanne Rudnig-Zelt, and Benjamin Wold (eds.), Das Böse, der Teufel und Dämonen—Evil, the Devil, and Demons (WUNT 2/412; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016), 269-70.
  • 9 Since the Ethiopic language has no definite article, we cannot be sure whether the term ‘satan’ was arthrous or anarthrous in the Semitic originals of the Parables of Enoch and Jubilees, since the term survives only in Ethiopic versions.
  • 10 While the Synoptic Gospels do not explicitly cite Job, and a discussion of the formation of the biblical canon is beyond our scope, Matthew quotes Zechariah as prophecy in Matt. 21:5 (cf. 23:35; 27:9).
  • 11 See references in forthcoming JTS study.
  • 12 See further discussion and references in forthcoming JTS study.
  • 13 See especially Sydney H. T. Page, "Satan: God's Servant," JETS 50 (2007), 449-65.
  • 14 E.g., John G. Snaith, Ecclesiasticus (CBC; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974), 110; Patrick W. Skehan and Alexander Di Lella, The Wisdom of Ben Sira (AB 39; New York: Doubleday, 1987), 311-12; Christian Kurzewitz, Weisheit und Tod: Die Ätiologie des Todes in der Sapientia Salomonis (TANZ 50; Tübingen: Francke, 2010), 166 n. 483.
  • 15 The four occurrences of the term are actually in 1 En. 40.7; 53.3; 54.6; 65.6.
  • 16 See James H. Charlesworth, "The Date and Provenance of the Parables of Enoch," in Darrell L. Bock and James H. Charlesworth (eds.), Parables of Enoch: A Paradigm Shift (Jewish and Christian Texts in Contexts and Related Studies 11; London: T&T Clark, 2013), 56.
  • 17 In 40.7 the satans are a class of accusers driven away by the angel Phanuel; in the latter the satans, set in parallelism with “the angels,” seem to be Watchers.
  • 18 So George W. E. Nickelsburg, "Chapters 37-71: The Book of Parables," in George W. E. Nickelsburg and James C. VanderKam, 1 Enoch 2: A Commentary on the Book of 1 Enoch Chapters 37-82 (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress), 45.
  • 19 Leslie W. Walck, The Son of Man in the Parables of Enoch and in Matthew (Jewish and Christian Texts in Contexts and Related Studies 9; London: T&T Clark, 2011).
  • 20 On these texts see Farrar and Williams, "Diabolical Data," 54-56.
  • 21 I discuss this text in greater detail in my JTS study and interact with Hanneken’s observations on the Book of Asaph the Physician, to which Burke refers.
  • 22 Devorah Dimant, History, Ideology and Bible Interpretation in the Dead Sea Scrolls (FAT 90; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 147.
  • 23 E.g., Miryam T. Brand, Evil Within and Without: The Source of Sin and Its Nature as Portrayed in Second Temple Literature (JAJSup 9; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013), 183-84. See further references in forthcoming JTS publication.
  • 24 Tigchelaar does not say that the word “satan” is used of the evil inclination. What he says is that “the juxtaposition of satan and ‘evil inclination’ in the Plea for Deliverance reminds one of the identification of Satan and evil inclination in some Talmudic texts (b.BB 16a)” (E. Tigchelaar, "The Evil Inclination in the Dead Sea Scrolls, with a Re-edition of 4Q468i (4QSectarian Text?)," in Alberdina Houtman, Albert de Jong, and Magda Misset-van de Weg (eds.), Empsychoi Logoi—Religious Innovations in Antiquity [Leiden: Brill, 2008], 353). Other comments suggest that he regards ‘satan’ as an external entity in the Plea for Deliverance. Commenting on the Aramaic Levi Document, he writes, “The formulation in Levi’s Prayer, אל תשלט בי כל שטן, ‘Let not any satan rule over me’, as well as the formulations in other texts, indicate that שטן is a category of evil spirit, and not a proper noun. It is not entirely certain how the ‘evil inclination’ in the Plea for Deliverance is to be understood, whether as an outward or as an inward force, but in any case it seems to have gained a substance of its own, independent of a human’s heart” (Tigchelaar, "Evil Inclination," 350-51). Burke cites Tigchelaar second-hand via Brand but fails to state Brand’s own interpretation: “The petitioner asks to be saved from all evil that may afflict his person, physical and mental, external ‘satan’ and internal ‘inclination’” (Brand, Evil Within and Without, 210). Similarly, Lange: “11QPsa XIX:15 uses the term שטן without a determinative and mentions it in parallel with another type of demons, the spirit of impurity (רוח טמאה). The parallelism between ‘a satan’ and ‘a spirit of impurity’ shows that satan refers to a type or class of demons in the Plea for Deliverance and not to the leader of the antidivine world” (Armin Lange, "Satanic Verses: The Adversary in the Qumran Manuscripts and Elsewhere," RevQ 24 [2009], 40). Note also Stuckenbruck’s view, cited by Burke, that the Plea for Deliverance may have in view “a more specific malevolent being… that is, one called ‘Satan’” (Loren T. Stuckenbruck, "The Demonic World of the Dead Sea Scrolls," in in Ida Fröhlich and Erkki Koskenniemi (eds.), Evil and the Devil [LNTS 481; London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013], 63). Wold, far from seeing the Plea for Deliverance as internalizing ‘satan,’ views it as externalizing the yetzer ra: “I am convinced that the yetzer ra in these lines is not an inward part of a person, or at least not exclusively, but parallel to ‘satan’ and ‘unclean spirit’ and therefore also an outward force” (Benjamin Wold, "Demonizing Sin? The Evil Inclination in 4QInstruction," in Evil in Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity, 38).
  • 25 Madeleine Wieger, "«Celui qu’on appelle διάβολος» (Apocalypse 12,9): L’histoire du nom grec de l’Adversaire," in Michael Tilly, Matthias Morgenstern, and Volker Henning Drecoll (eds.), L’adversaire de Dieu—der Widersacher Gottes (WUNT 364; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016), 208.
  • 26 I should point out, however, that the definite article need not be understood in a par excellence sense here; it is to be understood respectively cataphorically and anaphorically.
  • 27 In addition to scholars cited by Burke identifying this diabolos as Cain, Zurawski, in a detailed study, identifies this diabolos as a generic human adversary (Jason M. Zurawski, "Separating the Devil from the Diabolos: A Fresh Reading of Wisdom of Solomon 2.24," JSP 21 [2012], 366-399).
  • 28 Ralph Marcus, Philo, Supplement I: Questions on Genesis (LCL 380; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953/1961), 21-2.
  • 29 Burke states that “the term appears in one of the late Greek fragments”. This is misleading, since the Greek Legend is not a “fragment” of the Ascension of Isaiah but an expanded reworking thereof. In any case, communis opinio now regards Ascension of Isaiah as a Christian composition.
  • 30 Cf. Beelzeboul (Mark 3:22; Matt. 10:25; 12:24; Luke 11:15, 18, 19), the prince of demons (Mark 3:22; Matt. 9:34; 12:24; Luke 11:15), the enemy (Luke 10:19), the power of darkness (Luke 22:53), and parabolic representations of the Satan, namely the strong man (Mark 3:27; Matt. 12:29; Luke 11:21-22), the birds (Mark 4:4 cp. 4:15; Matt. 13:4 cp. 13:19; Luke 8:5 cp. 8:12) and the enemy (Matt. 13:25, 28 cp. 13:39).
  • 31 Burke states, “Care must always be taken not to assume Talmudic content is representative of first century Jewish beliefs, given the composite nature of the Talmuds and the lateness of their final form, but if the term ‘the evil one’ was a normative term for a supernatural evil satan or ‘the devil’ in the first century, it is extraordinary that this does not appear anywhere in the Talmudic literature.” I agree with the first part, but there is a simple explanation for why Satan is never called “the evil one” in the Talmud—the rabbis did not believe Satan to be morally evil.
  • 32 See Nickelsburg, "Book of Parables," 304-307.
  • 33 Matthew Black, ‘The Doxology to the Pater Noster with a Note on Matthew 6.13b,’ in Philip R. Davies and Richard T. White (eds.), A Tribute to Geza Vermes: Essays on Jewish and Christian Literature and History (JSOTSup 100; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1990), 334; James R. Davila, Liturgical Works (Eerdmans Commentaries on the Dead Sea Scrolls 6; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 59-61.
  • 34 Since 4QBerakhot date palaeographically from the mid-first century C.E. (Davila, Liturgical Works, 42), one cannot confidently call them “pre-Christian.” However, they almost certainly pre-date Matthew, since the Qumran community was destroyed by the Romans c. 68 C.E., and Matthew is generally dated post-70 C.E.—usually in the 80s.
  • 35 “And so, too, you also will not go wrong if you reckon as angels, not only those who are worthy of the name, who are as ambassadors backwards and forwards between men and God and are rendered sacred and inviolate by reason of that glorious and blameless ministry, but also those who are unholy and unworthy of the title. I have as witness to my argument the words of the Psalmist, where in one of the psalms we read ‘He sent out upon them the anger of His wrath, wrath and anger and affliction, a mission by evil angels’ (Ps. lxxvii. 49). These are the evil ones who, cloaking themselves under the name of angels, know not the daughters of right reason, the sciences and virtues, but court the pleasures which are born of men, pleasures mortal as their parents—pleasures endowed not with the true beauty, which the mind alone can discern, but with the false comeliness, by which the senses are deceived.” (F. H. Colson, trans. Philo. 10 vols. [London: Heinemann, 1929], 2:453-55).
  • 36 See Farrar and Williams ("Diabolical Data," 44-46) for arguments that these texts nonetheless do refer to the Satan.
  • 37 The expression is unambiguously masculine in 1 John 2:13-14, 5:18, Barn. 2.10 and Mart. Pol. 17.1. The gender is ambiguous in Did. 8.2, 2 Thess. 3:3, Eph. 6:16, 1 John 3:12, 5:19 and Barn. 21.3, but I would argue that these instances too all refer to the Satan. Burke ("Satan and Demons in the Apostolic Fathers", 157) concedes a Satanological referent in Barnabas, though not in Didache or Martyrdom of Polycarp.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Did Pope Francis really say that a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is dangerous?

YouTube contains a large quantity of videos purporting to be exposés about the Pope, Vatican or Roman Catholic Church. Often these take the form of clips of the Pope saying something, sometimes combined with commentary on why what he said was so shocking and diabolical.

One such video that, in several different versions, has garnered millions of views, pertains to some remarks Pope Francis made during his General Audience at St. Peter's Square on June 25, 2014. Here are the titles of the five most-viewed videos on this topic:
“POPE says Personal Relationship with Jesus VERY DANGEROUS & HARMFUL – Must Share!!” 
“POPE Francis Warns ANY ‘Personal Relationship w/ Jesus is Dangerous’: (NEWS)”  
“ANTI CHRIST! Pope Francis Says ‘Personal Relationship With Jesus Is Dangerous’” 
“Satanic Pope Francis Says Having a Personal Relationship With Jesus Is Dangerous!!!”
“Personal relationship with Jesus is dangerous outside the RCC says pope.”
Now, perhaps responding to such videos is an exercise in futility. Many of those who share them are only interested in making the Pope look as bad as possible, and not in careful, judicious reflection on the Pope's words. Nevertheless, for the sake of those willing to consider the issue with an open mind, I offer the following comments.

In order to correctly interpret speech or text it is always a good idea to place them in context. Most of the videos above include a roughly two-minute clip of Pope Francis speaking in Italian with English subtitles. This clip is an excerpt from a homily that Pope Francis gave on the topic of "belonging to the Church." The Vatican's official transcript of the homily, translated into English, indicates that the subtitles in the videos do appear to accurately represent the Pope's words.

That said, the first four headlines above show that most of the Pope's YouTube critics have blatantly misrepresented the Pope's point. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fifth video has far fewer views than the first three with their more provocative titles and use of all capitals, which has been called the Internet version of shouting.) Two of the headlines place the words "Personal Relationship with Jesus is Dangerous" in quotation marks, implying that Pope Francis said them, which he did not. Two of the headlines gratuitously apply an inflammatory label to Pope Francis ("ANTI CHRIST!"; "Satanic"); the latter also childishly superimposes red "devil horns" onto a picture of Pope Francis. More fundamentally, the titles convey the idea that Pope Francis is against having a personal relationship with Jesus, and this is simply false. Here are the key words that the Pope's critics have latched onto:
There are those who believe they can maintain a personal, direct and immediate relationship with Jesus Christ outside the communion and the mediation of the Church. These are dangerous and harmful temptations. These are, as the great Paul VI said, absurd dichotomies.
Placed in the context of Pope Francis's homily on the topic of "belonging to the Church," it is obvious that his emphasis lies on the words "outside the communion and the mediation of the Church." What is dangerous and harmful is not a personal relationship with Jesus Christ but a personal relationship with Jesus Christ outside the Church. Now, unfortunately, I was unable to track down the source and context of Pope Paul VI's statement about "absurd dichotomies." However, it seems clear that Pope Francis is warning against constructing a false dichotomy whereby one can either have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ or one can have the communion and mediation of the Church but not both. By opposing this false dichotomy, Pope Francis affirms the need for both of these things. On the need for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, consider the following excerpt from a summary of a morning mediation Pope Francis delivered on January 9, 2017:
In this perspective, the Pope suggested, we should ask a “question: is the centre of my life Jesus Christ? What is my relationship with Jesus Christ?”. Francis pointed out that at the start of the celebration, in the oration of the collect prayer, “we asked for the grace to see, the grace to know what we have to do and the grace to have the strength to do it”. But “the first thing we have to do is look to Jesus Christ”. In doing so, “there are three things, let’s say three tasks, to assure ourselves that Jesus is at the centre of our life”. “First of all”, the Pope explained, “recognize Jesus, know him and recognize him. In his time, the Apostle John, at the beginning of his Gospel, says that many did not recognize him: the doctors of the law, the high priests, the scribes, the Sadducees, some Pharisees”. What’s more, “they persecuted him; they killed him”. Thus, “the first approach is to know and recognize Jesus; to seek how Jesus was: does this interest me”? It is, Francis stated, “a question that all of us must ask ourselves: does it interest me to know Jesus or perhaps am I more interested in soap operas or gossip or ambitions or knowing about other people’s lives”? Indeed, to “know Jesus, one must first “be able to recognize him”. And, the Pope added, “to know Jesus, there is prayer, the Holy Spirit, yes, but it is also good practice to “pick up the Gospel every day”. He then asked the congregation: “How many of you pick up the Gospel each day and read a passage? I would tell you to raise your hands: but I won’t do so”, he added, telling them not to worry. It is important, the Pope said, to always take a copy of the Gospel with you, such as “the pocket version, which is small, in order to be carried in a pocket, purse”, so it is “always with me”. It is said, the Pontiff continued, that “Saint Cecilia had the Gospel close to her heart: close, close!”. And in this way, keeping it always close at hand, we can “read a passage of the Gospel every day: it is the only way to know Jesus”, to know “what he did, what he said”.
So Pope Francis is clearly for a personal relationship with Jesus, not against it. What then was Pope Francis's point in saying that it is "dangerous and harmful" to think one can "maintain a personal, direct and immediate relationship with Jesus Christ outside the communion and the mediation of the Church"? I think the basic point Pope Francis is making has been made and could be made in a sermon at any church. Some other excerpts from the homily will bring out his core message:
We are not isolated and we are not Christians on an individual basis, each one on his or her own, no, our Christian identity is to belong! ... No one becomes Christian on his or her own! Is that clear? No one becomes Christian by him- or herself. Christians are not made in a laboratory. A Christian is part of a people who comes from afar. The Christian belongs to a people called the Church and this Church is what makes him or her Christian, on the day of Baptism, and then in the course of catechesis, and so on. But no one, no one becomes Christian on his or her own. If we believe, if we know how to pray, if we acknowledge the Lord and can listen to his Word, if we feel him close to us and recognize him in our brothers and sisters, it is because others, before us, lived the faith and then transmitted it to us.
The point is that no Christian is an island. One cannot live as a Christian in isolation from other Christians. We are indebted to those Christians who went before us and we are in need of those Christians who journey alongside us and they are in need of us. Hence Pope Francis warns against 
the temptation of thinking we can make it without the others, that we can get along without the Church, that we can save ourselves on our own... we cannot be good Christians if we are not together with those who seek to follow the Lord Jesus, as one single people, one single body, and this is the Church.
In any Protestant church this could form the core message of a sermon directed at those who say things like "I love Jesus but I'm not into church." Thus, I think Pope Francis's basic point is one to which every Christian should be able to say "Amen." Furthermore, in saying, "The Christian belongs to a people called the Church and this Church is what makes him or her Christian, on the day of Baptism," Pope Francis states the Catholic belief that one becomes a Christian - and part of the Church - through baptism (1 Cor. 12:13). The Catholic Church recognizes Protestant baptisms as valid, so this statement pertains to all Christians. Protestants, like Catholics, become Christians and part of the Church on the day of baptism. Without the sacrament of baptism, one is neither a Christian nor part of the Church.

Having said that, not all the aspects of "belonging to the Church" touched on in Pope Francis's homily pertain to Protestants. When Pope Francis speaks of "the Church," he means the Roman Catholic Church, because there is only one body and Catholics believe the Roman Catholic Church is that body. Pope Francis's general audience was addressed to the Catholic faithful, and in stressing the need for "the communion and the mediation of the Church" Pope Francis implicitly reiterates the Roman Catholic Church's claim to be the "one holy, catholic and apostolic" Church founded by Jesus Christ. Protestant Christians do not completely enjoy the communion and mediation of the Church because they do not receive the special gifts that the Lord makes available through the Church - most especially his Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist. Protestants are, from a Catholic point of view, Christians who are walking with Christ without the fullness of the spiritual gifts that he offers in the Church to enable us to complete that walk successfully. It could be likened (and this is my analogy, not Pope Francis's) to a firefighter entering a burning building without all of his or her equipment. It is indeed dangerous, and this is one reason why we as Catholics are passionate about working toward reconciliation and reunion with Protestants. We want them to enjoy the full benefits of "belonging to the Church."

Since Protestants reject Catholic teaching about the Church and the Eucharist, it makes sense to debate and discuss these issues. In that sense, a legitimate Protestant headline describing Pope Francis's headline might be something like, "Pope Francis says personal relationship with Jesus dangerous outside communion and mediation of Catholic Church." This captures what is controversial about Pope Francis's homily (from a Protestant perspective) without misrepresenting him. The fifth headline quoted above is the only one that does this. The other four headlines are sensationalizing red herrings designed to make Protestants loathe the Pope.

Dialogue is always needed between Catholics and Protestants, but if we are to make progress toward unity in the body of Christ we must eschew the temptation to resort to partisan propaganda - either by creating such propaganda or by sharing it uncritically in our social networks. We must instead discuss the issues that divide us in a fair, honest and loving way. We must also always keep in mind the common ground that we share, and belief in the need for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is, in fact, part of that common ground.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Journeys from Christadelphia to orthodoxy: My story

This is an account of my spiritual journey. Since my religious affiliation has changed twice over the course of my journey, and since these changes occurred mainly for theological reasons, my story necessarily entails criticizing some of my former religious beliefs. However, I hope to do so in a fair and respectful way. This testimony is not intended as an apologia (a defense of my faith): I will include some intellectual aspects of my journey but also experiential aspects. My hope is simply to bear witness to God’s grace in my life.

Background on Christadelphians

I was raised in the Christadelphian religious community. For readers unfamiliar with Christadelphians, I will provide some background, as my story may be difficult to understand otherwise. In 1847, a British medical doctor named John Thomas broke away from the Stone-Campbell movement (the parent movement of such contemporary denominations as the Disciples of Christ and Churches of Christ) due to theological differences and formed a new sect that eventually took the name Christadelphians. There are roughly 50 000 Christadelphians in the world today (no precise figures are available), mainly concentrated in the British Commonwealth and the USA.

Christadelphians are a restorationist movement: they seek to restore the beliefs and practices of Jesus Christ and his earliest followers, which they believe were corrupted in a “Great Apostasy” soon after the apostles died. Christadelphians use the 66-book Protestant biblical canon. They uphold biblical inerrancy and a strong sola Scriptura (or, perhaps more precisely, solo Scriptura) position, granting almost no authority to extra-biblical Christian tradition.

Christadelphians sometimes refer to their distinctive doctrinal belief system as “the Truth.” They believe anyone who correctly interprets the Bible through diligent personal study will arrive at their doctrines. The most widely used Christadelphian Statement of Faith sets out the belief system in 30 brief propositions. Several fundamental differences from traditional Christian theology are readily apparent from a supplement to their Statement of Faith entitled “Doctrines to be Rejected.” These include:
  • “We reject the doctrine - that God is three persons.”
  • “We reject the doctrine - that man has an immortal soul.”
  • “We reject the doctrine - that the wicked will suffer eternal torture in hell.”
  • “We reject the doctrine - that the devil is a supernatural being.”
  • “We reject the doctrine - that the Kingdom of God is "the church."”
Christadelphians have traditionally regarded the papacy as the Antichrist, the Roman Catholic Church as the “mother of harlots” (Rev. 17:5) and the various Protestant denominations as the implied daughters. There is, however, a spectrum among contemporary Christadelphians from this strong antipathy toward “Christendom” to those who regard their movement as part of the big Christian denominational family.

Christadelphian local congregations are referred to as “ecclesias” and are fully autonomous: the movement has no centralised authority, representative body, synods, etc. There are several Christadelphian subgroups called “Fellowships” that are the result of past schisms within the movement. The largest subgroup is called the Central Fellowship; I grew up in the smaller Unamended Fellowship. Christadelphians are a very close-knit community. Through inter-ecclesial gatherings and conferences, Christadelphians who live hundreds of kilometres apart or even on different continents develop strong fraternal bonds.

Christadelphians believe in baptismal regeneration and only practice believers’ baptism. Most of those raised in the movement who decide to make a faith commitment undergo baptism between their middle teens and early twenties. Candidates for baptism must first undergo an “interview” or “examination” that in some cases is very theologically rigorous. Converts from other Christian denominations or movements usually undergo re-baptism because baptism is not considered valid unless one understands “the Truth” at the time of baptism.

Christadelphians do not have clergy or paid ministers. Ecclesias are governed congregationally, while the responsibility of preaching at Sunday services is divided among baptized male members—females too in some ecclesias—according to a weekly roster. Christadelphians do not have seminaries; instead Bible knowledge is acquired by self-study at one’s own initiative and attendance at Bible study meetings and conferences. Biblical literacy is a core value within the movement, so many Christadelphians engage in rigorous daily Bible study, achieving a level of familiarity with the Bible that would put many “mainstream Christian” clergy to shame.

Christadelphian worship services generally follow a fixed order of service but not a fixed form of words. They open with hymns or songs, Scripture readings and prayer, usually followed by a sermon or homily (referred to as an “exhortation”) and then the “breaking of bread” or “memorial service” (terms preferred over “communion”), which is practiced every Sunday.

My early life in the Christadelphian community

I was born in 1983 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada and grew up in nearby Grimsby, the fourth of five children in a middle class family. Our parents provided us with a loving home and a great example. My father worked hard to provide for the family and my mother was a stay-at-home mom and I remain forever grateful for their sacrifices on our behalf. I had a happy, peaceful childhood (apart from the occasional scrap with my older brothers).

I have Christadelphians on both sides of my family going back five or six generations. All my grandparents were, and both my parents are, strongly committed Christadelphians. I can only remember one Sunday before age twenty when I did not attend a Christadelphian service. Usually it was two services per Sunday. We attended various other Christadelphian functions and held Bible classes almost daily at home. The Bible and the Christadelphian religion played a central role in my upbringing.

It was in my early teens, however, that my religious consciousness really began to awaken. My father and then my uncle were my Sunday School teachers during this period, and their lessons were intellectually stimulating, helping me to grasp the big picture of God’s message in the Bible and purpose in history, as well as the key battlegrounds of apologetics. Christadelphians spend a relatively large proportion of their time and resources (relative to other Christian denominations and movements) on apologetics, waging a two-front ideological war against secularism and “mainstream” Christianity respectively. In my mid-teens I resolved to undertake a thorough investigation of biblical doctrine in order to determine whether the Christadelphian belief system was really “the Truth” as I had been raised to believe. Soon after I turned 17, I became convinced that my studies had vindicated Christadelphian doctrine and was baptized. In retrospect, this investigation was sorely lacking in objectivity—for my information about “mainstream” or “orthodox” Christianity I relied largely on Christadelphian sources!

My teenage years coincided with the explosive growth of the World Wide Web. Even before I was baptized I had started a website devoted to Christadelphian apologetics. It was hosted at www.biblebeliefs.net (the site is long defunct, but a snapshot from 2003 can still be viewed thanks to web archiving). I also became active in theological debates on web forums. These tended to be testy, hubris-filled exchanges that soon degenerated into the intellectual equivalent of trench warfare. Most everyone logged off more convinced than before that his/her (more often his) position was unassailable and his opponent’s indefensible.

A crisis of conviction

The first time I really put my own belief system “in the dock” was roughly a year after my baptism, when I was 18. I was doing some work for my grandfather in his garden, and when I’d finished he paid me generously (as he always did) and then called me into his study for a chat (I still cherish the conversations I had with him). On this occasion he handed me an article entitled Satan, the Personal Devil by Sir Anthony F. Buzzard. Sir Anthony is a prominent theologian in the Church of God General Conference, which shares much in common with Christadelphians historically and theologically but maintains a traditional view of the Devil as a supernatural personal being. This article was a direct rebuttal of the Christadelphians’ figurative interpretation of the biblical Devil. It grabbed my attention since few theologians outside the Christadelphian community bother to interact with Christadelphian theology in any depth. Knowing my zeal for apologetics, my grandfather suggested that I write a rebuttal to Sir Anthony’s article. I was not yet out of high school, but I had no doubt that I was up for the challenge!

After reading and rereading the article, I realized I was up against something more than the proof-texting ping pong to which I was accustomed from online discussions. Buzzard had actually taken the time to understand the Christadelphian view of the Devil and had penned a brief but careful critique. He made straightforward grammatical observations that, it was immediately apparent to me, classic Christadelphian treatments of the Devil (in, e.g., Dr. John Thomas’s Elpis Israel, Robert Roberts’s Christendom Astray and Thomas Williams’s The Devil: His Origin and End) had overlooked. I did my best to research Buzzard’s points with my usual battery of Bible study methods: cross-referencing, consulting Christadelphian literature, mining the various English Bible versions for a favourable translation or footnote, and consulting some dated reference works such as Strong’s Concordance. I began working on a response, full of my usual strong rhetoric. The problem was, for the first time, I couldn’t convince myself that I was right. A feeling of doubt gnawed at the pit of my stomach and eventually became so strong that I shelved the project to suppress it.

Now, within my worldview, salvation was predicated upon achieving an accurate doctrinal understanding through personal Bible study. Hence, to doubt any aspect of “the Truth” as defined in the Statement of Faith was to doubt one’s eternal salvation. The theological uncertainties sparked by Sir Anthony’s article sapped my zeal for apologetics. I eventually stopped updating my website and put my energies into other pursuits—mainly frivolous or sinful ones that could temporarily fill the emptiness in my soul. Although I went through the motions of being a committed Christadelphian, attending religious services as faithfully as ever and delivering “exhortations” when it was my turn (beginning at age 19), my private reading of the Bible declined and my faith waned.

An awakening from spiritual slumber

This period of spiritual darkness and misery lasted for two or three years. My enthusiasm for Christ began to return as a result of some non-Christadelphian Christian literature that I read. Initially this was mainly popular-level literature that reawakened within me the joy of the basic Christian message about God’s love and grace. This literature delivered an epiphany that—although perhaps obvious in retrospect, including to Christadelphians—had hitherto been lost on me: Jesus Christ was not only a doctrine but a real, living person! Gradually I began reading more books on theology and biblical interpretation of a more academic sort. I had always thought that “mainstream” Christians were largely ignorant of Scripture, driven instead by either emotions (e.g., Evangelicals and Pentecostals) or wooden ritualism (e.g., Anglicans and Catholics). I was surprised to find that biblical scholars from all of these ecclesiastical traditions interacted with the biblical text with an attention to detail (linguistic, historical, literary, etc.) seldom seen in Christadelphian writings.

As I reflected on the edification I had received from this “mainstream” Christian literature, I was compelled to question my assumption that the authors, however sincere, were not real Christians but equivalent in God's sight to “atheists” (atheoi, Eph. 2:12) since they were ignorant of “the Truth.” I reflected on the possibility that God was interested in our hearts and that relationship was more important than doctrine. One night I prayed to Jesus Christ, asking him to be my Lord and Saviour and forgive my sins. I had what Evangelicals call a born-again experience. (This Evangelical notion of “accepting Jesus as your personal Saviour” is severely criticized by many Christadelphians, who regard such a decision as vacuous in the absence of a sound understanding of biblical doctrine.) I experienced God’s presence in a new way that night, and this convinced me that—whatever my doctrinal shortcomings—God had not abandoned me. He had come to me, not when I was a zealous student of the Scriptures but when I was a hypocrite. I was ashamed of my past as a self-assured teen-aged apologist and my present as a hedonist who masqueraded as a Christian on Sundays. I asked God to make himself known to me on his terms.

My second quest for theological truth

While this turning point in my spiritual journey brought me more into touch with the experiential side of Christianity, it did not diminish my interest in the intellectual, doctrinal side. My former zeal for Bible study and theology returned, but with a crucial difference. I no longer felt duty-bound to defend and uphold the Christadelphian belief system as “the Truth.” I simply wanted to better understand this Lord who had revealed himself to me. I felt a greater openness to follow God’s Word wherever it might lead me. I dared to trust the Holy Spirit to guide me along the way. I undertook a new, sustained investigation of the Bible with great optimism that, with God’s help, I would be able to arrive at a pristine system of theology—whether this system agreed with Christadelphian dogma or not.

I soon came to the conclusion that Christadelphians were mistaken about the biblical Devil—that the biblical writers had understood the Devil or Satan to be a supernatural personal being. (Perhaps because of its role in my theological development, this topic has remained one of my main interests in biblical research up to the present.) Similarly, I soon came to the conclusion that the Bible witnesses to the personal pre-existence and deity of Jesus Christ. Since these positions were in line with traditional Christian orthodoxy over against Christadelphian teachings, they caused me to reconsider my relationship to “mainstream” Christianity—and to Christadelphia. If Christ was pre-existent and divine, could the doctrine of the Trinity—the epitome of pseudo-Christian apostasy, according to many Christadelphians—actually be true? I was not so sure. While much more sympathetic to Trinitarianism than I had been before, I could not understand why most Christian denominations viewed it as dogma. How could a doctrine be the cornerstone of the Christian faith when it was not explicitly defined in Scripture? The Trinity seemed to be a man-made model for understanding what the Bible reveals about God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. My studies in statistics had acquainted me with a famous statistical aphorism: “All models are wrong, but some are useful” (George E. P. Box). What was the Trinity, then, but a useful and yet—at some level—wrong model for understanding God?

My investigation led me into a kind of theological No Man’s Land between Christadelphianism and Evangelicalism. I had become persuaded of some doctrines that were named as “Doctrines to be Rejected” in the Christadelphian Statement of Faith. On the other hand, I was very reluctant to leave the Christadelphian community. This was the religious community that had been the fabric of my existence for my whole life and that housed most of my family and friends. Besides, no obvious alternative presented itself. I was not prepared to embrace the doctrines of the Trinity, eternal hellfire, the immortality of the soul or others held dogmatically by most Evangelicals. While still wrestling with this dilemma, my life underwent a big change.

Relocation to Africa

I had long been fascinated with Africa (albeit, as it turns out, largely due to naïve misconceptions about what it is like!) When I learned of a vibrant outreach programme being undertaken by Christadelphians in southern Africa—including robust social development and poverty alleviation programmes—it was too much to resist. What is theology, after all, if it is not put into practice through deeds of love and compassion?

A few days after completing my university programme, I left Canada for a four-month stint in South Africa that included side trips to Zambia and Mozambique. The Christadelphians I met in Durban, South Africa were very inspiring. Here, in a nation where Apartheid had reigned in my own lifetime, a predominantly white ecclesia were rolling up their sleeves and getting involved in community projects in the black townships. Although they were of course propagating the Christadelphian belief system within their outreach activities, I got the impression that they regarded themselves as Christians first and Christadelphians second. This made it easier for me to fellowship with them despite my nonconformist doctrinal views.

Just a few months after returning home from my first trip to Africa I relocated there on a long-term basis, this time to work with an HIV/AIDS programme called WhizzKids United, which had been founded by a Christadelphian named Marcus McGilvray, a free spirit with a tireless passion for helping others. What was initially intended as a two-year stay turned into four years. Working with Marcus at WhizzKids United was a hugely rewarding experience. It was also through this work that I met my future wife, a beautiful Zulu girl named Ayanda who worked with another HIV/AIDS organisation. We formed a bond soon after we met and were married three years later. Through my marriage I also became an “instant dad,” first to Ayanda’s son Sphe and later also to her nephew Smiso. These boys keep me on my toes!

During this time, I was initially worshipping only with the Lamontville Christadelphian ecclesia at the site of one of the outreach projects in the township. The median age among attendees on a typical Sunday was about five, so the handful of adults who attended were focused on ministering to the children through song and Sunday School lessons. The theological fault lines separating Christadelphians from “mainstream” Christianity seldom came up, so I was under no pressure to quickly resolve my theological dilemma.

After a couple of years in Durban, I started volunteering with an ecumenical prison ministry called Kairos. This was very spiritually rewarding and through Kairos I met a pastoral couple, Simon and Rosemary Gambo, who ran a small charismatic Evangelical church called House of Prayer Ministries in Kwamakhutha, another township in Durban. The Gambos were a strong positive influence on my then girlfriend and future wife Ayanda and on me and on our relationship. We started dividing our Sundays between Lamontville and Kwamakhutha. Services at House of Prayer Ministries were conducted mostly in Zulu and I was almost always the only white person in attendance but was never made to feel out of place. I learned a lot from the African approach to worship. Services went on for hours but one was rarely conscious of the passage of time because we were engrossed in God’s presence.

Another relocation and formal theological studies

As my wedding approached I realized I needed a job that could support a family. I had always intended to get back into academia at some point and a university lecturing post in Statistics provided the opportunity. A few months after we were married we relocated to Cape Town, 1600 km west of Durban, far from the heartbeat of the Zulu Nation.

At the time of the move I was attending the Lamontville ecclesia—which was already at a great remove from my conservative, traditional Christadelphian upbringing—perhaps one or two Sundays a month. I couldn’t bring myself to stop going completely because I loved the people there. Our move to Cape Town thus proved to be the final step in my gradual departure from the Christadelphian community. As my outlook became increasingly ecumenical, appreciating Christians of different ecclesiastical backgrounds (albeit mainly within the Evangelical tradition), it became increasingly difficult to see a future in the Christadelphian community, which for the most part denounces ecumenism and defines itself against, rather than within, wider Christianity. There is much that I admire about the Christadelphian community, and there are many people that I admire in the Christadelphian community. However, I have come to believe that the way of the Holy Spirit leads away from the Christadelphian religious system. (Christadelphians themselves have traditionally taught that the Holy Spirit is no longer actively working, which I regard as a startling admission in view of passages like Acts 2:38-39, Rom. 8:9 and 1 Cor. 12:3).

Around the time of the move to Cape Town I began a theology degree programme by distance learning at King’s Evangelical Divinity School (KEDS) in the U.K. I didn’t undertake these studies due to sensing a calling to become a pastor. One of my main motives was to take my quest for theological truth to the next level. I remained optimistic that I as an independent person could, by diligent, prayerful effort, extract the correct theological system from the Bible. However, my engagement with scholarly theological literature had convinced me that I needed to sharpen my skills as an interpreter of Scripture. I needed technical tools such as knowledge of the biblical languages and greater familiarity with the Bible’s historical context in order to “rightly divide the word of truth.” My ultimate aim was to figure out which Christian denomination had achieved pristine theological truth or, if none had, to start my own!

When we relocated to Cape Town, we joined Bellville Baptist Church. The congregation was very warm as well as ethnically diverse, which suited our family well. Theologically, I saw the Baptist denomination as a kind of working hypothesis. It was squarely within the Evangelical tradition and yet relatively close to Christadelphians in theology and especially church government and worship practice. I certainly didn’t want my family and I to be unchurched while I continued my theological quest. We developed strong bonds with many brothers and sisters in this church and were inspired by their love and zeal for the Lord.

My quest for theological truth fails

When I began my studies at KEDS, I thought the theological task that lay ahead would be arduous but straightforward. As my decision to study at an Evangelical institution suggests, my presupposition was that the ideal theological system lay somewhere within Evangelicalism. It was just a matter of working my way through the various in-house Evangelical doctrinal debates. I had never given much consideration to the ecclesiastical traditions beyond the Evangelical horizon, as they seemed quite obviously to have contaminated their theology with extra-biblical tradition.

The theological essay assignments I undertook for my studies provided something of a rude awakening. KEDS rightly emphasised the need to read widely and correctly understand all scholarly perspectives on a biblical passage or doctrine before reaching one’s own position. However, as I did this, I had to admit to myself that deciding between the alternative viewpoints was often very difficult. It was not a simple matter of separating wheat from chaff. Often there were strong arguments for and against both sides of an issue. The positions I took in my essays were often arrived at on a balance of probabilities. I was arriving at defensible opinions but not a definitive theological system that I could espouse with anything resembling certainty. It became increasingly obvious that my quest for definitive theological truth through private study was not going to succeed. So what then?

Maybe, as I had considered many years earlier, theology was a waste of time, a pie-in-the-sky pursuit. Yet a revelation as rich and complex as the Bible seemed to point to a God who delights in theological treasures. Another alternative was postmodernism. Maybe theological truth was in the eye of the beholder and I just needed to find “mine.” Or maybe theological truth was more of a journey than a destination, as the Emerging Church would have us believe. Yet this didn’t seem to square with the Jesus of the gospels or the Paul of the epistles, who had a polemical edge to their teachings and sharply distinguished between truth and error. It still appeared to me that “the Truth” was out there; I was just no longer convinced that I could work it out for myself from the Bible.

Revisiting epistemological presuppositions

Epistemology is a word one doesn’t hear every day. I wish it were otherwise, for it is a very important word. Every human being and every interpreter of Scripture has an epistemology, whether one realizes it or not. My epistemology is my theory of knowledge: my strategy for acquiring knowledge, my criteria for evaluating different possible sources of knowledge, my means of separating fact from opinion and truth from falsehood. In theology, epistemology provides the rules of the game (I use that word metaphorically, not to be flippant). Which putative sources of theological knowledge do I admit into evidence? How much weight do I assign to each of these authorities? What are the underlying assumptions on which these judgments of mine are based?

I gradually came to realize that I had been playing this game for a long time without ever really taking the time to ponder the rules. Sure, I had reflected on principles of sound biblical interpretation. However, there are epistemological principles more fundamental than these. What is the Bible? Which books belong in the biblical canon and how can I be sure of this? Is the process of deriving doctrine from the Bible one of sheer human interpretive effort, or is the Holy Spirit involved? If it is genuinely difficult to decide between two competing interpretations, how does one resolve this? Whose responsibility is it to interpret the Bible, anyway? Does the duty of constructing doctrine fall on every Christian individually and privately, or on the Church collectively, or on certain gifted individuals within the Church? These were some of the questions that I now began to ask earnestly.

My encounter with church tradition

While I was wrestling with the difficulties of biblical interpretation, my theological studies also brought me into close contact with the writings of the Church Fathers for the first time. Christadelphians have traditionally regarded virtually all of the Church Fathers as apostate from the second century on. To the extent that they examine their writings at all it is usually to show how badly astray they were, or perhaps to show that certain elements of “the Truth” survived for awhile in certain quarters after the onset of the Great Apostasy. Evangelicals view the Church Fathers with greater esteem but don’t seem to distinguish between their collective authority and that of the Reformers, for instance. Even among some Evangelicals the patristic church is viewed with suspicion, as an intermediate step toward the later excesses of Roman Catholicism.

I took a keen interest in the earliest Church Fathers, such as the Apostolic Fathers and the second-century Apologists, as a potential source of evidence to use in my theological quest. I reasoned that, being the earliest known interpreters of the New Testament, they must have been very close to the original meaning of the text. However, a number of things surprised me about the second century Fathers. First and foremost was the very limited use of the New Testament writings in the Apostolic Fathers (late first to mid-second century). Unquestionably, there was a period lasting at least a couple of generations during which the church had neither living apostles nor anything resembling a complete, canonised New Testament. How did the church get by, theologically speaking, during this interval? Of course the church had the Jewish Scriptures—later to be called the Old Testament—but interpreting its laws, types and prophecies in light of the Christ-event was no simple task. If we accept the testimony of late second century Christian writers like Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria, what got the church by was what they called “the rule of faith” or “the canon of truth”—the core content of Christian truth that had been handed down from the apostles. While the rule of faith was certainly not unrelated to Scripture—indeed, Irenaeus thought it was the key to sound interpretation of Scripture—it was external to Scripture, falling into the category of oral tradition. This was of great epistemological significance, because if the faith had been preserved by tradition in the interval between the apostles and the completion of the New Testament canon, tradition must have a positive, divinely ordained role in the Church alongside that of Scripture. (For positive uses of the word “tradition” in the New Testament, see 1 Cor. 11:2 and 2 Thess. 2:15; cf. 2 Tim. 1:12-14 for the similar concept of the “deposit” of the faith, handed down from Jesus Christ to Paul and from Paul to Timothy).

In fact, I soon realized that the biblical canon itself falls into the category of tradition and not Scripture. The Bible has no divinely inspired table of contents and the distinction between canonical and non-canonical books is not self-evident. The 27-book New Testament canon that is accepted without question by denominations and publishers worldwide is not something that can be proven from Scripture. It is an extra-biblical, traditional consensus that was only formalized in the late fourth century A.D. (after extensive debate that continued in some quarters thereafter). Moreover, a pivotal criterion for judging the canonicity of a book was tradition—specifically, whether or not it had a traditional pedigree of being read in the churches. Many historians believe that liturgical use was a primary means by which the biblical canon coalesced in the first place. (The criterion of "apostolicity" also rests heavily on tradition, since some New Testament books make no claim within the text to have been written by an apostle or an apostolic associate, and of those books that do, the authorship of most is disputed in modern scholarship.)

The patristic church thus had two canons or rules (the Greek cognate of the word “canon” means “rule”): the canon/rule of faith and the canon/rule of Scripture. The two canons were interdependent. The content of both rested not only on Scripture but also on oral tradition believed to have been handed down from the apostles and safeguarded by the Holy Spirit. This made me realize that I had to make room in my epistemology for the role of tradition alongside that of Scripture. For, if one discounts tradition, one has no clear grounds for dogmatically asserting a particular canon of Scripture. The biblical canon, like every other doctrine, becomes another disputable question of biblical interpretation. Its disputable nature may be disguised to most Christians today since there has been little disagreement within the church concerning the canon—at least of the New Testament—for over a millennium, and a beautifully bound leather Bible provides a false sense of security about the completeness and correctness of the contents. In fact, many scholars of early Christianity regard "New Testament" as an arbitrary and anachronistic way of classifying Christian literature of the first and early second centuries C.E.

Something else that I noticed about the second-century Church Fathers is that some of their theological views seemed markedly different from those of Evangelicals in areas such as baptism, the Eucharist, ecclesiology (the doctrine about the Church) and soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). In fact, some of their statements and emphases in these areas sounded much more in line with Catholic and Orthodox theology.

My encounter with Roman Catholic epistemology

When I was a committed Christadelphian my attitude toward Roman Catholicism bordered on contempt. Like most traditionally minded Christadelphians I viewed it as the epicentre of apostate Christianity. After adopting a more ecumenical outlook, my antipathy toward Catholicism moderated, but I still viewed many of its beliefs and practices as strange, unbiblical and unworthy of serious attention. However, my engagement with epistemological questions and my new appreciation for the role of tradition in Christian doctrine gradually compelled me to take a more serious interest in this ancient and much-maligned version of Christianity.

However strange I thought such ideas as purgatory, veneration of Mary or a ban on contraception, I had to admit that Roman Catholicism offered uniquely clear answers to my epistemological questions (see the document Dei Verbum from the Second Vatican Council). Like the Orthodox churches but unlike Protestants, the Catholic Church gives full weight to what she calls “sacred tradition.” Moreover, she does so without at all compromising the authority of Scripture—indeed, as already mentioned her notion of tradition provides an epistemological basis for trusting the canon of Scripture. She also offers an explanation for why neither I nor any other private individual had been able to uncover the definitive theological system of the Bible: constructing dogmatic theology through biblical interpretation is a prerogative given to the Church, not the private reader. And this gift of interpretive authority, she maintains, is not diffused democratically throughout the Church but transmitted historically and hierarchically via apostolic succession. This is not to say that the layperson has no business reading or interpreting Scripture—far from it. Rather, it means that the layperson, and every other private individual, must defer to the Church in matters of dogma—with the authority to speak for “the Church” ultimately vested in the Bishop of Rome, the successor of St. Peter.

Thus I had to contend anew with one of the most controversial—according to some, blasphemous—aspects of Roman Catholicism: the papacy. The Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility, although widely misrepresented by its critics at the popular level, represents a radically bold claim. However, its epistemological advantages are undeniable. If an inscrutable doctrinal problem should arise, there is a living, visible authority that can rule definitively on the matter. This enables unambiguous definitions of truth, heresy and even “the Church.” To promote a doctrinal position that is at odds with the Magisterium (the teaching authority of the Church, ultimately concentrated in the papacy) is to be in error. “Heresy” is no longer merely a matter of perspective, defined as a doctrine fundamentally at odds with my personal interpretation of the Bible; it can be defined objectively. Similarly, if the Church is torn by a schism, which side retains the status of the One Body of Christ? It is that which remains in communion with the Pope. “The Church” is a visible, verifiable, flesh-and-blood entity rather than an intangible abstraction.

Most Protestants regard the Pope as a usurper of Christ’s prerogatives to rule the Church and define her doctrines. However, I came to realize that every Christian has an extra-biblical, visible human authority who is the final court of appeal for matters of interpretation of divine revelation, submitting to which is tantamount to submitting to Christ’s rule and authority. For a Catholic, this visible actor is the Pope; for most Protestants, it is oneself. So the question is not whether divine revelation ought to be mediated through a human interpretive authority—this is simply inevitable. The question is whether one defers to a human interpretive authority beyond oneself—trusting that Christ has ordained such an authority and endowed it with gifts that preserve its judgments from error—or whether trusts one’s own private judgment as the final human interpretive authority. In the latter case, one effectively functions as one’s own Pope. While one may not necessarily regard one’s own opinions as infallible, one does regard them as more reliable than anyone else’s. Seen in this light, the Catholic institution of the papacy seemed a little less audacious!

Doctrinal Development or Doctrinal Corruption?

I mentioned above my observation that the early Church Fathers, from the second century on, made numerous statements that seemed more Catholic than Evangelical. They appeared to assume baptismal regeneration. They made lofty statements about the Eucharist that seem inconsistent with anything less than the Real Presence of Jesus. They cited books as Scripture that the Reformers would later eject from the canon. They assumed the authority of bishops and, already in the late second century, Irenaeus asserted that all churches must be in agreement with the Roman church. Several patristic writers referred to the bishop of Rome as occupying the chair of Peter. They wrestled with the possibility and means of forgiveness for post-baptismal sin. And so on. All of this suggested that the patristic church understood Scripture and apostolic tradition in ways more Catholic than Protestant. This is unquestionably true of the fourth-century Church that gave us the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, Trinitarian orthodoxy, and a formalized New Testament canon (all of which most Evangelicals can heartily say “Amen” to).

At the same time, it seemed clear that the theology and practice of the patristic Church was not the full-blown Roman Catholicism of, say, the Council of Trent (sixteenth century). The open exercise of papal authority took centuries to develop, and it is debatable whether the church at Rome even had a single, monarchical bishop before the late second century. What should one make of this? It was here that John Henry Cardinal Newman’s classic Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine proved helpful. Newman, a high-profile nineteenth-century convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism, acknowledged that Church doctrine evolved over time. However, he argued that doctrinal development was both positive and necessary if the Church were to survive and grow. A butterfly and a caterpillar are very different, yet one is the legitimate development of the other. Newman argued that change can be a legitimate development or a corruption of the original, and offered criteria for discerning between the two. Historic theological developments often occurred in response to a heresy or crisis that required the Church to define its teachings more explicitly—much as governments often introduce detailed and stringent safety regulations to prevent disasters only after a disaster has occurred that highlighted the need for them (this last analogy is mine, not Newman's).

Newman appealed to the doctrine of the Trinity as an example of a doctrinal development that his Protestant readers would concede was legitimate (Christadelphians, of course, would not concede this, but the New Testament canon can serve as a similar example that applies to them). For, while raw materials of the doctrine of the Trinity (such as trine formulas and high Christology) are present already in Scripture, it is difficult to dispute that the finer metaphysical details of this dogma were worked out much later—forged in the fires of the Arian controversy. (Incidentally, it is precisely because my theological paradigm could not account for doctrinal development that I had previously been reluctant to accept the Trinity as dogma rather than an interesting, manmade hypothesis.)

With Newman’s theory of doctrinal development in hand, I gradually came to the conclusion that both the Christadelphian and Evangelical belief systems suffered from serious epistemological shortcomings that the Catholic belief system did not. The shortcomings in the Christadelphian system were more serious than those in Evangelicalism, but the differences were of degree and not of kind. Both had the catholic church going off the rails at some point in history; the only difference was when. Both uphold sola Scriptura (an epistemology that cannot account for the canon of Scripture itself), but most Protestants are willing to recognize some tradition (e.g., the Creed) as authoritative in a subordinate sense, whereas Christadelphians are generally unwilling to defer to tradition at all.

My encounter with the actual Roman Catholic Church

Early in 2015 I began to sense a persistent prompting in my spirit telling me to go and see a Catholic priest. I do not remember how far along I was in the epistemological thought process described above. I know I was still quite ignorant of, and averse to, some of the finer details of Catholic theology. However, this prompting that I felt was not a rational deduction. I didn’t experience it as a curiosity or something that seemed like a good idea. I experienced it as something I must do, almost as a command. I initially resisted it. I was happy in the Baptist church our family had joined. I had never spoken with a Catholic priest in my life. What was I supposed to say to this priest?

However, this inward call to see a Catholic priest did not go away and I became convinced that it could be from the Holy Spirit, for I had experienced this kind of inward call twice before in my life. On both previous occasions, I was prodded toward a major life decision that went against my own intuition. In the first case, I had returned from a four-month stint in Africa to enter a fully-funded PhD program in Statistics at one of Canada’s top universities. A great career path was laid out before me. Yet something kept telling me to return to Africa and volunteer with an HIV/AIDS charity I’d encountered on my trip. It was easy to rationalise to myself why that would be a rash and foolish decision. However, these unshakeable promptings intensified and after about three months I acquiesced. I resigned from the PhD program, sold my car and booked a flight to South Africa.

The second occasion occurred some years later. I met a beautiful young South African lady named Ayanda and we started dating. Things went well for about eighteen months, despite the challenges associated with an interracial, inter-cultural relationship. After that, we went through some major problems that convinced me it was best that we break up and go our separate ways. I really felt like moving back home to Canada and picking up where I had left off. However, when I prayed about the situation I received an unmistakable prompting not to give up on this relationship, because Ayanda was the woman God wanted me to marry. I heeded this message. Things did not get better in our relationship right away, but they did eventually and after almost five years of marriage we are still going strong by God’s grace.

With these two experiences in my life’s rear-view mirror, I recognized the persistent prompting to meet with a Catholic priest as another such occurrence and realized it wasn’t going to go away until I heeded it. I called the office of the Bellville parish here in Cape Town and asked for an appointment to speak with the priest. I don’t remember exactly what I said when I first came into the priest’s office, but it was something like, “I am a Protestant with a strongly anti-Catholic background but I now feel called to engage with the Catholic Church on some level.” I had anticipated that the priest might say something very profound in response, but he merely told me that there was a class on Thursday evenings for people wanting to know more about Catholicism, and I was welcome to attend if I wished. I thanked the priest for his time and walked out of his office feeling rather underwhelmed. That was it? That mundane, two-minute conversation? Nevertheless, I thought I may as well give the class a try. After all, Elisha’s mundane instructions to Naaman the Syrian had proven in the end to be very wise (2 Kings 5).

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) is a catechetical process, normally lasting a year, that non-Catholic adults—Christian or not—must go through before becoming Catholic. In the Cape Town Archdiocese the annual cycle finishes at Easter, which is the only time adults can enter the Catholic Church. I entered RCIA early in the 2015-16 cycle. Each week we looked at a different aspect of the Catholic faith, with an initial presentation followed by Q&A. It was very helpful for introducing me to the basics of Catholicism and correcting a lot of my Protestant misconceptions about Catholicism. However, since by this time I was over halfway through a degree in theology, I wanted to understand these theological issues at a deeper level, so I did a lot of self-study. I incorporated relevant literature and topics into my theology assignments so that I could engage at an academic level. I also engaged with Catholic apologetics content online (among the most helpful of which, for me, were the articles at Called to Communion and the videos of the Word on Fire ministry run by Bishop Robert Barron).

Also during the period of the RCIA classes, I began working through the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Three positive characteristics of the Catechism really jumped out at me. These were, namely, its clarity, comprehensiveness and compatibility. First, clarity. I had been led to believe that Catholic theology involved a lot of vague jargon designed to prevent people from asking too many questions. It was all one big appeal to mystery that no one could really make sense of, I thought. Yet to my surprise, the Catechism presented the faith in a remarkably forthright and logical way. Obviously further reading was required to get the nuance of some of the more complex ideas, but the core content of Catholic theology is laid bare for all to see. No one could read the Catechism and justifiably complain that Catholic doctrine is vague or indeterminate. 

Second, comprehensiveness. Although the Catechism is obviously not a quick read—it consists of 2865 propositions that took me several months to get through, reading a little each night before bed—its attention to detail is second to none among confessional documents I’ve encountered. Moreover, it has an intuitive structure built around the Apostles’ Creed, the Sacraments, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. I was particularly impressed at how the whole belief system, despite the vastness of its content, fit together in a coherent, internally consistent whole. 

Third, compatibility. I was surprised at how much of the content in the Catechism not only the Evangelical in me but even the Christadelphian in me could already say “Amen” to. Of course the major differences are well known, but the common ground in areas of both faith and morals is highly significant and too often forgotten in the heat of polemic. (Incidentally, I’m of the opinion that the Catechism of the Catholic Church should be required reading for every lay critic of Catholicism, as this would help avoid misrepresentation of Catholic doctrine.)

As Easter 2016 approached and the rest of the RCIA class prepared to enter the Church, I felt conflicted. Eventually I informed the catechist and the priest that I was not ready to enter the Church at Easter, and they were very gracious about this. For one thing, my wife and family were not in the same place as I was in their spiritual journey, and I wanted to give them time to adjust to this change in my own spirituality. For another, I was up to this time still active in the Baptist Church and I didn’t want to back out of my responsibilities there without proper notice. Most importantly, I was still coming to terms with Catholicism and, knowing the magnitude of the decision to become Catholic, I wanted to make sure I’d thought it through completely.

My encounter with Catholic Liturgy

It was only during Lent 2016 that I started attending Sunday Mass regularly (usually in the evening, while still attending morning Baptist services with my family). I consistently found Mass to be a wonderful experience of God’s presence, even though I could not yet participate in the focal point of the Mass—the Holy Eucharist. The reverent atmosphere in the sanctuary, the beautiful words of the liturgy, the opportunity to kneel during prayer, the recitation of the Creed, joining hands to sing the Lord’s Prayer—all of this was new to me. Other aspects of the Mass reminded me of what I liked best about Christadelphian services growing up: Scripture readings from both Testaments, and grand hymns sung to organ music.

The best analogy I can give for my encounter with Catholicism—especially the Catechism and the Liturgy—is that of falling in love. It was an experience full of awe, wonderment and anticipation. Not awe toward the Catholic Church per se; awe toward God for the way I encountered Him there unexpectedly.

The Catholic Church receives me

By the end of 2016, I was sure that I was ready to enter the Catholic Church at Easter 2017. Accordingly, I informed my pastor at the Baptist Church along with one of the elders. I had dialogued with them several times during my journey, and while they had serious reservations about my decision, they handled the matter with much grace and love. I am thankful that I remain close to my brothers and sisters in the Baptist Church. (My journey has made me ever more passionate about the ecumenical movement.)

I was received into the Catholic Church on Saturday 15 April 2017 at the Easter Vigil. I was finally able to go to my first confession that morning. I had 33 years of mortal sin to unload, and this brought an indescribable sense of liberation. The sacraments themselves filled me with an unforgettable feeling of joy and peace. Although my entry into the Catholic Church was in one sense a new beginning, and I still have much to learn, in another sense it felt like the end of a long journey: arriving at a welcome and much-anticipated destination. My theological quest was complete—not because I had discovered something by my diligence or intellectual prowess, but because God had shifted my gaze away from my own paltry efforts at “D.I.Y. Christianity” and toward the edifice founded by his Son that has stood the test of time. By God’s grace, I have found “the Truth” that Christadelphians seek, and the full ecclesiological context of the inward, spiritual renewal for which Evangelicals call. All of this has been there all along, in the Catholic Church. “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come’” (Rev. 22:17).