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Friday, 15 December 2017

The Definition of a Catholic according to a Christadelphian Polemicist

I am currently busy with a study of Babylon the Great in Revelation 17 that I hope to publish in the near future. It is fairly slow going, but in the meantime, I want to write briefly on something related to my previous article, Christadelphians and Catholics: Prospects for Dialogue: a certain Christadelphian's definition of what it means to be Catholic. 

There are some Christadelphians who are former Catholics and thus have some firsthand knowledge and experience of Catholicism. However, I think it is fair to say that the great majority of Christadelphians have no minimal firsthand knowledge or experience of Catholicism. Their ideas about the Catholic Church come largely from three sources. The first source is Christadelphian literature and discourse, which takes a strongly polemical stance on Catholicism and views the Catholic Church through the lens of biblical apocalyptic. The second source is the news media, which reports (for instance) on the activities of the Pope and on various other happenings within the Catholic Church that may be of public interest, including scandals. Since "News content is dominated by the negative," as is "clear enough to any regular news consumer,"1 allowing news stories to shape one's perceptions of Catholicism will probably not lead to an objective picture—especially one whose exposure to Christadelphian polemic has already coloured (poisoned?) their perspective. The third source is interaction with individual Catholics—neighbours, coworkers, classmates, friends. In the developed, English-speaking countries where most of the world's Christadelphians are concentrated (U.K., Australia, USA, Canada, etc.), a significant proportion of Catholics are nominal (self-identifying as Catholic but not consistently practicing the faith) in contrast to devout (making a consistent effort to practice the faith). When one's personal interactions with Catholics tend to be mostly with nominal Catholics, there is a risk of mistaking nominal Catholicism for authentic Catholicism. 

This error is well illustrated in a video I recently encountered of one Neville Clark, a Christadelphian speaker in Enfield, Australia, offering his take on "the real definition of a Catholic". You can watch Clark give his definition in the video below (starting at 54:45) or read it in the transcript that follows (copied from here).

You know, it would be a mistake, brothers and sisters, if we didn’t take a personal lesson from this, what is the real definition of a Catholic, isn’t it just someone who is superficially religious? Someone who thinks they will get looked after in the end because they are part of a system, that their baptism in some way, gives them a ticket to salvation, and despite the fact that their life is basically worldly, and completely inconsistent with the principles of this book, they will be accepted because God says he loves them, isn’t that how Catholics think? What would that look like if it crept into the ecclesia? What would it look like in terms of our attendance? Would you say, that it would be like going to the meeting Sunday morning and forgetting every other class of the week because we are just too busy? What would it look like in terms of our spirituality, would you say, perhaps it could be that there was no real need to do the Bible study because that’s the speaker’s job? What would it look like in terms of our worship? Wouldn’t that be the use of modern music that talks all about what Christ has done for us and nothing about what our responsibilities are to him? Isn’t that how Catholicism works? You don’t have to attend anything but Sundays, and in fact, if you can’t make it, that’s fine, just turn up at Christmas and Easter. Bible study? You don’t even need a Bible to be a Catholic, we pay people to do the Bible Study for you, and music?
Let us briefly comment on seven claims that Clark makes within his definition of a Catholic.

1. Catholics are superficially religious.

I am not sure how Clark claims to know this—can he, like Jesus, read people's minds or judge their hearts? However, I think the self-imposed spiritual discipline and charity of many Catholics is evidence of their inner piety. Does a superficially religious person forego the joys of marriage, sexuality and raising children in order to devote oneself to prayer and service of others? Does a superficially religious person willingly undergo martyrdom? The saints and martyrs of the Church provide a powerful testimony to the authenticity of Catholic piety.

2. Catholics are complacent about their eternal destiny because of the system they belong to and their baptism.

Anyone who has read the Catechism of the Catholic Church on topics such as sin, the sacraments, grace, justification and holiness will know that complacency about one's eternal destiny has no place in the Catholic faith. This criticism is ironic in that Reformed Protestants level exactly the opposite criticism against the Catholic Church. They claim that Catholics are insecure about their eternal destiny and are motivated to piety by fear because they lack assurance of salvation.

3. Catholics take God's love for granted and thus live worldly rather than godly lives.

Again, the Catholic Church has a rich tradition of saints of whom many were ascetics and anything but worldly. Of course it would not be difficult to find a nominal Catholic who lives a worldly life, but such a Catholic would find no theological basis for this lifestyle in the moral teaching of the Church.

4. Catholics focus only on what Christ has done for them and not about their responsibilities toward Christ.

Again, this is precisely the opposite of the criticism that Calvinists often level at Catholics, saying that by focusing too much on our responsibilities toward Christ we neglect his finished work on the cross. Once again, reading the Catechism would easily dispel both misconceptions: Catholicism emphasises both the work of Christ and our responsibilities toward Christ.

5. Catholics do not have to attend anything but Sundays, and even attending only at Christmas and Easter is fine.

This is a patent falsehood. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states,
The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin. (CCC 2181)
This means that Catholics must go to Mass every Sunday, as well as certain holy days in the liturgical calendar (including Christmas and Easter). Deliberately not attending without a valid reason is a grave sin, meaning that it destroys one's salvation if one is not absolved from it (through the sacrament of reconciliation, i.e. repenting and going to a priest for Confession).

Catholics do not technically "have to" attend Mass other than on Sundays in the sense of a sacred obligation that one neglects at one's eternal peril. However, the Catechism states that "the Church strongly encourages the faithful to receive the holy Eucharist on Sundays and feast days, or more often still, even daily" (CCC 1389). This is why Mass is held every day in Catholic churches. Besides Mass, the wider moral teaching of the Church strongly mandates involvement of all Catholics in church activities. In my parish, whenever an adult is received into the Church they are required to announce publicly which ministry they plan to join.

6. Catholics do not need Bibles because they pay someone else to do Bible study for them.

It is, needless to say, a rude caricature of the Church's ministerial orders to depict them as people paid to study the Bible by others who are too lazy to do so. That there exists a teaching ministry in the Church founded by Christ is surely beyond dispute on the basis of the New Testament. Moreover, that the Catholic Church has specially ordained and trained teachers of the Word does not mean that lay Catholics "do not need Bibles." The Catechism states that "The Church 'forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful. . . to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ'" (CCC 133). This is no mere lip service to the notion of private Bible reading: Catholics all over the world have a set of daily Mass readings that they would hear read publicly if they attend Mass that day, and are encouraged to read and meditate on privately if they do not.

7. Catholic worship music is self-evidently bad.

I am not sure what Clark's point was about Catholic music, because he expressed it mainly with body language, ending his critical definition of what a Catholic is with "and music?" followed by a dismissive shrug (see screenshot below).


Apparently Clark considers it to be self-evident what is wrong with Catholic music. Based on his prior comments critical of "modern music," it may be that he objects to the use of modern worship music in the Catholic Church. I'm afraid I don't follow. I don't know what kind of music Catholics sing in South Australia, but it might interest Clark to know that in my parish in Cape Town, South Africa, we mainly sing hymns accompanied by an organ. Many of the hymns we sing are the same hymns I learned growing up in a conservative Christadelphian ecclesia in Canada. I might add that, as a member of my parish choir, my own experience has been that Catholics put far more effort into singing these hymns as they are meant to be sung—typically with a four-part harmony that has been well practiced by a choir. I would not want to hastily generalise based on my own limited experience, but I think that the style of music in many Catholic churches (hymns set to organ music) would be quite amenable to a traditionally minded Christadelphian like Clark.

Of course, for every Clark who (apparently) dismisses Catholic music for being too "modern," one could find a critic who dismisses Catholic music for being too "old-fashioned" or "traditional."


Clark's "real definition of a Catholic" is uncharitable and he offers no evidence to support his sweeping generalisations—not even any anecdotal evidence from his own experience, much less any evidence that his claims are broadly representative of Catholic teaching and practice.

I couldn't help but notice that at several points, Clark was making exactly the opposite criticism of Catholicism than what I have encountered elsewhere. Clark says Catholic religiosity is too superficial; others say it is too radical (hair shirt or flagellation, anyone?). Clark says Catholics are smug about their eternal destiny; others say Catholics are too fearful about their eternal destiny. Clark says Catholics are too worldly; others say they are too otherworldly or too ascetic. Clark says Catholics focus on the finished work of Christ to the neglect of their own need to work for Christ; others say the reverse. Clark says Catholics are too lax about church attendance; others say they are too rigid to the point of legalism. Clark seems to think Catholic worship music is too modern; others say it is too traditional.

This pattern—that the Church's various opponents assail her for opposite and mutually contradictory reasons—was observed a century ago by the great G.K. Chesterton in his book Orthodoxy:
As I read and re-read all the non-Christian or anti-Christian accounts of the faith, from Huxley to Bradlaugh, a slow and awful impression grew gradually but graphically upon my mind—the impression that Christianity must be a most extraordinary thing. For not only (as I understood) had Christianity the most flaming vices, but it had apparently a mystical talent for combining vices which seemed inconsistent with each other. It was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons. No sooner had one rationalist demonstrated that it was too far to the east than another demonstrated with equal clearness that it was much too far to the west. No sooner had my indignation died down at its angular and aggressive squareness than I was called up again to notice and condemn its enervating and sensual roundness. In case any reader has not come across the thing I mean, I will give such instances as I remember at random of this self-contradiction in the sceptical attack. I give four or five of them; there are fifty more. (emphasis added)2
The reader is encouraged to read the full chapter of Chesterton's book, which contains numerous examples of this phenomenon, some of them quite similar to what we have noted above about Clark's critique.

I hope that Clark and Christadelphians who might share his ideas will drop this grotesque caricature of Catholicism and aim for at least a modicum of objectivity in their definition of what a Catholic is. This could be achieved by reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church (to get an accurate understanding of Catholic doctrine), by attending Catholic Masses (to experience Catholic liturgy and religious life firsthand), and by befriending devout Catholics. Perhaps this is too much to ask of Clark, but I hope that Christadelphians who are able to recognise the unfairness and inaccuracy of his definition (and other similar statements that are regularly made, and received uncritically, in Christadelphian meetings) will be moved to investigate the Catholic faith for themselves and get their information "from the horse's mouth."


  • 1 Stuart Soroka and Stephen McAdams, "News, Politics, and Negativity," Political Communication 32 (2015): 1.
  • 2 Gilbert K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1908), 155.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Christadelphians and Catholics: Prospects for Dialogue

As a Catholic and a former Christadelphian, it grieves me that my Catholic family, friends and self and my Christadelphian family and friends, while all desiring to serve God and follow Jesus Christ, are sharply divided on the theory and practice of Christianity. So great are the theological differences between Christadelphians and Catholics that talk of dialogue might seem preposterous. Nevertheless, in this article I would like to reflect hypothetically on the prospects for such dialogue.

Let us first consider the past and present relations between these two religious communities. There is not much to say here. The Christadelphians are a sect that broke away from the Stone-Campbell movement in the mid-nineteenth century. The Stone-Campbell movement was largely made up of people from established Protestant denominations (e.g., Methodists and Baptists) who were dissatisfied with Protestant denominationalism. The Methodist denomination formed through schism with the Church of England and the Baptist denomination arguably did as well. Baptists see theological affinity with the sixteenth-century continental Anabaptists, who reacted against the Reformers, but historical links between the Anabaptists and later English Baptists are disputed.1 The Church of England and the Reformers broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, so Christadelphians are four degrees of ecclesiastical separation removed from the Catholic Church. There is thus really no history of formal interaction between the Catholic and Christadelphian communities. In the absence of historical interaction, we must content ourselves with examining how Christadelphians and Catholics view each other.

How Christadelphians view Catholicism

Dr. John Thomas, the British medical doctor who founded the Christadelphian sect, had strong views on Catholicism. In 1869, responding to a request for information about the beliefs of the Christadelphians from the editor of a British religious magazine called The Rock, Thomas offered a set of 24 propositions comprising "all things from the very first most surely believed and taught by their recognized scribes and their literature". The nineteenth proposition read as follows:
They regard the Roman church as "the Mother of Harlots;" and the papal dynasty as "the name of blasphemy," seated on the seven heads of Rome (Rev. xiii. 1; xvii. 9), and the paramour of the Old Mother. They hold, also, that their harlot-daughters answer to the state churches of Anti-Christendom; and the "abominations of the earth," to all the dissenting names and denominations, aggregately styled "names of blasphemy," of which the European body politic, symbolized by the eight-headed scarlet-coloured beast, is said to be "full." (Rev. xvii. 3).2
For the founder of the Christadelphians, then, identifying the Roman Catholic Church as the archenemy of God was not merely apocalyptic speculation but dogma. (One should add that he appears to have identified "all...denominations" apart from his own sect as part of this evil system.)  Since Thomas did not believe in supernatural evil, in his worldview there was no greater manifestation of sin in the cosmos than the Roman Catholic papacy. Obviously, within such a worldview the notion of dialogue with the Catholic Church is a nonstarter.3 You don't deal with the devil.

When Thomas died in 1871, his protégé Robert Roberts became the de facto spokesman for the Christadelphian community. Roberts shared his mentor's radically negative position on Roman Catholicism,4 but unlike Thomas he stopped short of giving this position the status of dogma. The Statement of Faith adopted by the Birmingham Christadelphian Ecclesia in 1871, authored by Robert Roberts,5 never mentions Roman Catholicism. Since a modified version of this Statement of Faith subsequently became and remains normative for Christadelphians worldwide (despite the community having no hierarchy, representative body or doctrinal authority), Christadelphians today are free to retain or discard their forebears' application of biblical apocalyptic imagery to Roman Catholicism.

It is probably fair to say that the majority of Christadelphians today continue to regard the papacy as the Antichrist and the Roman Catholic Church as the "mother of harlots".6 It is because they view the Catholic Church primarily through apocalyptic lenses that Christadelphians have generally been more interested in—and knowledgeable about—the Roman Catholic Church's role in past and present world politics than in Roman Catholic liturgy, theology, piety, orders, charitable work, etc. In short, many Christadelphians view the Catholic Church primarily as a geopolitical entity. This would be strange to most Catholics, who would regard the Pope's interactions with global political leaders as extremely peripheral to what Catholicism is.

Having said this, some progressive Christadelphians have both adopted different interpretations of apocalyptic "Antichrist" imagery and moderated their doctrinal opposition to Catholicism (toward something perhaps on par with that typically found among Evangelicals).7 There are probably three main reasons why some Christadelphians have moved away from the anti-Catholic vitriol of their founder. Firstly, the religious climate of contemporary Western society is tolerant and pluralistic compared with the rhetorical warfare of the 19th century.8 Secondly, increased Christadelphian awareness of the methods and results of modern biblical scholarship have caused some Christadelphians to jettison their traditional interpretations of biblical apocalyptic imagery. Christadelphians familiar with academic study of the Bible know that the historicist paradigm for interpreting the Book of Revelation, which has been central to Christadelphian anti-Catholic polemic, has no standing in contemporary biblical scholarship.9 Thirdly, historical developments over the past 150 years have made it very difficult to maintain, in good conscience, that the Vatican and the papacy are the nexus of human wickedness. While the papacy has held minimal temporal power during this period, non-Catholic political regimes perpetrated unprecedented violence and genocide during the 20th century: Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, the Khmer Rouge, the ISIS "caliphate," etc. Could any fair-minded person claim that the Vatican is morally comparable to such regimes, never mind that it is the very epicentre of global evil? Could any fair-minded person liken gentle, virtuous popes like John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis to evil dictators like Pol Pot, Bashar al-Assad and Kim Jong Un?

Another promising sign is that Christadelphians have increasingly reacted against pseudo-historical research that previously enjoyed popularity within their ranks, such as the idea that Easter and Christmas are pagan abominations, or various ideas from discreditable tomes like Alexander Hislop's The Two Babylons and Ralph Woodrow's Babylon Mystery Religion (the latter refuted by its own author).

Because of these developments, I believe many Christadelphians today are willing to reappraise Catholicism, even if its doctrines strike them as strange. Of course, some Christadelphians will continue to uncritically parrot the harshest of 19th-century anti-Catholic propaganda and political conspiracy theories. Needless to say, the prospects for dialogue with the latter group are minimal.

How Catholics view Christadelphians

Given that there are about 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in the world versus perhaps 50 000 Christadelphians, it is unsurprising that while all Christadelphians have heard of Catholicism and most have a strong opinion about it, most Catholics have never heard of Christadelphians (especially outside the English-speaking world, where Christadelphians are concentrated). Moreover, the Magisterium—the teaching office of the Catholic Church—has never pronounced anything concerning Christadelphians specifically. Indeed, on the Vatican website, which contains a vast repository of official and unofficial documents of the Catholic Church, the word "Christadelphian" never occurs even once.

Nevertheless, Christadelphians are often mentioned in Catholic documents produced at the level of dioceses or national bishops' conferences. Specifically, such documents include Christadelphians in a list of groups whose baptisms are judged to be invalid. This means that a Christadelphian who wishes to become a Catholic needs to be baptized in the Catholic Church, whereas a Lutheran or a Baptist or a Seventh Day Adventist does not, because his or her baptism is recognized by the Catholic Church as valid. Christadelphians are mentioned in lists of groups that do not confer valid baptism by the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops, the Archdiocese of Johannesburg, the Diocese of St. Petersburg (Florida, USA), the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the Diocese of Columbus (Ohio, USA), the Diocese of Dallas (Texas, USA), etc. This probably does not mean that each of these dioceses have undertaken an independent investigation into the validity of Christadelphian baptism; rather, the diocesan documents rely on handbooks on Canon Law such as that cited by the Diocese of Davenport (Iowa, USA).

While, as mentioned, the Magisterium has never specifically ruled on Christadelphian baptism, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has ruled on the validity of baptism in a number of other groups, including the New Church (Swedenborgians) and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons).10 Two documents on the Vatican website (here and here) explain the reasons for the CDF's pronouncement that Mormon baptism is invalid, and these can be applied to the Christadelphian case as well.

The wider context of these rulings is the canons on baptism from the seventh session of the Council of Trent (promulgated in 1547). These canons included the following:
2. If anyone says that true and natural water is not necessary for baptism and thus twists into some metaphor the words of our Lord Jesus Christ: Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, let him be anathema.
4. If anyone says that the baptism which is given by heretics in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, with the intention of doing what the Church does, is not true baptism, let him be anathema.
Here we have the rule that doctrinal errors usually do not invalidate baptism, and we also implicitly have three requirements for valid baptism: water (Canon Law allows for either immersion or pouring),11 the baptismal formula ("I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit"), and "the intention of doing what the Church does." As Fr. Luis Ladaria explains, this actually translates into four requirements, since "the intention of doing what the Church does" applies to both the celebrating minister and the recipient (or the recipient's parents/sponsors, in the case of an infant). The four requirements for valid baptism therefore are:

1. The Matter (water)
2. The Form (Trinitarian formula)
3. The Intention of the Celebrating Minister
4. The Disposition of the Recipient12

Christadelphian baptism meets the first requirement since Christadelphians practice immersion. However, Christadelphian baptism generally does not meet the second requirement since Christadelphians have no fixed baptismal formula and often do not use the Trinitarian formula. However, even in cases where Christadelphians might use the Trinitarian formula, the baptism would still not be valid because it would fall short of the third and fourth requirements.13 These two requirements are not very onerous. The Catholic Church does not predicate the validity of baptism on the minister's qualifications.14 However, LDS baptism is judged to fall short of the third requirement because it is performed by Mormon priests, who are "radically formed in their own doctrine" (which is fundamentally different from the catholic doctrine of God), and therefore cannot make "a true invocation of the Trinity" even when using a Trinitarian formula. Christadelphian baptisms are invariably preceded by catechetical instruction which includes the rejection of orthodox Trinitarianism and acceptance of heterodox teachings concerning Christ and the Holy Spirit. Thus both the baptizer and the baptizand are "radically formed" in Christadelphian doctrine and cannot have the intention of doing what the Catholic Church does when it baptizes. Hence, the logic by which the Catholic Church regards Mormon baptism as invalid applies also to Christadelphians.

Since the Catholic Church teaches that baptism is the means by which one becomes joined to the one body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 12:13), the ruling that Christadelphian baptism is invalid means that the Catholic Church does not regard Christadelphians as "separated brethren" (like members of most Protestant denominations) but as outside the body of Christ entirely. Most Christadelphians would similarly regard Catholics as outside the body of Christ, since the Christadelphian Statement of Faith maintains that a knowledge of the Truth (i.e. the Christadelphian doctrinal system) is necessary to make baptism valid.

Ecumenical versus Inter-religious Dialogue

Since Christadelphians and Catholics mutually regard each other as outside the body of Christ, dialogue between the two cannot properly be called "ecumenical," which implicitly (based on its etymology) refers to dialogue within the universal Church.

The Catholic Church views Christadelphians as one of a dizzying array of sects or "new religious movements" that have appeared on the religious landscape over the past two centuries.15 A 1993 document approved by Pope John Paul II entitled Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism elaborates on the situation with regard to sects and new religious movements in the context of ecumenism:
35. The religious landscape of our world has evolved considerably in recent decades and in some parts of the world the most noticeable development has been the growth of sects and new religious movements whose desire for peaceful relations with the Catholic Church may be weak or non-existent. In 1986, a report 49 was published jointly by four dicasteries of the Roman Curia which draws attention to the vital distinction that must be made between sects and new religious movements on the one hand and Churches and ecclesial Communities on the other. Further studies are in progress on this question.  
36. The situation in regard to sects and new religious movements is highly complex and differs from one cultural context to another. In some countries sects are growing in a cultural climate that is basically religious. In other places they are flourishing in societies that are increasingly secularized but at the same time credulous and superstitious. Some sects are non-Christian in origin and in self-understanding; others are eclectic; others again identify themselves as Christian and may have broken away from Christian Communities or else have links with Christianity. Clearly it is especially up to the Bishop, the Synod of Eastern Catholic Churches or the Episcopal Conference to discern how best to respond to the challenge posed by sects in a given area. But it must be stressed that the principles for spiritual sharing or practical cooperation outlined in this Directory only apply to the Churches and ecclesial Communities with which the Catholic Church has established ecumenical relations. As will be clear to the reader of this Directory, the only basis for such sharing and cooperation is the recognition on both sides of a certain, though imperfect, communion already existing. Openness and mutual respect are the logical consequences of such recognition.
In short, because (unlike between the Catholic Church and most Protestant denominations) there is not even "a certain, though imperfect, communion already existing" between the Catholic Church and Christadelphians, ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Christadelphians is impossible. It could become possible only if Christadelphians accepted the doctrine of the Trinity—a less far-fetched proposition than might first appear, given that some other sects (e.g., Seventh Day Adventists and Worldwide Church of God) have moved from a non-Trinitarian to a Trinitarian doctrinal position.

Any dialogue between Catholics and Christadelphians in the present would fall under the rubric of interreligious dialogue—the same rubric that (especially as promulgated in Nostra Aetate at the Second Vatican Council in 1965) governs relations between the Catholic Church and other world religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism. Nostra Aetate discusses these respective religions in terms of their progressively widening common ground with Catholicism. Hinduism and Buddhism share the Church's quest for "freedom from the anguish of our human condition" or "the state of perfect liberation." Islam shares the Church's monotheism and its reverence for Jesus and honour of Mary. The Jews have a far more profound kinship with the Church, a shared belief in the Hebrew Bible, a shared monotheism and a shared Messianism. What do Christadelphians share in common with Catholics that might form the basis for interreligious dialogue?

Common Ground between Christadelphians and Catholics

Christadelphians and Catholics clearly share a great deal in common in belief and practice. Their doctrinal common ground can be aptly captured by the words of the Apostles' Creed:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.
Although this creed has no liturgical standing among Christadelphians, many would recognise it as a summary of the gospel as they understand it. Catholics do use this creed liturgically and recite it every time they pray the Rosary. Although Christadelphians and Catholics would interpret a few of the clauses differently, it nevertheless contains much highly specific theological content that both communities believe.  At an epistemological level, Christadelphians and Catholics share 66 canonical books in common. There are even areas of doctrine and practice where Christadelphians and Catholics agree over against most Protestant denominations. Both communities believe that regeneration is effected through water baptism and not exclusively through any spiritual experience that occurs without baptism. Both communities hold grace, faith and works in dynamic tension in their soteriology and reject "Sola fide" and "Sola gratia" in the Reformation sense. Both communities teach, or at least practice as a norm (in Christadelphians' case), that the faithful should partake of the Lord's Supper every Sunday. Both communities use a daily Bible readings plan or lectionary to ensure the repeated exposure of the faithful to the full breadth of divine Writ. Apart from the Eucharistic prayer (admittedly a very important difference), the format and content of a Catholic Mass and a typical Christadelphian Sunday service have much in common. Many of the same hymns and choruses are sung by both communities. The Lord's Prayer is cherished and used liturgically in both communities. There are many moral and social causes which both communities can join in supporting wholeheartedly and enthusiastically. All of this commonality could serve as a starting point for constructive dialogue.


Christadelphians have traditionally viewed Catholicism with something resembling contempt, while Catholics have largely remained unaware of Christadelphians' existence. Moreover, theological differences are too great to allow for dialogue under the umbrella of ecumenism, and it is unlikely that formal engagement between the two communities will occur any time soon. Nevertheless, the substantial common ground between Christadelphians and Catholics virtually demands robust dialogue, and renders the adjective "interreligious" embarrassingly inadequate for describing the nature of such dialogue. 


  • 1 Jeff Robinson, "Anabaptist kinship or English dissent? Papers at ETS examine Baptist origins," Baptist Press (2009).
  • 2 Peter Hemingray, John Thomas, His Friends and His Faith (Christadelphian Tidings, 2003), 335-39.
  • 3 Thomas's magnum opus was a multi-volume work entitled Eureka: An Exposition of the Apocalypse that was full of vehement criticism of Roman Catholicism and the papacy in particular. Apocalyptic figures for ultimate evilthe little horn of Daniel 8, the man of lawlessness of 2 Thessalonians 2, the Antichrist—were consistently interpreted as foretelling the "Great Apostasy" (the church's departure from true doctrine) and rise of the papacy.
  • 4 Consider this excerpt from Roberts book Thirteen Lectures on the Apocalypse: "Rome, the implacable enemy and destroyer of the Jews, in all the centuries, Pagan and Papal; Rome, the Papal foe of the Scriptures, and the murderer of the saints; Rome, the inventor of torments and foul iniquities of the monastery and dungeon; Rome, who flaunts among her architectural ornaments the sculptured forms of the dishonoured furniture of Jehovah's sanctuary; Rome of the Caesars, and Rome of the Popes and Cardinals; Rome of the long dark and dreadful history of the world; Rome, the mistress of kings and the debaucher of the nations; Rome, the corrupter of the world to an extent the corrupted populations do not realize in their corruption; seven-hilled Rome on the Tiber, which blasphemes heaven by arrogating to herself the title of the Eternal City, and exhibiting her chief magistrate to all the world as the Holy Father; Great Babylon, the Mother of Harlots and the abominations of the earth".
  • 5 So Hemingray, John Thomas, 339.
  • 6 See, for example, Ron Abel, The Man of Sin: A Future Fuehrer in Jerusalem or Roman Catholic Apostasy? (Torrens Park: Christadelphian Scripture Study Service, 1984); Rick O'Connor, The Things of the Kingdom and the Things of the Name (Christadelphian Books Online).
  • 7 One alternative Christadelphian interpretation of biblical Antichrist imagery reads it primarily in terms of radical Islam. See, for example, Duncan Heaster, New European Christadelphian Commentary, Vol. 10: The Book of Revelation (self-published, 2016).
  • 8 Christadelphians have not been unaffected by the ecumenical and interfaith movements that swept through Christendom in the second half of the 20th century, especially during and after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Reunion efforts between different communions ("fellowships") within Christadelphia intensified. Meanwhile, some Christadelphians began to regard "mainstream Christians" as potentially actual Christians rather than deluded apostates, and to regard their own community more as a Christian "denomination" (one among many) than as the definitive household of faith.
  • 9 This is because the historicist paradigm is anachronistic to the core: rather than beginning from the author's historical context (Second Temple Jewish apocalyptic within the Roman Empire), it begins from the reader's historical context (modern Anglo-Protestant polemic within post-Reformation Western society), and attempts to map the apocalyptic language onto events from European history that the reader deems to have been significant. The result includes such exegetical monstrosities as ignoring the clear messianic biblical background of Rev. 12:5 in Psalm 2:7-9 in order to interpret the child imagery as a prophecy about the wicked (from a Christadelphian viewpoint) Roman emperor Constantine! It is heartening that some Christadelphians have reacted against such obviously contrived interpretations.
  • 10 See here, here, here and here.
  • 11 Canon 854 from the Code of Canon Law states, "Baptism is to be conferred either by immersion or by pouring". An openness to these two modes of baptism dates back to the first century, as can be seen in Didache 7.1-3.
  • 12 It is interesting to note that all four of these requirements are in some way implicit in the prescriptions concerning baptism in Didache 7.1-4, which mentions the proper use of water, the Trine formula, and instructs both the baptizer and the baptizand to fast (implying the need for both to have a correct disposition).
  • 13 This is again clear from comparison with the LDS case. As Ladaria points out, Mormons do use a Trinitarian formula and yet their baptism is ruled invalid due to requirements 3 and 4.
  • 14 The Code of Canon Law, Canon 861, states that while "The ordinary minister of baptism is a bishop, a presbyter, or a deacon," "in a case of necessity any person with the right intention, confers baptism licitly."
  • 15 For a Catholic perspective on this phenomenon and its pastoral implications, see the 1986 Vatican document Sects or New Religious Movements: A Pastoral Challenge.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Early Christian Interpretation of the "Us" of Genesis 1:26

1. Introduction
2. Christological Interpretations
 2.1. First Century
  2.1.1. Pauline Epistles
  2.1.2. The Letter to the Hebrews
  2.1.3. 1 Clement
 2.2. Second Century
  2.2.1. The Letter of Barnabas
  2.2.2. The Epistula Apostolorum
  2.2.3. Justin Martyr
  2.2.4. Tatian
  2.2.5. Melito of Sardis
  2.2.6. Theophilus of Antioch
  2.2.7. Irenaeus of Lyons
  2.2.8. Clement of Alexandria
 2.3. Third Century
  2.3.1. Tertullian
  2.3.2. Origen
  2.3.3. Novatian
  2.3.4. The Letter of the Six Bishops to Paul of Samosata
3. Non-Christological Interpretations
 3.1. Pseudo-Clementine Homilies
 3.2. Saturnilus (via Hippolytus)
 3.3. An alternative interpretation mentioned by Origen
4. Summary and Conclusion

1. Introduction

One of the most striking statements in the creation narrative of Genesis 1 occurs in verses 26-27:
26 Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the tame animals, all the wild animals, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth. 27 God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Gen. 1:26-27 NABRE)
The problem of what it means for humans to be made in imago Dei has occupied exegetes and theologians from antiquity up to the present. Another problem that has vexed interpreters is the significance of the plural jussive verb and pronominal suffix here: whom is God addressing as "us" and "our" as he prepares to create humans?

One encounters two main lines of interpretation in contemporary scholarly literature on Genesis. The first option has God addressing other celestial beings. These could be other gods, in which case the author of Genesis may be editing polytheistic source material and has not eliminated all vestiges of polytheistic language. Or God could be addressing the heavenly council, understood in a more monotheistic direction as consisting of "sons of God" or angels, that is, beings subordinate to God (cf. Job 1:6; 38:7). The second option has God addressing himself. This could entail a plural of majesty (akin to the "royal we"), a plural of deliberation (roughly comparable to a person who says to himself, "Let's see then..." when pondering a course of action) or a plural of fullness (implying some kind of complexity within God, perhaps involving God and his Spirit mentioned in v. 2).1

For many Christian readers, when they see plural terms applied to God they immediately think of the Trinity and suppose that the "us" is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Since the doctrine of the Trinity did not yet exist at the time Genesis was written, biblical scholars are quick to point out that this interpretation is anachronistic: it cannot be what the author of Genesis had in mind. On the other hand, Collins avers that "if there is a place for any kind of sensus plenior ('fuller sense'), this is it.2 Sensus plenior refers to a fuller, theological meaning of a text that the Holy Spirit intends but that even the human author of the text may not have grasped. For Christians the notion of sensus plenior in biblical interpretation is inescapable, since the New Testament writers frequently offer interpretations of Old Testament passages that are clearly not the grammatical-historical meaning. Examples include the interpretation of Hos. 11:1 in Matt. 2:15 (where Hosea clearly intends "my son" to be Israel, but Matthew reads it as a Messianic prophecy), or the interpretation of Ps. 102:25 in Heb. 1:10 (where the psalmist addresses God but the writer of Hebrews understands these words as addressed by God to Christ), or the interpretation of Deut. 25:4 in 1 Cor. 9:9-10 (where the law clearly pertains to treatment of literal oxen, but Paul asserts that it was written "for our sake" to make a point about the rights of Christian ministers).

Thus, when Christian readers see a veiled reference to the Trinity in Genesis 1:26, their interpretation is problematic at the grammatical-historical level but reasonable in terms of the kind of theological interpretation found in the New Testament. Indeed, while no New Testament writer comments on the meaning of the plural in Gen. 1:26a, there is a rich tradition in early Christian literature of reading this text Christologically. The purpose of this article is to survey that tradition up to the end of the third century A.D.

2. Christological Interpretations

 2.1. First Century

  2.1.1. Pauline Epistles

As mentioned, no New Testament writer explicitly comments on the meaning of "us/our" in Gen. 1:26. The imago Dei concept features prominently in the Pauline epistles, and Paul undoubtedly had an opinion on the matter. Unfortunately, we cannot reconstruct his view with certainty, but there are some clues suggesting that he understood Christ as the addressee in Gen. 1:26.

In 1 Cor. 15:46-49, in an eschatological context (discussing the resurrection body), Paul contrasts the first man, Adam, who was from the earth, with the second man, the last Adam (Christ), who was "from heaven." He goes on to say, "Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one." The notion of humans bearing the image of Adam comes from Gen. 5:3, which describes Seth as "a son in [Adam's] likeness, after his image". The phrase "after his image," in Hebrew and in the Greek Septuagint, is identical to that of Gen. 1:26 apart from the difference in person and number. This suggests a link between the two passages. Is Paul saying only that we will bear the image of the heavenly man, Christ, because he is a new Adam (thus drawing entirely on Gen. 5:3)? Or is he also saying that we will bear the image of the heavenly man because this was God's will from the beginning, as expressed by God to the Son in Gen. 1:26? The language of Gen. 5:3 itself depends on Gen. 1:26, so it is difficult to imagine that Paul does not have Gen. 1:26 in mind. The rabbinic hermeneutical principle of gezerah shavah would have prompted him to read Gen. 1:26 and 5:3 together.

In 2 Cor. 3:18, Paul somewhat enigmatically speaks of believers as "being transformed into the same image from glory to glory," an idea linked to his statement that "the Lord is the Spirit." Shortly thereafter, Paul avers that Christ "is the image of God" (2 Cor. 4:4). Indeed, "the glory of the Lord," a common OT expression (e.g., Num. 14:21) is here implicitly identified as the glory of Christ (2 Cor. 4:4-5). Christ is not merely made according to God's image; he is God's image, definitively. If we ask from what biblical text Paul drew the idea that Christ is the definitive image of God, a Christological reading of the "our image" of Gen. 1:26 seems the most plausible source.

In Rom. 8:29, Paul writes, "For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers." Again, if we were to ask Paul for biblical evidence that God predestined people to be conformed to the image of his Son, he might well point us to Gen. 1:26, interpreted eschatologically (i.e. not only with reference to the original creation of humanity but to the new creation). Moreover, the language of being transformed into and conformed to the image of the Son calls to mind Phil. 2:6, which describes Christ as "in the form of God" already prior to his resurrection, and arguably prior to his birth!

Paul never explicitly gives us his interpretation of the plural language in Gen. 1:26, and a case can be made that Adam Christology accounts for his language about Christ as the prototypical image of God in the above texts. However, while Adam Christology is undoubtedly present (most clearly in 1 Cor. 15), it seems unable to fully account for the imago Dei language of 2 Cor. 3-4 and Rom. 8:29.

Paul unambiguously describes the Lord Jesus Christ as God's agent in creation in 1 Cor. 8:6 and in Col. 1:16, using the preposition dia with a genitive noun, which denotes direct agency or instrumentality, not indirect agency or purpose. Thus, these texts say of the Lord Jesus Christ, "through whom are all things" and "all things were created through him," not merely "on account of whom." What is striking about Col. 1:16 is that the verse before describes Christ as "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation" (v. 15). The hymn in Col. 1:15-20 as a whole is both protological (referring to primeval events) and eschatological: Christ is the one through whom and for whom all things in heaven and earth were created (v. 16),3 and is also "the head of the body, the church...the beginning, the firstborn from the dead" (v. 18). If one asks after Paul's biblical source for the notion that Christ, as the definitive image of God, was the agent and goal of creation, "Let us make humankind in our image" is the most likely choice.

  2.1.2. The Letter to the Hebrews

The author of Hebrews uses an expression for Christ that sounds like an elaboration of the imago Dei concept: "who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being" (Heb. 1:3 NABRE). This calls to mind a passage in Wisdom of Solomon that calls Wisdom "a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty...the reflection of eternal light, the spotless mirror of the power of God, the image of his goodness" (Wis. 7:25-26 NABRE). An allusion to this passage in Heb. 1:3 is likely, given that these are the only instances in the LXX and NT where the word apaugasma occurs. As Paul does in Colossians, the author of Hebrews describes the Son as God's image in the immediate context of giving him an active role in the creation of heaven and earth (Heb. 1:2, 10-12). It therefore seems likely that the writer is drawing on a tradition that identified Wisdom as the addressee of Gen. 1:26, but is modifying that tradition to replace Wisdom with Christ, who is Wisdom personified.4 This hermeneutical strategy is also likely employed in Colossians, where Paul says that "all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" are hidden in Christ (Col. 2:3).

  2.1.3. 1 Clement

The letter from the Roman church to the Corinthian church known as 1 Clement, dating from the late first century, is the earliest Christian text to quote Gen. 1:26. In 1 Clem. 33, exhorting the Corinthians not to lose their zeal, the writer reminds them of the greatness of God and his creation. In vv. 4-5 he states,
And with his holy and perfect hands he formed the one who was preeminent and superior in intelligence to all, the human, stamped with his own image. For as God says, 'Let us make a human according to our own image and likeness. And God made the human; male and female he made them.'5
Although this writer quotes Gen. 1:26, he does not provide his interpretation of the "us." His focus in this passage is entirely on God's creative acts and the privileged status of humans within creation, and not on Christology. However, when he next introduces Christology, in chapter 36, he says of Jesus Christ that "through this one we see the reflection of his perfect and superior countenance... He is the radiance of his magnificence" (1 Clem. 36.3-4). The writer uses the same rare word apaugasma used in Heb. 1:3 and Wis. 7:26, and in the immediate context he quotes three of the Old Testament passages quoted in the catena of Heb. 1:5-13 (Ps. 104:4; Ps. 2:7-8; Ps. 110:1). It is highly likely, then, that there is either literary dependence between 1 Clement and Hebrews or use of a shared exegetical tradition. The connections between 1 Clem. 33 and 36 and between 1 Clement and Hebrews make it likely that this tradition saw Gen. 1:26 as affirming both that Christ shares definitively in God's image and that Christ was God's agent in creation.

 2.2. Second Century

  2.2.1. The Letter of Barnabas

The next Christian text to cite Gen. 1:26 is the Letter of Barnabas, probably written in the 130s. This text is the first to explicitly offer a Christological interpretation of the "us":
Consider this, my brothers: if the Lord allowed himself to suffer for our sake, even though he was the Lord of the entire world, the one to whom God said at the foundation of the world, 'Let us make a human according to our image and likeness,' how then did he allow himself to suffer by the hand of humans? (Barn. 5.5)6
Since, then, he renewed us through the forgiveness of our sins, he made us into a different type of person, that we might have the soul of children, as if he were indeed forming us all over again. For the Scripture speaks about us when he says to the Son, 'Let us make humans according to our image and likeness, and let them rule over the wild beasts of the land and the birds of the sky and the fish of the sea.' Once the Lord saw our beautiful form, he said 'Increase and multiply and fill the earth.' He said these things to the Son. (Barn. 6.11-12)7
This writer presupposes without argument, as though uncontroversial, that the words of Gen. 1:26 were spoken by God to the Son at the foundation of the world. Pre-existence Christology is not the writer's main concern throughout this passage; he seems able to presuppose that his readers shared this belief. Moreover, as we saw in Colossians, there is an interplay between the protological and the eschatological, since the writer also sees Gen. 1:26 as "speaking about us," i.e. foretelling the creation of the eschatological community.

  2.2.2. The Epistula Apostolorum

Written also c. 150 A.D., the Epistula Apostolorum ("Epistle of the Apostles") is an apocryphal letter purported to be written by the twelve apostles. Its intention is clearly to combat Gnosticism. The text alludes to Gen. 1:26-27 in the midst of a long Christological statement:

We know this: our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (is) God, Son of God who was sent from God, the ruler of the entire world, the maker and creator of what is named with every name, who is over all authority (as) Lord of lords and King of kings, the ruler of the rulers, the heavenly one who is over the Cherubim and Seraphim and sits at the right hand of the throne of the Father, who by his word commanded the heavens and built the earth and all that is in it… who has created man according to his image and likeness... (Ep. Ap. 3)8
This passage does not explicitly interpret the "us" of Gen. 1:26. However, by attributing to the Son the activity of creating man according to his image and likeness, the text implicitly includes him within the scope of the verse, and may therefore rely on a Christological interpretation of the "us."

  2.2.3. Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr wrote his Dialogue with Trypho probably in the 150s. Persuading a Jewish interlocutor of Christian claims about Christ is a major focus of this massive work. At one point, Justin declares, "So, my friends... I shall now show from the Scriptures that God has begotten of himself a certain rational power as a beginning before all creatures. The Holy Spirit indicates this power by various titles, sometimes the Glory of the Lord, at other times Son, or Wisdom, or Angel, or God, or Lord, or Word." (Dial. 61.1).9 One of his proof texts for this claim is Gen. 1:26:
'My friends,' I continued, 'the Word of God, through Moses, stated exactly the same thing, when it revealed to us that at the creation of man God spoke of him (who was pointed out by Moses) in the same sense. Here is the text [quotes Gen. 1:26-28]... Lest you distort the meaning of these words by repeating what your teachers say—either that God said to himself, Let us make, just as we, when on the verge of doing something, say to ourselves, Let us make; or that God said Let us make to the elements, that is, to the earth or other similar substances of which we think man was composed—I wish again to quote Moses to prove beyond all doubt that he spoke with one endowed with reason and numerically distinct from himself. These are the words: And God said: Behold Adam has become as one of Us, knowing good and evil. Now the words as one of Us clearly show that there were a number of persons together, numbering at least two. I do not consider true that teaching which is asserted by what you call a heretical sect of your religion, nor can the proponents of that heresy prove that he spoke those words to angels, or that the human body was the result of the angel's work. But this offspring, who was really begotten of the Father, was with the Father and the Father talked with him before all creation... (Dial. 62.1-4)10 
Justin shows an awareness of several contemporaneous Jewish interpretations of the "us" in Gen. 1:26, but rejects these and insists that God was addressing the Son.

  2.2.4. Tatian

Tatian, a pupil of Justin's, wrote his Address to the Greeks c. 165 A.D.
For the heavenly Logos, a spirit emanating from the Father and a Logos from the Logos-power, in imitation of the Father who begat Him made man an image of immortality, so that, as incorruption is with God, in like manner, man, sharing in a part of God, might have the immortal principle also. (Address to the Greeks 7)11
Although Tatian never explicitly identifies the Logos as the Son—indeed, his Address never explicitly refers to Christ—it seems plain enough that, like his teacher Justin, he would have made this identification. Tatian does not directly cite or interpret Gen. 1:26, but his description of the Logos as having made man an image of immortality in imitation of the Father calls to mind the "us" language of Gen. 1:26.

  2.2.5. Melito of Sardis

Melito, bishop of Sardis, wrote his Passover homily in the second half of the second century A.D. Melito describes the creation of humanity thus:

In the beginning God made heaven and earth and everything in them. He formed man from the earth by his word and communicated the breath of life to this form. (On the Pascha 47)12
After narrating the Fall, Melito sums up its consequences:
What had come from dust to dust returned, and the creation of God was imprisoned in Hades. There was a sundering of what had been fairly joined, for man was dissolved into his parts by Death. A new disaster and terrible captivity enchained him. He was then taken captive by the shadows of Death. The image of the Father lay alone and abandoned. (On the Pascha 55-56)13
Melito thus regards humanity as the image of the Father, whom God created "by his word." Is there any reason to think that Melito read "his word" Christologically? There is: further along, emphasising the magnitude of Israel's unbelief in Christ, he writes:
you have failed, Israel, to recognise that this is the first-born of God who was begotten before the morning star, who made the light to rise, and the day resplendent; who separated the darkness, who set up the first limits, who fixed the earth in its place, and dried up the abyss, and spread out the firmament, and set in order the universe; who disposed the stars in the sky, who made the lights to shine, who created the heavenly angels, who placed there the thrones, who fashioned man for himself on earth. (On the Pascha 82-83)14
Melito never quotes Gen. 1:26, but he understands the Son of God to have created mankind, and thus implicitly to have been "the word" through whom the Father created man in his image. It is thus highly likely that Melito understood the Son to have been the addressee in Gen. 1:26.

  2.2.6. Theophilus of Antioch

The late second-century bishop Theophilus of Antioch, in his apologetic work written to one Autocylus, comments thus on Gen. 1:26:
But as to what relates to the creation of man, his own creation cannot be explained by man, though it is a succinct account of it which holy Scripture gives. For when God said, Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness, He first intimates the dignity of man. For God having made all things by His Word, and having reckoned them all mere bye-works, reckons the creation of man to be the only work worthy of His own hands. Moreover, God is found, as if needing help, to say, Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness. But to no one else than to His own Word and wisdom did He say, Let Us make. And when He had made and blessed him, that he might increase and replenish the earth, He put all things under his dominion, and at his service; and He appointed from the first that he should find nutriment from the fruits of the earth, and from seeds, and herbs, and acorns, having at the same time appointed that the animals be of habits similar to man's, that they also might eat of the seeds of the earth. (Ad Autolycus 2.18)
Theophilus clearly understands God to have spoken to his Word and Wisdom. But what or whom is this Word and Wisdom according to Theophilus? He clarifies later when discussing Gen. 3:8 (about God walking in the garden):
You will say, then, to me: You said that God ought not to be contained in a place, and how do you now say that He walked in Paradise? Hear what I say. The God and Father, indeed, of all cannot be contained, and is not found in a place, for there is no place of His rest; but His Word, through whom He made all things, being His power and His wisdom, assuming the person of the Father and Lord of all, went to the garden in the person of God, and conversed with Adam. For the divine writing itself teaches us that Adam said that he had heard the voice. But what else is this voice but the Word of God, who is also His Son? (Ad Autolycus 2.22)
  2.2.7. Irenaeus of Lyons

Irenaeus of Lyons, writing c. 180-185 A.D., explicitly interprets the Son as the addressee in Gen. 1:26 in a comment on Isa. 9:6:
He calls Him Wonderful Counsellor, meaning of the Father: whereby it is declared that the Father works all things together with Him; as is contained in the first book of Moses which is entitled Genesis: And God said, "Let us make man after our image and likeness." For there is seen in this place the Father speaking to the Son, the Wonderful Counsellor of the Father. (Demonstration 55)
Irenaeus had earlier commented,
For He made man the image of God; and the image of God is the Son, after whose image man was made: and for this cause He appeared in the end of the times that He might show the image (to be) like unto Himself. (Demonstration 22)
  2.2.8. Clement of Alexandria

Clement has a lot to say in his writings about the imago Dei. He never directly states that God the Father was addressing the Word or the Son in the words of Gen. 1:26, but the following excerpts show that this was almost certainly his understanding of the verse:
as the Son sees the goodness of the Father, God the Saviour works, being called the first principle of all things, which was imaged forth from the invisible God first, and before the ages, and which fashioned all things which came into being after itself (Stromata 5.6)
Wherefore also man is said to have been made in [God's] image and likeness. For the image of God is the divine and royal Word, the impassible man; and the image of the image is the human mind. (Stromata 5.14)
Now, it is incumbent on us to return His love, who lovingly guides us to that life which is best; and to live in accordance with the injunctions of His will, not only fulfilling what is commanded, or guarding against what is forbidden, but turning away from some examples, and imitating others as much as we can, and thus to perform the works of the Master according to His similitude, and so fulfil what Scripture says as to our being made in His image and likeness. (Paedagogus 1.2-3) 
The view I take is, that [Christ] Himself formed man of the dust, and regenerated him by water; and made him grow by his Spirit; and trained him by His word to adoption and salvation, directing him by sacred precepts; in order that, transforming earth-born man into a holy and heavenly being by His advent, He might fulfil to the utmost that divine utterance, "Let Us make man in Our own image and likeness." And, in truth, Christ became the perfect realization of what God spoke; and the rest of humanity is conceived as being created merely in His image. (Paedagogus 1.12)
 2.3. Third Century

  2.3.1. Tertullian

In one place, Tertullian follows the usual Christological interpretation of Gen. 1:26:
Imagine God wholly employed and absorbed in it— in His hand, His eye, His labour, His purpose, His wisdom, His providence, and above all, in His love, which was dictating the lineaments (of this creature). For, whatever was the form and expression which was then given to the clay (by the Creator) Christ was in His thoughts as one day to become man, because the Word, too, was to be both clay and flesh, even as the earth was then. For so did the Father previously say to the Son: "Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness." And God made man, that is to say, the creature which He moulded and fashioned; after the image of God (in other words, of Christ) did He make him. (On the Resurrection of the Flesh 6.4)
Elsewhere, however, Tertullian extends the interpretation to include the Spirit as a co-addressee alongside the Son, thus becoming the earliest extant Christian writer to adopt a Trinitarian reading of Gen. 1:26-27:
If the number of the Trinity also offends you, as if it were not connected in the simple Unity, I ask you how it is possible for a Being who is merely and absolutely One and Singular, to speak in plural phrase, saying, "Let us make man in our own image, and after our own likeness"; whereas He ought to have said, "Let me make man in my own image, and after my own likeness," as being a unique and singular Being? In the following passage, however, "Behold the man has become as one of us," He is either deceiving or amusing us in speaking plurally, if He is One only and singular. Or was it to the angels that He spoke, as the Jews interpret the passage, because these also acknowledge not the Son? Or was it because He was at once the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, that He spoke to Himself in plural terms, making Himself plural on that very account? Nay, it was because He had already His Son close at His side, as a second Person, His own Word, and a third Person also, the Spirit in the Word, that He purposely adopted the plural phrase, "Let us make"; and, "in our image"; and, "become as one of us." For with whom did He make man? And to whom did He make him like? (The answer must be), the Son on the one hand, who was one day to put on human nature; and the Spirit on the other, who was to sanctify man. With these did He then speak, in the Unity of the Trinity, as with His ministers and witnesses. In the following text also He distinguishes among the Persons: "So God created man in His own image; in the image of God created He him." Why say image of God? Why not "His own image" merely, if He was only one who was the Maker, and if there was not also One in whose image He made man? But there was One in whose image God was making man, that is to say, Christ's image, who, being one day about to become Man (more surely and more truly so), had already caused the man to be called His image, who was then going to be formed of clay— the image and similitude of the true and perfect Man. (Against Praxeas 12)
  2.3.2. Origen

Origen, too, insists that the Son was the addressee of the words of Gen. 1:26:
But to bring back a soul which had gone out, so that it came out of the grave when already stinking and passing the fourth day, was the work of no other than Him who heard the word of the Father, "Let us make man after our image and likeness." But also to command the winds and to make the violence of the sea cease at a word, was the work of no other than Him through whom all things, both the sea itself and the winds, have come into being. (Commentary on Matthew 12.2)
We therefore charge the Jews with not acknowledging Him to be God, to whom testimony was borne in many passages by the prophets, to the effect that He was a mighty power, and a God next to the God and Father of all things. For we assert that it was to Him the Father gave the command, when in the Mosaic account of the creation He uttered the words, Let there be light, and Let there be a firmament, and gave the injunctions with regard to those other creative acts which were performed; and that to Him also were addressed the words, "Let Us make man in Our own image and likeness"; and that the Logos, when commanded, obeyed all the Father's will. (Contra Celsum 2.9; see also 5.37)
On one occasion, Origen mentions a non-Christological interpretation that he does not endorse but is not willing to dismiss either (see below).

  2.3.3. Novatian

In his work On the Trinity, Novatian cited Gen. 1:26 against a modalistic Christology that identified Christ as God the Father, using it to prove that the Son and the Father are distinct persons:
But from this occasion of Christ being proved from the sacred authority of the divine writings not man only, but God also, other heretics, breaking forth, contrive to impair the religious position in Christ; by this very fact wishing to show that Christ is God the Father, in that He is asserted to be not man only, but also is declared to be God. For thus say they, If it is asserted that God is one, and Christ is God, then say they, If the Father and Christ be one God, Christ will be called the Father. Wherein they are proved to be in error, not knowing Christ, but following the sound of a name; for they are not willing that He should be the second person after the Father, but the Father Himself. And since these things are easily answered, few words shall be said. For who does not acknowledge that the person of the Son is second after the Father, when he reads that it was said by the Father, consequently to the Son, "Let us make man in our image and our likeness"; and that after this it was related, "And God made man, in the image of God made He him?" (de Trinitate 26)
  2.3.4. The Letter of the Six Bishops to Paul of Samosata

In 268-69 A.D., a synod deposed Paul of Samosata, bishop of Antioch, partly due to his denial of Christ's Incarnation.15

A letter survives addressed to Paul by six other bishops, of whom Hymenaeus of Jerusalem is named first. This letter is known as the Letter of the Six Bishops or the Letter of Hymenaeus.16 An English translation is hard to track down, so my own translation of the relevant Greek passage follows:
And all the divinely inspired writings declare the Son of God to be God; these we now undertake to cite at length. We believe him, who was always with the Father, to have fulfilled the paternal purpose by the creation of all things. For "he spoke and they were made; he commanded and they were created." Now one who commands something, commands someone; which "someone," we are convinced, is none other than God the only begotten Son of God, to whom he said, "Let us make man according to our image and likeness."17
3. Non-Christological Interpretations

We have already cited the non-Christological interpretations of Gen. 1:26 that Justin Martyr attributed to the Jews of his day. One would not, of course, expect non-Christian Jews to read the Jewish Scriptures with a Christological hermeneutic. There is also evidence of non-Christological interpretations of Gen. 1:26 among professing Christians, though the earliest such evidence I found is in literature from the third century A.D.

 3.1. Pseudo-Clementine Homilies

The Pseudo-Clementine Homilies date from the late third century but are thought to preserve older Jewish Christian traditions. The Homilies depict Christ as pre-existent but as an archangel rather than as God.18 The author appears at one point to refute a Christological interpretation of Gen. 1:26 in favour of a non-Christological "Wisdom" interpretation. The context is a dialogue between Simon the Magician (representing, in the author's view, a heretical perspective) and Peter (representing, in the author's view, the true perspective):
And Simon said: Since I see that you frequently speak of the God who created you, learn from me how you are impious even to him. For there are evidently two who created, as the Scripture says: 'And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.' Now 'let us make,' implies two or more; certainly not one only. 
And Peter answered: One is He who said to His Wisdom, 'Let us make a man.' But His Wisdom was that with which He Himself always rejoiced as with His own spirit. It is united as soul to God, but it is extended by Him, as hand, fashioning the universe. On this account, also, one man was made, and from him went forth also the female. And being a unity generically, it is yet a duality, for by expansion and contraction the unity is thought to be a duality. So that I act rightly in offering up all the honour to one God as to parents. (Homilies 16.11-12)19
 3.2. Saturnilus (via Hippolytus)

In his Refutation of All Heresies, Hippolytus refers to a heretic named Saturnilus who understood the words of Gen. 1:26a to be a conversation among angels:
But one Saturnilus, who flourished about the same period with Basilides, but spent his time in Antioch, (a city) of Syria, propounded opinions akin to whatever (tenets) Menander (advanced). He asserts that there is one Father, unknown to all— He who had made angels, archangels, principalities, (and) powers; and that by certain angels, seven (in number), the world was made, and all things that are in it. And (Saturnilus affirms) that man was a work of angels. There had appeared above from (the Being of) absolute sway, a brilliant image; and when (the angels) were not able to detain this, on account of its immediately, he says, returning with rapidity upwards, they exhorted one another, saying, "Let us make man in our likeness and image." (Refutation 7.16) 

In his Commentary on John, Origen suggests the possibility that God has committed to angels the task of forming each new human soul in the womb. He then goes on to suggest that, rather than referring only to the original creation of the first human pair, the words of Gen. 1:26 pertain also to the creation of each new human in the womb, and that therefore God addresses the words of Gen. 1:26 to the angels who have been appointed to sow souls in bodies. Nevertheless, Origen is unwilling to commit himself to this interpretation:
This explanation will take the command, 'Let us make man according to our image and our likeness,' in a more ingenious manner. God says this of all men and initiates the work which is later [performed] by others to whom the command comes in relation to the appointed portion. It is to these that God says, 'Let us make man.' It is to these also that he says in the confounding of the dialects, 'Come and let us go down and confound there their tongue.' Now we do not offer this as our opinion, for matters of such magnitude need to be thoroughly examined to see if they are so or not. On the other hand, such an interpretation must not be dismissed contemptuously. (Commentary on John 13.331-32)20

In the first through third centuries A.D., Christian writers consistently interpreted the plural terms in "Let us make man in our image" (Gen. 1:26) as the Father addressing the Son. This Christological interpretation is explicitly followed by the author of the Letter of Barnabas, Justin Martyr, Theophilus of Antioch, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, Novatian and the six bishops who wrote to Paul of Samosata. The same interpretation is arguably also presupposed by Paul, the authors of Hebrews, 1 Clement and the Epistula Apostolorum, Tatian and Melito of Sardis. Alternative, non-Christological interpretations of the passage are found in the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, the heretic Saturnilus (as reported by Hippolytus) and a suggestion made (but not endorsed) by Origen.

Overall, then, we can say that the Christological reading was the dominant and consistent early Christian interpretation of the plural syntax of Gen. 1:26—at least in those writings that have been preserved. Following the lead of their Lord (Luke 24:27) and his apostles, the early church read the Jewish Scriptures through Christ-coloured lenses. In so doing they found a confirmation in early Genesis of Christ's pre-existence, deity and participation in the Father's creative work.


  • 1 See Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 132-34; C. John Collins, Genesis 1–4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2006), 59-61.
  • 2 In context, Collins argues that Gen. 1:26 most likely depicts God as "deliberating with himself". He then adds, "Does this lead us to the Trinity? No, not of itself. But if there is a place for any kind of sensus plenior (‘fuller sense’), this is it. The kind of sensus plenior that I can accept occurs when a later passage amplifies an earlier one in a way consistent with the intent of the earlier one. If the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is true, then the referent was present in Genesis 1. This is not the same as claiming that the author or a pious Israelite reader must have been able to see it, only that the narration allows it. As mentioned, the Spirit of God in Genesis 1:2 is closely associated with God himself in the Old Testament. The Christian doctrine allows us to make good sense of all the elements in the text, as well as of the elements of other texts (those which speak of Christ as the one through whom the world was made)" (Collins, Genesis 1-4, 61). Hamilton similarly comments, "It is one thing to say that the author of Gen. 1 was not schooled in the intricacies of Christian dogma. It is another to say he was theologically too primitive or naïve to handle such ideas as plurality within unity. What we often so blithely dismiss as ‘foreign to the thought of the OT’ may be nothing of the sort. True, the concept may not be etched on every page of Scripture, but hints and clues and dropped enticingly here and there, and such hints await their full understanding ‘at the correct time’ (Gal. 4:4)" (Book of Genesis, 134).
  • 3 These "all things" are specifically qualified to include even the highest angelic orders ("thrones or dominions or principalities or powers"), perhaps to clearly elevate Christ above the angels, given that "worship of angels" was an issue at Colosse (Col. 2:18).
  • 4 See below on the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, which seem to follow a non-Christological "Wisdom" interpretation of Gen. 1:26.
  • 5 Trans. Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 1:93-95.
  • 6 Trans. Ehrman, Apostolic Fathers, 2:27
  • 7 Trans. Ehrman, Apostolic Fathers, 2:33.
  • 8 Trans. in John K. Elliott, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 558-59.
  • 9 Thomas P. Halton, St. Justin Martyr: Dialogue with Trypho, ed. Michael Slusser, trans. Thomas B. Falls (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 93-94.
  • 10 Halton, St. Justin Martyr, 95-96.
  • 11 Where a translation or text is not explicitly cited, I am following the public domain translation linked to, which is usually that hosted at newadvent.org. These translations are old and not based on the latest critical texts.
  • 12 Trans. Thomas Halton, "Paschal Homily: Melito of Sardis," The Furrow 19 (1968): 215.
  • 13 Trans. Halton, "Paschal Homily," 216.
  • 14 Trans. Halton, "Paschal Homily," 219.
  • 15 "Paul rejects the idea that the Logos should be composed (σύνθετος) with a human body, for this would be equivalent to a kind of mingling which is contrary to his dignity or rank as the Son of God… Malchion insists that Jesus Christ is one, composed out of two simple elements, the God-Logos and the human body, which is from the seed of David. The charge laid on Paul is that his rejection of such a model of ‘composition’ implies a denial of the substantial union of the Son of God with the human body. It is insinuated that he conceives of the union in Christ as a participation, presumably of the man Jesus, in the divine Wisdom, who is said to dwell in the former. According to Malchion, Paul’s doctrine of the inhabitation of divine Wisdom is motivated by the intention to protect the Son of God from the humiliating consequences of his kenosis, i.e. from suffering the cost or loss (dispendium) of his being united with a human body." (U. M. Lang, "The Christological Controversy at the Synod of Antioch in 268/9," Journal of Theological Studies 51 (2000): 66-67.
  • 16 Lang states that de Riedmatten has argued convincingly in favour of its authenticity ("Christological Controversy," 71).
  • 17 Greek text in Martin Josephus Routh, Reliquiae Sacrae, 5 vols. (Oxford: Typographeo academico, 1846-48), 3:292.
  • 18 Charles A. Gieschen,Angelomorphic Christology: Antecedents and Early Evidence (Leiden: Brill, 1998), 209-213.
  • 19 Cf. Recognitions 2.39-40, where Simon offers a more elaborate argument; Peter does not there specifically address the meaning of Gen. 1:26.
  • 20 Trans. Ronald E. Heine, Origen: Commentary on the Gospel according to John Books 13-32 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1993), 139.