dianoigo blog

Tuesday 24 September 2013

Christadelphians, Tradition, and Irenaeus

In the past few weeks I have been studying some of the writings of the early church in what is referred to as the Patristic period, which ranged from the end of the first century until the middle of the fifth (some extend the period later than that). One of the most important sources from this period is the voluminous work Against Heresies by Irenaeus of Lyons, written in about 180 A.D. According to tradition, Irenaeus was only two degrees of separation removed from John the Evangelist: he was a hearer of Polycarp, who is supposed to have been a follower of John.

In Against Heresies, Irenaeus defends what he claims was traditional Christian doctrine against the errors of the Gnostics. In what is now a famous passage he lays out the 'rule of faith', translated as follows:
The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.

As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it. (Against Heresies Vol. 1. 2-3, emphasis added)
Now, a Christadelphian reading this rule of faith will identify important points of similarity with Christadelphian doctrine, but also two notable differences: an affirmation of the deity and incarnation of Christ, and a belief in fallen angels.

Having been raised as a Christadelphian, I never heard much about Irenaeus and other 'ante-Nicene fathers' of the church. Occasionally, a well-read Christadelphian speaker would quote from one of them in support of a particular doctrine or practice, such as believers' baptism. However, I've yet to encounter a detailed attempt to reconcile Irenaeus' rule of faith with the Christadelphian claim that the apostles themselves were unitarians who denounced belief in fallen angels.

For this to be true, a rapid and total doctrinal transformation of the Christian church must have occurred within two generations after the deaths of the apostles; only then could Irenaeus claim that the whole church worldwide were united on these doctrines. One might argue that Irenaeus lied or was mistaken in his claim, but this is unlikely since he was writing in opposition to heretics. Why should he make false or careless statements which would expose his polemic to easy refutation?

One might further argue for the existence of a Christian community who held to Christadelphian doctrine and were consequently not considered part of the true worldwide church by Irenaeus. However, there is no positive evidence for the existence of such a community. Certainly his work Against Heresies makes no mention of any heretical doctrinal position similar to Christadelphian beliefs.

Biblical evidence for the apostasy required by Christadelphians is taken from New Testament passages such as 1 John 4:1-3, which warns against the spirit of antichrist which is "already in the world" and denies that Jesus has come in the flesh. Most scholars regard the object of John's warning as an early form of Gnosticism which was cropping up in Asia Minor toward the end of the first century. There is a double irony in the suggestion that Irenaeus represented the spirit of antichrist opposed by John. In the first place, as we saw above, tradition maintains an historical connection between John and Irenaeus through Polycarp. In the second place, the Gnostics were the primary target of Irenaeus' own warnings against heresy!

Christadelphians have tended to hold church tradition in very low regard. For John Thomas, 'tradition' was a by-word for the speculative excesses of the clergy, both Roman Catholic and Protestant alike. As Christadelphia has come of age, some have promoted a kind of Christadelphian traditionalism which gives a certain authority to the pioneer writings of John Thomas and Robert Roberts. Appeal in this regard has been made to Jeremiah 6:16: "Ask for the old paths!"

Wherever is the consistency in asking for paths which are no more than 150 years old while dismissing as ages of darkness the 17 1/2 centuries between the close of the apostolic age and the writing of Elpis Israel? It might be claimed, along the lines of the Christadelphian-authored book The Protesters, by Alan Eyre, that a faithful remnant of Christians with Christadelphian beliefs can be traced down through the ages and so John Thomas was in reality no innovator. This is historically dubious. For example, among the groups lumped into the historic Christadelphian fold are the Waldenses/Vaudois, the Anabaptist Balthasar Hubmaier, and the Socinians of Poland. However, the Waldenses were Trinitarian, as was Hubmaier, who retained the Catholic designation theodokos (mother of God) for Mary. The Socinians were anti-trinitarian, but believed in a personal devil as expressed in their Racovian Catechism.

Once these groups are taken out of the picture, Christadelphian doctrine is left with very little precedent prior to the 17th century, and it appears that the Age of Reason is as far back as Christadelphian old paths go. 

Thus, for those Christadelphians who would make an appeal to Christadelphian tradition, my question is, why ask for old paths only to ignore much older paths, such as the voice of Irenaeus?

And for those Christadelphians who stand behind the Reformers' cry of "Sola Scriptura", my question is, have you no regard for Irenaeus as a witness to the way the early church understood the Scriptures?


Unknown said...

Tom, why is it so proposterous that your parents might of had the truth? Irenaeus was nearly 100 years removed from the Apostles who had the Holy Spirit. Paul in his day experienced the apostacy. Ga 3:1 O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you? As far as the heretics are concerned; wasn't it the Catholic Church that pursecuted the heretics. For all we know, they may have been the ones with the truth.
Jim Burns, Westerly Christadelphians

Tom said...

Jim, thanks for your comments. It is not preposterous to me that my parents might have had the truth. It was a difficult decision to turn from the teachings in which I was raised, but I had to obey the Word of God according to my understanding.

The apostasy of which Paul speaks in Gal. 3:1 is that of the Judaizers. As for the heretics whom Irenaeus opposed, he is quite clear in his writings about what they believed, and it bears absolutely no resemblance to Christadelphians.

Christadelphians have so far not produced evidence of any group with a system of doctrine that would be acceptable as a basis of fellowship with them, prior to the 17th century A.D. If Christadelphian doctrine is necessary for salvation, this means as far as we know there was no body of Christ between the 2nd and 17th centuries. How do Jesus' promises in Matt. 16:18 and 28:20 sound in that case?

Anonymous said...

Hi Tom, I just found your blog and as you are asking questions I thought I might respond to some of the points you have raised. First as a Christadelphian (though admittedly not the most orthodox) I have to say that I do not believe and would never say that Christadelphian doctrine is vital for salvation. I know this would be upsetting for members of my church and might not gel with your experience but it is a ridiculous claim. Faith is however vital and the passage you refer to in Matt 16 is Jesus saying to Peter that the church is founded on the belief that Jesus is the Christ the son of the living God. In my view this counters any claim for the trinitarian view but whatever. Why be a Christadelphian? Because to have faith means to ask questions and to challenge and doubt and try to understand but it also means to love and share and be joined with fellow believers. There is no such thing as a single christian (or a christadelphian) to fully practice our beliefs requires a community this can either be in terms of a catholic universal church such as the one Iraneaus was trying to establish or in protestant/heretic terms as a brotherhood of individual believers. We join with the churches whose understanding most closely corresponds to our own understanding and best allows us to practice our belief in God - this is I think true for all believers - I do believe Jesus is the Christ I do not believe in an immortal soul or a devil so I worship in a christadelphian church - remember how the disciples came to Christ saying they stopped one who was casting out demons in Jesus name because he was not one of them. Jesus response is to say that anyone who does good in his name is a legitimate disciple. That is where Ireneaus was wrong. That is where all orthodoxies are wrong (Christadelphian, Catholic, Lutheran, Waldensian etc.) and it didn't start in Paul's day or in the second century it started before Jesus was even crucified.

As to evidence that my beliefs date back to the time of Christ I think they do but have never really sweated it - it is human nature to consolidate power and Christadelphian and other millinerian beliefs are always anti-authoritarian. It might be helpful to think of it as an underground stream that only occasionally bubbles to the surface in different forms and with different emphasis. (Before he was excommunicated Arius was the most popular preacher in Rome. The diggers and the ranters would certainly not have been invited into a twentieth century christadelphian meeting but would have gone to the stake with them. There is a history there but it is not mainstream.) The devil thing is a tricky one but technically has nothing to do with individual salvation - there is no scriptural support that the devil tempts people to sin so even if there are fallen angels, monsters, succubi, etc. what has that to do with you or I. Either I belong to the tradition of the disciples or to the tradition of the anonymous guy casting out demons in Jesus' name but either way I feel pretty secure.

Jacob King (Sorry I have to post as anonymous but none of my accounts match your blog service. I will like your post to tumblr so you can trace me if you want. Also sorry I went on a bit I have been collecting my own thoughts around this issue lately and your post caught my eye. Interesting as it is past is the past, over and done it is better to look to the future.)

EJK said...

Anonymous, thanks for level headed comment it is usually not a common thing for CD's, they usually regard themselves above all, in the truth and all others are unbelievers. Christians and CD's differ in interpreting the bible especially where Christ's identity is concerned, but for most CD's to claim that they will be taken to Mt. Sinai where there will be a judgement for them and worthy will receive eternal life from Jesus and they will be rulers in the kingdom is hard to swallow. Yes you are right, CD doctrine is not vital for salvation, it is hard to understand that Mr. J.Thomas was moved by God's spirit to rediscover the truth. One man all by himself did find the truth, only to find that he copied other writers books ( Eliot and Granville Penn) and published them as original and authentic. So for a man who has discovered the truth we find that he lied to his people. Many end time prophesies made by JT, RR and other CD's that failed. CD's are not perfect, they are like mainstream Christians with many flows, but most believe that they alone hold the truth. I find that there is some good and level headed CD's but very few. I find your comments are realistic, thanks for that.