dianoigo blog

Tuesday 14 June 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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