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Sunday, 6 December 2020

Dale Tuggy and the Stages of Trinitarian Commitment

Prof. Dale Tuggy, a philosopher of religion and unitarian apologist, released a podcast episode a couple of months ago entitled, The Stages of Trinitarian Commitment, based on a talk he had given at a Restoration Fellowship theological conference (available on YouTube).1 I am familiar with Tuggy's Trinities podcast, but not a regular listener; this episode came to my attention when he posted it in a Christadelphian Facebook group to which I belong.

In the talk, Tuggy describes six stages through which one might progress from an ignorant Trinitarian to an enlightened unitarian.2 While he draws extensively on his own personal experience, Tuggy does not regard his six stages as merely a personal journey. His talk is sociological in nature, and the six stages are implied to be a normative trajectory of Christian intellectual experience. Tuggy allows that not everyone follows the path exactly as he did. Some hunker down along the way and do not progress, some skip stages; occasionally someone regresses.

What then are the six stages? They are: 
1. paper “trinitarian” 
2. defender of “the Trinity” 
3. interpreter of “the Trinity” 
4. Berean trinitarian 
5. “trinitarian” ex-trinitarian 
6. unitarian Christian
To summarise briefly, a paper trinitarian is what most professing Christians in the world are. They are Trinitarians because they belong to a religious group with a Trinitarian confessional stance, but are both uninformed and bewildered about what the doctrine actually means. A trinitarian defender is one who has learned just enough about the Trinity to defend it, and does so aggressively and uncharitably, enjoying the status that comes with being a self-appointed apologist. A trinitarian interpreter is one who has delved more deeply into the philosophical underpinnings of the doctrine, and attached him/herself to one of the different models used to rationalise the doctrine's intrinsic paradox (social Trinity, psychological Trinity, etc.) One becomes a Berean trinitarian when, frustrated with the pitfalls of the philosophical models, one resolves to honestly investigate whether the Trinity is biblical. A 'trinitarian' ex-trinitarian is one who is now convinced that the Trinity is false, but resists exiting his/her trinitarian denomination to embrace unitarian Christianity, due to the attractiveness of being accepted within the "Trinity club," which keeps hold of its members with the help of a "culture of fear." Finally, when the theological traveler musters up the courage to openly accept what s/he already knew to be true, s/he becomes a unitarian Christian and has arrived at the summit of the climb.

Evaluation

Below are a few comments on the particular stages followed by an evaluation of the model as a whole. Firstly, just because a Trinitarian Christian is neither an apologist nor a philosopher does not mean s/he is a mere paper trinitarian. One who has been catechised in orthodox Christian doctrine and accepts the teaching in good faith is not a mere dupe for being unable to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity in philosophical language. The same is true of other doctrines. Would we consider a fellow Christian to be a 'paper theist' because s/he is unable to give a philosophically sound account of the classical arguments for God's existence? A 'paper eschatologist' because s/he cannot offer a compelling account of what eternity means in terms of philosophy of time? Moreover, the doctrine of the Trinity is not necessarily esoteric or irrelevant for Christians of the non-apologist, non-philosopher variety. Anyone can intuitively appreciate the significance of the notion that loving communion characterises God's own inner life, a loving communion that we have been created to share in and extend to others. The doctrine of the Trinity leads immediately to a purpose and mission for the believer's life.

Concerning the trinitarian defender stage, there surely are Trinitarian apologists more notable for their arrogance and aggression than the substance of their arguments. However, any apologist or polemicist is susceptible to arrogance, aggression, and substandard argumentation; this human weakness has nothing to do with Trinitarianism. I can attest that there are unitarian apologists out there whose arrogance matches their ignorance, for I used to be one! Similarly, an aversion to philosophically rigorous description of doctrines is not a Trinitarian disease. I grew up in a unitarian community where 'philosophy' was often used as a byword (e.g., with recourse to Colossians 2:8); some members considered philosophy per se to be bad. (On early Christian use of Greek philosophy, see here.) Bottom line: Trinitarians certainly have no monopoly on low-quality apologetics. The personal shortcomings that all too often compromise the work of amateur apologists is a result of their human weakness, not their Trinitarian ideology.

Concerning the trinitarian interpreter stage, all of the examples Tuggy mentions here (including himself) are of professional philosophers or philosophical theologians. This is hardly a normative phase of Christian intellectual development! There are relatively few Christians who obtain formal qualifications in philosophy, but of those who do, many remain Trinitarian. Is it charitable to assume that such Trinitarians have merely 'hunkered down' with their unsatisfactory ideas while the eventual unitarian progresses further?

Concerning the Berean trinitarian stage, Tuggy explicitly characterises it in terms of being a 'true Protestant,' living out the sola Scriptura ideal. In so doing, he completely ignores Catholic and Orthodox approaches to doctrine. His sociological model has no room for epistemologies other than his own Protestant one.

As with the trinitarian defender stage, Tuggy's comments on the 'trinitarian' ex-trinitarian stage characterise phenomena that are common in many areas of religious experience as specific to Trinitarianism. One in the midst of any crisis of religious belief is likely to experience psychological stress (e.g., cognitive dissonance) as one grapples with the disconnect between one's own inner convictions and those of one's peers. There is a temptation to suppress one's convictions in order to preserve the stability of one's social and religious life. This is as true for a person contemplating a unitarian-to-Trinitarian shift as for the reverse, as I can personally attest.

The biggest problem with Tuggy's six-stage model, however, is not that he has inadequately described particular stages, but that he has apparently neglected to consider that some people follow completely different trajectories in their Trinitarian commitment. Below, I describe the trajectory that I have followed—by way of illustration and not to suggest that my experience is normative or objectively better than others'.

My Own Stages of Trinitarian Commitment

I would characterise my own stages of Trinitarian commitment thus:
1. Naïve unitarian
2. unitarian apologist
3. Doubt and apathy
4. Investigation and indecision
5. catholic Trinitarian
I was raised as a Christadelphian, and it was a central feature of communal religious life not only to be a unitarian but to be an anti-Trinitarian. That the doctrine of the Trinity was not merely false but nonsensical was mentioned frequently and emphatically. The doctrine was regularly misrepresented in public talks as affirming polytheism, denying Jesus' humanity, or maintaining that Jesus prayed to himself. My assumption was that the idea of the Trinity simply did not deserve serious thought, and so the notion that it might be true never crossed my mind. I was a naïve unitarian.

Although the Trinity was an obviously ridiculous idea, many Trinitarians evidently did not know this, and so it was a noble undertaking to dispel their ignorance and show them the truth. Thus, in my middle teens I became an online Christadelphian apologist, wrangling away the hours on Internet forums and starting my own apologetics website. My apologetics modus operandi consisted largely of proof-texting and lacked serious engagement with opposing arguments. I was a unitarian apologist.

Gradually, having encountered some coherent Trinitarian arguments (both online and in books), I came to appreciate that the case for unitarianism wasn't open-and-shut. I felt my first real pangs of doubt about the position I had always assumed to be the obvious truth. This was part of a larger crisis of conviction about Christianity itself, and for awhile I lost interest in Christian doctrine, while still outwardly practicing the Christadelphian religion. I had fallen into doubt and apathy.

In time, my faith in the basic truth of Christianity (e.g., the salvific death and resurrection of Jesus) returned, and with it a zeal for studying the Scriptures and thinking about Christian doctrine. I became firmly convinced on biblical grounds that Christ personally pre-existed and was in some sense divine, and it was clear that I could no longer uphold the dogmatic unitarianism of Christadelphians. I gradually withdrew from the Christadelphian community while exploring other, mainly Evangelical, religious communities. Yet I could not wholeheartedly embrace Trinitarian dogma either; I just did not see the doctrine laid out clearly in Scripture. I conceived of the Trinity as a plausible but ultimately man-made attempt to make sense of biblical revelation. I thought I could address my indecision through further study, so I undertook a formal degree programme in theology. This was a period of indecision and investigation.

Today, I am a dogmatic Trinitarian (for a fuller account of my journey to orthodoxy, see here). However, I did not reach this stage primarily through study of the biblical testimony about God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Instead, I experienced a paradigm shift in ecclesiology and epistemology. My ecclesiological presuppositions had always been that it is the prerogative and duty of each individual to figure out doctrinal truth for oneself by studying the Bible; what the Church had decided in ecumenical councils carried no weight whatsoever as these councils were just deliberations of flawed humans. However, I have since come to take more seriously the role of the Holy Spirit in preserving the true faith in the Church, despite the flaws of its human members. That the doctrine of the Trinity was promulgated by the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople and has stood as the touchstone of Christian orthodoxy ever since cannot merely be waved aside. If I am critical of the judgment of flawed humans, why in the world should I trust in my own judgment to arrive at doctrinal truth?

Together with my ecclesiological paradigm shift, my epistemological assumptions also changed. I found sola Scriptura to be biblically and historically untenable, and concluded that God must have provided a living voice to authoritatively interpret his revelation. Eventually, I reached the conclusion that the Magisterium of the Catholic Church had the most credible claim to be the successor of the apostles in this respect. Finally, John Henry Cardinal Newman's ideas on the development of Christian doctrine—that doctrine is not static and dead but dynamic and living, that the Church matures in its understanding of the deposit of faith—provided me with a framework for understanding how the doctrine of the Trinity might be central to the Christian faith despite appearing in Scripture only embryonically.

Concluding Thoughts

Dale Tuggy has described his stages of Trinitarian commitment, and I have now described mine, which have proceeded in opposite directions in relation to the doctrine itself. There is, however, some common ground: both trajectories began with a naïve position, followed by an overstated dogmatism, then a crisis of conviction, and ultimately settling on a new position. Perhaps this suggests a more general sociological model than that proposed by Tuggy. Of course, the stages of commitment that one follows are subjective and independent of the objective truth of one's original or final commitments. Hopefully, whatever position one ultimately takes on the doctrine of the Trinity, one takes it with some nuance and with great respect for those who, in good faith, arrive at a different position. All of us, indeed, "know partially" (1 Cor. 13:9), and depend on the mercy of God for our shortcomings, both moral and intellectual.

  • 1 Tuggy recommends that podcast listeners check out the YouTube version to benefit from the slides. I listened to the audio while at the gym, and just checked out a couple of slides on YouTube to make sure I had correctly identified the six stages.
  • 2 I use the small-u unitarian to distinguish the theological position from Unitarian denominations.

Saturday, 10 October 2020

Dr. John Thomas, Slavery, and Abolitionism: A Case Study in Moral Theology

Introduction
Dr. John Thomas and the Slavery Question
Theological Analysis
 Ethical Biblicism
 Ethical Adventism
Conclusion

This article studies the views of Dr. John Thomas, founder of the Christadelphians, on the American "slavery question." A Christadelphian reader may ask, "to what end?" American slavery was abolished in the 1860s and Thomas died in 1871.1 What possible relevance could such a study have for Christadelphians in 2020? Is this ex-Christadelphian just taking a swipe at the movement's founder? No; what drives our interest in Dr. Thomas' views on the slavery question is that they offer a useful case study in Christadelphian moral teaching. Precisely because the moral issue in question is uncontroversial today, our study can focus on theological method without getting bogged down by disagreement over the issue itself.


John Thomas was born and raised in England and emigrated to America in 1832 as a young medical doctor. He soon joined Alexander Campbell's religious movement and became an influential protégé of Campbell and the editor of a periodical, The Apostolic Advocate. Within a few years, Thomas and Campbell fell out over doctrinal disagreements. Some in the movement sympathised with Thomas, and he retained considerable influence in the mid-1840s through the publication of another periodical, The Herald of the Future Age.2 In 1847, Thomas abjured many of his earlier beliefs and had himself re-baptised, thereby birthing a new sect that would eventually take on the name Christadelphians.3 During the three decades between his arrival in the United States and the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, Thomas resided in both free states (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, New York) and slave states (Virginia, Kentucky), with occasional tours of Great Britain and Canada (where slavery had been abolished for decades).

At the same time Thomas was going through the theological odyssey that would result in the Christadelphian movement, slavery was becoming the "paramount national issue" in the USA.4 Abolitionist newspapers and periodicals abounded in the North while proslavery sentiment filled the literature of the South. During the mid-1840s, mainline Protestant denominations such as the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists split over the slavery issue.5 "By the 1850s the slavery issue was front and center, igniting the passions of citizens and politicians throughout the country."6 In late 1845, Thomas has already broken definitively with Campbell but is still forging his own theological identity. His Herald receives letters from two antislavery subscribers in the North who are concerned that Thomas has not expressed himself clearly on slavery, which the correspondents believe to be the abomination of the age.7 His rival, Alexander Campbell, has just written a series of articles on slavery in his Millennial Harbinger.8 It is clear that Thomas cannot ignore the question, but how to respond? His elite British education may have predisposed him to see slavery as backward, but he and his periodical are based in Virginia, a slaveholding state. He is certain to alienate some subscribers and perhaps lose friends no matter what he writes on this emotive issue.

In the event, Thomas opts to emphatically downplay the importance of the subject. "[T]he vassalage, or freedom of a barbarous race," he writes, "is an affair of very subordinate consideration." The kind of slavery that demands his attention is spiritual slavery to sin, the common condition of mankind:
In the Herald, we are neither in nor out on this topic, as 'involuntary slavery' is not the subject proposed to be discussed in our pages. We cannot agree with our New York friend, that 'involuntary slavery is the greatest evil and sin in the world.' There is a greater evil and sin than this, and that is, voluntary slavery to sin and Satan. The whites and blacks are all enslaved by the god of this world; they are his willing slaves to work iniquity... We wish to emancipate men from the slavery of Sin; this is the abolition we go in for 'out and out'; and if a man be called being a slave, let him remain in his calling; but, if he can be free, let him use it rather if it be likely to conduce to his spiritual welfare; otherwise not. Political or civil liberty for a few short years is of very little consequence to the freedmen of truth, who are destined to share in the government of the world with Jesus Christ in the Future Age. 'Having food and raiment let us learn therewith to be content.' This is the doctrine we advocate—bondage to Jesus, vassalage to truth and righteousness, and emancipation from Sin, Satan, and the World.9
Replying to one correspondent's insistence on the slave's "human rights," Thomas insists that the master's rights must be considered, too. Thomas infers from Scripture that the slave owner's rights include "a right of property in his slave," "a right to the obedience of their slaves," and "a right to chastise them when they do wrong."10 In his view, slavery is an "enormous evil, but not a sin." Slavery is "regulated, but not abolished, by the word of God," and "we have yet to learn where God has caused it to be written, 'thou shalt not hold man in bondage.'" 

Thomas' statements reflect a belief in white supremacy,11 widespread among whites at the time, but it is his moral-theological reasoning that is our focus here. Thomas claims that enlightened Virginians deplore slavery, but "how to get rid of it without prejudice to all concerned, is a problem which the legislation of the country has yet to solve." Is Thomas then interested in finding such a solution? Not at all:
We leave sectarianism to battle with slavery, we shoot at higher game: we aim to elevate civilized men to communion with God, Antislavery men may emancipate negroes from political thrall, while we would liberate them [i.e., civilized, antislavery men] from the bondage and degradation of sin.
Thomas' position generated some backlash in the North. In a subsequent issue, he mentions having received a scathing letter from "Two brethren in Chicago" who had ordered "a discontinuance of the Herald." Thomas does not print their letter, but in responding to their denunciation he introduces a new argument. Yes, slavery is unquestionably bad, but the duty of Christians is not to meddle in such worldly affairs but "to separate themselves from the world" and "be patient unto the coming of the Lord," who is "at the door." "He will abolish slavery," and Thomas is "perfectly willing to leave the whole affair to his disposal."12 Thomas admonishes his friends in Chicago that to devote their time and energy to abolishing slavery rather than converting sinners to God is to strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.13 Thomas reiterates this point after receiving another letter from his New York correspondent: "So we say of slavery it is an evil resulting from sin, but not therefore sinful in the sense of being forbidden. We say, that christians have no business to trouble themselves with it."14 Christ will solve the world's problems at his return; our task is to prepare for this event by living a "holy life" of obedience and "patiently waiting for Christ," without being "distracted by the vain imaginings of political factions and partizans" (i.e., abolitionists).

Over the next decade and a half, as the slavery debate intensified and civil war loomed, Thomas largely avoided the subject. For instance, during his extended visit to Britain in 1848-49, an evening was held in Edinburgh in his honour. Scotland was a noted hotbed of antislavery sentiment—Alexander Campbell (a Scot) was even briefly imprisoned there in 1847 amidst a bitter controversy with an abolitionist.15 Thomas relates that those present on this evening were about to vote on a motion to support his evangelistic work financially when "a very zealous philanthropist arose in the midst, and objected to the vote being taken until I defined my position in regard to American slavery".16 Much to Thomas' relief, it would seem, the chairperson "pronounced the objection irrelevant", considering it unnecessary "to ascertain what were his opinions upon all the debatable questions of the day". In 1852, Thomas and his periodical (now called the Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come) relocated from Virginia to New York, where expressing abolitionist sympathies would have carried little personal risk. However, this change of scenery appears to have had no effect on Thomas' expressed views on the subject.

On those rare occasions when he did return to the slavery issue, Thomas maintained his earlier position while attacking the abolitionist cause vehemently. He declared unequivocally that an abolitionist "cannot be a Christian" and claimed that 1 Timothy 6:3-4 is a prophecy against abolitionists.17 He also accused abolitionists of hypocrisy, though it is unclear what he meant.18 Thomas thus effectively placed abolitionism on his list of "Doctrines to be Rejected"! Elsewhere, he reduced abolitionism to a trifle by including it in a list of "tedious and interminable conjurations" and "foolishisms" that distract one from "the weightier matters of the law."19

Thomas' views on slavery were moderate enough to attract criticism from both sides of the debate. At a speaking engagement in Mississippi, Thomas was accused by a hearer of preaching abolitionism. He retorted that the gospel he preached "Truly...is abolitionism in the largest sense; for the New Dominion will abolish abolitionists and all their spurious sentimentalism."20 During a speaking tour to Toronto, Canada in 1860 (with the Civil War now just months away), an opponent named J. Williams sought to warn away Thomas' audiences by chalking up the sidewalk with accusations that Thomas was a slave-driver (which was untrue, though Thomas had in the past used slave labour on his Virginia farm).21 Later on the same visit, a black man approached Thomas on the street, and after "apologetically inquir[ing]" if he might have a word with Dr. Thomas, asked: "Do you, Dr. Thomas, baptize slave-owners, and fellowship them?" When Thomas responded, "Yes, we do both," the man exclaimed, "Oh!" and hurried away. In view of the "agitation" over slavery that he experienced in Toronto, Thomas felt compelled to restate his earlier arguments that slave-owning is permissible and abolitionism a petty diversion from serious spiritual matters.22


The foregoing does not paint Dr. John Thomas in a very favourable light, but again, the aim of this article is not to pass judgment on him. The fact is that very few religious groups in nineteenth-century America took a unified and resolute antislavery stance (the Quakers being a notable exception). Our purpose here is to understand the theology behind Thomas' position, and how it anticipated subsequent Christadelphian moral teaching.

To summarise Thomas' position, slavery is an evil, a consequence of humanity's fallen state. However, the apostolic writings permit the practice, and it is therefore not sinful to own slaves. Human slavery is a temporary situation in this present life. It is thus a trivial matter for the believer, whose focus should instead be on liberating self and others from spiritual enslavement to sin, by believing in the doctrines taught in Scripture and living a holy life. Abolitionism is foolish, as it turns the believer's attention from eternal things to worldly, political affairs. The believer should avoid any involvement in the slavery debate, which Christ will resolve at his imminent return. I see two fundamental principles in play here, which I would label ethical biblicism and ethical adventism.


By ethical biblicism, I mean a particular approach to morality that seeks to answer any moral question by asking, "What does the Bible say about it?" (I have written about this in a previous article, Moral Theology vs. "What the Bible Says".) Of course, as a Catholic Christian myself, I do hold the Bible as divinely inspired and authoritative. However, the process of answering moral questions is more complex than simply asking, "What does the Bible say?" It requires sound hermeneutics—principles for interpreting and applying divine revelation—and the use of philosophy to arrive at abstract principles that can then be addressed to concrete moral issues.

A pure biblicism can leave us unable to reach firm convictions on moral issues that the Bible doesn't address, such as climate change. It can also cause us to fail to distinguish between contingent and absolute moral realities. For example, Mark 10:1-12 records a dialogue between the Pharisees and Jesus on the permissibility of divorce. The Pharisees cite Scripture to justify their practices, but Jesus identifies this concrete scriptural testimony as a contingent moral precept that is overruled by a higher, more abstract moral principle. What about the slavery question? In 21st-century Western society, with institutional slavery long gone and basically no one still defending it, the "slavery question" seems to be no question at all. However, on biblicist premises, the proslavery position—or Thomas' leave-it-be stance—is unassailable! The institution of slavery is clearly legislated for in the Torah (e.g., Lev. 25:44-55).23 In the first century A.D., the Roman institution of slavery was far more oppressive than what was permitted under the Torah. (A master could have his slave crucified, for instance.) Nevertheless, as John Thomas correctly observed, the New Testament writers do not speak out against slavery. Instead, they command slaves to be obedient to their masters (Eph. 6:5-8; Col. 3:22-25; 1 Tim. 6:1-2; Tit. 2:9-10; 1 Pet. 2:18),24 sometimes adding that masters must treat their slaves fairly (Eph. 6:9; Col. 4:1). Paul instructs slaves to accept their lot in this life (1 Cor. 7:21-24), and sends the runaway slave Onesimus back to his master, Philemon, with a letter that acknowledges the latter's prerogatives.
 
How then can an antislavery position be defended? As with Jesus' teaching on divorce, one must regard concrete scriptural deference to the institution of slavery as contingent and overruled by more absolute and fundamental principles concerning the inviolable dignity of human life and the equality of humans before God. Unlike the divorce issue, one must do so without any explicit biblical warrant.25 In short, one must leave biblicism behind. A moral argument against slavery must move beyond questions such as, "Is slavery biblical?" or, "What does the Bible say about slavery?" The Bible does indeed contain the "raw materials" for an antislavery moral theology, but it took many centuries of reflection and maturation for the Church to definitively develop one.

John Thomas' biblicist approach to morality is the main reason why he failed to recognise American slavery as sinful,26 and biblicism is part of the legacy he bequeathed to the Christadelphians. Now, it would be unfair to describe Christadelphian moral teaching as purely biblicist. Christadelphians have taken a moral stand on issues such as voting in elections that are not directly discussed in Scripture. However, there is no question that Christadelphian moral teaching has been strongly influenced by biblicism, and is guided more by "Is behaviour x biblical?"—applied atomistically to various issues—than by a thoroughgoing moral theology. Indeed, the most well-known expression of Christadelphian moral teaching, the Commandments of Christ portion of the Statement of Faith, is simply a listing of paraphrased biblical verses with no obvious structure. 

Biblicism leaves one ill-equipped to respond to new moral questions that are not directly addressed in the Bible, or that are addressed only in a contingent way. As such, while claiming fidelity to the biblical text, biblicists actually undermine divine revelation by limiting its authority to what it says, as opposed to what it ultimately implies.


While Thomas did not regard slaveholding as sinful, he did recognise slavery as a social ill. Why then was he unwilling to advocate even a moderate form of abolitionism that would see slavery gradually eliminated? The answer lies in the second fundamental principle named above: ethical adventism. The premises here are a strong emphasis on the imminent Second Coming of Christ and a consequent near-total preoccupation with eternal and spiritual, as opposed to temporal and corporeal, concerns. John Thomas believed that the slavery issue was relatively unimportant because the slave's predicament was only a temporary one in the present life and because Jesus Christ would return very soon and resolve the matter definitively. Thus, slaves should accept their lot and free men should not interfere with slavery.

Ethical adventism has played a significant role in Christadelphian moral teaching ever since. Harry Tennant, for instance, in his article Christ and Protest, argues that 
The disciple's view is much wider than the panorama of his own time or the circumstances of his own life. He does not regard himself as having the right to seek political change or to agitate for social 'justice'... He knows and believes that there is no solution to the world's problems other than the return of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Once again, as a Catholic, I believe in and expectantly hope for the Second Coming of Christ. However, no one knows when it will happen, so its assumed imminence is no excuse for doing nothing about the problems of this world. Indeed, in Jesus' parables, the Master's sudden return is a reason to be active, not inactive. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that John Thomas was wrong in expecting Christ's Second Advent to resolve the slavery question in the mid-19th century. Fortunately, others did act, and slavery was ultimately ended by political and legal means (though, tragically, only after much bloodshed). Yet, well over a century later, Tennant still supported his claims that Jesus' disciples should not agitate for social justice by observing that the New Testament writers did not instruct their free readers "to urge the abolition of slavery."

John Thomas saw a stark antithesis between living a "holy life" and becoming active in the social justice issues of the day. He quoted Matthew 23:23-24 against abolitionists, calling them hypocrites who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel and neglect the weightier matters of the law. The irony is that in this passage, Jesus describes the weightier matters of the law as "justice and mercy and faith." This may allude to Micah 6:8, which states that what is required of a man is to do justice and love goodness and walk humbly with God. To live a holy life means to do justice: to seek to relieve suffering and end injustice. Hypocrisy occurs precisely when we are scrupulous in honouring God while neglecting our obligations to our neighbours here on earth. To do justice could be as small as giving a thirsty person a cup of water, or as large as helping to end slavery. To say this is not to reduce the faith to a "social gospel" or lose sight of eternal things. In Catholic parlance we speak of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Spiritual works of mercy attend to the spiritual needs of others while corporal works attend to their physical, bodily needs. Both are important; we cannot value a person's liberation from spiritual slavery to sin but devalue a person's liberation from physical slavery as "a very subordinate consideration."

It is not that we are setting our hopes on political solutions to the world's problems. We are to shine our light in the world, to provide the world with glimpses of what eternity holds. And who knows? We may in the process help to produce a more just society, as the 19th century abolitionists did.


Having considered how Dr. John Thomas responded to the greatest moral controversy of his time, my question for Christadelphians is this: do you agree with Thomas' stance? Was he right to oppose abolitionism? If not, why not? And how would the answer inform a moral response to major social justice issues of our own time, such as refugee crises, climate change, or abortion? Shall we say, like John Thomas, that believers "have no business to trouble themselves with" such issues? Or shall we make our neighbours' problems our own, and do justice?

  • 1 This is not to say that slavery is a dead issue; slavery and human trafficking are rampant in many parts of the world today.
  • 2 A note in the first number of the Herald states that Thomas had mailed two thousand copies of the last two numbers of his preceding periodical, The Investigator. Depending whether this means two thousand of each or one thousand of each, this suggests a circulation of one or two thousand. Thomas notes that "All subscribers to the Investigator, unless we are notified to the contrary, will be considered as such to the Herald."
  • 3 The name was adopted during the American Civil War as part of the group's representations to the authorities concerning its conscientious objection stance.
  • 4 Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines: 1741-1850 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966), 456.
  • 5 Jeff Wallenfeldt, ed., The American Civil War and Reconstruction: 1850 to 1890 (New York: Britannica Educational Publishing, 2012), 8; Jonathan Daniel Wells, A House Divided: The Civil War and Nineteenth-Century America, 2nd edn (New York: Routledge, 2017), 46.
  • 6 L. Sandy Maisel and Mark D. Brewer, Parties and Elections in America: The Electoral Process, 6th ed. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012), 31.
  • 7 One correspondent, writing from New York, indicated that he did not subscribe to any faith but had strong antislavery views. The other, writing from Illinois, was considered by Thomas a brother in Christ. Thomas indicates that the Illinois correspondent was a lawyer who defended escaped slaves who were recaptured by slave hunters in that state.
  • 8 Given Thomas' long-standing ties to Campbell's movement, his periodical must have had many readers in common with the Millennial Harbinger. Despite the acrimony between the two, their views on slavery were quite similar. Both took the position that slavery is socially detrimental but that slave-owning is not condemned by the Bible and thus not sinful. In his critical biography of Campbell, Douglas A. Foster writes that Campbell sought to take a "moderate" position on slavery in order to preserve unity within his movement (A Life of Alexander Campbell [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020], 274-88). The unity motive was probably less of a factor for Thomas, who did not yet shepherd a religious movement and placed a much higher premium on truth (as he understood it) than unity. Nevertheless, any editor of a magazine with subscribers in the North and South would have appreciated the need to tread carefully to avoid alienating subscribers.
  • 9 The Herald of the Future Age, vol. 2 (1845/46): 121-22.
  • 10 Thomas discusses the Onesimus affair from Paul's Letter to Philemon at some length, and also cites Ephesians 6:5-8, Colossians 3:22-25, 1 Peter 2:18, 1 Tim. 6:1, and Tit. 2:9
  • 11 For example, Thomas states that masters ought to give their servants, and disciples ought to give their "colored brethren in Christ," "what is just and equal." However, he hastens to add that "it is no part of this justice or equality, to emancipate them, to amalgamate with them, to set them in the parlor or drawing room, and place themselves in the kitchen, &c., &c." In other words, blacks belong in the kitchen and whites in the parlor or drawing room; to do otherwise is to violate the scriptural principle "that all things should be done decently and in order" (op. cit., 122-23). Further on, Thomas states, "In all parts of the world, men have as much liberty as they are fit for, and therefore as much as they deserve. This remark applies to man without distinction of race or color. Observation convinces us, that it is true in relation to the negroes especially".
  • 12 The Herald of the Future Age, vol. 2 (1845/46): 156.
  • 13 The accusation of straining at a gnat only to swallow a camel (an allusion to Jesus' denuncation of the Pharisees in Matt. 23:24) is one that Thomas would level at abolitionists repeatedly. See The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, vol. 10 (1860): 134, 204.
  • 14 The Herald of the Future Age, vol. 2 (1845/46): 186.
  • 15 The abolitionist opponent, James Robertson, accused Campbell of libel after Campbell refused to debate him on the slavery question, alleging that Robertson had been expelled from a Baptist church for abusing his mother. Campbell was jailed to prevent his leaving the country before the matter was resolved. Foster describes this incident in A Life of Alexander Campbell, 278-82. John Thomas was aware of the incident, for he took to the Herald to mock Campbell for portraying himself as having been persecuted for righteousness' sake. "The Rev. James Robinson's [sic] proceedings are entirely indefensible; but a week in Glasgow Jail is no undeserved retribution in part for Mr. A. Campbell's iniquitous onslaughts upon reputation and character on this Western verge 'of the dark blue sea'" (Herald of the Future Age, vol. 4 [1848]: 249; the issue is printed as vol. 5 but this seems to have been a typographical error.)
  • 16 The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, vol. 2 (1852). I am following an electronic version of this volume that is not paginated; the passage occurs on page 999 of the PDF.
  • 17 "And therefore he who violates Law, by depriving or striving to deprive his fellow-citizen of his slaves, or of any property to which the Law recognizes his right cannot be a christian. He incurs not only the penalty of the Law, but also the ban of the gospel: for in direct connection with the duties of slaves, the apostle declares—'If any man teach otherwise and consent not to wholesome words, even the word of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing but doting about questions, and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings etc., 1 Tim. iv. 3 [sic]. Thus prophetically has the 'Holy Spirit' depicted modern Abolitionists and their fruits." (The Herald of the Future Age, vol. 3 [1846]: 13).
  • 18 The term is used repeatedly in Thomas' discussion of abolitionism in the 1860 volume of the Herald (pp. 134, 200, 204). In one instance, he writes, "What shall be said of the Christian that is straining with indignation to the bursting of his carcase at the oppression of slaves two thousand or more miles remote, while he is himself oppressing the weak and defenceless at his door! If this be not straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel, we know not what is" (p. 134). It is not clear in what sense Thomas believes northern abolitionists to be guilty of "oppressing the weak and defenceless at his door." If Thomas means that blacks and other marginalised groups were also treated unjustly in the north, he had a valid point, but in that case he ought to have advocated for consistent social justice, rather than abandoning the cause altogether.
  • 19 Concerning the strategies used by the Devil (the Old Man of the Flesh), Thomas writes, "He knew that man was naturally prone to excess in all things; especially in the exercise of his moral sentiments; and that, in obedience to this propensity, he would strain out a gnat, and swallow camels by the herd. Having to work therefore upon a creature thus perverse, he set him to straining out of his cup a multitude of gnats called 'conscientious scruples.' He occupied his time, strength, and energies upon this tedious and interminable conjuration, so that he had no leisure for the weightier matters of the law. He disturbed his 'conscientiousness' about circumcision; how the dead are raised up; what kind of a body they come with; are they raised at all; the teachings of science and philosophy upon these points; this meat should not be eaten; that drink should be tetotally abstained from; the day of passover, and of the new moon, and sabbath days being kept holy; the worshipping of angels; voluntary humility; leavened bread; decoction of raisins; tobacco; abolitionism; conversion of the antipodes; and so forth, and so forth, without end." (The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, vol. 10 [1860]: 134.) Again, he praises the brethren of Evansville, Indiana, for being "uncompounded with porkism, vegetarianism, antitobaccoism, unleavened-breadism, decoction-of-raisinism, phrenosciolism, abolitionism, tetotalism, and a multitude of other foolishisms poured out from the teeming brains of the fanatical and hypocritical infidels of northerndom." (op. cit., 200.)
  • 20 The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, vol. 7 (1857): 247.
  • 21 On the accusation, Thomas comments, "Of course this was a wanton and gratuitous falsehood... We neither own, hold, nor drive slaves, black, white, or grey... At the same time, we are not an abolitionist, whose political fanaticism and gnat-straining hypocrisy, which are all based upon the infidel speculations of the fleshly mind, we utterly despise" (The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, vol. 10 [1860]: 203-204). Decades earlier, in an 1840 letter to a friend in England, James Wallis, Thomas wrote, "I derived pecuniary supplies principally out of the surplus remaining after the expenses of printing were defrayed; out of the trifle I paid the slave-owner for the labor of his slaves, whom I hired to work my farm, and purchased sugar, coffee, clothes, etc." (quoted in John W. Lea, The Life and Writings of Dr. Thomas [Philadelphia: The Faith Publishing Co., 1915], 111).
  • 22 The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, vol. 10 (1860): 203-205.
  • 23 The practice of enslaving fellow Israelites was far more restricted than that of enslaving foreigners.
  • 24 1 Peter 2:18 emphasises that the slave must be obedient even to an unjust master.
  • 25 The notion of the dignity of human life does not follow from any one text (though Gen. 1:26-27 is obviously of great importance), and is a highly abstract notion whose moral implications are not immediately obvious in Scripture. The texts that are most relevant to the dignified status of slaves specifically are 1 Cor. 7:22, Gal. 3:28, and Col. 3:11. Yet, in none of these texts does Paul make the inference that slaves should be emancipated, and in 1 Cor. 7:21-24 he explicitly resists making the move from equality before God to emancipation, though he allows that for a slave to acquire freedom could be a positive outcome. Other texts speak of freedom over against slavery as the ideal, but in a spiritual sense without overt implications for the social institution of slavery (see, e.g., John 15:15, Gal. 4:1-9, 5:1).
  • 26 Thomas' belief in the inferiority of the black race was also a factor, and his understanding of the Bible seems to have played a role here as well. It was widely believed in the 19th century that subjugation of black Africans by Europeans was a fulfilment of the curse passed on Canaan in Genesis 9:25-27, and thus biblically justified. I have not found a place in Thomas' writings where he makes this claim explicitly, but his description of black Africans as "the children of Ham" (The Herald of the Future Age, vol. 2 (1845/46): 124) may allude to it.

Sunday, 27 September 2020

Christadelphians, Politics, and the Common Good



This article offers critical analysis of Christadelphian moral teaching as it pertains to social justice. From the outset I want to make clear that I am not criticising the moral character of Christadelphians. My own experience suggests that most Christadelphians are upstanding, kind-hearted people. There are many Christadelphians active in humanitarian work around the world,1 and other evidences of integrity and virtue in the Christadelphian community.2 Thus, this article does not stake a claim to any moral high ground vis-à-vis Christadelphians. Rather, its focus is on certain points of moral theology.

I say "certain points" because I am not claiming that Christadelphian moral teaching is devoid of truth or value; far from it. If one compares Christadelphian moral teaching with that of wider Christianity, or of the Catholic Church (to which I am now committed), the commonality far outweighs the differences. The existence of objective moral values and the possibility of discerning right from wrong, both instinctively (through the divine gift of conscience) and via divine revelation, are assumed on all sides. Moreover, all would agree, following on the teachings of the Torah as expounded by Jesus, that the foundation of Christian morality is love—love of God and love of one's neighbour as oneself (Mark 12:29-31; Rom. 13:9-10; Gal. 5:14; Jas 2:8). All would agree that the Ten Commandments normatively capture the most fundamental obligations of love of God and neighbour.


If one were to ask, "What distinguishes Christadelphian moral teaching from wider Christian moral teaching?", the most obvious answer would be to list certain activities that most other Christians are comfortable participating in but that Christadelphians eschew, such as:
  • Political activities (including voting and running for political office)
  • Serving in law enforcement
  • Serving in the military
  • Jury duty
  • Bringing a lawsuit (and practicing law, especially criminal law)
  • Taking an oath of allegiance
  • Industrial action as part of a trade union3
  • Participation in public demonstrations4
Most of these activities are explicitly prohibited in the Statement of Faith used by the majority of Christadelphian ecclesias.5 What the above activities have in common is that most of them involve the individual's obligations toward, and influence on, the State and its laws and policies. Thus, to understand why Christadelphians eschew these activities, we must understand Christadelphian teaching about the believer and the State.


A fundamental premise of Christadelphian teaching on this subject is that believers are "aliens and sojourners" (1 Pet. 2:11), "strangers and aliens on earth" (Heb. 11:13). "Their minds are occupied with earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ" (Phil. 3:19-20). Our gaze is fixed on the world to come, not on this world that is "passing away" (1 Cor. 7:31).6 As a Catholic, I affirm these ideas as heartily as I did as a Christadelphian.

Once the "stranger-and-pilgrim" concept is accepted, the logical next question is, "How should believers conduct themselves in relation to the present State and its laws?" Christadelphians point to clear biblical injunctions that believers are obliged to respect the State's authority, obey its laws, and pay taxes to it (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:13-17). As our Lord memorably put it, we are to render to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's (Mark 12:17). However, our submission to the State and obedience to its laws are not absolute. Christ's disciples are, as Christadelphian writer Jim Cowie states, to meet the obligations imposed by earthly citizenship "except where these contravene the principles and demands of their heavenly citizenship."7 In the words of the apostles, when the laws and orders of human authorities conflict with the commandments of God, "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). So far, Christadelphian and Catholic are in full agreement.

The point of divergence lies in whether the aforementioned activities (voting and political action, police service, military service, jury duty, litigation, etc.) are consistent with the believer's alien status in this world. Do such activities fall under "rendering to Caesar," or do they violate our allegiance to God? Christadelphians take the latter view. Believers must not try to bring about political or social change (e.g., by voting or participating in demonstrations).
The disciple's view is much wider than the panorama of his own time or the circumstances of his own life. He does not regard himself as having the right to seek political change or to agitate for social 'justice.' Such right has not been given to him by his Master.8
As an alien in this world, the disciple "lives in the country, but has no part in its affairs."9 Our alien status "compells [sic] us to stand apart from the society in which we live, and avoid involvement in its practises [sic] and organisations."10

Contrasting what Christadelphians regard as acceptable vs. unacceptable ways of rendering to Caesar, Cowie states:
we are required to pay taxes to the state... but cannot give an oath of allegiance to serve it. We are required to obey the laws of the state... but cannot play a part in enforcing them. We are commanded to honour the king or rulers of the state... but cannot fight to preserve their rule. We are to respect and obey the powers that be... but cannot become involved in voting them in or out of office.11

In what follows, I offer a counterargument to the above idea that believers' status as aliens and heavenly allegiance precludes them from seeking to enact change by political or legal means. I will not focus on the more specific (and thornier) issue of military service here,12 but broadly on political and legal activities.13

We have already mentioned our Lord's fundamental principle guiding the disciple's relations with the State: "Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God" (Mark 12:17). Strictly speaking, this is a false dichotomy: everything belongs to God, including Caesar! However, the unstated qualification is that God has granted Caesar a certain domain of legitimate authority (cf. John 19:11). Why has God done so? It is not merely that God is permitting evildoers to have the upper hand until the end of this age. Paul makes it clear in Romans 13:1-4 that the State's authority has been established by God and is a servant of God with a divinely appointed ministry, namely to preserve and promote the common good.

With this in mind, let us return to an even more fundamental moral truth, also stated by Paul in the same context: that the commandment that sums up all others is "Love your neighbour as yourself" (Rom. 13:8-10). This "second great commandment" (Matt. 22:39) raises two further questions: what is love, and who is my neighbour? Paul describes love's characteristics in 1 Corinthians 13 without giving a definition. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, following St. Thomas Aquinas, states that "To love is to will the good of another" (Article 1766). Some such definition is implied by the commandment to love neighbour as self. Each person innately wills and seeks his/her own good; we are asked to extend this goodwill to others (cf. Matt. 7:12).

It was in response to the question, "Who is my neighbour?" that Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). The story challenged the questioner's assumptions by depicting a hated Samaritan as the benefactor of the imperiled Jew. Jesus closed by turning the question on its head: not who is my neighbour but who was a neighbour to the man in distress? Thus, we should not be asking where our social obligations stop, but how far we can extend the love God has shown us. The implication is clear: my social obligations extend to everyone, friend or foe, stranger or brother.

I expect that most Christadelphian readers will agree with everything in the last three paragraphs. Here then comes the crucial question. When we look at our community or society—whether local, national, or global—what do we see? If we have grasped Jesus' parable, we should see neighbours by the thousands, millions, and billions. We should see humans made in the image of God, with inherent dignity and worth equal to our own. Consequently, we should discern a neighbourly duty to love everyone in our society. This entails actively seeking the good of everyone. How can one individual possibly do this? The answer is, we can fulfil our neighbourly duty to love everyone by working for the common good, as far as we are able.

How do we do that? Every disciple should seek to use his/her profession to change the world for the better insofar as s/he is able. A teacher educates and inspires young people so that they will grow into good citizens. A truck driver helps to keep society fed and clothed by the efficient movement of goods. And what about a police officer or a lawyer? What about a voter or a demonstrator? We have already noted that the State has been established by God for the purpose of promoting and protecting the common good. Thus, by contributing to the effectiveness of the State and its laws, we are contributing to the common good, and fulfilling the second great commandment that sums up the law of God!

A democracy is a form of government that depends on the diligent and conscientious participation of citizens. A democratic State cannot function without our voices and our votes any more than it can function without our taxes. Paul says that payment of taxes is obligatory for believers, because it enables the State to fulfill its God-given ministry (Rom. 13:6). For believers who are citizens of a democratic country, voting is obligatory for the same reason. There is no question that casting a vote—or any other political activity, such as peaceful demonstration against some social injustice—contributes to the common good when done conscientiously. The same is true of litigation.14 If I neglect to do what I know is good, it is sin (Jas 4:17).

The Christian's heavenly citizenship and sojourner status does not require him/her to stand apart from society. Such a position tends toward indifference to the welfare of our neighbours.15 When believers vote or otherwise participate in affairs of law and State, they are not declaring that their kingdom is of this world, nor naïvely believing that some Christian utopia is achievable in the present age. Rather, they are seeking to shine the light of God's goodness into every dark corner of this world and its misery. To stand aloof from such matters is to hide that light under a bushel (Matt. 5:14-15).16



Another commonly cited Christadelphian reason for not voting is that our vote might go against God's will. Jim Luke makes the argument thus:
With issues such as education, the economy, the family, indigenous and foreign affairs, water, global warming etc., about which we may well have an opinion and preference, we must not forget that these matters belong to the governments of this day and that we are 'strangers and pilgrims' awaiting the coming of the Lord... So rather than becoming anxious about the outcome, we can rest in the knowledge that the Father is in control and that His will will be done. So whoever becomes prime minister and whatever party is voted into power, we will witness God's will being done. We must remain detached from the election and not vote, for we may place our weight behind someone whom God has not chosen if we do.17
This argument reflects a faulty understanding of God's will. Consider the hypothetical scenario of a democratic election featuring two candidates, A (who is clearly good) and B (who is clearly evil). First, I do not know which candidate (if any) God has chosen. If I vote for A, motivated by love of neighbour (seeking the common good), my vote is in accordance with the antecedent will of God, and I do well.18 If the consequent will of God is that candidate B wins, I am still blameless, and my vote for A has not frustrated God's plan. If I suspect that God's consequent will is for B to win, and I therefore vote for B, I have fallen into the error of "doing evil that good may come of it" (Rom. 3:8). If I refrain from voting, this decision still impacts the election (voter turnout swings elections!), and I am neglecting to promote the good and oppose the evil, which is sin (Jas 4:17). Of course, in reality the voter's choice is often murkier than good vs. evil, but the principle is still the same: if we vote according to conscience after due diligence, we do well.

Furthermore, in what area of life besides politics would we consider it rational to do nothing lest we might go against God? Suppose your child comes down with some disease. Maybe God wills that the child recover quickly, but maybe God wills that the child suffer greatly or even die. You don't know which it is. Would you therefore refrain from seeking medical treatment, in case this is contrary to the outcome God wills? Is the morally safe option to do nothing but sit back and "witness God's will being done"? Of course not. You would seek the best treatment possible, and even if the child died you would regard yourself as having done the right thing.

The argument "vote not, lest you vote contrary to God's will" essentially boils down to "Do nothing lest you might offend God." This bears resemblance to the attitude of the "lazy servant" in the Parable of the Talents, who buries his talent in the earth out of fear that he might mess up if he exercises the responsibilities entrusted to him by his master (Matt. 25:14-30).


Have I failed to notice what a dirty and acrimonious business politics is, or how the practice of law is more about greed than justice? Isn't it much better just to stay above the fray and leave everything to God? After all, Scripture instructs us not to place our trust in princes (Psalm 146:3). 

Again, it is precisely because politics and law are so often characterised by dishonesty and corruption that Christian witness is needed in these areas. Are lawyers greedy and opportunistic? Show the world what a just lawyer looks like. Are police officers racially biased and trigger-happy? Show the world how to truly protect and serve. It may not result in utopia, but it will make a difference. To eschew politics and law because there are bad politicians and lawyers is no more defensible than to eschew teaching and truck driving because there are bad teachers and truck drivers. Christians should always retain a healthy suspicion of political power, but to simply eschew politics and leave it to others is not the behaviour that best accords with love of all our neighbours near and far.

Voting in an election in no way suggests a lack of faith. Yes, God is finally in control of all things, and the Christian prays for those in authority regardless of who they are (1 Tim. 2:1-2). However, this does not excuse us from exercising the stewardship that God delegates to his creatures. We trust in God for our material needs, but we still work for a living, realising that our livelihood may be the means by which God provides for us. Faith and action are complementary, not contradictory.


  • 1 One can mention Christadelphian charities like Agape in Action, Christadelphian Meal-a-Day, and Williamsburg Christadelphian Foundation, and Christadelphian founders of charities like Marcus McGilvray of WhizzKids United, my good friend and former boss. The passion of Christadelphians in Durban, South Africa for community outreach made a great impression on me.
  • 2 Christadelphians have taken a stand of conscience against military service, sometimes at considerable personal cost. Christadelphians have a special love for the Jewish people, and this has manifested itself in heroic acts such as Christadelphian involvement in the Kindertransport during World War Two, as documented by Christadelphian writer Jason Hensley.
  • 3 This is not disavowed in the Statement of Faith, and there is some diversity of opinion among Christadelphians on the subject, but writings such as C. T. Butler's The Disciple of Christ and Trade Unions come out against it.
  • 4 This is not disavowed in the Statement of Faith, but numerous Christadelphian writers come out against it.
  • 5 See Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith, Doctrines to be Rejected 35-36.
  • 6 "[O]n the day we are baptised we say goodbye to the country of our birth. From that point onward, we are citizens of God's kingdom. No longer is our loyalty to Russia or America or England, but to Jesus our king. In a figure of speech, our position becomes that of aliens—people who live in a country but have a different nationality" (David M. Pearce, Christadelphians and the State). Again, "we are 'strangers and pilgrims' awaiting the coming of the Lord and the establishment of his beneficent reign in which all nations will be blessed, and 'all nations shall call him blessed' (Psa 72:17)" (Jim Luke, Christ and Politics, The Lampstand, 13(5) [2007]).
  • 7 Jim Cowie, Conscientious Objection to Military Service: A Manual Designed to Assist Christadelphian Young People Facing the Prospect of a National Service Call-Up (Hawthorndene, South Australia: Christadelphian Scripture Study Service, 1999), 16.
  • 8 Harry Tennant, Christ and Protest.
  • 9 David M. Pearce, Christadelphians and the State. The full quotation is as follows: "Since we are told by Paul that the government of the country where we live has been set there by God, we cannot take part in revolutions or demonstrations or strikes in an attempt to bring about change. It is important to note that Jesus lived under Roman rule, and suffered with his fellow countrymen from the occupation of his country. Nevertheless, he did nothing to overthrow Roman rule. When Pilate questioned him as to his political status, he insisted that though he was a king, his kingdom did not belong to this world. That is a useful pointer for us – our kingdom is not of this world. It will come, when God is ready. Paul has a similar ruling in the passage we have already looked at : Romans 13 v1,2  ‘Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.’ It is for the same reason Christadelphians are not at liberty to vote in elections to appoint government officers, whether in local elections or national ones. We have to adopt the position of aliens. During an election, a person from another country is not allowed to take part in the voting. Hce lives in the country, but has no part in its affairs."
  • 10 Jim Cowie, Conscientious Objection, 4.
  • 11 Cowie, Conscientious Objection, 16-17.
  • 12 The Catholic Church upholds the "just war theory" developed by the Church Fathers, under which war may be justly waged when all of a narrow set of circumstances are met. Within the context of just war theory, soldiers who "carry out their duty honorably" do "truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2310); thus military service does fall under the moral argument of this article. It should be noted that the Catholic Church also defends the right of conscientious objection: "Public authorities should make equitable provision for those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms; these are nonetheless obliged to serve the human community in some other way" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2311). I am sympathetic to conscientious objection since I do not believe that most wars waged by nations are either just or oriented to the common good of humanity. I believe that conscientious objection to military service makes sense on humanitarian grounds but am unenthused by Cowie's statement that "Our conscientious objection to military service does not spring from natural feelings of revulsion towards war or a sense of humanitarian compassion" (Conscientious Objection, 3).
  • 13 To name a few examples, these might include voting, participating in nonviolent demonstrations, contributing to political discourse, participating in community forums, serving with election oversight organisations, running for political office, practicing law, bringing litigation, or serving on a jury. Although involvement in labour unions and striking does not necessarily involve the State and its laws, the moral argument contained here easily extends to such issues as well.
  • 14 Litigation should not be framed in terms of financial self-interest; litigation can establish a legal precedent that promotes some justice or eradicates an injustice. Think, for instance, of Brown v. Board of Education in the United States. A litigant who sought to avoid any possibility of financial self-interest could always pledge to donate any damages awarded.
  • 15 Cowie, anticipating this, argues that Christadelphians' detachment from politics does not "bespeak a lack of concern for the distressed state of the world and is inhabitants," because the true Christadelphian eagerly anticipates the end of all human suffering after the return of Christ (Conscientious Objection, 19). However, merely hoping for the eventual resolution of the world's problems is inadequate (see Jas 2:15-16).
  • 16 To say this is not to preach a "social gospel" instead of the gospel of salvation. The Church's primary mission is to save souls, but just as Jesus both healed bodies and instructed minds, so his body the Church must attend to both corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
  • 17 Jim Luke, Christ and Politics. Similarly, Cowie: "Could it not be that we may vote for someone whom God wills not to place in power"? (Conscientious Objection, 19).
  • 18 Theologians distinguish between the antecedent and consequent will of God. As part of his antecedent will, God wills that all humans be saved (1 Tim. 2:4), but this does not mean that all are saved, because this outcome may conflict with other realities willed by God, such as free will. Thus, God's consequent will may be that not all humans are saved. This does not, however, mean that we should refrain from evangelising, in case someone is converted whom God does not intend to save! Coming to politics, God's antecedent will is surely that governments rule justly. In his consequent will, God permits wicked rulers like Pontius Pilate and Hitler, perhaps in order to accomplish some higher purpose (e.g., the atoning death of Jesus), and/or as an act of judgment that respects the free will of the evildoers who put them in power.

Monday, 7 September 2020

Unitarians and the Offering of Prayer to Jesus

Adorantist and Non-Adorantist Christologies in Unitarianism

The other day I came across a discussion on a Christadelphian Facebook page on the topic of praying to Jesus. Christadelphian participants alternatively expressed strong support and strong opposition to this practice. In fact, the debate is not a new one, but goes back to the dawn of Unitarianism in 16th-century Europe. Among the Unitarian congregations of Poland and Transylvania, two distinct positions emerged that are known to historians as adorantism and non-adorantism.1 The adorantists, such as Marcin Czechowic, Fausto Sozzini (Faustus Socinus), and Giorgio Biandrata, believed that it was appropriate to worship, adore, and pray to Christ. The non-adorantists, such as Jacobus Palaeologus, Ferenc Dávid, and György Enyedi, believed that this was wrong, since Jesus is not God and God's majesty is not shared with another. Dávid argued that prayer to worship of Christ set one on the slippery slope to the Papist polytheism (as he saw it) that had necessitated the Reformation, while Sozzini saw non-adorantism as a slippery slope to Epicureanism and atheism. Sozzini spent months in 1578-79 trying to persuade Dávid to change his mind, and after he failed, he advised his followers to have nothing to do with Dávid. Shortly thereafter (at whose behest is not clear), Dávid was charged with having violated a law against religious innovation, and thrown in prison, where he died. The non-adorantists were gradually suppressed and had vanished from Transylvania by 1638, while the (adorantist) Unitarian church in Transylvania survives up to the present day. 

As for Christadelphians (the sect to which I formerly belonged), no clear position has been taken on this issue,2 but my experience suggests a hybrid liturgical practice: non-adorantism in prayer and adorantism in song!3 Public prayers—which are spontaneous as opposed to formulaic—typically end with words such as "in Jesus' name, Amen" or "through Christ we pray, Amen," but it would be atypical to address a public prayer to Christ, and doing so would ignite controversy in many ecclesias. On the other hand, Christadelphian hymn books contain numerous hymns addressed to Christ, and these are sung without controversy.

In Trinitarian ecclesiastical traditions, the question of whether or not it is appropriate to pray to Jesus does not arise. The practice is universal. In Evangelical circles, the "sinner's prayer" that is believed to secure salvation takes various forms, but the addressee is usually Christ. In Roman Catholic liturgy, prayers to Christ are recited at every Mass.4 The appropriateness of praying to Jesus is an obvious corollary of his deity. The historical relationship between belief in Jesus' deity and practices of worshiping/praying to Jesus is a matter of debate among scholars of earliest Christianity.5

In Unitarian circles, arguments against praying to Christ (for non-adorantism) may emphasise the implications of the first of the Ten Commandments, read against the backdrop of Unitarian monotheism.6 Whatever and whomever is not God cannot be adored, worshipped, or addressed as God is addressed; otherwise the uniqueness of God's deity is compromised. Non-adorantist Unitarians allow for Jesus' role as heavenly high priest and mediator, but stress that our prayers to God are offered through Christ but not to him. Dr. John Thomas, the founder of Christadelphians, offered an argument against prayer to Christ that relied more on scriptural precedent. For instance, Christ functions as our high priest, so it is as unsuitable for us to pray to Christ as for the Israelites of old to pray to Aaron.7

Unitarian arguments for praying to Christ (for adorantism) typically stress the relational aspect of Christ's role in the ecclesia and in the life of the believer. If Jesus Christ is our Lord, Saviour, and Advocate, if he is alive and in heaven, how can we love and serve him without communicating with him? Moreover, if Jesus Christ is the Son of God, in a perfect union of love with the Father, how could God feel threatened or slighted by prayer or worship being directed to Jesus? When we glorify Christ do we not in so doing glorify the Father? As one Unitarian apologetic work states, 
It is our contention that any Christian can ask the Lord Jesus to do for him anything that would help him do the works that Jesus did... You might look at it as having both a Father and a 'big brother'... whenever one glorifies, exalts, confesses, looks to and calls upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, it is God who ultimately gets the glory.8
Adjudicating the Adorantist Controversy

From a Catholic perspective, there are some good and true instincts behind both the non-adorantist and adorantist positions. Non-adorantists rightly highlight the absolute uniqueness of God over against all other reality, and the implications of this uniqueness for worship and prayer. Honour and glory must be given in proportion to the nature and merits of the recipient; otherwise it is mere flattery. In Paul's words, "Honour to whom honour is due" (Rom. 13:7). Who would liken the reflected brilliance of the moon to the radiated brilliance of the sun? Or, to borrow an analogy from the Book of Hebrews, the builder of a house deserves more honour than the house.9 If Christ is merely the foremost creature of God, clear distinctions would have to be maintained between the honour ascribed to Christ and that ascribed to God. Otherwise, it is not just a question of God feeling threatened or slighted as though God were petty and insecure. It is rather a question of denying the nature of reality, of blurring the absolute distinction between Creator and creature. Moreover, if the line between "worthy of worship, adoration, and prayer" does not pass through the infinitely large gap between God and his foremost creature, why should it pass between the foremost creature and another wonderful creature (e.g., an archangel)? Thus, non-adorantists are right: there is a real danger that adorantist Unitarian Christology could devolve into idolatry.

On the other hand, adorantists rightly emphasise the relational intimacy between God and Christ and between Christ and his disciples. If believers in Christ on earth communicate with one another to mutual edification, how much more fruitful might communication between disciple and Master be? (In fact, this analogy is fundamental to the Catholic practice of offering prayers and veneration—not worship—to angels and saints.10 Thus, adorantists are right that deity is not a requirement for being prayed to. We can pray to Christ qua our heavenly and yet human high priest, mediator, intercessor, and advocate. To rule out all prayer to Christ as dangerous and unprofitable on the grounds of his not being God would be unjustified, and thus adorantists have a valid point.

To draw together the dialectic, under a Unitarian worldview it seems that adoration and prayer offered to Christ is justifiable in light of his high and heavenly office, great virtue, and closeness to God. At the same time, praise and prayer to Christ must be carefully qualified so as not to blur the ontological distinction between creature and Creator. It must always be clear that the honour given to Christ is not of the same character and quality as that given to God. Prayers offered to Christ are brought in his capacity as mediator in the hopes that he will then intercede with God; prayer to Christ is not an end in itself. The situation is analogous to how Catholics view the angels and saints versus the Trinity. Catholics venerate Mary but do not worship Mary; Catholics pray to angels and saints as intercessors but not as sovereigns who could grant their petitions outright. In short, praise, honour, and petition offered by Unitarians to Christ is not finally offered to Christ but only through Christ to God.

A Trinitarian Evaluation in the Light of the New Testament

The orthodox view of God and Christ that has been normative among Christians for well over sixteen centuries, since the great ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries, holds that Christ is by nature both God and man. Because Christ is a human high priest and mediator, much of what adorantist Unitarians believe and practice can be affirmed by Trinitarians. We can follow Jesus' example by praying to the Father (for instance, using the words of the Lord's Prayer). We can offer prayers to the Father through Christ as mediator and intercessor. Moreover, even in his deity, Christ is a Son whose identity derives from the Father: "born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made."11 By virtue of their shared nature and unity with the Holy Spirit in perfect love, all honour and glory given to Christ does bring honour and glory to God the Father.

However, here is the key distinction: from a Trinitarian perspective, prayer, worship, and adoration offered to Christ is also an end in itself. That is, honour given to Christ does not leave Christ to attach to the Father. It attaches to the Trinity because of their perfect unity. For this reason, Trinitarians can praise, worship, and pray to Christ without any limitation or qualification. In the fullest possible sense, they can "honour the Son just as they honour the Father" (John 5:23). In light of what we observed earlier about honour being necessarily proportional to merit, we cannot say that we honour the Son only because we want to honour the Father and the Father commands us to do so. An imperative to honour the Son just as we honour the Father is only possible if the Son is worthy of that honour. The true God does not ask us to honour the Son above his due, that is, to flatter him.

If we return specifically to the issue of prayer, we find that there is considerable precedent in the New Testament for praying to Jesus. As discussed above, the bare notion of praying to Jesus as heavenly human intercessor is consistent with both Unitarian and Trinitarian Christologies. However, if we look closely at the New Testament precedents for praying to Jesus, we find that not all of them fall into the category of asking him to intercede with the Father. Jesus' mediatorial role in the context of prayer is certainly in view in passages such as 1 Timothy 2:5, Hebrews 4:14-15, and 1 John 2:1. However, there are numerous instances where it is clear that Jesus, when addressed in prayer, is not merely a conduit to the Father's throne but is himself being petitioned to answer the prayer. Both aspects of Jesus' role in prayer are on display in John 14:14 and 16:23. In the latter text, Jesus promises his disciples, "Whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you." Here Jesus is the intermediary whose name grants access to the Father. In the former text, however, the best reading is probably, "If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it."12 

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is addressed with pleas for salvation from death. During a violent storm at sea, the disciples "came and woke him, saying, 'Lord, save us! We are perishing!'" (Matt. 8:25). When Peter attempted to walk on water and then began to sink, "he cried out, 'Lord, save me!'" (Matt. 8:30). Christadelphian founder John Thomas dismissed such "petitions to Jesus for temporal favors in the days of his sin-flesh" as irrelevant to the issue of praying to Christ.13 However, the Gospel narratives are not merely journalistic, biographical accounts; they are theological compositions intended to convey heavenly realities. These two stylised narratives both lead to profound questions or pronouncements about Jesus' identity. Many thousands of sermons or exhortations have been based on them down the ages, and most of these have not focused on the perils of sea voyages, but have rightly seen in the cry, "Lord, save me!" the universal cry for deliverance from human weakness, from sin and death. Besides this, no biblically literate Jew could have failed to connect these petitions with the cries to the Lord for salvation that saturate the Book of Psalms.14 In a similar "petition for a temporal favour" in Luke 5:12, a leper addresses Jesus as Lord. Remarkably, both his "prayer" and Jesus' response operate on the premise that the outcome hinges on what Jesus wills.

In Acts 1:24 the disciples pray, "You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which of these two you have chosen..." While the author has left the addressee ambiguous—itself a significant point—the wider context suggests that it is Christ.15 The prayers of the dying Stephen unambiguously identify the "Lord" he addresses as "Jesus" (Acts 7:59-60). These prayers, like that in 1:24-25, display no intercessory character but directly petition Jesus to exercise the lofty prerogatives of receiving the spirit of the dying disciple and forgiving sin.

The letters of Paul characterise Christians as "those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours" (1 Cor. 1:2) and declare that salvation is predicated on confessing "that Jesus is Lord," the "Lord of all, enriching all who call upon him" (Rom. 10:9-12). To justify this scripturally, he quotes from Joel 3:5: "For 'everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved'" (Rom. 10:13). Yet "calling on the name of the Lord" is a stereotypical Old Testament expression for praying to the one God of Israel. Indeed, the kyrios ("Lord") of Paul's quotation from Joel 3:5 translates the divine name YHWH from the Hebrew. Unmistakably, Paul places prayer to Jesus in the same category as prayer to God. Paul's letters also provide evidence that liturgical prayers to Jesus date back to the earliest days of the church. In 1 Cor. 16:22, he writes, "Marana tha." This transliterated Aramaic prayer means, "Come, Lord." That Paul could assume the Greek-speaking, Gentile congregation in Corinth would understand him probably indicates that he had handed on to his Gentile converts a piece of the earliest Jewish Christian liturgy.16 In 2 Corinthians 12:8-10, Paul describes having "begged the Lord" thrice to remove some difficulty in his life. Paul's description of the answer he received makes it clear that "the Lord" here is Christ. And the text depicts Christ as answering the prayer (albeit not in the way Paul hoped).

We could write more of doxologies addressed to Christ in the epistles and in Revelation,17 or of a prayer in the psalms addressed to God that Hebrews says is addressed to Christ.18 We could also write much on the biblical idea that prayers—even those offered to Christ—are analogous to the incense offerings to God prescribed in the Torah (Rev. 5:8-14; cf. Ps. 141:2; Ex. 30:1-10, 34-38). However, enough has been written to accomplish our main aim: to show that New Testament witness concerning prayers offered to Christ cannot be explained in terms of the role of priestly human intercessor alone. Prayers are addressed to Christ that Christ himself answers.

Conlusion

The best resolution, it seems, to the adorantist/non-adorantist dilemma among Unitarians is to embrace the fullness of Christian orthodoxy. The doctrine of the Trinity embraces what is good in both horns of this dilemma. On one hand, God's unique majesty and sovereignty cannot be compromised or diluted in favour of a creature. On the other, the instinctive Christian practice of worshipping and praying to Jesus—one that has persisted from the apostles' days in Jerusalem down to the present—is of God, and cannot be toned down, restrained, or qualified. Only orthodoxy truly upholds this great "Both/And."

  • 1 For a brief history of this controversy, on which this paragraph is based, see Mihály Balázs, "Antitrinitarianism," in A Companion to the Reformation in Central Europe (ed. Howard Louthan and Graeme Murdock; Leiden: Brill, 2015), 172-194.
  • 2 As I've discussed elsewhere, there is arguably no such thing as an official doctrinal stance among Christadelphians, because of their lack of any centralised or representative decision-making structure outside the local ecclesia. The closest thing one can get to official doctrinal positions are those laid out in statements of faith that are used widely in the sect, such as the Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith. This statement says nothing for or against praying to or worshipping Christ.
  • 3 This statement reflects my own quarter century of experience of Christadelphian public worship (spanning several countries, fellowships, and degrees of formality).
  • 4 These include the Kyrie ("Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy"), the Gloria (addressed to the Father and the Son), the Mysterium Fidei (in all three of its forms), the Rite of Peace, and the Agnus Dei.
  • 5 For an overview of different views, see chapter 1 of Larry W. Hurtado, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).
  • 6 As in the arguments of Palaeologus, referred to above.
  • 7 Thomas addresses the matter in answer to a reader's question, "Is Prayer to Christ Scriptural?" The argument rests more on scriptural precedents than theological principles; Thomas seeks to show that "the scriptural procedure" consists of praying to the Father in the name of Jesus. To the extent that it is theological, the argument focuses less on the uniqueness of God's nature and prerogatives than on Christ's role in the drama of salvation, which is that of Elder Brother (an example to follow) and priestly mediator. He is our example, so we pray to the Father because he did. He is our mediator, so we pray to the Father through him. See The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, December 1855, pp. 282-83 (quoted here but misattributed to April 1855).
  • 8 Mark H. Graeser, John A. Lynn, and John W. Schoenheit, One God & One Lord: Reconsidering the Cornerstone of the Christian Faith (3rd ed.; Indianapolis: Christian Educational Services, 2003), 290-92.
  • 9 See Heb. 3:3. Of course, in Hebrews the analogy is used to infer the divine Christ's superiority to Moses.
  • 10 If the "communion of the saints"—as the Apostles' Creed calls it—cannot be broken by any earthly power, either by death or height (Rom. 8:38), then surely communion can exist between believers on earth and the holy ones (angelic or human) in heaven. (Of course, Christadelphian readers might object to the notion of human saints in heaven, but would surely allow for the presence of at least Enoch and Elijah there.) Communion requires communication; hence prayers to the angels and saints.
  • 11 English translation of the Nicene Creed used in the Roman rite of the Mass.
  • 12 "Either the unusual collocation, 'ask me in my name,' or a desire to avoid contradiction with 16.23 seems to have prompted (a) the omission of με in a variety of witnesses... or (b) its replacement with τὸν πατέρα... The word με is adequately supported... and seems to be appropriate in view of its correlation with ἐγώ later in the verse" (Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament [2nd ed.; Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994], 208). The commentary classifies this reading "B," meaning almost certain.
  • 13 op. cit., 282.
  • 14 For a few examples, see Psalm 3:8; 6:5; 7:2; 55:17; 106:4; 106:47; 107:13; 109:26; 116:4.
  • 15 The disciples have addressed Christ as "Lord" in 1:6 and 1:21 refers to the "Lord Jesus"; God is not referred to as "the Lord" unambiguously until two OT quotations in 2:25 and 2:34. Accounts of Saul's conversion and other visionary experiences involving Stephen, Ananias, and Paul have persons addressing Jesus directly as "Lord." Only in the prayer of Acts 4:24-30 is God unambiguously addressed as "Lord."
  • 16 The Greek translated form of the prayer occurs in Rev. 22:20 ("Come, Lord Jesus"), reinforcing the idea that this is a liturgical form.
  • 17 E.g., 2 Pet. 3:18; Rev. 1:5-6; 5:12.
  • 18 Heb. 1:10-12 cp. Ps. 102:25-27.