dianoigo blog

Monday 27 December 2021

Baconianism and the Intellectual Origins of the Christadelphian Movement

One cannot properly evaluate a religious movement without understanding its intellectual pedigree. The purpose of this article is to delve into a philosophical and hermeneutical school of thought called Baconianism that rose to prominence in early 19th-century America—especially among restorationists such as Alexander Campbell—and undoubtedly influenced John Thomas, founder of the Christadelphians. At a descriptive level this will hopefully contribute to a better understanding of Christadelphian origins (for Christadelphians and anyone else interested in the movement). At a prescriptive level, the article also offers a critique of Baconianism.

Restorationism was a religious ideal that rose to prominence in the United States in the first half of the 19th century. Although the ideal took many forms, one of the most influential was that of the Stone-Campbell Movement. I have written on this movement elsewhere, but briefly, it was founded by a Scottish Presbyterian minister, Thomas Campbell (1763-1854), and his son Alexander (1788-1866). The two other most influential leaders in the movement were Barton W. Stone (whose movement merged with the Campbells') and Walter Scott. This movement eventually gave rise to several denominations or groups that still exist today, including the Disciples of Christ, Christian churches, Church of Christ, and Christadelphians (whose founder, John Thomas, broke with Campbell and established his own sect in the late 1840s).

The key premises of the "restoration" spearheaded by Alexander Campbell were that (a) the Catholic Church and the Protestant denominations of the day were all apostate, and (b) the antidote was to restore and spread what Campbell called the "ancient gospel and order of things," by attending to the plain truths of the Bible. This would "result in the unity of Christians and the conversion of the world."1

The focus of this article is on the method by which Campbell and his fellow restorationists sought to arrive at true doctrine. This has been called the Baconian hermeneutical2 method because of its conscious indebtedness to Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), an English lawyer and philosopher who is regarded as the father of the scientific method. Before we describe the Baconian theological method, however, we need to provide background on Bacon's philosophy.

Bacon's main contributions on natural philosophy—what might today be called the philosophy of science—came toward the end of his life. He was a kind of scientific restorationist, in that he called for a "Great Instauration," which aimed at a "total reconstruction of the sciences, arts, and all human knowledge, raised upon the proper foundations."3 This restoration was necessitated by deficiencies in the level of knowledge available in his day, in which words often counted more than facts, and superstition and error could easily be perpetuated. If only people used the right methods, Bacon believed, nature could be understood and controlled much better.

Bacon's work Novum Organum was intended to supplant Aristotle's Organum, which represented the traditional account of reasoning in science. The main features of Bacon's method were that it was inductive and experimental.4 It was inductive in the sense that it entailed inferring a general conclusion from particular facts, and experimental in the sense that these facts were to be ascertained from real, practical, systematic experiments. Indeed, Bacon called for new "experimental histories" to be written on almost every area of science as he understood it, creating catalogues of observed phenomena that could then serve as a basis for inductive reasoning. These histories had to be created anew because, in Bacon's judgment, experiments had been undertaken haphazardly in the past, without a view to inducing general principles.

Scottish Common Sense Realism was a philosophy founded by Thomas Reid (1710-1796), a Presbyterian minister and professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow University, where both Thomas and Alexander Campbell studied.5 As Foster explains,
Central to this philosophy was the belief that the data collected by the human senses, when confirmed by the testimony of others, was a reliable source of knowledge. Against the skeptical philosophy of David Hume, Reid insisted that the things humans perceive are the real external objects themselves, not images created by the mind. Through a careful, slow, painstaking process of experimentation and observation, of collecting data and inducing patterns, one could arrive at the facts—theoretically about anything.6
Reid's philosophy revitalised both realism and the inductive method of reasoning. It entailed a radically optimistic view of the observer's objectivity and a favourable view of the inductive approach to learning and science championed by Sir Francis Bacon.7 Baconianism, as articulated by the Scottish Common Sense Philosophy (SCSP), entailed a scrupulous empiricism grounded in confidence in the senses, and inductive control of generalisations by constant reference to "facts".8 As a corollary, "Abstract concepts not immediately forged from observed data have no place in scientific explanation."9

It would be difficult to overstate the influence of SCSP, and Baconianism in particular, on some parts of American Protestantism during the antebellum period.10  As Noll writes,
the Common Sense philosophy has been the sole intellectual tradition for some evangelicals... for these evangelicals most of the functions normally fulfilled by a world view—habits of inquiry, assumptions about the construction and accessibility of truth, attitudes toward certainty and self-reflection—are the product almost exclusively of the Common Sense tradition.11
Allen concurs:
For significant sectors of American Protestantism during this period, Baconianism was held up as the true method for study of both the natural world and the Bible.12

Noll notes that, "As a general rule, when a group professes to live by 'no creed but the Bible,' it is a good indication that it relies consistently, if not necessarily self-consciously, on the Common Sense tradition."13 And this was one of Alexander Campbell's most cherished slogans. "Let the Bible be substituted for all human creeds," he wrote;14 and "We choose to speak of Bible things by Bible words."15 Waers argues that Campbell's appropriation of Scottish Common Sense philosophy was one of the major factors in his rejection of certain Reformed doctrines.16 Equally, Campbell was an enthusiastic admirer of Bacon and his inductive method. He grouped Bacon with Locke and Newton as the three great thinkers of modernity,17 and his movement's first higher education institution was named Bacon College.

Bacon's natural philosophy was at the heart of Campbell's reformation movement. While Bacon had sought a scientific restoration, Campbell sought to employ Bacon's methods in a religious restoration. Having outlined "Lord Bacon's philosophy" of science, Campbell declared, "Now all that we want is to carry the same lesson and the same principle to theology."18 As recent Campbell biographer Douglas Foster puts it, "Campbell would come to rely entirely on the Baconian method to arrive at Christian doctrine".19 In Campbell's theological method, the plain testimony of Scripture provided the "facts" (the data set) from which doctrines (generalisations) could be induced.20 In Allen's words,
In order to bring about 'a restoration of the ancient order of things,' systematic theology was to be rejected and religious discussion confined to the 'plain declarations recorded in the Bible'... In the same way that Bacon wanted to abolish the medieval scholastic theories of science and place science upon an inductive basis, so Campbell wanted to abolish the dogmatic creeds and systems of religion and place Christianity upon an inductive basis.21
Allen notes that the most explicit articulation of this Baconian hermeneutic is found in James S. Lamar's 1860 book The Organon of Scripture.22 Lamar was a graduate of Bacon College and his book received a glowing endorsement from the aged Campbell. For Lamar, the conflict of opposing creeds and doctrines in Christianity was due to "the uncertainty of biblical interpretation," which however was not due either to the ambiguity of the Bible or the depravity or incompetence of its interpreters, but to the use of flawed methods of interpretation.23 What is required, therefore, is "the establishment of an all-comprehensive and pervading method" of biblical interpretation (or "hermeneutical science").24 This is none other than the Baconian method, which he proceeds to explain in great detail. Lamar touts the success of the Baconian method as implemented within the Stone-Campbell reformation:
Their movement, in its incipiency, was a grand and determined effort to burst the bonds of ecclesiastical authority, to separate the Bible from its unholy and unnatural alliance with philosophy, to bring it to bear upon the minds and hearts of men responsible for the reception given to it, and to determine its meaning from its own words, without respect to recognized and consecrated dogmata. Their success is known and read of all... Their sturdy and manly blows battered down the walls which shut out the light of scientific truth, at the same time that they forced the corrupters of the faith to retire from the contest, and leave the Bible in the hands of responsible men in the exercise of common sense.25

 5.1. Hints of Indebtedness to Baconianism

John Thomas (1805-71) was a British medical doctor who emigrated to the United States in 1832. Within a few weeks he had taken up with the Campbells' restoration movement and was baptised by one of its leaders, Walter Scott. By 1834, Thomas had become a protégé of Alexander Campbell and launched his own periodical, The Apostolic Advocate. Within a few years, however, Thomas and Campbell fell out over two issues: Thomas' practice of (re-)baptising Baptists who joined the movement, and Thomas' teaching that death annihilates the human person. The two reconciled but soon fell out again, and by the early 1840s Thomas was persona non grata in many of the movement's churches (though he retained some loyal sympathisers, especially in Virginia). Thomas launched a new periodical, Herald of the Future Age, where in 1847 he published a "Confession and Abjuration," renouncing many of his previous beliefs. Now convinced that Campbell's movement was teaching heresy, he had himself re-baptised and began to enthusiastically spread the gospel as he understood it, both in North America and Great Britain. The result was what would (from 1864 onwards) be known as the Christadelphian community. Thomas continued itinerant preaching, editing the Herald (until 1860),26 and writing books and pamphlets until his death in 1871.

At the beginning of his career as a religious writer, Thomas refers to Bacon when outlining his approach to interpreting the Book of Revelation:
Be it observed, however, that there is not a single speculation in the religion or doctrine of Christ. In my investigation, therefore, I have renounced speculation and substituted, according to the suggestion of lord Bacon, the simple narration of historical facts.27
This is a Baconian statement worthy of Campbell, and suggests that Thomas was basically on board with the movement's SCSP-influenced Baconian hermeneutical programme. Further support for this can be found in Thomas' later writings,28 and he nowhere renounces the programme's basic principles of common-sense interpretation and constructing doctrine inductively.

 5.2. De-Emphasis on Baconian (and all other) Hermeneutics

Despite Thomas' apparent acceptance of Baconianism, his writings differ sharply from Campbell's in the degree of importance assigned to the method. For Campbell, the Baconian method of biblical interpretation was the key to the whole reformation, and if implemented consistently would unlock the door of doctrinal unity among Christians. Therefore he discusses the method frequently and in detail. Thomas seems to have adopted Baconianism, but he very rarely mentions it, or the methodology of biblical interpretation in general. Why is this?

At least three reasons (which are not mutually exclusive) may be suggested. First, the beginning of the restoration movement is usually dated to 1809, when Thomas Campbell published his Declaration and Address. By the time John Thomas joined the movement in 1832, its Baconian hermeneutic was well-established and would have been assumed by most of Thomas' subsequent readers. Moreover, if this hermeneutic were self-evident "common sense," there was no need to defend it or theorise about it; one could just get on with practicing it. Hence, Thomas' relative silence on Baconianism could be attributed to his taking the method for granted.

The second reason is a rhetorical one. Consider the following tension in Campbell's writings. On the one hand, he blames the schisms and parties that have abounded since the Reformation on "philosophy" and "opinions," and calls for "human philosophy" to "be thrown overboard into the sea," substituted by "the Bible only, in word and deed, in profession and practice."29 On the other hand, he is clearly operating within a Scottish Common Sense philosophical framework, and acknowledges his debt to Bacon, Locke, and other philosophers.30 Waers suggests that Campbell did not, or was unable to, see Baconianism as a philosophical theory.31 While Campbell may have missed the irony of using Enlightenment-era philosophy to "restore" ancient Christianity, Thomas may have perceived it. To successfully argue that one is a true "Bible-only" Protestant, one must downplay one's indebtedness to any post-biblical philosophy or hermeneutic. Therefore, by straightforwardly identifying his own interpretations with the "common-sense" or "natural" meaning of the Bible, Thomas could present himself as an independent, objective witness to Christian truth.

The third reason stems from Thomas' schism with Campbell and other schisms in the restoration movement. If all were using the same (Baconian) method of interpretation, and yet were arriving at conflicting doctrines, the method itself must be insufficient. That Thomas thought in such terms is evident from his criticism of disparagement of the hermeneutical training of others, including Alexander Campbell. In assailing Bishop Robert Lowth's translation of Isaiah 18, he writes sarcastically of both Lowth and Campbell,
Yet [Lowth] was profoundly skilled in 'hermeneutics,' at least as much so as any 'bible unionists' of our time, who are making so broad their phylacteries in new translationism, and the laws of exegesis! ... [Campbell] is of course well-skilled in all the settled canons of translation and interpretation sanctioned by the Protestant educated world... [but] what obscurity has he not deepened by his hermeneutics? Pshaw! What are 'canons' worth that reduce prophetic writings to a level with 'an old Jewish almanac?' ... A man may be profoundly skilled in hermeneutics, and yet profoundly incompetent to translate and interpret the Scriptures correctly. He is like one who can name his tools, but knows not how to use them.32
Indeed, Thomas elsewhere dismisses the very term "hermeneutics" as part of a campaign of subterfuge! Commenting on the false knowledge mentioned in 1 Timothy 6:20, he states,
The same thing is styled in our day 'theological science,' 'divinity,' 'ethics,' 'hermeneutics,' and so forth; terms invented to amaze the ignorant, and to impress them with the necessity of schools and colleges for the indoctrination of pious youth in the mysteries they learnedly conceal.33
Elsewhere, Thomas cites biblical passages about the need to be child-like, and about God using the foolish things of the world to confound the wise,34 to argue that hermeneutics and philosophy hinder rather than help the theologian. Indeed, he scolds his former mentor Walter Scott for taking too much interest in Bacon:
Though a very amiable gentleman, Mr. Scott has not yet become 'a little child;' and without this, the Great Teacher saith, we 'cannot enter into the kingdom of the heavens.' Mr. Scott must empty himself of his modern reformers, and the jargon of the schools; he must forget Bacon, Locke, and Logic... his brains are bewildered with analytic and synthetic synopsed until he can see no more; this must all be abandoned. A head under the pressure of all this learned lumber is unfit for the study of 'the word.' The heads of babes and sucklings out of whose mouths the Deity perfecteth praise, are not befuddled with such speculative twaddle. Mr. Scott must cease to ape 'the wise and prudent,' and become as a little child. So skilled in analytic, let him analyze the mentality of a child; and then let him synthesize the elements into a proposition, and conform thereto.35
 5.3. A Common Sense Antihermeneutic

If "hermeneutics" and even "logic" ought to be forgotten, it is clear that for Thomas, neither the Baconian method nor any other method is the way to restore the apostolic order. This reading of Thomas' thought seems to be confirmed by the introduction to Elpis Israel—his evangelistic manifesto, first published in 1848. Thomas does provide information about his approach to the Bible, but he does not lay out his hermeneutic, or even admit to having one. Given this, together with his attacks on "hermeneutics" elsewhere, his hermeneutic would be best described as an antimethodology—defined by Wiktionary as "An approach to study or analysis that eschews the usual methodology, or methodologies in general"36—or antihermeneutic. But how does Thomas propose to interpret the Bible if "hermeneutics" are off the table?

Elpis Israel makes clear that, for Thomas, the only way to arrive at religious truth is to know "the true meaning of the Bible."37 However, there is an evil conspiracy at work: "the human mind has developed the organisation of a system of things impiously hostile to the institutions and wisdom of Jehovah"38; its name is "MYSTERY" and it is none other than Catholic and Protestant Christendom. To arrive at biblical truth, therefore, one must 
Cast away to the owls and to the bats the traditions of men, and the prejudices indoctrinated into thy mind by their means; make a whole burnt offering of their creeds, confessions, catechisms, and articles of religion... Let us repudiate their dogmatisms; let us renounce their mysteries; and let us declare our independence of all human authority in matters of faith and practice extra the word of God.39
Having jettisoned all ecclesiastical dogma and tradition and begun anew with a blank slate, the individual must "Search the scriptures with the teachableness of a little child," believing nothing but what can be "demonstrated by the grammatical sense of the scriptures."40 The virtues that maximise the chances of correctly interpreting the Bible are "humility, teachableness, and independence of mind," and diligent seeking.41 In his other major work, Eureka, Thomas asks a rhetorical question that captures his common-sense antihermeneutic succinctly: "Suppose a man of common sense...study only the sacred books, is it not conceivable that he may acquire a competent, nay, even an eminent knowledge of the scriptures?"42 

Thus, for Thomas, the ingredients for sound doctrine are nothing more than the Bible itself and common sense, exercised with independence, humility, and diligence. One should not fail to notice the Baconian flavour of this antihermeneutic: dumping creeds and dogmas and limiting oneself to what is demonstrable from the grammatical sense of Scripture as adjudicated by common sense are axiomatic in Baconianism. However, Thomas does not place any emphasis or trust in a method. The locus of common sense interpretation is not the method (as with Lamar) but the interpreter. Common sense is a high virtue, and one that ironically—as Thomas writes elsewhere—"is common only to the few."43

Before concluding, we will offer a critique of the Baconian hermeneutic, as espoused by the restoration movement and as practiced (more as an antihermeneutic) by John Thomas. The critique of Baconianism consists of three main points. First, it failed to deliver on its promise of producing doctrinal uniformity among Christians. Second, it failed to recognise important differences between natural science and textual hermeneutics. Third, it is fundamentally anachronistic and foreign to the theological method of the early church.

 6.1. Failure to Deliver Doctrinal Unity

While the young Alexander Campbell was optimistic that application of the Baconian method to biblical interpretation would usher in a golden age of Christian unity, his life's work was in fact beset by "constant and unrelenting conflicts with opponents and colleagues alike".44 Instead of putting an end to denominational sectarianism in Christianity, the restoration simply added more denominations to the list: "in a movement long marked by theological and cultural rifts, the outcome finally was a bitter fundamentalist/modernist controversy and permanent division."45 Foster's biography of Campbell devotes an eight-chapter section to "Defense and Conflict," describing bitter doctrinal disagreements between Campbell and others both inside and outside of his movement.46

Similarly, the young James Lamar was almost triumphal in his book The Organon of Scripture about the Baconian hermeneutic's potential to put an end to doctrinal disagreement. However, 
The intellectual and spiritual odyssey of James S. Lamar from the 1850s to 1900 reflects his increasing disillusionment with the Baconian method as a tool to bring about Alexander Campbell's goal of unity through restoration of the 'ancient order.'47
Lamar would live to see the definitive split of the Stone-Campbell Movement into two denominations, the Churches of Christ and the Disciples of Christ, in 1906. Thus, Baconianism failed to deliver the uniformity of doctrine that its proponents sought. And the reason for this probably lies in our next criticism of the method: its downplaying of subjectivity. 

 6.2. (Mis-)Application of a Scientific Method to Biblical Interpretation

Bacon developed his inductive method for the natural sciences, and in this discipline there is some plausibility in the idea of assembling a set of experimental "facts" and reasoning inductively to a conclusion.48 However, when Campbell and others argued for using the same method to construct Christian doctrine, they were overlooking the vast differences between natural sciences and biblical hermeneutics. Notwithstanding the best efforts of Joseph Smith,49 the biblical "data set" is static and cannot be augmented through experimentation. Moreover, "the facts" in the case of a scientific data set typically involve precise measurement of numerical quantities (e.g., temperature, volume, etc.) With good instrumentation, measurement error will be negligible. Assembling "the facts" from the Bible is a far thornier affair: it entails translating and interpreting ancient texts. Translation is not just a matter of "common sense"; it is a complex, multi-faceted task. It requires, inter alia, reconstructing the original text as closely as possible (textual criticism), choosing the degree of formal or dynamic equivalence desired, resolving syntactic and semantic ambiguities, and adding punctuation. Translation already entails a degree of interpretation, but even exegetes who agree on the translation of a text may differ radically on its meaning and theological significance. In short, Scripture is nothing like a simple set of "facts" on which induction can be performed. Hence, the Baconian hermeneutic greatly exaggerates interpreters' objectivity and tempts them to equate their own disputable opinions with "the facts." As Allen summarises:
[James Lamar] seems never to have been struck by the deep irony that marked the movement almost from its inception—the irony of claiming to overturn all human traditions and interpretive schemes while at the same time being wedded to an empirical theological method drawn from early Enlightenment thought. By virtually denying the necessity of human interpretation and the inevitable impact of extra-biblical ideas and traditions, the Disciples allowed their interpretive traditions to become all the more entrenched for being unrecognized.50
 6.3. The Irony of "Restoring" Ancient Christianity Using Enlightenment-Era Philosophy

The third problem is even more fundamental. Baconianism is rooted in the philosophy of Bacon in the 17th century and Reid in the 18th. How could modern philosophy restore primitive Christianity? Or how could the apostolic order be recovered using a hermeneutic that post-dates the apostles by over 1500 years?51 The question answers itself. And if the Baconian approach entails "calling Bible things by Bible names," what is the Bible's name for the Baconian method? Is it not an extrabiblical imposition from human philosophy—the very sort of thing that "Bible only" Protestants seek to abolish from theology?

A defender of Baconianism might respond that the method need not be explained in Scripture because it is accessible to all by common sense. However, if that were the case, we should expect it to have been used in the early church (unless common sense is a modern invention!) Let us look at the thought of Irenaeus of Lyons (writing c. 180 A.D.) as a test case. Irenaeus is a good example because he is one of the Church's earliest "biblical theologians." Notably, he is the earliest extant writer to use the terms "Old Testament" and "New Testament" to refer to portions of the biblical canon and to defend four as the complete number of canonical gospels.

If Irenaeus were Baconian in his hermeneutic, we would expect him to construct his theology by assembling "facts"—various statements in Scripture—and combining them inductively into doctrines. To use John Thomas' language, we would expect him to be independent of any dogmatic traditions or ecclesiastical authority and to rely only on what is demonstrable directly from Scripture.

Instead, Irenaeus introduces his famous summary of Christian doctrine, the rule of faith, thus: "The church, dispersed throughout the world to the ends of the earth, received from the apostles and their disciples the faith" (Against Heresies 1.10.1).52 Similarly, in his other surviving work, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, he introduces the Christian faith with the words, "So, faith procures this for us, as the elders, the disciples of the apostles, have handed down to us."53 Thus Irenaeus regards "the elders, disciples of the apostles" as an authoritative source of doctrine.

Opposing the Gnostic heretics, Irenaeus explains in what the true Gnosis (knowledge) consists:
This is true Gnosis: the teaching of the apostles, and the ancient institution of the church, spread throughout the entire world, and the distinctive mark of the body of Christ in accordance with the succession of bishops, to whom the apostles entrusted each local church, and the unfeigned preservation, coming down to us, of the scriptures, with a complete collection allowing for neither addition nor subtraction; a reading without falsification and, in conformity with the scriptures, an interpretation that is legitimate, careful, without danger or blasphemy. (Against Heresies, 4.33.8)
Notice that Irenaeus stresses the importance of the Scriptures and their correct interpretation, but in the same breath acknowledges the importance of apostolic succession for preserving the teaching of the apostles in the Church. Hence, once can recognise heretics precisely by their independence from ecclesiastical authority:
This is why one must hear the presbyters who are in the church, those who have the succession from the apostles, as we have shown, and with the succession in the episcopate have received the sure spiritual gift of truth according to the good pleasure of the Father. As for all the others who are separate from the original succession, in whatever place they gather, they are suspect. They are heretics with false doctrine or schismatics full of pride and audacity and self-willed or, again, hypocrites looking only for gain and vainglory. (Against Heresies, 4.26.2)
These few quotations suffice to show that the Baconian hermeneutic is at odds with the theology of Irenaeus of Lyons. One might argue that Irenaeus had already apostatised from biblical truth, despite being only two degrees separated from the apostles (in his youth he heard Polycarp teach, who was taught by John).54 But if this were the case, what evidence can be brought forth to show that other early Christian writers sought to practice a Baconian theological method?

 6.4. Other Problems with John Thomas' Antihermeneutic

The above criticisms apply to John Thomas to the extent that he, too, applied the Baconian method. Thomas, however, merits further criticism for what we have termed his antihermeneutic. Thomas scoffed at "hermeneutics" and "logic" and conflated his own philosophical and methodological presuppositions with "common sense." In his optimism for common sense, Thomas was a man of his times. It was nonetheless breathtakingly naïve for Thomas to dismiss logic and hermeneutics, as though he were not using them himself. Here is a certainty: every theologian uses logic and hermeneutics, which are simply the theory and method of reasoning and interpretation respectively. The one who denies using them merely surrenders much of his capacity for intellectual self-examination and correction. Forthrightness about one's methods and presuppositions is far better than hiding behind the nebulous rule of "common sense."

One person's common sense differs from her neighbour's; Thomas himself wrote (cited earlier) that common sense was "common only to the few." He adds other virtues that enhance the interpreter's chances of success, such as independence, humility, teachableness, and diligence. As correct interpretation is made a function of personal virtues rather than methods and rules of interpretation, objectivity recedes further. Are we sinful human beings well qualified to judge the humility, teachableness, and diligence of ourselves and others? It is no surprise that subsequent Christadelphian writers extolled John Thomas' intellectual virtues and suggested that a restoration of apostolic truth probably would not have happened but for his remarkable attributes.55

The notion that "independence" is a virtue in theologians is, as noted above, totally at odds with the worldview of early Church Fathers like Irenaeus, being instead a characteristic Irenaeus assigns to the heretics he opposes. Indeed, independence and humility seem to be self-contradictory, since the virtue of humility entails submission to legitimate authority, including ecclesiastical (see, e.g., Heb. 13:17). As parents, if our children disregard our rules and make up their own, do we reward them for "independence" or discipline them for disobedience?

In this writer's experience, John Thomas' antihermeneutic legacy lives on in that Christadelphians generally show little interest in, or even acknowledgment of, their movement's intellectual roots. Very little "critical history" of Christadelphian origins has emerged from within the movement;56 Christadelphian historiography has been largely hagiographical. This stands in marked contrast to the wider Stone-Campbell tradition, which has produced voluminous critical research into its own intellectual origins.
Regardless of whether one believes that the Christadelphian belief system is true or not, it does not help anyone when the philosophical presuppositions and hermeneutical methods that gave rise to it go unrecognised and continue to be conflated, in early-19th-century fashion, with "common sense." There is a sector of Christadelphians who have, in recent years, sought to bring Christadelphian theology into conversation with contemporary biblical scholarship. Hopefully, this article may inspire similar scholarly engagement in the matter of Christadelphian history. Even if not, I hope it contributes to the reader's understanding of the Christadelphian movement.
  • 1 Douglas A. Foster, Alexander Campbell (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020), 59-60.
  • 2 The term "hermeneutics" refers to the theory and methods of interpretation of texts, especially the Bible.
  • 3 Barry Gower, Scientific Method: A Historical and Philosophical Introduction (London: Taylor & Francis, 1997), 41. The description of Bacon's method here is largely based on Gower.
  • 4 Gower, Scientific Method, 52.
  • 5 Richard M. Tristano, The Origins of the Restoration Movement: An Intellectual History (Atlanta: Glenmary Research Center, 1998), 20-21.
  • 6 Foster, Alexander Campbell, 36-37
  • 7 Tristano, Origins of the Restoration Movement, 20-21.
  • 8 Tristano, Origins of the Restoration Movement, 21
  • 9 Tristano, Origins of the Restoration Movement, 21
  • 10 For those unfamiliar with the term, "antebellum" means "before the war" and refers here to the decades that preceded the American Civil War (1861-65).
  • 11 Mark A. Noll, "Common Sense Traditions and American Evangelical Thought," American Quarterly 37 (1985): 233.
  • 12 C. Leonard Allen, "Baconianism and the Bible in the Disciples of Christ: James S. Lamar and 'The Organon of Scripture,'" Church History 55 (1986): 67.
  • 13 Noll, "Common Sense Traditions," 234.
  • 14 A Connected View of the Principles and Rules by which the Living Oracles May Be Intelligibly and Certainly Interpreted (Bethany, VA: M'Vay & Ewing, 1835), 106.
  • 15 The Christian System in Reference to the Union of Christians and a Restoration of Primitive Christianity as Plead in the Current Reformation (Pittsburgh: Forrester & Campbell, 1840), 125.
  • 16 Stephen Waers, "Common Sense Regeneration: Alexander Campbell on Regeneration, Conversion, and the Work of the Holy Spirit," Harvard Theological Review 109 (2016): 612.
  • 17 "Their writings have done more for the world than all the rhetoricians of two thousand years" (The Millennial Harbinger 5 [1834]: 622); "History records no more illustrious names than those of Bacon, Locke, and Newton" (The Millennial Harbinger 7 [1836], 247).
  • 18 The Christian Baptist 6 (1828): 227. Similarly, "Since the days of Bacon our scientific men have adopted the practical and truly scientific mode...We plead for the same principle in the contemplation of religious truth... By inducing matter by every process to give out its qualities, and to deduce nothing from hypothesis; so religious truth is to be deduced from the revelation which the deity has been pleased to give to man" ("Speculation in Religion," The Christian Baptist 4 [1827]: 241).
  • 19 Foster, Alexander Campbell, 38. Allen concurs: "The evidence is strong that Alexander Campbell appropriated Scottish Baconianism to a considerable degree and employed it in the service of his primitivist theology" ("Baconianism and the Bible," 69).
  • 20 "The Bible is a book of facts, not of opinions, theories, abstract generalities, nor of verbal definitions." (The Christian System, 18).
  • 21 "Baconianism and the Bible," 68-70.
  • 22 The Organon of Scripture, Or, The Inductive Method of Biblical Interpretation (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co, 1860).
  • 23 Lamar, The Organon of Scripture, 24; cf. Allen, "Baconianism and the Bible," 73.
  • 24 Lamar, The Organon of Scripture, 25.
  • 25 Lamar, The Organon of Scripture, 130-31.
  • 26 The name changed to Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come from 1851. The periodical was discontinued due to the American Civil War and was not reprised thereafter.
  • 27 "Observations on the Apocalypse," The Apostolic Advocate 1 (1834): 197.
  • 28 For instance, in 1852, Thomas favourably quotes another British physician's views on the subject of "the investigation of the truth"; that physician was advocating that the Baconian inductive method be applied in biblical interpretation, as in natural science, so that the uniformity of belief enjoyed in science would also be enjoyed in religion ("The Bible Doctrine concerning the Tempter Considered, No. 1," Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come 2 [1852]: np. The quotation is from an unpaginated transcription available here.). In 1858, Thomas includes the following "selection" in his periodical: "Our duty in reference to knowledge in general is to observe facts, rather than to form hypotheses; to go on, as Bacon teaches, in the modest accumulation of positive data, aware that there are eternal truths, whatever may come of your opinions" (Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come 8 [1858]: 47).
  • 29 The Christian System, 5-6, 127.
  • 30 "When I begin to think of my debts of thought, I see an immense crowd of claimants...Euclid, and Locke, and Bacon, and Newton, and ten thousand others cast an eye upon me." ("Letter to William Jones," The Millennial Harbinger 6 [1835]: 304.)
  • 31 "It should be noted here that Campbell often inveighed against the use of any theories, philosophical or otherwise, when interpreting scripture. Campbell did not seem to lump his use of SCSP into this category of theorization. For him, the SCSP understanding of the human mind was self-evident and therefore not theoretical or speculative. Perhaps we could say that he was unable to see beyond its horizons. Campbell thought that Francis Bacon corrected the fanciful speculations into which philosophy had declined prior to his time. Because Bacon’s inductive method was so important to SCSP, it is likely that Campbell saw his adoption of SCSP as combatting speculation and theorization"("Common Sense Regeneration," 613 n. 8).
  • 32 Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come 3 (1853): np. The quotation is from an unpaginated transcription available here.
  • 33 Eureka: An Exposition of the Apocalypse, 3 vols. (Adelaide: Logos, originally published 1861), 1:198.
  • 34 For instance, at the end of his above-mentioned series on Isaiah, where he argues that it foretells contemporary political events involving Russia, he writes, "Paul gloried in his weakness; and so do we. If one so weak as our stupid self can make 'the most difficult passage of Isaiah' so intelligible and plain, how blind must they be, who with all their classical, theological, hermeneutic, erudition, and 'logic,' can give no better sense to this portion of the word than the translators so often named in this! So true is it, that 'God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.'" Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come 3 (1853): np. The quotation is from an unpaginated transcription available here.
  • 35 "Scotto-Campbellism Reviewed," Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come 10 (1860): 60.
  • 36 This term has been used elsewhere for the hermeneutic of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), women's rights activist and author of The Woman's Bible, where she "she calls on her readers to 'be guided by their own unassisted common sense' (2:159) and to read the 'unvarnished texts' of the Scriptures 'in plain English' (1:8) and 'in harmony with science, common sense, and the experience of mankind in natural laws' (1:20)" (Carolyn A. Haynes, Divine Destiny: Gender and Race in Nineteenth-Century Protestantism [Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998], 146). Haynes comments, "Such an exegetical methodology (or antimethodology) is in keeping with the Common Sense school and with fundamentalist hermeneutical practices."
  • 37 Elpis Israel (Findon: Logos Publications, 1866/2000), 3.
  • 38 Elpis Israel, 4.
  • 39 Elpis Israel, 5, 8.
  • 40 Elpis Israel, 5-6.
  • 41 Elpis Israel, 6, 8-9.
  • 42 Eureka, 1:341. The ellipsis reads, "perfectly unacquainted with all the learned lore of Ammonius." In context, Thomas is criticising Origen's reliance on the Neoplatonist philosopher Ammonius in his theological method. However, the broader question obtained by removing this ellipsis certainly characterises Thomas' approach to Scripture in general.
  • 43 "A Few First Principles of Common Sense," Apostolic Advocate 2 (1835): 229.
  • 44 Foster, Alexander Campbell, 254.
  • 45 Allen, "Baconianism and the Bible," 80.
  • 46 Foster, Alexander Campbell, 151-272. Conflicts of a doctrinal nature involving Campbell included the clash with John Thomas over "re-immersion" and the immortality of the soul, clashes with Barton W. Stone over the Trinity and Christology, and conflict with a minister named Jesse B. Ferguson over universalism and spiritualism. The conflicts with Thomas and Ferguson ended with schisms.
  • 47 "Baconianism and the Bible," 79.
  • 48 It should be noted, however, that Baconian inductivism has been out of favour since the later 19th century even as a scientific method.
  • 49 The founder of the Latter-Day Saints movement ("Mormons").
  • 50 "Baconianism and the Bible," 79.
  • 51 One might argue that the New Testament writers themselves used an anachronistic hermeneutic in that they often interpreted the Old Testament Christologically and not according to the grammatical-historical sense. However, the early church read the Scriptures Christologically because its worldview had been radically realigned by the Christ-event. Did the Bacon-event really warrant another hermeneutical revolution?.
  • 52 All translations from Against Heresies are taken from Robert M. Grant, Irenaeus of Lyons (London: Routledge, 1997).
  • 53 John Behr, On the Apostolic Preaching: Translated and with an Introduction (Crestwood: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1997), 42.
  • 54 A reader interested in exploring the early Church Fathers further may wish to consult works such Jimmy Akin's The Fathers Know Best: Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church (El Cajon: Catholic Answers Press, 2010) or (for a more academic treatment) William A. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers (3 vols; Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1979).
  • 55 "Dr Thomas was fitted by natural qualification for the great work achieved by his hand. His intellect was a fine balance between perception and reflection, adapting him for full and accurate observation and correct reasoning, while a scientific education brought out those powers to the fullest advantage... The Doctor was a remarkable man, and was the instrument of a remarkable work, which required strongly-marked characteristics for its accomplishment... firstly, a clear, well-balanced, scientific intellect, and a non-emotional, executive nature, enabling him to reason accurately, and perceive and embrace conclusions in the teeth of prejudice and sentiment; secondly, self-reliance and an independence almost to the point of eccentricity, disposing him to think and act without reference to any second person, and if need be, in opposition to friend as well as foe; thirdly, a predominating conscientiousness impelling him in the direction of right and duty; and fourthly, great boldness and fluency of speech which qualified him for the enunciation of the truth discovered in the face of the world in arms... To a man of different characteristics, the work would probably have been impossible. Dr. Thomas possessed a combination of traits that enabled him to persevere in his course whatever difficulties had to be faced... such, in brief, is the history of that application of his mental powers to Scripture study and polemics which, in the wisdom of God, has uncovered the oracles of divine truth from the mass of ignorance and misinterpretation which for centuries overlaid and obscured them'" (Robert Roberts, Dr Thomas: His Life and Work (web version); "The peculiar mental and moral organisation of Dr. Thomas admirably fitted him for the work he accomplished. His sterling honesty, great faith, resolute will, utter disregard of human opinion, and what seemed a reckless independence of leadership of men, enabled him to do a work that would have failed under other conditions" (L. B. Welch, "The Recovered Truth in the Latter Days," The Christadelphian 31 [1894]: 144-48).
  • 56 A site search of the online archives of two Christadelphian magazines (The Christadelphian Tidings and Testimony) yields no content devoted to the influence of Scottish Common Sense Philosophy or Baconianism on Christadelphian origins.

Tuesday 23 November 2021

The Parts of John's Prologue that Unitarians Neglect

Despite being a Catholic and a Trinitarian myself, I'm a regular listener of unitarian apologist Prof. Dale Tuggy's trinities podcast. As someone who has written a fair bit on the Prologue of John, I was keenly interested to listen to his latest episode, What John 1 Meant. This was an edited version of a talk Tuggy gave at the 2021 Unitarian Christian Alliance conference.

At the beginning of the talk, Tuggy read John 1:1-18 from the NRSV. This—together with the episode's title and 76-minute length—made very hopeful that he was going to do something that I seldom see/hear/read unitarians do when discussing this text: offer careful exegesis of the whole Prologue. For, as I wrote a few months ago in my in-depth review of Buzzard and Hunting's polemical work, The Doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity's Self-Inflicted Wound (p. 30), there are portions of this passage that unitarian exegetes tend to neglect when arguing for a particular meaning of the Word (ho logos). I refer specifically to vv. 5-13 and 14c-18. 

Alas, I was to be disappointed once again. Tuggy lavishes time upon John 1:1-4 and 1:14ab and pre-Christian parallels to the language of both. As for the other parts? Verse 5 is discussed briefly in connection with 1-4. He states that he is going to skip vv. 6-9. Verses 10-11 then receive a brief cameo, with 12-13 then passed over in silence to arrive at v. 14. Even within this verse, the first two clauses ("And the Word became flesh and lived among us") command far more attention than the third. As he begins to wrap up, Tuggy announces that there isn't time to discuss vv. 15-18, but that it does not matter, as these verses contain no difficulties for unitarians. He does provide the briefest aside on what he thinks v. 15 means (spoiler alert: "he was before me" does not indicate that he existed before me), and then gives his own paraphrase of the entire Prologue, including the verses he's skipped over. (He also, on a couple of occasions, voices his support for the minority textual view that 1:18 calls Jesus monogenēs huios rather than monogenēs theos.)

Why should it be concerning or frustrating that a 76-minute talk on "What John 1[:1-18] Meant" (in the Christological sense) dedicates almost no airtime to vv. 5-13 and 14c-18? After all, if the main difficulty of John's Prologue is to correctly interpret the term ho logos, shouldn't we focus on the verses that use this term? Well, context is king, as they say. If John 1:1-18 is a literary unit within John's Gospel, surely we cannot neglect any part thereof if we hope to understand the whole.

If all we had in the Prologue were John 1:1-4 and 14ab, our efforts to identify who or what the Word is might devolve into a Sisyphean struggle of opinioneering. Fortunately, those other, sometimes neglected parts enable us to settle the matter decisively.

I have written in some detail about these verses in my article Jesus Christ in the Prologue of John: The Word Per Se, or the Word Made Flesh Only? (see also my review of Buzzard & Hunting, pp. 28-30), so I will just give a bullet-point overview of the exegetical arguments from the "other verses" of the Prologue.

First, concerning 1:5-13,
  • "The light" (to phōs) is—like ho logos—an abstract noun that can easily be used—and probably is, in vv. 4-5—in a purely abstract sense (and there was little Jewish precedent for regarding it as personal.) Nevertheless, it is unmistakable that from v. 7 onward, to phōs refers to a person. Otherwise, the author's clarification about John, "He was not the light," is superfluous, even absurd.
  • This person, the True Light, is in view throughout vv. 9-12, where we learn that the True Light is identical with the Word (from the parallels between 1:3a and 1:10b and between 1:7b and 1:15a) even as it remains obvious that the True Light is a person (from the words "believe in his name," amongst others). The Word and Light imagery are both drawn ultimately from Genesis 1.
  • The True Light imagery gives no idea of an ontological transition from one thing (the pre-existent Word) to another (the man Jesus). The language is seamless: he who was in the world is he through whom the world came to be. The transition is a spatial one: he comes into the world, to his own.
  • If any reader were in doubt at this point as to which person the True Light (= the Word) is, they could not remain so after reading the rest of the Gospel, which is replete with parallels to 1:8-12:
    • "He was not the light" (1:8a) = "I am not the Christ" (1:20; 3:28)
    • "the True Light" (1:9a) = "I am...the Truth" (14:6); "I am the Light of the world" (8:12; 9:5)
    • The light "was coming into the world" (1:9b) = "I came into the world as light" (12:46); "you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world" (11:27); "I...have come into the world" (16:28; 18:37)
    • "He was in the world" (1:10a) = "I am in the world" (9:5); "now I will no longer be in the world" (17:11)
    • "He came to his own" (1:11a) = "He loved his own in the world" (13:1)
    • "His own did not receive him" (1:11b) = "You do not receive me" (5:43); "Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me" (18:35)
    • "But to those who did receive him" (1:12a) = "Whoever does receive his testimony..." (3:32-33)
    • "he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe" (1:12ab) = "believe in the light, so that you may become children of the light" (12:36)
    • "believe in his name" (1:12b) = "many began to believe in his name" (2:23); "believed in the name of the only Son of God" (3:18)
Second, concerning 1:14c-18,
  • "The Word" (ho logos) is the referent throughout vv. 14-16. This is often overlooked because the statements from 14c-16 are clearly also statements about Jesus Christ:
    • 1:14c equates the Word's glory with "glory as of the Father's only Son"
    • 1:15a quotes John's testimony about the Word using the same words John will proclaim about Jesus in 1:30
    • 1:16a speaks of the Word's fullness and grace, which is linked via the conjunction hoti to a statement about grace coming through Jesus Christ in v. 17
  • But the syntax is unambiguous: the three occurrences of the pronoun autos in vv. 14c ("we saw his glory"), 15a ("John testified about him") and 16a ("From his fullness we have all received") all have ho logos in 14a as their antecedent.
  • Thus, it is not that we have one statement about the Word, "The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us," followed by other statements about the man who figuratively embodies the Word. The syntax disallows such a reading. Rather, "The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us" is one statement about the Word per se that is followed by several other statements about the Word per se.
  • If these statements about the Word per se are also statements about Jesus Christ, it follows inexorably that Jesus Christ is the Word per se.
  • Again, the statements about the Word in 1:14c-16 have parallels elsewhere in the Gospel.
    • "We have seen his glory" (1:14c) = "Jesus...so revealed his glory" (2:11); "Isaiah...saw his glory" (12:41)
    • "the only begotten of the Father" (1:14c) = "the only begotten God/Son" (1:18); "only begotten Son" (3:16, 18)
    • "he was before me" (1:15e; cf. 1:30) = "In the beginning was the Word" (1:1); "What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?" (6:62); "Before Abraham was, I am" (8:58); "the glory that I had with you before the world was" (17:5)
  • 1:18 causes some difficulties for unitarians if, as the UBS committee considered "almost certain" (B rating), the correct reading is monogenēs theos. It is not just that there would then be biblical warrant for the much-maligned phrase "God the Son." It is also that this would be an instance of the literary technique of inclusio, by which the Prologue is deliberately bookended by references to someone other than the Father as theos. The implication is that the one called theos in 1:1 is the one called theos in 1:18, thus reinforcing that the Word = the Son.
Given the abundant exegetical data concerning the identity of the Word in John 1:5-13 and 14c-18, can the reader blame me for feeling exasperated when a unitarian apologist devotes an hour-long lecture on John's Prologue to verses 1-4 and 14ab, giving only cursory attention to the rest of the material?

Sunday 26 September 2021

Christian Submission to Governing Authorities in the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic

In this article, we look at the Christian's obligation to submit to governing authorities, particularly in the context of government regulations put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the sections of certain New Testament epistles that provide instructions on the believer's obligations within the household, a central theme is submission to authority. In Ephesians 5-6, for instance, the general principle "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ" (v. 21) is followed by specific contexts in which subjection is required:
"Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord...Children, obey your parents in the Lord...Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling" (Eph. 5:22, 6:1, 6:5)1 
Colossians follows much the same template: 
"Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord... Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord... Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything" (Col. 3:18-22)
Each of these three relationships is depicted as an authority structure, with the "lower" party (wife/child/slave) obliged to submit to or obey the "higher" party (husband/parents/master). To be sure, obligations are also placed on the "higher" party, but these obligations do not include subjection or obedience; they largely have to do with correct use of the authority vested in them. Importantly, however, neither of these passages makes the "lower" party's obligation of subjection/obedience contingent on the goodness of the "higher" party. The inspired author probably would have granted that exceptional circumstances might arise in each of these relationships in which the obligation did not apply (e.g., a parent ordering a child to steal for them). However, the writer apparently did not consider such exceptions common enough even to mention.

Moreover, in a third such passage, the writer explicitly enjoins subjection/obedience even when the "higher" party is not good (and need we add that slavery is an intrinsically unjust institution!) This passage is in 1 Peter 2-3, and rather than addressing obligations within the household, it speaks to the principle, "Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles [i.e., unbelievers], so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge." (1 Pet. 2:12). How is this principle to be applied? Again, by submitting to authority:
"For the Lord’s sake be subject to every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right... Slaves, be subject to your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh... Wives, in the same way, be subject to your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct" (1 Peter 2:13, 2:18, 3:1).2
This text introduces a new authority hierarchy not mentioned in Ephesians and Colossians (which only focus on the household level): civilian/government. It is this obligation to "be subject to every human institution" that concerns us here. 1 Peter does not, as with masters and husbands, add a proviso to obey "even those who are harsh/do not obey the word." This is obviously not because the writer believes one must only obey good government officials. Rather, it goes without saying that government officials are no paragons of virtue. Remember, this letter was written in the age of emperors like Caligula (who had people killed for fun and made his horse a priest), Nero (who used Christians as garden torches and had Peter and Paul executed), and Titus (who sacked the holy city of Jerusalem and burned the temple).

The overall picture that emerges from these epistles is clear. These apostolic writers expect their charges to exercise subjection and obedience to their social superiors. This was not to be done only when or because those superiors treated them justly. Instead, the Christian obligation to submit to authority was to bear witness to Christians' submission to the Lord as the true Master from whom all earthly authorities received their power.

It is perhaps obvious, but needs to be emphasised, that submission to a higher authority entails not only granting respect to that authority and acknowledging its legitimacy, but also obeying its orders, and not only when one likes them! Should a child be considered obedient if she obeys only the parental rules that she likes? Would a slave be considered obedient if he obeyed only those instructions from the master that seemed wise and reasonable? The letter 1 Timothy makes a similar point when it observes that "law does not exist for the righteous, but for the lawless and insubordinate" (1 Tim. 1:9, my translation). The Greek word translated "insubordinate" here is anhypotaktos, a negative cognate of the verb translated "be subject to" used in 1 Peter 2-3 and elsewhere.3 

If an authority provided a suggestion and we thought it wise, we might follow it; but this would not be submission or obedience. The real test of submission or obedience is whether one follows instructions from the authority even when one disagrees with them. And it is precisely because some are disinclined to do this that laws (with penalties for disobedience attached) are required.

Books of the Old Testament written during or after the exile of Israel and Judah, such as Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel, contain much precedent for submitting to governing authorities, including those of idolatrous Gentile powers. This pattern continues in the New Testament, with explicit instructions to this effect given not only in 1 Peter 2:13-14 (discussed above), but in several other passages.

Memorably, when some opponents tried to ensnare Jesus with a question about paying tax to Caesar, he responded, "Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God" (Mark 12:17 NABRE). Jesus is under no illusion that the imperial government (under Tiberius during his ministry; probably under Nero when Mark wrote his Gospel) was a just system that would use tax revenues effectively for the common good. Some of it, yes; other funds might be used to build a temple to Jupiter, or pay the salaries of the legions that patrolled (and later sacked) Jerusalem. Yet Jesus does not vacillate on these grounds; he affirms that Caesar has—for the present—a legitimate domain of God-given authority in the land and that the Jews are obliged to submit to it.

Paul goes into more detail about the believer's obligations to the government in Romans 13 (see also Titus 3:1):
1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. (Romans 13:1-7)
As in 1 Peter 2:13-14, there is a blanket commandment to be subject to the governing authorities, and Paul goes on to justify the commandment by arguing that all governing authorities that exist have their power from God and exist for God's purposes, namely to promote the common good.

Observe that in none of the New Testament passages that command believers to "be subject to" or "obey" some authority is there a condition attached, such as "provided that their decision and orders are reasonable and agreeable." This shows that exceptions to the "submit to authority" ethic are rare (indeed, as already stated, one is only really submitting to an authority when one obeys orders despite disagreeing with them). Nevertheless, exceptions do exist. In the case of governing authorities, we have several biblical examples. These include Daniel's friends' refusal to bow down to the statue of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3), Daniel's refusal to stop petitioning God (Daniel 6), and the apostles' disobedience of the Sanhedrin's order to stop teaching in the name of Jesus (Acts 4-5). The principle is simple: when one's obligations to government contradict one's obligations to God, God's authority trumps Caesar's (Acts 5:29). 

Importantly, though, exceptions are precisely that. They are not a loophole allowing Christians to disobey laws or regulations that they deem to be, or in fact are, unreasonable. The Christian must disobey laws or regulations when obeying them would directly contravene the law of God—for instance, an order to worship an idol or stop praying to God (as in Daniel) or to stop preaching the gospel (as in Acts). Or an order to take innocent life (e.g., a doctor who is compelled by law to perform abortions.) But a Christian who disobeys laws and regulations simply because s/he thinks they are ill-advised or unscientific or counterproductive is in fact sinning, by disobeying God's commandment to be subject to governing authorities.

Let us apply the moral principles developed above to the concrete and globally relevant case of regulations that governments have introduced over the past 18 months in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We will deal with three categories of regulations: mask mandates, vaccine regulations, and restrictions on social gatherings.

Before doing so, we must acknowledge that most of the world's Christians today live under governments that are far better, in many respects, to the Roman government that existed at the time of the apostles. Many Christians live in democratic countries, where the people can influence government decisions and hold government authorities accountable. Most such countries have constitutions that uphold human rights and freedoms—above all the right to life—and offer a judicial recourse for challenging unjust laws, regulations, and decisions by government. Thus, while the Christian cannot disobey the law (apart from the rare exceptions discussed above), s/he does have recourses for inducing positive change in the government and its laws.

Secondly, the Roman government perceived very little responsibility in the area of public health. This was the domain of private physicians (and religious healers), who of course understood relatively very little about the human body or illness. Today, public health is a major priority for virtually all governments, and most of these governments rely on the latest scientific research to guide law and policy. Therefore, while no government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been perfect, Christians today have a lot to be grateful for! Thankfully, all of the kinds of regulations discussed below are intended by governments to protect human life—a bedrock Christian value.

An a fortiori argument therefore applies. If the apostles commanded Christians to be subject to even unjust human authorities (e.g., unbelieving husbands, harsh slave masters, and cruel Roman emperors), how much more must Christians today be subject to governments as they seek to protect the population from a pandemic? At any rate, even if we consider today's governments to be harsh or unjust in their handling of the pandemic, this does not justify disobedience or disrespect of those governments.

This issue can be treated briefly and decisively. There is nothing about a requirement to wear a cloth mask in public spaces that in any conceivable way violates any law of God. Christians must therefore comply cheerfully with all mask mandates. Any Christian who deliberately violates a mask mandate, or encourages others to do so, is rebelling against their sacred Christian duty to submit to governing authorities. Even if one believes that masks are ineffective at preventing transmission, or that a mask mandate seems unnecessary due to a drop in local transmission rates, this does not justify a contravention of government regulations. For Christians to violate or rail against mask mandates frankly makes a mockery of the overriding principle in 1 Peter 2:12. 

Like mask wearing, coronavirus vaccines are a measure intended to protect human life from COVID-19. Like masks, they apply at the individual level. In most countries, certain COVID-19 vaccines have been approved by government authorities for use by the general public. Public health officials have then launched campaigns that encourage, but do not compel, members of the public to be vaccinated. Thus, in most jurisdictions it is a matter of free prudential judgment whether a person receives a vaccine. It is consequently not an act of insubordination to government per se to decline to be vaccinated. Factors to be considered include, inter alia, the effectiveness of the vaccine, the risk of side effects, and whether or not cells from aborted fetuses were used in the development of the vaccine (on which see here).

That said, compliance with non-compulsory public health advisories (such as calls to be vaccinated against COVID-19) is at least congruent with the Christian's obligation to reverence governing authorities. It may also be a bad moral decision not to be vaccinated, if for instance one has failed to exercise discretion in one's sources of information about the vaccines. Certainly, when Christians become associated with "anti-vax" conspiracy theories, it does not make it easier for the world to regard the Church as "the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15).

Many governments as well as private entities have placed restrictions on unvaccinated individuals. These include restrictions on travel, restrictions on being in certain public spaces (e.g., a workplace or school), and even making continued employment conditional on vaccination. Since private companies do exercise a legitimate domain of authority over their employees and customers, they are among those "human institutions" (1 Pet. 2:13) to whom subjection is obligatory for Christians. Unvaccinated Christians therefore cannot break such restrictions without shirking this sacred duty. Christians may, of course, exercise their democratic rights to speak or litigate against such restrictions if they believe them to be unjust. They cannot, however, violate laws or regulations or deny the legitimate authority of the institutions who issued them.  

Because the coronavirus spreads person-to-person, governments have placed restrictions on the number of people who can assemble in one place, and at times forbidden public gatherings, including religious ones, entirely. This is a more complicated issue than mask mandates, because it interferes with a sacred Christian obligation to God, namely communal worship (Heb. 10:25). May Christians therefore defy government prohibitions on religious gatherings to fulfill their duty to worship God together?

Assembling for worship is a Christian duty, but so is protecting human life. Since Christians assembling for worship on Sunday is analogous to—if not equivalent to—Jewish Sabbath observance, Mark 3:1-6 is highly relevant here. Jesus' opponents wanted to accuse him of violating his religious obligations because he healed a man on the Sabbath. Jesus' response was not that Sabbath observance was unimportant, but that protecting human life was more important: "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?" (Mark 3:4) In the same vein, he gave the memorable chiasm, "The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath" (Mark 2:27). Sunday worship is very important for Christians, but not as important as protecting life. Since government restrictions on public gatherings are designed precisely to protect human life (without interfering with communal life more than necessary), these regulations are consonant with the law of God and must be complied with. Thankfully, technology allows for communal worship and fellowship to continue virtually in a limited way while physical gatherings are not possible.

We should note that secular government officials may place a lower valuation on the importance of religious gatherings than religious believers do. It is, therefore, important for religious leaders and communities to engage with government officials to influence them against setting restrictions that are unreasonable and excessive. Such engagement, along with litigation if deemed necessary, are ways of challenging restrictions on religious gatherings that may be unfair. Violating the regulations, however, is inconsonant with the Christian duty to be subject to the governing authorities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought much tragedy and difficulty on the world, Christians included. With numerous government regulations restricting what we used to know as normal life, it has also tested Christians' resolve to obey the apostolic commandment to "be subject to the governing authorities" (Rom. 13:1; 1 Pet. 2:13). My hope for Christian readers is that, having read this article, you will be better informed about how to do so. My hope for non-Christian readers is that, having read this article, you will be better informed about how Christians ought to be conducting themselves, and will join with me in condemning all disobedience and disrespect of governing authorities that claims to uphold "Christian values."

  • 1 All Scripture quotations are taken from the NRSV unless otherwise indicated.
  • 2 I have italicised "be subject to" in each case because I have altered the NRSV's translation, "accept the authority of." To "accept authority" is too abstract; the passive form of the verb hypotassō, literally to be put in place under, denotes a submissive relationship (see BDAG lexicon).
  • 3 BDAG define anhypotaktos here as, "pertaining to refusing submission to authority" (p. 91). The verb hypotassō is used for subjection to government authorities in 1 Peter 2:13, Romans 13:1, 5, and Titus 3:1. It is used for subjection to other authorities (parents, husbands, or masters) in Luke 2:51, Colossians 3:18, Titus 2:5, 8, and 1 Peter 2:18, 3:1, 3:5.

Sunday 5 September 2021

"Lord of lords" and "King of kings" as Hebraic Superlatives


This article delves briefly into the meaning of the expression "Lord of lords" as used in Scripture and, in particular, draws out the Christological implications of its application to Christ in two passages (Rev. 17:14; 19:16).

The New Testament books were all composed in Greek. However, because nearly all of their authors were Jews and they contain frequent quotations and echoes from the Hebrew Scriptures, an understanding of Hebrew can sometimes shed light on the meaning of New Testament expressions. The argument of this article is that "Lord of lords" is a Hebraism and should be understood as a superlative with a sense equivalent to "greatest Lord" or "supreme Lord." Before turning to the New Testament, we need some background on the construct chain superlative in biblical Hebrew.

Construct Chain Superlatives in the Hebrew Bible

Coulter H. George, Professor of Classics at the University of Virginia, explains an important difference between modern English and biblical Hebrew:
For, in contrast to English, where adjectives are inflected for three different degrees—positive (old), comparative (older), superlative (oldest)—Hebrew adjectives do not have this option, so the comparative or, as here, superlative has to be expressed differently, with the phrase 'X of Xs' being a favored way of getting across the idea 'the most X.' But since this is a structure that requires a plural and a construct chain, and therefore works better with nouns, we can see part of what it means for Hebrew to be a language that lets nouns do a little more work relative to adjectives than would be the case in English.1
Thus, a singular noun in construct state followed by the same noun in the plural is one way of expressing a superlative in biblical Hebrew.2 Bruce K. Waltke and M. O'Connor note that the construction need not to repeat the same noun but may consist of two similar nouns.3

Let us look at a few examples from the Hebrew Bible.4 In Noah's curse on Canaan in Genesis 9:25, he declares that Canaan will be a "slave of slaves" (עבד עבדים) to his brothers. "Slave of slaves" is a literal ("formally equivalent") translation of the Hebrew, but a dynamically equivalent translation, one that conveys the sense, would be "lowest of slaves" (NRSV).5 

The Torah's instructions for the tabernacle in Exodus 26:33-34 distinguish an area designated "the holy" (הקדש) from an area designated the "holy of holies" (קדש הקדשים). The latter place could only be accessed by the high priest, and even then only once per year, on the Day of Atonement. "Holy of holies" here conveys the sense, "most holy" (NRSV).

In Qoheleth [Ecclesiastes] 1:2, Qoheleth famously declares, "Vanity of vanities!" (הבל הבלים). Again, a dynamically equivalent translation would be, "Absolutely futile" (NET) or "Utter vanity!" Another book traditionally attributed to Solomon uses a construct chain superlative in its title: "The Song of Songs" (שיר השירים, Song of Solomon 1:1). The sense here is, "the greatest song," "the most wonderful song."6

In Isaiah 34:10, an oracle against Edom foretells that no one will pass through it for "perpetuity of perpetuities" (לנצח נצחים). The sense is "forever and ever," "for all eternity." A similar construction occurs in Daniel 7:18 (composed in Aramaic), where Daniel is told that the holy ones of the Most High would possess the kingdom for "perpetuity of perpetuities" (עלם עלמיא). The Old Greek version of Daniel renders this expression into Greek as eōs tou aiōnos tōn aiōnōn ("until the age of ages"), and a nearly identical phrase occurs in Greek Daniel 3:90. This construct chain superlative may therefore have influenced the phrase eis tous aiōnas tōn aiōnōn ("to the ages of ages"), which occurs frequently in the Greek New Testament (especially in the Book of Revelation) with the sense, "forever and ever."7

There are other examples,8 but our main interest lies in construct chain superlatives that are used of God. Certain human emperors such as Artaxerxes and Nebuchadnezzar are referred to (by themselves, and even by God) as "king of kings" (מלך מלכיא in Ezra 7:12, Dan. 2:37 Aramaic; מלך מלכים in Ezek. 26:7). Recognised as a construct chain superlative, this title can be dynamically translated, "greatest king" or "supreme king." In similar fashion, the biblical writers refer to Yahweh himself as אל(הי) אלהים ("God of gods", Deut. 10:17; Josh. 22:22; Ps. 50:1; 84:8; 136:2; Dan. 2:47)9 and אדני האדנים ("Lord of lords," Deut. 10:17; Ps. 136:3).10 Daniel is informed via a vision of a wicked future king who would rise against the שר שרים ("Prince of princes," Dan. 8:25); scholars debate whether this title refers to God himself or to Michael.11 The Hebrew Bible thus uses superlative constructions to describe Yahweh as "the greatest God" and "the supreme Lord."12 The title "king of kings" is also applied to God in Second Temple Jewish literature, though not in the Hebrew Bible itself.13 Notably, in the Old Greek version of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar qualifies his use of "king of kings" as a self-reference by acknowledging (after his seven-year humiliation) that it is the Most High, "God of gods and Lord of lords and Lord of kings," who has established him on his throne.

To summarise, then, the Hebrew Bible can refer to powerful human rulers as "king of kings," and (possibly) to an archangel as "prince of princes," but the titles "God of gods" and "Lord of lords" are reserved exclusively for Yahweh. All of these titles should be understood as superlatives, i.e. "supreme God," "supreme Lord," "supreme king," etc. Subsequent Jewish literature increasingly uses "King of kings" for God, applying the title to human rulers only in a qualified manner.

King of kings and Lord of lords in the New Testament

With this background in hand, we can turn to the New Testament. The expression "God of gods" does not occur, but "Lord of lords" and "King of kings" occur thrice each, always together (1 Tim. 6:15; Rev. 17:14; 19:16). In the first instance, the referent is God:
I charge you 14 to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. 16 It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. (1 Tim. 6:14-16 NRSV)
This passage is plainly emphasising God's exclusive divine status: note the repeated use of the adjective monos ("only"; "alone"). We should understand the author to be using the titles "King of kings" (ho basileus tōn basileuontōn) and "Lord of lords" (kyrios tōn kurieuontōn) as Hebraic superlatives; hence "supreme King" and "supreme Lord." These titles emphatically convey God's unique divine status and power.

Within the wider context of the Hebrew Bible, Second Temple literature and this text from 1 Timothy, it is therefore remarkable to find that in the Book of Revelation, the Jewish Christian author uses the titles "Lord of lords" and "King of kings" for Christ. In Revelation 17, John sees a vision that has obvious resonances with Daniel (e.g., evil kings represented by horns on a beast). An angel explains part of the vision to John, stating that these kings "will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords (kyrios kyriōn) and King of kings (basileus basileōn) ." In view of the Danielic connections, it is impossible not to see here an allusion to the "God of gods and Lord of kings" of Daniel 2:47, as well as to occurrences of the exact title "Lord of lords" in Deuteronomy 10:17 and Psalm 136:3.14 The author of Revelation therefore deliberately assigns a divine title to the Lamb, with meaning equivalent to "the Supreme Lord and King." Not content to do so once, the titles are repeated in Revelation 19:16, as the climax of a fearsome Christological vision.15

Christological Implications

What are the Christological implications of Jesus Christ being designated as "the supreme Lord and King," using a title ("Lord of lords") that is reserved exclusively for God in the Hebrew Bible? Two implications will be drawn out here: one concerning the Christological significance of the title kyrios and the other concerning the idea of Christ's supremacy.

Firstly, the application of this title to Jesus gives the lie to those who—to preserve a "low" Christology (or a confessional commitment to unitarianism)—downplay the Christological significance of the title kyrios. Such interpreters insist that, as used of Jesus Christ in the New Testament, kyrios designates master or ruler in an earthly sense.16 They emphasise that "God" (theos) is very rarely used of Christ in the New Testament, but overlook that "Lord" (kyrios)—one of the most common New Testament titles for Jesus—is just as lofty a title. Not only is kyrios the usual Greek translation of the Hebrew divine title אדני (which unitarians acknowledge is used only for God), but it is also the word usually used in the Septuagint to render the divine Name itself, יהוה, into Greek! If Christ, then, can be described as "the supreme Lord," can this be anything other than a divine claim? (This is not to deny, of course, that kyrios can be used in a mundane sense like "sir," "lord," "master," and is sometimes used of Jesus in this sense in the Gospels. But it is precisely texts like Revelation 17:14 and 19:16 that show conclusively that a much loftier sense is in view.)

It appears to this writer that, rather than the New Testament writers shying away from calling Christ theos and opting for what they saw as an inferior title, kyrios, they witness to the emergence of a pattern whereby the Father is typically designated theos and the Son kyrios (with some exceptions on both counts), these both being divine titles.17 The most striking occurrence of this pattern occurs in 1 Corinthians 8:6, where Paul quotes a creedal tradition that—according to the majority of New Testament scholars—splits the language of the Shema` (Deut. 6:4) between "one God, the Father" and "one Lord, Jesus Christ."18 It is remarkable that this text (like Ephesians 4:4-6) can profess belief in "one Lord" alongside "one God," without any qualification in light of the fact that Second Temple Judaism professed belief that God is the one Lord.19

Secondly, let us move beyond titles and reflect on what "supreme Lord and King" conveys conceptually about Christ's majesty and power. I am reminded of a post from several years ago on a unitarian apologetics Facebook page that commented on a 6th-century Byzantine depiction of Jesus as "Christ Pantokrator." The writer notes, "'Pantoraktor' [sic] is the Greek word for 'almighty.' Note that Scripture never refers to Jesus in this way; it is a title reserved exclusively for God." He goes on to observe that, in the painting, Christ looks beyond and away from the viewer, which "reflects the imperial aloofness with which Jesus was now associated. He is no longer a man: he is a god-emperor, like the original Caesars."

There are several problems with this argument. It presupposes a false dilemma, as though Jesus can either be human shepherd or divine emperor but not both, and that an artist who depicts him as one denies the other. If we take scenes from the New Testament, would we expect an artist painting the Transfiguration or the Ascension—or Jesus as envisioned in Revelation 1:12-15, for that matter—to depict him as making relatable eye contact with the viewer? A second problem with the argument is that it dwells too much on the title Pantokrator. While it is true that pantokratōr ("almighty"; "omnipotent") is not used of Christ in the New Testament, it is not a common word there (occurring only ten times, and in two books). Further undermining this argument from silence is the observation that the concept conveyed by pantokratōr is applied to Christ. Pantokratōr is a compound formed from pas ("all") and kratos ("might"; "power"; "sovereignty"). The operative question, therefore, is whether the New Testament ascribes universal power to Jesus. In the title "supreme Lord and King," we already have our answer. Of course, the evidence goes far beyond this. Since nine of the ten NT occurrences of pantokratōr for God are in Revelation, it is significant that this book twice ascribes kratos ("might") to the exalted Christ.20 Moreover, if we consider the occurrences of pantokratōr in Revelation, it is unlikely that the word is intended to emphasise God's power as distinct from Christ's.21 Meanwhile, other New Testament writings describe the exalted Christ as having been given "All authority in heaven and on earth" (Matt. 28:18), as "Lord of all" (Acts 10:36), as having "power that enables him...to bring all things into subjection to himself" (Phil. 3:21), as "before all things" (Col. 1:17), and as sustaining "all things by his powerful word" (Heb. 1:3). The question arises: what power is lacking in Christ, exactly, that he must be not be called Pantokratōr?22


In conclusion, then, with the Christological title "Lord of lords and King of kings" properly understood as designating Jesus the supreme Lord and King, we can recognise that the Book of Revelation offers a high Christology, in which Christ shares in the exclusive prerogatives of deity, such as absolute sovereignty over the cosmos. While this title is unparalleled in other New Testament texts, it is congruent with the high Christology that emerges from the letters of Paul and the letter to the Hebrews.

  • 1 Coulter H. George, How Dead Languages Work [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020], 211.
  • 2 This is by no means the only way that superlatives are expressed in biblical Hebrew. For a broader discussion, see D. Winton Thomas, "A Consideration of Some Unusual Ways of Expressing the Superlative in Hebrew," Vetus Testamentum 3 (1953): 209-24.
  • 3 Bruce K. Waltke and M. O'Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 267.
  • 4 Most of these are drawn from Waltke and O'Connor, Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 267.
  • 5 The Septuagint translator has also understood the expression to be idiomatic and has rendered it with pais oiketēs ("house slave"), which perhaps represents the lowest rank among slaves.
  • 6 The New Living Translation conveys the superlative sense with a gloss: "This is Solomon’s song of songs, more wonderful than any other."
  • 7 E.g., Gal. 1:5; Eph. 3:21; Phil. 4:20; 1 Tim. 1:17; 2 Tim. 4:18; Heb. 13:21; 1 Pet. 4:11; Rev. 1:6; 1:18; 4:9-10; 5:13; 7:12; 10:6; 11:15; 15:7; 19:3; 20:10; 22:5. Revelation 14:11 uses the anarthrous construction aiōnas aiōnōn. That this verse departs from the ordinary usage in Revelation is interesting, since Revelation 14:11 alludes to Isaiah 34:10, where a construct chain superlative occurs. The phrase eis tous aiōnas tōn aiōnōn is attested once in the Greek Old Testament, in Psalm 83:5. However, Psalm 84:5 MT does not have a construct chain superlative. The concept of a future eternity is nearly absent from the Hebrew Bible.
  • 8 Jeremiah 3:19 is an interesting case. The KJV renders, "How shall I put thee among the children, and give thee a pleasant land, a goodly heritage of the hosts of nations?" It follows the MT, which has צבי צבאות, literally, "beauty of hosts" of nations. However, many scholars argue that this should be emended to צבי צבות, literally "beauty of beauties." R. Abma states, "The word צבאות in the apposition צבי צבאות גוים is, in spite of the א, to be understood as a plural of the noun צבי ('beauty') rather than of the noun צבא ('host'). This is the only case that the noun צבי is found in the plural, so that this plural form may be an unconscious adjustment to the common plural צבאות (cf. the expression 'Yhwh of hosts'). The construction of two identical nouns with the second in the plural expresses a 'superlative idea'... which explains the translation 'an inheritance most beauteous among the nations." (Bonds of love: Methodic Studies of Prophetic Texts with Marriage Imagery (Isaiah 50:1-3 and 54:1-10, Hosea 1-3, Jeremiah 2-3) [Assen: Van Gorcum, 1999],  231). Hence, the NRSV has, "the most beautiful heritage of all the nations." In Jeremiah 6:28, Yahweh describes his people as סרי סוררים (literally, "rebels of rebels"). A dynamically equivalent translation would be, "the most stubborn of rebels" (NET).
  • 9 Daniel 2:47 (composed in Aramaic) reads אלה אלהין. The Old Greek version of Daniel adds several further references to God as the "God of gods" ([ὁ θεὸς τῶν θεῶν] in 3:90, 4:30a, 4:30c, 4:34, and 11:36.
  • 10 The nearly equivalent expression מרא מלכין ("Lord of kings") occurs in the Aramaic of Daniel 2:47, while the Old Greek version of Daniel 4:34 refers to the Most High as "God of gods and Lord of lords and Lord of kings."
  • 11 See Amy C. Merrill Willis, "Heavenly Bodies: God and the Body in the Visions of Daniel," in S. Tamar Kamionkowski and Wonil Kim (eds.), Bodies, Embodiment, and Theology of the Hebrew Bible (London: T&T Clark, 2010), 29-30 n. 63.
  • 12 The expression "the greatest God" (like its literal rendering, "God of gods") might seem to undermine monotheism, since it implies the existence of other gods. However, it is clear that monotheism is a concept that develops through the course of biblical revelation. In earlier strata of biblical literature one finds Israel called to monolatry (exclusive worship of God), who is understood as the highest member of a council of divine beings. The status of these other "gods" is gradually degraded until they are reduced to sub-divine beings like angels or demons.
  • 13 E.g., as (ὁ) βασιλεὺς (τῶν) βασιλέων in 2 Maccabees 13:4, 3 Maccabees 5:35.
  • 14 The Septuagint of both of these passages has the title in the form (ho) kyrios (tōn) kyriōn.
  • 15 That the one seen in this vision is Christ is evident not only from his wearing a robe dipped in blood, and the allusion to Psalm 2:9 ("he will rule them with a rod of iron"), but also from the correspondences with the vision in Revelation 1:12-18, where one who likewise has eyes like a flame of fire and a sharp sword coming from his mouth identifies himself to John as the one who lives and had been dead.
  • 16 See, for instance, my recent review of a unitarian polemical work, Review of and Response to The Doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity's Self-Inflicted Wound, especially pp. 9-10, 25-27.
  • 17 The Father is more commonly called kyrios than the Son theos, but this is to be expected due to (a) it being the established practice in Hellenistic Judaism to use kyrios for God, and (b) the application to the Father of biblical quotations containing the word kyrios.
  • 18 See further discussion of this text on pp. 16-18 of my recent Review and Response.
  • 19 See Deuteronomy 6:4 and Zechariah 14:9 (both MT and LXX). Note also the Old Greek version of Daniel 3:17, where Daniel's three friends testify, "there is one God who is in heaven, our one Lord, whom we fear, who is able to deliver us from the furnace of fire" (New English Translation of the Septuagint).
  • 20 "To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion (kratos) forever and ever. Amen." (Rev. 1:6 NRSV). A hymn in the throne vision of chapter 5 ascribes "blessing and honour and glory and might (kratos) forever and ever" "to the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb" (5:13). In 1 Peter 4:11 and 5:11, two doxologies ascribe kratos to Christ and to God, respectively.
  • 21 For instance, in the first instance (Rev. 1:8), the Lord God introduces himself as "the Alpha and Omega...the one who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty." "Alpha and Omega" (or its semantic equivalent, "first and last," drawn from deutero-Isaiah) are applied repeatedly to Christ in this book (1:17-18; 2:8; 22:13). In another instance, heavenly saints sing to "Lord God Almighty...king of the nations," in what is described as "the song of Moses...and the song of the Lamb." Since Revelation contains other songs sung about the Lamb but none sung by the Lamb, some scholars take the second genitive as objective: "the song about the Lamb" (see David E. Aune, Revelation 6-16 [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998], 872-73; Keith T. Marriner, Following the Lamb: The Theme of Discipleship in the Book of Revelation [Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2016], 174 n. 447). If so, the Lamb is at least indirectly included in the title pantokratōr. Moreover, God's "almighty" status is characterised in terms of his being "king of the nations," which is equivalent to what the book says elsewhere about Jesus, who is "ruler of the kings of the earth" (Rev. 1:5). In Revelation 19:15, it is Christ who treads out in the wine press the wrath of God Almighty. In Revelation 21:22, the new Jerusalem has the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb jointly as its temple.
  • 22 Note that the Church Fathers applied the title Pantokratōr to Jesus long before the famous sixth-century painting. According to Lampe's Patristic Greek Lexicon, the term is applied to the Son or the Logos already by second- and third-century writers like Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Hippolytus of Rome (G.W.H. Lampe, Patristic Greek Lexicon [Oxford: Clarendon, 1961], 1005.