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Showing posts with label Catholic. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Catholic. Show all posts

Thursday 4 January 2018

The Woman of Revelation 12: Good or Bad?

1. Introduction
2. The Traditional Christadelphian Interpretation
3. Problems with the Christadelphian Interpretation
4. The Woman's Appearance
5. Identifying the Woman
6. Conclusion

1. Introduction

A couple of years ago I wrote an article entitled The Male Child of Revelation 12: Constantine or Christ? There I challenged the traditional Christadelphian interpretation that the "male child" of Rev. 12:5 is Constantine, the fourth-century Roman emperor, and explained why biblical scholars universally agree that the male child is Christ. Unfortunately, this misidentification of the male child is just one of three major "wrong turns" that Christadelphian expositors have made in their reading of Revelation 12. The other two concern the meaning of the "woman clothed with the sun" (Rev. 12:1) and the "great red dragon" (Rev. 12:3) respectively. Although the dragon is explicitly identified as the Devil (Rev. 12:9), this does not resolve the issue for Christadelphians due to their idiosyncratic understanding of the biblical Devil. In fact, Christadelphians have traditionally regarded the dragon in Revelation as symbolizing the pagan Roman Empire. The dragon will not be discussed in detail in this article (but see note 22). Instead, this article examines the identity of the "woman clothed with the sun" who is the male child's mother in the vision. A translation of the most relevant verses of Revelation 12 is as follows:
1 A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth. 3 Then another sign appeared in the sky; it was a huge red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven diadems. 4 Its tail swept away a third of the stars in the sky and hurled them down to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, to devour her child when she gave birth. 5 She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and his throne. 6 The woman herself fled into the desert where she had a place prepared by God, that there she might be taken care of for twelve hundred and sixty days... 
13 When the dragon saw that it had been thrown down to the earth, it pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14 But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly to her place in the desert, where, far from the serpent, she was taken care of for a year, two years, and a half-year. 15 The serpent, however, spewed a torrent of water out of his mouth after the woman to sweep her away with the current. 16 But the earth helped the woman and opened its mouth and swallowed the flood that the dragon spewed out of its mouth. 17 Then the dragon became angry with the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring, those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus. (Rev. 12:1-6, 13-17 NABRE) 

Christadelphians have traditionally applied a historicist hermeneutic to the Book of Revelation, reading its signs and symbols as prophecies of significant historical events from the first century A.D. (when the book was written) through the present to the future consummation of all things. Within this historicist paradigm, Christadelphians have seen in chapter 12 of Revelation a prophecy concerning the political and ecclesiastical events of the fourth century A.D., particularly the rise of Constantine to the imperial throne and the consequent change of Christianity's political fortunes from persecuted underground movement to State-endorsed religion.

John Thomas, the founder of Christadelphians, wrote a voluminous work on Revelation entitled Eureka: An Exposition of the Apocalypse which set the tone for most Christadelphian interpretation of Revelation to follow.1 Thomas consistently assumed that cosmological terminology (e.g., sun, moon, heaven, earth) in Revelation denotes political realities. Thus he referred to the sun mentioned in Rev. 12:1 as "the Roman Sun," symbolic of imperial power that the pagan State surrendered under Constantine: "The total eclipse of the pagan sun...finally and effectually signalized the departure of the pagan heaven as a scroll rolled up."2 He adds that
the sun of imperial power and majesty emerged again from the hair-sackcloth blackness of the darkening and sanguinary revolution by which it had been obscured...Whatever the woman may signify, this investiture [with the sun] symbolizes the clothing of the thing signified with supreme imperial authority, so that whatever might emanate from the woman would be by the sanction and co-operation of the highest orders of the state.3
Thomas believed that the woman of Revelation 12 had to be interpreted in continuity with two negative female figures mentioned in the book: the pseudo-prophetess Jezebel mentioned in the oracle to Thyatira (Rev. 2:20-23) and the great prostitute Babylon seen in the vision of Rev. 17:1-6. Balancing this desire for continuity with the apparently positive things said about the woman of Revelation 12, Thomas arrived at a complex interpretive scheme in which the woman of Revelation 12 is a twofold woman:
Hence the figurative woman of ch. 12, invested with the Roman Sun, and fleeing from the Dragon, represents the whole ANTIPAGAN COMMUNITY; the vast majority of which answered to Jezebel and her children; while the remainder, with whom alone the doctrine of Christ was to be found, refused to have anything to do with a church in alliance with the "dreadful and terrible beast having seven heads and ten horns." These two divisions of the antipagans, though opposed on the question of church and state alliance, were agreed in their hostility to the ascendancy of the existing Imperial Idolatry, which grievously afflicted them all. The first ecclesiastical separation of these two divisions did not occur till after the birth of the woman's son, who was to rule all the Greek and Latin nations with an iron sceptre. When this event transpired, the anti-state church party repudiated the desecrating alliance with emperors and their courts. They refused to recognize the emperor's claim of being at once the representative of the Sixth Head of the Dragon, and Bishop of the Bishops of Christ. The truth was with this party. They seceded; and by their secession incurred the enmity and bitter hostility of the New Church imperially established. The secessionists became the subject of virulent persecution by this new power, which caused them to take refuge in the wilderness. In this flight they are prefigured by the woman, who therefore leaves behind her the sun and moon, and wreath of twelve stars...But, though "the Lamb's Woman" refused to be,allied to the Roman State, and retired into the wilderness, the State-Church Woman, Jezebel, was not so scrupulous. As "the church by law established" she retained her place in the heaven; and became "the Great Harlot" of the world. Little notice is taken of her apocalyptically until she is exhibited in ch. 17:1, in all the enormity of her profligate career. In this scene, she appears in the wilderness, into which the Anti-State Church Woman fled... What a remarkable contrast between these two apocalyptic women. The one, Jezebel, the Great Harlot and the Mother of Harlots; the other, the Lamb's wife and the Mother of all the Saints.4
Thus, according to John Thomas Revelation 12 foretells a struggle between Christians and pagans, but also a struggle between two women representing two constituencies within the Church: the false woman Jezebel who aligned herself with imperial power, and so became the great prostitute of Revelation 17, and the true woman who refused to so align herself and thus seceded from the Church. What historical individuals and groups does Thomas identify with this true woman?
But when Constantine came to recognize the catholic sect as his Mother Church, what became of the rest of the Anti-pagan Body — "the whole body of the Christians" besides, namely, of the Novatians, Donatists, Valentinians, Marcionites, Paulists, Cataphrygians, and others? They were still "the Woman," only minus the catholic sect. Whatever other differences obtained among them, they were generally opposed to the union of church and state; for, as all of them could not be the world's church, they were displeased at any one sect enjoying that pre-eminence over the rest. "What," said they, "has the emperor to do with the church? What have Christians to do with kings, or what have bishops to do at court?" Hence, without ceasing to be anti-pagan, they now became an ANTI-CATHOLIC BODY. This was the Woman" of the sixth verse of this twelfth chapter — the ANTI-CATHOLIC WOMAN.5
In short, whatever non-Catholic sects existed in fourth-century Christianity, Thomas lumps together as "the anti-Catholic woman." He hastens to add that this anti-Catholic woman cannot be straightforwardly identified with Christ's faithful church, "for there were sects in her communion whose principles and practices were both worldly and unscriptural"; nevertheless he infers from Rev. 12:17 the existence of a faithful remnant, whom he likens to the Christadelphians of his own day. Thomas takes particular interest in the Donatists, with whose cause he identifies the flight into the wilderness in Rev. 12:6. He qualifies,
There was, doubtless, error and wrong-doing both with the Donatists and Catholics; but, as from among the Anti-baptist Campbellites was originated...by the laver of the water with doctrine (Eph. 5:26), the CHRISTADELPHIAN DENOMINATION; so from among the anti-catholic Donatists began to be manifested in the three years of their trials before Constantine and his bishops, by the sealing angel that had ascended from the East (Apoc. 7:2), the first of "the remnants of the woman's seed, who keep the commandments of the Deity, and hold the testimony of the anointed Jesus." The name of this first remnant, if it had any other than Donatist, has not come down to us. But it matters not what it was called in its beginning—it was the sect composed of 'the servants of the Deity sealed in their foreheads.' This is the apocalyptic description of it. Arising in the epoch of the Donatist trials, and being with the Donatists intensely anti-catholic, it is very likely to have been confounded with them...6
Let us be clear about what Thomas is doing in this paragraph. He believes the historical circumstances of the Donatists fit the text of Rev. 12:6 well, but he knows that what is known of Donatist doctrine does not align with Christadelphian doctrine. Because he cannot claim the Donatists as the spiritual forebears of Christadelphians, he imagines into existence, without a shred of historical evidence, a group that broke away from the Donatists and shared identical doctrines with modern-day Christadelphians. This is about as fanciful and speculative as biblical interpretation gets!

John Thomas's protégé and successor as de facto leader of the Christadelphian community, Robert Roberts, upheld his mentor's view in his own work Thirteen Lectures on the Apocalypse. "There is no difficulty," Roberts explained, "in seeing whom [the woman of Revelation 12] symbolizes." She represents "the community of those who belong to Christ", but more specifically "Christ's church or ecclesia in Christ's absence and in the land of his enemies." He emphasizes that the woman here is not in an exalted state but a "mixed state" that includes those "who are in her and of her" but "do not belong to her". As Roberts moves to the sun, moon and stars imagery, the interpretation moves decisively in a political direction. To be clothed with the sun means to have the political ascendancy that comes with the emperor Constantine's friendship. To have the moon under her feet means to have absorbed the pagan priesthood into the Church. To wear a diadem of twelve stars means to bear the power of the pagan emperors of the past.7

It thus appears that, far from merely having "many in her and of her" who do not belong to her, the Church has already been thoroughly corrupted by political and pagan influence at the beginning of the vision. Roberts then discusses the dragon and the male child, understood as pagan Rome and Constantine respectively, before commenting on v. 6. He admits that the woman's flight into the wilderness "seems a strange sequel" to her being robed and crowned with political power, but like Thomas he attempts to explain this paradox in terms of an internal division of the Christian community into the false Christians who "continued in the sun-invested position" of political power and the remnant of true Christians who refused to become involved in political and military affairs but kept the commandments of God as mentioned in v. 17.
Broadly viewed, they were both one community and therefore in relation to the Pagan dragon, one woman. In another relation of things, they were two -- the one the shell, the other the kernel -- the one the shadow, the other the substance. To the one class, Jesus tells us he will say in the day of account, "I never knew you" (Matt. 7:23). To the other, he will unite himself in glorious marriage as a bridegroom to a bride. In the ultimate aspect of things, the latter class only are the woman -- the Bride, the Lamb's wife; and although in relation to the aspects of human history, the nominal are part of the woman as well as the true, yet in even the current recognitions of Christ, the true only are the woman. The false are finally symbolized in the Apocalypse as a shameless prostitute.8
Thus the pioneers of Christadelphia understood the woman of Revelation 12 as the Church of the fourth century, a community that had been largely corrupted by political and pagan influence but included a faithful remnant that had seceded from the main catholic Church. In short, the woman of Revelation 12 is largely a negative figure. Indeed she is the same woman as that seen in Revelation 17, where she has become the great prostitute, Babylon.

This strategy for interpreting the woman of Revelation 12 still prevails among Christadelphians today. David Green, for example, in a recent article on Revelation 12, explains that the woman in Revelation is "The church, chaste as the bride of Christ, a prostitute when apostate".9 He goes on to explain "The dual aspect of the woman":
Why is it that in Revelation 12:1 the vision shows the church as a woman in the political heavens, glorified and powerful, and yet by verse 6 she is seen fleeing into the wilderness? The answer lies in the fact that the Christian church split into two distinct sections, the majority exercising power and the minority being persecuted. So it was that one woman became two.10
Green follows Thomas in arguing that "the woman in the wilderness" of Rev. 12:6 refers to the Donatist schismatics,11 and hypothesizing the existence of a remnant, apparently within the Donatists, that "had a knowledge of the Truth," i.e. held to Christadelphian theology (despite a total absence of historical evidence for such a group).12

To summarise, the traditional Christadelphian interpretation holds that the woman of Revelation 12 is the Church of the fourth century, a community that was largely disobedient, power-hungry and doctrinally corrupt (as the symbols of the sun, moon and stars signify) but that included a nameless remnant lost to history who believed Christadelphian doctrines and were persecuted by the larger Catholic Church.

I would like to issue a challenge to Christadelphians who favour the interpretation outlined above. This interpretation regards the woman of Revelation 12 as largely evil and in continuity with "that woman Jezebel" in Rev. 2:20-23 and the great prostitute Babylon in Rev. 17-18. In both Rev. 2:20-23 and Rev. 17-18 there is unmistakably negative imagery indicating unambiguously that the woman symbolizes an evil entity. "Jezebel" is named for a wicked Old Testament queen, is accused of practicing immorality and adultery and seducing others to do the same, and is warned of impending judgment if she does not repent. "Babylon" is named for a wicked Old Testament kingdom, is called a prostitute, is accused of sexual immorality and abominations, and her judgment and total desolation is foretold. My challenge to Christadelphians is this: where is this unambiguously negative language in Revelation 12? Where is the woman of Revelation 12 given a bad name, accused of anything or warned of impending judgment? I cannot find anything negative said about the woman in Revelation 12. The alleged negativity seems to be tied up in dubious interpretations of two other symbols in the chapter: the notion that the male child of Rev. 12:5 symbolizes Constantine, and the notion that the sun, moon and stars of Rev. 12:1 symbolize political ascendancy and/or religious corruption. I have dealt with the male child (who is clearly Christ) elsewhere, so will consider the symbolism of Rev. 12:1 below.

The second problem with the Christadelphian interpretation is that it requires the woman of Revelation 12 to be a dual figure who is sharply divided into two women: the Jezebel/Babylon prostitute figure and the Bride, the righteous remnant. However, the text of Revelation 12 does not indicate any such duality. The dual figure seems to rest entirely on assumption about "the rest of her offspring...those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus" (Rev. 12:17), namely that this group stands in moral and ecclesiastical opposition to the woman herself, or to the bulk of her offspring. However, the text does not indicate any such moral opposition or division. As will be discussed below, "the rest of her offspring" means besides Jesus himself, the woman's offspring par excellence.

The absence of any negative language used of the woman in Revelation 12 contrasts sharply with female figures in Rev. 2:20-23 and Rev. 17:1-6, whose negative characteristics are described in lurid detail. This contrast, together with the absence of any explicit duality or internal division in the woman, makes it extremely unlikely that the author of Revelation intends the reader to understand the woman of Revelation 12 as a morally compromised figure.

The vision is introduced with, "And a great sign appeared in heaven". Christadelphian expositors typically assume that "heaven" here refers to the "political heavens", a widely used and highly dubious notion in interpretation of biblical apocalyptic. However, the "heaven" described in this chapter is the abode of Michael and his angels (Rev. 12:7). Michael is unquestionably an actual angel (cf. Jude 9), and angels inhabit actual heaven (Gen. 22:11; 28:12; Matt. 18:10; Mark 12:25; Rev. 10:1; etc.), not any earthly political heaven. Throughout Revelation we read of voices from heaven, the God of heaven, God's temple in heaven, etc. Thus it should be regarded as very likely that "heaven" in Rev. 12:1 means "heaven"! Corroborating this, the Bride of the Lamb, the new Jerusalem, is later depicted as "coming down from heaven" (Rev. 21:2, 9-10). This corresponds also with other New Testament passages where a transcendent Jerusalem is described as heavenly (Gal. 4:26; Heb. 11:16; 12:22-23). Rather than viewing the heavenly location of the sign as some indication of the woman's political connections, we should take it as an indication that the woman represents a transcendent reality, namely the elect people of God.13

Rather than relying on the fanciful, speculative political interpretation of the woman's garb, let us seek to ground our interpretation in biblical background. Before considering the significance of the sun, moon and stars, let us consider the significance of her wearing bright clothing and a crown (garland, to be precise). In Ps. 104:1-2, God clothes himself "with light as with a garment". Within Revelation, both the one like a son of man (Rev. 1:16) and a mighty angel (Rev. 10:1) have their faces likened to the brightness of the sun, while clothing, especially white or bright robes, represent purity and sanctity (Rev. 3:4-5; 4:4; 6:11; 7:9; 7:13-14; 19:14). Most strikingly, Rev. 19:8 states concerning the Lamb's Bride, "It was granted to her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure - for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints." The Greek word translated "bright" here, lampros, can depict the brightness of heavenly bodies, as in Rev. 22:16, "I, Jesus...the bright morning star." There is no instance in Revelation of white or light-coloured clothing symbolizing something negative. Garlands/crowns also have predominantly a positive connotation in Revelation (2:10; 3:11; 4:4; 4:10; 14:14; but see 6:2; 9:7). Thus, prima facie the picture of a brightly clothed, crowned figure in heaven suggests a righteous entity in good standing with God.

What does the sun, moon and stars imagery add to this picture? Prigent observes how 
Isaiah announces to the new Jerusalem, to whom he addresses himself as the bride of Yahweh, the mother of the eschatological people of God, that she will appear in divine light and beauty: 'Your sun shall no longer set, nor shall your moon disappear' (Isa 60:20).14
Joseph's dream recounted in Gen. 37:9, in which the sun, moon and eleven stars represent his father, mother and brothers respectively, also support interpreting the woman's garb as representing corporate Israel, with the twelve stars denoting the twelve tribes.15 Elsewhere in Revelation, imagery involving the number twelve is explicitly associated with the twelve tribes of Israel. In Rev. 7:4-8, the number of the sealed, 144 000, is divided into twelve groups of 12 000 each according to "every tribe of the sons of Israel." Again, the description of the new Jerusalem in Revelation 21—which city is explicitly identified with "the Bride, the wife of the Lamb" (Rev. 21:9-10)includes twelve gates inscribed with "the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel." The number twelve never takes on a negative significance in Revelation. The sun and the moon may represent majesty and beauty.16

For these reasons, the description of the woman in Rev. 12:1 best coheres with the interpretation that she denotes the elect people of God. This is the consensus among biblical scholars, although it is debated whether the woman denotes Israel, the Church or both.17 If the woman is Israel, then her plural "offspring" may be understood as Christians,18 or perhaps Gentile Christians specifically. This would correspond with Revelation 7, where the 144 000 sealed on their foreheads represent only the twelve tribes of Israel, with Gentile believers mentioned separately as the "great multitude...from every nation" (Rev. 7:9).19 If, on the other hand, the woman is understood to be the Messianic Community (that which became the Church) without regard to ethnicity, then the woman's plural "offspring" should probably not be sharply distinguished from the woman herself. Perhaps the woman represents the Church in a more idealized or abstract sense, while "the rest of her offspring" refer concretely to individual believers who would suffer persecution in the future.20 For me, in light of Rev. 7:4-9, the most likely eventuality is that the woman denotes the faithful of the house of Israel while the "rest of her offspring" denote Gentile believers. In either case, it is important to note that "the rest of her offspring" who hold to the testimony of Jesus are not "the rest" in relation to other, disobedient offspring, but in relation to Jesus himself, the "male child"—the only other "offspring" of the woman previously mentioned in Revelation 12.21 This coincides with the theology of Paul, who depicts Christ as "the firstborn among many brothers" (Rom. 8:29) and also understands "offspring" or "seed" in Old Testament promises as both singular (Christ) and plural (his brethren) (Gal. 3:16, 29).

If we summarize the symbolic narrative concerning the woman in Revelation 12, it is evident that nothing negative is said about her. Her luminous appearance underscores her transcendent status as the people of God. Her conflict with the dragon-serpent (identified in the text as the Devil, evidently an angelic being)22 concerning her offspring no doubt reflects Gen. 3:15. She gives birth to the Messiah and then flees to a place of refuge prepared for her by God (v. 6). She is given the wings of the great eagle (cf. Isa. 40:31), nourished in the wilderness and protected from the dragon's flood in language that reflects Old Testament narratives such as the story of Elijah and the Exodus (v. 14).

Furthermore, the entirely favourable depiction of the woman in Revelation 12 rules out the possibility that the great prostitute of Revelation 17 (described in lurid terms) is the same woman, as has been asserted by Christadelphian writers. A study of Revelation 17 will have to await a future article, but the woman of Revelation 12 in fact represents the antithesis of the woman in Revelation 17.23

Finally, the dominant and correct interpretation of the woman of Revelation 12 as the people of God does not rule out a secondary interpretation, popular in Church history, in which the woman is identified the Virgin Mary. This is because the Virgin Mary, besides being the literal mother of the "male child" Jesus, is the embodiment of the faithful people of God who await the Messiah, and the new Eve who is victorious over the dragon-serpent where the first Eve failed.


  • 1 John Thomas, Eureka: An Exposition of the Apocalypse, 5 vols. (Adelaide: Logos Publications, 1869/1992).
  • 2 Thomas, Eureka 4:33.
  • 3 Thomas, Eureka 4:34.
  • 4 Thomas, Eureka 4:39-41.
  • 5 Thomas, Eureka 4:121.
  • 6 Thomas, Eureka 4:124-25.
  • 7 Robert Roberts, Thirteen Lectures on the Apocalypse (Birmingham: published by author, 1880), 113-114.
  • 8 Roberts, Thirteen Lectures, 117.
  • 9 David Green, "Understanding Revelation 12, Part 1: Symbols and background history," The Testimony, November 2005 (2005): 430, accessed at http://www.testimony-magazine.org/back/nov2005/green1.pdf
  • 10 David Green, "Understanding Revelation 12, Part 2: The interpretation of Revelation 12:1-4," The Testimony, January 2006 (2006): 26, accessed at http://testimony-magazine.org/back/jan2006/green.pdf
  • 11 Green, "Understanding Revelation 12, Part 2," 26.
  • 12 David Green, "Understanding Revelation 12, Part 3: The interpretation of Revelation 12:5-17," The Testimony, February 2006 (2006): 64, accessed at http://www.testimony-magazine.org/back/feb2006/green.pdf
  • 13 "The heavenly character and the extraordinary ornaments of the person thus identified pose no problem. Once we admit that every earthly reality of whatever importance has its place in the plan of God and thus has a heavenly counterpart (which is obviously the case for the Church), all of the features of this description lend themselves to an explanation as the echoes of prophetic texts." (Pierre Prigent, Commentary on the Apocalypse of St. John, trans. Wendy Pradels [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004], 378).
  • 14 Prigent, Commentary on the Apocalypse, 378-79.
  • 15 "The picture of the woman is based on Gen. 37:9 (cf. T. Naph. 5:3), where sun, moon, and eleven stars are metaphorical respectively for Jacob, his wife, and the eleven tribes of Israel. All these bow down to Joseph, representing the twelfth tribe. The depiction could also reflect the portrayal in Judaism of Abraham, Sarah and their progeny as sun, moon, and stars (T. Ab. [B] 7:4-16); in Midr. Rab. Num. 2:13 the sun symbolizes Abraham, the moon Isaac, and the stars Jacob and the seed of the patriarchs. The twelve stars represent the twelve tribes of Israel. The woman's appearance may also connote Israel's priestly character (cf. 1:6; 5:10), since in Philo's and Josephus's explanation of Exod. 28; 39 they use the imagery of a crown, the sun, moon, and twelve stars in describing the vestments of the Israelite high priests because they represented the twelve tribes before Yahweh in the temple service (see Josephus, Ant. 3.164-172, 179-187; Philo, Moses 2.111-112; 122-124; Spec. Laws 1.84-95). In fact, in these same texts the parts of the priestly garment symbolizing sun, moon, and stars are explicitly said to symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel. Such dual imagery was meant to indicate that Israel on earth also had an inviolable heavenly identity." (G. K. Beale and Sean M. McDonough, "Revelation", in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007], 1122 ).
  • 16 "In the OT imagery of the sun, moon, and stars has a broad spectrum of connotations, centering primarily on Yahweh's control over the constellations (Jer. 31:35): they praise and witness to God (Ps. 19:1-4; 148:3), symbolize endurance (Ps. 72:5) and are darkened on the day of wrath (Isa. 13:10; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15). In Ps. 104:2 Yahweh 'clothes himself with light like a garment,' showing that the woman being 'clothed with the sun' connotes majesty. 'The moon' in the OT signifies beauty (Song 6:10) and glory (Isa. 24:23; 30:26). The moon being 'under her feet' stresses her reign or dominion. The 'crown' is used in the Apocalypse to show the reign of Christ (14:14), the dominion of the twenty-four elders (4:4, 10), or the future reign of his people (2:10 [the 'victory wreath' of life]; 3:11). For the rider on the white horse (6:2) or the demonic locusts (9:7), the 'crown' is a temporary rule that God has sovereignly allowed the forces of evil. Thus, like the 'moon under her feet,' the 'crown of twelve stars' signifies the victory and glory that God has given people. The 'twelve stars' are generally taken to be the twelve tribes (Kraft, Prigent, Roloff, Thomas, Beale) or the twelve tribes and the twelve apostles (Sweet, Mounce) or the church itself (Lohmeyer 1926: 96 calls this 'ideal Israel'), though some have taken this as a reference to the signs of the zodiac (R. Charles, Beckwith, Beasley-Murray, Aune)."(Grant R. Osborne, Revelation [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002], 456-57).
  • 17 "Could it then be the people of God of the old covenant, the community of Israel which can indeed be seen as the mother of the Messiah and of the Christian Church? Or  more likely still as the faithful Israel, the chosen people whose existence is prolonged by the Judeo-Christian Church? But this identification once again hits a snag, in the form of the observation that the book of Revelation never seems to distinguish between the people of God of the old and the new covenants, except in order to show that the latter fulfill the prophecies detected in the history of the former. Furthermore, we should recall that we have not felt justified in distinguishing in Revelation any trace of the problem of Jewish vs. Gentile Christianity. The present text does not seem capable of overturning these conclusions. We must therefore identify the woman as the Church, although it should immediately be recalled that for our author, the Church has taken root in the history of Israel." (Prigent, Commentary on the Apocalypse, 378); "This woman is surely the bride, the heavenly Jerusalem (19:7-8; 21:9-10), antithesis of the harlot (Rome) (17:14; 18:16)." (Wilfrid J. Harrington, Revelation [Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2008], 128 n. 1); "The woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars (v. 1) sounds like the goddess Isis (so Apuleius, Metamorphoses 11:3-4), but such an identification would not fit this context. In this context, she can only be the people of God who are about to give birth to the Messiah. The imagery of the Jewish people giving birth to the Messiah is found already in Isa. 26:17-18 LXX and at Qumran (1 QH 3:4)." (Charles H. Talbert, The Apocalypse: A Reading of the Revelation of John [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994], 48.); "It is much more likely that he has combined a great many themes from historical and mythical woman/mother images in Israel's and the church's past, present, and future and fashioned them thematically into a representation of the church's corporate existence." (Brian K. Blount, Revelation: A Commentary [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009], 225); "Therefore it seems likely that the woman here represents Israel, the people of God (with 12:17, where she represents the church, we can conclude that she represents the whole people of God, Israel and the church)." (Osborne, Revelation, 456); "What can be asked, given the fact that many of John's readers would be Jewish, is what identification would a Jewish individual immediately make with the radiant woman clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, and a crown of 12 stars on her head? For any Jewish reader this would call to mind the dream of Joseph recorded in Genesis 37, a dream that failed to endear Joseph to his 11 brothers. The second of Joseph's two dreams, recorded in Genesis 37:9, saw the sun, moon, and 11 stars bowing down to Joseph; and the similarity of the two visions would be brought to any Jewish mind, especially given the propensity of John to be influenced by the Old Testament. The woman is clothed with the sun, the moon is under her feet, and she has a crown of 12 stars on her head, evidently representing the 12 tribes of Israel... The only effective identification of the radiant woman, then, is to see her as the ethnic offspring of Abraham, the Jewish people. This accounts for the fact that many scholars have claimed that the radiant woman is representative of the Jewish nation, which gives birth to the Messiah." (Paige Patterson, Revelation [Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2012], 297); "The woman is not Mary the mother of Jesus but the messianic community, the ideal Israel. Zion as the mother of the people of God is a common theme in Jewish writings (Isa 54:1; II Esdr 10:7; cf. Gal 4:26). It is out of faithful Israel that Messiah will come. It should cause no trouble that within the same chapter the woman comes to signify the church (vs. 17). The people of God are one throughout all redemptive history" (Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977], 236); "There are, indeed, two Jerusalems in Revelation. There is New Jerusalem which comes down from heaven in the new creation. Like the harlot Babylon, the New Jerusalem is both a woman and a city: the bride and the wife of the Lamb (19:7; 21:2, 9) and 'the holy city the New Jerusalem' (21:2), 'the city of my God' (3:12). Babylon and the New Jerusalem are the contrasting pair of women-cities which dominates the later chapters of Revelation. But as well as the New Jerusalem of the future, there is also 'the holy city' of 11:2 and the heavenly woman of 12:1-6, 13-17. The city of 11:2 is not the earthly Jerusalem, in which Revelation shows no interest, and 11:1-2 does not allude to the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, when the sanctuary in the temple was certainly not protected from the Roman armies. John is here reinterpreting Daniel's prophecies of the desecration of the temple (Dan. 8:9-14; 11:31; 12:11) and perhaps also the prophecies in the Gospels, dependent on Daniel, which prophesied the fall of Jerusalem (Matt. 24:15; Mark 13:14; Luke 21:20-4). He is reinterpreting them to refer to the persecution of the church in the symbolic three-and-a-half year period of the church's conflict with the Roman Empire. The holy city trampled by the Gentiles is the faithful church in its suffering and martyrdom at the hands of the beast. The sanctuary with its worshippers is the hidden presence of God to those who worship him in the churches... For the same period in which the sanctuary is protected, in which the holy city is trampled and the witnesses prophesy (11:1-3), the heavenly woman who has given birth to the Messiah is kept safe in the wilderness (12:6, 13-16), while the dragon, frustrated in his pursuit of her, turns his attacks onto her children (12:13-17). Her refuge in the wilderness is an alternative symbol for the same spiritual safety of the church in persecution as is depicted by the protection of the sanctuary in 11:1-2. She is kept safe while the beast rules and puts her children to death (13:5-7). She is the mother of Jesus and of Christians—Eve and Mary, Israel, Zion and the church all combined in an image of the spiritual essence of the covenant people of God. She is the female figure corresponding to the holy city of 11:2" (Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993], 126-28).
  • 18 "The 'offspring' of the woman and their identification as those who 'hold to the testimony of Jesus,' make it virtually certain that two separate groups are intended. The radiant woman, representing ethnic Israel is one object of Satan's fury. But the saints of the church—every follower of Jesus who bears his testimony—become the final object of satanic hatred. Since God remains beyond the reach of Satan, the devil's wrath against God is transferred to the two objects still partially within his sphere; Israel and the church of Jesus Christ" (Patterson, Revelation, 308).
  • 19 Marius Heemstra, The Fiscus Judaicus and the Parting of the Ways [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010], 132.
  • 20 "We should remark that the action of the dragon, which is presented here as new, is not fundamentally different from his enterprises against the woman (the people of God, the Church): it is the same intention that motivates the Adversary. That is why one must not distinguish the Christians described in v. 17, those who keep God's commandments and maintain the testimony of Jesus, from those who were implicitly described in the symbolic figure of the woman. When the text now speaks of 'the rest of her offspring', it is obviously by way of allusion to the prophecy contained in Gen 3:15: the time has now come when the posterity of the woman is called to confront victoriously the hostility of the serpent." (Prigent, Commentary on the Apocalypse, 395); "Others (P. Hughes 1990: 142-43; Glasson 1965: 78) have said the contrast is between the Palestinian church (the woman) and the Gentile church (the offspring), but there is no basis for that in the book (see Krodel 1989: 246). Still others (Mounce, Michaels, Johnson) believe the contrast is between the male seed, Christ (12:5, 13), and the church (12:13-17). Finally, some (Swete, Ladd, Caird, Krodel, Beale) see a contrast between the woman as the 'ideal church' from a heavenly perspective (12:6, 13-16) and the 'offspring' as the earthly church seen as a whole (12:17). In favor of this would be the depiction of hte woman in 12:1-2 as 'in heavene' and the idea of mother Zion bearing her children in Isa. 66:7-8. These last two options are not antithetical and together provide the solution. The 'rest of her offspring' is the church down through the ages as well as in this final three-and-a-half year period of history... σπέρμα (normally used of the male line) is found only here in the book and alludes to Gen. 3:15, where God curses the serpent" (Osborne, Revelation, 485); "The most plausible view is that the woman in vv. 6, 13-16 depicts the church (and the suffering she undergoes) as she is seen from the ideal, eternal, or heavenly perspective, and her offspring in v. 17 depict the multitude of individual believers (and the suffering they experience) as seen from an earthly or historical perspective." (G. K. Beale, Revelation: A Shorter Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015], 262-63).
  • 21 "Beale (264) thinks that the phrase "the rest of the offspring" implies that those mentions in vv. 6, 13-16 are also the woman's offspring. But 'rest of' could also relate to Christ the male child. They are "the siblings of the messianic son—that is, the church, the same entity symbolized by the two witnesses in chapter 11" (Blount, Revelation: A Commentary, 241-42); "Then the dragon was angry with the woman (= the people of God, up to this point apparently Israel) and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring (i.e., besides the Messiah, Jesus), on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus (= Christians) (v. 17). When Satan is unable to devour the Messiah, he tries to destroy the Jewish people. When he is unable to do that, he goes off to war against the Christians. Chapter 12, then, lays the foundation for the dragon's hostility toward Christians" (Talbert, The Apocalypse, 51).
  • 22 Rev. 12:9 identifies the dragon as the Devil/Satan, the deceiver of the whole world. Inasmuch as the dragon has "angels" and does battle with "Michael and his angels" (Michael indisputably being an actual angel), the dragon can only be understood as an angelic being. This is corroborated by his being described in v. 10 as "the accuser of our brethren...who accuses them day and night before our God." This describes a being who has access to the heavenly court to accuse the people of God, reflecting Old Testament narratives in which the Satan functions as a heavenly prosecutor (Job 1-2; Zech. 3:1-2). For a full argument for identifying the New Testament Devil as a supernatural being, see my forthcoming article in the Journal of Theological Studies.
  • 23 "This woman [in Revelation 12] is surely the bride, the heavenly Jerusalem (19:7-8; 21:9-10), antithesis of the harlot (Rome) (17:14; 18:16)." (Harrington, Revelation, 128 n. 1); "Thus the New Jerusalem of the future, the bride of the Lamb, has both a forerunner in the present and an opposite in the present. The forerunner is the holy city, mother Zion. The opposite is Babylon, the great whore." (Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 128).

Friday 15 December 2017

The Definition of a Catholic according to a Christadelphian Polemicist

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

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

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

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

1. Catholics are superficially religious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Catholic worship music is self-evidently bad.

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Tuesday 28 November 2017

Christadelphians and Catholics: Prospects for Dialogue

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

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

How Christadelphians view Catholicism

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Catholics view Christadelphians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ecumenical versus Inter-religious Dialogue

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

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

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

Common Ground between Christadelphians and Catholics

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


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


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