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Showing posts with label Gospel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gospel. Show all posts

Friday 17 June 2016

'The things concerning' (Acts 8:12) in Christadelphian theology: a critical assessment

There are probably few passages of Scripture that have done as much heavy lifting in Christadelphian dogmatic theology as Acts 8:12. In the KJV the verse reads thus:
But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.
The phrase 'the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ' has taken on a life of its own in Christadelphian usage. For example:
  • The 1877 Birmingham Statement of Faith took its title from this verse: 'A Statement of the Things Concerning the Kingdom of God and the Name of Jesus Christ, Set Forth in a Series of Thirty-Four Scripture-Attested Propositions'
  • The same Statement of Faith was structurally built around this phrase, with its articles divided into two sections covering 'the things of the kingdom of God' and 'the things concerning the name of Jesus Christ' respectively
  • The phrase still functions as an overarching structure in the Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith (BASF) used by the majority of Christadelphian ecclesias today. Articles 17 and 18 state:
  • 17. That the Gospel consists of "The things concerning the Kingdom of God and the Name of Jesus Christ."
    18. That the "Things of the Kingdom of God" are the facts testified concerning the Kingdom of God in the writings of the prophets and apostles, and definable as in the next 12 paragraphs.1
  • Some Christadelphian 'first principles' teaching materials have taken their titles from this verse2 
  • Numerous Christadelphian websites quote this phrase to summarize their beliefs.3
The traditional Christadelphian view has been that one must understand 'the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ' prior to baptism for the baptism to be valid (i.e. regenerative).4 This idea can be traced right back to the book that launched the Christadelphian movement, Elpis Israel (originally published in 1848). There, Christadelphian founder Dr. John Thomas emphasizes,
The difficulty lies, not in getting men to be dipped, but in first getting them to believe "the things concerning the kingdom of God and the Name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 8:12)5
One major section of the book is subtitled, 'The Things of the Kingdom of God, and the Name of Jesus Christ'. Here, Dr. Thomas explains:
As a whole "the truth" is defined as "the things concerning the Kingdom of God and the Name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 8:12). This phrase covers the entire ground upon which the "one faith," and the "one hope," of the gospel are based; so that if a man believe only the "things of the kingdom," his faith is defective in the "things of the name;" or, if his belief be confined to the "things of the name," it is deficient in the "things of the kingdom." There can be no separation of them recognised in a "like precious faith" (2Pet. 1:1) to that of the apostles. They believed and taught all these things; God hath joined them together, and no man need expect His favour who separates them; or abolishes the necessity of believing the things He has revealed for faith.6
He thus infers that 'The gospel is not preached when the things of the kingdom are omitted.'7 And finally:
God's salvation is placed in the name of Jesus; and this name is accessible to mankind only upon the condition of believing the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus," and being baptized by his name.8
The simple but radical corollary of this doctrine is that those who lack, or disagree with, any point of Christadelphians' systematic, propositional understanding of 'the things concerning' at the time of their baptism are ontologically non-Christian, because they are not validly baptized.

There are positives that should be recognized in Christadelphian use of the phrase 'the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ'. There is, of course, nothing wrong with the phrase itself; it is an excellent summary of the Christian faith. Moreover, its use has helped preserve a salvation-historical and eschatological emphasis in Christadelphian teaching that is marginalized or absent in the teaching of many churches. Its use as a minimum standard of Bible knowledge has also helped to ensure a high level of biblical literacy in Christadelphian congregations that few other movements or denominations could match. However, the polemical stance described above is problematic because it imposes extremely narrow criteria for identifying who can be called a Christian. Dr. Thomas' unwillingness to recognize as a fellow Christian anyone who did not share his distinctive interpretation of the biblical devil is a case in point:
A man who believes in the Devil of the religious world and that he has the powers of disease and death, etc., is ignorant of "the things of the Name of Jesus Christ."... No one should be recognized as one of Christ's brethren who is not sound in the first principles of the Gospel before immersion.9
In the previous post, I pointed out that the Christadelphian polemical interpretation of Acts 8:12 has required them to deny the adequacy of Paul's definition of the gospel in 1 Cor. 15:1-5. I noted that some of Paul's readers were ignorant of basic doctrinal ideas that Christadelphians would classify as 'first principles of the gospel' (e.g. the resurrection of the dead), and that Paul nonetheless considered these ignorant people to be fellow believers. This provides some external motivation for a reexamination of Acts 8:12. This is the task to which we now turn.

2. A fresh reading of Acts 8:12

A key assumption of the Christadelphian reading of Acts 8:12 has been that 'the things concerning the kingdom of God' and 'the things concerning the name of Jesus Christ' represent two distinct sets of facts which together form the gospel. As one Christadelphian website puts it,
We believe in the gospel message as preached by Christ and his followers in the 1st Century. This message consisted of two parts: The things concerning the kingdom of God [and] Those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ.
Support for this two-part gospel is found not only in Acts 8:12 but also in Acts 28:23 and 28:30-31:
When [the Jewish leaders in Rome] had appointed a day for [Paul], they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets... [Paul] lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance. (Acts 28:23, 30-31 ESV, emphasis added)
In these texts, as in Acts 8:12, there is a bifurcation of gospel content into 'the kingdom of God' and 'Jesus'. To interpret these as two distinct sets of facts comprising a two-part message sounds plausible. However, if we argue that the writer divided the content in two specifically to show that the gospel consists of two distinct parts, consistency dictates that we apply the same intentionality to the pairs of verbs used. That is, 'testifying' and 'persuading'10 in v. 23 should refer to two distinct activities, as should 'proclaiming' and 'teaching' in v. 31. However, this is not very plausible; it appears the use of two verbs is largely for stylistic variation. They function in synonymous parallelism. If this is the case, we ought to consider the possibility that 'the kingdom of God' and 'Jesus' refer to essentially the same content in two different ways. In other words, both phrases capture the essence of the gospel message and they can thus be used interchangeably; they do not denote two separate parts of the message.11

If Luke regards 'the kingdom of God' and 'Jesus' as essentially interchangeable descriptors, each of which adequately captures the core content of the Christian message, we would expect him to use just one or the other on occasion to denote the gospel message. This is precisely what we do find: the content of the Christian proclamation can be described simply as 'the kingdom of God' (Acts 1:3; 19:8; 20:25) or, on the other hand, simply as 'Jesus' or 'Christ' (Acts 8:5; 8:35; 9:20; 11:20; 17:3). These texts do not refer to only half of a two-part gospel being proclaimed. Rather, all of this terminology refers to one, indivisible gospel: proclaiming the kingdom of God is proclaiming Christ, and vice versa.

Looking now at the text of Acts 8:12, the latest critical texts of the Greek New Testament yield further evidence against taking 'the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ' as two separate sets of facts. The famous KJV phrase translates the Greek of the Textus Receptus: euangelizomenō ta peri tēs basileias tou theou kai tou onomatos tou iēsou christou. However, in the NA28 and SBL critical texts, ta ('the things') is omitted at the beginning.12 Thus, according to the latest biblical scholarship, Acts 8:12 does not refer to 'the things' at all.13 Once 'the things' are removed, the verb euangelizomenō takes on added emphasis. The verb euangelizō means 'to proclaim good news', but the corresponding noun euangelion in the early church became a technical term for their message to the world, their 'good news'. Hence, one should translate euangelizomenō with 'proclaiming good news' or, better yet, 'proclaiming the gospel' rather than with 'preaching' as the KJV does. Put these points together and we have something like the NRSV translation:
But when they believed Philip, who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.
Or, as Peterson notes, a literal translation of our phrase would be 'gospelling about the kingdom of God and the name of the Lord Jesus Christ'.14 This is not exactly an earth-shattering change, but it is significant in that it leaves no room for inferring two distinct sets of 'things', understood to be facts about the kingdom of God and facts about the name of Jesus Christ respectively. Rather, there is a single proclamation of good news which integrates the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ.15

Luke does not give us Philip's proclamation in Acts 8 in speech form, but only in two brief summary statements. In 8:5 we read that Philip 'proclaimed to them the Christ', and then in 8:12 we read that he was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ. Luke does not report any of Philip's actual words here, and we cannot pretend to know exactly what he said. The best we can do is a conjectural reconstruction of his message based on clues found in the context.

Firstly, the audience consisted of Samaritans. The Samaritan Bible consisted only of an edited version of the Pentateuch. No prophets, no 'writings', no Davidic covenant. Hence, we can be reasonably confident that Philip's proclamation did not appeal to 'the facts testified concerning the Kingdom of God in the writings of the prophets',16 as the apostles did on other occasions. Philip would have drawn on common ground he shared with his audience, just as Paul did in Athens (Acts 17:22-31). This included a Messiah concept (cf. John 4:25), a figure the Samaritans referred to as Taheb; hence Philip's emphasis on proclaiming (Jesus as) 'the Christ' (Acts 8:5).17

Secondly, the setting within which Luke places the proclamation to the Samaritans is that of a power struggle of sorts between two wonder workers, Philip and Simon. In vv. 6-8 we read that the crowds paid attention to what Philip said on account of the signs that he did, consisting of healings and exorcisms. In vv. 9-11 we read that Simon had also amazed the Samaritans with his magic. Significantly, the 'aside' about Simon in vv. 9-11 begins with an adversative (de, 'but'), as does v. 12. This suggests that v. 12 represents a decision on the part of the Samaritans to align with Philip rather than Simon. If so, v. 12 suggests that it was Philip's message that set him apart from Simon: he offered a more compelling interpretation of his wonders than Simon did of his.

This makes it likely that the main thrust of Philip's proclamation to the Samaritans was an exposition of the meaning of his signs and wonders. Hence, arguably the best approach to reconstructing the content of his message is to draw on other narratives in Luke-Acts which comment on the kingdom of God and/or the name of Jesus in relation to healings or exorcisms just performed. In Luke 10:9, Jesus instructs his disciples to 'Heal the sick... and say to them, "The kingdom of God has come near to you."' The disciples returned from their mission 'with joy, saying, "Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!"' (v. 17) Similarly, in Luke 11:20, Jesus interprets his exorcisms as the arrival of the kingdom of God: 'But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.' Again, in Acts 3-4, the apostles repeatedly emphasize that their miracles are performed through the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 3:6; 3:16; 4:10; 4:30), while in Acts 16:18 and 19:13-17, the name of Jesus is shown to have power over spirits, leading to 'the name of the Lord Jesus' being extolled. Hence, it is probable that the good news 'about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ' proclaimed by Philip focused primarily on the arrival of the kingdom of God and the power of Jesus in their midst attested by healings and exorcisms.18 Unfortunately, the 'active power of Jesus' is precisely what is missing from 'the things concerning the name of Jesus Christ' defined in the BASF.

What of Philip's proclamation about the kingdom of God? By comparing with Jesus' proclamations of the kingdom of God made in the context of healing and exorcism, we can be confident that Philip's emphasis lay heavily on the present reality of the kingdom of God.19 Again, this stands in contrast with the BASF, which speaks of the kingdom of God exclusively as a future phenomenon. The only mention of the kingdom of God as a present reality in the BASF is in the Doctrines to be Rejected section.20 

Very likely, Philip passed on other basic truths such as the death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus and the future consummation of the kingdom of God. However, Acts 8:12 gives us no information as to the extent of his teaching on these topics prior to the Samaritans being baptized en masse. Surely there is no reason to assume that these converts had an understanding approaching the level of detail in the propositional definition of the 'things concerning' offered in the BASF.21 Moreover, we have good reason to conclude that Philip placed a strong emphasis on present realities (the inaugurated kingdom of God; the active power of Jesus) that are absent from the BASF. Parsons' highly plausible reconstruction of Philip's proclamation to the Samaritans is as follows:
Philip and Simon are both active in a Samaritan city (8:5, 8, 9). They both perform wondrous deeds (8:6-7, 9, 11) and make speeches (8:6, 9). Large numbers of the Samaritans paid close attention to both of them (8:6, 10, 11). Simon is called the "Great Power" (8:10) and amazes (8:9, 11) the Samaritans, while Philip works great miracles (8:13) and amazes Simon (8:13; see Spencer 1992b, 88-89). The similarities between Simon and Philip serve only to bring out in bolder relief their differences. Luke uses an encomium/invective synkrisis in which to praise Philip and his message while condemning Simon (cf. Acts 3:13-15; Hermogenes, Prog. 19, trans. Kennedy 2003, 84). Simon's deeds point to himself as an act of self-aggrandizement and self-gain (8:9, 19); Philip's signs point to the kingdom of God and corroborate his proclamation of the Christian gospel (8:5-6). What was the content of this message? Luke fills it out later in the narrative claiming that Philip was preaching about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ (8:12). So to preach the gospel for Philip was to proclaim that Jesus was the "Christ," the one God had anointed "for doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil" (as Peter would put it in 10:38). Hence, Philip's signs and wonders - the healings and exorcisms - were outward signs reinforcing his message: Satan is being overcome, and the kingdom of God is being established (Garrett 1989, 65).'22
3. Conclusion

We have seen that the Christadelphian tradition has placed great emphasis on the phrase 'the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ' (Acts 8:12 KJV) as the definition of the gospel. The phrase has been understood by Christadelphians to divide the content of the gospel message into two parts, each of which consists of a set of facts. 'The things concerning the kingdom of God' are thought to be facts about a future kingdom that will be established at the second coming of Christ. 'The things concerning the name of Jesus Christ' are thought to be facts about the person and work of Jesus. While Christadelphians do not regard the two parts of the gospel as unrelated, they have nonetheless conceived of the possibility of proclaiming only 'the things of the kingdom' or only 'the things of the name', which in their view would be no gospel at all.

Our conclusions here are threefold. First, I argued that the gospel in Luke-Acts is not dualistic but monistic. That is, 'the kingdom of God' and 'the name of Jesus Christ' are not two parts that must be combined to form the gospel. Rather, they are two interchangeable ways of describing the gospel message, which is the story of God breaking decisively into history in the person of Jesus to redeem the world. In Acts, 'the kingdom of God' and 'Jesus'/'Christ' are each adequate on their own to summarize the content of the gospel. Alternatively, on three occasions the two aspects are placed in synonymous parallelism, but nowhere in Acts or the rest of the New Testament are they treated as two distinct sets of facts as they are in the BASF.

Second, I noted that according to recent critical texts of the New Testament, the words 'the things' have no basis in the Greek of Acts 8:12. This further undermines the contention that Luke is referring to two sets of propositions, one set about the kingdom of God and one set about the name of Jesus Christ. While it is not wrong to represent the gospel message propositionally, there is no evidence that these or other converts mentioned in Acts had a systematic, propositional understanding of 'the kingdom of God' and 'the name of Jesus Christ' respectively prior to baptism.

Third, I extended the above observations by looking more closely at Acts 8:12. I noted that Philip proclaimed the gospel to a Samaritan audience with very limited biblical background and in the context of his miracles and exorcisms. His message set him apart from Simon, a rival wonder worker in Samaria, and thus probably offered a compelling theological interpretation of his signs. By comparison with other interpretations of signs in Luke-Acts that involved the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus, I suggested that Philip's message probably emphasized the present reality of the inaugurated kingdom of God and the active power of Jesus' name. Both of these emphases are quite foreign to traditional Christadelphian interpretations of Acts 8:12.

The most important implication of this study is that Acts 8:12 does not support the claim that one must possess a systematic, propositional understanding of 'the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ' prior to baptism for one's baptism to be valid. This issue lies at the heart of Christadelphians' sectarian stance, because it is the logical basis by which Christadelphians have traditionally regarded nearly all professing Christians outside their community as ontologically non-Christian. Hopefully a reexamination of Acts 8:12 will lead some Christadelphians to rethink their relationship to the wider Christian Church.


  • 1 The BASF no longer explicitly identifies a group of articles as declaring 'the things concerning the name of Jesus Christ', but this would still seem to be the implicit claim for articles 2-16.
  • 2 e.g. one Christadelphian periodical, the Christadelphian Advocate, has a regular supplement entitled 'Things Concerning' devoted to doctrinal fundamentals, which have subsequently been published in a book; there is a separate Christadelphian 'first principles' manual entitled 'The Things of the Kingdom and the Things of the Name'.
  • 3 E.g. theChristadelphians.org: 'Christadelphians base their faith on the things which were believed and taught by Jesus Christ and his apostles about 2,000 years ago. These things are summarised in the New Testament as "the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ".' Newbury Christadelphians: 'The name 'Christadelphian' means "Brothers in Christ" and describes men and women who believe "the things concerning the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ".'
  • 4 Christadelphian Bible Mission teaching materials explain: 'The two fundamental themes of the Gospel message are a. The things concerning the Kingdom of God, and b. The things concerning the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 8:12)... To believe and obey the Gospel one must have an understanding of these Bible truths (Mark 16:15-16).' Similarly, the website Christadelphians Online defines baptism as 'immersion in water following a confession of faith in the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 8:12)'. The website of The Christadelphian magazine explains, 'To be saved a man must acknowledge his belief in the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ. He must demonstrate his belief and need of forgiveness by asking for God’s pardon, and by being baptised by full immersion in water, confessing his sins. He now belongs to God and has become an heir of the promises made to Abraham. As such he waits in patience for God’s coming kingdom.'
  • 5 Thomas, John. (1866/2000). Elpis Israel (4th ed.). Findon: Logos Publications, p. 136.
  • 6 op. cit., p. 193.
  • 7 op. cit., p. 196. Hence, 'a man may believe that Jesus is the Son of God; that he was sent of God as a messenger to Israel; that there is remission of sins through the shedding of his blood; that he is the saviour; and that he rose from the dead: — if he believe these things, but be ignorant, and consequently faithless, of "the things of the kingdom," he cannot obtain glory, honor, incorruptibility, and life in that kingdom. The condition of salvation is the belief of the whole gospel and obedience to it.' (op. cit., p. 198)
  • 8 op. cit., p. 206.
  • 9 Quoted in Roberts, Robert. My Days and My Ways, p. 115.
  • 10 These are two present participles in Greek; 'trying to convince' is not a literal translation.
  • 11 'As to the substance of the kingdom-message proclaimed by Philip and Paul, Luke supplies few details. What information is provided, however, all points to Jesus. Philip's proclamation of God's kingdom is placed alongside his witness to "the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 8.12), and, likewise, Paul's is conjoined with convincing the Jews "about Jesus" (28.23) and teaching "about the Lord Jesus Christ" (28.31)' (Spencer, F. Scott. (1992). The Portrait of Philip in Acts: A Study of Roles and Relations. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, p. 40). 'In the preaching of the apostles, the kingdom of God was related to the person of Christ...Preaching the kingdom, then, is preaching Jesus' (Jabini, Franklin S. (2010). Preaching Christ in a pluralistic world: the message and method of the mission to Samaria in Acts 8. Conspectus, 9, 51-68, here p. 59). 'The things relating to the kingdom which form the theme of [Jesus'] postresurrection teaching at the beginning of Acts are identical with "the things relating to the Lord Jesus Christ" which form the theme of Paul's teaching in Rome at the end of the book (28:31). When they told the story of Jesus, the apostles proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God - the same good news as Jesus himself had announced earlier, but now given effective fulfilment by the saving events of his passion and triumph.' (Bruce, F.F. (1988). The Book of Acts. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 32)
  • 12 The final tou before iēsou is also omitted, but this is of no exegetical significance.
  • 13 ta is the definite article (i.e. 'the'). Because it stands alone here and does not modify a substantive, it functions like a substantive. Because it is neuter and plural, it means 'the things'.
  • 14 Peterson, David G. (2009). The Acts of the Apostles. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 283.
  • 15 We do read elsewhere in Acts of 'the things concerning (ta peri) the kingdom of God' (1:3) and 'the things concerning (ta peri) the Lord Jesus Christ' (28:31), so the point is not that describing the message in terms of 'things' is uncharacteristic of Luke (indeed, the expression ta peri occurs more in Luke-Acts - 11 to 15 times, depending on text-critical decisions - than in the rest of the New Testament combined: Luke 22:37(?); 24:19; 24:27; Acts 1:3; 8:12(?); 13:29; 18:25; 19:8(?); 23:11; 23:15; 24:10; 24:22; 28:15; 28:23(?); 28:31; Eph. 6:22; Phil. 1:27; 2:19; 2:20; 2:23; Col. 4:8). Rather, the point is that Luke uses a variety of ways of describing the proclamation of the gospel, and none of them implies a division of the gospel into two distinct sets of facts. Some of Luke's language includes: 'preach the good news of the kingdom of God' (Luke 4:43); 'proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God' (Luke 8:1); 'proclaim the kingdom of God' (Luke 9:1, 9:60); 'spoke to them of the kingdom of God' (Luke 9:11); 'speaking the things concerning the kingdom of God' (Acts 1:3); 'proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ' (Acts 8:12); 'reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God' (Acts 19:8); 'testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus' (Acts 28:23); 'proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ' (Acts 28:31); 'preached boldly in the name of Jesus' (Acts 9:27); 'preaching the gospel' (Luke 9:6, 20:1, Acts 8:25, 40, 14:7, 21, 16:10), 'testify to the gospel of the grace of God' (Acts 20:24); 'preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ' (Acts 10:36); 'teaching and preaching the word of the Lord' (Acts 15:35); 'preaching Jesus and the resurrection' (Acts 17:18); 'proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead' (Acts 4:2); 'proclaimed the Christ' (Acts 8:5); 'proclaimed Jesus' (Acts 9:20); 'repentance and forgiveness of sins... proclaimed in his name' (Luke 24:47).
  • 16 BASF, article 18.
  • 17 Samkutty comments, 'There is a logical progression of the content and result of his message: Christ (v. 5), Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ (v. 12); the result is: people paid attention (v. 6), believed and were baptized (v. 12). It implies that Philip starts with the messianic concept of the Samaritans and then presents Jesus as the fulfilment of their hope.' (Samkutty, V.J. (2006). The Samaritan Mission in Acts. London: T&T Clark, p. 132)
  • 18 'the mention of believing in the name of Jesus refers to responding to his power and occurs several times in Acts (2:38; 3:6; 4:8-10; 8:12; 10:48; 16:18).' (Bock, Darrell L. (2007). Acts. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p. 328); 'The name of Jesus is a term for the active power of Jesus, visibly at work in the healing of disease and in spiritual healing also. His name is invoked, men and women are baptized in his name; faith is thereby expressed and saving power is appropriated.' (Barrett, C.K. (1994). Acts 1-14. London: T&T Clark, p. 408); 'Au sein d'un judaïsme qui prie "Dieu, sauve-moi par ton nom" (Ps 54,3), proclamer le "nom de Jésus Christ" est apparu comme un acte dangereux. Blasphématoire, même. Les démêlés des apôtres avec le sanhédrin en Ac 3-5 restituent ce souvenir. Parler de Jésus Christ comme du Nom qui sauve fut cependant l'une des formulations théologiques précoces des premiers chrétiens, ce dont l'hymne pré-paulinien de Philippiens 2,6-11 est un bon témoin (cf. 2,9-10). La formule en tō onomati Iēsou Christou (dans ou par le nom de Jésus Christ) est une christologisation de en tō onomati tou theou (dans ou par le nom de Dieu), par quoi les traducteurs de la Septante ont rendu beshem YHWH. Cette formulation, complètement inusitée en grec, hérite de la polysémie du B hébraïque, qui a une valeur autant locale (dans) qu'instrumentale (par). L'ambivalence sémantique se comprend à partir de la conception du Nom: représentatif de la personne, le Nom dégage une sphère de puissance dans laquelle et par laquelle le Seigneur agit.' (Marguerat, Daniel. (2007). Les Actes des apôtres (1-12). Genève: Labor et Fides, p. 145; Greek and Hebrew characters have been replaced by transliterations)
  • 19 'in Philip modelling the ministry of Jesus, just as Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom of God inextricably involved miracles, especially exorcism, so Philip's miracles, especially exorcism, were a "visible and audible enactment" of the kingdom of God. In other words, for Luke, the exorcism formed a symbiotic relationship with the message, each requiring the other for their completeness and comprehension.' (Twelftree, Graham H. (2007). In the Name of Jesus: Exorcism among Early Christians. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p. 145); 'As to the vexed question of whether the announced kingdom is a present reality or future hope, the primary stress in Acts seems to fall on the former, since the good news of the Christian message obviously includes the promise of immediate benefits such as the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit (Acts 2.38; 10.43; cf. Lk. 24.47). The possibly future-oriented exhortation to "enter the kingdom of God" in Acts 14.22 is a lone exception in Luke's account of the early church's kerygma.' (Spencer, op. cit., p. 41)
  • 20 'We reject the doctrine - that the Kingdom of God is "the church"' (DTBR 12)
  • 21 The BASF contains twelve articles which are said to define the 'Things of the Kingdom of God' mentioned in Acts. However, for example, articles 26-30 contain a detailed description of the millennium, a subject which receives no attention in Luke-Acts.
  • 22 Parsons, Mikeal C. (2008). Acts. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p. 115.

Tuesday 14 June 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday 31 August 2013

Christadelphians and the Heavenly Hope

One of the definitive doctrines of Christadelphians is that the hope of the just is eternal bodily life on earth after the resurrection, and not an immaterial existence in the heavens beginning at death (or the Rapture).

At first glance, it appears that the gulf between this belief system and the popular Christian belief in a heavenly afterlife is vast and insurmountable. Most Christadelphians would say that they do not share 'one hope' (Eph. 4:5) with other Christians. For Christadelphians who think this, there are two books I would encourage you to read. The first is Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, by Anglican bishop emeritus and eminent New Testament scholar N.T. Wright. The second is Sense and Nonsense about Heaven and Hell, by Evangelical scholars Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman, Jr.

Both of these books (and many others) make what amounts to a critique of the popular Christian belief that disembodied heaven-going at death (or at the rapture) is the hope revealed in the Bible. They both insist that our hope is resurrection to an eternal bodily existence, just as Christ was raised to an eternal bodily existence.

This movement is not new - Boa and Bowman draw heavily on a 1965 essay by the prominent German theologian Oscar Cullman entitled, "Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead?" Cullman noted at the time that his ideas had provoked both great enthusiasm and great hostility. The enthusiasm appears not to have abated in the last 50 years but rather continues to grow and flourish.

This shift in direction should not be understood as a wholesale adoption of Christadelphian ideas. All of the above writers argue biblically for some kind of conscious existence after death. However, this is not the final reward; it is merely an 'intermediate state' for those awaiting the resurrection. Boa and Bowman do not mention Christadelphians but devote several pages to refuting the doctrine of annihilation at death as espoused by Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists. This includes positive evidence for the 'intermediate state' as well as refuting alleged biblical support for annihilation.

The question is, if these Christians are in agreement with Christadelphians that our ultimate hope is a bodily existence after the resurrection, does it really matter if we disagree about what and where we will be in the interval between death and the resurrection, which is but a moment when compared with eternity? Does this difference make our hope fundamentally different?

The Christadelphian may respond, "But what about the consummated kingdom? Do they affirm it will be on on earth, or in heaven?" Boa and Bowman point to the language of the new heavens and new earth from Isaiah 65-66 and used in 2 Peter 3:13. The description of the new heaven and new earth in Rev. 21 has the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven with an announcement that "the dwelling place of God is with man." Furthermore, the man Jesus currently exists bodily in heaven. The barrier between heaven as the abode of spirit beings and earth as the abode of material beings is destined to be erased. Ultimately, heaven and earth will be one, so where is the fundamental difference among those who say we will end up in heaven and those who say we will be on earth?

But surely, you might say, the Scriptures must be fulfilled such as Num. 14:21, "All the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord." Boa and Bowman write of two views on the destiny of this earth, which he calls the 'Renewal' view and the 'Replacement' view. In the Renewal view, this present earth will be restored and renewed, but will still be the same earth. In the Replacement view, this present earth will be annihilated and a new one created.

Boa and Bowman rightly stress need to balance the two. There are many scriptures which speak of renewal, such as "the times of refreshing" and "restoring of all things" (Acts 3:19-20). On the other hand, the picture of the physical world's fiery destruction painted in 2 Pet. 3:10-12 is quite complete. A balanced view affirms that while the changes to the earth will be so drastic that it could practically be described as a replacement, there must be some measure of continuity between the present earth and the new earth, otherwise it is not really the earth, and the promises concerning the earth's restoration have not been fulfilled. N.T. Wright draws out the importance of this continuity, applying Paul's words from 1 Cor. 15:58:
"You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that's about to fall over a cliff.  You are not restoring a great painting that is shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that is about to be dug up for a building site. You are -- strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself -- accomplishing something which will become, in due course, part of God's new world" (Surprised by Hope, pp. 219-220)
Paul draws an analogy between the redemption of the creation and of the body (Rom. 8:22-23), so I think we need to bring the same logic to the annihilation debate. In the resurrection, are we 'replaced' or 'renewed'? Just as Christadelphians would argue that there must be some continuity between this earth and the new earth, so Evangelicals would argue that there must be some continuity between the natural man and the resurrected man. If I am recreated ex nihilo in the resurrection, is it really me? Whether conscious or unconscious, there must be something of me that exists between death and the resurrection. This existence is what Wright, Boa and Bowman call the intermediate state.

The important conclusion here is that whomever believes in resurrection to an eternal bodily existence shares the One Hope. Fundamentally, this hope is not altered whether one believes the dead are conscious or unconscious during the brief period before the resurrection. Fundamentally, this hope is not altered whether one believes the redeemed will inhabit heaven or earth, since they will be one. We can all agree that there will be a new world where God and his people dwell. It will have some limited continuity with the present world but will be radically different.

We can and should continue to seek after the finer details from God's Word, while confessing that our knowledge is limited (1 Cor. 13:12). When differences in understanding these details arise, let us not quarrel and divide but unite around the new heavens and new earth, "the hope laid up for us in heaven" (Col. 1:5).

Friday 2 August 2013

The Kingdom of God is both Now and Not Yet

Virtually any person who has read the New Testament would agree that the kingdom of God was at the center of the message preached by Jesus and the apostles. In Matthew, Jesus' sayings refer to the kingdom no less than 45 times, and all four Gospels contain important mentions of this notion of the kingdom of God.

Both Mark and Matthew summarize Jesus' message along the lines, "The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe" (Mark 1:15; Matthew 4:17). In Luke 4:43, Jesus declares that the purpose for which he was sent was to "preach the good news of the kingdom of God". Acts records the kingdom of God as the primary focus of Jesus' discussions with the apostles after his resurrection and prior to his ascension (Acts 1:3). The kingdom of God also features prominently in summary statements about apostolic preaching in Acts (e.g. 8:12; 28:31). It is also mentioned over 20 times in the rest of the New Testament.

While most are agreed on the centrality of the kingdom of God in Jesus' and the apostles' teaching, there is no such agreement on what the kingdom of God actually means. Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology mentions four different interpretations. These are (1) the Political Kingdom (in which Jesus made a failed attempt to establish a political kingdom in rebellion against Rome), (2) the Spiritual Kingdom (in which the kingdom refers to God's rule in the individual's heart), (3) the Consistent or Future Kingdom (in which a supernatural kingdom which does not yet exist will be established after the Second Coming of Christ), and (4) the Realized or Present Kingdom (in which Jesus brought the kingdom at his first coming and fully established it through the church).

While interpretations (1) and (2) no longer have a following among any but the most liberal of Bible scholars, today's Evangelical Christianity is, in some instances, polarized between (3) and (4). Christadelphians (if I may be permitted to lump them in with Evangelical Christianity) have traditionally been firmly at the (3) end of the pole. The kingdom of God is yet future, and any insinuation that it may exist presently is taken as false doctrine, full stop. For instance, the 1877 Christadelphian Statement of Faith contained eight clauses describing the kingdom of God, all of which referred strictly to the future (although it is stated that this future kingdom will be a recapitulation of the past Davidic kingdom). Meanwhile, among the Doctrines to be Rejected is the idea that the kingdom of God is the church.

At the other extreme, in some Evangelical churches, there is an extreme at the (4) end. One could attend such churches for months and only hear references to the kingdom as a present reality. Talk of a future kingdom, for such believers, suggests a detachment from the Lord's powerful present work among his people. Besides, if such a kingdom was going to come, surely it would have come by now!

As is often the case, both extremes are wrong. A comprehensive biblical doctrine of the kingdom of God must incorporate both (3) and (4). There are passages which refer to the kingdom of God as a future reality only to be accomplished at the end of the age (Matt. 8:11; Matt. 25:34; Luke 19:11ff; Luke 22:18; Gal. 5:21; 2 Tim. 4:1; 2 Pet. 1:11), and there are passages which refer to the kingdom of God as having already arrived in the first century (Matt. 4:17; Matt. 13:41; Matt. 21:43; Luke 10:9-11; Luke 17:20-21Col. 1:13; Rev. 1:9).

This balanced approach, in which the kingdom has been inaugurated but not consummated, is sometimes referred to as inaugurated eschatology. It is necessary to hold in tension the paradox that the kingdom of God is both now and not yet. Only then can we avoid the extremes of the one whose anticipation of future events distracts him from the Lord's presence and power in the church today, and the one whose focus on present spiritual realities has left him with no sense of the approaching conclusion of history.

Sunday 21 July 2013

"Your" Gospel and Paul's

Paul referred to the gospel (Greek euangelion, good news) several times in his epistles in the first person possessive; that is, he referred to it as "my gospel" (Rom. 2:16; Rom. 16:25; 2 Tim. 2:8). Probably this was partly to distinguish it from false gospels (see Gal. 1:6-9; 2 Cor. 11:4), but it also demonstrates that he had a sense of ownership of the message he proclaimed. True, it was ultimately the gospel of Jesus Christ (Mark 1:1), because it was about Jesus Christ, and the gospel of God (Rom. 1:1), because it came from God. Nevertheless, as Paul was the earthly messenger by which that gospel was delivered, there was a valid sense in which it could be described as Paul's gospel - that is, the good news which had become known across the Roman world through the preaching of Paul.

For me, one of the striking characteristics of Paul's gospel is the paradox that it was at once both very simple and very complex. As to the gospel's simplicity, Paul proclaimed to the Corinthians:
"1 And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God." (1 Cor. 2:1-5)
Notice that Paul decided to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified. It was an active choice. Paul had been educated at the feet of a leading Jewish scholar, Gamaliel; he was a learned man and had seemingly been something of a theological prodigy in his youth (Acts 22:3; Gal. 1:14). He understood the Hebrew Scriptures very well and was well placed to marvel, "Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!" (Rom. 11:33).

Paul's epistles are masterpieces with great theological complexity, even from a purely human standpoint. However, for the sake of the Corinthians he emphasized the gospel in its simplicity, possibly because he wanted them to focus less on knowledge and more on love (1 Cor. 8:1-3; 1 Cor. 13:2).

In the final analysis, what mattered to Paul was the gospel through which his flock could be saved: "that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures" (1 Cor. 15:1-4; cf. Rom. 10:9).

If you are preaching the gospel, it is good for you to know and understand the Scriptures in as much depth as possible. Further, there is a need to contextualize the message for your audience, as Paul did in Athens (Acts 17:16-32). However, when preaching your gospel to those with little biblical background knowledge (i.e. most people), resist the urge to appear wise by presenting the gospel in all its theological depth. Don't judge the unchurched for having little interest in the history of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the precise mechanism of the atonement, or the details of the millennial age. To the weak (in knowledge, or desire for such knowledge) become as weak, in order to win them (1 Cor. 9:22).

In short, when preaching your gospel, refrain from any level of complexity that will take your hearers' focus away from "Jesus Christ, and him crucified!"

Monday 18 March 2013

My Lord and my God (John 20:28)

One biblical text that has long fascinated me is John 20:28. Perhaps this is because it was spoken by my namesake, the apostle Thomas.

Over a decade ago, when I maintained a (now defunct) website entitled 'In Defence of Christadelphian Doctrine,' I wrote an article explaining what I thought this verse means. Some time after that, I developed a more elaborate explanation of the verse, which had Thomas acknowledging the truth of Jesus' claim in John 14:9 (a dialogue in which Thomas actively participated - see John 14:5). One can find another Christadelphian explanation of this text on the Wrested Scripture website.

All of these explanations propose that Thomas was not actually addressing Jesus as his God, but rather as a representative of his God; someone who manifests God's attributes but is not himself God.

Upon further reflection, I now find the above explanations completely unsatisfactory. I believe that in John 20:28, Thomas was actually addressing Jesus as his Lord and God. There are three reasons for this:

1) This interpretation follows a straightforward reading of the text; no verbal gymnastics required!

2) Thomas' emphatic confession functions as the climax of the Fourth Gospel, placed as it is just prior to the summary statement in John 20:30-31. It is the crowning moment in the writer's effort to prove the theological statement made in the Prologue (John 1:1-18). The Word made flesh, who was God, was finally received as God by men. To give the statement an elaborate, cryptic interpretation is to rob the Gospel of its climax.

3) It is absolutely unthinkable that a monotheistic Jew such as Thomas was, cautious as they were about misusing divine names, would address a fellow human being as "my God." It is true that there was some flexibility in the use of the word 'god' (theos in Greek; elohim in Hebrew) so that it could be applied to humans in certain rare circumstances (Ex. 7:1; Ps. 82:6 cf. John 10:34). However, we must not gloss over the vast difference between quoting scriptures in which God refers to humans as gods, and a man addressing another man as "My God!" Thomas would by no means have uttered such rash words, which could easily be mistaken for blasphemy, if he only meant that Jesus represented God. Nor would John have written them down without qualification.

Taking Thomas' words at face value, and interpreting them in light of their historical and literary context, we come inevitably to the conclusion that Thomas confessed Jesus to be his Lord and God because that is who he believed him to be.