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Showing posts with label John Thomas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John Thomas. Show all posts

Saturday, 10 October 2020

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Heavenly Hieroglyphics: A Critique of the Political Heavens Hermeneutic


A long-standing mainstay of Christadelphian biblical interpretation has been the notion that Scripture uses cosmological terms like "heaven(s)," "earth," "sun," "moon," "stars," "sea," "earthquake," etc. as ciphers that denote political realities. Proponents of this hermeneutic do not of course insist that every instance of cosmological terminology in the Bible is symbolic; they do allow that such terminology is sometimes used literally. However, particularly in prophetic and apocalyptic literature, the hermeneutic is used quite heavily, resulting in radically different interpretations of a number of significant biblical passages than one would obtain otherwise. We will explore some examples below, but let us first outline the underlying hermeneutical principle in the words of Christadelphian founder Dr. John Thomas and a contemporary of his, Scottish religious writer William Cuninghame. (This serves to illustrate that John Thomas did not invent this hermeneutic; it was popular in the 19th century and probably goes back to the 17th or even 16th century, though I have not researched its origins.)

Commenting on Luke 21:25-26, Cuninghame writes:
Writers on prophecy are generally agreed, that by the Sun, in the language of symbols, is to be understood the Imperial or Royal power of the State, and by the Moon and Stars, the Nobles and Princes, who are under the king in authority; and if the reader refer to Jacob's interpretation of Joseph's Dream... he will find that the principles of this interpretation, are as old as the age of Jacob. They have, indeed, their foundation in nature itself; for since the natural universe is used in symbols, to express the moral and political universe, therefore the heavens and celestial luminaries, must represent the reigning and ruling powers, and subordinate dignities of the political heavens. By the same beautiful analogy, the roaring of the sea and the waves, denotes the populace, rising up in tumult and insurrection against the higher powers of the State."1
In Elpis Israel, the book in which Thomas articulated what would become the Christadelphian belief system, he writes:
By the ‘shining light of prophecy’ we shall be able to interpret the signs which God has revealed as appearing in the political heavens and earth. Events among the nations of the Roman habitable, and not atmospheric phenomena, are the signs of the coming of the Lord as a thief; whose nature, whether signs or not, can only be determined by "the testimony of God."2
What this means is that when biblical prophecy speaks of signs in heaven and on earth (such as in the Olivet discourse of Luke 21:11, 25-26 and parallels), it is symbolically foretelling political events. Thus, "the Bible is not a revelation of geological and meteorological phenomena...God’s signs are not in the atmosphere, or in astronomical appearances".3

Thomas drew an analogy between prophetic symbolism and Egyptian hieroglyphics. The latter
were not vague, uncertain things, but fixed and constant analogies, determinate in their own nature, or from the steady use that was made of them; and a language formed on such principles may be reasonably interpreted upon them.4
Thus, just as each Egyptian hieroglyphic pictogram had a fixed meaning that could be translated, so cosmological imagery in biblical prophecy, such as "heaven," "earth," "sea," "sun," "moon," and "stars," are code-words, each with a "fixed and constant" analogical meaning in human politics. So what are their meanings? Drawing on the work of previous biblical expositors, Thomas writes:
Hence, Mede is fully justified in saying that "Heavens mean Regnum Politicum, a political kingdom; Sun, secular government; moon, ecclesiastical government; and stars, ministers of religion;" but not these exclusively, as Jacob's interpretation of them in Joseph's dream clearly shows. "The Heaven of this political world," says he, "is the sovereign part thereof, whose host and stars are the powers ruling that world. In the highest place, gods or idols; next, kings, princes, magistrates, &c, and other such lights shining in that firmament, The Earth is the peasantry or vulgus hominum, together with the terrestrial creatures serving the use of man." The following writers also all agree that "Heavens" is the symbol for the higher places of the political universe discoursed of: Dr. H. More, Daubuz, Lancaster, Sykes, Dr. Wall, Vitringa, Lowth, Owen, and Warburton.5
Thomas continues, averring that
to 'ascend into heaven' must be 'to obtain new power and glory;' and Daubuz says, 'to ascend into heaven' is to obtain rule and dominion. That 'the sea and the waves roaring,' mean tumultuous assemblies of the people, and the sea by itself, the mass of the people, is manifest from many passages... 'As the sun and the moon, the stars and the sea, are symbolical expressions, to annex a dissimilar interpretation to the word earth, would be to incur the charge of inconsistency.' The earth is generally put for that over which the heavens do rule; but if there be any distinction between it and the sea, as there undoubtedly is, it is that the earth represents the people in a quiet, and the sea the same in a disturbed state. Thus, earthquake must mean, as Sir Isaac Newton observes, 'the shaking of kingdoms so as to overthrow them;' and Jurieu says, 'it is known by all who are versed in the prophets, that in the prophetic style an earthquake signifies a great commotion of nations...'6
Thus the "Rosetta Stone" that John Thomas proposed for interpreting cosmological symbols in Bible prophecy can be summarized thus:

Cosmological Symbol
Prophetic Meaning
Heavens
Rulers; a position of political sovereignty and power
Earth
The masses of people; a position of political subjection
Sun
Gods/idols; alternatively, kings and other secular/civil rulers
Moon
Ecclesiastical government; alternatively, princes and magistrates
Stars
Ministers of religion; alternatively, lesser political authorities
Sea
The masses of people, especially when in a disturbed political state
Earthquake
A great political commotion

What are we to make of this hermeneutical strategy for interpreting cosmological language in Bible prophecy, which we might call the "political heavens hermeneutic"?


One argument made by both Cuninghame and Thomas is that the political heavens hermeneutic had widespread support among biblical expositors of their day—at least those whose views mattered to them. However, such nonconformist thinkers did not adopt theological positions because of their popularity. What arguably made this hermeneutic compelling for writers like Cuninghame and Thomas was the way it enhanced the continuous-historical approach to biblical prophecy, which interprets Revelation and much other prophetic and apocalyptic content in the Bible as describing the trajectory of political and ecclesiastical history from biblical times until the end of the age. The historical events that interested these expositors were primarily wars, political and religious movements, the rise and fall of kingdoms and leaders, etc. Since the Bible contains a great deal of cosmological language, if this language is symbolic of political and/or ecclesiastical realities then the Bible will have a lot more to say about these realities. There will be a lot more material for the modern apocalyptic expositor to use in constructing a theological interpretation of political and ecclesiastical history.

More direct, exegetical arguments for adopting the political heavens hermeneutic are offered by Thomas, such as:
THAT language must be symbolical which, being taken from material objects, expresses things incompatible with the acknowledged properties of those bodies; as, for example, where it is said that stars fall to the earth; for since the stars are larger than the earth, they cannot literally fall to it.7
Besides this, Thomas observes that cosmological imagery is explicitly used in relation to human politics in passages such as the oracle against the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14. One could add Rev. 17:15, where the waters on which the great prostitute sits (v. 1) are expressly interpreted as "large numbers of peoples, nations, and tongues." Furthermore, there are passages where cosmological language is used alongside political language. Thus, since Luke 21:25 mentions signs in the sun, moon and stars and subsequently refers to "distress of nations upon the earth, with perplexity," Thomas avers that "we can have no doubt that the latter is literal, and the former figurative".8 The contextual association between cosmological language and earthly political events is said to prove that such cosmological language symbolizes earthly political events.


The political heavens hermeneutic faces a number of serious problems. First, while Dr. John Thomas stressed its popularity among expositors as one reason for adopting it, this hermeneutic has little support among biblical scholars today. For instance, you may consult words like "heavens," "earth," "sun," "moon," "stars," etc. in any recent Bible dictionary and it is unlikely that you will find any reference to these terms being biblical symbols for political realities. The decline of the political heavens hermeneutic in biblical scholarship is probably tied to the decline of the continuous-historical approach to interpreting biblical prophecy and apocalyptic.

A second problem with this hermeneutic is reflected in Thomas's argument that we must interpret language about stars falling to earth (e.g., Isa. 34:4; Matt. 24:29) symbolically since stars are too large relative to the earth to literally fall to it. We must not press the literal sense to absurdity in order to justify a symbolic interpretation. For instance, Psalm 19:1 says that "The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament proclaims the works of his hands," while vv. 4-5 describe the heavens as "a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber" and "runs its course with joy." Because the heavens and firmament cannot literally talk, and the sun does not literally stay in a tent or "come out" and "run a course" across the sky each day, does this mean we should interpret "heavens," "firmament" and "sun" symbolically here? Of course not—the psalmist is exercising poetic license in describing the literal cosmos.

Furthermore, this argument from scientific impossibility presupposes a modern, post-Copernican cosmology that the ancient writers and readers of the Bible did not possess. It may be useful to summarize ancient Hebrew cosmology at this point:
The ancient Israelites' view of the physical world can be approximately reconstructed from such texts as Gen 1 and 7-8; Pss 33, 74, 104, 148; Job 38-41; and elsewhere. The universe, for them, is largely a closed entity consisting of three stories or levels. The earth is a flat disk surrounded by mountains or sea. Above is the firmament, a solid dome covering the entire world and resting on the mountains at the edges of the earth. Down in the heart of the earth is Sheol, the abode of the dead. The waters above and the waters below envelop the universe. The firmament overhead is transparent, allowing the blue color of the celestial water to be visible, and it has 'windows' or sluices to let down water in the form of rain. The heavens, including the sun, moon, and stars, are under this vast canopy. The earth is supported from below by pillars sunk into the watery abyss.9
Concerning views of the stars specifically in antiquity:
The Greeks also recognized meteors and comets. They called the meteors "falling stars" because they believed that the sporadic streaks of light were stars falling from the sky.10
Of course, even in modern vernacular meteors are still referred to as "shooting stars" or "falling stars."11 Similarly, in modern vernacular the planet Venus is still referred to as "the morning star." This reflects the ancient belief that planets were actually "wandering stars," a belief reflected in Jude 13 (the word "planet" actually derives from the Greek word planētēs, "wandering").12 Furthermore, the ancients, including the Israelites, believed that stars "were manifestations of gods or heavenly beings."13 That the biblical phrase "host of heaven" (צבא השמים) takes on "two meanings...namely, 'celestial bodies' and 'angelic beings,' reflect[s] a probable association between angels and stars in the Hebrew imagination."14 In short, the ancient biblical writers and readers regarded the stars very differently than we do today, and they would not have seen anything impossible about stars falling to earth. Indeed, many ancients thought they were witnessing this when they saw a meteor "fall" from the night sky, and it is likely that biblical references to falling stars are rooted in the identification of meteors as stars.

The Bible contains ancient cosmological ideas that we now know to be scientifically inaccurate. This calls for a complex hermeneutic, rooted in the notion that the Bible was written to reveal theological truth and not scientific truth, and thus it is infallible in the former but fallible in the latter. When we encounter talk of stars falling to earth, this does not automatically necessitate a figurative interpretation, but it does necessitate a critical interpretation. The description of the sky rolling up and all the stars falling like leaves from a tree (Isa. 34:4) is an ancient way of communicating a massive, consummate cosmic disaster. Perhaps it is hyperbole, or perhaps it really foretells the end of the world.

A third problem with the political heavens hermeneutic is that it wrongly assumes that symbolism in the Bible is based on what Thomas called "fixed and constant analogies." In fact, symbolism in the Bible is fluid and context-dependent. As Ramm explains,
There is nothing in the symbolism of the Bible which demands that each symbol have one and only one meaning. This appears to be the presupposition of some works on symbolism, and it is a false presupposition. The lion is at the same time the symbol of Christ (“the Lion of the tribe of Judah”) and of Satan (the lion seeking to devour Christians, 1 Peter 5:8). The lamb is a symbol of sacrifice and of lost sinners (1 Peter 2:25). Water means “the word” in Ephesians 5:26; the Spirit in 1 Cor. 12:13, and regeneration in Titus 3:5. Oil may mean the Holy Spirit, repentance, or readiness. Further, one entity may be represented by several symbols, e.g., Christ by the lamb, the lion, the branch, and the Holy Spirit by water, oil, wind and the dove. In general, care and good taste should govern one’s interpretation of uninterpreted symbols. An uncritical association of cross references in determining the meaning of symbols may be more harmful than helpful.15
Thus, if we were to find one passage where "earth" symbolizes the common people, this would not establish a fixed principle of interpretation whereby "earth" symbolizes the common people throughout biblical prophetic and apocalyptic literature. Perhaps in a particular context "earth" might symbolize something else. Moreover, the literal heavens and earth are theologically important enough that we would expect them to be mentioned in biblical prophetic and apocalyptic literature, so it would be a serious mistake to assume that "heavens" and "earth" are symbolic terms throughout this literature. Context is the key to discerning between various kinds of literal and figurative meanings.

A fourth problem with the political heavens hermeneutic is that it results in contextually inconsistent interpretations of particular passages. It will be best to illustrate this using a series of examples; these will follow in the next section.


Let us now explore a number of biblical passages where the political heavens hermeneutic has resulted in an illogical, contextually inconsistent interpretation.


There are numerous biblical passages where the heavens and/or the earth are addressed directly by God as vocatives. One such instance occurs in Isa. 1:2: "Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth, for the Lord speaks: Sons have I raised and reared, but they have rebelled against me!" (NABRE) An article in a Christadelphian periodical explains:
Isaiah spoke to the Heavens and the Earth of his day, but he did not leave us to guess who he really was talking to. In verse 10 of Isaiah 1, he addressed them a second time. This time he called them the Rulers and the People.  
Heaven = Rulers 
Earth = the People  
The interpretation leaves no doubt. The word "Heaven" refers to the rulers or the government, and "Earth" is the symbolic term for those who were the subjects of the kingdom, the common people.
However, it is not at all clear that "O heavens" and "O earth" in v. 1 correspond respectively to "rulers of Sodom" and "people of Gomorrah" in v. 10. Notice the change in grammatical person in v. 5: verses 2-4 address the "heavens" and "earth" and refer to sinful Israel in the third person ("they"). From verse 5 on, the oracle addresses Israel directly in the second person ("you"). Thus, the addressees in v. 2 are different from the addressees in v. 10. What God is doing in vv. 2-4 is invoking the Torahic legal principle that an accusation be established by the testimony of at least two witnesses (Deut. 19:15). God's two witnesses are the very heavens and earth, which poetically illustrates the magnitude both of God's sovereignty and of Israel's sin. God is applying words that appear repeatedly in Deuteronomy, "I call heaven and earth to witness against you today" (Deut. 4:26; 30:19; 31:28). The "heavens" and "earth" here are figurative to the extent that God is not merely speaking to firmament and terrain; "heavens" and "earth" summarize the entirety of creation (Gen. 1:1), not only the physical cosmos but its inhabitants. Indeed, "heavens" can mean "the inhabitants of the heavens" by metonymy (e.g., Ps. 89:5), as "earth" can mean "the inhabitants of the earth" (e.g., Ps. 33:8). There is no basis, however, for reading "heavens" and "earth" as ciphers for two distinct sets of earthly political actors, namely rulers and ruled.

The use of anthropomorphic language in relation to heavens and earth is common in Scripture and is not limited to their being addressed by God; for instance, they also "see" and "speak" (Ps. 97:4-6). Nor is the use of such language limited to the heavens and the earth: Psalm 96:11-13 invites the sea and all that fills it to roar, the field and everything in it to exult, and all the trees of the forest to sing for joy. If "let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice" indicates that "heavens" and "earth" are symbols for political realities here, consistency dictates that we extend the symbolism and offer allegorical referents in the political sphere to "the sea and all that fills it," "the field and everything in it," and "all the trees of the forest"! A similar argument obtains in Psalm 148, where those called on to praise Yahweh include not only angels and all sorts of humans but "sun and moon... shining stars... highest heavens... waters above the heavens... great sea creatures and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind... mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, beasts and all livestock, creeping things and flying birds" (Ps. 148:3-10). We can speculate on what sort of political realities mist and cedars might symbolize, or we can recognise that this language is poetic. For other similar examples see Isa. 44:23; 45:8; 49:13.

One final passage to mention here is Hos. 2:23-24[21-22]:
23 On that day I will respond—oracle of the Lord—I will respond to the heavens, and they will respond to the earth; 24 The earth will respond to the grain, and wine, and oil, and these will respond to Jezreel.
This oracle has to do with agricultural fertility:
Yahweh's gracious response sets in motion a chain reaction which runs through all the stages in the fertility cycle: deity - heavens (rain) - land (soil) - grain, wine, oil (inclusive of crops, 2.8) - people.16
Political rulers do not exercise sovereignty over crop growth, so once again it is evident that despite the anthropomorphic language used for the heavens and the earth (as "answering" one another), these cosmological terms are not symbols of political realities.



Thomas writes:
In Isa. xxiv. 23 it is written, ‘Then the moon shall be confounded, and the sun ashamed, when the Lord of hosts shall reign on Mount Zion, and in Jerusalem.’ If these words be construed literally, the expression is unintelligible, but if interpreted as the political heavens, the civil and ecclesiastical rulers of their former polity—‘the army of the high ones on high, and kings of the earth upon the earth,’—the saying is full of propriety and force.17
In the wider context of Isaiah 24, this interpretation runs up against serious internal inconsistencies. This oracle begins with a warning that Yahweh "will empty the earth and make it desolate, and he will twist its surface and scatter its inhabitants" (Isa. 24:1). If "the earth" is here a symbolic term referring to the masses of the people, then what are "its inhabitants"? This term would be redundant! Moreover, what is the earth's "surface" if the earth is not literal here? Further along, what are "the ends of the earth," "the windows of heaven," and "the foundations of the earth" (vv. 16-18) if heaven and earth are symbols of human rulers and subjects in this chapter? What sense can we make of Yahweh punishing "the host of heaven, in heaven, and the kings of the earth, on the earth" (v. 21) if these are not literal cosmic terms? It is wiser to interpret the moon and the sun literally here than as political symbols. The description of them as being "confounded" and "ashamed" is poetic in line with the anthropomorphic language used of various cosmological and geographical entities in many passages that are clearly not conducive to allegorization (as discussed above).


This text reads,
7 When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens and make their stars dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light. 8 All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over you, and put darkness on your land, declares the Lord GOD. (ESV)
For John Thomas, this portion of the oracle against Pharaoh is
Another striking illustration of the Scripture use of the heavens and their luminaries as prophetic symbols… This passage is the only one in the entire prophecy that has not been literally fulfilled; and there exists no apparent reason for separating this verse from the whole context, and for not interpreting it as of Egypt’s political heavens, and therefore as having been fulfilled equally with the remainder when Pharaoh’s kingdom was absorbed into the Assyro-Babylonish empire. (Thomas 74)
It is very odd that Thomas claims the rest of the prophecy has been literally fulfilled, because much of it is a figurative description of Pharaoh as "like a dragon in the seas" (Ezek. 32:2). The oracle proceeds to describe how God will capture this dragon in a net and cast it on the ground, where the birds and beasts will feast on it, so that its flesh will be strewn upon the mountains, its carcass will fill the valleys and its blood will drench the land (vv. 3-6). In other words, this prophecy is anything but literal. The cosmic language of vv. 7-8 should therefore not be pressed too literally, but there is no indication that the cosmic terms (heavens, stars, sun, cloud, moon, land) have specific symbolic referents in the political sphere. Indeed, "heavens" has just been used literally (as the abode of birds) in v. 4. A more literal description of the coming judgment on Egypt proceeds in v. 11. There is nothing "striking" in Ezek. 32:7-8 that illustrates the validity of the political heavens hermeneutic.

6 For thus says the LORD of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. 7 And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the LORD of hosts... 21 Speak to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, saying, I am about to shake the heavens and the earth, 22 and to overthrow the throne of kingdoms. I am about to destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations, and overthrow the chariots and their riders. And the horses and their riders shall go down, every one by the sword of his brother. (ESV)
Thomas insists that this passage illustrates the political heavens symbolism:
Haggai speaks of those days as well as of the days to come. ‘Thus saith the Lord: Yet once, it is a little while and I will shake the heavens and the earth, and the sea and the dry land;’ which signifies, as is explained in the next sentence, ‘And I will shake all the nations.’”18
Thomas claims that "And I will shake all nations" (v. 7) is an explanation of v. 6 rather than an addition to it (despite the initial waw-conjunction ["And I will shake..."] suggesting addition). What we actually have here is a description of cosmic and political events, not two descriptions of political events, one symbolic and one literal. It is clear from the use of Haggai 2 in Hebrews 12 that this early Christian writer did not interpret "the heavens and the earth" in this prophecy as symbols of political realities. Hebrews 12:18-21 refers to the glorious theophany at Mount Sinai recorded in Exodus 19 before making a contrast: the readers "have come to Mount Zion...the heavenly Jerusalem." So, Israel had encountered God at an earthly mountain, but the readers now encounter Him at a heavenly mountain. The analogy continues with a warning in vv. 25-26 that ends with a quotation from Hag. 2:6:
25 See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, "Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens."
The contrast in v. 25 is between a warning on earth (at Mount Sinai in Ex. 19:12-13) and a warning from heaven. In v. 26 we have an allusion to a literal shaking of the literal earth (Ex. 19:18) contrasted with the promise of a future shaking of both earth and the heavens. The writer's analogy between the earthly events at Sinai and the earthly-and-heavenly eschatological events completely breaks down if heavens and earth in Hag. 2:6 are symbolic terms. The writer would then be comparing apples and oranges, so to speak! Indeed, the things to be shaken according to Hag. 2:6 are explicitly interpreted in Heb. 12:27 as "things that have been made"—a clear description of the physical creation!


In the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24 / Mark 13 / Luke 21) Jesus foretells cosmic signs. I will follow Luke's account here:
10 Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven... 25 And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, 26 people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. (Luke 21:10-11, 25-27 ESV)
Now, Thomas's argument was that because the signs in heaven are mentioned alongside political events, the signs in heaven must also refer to political events; thus "heaven," "sun," "moon," "stars" and "sea" are not literal but symbolic of political realities. This interpretation creates a number of contextual inconsistencies. First, it requires us to alternate back and forth between literal and symbolic meaning in adjacent sentences: "Nation will rise against nation" is literal; "earthquakes" are symbolic. "Famines and pestilences" are literal; "signs from heaven," symbolic. "Signs in sun and moon and stars," symbolic; "distress of nations" literal; "roaring of the sea" symbolic; "people fainting" literal; "powers of the heavens" symbolic.

A second inconsistency is that we are asked to interpret cosmological language symbolically in vv. 25-26 even though there is literal cosmological language in v. 27: the "cloud" in which the Son of Man comes is clearly literal for Luke (see Acts 1:9-11). This problem is even more acute in Matthew, which says that "the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven," that the Son of Man will come "on the clouds of heaven," and that the angels will gather the elect "from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other" (Matt. 24:30-31). Unless we are going to claim that "heaven" also symbolizes political sovereignty in these three instances, we must concede that "heaven" assumes a completely different meaning in Matt. 24:30-31 than what it allegedly means in v. 29, with no indication of a semantic shift.

There is also a broader contextual inconsistency that arises from cosmic signs that appear within the narratives of the Gospels and Acts. Matthew 2:1-10 tells how the Magi followed a star to find the infant Jesus. At Jesus' baptism the heavens are "torn open," the Spirit descends like a dove and a voice from heaven is heard (Mark 1:10-11). The crucifixion narratives report an extended period of daytime darkness; Luke explains that "the sun's light failed" (Luke 23:44-45). Matthew tells us that the crucifixion was accompanied by an earthquake that was literal but supernatural: it awakened the dead (Matt. 27:51-54). Another supernatural but literal earthquake accompanies the resurrection narrative (Matt. 28:2). In Acts, both Stephen (7:56) and Peter (10:11) see the heavens opened, while Saul is blinded by a heavenly light "brighter than the sun" (26:13) and an earthquake precipitates a potential prison break (16:26). Thus, in the narratives of the Gospels and Acts, we have a number of heavenly signs involving the sun, a star, the heavens opening or being torn, and earthquakes, and all of them are literal. In no case is the cosmological language reducible to a symbolic description of political realities. Thus, when we encounter heavenly signs and earthquakes in the Olivet discourse, we have been contextually primed to interpret them literally. "The sun will be darkened" (Matt. 24:29)? It already was at the cross!

There is thus every reason to interpret the cosmic signs of the Olivet Discourse literally, albeit couched in the language of ancient cosmology (thus by "falling stars" in Matt. 24:29 moderns would understand "meteors").


The Johannine Apocalypse is replete with symbolic language, including (as we have already seen) an explicit identification of one particular instance of geographical terminology ("many waters") as representing a political reality ("peoples, nations, and languages," Rev. 17:15). However, this does not mean the reader has carte blanche to interpret cosmological language throughout the book (e.g., "heavens," "earth") as symbolising political realities. One reason is that the book mentions "heaven(s)" or "earth" scores of times (over 100 combined), many of which cases are unambiguously literal. Thus one must tread carefully in identifying which (if any) references to "heaven(s)," "earth" and other cosmological terms are symbols for political realities.

Take, for example, the first few mentions of "heaven" in Revelation. In Rev. 3:12, the exalted Jesus refers to "the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven" (cf. Rev. 21:2). Under the political heavens hermeneutic, ascent to heaven denotes coming to political power, so descent from heaven would logically denote losing political power. However, clearly this is not the point being made about the new Jerusalem. Rather, the point is to emphasize the divine, transcendent source of this eschatological city. "Heaven" refers literally to the abode of God here. The next mentions of "heaven" occur in Rev. 4:1-2:
1 After this I had a vision of an open door to heaven, and I heard the trumpetlike voice that had spoken to me before, saying, “Come up here and I will show you what must happen afterwards.” 2 At once I was caught up in spirit. A throne was there in heaven, and on the throne sat 3 one whose appearance sparkled like jasper and carnelian. (Rev. 4:1-3 NABRE)
Here the seer has a vision of an open door to heaven and a voice invites him to "come up here." He then beholds a throne "in heaven," and proceeds to describe the throne-room and its occupants for the rest of chapters 4 and 5. This throne-room "in heaven" remains the setting from which heavenly beings launch the various visionary experiences that follow in subsequent chapters. It seems indisputable that this "heaven" that functions as the setting for the throne-room vision is literal heaven. Could one have a vision of God, the Lamb and myriads of angels in a symbolic political heaven? Clearly not; and in light of this contextual data any application of the political heavens hermeneutic in Revelation would require compelling clues that the cosmological language has shifted toward a symbolic sense.

We will now consider two instances in Revelation where John Thomas understood "heaven" to symbolize worldly political sovereignty in defiance of the context.


Revelation 11:7-10 describes the killing of the two witnesses by the beast from the abyss. Verses 11-12 describe a reversal of their circumstances:
11 But after the three and a half days, a breath of life from God entered them. When they stood on their feet, great fear fell on those who saw them. 12 Then they heard a loud voice from heaven say to them, “Come up here.” So they went up to heaven in a cloud as their enemies looked on. (Rev. 11:11-12 NABRE)
Now, without being too precise about what the two witnesses/prophets represent (due to space), it is fairly clear from the context that they denote obedient subjects of God who undergo persecution. The "loud voice from heaven" inviting them, "Come up here" recalls the voice from heaven that said these words to John in Rev. 4:1. That "up here" referred to literal, transcendent heaven in chapter 4 strongly suggests that it has the same sense here. (The Elijah typology in this chapter is also unmistakable, with references to prophets having power to shut the sky from rain, and to going up to heaven.) However, for John Thomas, "heaven" here refers to earthly political power, and Rev. 11:11-12 foretells political events that would precipitate the French Revolution in 1789:
Now, "after three days and a half the breath of life from God entered into the witnesses;" that is, after the three months and a half of day-years had fully expired, "they stood upon their feet." The death-period elapsed on Feb. 18, 1789, and in two months and fourteen days after, being May 4, they accepted the invitation of "a great voice from the heaven," saying to them, "Come up hither!" This great voice was the royal proclamation by which the States General were convened, and in which the witnesses took their seats as the third estate of the kingdom. They soon proved their existence there by the events which followed. They ascended to power in a portentous cloud, which burst upon the devoted heads of their enemies; and in the earthquake which followed they shook the world.19
Thomas was clearly so zealous about finding modern political events to have been foretold in Revelation that he had conditioned himself to read "heaven" symbolically without any regard to contextual clues indicating a literal meaning.


A second example comes from the ensuing chapter. In the context of a wider conflict involving the woman clothed with the sun, her male child and the great red dragon, we read the following:
7 Then war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels battled against the dragon. The dragon and its angels fought back, 8 but they did not prevail and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9 The huge dragon, the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, who deceived the whole world, was thrown down to earth, and its angels were thrown down with it. (Rev. 12:7-9 NABRE)
Now, Michael is an important figure in Second Temple Jewish apocalyptic. Elsewhere in the Bible he appears in Dan. 10:13, 10:21, 12:1 and Jude 9. In the Old Greek of Dan. 10:21 he is explicitly identified as an "angel" and in Jude 9 (where he is also in conflict with the devil) he is called an "archangel." If there were any remaining doubt in the first-century reader's mind who Michael was, that he was "in heaven" and had "angels" under his command would surely have sealed it. Bear in mind that according to the throne-room vision of Revelation 4-5, heaven is the abode of myriads of angels praising the Lamb (Rev. 5:11-12). Thus, it would seem that when John sees a war in heaven between "Michael and his angels" and another group of angels led by the dragon, which symbolizes the Devil and Satan (as Rev. 12:9 explicitly states), this refers to an actual cosmic conflict.

Not so, says John Thomas. Now, I have previously discussed and criticized the traditional Christadelphian interpretation of other symbols in Revelation 12, (namely, that "woman clothed with the sun" symbolizes a divided and largely corrupted Church and that her "male child" symbolizes the emperor Constantine). John Thomas regarded the whole of Revelation 12 as foretelling the political rise of Christianity in the fourth century A.D. As such, he understood the "war" described in Rev. 12:7-9 as a literal war, not in literal heaven but in the "the Roman [political] heaven,"20 and not fought between literal angels but between corrupt Christians (Michael and his angels) and pagans (the dragon and his angels). In one of the strangest exegetical turns in his entire system, John Thomas understands "Michael" in this verse to refer to Constantine!21 This interpretation will rightly strike most readers as extremely fanciful and out of touch with the context of Revelation and of Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity. However, as in Thomas's interpretation of Rev. 11:11-12, close attention to context has been trumped by an overriding concern to find in Revelation a coded narrative of post-biblical European political history.


We can conclude our critique of the political heavens hermeneutic by stating categorically that there is no "fixed and constant analogy" in Scripture whereby cosmological realities such as "heavens," "earth," "sun," "moon," "stars," "sea," "earthquakes," correspond symbolically to respective political realities. Nor is such an analogy present in most of the passages where it has been identified by Christadelphian expositors. In light of passages like Rev. 17:15, I would not want to make a blanket statement that cosmological or geographical terms in Scripture never symbolize political realities, but the political heavens hermeneutic is not a Rosetta Stone that unlocks the hidden, political meaning of biblical prophecy. Rather, this hermeneutic often robs the biblical writers of their poetic license. Even more seriously, it sometimes reduces the transcendent, theological content of the inspired oracles to earthbound, anthropological content, and restricts the Holy Spirit's ability to foretell real cosmic signs of the kind that were so prevalent during the earthly life of Jesus and the early Church. This politicizing hermeneutic is unworthy of a sect that has always eschewed participation in worldly politics.

Footnotes

  • 1 William Cuninghame, The Political Destiny of the Earth as Revealed in the Bible (Philadelphia: Orrin Rogers, 1840), 31-32, emphasis added.
  • 2 John Thomas, Elpis Israel, 4th ed. (Findon: Logos Publications, 1866/2000), 398-99, emphasis added.
  • 3 John Thomas, "The Heavens and the Signs Thereof," Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, 5 (1855): 78.
  • 4 Thomas, "The Heavens and the Signs Thereof," 73.
  • 5 Thomas, "The Heavens and the Signs Thereof," 73.
  • 6 Thomas, "The Heavens and the Signs Thereof," 74.
  • 7 Thomas, "The Heavens and the Signs Thereof," 73.
  • 8 Thomas, "The Heavens and the Signs Thereof," 73.
  • 9 Douglas A. Knight, "Cosmology," in Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1990), 175.
  • 10 Nicholas A. Pananides and Thomas Arny, Introductory Astronomy (Boston: Addison Wesley, 1979), 6.
  • 11 "Formerly, meteors were often called shooting stars or falling stars but now these terms are hardly ever encountered in scientific writings for the reason that there is nothing at all in common between real stars-distant suns-and meteors that flame through the earth's atmosphere." (V. Fedynsky, Meteors [Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific, 2002], 5.)
  • 12 "In the New Testament (Jude 13), as with all other early Christian literature, planētēs is used only in conjunction with asteres, 'star.' So, in the pre-Copernican cosmological systems, planets were viewed as wandering stars, whose heavenly paths were irregular" (Kyle Greenwood, Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible Between the Ancient World and Modern Science [Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015], 89).
  • 13 J. Edward Wright, The Early History of Heaven (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 59. Wright continues: "Judges 5:20, part of a poem that may date as early as the tenth century BCE and that provides insight into early Israelite beliefs, mentions that during Deborah's battle against the Canaanite king Sisera, the stars fought against one another as the human forces battled on earth. The stars, therefore, are gods fighting in heaven, and the outcome of their celestial battle determines the outcome of the battle on earth. Job 38:7 mentions that when God created the world 'the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings (בני אלהים, bene elohim, literally children of God) shouted for joy.' The parallelism here of morning stars and heavenly beings indicated that this author equates the stars with the heavenly beings."
  • 14 Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III (eds.), "Heaven," in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 372-73. Similarly, Wright: "The phrase 'host of heaven' (צבא השמים) designates the vast assembly of heavenly beings and/or celestial bodies" (Early History of Heaven, 60).
  • 15 Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation: A Textbook of Hermeneutics for Conservative Protestants (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1956), 215. Similarly, Mickelsen: "Observe the frequency and distribution of a symbol (how often and where found), but allow each context to control the meaning. Do not force symbols into preconceived schemes of uniformity." (A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963], 278).
  • 16 James Luther Mays, Hosea: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), 52.
  • 17 Thomas, "The Heavens and the Signs Thereof," 74.
  • 18 Thomas, "The Heavens and the Signs Thereof," 76.
  • 19 Thomas, Elpis Israel, 369.
  • 20 "In 312-3, the man-child was born of the Woman as the military chieftain destined to cast the pagan dragon out of the Roman heaven" (Thomas, Elpis Israel, 356).
  • 21 "Constantine, as the military chieftain of the Catholic Church, which the Deity had predetermined should have the rule instead of the Pagan Priesthood, is styled in the prophecy ho Michael, the Michael: that is, the Michael of the situation. This name is Hebrew in a Greek dress. The Hebrew is resolvable into three words put interrogatively, as Miyka'el, or Mi, who, cah, like, ail power? Or Who like that power Divinely energized to cast the Pagan Dragon, surnamed the Diabolos and the Satan, out of the Roman heaven? There was no contemporary power under this Sixth Seal that was able to contend successfully against it. Hence Constantine, as the instrument of the Deity in the development of his purpose, is styled "the Michael". He was not personally the Michael, or "first of the chief princes'9 spoken of in Dan. 10:13, nor the Michael termed in Dan. 12:1, "the great Prince who standeth for the children of Daniel's people;" but for the time being he filled the office that will hereafter be more potently and gloriously illustrated by the Great Prince from heaven, who will bind the Dragon and shut him down in the abyss for a thousand years (Apoc. 20:2,3)." (John Thomas, Eureka: An Exposition of the Apocalypse, 5 vols. [Findon: Logos Publications, 1869/1992], 4:102-103). Thomas's interpretation of ho Michael as "the Michael [of the situation]" ignores that proper names in Greek frequently occur with the definite article, including in the only other NT reference to Michael in Jude 9.