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

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
Rulers; a position of political sovereignty and power
The masses of people; a position of political subjection
Gods/idols; alternatively, kings and other secular/civil rulers
Ecclesiastical government; alternatively, princes and magistrates
Ministers of religion; alternatively, lesser political authorities
The masses of people, especially when in a disturbed political state
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.


  • 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.

Tuesday 28 November 2017

Christadelphians and Catholics: Prospects for Dialogue

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

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

How Christadelphians view Catholicism

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Catholics view Christadelphians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ecumenical versus Inter-religious Dialogue

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

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

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

Common Ground between Christadelphians and Catholics

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


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


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

Thursday 7 April 2016

Are Christadelphians Unitarian, Socinian, or something else?

Defining the question
Repudiation of Unitarianism and Socinianism by Dr. John Thomas
Subsequent Christadelphian appropriation of the labels 'Unitarian' and 'Socinian'
External descriptions of Christadelphians in relation to Unitarians and Socinians

First, we need to define what is meant by 'Unitarian' (or 'unitarian'). Cross and Livingstone, in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, provide a good working definition: 'A type of Christian thought and religious observance which rejects the doctrines of the Trinity and the Divinity of Christ in favour of the unipersonality of God'.1

In terms of the history of Unitarianism, Cross and Livingstone write, 'Though the unipersonality of God was voiced in the early Church in the various forms of Monarchianism, modern Unitarianism dates historically from the Reformation era.'2 Famous early Unitarians (16th century) include Michael Servetus, George Blandrata and Faustus Socinus (from whose name the term 'Socinianism', synonymous with Unitarianism as a theological concept, is taken). These early Unitarians shared with their orthodox contemporaries a belief in the truth and authority of Scripture.  Although Socinianism was stamped out in Poland by the Counter-Reformation, 'in England, a thin lineage of Socinian thought survived to inspire what would become British Unitarianism in the 18th century.'3

During the 19th century, Unitarianism as a movement became increasingly liberal theologically.4 5 Indeed, this shift is visible already in the writings of the prominent Unitarian Joseph Priestley (1733-1804).6 In the 20th century, the Unitarians in America merged with the Universalists to form the Unitarian Universalist group, which is extremely liberal and bears little ideological resemblance to the 16th century version of Unitarianism.7

However, pockets of more conservative Unitarians have survived, referring to themselves as 'biblical Unitarians' (or 'biblical unitarians') to distinguish themselves from liberal Unitarians. Biblical Unitarianism is not a religious group as such but a theological label. It has been adopted, in particular, by the Atlanta-based Church of God General Conference, which produces a publication entitled Journal from the Radical Reformation: A Testimony to Biblical Unitarianism. A website of the 'Christian Churches of God' carefully distinguishes between the terms 'Radical Unitarian' and 'Biblical Unitarian' and lays claim to the latter designation.

When we ask whether Christadelphians are Unitarian, therefore, we are not asking whether Christadelphians belong to the religion known as Unitarianism (or Unitarian Universalism). We are asking whether Christadelphians are theologically Unitarian, that is, sharing the view of God and Christ that was advocated by Servetus, Blandrata and Socinus, and is advocated by self-professed biblical Unitarians today.

If we look to the writings of Dr. Thomas, the founder of the Christadelphian sect, we find that he expressed strong antipathy toward Unitarianism and Socinianism throughout his whole career as a polemicist. We find statements opposing these theological positions in his pre-Christadelphian writings in The Apostolic Advocate (1834) right up to the publication of Phanerosis, his pamphlet on the nature of God published in 1869, two years before his death. Below is a survey of Dr. Thomas' statements on the matter.

The following was written by Dr. Thomas in 1834, over a decade before his final baptism and founding of the sect that was to become the Christadelphians:
I have been informed that the Clergy among you... have resorted to their old weapons of warfare, and instead of fairly meeting the arguments and testimonies we have laid before you, and candidly and openly refuting them - they have, I say, endeavored to rouse your prejudices, and thus to pervert all equity and right judgment. Instead of opposing the Gospel, we proclaimed to you by reason and Scripture, they have misrepresented us and abused your minds by imposing upon you the false accusation - that we deny the Divinity of the Saviour, and have identified ourselves with Unitarians. Friends! This is a gross slander, a downright falsehood... We maintain all that the Law, the Prophets, the Psalms, and the Apostles testify concerning Jesus - we speak of him and his Divine Person in the language of Holy Writ - we worship him as God - we adore him as our Prophet, Priest, King, and Judge - and we ascribe all honor, might, majesty and dominion to Him as our exalted Messiah, Prince, Lord and Saviour for evermore. As for the vain babblings of the Clergy - a class of men puffed up with a conceit of their own importance, and fancied infallibility (we speak now of all Clergy from His Holiness the Pope down to an itinerant preacher) - as to their speculations on Arianism, Trinitarianism, and Unitarianism, or any other ism, we have nothing to do with them, except to expose their fallacy and nonsense: - we find no such words in the whole Bible, and therefore we know there are no such ideas there as they represent - for words are signs of ideas, and where the words are not, sure we are, the ideas are wanting likewise. Our rule is to speak of Bible things in Bible words, and to leave all vain, idle, and untaught questions to the Clergy and the Schools... [such dogmas] are an abomination in the eyes of the Exalted Son of God.8
Almost two decades later, having written Elpis Israel and begun the evangelistic endeavours through which his nascent sect coalesced, Dr. Thomas responded thus to a journalist who referred to his magazine, The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, as 'a specimen of low scurrilous Socinianism and Universalism': 
The readers of the Herald well know that its pages are never defaced by Socinianism or Universalism, which, like Calvinism and Arminianism, equally as absurd creeds, are removed from my faith as widely as the poles asunder9
According to Christadelphian historian Peter Hemingray, Dr. Thomas' understanding of the nature of Christ and God was not fully developed until a series of articles written in the Herald in 1857-1859.10 In the midst of this material we find the following:
But the New Man of the Spirit is free, looking searchingly into the perfect law of liberty, and having no respect to "the philosophy and empty delusion," and antitheses of gnosis, or "oppositions of science," falsely so called, in which the flesh delights. He troubles not himself about Trinitarianism, or Antitrinitarianism, Unitarianism, Arianism, or Socinianism. He has no more deference for these than for any other of "the works of the Devil," or for the Old Man himself.11
In 1869, Dr. Thomas published Phanerosis, a pamphlet based on his earlier Herald material that definitively expressed his understanding of the nature of God (which I have briefly critiqued elsewhere). In the preface he wrote thus:
The Author is enabled to present the thinking and truth-seeking portion of the public with this exegesis of the "great mystery," revealed through the Son, and preached by the apostles, but afterwards so grossly perverted by the traditions of the Trinitarians, Arians, and Unitarians, through the liberality of one, who having found "the truth as it is in Jesus," has not only laid fast hold of it, but seeks to introduce it to the notice of others.12
Toward the end of the work, having argued for his doctrine of 'God manifestation', Dr. Thomas summarized:
These things having been demonstrated: much rubbish has been cleared away; Trinitarianism and Unitarianism have both received a quietus. There are not three Gods in the Godhead, nor are there but three in manifestation; nevertheless, the Father is God, and Jesus is God; and we may add, so are all the brethren of Jesus gods; and ‘a multitude which no man can number.’ The Godhead is the homogeneous fountain of the Deity; these other gods are the many streams from which this fountain flow. The springhead of Deity is one, not many; the streams as numerous as the orbs of the universe, in which a manifestation of Deity may have hitherto occurred.13
We can summarize Dr. Thomas' ideas in the above quotations with the following observations:

1. Dr. Thomas' antipathy toward Unitarianism and Socinianism appears to have equaled his antipathy toward Trinitarianism and Arianism: all were described using terms like absurd, nonsense, rubbish, abomination, works of the devil, etc.
2. By essentially condemning all major doctrinal positions on the nature of God and Christ known from Church history, Dr. Thomas implicitly declared that his own position was completely new and unprecedented (although, of course, he thought it was the position of the apostles and prophets of old).
3. Dr. Thomas' objections to Unitarianism were both Christological (in that Unitarianism denied the deity of Christ) and theo-logical (in that Unitarianism denied the notion of many gods streaming from a single fountain-head).

Subsequent Christadelphian appropriation of the labels 'Unitarian' and 'Socinian'

Notwithstanding the strenuous opposition to Socinian and Unitarian theologies by the founder of their sect, the majority of Christadelphians would eventually come to adopt these labels for themselves. Documenting exactly how this shift took place is beyond the scope of this article. One possibility that merits further investigation is that Robert Roberts', by deciding not to include any detailed proposition about the Phanerosis doctrine in the Christadelphian Statement of Faith, signaled that this doctrine was not core Christadelphian dogma. This paved the way for subsequent generations to tone down what they increasingly recognized to be an idiosyncratic theological position. The God manifestation concept has not been abandoned by Christadelphians but it is certainly less prominent today and expressed in far milder language than Dr. Thomas' talk of a plurality of Gods.

It is reasonably clear that today, Christadelphians widely self-identify as Unitarians, or more specifically as biblical Unitarians. The very first sentence of the Wikipedia page on Christadelphians declares that the group holds 'a view of Biblical Unitarianism.' If this statement were controversial among contemporary Christadelphian web users, presumably it would have been challenged by now. Similarly, the Wikipedia page on Biblical Unitarianism identifies Christadelphians among the two most visible religious denominations that 'could be identified as "biblical unitarian".' Moreover, in his online debate on the Trinity with Rob Bowman, Christadelphian apologist Dave Burke identifies Christadelphians as 'the largest Biblical Unitarian denomination', distinguishing 'Biblical Unitarians' from two other kinds of Unitarians, namely 'Rationalist Unitarians (who do not believe that Jesus was the Son of God) and Universalist Unitarians (who believe that all people will be saved, regardless of what they believe'. A strict dichotomy between 'Unitarian theology' and 'Trinitarianism' is maintained throughout his argument. There is no hint of Dr. Thomas' rubbishing of both Trinitarianism and Unitarianism in favour of a third alternative.

Similarly, contemporary Christadelphians have embraced the Socinians as their theological forebears. This is particularly evident in Alan Eyre's historiographical works The Protesters and Brethren in Christ, which have enjoyed great popularity within the Christadelphian community. (Interestingly, Eyre suggested that while the 'Polish Brethren' had 'Scriptural' and 'reverent' teachings, Christadelphian theology represented a further advance specifically in its doctrine of God manifestation.) Another Christadelphian writer, Ruth McHaffie, has observed in her book Brethren Indeed? how Christadelphians began in the 1970s, mainly as a result of Alan Eyre's work, to trace their history back beyond Dr. John Thomas to the Anabaptists and the Polish Brethren in particular.14

In a recent pamphlet designed to introduce the Christadelphian community to the public, and hosted on one of the main Christadelphian-run websites, Rob Hyndman15 writes:
The beliefs and practices of the Christadelphians can be traced from the New Testament to the earliest Christians of the 1st and 2nd Centuries in documents such as the Epistle of Clement, The Didache and The Apostles’ Creed. With the advent of religious freedom in Europe in the 16th Century Reformation, the same beliefs and practices resurfaced in Bible-minded groups such as the Swiss Anabaptists and Polish Socinians.16
It is safe to say that the consensus of today's Christadelphians, in marked contrast to the founder of their sect, is to identify themselves as Unitarians in the Socinian tradition. One still finds Christadelphians who reject the label 'Unitarian'. However, this is simply because of the associations of the term with a denial of the virgin birth, a doctrine that Christadelphians dogmatically uphold.17 Such writers might embrace the label 'biblical Unitarian' if they were aware of it. There is scant evidence of contemporary Christadelphians who reject the label 'Unitarian' outright for the same reasons as Dr. Thomas, although strong proponents of his radical God-manifestation doctrine do remain.
Note: the previous paragraph has been edited to remove a reference to a blog post arguing that Christadelphians are not Unitarians. The author may have been a Christadelphian at the time of writing, but he has apparently since left the Christadelphians and is regarded as a disgruntled individual.

Given that the founder of Christadelphians regarded Unitarianism and Socinianism as abominable and yet that contemporary Christadelphians have largely embraced these labels and the concepts they name, it will be no surprise to find that non-Christadelphians, when describing the Christadelphian belief system, differ on whether it is Unitarian or Socinian or neither.

Geach regards the Christadelphians as straightforwardly the continuation of Socinianism:
But Socinianism still continues to exist in its traditional English seat; those who followed the old paths formed a new sect, at first nameless, now called Christadelphians.18
Similarly, Bray describes Christadelphians as a form of unitarianism: 
Another form of unitarianism is Christadelphianism, whose beliefs go back to John Thomas (1805-1871). Christadelphians are more orthodox than Unitarian Universalists are, but like them, they also deny the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit.19
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary describes Christadelphians as a religious sect which 'rejects the doctrine of the Trinity in favour of a Unitarian and Adventist theology.' Christian apologetics website tektonics.org flatly asserts that 'Christadelphians are Unitarians.' Biblical scholar James McGrath uses the term 'Unitarian evangelical churches' to describe the source of some non-trinitarian popular literature he cites that includes a Christadelphian book.20

Other writers demur to call Christadelphians Unitarian. Clementson stresses that 'Christadelphians do not describe themselves as unitarian'.21 Edwards states:
Christadelphians are not therefore Trinitarian, neither are they Unitarian, because they hold to the belief that Jesus was and still is literally the Son of God as the scriptures describe.22
These writers are likely contrasting Christadelphian theology with liberal Unitarianism and may be unaware of the term 'biblical Unitarian' or that many Christadelphians today have embraced it. A more nuanced discussion of whether Christadelphians are Unitarian, Socinian, or something else are found in Bryan Wilson's sociological study of Christadelphians. It is worth quoting him at length:
In referring to the Christadelphians some writers have styled the movement's theology as unitarian, but this designation obscures rather than clarifies the Christadelphian position. Certainly Christadelphianism is avowedly anti-trinitarian, and attacks what it calls the triune God of many Christians. Christadelphians believe in one God, the Father... The designation "unitarian" relates most specifically to the opinion held concerning the nature of Jesus Christ, and the thorough unitarian position is to deny the deity, divinity and pre-existence of Christ. This, however, is not the opinion of Christadelphians, who, whilst they assert that Jesus was a man, also stress that he was the Son of God, begotten of Mary by the Holy Spirit. Jesus is understood to have had a like nature to that of mortal man, being himself born of woman and thus a sufferer of the consequence of Adam's transgression - death, which, by Adam's sin, comes to all mankind. But Jesus was also Immanuel, God manifest in the flesh... The nature of Jesus has been a matter of profound contention among Christadelphians, giving rise to a variety of schisms, on the part of those who have stressed his humanity or his divinity. The magnitude of these schisms should not be over-stressed, however, and the position of the Central Fellowship is quite clear. Jesus was born of unclean flesh... Yet it is also emphasised that Jesus possessed a knowledge and discernment beyond those of other men, and was gifted with the limitless power of the Holy Spirit in his life. He was not simply a man, for Deity dwelt in him... The distinction of Christadelphian teaching from a unitarian position is apparent, although it shares much common ground with a Socinian or Arian position, yet with some differences. Christadelphians do not deny the divinity of Jesus, indeed they believe it23
Thus, for Wilson, Christadelphians are neither Unitarian nor Socinian because, despite similarities, they believe in the divinity of Jesus (albeit not in the same sense as Trinitarians).

More recently, Ruth Sutcliffe, has written a theological work which offers a defense of the doctrine of the Trinity in dialogue with Christadelphian, Arian and Unitarian positions. Sutcliffe avers that Christadelphians, 'contrary to some erroneous assertions, are most definitely not Unitarians'.24 Her explanation runs thus:
Although Christadelphians deny the trinitarian understanding of the Godhead, they most certainly affirm that Jesus was born of the virgin Mary by the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit and that neither Joseph nor any other man was involved in Jesus' conception.25
It appears that Sutcliffe is using the term Unitarian exclusively for liberal Unitarianism which denies the virgin birth, and not inclusive of the designation 'biblical Unitarian'. However, she elsewhere addresses the question 'Are Christadelphians Socinians?' with considerable erudition. While noting that John Thomas 'denied that the group is Socinian',26 she identifies similarities between Socinian and Christadelphian teaching, such as their shared denial of the Trinity and the pre-existence of Christ. However, after further analysis of Christadelphian sources she concludes:
Despite the similarities with Socinianism, ultimately it seems fruitless to label the Christadelphian position on the Godhead with any other historical, divergent teaching. It is much more appropriate to call it what they themselves call it; the doctrine of "God manifestation," and seek to understand what they actually mean by this.27
This functions as a segue into a discussion of the traditional Christadelphian God manifestation doctrine. Hence, Sutcliffe finds that Christadelphians are not (liberal) Unitarians, and are similar to Socinians but still ought to be regarded as distinct due to their unique ideas about God manifestation.

Our findings may be summarized as follows. First, the term 'Unitarian' is multivalent. It can be used of non-Trinitarians of the Radical Reformation (including the Polish Socinians), the later 18th-century English Unitarian movement which gradually became more rationalistic and liberal in the 19th century, and the extremely liberal Unitarian (Universalist) movement of today. It is also, albeit usually with the prefix 'biblical', used by and of conservative Christians today who maintain the unipersonality of God and deny the pre-existence of Christ.

Second, Dr. Thomas emphatically repudiated Unitarianism as well as Socinianism, because he regarded both as incompatible with his understanding of the nature of Christ (since he maintained Christ's divinity, albeit in unorthodox form) and of the nature of God (in which Deity consists of many streams supported by a single fountain-head).

Third, Dr. Thomas' antagonism toward Unitarianism and Socinianism has all but vanished in the Christadelphian community of today. What he regarded as abominable nonsense and works of the devil, they claim as their own. The God-manifestation doctrine still seems to be regarded favourably by many, but unlike its progenitor, contemporary proponents of the doctrine seem to regard it as compatible with Unitarianism.

Fourth, some external literature describes Christadelphians as Unitarian, while others emphasizes that Christadelphians are not such. It seems that the divergence in description is partly due to varying scope for the term 'Unitarian' but also partly due to a failure by some scholars to appreciate the subtle but important theological differences between Christadelphians and all other 'Unitarians', past and present. For similar reasons, some external literature identifies Christadelphians as the continuation of Socinianism, while other literature demurs on this identification.

It is therefore impossible to offer a straightforward answer to the titular question. The founder of the Christadelphians was decidedly neither Unitarian in any sense nor Socinian. Christadelphians later gravitated back toward (biblical) Unitarian and Socinian positions, and many today are happy to apply these labels to themselves. However, the enduring influence of Dr. Thomas' God-manifestation doctrine - more pronounced in some Christadelphian circles than others - means that in substance, Christadelphians are still unique in their understanding of the nature of God and of Christ. Ruth Sutcliffe is right that no historical label fully captures the singularity of Christadelphian theology.


  • 1 Cross, Frank Leslie & Livingstone, Elizabeth A. (Eds.). (2005) Unitarianism. In The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, pp. 1671-1672. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 1671.
  • 2 ibid. Similarly, Ellwood and Alles: 'Modern Unitarianism began with radical Reformation anti-Trinitarian movements in 16th- and 17th-century Poland and Transylvania' (Ellwood, R.S. & Alles, G.D. (Eds.). (2009). Encyclopedia of World Religions. New York: Infobase Publishing, p. 458).
  • 3 Melton, J.G. (2010). Socinianism. In Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices. New York: ABC-CLIO, p. 2656.
  • 4 As the 19th century wore on, 'a new school of Unitarianism developed, which was anti-supernaturalist...which rejected the uniqueness of Christianity' (Kent, J. (1983). Unitarianism. In The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 591).
  • 5 'Before the end of the 19th cent. Unitarianism in America had become a very liberal or rationalistic movement, accepting scientific methods and ideas and recognizing the truth of non-Christian religions' (Cross & Livingstone, op. cit.)
  • 6 'In sum Priestley's theological thoughts centered on the rejection of Protestant orthodoxy's most important theological positions. He denounced the Trinity as untenable and specifically denied any evidence for the Holy Spirit. He detested the concepts of original sin and the atonement as misunderstandings and corruptions of man's relationship to God. He likewise rejected the virgin birth as a contrived theological fallacy. His views on materialism - the corporeal soul and its resurrection at the time of the second coming - were further rejections of Calvinist interpretations of the end times. Biblical inerrancy, a topic which Priestley approached with subtle distinctions, was most often, when employed by the Protestant majority, an error of reasoning or a misapplication of scripture.' (Bowers, J.D. (2010). Joseph Priestley and English Unitarianism in America. Penn State Press, p. 36)
  • 7 'In the 20th and 21st centuries, some Unitarians no longer call themselves Christians or believers in God but proponents of religious humanism.' (Ellwood and Alles, op. cit.)
  • 8 Thomas, John. (1834). The Apostolic Advocate, Vol. 1, p. 47 (emphasis added). Whether Dr. Thomas would still have declared of Jesus, 'We worship him as God' in his later years is doubtful.
  • 9 Thomas, John. (1853). The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, Vol. 3, p. 150.
  • 10 Hemingray, Peter. (2003). John Thomas: His Friends and His Faith. Christadelphian Tidings, p. 267.
  • 11 Thomas, John. (1858). The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, Vol. 8, p. 16. Reproduced verbatim in Thomas, John. (1869). Phanerosis: An Exposition of the Doctrine of The Old and New Testament Concerning The Manifestation of the Invisible Eternal God in Human Nature, p. 11.
  • 12 Thomas, Phanerosis, preface, p. vi.
  • 13 op. cit., p. 39.
  • 14 McHaffie, Ruth. Brethren Indeed, p. 14.
  • 15 The writer has since left the Christadelphian community and become an agnostic.
  • 16 Hyndman, Rob. (1999). The Christadelphians (Brothers and Sisters in Christ): Introducing a Bible-Based Community.
  • 17 For example, one B.M. Johns, in a debate on the Trinity by correspondence, clarified that he was unable to defend the 'Unitarian' position because of its view that Jesus is the son of Joseph. Similarly, on the Antipas Christadelphians website, a writer comments on the Websters Dictionary entry on Christadelphians: 'Since they do not understand our concept of the Godhead, they state that we are like Unitarians.' He objects to this characterization on the grounds that Christadelphians affirm that God the Father, not Joseph, was the father of Jesus.
  • 18 Geach, P.T. (1981). The Religion of Thomas Hobbes. Religious Studies, 17(4), 549-558. p. 553. Elsewhere, Geach writes, 'Socinianism lives on under the new label of Christadelphianism' (Geach, Peter. (1991). A Philosophical Autobiography. In Harry A. Lewis (Ed.), Peter Geach: Philosophical Encounters (pp. 1-25). New York: Springer, p. 21).
  • 19 Bray, Gerald. (2012). God is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology. Wheaton: Crossway Books, p. 449.
  • 20 McGrath, James F. (2009). The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in its Jewish Context. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, p. 130.
  • 21 Clementson, Julian. (2003). The Christadelphians and the Doctrine of the Trinity. Evangelical Quarterly, 75(2), 157-176. Here p. 158.
  • 22 Edwards, Linda. (2001). A Brief Guide to Beliefs: Ideas, Theologies, Mysteries, and Movements. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 422. Similarly, Chryssides describes the Christadelphians as 'non-Trinitarian' but also 'non-Unitarian' since they affirm 'Jesus as God's only begotten Son, who atoned for human sin, not merely as a great teacher and example (Chryssides, George D. (2012). Historical Dictionary of New Religious Movements. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, p. 82.)
  • 23 Wilson, Bryan R. (1961). Sects and Society: A Sociological Study of the Elim Tabernacle, Christian Science, and Christadelphians. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 222-223.
  • 24 Sutcliffe, Ruth. (2016). The Trinity Hurdle: Engaging Christadelphians, Arians, and Unitarians with the Gospel of the Triune God. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, pp. 144-145.
  • 25 op. cit., p. 31.
  • 26 op. cit., p. 147.
  • 27 op. cit., p. 148.