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Showing posts with label apologetics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label apologetics. Show all posts

Sunday 24 September 2023

Early Jewish-Christian Christology in the Dialogue of Jason and Papiscus

The Dialogue of Jason and Papiscus (DJP) is a little-known early Christian text that describes a theological dialogue between Jason (a Jewish Christian) and Papiscus (a non-Christian Jew). It does not survive except for a few fragments and summaries preserved by later authors, but is believed by scholars to have been used as a source by later Christian-Jewish dialogue texts, starting with Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho (c. 160 C.E.).1 The earliest mention of DJP is in Origen's Against Celsus 4.52-53 (written 249 C.E.). The exact title Origen gives to the work is "A Controversy between Jason and Papiscus about Christ".2 Origen reports that Celsus had attacked this work in his ante-Christian polemic, which scholars date to c. 176-180 C.E.3

John of Scythopolis (6th century) ascribes the work to Aristo(n) of Pella (an attribution widely accepted by modern scholars), while noting that Clement of Alexandria (late 2nd century) had attributed the work to St. Luke the Evangelist.4 Eusebius of Caesarea names Aristo of Pella as a source for his knowledge of the Bar Kochba Revolt (132-135 C.E.),5 for which reason scholars typically date DJP to c. 140 C.E. (later than the Bar Kochba Revolt, but early enough to have influenced Justin Martyr and Celsus).6

Scholarly knowledge of DJP has grown significantly since the discovery and publication in the early 21st century of a fragment of the text preserved in its original language, Greek.7 Known as the Sinaiticus Fragment (due to its discovery at St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai desert), it is contained in a sermon delivered by Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, on 1 January 635, who names the "Dialogue of Jason and Papiscus" before quoting from it at length. Sophronius' sermon asserts that St. Luke the Evangelist wrote DJP. Celsus Africanus (not Origen's opponent) referred to the author of DJP as a Hebrew Christian,8 which modern scholars such as Lawrence Lahey accept.9 

That the Jewish Christian author of DJP held a high Christology (i.e., affirmed Christ's preexistence and divinity) is evident from the Sinaiticus Fragment and other surviving fragments. The Sinaiticus Fragment includes the following passage:
Papiscus said, “I would like to learn for what cause you honor the first day after the Sabbath.” Jason answered, “In this way, God commanded this through Moses, saying: ‘Behold! I am making the last things just as the first!’ The last [day of the week] is the Sabbath, but day one after the Sabbath is first, for on it, by the word of God, the beginning of the entire universe took place, as also the scripture of Moses declares, just as God spoke, ‘let there be light and there was light.’ The Logos which came forth from God and made the light was Christ, the son of God through whom all things came to be.10
Thus, DJP evidently held a Logos Christology similar to that found in the prologue of the Gospel of John. Writing at the end of the fourth century, St. Jerome, in his Hebrew Questions on Genesis , reports that DJP offered a reading of the Hebrew of Genesis 1:1 that begins with "In the Son" rather than "In the beginning":
'In the beginning, God created heaven and earth.' The majority believe, as it is written in The Dispute Between Jason and Papiscus, and as Tertullian in his book Against Praxeas contends, and as Hilary also asserts in the exposition of a certain psalm, that in the Hebrew it is '[i]n the son, God made heaven and earth.' The fact of the matter proves that this is a mistake.11
Although St. Jerome is rightly dismissive of this rendition of the Hebrew text of Genesis 1:1, the point is that it shows that DJP held a pre-existence Christology in which the Son was present at creation. 

Finally, Lawrence Lahey observes that multiple Christian-Jewish dialogues from the fifth and sixth centuries (the Acts of Sylvester and the Dialogue of Timothy the Christian and Aquila the Jew) contain a similar passage in which a Jew offers objections to Christ's divinity on the grounds that the frailties of corporeal existence are unbefitting of God. Lahey notes the resemblance of this passage to material in Anastasius the Sinaite's Hodegos 14 (c. 685 C.E.), who attributes the objections to Philo of Alexandria in a disputation with "Mnason", a disciple of the apostles. Noting that "Mnason" and "Jason" are variant forms of the same name in Greek NT manuscripts of Acts 21:16, that Papiscus is called an Alexandrian Jew (like Philo) by Celsus Africanus, and that Anastasius was probably working from memory in the Sinai desert without access to books, Lahey argues that Anastasius "likely quotes a Jewish reply from [DJP]".12 The parallel passage in the Dialogue of Timothy and Aquila 5.12-17 reads thus:13
(Aquila said:) For concerning this Jesus, just as his memoirs contain, in those you call Gospels, we find from where he is, and his parents with him, and how is this one God? But is God suckled or does he grow and become strong? And I will say that which Luke says concerning him. For the point now is  concerning this one who also fled when John was beheaded by Herod, and then was handed over by his own disciple, and bound, and mocked, and scourged, and spat upon, and was crucified, and was buried, but even first also hungered, and thirsted, and was tempted by Satan. Does God submit to these things done by men? But who can see God? Let me not say that he was also handled, and suffered so many things which indeed it is impossible for God to suffer these things; but also sour wine was drunk, and he was fed gall, and was struck on his head with a rod, and was crowned with thorns, and finally was sentenced to death, and was crucified with thieves. I am astonished. How are you not ashamed saying that God himself entered a womb of a woman and was born? For if he was born, he did not then exist before eternity, but also presently where is he?"14
If Lahey is correct that the above paraphrases an objection from Papiscus originally found in DJP, the substance of the objection implies that the Hebrew Christian apologist Jason was defending a Christology of divine incarnation.

To conclude, then, the surviving fragments of and references to the Dialogue of Jason and Papiscus provide evidence that a Jewish Christian apologist, writing within living memory of the time of the apostles, defended a divine preexistence Christology. It adds an additional nail in the coffin of the idea, popular among unitarian apologists today, that incarnational Christology was a product of Gentile imaginations such as that of Justin Martyr.

  • 1 Oskar Skarsaune argues at length for Justin's dependence on DJP (The Proof from Prophecy: A Study in Justin Martyr’s Proof-Text Tradition [Leiden: Brill, 1987], 234-42).
  • 2 Henry Chadwick, trans. Contra Celsum (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953), 227.
  • 3 François Bovon and John M. Duffy, "A New Greek Fragment from Ariston of Pella's Dialogue of Justin and Papiscus", Harvard Theological Review 105 (2012): 457-65.
  • 4 See discussion in Harry Tolley, "The Jewish–Christian Dialogue Jason and Papiscus in Light of the Sinaiticus Fragment", Harvard Theological Review 114 (2021): 1-26.
  • 5 Church History 4.6.3.
  • 6 Lawrence Lahey, "Evidence for Jewish Believers in Christian-Jewish Dialogues through the Sixth Century (excluding Justin", in Oskar Skarsaune and Reidar Hvalvik (eds.), Jewish Believers in Jesus: The Early Centuries (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), 581-639.
  • 7 See Bovon and Duffy, "New Greek Fragment"; Tolley, "Jewish-Christian Dialogue".
  • 8 "That noble, memorable, and glorious Dispute occurred between Jason, a Hebrew Christian and Papiscus an Alexandrian Jew; the obstinate heart of the Jew was softened by the admonition and gentle chiding of the Hebrew, and the teaching of Jason on the giving of the Holy Spirit was victorious in the heart of Papiscus." (Celsus Africanus, Ad Vigilium Episcopum de Iudaica Incredulitate, trans. Tolley, "Jewish-Christian Dialogue", 23.)
  • 9 "It was written by a Jewish believer, for in contrast to all known dialogues through the sixth century, the Christian participant (Jason), is said to be a Hebrew Christian... If JP had survived, it would be an important source of Jewish Christian theology and of its view of and arguments towards other non-believing Jews" ("Evidence for Jewish Believers", 585-86).
  • 10 trans. Tolley, "Jewish-Christian Dialogue", 25.
  • 11 trans. Tolley, "Jewish-Christian Dialogue", 22.
  • 12 "Evidence for Jewish Believers, 589-91, 601-603. Lahey makes the argument at greater length in another work to which I do not have access ("Jewish Biblical Interpretation and Genuine Jewish-Christian Debate in The Dialogue of Timothy and Aquila", Journal of Jewish Studies 51 (2000): 281-96.
  • 13 I could not find an English translation of the relevant portion of Anastasius' Hodegos 14, and don't trust myself to try and translate 7th-century Greek. The Greek text and a Latin translation can be viewed at Patrologia Graecae 89.244-48. The substance of the passage is basically the same, consisting of objections to the notion that God became incarnate and thus subjected himself to human weaknesses such as hunger, thirst, bleeding, and death.
  • 14 trans. Lahey, "Evidence for Jewish Believers", 602 n. 100.

Thursday 11 August 2016

Justin Martyr, the soul, and Christadelphian apologetics

In the previous article, we discussed how Christadelphian apologetic discourse has seldom engaged with the classical Christian position on the afterlife, focusing its attack instead on popular folk theology. In particular, Christadelphians have regarded resurrection of the body and immortality of the soul as mutually exclusive doctrines, and have often assumed that orthodox Christians affirm the latter and not the former. We pointed out in the previous article that traditional Christian teaching affirms both.

The 'resurrection vs. immortal soulism' paradigm has affected the way Christadelphians read ancient texts. Specifically, a writer who expresses belief in bodily resurrection is assumed not to believe that the soul survives death, and vice versa. In this article, we will see how this assumption has led Christadelphians to misunderstand the theology of one early Christian writer, Justin Martyr, even as they appeal to him as a witness to the antiquity of Christadelphian doctrine.

Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho

The Dialogue with Trypho is an account of a theological dialogue between Justin Martyr, a Christian apologist, and Trypho, a non-Christian Diaspora Jew, written by Justin in the mid-second century. While many scholars have concluded that Trypho was a fictional, stereotyped Jew invented by Justin for rhetorical purposes, Horner has recently made the case that he was a real person and that the extant Dialogue is a sort of revised and expanded second edition of an earlier account of an authentic dialogue.1 Boyarin, a Jewish scholar, is impressed by Justin's detailed knowledge of Judaism,2 while Skarsaune argues that Justin's thought is 'very Jewish' and that he probably took his Christological arguments from earlier, Jewish Christian tradition.3 In any case, the Dialogue is an important historical source for reconstructing early Christianity - indeed, 'far and away the longest Christian document we have from the second century.'4 (I've written previously about Justin's use of Greek philosophy here.)

Dialogue with Trypho 80.4 in Christadelphian apologetics

Since the days of their founder, Dr. John Thomas, Christadelphian apologists have periodically enlisted Justin to prove that, as late as the mid-second century, the Christadelphian view of the afterlife was still current while what later became established as orthodoxy (the immortality of the soul and heaven-going) was regarded as heretical. The passage from Justin Martyr's writings that is usually quoted is this:
If you have ever encountered any nominal Christians who do not admit this doctrine [i.e. the doctrine of God], but dare to blaspheme the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob by asserting that there is no resurrection of the dead, but that their souls are taken up to heaven at the very moment of their death, do not consider them to be real Christians, just as one, after careful examination, would not acknowledge as Jews the Sadducees or similar sects' (Dialogue with Trypho 80.4, emphasis added)5
It is not difficult to see why this passage has proven popular in Christadelphian apologetics: it sounds like it could have been written by a Christadelphian. It upholds resurrection as the Christian hope over against heaven-going of the soul at death. This passage is quoted repeatedly by Dr. John Thomas,6 by Thomas Williams,7 by C.C. Walker,8 and now in the Internet age by Paul Billington, Matt Daviesinstructional material of the Dawn Christadelphians,9 and Dave Burke. (One prominent Christadelphian who appears not to have had much use for Justin Martyr is Robert Roberts, who referred to him as an 'ecclesiastical driveller'.)10

Some of these writers quote the passage virtually without comment, as though its meaning and implications were self-evident. I think most have simply assumed that if Justin believed in resurrection rather than heaven-going, he must have been a mortalist.11

Let us look at the inferences that Christadelphian writers have explicitly drawn from Dialogue 80.4.
From this we learn, that what is orthodox now concerning souls going to heaven was regarded by the contemporaries of the Apostle as sufficiently pestilential to consign the men that held it to eternal reprobation12
Here you see that Justin Martyr, 150 years after Christ, is proving the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead by the fact that men have not gone to heaven or to hell, but that they were dead and needed a resurrection for a future life.13
He rejected the immortality of the soul in unambiguous terms.14
The way Christadelphian apologists have used this passage from Justin Martyr leaves their readers with the impression that (1) Justin's views on the afterlife were compatible with Christadelphian teaching, while (2) the views he attacked as non-Christian were compatible with later orthodox teaching. As it turns out, both (1) and (2) are mistaken.

Before turning to the evidence for this claim, I want to emphasize that I am not accusing Christadelphian apologists of knowingly withholding information about Justin's beliefs in order to misrepresent him for apologetic ends. I presume that the use of Dialogue with Trypho 80.4 in Christadelphian apologetics has, in good faith, tried to accurately represent Justin's beliefs but failed to take account of all of the evidence. Accordingly, I undertake to show from Justin's writings that Christadelphians have widely misunderstood his views on the afterlife, in the hope that this passage will be handled differently by Christadelphians in the future.

Happily, at least one Christadelphian apologist has already warned against interpreting Justin's views on the afterlife as proto-Christadelphian. Jonathan Burke writes:
A number of early Christian writers, such as Justin Martyr, Tatian, Irenaeus, Theophilus of Antioch, Arnobius, and Lactantius, held that the soul was not independently immortal, and could die. However, they must be understood as arguing specifically against the Platonic teachings of the Greeks that the soul was immortal of itself. Other than Arnobius, they do not appear to be arguing that the soul ceases to exist at death.15
This qualification is of crucial importance, and if it were heeded by Christadelphians, there would not be much need for this article. However, Jonathan does not interact with Justin's writings directly, citing only secondary sources. Nor does he provide detailed information about Justin's beliefs concerning the afterlife, or the beliefs he was attacking as heretical. I aim, therefore, to elaborate on Jonathan's observations by filling in the details from Justin's own testimony.

In the remainder of this article, I hope to demonstrate from Justin's writings that the following are true:
(1') Justin's position on the state of the dead was incompatible with Christadelphian doctrine, and much closer to orthodox doctrine;
(2') The position that Justin was attacking as non-Christian is one that is also considered heretical by orthodox Christians
Justin's beliefs about the afterlife 

It is clear from Dialogue 80.4, quoted above, that Justin believed in the resurrection of the dead. As he writes elsewhere:
Receive us, at least like these, since we believe in God not less, but rather more, than they do: we who expect even to receive our own bodies again, after they have died and been put in the earth, since we say that nothing is impossible for God. (1 Apology 18.6)16
But what did Justin believe happened to people between death and resurrection? Did he teach, as Christadelphians do, that when we die we cease to exist? Did he 'reject the doctrine - that man consciously exists in death'?17 The following quotations from his First Apology make his position clear:
1 Consider what happened to each of the kings that have been. They died just like everybody else. Which, if death led to unconsciousness, would have been a godsend to all the unjust. 2 But, since consciousness endures for all those who have existed, and eternal punishment lies in store, take care to be persuaded and to believe that these things are true. 3 For conjurings of the dead – both visions obtained through uncorrupted children, and the summoning of human souls – and those whom magicians call “dream-senders” or “attendants” – and the things done by those who know these things – let these persuade you that even after death souls remain in consciousness. (1 Apology 18.1-3, emphasis added)
And in our saying that the souls of the wicked are punished after death, remaining in consciousness, and that the souls of the virtuous remain free from punishment and live happily, we will seem to say the same things as the poets and philosophers. (1 Apology 20.4, emphasis added)
In case it might be claimed that the views expressed in the First Apology differ from those in the Dialogue with Trypho, consider the following passage from the Dialogue. This is from the account of Justin's conversation with an old man by the sea that led to his conversion to Christianity. 'He' is the old man and 'I' is Justin. The positions expressed by the old man are thus being construed by Justin as Christian teaching.
4.7. “Therefore,” he concluded, “souls do not see God, nor do they transmigrate into other bodies”… 5.1. “Nor should we call the soul immortal, for, if it were, we would certainly have to call it unbegotten.”… 5.2. “Souls, then, are not immortal.” “No,” I said, “since it appears that the world itself was generated.” “3. On the other hand,” he continued, “I do not claim that any soul ever perishes, for this would certainly be a benefit to sinners. What happens to them? The souls of the devout dwell in a better place, whereas the souls of the unjust and the evil abide in a worse place, and there they await the judgment day. Those, therefore, who are deemed worthy to see God will never perish, but the others will be subjected to punishment as long as God allows them to exist and as long as he wants them to be punished.” (Dialogue with Trypho 4.7-5.3, emphasis added)
In this passage, the old man is trying to persuade Justin of the truth of Christianity by attacking Platonism, which regarded souls as unbegotten, intrinsically immortal, and capable of transmigrating into other bodies. However, the Christian alternative reflected here is not mortalism. It regards souls neither as predisposed to mortality nor as intrinsically immortal but as existing continuously unless God should decide to annihilate them. Moreover, this passage reflects the same belief as the First Apology in a conscious intermediate state for the soul between death and resurrection.

The difference between Justin's views on the intermediate state and those of later orthodoxy are mainly geographical: Justin appears not to have believed that the souls of the righteous ascend to heaven at death (given his antipathy toward this idea in Dialogue 80.4), but that they reside 'happily' in 'a better place'. However, in his Second Apology,18 Justin appears to countenance the idea of heaven-going at death, at least for martyrs. Recounting the interrogation of a Christian who was subsequently martyred, Justin writes:
Another Christian, a man called Lucius, on seeing the judgement given in this irrational way, said to Urbicus: "Why did you order this  man to be punished when he is not convicted of... any evil deed at all...? Your judgement does not befit a pioius emperor..." His only reply was similarly to say to Lucius: "I think you also are one of them." And when Lucius said, "Certainly", Urbicus ordered that he too be led away. Lucius further confessed that he was thankful to have been set free from evil masters such as these and that he was going to the father and king of all. (Second Apology 2.15-19, emphasis added)
If Justin could attribute such a belief to one he regarded as a faithful Christian martyr, it follows that Justin probably affirmed the same idea himself.19 It is plausible that Justin believed that heaven-going at death is a privilege reserved only for martyrs, while the rest of the righteous dead spend the intermediate state in Abraham's bosom, understood as a compartment within Hades.20

Hence, we can summarize Justin's individual eschatology as follows:
  • After death, all souls continue to exist consciously
  • The souls of the righteous go to a better place and the souls of the wicked to a worse place (both in Hades?), where they await resurrection and the final judgment
  • The souls of martyrs ascend to heaven

The afterlife beliefs that Justin regarded as heretical

What is the position that Justin regards as blasphemous and non-Christian in Dialogue 80.4? It is 'that there is no resurrection of the dead, but that their souls are taken up to heaven at the very moment of their death'. Contra Dr. Thomas, this is not a description of any doctrine ever held by orthodoxy, which has always maintained the resurrection of the dead as an article of the faith. Rather, this is a description of Platonist belief as taken up by the Gnostics, who regarded the body as a prison to be vacated and thus rejected the idea of resurrection. It is this denial of resurrection that Justin considers offensive, not the idea of the souls of the righteous going somewhere after death until the resurrection. Justin himself believed the latter!  Moreover, while it appears Justin restricted heaven-going to martyrs, it is unlikely that he regarded as heretical those Christians who believed in a heavenly intermediate state for all the righteous, followed by resurrection.21


Christadelphians have, over the past 150 years, frequently used a passage from Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho in their apologetics to prove that the early church repudiated the immortality of the soul and affirmed the resurrection of the dead. However, when this passage is understood in the wider context of Justin's thought, it is clear that his beliefs were much closer to traditional orthodoxy than Christadelphian mortalism. Like all orthodox Christians (and Christadelphians), Justin believed in the resurrection of the dead and repudiated those who did not share this doctrine. However, like most orthodox Christians but unlike Christadelphians, Justin also believed in a conscious intermediate state for the soul between death and resurrection. His only point of apparent disagreement with later orthodoxy concerned the 'geography' of the intermediate state.22

Accordingly, I call on Christadelphian apologists to provide their hearers and readers with a full account of Justin Martyr's beliefs concerning the soul and the afterlife when the subject comes up in their discourse, to avoid giving the impression that Justin's beliefs were proto-Christadelphian in this respect.


  • 1 Horner, Timothy J. (2001). Listening to Trypho: Justin's Dialogue Reconsidered. Leuven: Peeters.
  • 2 He comments on 'the authenticity of Justin's information and its richness of detail' concerning Jewish beliefs about heresy (Boyarin, Daniel (2001). Justin Martyr Invents Judaism. Church History, 70(3), 427-461; here p. 451)
  • 3 Skarsaune, Oskar (2002). In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press. He says the second-century Apologists 'think in very Jewish ways and carry on important Jewish concerns vis-à-vis paganism' (In the Shadow of the Temple, p. 231). He also ascribes to Justin a 'remarkably "Jewish" definition of philosophy' and emphasizes that 'in defining Christianity as a "philosophy," in this sense of the word, he is certainly not "Hellenizing" Christianity away from its Jewish roots.' (p. 240) Concerning Justin's biblical arguments for Christ's pre-existent divinity, he says, 'We have every reason to believe that this kind of argument was developed among Judeo-Christians with a knowledge of Hebrew' (p. 273).
  • 4 Horner, op. cit., p. 7.
  • 5 Quotations from the Dialogue with Trypho are taken from Slusser, Michael and Halton, Thomas P. (Ed). (2003). Justin Martyr: Dialogue with Trypho. (Thomas B. Falls, trans.). Washington: Catholic University of America Press.
  • 6 Thomas, John (1855). Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, 5, p. 174; Thomas, John (1857) Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, 7, p. 244; Carter, John (1949). The Faith in the Last Days: A Selection from the Writings of John Thomas. Birmingham: The Christadelphian.
  • 7 Williams, Thomas (1898). The World's Redemption. Chicago: Advocate Publishing House; Williams, Thomas (1898). The Hall-Williams Debate on The Kingdom of Heaven, the State of the Dead, Resurrection and the Punishment of the Wicked. Chicago: Advocate Publishing House, pp. 156-157.
  • 8 Walker, C.C. (1926). A Declaration of the Truth Revealed in the Bible as Distinguishable from the Theology of Christendom. Birmingham: Published by author, pp. 36-37.
  • 9 The material quotes our passage and comments, 'The doctrine of the immortality of the soul is an ancient teaching of pagan religions which was incorporated into a Christianity which was rapidly becoming corrupted. It is a false doctrine which must be rejected.'
  • 10 Roberts, Robert (n.d.) My Days and My Ways: An Autobiography. Sussex: R.J. Acford, p. 44.
  • 11 i.e. believed, like Christadelphians, that the dead are unconscious or do not exist until the resurrection.
  • 12 Dr. Thomas, The Faith in the Last Days.
  • 13 Williams, Hall-Williams Debate, p. 157, emphasis added. This was a debate held between Thomas Williams and the editor of a Baptist periodical, J.N. Hall, in Kentucky in 1898 before an audience of two thousand. Mr. Hall responded as follows: 'Justin Martyr don't say it is not all right to talk about souls being in heaven, but he argues that if you are going to make the presence of souls in heaven destroy the doctrine of the resurrection, and do not believe the resurrection is true, anybody who teaches such a thing would be just like those Justin Martyr warns us against. Justin Martyr did not pretend to say there were no souls in heaven; that is only the conclusion of my brother; that is another "peculiarity" of the Christadelphians. Justin Martyr does not himself take a position against the idea of the existence of departed souls.' (op. cit., p. 162)
  • 14 Dave Burke, profiling Justin Martyr's beliefs on his Christian History Facebook page
  • 15 Burke, Jonathan (2012). Sleeping in the Dust: The Biblical View of Death. Lively Stones Publishing, p. 30, emphasis added.
  • 16 Quotations from Justin's Apologies are taken from Minns, Denis & Parvis, Paul (Eds.) (2009). Justin, Philosopher and Martyr, Apologies. Edited with an Introduction, Translation, and Commentary on the Text. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • 17 Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith, Doctrines to be Rejected, No. 8.
  • 18 Various theories have been proposed by scholars on the relationship between Justin's First and Second Apologies. Some regard the Second as an appendix to the first. Minns and Parvis (op. cit.) offer the intriguing hypothesis that the Second Apology consists of unpublished material from the 'cutting-room floor' that Justin's friends published after his martyrdom.
  • 19 Indeed, according to The Acts of Justin,  an account of Justin's martyrdom, this is exactly what Justin believed at the time of his death: 'The prefect said to Justin, "If you are beaten and beheaded, do you believe you are going to ascend into the sky?" Justin said, "I hope for reward for endurance if I endure. For I know that for those who live rightly, the divine gift of grace is waiting until the final conflagration." Rusticus the prefect said, "So you suppose you will ascend?" Justin said, "I do not suppose so, I am certain of it."' (The Acts of Justin, Recension A, trans. Grant, R.M. (2003). Second-century Christianity: A Collection of Fragments (2nd ed.). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 52)
  • 20 This view was expressed explicitly a few decades later by Tertullian (see De Resurrectione Carnis 43; De Anima 55). Two other possibilities are mentioned by Hill, C.E. (1992). Regnum Caelorum: Patterns of Future Hope in Early Christianity. Oxford: Clarendon Press, p. 20f. These are (a) that Justin didn't have a coherent cosmology of the intermediate state but was an heir of different traditions; (b) that Justin's cosmology of the intermediate state changed over time, with the heaven-going of the Second Apology reflecting a later position than the apparent Hades-going of the Dialogue and First Apology.
  • 21 How could Justin regard the idea of heaven-going as intrinsically heretical when he affirmed it himself, at least for martyrs? In Dialogue 80.1-2, Justin affirms his belief in a future, earthly, millennial kingdom in Jerusalem, but notes 'that there are many pure and pious Christians who do not share our opinion', whom he then distinguishes from the 'godless and impious heretics, whose doctrines are entirely blasphemous, atheistic, and senseless'. Where do the pure and pious but amillennial Christians believe souls go at death? Justin does not say, but Hill, op. cit., argues at length that in the early church, premillennialism (chiliasm) correlated with belief in a subterranean intermediate state while amillennialism (non-chiliasm) correlated with belief in a celestial intermediate state. If he is correct, the amillennial Christians mentioned by Justin probably believed in a celestial intermediate state - and yet were still considered 'pure and pious' by Justin, because unlike the Gnostic heretics they affirmed the resurrection of the body.
  • 22 If Justin's view of the intermediate state matched Tertullian's - i.e. heaven for martyrs and Hades (divided into good and bad compartments) for the rest, then it may be worth noting the similarities between his view and the purgatorial model of the intermediate state that was ultimately defined by the Western church.

Tuesday 15 March 2016

Christadelphian apologetics, modern scholarship, and the historicist interpretation of Revelation

The appeal to mainstream biblical scholarship in Christadelphian apologetics
Modern scholarship and the historicist view of Revelation
Response in Christadelphian apologetics

The purpose of this article is to point out an inconsistency in recent Christadelphian apologetics, namely the tendency to appeal to mainstream biblical scholarship to 'confirm' the validity of Christadelphian exegetical and theological positions, but to dismiss or even ignore mainstream biblical scholarship where its conclusions contradict Christadelphian exegetical and theological positions. This seems to be a straightforward case of confirmation bias, 'in which people selectively attend to evidence that supports their conclusion and overlook contrary evidence.'1

In some Christadelphian circles, modern critical scholarship of the Bible is being pressed into service as a tool for apologetics. This seems to be particularly characteristic of the work of Jonathan and Dave Burke, two of the foremost Christadelphian apologists. Jonathan Burke has devoted a ten-part series of blog posts to advocating the use of 'scholarly literature' in Christadelphian biblical interpretation and apologetics. Here, Burke claims that his proposal is nothing new: 'Professional scholarship has long been used by Christadelphians to help interpret the Bible and to defend our faith.'

Moreover, the Christadelphian apologetics periodical Defence and Confirmation, for which both Burkes serve as editors, recently devoted an entire issue to discussing how modern, mainstream scholarship has, over the last century, 'increasingly supported the Christadelphian view on most of our doctrines'. The issue contains articles highlighting support in modern scholarship for Christadelphian beliefs in five areas: Jesus' self-understanding, baptism, the immortality of the soul, the atonement, and Satan/demons. These appeals to modern scholarship are problematic for several reasons,2 but my purpose here is simply to note the form of the argument.

If increasing scholarly support for a Christadelphian viewpoint leads to increasing confidence in this position, to what does decreasing scholarly support for a Christadelphian viewpoint lead? We will revisit this question after demonstrating its relevance using a case in point.

Christadelphians have traditionally held to the continuous historical or historicist interpretation of the Book of Revelation, which interprets the visions from chapter 4 onward as a long-term forecast of world history from the end of the first century through the present and into the eschatological future. This view was introduced to the Christadelphians by Dr. John Thomas (1805-71), the movement's founder, whose magnum opus was Eureka: An Exposition of the Apocalypse, a three-volume work written toward the end of his life. Dr. Thomas appears to have regarded the historicist interpretation of Revelation as virtually an article of faith. A Statement of Faith provided by Dr. Thomas to the editor of a magazine in 1869 included the following among the propositions that Christadelphians 'from the very first most surely believed and [which have been] taught by their recognized scribes and their literature':
19. 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.) 
24. They teach we are living in the period of the sixth vial, in which Christ appears upon the theatre of mundane events; and that the two great leading and notable signs of the times are the drying-up up of the Ottoman Power, and the imperial French Frog Power in its political operations in Rome, Vienna, and Constantinople, during the past twenty-one years. – (Rev xvi. 12, 16)3
It seems Dr. Thomas took it for granted that all Christadelphians agreed with these interpretations of apocalyptic symbols. However, the Birmingham Statement of Faith authored by Robert Roberts after Dr. Thomas' death in 1871 omitted any explicit reference to symbols from Revelation, presumably reflecting a view that these did not form part of the core doctrines of the 'One Faith' necessary for fellowship. Consequently, the continuous historical view of Revelation has never been enforced as a boundary marker for Christadelphian fellowship (with the exception of certain ultra-conservative ecclesias.)4

Nevertheless, while not enforced as a matter of fellowship, the continuous historical view has dominated Christadelphian interpretation of Revelation. Jonathan Burke helpfully provides a table summarizing interpretations of Revelation through history. Among the Christadelphian expositors listed there are 48 historicists (49 if we count Burke himself), three futurists, one 'partial futurist', one preterist, one 'partial preterist', and two unknowns. Thus, according to this tally, over 85% of Christadelphians who have written on the Book of Revelation have advocated the continuous historical view. Indeed, no non-historicist Christadelphian appears in the table before 1956. This suggests that the continuous historical view enjoyed unchallenged status for the first century of Christadelphian history. Its popularity may be waning, however: of the nine Christadelphian works since 1980, plus Burke's own, only six (60%) have been historicist.

Quotations from a few scholars will suffice to establish the unfavourable verdict that modern scholarship has passed on the historicist interpretation of Revelation. Osborne writes as follows:
Because of its inherent weaknesses (its identification only with Western church history, the inherent speculation involved in the parallels with world history, the fact that it must be reworked with each new period in world history, the total absence of any relevance for John or his original readers; see also Beale 1999; 46), few scholars today take this approach.5
The primary strength of this view lies in its attempt to make sense of Revelation for the interpreter by correlating the prophecies directed to the seven churches of Asia Minor with the stages comprising church history. The vast majority of scholars agree, however, that this single strength is far outweighed by its many weaknesses.6
The major problems [with the historicist view], of course, are apparent: (a) The book would have meant nothing to its first readers, who would have to wait centuries before it could be properly understood; (b) it misunderstands prophecy by reducing it to prediction; (c) the variety of interpretations cancel each other out and invalidate the method. Although widely held by Protestant interpreters after the Reformation and into the twentieth century, no critical New Testament scholar today advocates this view.7
In a popular-level book, Wagner and Helyer write:
The historicist interpretation has an impressive list of proponents from the past, including Martin Luther, John Wycliffe, John Knox, William Tyndale, Sir Isaac Newton, John Wesley, and C.H. Spurgeon. However, like disco music and tapered jeans, the historicist approach is out of style today. Few people in the twenty-first century subscribe to this perspective.8
In his book Apocalypse and Millennium: Studies in Biblical Eisegesis (note the last word in the title), Newport remarks on 'how central historicism has been, and continues to be, to the Millerite-Seventh-day Adventist-Davidian/Branch Davidian tradition'.9 He continues:
it is clear from the evidence that while historicism and mainstream scholarly biblical studies were destined to go their separate ways during the course of the nineteenth century, historicism itself continues to live on, indeed to thrive, in this narrower, largely non-critical context.10
Response in Christadelphian apologetics

We observed earlier that Christadelphian apologists have recently been claiming that Christadelphian theology has increasingly been vindicated by mainstream biblical scholarship. However, we are now faced with a clear counterexample: a case where a traditional Christadelphian hermeneutic, despite enjoying reasonable popularity in centuries past, has now been abandoned by mainstream biblical scholarship.

How do Christadelphian apologists respond to this counterexample? Largely, it would seem, by dismissing or ignoring it. For instance, Jonathan Burke, the most vocal proponent of the 'vindication by modern scholarship' apologetic, published a table of interpretations of Revelation through history which we referred to above. Burke's list extends through 2007 and yet it omits virtually all the mainstream, technical commentaries on Revelation from the past 50 years, of which there have been plenty.11 Alongside numerous Christadelphian writers, Burke includes four non-Christadelphian defenders of the historicist view in his table from the past 50 years. They are as follows:
  • Francis Nigel Lee, a Presbyterian systematic theologian and Church historian whose books on eschatology seem to have been published by obscure denominational publishers.12 Lee was unquestionably a learned man and an ardent defender of the historicist view (or 'historicalist', as he preferred to call it). In his book John's Revelation Unveiled, Lee included a list of defenders of the 'historicalist' view down through history.13 The list is quite impressive through the nineteenth century but then conspicuously thins out!
  • David Pio Gullon, a Seventh Day Adventist exegete (apparently a faculty member at the Universidad Adventista del Plata in Argentina) who wrote a paper on the interpretation of Revelation in a SDA denominational peer-reviewed journal. Gullon notes that the historicist view has been gradually rejected by the mainstream but comments, 'It is difficult to say just why the historicist school of interpretation faded in popularity'.14 Gullon thus appears sympathetic to the historicist view (unsurprisingly, given his denominational affiliation), but he does not defend it in this article.
  • Alan Campbell, who apparently authored a webpage (now defunct) entitled Opening the Seals of the Apocalypse.
  • E.G. Cook, a Baptist who apparently wrote a work in 1970 (no bibliographical information is provided by Burke)
On another website, Burke has provided detailed information about 'historicist exposition' of specific sections and symbols within Revelation. For seven distinct sections within the book, Burke provides a separate table summarizing interpretation of the symbols down through history. Each page bears the subtitle 'Expositors Agree'. Curiously, though, each table truncates in the mid-twentieth century, and sources cited from the 20th century are mostly Christadelphian.

In short, Burke's work on Revelation shows a distinct interest in non-Christadelphian support for the historicist view, but an equally distinct failure to acknowledge the rejection of the historicist view by contemporary, mainstream biblical scholarship. It is not merely that Burke fails to critically engage with mainstream scholarship on Revelation; he seems to act as though it didn't exist! Yet Burke claims that Christadelphians have traditionally 'quick to identify and use scholarly Bible commentary (even from apostate theologians)'. Why has he been so slow to identify and use scholarly Bible commentary on the interpretation of the Apocalypse?

While one cannot presume to know Burke's motives, it seems entirely possible that mainstream biblical scholarship has been ignored in this case precisely because its unfavourable verdict on the historicist view of Revelation clashes with his apologetic narrative in which mainstream biblical scholarship progressively vindicates Christadelphian theology.

Dave Burke has published a paper online entitled Revelation: Four Interpretive Models. Perhaps written as an academic assignment, this paper is more forthright about the decline of historicism, acknowledging that it has been 'widely abandoned' and 'long overtaken in popularity by futurism'. However, he adds that 'it retains strong support among some conservative Christian denominations and sects, including Baptists, Presbyterians, Seventh Day Adventists, and Christadelphians'. Burke does not cite a single Baptist or Presbyterian (or Seventh Day Adventist) in support of this statement, and also appears not to draw any distinction between scholarly and non-scholarly support here (odd in an academic paper). Burke does not appear to have appreciated historicism's complete lack of support within mainstream biblical scholarship today.

After describing the four models and their historical pedigrees, Burke moves on to evaluation. He judiciously asserts, 'None of the exegetical models reviewed by this paper is without its problems, however minor.' However, he then proceeds to lambast the preterist, futurist and idealist views, describing them with terms like 'demonstrably partisan', 'suspect', 'arbitrary', 'highly subjective', 'dubious', '[having a] severe weakness', and 'ad hoc'. When he gets to historicism, though, he does not admit any problems. Acknowledging its widespread abandonment, he dismisses this because 'it was the prevailing model for at [sic] 1,700 years'. Thus Burke thrusts aside modern scholarship via an appeal to tradition - the precise opposite of the approach favoured in Defence and Confirmation, where tradition is thrust aside via an appeal to modern scholarship! Moreover, Burke virtually ignores scholarly criticism of the historicist view.15


By comparing the 'appeal to mainstream scholarly opinion' argument used by prominent Christadelphian apologists with same apologists' neglect of or disdain for mainstream scholarly opinion on the historicist view of Revelation, what do we learn? We learn that the 'confirmation from mainstream scholarship' argument carries little weight, because it is a case of confirmation bias. Where scholarly opinion drifts toward the Christadelphian position on a particular exegetical or theological issue,16 it is heralded and celebrated; where scholarly opinion drifts in the other direction, it is dismissed or ignored.

If increasing scholarly support for a position held by Christadelphians is construed as strengthening the dogmatic posture of Christadelphians, but decreasing scholarly support for a position held by Christadelphians is not construed as weakening the dogmatic posture of Christadelphians, then the appeal to scholarship is arbitrary and tendentious.

This kind of engagement with scholarly literature contains little scope for self-criticism, and that is what makes it particularly dangerous. Indeed, while Burke says Christadelphians have traditionally been quick to 'use' biblical scholarship, often with an explicitly apologetic goal,17 Christadelphians have not traditionally been quick to do biblical scholarship - that is, to participate in it and make meaningful contributions to it. Christadelphians have traditionally 'used' biblical scholarship from the sidelines. Here, the apologist can weave together a literature review (often highly selective) that gives his claims the appearance of scholarly rigour, whilst remaining exempt from criticism by the scholarly community itself. Such use of critical scholarship is unfortunately not very critical or scholarly.

However, there is perhaps some reason for optimism. On Revelation specifically, non-historicist interpretations seem to be gaining ground among Christadelphians. On the broader issue of Christadelphians' relationship to mainstream biblical scholarship, it appears that the number of Christadelphians undertaking formal biblical and/or theological studies is on the rise (the Burkes included, I believe). Christadelphians seem poised to begin moving from the grandstand of biblical scholarship into the arena. This will no doubt be to the benefit of scholarship, which will be challenged by a fresh perspective in a number of areas, and to Christadelphian theology, which may finally have its day in the court of academic opinion.


  • 1 Prinstein, Michael J. (Ed.) (2013). The Portable Mentor: Expert Guide to a Successful Career in Psychology (2nd ed.). New York: Springer, p. 128.
  • 2 Not least of these, in the area of Satan and demons, is the failure to acknowledge that the 'accommodation theory' of the Synoptic accounts of demon possession and exorcism has no standing in mainstream scholarship.
  • 3 Quoted in Hemingray, Peter. (2003/2008). John Thomas: His Friends and His Faith (2nd ed.). The Christadelphian Tidings, pp. 335-338.
  • 4 The Republic, Missouri Unamended Ecclesia has added articles to the Doctrines to be Rejected portion of its Statement of Faith explicitly rejecting the futurist and preterist views of Revelation and, indeed, rejects the notion 'that any theory that radically departs from the "continuous historical intepretation" as generally elaborated by John Thomas in Eureka is to be received.' The following qualifier is added: '(This does not require unqualified acceptance of the interpretation of all events  and symbols-simply that the events "which must shortly come to pass" began to transpire shortly after the Apocalypse was given to the Apostle John in Patmos and that they have continued to unfold in the nearly 1900 years since that divine revelation.)'
  • 5 Osborne, Grant R. (2002). Revelation. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p. 19. Emphasis added.
  • 6 Pate, C. Marvin. (2009). Reading Revelation: A Comparison of Four Interpretive Translations of the Apocalypse. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, p. 9. Emphasis added. He continues, listing the weaknesses of the historicist view: 'The historicist outline applies only to the history of the Western church, ignoring the spread of Christianity throughout the rest of the world. Since images such as the beast of Revelation 13 are always identified with people and events contemporary to the interpreter, the historicist reading of Revelation is constantly being revised as new events occur and new figures emerge. Most problematic for historicism is the complete lack of agreement about the various outlines of church history. History is like a moving target for those who want to read Revelation in this way, and there is no consensus about what the book means, even among interpreters within the same school of interpretation.'
  • 7 Boring, M. Eugene. (2011). Revelation. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, pp. 48-49. Emphasis added.
  • 8 Helyer, Larry R. & Wagner, Richard. (2008). The Book of Revelation for Dummies. Hoboken: Wiley, p. 74. Emphasis added.
  • 9 Newport, Kenneth G.C. (2000). Apocalypse and Millennium: Studies in Biblical Eisegesis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 17.
  • 10 ibid. Emphasis added.
  • 11 Beale, Osborne, Mounce, Aune, Kistemaker, Thomas, Patterson, Prigent, Witherington, Harrington, Ford, Thompson, Roloff, Kraft, etc.
  • 12 Lee's book John's Revelation Unveiled scarcely interacted with contemporary technical commentaries on Revelation, and appears to have been ignored or gone unnoticed by subsequent scholarship (for instance, Google Scholar finds only one citation of it).
  • 13 Lee, Francis Nigel. (2000). John's Revelation Unveiled. Lynwoodrif: Ligstryders, p. 6.
  • 14 Gullon, David Pio. (1998). Two Hundred Years from Lacunza: The Impact of His Eschatological Thought on Prophetic Studies and Modern Futurism. Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 9(1-2), 71-95. Here p. 79 n. 46. Gullon suggests 'excessive date-setting' and 'diversity in its interpretations' as possible explanations, but does not mention the first reason given by Boring, which seems to me to be the primary reason for scholars' rejection of historicism.
  • 15 Burke interacts with just one critic (Herrick) of historicism, and on just one point of criticism - which is relegated to a footnote. Burke's reference list is, moreover, noticeably light on scholarly commentaries on Revelation. The only book-length commentaries on Revelation he cites are those of Garrow and Cory, neither of which could be described as technical.
  • 16 One might go as far as to say, whenever support for a Christadelphian position is found in scholarship!
  • 17 As Burke writes, 'Professional scholarship has long been used by Christadelphians to help interpret the Bible and to defend our faith.'

Tuesday 19 January 2016

Are the Christadelphians a cult, sect, or denomination?

Depending whom you ask, the Christadelphians may variously be described as a religious group, movement, cult, sect, or denomination. The first two categories are appropriate enough but are too broad to situate Christadelphians on the sociological or ecclesiological landscape. Hence, the focus of this post will be on which of the latter three classifications is most appropriate.

The question, 'Are the Christadelphians a cult?' is one I posed in an online article over a decade ago, when I was a Christadelphian myself. At that time I answered the question emphatically in the negative. A lot has changed in the interim: I have left the Christadelphians and become perhaps one of their more vocal critics (from a theological standpoint). It seems appropriate, then, to return to this question.

Three senses of the word cult

Based on a review of sociological and religious studies literature, there appear to be three distinct meanings for the word 'cult'.1 The first is anthropological, the second sociological, and the third theological. Campbell describes the first two senses as follows:
There are two rather different uses of the term cult. General usage, as well as that common among anthropologists, implies a body of religious beliefs and practices associated with a particular god or set of gods, or even an individual saint or spiritually enlightened person, that constitutes a specialized part of the religious institutions of a society. It is in this sense of the word that one would refer to the Marian cult within Roman Catholicism or to the Krishna cult within Hindusm. There is also a distinct sociological usage of the term that, although related to this general one, has developed a more specialized meaning… sociologists came to employ the term… simply to refer to a group whose beliefs and practices were merely deviant from the perspective of religious or secular orthodoxy, and that was characterized by a very loose organizational structure.2
The anthropological use of the term has little relevance for this article. However, it serves to remind us that the word need not carry a pejorative connotation.3 Within the sociological literature, the term cult has sometimes taken on a pejorative connotation. Zablocki and Robbins decry a 'divisive polarization' which has plagued 'the academic study of religious movements'.4 Specifically, academics are divided into 'cult bashers' on the one hand and 'cult apologists' on the other.5 These authors note that the latter group have increasingly moved away from the term 'cult' and instead used the term 'new religious movement' (NRM). Brockwell similarly states how 'In the 1970s many social scientists began to replace “cult” with “new religious movement” (NRM), which was advanced as a value-neutral term for fair-minded scholarly application.'6 However, Zablocki and Robbins feel both terms have validity, while stressing that they do not use 'cult' in a pejorative sense. They note:
Historically the word cult has been used in sociology to refer to any religion held together more by devotion to a living charismatic leader who actively participates in the group’s decision-making than by adherence to a body of doctrine or prescribed set of rituals. By such a definition, many religions would be accurately described as cults during certain phases of their history, and as sects, denominations, or churches at other times.7
In the same volume, Lalich notes Stark and Bainbridge's well-known definition of a cult as 'a deviant religious organization with novel beliefs and practices'.8 Partly because she wants to broaden the application of the term to business, political and self-help groups, Lalich's own definition of cult moves the focus away from novelty and heterodoxy:
A cult can be either a sharply bounded social group or a diffusely bounded social movement held together through shared commitment to a charismatic leader. It upholds a transcendent ideology (often but not always religious in nature) and requires a high level of personal commitment from its members in words and deeds9
She notes that cults frequently impose 'totalistic social control...upon their members' and often feature 'separatism or withdrawal from the larger society',10 but that these characteristics are not always present and therefore do not belong in the definition. Brockwell stresses that no universal consensus exists among sociologists on the definition of the term cult and its relationship to the term sect (to be discussed below). From what we have seen so far, it could be said objectively that Christadelphians fit Campbell's description of sociological use of the term cult. However, Christadelphians would not a priori fit Stark and Bainbridge's definition of a cult, since Christadelphians claim their beliefs and practices are not novel. Moreover, both Zablocki and Robbins' and Lalich's definitions focus on the presence of a single charismatic leader, which Christadelphians certainly do not have today (though the charisma of Dr. Thomas and then Robert Roberts was certainly important to the early growth of the movement, even if to a lesser extent than the leaders of some other 19th century movements such as the Mormons).

We have seen that some sociologists have used cult with a value-neutral connotation and others with a pejorative connotation. Perhaps as an outgrowth of the latter usage, the word cult has developed strong negative connotations in the mass media and popular culture, and has acquired a more specialized pejorative meaning in Evangelical Christian apologetic discourse. For instance, when Evangelical apologist Matthew Slick refers to Christadelphians as a cult, he is using this label to convey a theological judgment that Christadelphians are 'not Christian' because, 'Like all cults', they deny 'one or more of the essential doctrines of Christianity' (as defined by him). A google search for the terms Christadelphian and cult will yield many other websites labeling Christadelphians as a cult as a polemical judgment.

In his book The Complete Guide to Christian Denominations (written from an Evangelical perspective), Rhodes explains in an appendix that he has not covered groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses because they are not denominations but cults. He hastens to add that 'The term cult is not intended as a pejorative, inflammatory, or injurious word'.11 He then distinguishes between the sociological and theological senses of the word, with the former focusing on a group's authoritarian, manipulative and communal features and the latter on a group's deviation from mainstream historic Christianity on one or more essential points of doctrine. He considers the theological sense to be more useful than the sociological sense; and he concludes that a group which is a cult in the theological sense is not 'truly Christian'.

In Martin's Evangelical counter-cult book The Kingdom of the Cults, which advertises itself as the definitive work on the subject, he takes his definition of cult from Braden and Schaffer, who stress that they 'mean nothing derogatory' in the use of the word, but use it to denote a religious groups that 'differs significantly in one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expressions of religion in our total culture.'12 However, Martin immediately extends the definition to include 'a group of people gathered about a specific person or person's misinterpretation of the Bible'.13

Despite Rhodes' and Martin's assurances that they are not using the word cult in a pejorative or derogatory sense, it seems obvious that they are: cults gather around a person's misinterpretation of the Bible and are not truly Christian. Besides this apparent inconsistency, another problem for the theological use of the word cult in Evangelical apologetics is that it is regarded as illegitimate in broader academic discourse. Campbell, for instance, decries how
the careless application of the cult concept by both the media and opponents of specific groups has made the social scientific use of the cult concept increasingly difficult14
Similarly, Partridge stresses that he does not use this word 'in the popular, broad and derogatory sense often used by, for example, journalists and the Christian counter-cult movement.'15

Hence, the specialized use of the word cult in Evangelical apologetic discourse to denote a heretical pseudo-Christian group is problematic for two reasons. First, these apologists claim that they are (like the wider academic community) using the term in a non-pejorative way, but both the denotation and connotation of their usage is manifestly pejorative. Second, the wider academic community rejects such pejorative usage of the term and regards it as an obstruction to fair-minded scholarship. I must stress that my objection is not that Evangelical apologists are necessarily wrong to seek out pejorative labels for other religious groups, or that the term cult is necessarily inappropriate for all the groups they so label. Rather, my objection is that Evangelicals have created a specialized meaning of the word cult that is not recognized outside Evangelical theological discourse, and thereby introduced potential confusion into the meaning of this word as applied to religious groups.

Differentiating between cults, sects, and denominations in sociological research

The inappropriateness of the term cult to describe the Christadelphians becomes clearer when one considers how scholars of religion and sociology differentiate it from the terms denomination and especially sect. 

First we will deal with the difference between a cult and a sect. Scholars tend to differentiate these two concepts in one of two ways: either in terms of the group's origin, or in terms of the group's level of exclusivity. We have already encountered Brockwell's statement that there is no universal consensus on the distinction between a cult and a sect. However, he adds:
Generally, a sect is seen as a movement related to a parent tradition, often seeking to remain within its home church, while a cult is viewed as promoting novel beliefs and practices independent of either churches or sects16
Similarly, Partridge, referring to the work of Stark and Bainbridge, notes that in their view, 'sects are founded by persons who left another religious body for the purpose of founding the sect' whereas cults 'do not have a prior tie with another established religious body in the society in question’ and thus cults originate ‘through innovation, not fission'.17

It should be clear to anyone familiar with Christadelphian history that, in terms of this criterion, the Christadelphians are more aptly described as a sect than a cult. Christadelphians did form, in effect, through the fission between Dr. John Thomas' and Alexander Campbell's Restorationist movement, and have always defined themselves in (negative) relation to Christian orthodoxy. Moreover, they do not regard themselves as innovators but as restorers of authentic Christianity. This self-assessment is certainly open to question, since Christadelphian exegesis of Scripture is arguably novel in some of its methods and results. However, it must be acknowledged that Christadelphians have not claimed to have received any new divine revelation, which would be the hallmark of innovation.

Wilson, while not differentiating between sects and cults, emphasizes that 'a sect is exclusive', being typically made up of believers 'who reject the established religious authorities, but who claim to adhere to the authentic elements of faith'.18

The second distinction between a cult and a sect found in the literature has to do with exclusivism. Wallis, as reproduced in Partridge, formulated a two-dimensional typology for differentiating between the four terms church, denomination, sect, and cult. His model consisted of asking the following two questions about a religious group:

1) Do insiders consider their organization to be uniquely legitimate or pluralistically legitimate?
2) Do outsiders consider the organization to be respectable or deviant?19

Accordingly, Wallis constructed the following table:

Viewed by outsiders as...
Viewed by insiders as...
  Uniquely legitimate
  Pluralistically legitimate

Hence, for Wallis, what a sect and a cult have in common is that they are both regarded as deviant by the dominant culture. Where a sect and a cult differ is that the former is 'epistemologically exclusivist', claiming 'unique access to truth', namely 'a particular interpretation of religious knowledge to which the believer must assent'.20 By contrast, a cult is 'epistemologically individualistic'; it does not claim unique access to truth and thus does not reject the dominant religious culture as part of its worldview. It is pluralistic, and perhaps relativistic.

It should again be clear that, according to this criterion, Christadelphians qualify as a sect and not a cult. Christadelphians have traditionally claimed to have 'the Truth' to the exclusion of all other theological systems, and have forged their identity upon the negation of historic, orthodox Christianity. Hence, taking both criteria into account, one can say with some confidence that sect, and not cult, is the most appropriate sociological label for the Christadelphians.

Wallis' analysis also shows why denomination is not an appropriate label for Christadelphians. For one, denominations are pluralistic, and not exclusivistic (like Christadelphians), in their self-understanding in relation to other groups. The late Bryan Wilson, well known to the Christadelphian community because of his book Sects and Society (which offered a detailed sociological study of Christadelphians), wrote the following on the difference between a sect and a denomination:
Within the Christian tradition, the sect constitutes a distinctive, persisting, and separately organized group of believers who reject the established religious authorities, but who claim to adhere to the authentic elements of faith. A sect may be distinguished, on somewhat different criteria, from both a church and denomination. Whereas the church is inclusive of a population, a sect is exclusive; whereas church members may be “inborn”, sect allegiance is always voluntary. Dual memberships are not tolerated. Theoretically, allegiance is total and equal, and sects usually reject (especially at the time of their origin) ordained ministry, encouraging lay, and sometimes purely informal, leadership.21
The second difference in Wallis' typology is that denominations are regarded as respectable in the dominant religious culture, and not regarded as deviant (like Christadelphians). These two differences actually to some extent go hand-in-hand, as Newman and Halvorson explain in differentiating sects from denominations:
First, and most importantly, without exception, sects are described as religious organizations that depart in some significant manner from the religious and/or general cultural mainstream. In this sense, sectarian organizations are the religious expression of social deviance. The sociological concept of “deviance” focuses on the fact that nearly all societies contain subgroups that define themselves as different or distinct, and, in turn, are so defined by the surrounding society… Religious sects, typically focusing on elements of theological distinctiveness… describe themselves as an elect, chosen, and separate people, and the general culture adopts this as a lens for labelling such groups as well... In contrast, mainstream religious organizations – denominations – link themselves with national civic values and practices. Denominations tend to advertise not the exclusiveness, but their inclusiveness’22
Hence, to some extent a sect, by taking an exclusivist stance, condemns itself to exclusion by the dominant religious culture (the broader Church, in the case of Christianity).

Bearing out this characterization of a denomination as inclusive (both from within and without), Ensign-George defines denomination as 'a middle term between "congregation" and "church"... one form of intermediary structure in the life of the church'.23 A denomination thus regards itself, and is regarded, as a structure within the broader Church, and not as the very Church. As Herberg states:
The denomination, as we know it in this country, is a settled, stable religious body, very like a church in many ways, except that it sees itself as one of a large aggregate of similar bodies, each recognizing the proper status of the others in legitimate coexistence.24
The question arises as to whether Christadelphians might transform from a sect into a denomination over time. Wilson notes that this often does happen, but names the Christadelphians as a counterexample: a group that has persisted as a sect over several generations. I have encountered numerous liberal-minded Christadelphian ecclesias who have largely given up their exclusivist stance. In terms of Wallis' typology, this will actually shift the Christadelphians from the sect quadrant toward the cult quadrant, unless the surrender of exclusivist claims coincides with an acceptance of Christadelphians by the Church. While such acceptance is probably more plausible today than ever before, it remains very unlikely that Christadelphians will become generally regarded as a denomination within the Church unless they embrace Trinitarian orthodoxy. This may seem an impossibility, but one can point to the dramatic theological reversal of the Worldwide Church of God as evidence that it is not.

Do Christadelphians match the characteristics of a sect?

To summarize thus far, Christadelphians are not a cult because (i) this term has practically been ruined by its pejorative use among Evangelical apologists, (ii) Christadelphians originated through schism with the wider Church more than through innovation, and (iii) Christadelphians take an exclusivist stance in relation the wider Church. Christadelphians are not a denomination because (i) they are exclusivist in relation to the wider Church, and (ii) they are regarded as deviant by the wider Church. Thus, the socio-religious term that best describes the Christadelphians is sect.

Brockwell lists nine attributes that usually characterize sects:
(1) rooted in an impulse to reform or renew the parent church; (2) powerful charismatic leadership, especially in the first generation; (3) distinctive teaching well articulated by the leader(s); (4) voluntary association demanding a high level of personal commitment to doctrine, lifestyle, and the group; (5) strong group discipline; (6) a sense of being superior to those less committed to what the group sees as core values of the church; (7) a tendency to develop freestanding, even separatist, structures to ensure the continuation of the message and ministry; (8) little appeal to persons with economic, social, or political power; and (9) often indifferent or hostile to secular society and the state.25
I would argue that all of these characteristics apply to the Christadelphians, with the following caveats. First, the Christadelphian community has a fair degree of heterogeneity, so that, for example, (5) and (6) would be much more true in some ecclesias and individuals than in others. Second, the direct influence of Dr. John Thomas' charismatic leadership on Christadelphians seems to have dwindled, i.e. Elpis Israel and Eureka are not required reading in most ecclesias. However, his indirect influence continues since much of his unusual understanding of the Bible became an enduring part of Christadelphian tradition (multitudinous God-manifestation; hyper-cessationism; continuous-historical interpretation of Revelation) or even enshrined as articles of faith (reduction of Satan to carnal impulses; no salvation for those who die as children or are mentally disabled). Third, it is not entirely clear to me what Brockwell means by (7). However, if he means that sects, having begun through schism, have a tendency toward further sectarian divisions within themselves, then this is certainly characteristic of Christadelphian history.

The objectivity of the term

A further reason for preferring the term sect over either cult or denomination as an identifying label for the Christadelphians is its objectivity, in that it is acceptable to Christadelphians, neutral observers (e.g. sociological researchers), and orthodox Christian apologists. By contrast, neither cult nor denomination would be acceptable to all three kinds of parties interested in studying the Christadelphians. 

Surely virtually all Christadelphians would reject the label cult due to its negative connotations in popular usage. A good many sociologists would also reject the term for the same reason, preferring a more value-neutral term like new religious movement. Even apologists who wish to make progress in engaging with Christadelphians should recognize the wisdom in avoiding language that will needlessly offend their target audience. As for denomination, traditionally minded Christadelphians would reject this label as it implies the legitimacy of other Christian denominations that teach 'doctrines to be rejected'. Equally, traditionally minded Christians would reject the label as it implies the legitimacy of Christadelphians within the wider Church despite their repudiation of Nicene orthodoxy and their numerous heterodox teachings. And sociologists are unlikely to use this term since, in light of the above, it does not accurately depict Christadelphians' relationship to the broader Christian Church.

Sect, however, is likely to find widespread acceptance with all three parties. Neutral observers are likely to use the term (as Wilson did) because it is an established academic term that accurately describes Christadelphians' sociological characteristics. Christadelphians have embraced this term (albeit with some qualifications), at least partly because the word is used in the Bible.26 And, as an apologist engaging critically with Christadelphians, I am comfortable using this term for two reasons. First, it is not inflammatory like cult and is thus not likely to be a distraction in theological dialogue. Second, although value-neutral, the term sect still highlights the very characteristics of the Christadelphians that the Church finds objectionable: namely, that the Christadelphians exist as a separate religious group specifically to reject the Church and her historic teachings. It is worth noting, too, that in the New Testament, the early Church never applies the term 'sect' (Greek: hairesis) to itself, and that soon thereafter, patristic writers began using this term to designate those who separated themselves from the Church's teachings.


The best term to use for the Christadelphians, both in academic literature and in theological dialogue, is neither cult nor denomination, but sect.


  • 1 In fact, there are more, but I leave aside specialized meanings in popular culture meanings such as the cult following that a film may have; these have no bearing on the issue at hand.
  • 2 Campbell, Colin. (1998). Cult. In William H. Swatos, Jr. (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Religion and Society (pp. 122-123). Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, p. 122.
  • 3 For instance, in biblical studies literature about Second Temple Judaism one often finds reference to the 'Temple cult'; this is not a value judgment on Jewish religious practice but is synonymous with 'Temple system of worship'.
  • 4 Zablocki, Benjamin & Robbins, Thomas. (2001). Introduction: Finding a Middle Ground in a Polarized Scholarly Arena. In In B. Zablocki & T. Robbins (Eds.), Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field (pp. 3-34). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, p. 3.
  • 5 ibid.
  • 6 Brockwell Jr., Charles W. (2005). Sect. In E. Fahlbusch et al (Eds.), The Encyclopedia of Christianity (Vol. 4). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp. 896-898. Here p. 897.
  • 7 Zablocki & Robbins, op. cit., p. 5.
  • 8 cited in Lalich, Janja. (2001). Pitfalls in the Sociological Study of Cults. In B. Zablocki & T. Robbins (Eds.), Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field (pp. 123-158). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, p. 125.
  • 9 op. cit., p. 124.
  • 10 ibid.
  • 11 Rhodes, Ron. (2005/2015). The Complete Guide to Christian Denominations. Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, p. 417
  • 12 Martin, Walter. (2003). The Kingdom of the Cults (revised and expanded edition). Grand Rapids: Baker Books, p. 17.
  • 13 ibid. Emphasis in original.
  • 14 Campbell, op. cit., p. 123.
  • 15 Partridge, Christopher. (2004). The Re-Enchantment of the West (Vol. 1). London: T&T Clark International, p. 26.
  • 16 Brockwell, op. cit., p. 897.
  • 17 ibid.
  • 18 Wilson, Bryan. (1989). ‘Sect’. In Alan Richardson & John Bowden (Eds.), A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, pp. 532-533. London: SCM Press, p. 532.
  • 19 Reproduced in Partridge, op. cit., p. 25.
  • 20 op. cit., pp. 25-26.
  • 21 Wilson, op. cit., p. 532.
  • 22 Newman, William M. & Halvorson, Peter L. (2000). Atlas of American Religion: The Denominational Era, 1776-1990. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, p. 57. Newman and Halvorson go on to discuss quantitative demographic features (population size and spatial distribution patterns) as other criteria for distinguishing sects from denominations.
  • 23 Ensign-George, Barry. (2011). Denomination as Ecclesiological Category: Sketching an Assessment. In Paul M. Collins & Barry A. Ensign-George (Eds.), Denomination: Assessing an Ecclesiological Category (pp. 1-21). London: Bloomsbury, p. 4.
  • 24 Herberg, W. (1967). Religion in a Secularized Society. In J. Brothers (Ed.), Readings in the Sociology of Religion, pp. 201-216. Oxford: Pergamon Press, p. 204.
  • 25 Brockwell, op. cit., p. 897.
  • 26 In his pamphlet The Danger of Cults, Michael Ashton, a former editor of The Christadelphian (the oldest extant and most widely distributed Christadelphian periodical), rejects the label cult due to its 'sinister' 'associations', and expresses a preference for the term sect, which is 'simply a religious party or group; and the term is normally applied to groups that are not among the "accepted" denominations'. He also points out that the term is biblical. Much earlier, Christadelphian pioneer Robert Roberts had written a pamphlet entitled The Sect Everywhere Spoken Against. Here, Roberts had adopted the term sect for the Christadelphians. He emphasized that Christadelphians were not a 'new sect in the ordinary sense of that phrase' because they are not innovators but are to be identified with 'the sect everywhere spoken against' mentioned in Acts 28:22, namely the early church. However, later on he argues that Christadelphians are a sect, not only because of their professed doctrinal identity with that early so-called sect, but also because their 'coming out' (separation from the wider Church) 'has necessarily resulted in the formation of a sect' (and the creation of a new and distinctive name for it). Hence, this early Christadelphian luminary concedes that the Christadelphians are a sect specifically because of their separation from and rejection of the historic Church.