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dianoigo blog
Showing posts with label ecclesiology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ecclesiology. Show all posts

Friday 23 December 2016

The problem of understanding the Bible: reflections after four years of theological study

Introduction

A question which this author has made into a personal quest is this: How can I understand the doctrines of the Bible, and how can I be confident that my understanding is sound? In this post I offer some reflections on how my thinking about this question has developed over four years of formal theological study. Specifically, I discuss four possible answers that have occurred to me, and which one I have settled on.

Let me first give some personal context. I am in the final stages of an Honours degree undertaken by distance learning. No exams are involved; each module is assessed using one or more essay assignments. An essential criterion for a successful essay is an extensive bibliography showing engagement with the range of scholarly viewpoints on the issue(s) under investigation. It would be difficult to guess the number of academic sources I've consulted over the past four years while preparing for my essay assignments (as well as blog posts and some published research), but it is not a few. I say this not to boast about how well-read I am, but to stress the bewildering array of competing arguments, opinions and interpretations I have encountered concerning every biblical passage or theological topic I have closely studied.

Encountering the breadth of scholarly argument and opinion is enriching, but also challenging—even intimidating! As an undergraduate student with limited experience in exegesis and a limited command of the relevant background knowledge (linguistic, historical, literary, etc.), one enters the fray to find seasoned professors offering diverging views on the meaning of nearly every phrase in the Bible, never mind verse.

By way of example, I'm currently working on an essay on Paul's theology of atonement in Romans, with special reference to Rom. 3:21-26. This passage is a veritable minefield of exegetical debates. What is the exact connotation of the expression 'works of law' in 3:20? Does 'the righteousness of God' refer to an attribute of God or a status conferred by God or both? Does Rom. 3:23 refer to the Fall or to personal transgression or both? Is 'justification' here mainly forensic, ecclesiological or ethical? What is the meaning of the word hilast─ôrion in Rom. 3:25—mercy seat, propitiation or expiation? Were Rom. 3:24-26 composed by Paul or is he quoting an earlier tradition? If the latter, where does the quotation begin and end, and has Paul modified it in any way? And finally—perhaps the most disputed question of all (although one wouldn't know it from most English Bible translations)—does the phrase pistis Christou or equivalent in Rom. 3:21 and 3:26 (and other Pauline texts) refer to faith in Christ (Christ as the object of faith) or to Christ's faith/faithfulness (Christ as the subject of faith)? It is easy to see that how one answers these perplexing exegetical questions has profound implications, not only for one's understanding of this passage but for one's theological convictions (just ask Martin Luther!)

Faced with this battery of exegetical difficulties and competing opinions each claiming the support of capable experts, one could hardly be blamed for feeling completely out of one's depth! Truly "much study is a weariness of the flesh" (Eccl. 12:12). However, the thesis statement "I don't know" is generally not well received by markers of academic essays, so pragmatism compels one to weigh the probabilities, form a judgment, and complete the essay. Yet as one goes through this process repeatedly over a period of years, one cannot escape becoming introspective about the question I posed at the beginning.

Broadly speaking, four answers to this question have occurred to me, which I will now discuss in turn. I have titled these answers (1) the perspicuity of Scripture, (2) the results of biblical scholarship, (3) the renunciation of dogma, and (4) the consensus of the church.

Option 1: The perspicuity of Scripture

One possible response is the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture. This basically says that the Bible is clear enough for any devout reader to understand. Sometimes the doctrine is qualified to state that only those teachings which constitutes knowledge essential for salvation are clear enough for any devout reader to understand.1

The basic advantage of this doctrine is that it equalizes access to theological truth across different levels of education and intelligence. This seems just, especially in the context of modern Western societies with democratic governments (both civil and ecclesiastical). However, this apparent benefit is outweighed by significant difficulties. First, the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture does not itself seem to be clearly taught in Scripture (one thinks of the Ethiopian eunuch's honest question in Acts 8:31, 'How can I [understand what I am reading] unless someone guides me?') Proponents of the doctrine would of course claim otherwise.

However, a second and more glaring problem is that different people read the Bible and come to widely diverging opinions about its meaning at the level of phrases, verses, and ultimately doctrines. What hits home when one undertakes academic theological study is that this is true not only of laypeople but also of "the experts"—professional scholars. Proponents of perspicuity have an answer to this conundrum, of course, and it lies in the qualifier 'devout': the Bible is clear enough for any devout reader to understand. Hence, when two readers come to conflicting, mutually exclusive conclusions about what the Bible teaches, the primary cause is not different education or intelligence, but different devoutness. It is the Holy Spirit, not the natural mind, that illuminates a person with the truth of Scripture, so only the person who is devout—i.e. in tune with the Holy Spirit—will understand the Bible.

This sounds satisfactory, but consider how it works out in practice. Each interested reader of the Bible operates from the following presupposition: my interpretation of the Bible is sound. (If I didn't believe this, I would adjust my interpretation until I became convinced of its soundness). If my interpretation of the Bible is sound, then I must be reading it devoutly. Consequently, anyone who arrives at a fundamentally different interpretation of the Bible must not be reading it devoutly. Thus, the doctrine of perspicuity seems to lead inevitably to the conclusion, "I read the Bible devoutly, and those who disagree with my interpretations don't." This, however, is a perspicuously arrogant statement! "Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor. 10:12) It might be protested that this statement is not arrogant, because 'devoutness' has been defined in terms of Holy Spirit activity rather than personal merit. However, "My interpretations are illuminated by the Holy Spirit, and the interpretations of those who disagree with me aren't" still rests on the complacent assumption of one's own privileged, elect status.

The 'devoutness criterion' also encourages confirmation bias: readers and interpretations in agreement with my presuppositions are viewed with favour and those opposed to my biases are viewed with suspicion. The Bible seemed very easy to understand when I was a teenager, because I had not read widely outside the narrow faith tradition in which I was raised. Now I know better than to privilege my own presuppositions over those of others. "With humility think of others as being better than yourselves" (Phil. 2:3).

In my view, reliance on the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture ultimately entails trusting in my own devoutness. This I cannot do, so I must reject the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture. This is not to say nothing in the Bible is clear, or that personal study is a lost cause. It is only to assert that deducing sound fundamental doctrine from the Bible is not guaranteed for even the devout reader.

Option 2: The results of biblical scholarship

A second response to the question, How can I understand the doctrines of the Bible, and how can I be confident that my understanding is sound? is that study of the Bible is a very complex science and is therefore best left to academic experts. 'Scholarly consensus' is the best metric for ascertaining the true doctrines of the Bible.

This is, on the surface, a satisfactory solution to intellectually sophisticated, scientifically minded readers of Scripture. However, as a method for arriving at the divine truths of the Bible its deficiencies are obvious. First, there are myriads of exegetical problems in the Bible for which no consensus exists among biblical scholars. Second, even established consensuses are occasionally overturned in light of further research. Hence, to rest one's dogmatic position on 'scholarly consensus' is to build a house on sand or lean on a bruised reed (choose your favourite biblical metaphor).

In any case, no ecclesiastical tradition can claim that its whole belief system is backed by consensus among biblical scholars. Hence, one is compelled to disagree with the scholarly consensus on at least some points. On what grounds does one justify holding up the scholarly consensus as vindication here, but repudiating it as mistaken there? Obviously other epistemological criteria are at work! (There are some people who seem to believe that scholarly opinion is on a relentless march toward their opinion, but this is a naive expectation, to say the least!)

One might concede that the academic community cannot be relied on for trustworthy dogmatic results, but maintain that the academic method of biblical study can be. In this case, one must take the bull by the horns and become a first-rate biblical scholar oneself in order to produce a sound doctrinal system. I must confess that there was an element of this thinking in my own motivation for undertaking formal theological studies. However, as I recounted in the beginning, the actual academic experience cured me of it (thankfully). If the doctrine of perspicuity boils down to trust in one's own devoutness, then the elevation of academic biblical scholarship boils down to trust in the astuteness and objectivity of human thought—whether of the academic community as a whole, or one's own. This fails on empirical grounds, as already discussed, but it also seems theologically wrongheaded, given Paul's polemic against 'the one who is wise... the scribe... the debater of this age' (1 Cor. 1:20).

This is not, of course, to say that academic biblical scholarship cannot produce any valuable exegetical results—far from it! In many cases it has produced near-certainty as to the meaning of previously confounding passages. (One example that comes to mind is 1 Pet. 3:19, an allusion previously thought to be obscure beyond recovery, but now generally accepted as referring to the Enochic Watchers myth). I only mean that the pursuit of academic learning cannot produce the assurance of doctrinal correctness which I have sought.

Option 3: The renunciation of dogma

A third response to the question, How can I understand the doctrines of the Bible, and how can I be confident that my understanding is sound? is essentially to wave the white flag. This might take two forms. I might conclude that the Bible itself is the problem; it does not contain any unified 'doctrines' to be understood. (This may or may not entail abandonment of Christian faith.) Alternatively, I may conclude that human subjectivity and distance from the historical context render an objective understanding of the Bible impossible. If so, perhaps dogma is ultimately not of critical importance to the Christian faith. Maybe I'm missing the point—maybe the Bible isn't meant to be understood; only marveled at. Maybe Bible study is more about the journey than the destination. Maybe God is not interested in doctrine so much as in our hearts; our sincere personal trust.

These mantras may seem trite as depicted here, but I do believe they represent an important corrective to an overly cerebral, dogma-centered approach to Christian faith. To know God at the level of dogma is surely not to have "arrived" spiritually: if I "understand all mysteries and all knowledge... but have not love, I am nothing" (1 Cor. 13:2). Nevertheless, that dogma is insufficient does not mean it is unnecessary, or neatly separable from more relational and experiential aspects of Christian faith. One can hardly, after reading Isaiah or John or Romans, conclude that God is not interested in theology. That God demands soundness of doctrine is clear from many passages censuring and warning against doctrinal error. And God could hardly demand this if the theological task were Mission Impossible. Hence, abandoning dogma as either unimportant or unachievable is not the answer.

Option 4: The consensus of the church

A fourth response to the question, How can I understand the doctrines of the Bible, and how can I be confident that my understanding is sound? involves appealing, not to the consensus of the academy, but to the consensus of the church. There are some obvious pragmatic problems—the consensus of which church?, for one—but let me explain why I find this to be the most satisfactory option of the four.

My worldview underwent a significant shift when I rethought and ultimately repudiated a fundamental assumption implicit in my question: that it is my responsibility to figure out the doctrines of the Bible for myself (or, more generally, that this is the responsibility of each individual Christian). In other words, I ought to have replaced "I" with "we" in my question and so approached it from an ecclesiological rather than an individual perspective.

The individualistic perspective is endemic to modern Western society, where literacy rates are extremely high, Bibles are readily available for personal study in the lingua franca, freedom of expression and religion prevail, and self-advancement is both a core value and often an actual opportunity. When I read texts like 2 Tim. 2:15 and 3:15-17 in my English Bible on my smart phone, it certainly sounds like a mandate to me, the individual reader, to study my way to doctrinal correctness and thus divine approval. However, in doing this I forget that this letter was not written to me, or to a layperson like me, but to an ordained church leader (2 Tim. 1:6). I also forget that the social situation of the early church was very different: literacy rates were very low, copies of biblical books were rare and expensive (and the Bible itself not yet a finished product), and most people had little freedom or opportunity for self-advancement. Intensive, personal study of the biblical text was the province of the few. The many were were dependent on their teachers (like Paul and Timothy), whom they were enjoined to respect and obey (2 Cor. 13:10; 1 Thess. 5:12-13; Heb. 13:17). And this concentration of knowledge in the few was not viewed negatively; the accumulation of too many teachers was (2 Tim. 4:3; Jas 3:1)!

Now suppose I put myself in the shoes of a first century female slave who is a Christian. I hear the Scriptures read and expounded in the assemblies but I am illiterate. There is little prospect of my ever learning to read or, even if I did, getting my own copy of the Bible. If I pose to myself the question, How can I understand the doctrines of the Bible, and how can I be confident that my understanding is sound? how will I respond? Will I not answer to the first question, "I can listen to my teachers in the church," and to the second, "I can be confident in my teachers' teaching because they were appointed by the apostles of Christ and have the guidance of the Holy Spirit"?

The question then is, at what point did this sort of scenario come to an end, so that each Christian was now responsible for achieving a sound doctrinal understanding through personal Bible study? Was it when the Holy Spirit allegedly ceased activity? Was it when the printing press was invented? When religious freedom became a reality? When the Industrial Revolution led to soaring literacy rates? The burden of proof lies with the one who claims that the original model—laypeople relying on divinely sanctioned teachers for doctrine—was replaced by a democratized model in which each individual bears responsibility for the theological task.

Christ promised the church—represented by the Twelve—that the Holy Spirit would lead her into all truth (John 16:13), and that he would be with her until the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). There is, then, good reason to trust an ecclesiological consensus—an agreement on fundamental doctrine reached by the church's ordained teachers. And, as it turns out, such a consensus did emerge in the early church and still exists today. It was first called the "rule of faith" or "canon of faith," and Irenaeus in the late second century both describes its content and calls it a worldwide consensus. In the the fourth century it was approved by ecumenical councils in a fixed form—the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. This is the ecclesiological consensus about Christian dogma, which has held ever since. (And, as I've argued previouslyall strands of Christianity extant today are descended from Nicene Trinitarian orthodoxy).

The 'ecclesiological consensus' approach seems to me to incorporate the best of the other three approaches. It affirms the perspicuity of Scripture, but not at the level of the individual reader. Scripture is clear enough to be understood by the Church, illuminated as she is by the Holy Spirit. The academy has an important role in furthering understanding of the Bible and of theology, but cannot fulfill the role of producing and defending dogma. In agreement with postmodernism, the futility of individual interpreters trying to achieve a definitive, objective understanding of the Bible can be readily acknowledged.

Finally, the 'ecclesiological consensus' approach is immensely liberating. There is no room for personal pride or boasting because for the individual Christian, dogma is a tradition I have received, not a thesis I have achieved. As a theology student I can undertake biblical exegesis with great enthusiasm and follow the evidence where it leads for any given passage, minus the burden of having to manufacture dogma for myself from scratch.

Of course, a major problem with this approach is that, on many doctrinal issues not covered in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed—such as various aspects of soteriology—no 'ecclesiological consensus' holds across contemporary ecclesiastical traditions. One must therefore decide which ecclesiological tradition has a valid consensus: Reformed? Eastern Orthodox? Roman Catholic? Something else? Which of these has a legitimate claim to be the 'one holy, catholic and apostolic Church' confessed in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed? This is where I am now in my journey.

Conclusion

My own finding after four years of intense academic study of the Bible is that the Bible is not easily understood, and indeed that the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture is invalid. The Bible—not only Paul's letters—contains things "that are hard to understand" (2 Pet. 3:16) and yet essential to the Christian faith (so that to twist them is to invite destruction). I do not think that any amount of personal study will enable me personally to reach a place where I can be confident that I have correctly deduced the doctrines of the Bible. Nor do I think the situation would be different if I had more intelligence, erudition or devoutness. Many Christians of far greater intelligence, erudition and devoutness than myself nonetheless profoundly disagree about what the Bible teaches. Hence I cannot expect that God will reward my faith and my effort with a unique ability to correctly and definitively interpret Scripture. Instead, I must recognize my own insignificance and willingly submit to the teaching of the 'church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth' (1 Tim. 3:15).

Footnotes

  • 1 Some definitions of the perspicuity of Scripture: 'the Bible read in its entirety can be clearly understood by the devout reader' (Melick, Richard R., Jr. (2013). Can we understand the Bible? In Steven B. Cowan & Terry L. Wilder, In Defense of the Bible: A Comprehensive Apologetic for the Authority of Scripture (pp. 89-118). Nashville: Broadman & Holman); 'the Bible is written in such a way that all things necessary for our salvation and for our Christian life and growth are very clearly set forth in Scripture. Although theologians have sometimes defined the clarity of Scripture more narrowly (by saying, for example, only that Scripture is clear in teaching the way of salvation), the texts cited above apply to many different aspects of biblical teaching and do not seem to support any such limitation on the areas to which Scripture can be said to speak clearly. It seems more faithful to those biblical texts to define the clarity of Scripture as follows: <i>The clarity of Scripture means that the Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all who will read it seeking God's help and being willing to follow it. Once we have stated this, however, we must also recognize that many people, even God's people, do in fact misunderstand Scripture.' (Grudem, Wayne A. (1994). Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, p. 108).

Monday 17 October 2016

Our Nicene common ancestor: an ecclesiological-historical argument for Trinitarian orthodoxy

1. The historical pedigree criterion
2. The Gamaliel criterion
3. Applying the criteria
4. Our Nicene common ancestor
5. Conclusion
Addendum: Possible objections considered

In this article I offer a theological argument for Trinitarian orthodoxy. The argument is indirect in that it does not look at the doctrine of the Trinity directly (or at related issues such as the deity of Christ and the personality of the Holy Spirit). Rather, the argument is based entirely on the doctrine of the church (ecclesiology) and the history of the church. The default alternative position will be that of Christadelphians, although it would apply equally to other non-Trinitarian restorationist movements such as Jehovah's Witnesses or the Church of God General Conference.


Many people who are active on social media have probably seen the satirical meme below at some point. I don't know who created the meme, but I'm guessing it was intended to discredit the claims of fundamentalist and/or restorationist movement(s) to have the definitive truth over against the myriads of other present and past ecclesiastical traditions.
One of the assumptions implicit in this meme is that the historical pedigree of a Christian movement affects the credibility of its theological claims. It is the recent appearance of 'our movement' that makes its claim to have definitively 'gotten the Bible right' sound ridiculous.1 If 'our movement' had not 'come along' lately but could trace its history back to antiquity through an unbroken chain of tradition, the credibility of its truth claims would increase.

We can call the criterion presupposed by the meme the historical pedigree criterion. It is clearly a retrospective criterion, used to evaluate the theological legitimacy of contemporary Christian movements in view of their past. A weak statement of this criterion would be simply that a movement should have a long and impressive historical pedigree in order to claim theological legitimacy for itself. A stronger statement of this criterion would be that a movement should be able to plausibly claim direct, unbroken historical descent from the apostolic church. Obviously the theological shape of the church in the apostolic and early post-apostolic period is disputed (due to differing interpretations of the New Testament and other early Christian literature), and the available historical data increases as we move forward in time. Nevertheless, if we want the truth claims of 'our movement' to be taken seriously, we should be able to offer a credible historical argument for its continuous existence since antiquity.


In contrast to the retrospective historical pedigree criterion, the theological legitimacy of a religious movement might also be assessed prospectively. A criterion for doing so is found within the New Testament in the speech of Rabbi Gamaliel the Elder to the Sanhedrin. In response to a speech from Peter and the apostles, the members of the Sanhedrin 'were enraged and wanted to kill them'. Gamaliel, Luke tells us, placated their wrath as follows:
34 But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people, stood up and gave orders to put the men outside for a little while. 35 And he said to them, "Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. 36 For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. 37 After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered. 38 So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!" So they took his advice... (Acts 5:34-39 ESV)
Gamaliel's argument is built upon two simple and opposite premises. (1) A movement that is not of God will inevitably 'fail' and 'come to nothing'; whereas (2) a movement that is of God is impossible to overthrow; it is indestructible and will endure. Hence, the future of the Jesus movement is theologically predetermined, and neither the action nor the inaction of the Sanhedrin can alter it.

What does Luke think of Gamaliel's argument? Within the broader narrative context of Acts it is obvious that he endorses it, because the reader learns that in contrast to the movements of Theudas and Judas the Galilean, the Jesus movement did not come to nothing, but prospered and fulfilled its founder's prediction that it would extend 'to the end of the earth' (Acts 1:8). This prediction is symbolically fulfilled in Acts 26-28 by Paul's arrival in Rome for an impending audience with the emperor himself. The implicit argument of Acts is that the continued existence and spread of the Jesus movement - amid persecution, no less - proves in terms of Gamaliel's argument that it cannot be overthrown because it is 'of God'.

Gamaliel's argument is consistent with other New Testament texts that presuppose what might be termed 'the perseverance of the church'. Jesus famously declared to Simon Peter that 'the gates of Hades shall not prevail against [my church]' (Matt. 16:18), a promise which seems to require at very least her perpetual existence. Similarly, in Jesus' final words to his disciples in Matthew, he promises to be with them to 'the end of the age' (Matt. 28:20), a phrase which in Matthaean context can only mean 'until the Parousia' (Matt. 13:40-43, 49-50; 24:3). It is difficult to imagine the church lapsing into non-existence as long as her Lord is 'with her'. The metaphor of the church as Christ's body also assumes the church's perpetual existence since Christ's body is nourished by him (Eph. 5:29-30), and the same could be said of the metaphor of the church as Christ's bride (Rev. 21:9; 22:17). We are only scratching the surface of biblical ecclesiology here, but it is enough to make our point.

Gamaliel's argument gives us a clear prospective criterion for evaluating the theological legitimacy of religious movements, including 'our movement'. If 'our movement' is not of God, it will eventually come to nothing. If, on the other hand, 'our movement' is of God, it will endure - regardless of any human attempts to suppress or destroy it.


Let us discuss the application of Gamaliel's criterion first, since this is more easily done. Gamaliel's criterion is not useful for evaluating present-day Christian movements, because we must wait and see whether each one will 'come to nothing', which may take centuries. However, Gamaliel's criterion is useful for evaluating past Christian movements, because we can conclude that any movement that 'came to nothing' was not of God. This allows us to rule out the theological legitimacy of many historical Christian movements. These would include the Ebionites, Marcionites, various Gnostic sects, Montanists, Arians, Sabellians, Donatists, Cathars (Albigensians), Paulinicians, and many others. The 'gates of Hades' finally prevailed against all of these movements, so evidently none of them was the object of Christ's ecclesiological promises.

The historical pedigree criterion can be applied to present-day Christian movements, but its application is not as straightforward. This is because most present-day Christian movements formed through schism from or within a parent movement at some point in the past. However, in many such schisms, both (or all, if more than two) the 'child' movements claim to be the legitimate heir of the parent. An obvious example would be the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches after the Great Schism of 1054. Neither party regarded (or regards) itself as having broken away and formed a new movement; each believed it had excommunicated the leading bishop of the other and then continued as the true and legitimate Church. Hence, post-1054 both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches could make a plausible historical claim that the pre-1054 Catholic/Orthodox Church was part of their historical pedigree.

In determining whether a nominally new 'child' movement can be plausibly be called the legitimate heir of an older 'parent' movement, the following should apply:
(H1) There should be a direct historical link between the two movements, i.e. among the early members of the 'child movement' were individuals who had previously belonged to the 'parent movement'.
(H2) The 'child' movement, from its nominal beginning, should have identified the parent movement as its theologically legitimate historical antecedent and identified itself as the legitimate continuation of the parent movement.
(H3) The doctrinal beliefs of the 'child movement' should align with those of the 'parent movement'.

Now, the vast majority of present-day Christian movements are going to come up against a historical barrier as they follow their pedigree back in time, and that barrier is the Reformation. Nearly all Protestant movements existing today either broke away directly from the Roman Catholic Church (e.g. Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians), or broke away from a movement that broke away from the Roman Catholic Church (e.g. Methodists), or broke away from a movement that broke away from a movement that broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, and so on. Other movements congealed through the coming together of like-minded people from various Protestant backgrounds. Hence, as we move backward in time, the historical pedigree of nearly every Protestant movement is absorbed into the Roman Catholic Church once we reach about 1500. All such movements must claim either (a) that the Roman Catholic Church, at least prior to the Reformation, was (or contained) the true body of Christ; or (b) there was an extended period of time prior to the Reformation during which the true body of Christ did not exist, i.e. came to nothing. If (a), then it must be conceded that people who were nominally Roman Catholic constituted the true body of Christ, at least for a time. If (b), then no movement meets the historical pedigree criterion, and Christianity itself is falsified by the Gamaliel criterion and the failure of the Lord's promises.

The exception to this 'historical barrier' among present-day Protestants are those who might legitimately claim (in terms of H1, H2 and H3 above) that their historical pedigree runs through the Vaudois (a.k.a. Waldenses), who existed before the Protestant Reformation and whose leaders embraced the Reformation in the 16th century. However, those who claim ecclesiological descent from the Vaudois can only push their historical barrier about three centuries further back, to the late 12th century. Their founder, Peter Waldo, was a Roman Catholic who began teaching ideas contrary to Church doctrine and was excommunicated. (For Christadelphian readers who are familiar with Alan Eyre's books, it may be of interest to hear that the Vaudois were Trinitarian.)

The Roman Catholic Church, of course, traces its historical pedigree back through the Great Schism of 1054 (seeing itself as the legitimate heir of pre-1054 catholic orthodoxy2) and thence through catholic orthodoxy of the medieval and patristic periods. The Eastern Orthodox Church does the same. The Oriental Orthodox Church traces its historical pedigree back to 451 when it became separated from the wider catholic-orthodox church over the Chalcedonian Definition. The Oriental Orthodox Church lodges a claim alongside that of the Roman Catholic-Eastern Orthodox Church to be the rightful heir of the pre-451 catholic-orthodox church. Similarly, the Church of the East traces its historical pedigree back to 431 when it became separated from the wider catholic-orthodox church over Nestorianism. The Church of the East thus lodges a claim alongside that of the Roman Catholic-Eastern Orthodox-Oriental Orthodox Church to be the rightful heir of the pre-431 catholic-orthodox church.

What are the implications of this ecclesiastical family tree that we have just verbally sketched?


Every Christian movement that exists today is descended from the catholic-orthodox church as it was in 430 A.D. (on the eve of the Nestorian schism of 431). And this was, of course, the church that had reached consensus on the doctrine of the Trinity at the ecumenical councils of Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381). There were various other Christian movements that existed in 430 A.D. (Arians, Montanists, Marcionites, Paulianists, Apollinarians, Gnostics, etc.) but these all eventually 'came to nothing'. Of the 'Christianities' that existed in 430 A.D., only Niceno-Constantinopolitan Trinitarian Christianity has continuously existed until the present day.

This means no Christian movement existing today can trace its historical pedigree back to the apostles without being absorbed into Trinitarian catholic orthodoxy at some point. All roads back to the apostles pass through Constantinople and Nicea. The early-fifth-century catholic church is the 'common ancestor' of all present-day Christian movements. And it must be emphasized that the early-fifth-century catholic church was not merely one in which the doctrine of the Trinity was popular or was the majority opinion. The doctrine of the Trinity had been dogmatically promulgated in the fourth century ecumenical councils, and non-Trinitarians had been anathemized. Everyone in communion with the catholic-orthodox church in the early fifth century was either a Trinitarian or a charlatan.

Indeed, for non-Trinitarian movements of today, their non-Trinitarian historical pedigree at best goes back about five centuries to the dawn of the Protestant Reformation (that is, if historical continuity in terms of criteria H1, H2 and H3 above exists between contemporary non-Trinitarians and 16th-century non-Trinitarians, which is debatable).3 Before that, their historical pedigree is Roman Catholic - a tradition that had indisputably been Trinitarian for more than a thousand years. The non-Trinitarian Christian movements that exist today are a Reformation or post-Reformation phenomenon. Despite ideological affinities, they have no direct historical links to the non-Trinitarian movements of antiquity, which all 'came to nothing' long before the Reformation, showing themselves by Gamaliel's criterion to be 'not of God'.

The last question we can briefly address is whether the catholic orthodox church as it was in 430 A.D. could plausibly claim theological legitimacy in terms of our two historical criteria. Unquestionably this church meets Gamaliel's criterion: the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed has been used in all of the Catholic/Orthodox ecclesiastical traditions from the fifth century down to the present day (and later in many Protestant movements). The Nicene catholic orthodox church has never 'failed' nor 'come to nothing' - that much is certain.

What about the historical pedigree criterion? Did the catholic orthodox church of 430 A.D. have a plausible claim to direct, unbroken historical descent from the apostolic church? It is undeniable that the patristic church made this claim, and was concerned with this question, as shown by its episcopal succession lists for the patriarchates (Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem) and its great interest in the idea of apostolic succession. Moreover, this church stood in the tradition that had collected and transmitted the apostolic writings and this church had canonized them (defining the boundaries of the New Testament as we know it) in regional synods in the late fourth century. This church claimed as its own many theologians who wrote in the roughly two centuries between the apostolic age and the Council of Nicea (such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, etc.) And whatever one thinks of the theological developments that occurred between the apostolic period and the fourth century, there is no evidence of historical discontinuity between the apostolic church and the Nicene church. The catholic-orthodox bishops down into the fifth century did not repudiate their ecclesiastical forebears, but held them to be worthy of great honour.

Thus, while some details of the claim are open to debate (such as the historical veracity of episcopal succession lists), it is clear that the church of 430 A.D. did claim a historical pedigree going back to the apostles, and that this claim has at least prima facie plausibility.


Non-Trinitarian movements have no plausible claim to direct, unbroken historical descent from the apostolic church. They can only claim to be the restoration of an authentic, apostolic Christian community which had ceased to exist for many centuries. This cessation of existence, this 'coming to nothing', however, violates Gamaliel's dictum and the promises of Christ to his bride. Hence, non-Trinitarian Christian movements have no historically plausible claim to being the indestructible apostolic church. If any Christian movement can make such a claim, it must be one that has remained faithful to the Nicene Trinitarian heritage that all contemporary Christian movements share. It is truly only this heritage that allows us to confess, in the words of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, 'one holy, catholic and apostolic Church'.


The following are objections that might be raised against the argument of this article. I believe that such objections (especially the first three) are an implicit acknowledgment that the premises of the argument (the historical pedigree criterion and the Gamaliel criterion) are valid. The objections are made precisely because members of present-day heterodox Christian movements recognize the theological problem posed by their lack of historical pedigree. And the objections are not inferences drawn from historical evidence but are theologically motivated judgments imposed on history without evidence.

I. 'Our movement' has always existed since the apostles' time, but historical evidence is lacking because it was destroyed in times of censorship and persecution.

There is no doubt that, from the fourth century until the dawn of modernity, ecclesiastical and secular authorities cooperated to suppress 'heresies' using coercion and force - often brutal and lethal force. They did not adopt Rabbi Gamaliel's laissez faire approach. From the perspective of modernity with our liberal values, we can and should lament the morality of the catholic-orthodox Church's past atrocities committed against heretics (as well as Jews and Muslims). Value judgments aside, however, the cold historical reality is that the Catholic Church was largely successful in destroying 'heretical' movements up until the Reformation. This proves that none of the earlier 'heretical' movements constituted the true apostolic church; otherwise no human authority, as Gamaliel argued, would have been able to overthrow them.

Is it possible, however, that the true, non-Trinitarian church has continuously existed since the apostles' time, but that its existence is not well-documented due to persecution and suppression? Could it be that the movement went undetected for extended periods, and that at least a tiny remnant survived every attempt to destroy it? If so, we could not reasonably expect the writings of such a movement to have survived, could we?

There are a number of problems with this romantic, idealized reconstruction of sectarian history. First, no writings survive for most 'heretical movements' in Church history. We have no writings of Marcion, Paul of Samosata, Arius, Peter Waldo, and many other 'heresiarchs'. However, we still know something about them and their beliefs due to the polemic of their catholic opponents. Obviously, the sources are heavily biased and historians must read them critically. Yet there is ample historical evidence that these movements existed and eventually came to nought.

In general, the Catholic Church sought to destroy the heretics themselves and their writings. However, they generally did not try to erase all memory of their existence. Rather, they catalogued and documented past heresies so that they would be better prepared to face future ones. This phenomenon is present already in the second century in the Syntagma, a lost work of Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus' extant five-volume work Against Heresies. Heresiological literature became a whole genre in the patristic and medieval church. Heresies were also named, described and anathemized in the canons of church synods and ecumenical councils.

In the High Middle Ages, with the onset of the Inquisition in the West, the Roman Catholic Church's documentation of heresy became even more meticulous. As Deane explains:
One of the most important elements of the development of medieval inquisitorial activity was its use of texts-its painstaking recording and copying of interrogations, their organization and cross-referencing for easy use, and the collection of supporting written materials on issues of law and theology. Each tribunal had archives of registers into which confessions and information were copied, and these provide some of our best sources for the history of inquisition.4
It is safe to assume that a reasonably complete historical record of 'heretical' Christian movements through the ages has been preserved. It is very unsafe to assume that 'our movement' existed from apostolic times down to the present despite centuries-long gaps in the historical record.

II. The true body of Christ has always existed, not as one identifiable ecclesiastical movement but as a chain of non-conformist movements that went by many different names.

A version of this sort of hypothesis, within the Christadelphian movement, is offered by Alan Eyre in his books The Protesters and Brethren in Christ. Eyre discusses many different nonconformist groups and individuals through church history which he identifies as Christ's true brethren. The problem is that some of these groups have no historical link to one another, and many of them had conflicting doctrinal beliefs, both with each other and with Christadelphians.5 Moreover, Eyre is almost silent about the late patristic and medieval periods, taking the great majority of his examples from the Reformation period (and making passing references to a few early patristic writers).

More broadly, there is no unifying historical or theological thread running through the various non-conformist or 'heretical' Christian movements that have existed through church history.

III. The true body of Christ has always existed, not necessarily as a separate, identifiable ecclesiastical 'movement' but as individual dissidents who held to the true apostolic teachings.

A third objection might be that the true body of Christ was preserved, not in any identifiable ecclesiastical movement(s) but in the hearts and minds of dissident individuals who remained nominally part of the wider church. Surely historians cannot peer into the hearts and minds of long-dead individuals who may have been afraid to openly voice their objections to official Church dogma?

In response, it would be useful to consider the minimum requirements to constitute 'the body of Christ'. Jesus famously said, 'Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them' (Matt. 18:20). Hence, no number of isolated individuals can be the true church, the household of faith, the body of Christ. This requires, at an absolute minimum, two or three people who gather in Jesus' name, i.e. hold meetings and share fellowship in the breaking of bread.

The question is, assuming that such a 'movement of two or three' did exist, would it have been able to maintain its identity across generations, and would it have been able to do so while remaining undetected or at least undocumented by the wider Church? The answer is, almost certainly not. Maintaining theological identity over time without distortion requires a body of extra-biblical teaching in written form. A Christian movement, even a tiny one, that holds religious gatherings with a separate communion and produces non-conformist theological literature is not going to remain unknown within the wider Church for long. If they were nominal Catholics, they would not in good conscience have partaken of the sacraments (e.g. baptizing their children or taking the Eucharist), and this would have drawn the attention of the authorities. Nor are the members of such a movement likely to have wanted to remain unknown. Dissemination of ideas and proselytization are core values shared by nearly all Christian movements. A person who thinks he has the true gospel and everyone around him has a false one is not going to keep his thoughts to himself. 'A city set on a hill cannot be hidden' (see Matt. 5:13-16).

Thus, it is impossible for isolated individuals to have constituted the body of Christ through history. There must at every point in time have been at least two people in fellowship for 'the household of faith' to exist. The conditions required for the perseverance of such a tiny community of believers across generations would also have necessarily led to the growth of the community and its discovery and suppression by the wider Church. And so we are back to the situation of Objection I above. It is utterly implausible that such a community could have survived across many centuries without becoming part of recorded history. To posit the existence of such a tiny, secret 'dissident community' through the centuries in the absence of any evidence is the stuff of a Dan Brown novel.

IV. None of this is of theological importance. It is strictly the teachings of the Bible, not church history or tradition, that determine the theological legitimacy of a Christian movement.

The second sentence in this objection is naive because, even if we hold rigidly to a Sola Scriptura epistemology, our approach to interpreting the Bible will be heavily influenced by our view of church history and tradition. Were the Church Fathers wicked apostates? Or were they, as the classical label suggests, 'fathers' to whom we look for wisdom and guidance?

Moreover, we must realize that individual doctrines of the faith are interconnected and interdependent. Our evaluation of the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be divorced from our doctrine of the Church - our ecclesiology. This article has essentially offered an ecclesiological defense of the doctrine of the Trinity. The ecclesiological principles that undergird the historical argument are drawn straight from the Bible. We have Rabbi Gamaliel's teaching (implicitly endorsed by Luke) that a religious movement that is 'of God' cannot be overthrown while a religious movement that is 'not of God' inevitably comes to nothing. This coheres with Christ's promises to be present with his disciples until the end of the age, to nourish his body the church, and that the gates of Hades would not prevail against the church.

The argument of this article is therefore biblically based, even if its connection to the doctrine of the Trinity is only indirect. Anyone who seeks to justify their non-Trinitarian stance must contend not only with biblical teaching about God, Christ and the Holy Spirit, but also with biblical teaching about the Church as compared with how history actually unfolded. The question is, can 'our movement' plausibly claim to be the body of Christ, in which he has always been present, which he has continually nourished, which has never been overthrown despite the best efforts of human authorities? That all present-day Christian movements (including non-Trinitarian movements) share a common ancestor in the Nicene Trinitarian church suggests that no non-Trinitarian movement can make such a claim.6

If no non-Trinitarian movement can meet the two criteria that the true body of Christ should have, this casts a dark cloud of suspicion over the legitimacy of non-Trinitarian theology and provides a strong motivation to reopen the question of its biblical basis. Hence, this fourth objection does not address the problem but simply ignores it.

V. The New Testament forewarns about false teachers who would lead the church astray, a problem that had already begun in the apostles' time.

This claim does not directly impact the argument because it has no bearing on the validity of the historical pedigree criterion or the Gamaliel criterion. Indeed, if Nicene Christianity was the fruit of a 'great apostasy' (as some unitarian restorationists would claim), then the only form of Christianity that meets these two criteria is an apostate form, which effectively falsifies Christianity in toto.

New Testament passages that warn about false prophets or false teachers (and there are many) must be balanced against the many passages that promise active divine support for the church through the headship of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the warning passages themselves witness to the robust reaction against false teaching that took place in the early church. Hence, the ecclesiological picture that emerges from the New Testament is not one of gloom and pessimism but of a church that faces daunting challenges within and without but is sustained by her gracious Lord.

Indeed, the writings of second-century, proto-orthodox Church Fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons show a continuation of the apostolic tradition of standing strong against false teachings. Orthodoxy can point to many heresies that arose (fulfilling New Testament predictions) and which were successfully opposed. Thus, the New Testament warnings about false teachers pose no problem for orthodoxy unless we presuppose that 'orthodoxy' is the false teaching about which the New Testament forewarned (which is, of course, circular reasoning).7

Footnotes

  • 1 The other aspect would be the sheer number of such recent movements of which 'our movement' is just one. In view of the numbers, the antecedent probability of 'our movement' having gotten the Bible uniquely right is very low. However, this problem is mitigated if 'our movement' is an ancient movement among a myriad of latecomers to the ecclesiastical scene. In that case, there is a logical basis for distinguishing 'our movement' from its contemporary competitors.
  • 2 Throughout this post, 'catholic' with a lower-case 'c' is used in the sense of 'universal' and 'orthodox' with a lower-case 'o' is used in the sense of 'mainstream, established'. These terms are to be distinguished from the upper-case Catholic and Orthodox which refer respectively to specific ecclesiastical movements/institutions (although the Catholic and Orthodox Churches clearly apply these terms to themselves because they consider themselves to be catholic and orthodox).
  • 3 At a stretch one might claim that some anti-Trinitarian stirrings occurred in the 1400s, e.g. in the writings of Lorenzo Valla, but there does not seem to be evidence from the 15th century of anything that could be called a non-Trinitarian Christian community.
  • 4 Deane, Jennifer Kolpacoff (2011). A History of Medieval Heresy and Inquisition. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield, p. 106.
  • 5 Numerous claims in Eyre's books were criticized by another Christadelphian writer, Ruth McHaffie, in a book called Finding Founders and Facing Facts, which I haven't read and which is unfortunately out of print. Christadelphian apologist Jonathan Burke describes the book as 'exhaustively researched' and states that it demonstrates 'misreading or misrepresentation of a number of [Eyre's] sources, but observes that McHaffie still agreed with Eyre that 'certain Christadelphian beliefs were represented in various historical Christian groups' (Burke, Jonathan (2013). Living on the Edge: Challenges to Faith. Lively Stones Publishing, p. 1 n. 3.) 'Certain Christadelphian beliefs' 'represented in various historical Christian groups' obviously falls far short of the historical claim made in this objection.
  • 6 Unless, that is, it is willing to concede that Nicene Trinitarian Christianity did constitute the household of faith for many centuries, and to call Nicene Trinitarian Christianity its legitimate historical-ecclesiastical parent. In this case two additional questions present themselves: how did a church nourished by Christ hold a grievous doctrinal error as its central creed for many centuries, and how could a 'child movement' repudiate the core doctrines of its legitimate parent?
  • 7 In addition to citing warning passages like Acts 20:29-31 and 2 Tim. 4:3-4, Christadelphians offer a radical interpretation of apocalyptic passages concerning the eschatological 'Antichrist' figure, arguing that such passages predict the political success of 'apostate' Christianity under Constantine and the subsequent rise of the papacy. Space does not allow a discussion of such passages here, but suffice it to say that this reading of biblical apocalyptic has no standing in biblical scholarship, conservative or liberal. I have previously critiqued one particularly egregious error that contributes to this theory, namely the identification of the 'male child' of Rev. 12:5 as a usurping Constantine (in context, the male child clearly denotes Christ). The Constantine interpretation of Rev. 12:5 is so obviously wrong that it raises serious doubts about the competence of its proponents as expositors of Scripture.

Wednesday 3 February 2016

Christadelphian ecclesial deism (2): five counterarguments


This article continues from the previous post on ecclesial deism, which could be defined as a doctrinal position which minimizes present divine activity in the Ecclesia and regards her work as almost exclusively a human responsibility. The previous post emphasized that Christadelphians have traditionally held to a radical version of this ecclesiology as a corollary of their view that the Holy Spirit has been inactive since shortly after the apostles died. We noted that Christadelphian literature tends to take an earthbound view of the Ecclesia, emphasizing what kind of Ecclesia we ought to be without emphasizing what the powerful presence of the Head of the Body of Christ causes the Ecclesia to be.

The last part of the post began a critique of Christadelphian ecclesial deism, noting that it is out of sync with abundant biblical testimony about the perpetual presence of the Holy Spirit and God's ongoing role in building, nourishing and protecting the Ecclesia. It seems to reflect a pessimistic lack of faith concerning Christ's promises to His Bride. There is, quite simply, no biblical warrant for ecclesial deism. In this post we will continue the critique of Christadelphian ecclesial deism with five additional lines of argument.


If we hold that the Ecclesia was established by Christ with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the promise of the Father, which endured throughout the days of the apostles, but that the Holy Spirit ceased operations shortly thereafter, an important theological question we need to answer is why this happened. If Christ loves and nourishes His Ecclesia, why would He have withdrawn this gift? I am aware of two main explanations that have been proposed by Christadelphians. In fact, both of them can be found in the writings of Robert Roberts, although they seem to be mutually exclusive.

The first explanation holds that the Holy Spirit was withdrawn because it was no longer needed. It had been given to get the Ecclesia up and running, so to speak. With the Ecclesia off to a running start and with the apostolic writings having been divinely inspired, the Holy Spirit's work was complete and the gift could safely lapse.

Robert Roberts explains it this way:
If the early churches, consisting of men and women fresh from the abominations and immoralities of heathenism, and without the authoritative standard of the completed Scripture which now exists, had been left to the mere power of apostolic tradition intellectually received, they could not have held together. The winds of doctrine, blowing about through the activity of "men of corrupt minds," would have broken them from their moorings, and they would have been tossed to and fro in the billows of uncertain and conflicting report and opinion, and finally stranded in hopeless shipwreck. This catastrophe was prevented by the gifts of the spirit... In this way the early churches were built up and edified. The work of the apostles was conserved, improved, and carried to a consummation. The faith was completed and consolidated by the voice of inspiration, speaking through the spiritually-appointed leaders of the churches. By this means the results of gospel-preaching in the first century, when there were no railways, telegraphs, or other means of a rapid circulation of ideas, instead of evaporating to nothing, as, otherwise, they would have done, were secured and made permanent, both as regards that generation and succeeding centuries. 
But it must be obvious that the case stands very differently now. There is no manifestation of the Spirit in these days. The power of continuing the manifestation doubtless died with the apostles; not that God could not have transferred it to others, but that He selected them as the channels of its bestowment in their age, and never, so far as we have any evidence, appointed "successors."1
How plausible is this explanation? To begin, Roberts' contrast between converts to Christianity in the apostolic period and thereafter is completely backwards. Firstly, the first generation of Christians was predominantly made up of Jews. It was only toward the end of the first century that the Ecclesia became predominantly Gentile.2 Moreover, scholars who regard Acts as historically accurate generally conclude, like Skarsaune, that 'The Christian mission continued for a long time to work primarily among the God-fearing Gentiles surrounding the Diaspora synagogues.'3 Skarsaune explains how this changed in the second century:
Most of the first Gentile converts to Christianity, the God-fearers, had this break with paganism behind them when they became Christians. In the second century this changed. An increasing number of converts came directly from paganism. They went, so to speak, directly from the ‘table of the demons’ (1 Cor 10:21) to the table of the Lord. This posed a challenge to the growing church.4
To summarize, then, in the apostolic period the Ecclesia was made up largely of (a) Jews, and (b) God-fearing Gentiles, neither of which were 'men and women fresh from the abominations and immoralities of heathenism'. As the apostolic period drew to a close, Gentiles became the majority, and in the second century, the Ecclesia increasingly evangelized 'raw' Gentiles who were still steeped in paganism. Hence, according to Roberts' own reasoning, the second-century Ecclesia needed the Holy Spirit more than the first-century Ecclesia did!

A further contradiction ensues when one recalls that, according to the Christadelphian meta-narrative, the Great Apostasy shifted into high gear in the late first and early second centuries. So it is being claimed on the one hand that the Ecclesia no longer needed the Holy Spirit, and on the other hand that as the Holy Spirit faded, the Ecclesia was progressively engulfed by apostasy.

Nor is it apparent that modern advances in technology have rendered the Holy Spirit surplus to the Ecclesia's requirements, as Roberts suggests. If anything, modern technology has been a secularizing force which has made faith in a theistic God more difficult, augmenting the need for divine activity in the Ecclesia! And in another place, contradicting his position here, Roberts admits that 'It would be an unspeakable source of comfort and strength to see the gift of the Spirit again restored.'

So much for the first explanation (though one aspect of it, that it was specifically the writing of the New Testament that rendered the work of the Holy Spirit complete, will be considered below). Perhaps sensing its weakness, Roberts elsewhere put forth a completely different explanation for why the Holy Spirit was withdrawn:
The apostasy prevailed more and more, as the Apostles, by the Spirit, predicted would be the case (2 Tim. 4: 1-4; 2: 17), until all trace of primitive truth disappeared, and the Spirit of the Lord was withdrawn from all association with an empty Christian name. Whatever genuine profession may have existed since then, has not been honoured by a return of the Spirit's witnessing and governing presence.5
Elsewhere, commenting on the Lord's threat to the ecclesia at Ephesus to 'remove your lampstand out of its place' (Rev. 2:5) unless they repent, Roberts clarifies further:
Oil symbolically used stands for the Spirit of God, as proved in many ways which we need not refer to. The Spirit of God was bestowed upon the ecclesias in the first century. It was this that constituted them the Spirit's candlesticks. Hence the threat was a threat of the withdrawal of the Spirit. The threat was duly carried into effect. The reformation desired did not set in. The Apostasy, which Paul declared to be in active progress before his death, got the upper hand everywhere, and the candlesticks were removed in all senses, since which day, the light of inspiration has been extinct, except in so far as it survives in the writings of the Spirit -- the oracles of God which are to us a treasure beyond price.6
Roberts' second explanation for why the Holy Spirit was withdrawn, then, is that it was a punishment inflicted on the Ecclesia for disobedience and apostasy. We will first consider whether this can be inferred from Revelation 2-3, and then offer some broader objections.

One can begin by observing that oil is never mentioned in Revelation 2-3. The Lord's threat was not to withdraw the oil from the candlestick, but to remove the candlestick. And, as Rev. 1:20 plainly states, 'the seven lampstands are the seven churches'. The threat, then, is not to withdraw the Spirit from the ecclesia but to withdraw the ecclesia itself! And one must not overlook that this threat was issued to one local ecclesia at Ephesus, not to the Ecclesia universally, nor even to these seven ecclesias of Asia. While the tenor of Jesus' letters to the seven ecclesias in Revelation 2-3 is one of rebuke, two of the seven ecclesias addressed (Smyrna and Philadelphia) receive no rebuke at all. Hence, we can conclude that in this passage (i) the threat is not to withdraw the Spirit, but to remove the ecclesia; and (ii) the threat is not to the universal Ecclesia but to one local ecclesia. Of course the Lord Jesus would never threaten to remove the universal Ecclesia, since to do so would renege on His promise that the gates of Hades would not overpower her (Matt. 16:18). Revelation 2-3 provides no evidence that Christ ever threatened to withdraw the Holy Spirit from the Ecclesia, much less that He ever carried out this threat.7

A broader objection is that surely not all ecclesias and believers were apostate. Christadelphians themselves typically maintain that the true body of Christ has persisted as a remnant through all the ages of darkness and apostasy. Thus, while it is entirely plausible that Christ would withdraw the Spirit 'from all association with an empty Christian name' in apostate ecclesias, the punishment explanation offers no plausible reason why Christ should also, at the same time, withdraw the Spirit from all association with the elect remnant that faithfully bore Christ's name! There is just no logic to it.

In view of the implausibility of the two reasons proposed by Robert Roberts, my challenge to hyper-cessationist Christadelphians today is to offer a reasonable explanation for why Christ withdrew the Holy Spirit from His Bride at a time when she was under great duress due to persecution, heresy, and an increasing number of converts directly from paganism.


We have so far discussed the 'why' of the alleged withdrawal of the Holy Spirit from the Ecclesia. What of the 'how'? According to a standard Christadelphian account, only the apostles received the power to transfer the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands. Thus, once the apostles died, no one else could receive the Holy Spirit, and so the Holy Spirit's activity dwindled into nothingness as those on whom the apostles had bestowed the gift gradually died out.

Remarkably, this entire version of events is reconstructed ex silencio from a few passages in Acts that describe the apostles laying their hands on others for the bestowal of the Holy Spirit. Of particular note is Acts 8:17-21:
Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was bestowed through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give this authority to me as well, so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. (NASB)
Hyper-cessationist Christadelphians take 'the Spirit was bestowed through the laying on of the apostles' hands' to be an exclusive, universal statement: the Spirit was only ever bestowed through the laying on of the apostles' hands. But this is to read into the text something that is not there. Indeed, Peter's response offers no hint that Simon's request for this authority was intrinsically impossible because he was not an apostle. Rather, it focuses on the bad state of Simon's heart. Other passages in the New Testament suggest that non-apostles could have the authority to bestow the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands. Paul instructs Timothy not to neglect 'the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed on you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery' (1 Tim. 4:14). While this ordaining body seems to have included the apostle Paul himself (2 Tim. 1:6), the emphasis in this passage is on the presbytery or council of elders, which was surely not made up only of apostles. Moreover, 1 Tim. 5:22 presupposes that Timothy himself, a non-apostle, now had the authority to carry out the rite of the laying on of hands, and the context provides no basis for differentiating this laying on of hands from that which bestowed the Holy Spirit. Finally, the Book of Hebrews, probably not written by an apostle or to apostles, refers to 'instructions about washings and laying on of hands' among the 'elementary teachings' or, to use KJV and traditional Christadelphian language, 'first principles'. This gives the impression that 'laying on of hands' was a widespread practice in the early Ecclesia apart from the apostles themselves.

This Christadelphian argument for the total cessation of the Holy Spirit also rests on the premise that the laying on of hands is the only means by which the Holy Spirit can be bestowed on a person. Yet following the example of Christ, we must regard regeneration in baptism as a work of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19; Mark 1:8-10; John 3:5; 1 Cor. 12:13; Tit. 3:5); hence all Christians have the Holy Spirit poured out in their hearts (Rom. 5:5; 1 Cor. 12:13; 2 Cor. 1:22; 3:3; Gal. 4:6). Much more could be said on this subject, but it is sufficient for us to conclude that the argument from silence offered for the cessation of the Holy Spirit carries no weight, in view of the many, many New Testament passages that presuppose the Holy Spirit as a going concern in the Ecclesia.


If the Christadelphian version of events is true, then after the last apostle died (traditionally understood to be John, c. 100 A.D.), the Ecclesia would have been aware that no further bestowal of the Holy Spirit was possible and that the heavenly gift would cease as soon as those individuals died on whom the apostles had laid their hands. If this were the case, we could reasonably expect Christian writings from the early second century to make reference to: (1) an expectation of the Holy Spirit's withdrawal; and (2) special attention paid to those last remaining individuals who had the Holy Spirit.

In fact, we find nothing of the kind in second century Christian literature. Although there is an awareness of the apostles' uniqueness (which the Ecclesia has always maintained), there is no mention anywhere of the idea that Holy Spirit activity died out with them, or would soon do so. It may be claimed that this is an argument from silence, but one can also point to abundant positive evidence that the post-apostolic Ecclesia regarded the Holy Spirit as still active.

Here is a quick survey of this positive evidence, which ranges in date roughly from the late first century to the middle of the second century. (For dates of individual texts, see my blog series on supernatural evil in the Apostolic Fathers.)
  • The Didache contains a whole section devoted to distinguishing between true and false prophets (chapter 11), which presupposes ongoing prophetic activity
  • The author of 1 Clement refers to the 'full outpouring of the Holy Spirit' that 'came upon everyone' in the Corinthian ecclesia (1 Clement 2.2),8 and later asks, 'Do we not have one God, and one Christ, and one gracious Spirit that has been poured out upon us...?' (1 Clement 46.6). He begins a statement with, 'For as God, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit all live...' (1 Clement 58.2). Near the close of the letter he says, 'For you will make us joyful and happy if you become obedient to what we have written through the Holy Spirit and excise the wanton anger expressed through your jealousy' (1 Clement 63.2).
  • In his Epistle to Polycarp, Ignatius of Antioch instructs Polycarp to pray that the invisible things may be revealed to him and that he may 'abound in every gracious gift (charismatos)' (2.2). In the prescript of the Epistle to the Philadelphians Ignatius asserts that the bishop, presbyters and deacons are 'those who have been securely set in place by his [Jesus Christ's] Holy Spirit according to his own will'. In his Epistle to the Ephesians Ignatius uses the following metaphor: 'For you are being carried up to the heights by the crane of Jesus Christ, which is the cross, using as a cable the Holy Spirit' (9.1). He also describes his relationship with the bishop in Ephesus as 'an intimacy that was not human but spiritual' (5.1).9
  • The Epistle of Barnabas opens thus: 'So great and abundant are the righteous acts of God toward you that I am exceedingly overjoyed, beyond measure, by your blessed and glorious spirits. For you have received such a measure of his grace planted within you, the spiritual gift! And so I share your joy all the more within myself [Or: I congratulate myself all the more], hoping to be saved; for truly I see that, in your midst, the Spirit has been poured out upon you from the abundance of the Lord's fountain' (Barnabas 1.2-1.3) Later, having emphasized that the habitation of our heart was formerly a house of demons, the writer states that now, 'God truly resides within our place of dwelling - within us' (Barnabas 16.8).
  • The Martyrdom of Polycarp reports that when Polycarp, at his martyrdom, was stabbed with a dagger, a dove came out (16.1). In view of the story of Jesus' baptism, this is probably to be understood as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.10 
  • The Shepherd of Hermas contains clear references to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in Mandates 5.1.2-5.1.3, 5.2.5-5.2.6, 10.2.5, 11.1.8-11.1.9. For instance, 'For if you are patient, the holy spirit that dwells in you will be pure and will not be overshadowed by another, evil spirit; but dwelling in a broad place it will rejoice and be glad with the vessel it inhabits, and it will serve God with great cheerfulness, flourishing in itself. But if any irascibility should enter in, immediately the holy spirit, which is sensitive, feels cramped; and not having a pure place it seeks to leave.' (Hermas, Mandates 5.1.2-5.1.3; cf. Mandates 5.2.5-5.2.6, 10.2.5).11 The Visions and Similitudes  sections of the work consists of revelations which the author claimed to have received in the Spirit.
  • The Epistle to Diognetus says, 'This is the eternal one who "today" is considered to be the Son, through whom the church is enriched and unfolding grace is multiplied among the saints. This grace provides understanding, manifests mysteries, proclaims the seasons, rejoices in the faithful, and is given to those who seek, among whom pledges of faith are not broken and the boundaries of the fathers are not transgressed' (Diognetus 11.5)
  • Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue with Trypho, tells Trypho, 'You should realize from the fact that among us Christians the charisms of prophecy exist down to the present day that the gifts that previously resided among your people have now been transferred to us' (Dialogue 82.1),12 and, 'Now if you look around, you can see among us Christians both male and female endowed with charisms from the Spirit of God.' (Dialogue 88.1)13
  • There are some second century writings, such as 2 Clement and Polycarp's Epistle to the Philippians, that make no unambiguous mention of the Holy Spirit (though see Polycarp Philippians 5.3). However, we can no more interpret this silence as a belief that the Holy Spirit had lapsed than we can interpret the Epistle of James' silence as a belief that the Holy Spirit had lapsed in the first century.
There is thus abundant evidence that Christians soon after the apostolic period held a robust belief in the continuing activity of the Holy Spirit, with no hint of expectation that this activity would soon cease. Of course, some Christadelphians may want to claim that these writers were all apostate and deceived, but such persons ought to admit that their hyper-cessationist views cannot be found in early Christian texts.


As we saw in the previous post, Christadelphians have taught that the definitive product of the Holy Spirit's activity in the first century was the New Testament, and that once this was written, the Holy Spirit was no longer needed. As Robert Roberts stated in the passage quoted above, the early Ecclesia needed the Spirit because they lacked 'the authoritative standard of the completed Scripture which now exists'. Hinton wrote that 'Within two generations from the apostles, the New Testament had been written, and the purpose for which the Holy Spirit was given had been accomplished', while Crawford explains, '1 Cor. 13:10 demonstrates that the manifestations of the Holy Spirit mentioned in 1 Cor. 12 "will be done away", i.e. when the canon was completed.' The Agora Bible Commentary, by Christadelphian George Booker, comments on 1 Cor. 13:10:
The canon of Scripture was completed in first century. Therefore, the main purpose of Holy Spirit (i.e. to produce and confirm inspired Bible) was accomplished.
One can note in passing that Booker provides no evidence for his claim that the production and confirmation of the Bible was the main purpose of the Holy Spirit (or for the implicit corollary that once the Bible was complete, the Holy Spirit was surplus to requirements). However, it is important that Booker here acknowledges that not only the production but also the confirmation of the biblical canon was the work of the Holy Spirit. Hence, by Booker's own admission, we must conclude that the Holy Spirit was active in the Ecclesia until the complete New Testament canon was confirmed. The all-important question, then, is when this occurred.

It may be granted that all the individual books that now form the New Testament were produced (i.e. written) by the first century, according to the traditional dating. However, the development from individual books to 'the authoritative standard of the completed Scripture' was a gradual process. The exact details of this process remain a subject of much debate among scholars.14 Du Toit describes the general contours of this process according to four stages:
Phase 1 ('latter part of first century CE'): 'Creation of various early Christian documents'
Phase 2 ('roughly from the close of the first century to the middle of the second'): 'Growing recognition of the normative character and collection into groups of a basic number of writings'
Phase 3 ('ca. mid-second century to 190 CE'): 'The New Testament canon becomes a reality... by now the idea of the canon has materialized; its broad base is fixed, but uncertainty still exists over the books on its periphery'
Phase 4 ('ca. 190-400 CE'): 'The closing of the canon'15
It may be eye opening to some Christadelphians to know how little use the Apostolic Fathers (writing from the late first to mid second centuries) made of the New Testament writings. The standard work in this respect is still The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers (NTAF, which is in the public domain), published in 1905,16 although contemporary scholarship is more conservative about attributing New Testament parallels in the Apostolic Fathers to direct literary dependence.17 NTAF helpfully provides a fourfold classification system which classifies the use of a New Testament book in an Apostolic Father as 'A' (beyond reasonable doubt), 'B' (highly probable), 'C' (less probable), and 'D' (possibly, but without reliable evidence).18 NTAF further provides a helpful table in the appendix giving the authors' results for each Apostolic Father. Consider these below, remembering that contemporary scholarship would be more conservative:
Barnabas: B - Rom.; C - Eph., Heb.; D - Matt., 1 & 2 Cor., Col., 1 & 2 Tim., Tit., 1 Pet.; Unclassed - Luke, John, Rev.
Didache: B - Synoptic tradition; C? - Matthew; D - Luke, 1 Cor., 1 Pet.; D? - Acts, Rom.; Unclassed: John, Heb., Jude.
1 Clement: A - Rom., 1 Cor., Heb.; C - Acts, Tit.; D - 2 Cor., Gal., Phil., Col., 1 Tim., 1 Pet., 1 John, Apoc.
Ignatius: A - 1 Cor.; B - Matt., John, Eph.; C - Rom., 2 Cor. (?), Gal., Phil., 1 & 2 Tim., Tit.; D - Mark (?), Luke, Acts, Col., 1 & 2 Thess. (?), Philem. (?), Heb., 1 Pet.
Polycarp: A - 1 Cor., 1 Pet.; B - Rom., 2 Cor., Gal., Eph., Phil., 2 Thess., 1 & 2 Tim.; C - John, Acts, Heb., 1 John; D - Col.
Hermas: B - 1 Cor., Eph.; C - Matt., Mark, Heb., Jas; D - Luke, John, Acts, Rom., 1 Thess., 1 Pet.
2 Clement: C - Matt., Heb.; D - Luke, 1 Cor., Eph., Jas, 1 Pet.; Unclassed: Rom., 1 Tim., 2 Pet., Jude19
Of course, absence of evidence that a writer knew a New Testament book is not proof of the writer's ignorance of that book. However, it is clear that these leading Christians in the late first through mid second centuries were not writing with anything remotely like a 27-book New Testament open next to them.

It is apparent that something approaching our New Testament was in place by the late second century (particularly if the widely held but disputed second-century date for the Muratorian fragment is correct). Indeed,
The specific designation “New Testament” for Christian Scripture began to be used in the late second century, as the church began to select those documents that bore authentic witness to God’s act in Christ.20
However, the earliest extant listing of the 27 books which now form the New Testament canon occurs in a letter from Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, in 367 A.D.21 (Yes, this is the same Athanasius who was a passionate defender of Trinitarian orthodoxy.) He is also the earliest writer to use the Greek word for 'canon' with reference to that list. The earliest extant listing of our 27-book New Testament in a communal decision comes from the regional Council of Carthage in 397 A.D. In other words, the earliest date when we could plausibly say the New Testament canon was complete and normative is the end of the fourth century.22 23 Hence, by Booker's reasoning, we are required to conclude that the Holy Spirit was active in the Ecclesia - specifically, the catholic Ecclesia - until at least the end of the fourth century.

This highlights two fundamental inconsistencies in the Christadelphian account of early Christian history. The first inconsistency is the claim that, on the one hand, the Holy Spirit ceased to be active in the Ecclesia by the mid second century but that, on the other hand, the New Testament canon that was set around the end of the fourth century infallibly defines the boundaries of Scripture.24 The foundational article of the Christadelphian Statement of Faith takes the canon of Scripture as an a priori:
That the book currently known as the Bible, consisting of the Scriptures of Moses, the prophets, and the apostles, is the only source of knowledge concerning God and His purposes at present extant or available in the earth, and that the same were wholly given by inspiration of God in the writers, and are consequently without error in all parts of them, except such as may be due to errors of transcription or translation.25
This proposition cites several Scripture passages in support (2 Tim. 3:16; 1 Cor. 2:13; Heb. 1:1; 2 Pet. 1:21; 1 Cor. 14:37; Neh. 9:30; John 10:35), but none of these passages tell us which books constitute 'Scripture'. None of them prove that Scripture consists exactly of 'the book currently known as the Bible'. Hence, Booker rightly asserted that the Holy Spirit needed not only to produce the books of the Bible but also to confirm them; and this confirmation, as we have seen, was only completed in the fourth century at the earliest. Christadelphians must either deny the infallibility of the New Testament canon, or else must affirm that the Holy Spirit was active in the Ecclesia at least until the late fourth century.

The second fundamental inconsistency in the Christadelphian account of early Christian history is this: on the one hand, Christadelphians accept as infallible the New Testament canon as first mentioned in the second half of the fourth century (by a Trinitarian bishop). On the other hand, Christadelphians assert that the Ecclesia was hopelessly apostate long before the fourth century (the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. being regarded as a particularly egregious embrace of apostate doctrine). Hence, Christadelphians accept a canon that, in their view, was defined by an apostate Ecclesia that had long since abandoned the essentials of the gospel. Again, Christadelphians are faced with a difficult choice. They must either deny the infallibility of the New Testament canon, or else must affirm that the Holy Spirit was active in the Ecclesia in the late fourth century, in which case they can hardly regard the fourth century Ecclesia as apostate. It would be arbitrary to claim that the Holy Spirit guided the fourth century Ecclesia to an infallibly correct definition of the New Testament canon but allowed the fourth century Ecclesia to completely misunderstand its contents.

Having looked at these historical issues, the bottom line is this: one cannot have ecclesial deism of the Christadelphian variety and also have a divinely sanctioned New Testament canon. Logically, one must allow either for Holy Spirit activity in the Ecclesia through the fourth century, with all that this entails, or else one must give up the foundation on which the entire Christadelphian Statement of Faith rests - the idea of an infallible New Testament canon.26

Besides the logical inconsistencies in the Christadelphian narrative of early Christian history, there is an additional theological problem that should be mentioned. The Christadelphian narrative implies the existence of a 'dark age' during which the Ecclesia had neither the Holy Spirit nor a canonical New Testament. This state of affairs would have existed from the time when the Holy Spirit passed off the scene (mid second century) until the canon was effectively closed (late fourth century). The problem would have been particularly acute in the mid second century when the Holy Spirit was extinct and yet even the idea of a New Testament canon had not yet developed (as far as we have evidence). It is as though the Lord abandoned His Bride for a time; and this abandonment had devastating effects, since - according to the Christadelphian paradigm - this was precisely the time when the great apostasy became entrenched in the catholic Ecclesia.


If the Bible 'is the only source of knowledge concerning God and His purposes at present extant or available in the earth', as the BASF asserts, then how can one know that one's theological understanding of the Bible is correct? This question is very pertinent given the proliferation of competing, mutually exclusive doctrinal systems, particularly over the past two centuries. The ecclesial deism paradigm is closed to answers given by Protestants (one can know through the internal witness of the Holy Spirit) and Catholics (one can know through submission to a visible, divinely sanctioned ecclesiastical authority). In fact, in answering this question the ecclesial deist can appeal to no higher authority than himself. I can be as confident in the soundness of my theology as I am confident in my own intellectual prowess and honesty. Indeed, if I am confident in my theology, it is perfectly reasonable for me to boast about it (and I may even give my magnum opus the title, 'I have found it', Eureka!, like any other natural scientist might.)

We noted in the previous post how Robert Roberts emphasized Dr. Thomas' natural qualities as a major factor in his rediscovery of the Truth. For an ecclesial deist to cross the hermeneutical bridge from Scripture to theology, it is necessary to put confidence in man - whether that man is oneself, Dr. Thomas, or someone else. When asked if we understand the Scriptures, we are not allowed to ask, with the Ethiopian eunuch, 'Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?' (Acts 8:30 NASB) We must simply study harder, and avoid the fatal risk of wresting the Scriptures (2 Peter 3:16) apparently through sheer willpower.

It should be clear that the epistemology of ecclesial deism is radically humanistic, and it ultimately confronts the seeker of divine truth with one of two options. The first option is to elevate myself, regarding my own interpretations of Scripture as more trustworthy than anyone else's. If I want to maintain that I understand the true gospel while the vast majority of professing Christians do not, and yet that the true gospel is understood through a purely human process of reflective Bible study, then I must either maintain that my own intellectual qualities are extraordinarily good, or that the intellectual qualities of the masses are extraordinarily bad while mine are ordinary. Either way, I am elevating myself relative to the masses. This is theological narcissism or elitism.

The second option is a retreat from dogma. Why is this? If I am unwilling to elevate myself, then I cannot be confident that my theology is sound. Neither, for that matter, can anyone else, since all are in the same boat. Hence, if I am to maintain my Christian profession, I must assert that sound theology really doesn't matter. All Jesus cares about is our sincere belief in an absolute minimum of the gospel, and/or our character. Theologizing beyond that is at best an interesting hobby and at worst a Pharisaical distraction. However, given the widespread concerns about false doctrine in the New Testament, it is clear that sound theology matters to Jesus.

In short, for the hyper-cessationist, the ecclesial deist, there is no logical basis for being theologically humble and confident at the same time.


In this article, following on the brief critique of ecclesial deism in the previous article, we have given five reasons why ecclesial deism is biblically, historically, and epistemologically untenable. To recap: (1) Ecclesial deists are unable to provide a principled, internally consistent reason why the Holy Spirit should have become inactive in the early Ecclesia. (2) The New Testament did not teach that the Holy Spirit would become inactive. (3) Second century Christians, as exemplified by the Apostolic Fathers, continue to presuppose the activity of the Holy Spirit and do not show the slightest awareness that the gift had ceased or would soon cease. (4) Ecclesial deists have no epistemological basis for maintaining an authoritative New Testament canon, since the canon was defined at a time when, according to the narrative of ecclesial deism, the Holy Spirit had ceased and the Ecclesia had been almost totally corrupted. (5) An ecclesial deist cannot appeal his/her interpretation of Scripture to any higher authority than his/her own natural intellect. Hence, one must either elevate oneself, or belittle others, or both.

Hopefully the reader is convinced that ecclesial deism is not a viable ecclesiology, just as hyper-cessationism is not a viable pneumatology. If Jesus is Lord, then the Holy Spirit must be active in His Ecclesia until the end of the age, just as He promised. I would like to make an appeal to Christadelphian readers who find themselves in agreement with the previous sentence. You belong to a sect founded on a very specific theological system. The founders of the sect, Dr. John Thomas and Robert Roberts, were emphatic proponents of hyper-cessationism and ecclesial deism, among other distinctive theological positions. If you now acknowledge they were seriously mistaken in this area of their theology, might it not be time for a more critical look at other aspects of Christadelphian theology? After all, by their own testimony, the founders of this system were not led by the Spirit in their interpretation of Scripture.


Footnotes

  • 1 Roberts, Robert. Christendom Astray
  • 2 'One of the remarkable features of the early church was its transition from a Jewish Christianity to a Gentile Christianity in the Greco-Roman world. Jesus himself, of course, was a Jew, deeply rooted in the faith and traditions of his people. The earliest believers after the resurrection were Jews, natives of Palestine and inhabitants of the diaspora. But it was not long before there were evangelizing efforts among those who were not Jews... In the course of the first century the Christian church moved from its Jewish Christian beginnings to become a new and distinct religion, predominantly Gentile, seeking to find a place in the Greco-Roman world.' (Cwiekowski, Frederick J. (1988). The Beginnings of the Church. Mahwah: Paulist Press, p. 199)
  • 3 Skarsaune, Oskar. (2002). In the shadow of the temple: Jewish influences on early Christianity. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, p. 83.
  • 4 op. cit., p. 228
  • 5 Roberts, Robert. A Guide to the Formation and Conduct of Christadelphian Ecclesias.
  • 6 Roberts, Robert. Thirteen Lectures on the Apocalypse, p. 17
  • 7 It seems that the threat was not carried out even in the case of Ephesus, since this ecclesia is the recipient of a letter from Ignatius of Antioch only a few years or decades later.
  • 8 Unless otherwise indicated, translations of Apostolic Fathers passages are from Ehrman, Bart D. (2003). The Apostolic Fathers (2 vols.). Harvard: Cambridge University Press.
  • 9 See also Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians 17.2.
  • 10 See also Martyrdom of Polycarp 7.3.
  • 11 Similarly, 'The holy spirit does not speak when the person wants to speak, but when God wants him to speak. When, then, the person who has the divine spirit comes into a gathering of upright men who have the faith of the divine spirit, and a petition comes to God from the upright men who are gathered together, then the angel of the prophetic spirit lying upon that person fills him; and once he is filled, that one speaks in the holy spirit to the congregation, just as the Lord desires. In this way the divine spirit will be evident to you. This, then, is the kind of power that the divine spirit of the Lord has.' (Hermas, Mandates 11.1.8-10)
  • 12 trans. Slusser, Michael. (ed.). (2003). St. Justin Martyr: Dialogue with Trypho: translated by Thomas B. Falls, revised and with a new introduction by Thomas P. Halton. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, p. 128).
  • 13 trans. Slusser, op. cit., p. 137.
  • 14 'The question of how, when, and why the New Testament came into being – a firmly delimited collection of precisely 27 documents – is still very much in dispute among biblical scholars and church historians.' (Gamble, Harry. (2004). Literacy, Liturgy, and the Shaping of the New Testament Canon. In Charles Horton (Ed.), The Origins and Transmission of the Earliest Christian Gospels – The Contribution of the Chester Beatty Gospel Codex P45 (pp. 27-39). London: T&T Clark International, p. 35).
  • 15 Du Toit, Andrie B. (1993). Canon. In Bruce M. Metzger & Michael David Coogan (Eds.), The Oxford Companion to the Bible (pp. 98-104). Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 102-103.
  • 16 A Committee of the Oxford Society of Historical Theology. (1905). The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • 17 Williams, in a review of a more recent work entitled The Reception of the New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers, notes that 'As would be expected, they generally find fewer certain references of the NT in the Apostolic Fathers' than the 1905 volume (Williams III, H. Drake. (2009). Review of Gregory & Tuckett, eds. ‘The Receptionof the New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers’. Themelios, 34(2), 232-234; here p. 233.)
  • 18 The NTAF description of the classification system is as follows: 'It was decided to arrange the books of the New Testament in four classes, distinguished by the letters A, B, C, and D, according to the degree of probability of their use by the several authors. Class A includes those books about which there can be no reasonable doubt, either because they are expressly mentioned, or because there are other certain indications of their use. Class B comprises those books the use of which, in the judgement of the editors, reaches a high degree of probability. With class C we come to a lower degree of probability ; and in class D are placed those books which may possibly be referred to, but in regard to which the evidence appeared too uncertain to allow any reliance to be placed upon it.' (op. cit., p. iii.)
  • 19 op. cit., p. 137.
  • 20 Boring, M. Eugene & Craddock, Fred B. (2009). The People’s New Testament Commentary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 2. Clark-Soles similarly notes, 'By the end of the 2nd century, many of the New Testament books in the canon today were being used scripturally' (Clark-Soles, Jaime. (2010). Engaging the Word: The New Testament and the Christian Believer. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 91).
  • 21 This letter is 'most widely remembered... for its inclusion of an inventory of the 27 books of the New Testament that is the first mention of the canonical list as it has been used ever since. It also features the earliest use of a form of the Greek word for "canon" applied to that list.' (Gallagher, Eugene V. (2014). Reading and Writing Scripture in New Religious Movements. New York: Palmgrave McMillan, p. 1.
  • 22 Debate still continued thereafter, in some quarters, for several centuries; and no ecumenical, magisterial pronouncement on the canon of Scripture was made until the Council of Trent in the 16th century.
  • 23 'The North African Council of Carthage in 397 CE asked for Rome's approval of the list. So, by the close of the 4th century, we have our New Testament. However, not all Christian congregations and individuals agreed with that list or ceased using other books that they had considered authoritative.' (Clark-Soles, op. cit.)
  • 24 I have not dealt with the issue of the Old Testament canon here, since Christadelphians might plausibly claim that this was fixed by the end of the first century.
  • 25 The Christadelphian pioneers, Dr. John Thomas and Robert Roberts, seem never to have opened the canon to any serious scrutiny.
  • 26 An objection that might be raised is that the New Testament canon is somehow self-evident. But if this was not the case for the early Ecclesia (as evinced by the gradual development of the canon, the extensive debate that took place over certain books, and the adoption of narrower or wider canons in, for example, the Nestorian and Ethiopian churches), it is unclear why it should be the case today.