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

Sunday 6 December 2020

Dale Tuggy and the Stages of Trinitarian Commitment

Prof. Dale Tuggy, a philosopher of religion and unitarian apologist, released a podcast episode a couple of months ago entitled, The Stages of Trinitarian Commitment, based on a talk he had given at a Restoration Fellowship theological conference (available on YouTube).1 I am familiar with Tuggy's Trinities podcast, but not a regular listener; this episode came to my attention when he posted it in a Christadelphian Facebook group to which I belong.

In the talk, Tuggy describes six stages through which one might progress from an ignorant Trinitarian to an enlightened unitarian.2 While he draws extensively on his own personal experience, Tuggy does not regard his six stages as merely a personal journey. His talk is sociological in nature, and the six stages are implied to be a normative trajectory of Christian intellectual experience. Tuggy allows that not everyone follows the path exactly as he did. Some hunker down along the way and do not progress, some skip stages; occasionally someone regresses.

What then are the six stages? They are: 
1. paper “trinitarian” 
2. defender of “the Trinity” 
3. interpreter of “the Trinity” 
4. Berean trinitarian 
5. “trinitarian” ex-trinitarian 
6. unitarian Christian
To summarise briefly, a paper trinitarian is what most professing Christians in the world are. They are Trinitarians because they belong to a religious group with a Trinitarian confessional stance, but are both uninformed and bewildered about what the doctrine actually means. A trinitarian defender is one who has learned just enough about the Trinity to defend it, and does so aggressively and uncharitably, enjoying the status that comes with being a self-appointed apologist. A trinitarian interpreter is one who has delved more deeply into the philosophical underpinnings of the doctrine, and attached him/herself to one of the different models used to rationalise the doctrine's intrinsic paradox (social Trinity, psychological Trinity, etc.) One becomes a Berean trinitarian when, frustrated with the pitfalls of the philosophical models, one resolves to honestly investigate whether the Trinity is biblical. A 'trinitarian' ex-trinitarian is one who is now convinced that the Trinity is false, but resists exiting his/her trinitarian denomination to embrace unitarian Christianity, due to the attractiveness of being accepted within the "Trinity club," which keeps hold of its members with the help of a "culture of fear." Finally, when the theological traveler musters up the courage to openly accept what s/he already knew to be true, s/he becomes a unitarian Christian and has arrived at the summit of the climb.


Below are a few comments on the particular stages followed by an evaluation of the model as a whole. Firstly, just because a Trinitarian Christian is neither an apologist nor a philosopher does not mean s/he is a mere paper trinitarian. One who has been catechised in orthodox Christian doctrine and accepts the teaching in good faith is not a mere dupe for being unable to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity in philosophical language. The same is true of other doctrines. Would we consider a fellow Christian to be a 'paper theist' because s/he is unable to give a philosophically sound account of the classical arguments for God's existence? A 'paper eschatologist' because s/he cannot offer a compelling account of what eternity means in terms of philosophy of time? Moreover, the doctrine of the Trinity is not necessarily esoteric or irrelevant for Christians of the non-apologist, non-philosopher variety. Anyone can intuitively appreciate the significance of the notion that loving communion characterises God's own inner life, a loving communion that we have been created to share in and extend to others. The doctrine of the Trinity leads immediately to a purpose and mission for the believer's life.

Concerning the trinitarian defender stage, there surely are Trinitarian apologists more notable for their arrogance and aggression than the substance of their arguments. However, any apologist or polemicist is susceptible to arrogance, aggression, and substandard argumentation; this human weakness has nothing to do with Trinitarianism. I can attest that there are unitarian apologists out there whose arrogance matches their ignorance, for I used to be one! Similarly, an aversion to philosophically rigorous description of doctrines is not a Trinitarian disease. I grew up in a unitarian community where 'philosophy' was often used as a byword (e.g., with recourse to Colossians 2:8); some members considered philosophy per se to be bad. (On early Christian use of Greek philosophy, see here.) Bottom line: Trinitarians certainly have no monopoly on low-quality apologetics. The personal shortcomings that all too often compromise the work of amateur apologists is a result of their human weakness, not their Trinitarian ideology.

Concerning the trinitarian interpreter stage, all of the examples Tuggy mentions here (including himself) are of professional philosophers or philosophical theologians. This is hardly a normative phase of Christian intellectual development! There are relatively few Christians who obtain formal qualifications in philosophy, but of those who do, many remain Trinitarian. Is it charitable to assume that such Trinitarians have merely 'hunkered down' with their unsatisfactory ideas while the eventual unitarian progresses further?

Concerning the Berean trinitarian stage, Tuggy explicitly characterises it in terms of being a 'true Protestant,' living out the sola Scriptura ideal. In so doing, he completely ignores Catholic and Orthodox approaches to doctrine. His sociological model has no room for epistemologies other than his own Protestant one.

As with the trinitarian defender stage, Tuggy's comments on the 'trinitarian' ex-trinitarian stage characterise phenomena that are common in many areas of religious experience as specific to Trinitarianism. One in the midst of any crisis of religious belief is likely to experience psychological stress (e.g., cognitive dissonance) as one grapples with the disconnect between one's own inner convictions and those of one's peers. There is a temptation to suppress one's convictions in order to preserve the stability of one's social and religious life. This is as true for a person contemplating a unitarian-to-Trinitarian shift as for the reverse, as I can personally attest.

The biggest problem with Tuggy's six-stage model, however, is not that he has inadequately described particular stages, but that he has apparently neglected to consider that some people follow completely different trajectories in their Trinitarian commitment. Below, I describe the trajectory that I have followed—by way of illustration and not to suggest that my experience is normative or objectively better than others'.

My Own Stages of Trinitarian Commitment

I would characterise my own stages of Trinitarian commitment thus:
1. Naïve unitarian
2. unitarian apologist
3. Doubt and apathy
4. Investigation and indecision
5. catholic Trinitarian
I was raised as a Christadelphian, and it was a central feature of communal religious life not only to be a unitarian but to be an anti-Trinitarian. That the doctrine of the Trinity was not merely false but nonsensical was mentioned frequently and emphatically. The doctrine was regularly misrepresented in public talks as affirming polytheism, denying Jesus' humanity, or maintaining that Jesus prayed to himself. My assumption was that the idea of the Trinity simply did not deserve serious thought, and so the notion that it might be true never crossed my mind. I was a naïve unitarian.

Although the Trinity was an obviously ridiculous idea, many Trinitarians evidently did not know this, and so it was a noble undertaking to dispel their ignorance and show them the truth. Thus, in my middle teens I became an online Christadelphian apologist, wrangling away the hours on Internet forums and starting my own apologetics website. My apologetics modus operandi consisted largely of proof-texting and lacked serious engagement with opposing arguments. I was a unitarian apologist.

Gradually, having encountered some coherent Trinitarian arguments (both online and in books), I came to appreciate that the case for unitarianism wasn't open-and-shut. I felt my first real pangs of doubt about the position I had always assumed to be the obvious truth. This was part of a larger crisis of conviction about Christianity itself, and for awhile I lost interest in Christian doctrine, while still outwardly practicing the Christadelphian religion. I had fallen into doubt and apathy.

In time, my faith in the basic truth of Christianity (e.g., the salvific death and resurrection of Jesus) returned, and with it a zeal for studying the Scriptures and thinking about Christian doctrine. I became firmly convinced on biblical grounds that Christ personally pre-existed and was in some sense divine, and it was clear that I could no longer uphold the dogmatic unitarianism of Christadelphians. I gradually withdrew from the Christadelphian community while exploring other, mainly Evangelical, religious communities. Yet I could not wholeheartedly embrace Trinitarian dogma either; I just did not see the doctrine laid out clearly in Scripture. I conceived of the Trinity as a plausible but ultimately man-made attempt to make sense of biblical revelation. I thought I could address my indecision through further study, so I undertook a formal degree programme in theology. This was a period of indecision and investigation.

Today, I am a dogmatic Trinitarian (for a fuller account of my journey to orthodoxy, see here). However, I did not reach this stage primarily through study of the biblical testimony about God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Instead, I experienced a paradigm shift in ecclesiology and epistemology. My ecclesiological presuppositions had always been that it is the prerogative and duty of each individual to figure out doctrinal truth for oneself by studying the Bible; what the Church had decided in ecumenical councils carried no weight whatsoever as these councils were just deliberations of flawed humans. However, I have since come to take more seriously the role of the Holy Spirit in preserving the true faith in the Church, despite the flaws of its human members. That the doctrine of the Trinity was promulgated by the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople and has stood as the touchstone of Christian orthodoxy ever since cannot merely be waved aside. If I am critical of the judgment of flawed humans, why in the world should I trust in my own judgment to arrive at doctrinal truth?

Together with my ecclesiological paradigm shift, my epistemological assumptions also changed. I found sola Scriptura to be biblically and historically untenable, and concluded that God must have provided a living voice to authoritatively interpret his revelation. Eventually, I reached the conclusion that the Magisterium of the Catholic Church had the most credible claim to be the successor of the apostles in this respect. Finally, John Henry Cardinal Newman's ideas on the development of Christian doctrine—that doctrine is not static and dead but dynamic and living, that the Church matures in its understanding of the deposit of faith—provided me with a framework for understanding how the doctrine of the Trinity might be central to the Christian faith despite appearing in Scripture only embryonically.

Concluding Thoughts

Dale Tuggy has described his stages of Trinitarian commitment, and I have now described mine, which have proceeded in opposite directions in relation to the doctrine itself. There is, however, some common ground: both trajectories began with a naïve position, followed by an overstated dogmatism, then a crisis of conviction, and ultimately settling on a new position. Perhaps this suggests a more general sociological model than that proposed by Tuggy. Of course, the stages of commitment that one follows are subjective and independent of the objective truth of one's original or final commitments. Hopefully, whatever position one ultimately takes on the doctrine of the Trinity, one takes it with some nuance and with great respect for those who, in good faith, arrive at a different position. All of us, indeed, "know partially" (1 Cor. 13:9), and depend on the mercy of God for our shortcomings, both moral and intellectual.

  • 1 Tuggy recommends that podcast listeners check out the YouTube version to benefit from the slides. I listened to the audio while at the gym, and just checked out a couple of slides on YouTube to make sure I had correctly identified the six stages.
  • 2 I use the small-u unitarian to distinguish the theological position from Unitarian denominations.

Wednesday 23 August 2017

Two Christadelphians, Two Evangelicals and Two Catholics answer Seven Epistemological Questions

Introducing the Respondents
Seven Epistemological Questions and Responses


Readers familiar with my account of my journey from Christadelphianism to Evangelicalism to Catholicism will be aware of the role that epistemology has played in my thinking about Christian doctrine. I define epistemology in this context as the study of how we arrive at doctrines worthy of belief or how we distinguish dogma from opinion. It occurred to me that an interesting way of highlighting the epistemological differences between Christadelphians, Evangelicals and Catholics would be to ask members of each group to answer some questions specifically designed to highlight these epistemological differences. So I did. I drew up seven questions (along with some sub-questions) and invited two Christadelphians, two Evangelicals and two Catholics to answer them. These questions and their answers are reproduced verbatim below for the reader's perusal, without any commentary. The purpose of this exercise is not necessarily to show who is right and who is wrong, but to place the different views in sharp relief, side by side. By doing so, I hope that when Christadelphians, Evangelicals and Catholics engage in theological dialogue they will better understand their interlocutor's position and be more introspective about their own.

A few caveats are in order before getting to the respondents and the questions. This is a small, ad hoc, qualitative project. I do not claim that the respondents are statistically representative of their respective religious groups, nor did I make any effort to achieve demographic representativeness (thus, for instance, the respondents are all Anglophone males!) The respondents were handpicked as people I knew on some level whom I thought might be interested in participating and whom I consider to be theologically knowledgeable. The respondents do not claim to be authorized spokesmen for their religious communities. Hence, we do not necessarily have here "the Christadelphian view," "the Evangelical view" and "the Catholic view." We have the views of six individuals, which are however informed to a high degree by these individuals' respective religious affiliations. (Perhaps, as an exercise, the reader can reflect on how s/he would have expressed his/her answers to these questions.) I should also note that none of the respondents saw each other's answers, so they are not directly in dialogue with each other's viewpoints. Finally, a plea to the reader: these six contributors were brave enough to publicly express their answers to these seven challenging epistemological questions. If you choose to comment on any of their answers, please do so in a respectful manner. You may wish to refer to my rules of engagement for online theological discussions for suggestions on how to do this.

Introducing the Respondents

Let me extend my sincere thanks to the six respondents who took time out of their busy lives to offer their views on some challenging theological issues. When quoting the responses in the next section I will use respondents' initials, so I will introduce each respondent by their initials here for easy reference. I asked each respondent to provide some brief biographical information for context.1

DB: Dave Burke was born and raised in a Christadelphian family and is still a member of the Christadelphian community. He is married to Liz, with two children (Johanna and Thomas) and resides in Adelaide, Australia where he works as a freelance business writer. He has 22 years of public speaking and pastoral experience. He is currently studying a Bachelor of Theology degree at a non-denominational Christian university college, and has recently published a guide to Bible study entitled Servants of the Lord: A Bible Study Handbook, which can be purchased from Amazon. Dave maintains an active web presence: see his Academia.edu page, a Facebook page on Christian Origins that he maintains, and two websites to which he is a contributor: Milk to Meat and living-faith.org.2

MM: Mike Macdonald has worked in Banking for 14 years and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Marketing. He and his family reside in the Finger Lakes area of New York. Mike was raised as a Christadelphian, though his parents were not; their family had a Catholic background and they began attending a Christadelphian ecclesia as adults and were eventually baptized. Mike holds beliefs that align with the Unamended community.3 Mike has attended 3 different ecclesias,4 been to many different Bible schools and gatherings,5 and has read from and communicated with many different brothers and sisters of varying beliefs (including from the Amended community), as well as with those of varying religious groups outside of Christadelphia. The website of Mike’s home ecclesia can be found here.6

DD: Derick Dickens is a professor, business leader, Ph.D. student, husband and father who resides in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, USA. Ordained in 1999 to the Gospel Ministry, Derick has written for several organizations including his own blogs, various news publications, and the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Hoping to begin work on his dissertation in a year, Derick’s passion outside of the Bible is Leadership Development, Human Resource Management, and Cultural Engagement. Derick is best known for his humorous speech, “Fun at the DMV” where he won several awards. In 1998, Derick married Lacie where they set off Pastoring Churches, gaining more education, and refining his theology. His theological interests include ecclesiology, soteriology, historic theology, Presuppositional Apologetics and philosophy. Derick is a Presbyterian and holds to the Westminster Confession of Faith. One of his goals in life is to never eat broccoli again. You can find his websites at www.completeinthee.com and www.iopsychology.us.7

SH: Salvador Hayworth grew up in a Christian home. He made a profession of faith and commitment to Christianity when he was seven. He was born again when he was 19. He has had church backgrounds of Pentecostalism, Independent Methodist, Charismatic and Baptist churches as well as independent assemblies. He is not tied to a denomination. He has been an evangelical missionary among the Zulu and directed and produced a documentary drama on the true stories of four people saved out of necromancy and ancestral traditions to follow the Lord (www.allegiancethemovie.co.za). He is now ministering on the East Coast of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa in an independent evangelical Church. (See the KwaZulu mission website.)8

JdH: Jeremy de Haan was born and raised in the Canadian Reformed Churches. During his fourth year at seminary, on his way to becoming a Reformed pastor, Jeremy was prompted by the conversion account of Dr. Peter Kreeft to look more closely at the Catholic faith. The question of epistemology played a big role in this search, and he concluded that the Reformed faith was inconsistent on that foundational point. He and his wife and children were received into the Catholic Church during Lent, 2017. Jeremy and his family reside in West Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. You can read Jeremy’s blog at https://sixteenseasons.wordpress.com.9

CP: Casey Phillips is a self-described Catholic husband, father and Spanish teacher who resides in Kentucky, USA. A former Baptist, Casey converted to Catholicism with his wife Erin in 2014. Since then, Casey has sought to share his Catholic faith through his blog and social media presence (learn more at https://bapticatholic.wordpress.com).10

So, to recap, DB and MM are our Christadelphian contributors, DD and SH are our Evangelical contributors (bearing in mind that DD is a Presbyterian and SH non-denominational) and JdH and CP are our Catholic contributors.

Each contributor received the following instructions pertaining to the seven epistemological questions:
Please answer each question using no more than 150 words (ideally less). In fact, you may wish to answer simply “Yes” or “No” to certain questions if you don’t think your answer requires further qualification. The idea is to clearly state your position rather than to offer detailed arguments in its defence. However, you are welcome to link to or cite material that contains such arguments.

Seven Epistemological Questions and Responses

DB: Yes.

MM: Yes.

DD: Yes!

SH: Obviously there is a huge issue concerning the transmission of texts from the autographs to the present day. The issue of variants must be acknowledged. But I believe that the authors of scripture were all moved by the Holy Spirit to record the message of scripture and all that they first recorded was without error, inspired and, therefore, authoritative.

JdH: I do.

CP: Yes.

DB: The 66 books of the Protestant canon; Textual criticism and historical evidence.

MM: I don’t know for certain. I believe there are likely divinely inspired writings outside of the accepted canon, but I also trust that the canon that has been given to God’s creation contains His saving Gospel message (I’m not aware of any primary Scriptural belief that needs non-canonical writings for support).

DD: I hold to the traditional 66 books. I am not going to address each individual book, but the general principle. Generally speaking, the question seems to ask, “Did the church make the Bible or did the Bible make the church?” The Bible made the church. When there were faithful teachings of the Scripture, the church sprung up. The early church only recognized what occurred when the books of the Bible were properly exposited. In reality, the early church had very little debate over the Books of the Bible precisely because they were created by the Bible and not the other way around. God in His sovereignty put a high standard where other potential rival books were hidden or destroyed. There are no more because none meets the criteria of being inspired like the canon we have. Is there a book in the Bible that shouldn’t be there? Proving a negative is rather difficult, but in general the creation of the church through the preaching of these texts show the insight of the text itself.

SH: 39 books of the Old Testament and 27 books of the New. I believe that the NT canon is agreed upon, except for those who would like to also see the inclusion of 2nd century gnostic literature. I find it interesting that the book of Enoch is alluded to by Jude but that is not included in the Roman Catholic apocrypha. NT books bear the stamp of apostolic authority either of apostolic authorship or of a disciple writing under the supervision and authority of an Apostle. As far as the OT, I see the apocryphal books became an issue because the LXX was used by the NT authors. I have yet to see evidence of the books being wholesale accepted by Palestinian Jews of the first century. Because of the priority of Hebrew and Aramaic in the Old Testament, and because of the distinction between the 39 Old Testament books, and the idea that the apocryphal books are somehow deuterocanonical.

JdH: The 73 books of the Catholic canon are Scripture. I have faith that this is true because I believe that the Spirit works through the Church to establish the truth, and the Church declared at the Council of Trent that these 73 books constitute God's written Word. I can, however, grow in understanding and appreciation of this truth through historical study, as well as by simply reading the books themselves.

CP: I affirm the 73 books that compile the canon which is accepted by the Catholic Church. I hold these books to be Holy Scripture because of their historical use among the Christian faithful, and, more importantly, because they were recognized as such by the Catholic Church. By virtue of the authority granted Her by Christ, only the Catholic Church has the ability to recognize and proclaim what books belong in the canon.

DB: Yes.

MM: Yes.

DD: Yes and No! The doctrine of Perspicuity is not universal and is somewhat veiled to the non-Christian. Is the Bible generally clear? Yes! Does that mean there are no difficult passages? No! The other issue here is the word “Individual.” I believe that in general, that true churches have correctly interpreted the Bible. Individualistic interpretations have wandered further. Individualism is not a solid Christian doctrine and should be rejected. While we have the priesthood of the believer, we were called into the church to learn from others who have been deemed faithful in handling the truth. When Calvin opposed the Roman Catholic Church, he was careful to show how the church had held to the doctrines he was espousing. For him, he did not want to be seen as coming up with something new.

SH: I affirm Scripture’s perspicuity for born again believers concerning core doctrines. There are several factors that contribute to the perspicuity of scripture. A person must be born again with a spiritual birth that comes about when one personally trusts in Jesus. For scripture is written that we may believe in Jesus and by faith we are saved. Believing, we have life in Jesus' name. The Holy Spirit needs to illuminate, and open our eyes that we may see wonderful things in the word. We need to accept scripture's judgment over us and if we obey the doctrine we will know that the doctrine is of God. We also are in community with other born again believers and we sharpen one another to search scripture out. We must never believe something just because we were told so. We are more noble minded if we search out scripture to see if these things be so.

JdH: No, I do not affirm that idea.

CP: No. Although many core doctrines can be deduced, it does not follow that all can. Individual interpretation, limited knowledge of context, among other hindrances limit an individual, no matter his or her sincerity, to correctly divine all the fundamental truths of scripture.

DB: I believe they are mistaken, just as they believe I am. I further note that many people who believe the Holy Spirit is necessary for the correct interpretation of Scripture, disagree with each other on essential and non-essential doctrines. This ongoing contradiction militates against the idea that the Holy Spirit is guiding Christians in the correct understanding of Scripture.

MM: There are many reasons why studying the same Scripture can lead to different conclusions, e.g. God’s election/calling, translation/version used, pre-conceived beliefs from human resources used and other influences: familial, societal, cultural, experiences with people of different religions, etc (I can’t imagine anyone whose beliefs haven’t been at least somewhat influenced by at least one of these factors). I respect anyone who has studied Scripture diligently and come to their conclusions, even if different from mine.

DD: See my explanation of the difference between the corporate interpretation and the individual interpretation. Do I still handle differences between churches? Of course, but there is a grounding in Scripture (Sola Scriptura) that is informed by the church (See later answer on the differences between Sola Scriptura and Solo Scriptura). Perspicuity does not mean that all doctrine is clear, but doctrine in general is clear. The Westminster Confession notes,
"All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all (2 Pet. 3:16); yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them (Ps. 119:105, 130)."
SH: For many different reasons: Presuppositions that blind me. Uncritical commitment to another authority alongside scripture, such as a preacher, pastor or a magisterium. Through gaining a revelation of a truth and taking it beyond the scriptural context and building a whole system on that doctrine without holding it together with other doctrines in biblical tension. Also when we see our understanding is wrong it is easy to embrace a pendulum swing to an opposing view or to take on board the whole body of teaching that those who opposed our understanding hold to without realising that there may be elements within that body of teaching that are not biblical though we gain a revelation of things like sovereignty, free will etc.

DD: Again, the Westminster Confession notes,
"Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed."
JdH: The doctrines of the faith are themselves the lens through which to properly read Scripture. Each of the NT books were written to an audience already possessing the faith and thus equipped to understand the book properly. There is no indication from the Apostles that "diligent, personal study of" their writings alone will give you a sufficient knowledge of the faith, since prior knowledge of the faith is a necessary prerequisite for understanding those writings. Rather, to correctly understand the Christian faith, you must be taught that faith by those to whom it was entrusted. That is, to receive the Christian faith as it really is, you must find the Church. Only then will you understand both the faith and Scripture. Apart from the Church, you lose both.

CP: An infallible authority. As a Catholic, I recognize this authority is the Catholic Church itself, which scripture points out to be the pillar of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15).

MM: Yes & no (and frankly, uncertain as to identifying when and how this may be done).

DD: Yes! Which is why perspicuity does not necessarily extend to non-Christians. However, it should also be noted, that the Holy Spirit is not perspicuous, only Scripture.

SH: The Holy Spirit does do so.

JdH: As this question is worded, I do affirm it. I wrote in the previous question that I believe that correct interpretation comes from reading Scripture through the lens of the Christian faith. But the correct understanding of the truths of God are available only to those who look with the eyes of faith, which is a spiritual reality. In the same way that man cannot enter into friendship with God apart from the transforming work of God's Spirit, so man cannot understand the truths of God apart from the same transforming work (1Cor. 2:14). Apart from the work of the Spirit, we can understand neither Scripture nor the Christian faith.

CP: The Holy Spirit can do anything, and so a person could be led to the truth but that would not be the normative way.

MM: I believe that calling & election are one way in which a person arrives at Scriptural truths and I certainly wouldn’t exclude the Holy Spirit’s work in that means, but to what extent and when this is done, we can’t say. This is probably the most difficult question for me- I’ve asked for guidance and wisdom concerning beliefs that differ even within Christadelphia and I’m sure those on the other side of these beliefs have done the same. I’m just as sure that this can be said within all religions as well, let alone between varied religions.

DD: I think this goes back to perspicuity. Perspicuity does not mean a lack of problem passages or debatable points, but it merely means that in the essence of the Christian Doctrine, we must and should agree and it is clear. The Spirit does not operate apart from Scripture, which means it corresponds well with the doctrine of perspicuity. The Holy Spirit is also not perspicuous apart from Scripture. Therefore utterances of the Spirit help in interpretation.

SH: The illumination of the Spirit is both individual and communal. Through fellowship and disagreements we begin to discern those who are approved and we must study to show ourselves approved, rightly dividing the word of Truth. I must give account for my own life and doctrine. Differences may come in for many different reasons. I take a multifaceted approach to this subject. Thus the Holy Spirit uses the intellect but intellect is not to be trusted alone. Prayerful attitude, teachability and an awareness of my dependence of the Lord are important. The Lord may reveal through a new believer another aspect of His word, academic study can also aid, sound hermeneutics and charismatic leading are all different tent chords that when held in tension are all ways we can be lead by the Lord.

JdH: I don't believe that any reading of Scripture that runs contrary to the faith as defined by the Church is a reading that has been guided by the Spirit. Such a reading is, by definition, heresy.

DB: No, I believe we can ask God for guidance as well. I simply deny that direct Holy Spirit intervention is necessary. When the Ethiopian eunuch asked for help to understand Scripture, Philip didn’t tell him that he needed the Holy Spirit. He simply explained the passage to the eunuch himself. He didn’t need the Holy Spirit for this. Nowhere in Scripture are we told that the guidance of the Holy Spirit is necessary to understand Scripture correctly. If this was true, why did the Reformers disagree with the Catholics and Orthodox? Shouldn’t they all share the same interpretation? Protestants and evangelicals have attempted to answer these questions, but their responses inevitably boil down to:
(a) variations on the No True Scotsman fallacy (‘They were not born again/they lacked faith/they were not spiritually mature/they were ignorant of the whole Word of God’)
(b) claims that the individuals in question required additional knowledge from uninspired resources (‘They should have used better Bible study aids’) and/or did not know how to use the resources they possessed (‘They lacked training/their hermeneutics were poor’)
(c) claims that the individuals in question were too reliant on tradition

MM: Certainly not exclusively, but I think that calling & election may sometimes be simply an opportunity and oftentimes we need to search things out and filter through the “strong delusions” and lies with our God-given intellect.

DD: There is mystery, which is one of the debates even among the reformed (Clarkians and Van Tillians/Vos-ians) and non-reformed. However, interpretation is not anti-intellectual either. Because Scripture is not purely intellectual does not mean we say it lacks logic and engagement in the cognitive. Rather, it is to say that that Scripture is logical but it is more than logical too. God is logical but not contained in logic.

CP: No. Christ established a Church with the authority to preach and teach in His name (Matthew 28:19). That said, it makes sense to assume that He knew some would be led astray and would need the Church to guide them. Our faith embraces the great "both and." The Holy Spirit does guide us into all truth as long as we remain within the bounds of Christ's Church.

DB: I would if we had any evidence of it. To date, I have seen no such evidence. However, I do believe that tradition— defined as apostolic teaching that was not recorded in Scripture but transmitted orally, and developed by the Church with or without the help of the Holy Spirit—has a legitimate place in the formation of Christian praxis.

MM: No.

DD: Tradition is a subordinate standard, but the struggles of the church throughout time help inform us. In Reformed circles, we emphasize Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) but reject Solo Scriptura (Only Scripture). Here is the difference. Sola Scriptura means that we learn through preaching as the preacher exposits the text. We can also learn through commentaries and good books on various topics. Solo Scriptura, the view we reject, means that we don’t need preaching to help with interpretation—there can be an individual or private interpretation. Many theologians (reformed and otherwise) have stated concerning theology, “If it is true, it is not new. If it is new, it is not true”; therefore, we believe the church has spoken on the topics throughout history. Because of Sola Scriptura, “Bereans” can and should verify beliefs using Scripture.

SH: I reject the idea of an oral Torah, whether for the Old Testament or New. I believe that Jesus spoke against such a concept when He said that the Pharisees negated the word of God for the sake of their traditions. He did not allow the traditions of the elders to rival scripture and even broke with the seminal teachings that would develop into the notion of the Oral Torah.

JdH: I am unsure about the phrase "developed by the Church." If it means that the Church's understanding of the deposit of faith develops over time, then I affirm the above.

CP: Yes.

DB: If we had any evidence of it, I would consider it equal to Scripture. To date, I have seen no such evidence.

DD: Tradition and history is always subordinate to Scripture. It is a powerful testimony as if all of Church history spoke in one accord on a doctrine, it is highly unlikely that your new interpretation will be true.

JdH: Paul teaches us that all his teachings are authoritative, even those he did not write down: "Stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter" (2 Thess. 2:15). The Apostles do not indicate in their writings that there is any difference in authority between their oral and written communication.

CP: In 2 Thessalonians 2:15 the apostle Paul urges us to hold fast to both oral and written tradition. Scripture and Tradition compromise the complete deposit of faith left by Christ to the apostles.

DB: There is no single rule of faith summarising the beliefs of Christian doctrine according to the ante-Nicene fathers. A few commonalities notwithstanding, Justin Martyr’s rule of faith (the simplest) differs from Irenaeus’. Irenaeus’ rule of faith (the most detailed) differs from Tertullian’s. I believe their respective rules of faith are mostly correct, but somewhat in error. I see no reason why any ANF rule of faith should be binding upon believers. The Christian rule of faith should be distilled from the words of Christ and his apostles in Scripture.

MM: No, I do not deny, if by “rule of faith” it is meant that the Holy Scriptures only are the source of Christian doctrine.

DD: I am not Roman Catholic nor Greek Orthodox. Tradition is important but not infallible. See my discussion of Sola Scriptura above.

SH: I believe in the rule of scripture. I find some agreement with some of what church fathers on some things and reject others things they held to. For me, all church fathers are subject to scripture as I am. I must give my own account for my faith before the Lord. The church fathers pre-Augustine tended to be Chiliasts. I would agree with chiliasm maybe not in the form they held to but it's basic premise, not because the "fathers" believed it but because I see such truth in scripture. The writings of Church fathers may be somewhat helpful in studying scripture, as with studying with other believers but I must base my dogmatic stance on scripture and I cannot use the pre-Nicene fathers as authority to convince someone of the truth of my belief. I can quote some church father to give credence for my source but that is not the same thing. Thus, I hold to the rule of scripture.

DB: No.

MM: No.

DD: Yes!

SH: My understanding of the trinity is that the Father is God, Jesus is God and the Holy Spirit is God. Not three gods but One God. But the Father is distinct to the Son and to the Holy Spirit in that the Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit and the Son is not the Father or the Holy Spirit.

JdH: I do.

CP: Yes.

DD: Yes, it is explicit in Scripture and necessary to be a Christian church. Here we should note, an explicit teaching does not mean it is phrased the exact way the Council of Nicea used. There is a fallacy of the 1800’s that was derived from a philosophy that primarily wanted very refined and singular statements that summarized an entire doctrine or else, they believed, the doctrine is not taught. This did horrible damage to Systematic and Biblical Theology. The Trinity is explicit and clear. There are few doctrines more clear in Scripture, but there is not one verse that outlines it just like the Council of Nicea. Sola Scriptura mandates we hold to the Trinity.

SH: The truths concerning this are self-evident in New Testament scripture. It is clear that the Son spoke to His Father and the Holy Spirit was sent from the Father and the Son. The Son was regarded by Thomas as "My Lord and My God" Jesus is the Word who was God in the beginning. I don't believe that anybody reading the Bible by itself without indoctrination can come to the idea that Jesus is not God and that He is not distinct from the Father.

JdH: I don't think either of those is the case. I wouldn't affirm that the doctrine of the Trinity is explicit in the same way that Christ's dying on the cross is explicit, or that the institution of the Eucharist and the command to baptize are explicit. But I also wouldn't affirm that "post-biblical reflection on the biblical revelation" is itself dogma. Rather, it is through reflection that the Church deepens her knowledge of dogma, that is, grasps more clearly the contents of the Christian faith. It was by reflecting on the apostolic deposit of faith that the Church affirmed that the doctrine Trinity was part of that deposit.

CP: In this case, post-biblical reflection has correctly and legitimately defined the revelation of the trinity.

DB: Yes, I do, just as the Protestants argue that the Catholics and Orthodox were in grave error until the Reformers emerged, while the Catholics and Orthodox point to the innovations of Protestantism (which contradicted at least 600 years of doctrinal consensus) as grave error.
MM: Yes.

DD: I believe the Trinity is an essential element of the Christian faith. Denying it is to apostatize the Christian faith as it makes God into a different God altogether.

DB: My confidence is grounded in: (a) the belief that God intended Scripture to be understood by normal, everyday people without supernatural assistance (b) the merits of Biblical scholarship, which informs my interpretation of Scripture.

MM: My confidence lies in a combination of things: the grace of God, faith in God’s provision of His word for the world, not merely accepting teachings but proving them (the fact that I have changed my mind after research on certain beliefs helps this confidence), being able to support my beliefs with Scripture, and seeing other sound, wise, and logical people support the same conclusions I have reached. These reasons may be no different than reasons given by someone of another religion, or every religion. What are we to do then? I hope every believer in God searches Him and His truth out diligently. Our beliefs drive our actions and give purpose to our life. In the end, we all must be confident of our stance to the point where we are ready to stand before our Judge, whom I believe is the Lord Jesus Christ. One thing I know is that judgment will be righteous and the Creator of the Earth’s will will be done, it is not always for us to have the answer. I pray that my life/walk, based on my beliefs, will find sufficient grace to be given the reward of serving Him eternally.

DD: My ground of confidence is presuppositional (everyone’s view is at some degree). Without the Bible, it is impossible to prove anything about Christianity or life or even tradition. The Church, doctrine, logic, or any other realm must presuppose an infallible and the primacy of Scripture or else nothing can be proven or known about God. The Bible is perspicuous but that does not mean it is not complex (clarity in teaching versus complexity in thought). For example: the Trinity is clear in Scripture (perspicuous) but it is extremely complex. Perspicuity applies to core doctrine which all Christians agree. Minor issues is where we disagree, which is healthy. When disagreements occur, that should point us to discuss the issues theologically and Scripture focused. While I cannot address all disagreements, I find that among the essential elements of the faith we often align. The other issues should bring us into studying Scripture further.

SH: Unless I can see something taught and/or practised by the Apostles I don't have to believe what any teacher or Magisterium says. If the majority of NT readers were Greek speaking, it would make sense that there was a heavy reliance on the LXX. Sometimes, someone like Matthew favours the MT or another variant. But no one can doubt that the LXX was used. This in itself cannot prove that the apocryphal books were to be regarded as scripture. I found it interesting that when Jerome favoured the priority of the Hebrew Text over Greek that the place of the apocrypha was questioned. Although problems arise with a move to Hebrew roots, I strongly believe that something of the Biblical and Apostolic view was lost in Churches that built on Patristic authority that eschewed the Hebrew roots of the faith, which grew in a supersessionist theology and then later in an amillennial or Postmillennial theology. No authority can be so high as to rival the authority of scripture. All scripture is God breathed. That I cannot say for the notion of an Oral Torah of Judaism or that of an oral tradition within a Magisterium.

JdH: The ground of my confidence is the belief that the Spirit has given His yes or no on a given doctrine not ultimately through my judgment, but through the judgment of the Church. I find no indication in Scripture that my scriptural conclusions are to be the standard of orthodoxy for myself, much less for all Christians – which would be the case if mine truly were the Spirit-enlightened ones. No, Scripture itself points to the judgment of the Church as being the judgment of the Spirit (Acts 15:38), so that is where my confidence lies.

CP: As 1 Timothy tells us, "the pillar and ground of truth" is the Church that Jesus established. Historically speaking, there is no doubt that Catholic Church is the only church that can trace its origins back to the 1st century, and thus the only church that can be labeled as the pillar of truth. If no authoritative voice exists which can adjudicate the canon and the appropriate interpretation thereof, then no one can know the truth. Individual interpretation of scripture has led to rampant divergence and disagreement among the Christian faithful.


  • 1 In the biographies I was less concerned to reproduce the contributor's words verbatim, so I did some light editing here and there to ensure the level of detail in the biographies is similar.
  • 2 Editor’s note: Dave and I have never met in person but have interacted extensively online over the years. Our theological disagreements have been many, but I respect his efforts toward defending the intellectual credibility of Christadelphian theology.
  • 3 Editor’s note: the Unamended community is a “fellowship” or separate communion within the Christadelphian community.
  • 4 Editor’s note: local Christadelphian congregations are called ecclesias.
  • 5 Editor’s note: these terms refer to Christadelphian inter-ecclesial conferences. A Bible school typically lasts a week while a gathering (called a "fraternal" in some countries) is only a weekend.
  • 6 Editor’s note: I know Mike better than any of the other contributors. We are long-time friends and I hold him in high esteem as a man of integrity and conviction, not to mention a classic dry sense of humour.
  • 7 Editor’s note: Derick and I have never met in person; I linked up with him through the Christian Bloggers Network, where he is one of the moderators. He is evidently very busy with his Ph.D studies and a recent move, so I am very grateful for his willingness, as a passionate proponent of Reformed theology, to participate in this project with a Catholic whom he hardly knows.
  • 8 Editor’s note: Salvador and I met through King’s Evangelical Divinity School, where we were studying contemporaneously through distance learning—two of just a handful of students in South Africa studying with this U.K.-based institution. My wife and I were able to visit Salvador and his wife Di briefly in Vryheid where they were ministering at the time and also met them in Cape Town on another occasion. Salvador was a couple of years ahead of me in the program and provided helpful advice about module choices and study strategies.
  • 9 Editor’s note: Although Jeremy and I are both Canadians with strong connections to Hamilton, Ontario, we’ve never met in person. I linked up with him after reading the story of his conversion to Catholicism at Called to Communion, which resonated with me.
  • 10 Editor’s note: Casey and I have never met in person but linked up through the Christian Bloggers Network on Facebook. I am, like him, a "BaptiCatholic" who is passionate about sharing my faith through social media. Unlike him, I’m not able to do so in multiple languages!

Friday 23 December 2016

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


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 hilastērion 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.


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).


  • 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).

Tuesday 26 July 2016

Addendum to 'The Canon Conundrum' by Nathan and Matthew Farrar

Editor's Note: In the previous article, Nathan and Matthew Farrar explained some of their theological reasons for leaving the Christadelphians and embracing orthodoxy under the heading 'The Canon Conundrum'. The post generated some vibrant feedback and the authors are grateful for the interaction. They have written this addendum to address some questions and criticism they received. The authors welcome brief further questions and comments on social media or this blog. However, those wishing to substantially critique the authors' work, or to meet their challenge to offer a positive case for the Christadelphian dogma of the canon, are respectfully asked to do so in the form of a full article rather than piecemeal comments on selected sentences.


The Church Fathers as a Historical Authority
The Church Fathers and Vested Authority
What has all this to do with the Canon?

1. What do you mean by "internally consistent answers"?
2. High ranking scholars regard Philippians 2 and the Gospel of John as reflecting unitarian monotheism
3. The NAB (Catholic) translation admits in a footnote that Phil. 2:6-8 may be about Adam Christology rather than preexistence Christology
4. Don't Evangelical Protestants have the same problem as Christadelphians?
5. What about the Catholic/Orthodox canon?
6. Haven't you overlooked other objective criteria used in the discernment of the canon?
7. Wasn't the canon "sealed by Catholic Authority" 1200 years after Athanasius "came up with the NT canon"?
8. At the time this consensus [on the canon] was achieved, there was no monolithic 'church'
9. Maybe God used corrupt churches to preserve a non-corrupt canon?
10. Christadelphians have never proposed a canon of our own, because we're satisfied that our theology can be found in the current canon

Suggested Reading

The importance of foundational beliefs

Belief structures are like pyramids: built with a strong, sturdy base that supports an ever-narrower structure as the top is approached. Very often when different Christian traditions are compared, the discussion resembles trying to dismantle the pyramid by pulling out bricks from the top. In our recent article on ‘The Canon Conundrum’, we were asking how sturdy the base of the Christadelphian ‘pyramid’ is by inquiring after the epistemological1 basis–from within the Christadelphian belief system–for their confidence that the scriptural canon is complete, lacking nothing, and adding nothing illegitimate. Christadelphian apologist Dave Burke, who commented on the article on Facebook, suggested that the issue of canon was “the weakest and most illogical reason” to reject Christadelphian theology.

However, if a belief system is unable to provide an internally cogent justification for its most foundational beliefs (i.e., the perfection and total sufficiency of Scripture), then this is one of the strongest and most logical reasons to question the belief structure. Indeed, in the Facebook comments to the blog post, the moderator Tom Farrar re-stated the question asking for any Christadelphian to articulate a
theological and historical argument demonstrating that the 66-book canon is identical with Scripture. Crucially, the argument must differ from standard Protestant treatments of the subject in that it must cohere with Christadelphian ideas about church history, e.g. both rampant, mainstream apostasy and absence of Holy Spirit guidance during the crucial formative period of the canon.
In our upbringing as Christadelphians, we do not recall such an argument having been presented, and at the time of our writing, we have not seen any such argument among the responses to our article. We invite and implore Christadelphians to take up this challenge.

In this follow-up post, we aim to achieve two ends. First, in response to a very fair request from Kristyn Griffin, we offer a fuller (though by no means comprehensive) positive case for our own position, to supplement our negative case against the Christadelphian position. Second, we will answer some of the pointed questions or remarks that were made in response to our posting.

In our article we were attempting to lead the reader to this question: what would be required to provide a justified confidence in the final definition of the canon? First, it seems to us that the organization that defined the canon (i.e. the early church) would need to possess recognizable divine authority that could make binding declarations on matters of faith when required.  As the bearer of God’s plan of salvation to the world, it would also have to be given divine protection so that when it formally defined something like the canon it did not err and thereby lead the world astray.  If it can be demonstrated that something like this existed, then you would have an epistemological basis for saying, “I know what belongs in the canon.”  Naturally, we would want to know whether this kind of church exists.

In our article, we hinted at an answer by stating that we embrace the views of the early church on canon and key doctrines of the faith as authoritative. However, we did not specify why we thought this way nor did we specify what we meant by “authoritative”.  In this addendum, we attempt to do so.

There are at least two senses of authority relevant to the discussion of the early Church and the Fathers. The first sense is an authority of privileged knowledge possessed by the Church Fathers as a result of their close proximity in time to the Apostles themselves. Thus, we consider the Church Fathers as “authoritative” in that they give reliable testimony to the historic beliefs and practices of the early post-Apostolic church. From a historical perspective, if we find widespread agreement on a particular doctrine across the large geographic area that was the Roman Empire in such a short period of time after the Apostles, it strongly argues that the doctrine in question was, in fact, part of the Apostolic preaching. Thus, on topics for which the Fathers are in consensus and claim is Christian belief, we can reasonably take their testimony to be reflective of early Christian belief; where they disagree, we can take this to be evidence of unresolved doctrines or tolerated variations. For example, since the Church Fathers are in consensus regarding the deity of Christ,2 we considered this evidence in favor of orthodox interpretations of passages such as John 1 and Philippians 2.

In response to our article, Dave Burke accused us of ‘a bold and unashamedly anachronistic attempt to claim modern orthodoxy in the Apostolic Fathers’. Rather, we stated that our study of early Church Fathers led us to embrace orthodoxy, and we described their beliefs as proto-orthodox. That is to say, we do not claim that Clement of Rome or Ignatius of Antioch, for example, were working from copies of the Chalcedonian Definition as they expressed their Christology. However, we do regard their Christology as an intermediate stage along a legitimate developmental trajectory from apostolic teaching to Chalcedonian orthodoxy.3 Hence, what was important for us is that these writers did not interpret apostolic doctrine as Christadelphians do; instead they interpreted it in ways that anticipated and progressed toward the dogmatic assertions of later orthodoxy.

In assessing Dave’s claim that contemporary scholarship has ‘repeatedly confirmed that concepts such as the deity of Christ and the Trinity emerged after the apostolic era’, one would want to make qualifications similar to those above. Scholars warn against the anachronism of reading the precise theological definitions reached by the church in the fourth and fifth centuries back into the New Testament, noting that the ontological questions being asked in the later period were not significant concerns in the first century. Hence, one can readily agree that the deity of Christ and the Trinity as philosophically precise relational models about the nature of God emerged after the apostolic era. However, there is wide scholarly agreement that key building blocks of orthodoxy were present by the end of the first century, such as incarnational Christology and two- and three-limbed confessions of one God—the core of the ‘rule of faith’ attested by later second-century writers.

It is beyond our scope here to enter into detailed exegetical debate about the correct interpretation of Phil. 2:6-11 or the Christology of John’s Gospel. These issues are peripheral to the main thesis of our original article. They were just two of several examples of NT passages cited in our thought experiment that are problematic for Christadelphians, and there are many others we could have cited. However, some further comments on Dave’s appeal to modern critical scholarship are made below.

To accept the historical authority of the Church Fathers as a witness to early church belief and practice requires no theological commitment. As purely historical testimony, the Church Fathers only give us insight into what the early church did believe, not what they ought to have believed. As such, even an atheist could affirm that the Church Fathers provide insights into the beliefs and practices of the early church.

However, the second sense of authority we wish to consider is vested authority, and assumes some prior faith commitment to Christ. Ultimately, we can have no real confidence in the early church–and thus the canon it passed on–unless we have reason to believe that the church was somehow operating within the authority of Christ Himself.  Therefore, if we had evidence that Christ had intended to invest his Church with his own authority, we would have the core, foundational principle for dealing with the canon question. 

Assuming it to be axiomatic for all concerned that Christ has authority, we maintain that (1) Christ vested His own authority in the Apostles including His assurance of doctrinal guidance; (2) that this authority was passed on to subsequent generations of church leaders; and (3) that Christ has bound himself to the Church.
  1. Christ vested His own authority in the Apostles

    • Christ promised that the Holy Spirit would guide the Apostles into all truth (John 14:26; John 16:12-15)
    • “Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me” (Luke 10:16)
    • The Apostles are granted Christ’s prerogative to forgive or retain sins (John 20:21-23; Matthew 18:18)
    • Christ conferred a kingdom on his Apostles, which necessarily includes authority (Luke 22:29-30)
    • Christ promised to be with His disciples (Matt. 28:18-20; John 14:18)
    • Christ granted teaching authority, uniquely to Peter (Matt. 16:18-19; Luke 22:31-32)
    • The exercise of Apostolic authority in doctrinal matters is clearly witnessed in Pauline writings (2 Cor. 10:8,13:10; 1 Thess. 4:2) and in the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15)

  2. This authority was passed on to subsequent generations of church leaders

    • The vacant Apostolic ministry of Judas Iscariot was filled by Matthias (Acts 1)
    • Paul claimed to have personally imparted authority to Timothy through the laying on of his hands (2 Tim. 1:6), and instructs him to be careful in doing likewise (1 Tim. 5:22)
    • Titus is encouraged to exercise authority in his teaching (Titus 2:15)
    • The faithful are encouraged to submit to the authority of their leaders (Heb. 13:17)
    • Christ conferred a kingdom on his Apostles, which necessarily includes successors (Luke 22:29-30)
    • The promise that the gates of Hades would not prevail against the Church strongly implies the continuity of authority and guidance ‘to the end of the age’ (Matt. 16: 18-19; 28:20)

    It is also fitting at this point to quote from some of the Church Fathers4 regarding the passing on of Apostolic authority.  Consider the words of Clement of Rome, generally believed to have been written in the first century:
    Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers…Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry (1 Clement 42.4, 44.1-2)
    Here, without diminishing the unique ministry of the Apostles as first-hand witnesses to Christ, Clement makes it clear that it was the Apostles’ intent that their authority and ministry should continue beyond their deaths. This statement is in contrast with Christadelphians who maintain that any semblance of Apostolic authority beyond the New Testament–which itself did not exist as such in the apostles’ time–was terminated by their deaths (i.e., they left no successors).

    Cyprian of Carthage later makes the same point negatively by underscoring that apart from the link of succession to the Apostles themselves, no one can rightly claim this vested authority:
    Nor can he [the heretic Novatian] be reckoned as a bishop, who, succeeding to no one, and despising the evangelical and apostolic tradition, sprang from himself. For he who has not been ordained in the Church can neither have nor hold to the Church in any way (Cyprian, Letters, c. 253 A.D.)
    Thus, the early church claimed that divine authority was present in the Church on the basis that its leaders received this authority from the Apostles who in turn received their authority from Christ Himself. Christadelphians then, denying any succession, have “sprung from themselves”.  Because of this fact, their self-understanding must able to provide internally consistent explanations for, among other things, the canon question.

  3. Christ has bound Himself to the Church
  4. Finally, this passing on of authority assumes the continual presence of Jesus in the Church. In other words, we should not imagine Christ as an absentee landlord who set the ball rolling with the Apostles and then watched passively. As Paul writes, 
    • “God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” (Ephesians 1:22-23)
    • “for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body.” (Ephesians 5:29-30)
    Ultimately, there is only one reason we should put any faith in the church and that is because the fullness of Christ Himself is found in His mystical body, the Church. To postulate to the contrary–that the historic Church is instead a hotbed of heresy– as Christadelphians do, is to conclude that under Christ’s headship and nourishment, the church failed: the fullness of Christ was insufficient to sustain it. 

The promises Christ makes to the Apostles concerning ongoing guidance in matters of ultimate truth are precisely the kinds of promises necessary if we are to provide a basis for our confidence in the canon (and which canon for that matter). While the New Testament and the Church Fathers witness to a passing on of this Apostolic authority, Christadelphians reject this concept of ongoing, divine authority being invested in the Church. Because the promises are made to the Apostles in the pages of the Gospels, it is possible to argue that they applied only to the Apostles themselves. However, if you make this argument then you must explain why Christ would invest the Apostles with this authority at all, only to remove it entirely when the Church needed it most! Precisely the authority and guidance the Church needed to define the Old and New Testament canon was lost before the canon was fixed! On the other hand, if the authority remained, how could you logically conclude the other early Church councils lapsed into heresy? It’s a catch-22! 

If we reflect on the Church Fathers most instrumental in the formation of the canon—such as Irenaeus, the first writer to explicitly affirm four canonical Gospels, and Athanasius, the first writer to mention our exact 27-book New Testament—these are the very champions of orthodoxy! Irenaeus defended the (proto-)orthodox ‘rule of faith’ against many heresies, while Athanasius championed Trinitarian orthodoxy against the Arians. How can we celebrate their contributions to an infallible biblical canon while simultaneously dismissing them as heretics?

Here is a simpler answer: Christ established a Church that did not fall into gross apostasy, in accordance with His promise in Matthew 16.  To ensure this outcome, he invested his own authority in that Church through the ministry of the Holy Spirit as he promised in John 16.  The unity of that Church, and the consequent invested authority it possesses, has been maintained by apostolic succession, with Christ reigning as its head.  We see the beginning of passing of authority within the New Testament, and the early Church Fathers witness to it as the mark of the true Church established by Christ.  It is on this basis – vested authority obtained from Christ and protected by the ministry of Spirit – that the Church has been able to rightly delineate the boundaries of the canon, and reaffirm those boundaries in the face of challenges to it.  It is why, with Paul, we can say that the Church is the “pillar and bulwark of truth” and it is how we know what belongs in the canon.

Now, many of our Protestant friends will disagree with us about apostolic succession. Their theological explanation of the development of the canon will rely on Christ’s promise of the Holy Spirit manifested in the Church in a less tangible way. We don’t find that explanation compelling, but we do think it is more defensible than the Christadelphian view, in that it does not require us to assert that the same Church leaders who established the dogma of the canon also embossed heretical dogmas (the Trinity and Incarnation) with the status of orthodoxy.

  1. What do you mean by “internally consistent answers”?
  2. In a nutshell, we mean answers that are consistent with our other historical and theological judgments—e.g. concerning whether and when the early church apostatized, or whether and when the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the church ceased.

    We believe the internal consistency of our own position can be outlined thus: we receive the canon as authoritative because we receive the Church as authoritative. We receive the Church because we receive the successors of the Apostles as authoritative. We receive the successors of the Apostles as authoritative because we accept that they received authority from the Apostles. We accept the Apostles as authoritative because we accept that they received their authority from Christ. And the ultimate ground of this confidence is the risen Christ, the head of the Church, who reigns over the Church now and forever. Without this, it becomes difficult to articulate an epistemologically sound, historically grounded confidence in the perfection of the canon.

  3. ‘High ranking scholars’ regard Philippians 2 and the Gospel of John ‘as reflecting traditional Jewish unitarian monotheism rather than binitarian or Trinitarian Christology’

  4. One could quibble about the appropriateness of using the term ‘unitarian’ to describe traditional Jewish monotheism.5 More importantly, however, we want to make a few caveats about basing dogmatic theological judgments on the results of modern scholarship achieved using the historical-critical method of biblical exegesis. Our aim is not to disparage the historical-critical method but only to note its limitations.
    a. Critical scholarship often fails to reach a consensus, and even when it does, the consensus may be subject to change.
    Philippians 2:6-8 is a good example of a passage for which modern critical scholarship does not offer a clear consensus. The impasse extends to numerous other NT passages of Christological importance. This calls into question the reliability of historical-critical exegesis for constructing theology. The Patristic consensus—achieved much closer to the apostles’ time—seems to offer a more solid basis for dogmatic judgments about New Testament Christology than the shifting sands of modern scholarly opinion.
    b. Current scholarly opinion is by no means a boon to Christadelphian Christology.
    For every Dunn, Ehrman or McGrath who denies that incarnational or divine Christology was present in the earliest church, one can cite a Hengel, Bauckham or Hurtado who affirms it. Hence, contemporary scholarship cannot be construed as having vindicated Christadelphian Christology, unless one is very selective about which scholars’ opinions count.

    Moreover, McGrath seems to be one of very few scholars whose reading of New Testament Christology coincides almost entirely with that of Christadelphians. As for Dunn6 and Ehrman,7 they both affirm the rise of incarnational Christology within the New Testament, and Dunn describes the use of the Gospel of John in post-apostolic dogmatics as ‘quite legitimate within its own terms’.8 We therefore reiterate our question as to whether the early church would have included the Gospel of John within its canon if its theology had been proto-Christadelphian.
    c. What if we looked to modern critical scholarship to resolve the canon conundrum?
    If we are to rely on the results of modern critical scholarship to construct the dogma of Christology, consistency dictates that we also rely on the results of modern critical scholarship to construct the dogma of the canon. But what would happen if we did? Consider the following thought experiment.

    A major Christian denomination announces that it is reopening the New Testament canon for investigation in light of the results of modern critical scholarship. The denomination commissions a large team of scholars to study the issue. They are instructed not to defer to church tradition but to use the historical-critical method freely. After two years of intense research, the team returns to report their findings:
    • Some scholars propose that the very idea of a New Testament canon be abandoned, arguing that it is a post-apostolic dogma that is anachronistically read back into the texts themselves. They suggest that the church should read the ‘New Testament’ documents as they would any other ancient texts and not pretend that they have some divinely sanctioned status or authority just because of decisions made by patristic theologians.
    • Among those scholars who argue that the idea of a New Testament canon remains viable, there are differences on the methodology to be used to construct the canon. Some argue that apostolic authorship is essential. Others argue that only demonstrable companionship with the apostles or temporal proximity to the apostles is essential. Still others propose to evaluate books based on theological content. Accordingly, there is a wide range of judgments about the inclusion of individual books:
      • All of these scholars agree that Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon belong in the canon, noting the clear scholarly consensus as to their early date and apostolic (Pauline) authorship
      • A few scholars challenge the inclusion of 2 Thessalonians and Colossians, citing ongoing disputes about Pauline authorship
      • A larger number of scholars challenge the inclusion of Ephesians and the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), noting that a clear majority of critical scholars regards these letters as pseudepigraphical, written in Paul’s name after the apostle’s death
      • Scholars who insist on apostolic authorship challenge the inclusion of Mark, Luke, Acts, Hebrews, James, and Jude
      • Some scholars who insist on apostolic authorship also challenge the inclusion of Matthew, the Gospel and Epistles of John, and Revelation, citing doubts about the traditional attribution of these books to apostolic authors
      • A significant number of scholars challenge the inclusion of Jude, citing widespread scholarly rejection of the traditional attribution of authorship to Jesus’ kinsman, as well as the letter’s problematic use of apocryphal traditions
      • Some scholars challenge the inclusion of James on a theological basis, echoing Luther’s concerns about the letter’s emphasis on works-based salvation
      • A majority of scholars challenge the inclusion of 2 Peter, noting the clear scholarly consensus that it was not written by Peter and the tendency to date the letter as late as the mid-second century. A smaller number also challenge the inclusion of 1 Peter, regarding this letter too as pseudepigrahical
      • Some scholars move for the inclusion of 1 Clement in the canon, noting that its date and apostolic credentials are at least comparable to those of books in the traditional canon, and citing its inclusion at the end of the New Testament in Codex Alexandrinus, one of the most important early New Testament manuscripts
      • Some scholars move for the inclusion of the Didache in the canon, citing its early date and its superscription claiming to transmit apostolic teaching
      • A Jewish scholar who played a consultative role on the committee proposes that the Gospel of John be excluded from the canon in the interest of improved Christian-Jewish relations due to what the Jewish community perceives as the author’s anti-Semitic attitude

    (It should be noted that while the thought experiment is hypothetical, the views above are representative of actual scholarly views.) Three major positions emerge from within the commission. At the liberal end of the spectrum are scholars who would do away with the dogma of the canon. At the conservative end are those who would maintain the traditional 27-book canon unchanged. In the middle are those who would modify the traditional canon or establish a two-tiered canon consisting of undisputed books and disputed books, proposing that the latter can be read in church but only the former can be used to construct theology.

    What is the point of this elaborate thought experiment? It is that if we turn to modern critical scholarship to resolve the issue of New Testament Christology, we ought to do the same for the issue of the New Testament canon; and to do so would be to open a Pandora’s Box. Hence, the Patristic consensus arguably provides the most reliable solution to the problem of New Testament Christology, just as it does for the problem of the New Testament canon.

  5. The New American Bible (a Catholic translation) admits in a footnote that it is possible to interpret Phil. 2:6-8 in terms of Adam Christology rather than preexistence Christology

  6. We actually think this NAB footnote reveals an important contrast between Catholic (and, more generally, orthodox) Biblical scholars and Christadelphians: the Church is willing to have these debates and even to host them,9 and to acknowledge different interpretive options and positions. Orthodoxy can allow both interpretations of Phil. 2:6-8 to co-exist amid healthy dialogue. By contrast, no Christadelphian publication has ever admitted the preexistence interpretation to be even possible, and no Christadelphian publication is ever likely to do so. The reason is that this interpretation poses an existential threat to the Christadelphian community: if it is correct, Christadelphian theology is effectively invalidated. Hence, the exegetical stakes with this passage are much higher for Christadelphians than for orthodox scholars. The pre-existence interpretation cannot even be tabled in the Christadelphian community but can only be opposed.

    Many similar cases could be cited. Here is just one more: according to the most highly regarded Greek critical text (NA28), Jude 5 says that ‘Jesus’ saved a people out of Egypt (the SBL critical text also has this reading).10 If these textual critics are correct, preexistence is implied and either Christadelphian theology is falsified or Jude must be de-canonized. If 'the Lord' is the correct reading, however, it is of no Christological consequence. So, once again, orthodox scholars can have the debate but Christadelphians can't—they must assert that the NA28 and SBL committees got it wrong.

    Hence, we think that the footnote to Phil. 2:6-8 in the New American Bible, rather than being a hostile witness in support of Christadelphian theology, points to a positive feature of orthodox biblical scholarship that is lacking in Christadelphian literature.

  7. Don’t Evangelical Protestants have the same problem as Christadelphians?

  8. This question was answered in our original post under the heading “A Problem for Protestants?” The degree to which the canon is problematic is proportional to the depth of the rupture placed between oneself and the historic church. Moreover, some Protestants maintain that the Holy Spirit guides each believer individually to recognize the canon.11 As Christadelphians maintain a total rupture with the historic church and categorically deny any possibility of guidance by the Holy Spirit, the problem is considerably more severe. 

    Note also that even if we were to concede this point, highlighting epistemological problems faced by Evangelicals concerning the canon does not constitute a solution to epistemological problems faced by Christadelphians concerning the canon!

  9. What about the Catholic/Orthodox canon?

  10. To be fully consistent, we do think our arguments point to the Catholic/Orthodox canons,12 as this was the canon for 1500 years, or the entirety of the pre-Reformation church.

  11. Haven’t you overlooked other objective criteria used in the discernment of canon?

  12. In our discussion, we noted that one of the criteria used in the selection of the canon was its accordance with orthodox Christian belief. As the question suggests, apostolicity–the authors had to be themselves Apostles or near companions13 of the Apostles–was also used in the selection of canon, and may be deemed less subjective. Could we thus construct a canon based solely on these sorts of historical criteria?

    One significant problem with this approach is that many historical criteria are validated precisely by the tradition of the early church! The reason our Gospels contain the headings “The Gospel According to… Matthew, Mark, Luke or John” is because the Church Fathers bear witness to their Apostolic authorship. However, as Christadelphians view the testimony of the Fathers as unreliable,14 they place the validity of these objective criteria on shaky ground.

    The issue of the Jewish contribution to the canon was also raised. With respect to the Old Testament, we recognize there is discussion about exactly when the Jews closed their scriptures. The fact that there is uncertainty on this point reinforces the arguments we have been making—who has the authority to define the boundaries of the Old Testament, and on what basis?  It is commonly held that the Jews closed their canon at the council of Jabneh (a.k.a. Yavneh or Jamnia). However, as the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church highlights:
    After the fall of Jerusalem (A.D.70), an assembly of religious teachers was established at Jabneh; this body was regarded as to some extent replacing the Sanhedrin, though it did not possess the same representative character or national authority. It appears that one of the subjects discussed among the rabbis was the status of certain biblical books (e.g. Eccles. and Song of Solomon) whose canonicity was still open to question in the 1st century A.D. The suggestion that a particular synod of Jabneh, held c. 100 A.D., finally settling the limits of the Old Testament canon, was made by H. E. Ryle; though it has had a wide currency, there is no evidence to substantiate it15
    Or more recently, 
    A central problem for the thesis that the canon of Jewish Scripture was "closed" by the rabbis meeting at Yavneh ca. 90 A.D. consists on the fact that rabbinic discussions regarding the canonical status of Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs continued for several more centuries. Scholars favoring an exclusive definition of canon have used this fact to argue that the canon was still not yet fully closed at the end of the first century. But there were even later debate involving other books, and one finally looks in vain for anything like an official closure of the biblical canon throughout the entirety of Jewish history.16
    Thus, even by the end of the first century–by which time Jews and Christians were beginning to separate into distinct religious groups–the Jewish community had not clearly settled the question of the Old Testament canon! 

  13. Wasn’t the canon "sealed by Catholic Authority" 1200 years after Athanasius "came up with the NT canon"?

  14. Two points need to be made in response here. First, Athanasius did not “come up with the NT canon”. Athanasius’ canon is simply the earliest extant list of the New Testament books that is in accord with the final canon (his Old Testament list is not identical to either the Catholic or Protestant list). Rather, canon was determined by the use of certain books in the liturgy, and ultimately canonization was important to unify the church as to which books could be used in the liturgy. Athanasius list is simply reflective of this living Tradition, and as bishop of Alexandria, is likely reflective of the books in common use within that Patriarchal jurisdiction.

    Second, the question appears to be making reference to the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century. The Council of Trent affirmed the canon to contain the 27 books of the New Testament and 46 books of the Catholic Old Testament. However, it did so in response to the Reformers who were (a) disputing the canon of the New Testament and (b) had removed 7 books from the Old Testament! Thus, at Trent, the Church reaffirmed the canon that was established by the councils of Rome, Hippo and Carthage in the 4th and 5th centuries.

    To see this point more clearly, imagine if a Christadelphian brother today proposed that the Epistle of Jude be removed from the New Testament or the book of Esther from the Old Testament. In response, his ecclesia rejects the proposal and includes in the Statement of Faith that the 66-book Protestant canon in its entirety constitutes “the Scriptures”. Would we conclude on this basis that the ecclesia had no established canon until 2016, or would we conclude that the ecclesia rejected an innovation by affirming its longstanding position? The latter is what the Council of Trent did.

  15. “At the time this consensus was achieved, there was no monolithic 'church’… Whose church is represented by the era in which consensus on the NT was achieved? Catholics? Nope. Protestants? Nope. Orthodox? Nope. Pentecostals? Nope. Any church now extant today? Nope. So… what’s the issue here, exactly?”–Dave Burke

  16. Consider the words of the Church Father Irenaeus, writing in the second century:
    As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.10.2)
    Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions [of bishops] of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.3.2)
    Irenaeus speaks of a widespread unity in Church teaching across the known world, and ties this unity to agreement with the Church of Rome. And this pre-dates the closure of the canon by two hundred years.

    Moreover, if we look to the fourth century, ‘the era in which consensus on the NT was achieved’, there was a monolithic church that came together in two ecumenical councils (Nicea [325] and Constantinople [381]) to dogmatically define the core doctrines of the faith. By their own testimony in the Creed, they affirmed ‘one holy, catholic and apostolic Church’—very monolithic language! Their consensus on Trinitarian orthodoxy remains definitive up to the present day for Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox and Pentecostals—all the groups mentioned by Dave—just as their consensus on the NT canon does. Hence, the issue here is that orthodox Christians rely on the monolithic consensus of the fourth-century church for their definitions of both the NT canon and core theology. By contrast, Christadelphians consider the theological consensus of the fourth-century church to be corrupt and heretical, but still dogmatically accept their definition of the NT canon as definitive and unimpeachable. This is internally inconsistent: either God guided the fourth-century Church to make reliable dogmatic judgments (in which case both their creed and their canon are trustworthy), or He did not (in which case neither their creed nor their canon is trustworthy).

  17. Maybe God used corrupt churches to preserve a non-corrupt canon?

  18. Maybe. However, if so, what is the basis for this conclusion, other than necessity driven by pre-existing beliefs? We have no statement in Scripture asserting this to be true, and even if we did, it presupposes that we know the canon of Scripture in the first place! In short, holding out this interpretation of history as a possibility is not the same substantiating a case that this is what, in fact, happened.

    In contrast, we have laid out reasons beyond conjecture for why it is more likely that God preserved a Church that in turn preserved the canon under His guidance. 

  19. “Christadelphians have never proposed a canon of our own, because we’re satisfied that our theology can be found in the current canon.”–Dave Burke

  20. This statement appears to subordinate the canon question to the need to "find our theology", suggesting that one's theology can be known independent of the canon question. However, the canon question lies at the base of the epistemological pyramid we mentioned at the beginning. A canon is not the end result of a theological system, nor is it a working hypothesis; it is, to quote the Christadelphian Statement of Faith, 'The Foundation' of the Christadelphian belief system. Thus, even if Christadelphian theology can be found in the current canon, this is of little theological value unless the current canon is correct! Hence, this assertion still does not explain why Christadelphians dogmatically accept the current canon.

    Moreover, if the above is the reason why Christadelphians have never proposed a canon of their own, then the door is open for any Christadelphian who becomes dissatisfied ‘that our theology can be found in the current canon’ to change the canon. This is not merely hypothetical: we have recently observed a Christadelphian to openly suggest that perhaps Jude’s canonical status should be revisited in view of the writer’s ideas about fallen angels and use of apocryphal writings. On what grounds might Christadelphians resist such a suggestion, if indeed it should be resisted?


In our first article we asked upon what basis Christadelphians could be certain that the canon they hold is inspired and fully complete; we sought a positive case for their confidence.  In the replies received, this foundational question was passed over and therefore remains an active issue. We were however asked on what basis our own confidence rests, and we have attempted to articulate our own positive case in response. That said, it should be stated that even if the reader does not accept our positive case, this does nothing to absolve him or her from the need to outline a plausible, evidence-based position of his or her own.

In this final addition to our post, we explained that a well-founded confidence in the canon is best situated within the context of a Church invested with authority and protected from error by the Holy Spirit in matters directly related to the Christian faith. This also removes the problem of having to pick and chose where God guided the Church, and where it was left to slide into apostasy. This latter problem should not be underestimated because it requires a person to have an independent, perfect source of knowledge for authentic Christian doctrine and practice, including the limits of the canon!  Without this external knowledge, how could you know whether the Church was led into truth or slid into error? You can’t; you are simply projecting your own views onto the history of Church. 

Next steps: We encourage you first and foremost to pray for guidance from God, who we say with confidence desires that all should come to a knowledge of truth, since He is Truth itself.  Second, we again encourage you to ask respected brothers and sisters within the Christadelphian community about the issues raised in these posts and blog in general.  Compare the answers–or silences– you receive with the responses on this blog and with those available from the wider Christian community.  While we encourage due diligence in exploring these matters, we also encourage you to have patience with self and others.  Our own conversions occurred over several years, not several days. We are convinced that God is honoured in the process of searching Him out, not only when arriving at particular conclusions.

Finally, we acknowledge that our treatment of this and other subjects is far from exhaustive. We have therefore included below a few books that are responsible with the Biblical and historical data while remaining accessible to lay people like ourselves. 

And may God bless you, and those you love.

Nathan and Matthew Farrar

Suggested Reading

Graham, Henry G. (1997). Where we got the Bible: Our Debt to the Catholic Church. Catholic Answers.

D'Ambrosio, Marcellino. (2014). When the Church Was Young: Voices of the Early Fathers. Servant Books.

Akin, Jimmy. (2010). The Fathers Know Best: Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church. Catholic Answers.

Michuta, Gary G. (2015). The Case for the Deuterocanon: Evidence and Arguments. Nikaria Press.


  • 1 Relating to the nature of knowledge, e.g., how we know something to be true or false.
  • 2 A listing of such testimony, by a Protestant pastor, can be found here, among other places.
  • 3 One can note at this point that Dave has written material about the Christology of early Christian texts such as the Letters of Ignatius and 1 Clement that ignores scholarly exegesis of these texts and claims they are compatible with Christadelphian Christology. Tom has written a detailed refutation of Dave’s claims concerning Ignatius' Christology which led Dave to acknowledge that he needs to rewrite his essay on the subject but also to assert, ‘I don't see anything in Tom's rebuttal that warrants a formal reply.’
  • 4 See here for a more detailed list.
  • 5 ‘Unitarian’ is used primarily for a post-Reformation Christian position about the nature of God, conceived specifically in opposition to the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. By contrast, ancient Jewish monotheism did not develop in opposition to anything resembling the doctrine of the Trinity. Hence, one risks anachronism in using the term 'unitarian' to describe ancient Jewish theology, which is probably why scholars of ancient Judaism and Christianity, including Dunn and McGrath, rarely use it in this way. However, we understand what Dave means.
  • 6 Concerning Johannine Christology, Dunn writes, ‘there can be no doubt that the Fourth Evangelist had a clear perception of the personal pre-existence of the Logos-Son’ which he presents ‘as a fundamental part of his message’ (Dunn, James D.G. (1980). Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry Into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation. London: SCM Press, p. 249). Elsewhere, he asserts that the main contention of Johannine Christology revolves around the question of Jesus’ origin, to which the Evangelist’s answer is ‘from his Father in heaven… he has been sent from heaven and speaks of what he has seen and heard with the Father’ (Dunn, James D.G. (1983). Let John be John: A Gospel for Its Time. In Peter Stuhlmacher (Ed.), Das Evangelium und die Evangelien: Vorträge vom Tübinger Symposium 1982 (pp. 309-340). Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, p. 322). He says the distinctiveness of Johannine Christology lies in ‘the thorough--going portrayal of the Son sent from the Father, conscious of his pre-existence, the descending-ascending Son of Man, making the profoundest claims in his “I am” assertions, which both dominates John’s christology and distances it most strikingly from the Synoptic tradition’ (Let John be John, p. 317). Commenting on the inference of ‘the Jews’ that in claiming to be the Son of God, Jesus made himself ‘equal to God’ (John 5:18) and has ‘made himself God’ (John 10:33), Dunn comments that this is ‘a significance for “Son of God” which the Evangelist… wants to press home on his own account (1:1-18; 20:28)’ (Let John be John, p. 322). He locates Johannine Christology as ‘a development which was actually part of the late first century exploration of the conceptualities available and appropriate to talk of God’s revelation and salvation, and which was probably in the vanguard of that exploration. It was a developing theology which was partly reacting against other strands of that exploration and partly stimulating reaction from others (the rabbis in particular), and which was in process of formulating a distinctive Christian theology which would be increasingly unacceptable for the rest of Judaism, being perceived as a denial of the unity of God’ (Let John be John, p. 338). Read in this way, the Gospel of John can easily be seen as a major development in the history of theological reflection that was to culminate in Chalcedonian orthodoxy. It is much more difficult, even within Dunn’s reading of the New Testament, to conceive of John’s Gospel along a trajectory toward Christadelphian theology.
  • 7 Ehrman claims that ‘the early Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke – in which Jesus never makes explicit divine claims about himself – portray Jesus as a human but not as God, whereas the Gospel of John – in which Jesus does make such divine claims – does indeed portray him as God’ (Ehrman, Bart D. (2014). How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. New York: HarperCollins, p. 4). Concerning Paul, he writes that ‘Paul holds to an incarnation Christology… Paul understood Christ to be an angel who became a human’ (How Jesus Became God, p. 252).
  • 8 Dunn, in keeping with his primarily historical, exegetical (as opposed to dogmatic, theological) interest, is concerned to recover the meaning of New Testament texts intended by the original authors, independent of the later role served by those texts in the development of orthodox dogma. However, this does not represent a polemic against the patristic church. For instance, in his essay Let John be John, Dunn argues against understanding ‘John’s christology too quickly as an expression of later orthodoxy’ (Let John be John, p. 317) but nonetheless describes ‘the use of the Fourth Gospel within subsequent dogmatics’ as ‘quite legitimate within its own terms’ (Let John be John, p. 312).
  • 9 Catholic Biblical Quarterly is one of the most highly regarded academic biblical studies journals!
  • 10 While it would be lexically possible to read ‘Joshua’ instead of ‘Jesus’ here, neither the OT nor Jewish tradition supports the notion that Joshua saved a people out of Egypt and afterward destroyed those who did not believe. Rather, Jude would be identifying Jesus either with the LORD or with the Angel of the LORD.
  • 11 This view is articulated by John Calvin (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.7.5).
  • 12 For the unfamiliar reader, the Catholic/Orthodox canons include 7 books of the Old Testament not in the Protestant Canon: Wisdom of Solomon, Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Sirach, and Baruch. These books were/are in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament Scriptures widely used in Jesus time by Jews living outside of Palestine. There is no single official canon used by the Orthodox Church, and some regional variation exists with additional books such as 1 Esdras, 3 Maccabees and the Prayer of Manasseh apparently being treated canonically in some areas.
  • 13 For example, though Mark is not himself an Apostle, he is believed to have written the Apostle Peter’s account of Christ’s ministry that he heard recounted many times throughout their ministry together.
  • 14 Along these lines, New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman does not accept the testimony of the Fathers as reliable, and thus denies that we can know who wrote any of the Gospels. In essence, Ehrman denies the very possibility of a historical criterion of apostolicity.
  • 15 F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingston (Ed.) Oxford Univ. Press, (2005). p. 861, emphasis added.
  • 16 Chapman, S.B. (2010). The Canon Debate - What it is and why it matters. J Theol Interp., 4(2), 282.