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

Saturday 1 October 2016

Journeys from Christadelphia to orthodoxy: Guest article by Dave Ellis (Part 1 of 2)

Walk into the Light

This is the story of my life growing up in and eventually leaving the Christadelphians. The title is from an Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) album, describing the short journey from the doorway onto the stage, and is appropriate in a number of ways, as you may see as you read through the article. The journey is quite long, and there is a lot of detail, so I have done it in two parts. Here is the first:

In the late 1980s and early 1990s I spent six years working in the Planning and Project Management Office for British Telecom in Nottingham. I had already left the Christadelphians by then, but had one of those “significant moments” which stand out and remain in the memory from that point onwards. My colleagues and I kept tropical fish in a tank in the office, and one day introduced a crayfish into the tank which made quite a contrast to its normal inhabitants. A couple of months later we arrived for work one morning to find the crayfish absolutely stationary in the middle of the tank. We immediately thought the worst and decided that we had wasted our money! Then one of us saw some movement behind some ornamental rocks in the tank and began to realise what had actually happened. This became a steep learning curve about tropical lifeforms!

A crayfish isn’t a vertebrate, it has an exoskeleton, pretty much like a suit of armour. This outer layer of protection doesn’t grow, but unfortunately the rest of the crayfish inside does! Eventually something has to give, and quite amazingly the crayfish manages to pull itself out of its suit of armour and grows a new one. It is quite an incredible achievement, because crayfish have a large number of joints in their legs and in their body, so it has to pull its body out of the exoskeleton, squeezing its flesh through all the narrowed pinch points at the joint of each limb. I still haven’t found the actual exit point which the crayfish used to actually get out of its old suit of clothes, and I’ve no idea how it didn’t leave any bits behind! But all of us in the office were astounded at what it had managed to do, with comments like “How did it get out of that?”

At that precise point the thought came into my head “How did you get out of that?” I am sure that this was a prompt from God because my mind immediately went to what I used to be like only a few years ago. A second thought came; “If you were to meet the old Dave Ellis, would you recognise him?” This is one of those “Eureka!” moments because I realised just how big a change there had been in such a relatively short space of time. So this is the story of my journey, of my life growing up in the Christadelphian community, of how I became the way I used to be, of how God has changed me into how I am now, and of how leaving the Christadelphians was a major part of that process.

Unlike many people who have left the Christadelphians, I didn’t leave because of doctrinal reasons, even though the issue of the day was the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, brought to prominence by the Charismatic Renewal in mainstream Christianity. Having said that, I didn’t have any major doctrinal differences at the time, as you might have imagined I would have. Neither did I leave because my faith drifted away, as is the case with so many others who have left. Instead, because of what I had experienced of Christian living within the Christadelphian community, I began to ask questions of the movement, because what I saw and experienced didn’t line up with what I read in the Bible. The contrast became even more marked as I began to meet Christians from other denominations. After all, the Christadelphians supposedly had “the truth”, and we were always being reminded that other denominations were in error. So why did I see more Biblical Christianity in how these people lived than what I saw being demonstrated by the “sole custodians of the truth”?

I was born into a 3rd-generation Christadelphian family with an older sister and a younger brother, and grew up only ever knowing life within the Christadelphian community at the Derby (Bass Street) ecclesia. In family life, both my sister and brother were quite strong personalities, and as is often the case in these situations, I tended to keep my head down as there was no room for a third strong personality in the mix.

The nature of my early childhood is marked by my first ever words, which weren’t “Mummy” or “Daddy” or something similar that you would normally expect. My first words were “Oooohhh Day Day!”, which was baby-talk for “Oh David”. It turned out to be the phrase my mum and dad would choose if something had gone wrong, implicating that I was involved in the going wrong of whatever had gone wrong! It also suggests that the phrase was used on a very regular basis.

The reality is that I grew up knowing little else other than criticism. It didn’t seem to matter what I did, or whose instructions I followed, the result was always the same, that I was wrong, or that I had done it wrong. Certain nicknames seem to hurtle my way on a regular basis, such as “You haven’t got much hayzem jayzem”, “Hello, gormless”, “You are like a fart in a cullinder” and “You are like a man I’m aunt to”. I still haven’t figured out what that last one means! It might not surprise you to know that I grew up with very little confidence, self-esteem or self-worth. This is very often the case with a person lacking in confidence, as is being socially very awkward and clumsy. I would often walk into things and trip over them, being nicknamed “Bumble Foot” as a result, which only made things worse.

For most of my life I held my parents responsible for the situation. It was only after my mum had passed away, and while my dad was in his last years, that I found out that they had both gone through far worse than I had ever experienced, even though I am still having to walk clear of the scars that still remain. They had been through much, much worse than me, and in many ways my scars were simply the outworking of their own, much deeper scars. I pray that I have not scarred my own children because of what I and my parents went through. Sadly, I remember going to see my dad while he was in his last few days, and after waiting for nearly an hour while another visitor was with him, I finally went into his room, but he was too tired to see me. This is perfectly understandable, but it meant that the last conversation I had with my dad was being told to go away and come back some other time. Sadly it typified family life, as my parents seemed to have plenty of time for everybody else, my brother and sister and their families included.

This is the baggage I took with me as I launched myself into social interaction with Christadelphians as a child, and it led to the inevitable results. In many ways, my family experience was mirrored in the Christadelphian community. So all the being sidelined, left out of things and being belittled and ridiculed were there just like being at home. So, for example, when it came to the Sunday School play I only ever got bit parts, often hidden away offstage, while my peers got all the plum roles. Even when there weren’t any parts to play on stage, instead of operating the lighting or PA system (such as it existed in those days), or even MC’ing the event, I would be hidden away out of sight. The only time that changed was when I was given the part of Abraham to play, but that didn’t give me any help with self-confidence. Let me tell you why - I had bought one of those silicon head masks, the sort that go over the whole head and come complete with hair and everything. They are quite realistic, apart from the fact that because they are covering your own head including the hair, they make your head look abnormally big. So there was I, in my early 20s, onstage with a whole load of 6 to 8-year-old children. You could say that that is an excellent depiction of Father Abraham, apart from the fact that he had this huge head and everyone in the audience was giggling and laughing.

Even from an early age I kept getting into trouble at Sunday School, but not because of bad behaviour. You know when you read the Bible, a word or passage can stand out to you and to me this was quite normal when doing my readings. I took it to be God speaking to me, because that’s what the Bible says He does. However, I was forever being told off for “reading between the lines”, and told to “stick to the basics”. It meant that Bible stories were merely accounts of historic events, with each one having a point or lesson to be learned, rather like the “moral of the story” you get from fairy stories and children’s fables. The notion that God couldn’t make a Bible story directly relevant to the here and now either never occurred to my Sunday School teachers, or wasn’t allowed to occur. This same attitude continued on into discussion time at the Bible class when I was old enough to go there. Looking back, getting told off for things which God was clearly showing me was confirmation of God’s intimate involvement in my life, rather than Him being just somebody we read about in a book.
I could give a whole catalogue of events throughout my time with the Christadelphians, but “if every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written”! (John chapter 21 verse 25). This quote is John explaining why he wrote the Gospel record, and I am “re-appropriating these words! In the light of this, I will just give a few examples.

The ecclesia had a very strong Youth Circle, such that it drew people in from a number of surrounding towns and cities, some travelling up to 30 miles to attend (not great distances in terms of Australia or the USA, but quite a long journey for good old Blighty). However, we were approaching one of those demographic phenomena that occur in closed communities, in that we were running out of young people to bring into the CYC, while existing members were growing out of it, going off to university or getting married. So numbers were falling, and the current leaders felt it was time to hand over the reins. The Arranging Brethren tended to oversee the group with rather a heavy hand, so bringing young people in from outside wasn’t successful at all, because we knew that our mates would simply find it all too dull and boring.

The changeover was actually going to be very straight forward, it seemed, as the existing CYC secretary was going to be replace by his younger brother. However, the younger brother wanted a vote rather than a straight handover, and asked someone to put their name forwards so that we could go through the motions of having a ballot. I was talked into giving my name, and actually produced the ballot sheets, but was told in a phone call the following Wednesday that the secretary in waiting had decided to pull out, leaving me high and dry holding the hot potato of a dying youth circle! I should have immediately withdrawn my name, as it is blatantly obvious that I had been set up, but my lack of self-confidence meant that I meekly accepted the inevitable.

I set about the new task with gusto, organising the programme for the next 6 months. I was asked by the youth group to do a series exploring well known phrases and sayings which the world uses, and putting them into their Biblical perspective. Good idea, I thought, so the opening phrase was going to be “What on earth are you doing, for heaven’s sake?” The Arranging Brethren criticised it as being “too worldly” (that was the whole point, of course), and insisted the title be “What are you doing on earth?” ………. ………. Spot the lame duck title! As a result I ditched that series, and just did the daily readings on the dates which had consequently become free.

We did go out and about quite a lot as a youth group, and I would go to great lengths to make sure that everyone had got transport to whatever event it was, and that no one was left out. As a result I got to memorise the phone numbers of everyone involved in the CYC. One of the things we did as a group was to form an orchestra - we actually called ourselves the Derby CYC Orchestra. In reality it was more of an oompah band, because it was just a random selection of people with an odd assortment of musical instruments! We would travel around to various CYC’s and sometimes to Fraternal Gatherings. We played three or four times at the Swanwick Youth Gathering, although the final time there my brother was prohibited from playing his drum kit. The reason given was that the drums would create a rhythm which might make our young people clap during the singing, and people who clapped would become charismatics! ……. I kid you not!

Another thing that we would do together was that we would go round to each other’s houses on Sundays after the evening lecture for “coffee and chill”. One night we were short of transport, and I was asked if I minded staying behind at the ecclesial hall, and wait for someone to come back and pick me up as I wasn’t able to drive in those days. I agreed because it meant that no one would be left out. All the CYC set off, and one by one all the adults went as well, with nobody offering to drop me off on their way, so I was left alone in the porch outside the locked front door. I waited for 30 or 40 minutes, but no one returned. My parents were taking my grandparents home and would be busy for another 30 minutes or so, leaving me no option but to set off on the long trudge home, in the pouring rain, without a coat and with no money for bus fares. So much for making sure that no one was left out! “By this shall all men know that you are My disciples, if you have love, one for another”. Yeah, right!

The CYC would have a long weekend’s camping holiday every Bank Holiday, and one August we went off to our regular camp site in Wetton Mill, in Derbyshire. The theme of the weekend was “The Lamb of God”, with the focal point being a spit-roast lamb barbecue on the Saturday evening. We actually went to the local farmer/butcher to watch the lamb being slaughtered and partly being prepared for our barbecue. The barbecue had been highlighted and promoted for weeks before the actual event, and everybody was looking forward to it. As well as the 35 or so of us on camp, there would be a number of others coming up to visit us that evening because of all the publicity, and it was only about 25 miles or so from Derby.

A friend of mine had a Saturday job and was going to be picked up from the railway station by a couple on their way up to the camp, only they decided to set off an hour earlier, so they couldn’t pick Andy up. On arrival, they were asked “What about Andy?”, because they hadn’t told anybody of their decision to travel earlier. Everyone’s eyes turned to me. I was a keen biker in those days, and had a Triumph Trident T160V, which was quite a quick bike in its day, so I was most likely to bring Andy up to the camp the quickest. I set off on the quest, and after taking him to his  home to wash and change, we arrived back at about 7.30pm – only an hour after festivities were supposed to start. However, when we got back to this well promoted event with the promise of superb, succulent lamb roast, we found that they had started without us and scoffed the lot. Not a scrap of meat was to be seen. We were given a sandwich each, consisting of a slice of bread folded over, with a piece of lettuce, two slices of cucumber and a slice of tomato. And that was it. Talk about left out of things! If it wasn’t for the very strong attention of a couple of people, I would have just climbed back on my bike and gone home, and perhaps I should have done.

Back at the ecclesia, one Sunday evening the Recording Brother sat down next to me before the meeting started and began to complain about the number of times he had to do an exhortation or lecture at short notice because the visiting speaker had cancelled the appointment. This baffled me as I had been baptised for three years or so at that point and had never been asked to speak on a Sunday. I did speak at other ecclesias once or twice a month, and was invited to speak at the Bible Class and at the Mutual Improvement Class during the week. However, this was because speaking dates at these midweek classes were almost exclusively filled from within the ecclesia, whereas Sunday appointments drew on visiting speakers from all over the country. I did get to do one exhortation, and that was on an August Bank Holiday Sunday, effectively because nobody else was available, or more likely didn’t want to do it because it was holiday time. I even had to travel back to Derby from my holiday at the CYC camp on the Sunday morning to do it! (Note that this wasn’t the weekend of the notorious disappearing lamb roast!)

During that conversation with the Recording Brother, I asked him why a number of speakers I had heard at Youth Days or Fraternal Gatherings never seemed to come and speak at Derby. The answer that I was given was that they had “unusual views”, which puzzled me, so I “pondered these things in my heart”, as I had quite enjoyed listening to them and found what they had to say was very uplifting and had “life”. I started to organise youth days and managed to smuggle Nic Willis and Phil Hawkins in on that basis! They were well received at the Youth Days, but a friend of theirs from Birmingham, Neil Genders was eventually to have a marked influence on my life, even though I never managed to sneak him in to Derby!

(to be continued - check back in a few days for Part 2!)

Saturday 6 August 2016

Orthodox Christian teaching on the afterlife versus Christadelphian descriptions of the same

In this article I want to compare what Christadelphian discourse says orthodox Christians believe about the afterlife with traditional, orthodox Christian teaching itself. In doing so, I want to suggest that Christadelphian polemic in this area has focused on popular aberrations of traditional Christian belief ('folk theology') and has largely neglected to engage with traditional Christian doctrine proper. Hence, I would invite Christadelphians to take a second look at orthodoxy in this area.

Christadelphian teaching on the state of the dead

Christadelphians teach that 'When we die we cease to exist. The only hope of life is by resurrection at Christ's return.'1 Christadelphians dogmatically reject the ideas 'that man has an immortal soul' and 'that man consciously exists in death'2 A technical theological term for the Christadelphian position on the state of the dead is thnetopsychism, or 'soul death'.3 This may be distinguished from 'soul sleep', which holds that the soul continues to exist after death but in an unconscious state. This is an idea Christadelphians have traditionally rejected,4 though it is technically not excluded in the language of their Statement of Faith.5 Another term sometimes associated with these doctrinal positions collectively is Christian mortalism.

Christadelphian characterizations of orthodox Christian afterlife belief

In Christadelphian discourse, one encounters various ideas about what 'orthodox', 'mainstream' or 'popular' Christianity6 believes about the soul and body, the state of the dead, and resurrection. The following ideas are commonly encountered:

(1) Orthodox Christians have taken over the Platonist idea7 of death as a welcome liberation of the soul from the prison of bodily existence8 9 leading to eternal disembodied bliss.10 11
(2) The ideas of immortality of the soul and bodily resurrection are mutually exclusive;12 or, if not, the immortality of the soul renders bodily resurrection superfluous.13
(3) Orthodox Christians place no value on the idea of bodily resurrection. If they mention it at all, it is merely to maintain the appearance of adhering to biblical teaching.14 They may as well, and often do, spiritualize it away.15

Traditional orthodox Christian teaching on the afterlife

Classical orthodox Christianity did not and does not denigrate bodily existence or marginalize the idea of resurrection. At the end of a lengthy study of ante-Nicene Fathers' views on the millennium, Hill finds that those who did not believe in a literal, earthly millennium but rather a heavenly intermediate state do
not appear to have held any prejudice whatsoever against the belief in a future resurrection of the body. In Gnosticism, of course, and at its fringes, a "heavenly" afterlife was certainly combined with antagonism to the salvability of the flesh. But this antagonism flowed from other impulses. It will be recalled that neither Justin nor Irenaeus charges orthodox non-chiliasts with denial of the resurrection of the body... The ground motive for the heavenly view within Christianity was not a radically dualistic anthropology (most chiliasts [premillennialists] were every bit as "dualistic" as most non-chiliasts [amillennialists] in this respect) but rather the deep and persistent conviction of a fellowship with Christ which even death could not sever.16
Hill's observation about resurrection in the early church is matched by the classical creeds, handed down to us by a Church that unquestionably affirmed a postmortem intermediate state for the soul. The Apostles Creed ends with an affirmation of 'the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.' Similarly, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed ends with these words: 'I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.' Neither creed makes any mention of heaven-going or an intermediate state; resurrection receives all the emphasis.17

The same strong affirmation of bodily resurrection is found in major post-Reformation confessional statements. The Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 32, states:
The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them: the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies... At the last day, such as are found alive shall not die, but be changed: and all the dead shall be raised up, with the selfsame bodies, and none other (although with different qualities), which shall be united again to their souls forever...
The Heidelberg Catechism, Question 57, reads:
Q. What comfort does the resurrection of the body offer you?
A. Not only shall my soul after this life immediately be taken up to Christ, my Head, but also this my flesh, raised by the power of Christ, shall be reunited with my soul and made like Christ's glorious body.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church covers the creedal affirmation of 'the resurrection of the body' in articles 988-1013, which include the following statements:
The Christian Creed...culminates in the proclamation of the resurrection of the dead on the last day and in life everlasting.
We firmly believe, and hence we hope that, just as Christ is truly risen from the dead and lives for ever, so after death the righteous will live for ever with the risen Christ and he will raise them up on the last day.
The term "flesh" refers to man in his state of weakness and mortality. The "resurrection of the flesh" (the literal formulation of the Apostles' Creed) means not only that the immortal soul will live on after death, but that even our "mortal body" will come to life again.
Belief in the resurrection of the dead has been an essential element of the Christian faith from its beginnings. "The confidence of Christians is the resurrection of the dead; believing this we live."
When [will resurrection occur]? Definitively "at the last day," "at the end of the world." Indeed, the resurrection of the dead is closely associated with Christ's Parousia
One can add that the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not denigrate bodily life or regard the body as an unwelcome prison for the soul:
The human body shares in the dignity of "the image of God": it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul, and it is the whole human person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit:
Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity. Through his very bodily condition he sums up in himself the elements of the material world. Through him they are thus brought to their highest perfection and can raise their voice in praise freely given to the Creator. For this reason man may not despise his bodily life. Rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honor since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day.
The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the "form" of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature. (Articles 364-365, emphasis added)
What we see in these confessional documents is a belief in both immortality of the soul and bodily resurrection. The two ideas have a both/and relationship, not an either/or relationship. There is no indication in these documents that the idea of resurrection is vestigial, retained to give an appearance of adherence to the biblical testimony while the real interest is confined to disembodied existence. The authors of these doctrinal statements would all agree wholeheartedly with Robert Roberts' description of the Christian hope as 'a promise of resurrection to incorruptible bodily existence.'18

Now there is no question that many orthodox Christians - both clergy and laity - have marginalized bodily resurrection and focused almost exclusively on disembodied existence in heaven as their hope. This tendency can arguably be seen in the diagnostic question, 'If you died today, where would you spend eternity?', which is widely used in Evangelical evangelism. The question seems to assume the eternal state is entered into immediately after death, sidelining the hope of eschatological resurrection.19

However, it must be stressed that when orthodox Christians ignore or neglect resurrection they are misunderstanding or misapplying their own theological traditions. Hence, when Christadelphians rebuke those who sideline bodily resurrection and regard death as an everlasting escape from the body, they are not attacking orthodox theology but folk theology. They are, in fact, making the same rebuke that many orthodox theologians are making!20 The problem is that Christadelphians have been so busy attacking popular aberrations of traditional Christian afterlife belief that they seem not to have engaged much with the traditional view itself.21


Our findings can be summed up by paraphrasing (and recontextualizing) a famous saying of G.K. Chesterton:
Traditional Christian beliefs about the afterlife have not been tried and found wanting. They have been found difficult; and left untried.22
There is a definite need for Christadelphians to engage with traditional, orthodox Christian teaching on the afterlife and not only with folk theology. I can say for myself personally that I lived for many years rejecting a caricature of orthodox beliefs rather than actual orthodox beliefs. Once I engaged with the latter, over time I found them to be sound. For Christadelphians who might be interested in reading a case for a traditional Christian view of the afterlife, a good place to begin would be John W. Cooper's book Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting.


  • 1 A major Christadelphian website says this belief is shared by Christadelphians worldwide.
  • 2 Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith, Doctrines to be Rejected 7 and 8.
  • 3 A teaching tract entitled Life after Death: The Wonderful Facts by Christadelphian Alan Hayward expresses this idea directly: 'The soul does not live apart from the body. When the body dies, the soul dies, too.'
  • 4 '...the Christadelphians...are not "soul sleepers." "Soul sleepers" are those who believe in the existence of "the soul" as an entity after death; but who contend that between death and resurrection, it sinks into a state of somnolence, like certain animals that lie dormant all the winter. The Christadelphians, on the contrary, believe that in death a man is DEAD, and that if man is not put together again at the resurrection, he will never come again, or enjoy or suffer any kind of existence whatever.' (Robert Roberts, Man Mortal, p. 61)
  • 5 Moreover, it appears that some Christadelphians do think in such terms. For instance, Alan Fowler writes concerning Matt. 10:28: 'Orthodox Christianity asserts that we have an inborn divine soul that goes to heaven, assuring continuity of consciousness after death. In refuting this false hope there is a danger that we may go to the other extreme in stating that our character or soul ceases to exist in any way until the resurrection. Scripture teaches that there is a continuity in the sense that a record of our character, continues its existence in divine ‘books.’'
  • 6 These adjectives seem to be used interchangeably in Christadelphian literature. One does not see a consistent differentiation between mainstream, orthodox theology (as defined by classical creedal and confessional documents, and standard works on systematic theology) and popular, folk theology (e.g., what one hears from the proverbial man in the street, Hollywood films, or a poem on a funeral programme). I am interested in the former category rather than the latter, as I believe Christadelphians also should be.
  • 7 '"[The sages of Greece and Rome] soon discovered that, as none of the properties of matter will apply to the operations of the mind, the human soul must consequently be a substance distinct from the body, pure, simple, and spiritual, incapable of dissolution, and susceptible of a much higher degree of virtue and happiness after the release from its corporeal prison..." This then, was the pagan philosophy which became adopted into Christian thinking and doctrine as the apostolic age drew to its close.' (Paul Billington, Space-Age Immortal Soulism, emphasis added). Note that the words in double quotation marks are quoted from Edward Gibbon by Billington.
  • 8 'Consider, first, what the universal theory of the human constitution is. It is that in his proper essential being, a man is a "spiritual" immaterial, and immortal being, living in a material body composed of organs necessary for the manifestation of his invisible and indestructible inner "self" in this external and material world. This organic body is not regarded as essential to man's identity or existence. His proper self is understood to subsist in the immaterial entity or divine spark called the soul or spirit. The organs composing the body are looked upon as things which the man uses as a mechanic uses his tools - the external agencies by which the behests of "the inner man" are carried out... In accordance with this view, death is not considered to affect a man's being. It is regarded simply as a demolition of the material organism, which liberates the deathless, intangible man from the bondage of this "mortal coil," which having "shuffled off," he wings his way to spiritual regions, for eternal happiness or misery, according to "deeds done in the body."' (Robert Roberts, Christendom Astray, Lecture 2: HUMAN NATURE ESSENTIALLY MORTAL, AS PROVED BY "NATURE" AND REVELATION, emphasis added)
  • 9 'You know that it is the belief of the religious world that man is an immortal soul, and that when death takes place the real man does not die – he simply forsakes his body and continues to live without a body. If he has been a good man, he goes to heaven to live in happiness; if he has been a bad man, he goes to hell (supposed to be a place of torment) to live in misery.' (Thomas Williams, The Great Salvation, emphasis added)
  • 10 'The body is said to be mortal and corruptible, turning to dust and ashes after death, whereas the soul is immortal and incorruptible and lives on in endless bliss or misery.' (Dudley Fifield, Heaven and Hell: What does the Bible teach?)
  • 11 'The theory that man is an immortal soul that never dies and is never buried has produced different inventions of resurrection in attempts to fit the needs of the supposed case. Some have confined resurrection to a moral quickening of the "immortal soul;" others have declared that it consists in the escape of the "immortal soul" from the house of clay and its elevation into the "spirit world." These speculators no doubt saw that too much importance is attached in the Scriptures to the resurrection to allow of its application to the body as a mere tabernacle for the soul which was only a burden during natural life, and which to be rid of is the unhampered and unburdened liberty of the soul to bask in bliss. No theory of resurrection would fit this disembodied existence as well as the ascension of the soul out of the body into heaven, and if the words of scripture could be manipulated to suit this invention the body might just as well, indeed much more conveniently, be left to moulder eternally in the dust. Having shown that disembodied existence is a myth it will be readily seen that to invent such theories of resurrection is only to add myth to myth.' (Thomas Williams, The World's Redemption, Chapter 15: Man Unconscious in Death; Resurrection the Only Hope of Future Life, emphasis added)
  • 12 'With regards to the nature of humankind, almost all of Christianity is united in affirming that within every person lies a portion that is inherently immortal. The most frequent take on this is that we have an immortal soul that upon death of the flesh does not die, but rather goes somewhere else... Biblically, the hope of humanity lies in the resurrection. It makes no sense to say that a being that never really dies is resurrected - these are mutually exclusive pathways.' (Christadelphia.org, Response to Mainstream Christianity: the Nature of Man)
  • 13 'All this is in sharp contrast to the claims of popular "Christianity". Their teaching that the righteous immediately go to heaven at death destroys the need for a resurrection and judgment. Yet we have seen that these are vital events in God's plan of salvation, and therefore in the Gospel message. The popular idea suggests that one righteous person dies and is rewarded by going to heaven, to be followed the next day, the next month, the next year, by others. This is in sharp contrast to the Bible's teaching that all the righteous will be rewarded together, at the same time.' (Duncan Heaster, Bible Basics, Section 4.6: The Judgment, emphasis added)
  • 14 'The truth is, that this article of the creed [i.e. the affirmation of bodily resurrection] is brought in to defend "orthodoxy" against the imputation of denying the resurrection of the body, which would be a very inconvenient charge in the face of the testimony of God. But this will not avail; for, to believe dogmas that make the resurrection of the mortal body unnecessary and absurd is equivalent to a denial of it.' (John Thomas, Elpis IsraelChapter 2: The Creation of Earth and of Man.)
  • 15 '[The Bible] establishes the doctrine of the resurrection on the firm foundation of necessity; for in this view, a future life is only attainable by resurrection; whereas, in the popular view, future life is a natural growth from the present, affected neither one way nor the other by the "resurrection of the body." In fact it is difficult to see any use for resurrection at all if we accept the popular idea; for if a man "goes to his reward" at death and enjoys all the felicity of heaven of which his nature is capable, it seems incongruous that, after a certain time, he should be compelled to leave the celestial regions, and rejoin his body on earth, when without that body he is supposed to have so much more capability of enjoyment. The resurrection seems out of place in such a system; and accordingly we find that, nowadays, many are abandoning it, and vainly trying to explain away the New Testament doctrine of physical resurrection altogether, in favour of the Swedenborgian theory of spiritual resuscitation.' (Robert Roberts, Christendom Astray, Lecture 3: THE DEAD UNCONSCIOUS, THE RESURRECTION, AND CONSEQUENT ERROR OF POPULAR BELIEF IN HEAVEN AND HELL)
  • 16 Hill, C.E. (1992). Regnum Caelorum: Patterns of Future Hope in Early Christianity. Oxford: Clarendon Press, p. 182.
  • 17 It is possible that a notion of intermediate state is presupposed in the doctrine of 'the communion of saints' mentioned in the Apostles Creed-certainly it came to be.
  • 18 Robert Roberts, Christendom Astray, chapter 4.
  • 19 This implication is even clearer in the lyrics of the praise song If You Died Tonight by contemporary Christian group Big Daddy Weave: 'If you died tonight where would you be, where would your soul spend eternity?' For criticism of this sort of diagnostic question, see Zens, Jon. (2015). "Are You Going to Heaven?" A Journey Away from the Wrong QuestionIn Christopher M. Date & Ron Highfield (Eds.), A Consuming Passion: Essays on Hell and Immortality in Honor of Edward Fudge (pp. 60-63). Eugene: Pickwick Publications.
  • 20 In addition to Roger E. Olson's two online articles (here and here), see Wright, N.T. (2008). Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York: HarperCollins, pp. 13-30.
  • 21 In descriptions of orthodox beliefs in Christadelphian discourse, for instance, one rarely encounters terminology used by orthodox theologians for the state of the dead, such as 'the intermediate state'; nor does one find an appreciation of the distinction between different kinds of anthropological dualism, such as substance dualism and holistic dualism.
  • 22 The original saying was, 'The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.' (Chesterton, G.K. (1912). What's Wrong with the World? London: Cassell, p. 48.)

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.