dianoigo blog

Thursday 18 December 2014

The Phanerosis doctrine of Dr. John Thomas: a short critique

One of the last writings of Dr. John Thomas, founder of the Christadelphians, was a booklet called Phanerosis. Published in 1869, two years before his death, it represented a mature expression of his theology, and in the typical style of the day, a lengthy subtitle declared it to be
An Exposition of the Doctrine of the Old and New testaments, concerning the Manifestation of the Invisible Eternal God in Human Nature, being alike subversive of Jewish Rabbinical Tradition, and the Theology of Romish and Protestant Sectarianism.
Now, the title of the work is a Greek word which occurs in the New Testament. The noun φανέρωσις (phanerōsis) occurs twice and the verb φανερόω (phaneroō) occurs 49 times.1

Why did Dr. Thomas choose to title his work with a Greek word rather than an English word (a tactic also used in his other works such as Elpis Israel and Anastasis)? As he noted in the preface,
This is a Greek word in an English dress, and may be found in the lexicons in this form, φανέρωσις; and occurring in the phrase ή φανερωσις της αληθειας, 'the manifestation of the truth.'2
This does not reveal the rationale for the title. However, it should probably be understood as a claim that this word, as used in Scripture, constitutes a technical term for the theological concept of God-manifestation as he understood it. As will be seen below, Dr. Thomas coined the adjective 'phanerosial' to describe his doctrine.

What does the Christadelphian doctrine of God manifestation entail? It is best to explain it in Dr. Thomas' own words using excerpts from Phanerosis:
We affirm, then, that the Mosaic and prophetic revelation concerning Deity is that there is One Power, multitudinously manifested; and that these manifestations constitute ‘GOD.’... Our proposition then, is, that Moses and the Prophets teach, that there were One Primary Creating Power and a multitude of Secondary Powers, as intimately connected with and dependent on the First, as ten or a hundred are upon number one; and that this multiplication of the One Power in the relation of Father, Sons, and Holy Spirit, was in existence before the Mosaic Creation. 3
As we have seen, Moses and the prophets teach ONE self-existent, supreme fountain of Power, AIL, who is Spirit, and self-named I SHALL BE, of Yahweh: that this ONE YAHWEH-SPIRIT POWER is ‘God’ in the highest sense and constitutes the ‘Godhead,’ or FATHER IN HEAVEN; that He is the Springhead of many streams, or rivers of spirit, which assume ORGANIC FORMS, according to the will of the Yahweh-Spirit Power, and that when formed after the model, archetype, or pattern, presented in HIS OWN HYPOSTASIS, or Substance, they become SPIRIT-ELOHIM, or sons of God; and are Spirit, because ‘born of the Spirit’ – Emanations of the formative Spirit being ex autou out of him. The Spirit-Elohim was also ‘God;’ nevertheless they are created. They are formed and made out of and by that which is uncreated. They are Spirit-Forms, the substance of which (spirit) is eternal; while the forms are from a beginning. Each one is a God in the sense of partaking of THE DIVINE NATURE, and being therefore a Son of God.4
Paul and Moses agree in this, as we have shown before, saying, ‘There be that are called Gods, whether in heaven or in earth, as there be Gods many and Lords many.’ There is consequently no room for dispute on this point. Paul affirms the plurality of Gods, and Moses shows that they existed before the creation of man.5
There are not three Gods in the Godhead, nor are there but three in manifestation; nevertheless, the Father is God, and Jesus is God; and we may add, so are all the brethren of Jesus gods; and ‘a multitude which no man can number.’ The Godhead is the homogeneous fountain of the Deity; these other gods are the many streams from which this fountain flow. The springhead of Deity is one, not many; the streams as numerous as the orbs of the universe, in which a manifestation of Deity may have hitherto occurred.6
Strictly speaking, based on the way he uses the word 'Gods', Dr. Thomas' doctrine is open to the charge of polytheism, which is defined as "belief in many gods". Although this is mitigated by the affirmation that there is only one supreme, self-existent fountain of Power, this too is consistent with polytheism in which "The numerous gods may be dominated by a supreme god."7

Moreover, based on the way he uses the word 'God', Dr. Thomas' doctrine is open to the charge of something akin to pantheism, inasmuch as 'God' seems to be understood in less than personal terms, analogous to a kind of energy or matter.

It is beyond the scope of this short blog post to examine in detail Dr. Thomas' biblical arguments for his position. However it will be worthwhile to look briefly at two lines of argument; one from the Old Testament, and one from the New.

The shema‘ (Deuteronomy 6:4) has long been considered the bedrock of Jewish monotheism. However, according to Dr. Thomas, the main idea conveyed by this passage is not simple monotheism but multitudinous God-manifestation. He states that "in plain English", the proclamation translates as, "Hear, O Israel! I WILL BE our MIGHTIES is One I will be!"8 This English strikes the reader as anything but plain. Beyond the stylistic concerns, however, this translation is at odds with nearly all interpretations of this passage in history, both Jewish and Christian, as is Dr. Thomas' claim that "The Shema proclaims a plurality of Elohim".9

In line with this interpretation, Dr. Thomas notes that there are 2470 [sic] occurrences of the plural 'elohim in the Old Testament. He refers to the work of the grammarian Gesenius who explained the great majority of these plural instances metaphorically to express the majesty or excellency of God. Disagreeing that this pecularity of grammar is to be explained stylistically, Dr. Thomas asserts that "The peculiarity is, to coin a word, phanerosial and doctrinal".10

This assertion was out of line with expert scholarship then, as it is now. Ringgren writes:
The form 'elohim occurs 2570 times in all, with both the plural ('gods') and the singular ('a god,' 'God') meaning. As a rule, verbs and adjectives used with 'elohim are either singular or plural in conformity with the meaning; there are only rare exceptions. Why the plural form for 'God' is used has not yet been explained satisfactorily. Perhaps the plural also or even originally designated not a plurality, but an intensification; then 'elohim would mean the 'great,' 'highest,' and finally 'only' God, i.e., God in general.11
That the plural use of 'elohim is intended to convey the doctrine of God-manifestation, in the shema‘ and in many other passages, can be definitely ruled out. In the first place, if the meaning of 'elohim is truly plural in order to convey the notion of God-manifestation, then how is one to explain the use of the plural 'elohim for singular false gods? In 2 Kings 1:2, Baal-Zebub is the god ('elohim) of Ekron. In 1 Kings 11:33 Ashtoreth is the goddess ('elohim) of the Sidonians, Chemosh is the god ('elohim) of the Moabites, and Molek is the god ('elohim) of the Ammonites (1 Kings 11:33). In 1 Samuel 28:13, the witch of Endor uses the word 'elohim to describe the singular figure she sees coming up out of the earth. It is inconceivable that in any of these cases the plural form conveys the doctrine of God-manifestation; thus the plural of 'elohim must be explained in another way, along the lines of Ringgren above.

Furthermore, if 'elohim truly carries a plural and doctrinally significant sense when used of Yahweh in Old Testament passages, why is 'elohim invariably translated into Greek with the singular θεός (theos) rather than the plural θεοί (theoi) when these passages are quoted in the New Testament? This includes the quotation of the shema‘ by Jesus in Mark 12:29. Jesus evidently knew nothing of a multitudinous interpretation of this proclamation. (Remarkably, Dr. Thomas discusses this text in Phanerosis, but seems to have missed the significance of the singular θεός. He states that "not content with one Eternal Spirit named Yahweh, the rejector of Jesus contends for only one eloahh").12

With the principal Old Testament argument for his doctrine of God-manifestation seen to be flawed, let us turn to the New Testament. It is evident that one verse (1 Timothy 3:16) does much of the heavy lifting in the New Testament argument for Dr. Thomas' doctrine of God-manifestation. This verse is the only place in Scripture which explicitly says something approaching the subtitle of Phanerosis, namely, "the Manifestation of the Invisible Eternal God in Human Nature", inasmuch as it appears to use the verb phaneroō with God as its subject and 'flesh' as its object.
Dr. Thomas stresses the importance of this text as follows:
This mystery, which, as we see, was the burden of the apostolic preaching, was a great enigma – an enigma, dramatically, as well as doctrinally, explained. ‘Without controversy,’ says Paul, ‘great is the mystery of godliness – DEITY MANIFESTED IN FLESH, justified by spirit, made visible to messengers, preached among nations, believed on in the world, received again to glory.’ (1 Tim. iii. 16). It would be premature to go into the consideration of these six points of godliness. It is sufficient just now to bear in mind that they exist, and constitute integral parts of God-Manifestation as far as at present developed.13
A major problem with using this as a proof text for Dr. Thomas' doctrine of God-manifestation is that, in the opinion of most New Testament textual scholars, the correct reading of 1 Timothy 3:16b is not, "God (or Deity) was manifested in the flesh" (KJV), but "He was manifested in the flesh" or "He who was manifested in the flesh". The earliest and best manuscripts support the reading ὅς or ὅ rather than θεός. As Metzger explains,
no uncial (in the first hand) earlier than the eighth or ninth century supports theos; all ancient versions presuppose hos or ho; and no patristic writer prior to the last third of the fourth century testifies to the reading theos. The reading theos arose either (a) accidentally, through the misreading of ΟΣ as ΘΣ, or (b) deliberately, either to supply a substantive for the following six verbs, or, with less probability, to provide greater dogmatic precision.14
Nearly all modern translations follow the reading "He" or "He who" (NIV, NASB, NRSV, NET, ESV, etc.) Since the rest of the verse clearly refers to the life of Jesus Christ, it is best to take 'Jesus Christ' as the referent of the pronoun.

What this means, in short, is that 1 Timothy 3:16, the primary proof text for Dr. Thomas' doctrine of Phanerosis, actually says nothing about God being manifested in the flesh; it instead states that Christ was manifested in flesh. This is a statement of considerable Christological significance. As Lau explains,
the subject of the construction is clearly not God or any of his qualities or attributes, but Jesus Christ, who was revealed/appeared ἐν σαρκί, in a human body. Seen in the language of revelation this dative construction contains a profound christological implication... while ἐφανερώθη ἐν σαρκί is not a categorical assertion of Christ's pre-existence and his incarnational ministry and does not explicitly tell us of the mystery's hiddenness and subsequent revelation, the language and thought of line 1 echo that used elsewhere in the NT to depict how the Son of God had entered history, incarnated at a particular moment in time (cf. 'came into the world' - 1 Tim. 1.15; cf. 2.5-6); ἐφανερώθη ἐν σαρκί indeed can be understood in terms of the revelation and the execution of God's salvation-plan in the historical (incarnate) appearing of Christ on earth.15
Interestingly, if we look at the other uses of the verb phaneroō in the New Testament, we find that Christ (or an attribute of Christ) is the referent in the majority of cases: Mark 16:12, 1416; John 1:31; 2:11; 7:4; 21:1; 21:14; 2 Corinthians 4:10-11; Colossians 3:4; Hebrews 9:26; 1 Peter 1:20; 5:4; 1 John 2:28; 3:2, 5, 8. For instance, 1 John 3:8 tells us that "the Son of God appeared" (or was manifested).

Besides these, in one passage Jesus is said to manifest God's Name (John 17:6). In two other passages, God's attributes (but not God Himself) are said to be manifested through believers (2 Corinthians 2:14; 1 John 4:9). The noun phanerōsis is used both of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:7) and the truth (2 Corinthians 4:2). While the idea of God revealing Himself to the world, particularly through Christ, is of course present throughout the New Testament, the idea of Deity as "One Power, multitudinously manifested" is nowhere stated.

Phanerosis was a poor choice of title, since the various forms of this word are never used in Scripture to describe the doctrinal concept proposed in this booklet. We might excuse Dr. Thomas on the grounds that he did not have access to the text-critical resources which make it clear that the A.V. rendering of 1 Timothy 3:16 is incorrect. However, no such excuse exists in our day.

In conclusion, there is no reason to think that the word Phanerosis is a technical term for a particular biblical doctrine. However, the primary theological significance attached to this word in the New Testament is that God's Son, Jesus Christ, appeared in the flesh in human history to take away sins, manifested His divine glory through works of power and through the resurrection, and will appear again to bring life to those who believe in Him. As the one and only Son He made the invisible God visible. The true significance of Phanerosis is primarily Christological, unlike Dr. Thomas' doctrine of God manifestation which reduces Jesus Christ to one of a multitude of creature-gods.

1 There is also an adjective φανερός (phaneros, 18 times) and an adverb φανερῶς (phanerōs, 3 times).
2 Thomas, J. (1869). Phanerosis: An Exposition of the Doctrine of the Old and New Testaments, Concerning the Manifestation of the Invisible Eternal God in Human Nature, Being Alike Subversive of Jewish Rabbinical Tradition and the Theology of Romish and Protestant Sectarianism. Birmingham: William H. Davis, p. ii.
3 Thomas, Phanerosis, p. 20.
4 Thomas, Phanerosis, p. 23.
5 Thomas, Phanerosis, p. 24.
6 Thomas, Phanerosis, p. 39.
7 Merriam-Webster Concise Encyclopedia. (n.d.) Polytheism. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/concise/polytheism
8 Thomas, Phanerosis, p. 29.
9 Thomas,

Phanerosis, p. 31.
10 Thomas, Phanerosis, p. 17 (italics his).
11 Ringgren, H. (1974). 'elohim. In G.J. Botterweck & H. Ringgren (Eds.), Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp. 272-273.
12 Thomas, Phanerosis, p. 32.
13 Thomas, Phanerosis, p. 13.
14 Metzger, B.M. (2002). A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd Ed.). Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, p. 574.
15 Lau, A.Y. (1996). Manifest in Flesh: The Epiphany Christology of the Pastoral Epistles. Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, pp. 98-99.
16 Note, however, that as part of the long ending of Mark's Gospel, the authenticity of these verses is suspect.