How Unique Is Christadelphianism?
The true Gospel without doubt comprises a series of true doctrines which dovetail beautifully with each other. Getting one aspect wrong tends to throw out the others. For example, if Jesus is God, then Mary is the mother of God, and He must have eternally existed… If Jesus is Son of God and Son of man, then Mary had to be an ordinary woman of our nature, and the very fact of His birth requires that He didn’t personally pre-exist before His birth. And yet the impression can be given that Christadelphianism is somehow utterly unique, having arrived at conclusions which none others have. In my view, the genius of John Thomas was not so much in that he sat down and worked out the true doctrines from scratch, before an open Bible and concordance as it were… but rather than he had a piercing ability to extract from other belief systems what was true, and disregard the rest. Indeed, if you consider your total knowledge about anything, especially the Gospel, only a small percentage would have been attained from your unaided study. We process information which we receive from others, passing it through filters and our own analysis, hold on to what we think is true and disregard the rest. This is what all human beings do; there is actually very little truly original thought and achievement around, very little is “new under the sun”.
I want to briefly show how each aspect of the ‘true Gospel’ has actually been arrived at by others- even if their conclusions in other areas were suspect.
There is a long history of rejection of the trinity. John Robinson, one time Anglican Bishop of Woolwich, wrote a powerful and widely read book called The Human Face of God (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1973). In this he ably dismantles the notions of the trinity, the personal pre-existence of the Lord Jesus, and the substitutionary approach to the atonement, speaking rather as we do of representation rather than substitution. And yet this book was written by a famous church leader, and widely acclaimed. And Sir Anthony Buzzard in his numerous and widely acclaimed writings has likewise referenced very many leading church thinkers who have rejected the trinity and pre-existence notions.
There has been a growing body of mainstream Christian writers who have rejected the idea of an immortal soul and hell as a place of fire, seeing it rather as we do- simply the grave. One of the clearest statements is to be found in Oscar Cullman’s work Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? (London: Epworth Press, 1958). Joachim Jeremias explains how the literal valley of Gehenna came to be misinterpreted as a symbol of a ‘hell’ that is supposed to be a place of fire: “[Gehenna]…since ancient times hjas been the name of the valley west and south of Jerusalem…from the woes pronounced by the prophets on the valley (Jer. 7:32 = 19:6; cf. Is. 31:9; 66:24) because sacrifices to Moloch took place there (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6), there developed in the second century BC the idea that the valley of Hinnom would be the place of a fiery hell (Eth. Enoch 26; 90.26)…it is distinguished from sheol” (New Testament Theology, London: SCM, 1972 p. 129).
The need to be baptized by full immersion is widespread. The fact that this brings us into fellowship with the promises to Abraham is also not unique to our community. Many in the Adventist community, and the various groups that grew out of it, understand this clearly.
That the Kingdom of God will come on earth, after a resurrection and judgment, has likewise been widely accepted amongst many Christian groups. A well known theologian, Joachim Jeremias, has come to the same conclusion as many Christadelphians about the Kingdom of God being ‘amongst’ us today: “The meaning ‘indwelling in’ can certainly be excluded. Neither in Judaism nor elsewhere in the New Testament do we find the idea that the reign of God is something indwelling in men, to be found, say, in the heart; such a spiritualistic understanding is ruled out both for Jesus and for the early Christian tradition” (Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology (London: SCM, 1972) p. 101).
This area of doctrine might appear to be unique to us. But actually there are others who share our beliefs here, and whose work has received wide acclaim. I therefore want to write about this in more detail.
Stephen Mitchell, in a much acclaimed and well publicized book published by none other than Harper Collins, observes that throughout Job, “there is no attempt to deflect ultimate responsibility by blaming a devil or an original sin” (1). And Mitchell says this in the context of commenting upon Job 9:24, where having spoken of the problem of calamity, Job concludes: “Who does it, if not he [God]?”. And of course at the end of the book, God confirms Job as having spoken truly about Him. Mitchell observes that Job ends “with a detailed presentation of two creatures, the Beast and the Serpent… both creatures are, in fact, central figures in ancient near-eastern eschatology, the embodiments of evil that the sky-god battles and conquers… this final section of the Voice from the Whirlwind is a criticism of conventional, dualistic theology. What is all this foolish chatter about good and evil, the Voice says, about battles between a hero-god and some cosmic opponent? Don’t you understand that there is no one else in here? These huge symbols of evil, so terrifying to humans… are presented as God’s playthings”. And so Mitchell comes to the very same conclusions as we have- there is in the end only God, and He is not in struggle with any super-human ‘devil’ in Heaven. And according to Mitchell, this is in fact the whole lesson of the book of Job. Even if such a mythical being is thought to exist, as it was in Job’s time, the essential point is that God is so much greater than such a puny ‘devil’ that He can play games with him.
Elaine Pagels, a professor at Princeton University, wrote a lengthy book entitled The Origins of Satan. This is one of the most widely published statements of agreement with our position on this subject- and it’s published by none other than Penguin, and has been widely reviewed and acclaimed. For more information, see Origins Of Belief In Personal Satan. Whilst both Pagels and Mitchell implicitly treat the subject of demons in the same way as we do, it is worth referencing the work of Joachim Jeremias again: “Illnesses of all kinds were attributed to demons, especially the different forms of mental illnesses…we shall understand the extent of this fear of demons better if we note that the absence of enclosed mental hospitals meant that illnesses of this kind came much more before the public eye than they do in our world…There is therefore nothing surprising in the fact that the gospels, too, portray mental illness as being possessed by demons. They speak in the language and conceptuality of their time” (2). Commenting on the 'satan' of Job and Zechariah, the respected Anchor Bible notes: "Neither in Job nor in Zechariah is the Accuser an independent entity with real power, except that which Yahweh consents to give him" (3). A.L. Oppenheim carefully studied how the figure of a personal satan entered into Hebrew thought; he concludes that it was originally absent . He considers that their view of a Divine court, or council, such as is hinted at in the Hebrew Bible, was significant for them; but they noted that in some Mesopotamian bureaucracies there was a similar understanding, but always there was an "accuser" present, a 'satan' figure (4). And the Jews adopted this idea and thus came to believe in a personal satan.
Note the publishers of the referenced sources. These are all major publishing houses, the books are sold in standard bookstores, have received critical acclaim, and the authors aren’t eccentric nobodies. They are well known names in the Christian and theological world. Firstly, take some encouragement in the matter of preaching the truth. It’s easy to get the impression that people just aren’t interested in our understanding of doctrine because they think it’s freaky and too obtuse or unusual to be true. This isn’t actually the case. There are a lot of people out there who are interested in what we have to say, and are willing to listen approvingly to it. Because major publishing houses don’t touch crackpot ideas that nobody is interested in. And major journals don’t positively review extremist and ‘out there’ publications. There is interest in what we have to say. The issue is, how we say it. If we present it merely as the position statement of a denomination, nobody will give us much airtime nor attention. This world is tired of being preached at by denominations hungry for adherents. But let them meet real people, sharing their understanding of vital and life-changing truths as the basis for the radical transformation of human life in practice… and they’re interested. The large numbers of baptisms in recent years resulting from such an approach, as taken by Christadelphian agencies such as the BBFU, CCM and others, is proof enough of this.
In what, then, lies the uniqueness of the Christadelphian faith? It’s not that we nor our 19th century spiritual ancestors figured out doctrines from scratch. Rather, we have achieved a unique synthesis, using an eclectic approach which unashamedly borrows from the conclusions of others, and put it together in way which I believe is solidly reflective of the 1st century Christian system of doctrinal belief. This should teach us some humility; it’s not that we alone ‘have the truths’ about things like the Godhead, death state, devil etc. It’s not that we figured all this out from scratch by our unaided study. By grace we have seen how best to fit the pieces of the Gospel puzzle together. Preaching, in my experience, is largely a question of getting people to make connections, to put what they already know into the right context, and add some extra pieces to their picture to complete it. So many people will say ‘Well, I’ve always believed that it’s me not the devil responsible for my sins… I’ve always doubted that Jesus could have existed as a person before His birth…’.
We in the 21st century- at least in Europe, much of Africa, the Americas and Australasia- are not preaching to people with a blank slate so far as Christianity goes. People have some ideas, some doubts, some pieces of a picture. If we give the impression that they know nothing and we know everything- and many approaches to our communal witnessing seem to imply that- then this will be a big turn off for many people. They want to see themselves validated as people who know at least something about spiritual matters; they want to see their yearning to know more genuinely recognized in an appropriate and respectful way. Given the right approach, the Christadelphian understanding of the Gospel could make great inroads into even Western society. The ground is so ripe; but success all depends upon our having the right and prayerful approach.
(1) Stephen Mitchell, The Book Of Job (New York: Harper Collins, 1992).
(2) Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology (London: SCM, 1972) p. 93.
(3) C.L. Meyers and E.M. Meyers, The Anchor Bible: Haggai, Zechariah 1-8 (New York: Doubleday, 2004 ed.) p. 184.
(4) A.L. Oppenheim, "The eyes of the Lord", Journal of The American Oriental Society Vol. 88 (1968) pp. 173-180.