Saturday, February 04, 2006

What did Christadelphians set out to be? (7)

To summarise before moving on, early Christadelphianism grew out of the Believers Movement. It wasn't until 1864 that many of these Believers churches began to adopt the new denominational name coined by John Thomas: Christadelphians (I plan to post something later about the registration of this denominational name).

There were a number of things which characterised the Believers movement and early Christadelphians, and which contributed to the growth and success of the movement. So far I have mentioned the following ones:

  1. Christadelphians set out to be people with a spirit of discovery; people who are guided by the Word of God but who reject creeds and statements of faith as having any authority; people who have a pioneering drive and ambition to find the truth for themselves and in allowing the Bible to interpret itself.
  2. Christadelphians set out to have open minds. They set out to study, read, learn and mature in their faith and would change their minds frequently in the process. They set out to be "teachable" and open to new ideas and eager to explore and discuss them.
  3. Christadelphians originally saw their place within the Body of Christ, and sought both to learn and to influence as they grew in grace and knowledge. They recognised and appreciated the valuable contribution of other Christians and would also endeavour to share their own perspectives in the hope that the whole Body of Christ would come to maturity.
  4. Christadelphians set out to have a simple faith and to tolerate diversity of opinions on many matters.

In my next 3 messages I gave a brief summary of some of the events of 1864, 1873 and 1885 which changed the direction of the movement. There were 3 main consequences of these events which were to have a lasting influence in Christadelphianism, and I will look at these over the next few messages.

1. There was a shift from the openness to change, from the exciting and lively debate, and the tolerance of the early years, towards a rigid dogmatism.

John Thomas had himself said, when challenged for having changed his mind yet again:
"Must I ever hold to one belief for the sake of consistency? May such a calamity never befall me. I will change my mind every day if need be until I get it right at last.”
Robert Roberts began to propogate the view that John Thomas had discovered "all truth". He admitted outright "to the charge of holding ‘that the knowledge of Scripture, in the writings of Dr Thomas, has reached a finality', we plead guilty." He made his view clear that "in the writings of Dr Thomas, the truth is developed as a finality, and that they are a depot of the Christian doctrine" (The Christadelphian, September, 1874, pp. 408-9. My emphasis).

Elsewhere, Roberts wrote:
"There is but one safe position, and in that we mean by the favour of God, to entrench ourselves ‘for better or for worse' viz., THE WHOLE TRUTH AS BROUGHT TO LIFE BY DR. THOMAS...We yield not a slavish deference to the judgment of Dr. Thomas; but we rejoice to be able to see that by the grace of God, he exhumed for us the whole truth; and for this we shall stand till death or the Lord's coming end the fight" (The Christadelphian December, 1873, p. 564. His emphasis).

Many brethren realised that something was very definitely not right. John Thomas never claimed to have "the whole truth" or to have developed the truth "as a finality". To say "the knowledge of Scripture, in the writings of Dr. Thomas, has reached a finality" was not simply a rash overstatement arising out of enthusiasm for Thomas's ideas. It was repeated, and with such force that it was intended to silence anyone who held a contrary view. Roberts' infatuation with John Thomas was coming perilously close to idolatry.

While Thomas changed his mind as he matured and was exposed to new ideas (in later messages I will look at some of the influences on his changing theology), Roberts rarely had a new idea. Much of his magazine was devoted to publishing and re-publishing the writings of John Thomas (on the rare occasions when his magazine didn't include something from "the Doctor" he apologised to his readers), and to defending Thomas's ideas. But then, if Thomas had found "the whole truth", there could be no possibility of "new ideas" or "better ways" or a "clearer understanding" of anything. Matched against some very competent Bible scholars in the Christadelphian community Roberts was clearly out of his depth, so by simply defending Thomas he was on safer ground. It gave him a way out. Roberts was definitely good at simplifying Thomas's writings in less verbose language, and was more of an "organiser", but he lacked originality, creativity, and independance of thought.

When Roberts contradicted himself, rather than admit to changing his mind or being persuaded of a better way of understanding, his explanations and resulting theology became increasingly complex in order to accomodate his contradictory statements. This is well illustrated in his writings on the Atonement. In The Blood of Christ he rarely quoted Scripture and relied heavily on "logic" to defend his views (and his "logic" included racist statements about the mental abilities of Indians and aborigines which have been deleted from some later editions). To read this work alongside The Slain Lamb by the same author one could be excused for thinking they were by a different author. To maintain the appearance of consistency his reasoning became more complex and tortured. By contrast, Thomas's understanding of the atonement was relatively simple and he made much less of an attempt to explain the mechanics of the cross.

It was clear to many Christadelphians that Thomas simply couldn't have found "the whole truth" (as if any man could!) and the more Roberts elevated Thomas to the status of discoverer-and-revealer-of-all-truth the more other brethren questioned it. During the 1885 controversy Roberts "went to excessive lengths to defend his leader against a man who suggested that Thomas's views were not authorative" (Andrew Wilson, History of the Christadelphians p.291). In a footnote Andrew Wilson says:

"After the controversy had blown over, a number of brethren on Roberts's side in the issue freely admitted that the discussion between Ashcroft and Roberts over Inspiration had shown up defects in John Thomas's linguistic skills. For example, The Bible Lightstand, Vol ii [1885], pp 359-360, where bro H.B. Smither wrote: "The controversy has taught us that our noble brother, Dr. Thomas, was no scholar, and that his Hebrew and Greek were satisfactory only to himself and a few devotees".

Roberts quoted from private correspondance from Ashcroft in The Christadelphian which he said was an attack on Thomas, and Ashcroft then defended his statement from his private letter in a reply published in The Aeon:

'I may say that my private allusion to Dr. Thomas was intended to restrain the immoderate and fulsome panegyrism of him which is so prominent a feature in his successor's writings. This I am persuaded cannot be other than displeasing to him who "will not give his glory to another." The Dr. himself admitted that he "wrote some chaff". I have said nothing stronger than this.'

More than any other man, moreso than Thomas himself, Roberts was turning Christadelphianism into Thomasism, and a thoroughly Robertsian form of Thomasism at that.

No wonder Believers began leaving the Christadelphian movement in droves, some going back to churches in the Believers Movement which had not joined Christadelphianism.

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