Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Christadelphian SWOT analysis (4) - the Holy Spirit

In this message, for the first time in this series, I will look at an area of Christadelphian theology where the weaknesses seriously outweigh the strengths. The subject for consideration in this message is the Holy Spirit.

STRENGTHS - the Christadelphian view of the Holy Spirit is that it is the power of God, and not the third person of the trinity. One Christadelphian publication describes the Holy Spirit this way: "by His Holy Spirit, the expression of His power, He [God] controls the affairs of the world according to His ultimate purpose with mankind" and goes on to say "It [the Holy Spirit] is the power by which God achieves His ends, both physical and spiritual" (Fred Pearce, Who are the Christadelphians? Christadelphian Magazine and Publishing Association Ltd).

Christadelphianism has correctly taught that the trinitarian understanding of the Holy Spirit as a 'person' in the Godhead has no basis in the New Testament or the beliefs of the earliest Christians. Christadelphian theology understands the Holy Spirit to be one with God, and not as a distinct person within the Godhead (The Holy Spirit is "His invisible power or energy breathed forth from His presence, and of like nature with His Glorious Person ... God and His Spirit cannot be separated. They are both one. The sun and the light that comes from the sun are both one. So God, and the Spirit that comes from God, are both one. God is the centre and glorious substantial form of the Spirit that fills heaven and earth." The Christadelphian Instructor questions 17 and 18).

WEAKNESSES - While Christadelphians generally explain the relationship between the Father and Son quite well, Christadelphian teaching about the role and purpose of the Holy Spirit seems to be rather inadequate. Christadelphian literature rarely explains how God "achieves His ends" through the Holy Spirit (especially not His "spiritual" ends), and sometimes restricts the activities of the Holy Spirit to "power concentrated through an individual or angel for the purpose of a specific miraculous event or activity" (The Testimony: The Distinctive Beliefs of the Christadelphians, Vol. 58, No. 691, July 1988, page 254).

This rather limited view and emphasis on the miraculous does not adequately explain how we are sanctified by the Holy Spirit (Rom 15:16; 2 Thess 2:13; 1 Peter 1:2) or how God can "strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being" (Eph 3:16-19). It does not come to terms with the numerous New Testament references to the continuous activity of the Holy Spirit, such as these:
  • "God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit" (Rom 5:5)
  • God and Christ "live" in by the Holy Spirit (e.g. 1 Cor 6:19-21; Eph 2:22; 1 John 4:13; John 14:16-18, 23).
  • The Holy Spirit brings about our rebirth and renewal (Titus 3:5)
  • By the Holy Spirit we receive hope (Rom 15:13) and joy (Rom 14:17; 1 Thess 1:6)
It is not enough to say the Holy Spirit is "the power of God". The Holy Spirit is the indwelling presence of God which enables us to become what God intended us to be. Yet Christadelphians rarely explain this well (a notable exception is the excellent work by Christadelphian writer Edgar Wille: The Holy Spirit - an Expository Survey of New Testament Teaching).

OPPORTUNITIES - the Christadelphian understanding of God is definitely on the right track. It correctly understands God to be One, and Jesus as the Son of God who was begotten in the womb of Mary and not before creation. Christadelphian theology could benefit enormously by taking into account how the work of God and Christ in bringing believers to maturity is accomplished through the Holy Spirit.

THREATS - there are definite signs that Christadelphians are losing members to churches and denominations which have a greater emphasis on the operation of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life. Perhaps this is because of a void in Christadelphian teaching and practice. It has been said that as a body without breath is dead, so a church without the Spirit of God is spiritually dead. This maxim would explain why those who leave Christadelphianism often complain of the lifelessness, the stifling rigidity, the dullness and morbid legalism of parts of the Christadelphian community. If this threat is not addressed Christadelphians are likely to continue losing members.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Christadelphian SWOT analysis (3) - prophecy

Continuing with the 'SWOT analysis' theme in this message I will look at the Christadelphian approach to prophecy.

STRENGTHS - a major part of the most widely used Christadelphian statements of faith is devoted to the interpretation of prophecy. The Christadelphian approach to prophecy focuses on three things: (1) the second coming of Christ; (2) the kingdom of God on earth; and (3) the restoration of Israel. None of these things are unique to Christadelphians of course, and with an increasing interest in eschatology (study of the 'end times') in mainstream Christianity more and more Christians are coming to accept the importance of some things which have always been important to Christadelphians. I personally agree that these three things are important and valuable for Bible study, and I believe it's good that Christadelphians have always recognised this.

WEAKNESSES - in some parts of the Christadelphian community certain interpretations of prophecy have been elevated to the status of 'essential to be believed'. For example, some ecclesias insist on belief in John Thomas's continuous historic interpretation of Daniel and Revelation, and regard several details of his prophetic interpretation as 'core doctrines'. I've heard some Christadelphians demand that John Thomas's interpretation of Ezekiel 38, including his view that Rosh is Russia and that Tarshish is Britain and the USA, should be recognised as fundamental Christadelphian doctrine and anyone holding an alternative view should be 'rejected' (which may mean exclusion from the platform and ecclesial positions, or even disfellowship). I know of at least one 'Central fellowship' ecclesia which demanded belief in Thomas's view that judgment would be at Mt Sinai as a condition for fellowship.

This emphasis on prophecy has sometimes led to outrageous interpretations of prophecy being advocated as Christadelphian teaching, when it may only be the opinion of a few. In my own lifetime I've attended public Christadelphian lectures which claimed, for example, that "Man will never walk on the moon" and that "Britain will never enter the Common Market". I've heard Christadelphians publicly predict dates for the second coming (a 'tradition' which began with John Thomas who set a date for the second coming more than once). I've seen Christadelphian advertising saying "the rise of Russia is a sign of Christ's second coming" as well as "the fall of Russia is a sign of Christ's second coming"!

This all contributes to a public perception that Christadelphians are a group of crackpots and that their interpretations of prophecy are nothing more than guesswork and speculation based on the daily newspaper.

OPPORTUNITIES - some Christadelphian commentators such as Harry Whittaker have made substantial contributions to the interpretation of prophecy. While maintaining a focus on the three key areas I listed above, these scholars have helped to draw the brotherhood's attention back to the methods of interpretation rather than just rigidly adhering to the ideas of one man. I believe there is an opportunity here to build on this and to re-look at many of the 'uncertain details' while exploring further the rich sources of Biblical prophetic material and examining many of the prophetic texts which have been glossed over in the past. It would be especially valuable, in my opinion, to study the issues which were important to the prophets (such as justice and equity) rather than just reading prophecy as a way of predicting the future.

THREATS - Christadelphians have lost much of their credibility because they have allowed or advocated some 'loony' interpretations of prophecy, some of which have easily been proven to be wrong. It has practically become part of the Christadelphian tradition to interpret current events in the light of questionable interpretations of prophecy and to make very shaky predictions based on a very narrow reading of Scripture (John Thomas, for example, said it was his "maturest conviction" that Rome would never be the capital of Italy!). Christadelphians will continue to lose credibility if they do not shake themselves free of what one brother called the "Christadelphian parlour game" of predicting future events and if they do not take a fresh look at the real social and religious concerns of the prophets.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Christadelphian SWOT analysis (2) - the Kingdom of God

In this message I will do a brief SWOT analysis on the Christadelphian understanding of the Kingdom of God.

STRENGTHS - traditional Christadelphianism has emphasised that the Gospel is the "good news of the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ". It has rightly focussed on Jesus' teaching that the Kingdom of God will be established on the earth and that our hope is the resurrection of the body. NT Wright, the Bishop of Durham, recently published a book titled Surprised by Hope in which he explained that the hope of Christianity is the resurrection and the restoration and regeneration of the earth, and not some disembodied state in heaven. His teaching is readily catching on apparently (for example, at this years Spring Harvest gathering in the UK several teachers said that there is no immortal soul, no heaven when we die and no torments in hell and there was an emphasis on physical resurrection and the coming kingdom of God).

It's great to see mainstream Christianity accepting to some degree a truth which Christadelphians (and others) have always understood.

WEAKNESSES - Christadelphian teaching on the Kingdom of God concentrates almost totally on the future consummation of the Kingdom and says very little about the present aspects of the Kingdom. It ignores almost completely the Scriptures which speak of how Christians in this age experience the "powers of the coming age". It also tends to focus on the details of the Kingdom, including the events prior and subsequent to the 'second coming', the building of 'Ezekiel's temple' and the boundaries of the Kingdom. Disagreements about some of these details have also been the cause of divisions in the Christadelphian community.

It seems to me that a potential Christadelphian influence for good on the wider Christian community has been significantly thwarted by the divisions, infighting and negativity.

OPPORTUNITIES - as mainstream churches look closer at the subject of the Kingdom of God, particularly in Jesus' teachings, there is an opportunity for groups such as Christadelphians to join in the dialogue with a spirit of cooperation rather than confrontation in helping our Christian friends to come to a clearer understanding of truth.

There is also an opportunity for Christadelphians to learn from other believers about the present aspects of Kingdom living, and to have a more complete understanding of the subject and a greater experience of God's grace.

THREATS - if Christadelphianism continues to ignore or neglect the present Kingdom realities there is a very real possibility that members may shift to denominations which teach both the coming Kingdom and the present realities. There are some signs that this shift has already begun.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Christadelphian SWOT analysis (1) - Christology

We're currently at the Australian Restoration Fellowship Conference in Brisbane and I'm writing this message during one of the few breaks in a intensive programme. Each day we've had 7 sessions and all the speakers have come with different perspectives. At times it has been quite challenging as we've been presented with information and ideas which we may not have seriously considered before, as the speakers and participants come from a variety of denominational backgrounds. Yet the atmosphere here is very 'united' as we celebrate the things we have in common, discuss various ideas with respect for each others point of view, and embrace the opportunity to share where God has taken us in our individual study of the Bible.

One of the things that has really impressed me is that participants who come from the various denominations represented here have all spoken of Christadelphianism respectfully, sometimes admiringly, always lovingly and with great sensitivity, even when discussing where they disagree. This has prompted me to think about the things which Christadelphians have to offer to other Christians, as well as some of the things that Christadelphians could learn from others. I though I would do a 'SWOT' analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) as a short series of messages.

In this message I'd like to comment on Christadelphian Christology - that is, the Christadelphian view(s) of the nature of Christ and His relationship to the Father.

STRENGTHS - It's interesting that there have been some very definite trends in theological scholarship over recent years towards a Christology which is remarkably similar to core Christadelphian teaching on the subject. Scholars such as James Dunn have challenged the 'orthodox' view of the pre-existence of Christ and an increasing number of theologians are coming out and saying that the Trinity is not Biblical, cannot be explained in Biblical terms, and was not the belief of the first Christians. Christadelphians have generally done a good job in explaining the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and in dealing with the various Scriptures which have been quoted in support of the Trinity or pre-existence. Of course, Christadelphians are not alone in this, although they have probably produced more literature on the subject than other non-trinitarian groups.

I've have taken note that at this Conference a number of people have commented favourably on the contribution that Christadelphians have made to study of this subject, and some have remarked that their own ideas have been directly or indirectly influenced by Christadelphianism.

WEAKNESSES - despite having the same core beliefs it is indeed tragic that Christadelphians have splintered over the doctrine of the nature of Christ, almost always over matters which are extremely technical and often beyond the comprehension of the rank and file of members. There has been a great deal of bitterness and anger between brethren of different 'fellowships' and some divisions which were created generations ago still haven't been been healed. This is to the shame of Christadelphians. At this Conference I've heard people remark that it's staggering almost beyond belief that Christadelphians who understand Christology so well have divided over minor technical issues rather than standing united and presenting a strong case to other Christians.

The Christadelphian disputes over the 'sinfulness' or otherwise of Jesus' human nature, whether He needed to 'offer for Himself' and whether His human nature was the object of God's wrath have, in my opinion, often degraded into personal attacks where the beauty of the core doctrines has been lost in the muck that has been thrown around.

OPPORTUNITIES - as Christians in mainstream churches examine the challenge that has been created by the trend amongst theological scholars towards a more Biblical Christology, and as they wrestle with these theological issues, there is an opportunity for those who have held to a Socinian-unitarian position (such as Christadelphians) to weigh into the dialogue with a spirit of cooperation rather than confrontation. We should adopt the attitude that we are helping our Christian friends to come to a clearer understanding of truth, rather than attacking them for their 'apostacy'.

There is also an opportunity for Christadelphians to learn from other believers, whether they are trinitarian or non-trinitarian, to clarify their own thinking, to 'fine tune' their theology and to adopt a healthy respect for the enormous scholarship that has been done in other areas.

THREATS - If Christadelphians don't dump their baggage which has been accumulated over generations of infighting and schism and adopt a gentler method of explaining their views, they may become useless to God as His witnesses to these truths and become an irrelevancy. Some serious work has to be done to not only repair the breaches of the past but to put an end to the divisive spirit which created them in the first place.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

I will praise You in this storm

This is one of my favourite songs from Casting Crowns (words by Mark Hall/music by Mark Hall and Bernie Herms).

It is based on themes taken from Scriptures such as Job 1:21 ("The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised") and perhaps Psalm 150:2 ("Praise him for his acts of power").

To me this song captures some of how I've felt when I've wrestled with why God doesn't "reach down" and "fix" things, why sometimes He takes away people that we love, and why in the midst of the storms of life His voice sometimes seems to be just a whisper.

Just over three years over ago I lost one of my closest friends in a tragic accident, and my wife Stephanie lost her only brother. Barely a day goes by when we don't think of him and miss him dearly. Mike had suffered some terrible injustices in recent years and was just getting his life back when it was snatched from him. I couldn't understand why God would allow this accident to happen when life was just coming good again. It seemed to me that God's timing was all wrong - it made no sense at all to me.

This Scripture had real meaning for me at the time: "The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised". These are the words of Job when everything had been taken from him, yet he praised God. I think I learned from Job's experience that God's ways may not make sense to us, they may seem to be untimely or even unjust, and we may struggle to find meaning in what He does. Yet if we praise Him in our storms we find comfort in the knowledge that He is in control and we are reminded that He is with us, even if we don't clearly hear His voice.

I hope this song will speak to you as well.