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Research Blog

The Progressive Nature of The Bible

Posted by Timothy Woodall on May 15, 2013 at 5:20 AM

One of the big challenges for former members of any highly exclusive group, whether it is the Christadelphians, the Jehovahs Witnesses, the Exclusive Brethren or one of the countless other similar groups is reorientating oneself to living outside them.   I understand this from personal experience.  This is particularly true for those brought up within such movements because they lack a prior form of reference.  It is why many people who leave often try and commit suicide, struggle to function in the wider world and have other difficulties, often social.   A general principle is the more exclusive and high demand a religion the more difficult it is to leave and reorientate.   It is a sociological and mental challenge, not one primarily due to any loss of faith as many who remain would believe.  This can be shown by the fact that it is common to a huge number of different high exclusive groups.   It is the religious equivalent of culture shock.

It is of course why many label all high demand and exclusive groups under the label "cult".  The implication is that mainstream society or mainstream religion have it all right in science terms, in psychology, in worldview.  In practice life is not so simple and groups often exist because they answer the needs of their members to some degree and answer objections they have to the wider society.  Many start as protest movements - in the case of Christadelphians it was to mainstream Christian theology - with simplified solutions and views they institutionalise.   Eventually their own problems emerge, some cannot re invent themselves and diminish, others emerge in new forms.

When I first set up this site it was primarily to address stuff I had discovered during my time as a Christadelphian and which led to an altered understanding and disfellowship by them.   To say it has been a challenge is an understatement.   We are not naturally well equipped to lose all our social supports and reorientate our thinking whilst still trying to survive in the world.  That's not to say Christadelphians are cruel.  They believe what they do is God's will on earth, they have the truth that has to be protected and kept free from error, and will usually still talk.   The difficulty as a leaver is it is all designed to try and leverage pressure on those who leave to return.   Those who leave, though, rarely do so to offend, it is simply because they no long find certain aspects fit cohesively or work well in their situations.   It has some comparison to going through a divorce.

As I sought to clarify my thoughts I have become increasingly aware that many of the weaknesses in Christadelphian are actually relevant to wider Christianity.   Despite all their different theology Christadelphian beliefs are largely based on the idea of an infallible Bible.  Each verse is believed to be the very words of God and it is believed they perfectly harmonise in all parts.   My initial objection was their view of the Holy Spirit because from a reading of the New Testament it was clear that it was based on an experience that was taught about by word of mouth.   They didn't teach the idea of an infallible Bible from which a person had to seek the truth for themselves even though to Jewish folk they used the Old Testament to make their case.   I also had the experience of which they spoke.

Most forms of Christianity would accept the idea of the Spirit as dwelling in us and being "Christ in us".   Christadelphians are fairly unique in denying it.   In practice many/ most churches elevate the Bible as an authority above direct guidance or understanding.  The Quakers are an historical exception, although the consequence there has largely been a movement towards a greater sense of the working of the Spirit than is typical for Christian theology.  The elevation of "Biblical authority" as an overarching concept is true particularly for Protestant groups and their spinoffs and I believe really gained weight with the printing and translation of the Bible and the use of it in the Reformation.   It was used to counter the idea of church authority based on the concept of a direct progression from the first Christians.    

Several puzzles actually emerge from recognising that in the Bible references to the Holy Spirit in the believer do actually relate to an experience and not simply the degree to which the believer has the Bible in them.   It is clear from the New Testament for instance that there were those claiming experiences which were contrary to those of the writers, for instance.  Some such as certain Gnostic groups saw it all as metaphor and through history some esoteric groups have always existed.   Esoteric understanding (based on experience and understanding within) relies on metaphor because of the limitation of words.  It therefore is inherently less likely to gain popularity or be suitable for  mass teaching or institutionalisation.

The difficulty this presents to Christians is the whole question of authority.    Early Christianity was incredibly diverse and the dominant groupings eventually defined the New Testament canon that is widely used today.   That alternative groups existed at that time is evident because they are referred to in the Bible.  There were folk who were very Judaistic and who wanted to retain elements of the Law for instance.  Paul who is credited for writing much of the New Testament sees it as all about the Spirit.   He claims to have not been taught by any of the Christians then existing, but to have received his knowledge direct from God.   He radically opposed Judaisers, who no doubt also saw themselves as having the truth.  To him the Spirit was everything, God was directly leading those who were open to being led and there are huge discourses based on a dualistic concept of man being made up of flesh and spirit and how the spirit could strengthen a person to overcome the "thinking of the flesh" - our natural propensities.  In fact his whole emphasis on spirit and the sheer lack of references to the literal life of Jesus has led some to wonder whether he believed in the literal life of Christ.

It is clear too that when differences of opinions occurred there was an idea of authority existing in many New Testament books too.   Many books specifically write countering those seen as errorists and stating actions to be taken.   Much was written to deal with problems.  That no doubt continued as there are verses stating to teach others to lead and so there would have been both continuations from early forms of Christianity and offshoots. Eventually Catholicism gained dominance in the West and other orthodox churches elsewhere which all claim to be a continuation right from the start.

The Bible alone is an idea that gained prominence as a way to correct the errant Catholic system.   It's elevation as sole authority is a development.  Paul (who states his authority on occasion) doesn't even promote it, although they did clearly use and value the Old Testament and the new writings did gain weight until they were eventually canonised and largely fixed.

Another difficulty is that the Bible doesn't neatly fit as a cohesive book.   Despite the idea that God directly transfered the words in a literalistic sense to the writers the books have very different styles and there is a huge paradigm shift between the Old and New Testaments.  Matthew, Mark and Luke have so much in common as literal accounts they are thought by some to use the same source.   John by comparison has a Jesus who talks in a very different, very esoteric way.   If we take Job as a literal account of what people said they talk in verse.   In reality the Bible is an eclectic, a collection of books that reflect the writers and how they interpreted what they experienced.

The idea of the Spirit and being spirit led also leads to spiritualisation of concepts.  This is largely reduced (although not totally absent) from the Old Testament.  The teachings of Jesus are largely what are called "hard sayings".   Generally impossible to keep but on an idealistic level hugely appealing  as perfect, divine principles.   The idea of the Spirit and grace that comes out later fits a progressive idea that man being physical and carnal can't be good enough and fits the idea of a resurrection and need for a Redeemer onto it.   This is all largely based on a literalistic view of man having a duality of nature (body and spirit) and relates to a literal fall in Eden.
In other words the emphasis becomes that of an inner level, that of the heart.   It's not a purely intellectual one about how much a person knew the scriptures.  It was about how the external physical man had animal like tendencies that could make him cruel, heartless, selfish, materialistic, jealous etc.  The idea is that since we can't change ourselves, we need the divine to enter into us.   Until we reach the point of self knowledge of what we are we live by the flesh.  Mainstream Christianity sees the solution as repentance, esoteric forms relate it to an experience in a greater sense.

The Judaistic system that was followed when Jesus comes was based on a nation called the Jews and who the Old Testament states were given the Law of Moses.  Their perception of themselves was based on older promises given to their founding fathers, called Patriarchs.  We read they were given promises and their decendants would be blessed.   The Jews and the Old Testament books referred to their literal descendants as the children of Abraham and as "God's People".  The New Testament makes the children of Israel those who have circumcised hearts.   Being a Jew in a spiritual sense means something different.  This leads to an interesting phenomenon  of hue numbers of New Testament passages quoting the Old Testament out of context.  They spiritualise the literality of the verses they quote.   This would be an involved study, but what it shows is they literally reinterpreteted it.

Take the Old Testament literally  we have pasages which have been used to prove the Jews are returning to Israel as the people of God.   From the New Testament they are not the people of God unless they repent.  Verses show the restoration of the Law of Moses and the rebuilding of a huge new temple in Jerusalem.  Despite change coming from within in the NT and verses clearly stating the abolishment of the law and its inadequacies animal sacrifices can be shown to be predicted and officiated by Levitical priests.    Its a very physical view of the coming kingdom of God.   Fiit Jesus into that and he rules on a restored throne as the successor of a line of Jewish kings in an hierarchical fashion to force compliance onto everyone.

The problems of balancing the Old Testament as a literal account onto the New Testament as a literal account are unreconcileable IMHO.   What we have are books with progressions of understanding and Christianity is a reinterpretation of the Old Testament.   In the orthodox forms they held onto the literality of many events but spiritualised many understandings, in some gnostic forms they spiritrualised everything.

I believe a better understanding of the Bible will make very literalistic understandings untenable.  In fact Christadelphian beliefs have at their heart the rationalistic influences of the period known as the Age of Enlightenment.   This is really why references to the devil and demons in the NT are referred to as "sin in the flesh" and "mental illness".   They did believe in a sinful nature, but they saw three elements (the world, the flesh, the Devil) as operating not two (the world, the flesh).   Christadelphian theology can sound convincing Biblically by someone experienced because they can outquote opponents often (due to high Biblical knowledge) and its heavily based on an Old Testament perspective.  This is very much materialistic (its all physical) compared to the New Testament.   There are also many other variations.   For instance the idea of being Spirit changed is largely New Testament, although they clearly believed in supernatural revelations throughout.   Veiws of the demons and devil gain strength in the New Testament.   In Genesis the serpent that tenpts in the Garden of Eden is clearly referred to as an animal God created.   In Revelation it is explained to be the devil working.

Christianity is therefore a development from Judaism, but with reinterpretations and with possible influences from elsewhere that acount for other aspects.   These progressions make the Bible as a literal authority impossible.     Picking proof verses and wresting bits that don't fit is really a result of doctrinal bias and preference.  Christadelphians are absolute masters at doing this.   They have a huge knowledge of the Bible, but have wrested huge sections from obvious meanings.  They try to make it cohesive in a way that it is not and have internally rejected the supernatural perspectives of many of the writers to do so.

Mainstream Christians tend to have a simpler version which better fits the emphases of the New Testament.   Many liberal Christadelphians long for this after the sheer intellectualising of the Christadelphian approach.    The traditional Christadelphian approach makes the Bible very hard to feel that you have understood it.   It wrests too much and although doctrinal bias can keep one still involved, there's a deep feeling certain verses aren't well explained.   That's because they aren't.

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Reply EJK
7:24 PM on May 24, 2013 
Yes you are right by saying there is stuff in the bible that is confusing at times, but ask a CD, they say they have worked it out, I think not, they come to an understanding that their interpretation is correct and everybody elses views are wrong. My question to a CD is, did God speak to you and say you are correct...We christians see things in the bible differently then CD's but no matter what we are always told that we are wrong. We have no proof that we are 100% correct, neither the CD's. They have been so wrong predicting second coming of Christ, so what makes them so right interpreting the bible.
Reply FreeToSave
1:18 PM on July 6, 2013 
It's 2 months since you wrote this and I have to say I have not visited recently.

I am moved by your thoughts. To say it is like a divorce to leave is correct. I left, and then had to deal with a worldly, literal, divorce too.

I love your closing paragraphs, they so sum up the closed, dreary world that Christadelphians have chosen to inhabit, and how much flawed old testament writing has turned a colourful world into black and white for them.

I pray daily that my children ( who spend some of their time in the Christadelphian world), do not get pulled down into this dark world, and have to suffer the pain of enlightenment that I have.

What a crying shame that your message did not reach the brethren and sisters before you left.

Thank you again,

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Christadelphian Quotes

You lay a great stress upon facts throughout your letters, and are incessant in your demand that I should attend to them. This is good; but facts have to be rightly put together, and then you must have all the facts. I do not think you put the facts rightly together, and you leave out some, I am sure.

(Robert Roberts, a Christadelphian Pioneer, quoted

by Ruth McHaffie in Brethren Indeed)

The Spirit of liberty, based upon the law of faith, is the Spirit of Christ; and this spirit all the Sons of God are privileged to possess, and having it, to breathe. I claim the right of exercising this privilege, as well as my contemporaries; and I require of them that they should do to me as once they loudly required others to do to them…

(written by John Thomas, the founder of the Christadelphians, when he was against creeds in 

The Apostolic Advocate magazine, August 1836)

(John Thomas, from Apostacy Unveiled, p. 137,

quoted in The Christadelphian Magazine, January 1906)

Must a man never progress? If he discovers an error in his premises, must he for ever hold to it for the sake of consistency? May such a calamity never befall me! Rather let me change every day, till I get right at last.

(from a letter written by John Thomas in 1848, quoted by Robert Roberts, in Dr. Thomas: His Life and Work)

Do what is right; be valiant for the Truth; teach it without compromise, and all lovers of the Truth will approve you. For all others you need not care a rush!

(from a letter written by John Thomas to Robert Roberts and published in The Christadelphian magazine, February 1866)