The Christadelphian community has its roots within the Protestant tradition, although it has never really considered itself to be such. For instance its main magazine, The Christadelphian, originally had the subtitle:
“dedicated wholly to “The Hope of Israel”, and devoted to the exposition and defence and practical illustration of the faith preached by the Apostles. In opposition to the dogmas of Papal and Protestant Christendom, with a view to making ready a people prepared for the Lord”
The reason for this is that the founder of the Christadelphians, John Thomas, believed he had rediscovered the true gospel from out of a Paganised Christian tradition lost since the first century with maybe some remnants here and there. In fact this idea that the first century was somehow the most developed form of Christianity is an idea which was prominent in the nineteenth century in America and is now known as restorationism. To some degree it is present within Protestantism itself. The idea is that in addition to being reformed to some degree major aspects (or in the Christadelphian case the totality) of what Christianity was meant to be has been lost. The idea is that possessed with a Bible, each man from it can gain a complete understanding of true Christianity and that therefore a movement can therefore be detached from its historical environment. In other words church history since the last book of the Bible has little significance for the church to grow in understanding or experience. Truth can “come from a void.”
Despite this idea, Christadelphian history is very firmly tied to events within the emergence of Protestant history in Europe and its developments in America and cannot be understood outside of that. Like many similar movements the Christadelphians came into existence through developments of thought that have gained weight since the period called the Protestant Reformation. Although exploring the precise reasons why the Protestant Reformation proved to be a successful challenge would itself be an involved study at least two factors played a prominent role. One was the corrupt nature of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe with a distinct lack of accepted Christian virtues by its leadership and also its avarice. The second factor was a more ready availability of the Bible that led to a widespread revolt against the claim of the Catholic Church and the Pope to spiritual authority. It is widely regarded as having been started by a monk, Martin Luther, in Germany nailing a set of theses to a church door listing various sins and malpractices of the Catholic Church.
Although protests and “heresies” against the orthodox Church had periodically arisen throughout history, the ability to sustain such movements in much of Europe had proven limited because of the power of the Catholic Church. Other Orthodox Churches did exist, but they existed under the power of other political systems. To protest or speak out therefore carried huge risks and the means to challenge the Catholic System never existed. That it was connected to the Bible is certainly a part of the reason why the Protestant Reformation occurred when it did. That it was aided because of the translation of the Bible into native tongues as well as the invention of printing is certain, but it wasn’t the sole reason. Although the system itself was corrupt, within it were devout men and scholars who felt affronted by the state of the church and felt compelled to speak out. In addition there was a growing dislike of the papal system that controlled “the Church.” At that time it had the political power to overturn leaders and demand submission that meant several rulers began to sympathize and support the Reformers, many of whom were amongst the best educated men of the times.
The Reformation in its initial stages was not a protest that came from the common people and it never led to an overthrow of the idea of church authority. Instead it emerged as state churches with reformers at the head such as Huldrych Zwingli in Switzerland, John Calvin in Geneva, the Church of England in Britain and so forth. In fact it could not have been sustained without political support. These Reformers did however make their appeal on the basis of the authority of scripture, which in theory was one pillar claimed by the Catholic church too. It should be noted that although the Bible had always been considered as scripture by the Catholic Church it has never been elevated to being the sole authority that the Protestants subscribed to it. The argument of the reformers was that a tradition at odds with scripture had come about. They undoubtedly dealt with some very evident abuses of power, but they never went as far as other reformers wanted to go. In fact the aim initially of many reformers was never succession at all, but reform.
To be successful the leaders of the Protestant Reformation needed a basis of authority upon which they could challenge “The Church” as the Catholic Church was known. The claim was that the Catholic Church had essentially become corrupt, but it needed to challenge the idea of church continuity through the catholic system. The claim in essence was it had become corrupt and the basis of that appeal was from the Bible. The Bible in theory was one of the pillars of Catholic authority, although it was never claimed to be the sole one. The Catholic church always also held to a view of the continuity of the true church through conferred leadership and tradition as well.
The idea that the Bible alone is the sole source of spiritual authority undoubtedly originates from a position that developed from the stance of the Protestant reformers. Some did have concepts such as “grace alone” too, but they were largely derivatives of this central idea. The view of the Bible adopted by the Christadelphians is therefore essentially a Protestant emphasis and they have also taken unquestioned the canon or selection of books which they inherited from the Catholic church.
This is evident from the simple fact that within the Bible itself we have no record of this idea as being the sole basis of authority as well as the practicalities of the Bible alone prior to the invention of printing. A simple reading of the New Testament also records the gospel was transferred as a taught method by word of mouth, that leaders were appointed and that the whole church was aided by the Holy Spirit indwelling its members. It also has real practical difficulties as a method. The New Testament hadn’t been completed or compiled when the gospel started, nor was it easily copied quickly prior to the invention of printing as well as other problems.
The Bible alone is therefore not a restoration of first century Christianity. It is a Protestant development which whilst successful at challenging the Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation has several difficulties of its own that have become very apparent over the time period since.
The idea of the Bible alone has within it several connected ideas. It assumes for instance that all relevant church experience and knowledge for the runnning of the church was put in writing before the time the last book of the Bible is found. To make this argument Christadelphians do actually point to one verse in the New Testament which says, “But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.” They believe that the first century was led by the Holy Spirit and then when the last book was finished there was no need for direct help or guidance. The historical problems is that the compilation of books accepted as canon was a process that took centuries. There are some links to sites exploring this elsewhere on the site.
The idea of the Bible alone intrinsically puts the emphasis for finding out the truth onto the individual and assumes that ability, although most Protestant traditions (including Christadelphians) recognise the value of teaching and preaching also. We should note the early Protestants saw themselves as reformers not restorationists. They didn’t reject all of church tradition or the idea that there was a continuity from the first century, but their appeal to the scripture as authority leads that way. They also tended to retain a belief in mainstream catholic doctrines to a large degree. To explain this restorationists have to have other explanations. They believe in an apostacy for instance so large that all the truth was lost. They then also need a reason to explain why it was rediscovered. This centres around the diligence and singleminded pursuit of truth of their founder.
The major problem is that the Bible alone is essentially a complex basis of authority that rests on individual interpretation. This is why the Reformation was heavily led by scholars and academics. It has led to countless thousands of individuals and denominations making theological arguments it is hard for individuals to weigh up for themselves. So the authorities in Protestantism have to have a degree of Biblical scholarship. The difficulties did not go unnoticed by the Catholic Church which considered spiritual authority as being based on historical continuing of existence from the apostolic church. The movement from state churches to independent churches simply broadened the base further. The “Bible alone” also doesn’t place much emphasis on virtues or contemplative elements or understanding from within over scriptural knowledge. This has been recognised at times and from that churches have emerged which appeal to the present day need for Holy Spirit guidance as the necessary corrective.
The emphasis the initial reformers had placed onto the Bible led to others such as the Anabaptists who believed even more radical reformation was needed commonly known as the Radical Reformation. They also focused their claims on the Bible alone. They were certainly not united in the principles they promoted, but separation of church and state was commonly one of them. This threatened to derail the main Protestant Reformation and together with their diverse and more radical views on other matters led to them receiving severe persecution by both the Catholics as well as many of the major Protestant reformers. All the independent (non state) churches owe something to this movement of people, although some such as the Amish, the Hutterites and Mennoniteshave more direct links. One aspect which was also commonly promoted was “believers baptism” and hence a name often used for many was the Anabaptists (meaning “rebaptisers” in reference to the idea that as babies they had already been baptized). It is from amongst this group of people that Alan Eyre primarily searched and found some precedents of belief on certain issues by a few selected individuals and groups.
A lot of people from the independent churches made their way to America because of its freedom from both the Catholic church and other state churches. These immigrants had a great deal of independence of thought and ideas about freedom they took across. America in the nineeteenth century was therefore a religious battleground over who had the correct interpretation of the Bible. It’s people were very independent spirited and it was a melting pot of ideas and influences with a very strong religious desire and the freedom to exercise it without reservation. This has always been an essentially Protestant mindset and it set the stage for the development of Christadelphia. In fact the sectarianism began to seem offensive and a lot of people felt it took away from the focus and main emphasis of Christianity. They believed what was needed was a return to the spirit of first century Christianity based upon the collective idea held of Bible alone. By this time Protestantism no longer saw itself as a reformer of the Catholic Church.
Restorationists essentially believe the antidote to the problems of Christinaity lie in re-establishing first century Christianity. The Christadelphian founder, John Thomas was directly involved in a big movement in the nineteeth century known as the American Restoration movement that rejected all creeds in favour of the Bible alone. In view of the creedal basis of the Christadelphians today it is strange to find out that their origins actually lie in such a movement, but it was in fact the desire of the founder to avoid sectarianism that attracted him. In practice several difficulties emerged from this belief and many other restorationist groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Worldwide Church of God have connections. The Christadelphian community was one of a number of churches which came out of this period claiming to be restorations of apostolic truth and it is a common claim for many new religious movements that have followed. Some of the links to this period have been researched further and documented in some detail in a book by a former Christadelphian, Branson Hopkins called “The Rise of the Cults” who has compiled an excellent graph detailing historical connections. The Christadelphians are therefore only unique in the detail of their doctrinal distinctives not many of their basic premises.
One eventual consequence of the Protestant Reformation was greater freedom of thought, but it was a long process in coming and huge numbers of people left Europe as a result of persecution. Many of them emigrated to America where The American Constitution was compiled based upon ideas of personal freedom and liberty with strong influence by deists such as Thomas Paine. Over time a general distaste over persecution also led in Europe to greater religious freedom. This did not remain simply in the religious sphere, but also led to greater independence of thought in other areas previously denied such as science, the arts and so forth, a period which is called The Age of Enlightenment. The influence of this also led to the idea of human rights, the French Revolution and the rise of other ideologies such as communism. It also opened the way for the theory of evolution and the development of secular societies and secular humanism as a belief system.
One aspect in particular of the Age of Enlightenment and the rise of scientific thought worth mentioning has been the growing elevation of materialism, the view that all reality is matter or energy, which is strongly present in the theology of John Thomas and hence the Christadelphians. This connection was noted by contemporaries at the time and it also explains why many mainstream churches are also moving that way today. Historical views of the devil, demons, hell, heaven and so forth are becoming increasing incredulous and downplayed. Forms of Christianity which do not have these beliefs have some advantages in presenting themselves as more rational and less superstitious. Much of the time as humans we aren’t even aware of growing worldviews we bring to the Bible which may have been the case for John Thomas too.
The mainstream view of the world prior to this point was generally animistic. In other words ourselves, animals, plants, even the earth itself has some non material element or spirit. This gave them their individualistic elements and an element of creativity. In fact it was widely believed spirit entities such as demons and angels existed too. What the materialists did was suggest the only reality was the material world we could see and experience through the senses. They therefore saw the world as mechanistic and this idea has penetrated science and is dogma. Although this idea has difficulties and hasn’t been proven the assumption is it eventually will be as scientific research fills the gaps. It is largely the worldview now of atheists.
The idea of the world as running to fixed natural laws also has penetrated the religious world too. In this worldview God essentially creates a machine that works to laws except on the occasions when he specifically intervenes. This non animistic worldview undoubtedly played a role in the theology of Christadelphia which reads the devil and demons, God and man having spirits and so forth out of the Bible. This was noted by contemporary critics too.
For a further consideration I have written a section on the denial of the supernatural in scripture.
Another influence on the mindset of Christadelphia has been Adventist emphases that gained huge interest in the nineteenth century. They had a strong focus on Bible prophecy and the imminent return of Christ emphasizing the ancient Christian concepts of the soon return of Christ and the kingdom of God to be established on earth. These undoubtedly had some impact on the thinking of John Thomas who knew many Adventist leaders well. It also set the stage for disillusionment as prophetic expectations failed. For instance huge numbers of people had been led to believe Christ would return in 1844 in an event now called The Great Disappointment and the failure of that led to new dates being set and new speculations emerging. These features and a focus on end time prophecy and fulfilment have always been a significant feature of Christadelphian outlook and preaching.
We can see from our study that churches that Christadelphia did not come out of a void, but instead was to some degree a product of a particular period in history. It wasn’t a restoration of first century Christianity, but was a result of the Protestant Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, the Adventist movement and restorationist ideas. There is a lack of both credibility and history to the idea that one man could rediscover the saving gospel. This is why Christadelphians seek antecedents and misleadingly suggest on websites that people with the same beliefs have existed throughout history. It shows us the limits of the Bible alone as an approach despite the use of the Bible in helping reform the Catholic Church. We can see churches learn from experience not just from study of the Bible.
A close look at restorationism also shows it comes with a theological position attached to explain both the loss of saving truth and its recovery. Theologically Christadelphians have embraced a theological position of a Great Apostasy to explain the loss of the saving truth, and historically based restoration on the independence of thought, intelligence, will and personality of John Thomas. A role was allowed for “providence” in events, but without any direct revelation by his Spirit.
The availability of the Bible did allow people to compare early Christian writing, beliefs and principles, not to mention the sayings of Jesus with how “The Church” operated.
The investigations of Alan Eyre do have some relevance, despite the misleading impressions he gave. They prove that there are historical precedence for many individual Christadelphian beliefs. Likewise Branson Hopkins in “The Rise of the Cults” and others who have researched the history of restoration movements show the development of patterns of thought and theology. Far from getting all their beliefs from an infallible Bible, there have been contemporary elements and influences at work. It shows that throughout history there have been re-evaluations of doctrine and thought, what Christ mean by what he said, how teachings should be applied and that this is a continual process. A dominant Catholic Church lost power at the time of the Reformation and its weaknesses have been well documented, but other churches in exploring other perspectives and ideas have had their own weaknesses, including restorationist churches with absolutist viewpoints.