Christadelphians as a group read the Bible extensively, claim to base their understanding on the Bible alone, and that it is their sole authority. It was the widely adopted Protestant view at the time, although most believe that God (through his Spirit) will help with the understanding of it. Christadelphians historically have rejected that. They do not believe there are spiritual obstacles to understanding any of the Bible and believe that by using the intelligence and reason anyone can understand what is written. Many follow a Bible reading plan written by Robert Roberts called “The Bible Companion” which if followed daily means that a person reads the Old Testament once a year and the New Testament twice. The introduction to the planner is typical of how the community has regarded the Bible. They hold that the Bible is the only source of knowledge about God, see no place for church history or traditions, and generally play down the roles of both experience and emotion in the understanding of truth. They have also historically denied any present day guidance by God’s Spirit believing that it was only given to complete the written scriptures. They hold the Bible has supplanted any direct guidance as a “spirit-Word”.
In practice “the Bible alone” is not the sole factor behind the Christadelphian community as other sections show. It has a lot to do with a founder and pioneer members who established its own set of traditions and creeds. Nevertheless the community maintains its creeds and beliefs are in total unity with the Bible and it is on the basis of their views of inspiration and passages from it that they contend.
I would suggest that Christadelphians tend to make an idol of the Bible, fail to recognise some of the limitations of their approach, as well as not acknowledging the limitations of words.
Christadelphians usually seek to prove their beliefs by using proof quotes from the Bible.
Central to the establishment of the Christadelphians has been the idea that “the Truth” was recovered through the independent thinking of the founder, John Thomas, and which by doing likewise will enable others to come to an understanding of “the Truth” also. It is therefore worth giving some thought to this concept of “independence of thought” if it is the premise of the community and also to be our premise. Are we capable of such emotional detachment in reality and is it one which most people can realistically achieve? Or in practice, does rationalism, or the ability to lie to ourselves occur and people are converted through intellectual dominance and persuasion, social factors playing more of a role than commonly admitted.
To assess that we need to look both at our limitations and what is involved.
If it took such uniqueness of mind and independence of thought to recover the true saving gospel then it is worth examining the idea of independence of thought as to its limitations. This is after all what the Christadelphians claim the recovery of the original saving gospel rested upon. If the lack of independence of thought and the suppression of truth was a factor in mainstream Christianity, then it is possible to apply to the Christadelphians too. We also have to consider the possibility that independence of thought and the Bible alone may not be the route to God. It may not be possible for most folk, we may need the aid of God himself in some way and it may impossible to avoid reading some of our own thinking into such a search by such a method. In fact it could be possible that the community (by establishing its own system of church authority) is acknowledging by what it does (rather than what it says) the flawed nature of the idea that John Thomas required for himself to reject church authority of all kinds. If so the founding assumptions were flawed and everything subsequently built upon that is necessarily flawed also.
This belief that truth and salvation comes through personally searching of the scripture and without any direct help or guidance from God has deep theological implications with regard to ancient questions about predestination and freewill. It also encompasses a huge belief in the ability of the human intellect and sees little of a role for emotion in the process of conversion. Theologically the community has been based therefore upon a strong concept of freewill to the extent that believing in direct help by God's Spirit is a negation of it. This shares some strong similarities to Pelagianism, an ancient set of beliefs which laid the emphasis on human effort. Although there are differences, this belief that spiritual progress comes from human will, effort and strength is similar.
Many Christadelphians would deny this by attributing to the words of the Bible a kind of mysticism. They would say for instance that to question the sufficiency of the Bible is to limit the power of God's word. They would assert that “the word of God” gives strength as a “Spirit-word” and some would even claim it self-interprets itself if allowed to do so. In practice deciding whether the Christadelphian claims are correct or not will take considerable time and thought. It won’t self-interpret itself and it will be an intellectual struggle to be able to be in a position to validly weigh those claims out. If the Bible self interprets itself and acts as the Spirit of God, then it also begs the question why diligent people differ in interpretation and why the best scholars of Jesus’ time (the scribes and Pharisees) were the most wrong. After all, they too had the word of God in the form of the Old Testament.
The difficulty of being able to complete the mental challenge presented was noted by a contemporary critic, David King, in “A Glance at the History and Mystery of Christadelphianism” who noted,
Now look at the consequence! Thousands of poor souls who feel their need of a Saviour, and who love Him who died for them, and whose hearts are won to God, must perish for ever! Because, educationally and otherwise, they are not fit to settle for themselves what the Scriptures teach concerning the nature of the human soul, nor competent to decide whether this sect rightly expounds the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms. Suppose the Christadelphian interpretation of the Old Testament and of the Gospel correct (which the most learned, Bible-searching, and pious deny) then thousands around us, however earnestly desirous to know and do the will of God, could not, owing to their little education, and hard and long working for daily bread, come to an intelligent reception of the Gospel and Hope without years of effort, and in many cases not even in the remainder of an ordinarily prolonged life. Questions are involved upon which Christ-loving and God-obeying men, both learned and unlearned, have carefully, prayerfully, and constantly searched the Scriptures, and yet differ - differ as to whether the soul is immortal or not, whether the coming of the Lord will be premillennial or not. They have no interest in maintaining either the one view or the other, and would as soon hold the one as the other upon finding it Scriptural, and could do so and retain their present church connection, and suffer no loss; and yet they differ, and every one of them remaining in error as to the soul's immortality, or understanding that the Israel to which God promises certain blessings is not the Israel of the flesh, but the spiritual seed of Abraham, must be eternally lost! Oh most horrible doctrine! Blasphemy against the revealed character of God! A denial of the Divine love! Thanks be to God, He has never dealt with poor erring man after this fashion!
How completely unacquainted with the intricate questions unfolded, or rather folded up, in the books of Dr. Thomas, must the Eunuch and the household of Cornelius have been, baptized as they were after instruction in the Gospel which, in all probability, did not occupy an hour and of which they knew nothing before. The fact is clear that even if every item of the Christadelphian creed were true, instead of being largely and extravagantly false, it would still be “another Gospel” when the belief if it is made essential to salvation. Not only “another Gospel,” but a hard and impossible law, in compare with which circumcision and the rites and ceremonies of the Old Institution would be an easy yoke. There is a long specification of intricate doctrines which must be believed in order to salvation, and another list which must be disbelieved or the sinner must be lost. And multitudes are educationally and otherwise incapable of understanding these things.
In the records of the Restoration Movement, a recognition of the intellectualism the approach engendered by John Thomas created apparently led to considerable success for one man, Chester Bullard. At one stage John Thomas gained a considerable following in Virginia in the US because of the challenge engendered by his dogmatic approach and his immense Bible knowledge. Instead of trying to debate with a human bible dictionary he proceeded “on the theory that there is a spirit in man and that the inspiration of the Almighty giveth him understanding; that men have hearts and crowds were made conscious of the fact”. At some points he felt confident that they would eventually reclaim all the believers swayed and claimed, “Thomasite” speculations were forgotten by those who had accepted them as the bread of Life. And, when Thomas came to claim his own little was lost. Whenever Dr Thomas would leave the region of Southeast Virginia, Bullard was usually close behind preaching, persuading and gently loving the people back into fellowship.
The interesting thing about this consideration is that if “the Bible alone” is the way to the saving knowledge of God it will always tend to elevate the kinds of folk who can best study and understand in an intellectual manner. That’s why the leading Christadelphians have always been intellectuals, although they would prefer the term, “Bible students”. Yet it was the common people in the New Testament who warmed to Jesus’ message and the emotional appeal of Chester Bullard was successful because it recognised the limits of the intellectual approach. In fact a questioning of whether this emphasis on “correct doctrine” and the “need to maintain the Truth” truly is the central emphasis of the gospel is one that puzzles many Christadelphians. The puzzle is how you can both have the Truth and yet still create the right spirit. By being born out of a rejection of all other forms of Christianity it seems that the community is perpetually tied up in intellectualism, debate, division and legalism, although a growing awareness of this is occurring and will continue to grow.
This does not mean, John Thomas was seeking to control. The controlling spirit of the community rather grew from what he saw as a natural consequence of following to a conclusion principles he himself was taught to prove all things that the Christadelphians themselves now suppress in the exact creedal way he advocated against.
The inescapable conclusion is that the “Bible alone” as a method has some serious flaws. Independent interpretation does not lead to a consensus, but rather leads to many creedal systems and in fact may be one reason why they are created in the face of the claimed belief of “the Bible alone”. It also raises the question of whether it ends up with churches which are based around the personality of their founders and the approaches and thinking that they were led by. In other words when John Thomas searched the scripture he came to it with his personality, just as he claimed the leaders of the Restoration Movement came to it with theirs and limited others as a consequence.
The high intellectualism adopted by the rigorous “Bible alone” position John Thomas advocated was without any emotional appreciation of what others could accomplish or any recognition of his own personal limitations to grasp the mind of God as David King rightly noted. It was also noted that he attracted people with similar kinds of personality to himself and that he had a unique personality.
Today we recognise that some folk have more empathy and emotional appreciation of where others are coming from. Others are more interested in logic and are more emotionally detached from others. That John Thomas and Robert Roberts, (the Christadelphian pioneers) fitted into the second category is on record in descriptions of their personalities. Logic and not empathy was their advocated position.
Some people have described Christadelphianism as “Christianity at the autistic end of the spectrum” because of its one-sided approach and emphasis on logic rather than empathy. In fact empathetic approaches have frequently been seen as emotionalism, humanism and fleshly thinking. As a consequence as a community the Christadelphians tend to attract certain personality types and encourage certain forms of approach.
If John Thomas had what today we would call Aspergers Syndrome the big lesson the Christadelphian body demonstrates is the limitations of the Bible alone and the limitations of independence of thought. It shows personality has a lot to do with the wide array of different churches in existence today. It also shows the limits of basing a church around one personality and the approach they establish, although with time that does begin to moderate.