Really, Christadelphians

Really, Christadelphians!

by Anthony Buzzard

 

The Christadelphian movement received a significant commendation when two independent witnesses, Bertrand Russell and Professor G.C. Field, pointed out that the Christadelphians’ united refusal to take part in war links them historically with the stance taken by the New Testament and early Christian church. This is high praise indeed, and it distinguishes Christadelphians from other denominations who have not required their members to desist from killing their enemies, as well as their denominational counterparts in other nations, in time of war.

“Christianity was, in its earliest days, entirely unpolitical. The best representatives of the primitive tradition in our time are the Christadelphians, who believe the end of the world to be imminent, and refuse to have any part or lot in secular affairs” (Bertrand Russell, Power, ch. 7).

“If we are to obey in detail the injunctions that were given to the first Christians, we must put ourselves in the same position as the first Christians, and regard ourselves as a small band of believers, living in a world that as a whole has not accepted Christ, following the path of separation and taking no responsibility for the affairs of this world…This is the line actually followed by some of the smaller Christian sects, such as the Christadelphians and the Plymouth Brethren...I feel little doubt that their attitude is much closer to the attitude of the earliest Christians than that of the larger re­ligious bodies” (G.C. Field, Pacifism and Conscientious Objection, p. 78).

Praise is due also to the Christadelphian movement for the excellence of its statement of biblical monotheism and also for bringing the Gospel of the Kingdom of God into focus as the real eschatolog­ical reign of Messiah on earth in the future.

However, the Christadelphians have abandoned their firm insistence on a literal hermeneutic in Bible interpretation when it comes to the subject of supernatural evil. This is not the place to deal with all the many biblical texts describing the supernatural devil and demons, but simply to point to a single passage which strains the Christadelphian theory that Satan is a synonym for sin to breaking point.

The reference in question is found in Jude 9, where Jesus’ half-brother refers to a historical event in which Satan was in dispute with Michael the Archangel over the body of Moses. Because, obviously, Satan cannot here be the equivalent of sin, Christadelphians, who deny that a personal supernatural Satan exists at all, are bound to search for another explanation. The results of their quest for an exegesis which will preserve their theory of evil intact are unfortunately both amazing and amusing, and should lead Christadelphians to accept a gentle jolt from their friends and recognize that their whole theory about Satan (almost entirely unknown in nearly 2,000 years of biblical exposition) is suspect.

Jude, as is well known, warns the church of his day to beware of those who were abandoning “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints” (v. 3). To emphasize the danger of apostasy he reminds his readers of how God had previously dealt with those who proved faithless. He refers firstly to the Israelites who were destroyed because of unbelief, even after they had been delivered from Egypt (v. 5). Jude cites next the example of the angels who “were not content to keep the dominion given to them but abandoned their proper home” (v. 6, NEB). They had been reserved in everlasting chains for judgment on the great day. Next in the catalog of wicked communities comes Sodom, Gomorrah and the neighboring towns: “Like the angels, they committed fornication and followed unnatural lusts” (v. 7, NEB). Jude goes on: “So too these men today. Their dreams lead them to defile the body, to flout authority, and to insult celestial beings. In contrast, when the archangel Michael was in debate with the devil, disputing the possession of Moses’ body, he did not presume to condemn him in insulting words, but said, ‘May the Lord rebuke you!’” (vv. 8-9, NEB).

While it is true, of course, that the Greek aggelos (angel) and its Hebrew equivalent can sometimes refer to human messengers, this does not give us a carte blanche for converting New Testament angels into human beings whenever they will not fit our own precon­ceived systems of belief. In no case is the term archangel ever used of a human being (see 1 Thess. 4:16).

Jude’s references are all straightforward when read in their Jewish context. It is therefore hopelessly far-fetched to look for wicked “angels” in the ten spies (Num. 13:16), who certainly did not sin by leaving their proper dominion, did not commit fornication like Sodom and Gomorrah, nor are they imprisoned in Tartarus (as Peter in the parallel passage says, 2 Pet. 2:4). Tartarus is not just a syn­onym for Hades, but an expression unique in the New Testament and exactly fitting Peter’s account of the fate of fallen (supernatural) angels. So it would have been immediately understood by Peter’s and Jude’s readers.

The fact that Christadelphians cannot agree as to whether the sinning angels are the ten spies or Korah and his fellow rebels should alert us to a serious problem and lead to a thorough reexamination of these verses. Christadelphians admit that the pas­sage is difficult. The difficulty is, however, of Christadelphian making. Jewish literature, including the book of Enoch from which Jude later quotes almost word for word (v. 14), contains much about sinning angels as do other Jewish apocalyptic books. The book of Enoch (40:3) refers, like Jude, to “the merciful, the patient, the holy Michael.”

It is not in the least strange that Jude should treat us (in v. 9) to facts not elsewhere recorded in Scripture. We have no difficulty in accepting Paul’s identification of two of the Egyptian magicians as Jannes and Jambres (2 Tim. 3:8). In Acts 20:35 Paul quotes words of Christ not found in the gospels. James informs us that Elijah prayed that it might not rain for three and a half years (James 5:17). All these interesting facts are validated by their inclusion in the scriptural record, and we should therefore have no difficulty in accepting Jude’s testimony about an event which is recognized elsewhere by Jewish authorities. Lange’s commentary tells us that. Jewish tradition “ran that God had charged Michael the archangel with the burial of Moses; that Satan opposed him bringing an accusation against him relative to the murder of the Egyptian; in con­sequence of which he was unworthy of such an honorable burial.”

It is in Jude 9 that the whole Christadelphian theory about Satan becomes impossible to sustain. The explanations they offer are in a state of disarray. The following views have been recorded by Christadelphian writers: E.A. Stallworthy of Coventry, England, maintains that Michael the archangel in Jude 9 means Moses, the body of Moses means Israel and Satan is Korah and his friends. Michael Watkins, a leading Christadelphian author, thinks that Michael is Michael, but the body of Moses means Joshua, the High Priest (Zech. 3), and Satan means Tatnai and his colleagues (Ezra 5:3) (The Devil, the Great Deceiver, p. 41). In “The Devil, an exposition of the Truth concerning that old serpent, the Devil and Satan,” first published in 1842 and reprinted by the Christadelphian Book Library, the following extraordinary statement occurs, providing yet another impossible reading of Jude 9: “Michael the archangel and Satan were individual human beings, Joshua being Michael and Tatnai, Satan” (pp. 6, 16). Apparently we must choose between identifying Michael the archangel with a human being — either Moses or Joshua the high priest — and Satan with Korah or Tatnai. But the identification of Jude’s reference with the episode in Zechariah 3 fails, because in the latter passage it is the Lord, not Michael who utters the words “The Lord rebuke you” (Zech. 3:2).

In desperation, Christadelphians are forced into an allegorical method which in other areas of biblical interpretation they rightly reject. The reference to a dispute between two supernatural powers, Michael and Satan, is found in rabbinical writings as well as in comments by Clement of Alexandria and other Greek writers on the apocryphal book, the Assumption of Moses. Conflict between super­natural powers is by no means foreign to Scripture (see Dan. 10:13, 21; 12:1; Rev. 12:7). In the Targum of Jonathan on Deuteronomy 34:6 the grave of Moses was said to be entrusted to the care of Michael, the archangel. With Henry Alford, an ardent premillenarian, it must be said that all allegorizing explanations referring the body of Moses to the Jewish people “are of course out of the question and the literal matter of fact alone to be held fast.” The episode in Jude 9 “being related to a matter of fact, is a matter of fact” (Greek Testament on Jude 9). Surely it is not difficult to see that Michael and Satan are presented by Jude as real personalities, not symbols. What right have expositors to make an arbitrary transfer of easily recognizable proper names?

When there is a perfectly clear reference in Jewish literature which explains Jude’s words, and since there is no biblical text to show that the body of Moses is the Old Testament ecclesia, and certainly no possible equation of Michael the archangel with Moses (archangels are nowhere in the Bible or elsewhere human beings!), why do Christadelphians allow themselves such amazing liberty with the inspired record? Why do they fail to make the simple comparison and equation of Michael the archangel with the other clear references to him in the Bible? The answer is that the association of Michael, an archangel, with Satan makes Satan look very much like an angelic being (as Rev. 12:7 clearly implies) and this is thought by Christadelphians to be the worst form of paganism. However, Jude and Peter do not share the Christadelphian point of view. Both writers imply that Satan is a celestial being:

“These men…insult celestial beings. In contrast, the archangel, Michael…did not presume to condemn the Devil in insulting words, but said ‘May the Lord rebuke you’” (Jude 8, 9, NEB). “They flout authority...they are not afraid to insult celestial beings, whereas angels…employ no insults in seeking judgment against them before the Lord” (2 Pet. 2:10-11, NEB).

The Phillips translation is equally clear: “These men...make a jest of heavenly glories. But I would remind you that even the Archangel Michael when he was contending with the devil in the dispute over the body of Moses did not dare to condemn him with mockery...These fellows, however, are ready to mock at anything that is beyond their immediate knowledge” (Jude 8-10).

So also Weymouth: “They speak evil of angelic orders. But Michael, the Archangel...did not dare to pronounce judgment on him (Satan) in abusive terms.” (Jude 8, 9).

Really, Christadelphians, these heavenly glories and celestial beings are not Korah and his colleagues, nor Tatnai and his friends! The singular, definite Satan (not a Satan as so often wrongly stated in Christadelphian literature) cannot refer to a group of human ad­versaries. And the Archangel Michael is not and never will be Moses, the man of God. One might as well claim that Peter is John!

Perhaps these verses will open some eyes to the highly problematic legacy left to Christadelphians by John Thomas in this important matter of supernatural evil. In rejecting the popular Satan who stokes the fires of hell, Christadelphians should make sure they are not overlooking a different but nevertheless supernatural Devil of the Scriptures. At present, tragically, the Christadelphian technique of explaining away inconvenient texts brings unnecessary reproach upon their much-needed insights in Christology and eschatology. Christadelphians have a unique contribution to make to biblical understanding but not until certain major topics are reexamined. A proper exposition of Jude 6-9 could open the door to new discoveries amongst Christadelphians.


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