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A Philosophy of Doctrine

Have you ever debated with someone, perhaps from another church, about doctrine and come away from the discussion thinking, “Well, what was the point of that?”
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I’ve had many discussions on Biblical Unitarianism versus Trinitarianism. But rarely do those discussions go anywhere because the person I’m talking to is just as firmly entrenched in their understanding as I am, so we both come away thinking we won the debate.

The impasse of doctrinal discussions got me thinking lately about our philosophy of doctrine. Let me explain what I mean by that. A Christadelphian’s understanding of the Godhead is that there is one God, the Father and that his son Jesus Christ was a man born by the power of the Holy Spirit and had no pre-existent form.

I would submit that nobody could ever independently derive the Trinity from the Bible.

That’s typical Biblical Unitarianism. On the other hand, an orthodox evangelical Christian believes that the Godhead comprises three persons sharing a unity of substance, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Now, if both the Christadelphian and evangelical Christian were intellectually honest, they would have to admit to themselves that, at least at first, we believe what we do because we were brought up with those beliefs.

That is, most of us inherit our understanding of doctrine because we were born into whatever church we end up attending. Less often do we have instances of individuals, completely independent of a prior understanding of doctrine, base their belief of either Biblical Unitarianism or Trinitarianism on their completely independent study.

I would submit that nobody could ever independently derive the Trinity from the Bible. That doctrine was formulated as the result of centuries of Christian thought during the Roman period, with intellectuals (albeit also steeped in classical philosophy alongside the Bible) building on the work of each other.

To think that somebody could start reading the Bible without any knowledge and arrive at the same conclusions borders on the ridiculous. Someone might conclude the deity and/or pre-existence of Christ, but not the Trinity.

On the other hand, I have had the personal experience of meeting several Christadelphians who have studied themselves out of their Trinitarian churches to arrive at the same understanding as us regarding the Godhead.

But, unless someone is really searching and studying for themselves, we believe what we believe most of the time because that’s how we were brought up. All of this begs the question as to whether God is happy with people who understand doctrine because that’s what they were taught by other people, like their parents or Sunday School teachers.

On the one hand, it is reasonable to assume that this has to be the case. Paul writes, “How are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rom. 10:14.) Most people aren’t inclined or can’t spend the time to delve into the Scripture and find out all the things it teaches.

we believe what we believe most of the time because that’s how we were brought up

For example, God didn’t expect every Israelite to be a Bible student and teacher, and He separated the Levites for that task. Similarly, not all of us are Bible students, and there is much other work in our ecclesias that is just as necessary and important.

On the other hand, James writes, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” (Jas 3:1). It behooves the teachers among us to try to get things right—to teach sound doctrine from the Bible. That necessitates “rightly handling the word of truth.” (2 Tim 2:15).

Does it, though, condone blindly following what was passed on by past generations? For instance, when preparing a talk on a first principle topic, is it good enough to find out what the BASF has to say on the matter and base everything off that?

While dependence on the work of others has its place in how we go about studying and teaching the Bible, surely there is more to it, and that’s where we come to think about a philosophy of doctrine. To help us, we can look at history. How did those who went before us arrive at a set of doctrinal beliefs, and can we learn from them?

Let’s go back five hundred years to the time of the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant Reformers of the 16th century, men like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli, realized that the Catholic Church had become blinded by tradition.

As Europe began to free itself from the feudalism of the Middle Ages during the Renaissance, education flourished, and people who had only known knew life as a serf could now learn to read and write. Prior to that, during the Middle Ages, learning was mainly available to only the erudite scholar and clergy.

They used a learning method called Scholasticism which only worked to entrench orthodox dogma further. A Scholastic would take two seemingly contradictory texts, for instance, a Bible passage and a work by a classical philosopher, and an attempt to harmonize the texts through a didactic, learning technique.

Consequently this just reinforced much of the religious syncretism that had produced the orthodox body of doctrine in the first place. It simply melded Bible passages with Platonic and Aristotelian thinking. As Scholasticism began to lose popularity, it made way for Renaissance Humanism (not to be confused with today’s Humanism), which emphasized individual learning and growth.

Instead of defending church dogma, a catchphrase of Renaissance Humanism was ad fontes, which means “to the sources.” There was a renewed interest in getting back to the original Hebrew and Greek, with Humanists like Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) gathering ancient texts to better understand what the Bible teaches.

In time, these things brought about a reassessment of the orthodox church that had held Europe in its grip for centuries. The men who led the Protestant Reformation were very courageous. They stood up to the Catholic Church, identified its errors, and eventually pulled away.

Corrupt practices such as indulgences were rejected, as were confusing doctrines like Transubstantiation. However, some men and women who joined the Reformation did not think men like Calvin and Zwingli went far enough. They began looking at other more fundamental doctrines like baptism and the nature of God.

Unfortunately for many of them, the main branch of the Reformation became just as militant as the Catholic Church in their treatment of those who disagreed with them. Anabaptists were drowned in rivers. Men like learned Spanish scholar and physician Michael Servetus (c. 1511-1553), who studied the Bible for themselves and concluded that the Bible does not teach the Trinity, were burned at the stake.

Unfortunately the main branch of the Reformation became just as militant as the Catholic Church

At the same time, a man named Faustus Socinus (1539-1604), who grew up in Italy, the center of Renaissance Humanism, also concluded that the doctrine of the Trinity was not found in the Bible. His views on the Trinity and other doctrines were extraordinarily radical, and he, like others, was threatened with persecution.

He found an enclave in Poland, the only country in Europe that practiced religious toleration. For about one hundred years, Socinus and those who followed him became known as the Polish Brethren. Later, they would be nicknamed the Socinians after their founder.

Even though the Socinians as a distinct entity dissolved through internal dissension and subsequently when the Polish Brethren were exiled out of Poland, they took their writings with them as they scattered to places like Holland and England.

The legacy of the Socinians is perhaps one of the most underrated in Christian history. Their writings—and their philosophy of doctrine—affected and shaped the Christian churches in England, later the New World, and entered into the hearts and minds of men like John Locke and Thomas Jefferson in shaping the United States of America.

I have a copy of the Racovian Catechism on my bookshelf—the main summary of Bible doctrine as understood by the Polish Brethren. A Christadelphian could have written it. Doctrines like the relationship between God and Christ and the meaning of his death on the cross correspond to what we believe.

While the similarities between Christadelphians and the Polish Brethren are encouraging for us, their philosophy of doctrine should have even more meaning for us. To understand the importance of that philosophy, let me explain one of the fundamental differences between them and the main branch of the Reformation.

The legacy of the Socinians is perhaps one of the most underrated in Christian history.

The Polish Brethren were part of the Radical Reformation. Men like John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli, whose movements produced what we call the main evangelical and Reformed denominations of today, were part of what history has termed the Magisterial Reformation.

It was so-called because of their dependence on the magistrates to force people to adhere to the Reformation’s views, doctrines, and procedures. Zwingli, for instance, believed civic authorities should decide on religious disputes. John Calvin tried to set up a Christian city-state in Geneva. Zwingli gave his consent to drown Anabaptists, and Calvin endorsed the burning of Michael Servetus on October 27, 1553, in Geneva.

On the other hand, the Polish Brethren preached the separation of church and state. They also believed in freedom of religion and speech and preached toleration toward those who disagreed on religious matters. They emphasized the social aspect of religion and caring for other people in their conduct. Part of that came from their experience of being persecuted, but it was also heavily dependent on their philosophy of doctrine.

When you compare the outcome of these two branches of the Reformation, the differences are startling. One produced militancy and persecution, while the other created freedom and favorable treatment of one’s fellow man.

What was it in Zwingli’s mind that justified him drowning people who disagreed with him?

In Geneva, Calvin even set up religious secret police to make sure people obeyed his tenets. He imprisoned and even executed people who didn’t fall in line.

One of the bases of their decisions was their understanding of natural law. Partly based on Romans 2:14—“Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires”—natural law is the idea that human beings have an innate concept of deity and God’s laws. We can see that this has a degree of merit. For instance, it is doubtful we need to have a written law that says, “Don’t torture children.” Most of us have a natural abhorrence for such a thing.

However, the Magisterial Reformers took it to another level and believed that they had an innate understanding of how to apply godly standards in society as Christians. Because there was no such thing at the time of the separation of church and state, and because the Reformers relied on the magistrates to enforce Christian standards, they felt justified in their maltreatment of those who dissented from their views.

They thought that by them being Christian, they were right. What is also telling is that the Reformers, in attempting to defend their understanding of doctrines like the Trinity, frustratingly found that they had to revert to the old Scholastic methods.

However, Socinus and the Polish Brethren distinguished natural law from the law of Christ and often saw them in conflict with each other. Therefore, they did not believe that civic society was necessarily godly. Instead, they believed in the separation of church and state, non-involvement in politics, and, more importantly, for our consideration, they thought that an understanding of deity is not innate to human beings but can only come about by a reasoned interaction with divine revelation.

They also left behind Scholasticism and embraced the methods of Renaissance Humanism, freeing themselves from orthodox dogmatic thinking. They were, therefore, voracious Bible students, realizing that one can only come to know God and His ways by reading His word. They also emphasized the importance of open inquiry and a personal examination of one’s beliefs.

Furthermore, they spoke out against reliance on creeds and believed that everyone is individually responsible for their salvation and not because they belong to the “right” church.

It is encouraging for us that the Polish Brethren, relying on revelation from the Bible, and using their capacity to reason things out, came to understand Bible doctrine similar to the Christadelphians.

But let’s make sure we learn an important lesson from them. The example of the Polish Brethren is not on the doctrine per se but on the philosophy that led to their understanding. Think of it this way; are you more like a Magisterial Reformer or one of the Polish Brethren?

Do you, for instance, place reliance on creeds? Do you believe and do things as a Christadadelphian because it’s what has been written down in the BASF or the Pioneer works? Do you justify your actions because it’s the way Christadelphians do things? Do you rely on tradition? Do you think you’re right because you’re a Christadelphian and we “have the truth”?

Are you more like a Magisterial Reformer or one of the Polish Brethren?

Do you study the Bible and teach from it but only to confirm what you already believe? Do you honestly openly inquire about your beliefs and examine those things you think are true? Hardest of all, do you believe in free speech and freedom of conscience, and do you tolerate people with different beliefs and different statements of faith?

That doesn’t mean you believe in the idea that “everyone has their own truth,” but you’re open to friendly debate, iron sharpening iron, and mutual respect that we’re all trying to find out from God what He wants from us, are open to change and are intellectually honest enough to admit when we might be wrong.

After the Polish Brethren ended as a distinct group, they took their writings and traveled throughout Europe. Socinianism ceased being a religious movement and became a philosophy that entered the hearts and minds of men and women who had a sincere desire to know what is true and right.

In orthodox Christian circles, “Socinian” became a derogatory term, standing for those who refused to conform to the creeds of Christianity or the whims of the state church. But for those who embraced the Socinian spirit, it led them to think outside the box of nominal Christianity, reject notions like the Trinity, and strive towards the kind of people God wants us to be—free, reliant on the guidance given us through the Bible, and Christlike to their fellow man.

Richard Morgan,
Simi Hills Ecclesia, CA

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