Sunday, 6 October 2013

Early Christadelphians accepted that death was part of creation

OT scholar Peter Enns has correctly noted that the challenges evolution poses to traditional evangelical thinking on the origins of sin, death and the human race cannot be ignored or reconciled in a facile manner. A large part of the problem, as he notes is that:
"Evangelicals are sociologically a defensive lot, tending to focus on the need to be faithful to the past, to make sure that present belief matches that of previous generations. I get the point, but we must be just as burdened to be faithful to the future, to ensure that we are doing all we can to deliver a viable faith to future generations. That too is a high calling. Ignoring reality or playing theological games won’t do—no matter how unsettling, destabilizing, perhaps frightening such a calling may be." [1]
Enns' comments about the sociologically defensive nature of Evangelicals applies equally well to our community, particularly on this subject. I've previously mentioned how we've squandered the last half-century since the Lovelock affair, failing to respond to the challenged posed by the then Watford arranging brethren to honestly respond to the subject of human evolution. Instead, the attitudes espoused by the Christadelphian writer Elwyn Humphreys, who in 1969 introduced his defence of his version of traditional Christadelphian teaching on the origin of sin and death with this resolute endorsement of fideism:
In the last twenty years the pressure from the scientific view of origins has been increasingly felt among us. Attempts are made to reconcile the Bible view with that of modern science. It is the writer's opinion that in such a compromise it is possible for certain important aspects of truth to be overlooked. Particularly, it is important to remember that the origin of sin, in a universe created bya holy God, calls for explanation. The Bible provides that explanation; consequently, any attempt at reconciliation with modern science which ignores this factor, is bound to clash with Scriptural doctrines. As servants of God it is not possible for us to investigate the claims of science experimentally. What we can do, however, is to discover whether tension exists between God's Word and the theories of science. If such is discovered then the servants of God must reject immediately and without question the conclusions of men. (Emphasis mine) [2]
In other words, we are to close our eyes and ears and stop thinking the moment something threatens a preconceived viewpoint. That anyone would take this attitude seriously is deeply disturbing. Tell people that they have to choose between dogma and the real world, and eventually some will opt for intellectual honesty.

Such a mindlessly closed-minded attitude contrasts poorly with what W.D. Jardine wrote nearly a century before Humphreys advised his fellow Christadelphians to close their eyes and ears to hard scientific evidence that threatened their theological position.
"The inconsistency spoken of between nature and scripture, arises not from antagonism, but from the misinterpretations of both. It is man’s interpretation of the one set against man’s interpretations of the other. It is not nature versus scripture, but false science against true theology, or false theology against scientific fact.
"Some scientific men, we believe, view the Scriptures through the distorted medium of “confessions of faith” and doubt them, and theologians view science and call it false, because it does not take to their turn‐pike road." [3]
This is advice Humphreys should have followed. When hard data from the natural world overturns your theological conclusions, then the only honest response is to abandon those conclusions of men (which is after all what our theology is - human musings on Biblical matters, not the inspired word itself) and rethink the theology.

Humphreys' article is regrettably gaining traction in parts of Australia as a definitive 'rebuttal' to those who regard evolution as the mechanism of creation. Material such as this not only shows how far we have intellectually degenerated since the mid-20th century, but will also help create more crises of faith among Christadelphians who know that the evidence for human evolution is beyond rational dispute, and will end up leaving - or being expelled - from our community.

While evolution has never been formally endorsed in our community, the view that human and animal death was unknown prior to Adam's sin was hardly universally endorsed. In fact, such a view had wide currency among early believers. One of the reasons evolution is rejected is because it shows that death has been part of nature since the origin of life around 3800 million years ago.

John Thomas - death and decay were part of the original creation
John Thomas, the founding figure of the Christadelphian movement was somewhat inconsistent in his position on this subject, but in the article ‘The Bible Doctrine Concerning the Tempter Considered. No. II.’, he unambiguously states that both Adam and Eve would have eventually died in time:
‘Adam's nature was animal. Very good of its kind, as was the nature of all the other creatures. These did not sin, yet they returned to dust whence they came. So probably would Adam, if he had been left to the ordinary course of things as they were. But he would not have returned to dust if he had continued obedient.
He would doubtless have been “changed in the twinkling of an eye" on eating of the Tree of Life. But, being disobedient, his sin determined his fate, and that of the creatures. It doomed them all to death according to law, and "nature" unchanged was permitted to take its course.’[4]
In his article 'Our Terrestrial System Before the Fall’ Thomas, in response to a correspondent who argued that death and corruption entered the entire world after Adam's sin forcefully rebutted this argument:
‘OUR friend says, that his notion is that all creation became corrupt at the fall, even to the elements. This is the general idea. Moses tells us very plainly, that when the terrestrial system was completed on the Sixth Day, that God reviewed all that He had made, and pronounced it "very good."
'But, in what sense was it very good ? In an animal and physical sense; for it was a natural and animal system, not a spiritual one. Such a system is essentially one of waste, and reproduction; and was organized with reference to what God knew would come to pass.’ [5]
Thomas argued that seasonal variation would have provided Adam and Eve with enough evidence of natural decay and death to impress on them the reality of death as a natural part of creation:
‘This is implied in the placing of the earth in such a position with respect to the sun, moon, and stars, that there should be a diversity of seasons, &.c. Thus, fall and winter, seasons of decay and death, were institutions existing before the Fall; and presented to Adam and Eve phenomena illustrative of the existence in the physical system of a principle of corruption, the extent of which, however, they might not have been fully apprized of.’ [6]
Thomas explicitly argued that far from being elements introduced into creation as a consequence of Adam's sin, death and decay were a fundamental part of creation from the beginning. Significantly, he did not exclude Adam and Eve from this:
‘Death and corruption, then, with reproduction, the characteristic of spring and summer, is the fundamental law of the physical system of the Six Days. Adam and Eve, and all the other animals born of the earth with themselves, would have died and gone to corruption, if there had been no transgression, provided that there had been no further interference with the physical system than Moses records in his history of the Six Day.’[7]
Given this, his explanation of the Pauline statement that death entered the world through sin was a recognition that the consequence of Adam's sin was for the innate process of death and decay to be allowed to take its natural course:
‘True; the death principle was an essential property of their nature; but as they did not die till after their transgression, death did not enter in till after that event. But, the inquirer means, “If they would have died anyhow under the proviso, how can death be said to be the consequence of sin?"
Death is not the consequence of sin, sin being the original physical cause—but the physical consequence of a moral act. If thou doest thus and so, dying thou shalt die ; " but just reverse this saying, and let it read, “if thou doest thus and so, "dying thou shalt NOT die." Here are moral acts with diverse physical results.’ [8]
The genius of this explanation was in his recognition that death entered the world of Adam and Eve following their sin not by the introduction of decay and death, but by the denial of an opportunity for eternal life. Thomas again:
‘Now, if these two results are ordained upon two essentially dying creatures, because animal creatures, what is implied ? Why, that in the one case the dying process shall not be interrupted, and therefore death would follow: while in the other, the process should be interrupted, and therefore life should be established.
'In the former case, all that would be necessary would be to let things take their natural course; but in the latter, this would not do; and therefore it would be necessary to bring into play a transforming force which should change the very good animal nature into a very good spiritual , or incorruptible nature, which latter formed no part of the system of the Six Days.’ [9]
In fact, Thomas was explicit in asserting that the pre-fall nature of Adam was mortal, capable of corruption and decay:
‘It is certain, therefore, that the animal nature they possessed was essentially a mortal nature, and required to be physically operated upon by the power transmissible through contact with the tree of lives to change it into a nature constitutionally capable of enduring forever; which the animal nature is not.’ [10]
As far as Thomas was concerned the consequences of the fall were moral, rather than physical, and he expressed himself unambiguously:
‘From these premises it will be seen, that we dissent from our correspondent's “notion" that all creation became corrupt (by which we understand him to mean, constitutionally impregnated with corruptibility) at the Fall. We believe that the change consequent upon that calamity was moral, not physical. The natural system was the same the day before the Fall as the day after.” [11]
Fourteen years later, Robert Roberts, founding editor of The Christadelphian, concurred with Thomas in denying that Adam's nature was physically changed after the fall. Like Thomas before him, he wrote to correct a correspondent who argued that Adam's nature was altered as a consequence of the fall:

Roberts - Originally in agreement with Thomas that death was part of creation

In 1869, brother Roberts wrote in The Christadelphian in reply to a question from a correspondent. In his reply he denied strongly that there was any change in Adam’s nature as a result of the fall:
‘Our friend imagines there was a change in the nature of Adam when he became disobedient. There is no evidence of this whatever, and the presumption and evidence are entirely the contrary way. There was a change in Adam’s relation to his maker, but not in the nature of his organization. What are the facts? He was formed from the dust a “living soul,” or natural body. His mental constitution gave him moral relation to God.’[12]
As for the origin of sin, Roberts freely asserted that the same internal desires that if yielded to result in sin existed prior to the fall:
‘The impulses that lead to sin existed in Adam before disobedience, as much as they did afterwards; else disobedience would not have occurred. [13]
Roberts was emphatic: both mortality and an innate tendency to sin predated the fall - they were not introduced into Adam after the fall. Roberts later confirmed his position in response to another correspondent:
‘Adam, before transgression, though a living soul (or natural body—1 Cor. 15:44–5), was not necessarily destined to die, as obedience would have ended in life immortal. After transgression, his relation to destiny was changed. Death (by sentence,) was constituted the inevitable upshot of his career. He was, therefore, in a new condition as regarded the future, though not in a new condition as regarded the actual state of his nature. In actual nature, he was a corruptible groundling before sentence, and a corruptible groundling after sentence; but there was this difference: before sentence, ultimate immortality was possible; after sentence, death was a certainty. This change in the destiny lying before him, was the result of sin.’ [14]
Roberts never accepted evolution and as far as I can tell from his writing endorsed monogenism. However, his early emphatic declaration that Adam's fall did not result in any change in nature is a position which is not threatened by the evolutionary origin of the human race. The same cannot be said for the Reformed and Catholic (and later Christadelphian deviations from the original Roberts - Thomas position) which posit an inherited change in nature as a consequence of the Fall:
‘That is, his disobedience evoked from God a decree of ultimate dissolution. This was the sentence of death, which, though effecting no change as regarded his constitution at the moment it was pronounced, determined a great physical fact concerning his future experience, viz., that immortality, by change to spirit nature, was impossible, and decay and decease inevitable. The sentence of death, therefore, appertained to his physical nature, and was necessarily transmitted in his blood, to every being resulting from the propagation of his own species.’ [15]
In response to the Renunciationist controversy of the early 1870s which plagued the early Christadelphian community, Roberts unfortunately changed his mind in order to counter this view, and argued that Adam's nature had changed as a result of the Fall. Ironically, had he not changed his position, the Renunciationist position would have been more forcefully rebutted. It is interesting to read C.C. Walker, his successor, writing some years later about this theological U-turn:
‘Brother Roberts became much more conservative on this matter in after years, and so does everyone who, like him, has a great respect for the Word of God.’ [16]
No evidence of a change of nature in Eden - J.W. Thirtle on 'Dying thou shalt die'

Those who argue that Adam's nature was changed post-fall appeal to the Hebrew phrase which in the AV is translated 'dying thou shalt die.' to argue that this refers to a gradual process of decay leading to eventual death. Hebraist and one-time Christadelphian J.W. Thirtle wrote in 1880:
‘We will first consider the second clause, “dying thou shalt die.” Some consider these words to have found verification on the day Adam sinned, by his becoming a corruptible creature, and ultimately dying. This, however, is not so. We have the Hebrew word “to die” repeated in two moods: the infinitive (moth) and the indicative (tamuth); moth, to die—dying; tamuth—thou shalt die.
"As the words stand, certainty is implied, and nothing more; so the authorised version is not far wrong in rendering the words, “thou shalt surely die.” It is out of the question to suppose that a process of decay is implied in the words, for they were afterwards used to one of the descendants of Adam—Shimei (1 Kings 2:37, 42), and we have no record of Shimei having occupied a similar relation to life and death to that which Adam sustained before the fall. If it had been intended to express a continued or lasting process, the order of the Hebrew words would have been reversed.’ [17]
Of note is that Thirtle wrote this in 1880, after the Renunciationist controversy, showing that a belief that Adam's nature was changed was hardly normative in our community, even after Roberts' unfortunate theological about-face.


Opposition to evolution in our community is driven by theological presupposition which - on the subject of the origin of death at least - is not consistent with early Christadelphian views on the origin of death. Recognition of this fact is long overdue.

I am indebted to Jonathan Burke who drew my attention to the quotations from Roberts, Thomas and Thirtle. Responsibility for this article is of course mine.


1. Enns P "Evangelicalism and Evolution ARE in Conflict (and that's fine)" Respectful Conversation
2. Humphreys, E "The Problem of Sin's Origin" (1969: D Bedson, D. Manton; Coventry)
3. Jardine WD “The Bible as a Law of Life and Immortality” The Ambassador of the Coming Age (1864) 1:93-94
4. Thomas J. , ‘The Bible Doctrine Concerning the Tempter Considered. No. II.’, The Herald of the
Kingdom and Age to Come
(1852) 2:181
5. Thomas J. ‘Our Terrestrial System Before the Fall’, The Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come (1855) 5:159
6. ibid., p. 159.
7. ibid., p. 159.
8. ibid., p. 159.
9. ibid., pp. 159-160.
10. ibid., p. 160.
11. ibid., p. 160.
12. Roberts R, ‘The Relation of Jesus to the Law of Sin and Death’, The Christadelphian (1869) 6:85
13. ibid, p 85
14. Roberts, ‘Apparent Contradictions Reconciled’, The Christadelphian (6.62.243), (1869) 6:243
15. ibid., p. 244.
16. Walker C.C., ‘Was the Nature of Adam Changed After He Sinned in Eden?’, The Christadelphian (1921) 58:258
17. Thirtle J.W. 'The Day of Adam's Transgression', The Christadelphian (1880) 17:26-27