The history of the BASF

Is theistic evolution or evolutionary creation (as we prefer) able to be reconciled to the Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith (BASF) which is the most commonly used statement of faith for Christadelphians?

Christadelphians historically recognise the statement of faith is a product of the time, human rather than inspired and should not be read at a word for word level (eg see here).  However, in response to Christadelphians accepting the reality of evolution, some have promoted new and narrow ways of reading the statement of faith to try and exclude evolutionary creation.  (Many of the same ecclesias a long time ago added specific additions to their Doctrines to Be Rejected to exclude evolution – thereby demonstrating that the BASF etc IS NOT of itself sufficient to exclude “theistic evolution” as they call it).

The first principle must be that any statement of faith is read through the lens of the Bible, not the other way around.  A phrase in the BASF must be read with the meaning given to it by the bible NOT a meaning implied by human tradition.  Tradition may not be a bad thing but the warning of the Lord about “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” Matt 15:9.  As a simple example, when the statement of faith uses the expression “very good” it is clearly referencing Gen 1:31.  The meaning must be derived from the Bible, lest we add to it.  (and the text clearly means something which is really good).

Some argue we have to interpret the BASF in line with the then current understanding of those who drafted the statement of faith.  To do otherwise is not being a true Christadelphian – or so some say.  This smacks of exalting human tradition and understanding.  It is also contrary to the spirit of early Christadelphians as embodied in the words of John Thomas shortly after separating from the Campbellites:

Must a man never progress? If he discover an error in his premises, must he forever hold to it for the sake of consistency? May such a calamity never befall me! Rather let me change every day, till I get it right at last[1]

There is some virtue in the idea of reading the BASF in terms of the intention of the drafters.  This approach is best for trying to understand what they were trying to say.  It can, however, be taken too far and violate the first principle we have stated above.  Rather than a microscopic approach to the statement of faith, let’s take a broader view of the context…

The Statement of Faith was drafted and altered several times with a view to getting specific doctrinal points right.  The nature of man, the nature of Christ and the relationship between Christ’s sacrifice and salvation were the critical areas of interest.  These are often bracketed together in the term “The Atonement”.  A number of extreme views afflicted the Christadelphians.  Firstly the idea that humans are not prone to sin.  This is sometimes called “clean flesh”, the idea that anyone could be free of sin if they tried hard enough.  At the other extreme was the idea (rooted in Augustine’s theology) that our nature itself is sinful and needs atoning for.

These two extremes are the focus of the statement of faith – not the specific nature of Adam prior to the fall.  The focus of the BASF (and for Australians the clarifying Cooper Carter Addendum which notionally “explains” clause 5) is to ensure a clear understanding that we are prone to sin, incapable of offering the perfect obedience Jesus gave, and yet as John Thomas put it:

This sinful nature we inherit. It is our misfortune, not our crime, that we possess it. We are only blameworthy when, being supplied with the power of subduing it, we permit it to reign over us[2]

 

A local statement first

While the Birmingham Statement of Faith (in various guises) is the dominant statement of faith for Christadelphians, it was part of the constitution of one congregation.  The Birmingham meeting alone altered the statement.  Other compatible statements did exist – although such are now far less common.  Attempts to rename the Birmingham statement as “the” statement of faith were typically deemed inappropriate.

Constitution of Birmingham Christadelphian Central Ecclesia

CC Walker in the Christadelphian Magazine of 1904 explained this reluctance to rename the statement as a worldwide statement:

Brother R. W. asks us to countenance the movement at the antipodes to “give up the word ‘Birmingham’ and substitute ‘Christadelphian.’” Our answer must be as before: We have no authority so to do. Neither has anyone else. The Birmingham ecclesia can only speak for itself; and it is so with every other ecclesia. We entirely sympathise with every godly effort for unity on a pure basis; but it would be a mistake to issue a document under the above title, because it would imply the right of the issuers to speak for the whole household of faith, which right does not exist. The principle of ecclesial independence must be jealously guarded, and it is the beginnings of things that have to be watched. There is no desire on the part of the Birmingham ecclesia to impose its form of words on any ecclesia; but there can be no valid objection to any ecclesia adopting it if it sees fit. But to adopt this statement and give it a universal title that the Birmingham ecclesia conscientiously refrains from giving it, does not seem to be right at all. If a group of Australian ecclesias desires a common statement, let them accurately define its scope and limitations. We are happily agreed as to the “one faith,” but let us be careful about our definitions. Ecclesiastical history is a warning to us in this respect[3]

This view of the statement as one form of words, rather than the only, was carefully expressed in the Australian Unity Agreement which describes the BASF as “a true definition[4] rather than THE definition.

 

An early Statement of Faith in 1871 [or the antecedents of the BASF]

The Christadelphian statement of faith appears to have started life as a preaching pamphlet.  At some time it changed to become a statement of faith of some sort – being specifically referred to in a 1868 record of the Birmingham ecclesia (if anyone has a copy please contact us!).  In the context of this preliminary form of what would eventually become the BASF, Robert Roberts stated in the 1869 Christadelphian Magazine that Adam didn’t fundamentally change as a result of the fall.  Here are his words:

“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”[5].

This was questioned by letters to the magazine, so Bro Roberts wrote further on the subject saying:

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. 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[6]

Remarkably this is exactly how evolutionary creationists would describe Adam.  Such a statement would not be accepted by many today, however it was part of the background context of ideas from the era of the Statement of Faith.

1871

In 1871 the Birmingham ecclesia adopted a statement entitled “A Statement of the “One Faith” Upon which the Christadelphian Ecclesia of Birmingham is founded;”.  This included specific mention of Adam in the following clauses:

“II NATURE OF MAN. That God created Adam, the progenitor of the human race, out of the dust of the ground, as a living soul, or natural body of life, and placed him under a law through which the continuance of life was contingent on obedience.

III. DISOBEDIENCE OF ADAM. That Adam broke this law and was adjudged unworthy of immortality, and sentenced to return to the ground from whence he was taken, in which sentence, all mankind are involved.

IV. SCHEME OF SALVATION. That God, in His kindness, conceived a plan of restoration, which, without setting aside His just and necessary law of sin and death, should ultimately rescue the race from destruction, and people the earth with sinless immortals.”

The statement makes some specific claims, some of which are later expanded and others retracted.  Specifically, in terms of evolutionary creation, the statement states:

  • Adam is the progenitor of all humanity. This demand runs into conflict with the observable facts from not only fossil records but also archaeological remains and genetic variation.
  • Consistent with Roberts comments two years earlier, the nature of Adam is left relatively open – with the only reference to being a living soul or natural body of life and that continuance of life depended on obedience – a sound scriptural claim.
  • In line with Robert’s twice publicly expressed opinion, there is no mention of a change in Adam’s nature as a consequence of the fall.

1871 Record Birm SOF – a link to the document.

 

The 1877 statement of faith

From 1873 through to 1877, the Christadelphian movement was subject to ongoing debate principally between Robert Roberts and Andrew Turney about the nature of Jesus.  While Turney is sometimes misrepresented as saying Jesus didn’t come in the flesh, his position altered the nearness of Jesus to us (for information including quotes from Turney see “The Edward Turney and Robert Roberts Dispute, Reviewed with Historical Perspective”.  by John Cox).  The Renunciation issue (as it was referred to) revolved around a false separation of Christ from our nature and suggested Christ had a “free life” and he offered himself as a substitution and did not benefit from his sacrifice.

This led to “clarifications” in the position held by Roberts which were reflected in the statement of faith at the Birmingham meeting.  This statement made clear changes to the 1871 version.  The precise date of the revised version is hard to pin down.  We have a document dated 1877 and The Christadelphian Magazine makes mention of copies be available to others in the same year[7].  However an unamended Christadelphian site[8] claims this was adopted in 1873 and printed for distribution to others in 1877 – this is hard to subsequently verify.

1877.PNG

For the full document see here – 1877 Birmingham Statement of Faith

Regardless of the year, the wording reacts against the Turney position by emphasizing our unfortunate nature (which Jesus shared) as well as adding “Jesus had a free life” as a specific doctrine to be rejected.  The relevant clauses relating to Adam are shown below with new material underlined:

  1. Nature of Man. – That God created Adam, the progenitor the human race, out of the dust of the ground, as a living soul, or natural body of life; “very good” in kind and condition, and placed him under a law through which the continuance of life was contingent on obedience.

III. Disobedience of Adam. – That Adam broke the law, and was adjudged unworthy of immortality, and sentenced to return to the ground from whence he was taken – a sentence carried into execution by the implantation of a physical law of decay, which works out dissolution and death, and while a man is yet alive, gives him, where it is left to its uncontrolled operation, a tendency in the direction of sin. This is the law of sin in the members, spoken of by Paul, which the new law established by the truth brings into subjection. In Adam’s sentence, all mankind are involved, in consequence of their being physically derived from his physically-affected and unclean being.

 

The immediately striking feature is the extensive changes made to the statement.

This version introduced the expression “very good” as relevant to Adam’s condition and then specified significant changes to Adam as a consequence of his sin.  A new physical law is put into Adam which causes decay and the proness to sin – both as new things in the statement.  These ideas are a dramatic evolution in Robert’s position from 1869, where he insisted Adam’s nature didn’t change.

Most modern Christadelphians would consider that the 1877 statement goes too far in describing our nature as unclean, as it opens the door to atonement for nature – the Augustinian idea of our nature itself being wrong before God and needed cleansing & forgiveness.  It is a matter of history that this was the concern of some Christadelphians of the day, whose protests resulted in further change….

 

The 1883 Ecclesial Guide Statement of Faith

While the history of the statement of faith is quite unclear, further changes were made.  This wording as represented below is consistent with the first edition of the Ecclesial Guide which Roberts published in 1883.[9]  Below are the relevant clauses (the numbering has changed).  New material is underlined, removed material is shown struck out.

IV.—That the first man was Adam the progenitor the human race, whom God created out of the dust of the ground as a living soul, or natural body of life, “very good” in kind and condition, and placed him under a law through which the continuance of life was contingent on obedience.—Genesis 2:7; 18:27; Job 4:19; 33:6; 1 Corinthians 15:46–49; Genesis 2:17.

The statement now includes the phrase from 1 Cor 15 that Adam was the first man.  Robert Roberts was presumably the prime mover behind the statements.  He firmly rejected Adam being anything other than the progenitor of all humanity (see for example his comments in 1888[10]).  However, the evolution of the statement is such that this clear statement is dropped and a biblical expression which doesn’t insist on such a reading is introduced.

V.—That Adam broke this law, and was adjudged unworthy of immortality, and sentenced to return to the ground from whence he was taken—a sentence carried into execution by the implantation of a physical law of decay, which works out dissolution and death, and while a man is yet alive, gives him, where it is left to its uncontrolled operation, a tendency in the direction of sin. This is the law of sin in the members, spoken of by Paul, which the new law established by the truth brings into subjection which defiled and became a physical law of his being, and was transmitted to all his posterityIn Adam’s sentence, all mankind are involved, in consequence of their being physically derived from his physically-affected and unclean being.—Genesis 3:15–19, 22, 23; 2 Corinthians 1:9; Romans 7:24; 2 Corinthians 5:2–4; Romans 7:19–23; Galatians 5:16, 17; Romans 6:12; 7:21; John 3:6; Romans 5:12; 1 Corinthians 15:2; Psalm 51:5; Job 14:4. [11]

The continuing changes in the document demonstrate the level of difficulty the community faced in trying to define the relationship of Adam to our nature.

It is worth pointing out that while some insist Adam was not mortal pre-fall and use the BASF to make their case, the prime mover of the BASF (Roberts) would go on to say in 1898 about Adam’s state at creation:

General Principle.—He was a living soul or natural body of life, maintained in being by the action of the air through the lungs like us, but unlike us, a “very good” form of that mode of being, and unsubjected to death.

Uncertain Detail.—Would he have died if left alone, unchanged, in that state if he had not sinned? Who can tell? The testimony is that death came by sin: but the fact also is that, not being a spiritual body, he was presumably not immortal. Are we going to insist upon an opinion on a point like this, which no man can be certain about? We shall act unwarrantably if we do so. It is sufficient if a man believe that Adam after creation was a very good form of flesh and blood, untainted by curse. The uncertain points must be left to private judgment.[12]

The author of the statement of faith (or “statements” if you will) was not prepared to demand Adam’s state pre-fall as a test of orthodoxy.  Moderns demands that Adam was NOT mortal pre fall are overreach measured against this historical context.

 

The Birmingham Statement of Faith 1886 – the Foundation Clause

The revised Statement of Faith didn’t prevent further controversy.  A significant debate commenced around the inspiration of the Bible.  The main protagonists were Roberts and Ashcroft.  The issue ran hot from around 1884 through to 1887/8 and resulted in large numbers of Christadelphians leaving the fold.  The Foundation Clause – an affirmation of the complete inspiration of the Bible – was adopted by the Birmingham ecclesia and published in the Christadelphian Magazine of August 1886.[13]

That the original statement of faith didn’t address such a basic question as inspiration should serve as a warning as to its extensiveness.  Bro Carter noted that the definition in the Foundation clause doesn’t include all the 66 books of the Protestant Canon – a fair warning on the limitations of human creeds[14].

 

The Amended Statement of Faith 1898

An additional change was made to the Birmingham Statement of Faith by the Birmingham ecclesia at their 6 Jan 1898 business meeting, which was reported in the Christadelphian Magazine[15]  This time the change (to clause 24) was around the question of who would be raised for the judgement seat of Jesus Christ.  According to CC Walker the additional wording didn’t come from him but rather:

They first appeared in brother F. G. Jannaway’s booklet, “Why I am a Christadelphian, ” having been suggested in revision of proof by brother Roberts. They were afterwards incorporated in the Statement by the Birmingham ecclesia[16]

This alteration led to the Birmingham Statement being referred to as the amended statement (BASF) although it had already been quite amended!  Once again this change led to turmoil in the community and a split which still endures with some Christadelphians holding the unamended statement and the majority to the newer version.

 

Subsequent alterations

The last common change appears to have been made by Birmingham/Temperance Hall in October 1917 when the doctrine to be rejected number 35 which essentially forbids service in politics and police forces was enhanced[17].  At specific issue was special constables – a wartime concern.  This adjustment was seemingly adopted over the next few years by many ecclesias (again not without some disruption and splits).

Alterations, mainly of a minor nature (unless they impacted you of course) continued to be made to the statement at a local level and then only in the list of doctrines to be rejected space (which seems to be a favourite area for congregations to customise).

 

The CCA

In response to the atonement for nature division/debate in Australia, the “sentence which defiled” in the BASF was more specifically explained to be “shame, defiled conscience and mortality” and words “prone to sin” are introduced to describe our nature.  The document, while commenting on Adam and the impact of the fall on him, was focused on reconciling two positions about the nature we now possess and the impact of this nature on our relationship with God and the operation of Christ’s sacrifice.  The statement particularly limits the BASF wording of “defiled” in such a way as to exclude atonement for nature.  Understanding this context is important in determining the application of the CCA.

 

The intention of the Statement(s) of Faith and evolutionary creation

The creeds of Christadelphians were formulated through controversy during 1870 through to 1908.  These controversies did not centre on creation.  A good deal of them centred on the atonement, specifically steering a biblical course between clean flesh (claiming our nature is not prone to sin) and atonement for nature (claiming our nature offends God and needs atonement).  When this larger context is born in mind and the statements are read through the lens of scripture (not the other way around), there is no conflict with evolutionary creationism and more than there is with old earth or young earth creation models.

Evolutionary creationists affirm our nature is prone to sin, that perfect obedience is beyond the capability of all but the son of God.  We also understand our nature is our misfortune and does not require forgiveness from God.  The gospel is predicated on the saving work of Jesus Christ, his life death and resurrection – all achieved in the Son who bore our nature yet never sinned.

Rather than use human statements of unity to divide, we should and could be focused on demonstrating that God’s grace has touched our lives.

 

______________________________________________________

[1] Roberts, Robert Dr Thomas His Life and Work page 245

[2] Thomas, D. J. (1990). Elpis Israel: an exposition of the Kingdom of God (electronic ed., p. 77). Birmingham, UK: The Christadelphian.

[3] (2001). The Christadelphian, 41(electronic ed.), 113.

[4] Unity in Australia: The Accepted Basis. (n.d.). (p. 13).

[5] Roberts, R. ‘The relation of Jesus to the Law of Sin and Death’, The Christadelphian Volume 6 page 85 (1869)

[6] (2001). The Christadelphian, 6(electronic ed.), 243.

[7] (2001). The Christadelphian, 14(electronic ed.), 595.

[8] http://christadelphianresources.com/documents/Original%201877%20Statement%20of%20Faith.pdf

[9] See this website for an electronic copy of the  first edition Ecclesial Guide including the statement of faith http://www.antipas.org/books/ecclesial_guide/stmt.html

[10] (2001). The Christadelphian, 25(electronic ed.), 618.

[11] The Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith. (1997). (electronic ed.). Birmingham, UK: The Christadelphian.

[12] (2001). The Christadelphian, 35(electronic ed.), 183.

[13] (2001). The Christadelphian, 23(electronic ed.), 365.

[14] (2001). The Christadelphian, 96(electronic ed.), 84.

[15] (2001). The Christadelphian, 35(electronic ed.), 79.

[16] (2001). The Christadelphian, 36(electronic ed.), 518.

[17] (1919). The Christadelphian, 56(electronic ed.), 559.

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4 thoughts on “The history of the BASF

  1. Pingback: Do Christadelphians belong to Protestants – Belgian Ecclesia Brussel – Leuven

  2. Pingback: Do Christadelphians belong to Protestantism – Belgian Ecclesia Brussel – Leuven

  3. Pingback: The Lampstand July 2017 – who did Cain marry? | Christadelphians Origins Discussion

  4. Pingback: True principles and uncertain details: RR tolerated varying opinions on Adam’s state | Christadelphians Origins Discussion

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