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Wednesday, March 8, 2017
Is Armstrongism the only viable version of Christianity?
Is Armstrongism the only viable version of Christianity?
Lonnie Hendrix/Miller Jones
Ian Boyne recently made some interesting remarks in the comment thread for a post on the Banned by HWA blog (“Is Rod Meredith The Most Uniquely Qualified Man To Write About The Protestant Reformation?”). Mr. Boyne spoke of what he described as Dr. James Tabor’s “benign assessment of Armstrongism” which appeared in the most recent issue of Dixon Cartwright’s The Journal (see “I had a valid, positive spiritual AC experience” at http://www.thejournal.org/issues/issue192/jx022817.pdf). Mr. Boyne went on to say: “He gives a perspective that is radically different from what one encounters on these blogs. In my view, he grasps some strengths of Armstrongism which I have always felt should be acknowledged by critics. It is refreshing to see that an ex-member can take this dispassionate view of the movement, particularly vis-à-vis orthodox Christianity.”
As a former Armstrongite, this brings a couple of questions to mind: Does Armstrongism have any strengths to be acknowledged? and, Are Dr. Tabor’s and Mr. Boyne’s views of the movement truly dispassionate?
We could say that Herbert Armstrong’s questioning of the conclusions and traditions of Catholic and Protestant Theology was a strength, but we would have to immediately qualify such an assertion with a few addenda. Mr. Armstrong’s questioning often turned into contemptuous dismissal and disdain for those views – things to be ridiculed and mocked. Over time, this produced a pronounced feeling of superiority among Armstrong and his followers. And, it led to the same phenomenon among Armstrongites that Mr. Boyne is accusing their critics of exhibiting on these blogs: The careless dismissal of, and callous disregard for, anything perceived as being a part of the rejected system.
We could say that Herbert Armstrong’s emphasis on the Hebrew roots of Christianity was a positive development and one of the strengths of his theology, but we would once again be forced to qualify that assertion. As all serious students of history understand, a story can be radically revised by emphasizing certain facts over others. And, of course, this can lead to ignoring or denigrating evidence which doesn’t support the new thesis. For instance, it would be a gross distortion of both the historical and scriptural evidence to suggest that all early Christians observed the dietary laws and kept the Sabbath and Festivals outlined in the Torah.
We could say that Herbert Armstrong’s understanding that there was a northern kingdom (Israel) and southern kingdom (Judah) is critical to a proper understanding of Scripture and is a strength. However, we would also have to point out that this led to the theologically and historically inaccurate teaching about Anglo-Israelism (which for Herbert and some of his followers led to racism).
We could say that Herbert Armstrong’s teaching that God was not going to condemn the majority of humanity to the fires of hell without first giving them an opportunity to accept “His” truth was a great improvement over the traditional model and a strength. Once again, however, we would have to point out that Armstrong’s theology predicted that untold billions would eventually end up in the Lake of Fire anyway. Sure, according to Armstrong, they would have their chance; but many of them would reject that opportunity and suffer the consequences. Armstrong’s God was angry, and he wasn’t going to tolerate one iota of deviation from “His” expectations/plans.
We could say that Herbert Armstrong’s teaching about man’s incredible potential (that man is to become God, part of the Elohim family) was a strength; but even Ian Boyne has seen fit to modify that teaching by publishing his own booklet on the subject. After much study and consideration, many former Armstrongites have concluded that to say that man will be God as God is God (In other words, full equality) is blasphemous and not supported by Scripture. We also have to remind ourselves that in both The Incredible Human Potential and Mystery of the Ages Mr. Armstrong reasoned that man’s potential was the consequence of the angels’ sin (that God was effectively working on “Plan B”).
We could say that Armstrong’s understanding of Jesus as King was a grand improvement over the Catholic/Protestant view of him as Messiah (the agent of salvation) and a definite strength; but we also have to ask ourselves: Did that understanding come at the expense of a full appreciation of Christ’s role as Savior for Armstrong and many of his followers? Sure, a few of the offshoots from the old Worldwide Church of God have “rediscovered” Jesus as Savior (but that is certainly a post Herbert Armstrong development). We could certainly say with some justification that Catholic/Protestant theology overlooked this important aspect of Christ’s work, but couldn’t we also say that its rediscovery and emphasis by Armstrong and his followers led to the de-emphasizing of Christ’s role as the Sacrificial Lamb?
In his remarks, Ian Boyne went on to state: “It is interesting that those who left Arnstrongism and have gone on to gain recognition in the scholarly world---Tabor,Lester Grabbe,Phillip Arnold,Greg Doudna and Robert Kuhn as a philosophical interlocutor---have a more nuanced, less acerbic view of their religious past than those on these blogs. Could a wider grasp of theology and philosophy actually lead one to recognize some of the strengths of Armstrongism --certainly in comparison with orthodox Christianity--while acknowledging its obvious and dastardly elements? When one considers the grotesque nature of Calvinist theology, for example, how can one not deeply appreciate Armstrong's teaching that a loving and just God could not condemn people to an eternal hell fire just because of His decree? Those who reject Armstrongism for atheism, deism or agnosticism I can certainly understand, but not a smart fellow like Byker Bob who has gone to vacuous orthodox Christianity. No version of Christianity is any viable alternative to Armstrongism.”
Mr. Boyne suggests that “a wider grasp of theology and philosophy” might actually lead to a greater appreciation of “some of the strengths of Armstrongism.” It may come as a surprise to Mr. Boyne, but it isn’t that many of us have an insufficient grasp of these fields (theology and philosophy). We have simply reached different conclusions about Armstrong’s theology than the ones Mr. Boyne has reached. Moreover, I don’t think that it is too outlandish (or overly emotional) to suggest that almost any version of Christianity would be a superior alternative to Armstrongism. In my humble opinion, the real strength of Christian theology is found in its teachings about love, forgiveness, redemption and spiritual salvation.
For myself, I do not regret my experience in Armstrongism – I wouldn’t be the person I am today without having had that experience. I am willing to acknowledge that my philosophical and theological views have benefited from my former exposure to Armstrong and his teachings (in my view, a necessary step in the evolution of those beliefs). I am also glad to acknowledge that I met many wonderful people within that culture through the years who had a profound and positive impact on my life. Nevertheless, as for any strengths inherent in that theology, I do not see them.