Was Armstrongism Just a Misreading
of Higher Biblical Criticism?
Note: This post isn't dogmatic. I'm just throwing these ideas around. Feel free to send me some comments telling me how you think I’m right or wrong.
There's a dominant narrative which circles anti-COG blogs like these about the origins of Armstrongism. I believe it goes something like this:
Armstrong was a charismatic, narcissistic businessman whose projects all failed around the time of the Great Depression. Loma stumbled onto the 7th-Day Adventist/Church of God community and Herbert followed a little later. In this peculiar religion Armstrong found a new “product” to sell. Unorthodox doctrines, “we are the One True Church,” and “the End-Times are Coming” all made for profitable and dedicated believers. Whether Armstrong even believed these ideas himself is up for debate. In any case, he took them and created an expanding cult—whose rules and doctrines he could essentially change at a whim.
This narrative obviously has some truth to it. I’m sure most readers would add a few things here and there. Perhaps the fact that the World Wars and the ever-looming Cold War/nuclear winter gave Americans much to be worried about. Perhaps the fact that society changed some of its norms rather quickly throughout the 1950s-70s and conservative religion was a popular reactionary movement. Armstrong could use these to his advantage.
But I’m skeptical that this can be all there is to it, because it partially violates Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”
I want to add another narrative to these set of ideas. I actually have two in mind, but the first one—about Armstrong’s reaction to his Quaker upbringing, a religion whose slogan is essentially “do whatever your inner light tells you”—will have to wait for a different post.
The second is this:
Could it be that many of the doctrines that Armstrongism had were just misreadings of legitimate problems brought up by Higher Biblical Criticism?Or, in other words:
Armstrong’s doctrines (and thus some of those associated with 7th-Day Adventists/Jehovah’s Witnesses/any of the other groups Armstrong stole from) weren’t just wacky, clearly wrong religious ideas that happened to bring in a lot of cash. They were an uneducated (thus the misreading) response to the legitimate theological problems that German and Dutch theologians had brought up in the 18th and 19th centuries.
First, what is Higher Biblical Criticism? Anyone reading this site is probably already familiar with some of the main concepts behind this movement which started in the 17th century. Dennis Diehl posts quite often about them, just without the movement’s name attached. Criticism of New Testament inconsistencies (e.g., why are the birth or resurrection stories not consistent?), analysis of the real authors of Gospels/Epistles (e.g., Paul only wrote seven of the 13/14 usually attributed to him), discussion of the historical Jesus (e.g, was he a sage, a messianic prophet, a miracle-worker, an exorcist? etc.), analysis of the different theological stances in the New Testament (e.g., did Paul and Jesus have different messages?)—these are all things that Higher Biblical Criticism started talking about.
In fact, if you know, because Armstrong told you, that I John 5:7-8 (“there are three that bear witness...”) is a late 4thcentury addition, you know a bit about the methods of Higher Criticism.
So why did I begin thinking about this? I was reading V.A. Harvey’s book The Historian and the Believer and I came across this passage:
“Jesus cast his own message in terms of the future coming of the kingdom of God, whereas the proclamation of the church had to do with a past event, the death and resurrection of Christ. Jesus' message was not primarily about himself, whereas the kerygma of the church is explicitly Christological, that is, the proclamation of a heavenly being who came to earth, was crucified, and taken to heaven as the exalted Lord. This obvious difference, which Biblical criticism had made clear, has always been appealed to by liberal Protestants and others in support of an alleged sharp discontinuity between the so-called religion of Jesus and the religion about Jesus."
I’ve crudely bolded and italicized the portions I want to draw your attention to. Harvey says that scholars have known for a long time about the different/contradictory messages we receive from Jesus and his followers. When we read the Gospels, Jesus is not at all concerned with himself as the “exalted Lord.” He tells people to “repent and believe the gospel,” gives them some moral teachings and parables, and talks about the coming Kingdom. Then after he is crucified, his followers start going around saying “you just need to have faith in Christ and you’ll be saved.” Wait a minute... if Jesus knew that was going to be the case, why didn’t he just say that in the first place? Why is the message of Jesus different from the message his followers tell about him?
But just hold those thoughts in your mind for a moment. Add some ALL CAPS, some more excessive italics, about five or six exclamation marks, and a quote about “never before has traditional Christianity understood this Truth!” Doesn’t it now sound like Armstrong, explaining to us all that Christianity has replaced the “Gospel Of Christ” with the “Gospel About Christ”?
The unfortunate thing, of course, is that “traditional Christianity” had noticed the disparity between what Christ talked about and what the people who wrote the New Testament talked about. Scholars had been talking about it for two centuries years before Armstrong was even born.
Armstrong liked to retell his conversion story where he decided to hit the libraries for six months straight, studying the commentaries and dictionaries. Knowing Armstrong, we are probably justified in doubting the depth of this study, but I don’t think we can deny that Armstrong had an, albeit shallow, understanding of many such issues in the Bible—issues brought up by the Higher Critics.
The problem is that, instead of reading the texts as the more thorough scholars did, weighing each side, trying to work out the different theological influences in the texts, devising explanations for the differences in emphasis, Armstrong just said: “Look! I’ve found it! The truth that everyone has missed for thousands of years, and that Satan has blinded Christians from seeing! The Gospel should be Of Christ not About Christ!”
And then people, seeing that he was partially correct, believed him. Never mind the fact that Protestant and Catholic scholars had good explanations, better scriptural analysis, and more accurate historical backgrounds to situate this problem in.
Here’s the general formula Armstrong seemed to follow:
1. Find a biblical problem/discrepancy/debate that Higher Criticism has unearthed.
2. Fail to see that there are legitimate forms of evidence on either side of the issue, and that one can read the problem in many ways.
3. Pick the culty/7th-Day Adventist/Jehovah’s Witness side of the issue.
4. Proclaim that the problem he has solved is a New Truth—that Satan/God has held this knowledge back from Christianity for millennia.
5. Repeat steps 1-4 until you become an Apostle.
Think about the way that Armstrong dealt with the Sabbath problem.
Now, I’m an atheist so I have no investment in whether Christians should keep Saturday or Sunday. But it seems to me that there are good arguments on both sides. If the Catholics are right—since the Church created the Bible, they really do have the authority to change the Sabbath to a Sunday in order to differentiate themselves from Jews—then it’s a Sunday. But if the Protestants are right—the Bible is the final authority, sola scriptura—then it’s a Saturday. Armstrong seems, after that six-month study of his, never to have stumbled upon the actual Catholic argument for Sunday-worship! At least, you never get a look at it in any of his literature.
Once again, a problem with two sides. Once again, a complete misreading, or ignorance of, the evidence. Once again, a proclamation of New Truth.
So, how much of this is intentional? Do we know? How much of it is just a misreading of the problems that Higher Criticism dug up for us?
Now, here’s the part where I drag out a few more examples and try to convince you that this is what Armstrong did over and over again.
But first, a comment on Higher Criticism.
One of the big problems with Christianity and scholarship is that almost none of it gets filtered down to the average “believer” in sermons. In fact, the scholarship of German and Dutch theologians in the 1800s would seem so radical to the average Christian now that they would scarcely believe those scholars called themselves Christian. How many average Christians could tell you the arguments of Albert Schweitzer about the historical Jesus? What about Bultmann’s idea that faith is almost completely independent of the historical evidence of the resurrection? I was amazed, years ago, to find out that there were Archbishops of Canterbury in the early 1900s who didn’t even believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus. Does the average Christian know that almost no Christian scholars believe II Peter was written by Peter; that there is virtually unanimous agreement that half of the Pauline epistles were written by people pretending to be Paul?
Anyway. Back to the examples.
If Armstrong got away with misreading the problems that Higher Criticism uncovered, it is the fault of Christians pastors, who upon going to seminary and being taught about all this, went on to discuss precisely none of these issues with their flocks. Instead, they get apologetics, Jesus Loves You, apologetics, and more Jesus Loves You.
a. The Faith vs. Works Debate
The Faith vs. Works debate has usually been framed in terms of The Protestants vs. The Catholics. But it also makes sense to frame it in terms of Paul vs. James, or Christian vs. Jewish-Christian. Once you step away from the dogma that the New Testament is a completely unified set of texts all aiming at a unified theology, this becomes very obvious. Clearly, Paul had some different ideas than James on the emphasis given to faith and works. You can try to get out of this by saying "Paul and James just needed to give different lessons to different congregations,” or some similar evasion, but trust me, smarter people than you and I have tried that explanation and found it wanting. Now this is okay. It doesn’t mean have to pick one or the other. You just recognize there are different streams of thought within the New Testament.
This was one of the major issues Higher Criticism explored, and it was F.C. Baur in the 1800s who established that there was somewhat of a major theological battle between the Jewish-leaning Christians (Peter/James) and those who wanted to differentiate themselves from Jewish theology (Paul/Luke). Cue a discussion about the circumcision debate in Acts 15 and Galatians 2. Please note that this is not controversial—it is the accepted view of almost every Christian scholar since Baur pointed it out.
But once again, what does Armstrong do? Ignoring the nuance, Armstrong almost immediately sides with James, decides works are very, very important, and tries to bend everything Paul says to make it sound like he agrees as well. Once again, traditional Christians are just Deceived By The Devil on this issue, and Armstrong has revealed The Truth.
b. The Trinity Debate
The same thing happens for the Trinity debate. The Higher Critics began to publish books on Marcion, Mani, Arian, and the various Gnostics, all who had non-traditional views on what Jesus was, and how he was related to the Father and the Holy Spirit. The problem of the nature of Christ (and thus the Trinity) was obviously a hard one, because it took Christians nearly four centuries to get anything which looked like a consensus on the issue—and even then, it took a Roman Emperor (Constantine) to essentially make it all happen.
I’m not going to act like the non-trinitarian tradition didn’t exist all the way throughout Christian history. Obviously, it did. John Calvin killed Michael Servetus in the middle of the Reformation just for preaching about it. The Higher Critics just gave us a lot more information about the atmosphere and arguments of the New Testament period. And Armstrong, like always, took that history, selectively ignored everything that went against his interpretation, and proclaimed The Truth had been discovered.
c. c. The Crucifixion/Resurrection Debate
It may seem surprising to us now, but Christians, left with some obviously troublesome timelines and descriptions of the crucifixion/resurrection managed to simply ignore them for nearly 1800 years. Let us face the truth that the Higher Critics discovered and published: there are some very significant and unresolvable problems with the crucifixion/resurrection narratives. Most biblical scholars chalk this up to there being multiple oral traditions of the crucifixion/resurrection which necessarily went through some pulling and stretching in the intervening 30-60 years before they were published in the Gospels. This is the reason why Armstrong was able to argue, so convincingly to many, that the traditional Catholic 1 day-2 nights was a Satanic Lie and it needed to be substituted with a 3 day-3 night alternative.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe Armstrong was right. I just believe he was not-wrong-enough-such-that-it-was-plausible, because of the very fact that the New Testament sources either don’t give us enough information, or give us contradictory information, in order to get at The Real Truth of the crucifixion/resurrection timeline.
Once again, the Higher Critics had discovered some problems with the biblical text. Armstrong saw this, picked a side, ignored the Higher Critics explanations, and unveiled it as New Truth.
d. The End-Times Debate
Albert Schweitzer, my favourite theologian of all time, closed the search for what was called “The Quest for the Historical Jesus” in the early 1900s with the proclamation that Jesus’ ministry was essentially eschatologically focused—that is, the Jesus who lived on earth (not the heavenly being Jesus) was very concerned with the end-times, the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God.
And for Schweitzer, that was a big problem, since that meant Jesus was wrong—the end-time didn’t come within a generation like the disciples thought it would. Diarmaid MacCulloch, in his A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, describes Schweitzer in tragic terms: a theologian who believed Jesus’ career “had been built on a mistake.”
A new quest for the historical Jesus was picked up again in the 1960s, and many theologians pushed back against the idea that Jesus was obsessed with the end-times. But the time in between was characterized by the majority of scholars siding with Schweitzer’s idea that Jesus had been an eschatological prophet (“end-times prophet”). This is exactly the period Armstrong developed his theology in.
Like many of the problems the Higher Critics discovered, it called out for an inventive answer. If Jesus was an eschatological prophet, did that just mean he was completely wrong? The Critics had their own answers. The fundamentalists, and Armstrong, had their own: Jesus was right! The end-times were coming, of course, but in our time instead. You know the rest of the history: Jesus was going to return in 1936, then in World War II, then sometime in the 1960s, then in 1975, then whenever the Gospel had been preached to the world.
Now, I’m not saying that this idea of a misreading of the Higher Critics completely explains Armstrongs obsession and use of the end-times. The brunt of it is explained by the traditional explanation—that it was a convenient tool to get people to give their money to Armstrong, and keep them in a constant state of fear. I just wonder if this other model can explain part of it as well.
Here’s the part where I tell you all of the above could be wrong.
It just so happens that there are whole other large movements of Christianity that have the same doctrines and emphasis on the end-times as Armstrongism have. Could we not just explain Armstrongism as a movement managed by a man who stole all of his doctrines from these groups, and wasn’t thinking about the problems the Higher Critics brought to light at all? I’m not sure...
That certainly could be the case, and if you think so, I’d like to hear the reasons why. But there certainly were people who took the problems of the Higher Critics, ignored all the nuanced and historically informed explanations, and just skipped to the whole We Are the One True Church spiel right away. Whether Armstrong was one of those people is something I’m not dogmatically confident about. Whether we can even know if Armstrong was sincere in his belief is another question I’m not even sure is possible to answer. But if the ex-COG community is going to know anything about historical questions, it’s going to be that things are not always as simple as they seem.