Sunday 30 July 2006

Birth of an Apostle?

114 years ago tomorrow, July 31 1892, Herbert W. Armstrong was born in Des Moines. Not a man to encourage the celebration of birthdays, he nonetheless - unlike the children of his later followers - had the pleasure of receiving a 9th birthday party his mother organized, a photograph of which remained with the man-who-would-be-apostle throughout his life.

Like John Brown, Herb Armstrong's body lies a-mouldering in its grave. A man who built a religion and recruited his family into key positions (brother Dwight, son-in-law Vern Mattson, son Garner Ted), there remains only a shadow of the church he built and an absence of his descendants among its adherents.

Devotees of Armstrongism will scarcely mark this day, any more than they mark their own birth dates, but for those of us who've moved beyond his baneful influence (around 80% of the membership just over a decade ago) it's a chance to pause and consider the man, his motivations and his impact.

His impact on the world, or even the religious world was minimal. He barely makes the footnotes in reference works. But his impact in our lives was of another order.

As for his motivations, that's a complex question. Did he really believe what he preached? If not, how do you understand the attitude to medical intervention following his son Dick's fatal car crash? If he did, how do you explain his convenient rewriting of church doctrine to allow the marriage to divorcee Ramona? Perhaps he ended up convincing himself of his own fictions. As David Robinson observed, the web is so tangled it is almost impossible to peer beyond it.

While it is certain that Herbert Armstrong's body lies a-mouldering in the grave, it's less certain that his soul goes marching on. Perhaps its appropriate that for each one of his imitators in 2006, the followers of Pack, Meredith, Flurry and a gaggle of other wannabes, there are so many more who have reintegrated into a life unconnected with Herbert's grandiose vision.

And that, I think, is a cause for optimism.

Tuesday 25 July 2006

Who wrote 2 Peter?

John Ross Schroeder is up to bat on the canonical question in the latest Good News. And JR has a nifty new argument to offer in an article called Is the New Testament a Fraud?.

Let me begin by putting my cards on the table. The New Testament is an amazing collection of documents from the first century. It uniquely chronicles the diverse faith and testimony of those who first took on the name Christian. It is a source of inspiration to people of faith today, as in the past, and many of us have heard the voice of God speaking through its text. But why should anyone believe - let alone promote - nonsense in order to make it into something it's not.

- These are the founding documents of the faith, not objective history.

- These are documents that deserve great respect, but not idolatrous worship.

- These are documents that point beyond themselves in all their fallibility to something beyond words and opinion. They do not point to themselves.

- These are documents written by time-bound human beings attempting to express their experience of Jesus, the living Christ, the power of the Spirit and the unconditional grace of God. These documents are not honored by telling porkies about them in an effort to inflate their reputation.

Back to JR and the canon. Mr Schroeder suggests that both Peter and Paul contributed to the canonization of the New Testament - the gathering of these documents together as recognized scripture for the church. In part his argument revolves around 2 Peter 1: 12-15.

12 Therefore I intend to keep on reminding you of these things, though you know them already and are established in the truth that has come to you. 13 I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to refresh your memory, 14 since I know that my death will come soon, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. 15 And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.

That last verse, according to Schroeder, indicates that Peter is taking steps to create the canon. But there's a problem. Peter didn't write 2 Peter.

Richard Bauckham writes in the HarperCollins Bible Commentary: 2 Peter belongs not only to the literary genre of the letter, but also to that of "testament"... In Jewish usage the testament was a fictional genre... It is therefore likely that 2 Peter is also a pseudonymous work, attributed to Peter after his death... These literary considerations and the probable date of 2 Peter... make authorship by Peter himself very improbable.

Scot McKnight, writing in the Eerdmans Commentary notes that 2 Peter "was probably composed within two decades after his death. No book in the Bible had more difficulty establishing itself in the canon. As late as Eusebius (d. 371) some did not consider 2 Peter to be from the Apostle or part of the canon... doubts continued for centuries (e.g., Calvin and Luther)"

McKnight adds: There is clear evidence that 2 Peter is either dependent on Jude or on a later revision of a tradition used by the author of Jude and then by the author of 2 Peter... The letter probably emerges from a Hellenistic Jewish context, probably in Asia.

In his recent book "Peter, Paul, & Mary Magdalene" Bart Ehrman notes: whoever wrote 2 Peter, it was not Simon Peter the disciple of Jesus. Unlike 1 Peter, the letter of 2 Peter was not widely accepted, or even known, in the early church. The first time any author makes a definite reference to the book is around 220 CE, that is 150 years after it was allegedly written. It was finally admitted into the canon somewhat grudgingly, as church leaders of the later third and fourth centuries came to believe that it was written by Peter himself. But it almost certainly was not... As scholars have long recognized, much of the invective is borrowed, virtually wholesale, from another book that found its way into the New Testament, the epistle of Jude. This is one of the reasons for dating the letter itself somewhat later... it is dependent on another letter that appears to have been written near the end of the first century.

How ironic then that Mr Schroeder uses 2 Peter, a very late document, to "proof text" his view that the canon was created very early! The idea that our New Testament in its present form goes all the way back to the time of the apostles is wishful thinking at best, and dishonest at worst. The Good News understandably has an apologetic thrust, but good apologetics also requires being honest with and about the sources. Sadly, that doesn't happen very often in the unholy rush to protect the Bible from the facts.

Saturday 22 July 2006

Sabbath vs Sunday

The latest Journal carries copies of two ads that appeared in a local Big Sandy paper. The opening shot came from a fundamentalist fellowship keen score a few points. If you've read anything intelligent from either side of this discussion, you'll recognize the howlers (click on the image to view a larger copy).

You'd have to suspect that the good folk at New Life Church thought this would be a wonderful ministry to those poor, deluded Armstrongists in their midst. I don't know much if anything about the Big Sandy community (actually, the whole State of Texas is a complete mystery to me) but I'm guessing the WCG/ UCG/ CGI/ ICG/ CGBS groups are something of a local distinctive.

What's interesting is the quality of the argument. Pastor Billy falls back on "Joshua's Long Day" to "prove" his point. I doubt that particular objection would raise anything more than a guffaw from most literate readers, whether Sabbatarian or not.

The Sabbath issue is important enough to discuss openly, but this is hardly the way to raise it. A response the following week from the Church of God - Big Sandy (penned by Reg Killingley) provided a thoughtful and reasonable contrast.

Perhaps it's relevant here to put in a plug for Henry Sturcke's book, Encountering the Rest of God. Sturcke is a former WCG minister who has earned his doctor of theology at the University of Zurich with a disseration on Jesus and the Sabbath. I've got to admit that it's a little too academic to be coffee table material, but reverend gentlemen with pontifical tendencies like Pastor Billy could learn a lot if they bothered to persevere. And no, Joshua's Long Day doesn't get a mention!

But back to the ad. This is the level of debate that was going on in the 1930s when Herb was catching a few zzzzzzzzz's away from Loma in the public library. Wise up Billy, the world has moved on!

Also from the Journal letters section, joyous news that Geoffrey Neilson of South Africa has composed a new hymn in honor of "the 81st prophetic anniversary" of Herb's calling. To be sung to the catchy Dwight Armstrong tune “Lord, Teach Me That I May Know.”

God sent the end-time Elijah,
As promised to Israel’s Tribes,
After He identified
Where they’d all gone worldwide.

Elijah was the first to grasp
That the end time had begun;
He restored the first Truth and last
And every other one.

Elijah sowed God’s end-time crop,
Reached more hearts than all the
Proclaiming the Kingdom of God;
His disciples still haven’t stopped.

After Elijah’s Restoration
Came the great Falling Away.
Hold fast, Philadelphians,
Never let God’s Truth slip again.

Beautiful, huh?

(The front and back pages of the May 31 Journal can be downloaded in PDF format at

Friday 21 July 2006

Painful Truth returns

The Painful Truth site is now back online after Ed Mentell Sr. returned to take on the project, though perhaps only temporarily. You can find it now at

Tuesday 18 July 2006

Passing of a generation

It seems Raymond McNair is fighting his final battle with cancer. Once a "leading evangelist" and Armstrong lieutenant, McNair is a rare link to the church that some of us remember, a thriving, thrusting, in-your-face sect with a massive media presence.

In 2006 those high-flying frontmen have largely passed onto their reward. Herbert Armstrong, Garner Ted Armstrong, Herman Hoeh... to name just a few. McNair is reportedly bedridden and fading. He once ran the British "Work", later took the more modest role of Director for New Zealand, went through a messy and public divorce, and was portrayed in less than flattering terms ("Buffie") by former ministerial colleague David Robinson in Herbert Armstrong's Tangled Web.

McNair has stuck closely to classic Armstrongism, attempting unsuccessfully to first work with Rod Meredith before launching his own obscure ministry. In so doing he has shown a form of integrity, even if it has been misinformed. Robinson devoted chapters to both McNair and Meredith in his 1980 book. His portrait of Meredith is the least flattering. McNair was clearly the more compassionate half of the duo. He was loyal to HWA despite everything he knew about the man, and he has remained loyal to his teachings. Whatever reservations one might have about his chosen path, there were surely worse individuals who ascended to the inner circle.

When McNair passes from the scene, who will remain? One name stands out, embodying the arrogance of a sect that once posed a credible challenge to mainstream evangelical Christianity: Roderick Meredith. But even Meredith, currently clinging on as unchallenged "presiding evangelist" of the Living Church of God, must succumb eventually to the tireless ravages of age. Then, and perhaps only then, Armstrongism will be to all intents and purposes, finally, dead.

Friday 14 July 2006

Making a virtue of necessity

Down in Alabama the WCG remnant is trying to convince themselves that the Tkach revolution has been worth the grief. Here's a condensed version of how the July 7 Huntsville Times tells it:

A little more than 10 years ago, Paul Kurts pastored a congregation of 200 close-knit members. Today, his flock sometimes numbers as many as 20 - and he's never been happier.

For Kurts who, with his wife, had joined the church when he was a college student, it felt like someone had shifted the magnetic pole of the Earth.

There's a lot more in this pathetic little report. If this is typical of those who remain then you have to suspect that self loathing and self justification are mixed in nearly equal portions. Read it and weep.

Thursday 13 July 2006

Mario the Marine Biologist

UCG minister Mario Seiglie (that's not him in the picture, keep reading) has been pounding away at his keyboard for a long time. Now the veteran GN writer has achieved a moment of fame as a paragon of family values.

I confess that I've never heard of the Traditional Values Coalition (slogan: "Empowering People of Faith through Knowledge"), but they've chosen the very knowledgeable Mario - a person of faith if ever there was one - to help slay the demon of evolution.

You'll have to forgive me. Being a New Zealander I've been deprived of the cultural resources to make the connection, so maybe someone closer to the cusp of this sort of thing can explain it to me: what do traditional values have to do with an anti-evolution stance?

In any case, here's the spiel:

In a recent commentary on evolution by United Church of God Pastor Mario Seiglie, he points out that the archerfish is so uniquely designed that it could not have evolved with slight modifications... According to Sieglie, “The archerfish offers precisely such an example [of complexity], since several complex systems must all appear at the same time, perfectly and not gradually formed—binocular vision, a specialized mouth and tongue, specialized gills to compress and expel water and an aiming system based in the brain and not in the eyes. If any of these parts is missing, the mechanism will not hit the target and no survival advantage is created."

You can read the whole thing at the TVC site. You might like to also check out a counter-opinion at the Fundamentally Flawed blog. Here's an excerpt:

The argument seems to stem forth from statements made by Mario Seiglie. Seiglie believes that this combination of complex systems in the archerfish could not have developed through evolution, as they must have developed all at once to give the fish this ability.

Is Seiglie a world-renowned marine biologist? Not quite… he is a pastor in the United Church of God. It would seem that this position gives him indisputable expertice in the field of biology.

Here's the problem with those UCG experts that write for the GN and make guest appearances on their TV advertorial shows. They're not. Want to know about the wonders of the natural world? Pick up a National Geographic.

Wednesday 12 July 2006


Do yourself a favor and check out the latest offerings on Dennis Diehl's site. There are several rare treats:

Necro-Evangelism-When Dead Men Do Tell Tales (Garner Ted speaketh still!)

Fleecing the Flock 101...They Actually Have Classes!

The Planet Venus and Satan's Fall

and then a tip of the hat to that great prognosticator Nostradamus, Nostradennis

Who'd have thunk it!?

Monday 10 July 2006

Dwight flight

According to the grapevine, WCG has recently placed all of Dwight Armstrong's hymns into the public domain, which means they're available for anyone who wants to make use of them.

Poor old Dwight got a bad press in some quarters. His hymns were described as dirges, and there were dark mutterings about plagiarism of tunes. But I have to say, after growing up with the very real dirges of Lutheran liturgy and hymnody, I found them (or at least some of them) quite refreshing when I first started attending. There is nothing as plain awful as a badly tuned organ accompanying a badly tuned congregation singing something that should have received a decent burial in the 16th century.

As for the plagiarism: it seems to have been something of an Armstrong family tradition. The words were from the Psalms, so I guess that was okay. The tunes are apparently suspiciously similar to a Scottish Psalter of long ago. If Dwight managed to make a buck out of his brother's paranoia about Protestant songs, well, that's fine by me. I hope he at least got his tithes back.

These days it may be all praise choruses and waving arms, but the old purple book still has its charms... kind of.

5 Personal favorites:
How Excellent in all the Earth (7)
O Eternal who shall dwell (14)
For Even from my Youth O God (52)
Holy Mighty Majesty (75)
He Shall Reign for Evermore (78) - complete with a "melancholy sparrow" :)

5 Personal un-favorites:
By the Waters of Babylon (103) - now the Boney M version I liked!
Blest and Happy Is the Man (1) - this one was thrashed to death
Let Thy Chastening be in Measure (31) - "my loins are filled with burning" :o
But as for me I'll call on God (45) - top of the hit parade when GTA was chucked out
O Pity Me, Be Gracious God (47) - and pity anyone trying to sing this one!

Thursday 6 July 2006

Tunnel Vision

I once wrote that Vision, the flagship magazine of David Hulme’s group, was the best of the bunch. Wrong. It’s merely the most pretentious.

That realization was brought home after reading the Vision review of James Tabor’s The Jesus Dynasty. Sect heavyweights Hulme and Peter Nathan (former WCG Regional Director for New Zealand) collaborated on a lengthy pasting of Tabor’s book. Fair enough, if the criticism is valid. But is it?

They begin by lumping Dynasty together with The Last Week by Jesus Seminar scholars Crossan and Borg. Why? These are very different books. The Last Week gets the briefer treatment, and Crossan and Borg are chided for (wait for it!) not adopting the Wednesday crucifixion theory! Hulme and Nathan are then reduced to citing antiquated sources (Torrey, 1907; Pearson, 1939; Bullinger, 1922) to make Herbert Armstrong’s adopted reconstruction look credible (it’s noticeable that they don’t cite Hoeh.) The trouble is that the theory is a curiosity that has never gained acceptance, probably for very good reasons. If Hulme thinks this is the crux of a relevant discussion of The Last Week then he obviously needs to reread the book.

Tabor is the next for the chop, but here the Pasadena-based duo has to be careful. Tabor has previously been interviewed in Vision, and in their Paul television promotional, as a scholarly authority. What to do? The strategy they adopt is to both slap him around and then pat him on the head with an air of condescension.

The criticism: Tabor “doesn’t examine every side of an issue”, miracles “have no place in Tabor’s approach to history”, he believes that Paul and James were “antithetical” to each other; he believes “the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses”, he adopts a Thursday crucifixion reconstruction, and he suggests Jesus didn’t use matzos at the Last Supper. Then, in a final sideswipe, they accuse the unfortunate Dr. Tabor of being a “neo-Ebionite.”


While some have expressed keen reservations about the approach Dr. Tabor takes in The Jesus Dynasty, Vision’s rather facile objections miss those issues entirely.

If anyone deserves to be labeled “neo-Ebionite” it’s church leaders like Hulme. The Ebionites were the Jewish Christians of the first century. Mind you, Hulme isn’t a very good Ebionite because he tries to hold together the Old Testament elements alongside Protestant assumptions. Neither fish nor fowl, there’s a built in contradiction at the heart of this posture which just doesn’t work (witness the disintegration of the WCG.)

There are strong reasons why the Gospels can’t be regarded as eyewitness documents – and they’re spelled out in any college level textbook on the subject. Putting aside the speculative side of Tabor’s book, in this matter he’s only telling it like it is – honestly.

Miracles have no part to play in an academic approach to history. That doesn’t mean they can’t happen, or that there are no fairies at the bottom of Hulme’s garden, it just means that if you’re writing history you can’t excuse a weak argument with special pleading.

And if Hulme and Nathan aren’t aware of the broad consensus on the tension between the Jerusalem Church and the Pauline mission, well, they’re not nearly as well read as they make out.

A final observation: the story of the early church is a bit like a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle with 900 pieces missing. The actual hard data is surprisingly thin, and any reconstruction – Tabor’s, Crossan’s or Hulme’s – must be speculative to some extent. Some reconstructions are more probable than others, but if you had to put them on a scale of most to least likely, the traditional Armstrong version would drop right off the improbability end with a solid clunk.

If The Jesus Dynasty has rattled a few COG cages then that’s no bad thing.

Addendum: You can hear James Tabor speaking about his book on Tulsa Public Radio.

Tuesday 4 July 2006

Journal holds up a mirror to our identity

I'm a big fan of The Journal. It's not something that many of the more radical ex-COG folk understand, but Dixon Cartwright strikes me as a decent man and a highly professional editor. The Journal exists to cater for those still within the wider fold, and overall it does a great job.

That doesn't mean agreeing with everything that appears there. The latest issue is no exception. To start with there's a lead article by Ian Boyne about the latest success his Jamaican branch of CGI has chalked up.

"Some Church of God critics say it is in decline, but it is certainly not declining in Jamaica!"

I've exchanged a few emails with Ian, and without giving away any confidences I think I can safely say that the man is something of a puzzle: part intellectual gadfly, part dogmatist and 100% self publicist. How does he hold it all together? And how will the Ian-o-centric Jamaican CGI hold itself together when he eventually, inevitably goes the way of all flesh?

James Tabor responds to Ken Westby's review of The Jesus Dynasty in the letters section, followed by a lengthy rave on Herbal themes from Eric Snow. There are only three letters in this issue, which must be a new minimalist record, but the third is a hoot: a brief (!), humorous comment on the WCG's on-off name change.

If there's a focus to this issue it's the brutal act of disfellowship, and Dixon launches it with a rare editorial on the subject, focusing on the treatment Dan Cafourek received at the hands of those Holy Spirit-led fellows who determine the direction of the United Church of God. Dixon writes:

"The institution of disfellowship in the COGs over the years has been a hateloaded weapon for church leaders to keep lower-echelon church members in line through one of the cruelest forms of intimidation: hanging over people’s heads the threat of the loss of their very salvation."

BI enthusiast Steve Collins soaks up most of the remaining column inches with an essay on the Babylonian Captivity (not the historic one - the coming one y'know.) I'd give you a precis, but would rather leap naked off a very tall building than waste the valuable time.

So it's another mixed bag. But the genius of The Journal is in the combination of the good, the bad and the ugly. It holds up a mirror to the community that calls itself the Church of God, and the reflection is uncannily accurate.

(The Journal website is )


Bob Thiel responded to the Heavy Canon Fire posting by protesting loudly: "As far as those "mythical COG leaders of the apostolic age"--these leaders were NOT mythical. There is more information about some of them than there are about most of the early leaders in the Apostolic Succession lists of the Romans and especially the Orthodox."

Clicking across to Bob's list of apostolic COG leaders was enlightening. He starts off with the usual suspects: Peter, Paul, James & John. Uh huh. Well, let's be clear, every Christian sect claims these figures as their own.

Then Bob pulls together a list of early church luminaries who, in his view, are authentic COG Christians. They include Papias, Polycarp, Melito of Sardis and some more obscure names.

I realize that this won't be the most riveting subject for most readers, so to cut to the quick, there is absolutely no evidence that any of these characters championed COG distinctives such as the Sabbath (though Bob tries to prove otherwise.) The best he can do is demonstrate that they were 'Quartodecimans', keeping Easter on the Passover dates. Big deal, so did the entire Eastern Church at that time. Bob spins this by writing: Easter was not observed by the second century Christians in Asia Minor, such as Polycarp. He and others observed Passover.

No Bob. They kept Easter on the Passover dates.

Let's have a quick look at Polycarp. He was a bishop in Turkey. Bob desperately wants to COGgize him because he was, according to tradition, a disciple of John. That tradition is preserved by a bloke called Tertullian who was anything but a model of COG Christianity, and Irenaeus, another very unCOG-like character. Why would these Catholic apologists lend credibility to Polycarp if he was, in their view, a heretical COG leader?

Polycarp trekked his way to Rome to discuss the aforementioned dating of Easter with the Pope, and they parted amicably as brothers, agreeing to disagree. Bob concedes as much when he quotes Irenaeus: And in this state of affairs they held fellowship with each other; and Anicetus (the Pope) conceded to Polycarp in the Church the celebration of the Eucharist, by way of showing him respect.

Does this sound like a COG leader?
Notice that Polycarp celebrated the Lord's Supper (eucharist) in Rome with the Pope's blessing. That'd be like Rod Meredith celebrating the mass in Saint Peters with Ratzinger looking on.

Apart from a letter addressed to the Philippian church, a few nice little anecdotes and a heroic tale of martyrdom, that's it! That's what we know about Polycarp.

So, how does Bob manage to shoe-horn him into the fictive pre-history of COGism? Beats me, and I've read his rather long treatise on the subject. According to Bob he even kept the Sabbath; here's his third proof:

His church reported about the him and the Sabbath.

And now a little more from that treatise. You can judge its lucidity for yourself.

Polycarp is unique among any claimed to be a direct successor to any of the apostles. He is the only possible second century direct apostolic successor considered by any church I am aware that there was a letter written to him while he was alive. He is the only possible direct apostolic successor considered by any church I am aware that to have written any document that we still possess to this day (there is a letter claimed to have been written by Clement of Rome, however, it does not say that he wrote it, nor is Clement considered to be the direct successor of any apostle--the Roman Catholic Church claims that Linus was Peter's direct successor; there are also letters written by Ignatius of Antioch, but the two Antiochian Churches I am aware of claim that Evodius, not Ignatius, was Peter's direct successor). Polycarp is the only possible direct apostolic successor considered by any church I am aware that to have any document written about him within a few weeks of his death.

Anyone who can make sense of that paragraph deserves an advanced diploma in reading comprehension.

Sunday 2 July 2006

Heavy canon fire

LCG web commentator and church history buff Bob Thiel writes: "one of the reasons that the COGs are NOT Protestant is that we believe the Bible and do not believe that anyone... is entitled to change it."

Which led me to think again about the whole canon issue.

To provide a bit of an introduction, Bob regards the Bible - his non-Protestant canon (which actually is the Protestant canon) - as a given. It kinda dropped out of the sky one day, intact, fully formed and fluttering gaily down beneath a Holy Spirit parachute. Those nasty Church Fathers and proto-Catholics had nothing to do with it. If I understand Bob correctly, he champions a reconstruction where the Eastern church created the current canon before it invented ikons, pillar saints and liturgical chants, and was still under the influence of those mysterious and mythical COG leaders of the apostolic age.

Yeah, right.

I disagree with Bob, though I don't doubt his sincerity (as the old refrain goes, folk can be "sincerely wrong.") For me, this was a real "trunk of the tree" issue several years ago, as it affects the whole underpinning of fundamentalist and evangelical belief. I even wrote a short article on the subject which attracted a bit of attention. It sorely needs a rewrite, which I'm hoping to get done later this year (then it'll appear as a PDF file on otagosh.) Currently the New Testament paper that I'm doing touches on this issue, and there's more to add. But despite the fact that it's a little dated, I stand behind what I said then.

Bottom line: for centuries the canon was subject to change after change as Christians of all hues and stripes debated what to include. And in some cases they got it terribly wrong in the final cut. The article explains this in some detail. I'll expand on this theme in later postings.