Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Herbert W Armstrong: Why He Still Matters

"I want to tell you that all this weather disturbance means a terrible famine is coming on the United States that is going to ruin us as a nation inside of less than 20 more years. All right, I stuck my neck out, right there. You just wait 20 years and see whether I told you the truth. God says, 'if a man tells you what's going to happen, wait and see. If it doesn't happen, he was not speaking the word of God, he was speaking out of his own mind.' You watch and see whether these things happen. You see who's speaking to you, my friends."
-Herbert W Armstrong, World Tomorrow broadcast, mid-1950s.
If you recently attended the Feast of Tabernacles with a Church of God splinter group, you probably heard at least one reference to Worldwide Church of God founder Herbert W Armstrong during the festival. Some of you at the more senior end of the spectrum may have gotten a little misty-eyed. Others of you - mostly in the under 40 crowd - probably tried hard not to roll your eyes.

I can totally relate. I was in your place, barely suppressing that eye roll as recently as five years ago. Herbert Armstrong died when I was young. I had no emotional attachment to him. He was little more than a footnote in my COG experience. The splinters I attended distanced themselves from him. So on the rare occasion that a speaker waxed nostalgic about him, the voice in my head was yelling "Move on! He died more than 25 years ago!" I thought he was irrelevant.

I was wrong. Totally wrong. Herbert Armstrong is extremely relevant. Few things could be more relevant.

Let me state up front that this post isn't a rant about how much I dislike HWA. For most of my life, I regarded him with apathy, when I regarded him at all. It was only when I started searching for answers about the state of the WCG splinter groups that I understood just how relevant he was to everything I had been taught.

Many COG groups distance themselves from HWA, especially his claims to be an apostle who received revelation directly from Jesus Christ. So it strikes me as intellectually dishonest for them to uphold his teachings as divinely inspired. In this post and others, I'll address arguments along these lines that I myself made as a COG member or have heard others make.

1. Scriptures condemning false prophets don't apply to Herbert Armstrong. He never claimed to be a prophet.

So, he's not a prophet? Then what is he, a fortune-teller? Is that really any better?

It's true that HWA technically called himself an apostle, and never used the phrase "I am a prophet." But! He was indeed seen as a prophet, regardless of what some today might lead us to believe. Gerald Waterhouse, the most vocal evangelist in the WCG, went on speaking tours throughout the church and often waxed on for hours at a time extolling Armstrong's prophetic greatness. Waterhouse would often make ludicrous claims such as, "If Christ doesn't return in Mr. Armstrong's lifetime, the Bible is false!" Bold words! But not so bold after all, since this is essentially the same claim that the UCG makes when they attempt to demonstrate how wrong the Apostles were on the timing of the return of Jesus. They defend Armstrong's foibles by pointing out that the Bible is wrong. Wise? Probably not. We ask, were the Apostles wrong, or is there just something fundamentally incorrect on the UCG's understanding of what the Apostles were saying? Best bet is the latter. Where did the UCG get their understanding of what the Apostles were saying in the first place? From the very man they admit was totally wrong. Whereas Waterhouse said, "If Armstrong was wrong then the Bible was wrong," the UCG says, "Armstrong was wrong, but the Bible is wrong too." We find it the apex of irresponsibility to stand on this defense. Is this truly the hill they are willing to die on?

And then there were statements in church publications like this:
"WHERE ARE God’s true prophets today! In this age of world chaos and sudden death, you had better rid your mind of preconceived ideas and prejudice and honestly seek to find out! Listen! This work has been warning America of definite and tremendous events to come for many years! ... They use the words “may," “could,” or “might.” They are afraid to be definite and specific! The truth of the matter is that they DARE NOT be specific about the future because they just DO NOT KNOW what the Bible says is going to happen! But on “The World Tomorrow” broadcast and in this magazine we have dared to unlock the Bible prophecies and apply them to specific nations and events that are NOW being affected. Do you grasp the SIGNIFICANCE of this?"
-Plain Truth Aug. 1957, p.3 (bold mine)
Oh, we grasp the significance alright. The church did see itself as having "true prophets" who made prophetic statements under divine influence. (For more, see our article, "An Inconvenient Plain Truth".) But it wasn't just future prophecies, no. Armstrong also claimed to have divinely-revealed understanding of the interpretation of ancient Biblical prophecies. He spoke as if the Bible itself was written for him personally, and you could tag along.
"And, knowing that such an unbelievable catastrophe is soon to strike, I HAVE TO WARN YOU!! You can read what God says to me in Ezekiel 33: 1-6."
-Herbert Armstrong, 1975 In Prophecy, p. 20 (bold mine)
What God said to him through Ezekiel?? So, God supposedly wrote the Bible to Herbert Armstrong, but he's not really relevant to anything? We respectfully disagree.
Armstrong understood himself as the end-time fulfillment of several Biblical types.
"Although God has personally given Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong no commission, he nevertheless feels that virtually every commission God has ever given is his. Mr. Herbert W Armstrong either thinks he is, or is to do the job given to: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the 'watchman,' the 'inkhorn,' the one who 'cries aloud and spares not,' Elijah to come, a type of John the Baptist, either Joshua or Zerubbabel, one of the two witnesses, an apostle, a 'messenger' one who 'prepares the way,' Hosea, Malachi, Moses (anyone who disdains Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong’s authority or position is immediately compared to Korah), Daniel, Joel, Amos, etc., etc., etc. And, of course, he primarily feels he is to fulfill Matt. 24:14 -- see Rev. 14:6 for the most likely individual to take care of that job."
-Taken from Robert Garringer's 1975 letter to Charles Hunting, as posted on the Exit and Support Network website.
Most popular of all was how Armstrong called himself the end-time Elijah. Click here for a YouTube video entitled "The End Time Elijah - Herbert W Armstrong" for one example. Or, here again:
"It is revealed in Malachi 3:l-5 and 4:5-6 that God would raise up one in the power and spirit of Elijah, shortly prior to the Second Coming of Christ. In Matthew 17:11 Jesus said, even after John the Baptist had completed his mission, that this prophesied Elijah “truly shall first come, and restore all thigs.” Although it is plainly revealed that John the Baptist had come in the power and spirit of Elijah, he did not restore anything. The human leader to be raised up somewhat shortly prior to Christ’s Second Coming was to prepare the way-prepare the Church-for Christ’s coming, and restore the truth that had been lost through the preceding eras of the Church."
-Herbert W Armstrong, Mystery of the Ages, 1985 edition, pp. 290-291
This doesn't just apply to Armstrong as some nickname, it claims he had the power and spirit of Elijah. The last time I checked, Elijah was a prophet, and one of the greatest of them. When Elisha received the spirit and power of Elijah, he also became a prophet. When John the Baptist came in the power and spirit of Elijah, he too was a prophet. And this is precisely what everyone in the WCG understood Armstrong's claims to mean! When the imprisoned "Spokesman of the Two Witnesses," Ron Weinland, set out to eclipse his former master, Weinland opted to claim to be an even greater Elijah than Armstrong was. (For a great deal more on this, see our articles "Elijah - Ron Weinland or Herbert W, Which?", "Herbert W Armstrong: End-Time Elijah?", and "The Plain Truth About the End-Time Elijah".)

Only Elijah and John the Baptist never went around wildly speculating on time-specific events. (Nor either did the Apostles, but we digress.) Everything happened precisely as they said it would. But we are supposed to overlook all of this.

Several sections in the Bible were written to HWA, he is the fulfillment of multiple Biblical types, he is the end-time Elijah, he was the first person in 1,900 years to preach the Gospel, he is the "founder and spiritual and temporal leader of the Church of God on earth," God spoke to him and through him ...but Armstrong never uttered the magic phrase, "I am a prophet", you see, so he's irrelevant and it's all just harmless exuberance.

Armstrong doesn't help his case by concluding statements with phrases like, "thus saith the Lord," as in this prophecy about Mussolini triggering the battle of Armageddon:
"But then what will Mussolini and these ten dictators do? Notice the prophecy - absolutely sure to happen - in Revelation 17:16-17... Thus shall the Catholic Church come to her final end. Thus saith the Lord."
-Herbert W. Armstrong, The Plain Truth, March 1938, p. 8.
While we're on the topic of HWA's failed World War II prophecies, let's consider the time that he said the war that would usher in the Great Tribulation could start within two months' time... in 1939.
"Once world war is resumed, it must continue on through the great Tribulation, the heavenly signs, the plagues of the Day of the Lord and to the Second Coming of Christ, at the last battle, at Armageddon! This you may know! This war will be ended by Christ's Return! And war may be started within six weeks! We are just that near Christ's coming! That should make every reader stop to think."
-Herbert W. Armstrong, The Plain Truth, August 1939, p. 6.
You know what made me stop and think? When I read that HWA said that the Bible showed that Hitler would be victorious in his ill-fated Russian invasion.
"Hitler is the 'Beast' of Revelation.... There, Bible prophecy does indicate that Hitler must be the victor in his present Russian invasion."
-Herbert W. Armstrong, The Plain Truth, October 1941, p. 7.
Unfortunately, HWA did not learn from his embarrassing record of WWII prophecies. Pay attention to the dates on these quotes.
"It's time we face the hard, cold, realistic fact: humanity has two alternatives: either there is an Almighty, all-powerful God who is about to step in and set up the kingdom of God to rule all nations... or else there will not be a human being alive on this earth twenty years from now!... It's about time you come to know who are the false prophets, and who is speaking the true Word of God faithfully."
-Herbert W Armstrong, 1962, Just What Do You Mean... Kingdom of God, p. 19.
"The 'Day of the Eternal' - a time foretold in more than thirty prophecies - is going to strike between five and ten years from now! You will know, then, how real it is... I am not writing foolishly, but very soberly on authority of the living Christ."
-Herbert W Armstrong, The Plain Truth, February 1967, p. 47.
All in all, HWA had hundreds of failed prophecies. You can call them predictions, if it makes you feel better, but there are still more than 200 of them. Deuteronomy 18:20-22 is very clear on the matter of false prophets.

"But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die. And if you say in your heart, 'How shall we know the word which the Lord has not spoken' - when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken, the prophet has spoken presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him."

This passage does not give wiggle room. It does not allow us to say, HWA was right, his timing was just a little off. It seems to give a cutoff date, not allowing years to pass to see if maybe the prophecy will come true later. Just saying "bad things have happened and are happening more frequently" doesn't count. The Bible says that. But the Bible doesn't set dates. HWA did. So, did HWA speak presumptuously in the name of the Lord? "Thus saith the Lord." "I am not writing foolishly, but very soberly on the authority of the living Christ." You tell me.

If I made the rules, I probably wouldn't be as harsh as Deuteronomy 18 prescribes. No one's perfect. Everyone has an off day now and then. But it's not up to me. When you claim to speak for God, you have to get it right. HWA did claim to speak "the TRUE MESSAGE FROM GOD" (1975 In Prophecy p. 28), and HWA did claim that he spoke "on the authority of God Almighty" (1975 In Prophecy p. 31), but HWA didn't get it right.
Unlike Deuteronomy, I'm not asking for anyone's blood. I'm just asking you to take an honest and unbiased look at the facts.

2. Herbert W Armstrong was a fallible man, but he still revealed a lot of truth despite his problems.

This is a nice thought, but it contradicts the very authority by which HWA established this "truth." It contradicts what the founder of the religious movement taught and believed about himself. Herbert W Armstrong claimed to be God's apostle. He stated that God dealt with him "in no uncertain terms, even as he had dealt with Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jonah, Andrew, Peter and the apostle Paul." (Herbert W Armstrong, Mystery of the Ages, p. 14).
"I wonder if you realize that every truth of God, accepted as truth doctrine and belief in the Worldwide Church of God, came from Christ through me, or was finally approved and made official through me... I was appointed by Jesus Christ, the head of the Church."
-Herbert W Armstrong, "Personal From..." The Plain Truth, Feb. 1977, p. 17.
It's one thing for a Christian layperson or pastor to make doctrinal errors. It's quite another thing for an apostle to do so. As an apostle, you are either divinely inspired or you aren't. Did Peter sin or make errors in judgment? Sure. But did Peter and Paul make doctrinal errors? In multiple publications, HWA claimed God worked with him similarly to the way He called the apostle Paul. In this Co-Worker letter from November 29, 1954, Armstrong references Galatians 1:11-12.
"And so I say to you, as the Apostle Paul said to those at Galatia. I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which is preached of me is not after man, for I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it but by the revelation of Jesus Christ... When it pleased God, who... called me by His grace, to reveal His Son in me that I might preach Him to the world; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood - neither went I to any sect or denomination or human theologian, but I went directly to the word of God, on my knees, corrected, reproved , and instructed in God's righteousness and truth."
Incidentally, how exactly did HWA claim he knew God called him to apostleship? Through a vision-like dream his wife Loma had just days after their wedding. In her dream, she and HWA were crossing the stream when they noticed a banner-shaped mass of stars in the sky. The stars quivered and separated twice, then three white birds flew toward them, turning into angels as they approached. In the dream, Jesus Christ descended from among the angels. He put His arms around HWA and his wife, then turned back into an angel. Loma asked the angel if it was wrong for her and HWA to go to the movies so much. The angel replied that Christ had important work for them to do and there would be no time for movies. Then the angel vanished. (Mystery of the Ages, p. 15-17). HWA tried to put the vision out of his mind, but God soon got his attention through the loss of his business. His business fell apart in the flash depression of 1920, when major clients like Goodyear and John Deere fell through.

I'm not saying Loma and HWA made all this up. I'm not saying that there was no dream, or that they didn't find it convincing. There's no doubt that dreams can be inspired by God. After all, Peter saw a vision of unclean animals on a blanket. John had visions of locusts, horses and dragons. Those dreams sound strange, too. Although theirs have a bit more street cred since their dreams came after their apostleship had been established, instead of being the means through which they declared their apostleship. So I guess what I am saying is that if I ever declare my apostleship, I hope I will base my claims on something a little more substantial. Temporary blindness, complete change in life direction along the lines of Paul's experience. Not my business falling apart in a stock market crash. That happened to a lot of people. If God used this to reach HWA, just imagine what He must have been trying to tell Goodyear and John Deere!

Not only did HWA claim Jesus predicted his work in Matthew 24:14 and Mark 13:10 (per HWA's personal letter to cult and false religion writer Robert Sumner, dated November 27, 1958); he also claimed God suppressed the "true gospel" for almost 2000 years in the lead-up to his end-time work. The gospel was hidden from the world from the time of Christ's apostles until a century of 19-year-time cycles (Herbert W Armstrong, Mystery of the Ages, p. 294). The time cycle thing also somehow figured into everything from the expiration date of God's curse against the Israelites, to the Louisiana Purchase, and to the beginning of the "Philadelphia Era of the Church of God" under HWA's leadership. Don't ask me to explain 19-year time cycles, I never understood them. I do, however, understand that this claim seems to contradict Matthew 16:18, which indicates the gospel would never disappear. It also seems to contradict modern COG attempts to trace themselves back to the Mumfords, the Seventh Day Baptists, the Waldensians and any one else who would lend them an air of credibility. More on that later.

Is it possible that God truly did inspire Herbert W Armstrong in some ways, but didn't bestow upon him the role of apostle? Certainly God could have cleared up that detail at some point. But Armstrong never deviated from his claim of divine apostolic inspiration. The above quote about God dealing with him similarly to Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Peter came from Mystery of the Ages, which was printed the year before his death.

So why am I writing this? Because I want to sling mud at Herbert Armstrong? Because I am bitter toward the leadership in the COG splinter groups? Absolutely not. Compared to others, I led a relatively easy life in the COGs. Growing up in WCG did have some positive fruit - it ingrained within me a belief in God, respect for the Bible, knowledge of scripture and a strong sense of morality. I have no deep-seated anger toward HWA, although some of the things I've read leave me with the heebie-jeebies.  I regarded him much like the wacky older second-cousin-in-law at the family reunion. You know who I'm talking about - the one who makes off-the-wall comments that everyone pretends they don't hear.

No, I didn't leave the COGs because of HWA. As far as I was concerned, truth is truth, no matter who says it. I left because I saw many doctrines were not true. It was only afterward, as I struggled to understand where some of the issues I saw originated, that I learned so much more about this man. Some of you attend COGs where Armstrong is mentioned almost weekly, where institutions are named after him. You know that he matters. But others of you attend splinters that have distanced themselves from HWA, where he is downplayed. I am writing because you need to be aware that what you now believe as a member of a COG group hangs on Herbert Armstrong. You need to be aware of these things. And more, which I will continue next time.

You can find part 2 of this series here. You can find part 3 of this series here.

(Oh, and in case you are wondering, the video clip I quoted in the introduction can be found here  between time markers 5:10 and 5:42).

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; ) Acts 17:11


Martha said...

Many thanks to xHWA who greatly improved this post and the ones that will follow with his extensive knowledge of Herbert W Armstrong's prophecies and history. There are several nuggets you added that many people have never known (myself included). They need to hear them, and thanks to you, they are.

xHWA said...

If you are referring to the incident with the editing, I was barely involved.

xHWA said...

When groups like the UCG come out with spin of such rare and intense purity like what we see in their article "Treasure Digest: Be Ready to Give an Answer: Didn't You Follow a False Prophet?" by Cecil Maranville, it deserves a clear and thorough response. Their claims, through respectful, were a whitewash. People deserve to know the whole truth. Someone needs to be brave enough to provide that.

You, Martha, stepped up to that plate. I commend you.
With thanks and honor to God, of course.

Dillon said...

Very true. If HWA was a true prophet/apostle, he would be correct on ALL matters of doctrine. Comparing HWA to David is a false analogy since David was correct on ALL matters of doctrine. So were the Apostles. They were correct on ALL matters of doctrine. Their theology was infallible.

R.L. said...

At least he got the "war may start within six weeks" part right.

Germany invaded Poland September 1, 1939.

As for the other stuff....