GCI: Overview of Doctrinal Errors in Herbert Armstrong’s Mystery of the Ages
Shortly before his death in 1986, Herbert W. Armstrong, founder of the Worldwide Church of God, compiled many of his older works into one volume, titled Mystery of the Ages (MA). In 1987, the WCG discovered what it considered to be significant discrepancies between MA and the Bible, and for this and other reasons ceased printing the book. At the same time, the church began to discover and review other biblical discrepancies with church doctrine. By 1995, the church had undergone major changes in doctrine and scriptural interpretation.
|A historical note about Mystery of the Ages:In 1997, the Philadelphia Church of God (PCG) began printing and distributing MA without permission. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that this was in violation of U.S. copyright laws and instructed the trial court to enter an injunction against PCG prohibiting it from printing and publishing MA and to hold a trial for the purpose of entering a judgment for damages. Pending the trial, a legal settlement was reached in which PCG agreed to pay WCG if WCG would dismiss the lawsuit and sell to PCG MA and certain other works written by Herbert Armstrong. WCG accepted the settlement, and as a consequence, we no longer own or distribute MA.|
Following is a chapter-by-chapter overview (not intended to be exhaustive) of what we consider to be the major faulty premises and doctrinal errors of Mystery of the Ages.
Herbert Armstrong titled the introductory section of his book “Author’s Statement” (pages vii-xiii)
Herbert Armstrong’s teaching
Herbert Armstrong began Mystery of the Ages by providing the background of his call to ministry. He presented himself as a man of wide experience who “craved understanding” of “life’s deepest mysteries,” such as: Who am I? What am I? Why am I? Is the Bible God’s word? Does God exist? Following “months of virtually night-and-day intensive study” he says God revealed the answers to him: God does exist and the Bible is his word, but the Bible is a “coded” book, “not intended to be understood until our day in this latter half of the twentieth century.”
Armstrong claimed that God revealed to him that the Bible “is like a jigsaw puzzle—thousands of pieces that need putting together—and the pieces will fit together in only one way.” Mystery of the Ages, he claimed, put those pieces together. Traditional Christianity “has been deceived,” he wrote, but God led him to restore the great mysteries of the Bible.
Armstrong’s characterization of “professed traditional Christianity” as teaching a “great controversy” between God and Satan with Satan winning is incorrect and misleading. He took the erroneous claims of certain theologically deficient sectarian Protestant groups and held out those claims as representative of all Christian teaching. In other words, he set up a straw man by falsely characterizing the teachings of traditional Christianity and then proceeded to tear down that straw man.
Armstrong’s premise is that all of traditional Christianity and all Christian leaders have been deceived since the first century, but that God raised him up in the “end time” to restore the original truth. He supports his contention by labeling the Bible a “coded book” that no one since the first century could understand until “our day in this latter half of the twentieth century,” when God revealed the answers to him. In this way, Armstrong sets himself up as the only conduit to God’s truth, so that failure to heed him is failure to heed God’s word.
Comments on Herbert Armstrong’s “Preface” (pages 1-6)
Herbert Armstrong’s teaching
Armstrong sets out the basic questions of life: Who am I? What am I? Why am I? He faults “rational, scientifically-oriented minds” and “self-professed scholarly minds” for seeking purely materialistic, rather than spiritual, answers to these questions. He then names the “seven mysteries”: God, Angels and evil spirits, Man, Civilization, Israel, the Church, and the Kingdom of God. All these are mysteries, he says, because the Bible is the “basic mystery of all,” and he reiterates his basic formula that since the first century no one has been able to decode it or put together the puzzle pieces until God specially raised him up to do so.
Armstrong subtly equates all science and scholarship with denial of God by failing to point out that not all “rational, scientifically-oriented minds” or “scholarly minds” are atheistic materialists. This technique presents Armstrong as the staunch defender of God and the truth against all religion, science and higher education, which he brands as either ignorant or intellectually vain or both. Having established himself as the only one to whom God has given true understanding of life and the Bible, he can proceed to label basic Christian topics as “mysteries” that only he is divinely equipped to reveal.
“Introduction: How the Seven Mysteries Were Revealed,” pages 7-30
Herbert Armstrong’s teaching
In this chapter, Armstrong begins by contrasting human progress in science and technology with major global problems: proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, poverty, ignorance, illiteracy, starvation, disease, crime and violence, immorality, injustice, dishonesty, corruption in business and government, continual wars and the threat of a nuclear World War III.
He then sets forth “God’s truth” as the solution to all these problems, the truth that no one has understood for nearly 1900 years, the truth that God has now revealed to him alone to proclaim to the world. He presents himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of “the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord” (Isa. 40:3, 9-10), and the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy, “Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me” (Mal. 3:1).
Armstrong admits that these prophecies refer to John the Baptist, but claims that they have a “dual application,” and refer also to him (Armstrong), who, he claimed, would prepare the way for Jesus’ Second Coming just as John the Baptist had prepared the way for Jesus’ first coming. Armstrong cites his personal ministry in publishing and on radio and television as the “lifted up” voice referred to by the prophets.
Next, he explains that people believe what they do because that is what they have always heard and been taught since childhood. They have “carelessly assumed what they believe without question or proof.” Then he says he was the same way until God struck him down, and proceeds to compare himself to Moses and Paul as one whom God specially called and gave special revelation.
As he unfolds his experience of being broken and called by God, he relates what he implies was a supernatural dream given to his wife that predicted his ministry, and compares his call to those of Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jonah, Andrew, Peter and Paul. After God caused his business failures to humble him, he says, he was challenged on the seventh-day Sabbath and evolution, which prompted him to undertake “a determined almost night-and-day research.” What was revealed to him by God during this study was that many of the teachings of Christian churches were “the diametric opposite of Bible truth.”
Armstrong’s research was “totally different from that of students in a seminary,” whom, he declares, merely accept and memorize whatever is taught. He, in contrast, was “called specially by the living God,” who taught him in a way “unique in human life and conduct in our time,” His teaching came from God, while the teachings of all other religious leaders did not come from God. He compares himself to Paul’s being taught directly and personally by Jesus Christ.
In discovering the “truth” of the Sabbath, Armstrong cites how he gave up the world, friends, associates and everything in order to be faithful to what God had specially revealed to him. As a result, he says, God led him through the years to understand the seven mysteries.
The fundamental premise Herbert Armstrong maintains is that he was given special revelation by God and specially called to be God’s end-time representative. His religion requires one to trust the veracity of these claims, because the only basis for his assertions that his teachings are true is his claim that God revealed them to him and to no other religious leader. He denigrates seminary training as false and deceptive and sets up the results of his personal study as coming directly from God. He legitimizes himself and his religion by branding traditional Christianity as utterly wrong, in contrast to his own call and teaching, which he holds out as the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Armstrong’s reasoning is circular: We can know Armstrong’s teachings are the true message of the Bible because, unlike all other religious leaders, he was taught directly from God; We can know Armstrong was taught directly from God because his teachings, unlike those of all other religious leaders, are the true message of the Bible.
“Chapter 1: Who and What is God?”
Herbert Armstrong’s teaching
Once again, Armstrong establishes that not only the world in general, but also all professing Christians do not understand who and what God is. Only Armstrong, to whom God has given the special revelation of truth, knows the answers. The answers are in the Bible, of course, but no one knows how to put the Bible’s jigsaw puzzle pieces together except Armstrong. Consequently, whatever Armstrong says about God must be true.
In Armstrong’s view, which we have learned earlier in the book must be equated to God’s view, there are two Gods: One is God and the other is the Logos, or Word, who was is God. They are composed of spirit, and have the form and shape of a human being. The Logos, or Word, is the one through whom God created the universe and the one who became Jesus Christ, at which time the first God became the Father and the Word became the Son. God is in charge and the Word is under him in authority, but still fully God and of the “God kind.” The two of them are eternal and have co-existed together in perfect love eternally. Together they form the one God Family, and their goal is to create other Gods to join them as part of their God Family.
The Holy Spirit is not a third God, but rather the power and mind of the God Family, which emanates from them and which they project in order to create and to exercise their will over the creation.
This means that the Trinity doctrine, which limits God to only three Beings, is a satanic, false and pagan doctrine designed to deny the truth about the real God Family and the plan for humans to enter that Family as full God Beings who are children of God after the God kind. The Trinity doctrine did not come from the Bible, but from Satan, who established the Roman Catholic Church through Simon the Sorcerer. By A.D. 70, all of Christianity was corrupt and following the ways of Simon the Sorcerer. The Sabbath and Passover were exchanged for pagan Sunday and Easter, and in the early A.D. 300s, “Dr. Arius” and other bishops were having to oppose the false Trinity idea. But the pagan Emperor Constantine had the last say, and the Trinity, along with pagan Sunday and Easter Sunday worship, were forced on the church.
Through all this, the tiny true church stood for the truth, but could not prevail against the powerful false church and Roman emperor. All this was prophesied in Revelation 12 and 17.
Herbert Armstrong claims that God revealed this “truth” to him. Only on the basis of faith in that claim could anyone embrace such “truth.” The Bible supports no such thing. The Bible declares in no uncertain terms that there is one and only one God, not a “God Family” composed of two and ultimately billions of God Beings.
|Articles about the Trinity|
In his attack on the doctrine of the Trinity, Armstrong ignores its actual history, resorting instead to blustery, pseudo-authoritative language to convince readers of his conspiracy theory. The doctrine of the Trinity was developed over many decades of diligent Christian study of the Scriptures, bringing together the apparently paradoxical biblical assertions that there is one God and yet that Jesus Christ is both divine and human in one person. The Bible describes the Holy Spirit as doing those things that only God can do, attesting its divinity. The Bible also describes the Holy Spirit as speaking, sending and revealing, attesting that it is personal. The doctrine of the Trinity is a human explication of biblically revealed truth: 1) God is one and only one; 2) The Father is God; 3) The Son is God; and 4) The Holy Spirit is God. Together these plain, Bible truths mean that the one true God is one in three and three in one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The church does not attempt to explain how this is so, but only that it is so. Armstrong’s so-called revelation denies the biblical record.
Armstrong’s assertion that Simon the Sorcerer founded the Roman Catholic Church and his interpretations of the confrontations between Polycarp, Polycrates and bishops of Rome are historically inaccurate.
“Chapter 2: Mystery of Angels and Evil Spirits”
Herbert Armstrong’s teaching:
God has revealed to Herbert Armstrong the long-hidden truth about angels, Satan and the evil spirit powers. This revealed truth is that God created the angels before the physical universe in order to have help “in the work of creating, governing and managing what was to be created.” The angels were given a “proving ground,” the earth, where they were to prove themselves loyal and obedient to the government of God and build holy, righteous character. Under Lucifer, the head angel, they were to rule over, improve and develop the earth, like one puts varnish on unfinished furniture or a baker puts the “icing on the cake.” If they had succeeded in that, then God would have put the entire universe under them. However, the angels failed, since one-third of them sinned by following Lucifer into rebellion against God. Lucifer then became Satan and the rebelling angels became demons. God discovered by the angelic rebellion that he could not trust the angels never to sin, and realized that the only kind of beings he could trust not to sin were members of the God Family.
The demons were doomed to eternal misery in sin, since they cannot repent, nor can they be destroyed—not even by God, because God cannot destroy spirit beings. So God decided to reproduce himself by creating mortal humans in his image and giving them the potential of being born into his God Family as God beings like him and the Word. If humans succeed by submitting to God’s government and building “perfect, holy, righteous and spiritual character,” they will become Gods and can be trusted never to sin, but since they are mortal, if there is “sin unrepented of,” they can be destroyed, unlike the demons.
The only basis for believing this scenario of humanity as the “afterthought” following the failure of the angels is Armstrong’s claim that it was revealed to him in the Bible. The Bible, contrary to Armstrong, teaches that Jesus Christ was slain from the foundation of the world, demonstrating that humanity’s creation and redemption was integral to God’s plan from the beginning of the physical creation and not an afterthought following angelic failure to rule the earth correctly.
“Chapter 3: The Mystery of Man”
Herbert Armstrong’s teaching:
The Bible is a coded book, much like a jigsaw puzzle, which was not to be understood until our time, when God revealed its truth to Herbert Armstrong. What God showed him is that the angels were created to rule the universe. But they failed in their first project, which was earth, by following Lucifer, the head angel, into rebellion. So God decided to reproduce himself and to do it by creating humanity. Man is to do what the angels failed to do: “complete the finishing touches by improving and beautifying the earth,” thereby restoring the government of God and building the holy righteous character necessary to be born into the God Family as a full God being like God himself.
Instead, man has ruined the earth and rejected God. So God sent Jesus Christ the first time to reveal the Father, to live a perfect life, to overcome Satan and to qualify to replace Satan as ruler of the earth. Humans who, like Jesus, overcome Satan, self and sin, will sit with Christ in his throne when he comes to set up the kingdom of God and restore the government of God.
|Can humans become Gods?|
The terms “created” and “God” are mutually exclusive. Creatures cannot become “God Beings.” God is uncreated and humans are created. God is Creator, not created. By definition, a created being is not God.
The Bible teaches that the saints are children of God, not literal Gods in a “God Family.” Armstrong’s comparison of human fathers and children being of the same “kind” is misleading in reference to God and children of God. Human children of God are created beings with whom God has chosen in his divine freedom to have a relationship that is rooted in the Father’s relationship to Jesus Christ. The Bible does not teach a God Family consisting of two God Beings to which God is adding billions more “God Beings.”
The only “proof” for Armstrong’s claims is his insistence that God revealed them to him. The Bible does not support his assertions.
“Chapter 4: Mystery of Civilization”
Herbert Armstrong’s teaching:
This chapter is mostly a reiteration of previous chapters. It includes a brief sketch of Bible history, focusing on Noah and Nimrod.
For the brief historical sketch, Armstrong embellishes the biblical record of Noah and Nimrod, relying heavily on a book written in 1858 by Alexander Hislop, called The Two Babylons, a hopelessly flawed and unsupported interpretation of ancient history.
“Chapter 5: Mystery of Israel”
Herbert Armstrong’s teaching:
This teaching is laid out in more detail in Armstrong’s book, The United States and Britain in Prophecy, which Armstrong heavily quotes in this chapter. Armstrong argues that after Israel divided into northern and southern kingdoms following the death of Solomon, the Israelites and the Jews became two separate peoples. The conquering Assyrians removed the northern tribes from the land and spread them all over their empire, careful to keep each of the ten tribes separate and distinct. In time each tribe migrated to a different part of Western Europe and became the modern nations we see there today. The tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh were the leading tribes, and they settled in Britain. Manasseh then colonized North America and became the United States. Armstrong sees this as fulfilling the promises to Abraham and Jacob of physical blessings, i.e. land and prosperity. These promises, Armstrong explains, were withheld from ancient Israel for 2520 years as punishment for their sins. He marks the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 as the end of that punishment. The reason no one knows who the ten tribes are today, Armstrong says, is that they lost the identifying sign, which is the seventh day (Saturday) Sabbath.
But God raised up Herbert Armstrong to call modern Israel back to God and the Sabbath, and unless these nations respond they will undergo horrible punishment at the hands of a united Europe, which is the Beast of Revelation.
For this teaching, Armstrong relied heavily on the 1917 book, Judah’s Scepter and Joseph’s Birthright by J.A. Allen. Contrary to Allen and Armstrong, after the northern and southern kingdoms had fallen, the New Testament refers to Israelites as Jews, and vice-versa. In the Old Testament, the terms Israel, Jacob, Ephraim and Judah, while distinguishing between the north and south at certain times, are also used interchangeably at times in reference to the one people of God, consisting of 12 tribes, whom he brought out of Egypt through the sea, and with whom he made an everlasting covenant.
No proof exists to support Allen and Armstrong in their view that distinct tribes of Israel became the modern nations of Western Europe. The only authority for this claim is Armstrong’s claim that this information was “revealed” to him by God. Again, one must first trust Herbert Armstrong’s claims of divine revelation if one is to give credibility to this doctrine.
For more details information about the errors of Armstrong’s lost ten tribes doctrine, please refer to archive.gci.org/prophecy/usb
“Chapter 6: Mystery of the Church”
Herbert Armstrong’s teaching
After a rehash of previous chapters, Armstrong reveals the key mystery of the church: Herbert Armstrong is the God-trained and God-ordained “end-time” apostle and leader of it, bearing the apostolic authority of Peter, the “chief human apostle.” All other churches are part of the great whore of Revelation and her harlot daughters—Satan’s churches. Only those who are loyal to God’s government in the church, led by Herbert Armstrong, will finally qualify to become God Beings at Christ’s return and take part in the restoration of God’s government to the earth and in bringing the rest of the world to salvation.
Armstrong’s brief “synoptic history of the church” attempts to create in church history a continuous thread linking his own authority and doctrines with the authority and doctrines of the Jerusalem church. In it, Armstrong repeats the sectarian viewpoints of Sabbatarian groups who preceded him and distinguishes himself as the final and most complete expression of the one and only true church through the ages.
The only authority for Armstrong’s interpretations of history, human destiny and God’s plan are his claims of divine revelation. His claims to be the personal fulfillment of the prophecies in Malachi 3:1-5; 4:5-6; Revelation 3:7-13 and Matthew 24:14 exemplify how far he was willing to take his heretical views.
For more on the error of applying the Israelite Sabbath and annual Holy Days to Christians, please refer to archive.gci.org/law.
“Chapter 7: Mystery of the Kingdom of God”
Herbert Armstrong’s teaching
Jesus was a Messenger sent from God with a message, and that message was the kingdom of God. This message had not been proclaimed to the whole world for about 1,900 years, until the first week in 1953, when Herbert Armstrong’s message at last reached across the Atlantic and into Europe via Radio Luxembourg. All other churches today preach a message about Christ, rather than the message Christ himself taught, which was the gospel of the kingdom of God. False churches preach a “gospel of grace,” or a “gospel of salvation,” or a “gospel about Christ,” etc. None of these are the true gospel, and only by believing the true gospel can one be saved. The one and only true gospel is that Christ will return and set up his government over the nations and the universe.
Before concluding, Armstrong provides another strong reaffirmation of his unique and prophesied God-ordained role as chief apostle of the one and only true church, reminding readers that all doctrine in the church, by God’s design, must come only from Christ through Armstrong.
Herbert Armstrong’s assessment that no church but his proclaims the return of Christ and his ultimate reign over all nations and the universe is without basis in fact. His assessment that the gospel is not the gospel of grace, or of salvation, or about Jesus Christ, is in direct conflict with the biblical record (Note Mark 1:1; Acts 20:24; Romans 1:1; 15:16, 19; 1 Corinthians 9:12; 2 Corinthians 2:12; 4:4; 9:13: 10:14; 11:7; Galatians 1:7; Ephesians 1:13; 6:15; Philippians 1:27; 1 Thessalonians 2:8-9; 3:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:8; 1 Timothy 1:11; and 1 Peter 4:17).
|Articles showing that the gospel is about Jesus Christ, not merely a future kingdom|
Armstrong’s view of himself as the one and only true apostle of the one and only true church, through whom all doctrinal and biblical truth comes from Christ to the church, lies at the heart of all the heresy in Mystery of the Ages. Only when one accepts Herbert Armstrong’s call, roll, office and stature as God’s one, true, end-time apostle to the world, can one believe his unique interpretations of the Bible.
Christian faith is rooted in God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, never in the veracity of claims made by any human to represent him. Herbert Armstrong’s distinctive interpretations are rooted in his sense of a personal divine call to be God’s sole authoritative, end-time representative on earth, and largely based on his study of disreputable sources, who possessed, like Armstrong, limited understanding of church history combined with limited skills of biblical interpretation.
Author: J. Michael Feazell