The Study of History – Facts are Stubborn Things

(Second in a series of three)

In addition to being a minister by vocation, I consider myself an amateur history buff. One thing I learned recently was the role of the United States and her allies in starting WWII. “Wait!” you said. “Adolf Hitler started WWII and the United States did not enter the war until 1941.”

Well, that is mostly true. Hitler did strike the match that started the fire. But the US, England, and France poured out all the gunpowder that Hitler used to burn Europe to the ground when they forged the Treaty of Versailles. That document blamed Germany for WWI, and made Germany pay reparations that it could never pay; it ultimately drove Germany into a depression the likes of which have never been equaled. All that was necessary was for a master manipulator like Hitler to come along and strike that match. Had the Allies reframed the treaty that ended WWI, Hitler would never have had the leverage he needed to turn the population of Germany against the world a second time. We smugly blame Hitler, and self-righteously overlook our own nation’s role in starting the war. Facts are stubborn, and often inconvenient, things.

What in the world does this have to do with theology, and the Restoration Movement in particular? Only this – very often we only focus on the end result of a very long and complicated process. When we get back to the beginning, and ask the question “why,” we tend to get very different, and sometimes surprising, answers.

Barton W. Stone, and Thomas and Alexander Campbell, were disaffected Presbyterians. This means that their religious thought world was primarily influenced by the teachings of John Calvin. In their day that Calvinism was  further refined by the Westminster Confession of Faith. Much as only the tip of an iceberg is visible on the surface, Stone and the Campbells were only partially aware of this influence. They wrote clearly and passionately against creedalism and the dangers of denominationalism, but a significant amount of their invective was focused against the legacy of Calvin.

One such teaching of Calvin is that a person can never really be sure of his or her salvation, as feelings can ultimately be misleading (this point is even endlessly debated by Calvinists). If God elects certain people to heaven, and others to hell, there is nothing that you can do to join the first group and avoid the second. More to the point: When exactly could a person be assured of their salvation? If the doctrine of original sin was true, there had to be a point at which God revealed to a person that sin was removed – but what was that point?

The solution (at least in the late 1700s and early 1800s America) was the “mourners bench.” This was where penitents could attend church, listen to sermons, and await the filling of the Holy Spirit that would reveal the gift of salvation. Many would sit on the mourners bench for months, some no doubt for years, before this warming was felt.

As they sought to unify the Christian church, and as they worked to restore that church to the purity of New Testament teachings, Alexander Campbell and his disciple Walter Scott hit upon a masterful observation. Stated most simply and elegantly, sinners could respond to the gospel with three observable steps – they could believe the gospel message, repent of their sins, and receive the washing of baptism. In turn, God made three great promises – the forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the gift of eternal life.

It was a stroke of theological genius! First, it was sound biblical teaching. Anyone could open their Bibles and verify such was true. But, more to the point, it answered an existential question in a profound and dramatic fashion. I cannot emphasize this enough. It was brilliant theology, although Campbell himself would have vehemently denied the use of the term. Gone was the mourners bench! How could you know if you were a Christian, that your sins were forgiven, that you had the gift of the Holy Spirit and that heaven awaited? By the observable steps of making a confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and by submitting to baptism. Thousands responded to this “new” teaching and the Restoration plea spread “like fire in dry stubble.”

Not one to leave well enough alone, Scott further tweaked this plan into his “five finger exercise.” He would ride into a town, gather some children together, and teach them the “five steps of salvation” on the fingers of their hand. They  were taught the importance of faith, repentance, baptism, the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit, and then sent home to repeat the message and to invite their parents to attend a protracted “gospel meeting” (an event that sometimes lasted weeks). Once again the results were astounding. Thousands were converted using this simple method of evangelism. But, notice – everything post baptism was excluded.

Through the decades that followed another subtle but critically important change occurred in this “gospel plan.” It was further reduced to the five steps to be accomplished by humans. From the original six steps which balanced human responses to God’s promises, the “plan” was now “hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized.” Gone was any reference to God’s promises, or God’s grace. Notice also the total silence regarding an obedient, faithful life. The focus was on baptism alone, a point that was not missed by the multitudes of opponents of these “Campbellites”.

Now we can step back and see how the process where a brilliant theological move has been co-opted into an idol. Stone, Campbell and Scott were responding to a crisis – a crisis that was keenly felt in the churches to which they were speaking. They took the gospel message and formulated an answer that was both biblical and culturally relevant. Over time, however, that answer has become a mantra that is largely devoid of its original context. Worse, by failing to see why the early Restoration leaders formulated this teaching method, we have elevated the method to the status of Scripture itself.

I write this not to disavow the Scriptural necessity to hear the gospel of Christ, to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that one must repent of a sinful past and that one must be baptized into Christ. Such is taught from Matthew through the New Testament. My point in writing this essay is to illustrate out how we as humans can turn a process into a goal, a method into an idol. Just as Calvinists had turned the “mourners bench” into an institutionalized exercise, so many in the Restoration Movement have “creedalized” the “gospel plan of salvation” and have turned it into something it was never intended to become.

The result, I fear, is now becoming painfully obvious. The Christian Chronicle is producing a series of articles detailing how the Churches of Christ are shrinking at an alarming rate. True, all “Christian” churches are experiencing losses, but this is particularly troubling to me because we, who proclaim that we are not a denomination and that we are only baptizing to create disciples of Christ, should not be experiencing losses in the numbers  that are being reported. It is one thing to leave a church. But, if we discipled people to be followers of Jesus, and then they leave, they are rejecting Jesus.

Our response to this crisis needs to be as theologically astute and culturally relevant as was Campbell’s and Scott’s in their day. But we are not living in post-Revolutionary America. We are living in post-Modern America, with a whole host of new and different questions. We must be true first to Scripture, and we must also be educated enough about our own history to learn not to turn human methods into church creeds.

I believe that it is very sad that in many ways we have become what Stone, Campbell, and Scott were fighting against. We have become as creedal and divided as the Christian world in general. We have turned the momentary successes of a generation into a permanent temple of worship. More on that in the next installment.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

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