Proposing a New, Really Old, Hermeneutic

Okay, so I can’t count. This is really the fourth in a series of four. Maybe I will stop here – who knows. I’m kind of having fun.

In my last installment I critiqued the hermeneutic that a vast number of members of the Churches of Christ grew up with – and many still defend with the tenacity of a pit bull terrier. That hermeneutic is “Command, Example and Necessary Inference” (hereafter CENI). If you did not read that post, I can sum it up by saying there are some serious issues with that method of interpretation, especially with the “necessary inference” part, but I also see the strength of the hermeneutic and I believe that many Christians work around the problems intuitively, not necessarily consciously.

I also said there was a need for a healthier hermeneutic, and that I believed one was available. I believe it is practiced by more individuals than actually know it’s source (or sources). I think many younger preachers and teachers believe that this “new” hermeneutic is vastly superior to anything those hayseed Restoration leaders could ever think up. And so I give to you one of the most well reasoned, modern, and “spiritual” methods of interpreting the Bible constructed by — Alexander Campbell.

In his magnum opus, The Christian System, Alexander Campbell listed seven “rules” by which the Bible must be translated and interpreted. [As an aside here, this work really needs to be read and studied in its entirety by all ministers and teachers in the church. They will be amazed by the theological depth and breadth demonstrated by Campbell, and they will be embarrassed by their off-handed dismissals of his education, or supposed lack thereof.] I give them here, somewhat abbreviated, with explanations provided in brackets with my initials inside – [PAS]

  1.  On opening any book in the Sacred Scriptures, consider first the historical circumstances of the book. These are the order, the title, the author, the date, the place, and the occasion of it.
  2. In examining the contents of any book as respects precepts, promises, exhortations, &c., observe who it is that speaks, and under what dispensation he officiates . . . Consider also the persons addressed, their prejudices, characters and religious relations.
  3. To understand the meaning of what is commanded, promised, taught, &c., the same philological principles deduced from the nature of language, or the same laws of interpretation which are applied to the language of other books, are to be applied to the language of the Bible.
  4. Common usage, which can only be ascertained by testimony, must always decide the meaning of any word which has but one signification; but when words have, according to testimony (i.e. the Dictionary,) more meanings than one, whether literal or figurative, the scope, the context, or parallel passages must decide the meaning: for if common usage, the design of the writer, the context, and parallel passages fail, there can be no certainty in the interpretation of language.
  5. In all tropical language [poetic language- PAS] ascertain the point of resemblance, and judge of the nature of the trope, and its kind, from the point of resemblance.
  6. In the interpretation of symbols, types, allegories and parables, this rule is supreme: – Ascertain the point to be illustrated; for comparison is never to be extended beyond that point – to all the attributes, qualities, or circumstances of the symbol, type, allegory, or parable.
  7. For the salutary and sanctifying intelligence of the Oracles of God, the following rule is indispensable: – We must come within the understanding distance . . . Every one, then, who opens the Book of God with one aim, with one ardent desire – intent only to know the will of God, – to such a person the knowledge of God is easy; for the Bible is framed to illuminate such, and only such, with the salutary knowledge of things celestial and divine . . . He, then, that would interpret the Oracles of God to the salvation of his soul, must approach this volume with the humility and docility of a child, and meditate upon it day and night. (Alexander Campbell, The Christian System in Reference to the Union of Christians and Restoration of Primitive Christianity as Plead by the Current Reformation, [St. Louis: Christian Publishing CO., N.D.] p. 16-18, italics in the original)

The language is early 19th century flowery, but any student in a present-day course on hermeneutics would immediately recognize the scope of what  Campbell proposed – identify the type of literature, pay careful attention to the historical circumstances of the author and original readers, and do not press metaphorical language beyond it’s intended purpose. Wow. And Campbell wrote this in 1834-35. Of particular significance to me is Campbell’s use of the phrase, “understanding distance.” That sounds like it came straight out of the textbook I used in the Principles of Interpretation course I taught at Eastern New Mexico University.

Those who dismiss the theological acumen of Alexander Campbell are aghast at the soundness of this outline. Those who defend the hermeneutic of CENI are aghast that a Restoration leader would promote a “new hermeneutic” way back in 1835. The fact is, however, that if you truly follow what Campbell proposed, the hermeneutic of CENI is pretty toothless.

Are these seven rules of Campbell perfect? Are they to be equated with the words of the Bible itself? Are we to make of these seven rules what many have made of CENI? No, no, and no. I recognize these rules as one person’s contribution to the problem of biblical interpretation, and an early 19th century contribution at that. I know that our knowledge of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek languages, and our knowledge of ancient literature, has progressed significantly since Campbell’s day. I personally do not ascribe to Campbell’s dispensationalism, discussed in rule #2, and which he more fully expounds later in the book. So, I would tweak Campbell’s rules a little here and there. That having been said and duly noted, I find it quite amazing that so much of what Campbell wrote is still useable and valuable today.

I want to close this post with the words I selected as the final sentence above: “He, then, that would interpret the Oracles of God to the salvation of his soul, must approach this volume with the humility and docility of a child, and meditate upon it day and night.”

Amen, bro. Campbell, amen.

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.

Some Thoughts on the Churches of Christ: A Closer Look

I am both thrilled and scared by the announcement that the Christian Chronicle, a newspaper affiliated with the Churches of Christ, will present a series of articles in 2018 reporting on both statistical and anecdotal snapshots of where the congregations associated with this branch of the American Restoration Movement now stand. Thrilled, because I am vitally concerned about this movement. Scared, because of what I see personally and of what I have experienced in my past. To assist them in this series the authors have prepared a survey they hope members of the Churches of Christ will complete (survey can be found on the Christian Chronicle website). I am a little dubious of the results, as (1) there is no guarantee that the respondents are genuinely members of the church (unless the authors vet every single response) and (2) it is only the individuals on the most extreme ends of a spectrum that respond to such surveys. In other words, only those who are the most angry or the most enamored with the Churches of Christ are likely to respond. Maybe I am too pessimistic – I look forward to the results in the genuine hope that I am wrong.

Because I seem to be genetically incapable of briefly summarizing any of my thoughts about the  church, here is my closer look at the Churches of Christ leading into 2018.

My greatest fear is that, even with the penetrating kind of reporting that the Chronicle routinely presents, only the surface issues are going to be identified and debated ad nauseam. I fear that the discussion will degenerate into a class of 12 year old boys shooting spit balls at each other and disguising the whole fiasco as a debate of deep spiritual import.

Having recently completed my Doctor of Ministry degree on a subject very closely related to this question, I feel at least somewhat qualified to speak here. There have been a number of excellent studies produced by scholars within the Churches of Christ (from all positions) that have explored in-depth the questions such as the Chronicle is raising. Perhaps the most ground-breaking was David Edwin Harrell’s work in the 1960s, but many have followed in his footsteps and have done a masterful job of examining both societal and theological issues within the movement.

My point of departure in addressing our future is this: it is absolutely critical that we jointly and collectively admit and appreciate our history.

I see, on one end of the divide that currently afflicts us, in those who identify (or can be identified) as “progressives” or “change agents,” an almost vitriolic attack against the beginnings of the Restoration Movement. They view such men as Barton W. Stone, Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott, David Lipscomb, and others as naive, theological Lilliputians whose writings should be abandoned to the dustbins of history. The ridicule and scorn heaped upon the early 19th century restorers is hardly disguised, and is quite frankly embarrassing.

No less embarrassing, however, is the outright rejection of our history by those who are on the extreme opposite of the theological spectrum. According to the most conservative (or “reactionary”) members, we simply do not have a human history. We are the church of AD 33, no less and no more. It is almost (if not certainly) like 1900 + years of human – and church –  history never happened.

The situation we find ourselves in is this: these mortal opponents, who cannot stand the sight of each other, sit perched on the same flimsy limb that they are both furiously sawing in order to cut each other off. I believe a majority – or at least a significant minority – members of the Churches of Christ are left simply bewildered. They see and hear all the polemic being hurled from one side to the other, but all they want is a place to worship in peace and security. They do not want to blow the church up – but they equally do not want to retreat into some fortified bunker where there is no light from the sun and no fresh air to breathe.

The one thing that I feel in my bones is that the middle of the church is being squeezed by both ends and it is increasingly difficult to identify oneself as simply a member of the church of Christ (little “c”).

If you are wondering, yes, I have some ideas about the origins of our current situation, and even some tentative suggestions about how to move forward. I am, after all, a preacher – and preachers have never been short of opinions and suggestions.

At the end of this already too-long post I would offer this little tidbit: whatever we do, we must once again look to the core of what Jesus wanted his  church to look like (a really good start would be John 13-17). If we can begin there, and somehow learn to acknowledge and appreciate our very human and corporeal history, maybe we have a chance to speak to our culture. If not, I do not have much hope that the vision of Stone, Campbell, Scott and others will survive another generation.

Thanks for reading, and as always, let us aspire to ascend lower.