In 1807, an Irish minister named Thomas Campbell (1763-1854) came to America with a mantra: “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.” Its simplicity carried an especially strong appeal to the uneducated Presbyterians of his congregation. However, after being disciplined from his local synod for issues concerning the Lord’s Supper, Campbell set off on his own private ministry. His goal was simple: to establish a church that (1) returned to the basic teaching of the Bible and (2) transcended the confines of denominations.
Two years after his arrival in America, “Campbell’s aggressive and disputatious son Alexander” gave serious steam to Thomas’s vision. Alexander joined his father in preaching against the use of creeds of any kind, against philosophical ‘speculations’, and unbiblical practices (like infant baptism). For a time, the father-son combo were willing to be called ‘Baptists’. However, “to deepen the paradox, Campbell’s campaign for undoing denominationalism was the chief factor in the origination of a new denomination.” (Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People) When it came to oratorical skill and publicized debates, Alexander Campbell was a man to be reckoned with. And when he spoke, people listened.
Campbell had inherited a healthy distrust for traditions from his Scottish Presbyterian roots. And while studying in Glasgow, he’d also “absorbed John Locke, a Scottish commitment to Baconian method, a disillusioned assessment of traditional Protestant churches, and the Bible-onlyism of the Scottish reformers James and Robert Haldane.” (Noll, America’s God) Thus, while the young Campbell felt a deep allegiance to Scripture, he held equally deep commitments to human reason. And the two would guide his theology and new denomination for the rest of his life.
The ingredients for a new church were slowly developing, and in 1832, they finally came together. Campbell merged his followers with those of Barton Warren Stone (1772-1844) to form the Disciples of Christ or Christian Church. Stone had become equally disillusioned from the Presbyterian Church. In 1798 he sought ordination and accepted the leadership of Presbyterian congregations in Bourbon County, Kentucky. There he was swept up in the emotion of the famous Cane Ridge Revival camp meetings that would forge the second Great Awakening. (2 hours from my hometown!) Stone eventually refused to impose Presbyterian doctrine and left to begin a movement calling for “Christians only.” Among other things, the preacher from Maryland ridiculed the Presbyterian Church for its educated, elite ministers who lived in ‘parlors’ and wore ‘costly apparel.’ His union with Alexander Campbell was appropriate, as Campbell had also cultivated a strong distaste for clerical power.
Campbell’s new movement accelerated quickly because of his oratorical and literary skill. The Irish minister had been the editor of two widely read periodicals, the Christian Baptist and the Millennial Harbinger. As a result, when Campbell left the Presbyterian and Baptist churches, he’d already gained a sizeable audience. And in the midst of Western expansion, Campbell was able to speak to the common people in a language they knew well: Scripture with republican common sense. Here was perhaps Alexander Campbell’s most lasting legacy: his willingness to blend biblical principles with democratic ones. While he wasn’t the first theologian to do so, he was certainly one of the most successful. In a famous public debate with British socialist Robert Owen in Cincinnati, Ohio, the ex-Baptist “described how Christianity had been corrupted by principles of hierarchy and deferential authority…Campbell knew well how to play his Cincinnati audience.” (Noll, America’s God)
Since, according to Campbell, Baptists had failed to restore the true church, he set off with Barton Stone in a new direction. Campbell believed that seminary-educated theologians had become out-of-touch with the ordinary people. As a result, “the movement imported the rhetoric of the Revolution into its ecclesiology. Its leaders began to think of the church as a ‘school of equal rights’, a ‘cradle of human liberty,’ which commanded its citizens to ‘think, speak, and act for themselves.’” (Holifield, Theology in America) The “restoration movement” was a religious movement tightly bound to a political movement, paralleling the authority of the pastor with civil authority. And both needed to be held in check.
As a result, Brooks Holifield can say that “no one theologian can stand as the representative of a unified restorationist theology.” That’s because there is no unified restorationist theology. This is still true in 2015. The same anti-authoritarian sentiment that birthed the Christian Church also prevents widespread unity of thought today. In a sense, anything goes…within reason. Regrettably, “they were not men prone to compromise and agreement.” This was exacerbated by Alexander Campbell’s complete rejection of creeds. But not just creeds: presbyteries, synods, conferences, Sunday schools, moral societies, mission societies, education societies, Bible societies, colleges, seminaries, instrumental music, and hymns with printed notes. Campbell rejected them all. (Smith, Alexander Campbell) Even Stone and Campbell found agreement difficult. Stone accused Campbell of being too inconsistent. Campbell accused Stone of being too compromising. Eventually, this tainted Alexander Campbell’s legacy and his denomination. To make matters worse, his personal beliefs resembled nothing close to traditional Protestant orthodoxy. And thanks to his anti-creedal position, he was accountable to no one for his outrageous views on Scripture. ‘Bible only’ soon became ‘Campbell only.’
According to Campbell, the New Covenant was the exclusive authority for the church. In fact, nothing from the Old Covenant was morally applicable to the believer, prompting many to accuse him of antinomianism. This aversion to the Old Covenant fed Campbell’s radical belief that the 4 gospels (‘Jewish’ books) provided no statutes for the church! Consequently, he also denied plenary and verbal inspiration. This means he did not believe that every word of the Bible was inspired by God, nor did he believe that all parts of the Bible were equally ‘God’s Word’. Only the ‘ideas’ of the Bible came directly from the Almighty. Thus, Campbell would not qualify as a modern evangelical today.
Campbell’s rationality often conflicted directly with his biblicism. For example, restorationists rejected the doctrine of original sin, especially the doctrine of imputation (we all sinned in Adam, inheriting his sinful nature). According to Campbell and Stone, these doctrines were mere ‘speculation’ – “a term that the restorationists used mainly to disparage the Calvinism in which most of them had been nurtured.” (Holifield) Campbell went so far as to say that baptism was ‘necessary’ for salvation – not simply faith. However, in 1837 he softened the doctrine in the ‘Lunenberg Letter’ where he conceded that the unimmersed could be forgiven unless they opposed his doctrine altogether. Elias Smith, who helped form the Christian Church alongside Stone and Campbell, eventually fell to the heresy of universalism, insisting that all souls would eventually be emptied from Hell. Over time, the so-called unity of the Restorationist movement was finished.
Sadly, most restorationists even designated the Trinity as ‘speculation.’ (Stone, Biography) After all, when reason is given equal weight to revelation, a triune God becomes nonsense. In fact, Stone, Smith, and Campbell never found agreement. Instead, the Christian Church wanted to focus on more ‘practical’ truths. In doing so, they abandoned the most foundational doctrine of Christianity and succumbed to an understanding that theology and practicality were two separate spheres. In the process, they’d devolved into something far less biblical than what Thomas Campbell had envisioned.
Alexander Campbell, in seeking to return to the unity of the early church, had in fact achieved the exact opposite. From his ministry, the modern ‘non-denominational’ movement and ‘non-creedal’ movement can learn some valuable lessons. Every church hostile to creeds sets a very low ceiling for the spiritual growth of its members. And that’s not because creeds somehow carry more authority than Scripture. Very far from it. But a leg only grows as much as its body. And when that body doesn’t grow together in one doctrinal direction, disunity, rivalry, and ambiguity ensues. As many non-denominational churches are quickly realizing, bible readers eventually want answers. That’s what growing Christians do: they ask questions about God’s Word. And without a common doctrine to unify the church, teachers will inevitably begin to teach different things. Important things. And the result is either a church that spurns the truths of Scripture as ‘speculation’ or a dismembered church. That’s when you discover why churches have creeds. It’s not to keep the sheep out. It’s a fence for the wolves. If half your church believes that God won’t punish people for not hearing the Gospel, and the other believes that He will (the latter being orthodox Christianity), you have a scattered flock…and a poor missions committee.
Someone who shuns creeds either hasn’t studied history or hasn’t begun to deeply penetrate the deepest riches of God’s Word. That’s why extra-biblical language began in the early church: Unity! That’s why ‘bible only’ creeds are only good in theory. Once a Sunday school class begins to ask questions about the God they long to know, they want a unified response from the shepherds charged with their protection. When a church stops teaching uniformly, it stops moving uniformly. Heretics often use the same verses that orthodox believers do. (Arius, Council of Nicaea) For example, Jehovah’s witnesses believe in the inerrant Word of God just like evangelicals. And yet, shockingly, they also deny that Jesus is the eternal Son of God. Moreover, I once led a Sunday school at a Restorationist church and the former elder denied the complete truthfulness of the Old Testament book we were studying. And the scary part of Restorationist theology is this: in a Restoration church, he doesn’t have to! In a church without creeds, anything goes. And without an explicit doctrinal stance, it’s almost impossible to regulate or discipline false teaching. There are no fences. That’s what Alexander Campbell eventually discovered. Or perhaps he didn’t. Churches adopt creeds in order to protect what the Bible says, not to change it.
Today, it’s difficult to define denominations like the Disciples of Christ, Christian Church, and the Church of Christ as ‘Protestant’ in the classical sense. Alexander Campbell certainly wouldn’t. After all, the former Presbyterian and Baptist shrugged off the sola fide (faith alone) principle of the Protestant Reformation for a system of salvation that includes good works to sustain someone in their justification before God. The entire Restoration movement was a response to Protestantism, not an addition to it. “Campbell taught that forgiveness required not simply faith but an ‘act’ of faith…the required ‘act’ was baptism.” (Holifield) From this perspective, Alexander Campbell’s tradition qualifies less as ‘Protestant’ and more as ‘Post-Protestant’ – ranging from its re-interpretation of baptism to the lax redefinition of faith itself. In the end, what matters isn’t the name Campbell or Stone or Smith. It’s the faith of the believer. And if belief matters, then what we believe matters. Simply put, a church is charged to carefully define what it believes. The word ‘creed’ comes from the Greek word ‘credo’ which simply means to believe! In that sense, every church has a creed. And any church that completely rejects the notion of defining their faith in extra-biblical fashion has abandoned their call to “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine.” (1 Tim. 1:3) Four walls don’t unite people. A common profession of faith does. And a church that believes in anything believes in nothing.