Sunday, August 9, 2009

Mercersburg Theologians, Part 3

In my last blog, I summarized Nevin and Schaff’s critiques of the Stone-Campbell Movement and other Baptist and Congregational churches. In this post, I will assess their critique.

Some of the critiques of the Mercersburg theologians stemmed from simplistic understandings of the Campbells’ positions. While the Campbells recited slogans such as “No Creed but Christ” and “No Book but the Bible” and called upon Christians to make nothing “a term of communion in the Christian Church which is not as old as the New Testament,” their application of them evidenced a complex theological methodology, which was often overlooked.[1] Within the Declaration and Address, Thomas Campbell clarified his position concerning creeds by saying:

As to creeds and confessions, although we may appear to our brethren to oppose them, yet this is to be understood only in so far as the oppose the unity of the Church, by containing sentiments not expressly revealed in the word of God; or, by the way of using them, become the instruments of a human or implicit faith, or oppress the weak of God’s heritage. Where they are liable to none of these objections, we have nothing against them. It is the abuse and not the lawful use of such compilations that we oppose.[2]

Elsewhere in the Declaration and Address, Thomas Campbell claimed that creeds and confessions have catechetical value and purpose.[3]

Influenced by his father’s view, Alexander Campbell defended believers’ baptism and the weekly practice of the Lord’s Supper by using not only scripture, but also tradition.[4] Campbell quoted and cited the Church Fathers and had great respect for the Apostles’ Creed,[5] of which he said, “I can say, ex animo, that I believe every word of it. Because it is not, like all modern creeds, a synopsis of opinions, but a brief narrative of the facts, and of all the great gospel facts.”[6] William Tabbernee also notes that despite Campbell’s skepticism concerning the ecumenical creeds, “Campbell nevertheless often drew on such creeds to explain and defend orthodox Christology and trinitarian theology.”[7] In reality, what the Campbells so strongly rejected was the abuse of creeds to exclude some from the Lord’s Supper or Christian fellowship. In other words, the Campbells rejected sectarianism.[8]

While some of their critiques were simplistic, the Mercersburg theologians’ critiques have merit. While the Campbells intended to combat sectarianism, Nevin, as noted above, claimed that “the power of the unhistorical mindset” is “after all to prevail in his system.”[9] While it is often the case that the intended meaning of a leader’s message differs from the followers interpretation and application of it, Thomas Campbell argued in the Declaration and Address for a restoration or “recovery of the example and life of the apostolic church.”[10] The Stone-Campbell Movement also demonstrated a clear dependence upon Common Sense philosophy and emphasis upon freedom of individual conscience.[11] Mark Noll, as a modern outside interpreter of the Stone-Campbell Movement, thus agrees with the Mercersburg theologians’ interpretation of the Movement by noting that in the Declaration and Address, the “pillars of the movement” were “self-reliance and the Bible.”[12] These criticisms came despite the similarities of the Campbells and the Mercersburg theologians, for they all sought a catholic understanding of the Christian faith and held to a high view of the church.

In my next post, I will discuss the Mercersburg theologians’ relevance for contemporary Protestantism at large and more specifically, for the Stone-Campbell Movement.

[1] William Tabbernee, “Alexander Campbell and the Apostolic Tradition, in The Free Church & the Early Church: Bridgint the Historical and Theological Divide, ed. D.H. Williams (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 166–180.

[2] Thomas Campbell, Declaration and Address, 37. Emphasis his.

[3] Paul M. Blowers, “Creeds and Confessions,” in The Encylopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, ed. Douglas A. Foster, et al (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 253.

[4] D. Newell Williams, “The Future of the Restoration Movement: A Disciple of Christ’s Response,” Leaven 14, no. 4 (2006): 176–177. Williams regards the Stone-Campbell movement as not anti-tradition, but instead as anti-sectarian.

[5] Tabbernee, 167–175.

[6] Alexander Campbell, “Reply to Barnabas,” Millenial Harbinger (1832): 602.

[7] Tabbernee, 168.

[8] Ibid., 166–168.

[9] Nevin, Antichrist and the Sect, 112–113.

[10] Paul M. Blowers and William J. Richardson, “Declaration and Address,” in The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, ed. Douglas A. Foster, et al (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 264.

[11] Ibid., 264–265.

[12] Noll, 380.

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