A BETTER WAY (10) Influence of Enlightenment Thought

How did we in Churches of Christ get to where we are today? We may assume that we have approached the Bible without any outside influence to interfere with our understanding of God’s revelation to us, but that is absolutely impossible. We all, no matter of what religious affiliation, are influenced and affected by numerous streams of thought and the assumptions we hold based on those influences. We can’t avoid this – it simply is the nature of human beings and the world in which we live.

But if we can identify the source of the ideas, the context in which they arose and how they are transmitted to us and how they affect the world – and our thinking – we can avoid the some of the pitfalls we face in Bible study. What, or perhaps I should say “who,” are some of the sources that have shaped our thinking? Consider these philosophers and sources whose thinking played into the formation of the Restoration Movement, especially through Alexander Campbell.

Francis Bacon (1561–1626) was one of the leading figures in natural philosophy and in the field of scientific methodology in the period of transition from the Renaissance to the early modern era. As a lawyer, member of Parliament, and Queen’s Counsel, Bacon wrote on questions of law, state and religion, as well as on contemporary politics; but he also published texts in which he speculated on possible conceptions of society, and he pondered questions of ethics (Essays) even in his works on natural philosophy (The Advancement of Learning).

Bacon has been called the creator of empiricism. His works established and popularized inductive methodologies for scientific inquiry, often called the Baconian method, or simply the scientific method. His demand for a planned procedure of investigating all things natural marked a new turn in the rhetorical and theoretical framework for science, much of which still surrounds conceptions of proper methodology today.

John Locke (1632 – 1704), widely known as the Father of Classical Liberalism, was an English philosopher and physician regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers. Considered one of the first of the British empiricists, following the tradition of Francis Bacon, he is equally important to social contract theory. His work had a great impact upon the development of epistemology and political philosophy. His writings influenced Voltaire and Rousseau, many Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, as well as the American revolutionaries. His contributions to classical republicanism and liberal theory are reflected in the United States Declaration of Independence.

Thomas Paine (1737 – 1809) was an English-American political activist, author, political theorist and revolutionary … He became notorious because of The Age of Reason (1793–94), his book that advocates deism, promotes reason and freethinking, and argues against institutionalized religion in general and Christian doctrine in particular.

Scottish Enlightenment: Among the Scottish thinkers and scientists of the period were Francis Hutcheson, Alexander Campbell, David Hume, Adam Smith, Dugald Stewart, Thomas Reid, Robert Burns, Adam Ferguson, John Playfair, Joseph Black and James Hutton.

Alexander Campbell: Of Scots-Irish descent, he was educated at the University of Glasgow, where he was greatly influenced by Scottish Enlightenment philosophy. He was also influenced by the English philosopher John Locke.

Influence of the Enlightenment on Campbell

The Age of Enlightenment had a significant influence on the Campbell movement. Thomas Campbell was a student of the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke. While he did not explicitly use the term “essentials,” in the Declaration and Address, Campbell proposed the same solution to religious division as had been advanced earlier by Herbert and Locke: “[R]educe religion to a set of essentials upon which all reasonable persons might agree” (minimalism). The essentials he identified were those practices for which the Bible provided “a ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ either in express terms or by approved precedent.” Unlike Locke, who saw the earlier efforts by Puritans as inherently divisive, Campbell argued for “a complete restoration of apostolic Christianity.” Thomas believed that creeds served to divide Christians. He also believed that the Bible was clear enough that anyone could understand it and, thus, creeds were unnecessary. (Wikipedia).

Alexander Campbell was also deeply influenced by Enlightenment thinking, in particular the Scottish School of Common Sense of Thomas Reid and Dugald Stewart. This group saw the Bible as providing concrete facts rather than abstract truths, and advocated a scientific or Baconian approach to interpreting the Bible that would begin with those facts, arrange the ones applicable to a given topic, and then use them to draw conclusions. Alexander Campbell reflected this approach, when arguing that “the Bible is a book of facts, not of opinions, theories, abstract generalities, nor of verbal definitions.” He believed that if Christians would limit themselves to the facts found in the Bible, they would necessarily come to agreement. He saw those facts as providing a blueprint or constitution for the church. (Wikipedia).

(For a more in-depth look at the influence of Baconian methodology on Campbell click here.)

J. W. McGarvey, a student of Campbell, in the Millennial Harbinger, 1868, pp. 213-19, is quoted in Truth Magazine

“The loudest call that comes from heaven to the men of this generation is for warfare, stern, relentless, merciless, exterminating, against everything not expressly or by necessary implication authorized in the New Testament. Such is my unwavering conviction; and my only regret is, that I cannot fight this fight as it should be fought.”

McGarvey was associated with the College of the Bible in Lexington, Kentucky (today Lexington Theological Seminary) where he taught for 46 years, serving as president from 1895-1911. (Wikipedia)

Another of Alexander Campbell’s students, Moses Lard along with McGarvey began to uphold the authority of necessary inferences around the middle of the 1800’s during the days of conflict over the missionary society and instrumental music. Others, including David Lipscomb, strongly resisted the idea. But by 1880, the binding of necessary inferences was well established in the conservative wing of the Restoration Movement. Notice some quotes from the notable proponents of “conservatism” at that time:

“…Moses E. Lard, writing in the first issue of his Quarterly (Sept., 1863), attempted to summarize the plea of such men as Campbell, Stone, and others … “The reformation consists in an effort to induce all the truly pious in Christ to become perfectly joined together in the same mind, and in the same judgment, by accepting as doctrine, precisely and only what is either actually asserted or necessarily implied in the Bible; to speak the same things by speaking what the Bible speaks, and to speak them in the language of the Bible; and to practice the same things by doing simply the will of Christ.” Moses Lard, Lard’s Quarterly, 1864 (Quoted from Truth Magazine).

“We have solemnly covenanted that whatever cannot be clearly shown to have the sanction of this standard shall be held as not doctrine, and shall not be practiced…To warrant the holding of a doctrine or practice it must be shown that it has the affirmative or positive sanction of this standard, and not merely that it is not condemned by it. Either it must be actually asserted or necessarily implied or it must be positively backed by some divinely approved precedent, otherwise it is not even an item in Christianity, and is therefore, when it is attempted to be made a part of it, criminal and wrong.” Moses Lard, Lard’s Quarterly, 1864 (Quoted from Plain Talk, March 1964)

“James A. Harding (1848-1922), … reminded his readers in The Way (“Laying on of Hands–The Grounds for Unity,”  [September 26, 1901] that “I have been taught all my life that the Scriptures teach ‘by precept, by approved apostolic example and by necessary inference,’ and it is certain that this is correct….I am sure it is safe to do as they did; I am not certain it is safe to do any other way.” James Harding, 1901. (John Mark Hicks).

“These men were all men of great integrity and scholarship. Had they stopped short of binding their inferences on others, I believe their positions would have been noble and right. But I believe that the theological battles of their day led them to the binding of examples and necessary inferences. In doing so they abandoned an important part of the call to unity from the (T. Campbell) Declaration and Address of 1809. And the result has been many divisions in the church.” (Christian Unity blog).

The exclusivistic mindset evidenced in the thinking of these men came to full bloom in Daniel Sommer, a militant ultra-conservative in the Churches of Christ. At the Sand Creek church, located in Shelby County, Illinois, on Sunday, August 18, 1889, Sommer, in an hour and a half sermon in which he blasted the “innovators” among the churches of the “Restoration Movement,” read a prepared statement which he entitled, “Address and Declaration,” (an obvious play on Thomas Campbell’s “Declaration and Address” in which Campbell had called for unity among believers in all churches). Sommer’s call was exactly the opposite of Campbell’s. Sommer called for division. Those who wished to keep the church pure must pull out of the “digressive” churches and maintain a distinct identity. Less than two decades later, (1906), the Churches of Christ were listed in the national census as a separate group from the remainder of the Restoration churches.

In subsequent controversies the CENI paradigm figured prominently in the argumentation on both sides. This is notably evident in the so called “institutional” debates of the 1950s and ’60s. In what may be considered the seminal debate, Roy E. Cogdill and Guy N. Woods in Birmingham, Alabama, November 18 – 23, 1957 this is seen. In the first affirmative speech, Cogdill said,

But how may scriptural authority be established? In order for a thing to be in harmony with the scriptures there must be either; first, an express command or statement; second, an approved example; or third, a necessary inference, in the word of God for it. In other words, it must either specifically be authorized, or included within the scope of the thing that God has authorized. We have long recognized this simple and fundamental fact concerning Bible authority and I’m sure that brother Woods will not dispute or deny it.” (Reprint from Watchman Magazine).

Cogdill and Woods were about as evenly matched in terms of education, experience and ability as any two debaters could be. Both had preached for years, both were lawyers and experienced writers. Both approached the question of whether the orphan’s homes and sponsoring churches were scriptural by using the same paradigm and came to opposite conclusions.

Numerous debates were held around the country (I, myself heard several of these) with the same methodology being applied and with nothing resolved. The result invariably was that the other side was considered unfaithful, accused of misapplying or misusing the Bible with the result that the “faithful” (whichever side one was on) could not “fellowship” the “liberal/anti” digressives. That mindset prevails to this day, for the most part, among the “conservatives” on both sides of the “issues.”

Is there a better way to approach differences between brethren? I believe there is. A way that will give us a better understanding of what the church Jesus built really is and how we as his people are to function together in fulfilling his purpose for us in this world.

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One Response to A BETTER WAY (10) Influence of Enlightenment Thought

  1. alanrouse says:

    Amen! There must be a better way. It starts by realizing that I might be wrong about some things, and so I need mercy. And then realizing that with the judgment I use, I will be judged.

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