In my last two posts (found here and here), I dealt with my thought journey concerning the Restoration Movement (RM). On the one hand, I noted that unorthodox theology had been a part of the RM from the beginning, particularly with Barton Stone’s theology concerning his denial of the deity of Christ and substitutionary atonement in addition to his acceptance of “religious exercises” (e.g., barking, cooing, etc.). On the other hand, the RM has had issues all along from the other end of the spectrum: a hyper-conservatism that has alienated Christians from other denominations through its insistence by some (beginning with John Thomas in the 19th century) that baptism must be understood to be for salvation if it is to be considered a true baptism. My thesis from these observations has been this: the lack of a theological framework has made the RM a movement with no definitive belief, thereby allowing the acceptance of heterodoxy and fundamentalism (legalism).
Before going too much further, it should be noted what I mean by “theological framework.” In essence, it is–at the very least–an agreement of fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith, such as God as creator, the Trinity, the nature and work of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, salvation, and the like. These would be beliefs that Christians from all different backgrounds and denominations have always believed (more on this in my next post). It would also be an agreement of certain beliefs that may be unique to the RM, such as its view of church government, the Lord’s Supper, and baptism (more on this later in my next post as well).
Of course, one immediate reaction by some (many?) would be, “This is a creed!” and we all know that many from the RM can have no creed. It is against their dictum “No creed but Christ!” This, however, is exactly my point: the lack of an official “creed” has led to constant strife in the RM. I am uncertain as to why there is such fear of some kind of doctrinal statement that delineates exactly what one believes. Yes, I am aware of the history of such fears. I just find them to be unwarranted.
Both liberals and conservatives are against any kind of creed (something they ironically agree upon!). It is easy to see why if we take a moment to think about it: liberals do not like creeds because of what is contained in them and others (namely, the more conservative) because they may become more authoritative than Scripture. Alexander Campbell even noted this. The former reason is why there is a need for a creed (to avoid bad theology) and the latter reason is unfounded. A creed (or statement of faith, if you wish) simply states what one believes the Scripture teaches. It is not any more authoritative than Scripture. The denominations who have creeds even recognize this (see Philip Schaff’s The Creeds of Christendom, vol. 1, p.7-9 for a good discussion on this). That’s what the term “creed” means: it comes from the Latin term “creedo,” meaning “I believe.” I have always found it interesting how the more conservative are against creeds, but as soon as a liberal espouses bad theology (especially a false view of baptism), they come out of the wood work calling for tar and feathers (metaphorically speaking, of course). Obviously, they are working from some kind of creed, even if it is left unspoken. Why not just write it down so everyone will know what the specific transgression is?
The RM, however, has been content over its 200 year history to have no creed or statement of faith, and this has led to the acceptance of the entire theological spectrum, which in turn has led to all sorts of divisions–some good and some bad. In the good cases, it was typically between theological liberalism and theological conservatism (I am particularly thinking here about the split between the Independents and the Disciples during the mid-twentieth century). There comes a time when theological liberalism can no longer be tolerated–for the sake of the church and for the sake of the Gospel. As J. Gresham Machen once intimated, liberalism is an entirely different religion.
There have also been times when splits were bad in the RM. I am reminded of the split between those who wished not to use instruments in worship and those who did, which resulted in the Independent Christian Churches and the Churches of Christ. In fact, there are numerous bad divisions among the RM, too many to count here. One has to wonder: with so many splits, how is there any resemblance of a cohesive movement? (This is not to even mention that, most likely, the majority of members of a RM church have never heard of the RM. Who talks about it at the local church level anymore?)
Divisions are an intrinsic characteristic of the RM, and they are not just something of the past. They persist today–at least practically speaking. These are all due, once again, to having no theological framework. I have written about some of these aberrant and legalistic theologies that are wreaking havoc in the RM in my blog over the last several years. (Even Bob Russell has now publicly stated that he has concerns about the liberal theology in the RM today. See his comments at the end of Terry Sweany’s blog here.) The spectrum is so wide that it is quite a breath taking view: some in the RM accept feminism and others do not (see my extensive discussion on this here, here, here, and here); some accept that there is objective truth and others do not; some believe that baptism is a part of salvation and some do not; some believe in the Trinity and others do not; some believe the Bible contains no errors and some do. These matters do not even begin to touch upon the various philosophies of ministry that range from pragmatism to stunted traditionalism. If you can name it, you can find it in the RM. Plenty of specific examples could be given, but I do not find it necessary to list individuals, churches, and faculty who hold all these views. The point is that when there is no theology by which all are working from, there will be no unity. In fact, there will be a demise.
What is mind boggling is that all these different beliefs and practices are supposed to be under the same umbrella known as the RM. But how does acceptance of every theological doctrine and practice amount to any kind of Christian identity (not to mention unity)? If a person denies that Christ rose bodily from the dead, then surely this is a rejection of what it even means to be a Christian! Shouldn’t there be some kind of core doctrine that must be agreed upon by all of what it means to be “Christian?” The Apostle Paul seemed to think so (see 1 Corithians 15). Unfortunately, the RM does not have this–there is not even one kind of document or statement describing the RM as “Christian” and what exactly that means. It has absolutely no official identity. Does the RM even really exist? It seems to be like a pile of play dough that still needs to be shaped into something. Sure it has its conferences, schools, and local churches, but so do millions of other organizations around the world. But they are at least one up on the RM–they have a mission statement and objectives.
The RM’s personality disorder will persist and its battle with bad theology (from both ends of the spectrum) will continue as long as it jettisons a theological framework. It seems to me that there must be some kind of theological core that characterizes the RM and even some theological distinctives–that which makes the RM different from other denominations and Christian traditions. If the RM is going to recognize its distinctives and work from a theological foundation, it will need to move on from its superficial dictums, such as “we are not the only Christians; we are Christians only,” “no creed but Christ,” and “where the Bible is silent, we are silent” (among others). The world has moved on since the days these ideas were developed (what do these aphorisms mean anyway?). Perhaps they worked well in the context of the early nineteenth century and made sense to an audience in which polemics was the main concern. Today, however, Christianity faces postmodernism, scientific naturalism, and a host of other views that do not share much in common with the Christian worldview. If a theological frame work is not in place, then this will be (or is it already a reality?) the RM’s demise, for it will be accepting not just bad theology but anti-theology–teachings that run directly contrary to the fundamental teachings of Christianity and destroy any resemblance of Christianity that it might have today. At best the RM will just blend in with other denominations and sort of fade away. (Perhaps this would not be so bad?) In fact, it seems that some RM churches have already done this–they have become just another non-denominational church among evangelicals (and I’m not too certain that this is such a horrible deal).
In short, it is required and it is long overdue for the RM to have a theological foundation by which to work from if it desires to exist in any formal way rather than a hodgepodge of churches scattered throughout America, having some resemblance of Christianity but no definitive Christian identity. A question that comes to mind is, is the RM worth salvaging at this point? Is it even possible? I have no answer to these questions presently and it may just be up to others to proffer a conclusion on the matter.
Whatever the answers are to the foregoing questions, the observation that a theological framework is needed is still a viable and very important discussion to have. It inevitably raises the question: what kind of frame work? Where do we begin? I think the best place to start is from a discussion (although worn out in some sense) about “essentials.” This has always been a quagmire for the RM. It has long held the cliche “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials libtery; in all things love.” The problem with this has been that no one has taken the time to parse what essentials and non-essentials are. I will attempt to do this in my next blog. Who knows? Maybe this pile of play dough will finally take shape, or maybe it is too dried up and needs to be thrown out so that something new can arise, something more theologically robust as well as culturally engaging.
Grace and Peace,