Review of 2 Articles on Churches of Christ Scholarship

In the short period of time from the fall of 2006 to the first quarter of 2007, both the Stone-Campbell Journal and Restoration Quarterly featured articles on Church of Christ scholarship.  Their proximity suggests a significant, conscious concern about the role that Christian scholarship will play in the Churches of Christ during the initial part of the twenty-first century.

Hamilton, Mark. “Transition and Continuity: Biblical Scholarship in Today’s Churches of Christ.” Stone-Campbell Journal 9, no. 2 (Fall 2006): 187-204.

Mark Hamilton opens his article by noting the transition from “an earlier stage of intramural scholasticism” to “the current period of maturity” (187).  After briefly enumerating some factors contributing to this transition as well as some current challenges to said maturity, Hamilton zooms in on his main concern: “This paper focuses on one aspect of biblical scholarship in Churches of Christ, namely activities carried on by persons who participate in the larger academy and who retain some connection with their ecclesial context” (188).  This is the particular biblical scholarship that merits attention.

A couple of paragraphs reflect on “how we got here,” mentioning some of the early scholars most respected in the wider academy.  Considerably more space is given to describing “where we are.”  Hamilton achieves this by listing a litany of Old and New Testament scholars and their publications.  As he introduces this overview, an interesting point emerges:

Though pockets of insularity remain at schools associated with the most conservative elements of the movement, the intramural scholasticism of past generations has lost its former allure as schools aspire to greater academic respectability and sectarianism becomes increasingly untenable (191).

It is an important fact that academic respectability and sectarianism appear to be, in some sense, mutually exclusive.  Scholarship plays a vital role in terms of restoration, given that fact.  It may be just as important to note that academic respectability is externally defined and hardly pursued because of its intrinsically de-ghettoizing effects.  Those effects are happy consequences that must not blind the Christian academy to the question of the price to be paid when secular accrediting agencies define academic respectability.  Perhaps nothing, but the question must be asked.  It would be ironic, to say the least, if the scholarship that taught the Stone-Campbell tradition about the cultural conditions that shaped it were oblivious to the forces exerted by the the postmodern academy.   For example, to what extent is the academy promoting relativism rather than unity?

At the end of the discussion about the current situation, Hamilton mentions a special project of his own—a one-volume collaborative commentary on the entire cannon (http://www.acupressbooks.com/).  Describing the tome, Hamilton writes:

The commentary thus exemplifies what should be possible for the future: theologically oriented biblical scholarship that allows Scripture to function in more vigorous ways than is possible under the regime of the lingering fundamentalist-modernist controversy (201).

He envisions a reentry into the arena of inter-denominational exchange on the basis of such scholarship.  Again, scholarship serves to remove barriers that might impede the work of a truly restorationist unity program while at the same time giving it a solid basis for proceeding.

Finally, Hamilton asks, “What’s next?”  Making explicit mention of “the church’s ongoing identity crisis,” he suggests some specific ways in which scholarship can contribute to the movement’s restorationist impulse: through (1) a prophetic role by way of informed application of Scripture, (2) a self-critical role that scrutinizes restoration itself, (3) an interdisciplinary role that moves beyond mere exegesis, (4) an ecumenical role as boundaries are more easily crossed inside the academy, and (5) a coaching role as the church enters the post-Christendom era (202-3).

He concludes with an assertion that merits reproduction here:

Scholars, who are equipped to evaluate our traditional use of Scripture, are vital in the goal of retaining what is valuable in the reshaping of Churches of Christ that is already in process (203).

Thompson, James. “What is Church of Christ Scholarship?” Restoration Quarterly 49, no. 1 (2007): 33-38.

James Thompson asks in his essay what Church of Christ scholarship is.  He also begins by observing the movement from “intramural” concerns to an expressly “ecumenical, international” scholarship.  The issue then, given that Church of Christ scholarship has the quality that Hamilton attempted to describe and advocate, is how that scholarship is particularly influenced by the tradition (32).  If it is simply subsumed in the general academy, it will struggle to serve the restoration agenda as Hamilton envisions or to serve the academy in any unique way.  This is the essential complementarity of the two articles.  How can scholarship serve the tradition on one hand and how can the tradition serve scholarship on the other.

There are problems facing Church of Christ scholarship shaped by its tradition, however.  One, the emergence of a common language that in some way bridged the distance between traditions was a real accomplishment of the academy, and reemphasizing a confessional slant threatens to undermine that bit of ecumenical headway.  Two, scholarship proved to a be a vital corrective force for traditional views that could not bear the weight of scrutiny.  Three, scholars were exposed to the views of others, which enriched the tradition in some theologically impoverished areas.  Four, due to the “centrifugal forces that are separating the Churches of Christ at the present time,” the tradition itself is ill-defined and therefore difficult to employ confessionally (34-35).

Appropriately, Thompson next discusses four facets of the tradition that he believes should shape its scholarship regardless of such challenges: (1) high ecclesiology, (2) the Church of Christ’s particular canon within the canon, (3) the worthier aspects of restoration, and (4) a commitment to rational inquiry (36-37).  The third point may be the most significant—certainly so for neo-restoration.  But what are the worthier aspects of restoration?

Although the restoration of a blueprint is not tenable, I suggest that aspects of restoration are worthy of our consideration.  If restoration means an appeal to the precedent of the early church as a standard, it involves the recovery of aspects of Christianity that have been lost.  Restoration is not limited to forms, but to the recapturing of the love, vitality, compassion, and mission of the early church.  Furthermore, those aspects of restoration that have been central to the Stone-Campbell movement—believer’s baptism, congregational polity, the authority of elders—are legitimate forms of ecclesial life(37).

Undoubtedly, the re-articulation of restoration generates a particularly Church of Christ contribution to the round table that is the academy.  Interestingly, approaching the task from that angle is also a much healthier disposition than the tradition has often enjoyed.  Restoration as confession, as contribution, rather than restoration as the only voice allowed at the table, is a hopeful vision.

The article ends with a few generalized stabs at answering what Church of Christ scholarship is.  Church of Christ scholarship is scholarship that recognizes the difference between Enlightenment-bound epistemology and the church’s ways of knowing.  It is scholarship that distills its own tradition, keeping the good and throwing out the bad.  It is scholarship that consciously allows ecclesiology to frame biblical interpretation.  Lastly, it is scholarship that is concerned with questions raised by the particular life of the Churches of Christ.

It may be worth asking whether something like a preoccupation with ecclesiology is a contribution of Church of Christ scholarship or an overemphasis that Church of Christ scholarship needs to balance.  But that is demonstrative of the interesting tension the two articles highlight.  Putting the pieces side by side also underscores the significant agreement between the two authors in terms of both the ecumenical and self-critical dimensions of scholars’ ministry.  And, of course, the early Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement did nothing if not call Christians to be ecumenical and theologically self-critical.

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