Review of Things Unseen

Allen, C. Leonard. Things Unseen: Churches of Christ in (and After) the Modern Age. Siloam Springs, AR: Leafwood, 2004.

Things Unseen is a tremendous contribution to the ever-broadening body of research dedicated to conscientizing the Churches of Christ through the examination of their formative historical contexts. Additionally, Dr. Allen brings his research to bear powerfully upon the present questions of identity and theological direction that beset Churches of Christ. The title of book turns out to be a double entendre, as on one hand the historical analysis lays bare many things that have not always been visible, and on the other Allen takes up the banner of an “apocalyptic” worldview that is only revealed, so to speak, to those with eyes of faith.

In particular, the book offers a superb articulation of the post-Enlightenment worldview that shaped Alexander Campbell and found expression in his leadership of the nascent Disciples movement. Allen’s apocalyptic agenda is legitimized in the tradition of the Churches of Christ through examination of Barton Stone and then David Lipscomb and, more briefly, James A. Harding, who carry on in the general vein of Stone’s “apocalyptic” outlook. Stone, explicitly presented as an under-appreciated, overlooked contributor of what comes across as the best of the Churches of Christ’s heritage, is pitted against Campbell throughout the book. Whatever the degree of accuracy such a presentation might boast, the unfortunate upshot of it is that Campbell is rather demonized in the process.

A chapter on Silena Holman, an advocate of expanded roles for women within the movement during the era of women’s suffrage battles and a key leader in the Christian Women’s Temperance Movement, seems somewhat out of place in the flow of the book. It is a very enlightening essay, and on a superficial level it flows out of the discussion of David Lipscomb at the end of the preceding chapter, but the book’s progression is far more cohesive without the chapter.

Having set Stone’s apocalyptic worldview favorably against Campbell’s, Allen expands the discussion of “apocalyptic” through two chapters dealing with “Believer’s Churches” (over against mainline Protestantism and Catholicism) and the relationship between eschatology and authentic discipleship. The taxonomy of three church types is interesting reading, particularly as the author attempts to place the Churches of Christ in relation to the characteristics of each. Fundamentally, alignment with the Believer’s Church tradition is presented as positive, disjuncture as negative.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the author’s promotion of the “apocalyptic” outlook his ambiguity about just what it is. The reader is able to gain a sense of it by virtue of the ecclesiastical, doctrinal, and lifestyle choices that the author characterizes positively, but the usage of the adjective “apocalyptic,” while prolific, remains less than concrete. The section of the book that deals most straightforwardly with the idea emphasizes the imperceptibility of the apocalyptic eschatology, “seen,” “known,” and “experienced” only by faith. “Furthermore, believers not only know by faith how history will end, they also presently participate in that end through the presence of God’s Spirit” (165). A footnote on the same page disassociates the term from the eponymous biblical literary genre. Those characterized by this outlook believe that “the conditions of the life to come may be realized in the here and now” (166). Practically, apocalyptic is equated with the view of those who actually live out the teachings of Jesus, effectively arguing that Churches of Christ need to regain an apocalyptic outlook in order to sustain a “high level” discipleship, because those who have a “high level” of discipleship maintain an apocalyptic outlook. This is clearly a somewhat circular way to advocate the idea.

That is not to say that the eschatologically motivated, Spirit-empowered worldview Allen describes is not a vital missing link in much of Christian discipleship. It may be that the term “apocalyptic” has been infelicitously selected to represent a set of ideas associated with Barton Stone, but that is likely a moot point at this juncture in Restoration studies. The essential need, therefore, is to lay out a clearer vision of what apocalyptic worldview entails, because characterizing it as the worldview of those who actually live by the Spirit is not a very practical handle for those who would adopt it. Allen has pointed us more firmly in the direction we must go, but there is need for more guidance along the way.

Things Unseen requires one final major critique, in reference to the Trinitarian agenda that Allen turns up to full volume in the final chapter. In the five or so years since the book’s publication, it has become more evident that broadly evangelical Christianity is experiencing a surge of what this reviewer calls pop Trinitarianism, which seems to expect the adoption and hyping of the doctrine of the Trinity to be a kind of theological silver bullet for the many ills besetting the postmodern church—a kind of orthodox cure-all. While the evidence of a chapter is no basis for gauging Allen’s view in relation to pop Trinitarianism, it is fair to say that a undue amount of expectation and importance is placed upon this most loaded of doctrines. It is, for Allen, “the most important recovery of neglected Christian practice and truth,” “the central, anchoring, orienting doctrine of the faith,” “our pattern or exemplar for Christian unity and fellowship,” “the doctrinal center and fulcrum of Christian faith,” and “our chief tool” for shaping discipleship (188-95). Indeed, Allen attributes a long, unqualified list of ills and woes to the absence of Trinitarian teaching (191).

Happily, he discredits the “received Western doctrine” (189) and offers an astoundingly generic version of the idea that might not merit the title (or stigma) Trinitarian: “a kind of shorthand for referring to what we know of God now that Jesus has come and the Spirit has been poured out” (191). Moreover, the chapter as a whole is strongly qualified by the second point at issue: the timing of the epochal shift between eras and the opportunities it affords the Churches of Christ to make some needed correctives. Insofar as aspects of biblical doctrine associated with Trinitarianism have been lost or obscured, Allen’s rallying cry is a welcome one. And if he pushes Trinitarianism overmuch, perhaps we should not begrudge him the rhetorical flourish necessary to stir any movement at all within a doctrinally crystallized tradition.

Taken as a whole, Things Unseen is unequivocally a dynamic and thought-provoking contribution. It is difficult to estimate the value of Allen’s effort to bring the past to bear on the present, seasoned with critical insight and ministerial experience, and refined with a masterful degree of scholarship. This reviewer is grateful to have perceived through it many things that were previously unseen.

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