Are Churches of Christ Evangelical?: An Epistemological Question (Part 3)

Epistemological Priority

In the lengthy quote last post, Hughes notes the similarities between fundamentalism and Restorationism that make their distance strange. If I’ve argued correctly that conservative evangelicals (eventually fundamentalists and neo-evangelicals) and Churches of Christ were actually nearly identical in regard to the eschatological ambivalence that has characterized them on the level of worldview, then their distance is even more surprising. Hughes’s description of their epistemological commonality is incisive: “Churches of Christ, like fundamentalists, had built their theological house squarely on the Bible, read the Bible from a decidedly Baconian perspective, and categorically rejected Darwinian evolution, biblical criticism, and all other aspects of modernity that seemed to undermine the authority of an inerrant biblical text” (Hughes, Reviving, 255). The biting irony of these shared commitments is that they are the very ones that drove the ecclesial sectarianism of the Restoration Movement: their commonality is what kept them apart.

By the time of the Civil War, a sizable segment of the Stone-Campbell movement held that the true Church of Christ had at last been restored to the earth, understood the precise contours and boundaries of that church, remained convinced that they and they alone constituted that church, and grounded all these notions in a Baconian worldview. (Hughes, Reviving, 63)

Unfortunately, Hughes’s presentation of the origin of this ecclesial sectarianism obscures the essence of the Stone-Campbell movement, that is, what constituted the basic unity of Stone and Campbell and what ultimately determines Churches of Christ’s theological similarity to and doctrinal difference from evangelicalism.

The above quote describing the sectarianism of the “Baconian worldview” is the conclusion of Hughes’s chapter 3: “The True Church and the Hard Style: Radicalizing Alexander Campbell (Part I).” It is this ecclesial sectarianism that Hughes attributes to Campbell and not to Stone when he says that “many who opposed the premillennial position of R. H. Boll simply exchanged the sectarian posture of Stone for the sectarian posture of the radicalized Alexander Campbell” (Hughes, Reviving, 158). In Hughes’s argument, while Stone was an “apocalyptic sectarian” (Hughes, Reviving, 106–113), meaning his principal impulse was separation from the world and its values, early Campbell’s sectarianism was based upon the nature of the “clear, self-evident essentials of the true Church of Christ” (Hughes, Reviving, 27). Hughes’s contrast between the two runs throughout Reviving the Ancient Faith but is clearest in chapter 5 of Reclaiming a Heritage: Campbell’s Baconian worldview has proven untenable as the restoration ideal, and Stone’s apocalyptic worldview is the alternative that should replace it. The epistemological combination of Baconian method and Lockean representationalism mediated through Scottish Common Sense Realism was what determined the self-evident nature of Campbell’s ecclesiology and the basis for unity (Hughes, Reviving, 12, 26, 30–32). Fanning’s appropriation of this combination is especially indicative:

From Locke, Fanning learned that one should simply receive on one’s mind the impress of revelation, unmutilated by human opinion or tradition. From the Baconian tradition, he learned that one should read the Bible as though it were a science book, always sensitive to the facts, and that one must gather all the facts on any subject before drawing any final conclusions. On this basis, he determined that the project of restoring primitive Christianity was simply a matter of following the Book in Baconian/Lockean fashion. (Hughes, Reviving, 68)

Hughes demonstrates that the later Campbell reacted to the sectarianism of his followers as they “radicalized” the application of this epistemology (Hughes, Reviving, 37–44), leading him to set a course toward big-tent Protestant American Christendom that carried the Disciples into the ecumenical movement (Hughes, Reviving, 45, 55–56).

For his part, Stone was unhappy that “many of his own people increasingly placed biblical knowledge, religious controversy, and debate above ‘godliness, piety, and brotherly love'”:

Finding this strong ecumenical emphasis in Stone, many historians, especially within the tradition of the Disciples of Christ, have interpreted Stone chiefly as an apostle of unity and a harbinger of the modern ecumenical movement. This reading of Stone renders him little different from the older, more mature Alexander Campbell—a progressive ecumenist, uniting all Protestants in on grand “common Christianity.” Such a view makes it easy to understand how the Stone and Campbell movements could have united as easily as they did at Lexington in 1832.

But such a reading misses altogether the genius of Barton W. Stone, because it ignores a final theme in Stone in which every other aspect of his thought was deeply rooted: his apocalyptic worldview. If we appropriately take into account Stone’s apocalypticism, we can see that he could never have favored a vapid ecumenism, as though one denomination were just as good and as biblical as another. Quite the contrary. Stone always insisted that all denominational structures were equally fallen and therefore equally wrong; together they constituted what Stone described as “Babylon” and “a wilderness of confusion.” He allowed that there were authentic Christians within the denominational “Babylon,” to be sure, be he routinely called on these Christians to abandon “Babylon” and unite on the New Testament alone. He believed that once all Christians abandoned “Babylon,” all denominational structures would collapse into the dust.

In Stone’s view—and this is the critical point—the collapse of denominational structures and the final triumph of primitive Christianity would characterize the millennium, no the present fallen age. Stones willingness to fellowship with people from a variety of denominations was a measure adapted only to a fallen world. He believed that in the millennium there would be only one true Church of Christ, governed by Jesus Christ himself. (Hughes, Reviving, 105–6)

Thus, for Hughes, Campbell is responsible for both the ecclesial sectarianism of a Baconian worldview and vapid ecumenism, while Stone is merely a cultural sectarian, of which his rhetorical, moderated ecclesial separatism was just an extension.

The problem with this reading is that it minimizes what, for Stone, it meant to “unite on the New Testament alone” and for one denomination not to be “as biblical as another.” Stone was not as thoroughly “Baconian” in the sense that Campbell had explicit formation through Bacon, Locke, and Common Sense Realists, but their essential platform—why they “united as easily as they did at Lexington in 1832″—was literal-logical biblicism. In fact, the merger was not easy, but the threat of proving the Bible to be an inadequate basis for unity compelled Stone and Campbell to gloss over significant differences by simply affirming biblical words and phrases (McKinzie, 41–43). Without dismissing Hughes’s insight about the priority of values and ethics in Stone’s apocalyptic theology, it is fair to say that Stone’s worldview included an epistemology every bit as conducive to ecclesial sectarianism as early Campbell’s—in fact, the same epistemology at root. Stone distinguished between the biblical church and the unbiblical denominations by reading the New Testament literally and logically, with the expectation that truth would present itself directly to his perception without impediment. The Common Sense approach to Scripture is what became radicalized in the Stone-Campbell platform.

Thus, Fanning is indeed an ideal representative of the Stone-Campbell synthesis. The Baconian/Lockean method explicit in Campbell combines seamlessly with the apocalypticism of Stone, manifesting a total sectarianism that identifies all human organization as unbiblical. While the wealthy, erudite, socially mobile Campbell never shared Stone’s cultural sectarianism, their shared radical biblicism compelled their followers to an ecclesial sectarianism that neither ultimately intended. Their epistemology was where their personal worldviews overlapped sufficiently to create the uneasy synthesis of divergent eschatologies, among other differences. The Churches of Christ lost their apocalyptic current over time, but what remained was that which the two founders had always shared, that which was always the practical substance of the Restoration plea: a hermeneutic of radicalized Common Sense biblicism. (I’ll nuance the particulars of RM hermeneutics later.)

As Hughes said, fundamentalists (and less reactionary conservative evangelicals for that matter) also “read the Bible from a decidedly Baconian perspective.” Marsden makes this connection even more specifically in terms of both Baconianism and Scottish Common Sense Realism:

The fundamentalist worldview starts with the premise that the world is divided between the forces of God and of Satan and sorts out evidence to fit that paradigm. Nevertheless, fundamentalist thinking also reflects a modern intellectual tradition that dates largely from the Enlightenment. Fundamentalist thought had close links with the Baconian and Common Sense assumptions of the early modern era. Humans are capable of positive knowledge based on sure foundations. If rationally classified, such knowledge can yield a great deal of certainty. Combined with biblicism, such a view of knowledge leads to supreme confidence on religious questions. Despite the conspicuous subjectivism throughout evangelicalism and within fundamentalism itself, one side of the fundamentalist mentality is committed to inductive rationalism. More of this in the subsequent chapters.

This commonsense inductive aspect of fundamentalist thinking, rather than being anti-intellectual, reflects an intellectual tradition alien to most modern academics. What is most lacking is the contemporary sense of historical development, a Heraclitean sense that all is change. This contemporary conception of history invites relativism or at least the seeing of ambiguities. Fundamentalists have the confidence of Enlightenment philosophies that an objective look at “the facts” will lead to the truth. (Marsden, 117-118; see also 127–29; 162; 164; 173)

The “apocalyptic worldview” of premillennialists is in no way contrary to or alternative to this “Baconian worldview” (and here we see one of the problems of Hughes’s loose use of “worldview”); the apocalyptic and the Baconian are merely components of one worldview. In fact, because of the anti-progressivist tendencies of apocalyptic, the particular use of Bacon via Common Sense “plus popular mythology concerning proper scientific procedure and verification” (Marsden, 167) is particularly suited to premillennialism (Van Wart). In the progressivist strain of Campbell’s tradition, epistemology continued to develop with the insights of modern thinkers, whereas epistemological entrenchment marks the anti-modernist Fanning-Lipscomb tradition just as it has the fundamentalist tradition.

At all odds, Stone and Campbell were swimming in the wider current of American Christianity here as well. It is no use claiming that Stone did not have a Baconian/Common Sense epistemology because it was not as explicit as Campbell’s. Worldview is more tacit than explicit, and the shared worldview of American Protestants included an “empiricist folk epistemology”:

Fundamentalists and kindred religious movements have made strong claims to stand for common sense. Such popular appeals reflect the nineteenth-century American evangelical heritage where Scottish commonsense realism was long the most influential philosophy.

The Bible, according to the democratic popularization of this view, is best interpreted by the naive readings that common people today give it. “In ninety-nine out of a hundred cases,” wrote Reuben Torrey, “the meaning that the plain man gets out of the Bible is the correct one.” In modern America common sense is infused with popular conceptions of straightforward empirical representations of what is really “out there.” Mystical, metaphorical, and symbolical perceptions of reality have largely disappeared. Instead, most Americans share what sociologist Michael Cavanaugh designates an “empiricist folk epistemology.” (Marsden, 165-166)

Given this commonality, apart from the simple fact that Churches of Christ explicitly denied the Christianity of “denominations,” I suggest the explanation for the historical distance between evangelicals and Churches of Christ is practically threefold:

(1) Stone and Campbell radicalized the Baconian/Common Sense epistemology in a particular, extremist hermeneutical program. “What distinguishes the Stone-Campbell movement from other primitivist efforts is a willingness to move further and more consistently in these directions” (Noll, 14). The extremism of the Churches of Christ as heirs of this program does not dissolve the fundamental commonality with evangelicalism but merely highlights that the real issue is difference in quality rather than difference in kind.

(2) The Stone-Campbell hermeneutical program acquired further particularity through the application of the Reformed regulative principle in combination with a subjective use of “necessary inference” that resulted in an inconsistent hermeneutics of prohibitive silence. This hermeneutics was non-negotiable for Churches of Christ and became the ultimate test of faithfulness. John Mark Hicks puts it this way: “The combination of an inductive-deductive Baconianism, a Reformed hermeneutic. . . and a primitivist (restorationist) vision shaped the Churches of Christ. This combination meant that we practiced a Baconianism on steroids because our every deduction became, in effect, a command and every command became a line in the sand” (Hicks, “Stone-Campbell Hermeneutics III”; emphasis added).

(3) The Stone-Campbell hermeneutical program became calcified in particular conclusions and practices that are tests of faithfulness evangelicalism does not hold. These practices are not un-evangelical per se but are for Churches of Christ exclusive. Furthermore, they have become the explicit identity markers of early twenty-first century Churches of Christ attempting to navigate postmodern epistemological fallout (“A Christian Affirmation”), further absolutizing them over against evangelical identity. Of course, there are highly sectarian evangelicals that have done much the same thing.

The difference is not fundamental. And it has been reduced significantly in the last fifty years because of the revival of scholarship among both fundamentalist and Churches of Christ. The remarkable coincidence of that scholarly renaissance is yet another indication of their commonality. In fact, what Hughes recognizes as LeMoine Lewis’s “pivotal importance” in catalyzing graduate education in Churches of Christ (Hughes, Reviving, 311) is the same moment in history that Rudolph L. Nelson identified in his article “Fundamentalism at Harvard.” There he discusses fundamentalists accepted to Harvard’s divinity school in the 1940s and 1950s. Interestingly, he first focuses on “self-acknowledged Fundamentalists,” who were “at least twelve.” The ambiguity of “at least” may catch one’s attention, especially since Nelson goes on to list fifteen scholars. Among the three outliers, undoubtedly, are “Jack P. Lewis, professor of Bible at Harding Graduate School of Religion (Ph.D., 1953); Lemoine Lewis, professor of Bible and church history at Abilene Christian University (Ph.D. granted in 1959 but all class work done in 1940s)” (Nelson, 80–81). The third outlier is probably John Gerstner, a Presbyterian. Mark Noll’s rendition of Nelson’s research, in Between Faith and Criticism: Evangelicals, Scholarship, and The Bible in America, lists only twelve, excluding the Lewis brothers and Gerstner (Noll, 97–98). While evangelicals naturally equivocate on the place of Churches of Christ scholars among their ranks in the 1950s, they were clearly caught up in exactly the same “reawakening of evangelical intellect” (Noll, 98). Also germane to my argument are the “ten or twelve men of similar background . . . matriculating at the [Harvard] divinity school during this time, working at the master’s or bachelor’s level” (Nelson, 80), among whom would have been “LeMoine’s boys” (Hughes, Reviving, 311).

In retrospect, history suggests that evangelical fundamentalists and Churches of Christ were swimming in the same cultural current, possessed of the same worldview. Their common American experience and shared epistemology were essential to this worldview, which manifested in an identical early rejection of higher criticism and an abiding anti-intellectualism, or at least overwhelming populism. As postmodernity has demonstrated, shared epistemology cannot overcome the disparity of interpretations that diverse hermeneutics produce, so we should not be surprised by surface-level disagreements between evangelicals and Churches of Christ. By surface-level, I do not imply insignificant, because hermeneutics are significant—they are determinative of important practical outcomes. Rather, my point is that beneath the surface, the sameness was real, and this sameness was the pragmatic basis for the theological rapprochement that took place. As evangelical and Churches of Christ scholars met in the same intellectual formation, forging a new intellectual leadership, the effect was the reduction of hermeneutical differences. Both were reoriented toward a more rigorous historical-critical methodology that inevitably reduced the surface-level differences. This happened while many in Churches of Christ, wracked by the anti-institutional controversy, grew disenchanted with the traditional hermeneutics (Hicks, “Stone-Campbell Hermeneutics VI”). (Subsequently, the academy has hosted the intentional redefinition of the Restoration plea, more on which later.) The result has been, on one hand, a marked lack of a developed (and shared) hermeneutical alternative among “progressive” congregations—which is in my estimation the root cause of Churches of Christ’s ongoing “identity crisis”—and on the other hand, the effective adoption of historical-critical exegesis, mediated primarily through homiletics, as the ad hoc hermeneutics among ministers educated in Churches of Christ universities, especially our MDiv and other ministry programs. This has combined and lived in tension with our calcified identity markers, which have often been impervious to an otherwise accepted exegetical rigorousness.

Since 1950, the growing tide of evangelical publications and other media, from technical biblical commentaries to popular works and from radio to internet, has also been a powerful force in closing the surface-level gap. The generically evangelical quality of Max Lucado’s highly popular books from 1985 on both symbolized and accelerated the trend. The result has been the emergence of another point of significant overlap rooted in historical worldview commonality.

Disputes over instrumental music and mission societies during the late 1800s in particular may obscure the degree to which the underlying conflict was deeply related to the inerrancy conflict in wider evangelicalism as classic liberal theology emerged (see, e.g., Eugene Boring’s comparison of McGarvey and Willett; Boring, ch. 6). Fundamentalists and evangelicals both emerged on the side of inerrancy, which was an expression of their shared epistemology.

As hermeneutical differences dissolved under the influence of the intellectual revival last century, so did the absolutist defense of inerrancy—a dispute reinvigorated among evangelicals in the 1970s (Dayton) that continues today. While the question is far from resolved, the renewal of anxiety over the way in which the Bible mediates truth marked an underlying epistemological destabilization shared by evangelicals and Churches of Christ alike. For both groups the issue is as much about populism as anything else: the degree to which the Bible says what it means directly and without the aid of critical scholarship, the degree to which the words of Scripture are the words of God himself speaking directly to the common reader.

In the heat of controversy over inerrancy, infallibility, inspiration, and authority, it seems to me that a new tacit consensus has been forged in popular evangelicalism, in which I include the average urban or suburban Church of Christ. In lieu of living out of an integrated epistemological center, inerrantists and infalliblisits alike, as essentially conservative sola scriptura Christians, function in ecclesial life on the basis of a nebulous foundational epistemological commitment to biblical perspicuity. This, in highly indefinite terms on the lay level, is the meaning of revelation or inspiration. It is not simply that God’s Spirit speaks directly through Scripture, though the charismatic movement from the 1960s on has pulled popular devotional reading further in that direction. It is that the Bible’s meaning is available plainly and clearly to the reader regardless of historical, cultural, translational, or text-critical considerations, much less hermeneutical considerations beyond exegesis. This is what remains of Common Sense epistemology after postmodernity has eroded other particularly Lockean and Baconian commitments. In the mode of hyper-individualism, “what it means to me,” though not necessarily about my tabula rasa or the atomization of empirical truths for the induction/construction of the system, is about my ability to interface with the Bible and come away with a truth, whoever I am. Perspicuity is the epistemological priority that evangelicals and Churches of Christ share: the Bible exercises its authority by providing plain, clear propositional truths to the individual.

In my next post, I will clarify what I mean by worldview, evangelical, the Restoration plea, and how these lead me to the belief that the future of theology in Churches of Christ should be missional.

Boring, M. Eugene. Disciples and the Bible: A History of Disciples Biblical Interpretation in North America (St. Louis: Chalice, 1997).

Dayton, Donald W. “The Battle for the Bible: Renewing the Inerrancy Debate.” Christian Century (November 10, 1976): 976-980,

Hicks, John Mark. “Stone-Campbell Hermeneutics VI — Appreciation and Critique.” John Mark Hicks Ministries.

________. “Stone-Campbell Hermeneutics III — Baconian Hermeneutics and Churches of Christ.” John Mark Hicks Ministries.

Hughes, Richard T. Reclaiming a Heritage: Reflections on the Heart, Soul, and Future of Churches of Christ. Abilene: ACU Press, 2002.

________. Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.

Marsden, George M. Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991.

McKinzie, Gregory E. “Barton Stone’s Unorthodox Christology.” Stone-Campbell Journal 13, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 31–46.

Nelson, Rudolph L. “Fundamentalism at Harvard: The Case of Edward John Carnell.” Quarterly Review 2. no. 2 (Summer 1982): 79–98.

Noll, Mark A. Between Faith and Criticism: Evangelicals, Scholarship, and The Bible in America. 2nd ed. Vancouver: Regent College, 2004.

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