Reading the Bible to enjoy the God of the Bible

QUIETLY, ALMOST INVISIBLY, a veritable Bible-scholar factory has been humming away in the American Churches of Christ over the past half-century, producing scholars of both the Old and New Testaments in extraordinary numbers and enriching the study of the Bible in every American denomination. How did so many Bible-reading, Bible-studying, Bible-teaching scholars come from such a relatively small group of Christians?  

The book of God

In 1839 Alexander Campbell wrote to his followers on why someone might want to read the Bible in the first place: “The man of God reads the Book of God to commune with God, ‘to feel after him, and find him,’ to feel his power and his divinity stirring within him; to have his soul fired, quickened, animated by the spirit of grace and truth. He reads the Bible to enjoy the God of the Bible.” 

But this warm stirring was not merely a matter of warm feelings. Campbell read much by thinkers, Christian and otherwise, who emphasized the life of the mind and the search for truth (see “Freedom’s ferment,” pp. 5–8). 

Campbell also taught his followers to read the Bible through the lens of the scientific method popularized by Francis Bacon (whose influence remained so central that when Stone-Campbell folks founded their first college, they named it Bacon College in his honor). Campbell, having read Bacon, argued that “the Bible is a book of facts.” If you could use the scientific method on the facts of nature, then you could use it on the facts of Scripture.

Campbell wrote, “When I at last took the naked text and read it with common sense, the Bible became a new book to me.” That heritage of Enlightenment rationalism has for almost 200 years formed the core of Stone-Campbell DNA and is one of the reasons behind the Bible scholar factory. But it’s not the whole story. 

The miracles of the Spirit

The Stone-Campbell Movement had deep roots in revivalism, too, through Barton Stone. But those roots, unlike Campbell’s rational roots—in fact, because of Campbell’s rational roots—did not flower in the same way.

Stone was a child of America’s great evangelical revivals, especially the Second Great Awakening. He believed the power of the Holy Spirit would not only quicken the hearts of sinners and guide believers into truth but also enable believers to perform miraculous works. “By what authority,” he asked, “have we concluded that no . . . [one] with miraculous powers may be expected in the present dispensation or age?” 

Campbell, like Stone, affirmed the indwelling Holy Spirit. But unlike Stone, he rejected the possibility of miracles in his own time. Instead, he trusted the power of the biblical text itself to quicken the hearts of sinners, and in time, many of his followers flatly identified the Spirit with the Bible itself. 

Campbell was also, like many of the Enlightenment thinkers he admired, profoundly optimistic about what people could do with the world if given a chance. He thought human beings would soon bring in a golden age, a “new millennium” of peace and prosperity. 

Early in his career, Campbell argued that the restoration of the primitive church would achieve that objective. As he grew older, he claimed that morality, education, and science, coupled with true religion, would launch the millennial dawn. 

Finally, he suggested that when the Protestant Anglo-Saxon culture of the United States had spread its power and influence around the globe, “then will . . . [all people] ‘hang their trumpet in the hall, and study war no more.’ For over all the earth there will be but one Lord, one faith, one hope and one language.” 

Barton Stone, however, despaired of human potential. He was convinced that only Jesus’ return could bring the golden age and that the millennial dawn was in God’s hands alone. But his understanding of Christianity—revivalism, hope for Jesus’ return, miracles, and all—would not triumph in the movement. He and his followers were so committed to religious freedom that they refused to embrace many doctrinal standards at all. This created a vacuum. 

Campbell stepped into that vacuum in an 1823 debate with Presbyterian W. L. McCalla. By then, Campbell had developed a rational grid encompassing the essential beliefs and practices of the primitive church—“the ancient order of things,” as he put it. He laid out that vision in his debate with McCalla. 

Hungry for greater precision than Stone had provided, many of Stone’s followers began to embrace Campbell’s “ancient order of things” and his commitment to a rational approach to the “naked text” of the Bible. This same commitment drove many young people in the movement to find out all they could about the Bible and make its study their life’s work.

Over time, Stone’s popular evangelicalism receded further and further into the background. Alexander Campbell rejected the revivals of Charles Finney, claiming that Finney substituted “the anxious bench” for baptism and replaced the ancient gospel with his “new measures.” 

By the 1950s and 1960s, some were rejecting Billy Graham’s revivals for essentially the same reasons, claiming that Graham substituted “faith only” for what Stone-Campbell believers saw as a biblical requirement to baptize adults (see “A story all their own” pp. 38–40). 

But today the revivalist approach is reappearing from two directions. From one stream, a sizable number of the increasingly denominational Disciples of Christ (see “Climbing into the mainline boat,” pp. 20–21) resisted being led into mainline Protestantism. 

Centered in America’s Midwest and deeply affected by the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early twentieth century, this group (known today as the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, or Independents) broke from the Disciples and aligned with fundamentalists and evangelicals. 

Others came back to revivalism from a second direction. In response to the cultural revolution of the 1960s, many in the Churches of Christ asked if there was not more to religion than Campbell’s rational grid. Some rejected his restorationism altogether and looked for more fruitful ways to live the Christian life.

They found those more fruitful ways in the biblical text itself—that text to which they had always been committed—for there they discovered the New Testament doctrine of justification by grace through faith. In earlier years, preachers in Churches of Christ often laid out in their sermons a wealth of biblical evidence that resembled a legal brief far more than it did heartfelt revivalist preaching. Today, though, preachers in Churches of Christ, like their revivalist cousins, routinely proclaim the saving grace of a loving God.  

On the same page after all?

They also found those fruitful ways in other Christian movements. As many had long said, they were “Christians only, but not the only Christians.” Since Churches of Christ shared with evangelicals a cultural, moral, and political conservatism, they increasingly viewed them not as foes but as congenial allies—revival meetings, warm feelings, and all. 

Popular evangelical author Max Lucado has long been a minister in the Churches of Christ, and his San Antonio church proclaimed itself the Oak Hills Church of Christ for the first 15 years of his ministry. Now it is simply Oak Hills Church, and Lucado shares the pulpit with Randy Frazee, formerly of Willow Creek, perhaps the best-known evangelical church in America. 

In the end, Stone-Campbell DNA, like all DNA, is complicated. Every year, almost 200 of those Bible scholars— mainly members of Churches of Christ—convene at a professional meeting. 

Surrounded throughout the week by thousands of other biblical scholars of all faiths and of none, they have chosen to meet together as members of the Stone-Campbell tradition, not for study only, but on Sunday morning to worship and share the Lord’s Supper. 

Perhaps both Stone and Campbell can be heard ringing through the centuries in that act, and in Lucado’s words: “God rewards those who seek Him. Not those who seek doctrine of religion or systems or creeds. Many settle for these lesser passions, but the reward goes to those who settle for nothing less than Jesus himself.” CH

By Richard Hughes

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #106 in 2013]

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