Faith vs. Opinion: What Did Campbell Really Mean?

alexander campbellIt’s been customary in the Churches of Christ since the time of Alexander Campbell to draw the fellowship line between faith and opinion. We base this on the famous saying of Campbell’s—

In faith, unity
In opinion, liberty
In all things, charity

It is my experience that many in the Churches define “faith” as anything addressed in scripture and “opinion” as anything else. Hence, the doctrine of divorce and remarriage or the age of the earth becomes a matter of “faith.” Thus, we must agree on these issues or else consider the other damned.

Of course, most of our splits are precisely over the question of whether an issue is addressed in scripture! One side says its faith; the other says its opinion. By this reasoning, Campbell’s slogan brings only division. The instrumentalists say the instrument is a matter of opinion. The a cappella advocates say it’s a matter of faith. Read this way, Campbell’s slogan does nothing to bring unity to those who disagree.

This definition of “faith” has several problems. First, this definition means we have to agree on everything the Bible says—and every inference from the Bible and from the Bible’s silence—or else break fellowship. And, sadly, this very viewpoint has divided the Churches of Christ many, many times.

Second, it’s just not what the Bible says “faith” is. Neither is it what Campbell meant to say. Campbell himself plainly meant by “opinion” anything that’s not faith, and by faith, he meant faith in Jesus as Christ and Lord, accepted through baptism. This is very evident from his writings, especially his book, The Christian System—

But the grandeur, sublimity, and beauty of the foundation of hope, and of ecclesiastical or social union, established by the author and founder of Christianity consisted in this, – that THE BELIEF OF ONE FACT, and that upon the best evidence in the world, is all that is requisite, as far as faith goes, to salvation. The belief of this ONE FACT, and submission to ONE INSTITUTION expressive of it, is all that is required of Heaven to admission into the church. A Christian, as defined, not by Dr. Johnson, nor any creed-maker, but by one taught from Heaven, is one that believes this one fact, and has submitted to one institution, and whose deportment accords with the morality and virtue of the great Prophet. The one fact is expressed in a single proposition – that Jesus the Nazarene is the Messiah. …

Campbell plainly lays out a two-step process of salvation: faith in Jesus as the Messiah and submission to baptism. “Faith” in Campbell’s vocabulary, as is often also true in scripture, includes repentance, that is, making Jesus Lord.

The one institution is baptism into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Every such person is a disciple in the fullest sense of the word, the moment he has believed this one fact, upon the above evidence, and has submitted to the abovementioned institution; and whether he believes the five points condemned, or the five points approved, by the Synod of Dort [which adopted the five points of Calvinism (TULIP) as a creed], is not so much as to be asked of him; whether he holds any of the views of the Calvinists or Arminians, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, or Quakers, is never once to be asked of such persons, in order to admission into the Christian community called the church.

Campbell further makes clear that no doctrinal position is required to be saved, other than confession of faith in Jesus and submission to baptism. A Calvinist comes out the baptistry just as saved as an Arminian (someone who rejects the principal points of Calvinism). And despite holding error on one of these doctrines, the convert is nonetheless a “disciple in the fullest sense of the word.”

The only doubt that can reasonably arise upon these points is, whether this one fact, in its nature and necessary results, can suffice to the salvation of the soul, and whether the open avowal of it, in the overt act of baptism, can be a sufficient recommendation of the persons so professing to the confidence and love of the brotherhood. As to the first of these, it is again and again asserted, in the clearest language, by the Lord himself, the apostles Peter, Paul, and John, that he that believes the testimony that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God, may overcome the world, has eternal life, and is, on the veracity of God, [freed] from his sins.

Now, notice that Campbell makes no distinction between the doctrines that save when coming out of the baptistry and the doctrines that ultimately lead to eternal life and allow one to claim membership in the church, the body of Christ.

This should settle the first point; for the witnesses agree that whosoever confesses that Jesus is the Christ, and is baptized, should be received into the church; and not an instance can be produced of any person being asked for any other faith, in order to admission, in the whole New Testament. The Saviour expressly declared to Peter that upon this fact, that he was the Messiah, the Son of God, he would build his church; and Paul has expressly declared that “other foundation can no man lay [for ecclesiastical union] than that JESUS IS THE CHRIST.” The point is proved that we have assumed; and, this proved, every thing is established requisite to the union of all Christians upon a proper basis. …

Campbell notes that not only does faith admit one to baptism, it is the basis on which the church is built. Moreover, faith is all that is required to restore the unity of the church.

In other words, the test for who is saved doesn’t get tougher after we arise from the baptismal pool. Rather, the test remains the same. That which saved us in the water will save us in the end—faith in Jesus.

Unity of opinion, expressed in subscription to voluminous dogmas imported from Geneva, Westminister, Edinburgh, or Rome, is made the bond of union; and a difference in the tenth or ten-thousandth shade of opinion frequently becomes the actual cause of dismemberment or expulsion.

Campbell refers to the religious centers of European denominations to condemn denying the salvation of others of the same faith because they have a slightly different “opinion.” By “opinion” Campbell quite plainly means anything other than faith and baptism.

The New Testament was not designed to occupy the same place in theological seminaries that the carcasses of malefactors are condemned to occupy in medical halls – first doomed to the gibbet, and then to the dissecting-knife of the spiritual anatomist.

In typically colorful fashion, Campbell condemns our dissection of the New Testament in search of salvation. We don’t have to slice and dice the words to find saving truth. Much less, do we have to dissect the silences to find eternal life. Another telling quotation from Campbell is—

But men cannot give up their opinions, and therefore, they can never unite, says one. We do not ask them to give up their opinions—we ask them only not to impose them upon others.

In other words, as faith is sufficient to save and to unite, it’s not necessary that we agree on opinion (anything else!) Rather, the sin is in imposing our opinions by damning those who disagree with us.

Let them hold their opinions, but let them hold them as private property. The faith is public property; opinions are, and always have been private property.

The contrast could not be more obvious—Campbell contrasts faith in Jesus against opinion.

Men have foolishly attempted to make the deductions of some great minds the common measure of all Christians. Hence the deductions of a Luther, and a Calvin, and a Wesley, have been the rule and measure of all who coalesce under the names of these leaders. It is cruel to excommunicate a man because of the imbecility of his intellect.

In other words, the mere fact that man misunderstands some point or other of Scripture does not damn so long as he is man of faith in Jesus (including, of course, as Campbell always did, penitence and baptism).

Finally, with his typical wry humor, Campbell reminds us that we cannot hold our converts to an obligation to be scriptural geniuses such as a Calvin or Luther. Jesus meant to save people of ordinary intellect with ordinary education. If we teach a doctrine that requires a post-doctrinal understanding of psallo to go to heaven, we have badly perverted God’s word and grossly misapprehended God’s love.

Notice that Campbell considers the statements included in the Reformation creeds as “opinions,” although some of these statement are unquestionably true and agreed with by Campbell—and all the creedal statements address points of Biblical interpretation. The contrast isn’t between correct doctrine and false doctrine, it’s between faith (including penitence + baptism) and everything else that might be garnered from the Bible. Certainly, Campbell had his on opinions on Calvinism, Arminianism, etc., and held his views firmly, but he distinguishes those doctrines from the doctrines that save and unite.

It’s admittedly confusing for Campbell to use “opinion” to refer to matters that may be very well established by Scripture and not in any serious doubt, but this is how he used the word. Doubtlessly, this usage has confused many of his readers over the years. It may be helpful to note that Noah Webster’s High-school Pronouncing Dictionary (1857) gives the 19th Century meaning of “opinion” as “the judgment formed by the mind; notion; sentiment.” “Opine” is defined simply as “to think.” Hence, the idea that an opinion is necessarily founded on uncertain facts, as many modern dictionaries state, was not the standard usage when Campbell wrote.

The key, of course, is to understand that Campbell was an excellent Biblical scholar and so never would have used “faith” to refer to various doctrines of the Trinity, the atonement, or how to worship. “Faith” means faith in Jesus. After all, this is what the Bible says—

(Rom 3:22-24) This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

(Rom 10:9-10) That if you confess with your mouth, Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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