A Theological History of Restoration Movement Thought, Part 3 (Alexander Campbell)

A. CampbellThomas Campbell’s son, Alexander, very quickly became the intellectual champion of the Movement. Both Thomas and Barton W. Stone suffered from poor health and produced limited written work.

In 1932, the Stone and Campbell movements merged, beginning with the famous meeting of Stone with “Raccoon” John Smith, a legendary Kentucky preacher within the Campbell movement.

Alexander Campbell (henceforth, just “Campbell”) published his systematic theology The Christian System in 1835. This book, heavily based on articles Campbell had previously published in his periodicals, The Christian Baptist and The Millenial Harbinger, had tremendous influence on the thought of the combined Movement. Here he sets forth his early views on grace and baptism.

Neither the Stone nor Campbell movements were founded on a new view of baptism. But the Campbells decided to be baptized by immersion, rejecting the practice of infant baptism. Later, Campbell concluded that baptism is for the remission of sins. However, he was not of this view when he was immersed.

But by 1835 Campbell was teaching his distinctive view of baptism, combining the Baptist view that baptism is by immersion with the Anabaptist view that baptism is for believers for remission of sins. This squarely contradicted the Calvinist/Baptist view that baptism is simply a sign of forgiveness already received and the Catholic/Anglican/Methodist view that baptism may be administered to infants.

In The Christian System, Campbell writes,

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. … The one fact is expressed in a single proposition–that Jesus the Nazarene is the Messiah.

(emphasis in original). Campbell taught a two-step “plan of salvation”: faith + baptism. However, he clearly included repentance in “faith” (as is true in numerous New Testament passages), and confession is simply a declaration of faith in Jesus (how else would we know whom to baptize and to accept as a fellow Christian?)

As Campbell calls the fact that Jesus is the Messiah “faith” (following New Testament practice) he means that all else is “opinion.” Campbell does not mean by “opinion” a view that may or may not be true. Rather, he uses “opinion” to refer to theological reasoning, even reasoning which he fervently agrees with.

Campbell declares that he’s quite serious that faith and baptism are enough–

It must strike every man of reflection, that a religion requiring much mental abstraction or exquisite refinement of thought, or that calls for the comprehension or even apprehension of refined distinctions and of nice subtleties, is a religion not suited to mankind in their present circumstances. To present such a creed as the Westminster, as adopted, either by Baptists or Paido-Baptists; such a creed as the Episcopalian, or, in the fact, any sectarian creed, composed as they all are, of propositions, deduced by logical inferences, and couched in philosophical language, to all those who are fit subjects of the salvation of Heaven–I say, to present such a creed to such for their examination or adoption, shocks all common sense.

Obviously enough, Campbell follows his father in refusing to make any inference or opinion as test of fellowship. But he is even clearer that the only tests of fellowship are faith in Jesus and baptism. Indeed, one can be a Calvinist or an Arminian still be saved–

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 above mentioned institution; and whether he believes the five points condemned, or the five points approved by the synod of Dort [defining Calvinism], is not so much as to be asked of him; whether he holds any of the views of the Calvinists or Arminians [opponents of Calvinism], 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. 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 person, so professing, to the confidence and love of the brotherhood.

Campbell then offers some examples of doctrines that are unnecessary for salvation–

Religious philosophers on the Bible have excogitated the following doctrines and philosophical distinctions:–

‘The Holy Trinity,’ ‘Three persons of one substance, power, and eternity,’ ‘Co-essential, co-substantial, co-equal,’ ‘The Son eternally begotten of the Father,’ ‘An eternal Son,’ ‘Humanity and divinity of Christ,’ ‘The Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son,’ ‘God’s eternal decrees,’ ‘Conditional and unconditional election and reprobation,’ ‘God out of Christ,’ ‘Free will,’ ‘Liberty and necessity,’ ‘Original sin,’ ‘Total depravity,’ ‘Covenant of grace,’ ‘Effectual calling,’ ‘Free grace,’ ‘Sovereign grace,’ ‘General and particular atonement,’ ‘Satisfy divine justice,’ ‘Common and special operations of the Holy Ghost,’ ‘Imputed righteousness,’ ‘Inherent righteousness,’ ‘Progressive sanctification,’ ‘Justifying and saving faith,’ ‘Historic and temporary faith,’ ‘The direct and reflex acts of faith,’ ‘The faith of assurance, and the assurance of faith,’ ‘Legal repentance,’ ‘Evangelical repentance,’ ‘Perseverance of the saints,’ and ‘Falling from grace,’ ‘Visible and invisible church,’ ‘Infant membership,’ ‘Sacraments,’ ‘Eucharist,’ ‘Consubstantiation,’ ‘Church government,’ ‘The power of the keys,’ &c. &c.

Concerning these and all such doctrines, and all the speculations and phraseology to which they have given rise, we have the privilege neither to affirm nor deny–neither to believe nor doubt; because God has not proposed them to us in his word, and there is no command to believe them. If they are deduced from the Scriptures, we have them in the facts and declarations of God’s Spirit; if they are not deduced from the Bible, we are free from all the difficulties and strifes which they have engendered and created.

In other words, our faith is in Jesus, not in theology. Campbell very definitely had opinions on all these subjects–indeed, was a great scholar on these and many other topics. He simply makes the point that such matters are secondary and not tests of fellowship.

Campbell’s goal–and the founding impetus of the Restoration Movement–was unity of the denominations. Here he gives his solution to division–accept all baptized believers as brothers and stop dividing and condemning over these other matters.

In this position, he was in complete accord with Stone. However, Campbell and Stone disagreed on the work of the Holy Spirit. Campbell believed the Spirit worked solely through the scriptures, while Stone believed in an effective, literal indwelling. Although the men disagreed, they accepted one another as beloved brothers.

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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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