red meat (part 2)

(This post is a bit more involved.  Hopefully it makes sense, though.  As always, your comments and critiques are appreciated.) 

To continue, I now turn to the second half of my respondent’s post.  In my previous post, I attempted to address the issues raised in the first half of his post, what follows is the text of the second half and my own comments. 

And I guess I also wonder why you say the Holy Spirit “took a sabbatical?” Is it because many Christians don’t believe in continuing revelation, or miracles at the hands of holy-spirit-filled men? Of the latter, I would certainly say IF that is the doctrinal test, then since we are wrong, then there ARE holy-spirit-filled men wandering the Earth healing people? Please, someone give them a Yellow Pages and point them to the children’s hospitals! Ok — I, too, turned on the satire…but you get my point.

The church of Christ (Rom 16:16) was est[ablished] by Jesus the Christ at Jerusalem on the first Pentecost after his resurrection, approx 30 A.D.  I would think the apostasy you […] ridicule that took place within a few years of each congregation’s establishment and growth might strengthen your faith since it was prophesied by the Holy Spirit through the N.T. authors. If the apostasy had not occurred, perhaps THEN I would begin to wonder if these N.T. writers were truly inspired.  As [to] the Campbell movement 1700 years later, I’ve found references to congregations PRIOR to Mr. Campbell’s so-called restoration where the members call themselves simply Christians and churches of Christ, from Tubermore and Glasgow, Scotland, to Paris, KY.

So, in the course of a bit of satire, I asserted that NI Churches of Christ hold to a doctrine of the Holy Spirit that, in effect, states that the Spirit inspired the writing of the NT and then went on a permanent sabbatical.  (Go back and read the post for the full context.)  I begin by stating that I am well aware that there is more to it than that (I’ll get to the “more to it” later in this post).  Nevertheless, I stand by that characterization.  Here’s why.

DISCLAIMER 1: In utilizing satire, it was/is not my intent to disparage either God or his Holy Spirit.  Instead, I mean to call attention to a particular human understanding of the Spirit — an understanding that has gone largely unquestioned among non-institutional Churches of Christ.

DISCLAIMER 2: In using the word “traditional,” I am not attempting to slander anyone, either living or dead.  I am merely saying that our spiritual forebears came to particular conclusions and then passed their understanding on to us.  (One of the overall points that I was attempting to make in my original set of posts is that “traditional” is not a four letter word.)

With that, let’s proceed.  In keeping with my previous posts, I am most interested here in the history and development of the doctrine, not so much the doctrine itself. 

The notion that the Spirit was responsible for inspiring the writing of the Scriptures and working miracles in the first century — but hasn’t done anything since — has been the dominant pneumatology of Churches of Christ of all varieties since at least the early years of the twentieth century (if not for some time before that).  Contemporary NI Churches of Christ are no less the recipients of that traditional understanding than any other wing of the Churches of Christ. 

So, my reader might ask, how do I know that this is the traditional view?  How can I make an assertion like that?  It’s quite simple, really.  The evidence is all around for those who will take up and read.  Over the course of the 20th century, a number of influential books and countless journal articles were published on the role of the Holy Spirit.  In this discussion, I’ll focus on the books.  Near the beginning of the century comes the classic statement of the position in Z.T. Sweeney’s The Spirit and the Word: A Treatise on the Holy Spirit in the Light of a Rational Interpretation of the Word of Truth (1919).  Later on, there are H. Leo Boles’s The Holy Spirit: His Personality, Nature and Works (1942), Foy E. Wallace, Jr.’s The Mission and the Medium of the Holy Spirit (1967) and (among ‘mainstream’ Churches of Christ) Franklin Camp’s The Work of the Holy Spirit in Redemption (1972).  With the exception of Wallace’s Mission and Medium, all of these books have been recently reprinted and any of the four can be found in most preachers’ libraries.  In short, they have been enormously influential. 

So, what does the evidence of these books reveal?  Taken together, along with the sermons that I heard and tracts that I read growing up, one could easily derive a doctrine of the Holy Spirit that includes the following main points (in no particular order of importance):

1) The Holy Spirit inspired the Biblical writers.  Usually this is explained via the dictation theory of inspiration.

2) The Holy Spirit worked miracles through the apostles in the first century (e.g. Acts 3.1-10).

3) At some point (no date is usually given), the Holy Spirit ceased to work miracles.  Often, 1 Corinthians 13.8-13 is cited as evidence of this.  It is widely proclaimed that no miracles occur in our own day.

4) Since the Holy Spirit inspired the Biblical writers, it is typically asserted that the Spirit only works, indeed only can work, through the Biblical text.  (In this way, the Spirit and the Bible are conflated, raising the Bible to the status of member of the Godhead.)

5) The Holy Spirit is only invoked, in the average Church of Christ congregation, at baptism.  Most references to the Spirit in our hymnals have been excised.

6) Although rarely stated explicitly, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the individual Christian is effectively denied.  (On more than one occasion, I have heard preachers ask how the Spirit can be divided into little pieces for every Christian.  On the other hand, note this sermon by a minister who has accepted the indwelling.)


That the books listed above could have been written in the first place is due to the context in which Churches of Christ have found themselves over the past two centuries.  

Alexander Campbell was a product of the intellectual currents of the Enlightenment.  Educated at Glasgow, he was heavily influenced by the writings of John Locke, Francis Bacon and the Scottish Common Sense Realists (Thomas Reid, Dugald Stewart, etc.).  (It is said that AC carried a copy of Locke’s major works in his saddlebag when traveling.)  In terms of theology and Biblical studies, Campbell was educated in a time when the debate between rationalist skeptics and orthodox Christians was becoming increasingly acute.   

Above all, Campbell believed (as did many of his teachers) that the Bible was a rational document that could be investigated, understood and believed by anyone who applied reason and “common sense” to the task.  The rationalist thought of the eighteenth century to which he was replying thought otherwise.  It saw the Bible as a document filled with supernatural occurrences that conflicted with the results of the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th century.  The major points of the rationalist thought system might be outlined like this:

1) The universe operates according to regular and unchanging “laws of nature.”  Everything can be explained by reference to these laws.  (Some rationalist thinkers at the time thought that God set these in motion at the beginning, but many thought that under such an arrangement there was really no need for a God who was active in the world.)

2) The importance of observation and experience was stressed.  That is to say, if a phenomenon could be observed, then its reality could not be disputed.  For example, I have seen a thunderstorm, therefore I know that thunderstorms exist and are real.

3) When it came to the Bible, rationalist thinkers had no issue, for the most part, with the mundane details of the text (e.g. no one disputed that Paul travelled from Jerusalem to Rome — that sort of questioning came along in the nineteenth century).  For the 18th century rationalists the issue lie in what to do about the miracles and other supernatural elements in the text.  The miracles obviously didn’t fit into the system that I’ve just described.  David Hume, one of the most prominent of these thinkers, defined a miracle as a “transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.”  A further problem, from the rationalists’ perspective, was that no one alive had ever seen a miracle.  So, since miracles violate the inviolable laws of nature and have never been observed, they must not have happened. 

For Campbell and many, many other theologians at the time, this line of reasoning posed a serious threat to the credibility of the Bible and to the intellectual credibility of Christianity.  In Christian circles, there developed an acute need to harmonize the supernatural elements in the Bible with the overwhelming evidence pouring in from science.

Here’s how Campbell (and others) did it:

1) They accepted the rationalist definition of a miracle as a violation of the laws of nature.

2) In order to hold on the Biblical miracles, they posited a doctrine of cessationism.  In other words, miracles had occurred in NT times, but they were for the purpose of “confirming the gospel” for its first hearers and were no longer necessary.

3) They accepted the rationalists’ stress on observation — they had never seen a miracle in their own day, thus they didn’t occur.

4) Even with these three concessions, Campbell still faced the question of what to do with the Holy Spirit.  From a rationalist perspective, the NT activity and teaching of the Holy Spirit was, well, weird.  Campbell sort of thought so, too, especially given what he had witnessed in his time on the frontier.  Frontier revivalism in America was characterized by bouts of “holy laughter,” “holy barking,” etc.  (The 1801 Cane Ridge Revival is an excellent example of this.)  These “excercises” were attributed, in the Calvinist teaching that was predominant on the frontier, to a “special operation of the Spirit” upon the believer.  Furthermore, this “special operation” was necessary for salvation.  AC had a number of problems with this, not the least of which was its weirdness.  So, in his teaching, Campbell (in his early years especially) stated that the activity of the Holy Spirit was mediated through the Word of God, the Bible.  That is, when an individual believer, using his reason and common sense, came to the sacred text, the Spirit worked upon him to convict him of his sin and moved him to seek Christ.  For Campbell, this position avoided the twin extremes of rationalism and frontier revivalism.  This is most clearly stated in the second edition (1839) of The Christian System: “Whatever the word does, the Spirit does; and whatsoever the Spirit does in the work of converting men, the word does.”  For his part, Campbell was severely criticized for such bald statements (cf. the 1843 Campbell-Rice debate) and, upon further study and reflection, backed away from those extremes later in life.

Second and third generation leaders in the Stone-Campbell Movement took Campbell’s thought in one of two directions.  (Byron Lambert’s article on the Holy Spirit in the Encyclopedia of the Stone Campbell Movement is an excellent resource on this question.)  Church leaders and theologians such as Walter Scott (Discourse on the Holy Spirit, 1831), Robert Milligan (The Scheme of Redemption, 1868) and Robert Richardson (A Scriptural View of the Office of the Holy Spirit, 1872) took up the post-Campbell-Rice Debate developments in Campbell’s thought, backing away from the verbal-restrictive — or “word-only” — position.  Campbell’s early views too closely conflated the Spirit and the Bible, so Scott, Milligan and others posited a view in which, to quote Lambert, “the Holy Spirit accompanies the preaching of the written Word, the Spirit and the Word working independently of each other but in harmony.”  Lambert continues, “This view both saves the real presence of the Holy Spirit as a Person distinct from any fallible verbal presentation of the truth and prevents a conception of the written Word from being some kind of fourth presentation of the Godhead, a divine power-in-itself.”  Furthermore, there was the concern (legitimate, I think) that Campbell’s early views put limits on the Spirit, i.e. that those views put the Spirit in a box.  Robert Milligan, in Scheme, noted that the Spirit “may exert influences of which we know nothing,” citing such as examples as (to quote Lambert), “sickness and death in a family, calamity in a community, a sense in the sinner’s heart of life’s emptiness, fright in the case of the Philippian jailer, and prayer and piety in the heart of a Cornelius.  [Milligan] pointed out that there would be no renewing power in these providences apart from the meaning they have come to have through the gospel, but the Spirit is not entirely confined to the written word.” 

Others such as Tolbert Fanning and the 20th century leaders that we saw earlier went a different way.  They took Campbell’s most rationalistic early statements on the Holy Spirit and ran with them.  Leonard Allen, in Participating in God’s Life, does an excellent job of outlining the extended debate that occurred in the 1850s between Fanning and Robert Richardson over pneumatological questions and the (detrimental) influence of Lockean philosophy on the theology and spirituality of the Stone-Campbell Movement.  As with so many other “issues” in Churches of Christ, what this really amounted to (AC said this himself) was a power struggle between the Gospel Advocate and the Millennial Harbinger.  Fanning was not going to back down from his position.  As one cana see in the work of Sweeney, Wallace, Boles and Camp, the “word-only” position that Fanning advocated in his debate with Richardson became a rigid orthodoxy among 20th century Churches of Christ.  Thus, you get Z.T. Sweeney’s appalling statement, “God does no unnecessary work, and the work of the Paraclete is not necessary now.” 


One final remark.  My respondent asks an interesting question.  He wants to know whether I satirically say that the Holy Spirit is on permanent sabbatical, “because many Christians don’t believe in continuing revelation, or miracles at the hands of holy-spirit-filled men?”

I love my brothers and sisters in NI congos.  But I have noticed that we can be a people of extremes at times.   What is telling about this question is the strict polarity that it assumes: that there are only two radically disjunct options when it comes to one’s understanding of the Holy Spirit.  One can either believe the entire package outlined above (Enlightenment presuppositions and all) or one is a full-blown believer in every faith-healing, Pentecostal televangelist who comes down the pike.  According to this assumption, there is nothing in between. 

What I have attempted to show in this post is that our spiritual forebears bequeathed to us more options (indeed, more Scriptural options).  The “word-only” position is not now, and never was, the only available option.

This post is already too long, so I’ll quit and save the last bit for later.          


4 responses to “red meat (part 2)

  1. You left off Brent’s “Gospel Plan of Salvation” which some have said is the Church of Christ’s only work of systematic theology.

    Also, I haven’t studied it, but I suspect that 20th century coC teaching on the Holy Spirit became more dogmatic upon the rise of modern day Pentacostalism. If it weren’t for that movement perhaps coCs would have maintained a greater variety of views on the Holy Spirit (which is not necessarily a good thing).

  2. Thanks for the tip. I have a copy of Brents on my shelf but have only ever glanced at it, so I didn’t think to check it for this post. Hopefully in the next few days I can sit down and read that chapter.

    As to the influence of Pentecostalism, I think you’re right. Douglas Foster, in an article in Restoration Quarterly 45.1, makes just such an argument.

    Regarding a variety of views, it seems to me that two steps are necessary to correct the current situation in NI Churches of Christ. First, the people must be reintroduced to the idea that there has been (and is) more than one way to understand the work of the Spirit in the Stone-Campbell tradition. Second, a theologically-trained minister should be present to lead them through what will appear to be a bewildering array of options to a more classically orthodox understanding, such as that of Robert Richardson.

  3. That nice and neat progression, of course, will founder on the lack of theologically-trained ministers.

  4. Pingback: excursus: the definition of a miracle « Anastasis

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