Category Archives: Doctrine/Theology

On Individual Responsibility

James J. Irvine (1862–1898) was a native of New Zealand. He came to America at the age of 20 and, in due course, enrolled in classes at College of the Bible, from which he graduated in 1890. Like a large number of other graduates in those days, he came south to Alabama to begin his ministerial career. He served as State Evangelist in Alabama from 1890–1891, followed by a stint as minister for the church in Selma.  By 1895, he had taken a position as office editor of the Southern Christian,  edited by C. P. Williamson out of Atlanta, with close sympathies for the progressive stances of the Apostolic Guide and the Christian-Evangelist. Later, he would undertake pastorates in Jacksonville, Fla., and Norfolk, Va.—where he met an untimely death in 1898 at the age of 36.

The Gospel Advocate for June 20, 1895 reprinted a piece that Irvine wrote for the Southern Christian, titled “Individual Effort.”  It might strike us as odd that the Advocate would reprint a writer like Irvine with such ties. Two considerations are at work here: 1) the Advocate of the pre-Goodpasture period consistently fostered the open exchange of ideas and the various sides of a given issue. F. D. Srygley—front page editor at the time this piece was written—would reprint anything he thought worth reading, no matter who the author was. 2) The 1890s were a time of transition. A page-by-page survey of the decade allows the reader to clearly see the split between progressives and conservatives in real time. It was not a time when firm lines that could not be crossed had been drawn—although that was soon to happen.

Anyway, I reprint the piece here not so much to make a specific theological point, as rather for the sake of general edification.

Every work to-day, great or small, stands as a monument to personal effort. We look upon an immense building in all its beauty and massiveness; we think of the different individuals who worked with brain and muscle, and of the agencies used to bring about this grand result.

The architect, as he made the plan, as he calculated the symmetry, the blending of the parts; the contractor, as he takes what has been planned and begins to lay his foundation deep and wide and strong, and going down to the solid rock to make it the base of his operations.

The building begins to assume size and shape. Each one at his particular place, all helping and using their skill and personal effort until the whole building fitly joined together is a fit abode for man. All this was brought about by a combination of personal effort, a working together for a desired end.

Is not this the divine idea and will? Are we not co-laborers together with God in the building up of the great structure of the Church of Christ?

In the building of the walls of Jerusalem under Nehemiah, we find that the people had a mind to work, although surrounded within and without by enemies, and the result was the walls were completed.

So with the spiritual walls of Jerusalem, the people must have a mind to work, must have the Christ spirit dwelling in them, to be continually going about “my Father’s business.”

The walls of the spiritual Jerusalem are being strengthened in our Southland, and now the servants of our Lord are doing so much. How much could be done if every individual follower of Christ would put forth some personal effort. Now is the time. Let us go to the Divine Architect, get our plans, and work by them. Go down to the solid “Rock of Ages,” build thereon, and each one in his place, with the talent and ability given him, rear a part of the great structure to the honor and glory of God. In this God-given work let each do his part and do it well. If you can sing, sing the praises of God and the gospel of his Son. If you can pray, pray fervently for the workers in whatever part of the great building they may be found. If you can teach or preach, know nothing among men but the Christ, exalt his name, hold him up as the chief corner-stone, the one despised and rejected, but now the King of kings.

Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God, and when life’s work is done on earth we have the sweet promise of entering into that rest and that mansion prepared for the faithful, into the heavenly Jerusalem, that house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. May each one do his individual part in the effort to save men.

— J. J. Irvine, “Individual Effort.” Gospel Advocate 37.25 (June 20, 1895): 386.

I’ve not blogged much over the past couple years, but expect to see more of this kind of clipping. I’ve collected a lot of this sort of thing from my time in front of the microfilm reader.





Irven Lee, Part 2: The “Friendly Letter”

This is the second of two posts dealing with Irven Lee and his “A Friendly Letter on Benevolence” (1958). The first post provided a sketch of Lee’s life; this post will make some observations about the “Friendly Letter.”
Open division was a reality in Churches of Christ across the country in 1958. The controversy over institutions that had erupted in the years during and after WWII mushroomed by the middle of the 1950s into a heated and often very personal dispute. This is not the place for a complete timeline of the controversy, but it might be worth pointing out a few of the things that contributed to the atmosphere in which Lee wrote in 1958.

B. C. Goodpasture (1895-1977)

In December 1954, B. C. Goodpasture published with approval a letter written by an anonymous elder calling for a “quarantine of the ‘antis.'” This opened the door to, and gave sanction to, the kind of pressure tactics Lee references in the letter. A series of debates, each perhaps more acrimonious than the last, also began around this time: the Holt-Totty Indianapolis debate (October 1954); the Tant-Harper debates in Lufkin and Abilene, Texas (April and November 1955); and the Cogdill-Woods debate in Birmingham (November 1957). Perhaps more than anything else these helped solidify the identities of the two groups. None of this, of course, fully captures the mood in the churches in these years. Lots more could be said, specific incidents recounted, and so forth. It will have to suffice for the purposes of this piece, though.

At any rate, most contemporaries of these events would later point to the Cogdill-Woods debate (1957) as the final breaking point. For all practical purposes, there was no going back after this. Division was an accomplished fact. Knowing all of this, the tone and timing of Lee’s letter are surprising. That such a letter could be written in 1958 says something important. At one level, there was nothing in it for anyone on either side to try again, one more time, carefully and patiently, to reach across the ever-widening gulf between the two sides. But Lee tries, and that’s really significant.

Irven Lee

The way in which he argues is also of great interest. Each of the debates listed above (and many others at the time) centered on the proper application of the traditional command-example-necessary inference hermeneutic.  While it is clear that Lee accepts that hermeneutic and its assumptions, his arguments in this letter rely very little upon the hermeneutic. They proceed from other concerns. Several of those concerns, seen in the “Friendly Letter,” later recur in articles written for Searching the Scriptures as well as in his autobiography, Preaching in a Changing World (1975). I’ll briefly discuss the major ones here, drawing on citations from a variety of sources.

N.B. These arguments are closely interwoven in the texts themselves. My attempt to separate them out for analysis here is necessarily somewhat artificial. In other words, proceed with caution: go read the texts themselves. 
1. First, there is the argument from history. For Lee, and many other non-institutional writers in the 1950s, there was a simple analogy to be made between the 19th century missionary society and the various cooperative schemes under discussion in their day. Lee focuses his attention first on the missionary society, before turning to issue of the orphan’s home. For Lee, “a study of [the missionary society’s] history is easy, and it illustrates every phase of the problem.”
The results of missionary society were not what its founders had intended: “The missionary society did not cause men to do more ‘mission’ work. It is evident as can be that the Christian church with its society has not grown as fast as the church has without it. The cooperative idea relieved the individual and the local church of much of their feeling of responsibility. They need not start new congregations since that would be done by headquarters. The society absorbed much of the money in costs of operation, and they cut the link between the congregation and the preacher on the field, so there was less personal interest in his work and less joy of accomplishment on the part of the congregation sending funds.”
Worst of all, for Lee, dogged support of the missionary society on the part of its staunchest advocates led to division. Conflict over support of colleges and Sunday schools also led to division. As Lee states, “These ‘good ideas’ were not good if they wounded the spiritual body of Christ. No more modern offering will be good if it divides the body of Christ.”
All of this, we should note, comes from a man who had been heavily involved with institutions for much of his career, in particular the schools for which he taught. Lee reflects on this at some length in his autobiography:

I could not today [1975] get a job with three of the four schools where I have taught. I have made the point back through the years that I do not believe the church should give money into the school treasuries. During the thirties and forties I was generally commended for this stand. Today it is sometimes reported that I am against the schools when I say the same things. It has been heartbreaking to me to see these schools fall into the hands of those who cater to the liberal brethren among us” (Preaching, 20).

2. Second, Lee spends a great deal of time looking at the orphan’s home from (for lack of a better term) a human standpoint. It’s an argument from the heart, rather than from hermeneutics. Lee writes, “The most expensive and least desirable way to care for children is in the orphan’s home setup.” He then goes on to show the manifold ways in which, for all of the good intentions of those who work in them, orphan’s homes cannot provide the kind of care a child needs.
For example:
“One of the things a child needs is tender loving care. If one hundred children live in one big house, a given child may almost starve for affection and attention. He may make himself a nuisance in trying to get attention. If you will go to a so-called orphan home and sit down and put your arm around one child, another will come at once. There may soon be more than you can reach around. Some have had this experience and have gone away speaking of the good work of the institution in training the children to be so affectionate. It is more a matter of starvation. They are starved for this sort of attention…. In short, the child needs love. The very best matron cannot give this special attention to each of the children in her department” (Preaching, 76).
Of interest on this point is the fact that policy regarding the care of orphans in the United States has largely borne out his arguments (both in his day and since). He notes that states were already moving away from institutionalized care in the 1950s — as were the mainline Protestant denominations who had gotten heavily involved at the turn of the century. Sociologists and government officials had already begun to show preference for foster care or adoption in all but the most extreme cases of mental illness or physical disability. By the time members of Churches of Christ jumped on board after WWII, institutionalized care was already falling out of favor.
3. Third, there is a critique of the tendency toward centralization in so many of the projects under discussion. Lee, and other non-institutional writers in the 1950s, feared the power that was accruing to the managers and boards of directors of the orphanages, schools, and other institutions: “The big church supported institutions dominate the churches that support them. They become a super government to ‘request’ and ‘advise’ by very effective means in many local affairs.” (One might think here of A. C. Pullias’ boast that no one could preach in a church in Middle Tennessee without his approval.)
And again: “Schools, publishing houses, and many other things have a right to exist as servants of mankind but not as a super government for the church or as a parasite on the church. The administrators of most of the colleges operated by our brethren have taken the very ‘liberal’ view of this crisis. I am embarrassed and ashamed of this. The constant need for funds brings them close to men of wealth. Those who are among the rich find it hard to have a child-like faith in the Lord’s plan. The temptation to trust in riches is evidently great. They made money by their own plans and they see the need of business (human) plans in the work of the church” (italics mine).
(For a succinct contemporary discussion of these developments in American Christianity as a whole, see Chapter 4 of Craig Van Gelder’s The Ministry of the Missional Church.)

4. Finally, perhaps the key idea in the whole argument, is Lee’s assertion that, in his words, “the Christian religion is a ‘Do It Yourself’ religion.” In other words, every Christian has a responsibility to minister to the needy. That responsibility cannot simply be outsourced (to use a contemporary term) to an outside agency. On the contrary, Lee and other North Alabama non-institutional writers insist on the importance of personal investment and sacrifice for the needy to the growth of faith. They advocate for a kind of “lived religion,” a religion that does not separate doctrine and ethics, that recognizes the responsibility of the church to take care of its own. (All of these emphases can be found at an earlier date in the writings of David Lipscomb and James A. Harding.)
In the end, Lee urges his correspondent to continue to study, to love, to extend grace to those with whom he might disagree: “Love will do much to hold us together while the line between right and wrong comes into clearer view from more careful study of the scripture.”
It would be hard to say whether anyone on the pro-institutional side of the argument was swayed by this letter (we don’t even know what became of Lee’s friend, the addressee of the letter). Discussion had largely shut down on both sides by this point. That said, the letter was circulated so widely (in tract form) for so many years, I think, because it resonated deeply with many on the non-institutional side. It was patient and gracious, but full of conviction as well. It contradicted, without being hateful, the assertions of mainline editors and preachers that “antis” were “orphan haters” and “cranks.”

Clippings from Recent Research

Digging around in the archives of Searching the Scriptures recently revealed this:

To go to heaven one is to visit the sick, the widow, the fatherless (Matt. 25:31; James 1:27). One is to labor “to have to give to him that hath need” (Eph. 4:28). One is to bear another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). Dorcas gave garments to the widows (Acts 9:36-39). This method does more than make the gift. The giver is there with the gift. Is there danger that the showy method where numbers, buildings, and reports seem large may be the skimpy method? Let us work and pray that the individual may realize that everyone is to give an account of the deeds done in his body (II Cor. 5:10). Can a centralized home at Cullman or Nashville, however efficient, do the work I should do among my neighbors? Surely, we can agree that we must act. Is there danger that we may say, “Let the Welfare Department, the Red Cross, the church, the benevolent society, etc., do it”?

This is excerpted from “Dangers of the Present Crisis” by Irven Lee in Searching the Scriptures 3.4 (April 1962).

This kind of emphasis on what we might call lived religion — religion as a way of life, religion that does not divorce doctrine from ethics — shows up all over the place in Lee and other North Alabama NI writers. The whole article is worth it, but I think Lee is strongest and most on-target at this exact point. For him — even though I think the Lockean rationalism of our tradition gets in the way somewhat — there is a sense that the giver is the gift, that the gift of presence and personal involvement is as important as any check, no matter how large, that one might write.

This is an important lesson in a context in which mainline Churches of Christ, in particular, are witnessing the collapse (at a fairly rapid pace) of the institutional structures that were created at midcentury and that led to division in the fellowship. That’s certainly the case in Nashville. The way forward in the post-Christian reality of life in this country, where we no longer occupy an honored position in the culture, will lie (to some extent) in learning how to be congregations again, learning how to involve every member in the mission of God in the church. Our ancestors understood this. May we remember it again before it’s too late.


On the limits of method

I’m registered this semester for a course titled “The Theology of the Stone-Campbell Movement.” As you might expect, it focuses on Churches of Christ, beginning with Stone and the Campbells coming down to the end of the 20th century.

The course is arranged thematically: after a brief introduction to the facts of the Movement’s history (names, dates, etc.), the bulk of the course deals with major theological themes that emerge from that history: unity, restoration, democracy, millennialism, and so on. I’m charged, as part of this course, with contributing to a group presentation on the Movement’s hermeneutics. On my end of things, I’ll be looking at Alexander Campbell’s “Sermon on the Law” (1816) and how the approach taken in that sermon led, later on, to a comparative neglect of the Old Testament.


I enjoy reading David Bentley Hart. (I think I’ve professed my love on here before. If you’ve never heard of him, here’s enough to keep you busy for a while.) In one of his latest pieces for First Things, Hart writes:

The great danger that bedevils any powerful heuristic or interpretive discipline is the tendency to mistake method for ontology, and so to mistake a partial perspective on particular truths for a comprehensive vision of truth as such. In the modern world, this is an especially pronounced danger in the sciences, largely because of the exaggerated reverence scientists enjoy in the popular imagination, and also largely because of the incapacity of many in the scientific establishment to distinguish between scientific rigor and materialist ideology (or, better, materialist metaphysics).

This has two disagreeable results (well, actually, far more than two, but two that are relevant here): The lunatic self-assurance with which some scientists imagine that their training in, say, physics or zoology has somehow equipped them to address philosophical questions whose terms they have never even begun to master; and the inability of many scientists to recognize realities—even very obvious realities—that lie logically outside the reach of the methods their disciplines employ. The best example of the latter, I suppose, would be the inability of certain contemporary champions of “naturalism” to grasp that the question of existence is qualitatively infinitely distinct from the question of how one physical reality arises from another (for, inasmuch as physics can explore only the physical, and the physical by definition already exists, then existence as such is always “metaphysical,” or even “hyperphysical”—which is to say, “supernatural”).

It’s no accident that Hart should focus in on the methodological arrogance of some scientists. Naturalism has come to dominate thinking in many quarters: biology, neurology, etc. are believed to have the ability to explain just about any human characteristic. Diehard adherents of naturalism are also the ones writing the most dogmatically atheist volumes in our day — Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, among others. Often, it is the case that these writers have little interest in dialogue or conversation with Christians, and even less interest in how the Christian faith is actually practiced (Dawkins’ theological ignorance, for example, is the stuff of legend by now). Hart points out the obvious in this piece: every method, every explanatory model, scientific or otherwise, has its limits. This is so because all of these methods are human. The best methods recognize their limits, their humanity.

It’s also no accident, or so it seems to me, that a similar methodological arrogance has flowered in some quarters among Churches of Christ. A great deal of time has been spent in our circles over the past three decades or so — all across the spectrum from “progressive” to “conservative” — examining our received hermeneutic (i.e. the “common sense” hermeneutic that looks to direct divine commands, apostolic examples, and “necessary” inferences in order to establish authority).

Progressives attack this received hermeneutic, laying at its feet the blame for all of our present ills. It has, they say, been responsible for all of our major (and minor) divisions; it has sapped us of our spiritual vitality; it has left us stuck riding around in a modernist jalopy on superhighways made for sleeker postmodern hermeneutical models. All of this has led most (if not all of) them to advocate, directly or indirectly, for jettisoning it in favor of a “new hermeneutic.”*

It’s easy to see why they do this. A five-minute search of the Internet would turn up numerous, flagrantly bad applications of the “common sense” (ironic quote marks intended) hermeneutic. Not only that. Many of those advocating these bad applications have also broken fellowship with those who disagree with them. This is to be regretted lamented.

Conservatives, not surprisingly, loudly protest these criticisms. This way of reading Scripture, they argue, has given us a great many treasures: weekly communion, the leadership of elders in the local congregation, and so forth. But there is also a note of fear in their argumentation: if we were to jettison the received hermeneutic, what would be our source of authority? This is a legitimate question, one that progressives have thus far failed to answer satisfactorily. But for many conservatives, fear has taken over, leading them to retreat into an extreme dogmatism.

To some extent this is forgivable. Undoubtedly, it is motivated by love of the tradition (even if they wouldn’t use that term). But it’s unnecessary. The conservative critique is accurate to the extent that it gets at the issue of identity in a way that many progressives have blithely ignored. Conservatives rightly recognize (even if they can’t put it into words) that the received hermeneutic is at the heart of our identity as a theological tradition and cannot simply be jettisoned without extensive and painful surgery that might just take the life of the patient. But ignoring or downplaying the questions and problems raised by progressives is not the right approach.

In my next couple of posts, I want to do three things. First, I will suggest that maybe the common sense hermeneutic is not the problem…at least not the major problem. Second, I will point to what I see as the real problems, which are not the ones commonly identified by progressives.  Finally, I will suggest that the real problems dog “progressive” thinking just as much they do “conservative” thinking.

Every method, every hermeneutic, is of human origin and therefore fallible. “Progressives” are right to point this out. “Conservatives” would do well to heed the warning against methodological arrogance. But, on the other hand, our salvation does not come by hermeneutics. All too often, progressive projects to replace the received hermeneutic give off the same whiff of Enlightenment confidence (and, indeed, methodological arrogance) that attends their 19th century predecessors.

*I don’t, by the way, mean anything pejorative by using the phrase “new hermeneutic.” I simply use it because there is no commonly agreed upon descriptor currently in use for the various proposals to replace the “old” one.

On grace

Grace, [like every] other institution, has its own means of development & enjoyment. Hence the means of each & every grace promised & vouchsafed to us are a portion of that Grace itself. The means & the ends are equally the Grace of God. In other words, Faith is a Grace, Repentance is a Grace, Baptism is a Grace, and Regeneration is a Grace. Therefore, our whole salvation is of Grace. There is no human merit in Faith, in Repentance, in Baptism, in Regeneration. They are one & all Divinely bestowed upon man.

— Alexander Campbell (1859)

(H/T: Bobby Valentine)

Lewis pamphlets

A quick note to point you to some additions at this website. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I am in the process of doing research on John T. Lewis for a master’s thesis. To that end, I have posted PDF scans of five of his published pamphlets over on the Texts page of this blog. In the coming weeks, I hope to gain permission to post at least two more.

Happy reading!

miscellaneous browsings

I’ve not been around here much; I’ve been busy trying to finish up some summer reading projects before classes begin.  Anyway, here are some of the things I’ve been reading and thinking about of late:

1) Some weeks ago, Rod Dreher (at his new, and very engaging, blog) linked to a New Yorker piece by Atul Gawande, titled “Letting Go,” about care for the dying.  Excerpt:

Dying used to be accompanied by a prescribed set of customs. Guides to ars moriendi, the art of dying, were extraordinarily popular; a 1415 medieval Latin text was reprinted in more than a hundred editions across Europe. Reaffirming one’s faith, repenting one’s sins, and letting go of one’s worldly possessions and desires were crucial, and the guides provided families with prayers and questions for the dying in order to put them in the right frame of mind during their final hours. Last words came to hold a particular place of reverence.

These days, swift catastrophic illness is the exception; for most people, death comes only after long medical struggle with an incurable condition—advanced cancer, progressive organ failure (usually the heart, kidney, or liver), or the multiple debilities of very old age. In all such cases, death is certain, but the timing isn’t. So everyone struggles with this uncertainty—with how, and when, to accept that the battle is lost. As for last words, they hardly seem to exist anymore. Technology sustains our organs until we are well past the point of awareness and coherence. Besides, how do you attend to the thoughts and concerns of the dying when medicine has made it almost impossible to be sure who the dying even are? Is someone with terminal cancer, dementia, incurable congestive heart failure dying, exactly?

I once cared for a woman in her sixties who had severe chest and abdominal pain from a bowel obstruction that had ruptured her colon, caused her to have a heart attack, and put her into septic shock and renal failure. I performed an emergency operation to remove the damaged length of colon and give her a colostomy. A cardiologist stented her coronary arteries. We put her on dialysis, a ventilator, and intravenous feeding, and stabilized her. After a couple of weeks, though, it was clear that she was not going to get much better. The septic shock had left her with heart and respiratory failure as well as dry gangrene of her foot, which would have to be amputated. She had a large, open abdominal wound with leaking bowel contents, which would require twice-a-day cleaning and dressing for weeks in order to heal. She would not be able to eat. She would need a tracheotomy. Her kidneys were gone, and she would have to spend three days a week on a dialysis machine for the rest of her life.

She was unmarried and without children. So I sat with her sisters in the I.C.U. family room to talk about whether we should proceed with the amputation and the tracheotomy. “Is she dying?” one of the sisters asked me. I didn’t know how to answer the question. I wasn’t even sure what the word “dying” meant anymore. In the past few decades, medical science has rendered obsolete centuries of experience, tradition, and language about our mortality, and created a new difficulty for mankind: how to die.

This led me to reflect more upon how we die in America, how truncated our funeral customs have become — even in the South, where traditional funeral practices (open caskets, wakes, cars stopping for funeral processions) still obtain.  To that end, I’ve been reading Rob Moll’s new book The Art of Dying and Tom Long’s Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral.  Both have helped me begin to think through what it means to “die well.”

2) Two pieces from the New York Times in recent days:

What Is It About Twenty-Somethings? A lengthy, but well-done, analysis of one of the biggest problems among people my age and younger: the seeming inability to transition from adolescence into adulthood.

Taking a Break from the Lord’s Work. My own observations regarding this subject attest to how much of a problem this is in conservative churches of Christ.  How many congregations out there make provisions for this kind of rest for their preacher?

3)  An excerpt from William Robinson’s Completing the Reformation (1955).  Robinson — if you’re not familiar with him — was perhaps the premier writer and thinker among the British Churches of Christ in the first half of the 20th century.  The link will take you to a discussion of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper that is well worth considering.