Patternism and a healthy theology of grace are not mutually exclusive.
A previous post noted that Alexander Campbell did not make his particular understanding of the apostolic pattern a test of fellowship. The “ancient order” was not a soteriological category for him. Rather, it was a matter of communal sanctification, a matter of growth, development and maturation. Consequently, he regarded other communities of faith than his own Christian. What would “all that we have written on the unity of Christians on apostolic grounds” mean, he asked, “had we taught that all Christians in the world were already united in our own community?” (Millennial Harbinger 1837).
In this post I turn my attention to J. D. Thomas (1910-2004), Professor of Bible at Abilene Christian University for thirty-three years. He is the author of probably the most significant hermeneutical manual for Churches of Christ–We Be Brethren (1958). It assumes (practically everyone assumed it in the 1950s), explains and applies the command, example, and inference (CEI) hermeneutic in some detail. The issue the illicited the book was the raging controversy surrounding institutionalism.
Between 1950-1970 about 10% of Churches of Christ banded together as non-institutional congregations. The issues are both broad and narrow. Broadly, these congregations rejected the cultural assimiliation of Churches of Christ, as they saw it, into the mainstream of American denominationalism. Narrowly, they opposed the use of church funds (collected in the church treasury for kingdom work) to support human institutions (incoporated entitites like schools, children’s homes, mission boards [e.g., sponsoring congregations], or any parachurch organization). To these churches the support of such human institutions to do the work of the church is analogous to the support of missionary societies to do the work of the church.
Churches of Christ were generally agreed upon an apostolic pattern in the 1940s: five acts of worship (a capella singing, praying, teaching, Lord’s supper, and giving), congregational polity with a plurality of elders and deacons, silence of women in the assembly except for singing, etc. This was supported by the standard hermeneutic: command, example and inference (CEI). But the institutional controversy raised specific questions about how to use church funds and how to apply the received hermeneutic.
Thomas defends patternism, explains the hermeneutic and applies it to institutional issues. Roy E. Cogdill (1907-1985), one of the premier defenders of noninstitutionalism in the 1950s-1960s, reviewed Thomas’ book in 1959. That review, a series of articles, is available here. For Thomas, the NT contains a pattern–“a teaching that is binding or required of Christians today” and the “pattern principle” is “what bound the New Testament characters binds us, and what did not bind them does not bind us.” And this pattern is “established by command, necessary inference, and example” (p. 254).
Thomas provided guidelines for how to apply the hermeneutic. His book has a glossary to define terms such as “generic authority,” “incomplete command,” “hypothesis of uniformity,” “hypothesis of universal application,” “excluded specific,” “overlapping classification,” and “expedient.” Sounds fairly technical, huh? Well, that is the point–Thomas took the standard CEI hermeneutic and gave it a “scientific” formulation in hopes of adjudicating the dispute between institutionalists and noninstitutionalists. My question has become–is reading the Bible for discipleship really that difficult? See my series on “It Ain’t That Complicated.”
At the same time, Thomas is very concerned that the debate between institutionalists and noninstitutionalists reflects–on both sides–a deficient theology of grace. “Our real problem, and the place where we have become ‘bogged down’,” Thomas writes, “is in our tendencies to Legalism” (p. 119). And “we should admit that we have all had Legalistic tendencies throughout the whole Brotherhood in tim past” (p. 116). Hear his plea (239, 241):
The man who has not yet realized what it means that the Christian religion is a non-Legalistic, grace-faith system has not yet been able to be thrilled by its true meaning and beauty…When we truly realize the relatinship of faith and owrks in the Christian system–that we work because of our faith and to complete it, and not because of our relation to the Saviour, we find motivation for working even ‘beyond our power,’ yet with the greatest happiness and joy as children of the Most High God!…Matters such as ‘Love the Lord with all your heart,’ and ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ and ‘Christ liveth in me,’ cannot be reduced to little precise legal obligations. Too many of us have thought of Christianity in too small terms and we have therefore failed to see its majesty and immensity and transcendent grandeur…All of us who have been in the church very long have been guilty of some Legalistic inclinations….none of us are ‘without sin.’ We have all no doubt argued strongly for points that we actually were not able to clearly prove to others. Perhaps there has been a degree of selfishness in the most of us, in being critical of the views of others without the ability to show clearly whereiin we were right. Tolerance, humility and a greater love for the Lord and for each other are in order if we want to solve our problems (and if we want to be saved). We must appreciate the fact that WE do BE BRETHERN, and that the tie that binds us in Christian unity is more important than our opinions.
J. D. Thomas once told me that he was significantly influenced by the teaching and writing of K. C. Moser and that Moser’s understanding of grace was exactly the same as R. C. Bell, another of Thomas’ heroes in the faith and a primary representative of the Tennessee Tradition. In fact, Thomas once recalled that both R. C. Bell and G. C. Brewer were among the few who had a “good comprehension of grace” in mid-20th century Churches of Christ (Firm Foundation, “Law and Grace (2) 100 [23 August 1983] 579). And, I have argued, that it was partly the teaching of R. C. Bell and J. D. Thomas at Abilene Christian University that paved the way for a shift in the Texas Tradition toward a Tennessee (e.g., G. C. Brewer, K. C. Moser, James A. Harding) understanding of grace (see Thomas, The Biblical Doctrine of Grace). This shift, along with the popularity of Moser’s writings, led to “The Man or The Plan” controversy in the early 1960s. [As an aside, Harding College had actually kept this grace tradition alive through the teaching of J. N. Armstrong, Andy Ritchie, F. W. Mattox, and ultimately Jimmy Allen; and Harding College Press actually printed some of Moser’s writings in the 1950s.]
My point is that though J. D. Thomas was a good patternist–a defender of patternism and CEI as a sound hermeneutic–he nevertheless preached a healthy theology of grace. The two are not mutually exclusive.
The question to pursue, however, is when does patternism subvert the gospel of grace in such a way that it actually becomes a legalism. That question belongs to a future post.