”Theodicy in Early Stone-Campbell Perspectives,” in Restoring the First-Century Church in the Twenty-First Century, ed. by Warren Lewis and Hans Rollmann (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2005), 287-310.
In honor of Don Haymes, I penned an article concerning the various “theodices” that were prominent in the 19th century Stone-Campbell Movement. It was interesting to me that there is no “Theodicy” heading in the Stone-Campbell Encyclopedia though there is some discussion of the idea under the article entitled “Providence.”
Essentially, they were all theologically Arminian with an Augustinian understanding of the Fall. What I mean is this, they all located the origin of moral evil in the free agency of creatures (whether human or angelic). That is the Arminian part. At the same time, they all located natural evil in the “Fall” of humanity–either a punishment or consquence of sin within the cosmos. That is the Augustinian part. One can see both of these in Alexander Campbell and Robert Richardson and both affirmed a kind of “meticulous providence” over the world.
However, the North/South conflict and the cultural/theological developments of the late 19th century shaped theodicy in different ways within the movement.
On the one hand, the North embraced a more rational, scientific approach to theodicy. Emphasizing the embedded order within the cosmos, natural law regulated natural evil. Nature functioned independently–by divine design–of God’s specific will or intent. God did not and does not intervene within the cosmos except for redemptive-historical purposes (e.g., Exodus, Incarnation, Resurrection). This created a kind of Deism within northern thinking that denied any kind of “special” or “meticulous” providence (though all did not deny it and some continued the tradition of Campbell and Richardson). Among Churches of Christ, this is the tradition of Daniel Sommer or the Indiana Tradition.
On the other hand, the South (particularly in the deep south of TN, MS and AL, etc.) believed the cosmos was engaged in a radical spiritual conflict. It was the kingdom of God versus the kingdom of Satan (e.g., Lipscomb and Harding). This is essentially the Tennessee Tradition. God was involved in his world directing nations and individuals toward his ends, including the idea that God punished the South because of slavery. God is meticulously involved in his world and engaged in this cosmic conflict. Humanity is free to choose which side it will serve, but God will win in the end and even now sovereignly conducts the world according to his goals and interests. Lipscomb’s response to the overwhelming experience of evil in the Civil War was to acknowledge God’s sovereignty. Lipscomb does not “defend” or “justify” God. Rather, he submits and trusts. He recognized that God punished the South for slavery but also that the North was equally wicked for its vengeance, violence and materialism.
Some in the South rebelled against this construal, particularly in Texas (Texas Tradition). They embraced a Newtonian natural law understanding of natural evil and advocated a practical Deism. This is evidenced, in particular, in the “word only” theory of the Holy Spirit. God is self-constrained by natural law and Scripture for his own action in the world. This response to life is to protect God from involvement in the specific events of the world. God does not get his hands dirty in the daily functions of life, but regulates the world through laws (laws of nature and laws in Scripture). The loss of “Spirituality” (the work of the Spirit in the lives of people) in the Texas Tradition gravitated naturally toward a practical Deism.
In the context of opposing a deistic understanding of prayer, James A. Harding asked: “Does the Holy Spirit do anything now except what the Word does? Do we get any help, of any kind or in any way, from God except what we get by studying the Bible?… Does God answer our prayers by saying, ‘Study the Bible…’?” (“Questions and Answers,” The Way 4/16 [17 July 1902]: 123.)
Theodicy is too often encumbered by metaphysical assumptions, too driven by hermeneutical harmonization, and too distant from the affirmations and particularities of the text. Theodicy must arise out of the story we have been given, and perhaps it is not so much “theodicy” as “kergyma” that is our task. I find myself much more in line with Lipscomb/Harding than the Northern Disciples and the Southern Texans.