Keith Stanglin’s Letter and the Spirit of Biblical Interpretation: Some Reflections

June 11, 2019

Keith D. Stanglin, The Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation: From the Early Church to Modern Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018). 274 pages.

Presentation at the 2019 Christian Scholars Conference in Lubbock, Texas.

I welcome this book on several levels.

For me, and for others who have worked vocationally in historical theology, it is a welcome reacquaintance with past figures. I found myself renewing friendships with Gregory of Nyssa, Erasmus of Rotterdam, Calvin of Geneva, and even the Dutch Remonstrants whose influence was much greater than their numbers.

In addition, the purpose of this nostalgic journey is the rehabilitation of the spiritual sense of Scripture or theological hermeneutics. Stanglin, following Paul, calls it the “letter” and the “spirit,” or the literal and spiritual, senses of Scripture. The spiritual sense seeks theological understanding beyond, though not irrespective of, the literal sense, especially where the literal sense is equated with the authorial intent of the human writer.

Both of these concerns are germane to my own work, and I noted a kinship between Keith’s interest and my teaching over the past thirty-seven years.  This interest commits Stanglin to an exercise in “retrieval exegesis” (211) or “retrieval theology” (11). By this, he intends to “provide critical understanding of and appreciation for both premodern and modern exegesis” in search of “a balanced and fruitful interaction between the letter and the spirit” (11).

I applaud this goal, and in pursuing it, Stanglin highlights the spiritual while not vacating the literal sense. In other words, one agenda of the book is to sanction theological interpretation and propose it as a healing balm for the woes of the splintered and chaotic practice of modern historical-critical exegesis.

My old friends appear one after another in Stanglin’s analysis. Such a survey is, of course, selective and Keith acknowledges this. I have no significant misgiving about his choices. Irenaeus, Origen, Aquinas, Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, Spinoza, and Lessing are obvious and important, even necessary, choices. I found three particularly significant because they intersect with my own interests.

First, Irenaeus is foundational to Stanglin’s reading of the patristic tradition. A central conviction, which lies at the heart of a theological hermeneutic, is present in the bishop. Keith characterizes it in this way: “the Scriptures display a fundamental unity that allows this kind of typological and intertextual play within the bounds of this grand story of redemption” (31). Irenaeus knew that everyone reads the text against the background of a hypothesis, which norms what the text can mean or gives boundaries to the meaning of a text. Received through catechism, baptism, and liturgy, the church wears the Regula Fidei as a set of glasses through which Scripture is read, and with this lens even the illiterate are able to discern between the illegitimacy of the Gnostic hypothesis and the truth of the received narrative (34). Irenaeus, then, establishes two key principles that are part of Stanglin’s ultimate conclusion about theological hermeneutics: analogia scripturae and analogia fidei (206, 222-3).

Second, though seemingly a minor character in the narrative (three pages in the text, 141-144), Stanglin’s attention to William Perkins—arguably the primary influence on seventeenth century English Puritans—is important for several reasons. On the one hand, Perkins represents Reformed scholasticism, and, on the other hand, anticipates a modern reading of Scripture through a rational lens, though that rationality serves a different purpose than critical exegesis.  As Keith notes, Perkins believed there was only one sense of Scripture, the literal one, but he subsumed other traditional senses under that rubric. For Perkins, the literal sense, with his attendant use of typology and allegory, served the theological agenda of Scripture, that is, to deduce a system of theology. Perkins practiced a theological hermeneutic that accentuated the unity of Scripture through an eminently rational lens. Assuming a theological system as part of the text, Perkins employed positivistic distinctions between generic and specific, between explicit and implicit teachings of Scripture in order to deduce that system. Later, mid-20th century leaders among Churches of Christ, as heirs of the Puritan Reformed tradition, would do the same with generic and specific, with explicit and implicit distinctions, though they sought an ecclesial pattern more than a systematic theology. In this way, Perkins is like a hinge upon which the church swings from premodern to modern exegesis but without being fully committed to either.

Third, I cannot fail to comment on Alexander Campbell, who takes up four pages in Stanglin’s narrative (169-172).  I think Keith is fundamentally correct. Campbell embraced nuda scriptura, which seems to undermine the Irenaean function of the Regula Fidei. Campbell does not have a regulated reading in the sense of a Rule of Faith external to the text of Scripture, but he does read Scripture with a hermeneutic regulated by an inductive sense of God’s narrative which Campbell thought was helpfully summarized in the Apostles Creed. For Campbell, the rule of faith is the internal dynamic of the narrative itself. This inscripturated narrative functions as a canon within the canon and renders the Rule of Faith as an external summary unnecessary, though it might be helpful as a rehearsal of facts.  In this sense, we might say, he read Scripture through his own inductively inferred rule of faith.

Also, Scripture, according to Campbell, is subject to “all the rules of interpretation which we apply to other books” (Millennial Harbinger, 1832, 111). He follows Moses Stuart on this point, who—more than any other writer—shaped Campbell’s historical-grammatical consciousness. Campbell published Stuart’s article entitled, “Are the same principles of interpretation to be applied to the Scriptures as to other Books?” (Millennial Harbinger, 1832, 64.) It was a rhetorical question. For Campbell this is rooted in the nature of language itself, and if one wants to understand the “doctrine of the New Testament,” one must understand the “proper meaning of words, whether literal, allegorical, typical, or parabolical.” In other words, as Campbell says, “The Bible means what it says.” (Millennial Harbinger, 1831, 490.) And, we might add, only what it says. This hermeneutical commitment, along with his linguistic and hermeneutical optimism, grounded his pursuit of the restoration of the ancient order towards the goal of ecclesial unity.

While Scripture’s proper meaning is singular, it is sometimes “literal” and sometimes “figurative” (parabolic, allegorical, typological). Campbell is willing to name this “figurative” meaning as “spiritual,” but he fears the word carried the baggage of “Origen” where “every word” in the Bible had “a spiritual sense.” This gave the term “spiritual” a negative appearance (a “malem partem”) and thus it was “discarded even where it might have been tolerable.” (Millennial Harbinger, 1831, 491.) Stanglin is correct. “Campbell takes the classic Protestant angle of folding the spiritual sense into the literal” (171). There is no “double sense” (Millennial Harbinger, 1832, 111), but every text has a particular sense, which may be literal or spiritual (figurative). “We object not,” Campbell wrote, “to the allegoric, parabolic, and typical sense; or, to express it in one word, the figurative sense. But we do not expect to find any other than the literal sense except where figures are used.” (Millennial Harbinger, 1831, 491-2.).  In other words, every text of Scripture has only one meaning or sense (he quotes both Luther and the Westminster Divines in support). If the literal does not yield that single sense, we look to the figurative (which is the spiritual sense). We can only move to the spiritual sense when the literal is non-sensical, or where there is a specific indication that a figurative meaning is in view. In other words, we cannot read the Old Testament the way the apostles read it. In this way, Campbell represented the rise of modern exegesis and expected to find no legitimate meaning in text other than what is accessible by its plain words.

Stanglin grounds the legitimacy of theological hermeneutics in the historic practice of the church that has lived under the Rule of Faith (analogia fidei) for almost two thousand years, the unity of Scripture (analogia scripturae), and the primacy of the literal sense to which any spiritual sense is tied. Keith also rejects several significant modern presuppositions, including (1) the neutrality of reader and (2) the single sense of the text limited to the intent of the human author. I wondered, however, whether he also rejected the modern assumption of the passivity of the reader. I don’t think so, but I want to press the point a bit.

For example, Stanglin suggests the spiritual sense of Scripture is not merely an application of the text but “in some sense meant to be found in the text” (217) and, at the same time, it is an interpretation or “appropriation” (217). I presume this meaning is intended by the divine author and discerned by the human reader. The reader is not passive but is the means by which God opens up new meaning so that a kind of “this is that” appears “when ’that’ is something new and apparently far removed from the original ‘this’” (217).

Theological hermeneutics, then, is where ecclesially-formed, believing readers co-create meaning with the text (1) within liturgical life of the church, (2) in the confidence of the sacramental function of Scripture, and (3) the transformative presence of the Holy Spirit. Such readers, inhabited by the indwelling Spirit, listen to hear how “this is that” and see what is not explicitly there. It seems to me that Stanglin’s proposal could use more emphasis on these three points, particularly the hermeneutical role of the Spirit. Though these three points are present in one form or another, his proposal is more epistemological than sacramental or liturgical. Nevertheless, the seeds of a fuller sacramental and liturgical picture are present in his work.

By way of illustration, permit me to probe one of Keith’s examples. Might “bread” in the Lord’s Prayer refer to Eucharistic bread? Tertullian thought so (On Prayer, 6).[1] In fact, Tertullian preferred what he called “the spiritual understanding”—Jesus is the bread of life who “authoritatively ranked” his body “as bread” when he said, “This is my body.”

Keith asks, “Did Jesus or Matthew intend” eucharistic bread? “Does it matter?” (240). I appreciate the controls Keith suggests on theological interpretation. They give theological interpretation a wide berth, perhaps too wide for modern historians. But I don’t think too wide for ecclesial theologians.  

In terms of the Lord’s prayer, “bread” is literally present, and Eucharistic bread does not subvert or contradict the literal meaning.  Further, “bread” is an important theme in redemptive history, which often has a double sense. Manna, for example, is both physical and spiritual nourishment since Christ is the spiritual food Israel consumed in the wilderness, according to Paul. Eucharistic bread in the Lord’s Prayer is not only consistent with the Rule of Faith but, given the liturgical context of its practice, points us toward the Eucharistic bread.

If we read the Lord’s Prayer in this way as part of the liturgy of the church where it is recited just prior to the distribution of the bread and wine, we see spiritual interpretation doing its good work. It illustrates how the church legitimately co-creates meaning that is beyond the explicit statements in the text. It illustrates how Scripture is multivalent and capable of new meaning in new situations irrespective of the human author’s intent.

But is the spiritual meaning in the text? In one sense, yes, because it is situated within a grand story that gives such meaning to bread. And we might surmise that the divine author intended it as a meaning inherent in the text. But in another sense, it is not, but that is okay. The church—as a faithful reader—is called to co-create meaning with the text for the sake of the formation of the people of God into the image of God. This is Scripture’s sacramental function within the liturgical life of the church. Given God’s history with God’s people and given the confession of the Rule of Faith and its practice within the church, the text itself gives rise to meaning beyond the human author’s intent.  The church hears the word of God, understands its depth and profundity, and performs it liturgically and ethically.

Stanglin’s contribution identifies an overlapping harmony between modern and premodern interpretation though differences remain. There is a common ground between the methods where they might mutually enrich each other. The exploration of this common ground while recognizing how the differences entail quite distinct hermeneutical practices will be an ongoing task of the contemporary church.

[1] E. Evans, Tertullian’s Tract on Prayer (London: S.P.C.K., 1953) 11-13.

What Will Become of the Earth: A Nashville Bible School Perspective

August 8, 2015



Second Advent.


New Heaven and Earth.

Nineteenth century Restorationists, from Alexander Campbell to David Lipscomb, spoke and wrote about these subjects. They often disagreed, however.

Alexander Campbell was a postmillennialist. James A. Harding was a premillennialist. Walter Scott changed his mind several times. David Lipscomb was uncertain.

However, these all agreed that the most important aspect of the Christ’s second coming was the regeneration not only of the soul, but the body and the whole cosmos. They believed God will refine the present cosmos by fire and transform (renew) it into a “new heaven and new earth,” just as God will raise our bodies from the grave and transform them into bodies animated by the Holy Spirit fitted for living on the new earth. They believed, as Alexander Campbell put it, that “the hope of the resurrection to everlasting life” in “the new earth and the new heavens” was essential to the Christian vision of life and hope, central to the gospel of grace itself (Millennial Harbinger, 1865, p. 494).

Many are surprised to learn this about our forbearers in the faith because they associate a renewed, material earth with fringe groups and strange ideas. But it was the dominant perspective among churches of Christ in the late nineteenth century, particularly as articulated by David Lipscomb and James A. Harding, co-founders of the Nashville Bible School (now Lipscomb University).

What exactly did they mean by this, and why was it so important to them?

Creation. When God created the cosmos, God came to dwell upon the earth with humanity in the Garden of Eden. This was God’s sanctuary, and God enjoyed fellowship with humanity there. More than that, God shared dominion (rule) with humanity, and, made in God’s image, humanity was equipped to reign with God in the universe. Humanity was designed to reign with God forever and ever.

Fall. However, humanity turned the cosmos “over to Satan,” and a war began between the kingdom of God and the “kingdoms of this world, under the leadership of Satan” (Harding, The Way, 1903, p. 1041). God, in one sense, “left this world as a dwelling place” (Lipscomb, Salvation from Sin, p. 36), and now “Satan dwells upon the earth” to deceive the nations and devour Christians (Harding, The Way, 1902, p. 57).

Messianic Age. Beginning with Israel, but revealed in the presence of Jesus the Messiah, God sought to restore dominion over the cosmos through a kingdom people whose lives reflected the glory and character of God. God drew near to Israel by dwelling in the temple, then came to dwell in the flesh, and now dwells in Christians by the Spirit. God’s restorationist and redemptive mission are presently advanced through the church in the power of the Spirit. God battles the forces of Satan through the church.

New Creation. God’s mission is to fully dwell again upon the earth just as in Eden and restore the full reign of God in the cosmos. On that final day, when the heavenly Jerusalem descends to the new earth (Revelation 21:1-4), “God will take up his abode himself with his great family upon this new, this renovated and purified earth” (Harding, Christian Leader & the Way, 190, 1042). Then the meek will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5), and all children of Abraham—through faith in the Messiah—will inherit the cosmos (Romans 4:13).

The creation—both humanity and the cosmos (heaven and earth)—is lost, then contested, and ultimately won and purified. On that day, Lipscomb writes, “earth itself shall become heaven” (Gospel Advocate, 1903, 328). The creation will again become God’s home. This is the story that shapes the mission of the church for both Lipscomb and Harding.

God’s good creation, then, is regained and renewed. It is not annihilated or eternally lost. The creation, including the children of Abraham, is redeemed.

While there was much diversity on many questions regarding the “last days” among our Restorationist forbearers, they agreed on one thing: God will not give up on the cosmos—God will renew it and come again to dwell within it.

And this calls us to do battle with the forces of Satan for the sake of restoring God’s kingdom to the earth, which includes both a reconciled humanity and a purified, renewed earth. We are called to practice both reconciliation and sustainability. Christians are both peacemakers and environmentalists.

[This article first appeared in Intersections of Faith and Culture (Summer 2015), a publication of Lipscomb University.]


David Lipscomb, Salvation from Sin (Nashville: McQuiddy, 1913).

David Lipscomb, “The Kingdom of God,” Gospel Advocate 45 (21 May 1903), 328.

James A. Harding, “For What are We Here?,” The Way 5 (3 December 1903), 1041-2.

James A. Harding, “Man Was Created to Reign for Ever and Ever, “ The Christian Leader and the Way 19 (6 June 1905), 8-9.

James A. Harding, “The Kingdom of Christ Vs. the Kingdom of Satan,” The Way 5 (15 October 1903), 930-932.

1897 Graduation Program for the Nashville Bible School

June 10, 2015

The Nashville Bible School, founded on October 9, 1891 with nine students, steadily grew throughout the first years of its existence. At the end of October 1891, it would have nineteen students, and twenty-six by Feburary and conclude the year with thirty-two students In succeeding years it would have forty-two, fifty-three, eighty-eight, and then one hundred and ten.

The Nashville papers were impressed. “The Nashville Bible School, which has grown up so quietly in this city during the last five years, is becoming one of the mighty powers of this section” (The Nashville American, May 29, 1896, p. 2). The “verdict of a critical audience” at the 1895 graduation exercises “was that the institution has not only attained results which give to it eminent character in the community, but that the great good worked by it recommends it to the support and well wishes of the city and State” (The Nashville American, May 31, 1895, p. 8).

In addition–and more important to Lipscomb and Harding–was the fact that over that five years its graduates and students had baptized more than 3,400 people and planted over twenty-eight congregations (as reported by James A. Harding at the 1896 graduation exercises; The Nashville American, May 29, 1896, p. 2).

Given both the public assessment of the Nashville Bible School and the productive work of its students, the institution was regarded as a great success. It had fulfilled its two major purposes: (1) to provide a cultured education that equips young people as useful and successful citizens, and (2) to nurture them in the Christian faith that they might serve as Bible teachers, evangelists, elders, and deacons in their communities. (See Harding, Gospel Advocate, 21 October, 1891, p. 661 and Gospel Advocate, 7 June 1894, p. 362).

It was an education, however, that was designed for the poor and working classes (though not excluding the wealthy) since they had no other opportunity in the city. “We differ from many other schools,” Harding wrote, “in that we freely admit all who are not able to pay free of charge. Our Master preached the gospel to the poor; we are trying to imitate him” (Gospel Advocate, 3 June 1897, p. 338).

In 1897, the school graduated four (they had graduated five in the previous year). The Nashville American provided the details of the exercise (4 June 1897, p. 8).

Opening Song: “Somewhere”

Prayer: Elder J. W. Grant.

Reading: Miss Clara M. Benedict read her essay, “Unselfishness.”

Oration: “Lessons from the Past,” by A. B. Lipscomb.

Song: “Oh, Be Joyful in the Lord,” sung by Misses Clara Sullivan, Tennie McAlister and Woodson Harding, and Messrs. W. H. Sewell, J. M. Murphy, J. B. Bostick and T. H. Hales.

Address: “What is the Destiny of Man?,” David Lipscomb. “He said self-denial was the only way to be happy. The mission of all preachers should be to go among the sick and lowly.”

Diplomas, awarded by Superintendent J. A. Harding to Miss Clara Benedic, of Nashville; Miss Cynthia Gill, of Allensville, KY; J. B. Bostick, of Fresno, CA, and A. B. Lipscomb, of Nashville.

Song: “Gliding Away”

Benediction: Elder C. A. Moore.



Nashville Cherry Street Christian Church Burned (1857)

July 4, 2014

This is the report in Nashville’s Republican Banner (April 9, 1857), page 3.

Destructive Fire!


The cry of fire was raised yesterday morning between 5 and 6 o’clock, by the discovery of flames issuing from a small Carpenter Shop in South Field, near the Depot of the Tenn. & Ala. R. R., which was entirely consumed. The shop and contents, valued at about $1200, were owned by Hartley & Atkinson, and the loss is to them a heavy one. There was a large amount of work in the shop just got out. This fire was the work of incendiaries.

About an hour after the above, and before the Engines had returned to their quarters, the alarm was again given, and flames were discovered issuing from the cupola of the Christian Church on Cherry Street. In a few moments the entire cupola and tall steeple, which were of wood, were enveloped in a flame. In the meantime the flames seemed to be making headway in the interior of the Church, and presently the roof fell in. The steeple continued to burn, until there was nothing left of it but the framework, when it fell with a crash into the Church. The falling of the walls followed immediately, and in a very short time the whole edifice was consumed.

The Christian Church was a new edifice, and one of the most convenient, and the handsomest of the kind, in the interior especially in the city. It was built at a cost of $20,000. There was no insurance, underwriters having refused, we understand, to take a risk upon it on account of the fact that attempts have been made to burn it heretofore.

It is the general and confidential opinion that it was set on fire. The only other way to account for its burning is that it caught from the fire which was discovered an hour previous. But it is believed from observations taken that the fire commenced inside. One of the watchmen informs us that he was passing there in the morning and heard a roaring inside but did not suspect the cause. We hear it reported that two men were seen emerging from the Church about daylight, in the morning, but this report is not authenticated.

Baptists and Disciples: David Lipscomb Appeals for Unity in 1866

May 10, 2012

In 1866 Lipscomb called for a representative meeting of Baptists and Disciples–whom he characterized as “brethren”–to seek a way to foster unity between the two groups. He identified their common theology (including a common baptism), but also stressed their common heritage which, he claimed, stretched back through “eighteen centuries of persecution and martyrdom.”

For Lipscomb, Baptists and Disciples have:

  • common baptism
  • common rule of faith
  • common discipline
  • common Lord
  • common Heaven
  • common ancestry
Read his plea for churches to meet together with prayer and fasting so as to unite as one people.

David Lipscomb, “To Baptists and Disciples in Tennessee,” Gospel Advocate 8 (10 April 1866), 236-37.

Brethern:–The Savior of the world prayed that his people and his followers might be one–that the world might believe that the Father had sent him. The oneness of the people of God, the unity of the followers of the Lord in one body, is made a condition of the world’s believing in the Son of God, that that world might be saved from the woe of hell. Division and strife to-day separate the professed followers of the Savior, and the world in infidelity and sin is going down to the dark abodes of eternal death. In the face of this lawful consequence of division among the people of God, what are doing to bring about union and peace? Are we making the efforts and the sacrifices to avoid division and bring about union that the importance of the subject demands? We divide and separate, and in careless indifference perpetuate that division in despite of the prayer of Jesus, and as a consequence our fellowmen, our neighbors, friends, brethren, husbands, wives and children go down to death, how can we be held guiltless in the sight of God? The union of Christians in one body, in one faith, in one walk, directed by the same rule, is the demand of God and the crying want of the world. Shall Christians make no effort to comply with the demand of God, and supply this want of the world? We appeal to Baptist and Disciples as having many points of agreement to make a move in this direction. They teach a common rule of admission into the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, to-wit: A penitent believer’s burial in Baptism, in order to a resurrection to a new and holy walk with God, they have a common rule of faith and practice for individual Christians, and book of discipline for the Church of God, the simple, pure, unadulterated word of God. They have one common Lord and Master, one common Heaven of rest and happiness after life’s trials and sorrows are over. They have, too, one common ancestry, one common history for eighteen centuries of persecution and martyrdom. Can they not live and labor together in love and harmony as children of a common Father? Our brethren, too, in Virginia, have set us the example of trying to effect a union. Shall we not follow their good example? Shall we not have a meeting either of men chosen from our respective bodies at large, or commend to the churches to meet together, with fasting and prayer to God, and seek to unite as one people. How greatly would our capacity for good be increased? What joy to the good of earth and the angels of Heaven, would such an effort cause?

Will our brethren, Baptists and Disciples, at once speak out and say whether we shall make the effort, and if so, how, and how soon.

Lipscomb on the Mennonites

December 30, 2011

In 1909 David Lipscomb received a note from Nankin, Ohio, describing how Allen county voted “wet” by 36 votes when 800 “dry” Mennonites refused to vote. The angry author laid the “responsibility of the result” at the feet of the Mennonites. The writer noted that since the “supreme power in our government is lodged with the people,” everyone must participate or else responsibility for negative results lies with them (the non-voters).

Lipscomb responded in a classic article entitled “Mennonites” (Gospel Advocate. February 18, 1909, pp. 204-205).  He defends Mennonite practice and says the idea of non-participation “did not originate with” Menno Simons.  When “Jesus refused [Satan’s]  offer” of the kingdoms of his world, he set an example for his disciples.

Others followed that example. Lipscomb cites Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Origen. He depends on Edward Gibbon, Johan Lorenz Mosheim and George Herbert Orchard for his history.  “Nothing in history is surer,” he writes, “than that the churches for the first three centuries held firmly to the doctrine that Christians should not take part in civil institutions. After the conversion of Constantine they were encouraged to engage in political affairs, and many fell from their steadfastness in the faith.” But not all, including the “Waldenses, the Wickliffites, and the Husstites” (quoting Mosheim).  And the Mennonites.

Lipscomb then offers his own theological comment on the practice of the Mennonites. He concludes his brief article with the following three paragraphs. They are a succinct statement of his convictions.

     These are only a few extracts showing the ancient and divine origin of the doctrine held on tis subject by the Mennonites. I believe this the teaching of the Bible, and the true end of the reign of God on earth will never be realized until the children of God work in God’s church. The kingdoms of this world are nowhere recognized as the kingdoms of God, but as the kingdoms of the evil one. They are to be borne and treated with as necessitated by the sinfulness of man, to be overruled by God for the punishment of evil doers, and essential to the well-being and government of the world until the rule of Christ is established. We are to pay our taxes and submit in all things that do not lead away from God into fellowship with these. We should always gratefully accept all favors and laws promoting morality and virtue. But we cannot take part in the human governments.

     I think no greater evil can befall the churches of Jesus Christ than for them to enter the field of politics, drink into the spirit of the civil powers, and look to them for help in enforcing morality and in carrying out the law and the righteousness of the Bible. The more widely the church and the State can be kept apart in their operations, the better for both. The reason of this is, they are diverse in  nature and character, and must be run on different and antagonistic principles. For a man, as a Christian, to enforce a principle of morality or righteousness on his fellow-man by civil law is persecution. The church of God is the embodiment of spiritual influences that conquer through love and self-sacrifice; the civil government is the embodiment of material influence and forces that conquer by physical power. The two cannot be moved by the same spirit or work harmoniously in the same hands. The civil ruler that would be moved by the spirit of Christ, that would die to save a victim from death, would not be a successful civil ruler. While the church and the civil government cannot work harmoniously in the same hands and in the same channel, and while some men are wicked and corrupt and all are weak and short-sighted, under the laws of God they may both be in the world, and yet his people be not of the world, and they may be helpful to each other. The church doing its duty must keep a moral sentiment alive that will help the world and afford a standard of right on which the civil government will rest, and the government can afford protection and help to the Christian. For this latter protection the Christian should pay his taxes and submit to all laws of the government not conflicting with the laws of God.

     I am always sorry to see Christians engage in politics.I am sorry to see them become interested in working to put others in office. I ams sorry to see them seek office; sorry to see them given office, for it demoralizes them and leads others wrong. I am glad to see Christians stand for God and his truth even when the opposite course seems to bring good. Much good of an earthly character, moral and temporal, is offered to lead away from God. Men must learn to stand like these Mennonites for the truth against temporal good.

“Thus, endeth the lesson. “

Who is My Enemy? New Book from Lee C. Camp

November 11, 2011

My dear friend, as well as colleague, Lee C. Camp has recently released a new book entitled:  Who Is My Enemy? Questions American Christians Must Face About Islam–and Themselves. Lee is Professor of Theology and Ethics at Lipscomb University in Nashville (TN) where I also teach.  

Lee uses a line from a prayer of St. Francis of Assisi as a hermeneutical principle:  “Grant that we may not so much seek…to be understood as to understand.” He focuses this principle in the light of Mirosalv Volf’s call for “double vision” in his book Exclusion and Embrace, that is, to look at any question from the other’s point of view, especially our enemies. To love our neighbors is to understand their point of view even if we might not agree with it.

Consequently, Lee attempts to understand Islam’s presumed orientation to war-making, and at the same time compare it with the Just War tradition in the history of Christianity. The results are stimulating and disconcerting.

The Jesus story, Lee claims, is nonviolent, and the leading theologians of the early church until the fourth century were also nonviolent. They opposed violence and war-making. Following his teacher and mentor John Howard Yoder, Lee suggests that a Jesus politic generates “a distinctive community that has its own particular, if sometimes peculiar, ways of life together” (p. 32). This community loves its enemies, seeks peace, rejects violence, and pursues justice. The Christian politic is a “politics of suffering, nonretaliatory love” (p. 37).

Interestingly, Lee suggests that Muhammad initially employed a similar hermeneutic. He “counseled nonretaliation” in his early years, but this changed due to excessive persecution in Mecca against his followers and the rise of his power in Medina. Muhammad now permitted his followers to defend themselves and even aggressively attack representatives of the persecuting power. Muhammad, at this time, was an advocate of self-defense.

This is the difference between the Jesus and Muhammad stories. Jesus rejected the use of violence but Muhammad employed violence and “war-making in his administration of justice” (p. 45). Muhammad sought a just society and used force to secure it. Jesus sought a just society and used suffering love to secure it.

Lee suggests that what developed in Islam after Muhammad was a classical tradition of war-making that is similar if not morally equivalent to the Just War tradition within historic Christendom.  The “criteria and limits upon war…paralleled in many ways the Christian Just War tradition” (p. 59). Islam, like Christianity (using Greco-Roman resources), developed the need for a just cause, declared intent, a legitimate authority, and limits for how to conduct war. The formal logic, Camp contends, of historic (e.g., Constantinian and Augustinian) Christian and Islamic war-making criteria is essentially the same.

But war is not always conducted on the basis of what are regarded as “just criteria.” Indeed, war-making in the European Christian tradition seems to arrogate to itself the right to transcend those criteria as needed. Whether it is the Crusades, or Puritan assaults on Native Americans in “New England,” or Sherman’s march to the sea, the Just War tradition failed to hinder unjust war-making. Lee recounts some of these stories; they are horrific. These ventures have at least one thing in common–violence against non-combatants or the redefinition of combatants so that it includes everyone living in the city (Jerusalem), village (Pequot), state (Georgia), or nation (Germany and Japan). As Lee states, the West likes the Just War tradition’s “formal logic–that war can be justified–but [it] does not like its constraints” (p. 95). These stories should be told in the West so that our national narratives might hear and take account of Western abuses of the Just War tradition.

The logic that extends transcends the constraints of just war-making in some situations in the West is the same logic that is utilized by Muslim terrorists. “Total war” in Western practice (whether “Christian” or the Enlightenment politics of liberal Western democracies) is similar to a terrorist “holy war”–they both violate “just war” criteria, particularly the death of non-combatants (including women and children). “Moral equivalency” is the contention and is thus the justification articulated by terrorists (whether some Muslims or some right-wing American militia). The logic that burned crops in Georgia in order to make the South “beg for mercy,” that firebombed German and Japanese cities in order to subvert civilian morale, and that nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force surrender is formally the same logic as Muslim or American (e.g., the Oklahoma City bombing) terrorism (p. 101). That is a chilling conclusion but one that Lee argues convincingly.

At this point in the book, Lee “takes stock” (chapter 14) and it is important to hear him carefully. First, “the founding narratives of Christianity and Islam are different.”  While Muhammad used the sword to end the conflicts on the Arabian peninsula, Jesus “employed the way of the cross to deal with” conflict (p. 105).

Second, “the mainstream of Christian tradition looks more like the Muhammad story than the Jesus story” as it has rejected the basic narrative of peace-making in the Jesus narrative.  He states this clearly: “I simply mean that the formal shape, the basic logic, of the church’s understanding of the employment of force on behalf of justice was more like the subsequent teaching of Muhammad than the teaching of Jesus” (p. 106).

Do we believe the peace-making ethic of Jesus is realistic? Jesus lived it; he is our model. He is a peacemaker, and they killed him. That is realistic. When we advocate peace-making, it will upset some…especially when we advocate it on Veterans Day. But it is, as Lee argues and I believe, the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount, the ethic of Jesus.

The Canons of Laodicea (364-365)

March 25, 2010

Canons of Laodicea…probably not the most interesting of topics except for a few (very few) but which I read through for a particular thing I am doing at the moment.  But, ah, such interesting particulars lie in the pontification of these clergy.  Listen to a few….with some, admittedly, irreverent (at times) comments attached.

Canon 15: No others shall sing in the Church, save only the canonical singers, who go up into the ambo and sing from a book.

No congregational singing.  And no singing except from a book (we want to make sure we sing the right stuff with sanctioned theology, I suppose). An “ambo” is an elevated desk, pulpit or area from which one reads/sings, in case you were wondering.

Canon 17: The Psalms are not to be joined together in the congregations, but a lesson shall intervene after every psalm.

I do like the fact that every Psalm should be explained rather than run together.

Canon 19: After the sermons of the Bishops, the prayer for the catechumens is to be made first by itself; and after the catechumens have gone out, the prayer for those who are under penance; and, after these have passed under the hand [of the Bishop] and departed, there should then be offered the three prayers of the faithful, the first to be said entirely in silence, the second and third aloud, and then the [kiss of] peace is to be given. And, after the presbyters have given the [kiss of] peace to the Bishop, then the laity are to give it [to one another], and so the Holy Oblation is to be completed. And it is lawful to the priesthood alone to go to the Altar and [there] communicate.

I’m glad I got that straight now.  The pecking order is real clear to me.  “Communicate” is to communion (the Eucharist).

Canon 25: A subdeacon must not give the Bread, nor bless the Cup.

A subdeacon may carry the wine to the altar, prepare the necessities for the Eucharist and read from the Epistles…but he cannot share the bread of God with the people of God, nor pray over the cup.  By the way, subdeacons serve under deacons.  Since there can only be a limited number of deacons, anyone else who wants to come close is a “subdeacon.”

Canon 28: It is not permitted to hold love feasts, as they are called, in the Lord’s Houses, or Churches, nor to eat and to spread couches in the house of God.

If you have read this blog much, you know how this really bothers me.  No more tables (e.g., spreading couches for festive reclining at tables) in the church.  But then again we have tables we don’t sit at or even stand around.

Canon 29: Christians must not judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather honouring the Lord’s Day; and, if they can, resting then as Christians. But if any shall be found to be judaizers, let them be anathema from Christ.

Sunday means rest, Sabbath means work.  And if you rest on Saturday, if you are a judaizer, well, you are going to hell.

Canon 44: Women may not go to the altar.

Well, of course. Since there are no tables either, then it seems they can’t go anywhere but stand in the audience.

Canon 52: Marriages and birthday feasts are not to be celebrated in Lent.

There are lots of rule for Lent; this is only one.  Too bad if you were born in March…no birthday parties for you….ever.

Canon 55: Neither members of the priesthood nor of the clergy, nor yet laymen, may club together for drinking entertainments.

This is my favorite, however.  No clubbing allowed!  I think we need a “Lipscomb University” canon–“neither members of the administration nor of the faculty nor yet students may club together for drinking entertainments.”  🙂   Actually, “club” here means to share the expenses.

Do you think these clergy had some control issues? Well, enough said.  Just doing a little “tongue-in-cheek” history but one with some pretty serious theolgoical issues lying underneath.

17th Century Dutch Arminianism: Dissertation Posted

March 18, 2010

Twenty-five years ago this month I defended my dissertation at Westminster Theological Seminary. I remember that I was confident but somewhat intimidated at the same time. It was a weird feeling. One goal of a dissertation is to know more than your Professors on the topic. 🙂 At the same time, they know some things you don’t and you don’t know which things they are.  🙂 Thus, confident but intimated.

The title of my dissertation–this will thrill only a few, very few–is: The Theology of Grace in the Thought of Jacobus Arminius and Philip van Limborch: A Study in the Development of Seventeenth Century Dutch Arminianism. My point was that classic (or Reformed or “high”) Arminianism is something very different from late (or “low”) “Arminianism.” In fact, I don’t think we should use the same terms for both. I suggest that “Arminianism” is a title that should describe an evangelical, conservative theology such as that of Arminius himself (and Wesley to some degree) while “Remonstrant” describes the broader, more Enlightenment-shaped theology of later (much watered-down, fairly Pelagianized) “Arminianism”.

So, Arminianism is one thing and Remonstrantism is another. The latter developed from the former but was influenced by modernity (Enlightenment rationalism) which reshaped it. Arminianism has much more in common with Reformed theology than it does Remonstrantism. I would suggest Arminianism belongs to the Reformation era while Remonstrantism belongs to the Enlightenment era.

The original contribution of my study is the exposition of Philip van Limborch (1633-1712) who was the leading theological professor of the Remonstrant Seminary in the mid-to-late seventeenth century in Amsterdam.

Limborch is of some significance for students of Stone-Campbell history. He was John Locke’s favorite theologian and Limborch fully embraced Locke’s empircism. They were best friends from the time they met at an autopsy in Amsterdam. Further, Limborch’s theology reflects many of the themes of Stone-Campbell theology, including a kind of “word-only” theory, conversion as intellectual assent, similar understandings of covenant, etc. It is not surprising to me that Limborch and Alexander Campbell would have much in common given their modernity, traditional theological training, and acquaintance of Lockean empiricism.

For whatever it is worth–25 years later–I offer my dissertation to the virtual community.  I wish I could rewrite it.  I would prefer more inclusive gender language–I use “man” throughout rather than “humanity,” for example. It is wordy at places and imprecise.  There is much to improve, but it is what it is.  🙂  It passed, which was the most important thing at the time.  🙂

Abstract of Dissertation

The dissertation addresses the problem of the theological relationship between the theology of Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) and the theology of Philip van Limborch (1633-1712). Arminius is taken as a representative of original Arminianism and Limborch is viewed as a representative of developed Remonstrantism. The problem of the dissertation is the nature of the relationship between Arminianism and Remonstrantism. Some argue that the two systems are the fundamentally the same, others argue that Arminianism logically entails Remonstrantism and others argue that they ought to be radically distinguished. The thesis of the dissertation is that the presuppositions of Arminianism and Remonstrantism are radically different.

The thesis is limited to the doctrine of grace. There is no discussion of predestination. Rather, the thesis is based upon four categories of grace: (1) its need; (2) its nature; (3) its ground; and (4) its appropriation.

The method of the dissertation is a careful, separate analysis of the two theologians. Chapters two and three set forth Arminius’ understanding of grace. There is considerable interaction with secondary literature in an attempt to come to an informed understanding of Arminius’ theology of grace. Chapters four, fie and six attempt to understand Limborch’s theology of grace. Since secondary literature on Limborch is scarce, this is the most original work of the dissertation where the original Latin sources are brought to bear on the thesis of the dissertation.

After careful analysis of the respective theologians in the previous chapters, chapter seven compares the two according to their differences and similarities. They differ on the original state of man, the nature of the fall’s effects, the natural ability of fallen man, the nature of the Spirit’s work, the meaning of the death of Christ, the nature of saving righteousness, and the condition of applied righteousness.  Arminius stands  with the theology of the Reformation while Limborch’s theology shows the influence of the Enlightenment. While they have some similarities, including conditionality, synergism, and universalism, these similarities are governed by radically different presuppositions as the differences demonstrate.  Consequently, it is not the case that Arminianism logically entails Remonstrantism.

The dissertation advocates a recognition of the fundamental distinction between Arminianism and Remonstrantism. It argues that the categories of historical theology ought to recognize this distinction. As a result, Arminius ought to be regarded as a theologian of the Reformation, but Limborch, and his Remonstrant brethren, ought to be seen as the advocates of a theology which undermines the distinctives of the Reformation.

Alexander Campbell’s Demonology Lecture in Nashville (1841)

October 27, 2009

Returning to some of my historical interests (which is probably not shared by many :-)), I have always been fascinated with Alexander Campbell’s take on the “spiritual system” as he called it, particularly demonology.

Campbell presented a major addresson the topic of demonology to the Popular Lecture Club in Nashville, Tennessee on March 10, 1841 (published in the Millennial Harbinger [October 1841] 457-480). He also conducted an extensive correspondance with M. Winans on the topic in 1841-1842 as Winans responded to the lecture. The lecture and subsequent correspondance are available online.

The address was printed in book form as An Address on Demonology: Delivered Before the Popular Lecture Club, Nashville, Tenn in Bloomington, Indiana, by C. G. Berry in 1851 (32 pages). The essay later appeared in Popular Lectures and Addresses by Alexander Campbell published by the Christian Publishing Company in St. Louis (1861). The essays were republished by Standard Publishing in Cincinnati (1863) and by James Challen of Philadelphia, PA (1863, 1864, 1866).

Campbell visited Nashville six times, as far as I can discover. His first visit was in Feb-March 1827, his second in December 1830, and the third in March 1835. In March 1841 he was engaged in his fourth visit to Nashville when he gave his address on Demonology, and would later return again in November 1854 for his fifth visit, and then in April 1858 for his final visit to Nashville.

Campbell highly praised the church in Nashville. Under the leadership of P.S. Fall, the First Baptist Church had removed themselves from the Concord Association in 1825 but renewed that relationship in 1827 on the condition that they could pursue a reformation on the grounds of the New Testament alone (see their letter to the Association published in Christian Baptist). This letter to the Association was sent after Campbell’s first visit in 1827. The church had recently begun to meet weekly to break bread.

During Campbell’s second visit he engaged the Presbyterian pastor Obadiah Jennings in an oral discussion. He reports that the church, still led by P. S. Fall, numbered 250 at the time. “This christian congregation,” he writes, “is so far advanced in the reformation as to meet every Lord’s day, to remember the Lord’s death and resurrection, to continue in the Apostles’ doctrine, in the fellowship, breaking of bread, and in prayers and praises.”

During his third visit to Nashville, he stayed for three weeks with the Nashville church which numbered “about six hundred members” (which probably includes the county and/or region itself or perhaps a mistaken estimation; however, Eastin Morris’ Tennessee Gazetter 1834 reports that the church had “456” members “of which 280 were colored”). Tolbert Fanning was its evangelist (see MH, June 1835). He stayed with Henry Ewing who was a frequent contributor to MH.

When he visited Nashville again in early 1841 Campbell was in the process of publishing two series of essays—a polemical discussion with Barton W. Stone on the atonement and another series on the “Coming of the Lord.” In addition, he was preparing for the beginning of Bethany College in the Fall. Apparently, this was a significant reason for his tour through Cincinnati, Louisville, Nashville and then through central Kentucky (including Hopkinsville, Bowling Green, and Lexington). The Nashville Whig (March 8, 1841, p. 2) reports that Campbell mould make “an appeal to-night on behalf of the cause of Education and the claims of his new College at Bethany, Va., in the Reformed Baptist Church.”

Of course, Campbell also took the occasion to teach on the Christian system while in Nashville as reported by C. C. Norvell in the Nashville Whig (March 1, 1841), p. 2: “This gentleman, discoursed on the principles of Christianity, in the Reformed Baptist Church, in the forenoon of yesterday, and again at night. His sermons attract large crowds, and we may add, without pretending to pass upon the merits of his theory, that his compliment is not undeserved. We have rarely listened to a more finished or impressive argument, from the pulpit, than the discourse of last night. The distinct enunciation and Scottish accent of Mr. C. renders his delivery eminently pleasing.”

His trip through Nashville in 1841, however, receives no notice in Richardson’s memoirs. And though Campbell reflects on the general state of the churches in Louisville, Nashville and Cincinnati in his “Excursions—No. I” and “Excursions—No. II” (MH, May & June, 1841), he offers few details about his time in Nashville.

It was during this 1841 visit that he gave his public address on demonology on March 10 before the “Literary Club” at the Masonic Hall in Nashville. The speech was announced in the Nashville Whig on Friday, March 5. On the day of the scheduled address the following announcement appeared (Nashville Whig, March 10, 1841, p. 2): “Mr. Alexander Campbell, lectures tonight, by invitation of the Literary Club: his subject—Demonology and Witchcraft. The Club, we understand, have provided extra seats for the audience, so that the entire Hall, including the rostrum, can be occupied.” Apparently, they were expecting a large crowd.

Given that he only had a few days to prepare this lecture, the topic he chose is a curious one. The reason for his choice is evident from his applications in the essay itself. He understands the position that demons are the spirits of dead humans as subversive of any materialistic notions, that is, it is a response to infidelity. It is, Campbell writes, “proof of a spiritual system” and “a full refutation of that phantasm called Materialism.”

Here is the report of the speech that appeared in the Nashville Whig, March 12, 1841, p. 2:

“The somewhat novel subject of Demonology was discussed on Wednesday night, with much good taste and profound learning by Mr. Alexander Campbell, of Virginia. His argument was chiefly directed to the original and true office of the term Demon, as recognized in the Divine Scriptures, in contradistinction to its use by the early Greek poets, and its meaning as employed in modern times. The whole subject was treated as a theory of spirits, the learned lecturer entertaining the doctrine, as we understood him, that the disembodied spirits of the just, as well as the damned, exercise a decided though mysterious influence over the actions and destinies of the living. All are demons, in the original sense of the term, there being demons of good as well as demons of evil—the latter the subjects and especial instruments of the Prince of Darkness, Baelzeebub. The supersititons of ghosts, hobgoblins and appirations, were duly divested of their corporeal and incorporeal horrors, “raw herd, bloody bones” and all, and the doctrine of witchcraft treated as an idle fancy of the brain. The victims of these follies, in all ages, were referred to in a happy vein of sarcasm, and their manifold mental sufferings depicted with a fancy that proved that the distinguished lecturer has humor for the ridiculous as well as taste for the sublime.

To say that the lecture, as a whole, was highly creditable to the scholarship of Mr. Campbell, would be doing but half way justice to a very eloquent and finished production. As a “stranger in a strange land,” he merits the unqualified eulogy due to one whose acknowledged skill as a public debater and profound acumen as a critic, are not les distinguished in a literary, than in a theological point of view.”

The problem of materialism is lingering in Campbell’s mind. Since his last trip to Nashville, John Thomas emerged as a schismatic leader who affirmed a form of materialism regarding the state of the dead. As Thomas’ materialism became clear, Campbell was pressured by those inside (e.g., Winans) and outside the Stone-Campbell Movement (e.g., the Virginia Baptist Andrew Broaddus) to disavow his views. The proof of a “spiritual system” and of the conscious spirits of dead persons is partly a response to Thomas and insulates the movement from Thomas’ defection. Thomas was ultimately the founder of the Christadelphians. Campbell wrote a series of articles entitled “Materialism” in the September-December issues of the 1836 MH.

Campbell’s argument for a spiritual system would later be replaced, in Nashville, by a universalistic spiritualism in the person of Jesse B. Ferguson who came to Nashville in 1846 as the minister of the 350 member Spring Street church. It grew to 550, moved into a new building and then the church collapsed—both spiritually, numerically and physically. The numbers dwindled from 1855-1857, the new building burned in 1857, and ultimately Ferguson became persona non grata, dying in isolation from the church and city in 1870 (only three carriages followed his coffin to Mt. Olivet cemetery). It was in the context of the Ferguson affair that Campbell made his fifth visit to Nashville in 1854. He was not permitted to speak in Ferguson’s building. (His last visit to Nashville was in April 1858, according to Norton, Tennessee Christians, p. 80.)

In 1857 the reconstituted Spring Street church began anew in the old Spring Street building with 15 members (calling back P.S. Fall who had left the city for KY in 1831 when the membership was 250 members). Also the South College Street church began in 1857 with 3 in attendance as David Lipscomb preached the first sermon for the new community. By the end of the Civil War these two congregations represented 500 members (Hooper, Crying in the Wilderness, 203).

Campbell’s demonology essay, then, represents a middle ground between two historic controversies within the early Stone-Campbell Movement. Campbell battled the materialism of John Thomas on one end and battled the spiritualism of Jesse Ferguson on the other. In both cases the beginnings of the controversies were cloaked in titanic egos and ended with disastrous results. Nevertheless, the sage of Bethany won the day and his perspective prevailed within the movement.

This topic was apparently of great interest for Campbell. While the demonology essay evidences his interest in it as a response to infidelity, he also was interested in the topic from the standpoint of divine providence. This is not as evident in his Demonology essay as it is other writings, such as:

• “The Spiritual Universe–No. I.” MH, Fourth Series, 1 (February 1851): 64-66.
• “The Spiritual Universe–No. II. Angels and Demons–No. I.” MH, Fourth Series, 1 (February 1851): 66-70.
• “The Spiritual Universe–No. III. Angels and Demons–No. II.” MH, Fourth Series, 1 (March 1851): 121-126.
• “The Spiritual Universe–No. IV. Angels and Demons–No. III.” MH, Fourth Series, 1 (April 1851): 181-187.
• “The Spiritual Universe–No. V. Angels and Demons–No. IV.” MH, Fourth Series, 1 (May 1851): 241-244.

In particular, he is quite willing to speculate that God takes the lives of young ministers because he needs them to fulfill some role as good angels (“Mysteries of Providence,” MH [1847], 707).

Another interesting dimension of the essay is Campbell’s openness to the intersection of the spiritual world and this one. It is the power of the gospel that dissipates demon possession, but where the gospel has not yet gone demons still have that power. This has tremendous implications for missions and for what are called in the contemporary context “power encounters.”

More significantly, Campbell refuses to permit the Enlightenment (infidelity in his language) to dismiss the influence that the spiritual world has on the actions and lives of people. “That we are susceptible of impressions and suggestions from invisible agents sometimes affecting our passions and actions,” he writes, “it were foolish and infidel to deny.” The spiritual world is not boxed off from the material world. Rather, God uses both good and evil spirits to influence and act within the material world. The essay is part of Campbell’s rejection of Deism and the affirmation of God’s ever present action in the world through the spiritual system.

The “spiritual system” or “universe” is an essential affirmation of the Christian system for Campbell. It opposes Deism and infidelity. But it is not a spiritualism that denies the efficacy and sufficiency of the gospel itself. The facts of the gospel dissipate the ignorance of a world caught up in spiritualism (e.g., divination through demons) and they liberate us from the tyranny of the evil powers in the universe. Science did not accomplish this, though it aided our knowledge of God’s other book—the book of nature. Only the gospel can liberate us from that ignorance and tyranny so that we might live in the freedom of the Holy Guest (Spirit) who indwells us.

In this context, Campbell’s essay on Demonology is a kind of “back door” statement of the gospel against Enlightenment skepticism and Deism (infidelity). The essay, then, forms part of his case for the “Evidences of Christianity” (a series he began in the 1835 and a course he just began teaching at Bethany College).