Theodices in the Stone-Campbell Movement

Another essay I just submitted for publication that will appear in December concerns 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 new 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 early on 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 continued the tradition of Campbell and Richardson).

On the other hand, the South (particularly in the deep south of TN, MS and AL, etc.) 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). 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.

Some in the South rebelled against this construal, particularly in Texas. 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).

In the context of opposing a deistic understanding of prayer, 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.

13 Responses to “Theodices in the Stone-Campbell Movement”

  1.   Jason Says:

    John Mark,
    I perused your blog for a bit tonight after seeing your link on the Systematic Theology syllabi for this fall. (I’ll be in your class.) I especially appreciated the thoughts relative to the new heaven & new earth. That’s a theological concept I’ve really grown to appreciate more over the past few months of study. At any rate, I’m looking forward to your course and I hope you keep up the blogging! It’s nice to read someone else’s thoughts on these kinds of things.

  2.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    See you in class, Jason! Thanks for dropping by.

    Better get started with the reading….it may take a while.



  3.   Greg Brooks Says:

    Dr. Hicks, thank you for your blog and especially your recent posts about the state of those who have died in the Lord. Your comments were very touching as well as informative. As a counselor I have recommended those posts to a couple of grieving individuals lately, to great positive effect.

    Thank you also for this post. Again, as a counselor, my clients’ experiences of evil and pain are ever-present. I find myself ‘doing’ theodicy practically every day as my clients ask, “Why?”. Your comment that our task may be more kerygma than theodicy touches me. Many of my clients find it very trite, or even offensive, when they’re offered pat answers about God’s sovereignty, or when they’re told God is trying to ‘teach them something’. On the other hand, they are often blessed when they feel free to engage God directly as a part of the story their lives are proclaiming. The lives of my clients are often kerygma.

  4.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    I was just thinking the other day how interesting it would be to see a trace of how theodicy has developed in the Stone-Campbell movement. Thanks, I look forward to the article.

  5.   Ken Haynes Says:

    John Mark,

    Great post on Theodicy and SC….very interesting.

  6.   steve Says:

    God Bless!

    If you get a chance could you please say a prayer for a little girl named “Rebekah” who has cancer. God knows who you will be praying about! Thank you so much!

    Trying to rally some good Christian Prayer for her and her family!

  7.   KMiV Says:

    John Mark,
    Yes, yes, yes, very good.

    I have been doing a lot of research and potential writing of an article of the Mutual Ministry Movement in the churches of Christ. It began with Franklin, passed to Sommer, and then to Ketcherside. Seems that they put a lot of emphasis on the rational, even though they were somewhat critical of the colleges and located evangelists. Any thoughts on that?

  8.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Mutual ministry was actually part of the original vision, I think. While there were Elders (and usually one elder) who taught/preached in early Campbell and Stonite churches, there was always time for mutual edification. Indeed, the idea of located preacher was not current in the early movement. It was located Elder. Evangelists travelled. James A. Harding was also of this persuasion–very much a disciple of Franklin in many ways.

  9.   Charles Says:

    How ironic RE ministry and located ministers. The whole debate has been forgotten, but it centered around “If we have located ministers we will try and turn them into pastors.”

    Those for located ministers essentially replied, “That’s ridiculous! We would never fall for something so clearly against the teaching of the Bible.”


  10.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    And what, Charles, did that have to do with the price of tea in China? 🙂 Why comment on the “located preacher controversy” in the context of this posting?

  11.   bradfordlstevens Says:

    The role of preaching was always to proclaim the gospel to the lost. In the early church that was the function of the evangalist who traveled from place to place in order to plant new churches. The concept of “paying” a man to preach to the saints was the beginning of the establishment of a defacto clergy. It is a pattern that one cannot find in the New Testament.

  12.   michael douglas Says:

    Response to bradfordlstevens –
    support of a “located” minister of the word is clearly seen in a number of passages. 1 cor. 9; Pauls acceptance of support from the Philippians and his abiding at Corinth, etc, for year(s). This is an issue of community (not pay). The “clergy” controversy came from issues of education and leadership (beginning in the 1st century). One can have a defacto clergy from the same sources today (journals, preachers of note, etc.). The purpose of preaching is to declare Jesus “for obedience to the faith”, romans 1, to christians and non-christians. Concerning Theodicy: the optimistic “millenarianism” of the 18th c and then A Campbell is no longer tenable, will the “Lipscomb/ Harding view” defeat deism?

  13.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Lipscomb and Harding were in engaged in mortal combat with what they perceived as Deism within the Stone-Campbell Movement. Deism basically won, as it won in the culture at large. The question is more likely whether the Lipscomb-Harding perspective–or something like it–can be revived in a Deistic culture. I hope so.

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