Stone-Campbell Theology — The Doctrine of God

As part of a pre-conference gathering entitled “Theology in the Service of the Church” in conjunction with the 1996 Christian Scholars Conference in Nashville, Tennessee, I presented a paper entitled “The Doctrine of God.”  The presentations at this pre-conference were published in Leaven 8.3 (2000). Some of these themes (providence, pneumatology, etc.) are pursued in my Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding co-authored with Bobby Valentine. I have uploaded my presentation on my Academic page under Stone-Campbell Resources.

Secularism and secularization come in many forms.  While “secularism” was recognized as one of the major faults of 20th century modernism by ministers amongChurches of Christ, the tradition–as a whole–fell prey to its subtle enchantments. Modernity shaped Churches of Christ and secularized religion, as an ideological perspective of modernity, characterized the Churches of Christ of the mid-twentieth century though, of course, we were by no means unique in this regard. 

Securlarization took a specific form in the mode of anthropocentrism. R. C. Bell-who taught at Potter Bible School, Western Bible and Literary College, Cordell Christian College, Thorp Springs Christian College, Harding College and Abilene Christian College–recognized this in his 1951 autobiography that was published in the Firm Foundation (November 6, 1951, p. 6). He believed Churches of Christ had significantly shifted in the past fifty years from an emphais on “divine dynamics” to “human mechanics.” It focused conversion in a formula, reduced piety to the forms and structurces of the true chruch, and relegated God to the fringes of human experience. In other words, the emphasis on baptism, the one true visible church, and the absolute freedom of the human individual apart from divine influence other than the epistemological function of Scripture and natural law.  God had done his part in both creation and redemption, and now we must do ours. In general, this reductionistic view of God led to secularized forms of conversion, the church, pneumatology and providence.

As Churches of Christ increasingly concentrated on the plan of salvation and ecclesiology where the concerns were primiarily anthropocentric (e.g., what we must do to be saved and how we can maintain the true church), their own vision of God was increasingly influenced by the cultural dynamic of secularization. Without specific attention to countering the prevailing winds of culture (in this case secularization), there will be an inevitable, often subtle, paradigm shift in favor of cultural values. When we failed to reflect specifically on the doctrine of God as the transcendent one, we unconsciously remade our doctrine of God in the image of our ecclesiology and culture.  For example, we ruled out the activity of God in the world for several reasons–because providence functioned differently in the Old Testament than it does in the New Testament, or because we ruled out the miraculous activity of God int he world, or because we opposed the work of the Spirit directly upon the hearts of people. But the broader cultural context was secularization. Our polemics against the direct operation of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, against miracles, against the special and specific provident work of God, against existential understandings of our experience of God had the tendency to reduce the transcendence of God to our anthropocentric ecclesiological issues. We tended, then, to adopt the secularized God. We tended to accept a modified Deistic vision of God.

However, this is not our heritage. The Stone background of our movement had a dynamic view of the conversion and transformation of human lives. God was not on the fringes of his world but deeply involved through spiritual and providential activity. One would only need to remember the views of James A. Harding to note the powerful influence of this background on spiritual dynamics and providence. The Campbell background of our heritage was rooted in a solidly Reformed (though not deterministic) perspective on providence and God’s involvement in the world (Millenial Harbinger, “Chance: Observatons on the terms Chance, Accident, Lucky, Unlucky,” 1851, 615-21 and “Providence, General and Special,” 1855, 601-8). While rarely discussed, Alexander Campbell had a dynamic view of God’s activity in the world.  His own movement, he believed, was a work of God which would usher in the millennial kingdom.  God is active in history bringing about his kingdom.  Another illustration of this dynamic providence would be Campbell’s speculation that God had taken the life of some of the movement’s finest young ministers because he needed them to carry on their work as angelic ministers who would influence the world for good (Millennial Harbinger, “Mysteries of Providence,” 1847, 704-9).

My paper suggests that Churches of Christ need to seriously consider the significance and meaning of three major biblical-theological strands of thought for the contemporary context. The exploration, understanding and application of these–I think–would significantly help interpret our experience of God in both the inner life and in community.

First, we need a communitarian doctrine of God which grounds a theology for community–for family, for church and for state.  As a result, our churches should be oriented to communal interests rather than individualistic agendas.  It seems to me that idea that God is ontologically being-in-relation is the ground of relationality as the key focus of theological thought. God created beings-in-relation to be in relationship with his own community. This is theological substance for thinking about human identity itself since we the image (icon) of God.

Second, in the most fundamental sense, we need to approach God doxologically.  This does not exclude rationality, but it subordinates it to God’s own revelation of himself through his mighty acts.  As a result, our churches should first be oriented to the praise of God out of which our lives will be dedicated to his honor.  Ultimately, God is a mystery except as he has revealed himself and even as he has revealed himself it is only in analogous ways–language about God is neither univocal or equivocal but analogous. We confess, for example, that God is love but we also understand that God’s own experience/understanding of love transcends our own though we have some sense of its meaning because God has entered history to demonstrate his love. Fundamentally, then, we praise God for his attributes rather than analyze and comprehend his attributes.

Third, we need to explore more explicitly the nature of God’s action in the world so that we might understand how the sovereign but dynamically related God of Scripture acts on behalf of his people.  This entails a direct challenge to the secularism of our culture and confrontation with the scandal of evil’s mystery. As a result, our churches ought to depend upon God’s action within the world for their strength, power, confidence and growth (read: pneumatology as well as providence) rather than upon their own individualistic, self-reliant resources. With Open Theism, I would agree that we co-create the future with God as his instruments and agents in the world.  But with Classical Theism, I would agree that God is sovereign over his world in that God does whatever he pleases to further his goals/purposes for his creation. 

All theology begins with God and all theology must be measured by who God is and what he has done. Given our history and the current context of theological reflection the release of Ron Highfield’s Great is the Lord: Theology for the Praise of God by Eerdmans this coming summer is a welcome, and much anticipated–at least by me–contribution. Ron is a Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University.

5 Responses to “Stone-Campbell Theology — The Doctrine of God”

  1.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    I grew up in a congregation whose theology (a word they would have never used) was very antropocentric and the view of God was, as you observe, very subtly but profoundly bound within the box of modern secularism. My generation has changed and is very open to a view of God that is powerful and dynamic, both transcendent and immanent, yet also a mystery in many ways.

    Those among my generation within the Churches of Christ are more and more willing to grant the very real plausibility to the claims of God working in ‘miraculous’ ways made by the more charismatic Christian movements – inspite of not witnessing such acts within our own tradition. But I cannot help to wonder why we do not witness God working in such ways if we indeed do believe God can work in such ways. Perhaps God has simply chosen to not work in such ways among our assemblies. Or God is working in such ways or is willing to work in such ways but because we still subtly do not believe God will work in such ways.

    If this is true, then we still our bound by the secular influences that held sway over the Churches of Christ in the twentieth century. How do Pharisees and Teacher of the Law witness the miracles of Jesus and yet reject him as God’s Messiah? The answer is that they are so blindly bound by rules and expectations of their own culture that they cannot see God at work in Jesus of Nazarreth. I sometimes fear that has happened to many of us.

    May God grant us the faith to see and believe him at work, even in the ways which our traditional boxes exclude!


  2.   John Mark Hicks Says:


    You raise some important questions and especially in the light of our common experiences. I suppose I would not define “miraculous” by the Charismatic movement. I am open but cautious when it comes to the Charismatic claims.

    My definition of the miraculous would be much broader than the Charismatic or the Deistic. I would prefer to think in terms of a continuum of divine actions which are not always definable in black and white distinctions. I would rather speak of divine acts–whether ordinary or extraordinary, natural or beyond natural, predictable or unpredictable.

    Clearly, however, we are no doubt blinded by our own boxes in which we have placed God. We fail to see him in the sunrise as well as in the hopes of our prayers for the sick. I would prefer to revel in the mystery of God’s working among us and in us than try to find the paradigmn that explains everything (if such exists–I have not found it as yet myself).

  3.   preacherman Says:

    Extremely interesting.
    I really enjoyed this post.
    I enjoy your blog alot and have added it to my list of favorites. I want to thank you for the knowledge and information you share with each of us. Your blog is one of the best blogs that I read. Keep up the wonderful work!

    I have a requesst for you brother. I was wondering if you could take a few seconds of your time and encourage and pray for a family in extreme need. I would greatly appreaciate it and would make a difference in there life as well.

    Again God bless you broher as you serve the Almighty God.
    In Him,
    Kinney Mabry
    Preacherman 🙂

  4.   K. Rex Butts Says:


    Yes you are right about the caution towards the miraculous claims from the Charismatic traditions. I too am cautious (perhaps skeptical) about such claims and just wanted to use their claims as an example.

    I too do not want to limit a miraculous definition simply to that offered by the Charismatic traditions (or even the deistic). For instance, I met a man several years ago who was in jail awaiting 1st degree murder charges and was paranoid. He was a methaphetamine and heroin addict. He is now a Christian serving 3 life sentense for murder. Some would say there was no miracle because no one laid hands on him to drive the demons of drugs out of him in the name of Jesus. Others would say there was no miracle because his mind became clear once he detoxified from the drugs. But I would argue that his mind became sober and receptive to the gospel in part because of the many prayers that were prayed in the name of Jesus to free him from the evil spirits of drugs that held him captive.

    Still I wonder… When we read how God worked among the first century Christians (and how they expected God to work), are our paradigms still serving as blockades from seeing and expecting God to work in such powerful and dynamic ways? I have no answer to that question but it is that very question that has allowed me to acknowledge that God will work in mysterious ways that are beyond my expectations and understandings, and even in ways that will make me very uncomfortable when considering the theological traditions that have shaped my thinking.

    This is a wonderful post!

    Grace and peace,


  5.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    why the word god and not “the christ,
    pslam 2”
    very good look see in that post
    john mark

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