Stone-Campbell Theodicies: Nineteenth Century

 “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.

32 Responses to “Stone-Campbell Theodicies: Nineteenth Century”

  1.   checkingthemail Says:

    I appreciate your efforts at categorizing for the purpose of clarity. I too, having lived in Detroit, growing up in Texas, then working with churches in a region of Kansas where Daniel Sommer held many meetings, have noted some of the same “classifications”. I enjoy your blog.

  2.   randall Says:

    Thanks again John Mark. Are we likely to this thread developed a little more?

  3.   Jr Says:

    This is some interesting history John Mark, thank you.

    I would agree with your conclusion; since it is the one reflected in Scripture. And didn’t I read in one of your papers that Alexander Campbell called himself a Calvinist? (I could be mistaken) – But that foundation would obviously lead to a greater belief in God’s sovereign control of all things. Is this where Harding/Lipscomb gained their influence as well?

  4.   Jason Coriell Says:

    I would appreciate it if you would clarify the point of the last paragraph. I need a bit more elaboration to process your point.


  5.   John Mark Hicks Says:


    Thomas Campbell was still calling himself a “Calvinist” in the late 1820s. I don’t think Alexander referred to himself in that way, at least I don’t know of an example.

    I would call Alexander something of a “Classic Arminian” in terms of his view of providence though he would be much more semi-Pelagian or perhaps even Pelagian when it came to the origin of faith.

    The emphasis on sovereignty and divine activity in history is part of both Campbell and the Tennessee Tradition (Lipscomb/Harding). Campbell was certainly an influence on Lipscomb/Harding, but I think Fanning more on Lipscomb regarding this point and Mueller (among others) on Harding.

  6.   John Mark Hicks Says:


    My last paragraph was intended to be suggestive and it does not suprise me that it leaves us a bit hanging. 🙂

    On the whole, I would suggest that narrative rather than philosophical theology is most solid context for theodicy. Defending God with metaphysical assumptions and philosophical analysis is a dead end in my opinion. Rather, I tend to immerse myself in the story with all its particularities and problems–God did kill David’s son (for example). I don’t know how to justify God in the abstract, nor do I know how to explain every text, but the story displays divine sovereignity, love and telos. Biblical theodicy, it seems to me, is ultimately Christological and eschatological which is inaccessible to philosophical or metaphysical analysis.

  7.   Jason Coriell Says:

    I appreciate the elaboration.

    I certainly follow your suggestion that philosophical analysis and metaphysical speculation is a dead end. I am wrestling with the role of hermeneutics in this, hence, I really keyed on “hermeneutical harmonization.” I am now assuming that you are referring to the tendency to lose reference to the overarching narrative flow of Scripture in a use of a strict literal reading of texts.

  8.   preacherman Says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this with us all. I know that I have learned so much from this post as well as your blog. You are a true scholar and blessing to many. Keep up the great work you do with your blog. Keep informing and challeging us all. I hope you and your family have a fantastic weekend.

  9.   randall Says:

    Please forgive the choppy sentence in my previous comment. I meant to ask if we are likely to see this thread developed a little more in follow up posts and I happy to see that my intended query has been answered in the affirmative.

    In response to Jr’s question about Campbell and Calvinism. Leroy Garrett has said that Alexander Campbell’s father, Thomas Campbell, wrote rather late in his life that he was a Calvinist and would be till he died (presumably thereafter as well) but held his Calvinism as “his private property.” I believe he also referred to the Westminster Confession of Faith as the greatest exposition of Christian theology ever written by man. I certainly think JMH has provided a accurate assessment of Alexander’s position with regard to Calvinism.

  10.   Matthew Says:

    It seems to me, which I could be wrong, but the reason that some in the churches of Christ deny miracles is from the Texas Tradition. Would the Southern Tradition still affirm miracles? Also, when did the change start in this idea of God not working miraculously in the world.?

  11.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Lipscomb was too interested in “order” and providence through natural means to think in terms of miracles. He did believe in dynamic divine action through providence, however. But Harding did believe God worked miracles. While he disavowed the continuation of supernatural spiritual gifts as belonging to the infancy of the church, he stressed that God still worked miracles for his people in response to prayer. See my materials on Harding under “Serial Index” for some details about this.

  12.   Jr Says:

    Thanks John Mark and Randall for each of your responses. I knew it was one of the Campbells who had said that. This issue of divine activity and the Sovereignty of God has always seemed to be a defining issue of this history of our faith along with the doctrines of God and man. Bavinck gives the slippery slope argument that Classic Arminianism slides into moralistic and rationalistic deism with the contractual instead of covenantial view of salvation; which I find interesting. Nonetheless, I am wanting to learn more about why the emphasis on divine activity and sovereignty seemed to wane in our tradition in regards to the aforementioned views and doctrines; that is, separate from the Calvin perspective; seeing as Thomas and Alexander were a part of the Presby Church (though obviously Alexander departed).

    I will do a search on this site and find any and all things on this matter. (thank you for all of your wonderful resources by the way).

  13.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Jr, my dissertation (which I hope to put online at some point in the near future–it will take some work) argues that it is not a slippery slope into deism from Classic Arminianism. I think there is a tremendous chasm between them. My dissertation, however, focuses on the theology of grace rather than the issues of sovereignity.

    As my article here notes, it is the rise of the natural sciences, modernism and progress in the sciences that tends to move believers from sovereignty to deism. And, more specifically, it is a declining or almost non-existent pneumatology that ultimately reinforces the deism.

  14.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Thomas Campbell’s statement is found in A. S. Hayden’s Early History of the Disciples on the Western Reserve, p. 167, and cited below:

    Bro. Thomas Campbell first responded, as nearly as I can recollect, in words following: ‘The devil has brought this question into this association to sow discord among brethren. Bro. Raines and I have been much together for the last several months, and we have mutually unbosomed ourselves to each other. I am a Calvinist, and he a Restorationist; and, although I am a Calvinist, I would put my right arm into the fire and have it burnt off before I would raise my hand against him. And if I were Paul, I would have Bro. Raines in preference to any other young man of my acquaintance to be my Timothy.’

    See the full text at Hans Rollmann’s site.

    Given the recent “young, reformed and restless” movement, I would hope that those within the Stone-Campbell Movement who are leaning toward Calvinism these days (and I know quite a few young ministers under the influence of Piper and Driscoll who are) would follow Thomas Campbell’s own example. For him Calvinism and Arminianism were theories which should not divide the body of Christ.

  15.   Keith Roberts Says:

    Thanks, John Mark, for your excellent work in this area. As one who speaks often about prayer, I find myself dealing with questions from our people about God’s goodness in the face of persistent evil and unanswered prayers.

    It helps to see the various thought-traditions you’ve outlined. Thanks for helping us “country preachers” out here who don’t get much chance to think out the roots of our theology, or much chance to hear a voice like yours.


  16.   randall Says:

    Speaking of Thomas Campbell JMH said “For him Calvinism and Arminianism were theories which should not divide the body of Christ.” Amen and amen again! When one reads the Declaration and Address it is clear that Thomas was heart broken over division in the church – and that the division was over different theological perspectives when they should have been united on the basis of those things that all Christians believed.

  17.   Jr Says:

    I am all for unity and do not look for division in the debates that are ongoing; nor would I consider these debates or disagreements (as I see it currently) something that would prohibit me from remaining brothers in Christ, in peace, with those who may disagree. I am energized by these discussions with brothers like you. Honestly though, I wish our movement had more skin in this game instead of being followers.

    I feel like we are on the sidelines in a lot of the debate that seems to be re-energized with the Piper/Wright Justification back-and-forth (just as an example) and find venom on both sides; though more-so on the Wright fan-club side (who has oddly gained the support of the emergent-types).

    Nonetheless I continue to read, study and follow the very interesting debates. John H. Armstrong and R. Scott Clark being one of the latest.

    Grace to you all…

  18.   Keith Brenton Says:

    How did an either-or answer to the question of who chooses whom come to be? I know I’m no great shakes as a thnker in the whole realm of theodicy … but doesn’t it seem to anyone else that we choose Christ and Christ chooses us and that’s what makes a great marriage (John 3:29; Revelation 9:7) and partnership (1 Corinthians 3:9; 2 Corinthians 6:1)? So it’s really more of a “both-and” than an “either-or,” isn’t it?

    Potential Calvo-Arminian

  19.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Keith, at one level, I would agree. Every Christian tradition affirms that God chooses us and we choose him. The catch is the meaning of those words rather than their mere presence. My article Mediating the War Between Calvinists and Arminians on Election and Security calls for a recognition of four shared convictions concerning election. Part of that is that God choose us in Christ through faith. Others have seen Molinism as a way of harmonizing the two or at least drawing them in closer relation.

    I think your point reveals that you are an Arminian and not a Calvinist. If you would go so far as to say that we choose Christ irresistibliy by the work of the Spirit, then you are a Calvinist as no Arminian would say that. If you would go so far as to say that humans can refuse to choose Christ, then you are an Arminian as no Calvinist would say that. In other words, both agree that Christ chose us. Where the disagreement lies is in the nature of our choosing Christ. In that specific issue it cannot be a “both/and.” A “both/and” there overlooks one of the significant difference between the two theories.

    Where it can be a both/and is in the shared convictions and the decision to leave the theories that speculate on the detials to the mystery of God’s own life. What we do know through revelation is that God in Christ has chosen us and that through faith we know we are elect. In terms of unity, I’m willing to leave it there. But theological reflection does move us to think about the orign, nature and mode of that faith which is where the differences will emerge that cannot be relegated to a both/and.

    Even McLaren’s attempt with “Generous Orthodoxy” is not Calvo-Arminian (the both/and he supposes) but actually radically Arminian. He is only Calvinist in the sense that every Christian tradition is Calvinist which is not, of course, what Calvinists mean by “Reformed.” 🙂

  20.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    More venom on the Wright side of the equation? I think not, but I suppose that is a subjective call. There is enough venom to go around as few are guiltless on that score.

    I don’t see the Wright-Piper exchanges, however, on the nature of justification an Arminian-Calvinist (Reformed) discussion. Classical Arminians especially, as well as others–including Evangelical Arminians and even many Stone-Campbell people (like K. C. Moser historically)–would stand with Piper on the nature of imputation and forensic justification.

    Personally, I don’t see the gospel at stake in that discussion but a rather technical (though historic) debate about the modus operandi of the Gospel which I think is ultimately plunging the mysteries of God. I willing to jump into those mysteries and understand them best I can, but I am unwilling to think that I so understand them that others who do not think as I do are without the gospel.

  21.   Keith Brenton Says:

    I shouldn’t partial post when the clock is ticking down to an area-wide praise singing that I’m managing PowerPoint for!

    I do understand the one between Calvinism and Arminianism, though my comment didn’t betray it. I’m Calvinist to the degree that I accept the sovereignty of God to be able and possibly even willing to save surly old illiterate Uncle Fred who never heard a sermon about grace in all the years Aunt Ethel dragged him to church and would have loved a God who loved people more than law … If he had ever heard of one. I think God is within His rights – and His nature – to save folks who never heard of Him but lived within His will their whole lives, just following the moral compass He put within them. I don’t see that contradicting anything in scripture.

    I can’t imagine a fellow sharing space in heaven with such folks who would be of a mind to be crabby about how unfair that seems to him.

    Does that make more sense than what I wrote before?

  22.   Keith Brenton Says:

    And now that I can read the entire previous comment, I realize that It doesn’t really make sense and I should not post comments from my iPhone. Sorry. Feel free to ignore.

  23.   rich Says:

    So god eather takes care of the sparrow or He dosn’t.
    if he dosn’t does that mean that Jesus is misleading?

    if we have the Spirit of Christ is that not metaphysical. or is it Just when “something not good” happens(subjective value assesment):-)

    any way john mark
    as history attest’s to man’s, and as you have so aptly said in the past, how can we possibly help to see god when our vision is so myopic.

    we all can,t divest ourselves of worldly goods such as they are…
    and give them to the poor and follow jesus.

    i mean good lord john mark what would we do with out toilet paper…

    blessings john mark

  24.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Keith, I would affirm God’s gracious sovereignty as well, as would many Arminians. Your statement is not particularly Calvinist, but it is an affirmation of God’s right to save whom he wants, when he wants and how he wants. Evangelical Arminians and Calvinists would both agree on that one.

    Oh, I wouldn’t post from my Iphone either….but, then again, I don’t have one. 🙂

    Blessings, my friend.

  25.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Toilet paper is one of those blessings for which I am daily grateful, Richard. 🙂

  26.   rich Says:

    one more little diddy
    john mark

    rom. 8.24 or so that starts the mess kinda sorta






  27.   Zach Cox Says:

    John Mark,

    You wrote “Theodicy is too often encumbered by metaphysical assumptions, too driven by hermeneutical harmonization, and too distant from the affirmations and particularities of the text…”

    I think you are on to something here. Your comments about being immersed in the story give a context to theodicy. It seems the Bible rarely addresses the general problem of evil and suffering apart from some concrete historical reality. Romans itself is in a sense an answer to theodicy, but it is not general and abstract. It is very specific and Israel/story related–How Can God demonstrate Himself to be faithful despite Israel’s sin and God’s apparent rejection? So it’s not sophisticated metaphysical theory, but concrete reality. No wonder Paul refers to the lament psalms and the prophetic cries so much in Romans.

    Thanks for the good discussion.

    Zach Cox

  28.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Theodicy–to the extent that it exists in Scripture, and it does (I think)–is matter of redemptive history, Christology and eschatology. Human philosophical constructs, to my mind, are generally dead-ends though they can illuminate dimensions of the Biblical story itself.

  29.   rich constant Says:

    john mark
    next time you run into
    n.t. wright or Piper

    now i know they are the hip slick and cool ones on Justification.
    tell them a guy that can’t spell real well
    has a Simple Question on god’s rightious act of justification of men.

    1.GAl 4.4

    If yes, how does god maintain his clame to be Righteous, so as Curse his Son unjustly.

    if no,explain why christ did not merit righteousness by works.

    that should be easy for THEM that understand the deeper workings of god.




  30.   rich constant Says:

    sin is not imputed where their is no law..
    evil ?????

  31.   rich constant Says:

    that imputation, and forinsic justification,topic

    all gentiles are dead because of deviation from god’s good.sin=death rom.5
    all jews under law are cursed/not blessed .gal.3
    “sin imputed”their cursed of god and still dead
    creation subjected to coruption as a result of deveation. rom.8
    now then rom.10 is an enhansment of rom 3. 21-30

    if the body is dead because of sin is the Spirit we recieve not the spirit of christ the holy spirit,
    how does that possibly equate with forinsic imputed
    righteousness if it is christ that lives in me putting to death the deeds of the body while being a servant of rightousness rom 6

    any way john mark ??????
    that all from me to day unless you are going to write…
    i will watch the day the earth stood still

  32.   rich constant Says:

    by the way john mark
    the reason for my little tiraid here is that a 2 or three months ago in the corse of my work i wound up in a discussion with a family while working on their doors.
    this disscussion contenued and my son rick was with me,anyway the lady and the dad were very involved in their church and said that her son would really like to talk with me,i said where is he .

    out came a very nice 27 year old that appoliged first for being a staunch calvenist…
    oh boy i thought….
    as you know, and i told him i aint got no clue about that flower,and maybe i could get a handle on the root concepts of these teachings…so i told him how i saw romans and i was hoping he could take what i understood and say ok this is where we start …
    no such luck.
    he started in 8 went on to 11 so ….
    i have been in 8 to 11 for a while walking in a dark room waiting on posts like this trying to gather more root concepts of calvin.
    thes that you guys talk on are not basic enough for me so i throw out basics that i can see that one day you might throw a ball that i can hit…


  1. CENI: Introduction « One In
  2. CENI: Introduction | One In Jesus

Leave a Reply