Salvation in Stone-Campbell Theology

Paul describes salvation in three tenses—past, present and future. We have been saved (Ephesians 2:8), we are in the process of being saved (2 Corinthians 2:15), and we will be saved (Romans 5:9-10). Theologians have generally summarized these “tenses” as “Justification, Sanctification, and Glorification.” The Stone-Campbell Movement has recognized each of these, but different people at different times have stressed one over the other.

Alexander Campbell identified the three tenses as holy state (justification, pardon), holy character (progressive sanctification), and holy new creation (hope as physical regeneration through the resurrection of the body and the renewal of heaven and earth). Campbell describes salvation in this holistic manner in his Christian System and his essay on “Regeneration.” A change of state involves a new birth (pardon and adoption) that produces a new life (a change in character through the working of the Spirit) that terminates in full redemption at the resurrection (eternal life understood as “physical regeneration” on a renewed heaven and earth). Consequently, salvation, which is the function of the whole remedial system, includes the past, present, and future.

This holistic understanding of salvation is present whenever Stone-Campbell authors explain the Remedial System (Hiram Christopher) or the Scheme of Redemption (Robert Milligan). But while this holistic picture never disappeared from the theological landscape within the Stone-Campbell Movement, the present and future aspects of salvation generally receded into the background.

Campbell, for example, most often stressed the past dimension of salvation. His corpus is primarily concerned with the assurance and enjoyment of forgiveness. Even his “systematic” discussions often leave little space for present and future soteriology. This emphasis is understandable given Campbell engagement with the frontier’s search for the assurance of forgiveness and the importance he attached to baptism as God’s “sensible pledge” of salvation. Often the emphasis on justification was polemical. For example, Campbell’s Christian Baptism identifies the “consequents of baptism” in terms of past tense soteriology. The Campbellian emphasis on baptism, so dominant in the Stone-Campbell Movement, effectively conceived salvation as a past event.

This is particularly true among the Churches of Christ. Three authors illustrate the point. T. W. Brents’ The Gospel Plan of Salvation (1874) is wholly concerned with justification as it never mentions the present and future aspects of salvation. Even when discussing the new birth and the Holy Spirit it is wholly concerned about conversion as an event in the past. David Lipscomb’s Salvation from Sin (1913), edited by J.W. Shepherd, focuses on Justification. While a few chapters discuss eschatology and pneumatology, the discussion is oriented toward understanding the necessity of obedience to divine law at the converting moment. K. C. Moser’s The Way of Salvation (1932) defends an orthodox Protestant understanding of justification though sanctification and pneumatology are not altogether absent but eschatology is. Contextual factors, of course, contributed to this emphasis. Brents and Lipscomb were polemically engaged with Calvinists and Baptists, and Moser was responding to the legalism he perceived among his own people. Nevertheless, this context moved Churches of Christ toward a primarily past and legal (though not necessarily legalistic) understanding of salvation. Salvation is primarily justification, that is, the pardon and forgiveness of sins.

The Stone-Campbell Movement, however, has at times emphasized the present dimension of salvation. While Barton W. Stone often reflected all three tenses of salvation, he emphasized the transformation of the believer into the character of Christ as the primary experience of salvation. Union with Christ did not mean the imputation of Christ’s legal righteousness, but the transformation of the character by participation in the nature of Christ. Salvation was conceived primarily as sanctification that would result in ultimate justification. Thus, in the end we would be declared righteous because, by the power of the Spirit, we would be made righteous through a change in our character. This manifested itself in Stone’s willingness to commune with the unimmersed at the Lord’s table (their character is more important than their baptism) and his insistence that the only kind of union that would stand the test of God’s intent was “fire” union, that is, a Spirit-shaped character that loves God and his children. Salvation, then, was more a process than a past event.

Robert Richardson pursued this emphasis on spiritual transformation in his Office of the Holy Spirit (1873) though he discusses conversion as a past event and briefly acknowledges a future “hour of redemption.” Richardson urges the “restoration of the Spirit” to the Stone-Campbell Movement’s soteriological message. The presence of the Spirit, he contends, effects a tremendous change in the moral nature of humanity.

Salvation as process rather than event, or as moral rather then legal, gained prominence among the Disciples of Christ in the early twentieth century. Salvation, as Edward Scribner Ames described it in his The New Orthodoxy (1918), is oriented toward persons rather than “states.” Salvation is not primarily a state, but a movement toward the divine ethic embodied in lived out faith. Similarly, Herbert Willet pointed out that the new life, “the possession of the mind of Christ, a character such as his,” was the most important dimension of faith (Basic Truths of the Christian Faith, 1903). Absent from many discussions of salvation in the early twentieth century among Disciples is eschatology. Given the social context of Fundamentalism and WWI, as well as higher critical views of Scripture and the emergence of an imminent understanding of the kingdom of God in the Social Gospel, eschatology dropped out of the common language of salvation.

What the nineteenth century church shared, however, was a primarily individualistic understanding of salvation. Though they sought communal unity and portrayed the coming kingdom as a cosmic event, salvation was primarily forgiveness from personal sin and the development of a holy character. While the Disciples often expressed this through social ethics in the twentieth century, the Churches of Christ and Independent Christian Churches fostered an individualistic focus on salvation.

Contemporary Disciples have adopted a transformational understanding of salvation. In fact, as many Disciple theologians move toward and embrace Process and Liberation theology, salvation as process is the dominant model for understanding God’s redemptive work. In this context salvation is conceived in cosmic terms rather than anthropocentricity. The cosmos is in the process of becoming as sin is eradicated. Thus, transformation is understood as part of a cosmic community rather than relegated to the individual life of the believer.

Independent Christian Churches shared the mixed atmosphere of Disciples and Churches of Christ. The “double cure” (justification and sanctification) was present in much of its literature as discipleship received a greater emphasis than in Churches of Christ. Nevertheless, the dominant concern has been justification and the experience of forgiveness, particularly as it related to baptism. Given the rise of Dispensational Premillennialism, the positive dimensions of eschatological soteriology were lost as churches reacted negatively to the new Fundamentalism.

Churches of Christ, prior to the practical expulsion of premillennialists among them, often had a healthy eschatological emphasis though it was subordinate to the past and present dimensions of salvation. R. H. Boll, for example, perhaps best modeled the portrayal of salvation as past, present and future. However, by the mid-twentieth century, the Churches of Christ along with the other segments of the Stone-Campbell Movement had essentially lost the eschatological emphasis in their soteriology. Of course, hope functioned as part of their religious life, but the attention it received did not compare with the past or present experience of salvation and it did not shape soteriological reflection.

The Stone-Campbell Movement, then, has usually stressed the past and present dimension of salvation, and mostly from an individualistic vantage point. It either emphasized salvation as a legal state (thus past) or a holy character through transformation (present process). Though eschatology was part of this picture, especially in the nineteenth century, it was largely lost because of the Movement’s polemical (debates over baptism) or social (institutionalism, anti-dispensationalism, and emphasis on social transformation) interests. At the end of the twentieth century, however, the Stone-Campbell Movement, in all of its segments, was moving more toward a communal and holistic understanding of salvation with a balanced stress on all the “tenses” of salvation.

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