Soft Complementarianism Among Churches of Christ: A Piece of History

March 1, 2021

Abigail M. (Rickoff) Mathes, “Woman’s Work in the Church of Christ” (1878).

Some congregations of the churches of Christ practiced and a number of conservative leaders advocated for the visible and audible participation of women as leaders in worshipping assemblies. Abigail was one of them.

Abigail was a school teacher and wrote for various periodicals. She was the second wife of James M. Mathes (1808-1892).

She offers a middle path between what she called two extremes. She did not think women should have public authority in either society (including voting) or church but did not think women should be silenced in worshipping assemblies or have no voice on social and political questions. This is a version of what is today known as “soft complementarianism,” though her version applies 1 Tim 2:12 to all of life and not just to the church.

“Some women and men have gone to the extreme of placing woman upon an exact equality with man in every department of Church work, and even demanding for her political equality with the elective franchise and the right to hold office, and to exercise authority in the Church as Elders and Preachers of the Gospel. Another class, going off to another extreme and denying to her all religious, political and social equality with man, and condemning her to absolute silence in the Church, not even allowing her the privilege of praying or exhorting in the social prayer meeting…making her a religious nobody graciously permitted to be a member of the Church, but mute and inactive in all the public and social duties of membership.” p. 4

“We doubt the propriety of women taking the pulpit as pastors and evangelists, because it seems to take her out her proper sphere, and place her in a position from which her modest nature would seem to shrink, as unsuited to the true position of woman, as the assistant and help-mate of man. But I would not be understood as saying that women have no right to teach, exhort, sing and pray in the congregation. Very far from it. For I believe that she has the scriptural right to do all these things, and more.” pp. 10

“May the sisters exhort, teach, sing, and pray in the worshipping assembly without violating the law of Christ? We answer in the affirmative. . . .We are aware that in some communities there is s sort of prejudice, as we think, growing out of ignorance, against the sisters taking any part in the social worship beyond the singing. They would make Paul’s prohibition general and universal [1 Cor 14:34-35] and condemn all women to absolute silence in the worshipping assembly.” pp. 12-13.

James M Mathes (1808-1892) was a close friend and ally of Benjamin Franklin (1812-1878), Together, they led a conservative element north of the Ohio in the mid-19th century (e.g., they opposed instrumental music in the assembly). Franklin held the same view as Abigail Mathes. Franklin was convinced that there were “two extremes–the one not permitting women to open their lips in any worshipping assembly, and the other making them public preachers and teachers” (American Christian Review 10 [2 July 1867] 213).


Three Early African American Leaders Among Nashville Churches of Christ

February 28, 2021

Peter Lowery (1810-1888).

Peter Lowery (1810-1888), married to a free Cherokee named Ruth Mitchell, (1) became a member of the Nashville Christian Church in 1835, (2) purchased his own freedom in 1839 and eventually freed his mother, three brothers, and two sisters, (3) worked at Franklin College and was mentored by Tolbert Fanning in the 1840s, (4) began preaching in 1848, (5) owned businesses worth $40,000 which he lost in the Civil War, (6) planted the first black congregation in the Restoration Movement in Nashville (eventually known as the Second Colored Christian Church) in 1855, (7) stayed in Nashville despite harassment and potential exclusion of all free blacks from TN by the legislature, (8) participated in the political pursuit of rights for Freedmen after the war, and (9) founded Tennessee Manual Labor school near Murfreesboro, TN in 1866 (185 students enrolled in 1869) though the project was abandoned in 1874 and property sold in 1876.

David Lipscomb recommended that his readers support the school: “Elder P. Lowery was long an approved teacher of the Gospel by the Church of Christ in Nashville. He has long been a free man; has, by industry and economy in days past, gained property; and so demenned [sic] himself as to command the respect and esteem of the community in Nashville, as his letters of endorsement attest. It would probably be difficult to find one of his race more competent to cary his proposed school into successful operation.” Gospel Advocate 10, no. 11 (12 March 1868) 256.

J. P. Grigg wrote his obituary in the Gospel Advocate (Feb 15, 1888, p. 10): “Bro. Lowery obeyed the gospel in his young days and had been a proclaimer of the gospel for 40 years. He was a good neighbor and devoted Christian. He lived a devoted member of the church from the day of his obedience until the day of his death. He died in a bright hope of a blessed immortality. I never saw any one who seemed to be more devoted to the Christian life than he. He was always found at church on Lord’s day when he was able. I do not remember of ever meeting him that he did not ask me how I was getting along spiritually and express his hopes of a brighter and better world than this.”

Peter Lowery (1810-1888), an enslaved black man who purchased his own freedom, owned businesses in Nashville, and planted the first black congregation in Nashville associated with the Restoration Movement in 1855, petitioned the city council of Nashville for permission to hold night church services in 1857. This was their response. May God have mercy.

“Ald. Fogg said he did not believe any good resulted from negro preaching. If negroes desired religious instructions, the churches in the city were all open to them. Negro preachers could not explain the fundamental principles of Christianity; they were not competent. There were many things connected with the night meetings which were objectionable and demoralizing. He moved its rejection. The motion prevailed unanimously.”“City Council,” Republican Banner (May 29, 1857) 3.

David Lipscomb held a different view: “Elder P. Lowery was long an approved teacher of the Gospel by the Church of Christ in Nashville” (Gospel Advocate, March 12, 1866, p. 256).

Samuel Lowery (1830-1900)

Samuel Lowery (1830-1900), the son of Peter Lowery and educated by Tolbert Fanning at Franklin College (whom he always highly regarded), became a school teacher in 1846 (yes, at 16!; schools for free blacks had existed in Nashville since 1833) and a preacher in 1849.

He left Nashville for Cincinnati, Ohio, due to the closure of black schools and violent threats against free blacks in 1856. It seems he founded the Harrison Street Christian Church (“colored”) in Cincinnati in 1857. From 1859-1862 he served as an evangelist and church planter in Chatham, Canada West, sent by the American Missionary Society.

He later returned to Nashville as a chaplain in the Union army (9th US Heavy Artillery US Colored Troops) during the Union occupation. He also conducted school for soldiers in Union regiments while in Nashville. Between 1865-1875 he was deeply involved in State Colored Men’s Conventions and the Tennessee State Equal Rights League.

He raised funds for and taught at the Tennessee Manual Labor University near Murfreesboro, TN (five of his seven children attended the school). The school’s demise was due, in part, to accusations about the mishandling of funds by Samuel, though it is uncertain whether this was ever the case. After studying law with a white mentor near Murfreesboro, TN, he began to practice law in Nashville.

In 1875, he moved to Huntsville, Alabama, to practice law and founded the Lowery Industrial Academy (which won first prize for its silk at the 1884 World’s Fair), edited the National Freeman, and was the first African American to argue a case before the United States Supreme Court. He ultimately became disenchanted with politics and focused on his silk business. He became an ally of the educator Booker T. Washington.

The Gospel Advocate (1880, p. 203) noted his achievement: “Samuel R. Lowery, a colored man, was recently admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court.”

Daniel Wadkins (1818-1883)

Elder Daniel Wadkins (1818-1883), biracial and born free, was a member of the Nashville Christian Church on Church Street (probably since 1844). Originally a farm laborer, he became a teacher’s assistant in 1833 when the first school for free blacks in Nashville was started. He began his own school in 1839.

The schools were typically clandestine and often violently opposed. In December 1856, twelve white men threateningly entered his school and closed it. It remained closed until 1862 when it reopened with 159 students during Union occupation. However, by 1865, Wadkins’s school closed due to free education offered by white churches/missionaries in Nashville.

In 1866, Wadkins, like Samuel Lowery, was commissioned to raise money for the Tennessee Manual Labor University. Wadkins received a letter of commendation from Frederick Douglass. Though accused of mishandling funds, an investigation by the Nashville Christian Church, led by P. S. Fall, acquitted him of any wrongdoing and affirmed his integrity (Gospel Advocate, October 27, 1870, p. 397).

In the 1860s, Wadkins was also involved in city politics as well as Freedmen associations and conventions. In 1867, he was elected to the city council but was replaced by a white Republican before the council went into session. He lost his next election bid in 1868. When Andrew Johnson (former military governor of TN and President of the US) ran for Senate in 1869 in TN, Wadkins led Republican freedmen in questioning Johnson’s views: Did he support black civil and political equality with whites? Did the Tennessee government represent blacks as well as whites? Wadkins’s letter to Johnson was published in the Nashville Daily Press and Times (April 15, 1869). Johnson never responded. Wadkins argued in various political meetings that “there was not now any disposition on the part of the whites to oppress the colored people” and noted the legislature to that point had not passed “any law restricting their rights” (Republican Banner, November 12, 1869, p. 1).

When a new constitution was written in early 1870 and a new governor installed (John Calvin Brown, a former Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan member), Tennessee’s Reconstruction era came to an end. Wadkins was disappointed and disillusioned. He turned his primary attention to preaching.

In the 1870s, Wadkins served as an evangelist supported by various congregations. He preached and planted churches in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky. His audiences sometimes included white as well as black attendees, and sometimes he was refused use of buildings where white congregations met. He was also a leader in the annual conventions of the “colored Christian church” in Tennessee (e.g., Gospel Advocate, November 20, 1873, p. 1119).

In support of his ministry, the First Christian Church in Nashville (his home congregation) commended him with this letter: “This shall certify that Bro. Daniel Wadkins (colored) has been for thirty years a member of this congregation, and is in regular standing as such. He has been long engaged in preaching the word, and is hereby authorized to do so wherever, in the providence of God, an opportunity may offer. He is commended, as a disciple of Christ and as a Christian Teacher to the attention of the brotherhood. In behalf of the elders and deacons of the said congregation, and by their order, Lord’s Day, March 29, 1874. P. S. Fall.” (Gospel Advocate, May 7, 1874, pp. 447-8).

In 1881, Wadkins, commissioned by Governor Alvin Hawkins, became a Chaplain in the State Penitentiary. (Gospel Advocate, March 31, 1881, p. 203.)

Wadkins died on May 10, 1883 in Nashville. “His funeral was preached by Bros. D[avid]. L[ipscomb]., and R. Lin Cave, assisted by Rev. Nelson Merry, in the First Baptist Church, a large audience being in attendance. Bro. W. was a man of remarkably strong and vigorous mind, and superior talents.” (Gospel Advocate, May 16, 1883, p. 315.)

Wadkins, a leading black evangelist who traveled in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky preaching and planting churches (see my post earlier this morning), became the center of a controversy in 1874 that signaled the direction many churches would take during the Post-Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras.

In 1874, Watkins asked Lipscomb to publish his request for the use of “meeting-houses” so that he might teach Christianity to “the more destitute of my people” that “are willing to hear.” Unfortunately, to the dismay of Lipscomb, “white brethren in some places refused the use of their houses at times when unoccupied by themselves.” “We do not hesitate to say,” Lipscomb added, “that such a foolish and unchristian prejudice should be vigorously and eagerly trampled under foot, and all persons who are driven from the church because the house is used by the humblest of God’s creatures, in teaching and learning the Christian religion would bless the church by leaving it.” Further, “if the houses are too fine for this, they are entirely too fine for Christian purposes.” (Lipscomb, Gospel Advocate, March 19, 1874, pp. 281-83.)

On October 9, 1874, a “consultation meeting” of more than thirty ministers and elders was held by disciples in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Daniel Wadkins was present, and he was commended “to his people as one being qualified to preach the word, and plant and build up churches among them.” On the morning of October 12, the “ordination” committee proposed this resolution: “Resolved, that we recommend to our colored brethren who have membership with whites, whenever practicable to withdraw themselves and form congregations of their own, believing that by so doing they will advance the cause of Christ among themselves, and when it not practicable so to do, that they receive the attention of their various congregations.” (Gospel Advocate, October 29, 1874, 1017-18.)

David Lipscomb took exception to the segregationist resolution. “The resolution in reference to colored brethren forming separate congregations we believe plainly contrary to the teachings of the Scriptures. The Jews and Gentiles had as strong antipathies as the whites and blacks. They were never recommended to form distinct organizations. The course we believe to be hurtful to both races and destructive to the Spirit of Christ.” (Lipscomb, Gospel Advocate, October 29, 1874, 1020.)

Wadkins himself had stayed with the mother Nashville congregation when a black congregation was planted in the city by Peter Lowery. Lipscomb believed the church should be the place where black and white serve and worship together in contrast to segregated society. But Reconstruction and the emergence of the Jim Crow South dramatically shaped the story of black and white churches in the South.

However, it is understandable that some freed people sought their own space because of the paternalistic and assimilationist attitudes on the part of many white churches where power was not shared or expectations were not equitable.

May God have mercy.


Tidbits on Women from the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the History of Churches of Christ (No. 2).

August 31, 2019

These are brief: one tidbit each from the Hebrew Bible, the writings of the New Testament, and from the history of Churches of Christ.

Hebrew Bible

Miriam was both a prophet (Exodus 15:20) and a leader (Micah 6:4). She was one of the three people (along with Moses and Aaron) God sent to lead Israel out of Egypt and through the wilderness (Micah 6:4). In addition, she served another role as well:  worship leader.

Once Israel crossed the sea and the Egyptian army was destroyed, Miriam took her tambourine and, with other women, played and danced before the Lord. And “Miriam,” the Bible says, “sang to them.”

Our English translations do not typically specify to whom the “them” refers. Most English readers, in my experience, presume it refers to the women. But the Hebrew text is clear: “them” is masculine. Miriam sang to the men (probably the whole congregation). In other words, Miriam led Israel’s first communal worship after the Exodus. Israel’s first worship leader was a woman!

New Testament

Eve is only named in two passages in the New Testament: 2 Corinthians 11:3 and 1 Timothy 2:13-14. In both passages Eve is mentioned because she was deceived.

Because Eve was deceived, some have thought women are more easily deceived, perhaps due to their supposed emotional nature, natural instability, or weaker mind. But Paul offers no reason for why Eve was deceived; male interpreters have invented these dubious rationales.  In my experience men are deceived as often as women. In fact, the Bible regularly warns everyone about deception (e.g., Ephesians 5:6). Further, we might even say, Adam was weaker because he ate the fruit even though he was not deceived.

Paul uses Eve as a typology of deceived people. In 2 Corinthians 11:3 whole groups of people (men and women) were deceived like Eve. In 1 Timothy 2:13-14, Eve represents the women in the Ephesian congregation who had been deceived by false teachers. She illustrates the danger present when deceived women lead or teach. That same danger is true for men as well, but the specific situation in Ephesus involved deceived women—some had already been captured by Satan (1 Timothy 5:15). Paul is neither describing every woman nor the nature of women but identifying one woman from the Biblical story who was deceived in order to highlight the local problem in Ephesus. It is not a universal statement about women.

History

Daniel Sommer (1850-1940) was a leader in the conservative wing of the Churches of Christ. In fact, some believe he was the major force in the division of Churches of Christ from the Christian Church through his participation in the Sand Creek Address and Declaration in 1889. Those congregations announced their separation from other congregations who practiced “innovations and corruptions.”

At the same time, Sommer advocated for the “privileges” of women to participate in the public worship assemblies of the church. Though he was not egalitarian (e.g., he did not believe they should preach or rule as elders in the church), he encouraged women to lead prayer and read Scripture in the public assembly. Moreover, he encouraged women to “exhort” the congregation in the public assembly. “If a sister in good standing,” he wrote, “wish to arise in the congregation and offer an exhortation it is her privilege to do” (Octographic Review 44.34 [1901] 1). Apparently, such a practice was not an innovation.

Typically, Churches of Christ do not permit any audible participation of women in the public assembly except singing and their good confession at baptism (or perhaps the occasional “amen”), but it has not always been so among us.


Tidbits on Women from the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and History in Churches of Christ (No. 1)

August 30, 2019

These are brief: one tidbit each from the Hebrew Bible, the writings of the New Testament, and from the history of Churches of Christ.

Hebrew Bible

In Genesis 4:1, Eve explodes on the scene East of Eden as one who is already subverting the “man will rule over the woman” script of Genesis 3:16. She names a man!

Eve produced (qanah) a man (ish) with the help of Yahweh. Cain (qayin) is the noun form of qanah, and he is called an ish rather than a child, or a human, or a boy. Eve gave birth to a man, and named the man. Just as Adam named the woman (ishah) “Eve” after God questioned them in the Garden, now Eve names a man (ish) whom she has brought into the world with the help of Yahweh.

This anticipates Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 11:11-12 where he recognizes the mutual reciprocity between male and female rather than the domination of male over female: “in the Lord, woman is not independent of man nor man independent of woman for just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God.”

New Testament

In Christ, Paul writes, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, and there is neither slave nor free. Then he also adds a third pair: there is neither male and female. There is no “nor” as in the first two pairs but the conjunction “and.” Why the difference?

Paul writes “male and female” (arsen kai thēlu), which is the precise language that appears in the ancient Greek translation of Genesis 1:27. This is not typical language for Paul who only uses “female” in Romans 1 and nowhere else. He drew it directly from the Genesis 1 creation account. In other words, Paul recalls the creation of humanity as male and female.

This appeal to creation is important because what Paul describes as “in Christ” is part of the “new creation” (Galatians 6:15). This new world renews the partnership of the original creation when “God blessed them” and told “them” to co-create and co-shepherd God’s good creation. In other words, the equality and partnership envisioned in Genesis 1:26-28 is renewed in the new creation.

History

In the nineteenth century, many leading teachers among the churches of Christ believed that 1 Timothy 2:12 had universal application. It was not limited to the assemblies of the church but applied to the whole of society. Consequently, 1 Timothy 2:12 was used to deny women the vote, oppose public speaking by women in any social situation, and reject any kind of public leadership on the part of women.

If the traditional interpretation is correct, they had a point. If the prohibition of 1 Timothy 2:12 is rooted in some kind of “order of creation” (a kind of primogeniture), then it applies universally—whether in the assemblies of the church or in political assemblies. Whatever is rooted in creation applies to every aspect of human life.

It would seem a consistent application of 1 Timothy 2:12—if one thinks this contains a timeless prohibition—excludes women from any public leadership or authority, whether in the church or in society. That is how our “forefathers” read it until women were given the right to vote, hold political office, sit on juries, and become Presidents of universities. Then, we no longer believed that, adjusted our interpretation, and decided that the text only applied to assemblies of the church while continuing to ground the prohibition in some kind of “creation order.”


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

Eschatology.

Millennialism.

Second Advent.

Judgment.

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.]

Sources:

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!

 CHURCH BURNED!–LOSS $25,000

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. “