Monday, September 12, 2011

Happy Birthday Alexander Campbell


I was just reminded in an email from the Disciples of Christ Historical Society that today (September 12) is the birthday of Alexander Campbell, one of the Founders of what has become the Stone-Campbell Movement or Christian Church Movement, and thus of the stream of that movement that I inhabit -- the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Alexander Campbell was born September 12, 1788 in County Antrim, Ireland.  His parents were Thomas and Jane Campbell.  He was born a preacher's kid as his father was a minister in the Anti-Burgher Seceder Sect branch of the Scottish Presbyterian Church in Northern Ireland!  Thomas and Jane would emigrate to the United States in 1807, taking residence in Western Pennsylvania.  Alexander stayed behind, attending Glasgow University in Scotland, before joining his family there in 1809.  While Alexander was in Scotland, his father had an epiphany of sorts, and chose to open the Lord's Table to all Presbyterians, no matter their affiliation.  It got him in trouble, but launched an ecumenical ministry.  Simultaneously, it seems, Alexander was having a similar epiphany in Scotland.  So, when Alexander reached Western Pennsylvania, it seems they were of similar mind and thus together began a ministry of seeking to find unity among Christians, based on what they believed was the most basic constitution for the church -- the New Testament (read through the eyes of a Lockeian framework).  

Campbell would go on to make his presence felt on the American Frontier (West Virginia, Ohio, and places like that), as a teacher, editor, and famed debater.  He was probably best known for his debates with noted Socialist and religious skeptic Robert Owen.  

More importantly, however, what Campbell and his colleagues did was try to reach back in time (guided by Enlightenment era principles) to a utopia of his own (the church of the NT) to create a new way of being Christian on the American Frontier.   The movement that he helped found was imbued with the American ethos of freedom, guided by a spiritual constitution that he believed was divinely ordered.  

So, Happy Birthday Alexander!

But my reason for posting this isn't simply that it's the birthday of the founder of my denomination.  Notice of Campbell's birthday came as I have been reading a memoir in manuscript by Keith Watkins.entitled "Eucharist and Unity:  A Theological Memoir."  I have reached a point in the manuscript where Keith is pondering the numerical (and one might say spiritual) decline of the Disciples, which has taken place at a faster rate than other Mainline denominations, especially the United Methodists.  Keith offers some of his own thoughts as to why this is true, but key is one related to Campbell's birthday.

Keith writes:

Perhaps the simplest way to state the Disciples problem, as I thought about these things, was that we had lost faith in the vision that formerly had energized our life  and had not found a way to reform, renew, or replace that vision.

Why is this?  Well most of the elements that mark our communion, such as weekly communion, adult baptism by immersion, lay elders, etc., were "based on the assertion that these ideas and these alone were the biblically warranted way for people to receive new life in Christ, organize their churches, and witness to the importance of Christian unity."  As we have embrace a newer, more critical understanding of Scripture, the foundations have begun to crumble and unlike some of the other Mainline churches, we haven't had much to fall back on as we have engaged modern culture.  That may be why I continually hear Disciples state that our primary vision is that we have the freedom to believe what we wish to believe.  It is true that the early Disciple leaders, especially Campbell, embraced the principle of freedom, but that freedom was rooted in his embrace of a New Testament constitutionalism.  This freedom was based in the idea that reason could guide our understanding of Scripture without much input from Tradition (creedalism).  That premise, we are finding, may have had a deleterious effect on our faith community.

So again, happy birthday Alexander -- but where do we go from here?

6 comments:

Rev. Steven F. Kindle said...

In my own journey among Disciples, I began with a great interest in Christian unity, eventually became disillusioned at the possibility, and moved to interfaith work as a more important (and doable?) endeavor. I've also learned that denominationalism is not only inevitable, but can be good. It's when denominations compete with each other and duplicate resources that we get off track, but could be a strong force for good if we would cooperate more. Our distinctive positions would be a source of celebration, not offence, and a means of attracting diverse peoples to our churches. The New Testament churches were nascent denominations: Jewish Christian, Pharisee Christians, gentile Christians, charismatic Christians, anti-charismatic Christians, and so forth. Christian unity based on bring all under one tent seems a dead end in our times. Why not work to recognize and celebrate the value each denomination brings to the church universal as our call to unity rather than unity around polity? Who knows, perhaps organic unity might even follow.

Brian said...

Beyond Theology: The autobiography of Edward Scribner Ames, Chicago, 1959
p 46, Chicago, 1896-97
In the same winter quarter, beginning in January, 1896, I taught a class for the Disciples Divinity House, in the divinity school of the university, on the theology of Alexander Campbell. This enabled me to work over again the relation of his thought to that of John Lock, which had so much interested me while I was working on my thesis the previous year. With a class of eight graduate students it was possible to have reports and discussions on various problems. Our excitement ran high, for the “discovery” of the relation between Campbell and Locke gave new meaning to Disciple history and placed it in a stream of thought that was influencing modern science and philosophy with what Locke himself called “a new way of ideas.” It was the empirical and pragmatic temper applied in religious matters. This meant not only a lessened emphasis upon traditional theology and speculative metaphysics but a refection of their assumptions and methods. Like Locke, Campbell also rejected the “inner light” and “enthusiasm” as grounds for religious assurance. Both held to the possibility of revelation, but both insisted that any alleged revelation must be brought to the test of reason.

John said...

How would you reasonably "test" a revelatory event? If you hold open the possibility of revelation, then you hold open the possibility of the "unreasonable" being true.

For me the only test is whether the revelatory event is of God, in which case it will conform in most if not all respect to the revelatory event of Jesus Christ. It will speak of an abhorrence of violence, as well as of healing, wholeness, forgiveness, and love of the other.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

John,

If Jesus is the norm against which we judge revelation, which I'm supportive of, we must at the same to recognize that our picture of Jesus is a composite that is taken from at the very least four gospel accounts, which were written down, at the earliest forty years later.

So, when there are multiple pictures of Jesus, how do we discern which one to adopt. At that point reason does play a role. Traditionally, most theologians, from Augustine to Aquinas, to Tillich, that the things of God will not be contrary to reason. Barth, however, was willing to entertain the idea that revelation ran counter to reason, which is why he rejected much natural theology.

Rev. Steven F. Kindle said...

Bob, let us not overlook the reality that reason is a Western notion and is quite different from Eastern "reason." It is a construct in both cases, neither of which is ultimately determinative of truth which we will always see though a mirror darkly. So, yes, we will have a composite Jesus as our model, recognizing that the resulting composite is based not so much on reason as preference. Otherwise, why are there so many different and divergent Jesuses? I like John's Jesus (as described in this blog), but others prefer the Jesus that damns people to hell, violently cleanses the Temple, and came to bring a sword, not peace. “Reason,” except in the most rigorous mathematical models, is easily corrupted and quickly becomes rationalization. A great case in point is Aristotle’s “unmoved mover” god of the First Cause. His “logic” is impeccable. However, no Christian (or most anyone) wants a god you cannot pray to (who cannot change), so we ignore the logic and accommodate our preference.

Brian said...

Busy past few days. Quick note.

I placed the reading by Ames in here mostly for historical value. I have taken it upon myself to give Ames some recognition because he is special to me. In this reading he was discussing the conversations among grad students in the late 19th century as they discussed the importance of Campbell. I find is fascinating in itself. I know Bob and Dr. Watkins are historically minded people, so it seemed appropriate.

Bob touches on something that is also special to me. There was/is a differnce between how Barthians and more traditional liberals view revelation. Bob has shared his appreciation for Barth. True to my CTS roots, I do not care for Barth. (Thus I do not care for Willimon.)

Please Note: I hope I don't come across as a know-it-all. Bob, Watkins, Kindle, etc are all genuine scholars. I'm simply a guy with a genuine interest in theology. That said, Barth's take on revelation is clearly wrong. There, I just saved you from thousands of pages.