Essentially, Intentionally, and Constitutionally One

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Why We Could Do Us Some Good, Especially Now

I'm not sure whether an introduction is in order for this sort of project, but I suppose I'll introduce myself anyway before I launch into my brief essay. I'm Nathan P. Gilmour, one of at least three collaborators in this little project (there might be more, but I'm sure of at least two others). More of my story will come in ensuing conversations, I'm sure, but right now, I'm a member of Bogart Christian Church, a relatively conservative Disciples of Christ congregation in Bogart, Georgia. So on with the essay.

Why We Could Do Us Some Good, Especially Now

The "present reformation" of the nineteenth century no doubt grew out of American-style Lockean Enlightenment thinking; Nathan Hatch's Democratization of American Christianity demonstrates this quite nicely, as do many good histories of early nineteenth century American religion. While Locke was a tad humbler than the caricatures of "modernism" would have it, he still believed that a pruning away of assumptions and dogmas could leave humanity with a more or less unfettered capability to know, and this kind of belief is not hard to find in Alexander Campbell's debates and in other early literature of the Stone-Campbell movement. Not being strong on the trend-prediction front, Alexander Campbell was thoroughly convinced that rational and historical approaches to the doctrines and practices of Christian faith would be the hope for Protestants' unification in America.

Now, two hundred years and (at least) two inter-non-denominational splits later, we can see what the Campbells and Stone could not. There is no singular rational manner of reading the Scriptures, and the historical and textual sciences that held so much hope in the nineteenth century have produced volumes of interesting scholarship but little unity. Foucauldian and Derridean postmodernism have demonstrated fairly convincingly that even if claims to truth and rationality are not necessarily power plays by intention, they often (I don't know that Foucault would say "often") function as exclusionary, dominating weapons. It seems that the early modernistic/enlightenment framework in which the Campbells operated is beyond hope for repair.

My contention, however, is that the best thing that "the movement" can do for the Church in an age that features postmodernism has relatively little to do with postmodern philosophy itself. Our blog is named EICO (essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one) after a line from Proposition One of Thomas Campbell's Declaration and Address, one of the founding documents of our little movement. Although Campbell would not likely have put it this way, the problem that Christians in the early 1800's faced is similar to those we face in the early 2000's: we improperly use first person plural pronouns.

As a recent pair of articles (Article 1 Article 2) in Harper's magazine illustrate, the old dividing lines between denominations and sects are in large part relics of an earlier age (some of our own old bulldogs might disagree, but that's what makes them old bulldogs). Catholics and Protestants, Charismatics and mainline congregations, suburban churches and rural churches are coming together under the banner of what's sometimes called the Religious Right, sometimes the Christian Right, and other times less charitable names. No doubt analogous things are happening in Democratic circles, so at least part of what Thomas Campbell seems to have been after is being accomplished: "We" are no longer Baptists or Pentecostals but the "Moral Majority" or "Christian Coalition," a body of believers that does not hold creed as a test of fellowship but welcomes all Christ-proclaimers under its tent.

But the "we" is still not One. Whereas before the confession of the Westminster Confession might have drawn a strong line between insiders and outsiders, now the voting booth functions as a divider between those of us who should be sisters and brothers. The second proposition of the Declaration reads thus:
2. That although the Church of Christ upon earth must necessarily exist in particular and distinct societies, locally separate one from another, yet there ought to be no schisms, no uncharitable divisions among them.

The problem that Campbell saw was that although all Christians worshiped the same God and read the same Bible, other elements, vital to some communities but abhorrent to others, were taking the Bible captive and thus turning Christian against Christian. Thomas Campbell again:
6. That although inferences and deductions from Scripture premises, when fairly inferred, may be truly called the doctrine of God's holy word, yet are they not formally binding upon the consciences of Christians farther than they perceive the connection, and evidently see that they are so; for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power and veracity of God. Therefore, no such deductions can be made terms of communion, but do properly belong to the after and progressive edification of the Church. Hence, it is evident that no such deductions or inferential truths ought to have any place in the Church's confession.

The unity plea of Thomas Campbell stands to speak a word to us twenty-first century Christians not because we've transcended the old denominational schisms but because we've replaced them with schisms based on the major political factions of the American federal political system.

This is no call to ignore the differences between Republicans and Democrats and Independents. (Incidentally, I never have seen "Independent" as accurate for me, though I'm neither Republican nor Democrat; in reality, I depend pretty heavily on such folks as Aquinas, Augustine, and Calvin for my own political theology.) Healthy debate is necessary for the political entity/experiment known as America. But for the Church, such factional loyalties, to the extent that they drive sister from brother, are poisonous. When one tells another that "I follow Bush" and another "I follow Clinton..." Okay, the 1 Corinthians reference is heavy-handed, but my point still stands. When we sacrifice our charity for a sister out of loyalty to a political faction, we're no better and in important ways worse than a nineteenth century Baptist who won't associate with the Lutheran down the street.

Pronouns aren't the answer to all of the Church's problems in 2005, but a healthy sense that "we" are the constitutionally unified Body of Christ wouldn't hurt. And although our theologies sometimes feature a sentimentalized "essentially" unified Church, we're short on the "intentional" end of things. Perhaps the Restoration Plea in 2005 ought not to be a transcending of denomination based on the Scriptures (denominations and non-denominations don't mean much any more save to those whose power bases are in them) but a transcending of Democrat and Republican, of French and Yankee, of "conservative" and "liberal." Communities are always going to be in disagreement (when they stop, they're dead), but to make such secondary things tests of fellowship seems to damage our witness to the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah, and perhaps a new hearing of Thomas Campbell now is just what "we" need so that "we" can start to love "us" as sisters and brothers.


Blogger Nathan P. Gilmour said...

It might be presumptuous to leave the first comment on my own essay, but having read through it a few days later, I figured I should.

I realize that the character of blogging values speed over depth, but I think now that this essay should have at least been twice its length. I think I'll likely explore these issues in some more depth in future writings, but since I was itchy to get started, I jumped in. I hope that the seeds of ideas here yield some fruit, and I look forward to seeing my fellow-contributors' efforts.

5:35 AM  
Blogger J.Wizzle said...

I'll be looking forward to reading it.

9:49 AM  
Blogger Jewels said...

Excellent thoughts Nate! :) I'm going to build on those myself by the way of moderate c of C. Although I'm intimadated now since my writing is now where near your level, I pray y'all will at least have mercy on me. ;)

9:55 AM  
Blogger John said...


i wish more of us had the wisdom of Thomas Campbell:

6. That although inferences and deductions from Scripture premises, when fairly inferred, may be truly called the doctrine of God's holy word, yet are they not formally binding upon the consciences of Christians farther than they perceive the connection, and evidently see that they are so; for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power and veracity of God.

we have lost so much of that humility in our approach to scripture and in our approach to our culture.

in our rush to "return" to the bible, we have found in it the ability to find the "right" answer to every question; theological, cultural, and political. Having such an answer clearly laid out in scripture gives us the high ground in our dismissal of all those who disagree.

yet, as you point out, if we take the time to listen to this call with new ears, perhaps we will hear that those answers are not so clear, and that we all should do our best and accept that others are doing the same in following God's call in their lives, in their churches, and in their nations.

6:19 AM  

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