Full Text for American Religious Scene- Volume 52 - Ecumenical Movement (Video)

No. 52. >> So the Ecumenical Movement has a tie to Lutheranism. I must admit, phrases like "agreement in essentials" and words like unity, et cetera, sound familiar to me. I have a friend here in LA who is a member of a Christian Church. I think the Disciples of Christ is the official name. And he used these words and phrases on several occasions. Would you tell us about his tradition? >>DR. LAWRENCE R. RAST, JR.: What we find as we look at the history of Christianity here in America and at the American religious scene more broadly speaking is that this Moravian scene of in essentials, unity and non-essentials, liberty, and all things, charity, that this thing becomes pervasive. And that many, many of the churches, even if they don't embrace the Moravian ecumenical program, nonetheless, they embrace that particular theme. And in one respect there's a group clustered around two leaders that emerges that really carries this to its extreme and makes this definitional for themselves as a group. Though as they develop, they begin to express it in more and more particular and unique ways. The group I'm talking about is the cluster of traditions, referred to variously as the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, the Church of Christ and the Churches of Christ. These three groups emerge from the early 19th Century Ecumenical Movement led largely by one name we've already heard. Namely, Barton Warren Stone, who was part of the Cane Ridge Revival. And then a remarkable Irishman who was formally part of the Presbyterian Church but comes to America and transforms this tradition. Namely, Alexander Campbell. These two would give form and shape to this particular tradition. This movement, which, again, began within the Presbyterian tradition, will later on be referred to as the Restorationist Movement in American Christianity. What they proposed to do was literally restore New Testament biblical Christianity in the 19th Century American setting. Now, obviously that assumed that none of the existing churches rightly held to the biblical witness. And that was simply a given that emerged as the tradition developed. Barton Stone with his work early on as a Presbyterian pastor, his participation in sacramental seasons, but then his break with more conservative Presbyterianism largely stemmed from his increasing belief that it was human creeds that had obscured the biblical Gospel. And in fact, that humanly authored texts like the Westminster Confession, in fact, not only obscured the Gospel but denied the Gospel. So that the imposition of any text but the Bible upon the community that is the church, was a sure sign of apostasy. Not surprisingly, he left his Presbyterian roots. Went independent as were largely in the Baptist tradition initially. But later on was part of this movement, this Restorationist Movement that, in fact, claimed that Baptist creeds and confession had gone beyond the Bible. He wanted a radical New Testament Christianity. Nothing beyond that. While Stone was very effective at articulating what the movement was not about, it took another man, Alexander Campbell, to articulate what the movement truly was about. Born in Ireland, he later immigrated to the United States. And in the last part of the first decade of the 1800s began to make an impact. He had been part of the Presbyterian tradition, as well. But like his father, Thomas Campbell, was increasingly frustrated with the constrictions placed upon his preaching by texts like the Westminster Confession. We should only preach the Bible, he concluded. And one of the main themes of this Restorationist Movement would be just that: No creed but the Bible. But, said Campbell, as he read the Bible, he increasingly found that even the translations in use, primarily the King James version at this point in time, even the English translations in use, did not do justice to the biblical text as it had been originally written. To put it another way, human creeds and confessions had even confused Bible translations so that the King James Bible itself was unreliable. Not surprisingly then, Campbell, university trained, very bright and articulate, determined to read the Bible for himself without note or comment. Without the interference of any kind of humanly authored confession. And to bring forward the biblical witness in its purity so that the New Testament church might be restored. Believing that, if all human creeds, if all human denominations were set aside, that the truly Christian Church would emerge and that Disciples of Christ would thereby be made, it was his responsibility to bring forward this clear message so that the old confusion might pass. To do this, of course, he began with the Bible itself, since that was the sole and final authority. But as I said, finding even in the existing translations biases, he began to translate for himself. And where he found the key was in the translation of the word baptizo. Now, the bias that he noted was that the word baptism was used in so many of the translations. And specifically in King James. For him there was no word baptism. There was simply -- that was simply a transliteration of a Greek work. What baptism meant was immersion. And thus, in his translation of the Bible, every instance of the word baptizo he rendered immersion. So a familiar text to us: Go ye, therefore, and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He rendered: Go ye, therefore, and make disciples of all nations immersing them. And in every instance a form of the word baptizo occurred, he rendered it immersion. Thus, in terms of the mode of baptism, he insisted upon immersion as the biblical form. But immersion was for forgiveness of sins in his mind. Immersion was something that was done by a Christian as the fulfillment of an obligation. The willful acceptance of the revealed will of God that then would result in if forgiveness of sins. For this he turned to the book of Acts, Acts Chapter 2 specifically. When Peter delivers his sermon on Pentecost, the people at the end asked: What should we do to be saved? And his response? Not repent and be baptized for the remission of sins. But rather, repent and be immersed for the forgiveness of sins. And that became the cornerstone of Campbell's teaching. Repentance, immersion results in forgiveness of sins. Here you see a particular Arminian twist on things, if you will, in the Campbellite tradition. That is God puts before you the way of death. In his law he shows that you have transgressed his will. And the only way out of that horrible situation, will result in your condemnation, is willful repentance and then willful obedience to the command to be immersed. And once those obligations are fulfilled then and only then does God forgive sins. That, however, argued Campbell, is what the Bible teaches. Now, he argued this in a particular winsome and compelling way. And was willing to go out into the countryside, into the cities, anywhere he could in the American west and challenge the existing preachers as to their understanding of biblical immersion. There are a number of famous debates in which he engages with Presbyterians and with others from a variety of traditions in which he bests them with his rigorous logic and his compelling approach. So much though that there are instances from almost every tradition, including the Lutherans, of pastors hearing Campbell's clear teaching and vigorous defense of his position. And these pastors leaving their traditions and joining the Disciples tradition. In fact, the explosion of the Disciples on the scene to having zero congregations in the year 1820 at least formally recognized to having 2100 by the year 1860 attest to the compelling way that Campbell presented this particular viewpoint. But not all was well within the church. Afterall, there were questions about how far one pressed the biblical principle. Just how far should you take this? And one of the challenges that would emerge, particularly after Campbell's death, was should there be a formalized denominational organization? And how should we approach those matters in the Scripture that are neither commanded nor forbidden? Well, for many there was a very pronounced resistance to any denominational formation. In fact, Disciples, Church of Christ, Churches of Christ consistently would say: We are not a denomination. But a fellowship. But as time went by, as the distinctions became more and more pronounced, there were evidently differences that were divisive of fellowship among these groups. Particularly in the wake of Campbell's death, the divisions really began to emerge. And nowhere more interestingly than in the matter of the use of musical instruments in worship. Now, in the New Testament we are told to gather together to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. But we are not told to use musical instruments to do so. Yes, it's true, in the Old Testament there are plenty of instances when musical instruments are described. But, said the Campbellites, the Old Testament dealt with the old covenant. And we live in the new. In the new there is no explicit command to use musical instruments. How then shall we proceed? Some said in the absence of a specific command, we are left to our best judgement on how to proceed. Others said: Absolutely not. Without a specific and prescribed command from the New Testament, we must not use musical instruments. Now, the result was a division within the tradition. And the Church of Christ largely adopted the position that musical instruments not be used. The Disciples of Christ, the Christian Church, would allow for the use of such instruments in worship. The question largely driving the whole conversation, however, showed just how tricky it is to maintain that commitment to the Bible and the Bible only. And that, in fact, some kind of additional statement had to be made in terms of what the Bible allowed for, what the Bible actually taught. And the result was in both traditions theological traditions began to emerge. One might call them insipient confessions or creeds. Though folks in those traditions would not like to use that terminology. Perhaps the greatest example of this need manifesting itself is in Alexander Campbell's own life. When he wrote a systematic theology text called "The Christian System." One would argue with Alexander: If the Bible is sufficient, then why the Christian system? His answer: We don't absolutely need this. But it helps us understand right now. To which my response would be: Exactly. Which is why the church has always written creeds and confessions. And this is just one more example of that. Well, in the Disciples tradition, there are the presence of these three different streams. The largest of which is the Church of Christ. But the Disciples are a significant participant in that, as well. They themselves arguing for restoration of biblical Christianity have found it difficult to maintain the unity even among themselves even as they pursue such unity in and among the various traditions of Christianity. It shows, once again, just how profound those tensions are. And it shows, once again, just how difficult it is for us as human beings to find the common ground and to maintain it. And it shows, once again, I think the tremendous blessing we have within the Lutheran Church with our faithful confession of the biblical truth and how God has blessed us in giving us such a confession. So that we may share it with the world in need.