Backgrounds of the Restoration Movement: Positive Law

In hindsight, it’s easy to see that the doctrine taught by Stone, the Campbells, and Scott differed radically from much that was taught in the years following the Civil War. What changed? Surely they didn’t realize at the time that an entirely different theology was being taught.

I think it boils down to two important doctrinal trends: the abuse of positive law theory and Landmarkism, borrowed from the Baptists.

Positive Law

LardMoses Lard began his editing career in 1864. He insisted that all Christians must agree on every single point —

For if both of these men be true Christians neither more nor less, evidently there cannot exist between them even a nominal, to say nothing of a real difference. … Consequently they are now, be it supposed, Christians strictly according to the Bible; that is, they mentally accept and in heart hold, as the matter of their faith, precisely and only what the Bible certainly teaches; they do and practice what, and only what, it either expressly or by precedent enjoins; in spirit, temper, and disposition, they are exactly what it requires; and as to names, they wear none save those which it imposes.

Here we see the idea of “tests of fellowship” greatly expanded beyond the teachings of Stone and Campbell, already going to the opposite extreme. The Campbells counseled that the church’s practice be only what is commanded or established by example, but this was no test of fellowship. In Lard’s writings, however, having the right name and practices establishes who is saved.

Notice that Lard uses “faith” to refer to anything found in or inferred from scripture, whereas Stone, the Campbells, and Scott used “faith” to refer to faith in Jesus. Somehow, Lard concluded that true Christians could not disagree over what the Bible says.

FranklinA similar approach to fellowship is found in the writings of Benjamin Franklin. In 1877 he wrote about the difference between moral and positive commands in “Positive Divine Laws.” Franklin reasoned that commands that are not based on standards of moral behavior are “positive” commands, that is, they are the law solely because God says so, whereas moral law does not require any special revelation.

God’s grace covers mistakes in obedience to the moral law – no one is perfect – but the positive commands are a test of faith and must be obeyed perfectly on threat of condemnation.

In a 1868 article, Franklin teaches, perhaps for the first time in Restoration Movement history, the notion that the one true church is defined by certain marks:

I. A body, or community, not built on the foundation which God laid, is not the community which the Lord calls “my Church.”

II. A community not founded and established in the right place, is not the Church of Christ.

III. A community not founded at the right time, is not the kingdom of Christ.

IV. No church can be the true Church not founded by the proper persons, Christ and the apostles.

V. A kingdom, with any other law than the one given by the head of the Church, is not the kingdom of Christ.

VI. Any community labeled with a foreign name, or a name not found to designate the body of Christ, in the New Testament, is not the kingdom of God.

Here we see a particularly radical departure from the teachings of Stone and the Campbells, who taught that the only marks of the church were faith in Jesus and baptism. Indeed, we find here the truly repugnant teaching that God cares more about arbitrary rules than moral rules, more about sacrifice than mercy.

The Movement’s history would quickly show the fruit produced by these teachings.

Instruments were first introduced into worship in 1851. But it wasn’t until after the death of Alexander Campbell that the second-generation editor-bishops began to craft a theology that would damn those who practiced any error in worship. And it wasn’t until 1889 that emotions became so strong that actual separation occurred.

You see, it took that long for the editor-bishops to convert a part of the Movement to new kind of unity — a unity based on the creeds of the editor-bishops. By 1889, we’d become what we’d been founded to oppose.

I’m quite happy being a part of the Restoration Movement. It’s just that a great many Churches of Christ are not.

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3 Responses

  1. Good morning Jay,
    Just viewing your article here. It seems that there are both differences and similarities in the efforts to RESTORE New Testament Christianity, and the efforts to ESTABLISH New Testament Christianity in the first place.
    I would love to read your thoughts on this.
    Thanks,
    Jack Exum Jr.

  2. Jack,

    You remind me of an important fact. Campbell and his early followers called themselves “Reformers,” and saw themselves as continuing the Reformation begun by Luther etc.

    “Restoration” didn’t become a hallmark of the movement until later. You see, Campbell didn’t see the church as having disappeared but as needing reformation through unity arrived at by eliminating all creeds but Christ — that is, the only tests of fellowship were faith in Jesus and baptism.

    Later on, the movement became a restoration rather than a reformation, largely because later generations saw all outside the Movement as lost in their sins — because restoration of the practices of the First Century church was seen as essential to salvation. (Contrary to Stone’s and Campbell’s teachings.)

    When you look in historical context, you can see why some prefer to call it the Stone-Campbell Movement. And if we saw our work as reformation rather than restoration, we’d be a very different people.

  3. Jay,

    Campbell’s use of the term “reformation” was different than that of other Protestants. To most Protestants, “reformation” meant reforming the church to do away with the Roman Catholic abuses. Campbell, however, used the term “reformation” in place of “repentance”. Look at Acts 2:38 in Campbell’s Living Oracles. Campbell’s “current reformation” was about getting Christians in the various sects (i.e. denominations) to reform (repent) themselves of their errors, to come out of those groups, and to enter those groups that have restored the proper work and worship of church.

    Ken

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