What I’ve Learned From Restoration History

In the course of seeking my Master’s Degree in Biblical Studies I took a course on Restoration History with an emphasis on Stone and Campbell. The Restoration Movement is the historical origin of the Christian group that calls themselves “Churches of Christ” and the two most prominent actors in this movement were Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell. This course has opened my eyes to several things that is necessary for us to hear:

  1. These men were terribly flawed

I grew up hearing about the heroes of these men, particularly Alexander Campbell, without hearing about any of the negatives. I was shocked to hear the false doctrines they entertained, from my analysis that is. 

Barton Stone was a charismatic (believing in modern day Spirit empowerment like tongue-speaking) and a unitarian (rejecting the Trinity). Alexander Campbell was a legalist (for his youth, he was over-emphatically against saved by faith alone), was a judgmental critic (who employed an vicious critique of every denomination—an attitude which survives in the Churches of Christ today), a unitarian (see above), a postmillennialist (believing Christ’s return would come after the world established God’s vision of Christian truth and unity), an over-confident sectarian (believing his movement alone was the first ever for Christians to use the Bible as their sole guid), and, at the end of his life, a denominationalist (believing all Protestant denominations were acceptable in God’s sight). 

I grew up hearing about how Campbell and others rejected denominations and false doctrine to establish a group that followed the Bible alone. This is partly true (they rejected false doctrines but not fellowship with all denominations), but they themselves would not be welcomed into the modern-day version of their movement. Were the great Alexander Campbell resurrected today and asked to preach on a Sunday morning, I would be extremely hesitant to recommend it—plus his sermons usually lasted two hours. 

In reading their words and seeing the historical records of their actions, they would plead for us to remember them as they were, flawed human beings simply seeking the Truth. If they were here today they would love to sit down and hear our perspectives on these issues. I would gladly sit down and teach them how I think the Bible establishes the Trinity and they would without a doubt “examine the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). That was their greatest strength. 

  1. The greatest contribution these men gave us was a principle and an approach

Thomas Campbell, his son Alexander, Barton Stone, and other restorationists all disagreed on many things but their greatest unifying factor, their biggest strength, and the greatest reason to praise them was their desire to seek God’s word alone, pure and undefiled from manmade doctrines and traditions.

They have passed down to us the greatest doctrine of all, the sufficiency of God’s word. All that is needed for salvation, for Christian unity, for glory to God, is God’s word. Any addition to God’s word is truly a subtraction that will lead to a division. 

Thomas Campbell established a group of Christians dedicated to working inside churches to encourage this Bible-alone mindset, saying “that nothing be inculcated, as such, for which there can not be expressly produced a ‘Thus saith the Lord’” and “Where the Bible speaks; we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent.” 

Alexander Campbell sought to recreate what he saw in the New Testament a blueprint for the original form of Christianity free from error. He brought to a, typically, topic of emotion and experience, rationality and reason. He sought to restore “the gospel and its ordinances … in all their primitive simplicity, excellency, and power.” He believed he had developed something on the principles “which together constitute the original gospel and order of things established by the Apostles.”

Barton Stone dissolved his congregation seeing as its constitution was mixed with error in order to establish a new one on its ashes that was built by the pure word of God. He said of his new congregation, “that the people henceforth take the Bible as the only sure guide to heaven; and as many as are offended with other books, which stand in competition with it, may cast them into the fire if they choose; for it is better to enter into life having one book, than having many to be cast into hell.”

These men changed their heartfelt convictions, were pushed out of their fellowships, lost their jobs, and lost friends in the name of searching for the Truth. They believed God’s word is all that is needed to establish a congregation of the true Church which Jesus built. That is their greatest contribution to their movement. 

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