Reflections on the Stone/Campbell Conference and the Restoration Movement

The scholarly conference shared by the three branches of the Restoration Movement (from which I recently returned), The Stone-Campbell Conference, seems to reflect the character of the Restoration Movement (RM) itself. The weight of attention at the conference is not theological or philosophical (though the conference now boasts study groups involving both) but historical and, to a lesser degree, exegetical. Theological reflection built on the Campbells’ modernist/rationalist assumptions has found expression in theological liberalism and fundamentalism on the left and right, and perhaps in the middle the mega-churches (and those churches captured by the same ideology) are simply a reflection of the RM’s openness to evangelicalism, American pragmatism, and capitalism. None of these three choices (fundamentalism, theological liberalism, or evangelicalism) will presently accommodate the theological scholarship reflected, in a budding fashion, at the Conference. That is, the theological reflection that occurs does not do so as part of the inherent impetus of the theology of the RM (primitivism, restorationism, etc.), but in spite of that theology and the ideas entailed therein.

The bulk of scholarship and the subject which both the conservatives/fundamentalists and the theological liberals share (and to one degree or another both of these groups have been impacted by American evangelicalism), is the history of the RM. This study group boasts the largest number of scholars at the best institutions, which reflects the primacy of history to the RM. The study of church history (not historical theology) seems to function in place of theology. The anti-theological bias among the primitivists and reactionaries and the shared acceptance of modernist rationalism with the theological liberals, means that the inevitable necessity of working out theological issues is by proxy through historical studies. Liberals and conservatives can continually appeal to what it might mean to be true to the ideas of the RM or what the future might entail, as there is a shared adherence to the modernity which gave rise to the RM. The problem is that appeal to the Campbells’ or to RM history contains no more hope for resolution than appeal to reason alone can decide between theism or atheism. The sociological aspect of personal attachment to this history explains, in part, the fascination with the details and characters of the early RM. However, there also seems to be a necessary reification of the history as the history itself is perceived to be the glue holding things together. The distinctive understanding of the movement cannot be passed along in creeds or in a deep theological understanding and so the shared history is the means of conveying the distinctive understanding of the movement. What the history cannot do or what cannot be realized in studying that history, in isolation, is the sense in which the RM (both sociologically and inclusive of key ideas) is largely the product of a historical moment being rapidly displaced in late modernity.

The “success” of mega-churches in the RM might seem to directly contradict this. It is not clear, though, that the mega-churches retain an identity distinct from evangelicalism (thus the drift into reformed theology, vague Gnosticism, and dualism) so, as the most powerful representatives of the direction of the RM, they may also represent the RM’s demise as a distinct theological or cultural entity. At any rate, mega-church preachers and their disciples do not tend to show up at a scholarly conference. This would not be problematic were it not combined with the fact that these churches are now cutting themselves off from RM colleges and seminaries – that is they are left with the theological resources available in the local church. Given these immediate resources the tendency is toward pragmatism, supported consciously or implicitly, by Church Growth theory and capitalistic notions of success.

The impressive theological thought represented at the Conference and at the best schools in the independent branch of the Movement has been cultivated mainly in Catholic institutions of higher learning (which is not to say that it is necessarily Catholic but only that it is nurtured in this atmosphere). The question this continually poses for those weaned on this scholarship is not so much how to incorporate this theology and thought into the Restoration Movement but the question of why bother. The best of our schools, in terms of theological depth, seem to also be doing the best job of turning students to find forms of ecclesiology and thought which will accommodate broader horizons. Young scholars who have witnessed the breadth and depth of Catholic or Anglo-Catholic scholarship quickly realize that their theology and thought cannot be made to fit back into the box of 19th Century modernism. The argument of their professors in RM schools, trained in Catholic institutions, is two pronged: “the best of historical theology and the finest theological thought has been carried out mainly in a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox context; here are the reasons I cannot be Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox.” What this fails to do is to present any compelling case for loyalty to the particulars of the RM. The obstacles to converting (to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy) come to seem minor in light of the compelling case made by the seriousness of thought to which they have been exposed.

Those teaching in Christian Church schools in the Independent branch of the RM, who have undergone the rigors of a Ph.D. in a Catholic or Anglo-Catholic context, are having to negotiate their church and school life in such a way that the realities of their theological understanding are not brought to bear on the realities of their professional and ecclesiastical association. They may continue to attend church services that are intellectually and theologically unsatisfying (or sometimes only vaguely Christian) as this is simply part of the demand of keeping their job. There is an implicit understanding that their full blown theological understanding is not one that will be easily endured by the school’s constituency and the administrative interests concerned with that constituency. Thus, they are forced to live in two realms: in class, they convey an understanding to their students which would not always set well with the public context sustaining the institution. Perhaps they can compartmentalize these realms in their own thought but they are attempting to occupy two realms which are on a collision course.

The national political scene, in its subsuming and rendering visible the irrelevance of American evangelicalism is a reflection of the danger that is posed. Young theologians find themselves caught in a tectonic shift between the shallow, pragmatic, modernity, largely definitive of the local church along with the administrative interest of bible colleges and seminaries and the theological pull represented by the combination of post-liberal and post-modern (and a return to something like pre-modern) theology. In the abstract this is more easily nuanced than in the concrete reality of having to please a sponsorship that pays the bills and a faith that, given free expression, would be incomprehensible, unrecognizable, and inherently offensive to that same sponsorship. To some degree this may always define the reality of the college and university but in this instance the two realms which these scholars are being made to occupy are more like two worlds of thought headed in opposite directions.

The danger is that the weight of pragmatics will stifle a full blown deep theology which is precisely what is needed in this hour in which the Church is ablaze with the fires set by the surrounding culture. The thugs in the society and in the institutions of the church will always exercise an overt power. It is when they are successful in rendering thought and serious theology irrelevant that they have accomplished the ultimate evil. Those who are not “lucky” or burdened by employment in the RM often (at least in my anecdotal awareness) find no reason to continue to identify with RM churches. The socio-cultural ties may be the last to be severed but just as often the worship music, the popular style of preaching, the subtle forms of racism, the entrenched misogyny, and the right-wing politics, combine to drive away those who have been otherwise exposed. There is always a brain drain in the midst of oppressive circumstances. Maybe it is inevitable but it is also proving devastating to the RM.

It was not an overtly evident obligation which compelled Dietrich Bonhoeffer to return to Nazi Germany. In his own opinion, he had to return to be of some use to his German brothers and sisters after the War. No one could have blamed him (except Karl Barth, who accused him of abandoning the Church in the midst of a fire) if he had remained in the United States. The parallel is not exact but the necessity of the moment is the same. The RM and the American Church is inundated with an insipid form of thought that is devastating its institutions and emptying the individual lives of Christians of the richness of the Gospel. In the end, human institutions and movements cannot be saved – only people can be saved and only people are worth saving (which as I understand it was the significance of the RM’s stance of non-denominationalism). The way this is accomplished is ultimately through an authentic witness where we are.

So, the reality of the present situation is one that can be welcomed in that if offers the possibility of a real return or restoration – the return of individuals to an unadulterated, authentic, Christian understanding. The history of institutions and the movements which give rise to those institutions is always bleak and the true story of Christians is not their association with movements and institutions. In this sense, the focus on being “Christians only” as a means of preserving and fostering Christian unity describes the essential understanding of the RM. Stripped of the powers of institution and denomination there is the possibility for a fellowship of Christians to come together as witness to an authentic Christianity.

We will stay where we are in the hopes that we might provide succor to those broken few, like ourselves, who only have the security of the local body of Christ – this is worth preserving.

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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