Book Review: “Excerpts – Participating in God’s Life” (Jul-Aug 2002)

By Matt Dabbs

By Shaun Casey
July-August 2002

Participating in God’s Life: Two Crossroads for Churches of Christ By C. Leonard Allen and Danny Gray Swick (Orange, California: New Leaf Books, 2001) Reviewed by Shaun Casey Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics Wesley Theological Seminary Washington, DC

It has been said that members of the Churches of Christ agree on only three things. 1. There are three sacraments: baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and attendance. 2. There are at least two members of the Trinity. 3. There will be a collection on Sunday morning.

It is the second of these propositions that trouble the authors of Participating in God’s Life.

Their contention is that the Churches of Christ need to recover a stronger doctrine of the Trinity and that means, among other things, rescuing the Holy Spirit from its status as a retired author. This contribution to the growing literature of discontent among the various tribes of the Stone-Campbell movement is among the best in the genre and is worthy of serious attention from anyone who gives a fig about the future of the Churches of Christ.

The notion of two crossroads for the Churches of Christ is the central organizing motif of the book. The first of these crossroads took place in the middle of the nineteenth century and is displayed in an exchange between Robert Richardson, associate editor of the Millennial Harbinger, and Tolbert Fanning editor of the Gospel Advocate. Allen and Swick carefully narrate the dispute in which Richardson argued for receiving the spiritual truth contained in the Bible and not settling for a mere rational reading of scripture. Fanning’s reaction was a classic display of Baconian and Lockean epistemology that defined faith as assent to a set of propositions set out by God in scripture. Richardson in turn felt that this conception of faith was not necessarily the biblical trust in the person of Jesus. The authors retell the well-documented effects of the triumph of the Fanning position in the Churches of Christ. The current generation of church historians have shown that our hyper rationalism, our denial of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, our command, example, necessary inference hermeneutic all have their roots in this philosophical stream.

The more questionable claim by the authors is that the Churches of Christ face a similar crossroads today. They are correct that we can learn a lot from the road not taken in the 1850s, but it is not so clear to me that we face the exact challenges in the church today that Swick and Allen see.

Three important issues will show that the contemporary scene is more complicated than they portray. The first is the nature of postmodernity, the second is the need for a trinitarian theology, and the last is the scope of Christian ethics. The authors rightly note the end of modernity and tell us that the pressure we feel from the passing of modernity is good for the Churches of Christ. Yet at times their account both of modernity and the contours of postmodernity greatly simplify a far more complex history.

For instance, their account of the four pillars of modernity, the unquestioned trust in human reason, individual autonomy, a belief in inevitable progress, and the triumph of technical rationality might lead one to believe that these traits were never critiqued within modernity itself. Modern theologians including Frederich Schleiermacher, Ernst Troeltsch, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Karl Barth all brought powerful critiques to bear on these so-called pillars. This is simply to say that the pathologies of modernity were not invisible and certainly weren’t discovered in the late twentieth century.

Likewise, their portrait of just what postmodernity actually is turns out to be far too narrow. In fact, their description of postmodernity as the feeling of estrangement and the need for intimacy sound oddly reminiscent of middle class America in the 1960s. The quest for a legitimate encounter with God tracks almost perfectly with the theology and rhetoric of my experience in youth groups in the Churches of Christ in the sixties and seventies. At times I get the impression that for the authors postmodernity is a ticket back to pre-modernity where we can believe in demons, spirits, and a flat earth while living the American dream and not feeling intellectually embarrassed.

More often than not postmodernity today is a wistful and imprecise term used to designate not so much what we are as it designates what we are no longer. Even a cursory glance at who uses the term today and what they mean by it reveals an astonishing cacophony of voices. So while it is correct to say that we are in a postmodern era in the sense that modernity is over, the account the authors give of what postmodernity actually encompasses is a conversation that is just now taking off in the wider cultures of the world. And that conversation is by no means all open to the type of spirituality the authors embrace. They fail to recognize the atheistic bent in much postmodern thought as they tout a renewed interest in spirituality.

By far the great strength of this book is not its social analysis but its theological agenda. Allen and Swick eloquently call for a recovery of a doctrine of the Holy Spirit within a trinitarian framework. I think they misstate the case a bit about the views of the Holy Spirit in the mainstream Churches of Christ today. While I have spent the last twenty years living in the provinces, it doesn’t seem to me to that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is the controversial issue it once was. As they commend the so-called “postmodern primitivists” such as The Vineyard Christian Fellowship and Calvary Chapel, I worry that only some form of neo-charismatic theology will prove sufficient for the authors. As I see it the real issue facing the Churches of Christ today is not the fact of the presence of the Holy Spirit, but understanding, to the extent possible, just precisely what this means.

We need to have the discussion the authors call us to. The irony, of course, is that the Holy Spirit will continue to come and work wherever God chooses to be independent of the boundaries we might seek to impose. Finally, I hope the authors consider bringing their skills to bear on the ethical implications of the theological position they commend. I worry that this view can be co-opted into simply another form of leisure class religion. Christian spirituality can be a palliative that makes us feel comfortable living the American dream, buying the latest adult toys, despoiling the ecosystem, voting a straight Republican ticket, and defending the right to possess guns while ignoring the growing realities of hunger, violence, and environmental chaos.

Paul Ramsey once wrote that Christians are not called to love an age, but the neighbor. Perhaps we have been guilty of loving modernity. Postmodernity offers an opportunity to rightly order our relationship to the world by rejecting both sectarianism and accommodation. The right path comes from loving both God and our neighbor.

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Excerpts from the book:

Tidal Waves

“. . .The Dick-and-Jane world of my ‘50s childhood is over, washed away by a tsunami of change . . . Churches can respond to this tidal wave in one of three ways. First, they can deny—and drown . . . Second, they can fight it—and lose . . . Third, they can hoist the sails, catch God’s wave and . . . recognize the enormous opportunities this new era presents and attempt to seize them . . .

A Critical Time for Churches of Christ

“. . . Churches of Christ became a sizable and dynamic Christian movement in the twentieth-century America. Their appeal was the claim to have restored the True Church . . . Many thousands . . . from sundry other Christian churches were taught that they were not True Christians and [they were] converted to the True Church . . . These claims and practices were integral to the tradition: a whole doctrinal system undergirded them. This system remains intact for many members . . . yet among many others this system has receded or even been rejected . . . Without [this doctrinal system, Churches of Christ] will have to forge a new identity—an arduous and stressful undertaking . . .

“. . . From their modern inception Churches of Christ have been a “restoration movement” . . . But now many church members, especially among the younger generations, are wondering about restoration . . . Many are coming to feel that Churches of Christ have . . . majored in minors, been too hard and exclusive and perhaps even discredited the very term “restoration” . . .

A ModernChurch after the Modern Age

“. . . Denominational loyalties are markedly receding . . . Once people have discovered that all brands of gasoline are basically the same, what they look for is octane . . . For more and more people, spiritual power and vitality is what they seek, not so much a particular brand of church . . . New, “back-to-the-Bible” churches claiming to be nondenominational are springing up like mushrooms, making claims that sound a lot like the early Churches of Christ . . .

“. . . Churches of Christ . . . find themselves in a serious bind: they are a distinctly (early) modern church entering a postmodern world . . . [this] fact, more than any other, accounts for the swift and disorienting changes they are experiencing.Indeed, the changes underway are more profound and sweeping than those most worried about change seem yet to realize . . .

“. . . [Members of the] Churches of Christ . . . are being forced . . . to face up to the realities of becoming missionaries in their own culture . . . Alexander Campbell’s theological system was deeply shaped by the culture of that time, including the bold conviction that one could stand free of culture and tradition and “just read the Bible.”David Lipscomb’s theological stance . . . was deeply shaped . . . by the culture of “true womanhood” dominant in mid-nineteenth-century America . . . [C]ulture is the unavoidable medium of the church’s life . . . some of the present ferment has come as people have realized that nineteenth-century enculturation and accommodation was not eternal and in some respects [is] no longer healthy or appropriate [for the church.] . . .

“. . . How will Churches of Christ deal with the profound sea-changes that are well underway. . ?And, How can they do this in a way that maintains some kind of meaningful continuity with their past? . . .

“. . . Tidal waves are upon us . . . [many younger church leaders] are seeking to hoist the sails and catch the strong breezes. They are trying to see with clear eyes the enormous new opportunities around us, and to seize them for the furtherance of God’s Kingdom.”

Excerpts from chapter 2, “The Last Will and Testament of Churches of Christ,” by Rob McRay.

Introduction

“We will that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at

large; for there is but one body . . .”With these words, Barton Stone and his colleagues disbanded the Springfield Presbytery only a year after they had formed it . . . This “Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery” is a remarkable document . . . because of its revolutionary appeal for nondenominational Christianity . . .

The Demise of Denominationalism

“American Christianity is undergoing a major transition.The great walls of tradition and peculiarity that divided denominations are crumbling . . . More and more churches and church members are decrying the divisions in the body of Christ. They are seeking ways to reach across the barriers, cooperate in ministry, join in worship and work toward greater unity . . .

“. . . Increasingly common are church signs with a nondenominational name, such as “CommunityChurch,” and a denominational affiliation printed in smaller type. This trend is striking evidence of the waning attraction of denominations and the growing desire of Christians to simply be Christians.

Choosing the Future

“At the very time when American Christianity is moving away from denominational affiliations toward nondenominational identities, it is sadly ironic that Churches of Christ are moving in the opposite direction. Just when churches up and down the street are re-evaluating their denominational status and seeking to be more nondenominational, many among us are abandoning the goal of nondenominational Christianity . . . Just as Christians all around us have become open to our movement’s original vision, we are preparing to leave it behind. In our quest to end our sectarian isolation from the larger Christian church, we are giving up the part of our heritage that could provide the strongest ground for dialogue and interaction with other fellowships . . .

“. . . Our movement was not called into being by the vision of a denomination demarcated by unaccompanied singing, baptism by immersion, weekly communion and a plurality of elders.Rather, the dream that gave birth to the Churches of Christ was one of independent congregations of Christ’s church practicing simple, Biblical, nondenominational Christianity . . .

“The dream of nondenominational Christianity is now attracting more and more churches from a variety of traditions. This is no time to abandon the dream. This is a time for our churches and institutions to consider what it would really mean to recover our vision and claim with integrity to be nondenominational Christians.Our colleges must choose whether they want to be nondenominational . . . or denominational . . . The consequences of this choice will be dramatic, affecting recruiting, fund-raising and employment. It will affect lectureships and church relations and intern programs. But integrity demands that the choice be made. They must either abandon the vision and vocabulary of our non-denominational heritage or abandon their sectarian and denominational identities . . .”

“Our congregations must make a choice whether they will be autonomous nondenominational congregations, as we have claimed to be, or denominational churches like so many of their neighboring churches—churches we once criticized for their denominational affiliations. The choice will affect what we teach our children and our converts about our identity. It will affect our fellowship with other churches, both from our own heritage and beyond. It will affect what we put on the sign, whether in large type or small, and what we mean by what we write there. Yet the choice must be made. Each church must choose to be true to our original vision and plea or loyal to the denominational boundaries and identity that have evolved. Neither is a choice to entirely abandon our heritage in Churches of Christ; but either option necessarily chooses one aspect of our heritage and rejects another. We cannot be nondenominational and denominational at the same time.

“. . . Now is the time to make the choice.If we choose denominationalism we may well be choosing a path of slow demise in this post-denominational era. If we choose nondenominationalism, the road will be uncertain and at times rocky, but the future will be hopeful and the dream inspiring. Now is the time for heirs of Stone’s vision to take up pen and prayer and to write the “Last Will and Testament of the Churches of Christ”:We will, that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is but one body . . .”

QUOTES ARE FROM The Transforming of a Tradition, by Leonard Allen and Danny Gray Swick (Orange, CA: New Leaf Books, 2001), available from the publisher (1-877-634-6004), soft cover, 211 pages, $14.95.

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This author published 1598 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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