Book Review: “Principles of the Reformation” (Jul-Aug 2003)

By Matt Dabbs

Principles of the Reformation by Robert Richardson, edited by Carson E. Reed
Reviewed by Douglas Foster

Why would anyone recommend that you read a book filled with sexist and anti-Catholic language and whose author assumes everyone with good sense who reads the book will agree with all its conclusions?

Well, if you’re still reading, I’ll tell you why. It’s because the book goes to the heart of what it means to be a people pleasing to God. It’s because the book brilliantly describes what the church ought to look like in any age and in any place.

Yes, it’s true: the author reflects the general assumptions and prejudices of the times (the book was first written in 1852). But guess what—every last one of us does the same thing. Seeing the problems of a bygone era is easy; admitting the biases in our own habits and speech is not so easy.

There’s another possible danger Richardson might stir up or even reconfirm some of the negative notions about who Restorationists have been. There are skeletons in any denomination’s spiritual closet. For the Stone-Campbell movement, one of these is arrogance about spiritual superiority that could leave other believers wondering what hit them.

Principles of the Reformation shows beyond any doubt that deep concern for spiritual formation was a key part of the heritage in Churches of Christ–an emphasis that we ought to and can reclaim today.

Clearly the early Stone-Campbell Movement slogan “Christians only, but not the only Christians” is a central point in Richardson’s explanation of what this movement was trying to do. His appeal was not to non-Christians but to fellow believers. Richardson’s plea is not for his readers to become Christians, but to reform Christianity and be united.

Here’s my TOP TEN LIST of reasons you ought to read this book. See if one of them grabs you.

10. The editor, Carson E. Reed, shortened the sentences and paragraphs, made the meaning of obscure words clear, and did a marvelous job of making the 19th century prose connect with 21st century readers.

9. Robert Richardson gives one of the clearest, most concise lists of the chief beliefs that shaped the Stone-Campbell Movement in its beginnings—and which still shape Churches of Christ today whether we know it or not—to be found anywhere.

8. Though Richardson has a pretty high view of human ability to get everything right, he also is up front with the admission that the themes of the Bible are vast and deep, and that fallen humans are deficient in their powers of comprehension and ability to receive spiritual truth.

7. Richardson insists that the key to unity among Christians is “the simple gospel that is sown in the heart.” Christ himself is the basis of Christian union, not “an exact knowledge of remote points of Christian doctrine.”

6. In chapter six, “The Action and Design of Baptism,” Richardson discusses the movement’s teaching on baptism in one of the clearest and most concise presentations to be found anywhere. He treats the issue frankly and scripturally, “de-christianizing” no one, but making a strong case for “our position” being truly ecumenical.

5. Richardson emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit in converting people to Christ through the word, and in “sanctifying” them–growing them spiritually.

4. For Richardson, the Lord’s Supper is the center of Christian worship because its focus is on commemorating the love of Christ that, with the Spirit, transforms us into Christ’s likeness.

3. He was convinced that the “common Christianity” already held by all Christians was the practical basis for immediate cooperation and for the presentation to the world of an “unbroken front” to convert the world and perfect the church.

2. Throughout the book Richardson focuses on spiritual formation. Solitude and quiet are essential parts of the Christian’s life as we allow God’s Spirit to shape us, free from the frantic distractions of the world.

1. Richardson is absolutely convinced that faith is not doctrinal, it is personal. Anyone who tries to substitute a direct personal reliance on Christ with intellectual assent to a set of propositions has destroyed the power of the gospel.

This book is not simply for those with a religious background in the Stone-Campbell Movement but also anyone wanting to understand what the movement has stood for and what the movement is becoming today.

doug fosterDr. Douglas Foster is Director of the Center for Restoration Studies and Associate Professor of Church History at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas.

A native of Tuscumbia, Alabama, he received his secondary education at Mars Hill Bible School in Florence, Alabama. In 1974 he earned a B.A. in modern foreign languages from David Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, then began graduate studies in religion at Harding Graduate School of Religion in Memphis. He continued his graduate work at Scarritt College, receiving an M.A. in Theology in 1980, and then entered Vanderbilt University where he received a Ph.D. in church history in 1987. He came to ACU in 1991 after teaching in the history department at David Lipscomb University for seven years. He also served as archivist for the Gospel Advocate Company from 1988 until moving to ACU.
Foster studied in Mexico during the summer of 1969, then did summer mission work in Spain and Portugal from 1970 through 1974. For the rest of the 1970s he spent several months each year working with missionaries and local Christians in Spain, Portugal and Italy. He served as Associate Minister of the Jackson Park Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee, from 1974 to 1983. Before completing his graduate work he taught Bible and Spanish at B. C. Goodpasture Christian School for two years and at Ezell-Harding Christian School for one year, both in Nashville.
Foster’s scholarly work has centered in two areas: understanding the place of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement in the larger context of American Christianity, and understanding the nature of the idea of Christian unity that was so much a part of the initial impetus of the Movement. His dissertation, titled “The Struggle for Unity During the Period of Division of the Restoration Movement: 1875-1900,” examined competing understandings of unity held by leaders in the Stone-Campbell Movement as it fractured in the late nineteenth century. His 1994 book

Will the Cycle Be Unbroken? Churches of Christ Face the Twenty-First Century analyzes the current and future shape of Churches of Christ. He is co-author of The Crux of the Matter: Crisis, Tradition, and the Future of Churches of Christ; Ministers at the Millennium: A Survey of Preachers in Churches of Christ, and Renewing God’s People: A Concise History of Churches of Christ. He also serves as one of three General Editors of the forthcoming Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement and is a leader in the Restoration Forums and the Stone-Campbell Dialogue. He serves on the Boards of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society and the World Convention of Churches of Christ. Married in 1979 to the former Linda Grissom, Doug and Linda have two children, Mary Elizabeth (20) and Mark (15).

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 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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