Thomas Campbell’s Reflections

March 16, 2009

Twenty seven years had passed since Thomas Campbell had penned the Declaration and Address of 1809, launching a noble movement to bring to an end the ungodly divisions among Christian believers. There had been many victories and many defeats along the way. Having devoted so much of his life to bringing about unity, what lessons would the elder Campbell share with those coming afterward? What course corrections would he urge? What are the lessons learned, which might help the later generations to achieve the goal?

Looking back over the progress in those years, Thomas Campbell wrote an article summarizing his observations, which was published in his son Alexander’s journal, Millennial Harbinger, in May of 1836. In that article he revealed what he believed to be the most important mistakes being made in the Restoration Movement of his day:

Now, upon a serious review of the past, according to the extent of my information, it appears, that the progress of the reformation has been much retarded for want of a competent knowledge, on the part of the advocates, respecting the thing precisely intended; and, of the actual condition and disposition of the people in relation to it.

It seems that the movement was going off track. It’s advocates were already deviating from the original intent:

As to the nature and object of the proposed reformation, it is clearly and definitely expressed in the following proposition, viz.–“‘The restoration of primitive apostolic christianity in letter and spirit–in principle and practice;”–and has been so stated from our commencement.

It seems that the movement had already bogged down into intellectual debates over a myriad of doctrinal differences. Rather than resolving issues and creating unity, these debates were hardening positions and intensifying the divisions that were present. They were doing more harm than good to the cause of unity.

Campbell wrote to call the movement back to the seven core principles of scripture on which he believed unity should be based:

Now these are precisely seven, viz.–The knowledge of God–of man–of sin–of the Saviour–of his salvation–of the means of enjoying it–and of its blissful effects and consequences.

Campbell was urging those working for unity to stop debating peripheral matters, and to return to the kind of basic teaching which actually changes people’s lives. Mere intellectual debating of differences for the purpose of establishing orthodoxy was accomplishing nothing of lasting value:

Whereas, were we to refute all the errors in Buck’s Theological Dictionary by the common method of theological argumentation, we might, indeed, by so doing, make orthodox systematics; but not one real practical christian. And why? Because, in this way of arguing, the mind is turned away from itself, to sit as a judge in the case pending, so that the point at issue becomes an abstract truth, addressed purely to the understanding–not to the heart, as directly and immediately affecting the hearer himself; but merely to his judgment, to determine who is right. And, also, because that faith, the sole principle of pure christianity, and of all christian enjoyment, consists not in receiving the deductions of human reasoning, but only in the belief of the express testimony of God.

At its most basic level, Christianity is about sin, repentance, forgiveness, and living a godly life. Campbell reasoned that seeking to establish theological orthodoxy through debate accomplishes none of those things. Instead, it only leads to “partyism,” creating more controversy than it resolves.

If, then, we would produce theological orthodoxy, let us detect and expose the errors of every party that occurs, and thus furnish fuel for the fire of controversy which is the very element of partyism, without which it cannot exist. But if we would starve out partyism, and nourish christianity, let us preach the word in its proper order and connexion, for the express purpose for which it is given;–not, indeed, to make wise to disputation–but to salvation, thoroughly furnished to all good works.

Campbell lamented the way the scriptures were being used as a source of proof-texts to justify the existing divisions between believers:

That, after all the enormous labor and expense for preparing and maintaining a learned ministry, there is not to be found, this day, throughout all the sects, a single teacher, nor yet a single congregation under the tuition of such, that ever attempted or intended to teach, or to learn, the Bible, as a book, for the purpose of its being understood as a whole; but rather as a text or proof book, for the purpose of teaching, and learning, a party system!!!

He argued that, in answer to those who hold different doctrine, we should simply present the scriptures alone, without additional commentary, and leave it at that:

What should we do if personally attacked upon some principle of our christian profession? I answer, We should state and defend it by, and according to, the express testimony of the Holy Scriptures: that is, produce the divine declarations concerning it; and, if their meaning was disputed, then have recourse to the context, and to such other passages as went to determine the meaning of the phrases or terms in question. And having thus given the concurrent evidence of the divine testimony upon the subject, we have no more to say.

His own experience showed that this approach works:

The writer can truly say so from his own experience during the last five years of his public labors–that, during said period, having, for the most part, confined himself to the scripture development of these all-important practical topics, according to the humble measure of his attainments, he has experienced no direct opposition to the matter of his teaching,–no, not even upon baptism itself; though, perhaps, no scripture term is more universally abused, both by Romanists, and Protestants of every sect, save one.

Campbell called Christians to acknowledge a single premise on which unity could be built:

The all-sufficiency, and alone-sufficiency, of the Holy Scriptures, without comment or paraphrase, to make the believer wise to salvation, thoroughly furnished to all good works…

He believed that, in responding to controversies, by constraining our answers to the scriptures alone, we could eliminate controvsery, since all acknowledged that the scriptures are true.

Let this correct regular way of proceeding be but duly observed, and it will exclude a host of controversies; and conduce more to the reformation of the professing world, than did all the theological polemics since the days of Origen. These, indeed, could neither make nor edify christians; for nothing can do this, but the direct influence of the word, in its proper connexion, as has been already shown. Let us, therefore, “preach the word.”

Finally, he called on Christians to ignore differences of opinion which were not directly relevant to the seven core principles:

Besides, there are many opinions true, that are irrelevant; and whether true or false, if irrelevant, the person is left in the undisturbed possession of them, without injury either to himself or the good cause; and this, we see, was the Apostle’s method in such cases, even where he declares the opinions false: see Rom. 14th and 15th chs.

Campbell’s plea echoes the pastoral epistles of Paul, who taught that quarreling is unproductive:

1Tim 1:3 As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer
1Tim 1:4 nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work–which is by faith.

2Tim 2:14 Keep reminding them of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen.

2Tim 2:23 Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.
2Tim 2:24 And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.

Campbell wrote these reflections 173 years ago. Yet the movement continued to ply its trade through polemics. The conversations of the movement continued to focus on doctrinal debate, striving to overcome objections through sheer force of argument. And unity among believers remains an elusive goal.

Maybe it is time to try Thomas Campbell’s way.


  1. In the coC world of 2009 I think Campbell would be more a “progressive” than a “conservative”. He was a good man but in my view was off on the basis of unity as you quote, “The all-sufficiency, and alone-sufficiency, of the Holy Scriptures, without comment or paraphrase, to make the believer wise to salvation, thoroughly furnished to all good works…” It is precisely this view of the basis of unity that has led to all sorts of divisions and infighting. The first flaw with this view is stated in the quote “without comment or paraphrase”. Who reads the Bible and then does not comment on it or paraphrase it?I am not devaluing the word of God but unity is not based upon agreement that the word of God leads to salvation. The most valuable thing about the written word is that it points us to the all sufficiency of the person and work of Jesus Christ for sinners.It is not how we value Holy Scripture that unites us but rather our common faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.Royce

  2. Royce,I don’t think Campbell was saying that he could only be unified with people who use the scriptures the way he did. Rather, I think he was saying to those who were trying to work for unity that we should not try to enforce what we read between the lines of scripture. If the actual text doesn’t say it explicitly, we shouldn’t make it an issue. He was trying to get the RM to use a more effective approach, and not to keep making every interpretation on every topic a matter on which we must agree.

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