201 Years Too Late

I have been struggling today with the temptation to respond to the recently-published document A Christian Affirmation, but have decided that my response would be not only uncredentialed but unavailing.

Instead – although I am almost 201 years too late – I’d rather respond to the things I like and dislike about a document that many scholars have judged to be seminal in the formation of the Restoration churches now known as “Churches of Christ,” “Disciples of Christ” and “The Christian Church.” One of its signatories is Barton W. Stone, and it was called:

Last Will and Testament of Springfield Presbytery

For where a testament is, there must of necessity be the death of the testator; for a testament is of force after men are dead, otherwise it is of no strength at all, while the testator liveth. Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened except it die. Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground, and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. Whose voice then shook the earth; but now he hath promised saying, yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven. And this word, yet once more, signifies the removing of those things that are shaken as of things that are made, that those things which can not be shaken may remain.–Scripture

Well, I guess the only thing I can reasonably take issue with here – since it is Scripture – is that it lacks citations, which are (in order): Hebrews 9:16-17, I Corinthians 15:36, John 12:24, Hebrews 12:26-27 … thus initiating a heritage of concatenating non-contiguous scripture when convenient, even though it creates questions like “Fruit whose voice then shook the earth?”

The Presbytery of Springfield sitting at Cane Ridge, in the county of Bourbon, being, through a gracious Providence, in more than ordinary bodily health, growing in strength and size daily; and in perfect soundness and composure of mind; but knowing that it is appointed for all delegated bodies once to die; and considering that the life of every such body is very uncertain, do make and ordain this our last Will and Testament, in manner and form following, viz.:

This is worded in a neat, legal-like way. It carries the sense of parody strongly, with an implied disdain for the governing body which will be described later. I like it.

Imprimis. 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, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.

All right! Absolutely! You go, guys!

Item. We will that our name of distinction, with its Reverend title, be forgotten, that there be but one Lord over God’s heritage, and his name one.

Sure, why not? Distinctiveness is overrated, and who needs that “reverend” stuff? Why should anyone care whether the church is called “Presbyterian” or “Church of Christ” or “Lord’s Church” as long as it’s one with the Body of Christ?

Item. We will, that our power of making laws for the government of the church, and executing them by delegated authority, forever cease; that the people may have free course to the Bible, and adopt the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus.

Well, of course. Individual people should be making their own decisions and interpretations, rather than some old powerful church government. They ought to read and study for themselves and be guided by the Spirit! Go on!

Item. We will, that candidates for the Gospel ministry henceforth study the Holy Scriptures with fervent prayer, and obtain license from God to preach the simple Gospel, with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven, without any mixture of philosophy, vain deceit, traditions of men, or the rudiments of the world. And let none henceforth take this honor to himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron.

Yeah, the last thing we need is a bunch of uncalled-for preachers licensed by somebody else. Though I’m not clear on how that license is obtained from God. Or how candidates know for certain that they’ve been called by Him. Maybe that’s something that should be ironed out later. Individually, of course.

Item. We will, that the church of Christ resume her native right of internal government,–try her candidates for the ministry, as to their soundness in the faith, acquaintance with experimental religion, gravity and aptness to teach; and admit no other proof of their authority but Christ speaking in them. We will, that the church of Christ look up to the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers into his harvest; and that she resume her primitive right of trying those who say they are apostles, and are not.

Wait a minute. Didn’t you guys revoke that government thing in Item #2? Turn it over to God? Or was it that you were just transferring it from an outside group to the individual assembly? And what does this “try her candidates” language mean? Is that a multiple-choice test, or essay?

Plus, the whole “experimental religion” thing sounds dangerous to me. Like trying things out to see if they work. Do you mean “experiential religion” – doing stuff that’s already been tried?

Are you really planning to hold court on folks who say they’re apostles? Because that does indeed seem “primitive.”

And, well, are you going to stick with the name “church of Christ”? Because you’ve used it twice in the same paragraph now, and some yokel might go and trademark it or something.

Item. We will, that each particular church, as a body, actuated by the same spirit, choose her own preacher, and support him by a free-will offering, without a written call or subscription–admit members–remove offenses; and never henceforth delegate her right of government to any man or set of men whatever.

Um … I’m a little hesitant about this hiring-the-preacher clause, because it seems that the first-century church just had circuit preachers who worked a job on the side. And I’m not clear about the “written call or subscription” language regarding admitting members and removing offenses. Seems like there ought to be a procedure here. Yeah, a five-step procedure. “Five Steps To Salvation!” They’d make nice bullet points. Easy to remember, like a creed. Okay; maybe not. Last sentence — there you go with that government thing again. Aren’t you guys are men, constituting a set of men, whatever? Or do you mean it’s okay to turn over her government to women? Hmmm. I don’t think that’s ever been tried …

Item. We will, 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.

I’m with you most of the way here, but I’ve got to tell you that a lot of our preachers need to supplement their income by writing books … and I’ve been blessed by many of the books I’ve read about the Bible. Though there have been some I’d rather burn than give away. I appreciate you leaving that up to us.

Item. We will, that preachers and people cultivate a spirit of mutual forbearance; pray more and dispute less; and while they behold the signs of the times, look up, and confidently expect that redemption draweth nigh.

Yes, yes, yes … o God, please, yes!

Item. We will, that our weak brethren, who may have been wishing to make the Presbytery of Springfield their king, and wot not what is now become of it, betake themselves to the Rock of Ages, and follow Jesus for the future.

Okay, that “weak brethren” phrase seems a little condescending. Though it calls to mind some language that the Apostle Paul used in his letters. Maybe it’s okay. Certainly it’s all right to encourage people to commit themselves to Christ as King, rather than any particular church.

Item. We will, the Synod of Kentucky examine every member who may be suspected of having departed from the Confession of Faith, and suspend every such suspected heretic immediately, in order that the oppressed may go free, and taste the sweets of Gospel liberty.

Gutsy. There’s that hint of sarcasm again, boldly demanding to be called heretics by the oppressor. However … this is just awkward to have to say, fellows, but before you all signed this, did you hop a horse to the Synod and express your disappointment with their leadership? Because that seems like the Matthew 18:15-18 thing to do. (Though declaring independence in a document is a very American thing to do.) Maybe you did dialogue with the Synod and I just don’t know about it. I hope so.

Item. We will, that Ja— —–, the author of two letters lately published in Lexington, be encouraged in his zeal to destroy partyism. We will, moreover, that our past conduct be examined into by all who may have correct information; but let foreigners beware of speaking evil of things which they know not.

You could have done better with your penmanship. Folks would like to know that fellow’s name – who should be commended in his zeal to destroy partyism, because that’s a John 17:20-26 thing to do. And we’d like to shake his hand in heaven.

Item. Finally we will, that all our sister bodies read their Bibles carefully, that they may see their fate there determined, and prepare for death before it is too late.

You couldn’t have worded that any more carefully to avoid sounding judgmental yet still sound the alarm. It’s a little pushy, and I think some circuit-riding visits might have been in order, but it does fit with the whole tone of the document.

Springfield Presbytery, June 28th, 1804

Ahem. Dissolved in the Imprimis above, remember? Suggest: “Former Springfield Presbytery.” Otherwise, gentlemen, sign those names where there are no dotted lines. Even though I’m not real clear which of you are signatories and which are just witnesses, or both?

Robert Marshall,
John Dunlavy,
Richard M’Nemar,–Witnesses.
B. W. Stone,
John Thompson,
David Purviance,

— as recorded at ACU’s Stone-Campbell Archives

Richard McNemar was the original author of this document, as I understand it, which co-signer John Marshall later referred to quaintly as “the obnoxious instrument.” He also called McNemar an “eccentric genius.”

Though it does not specifically refer to creeds (other than the “Confession of Faith” one), opposition to the idea of creeds seems to have been one of the main motivators behind the document.

There’s no way to know, of course, how any of the leaders of the movement that followed would view “A Christian Affirmation.”

That would be an interesting dialogue to witness.

(Some illuminating background material can be found at Restoration Quarterly and The Restoration Movement Pages.)

8 thoughts on “201 Years Too Late

  1. Keith –If you haven’t already, you must look at “JD”s blog today at:http://remains.blogspot.comand the long comment I wrote later (after my first one was deleted and Blogger came back up!). The reason I say that is because I have what I think is the best book (although only a Xerox copy) on the subject I’ve ever read. Read what was said and if you think you’d like a copy of it, I’ll be glad to take it to the local print shop to make a copy for you if you’ll email me with your mailing address. But, I can’t guarantee when. My foot is not doing well at all today and I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be laid up with it. Anyway – I think it was good on your part to limit YOUR discussion to 201 years ago. Now reading what was going on in the church controversy wise back in the 1960s and before is now quite humorous in ways. Although, the topics and issues are never humorous as we go through them.I think we all need to maintain a calm, quiet and understanding (okay, how about loving) spirit with each other in the mean time.

  2. Thanks, Dee … but I’ve got more backlogged reading material right now than I can handle in the next decade!Your comment at JD’s < HREF="http://remains.blogspot.com/2005/04/christian-affirmation.html" REL="nofollow">Out Here Hope Remains: A Christian Affirmation?<> was cogent and potent.Personally, I think creeds are good. Everyone should write one. And stick to it. And as he/she matures, update it with the revelations that God sends.

  3. Backlogged or back”blogged,” or both!?! ha!My younger son told me yesterday he is in the process of writing a “Constitution” for his family, based on scripture, but all put together in a form a family can go by in a more concise form, that he hopes to have finished by fall. I told him I’d really like to see it and he said he intended to send draft copies to everyone in the larger, “extended” family, if you will, for input. I, for one, think it’s a great idea and one that is sorely needed in a lot of families.I’ll let you know how it progresses and what he comes up with.

  4. Ok, I am going to blow my chance to be Dean of the School of Bible at “somewhere” and go through this ad and give my thoughts, please drop by and comment.

  5. Keith, When I read the “Christian Affirmation” my mind went back in time to Death of the Springfield Presbytery and Declaration and Address … some of the most profound statements about the rejection of creeds and allegiance only to Christ. All three of these documents mentioned were born in desperate times. The difference is that two of these documents sought to move us away from the impossibile doctrinal likeness and toward loyalty to Christ. The document recently published in Christian Chronicle (though I’m sure INTENDED to do the opposite) leads us to creedal confessional Christianity. The question after reading a creedal statement is this: Do I agree? The next question is: Who else agrees?The only thought that ought to go through our minds when reading a creedal statement is something like: “That’s nice. Hand me my Bible.”You have done us a service to remind us of the past. Somehow creedal statements composed by men take on a greater significanse than that which is given to us from God.

  6. Keith I agree very strongly with others who observe that this “A Christian Affirmation” is a product of desperation. What other motivation could there be, legitimate motivation that is. Desperate times require desperate measures. Also like others, I am encouraged by the names of those NOT on the list of signees. Peer pressure is a powerful tool, and all of us have seen it’s ugly head rise MANY times within this fellowship. Especially for a group that declares that each congregation is autonomous. Yea, right. “You may be autonomous, but we will NOT fellowship you if you don’t go along with the rest of us”. We are autonomous in name only, evidently. Thanks for the research, Keith! Please know we appreciate your hard work.In HIM,DU

  7. Dee, David, JD, Tommy: your points are all well-taken.Post Script: “A Christian Affirmation” may well be a product of desperation. The fact is, as a document, there are things I like about it just as there are things about “Last Will And Testament” that I like and agree with.What I don’t want is for folks to choose up sides and smell armpits over it. Even though there are parts of “Affirmation” I disagree with – even with the idea of doing it – I don’t want the result to be more divisions within our fellowship. There are too many already.And, sadly, I see the potential for that very thing to happen.< HREF="http://keithbrenton.blogspot.com/2005/04/maybe-gamaliel-was-right.html" REL="nofollow">Maybe Gamaliel was right<> … about “Affirmation,” too.

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