From Revival Ridge to Bible Deism Valley

The Odd History of the Holy Spirit among Churches of Christ

Part 3, Bible Deism Valley

By Leonard Allen

Bible Deism Valley

An important force in the triumph of the “Word only” view was a book published in 1919, The Spirit and the Word, by a preacher named Z. T. Sweeney. The book went through many printings in the twentieth century. Sweeney argued that the Holy Spirit was a “private and peculiar” gift to the twelve for their one-time work of establishing the foundations of the church and producing inspired writings. Once this work of the Spirit was completed through the original apostles, “no man has been guided, shown and directed personally by him since.” “God does no unnecessary work, and the work of the Paraclete is not necessary now. His work remains [only] in the teachings and lives of the apostles.”

            This assumption led Sweeney to conclude that scores of New Testament’s statements and admonitions regarding the Spirit simply no longer apply to Christians. Here are a few examples he listed:

You were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, which is an earnest of our inheritance. (Eph. 1:13, 14)

[B]e filled with the Spirit . . . (Eph. 5:18)

He saved us through the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Spirit . . . (Titus 3:5)

He has given us of his Spirit. (1 John 4:13)

All of these verses and a long list of others apply only to first-century believers in whom God was “manifesting his presence by supernatural demonstrations”; but now that God works only through the words of Scripture, all these texts “lack meaning” for Christians since that era.[i]

Two other powerful voices in the early twentieth century advocating Bible deism were R. L. Whiteside and Foy Wallace Jr. Whiteside has been called the “systematic theologian of Churches of Christ” and was likely the one most responsible for the doctrinal consensus that emerged in the 1940s and 1950s.[ii] Whiteside asserted, “Peter affirmed that we have in the Bible everything that pertains to life and godliness,” so “to pray for a power or means of godliness or spiritual life separate or apart from the Bible” was to charge God’s Word with insufficiency. Whiteside could speak interchangeably of the “fruit of the Word” and the “fruit of the Spirit” which he viewed as one and the same.[iii] Foy Wallace Jr., who was appointed editor of the Gospel Advocate in 1930, looked to Whiteside as his “mentor and model.”

A good example of the deep entrenchment of this symbolic view of the Spirit occurred in 1966 when several speakers at the annual Abilene Christian College Bible Lectures began to call for a renewed emphasis on the dynamic (though “non-miraculous”) influence of the Spirit in the Christian life. One said that “our lack of spiritual emphasis has dried up for many the spring of living water provided by the Holy Spirit, and people are thirsty.” “One of the greatest weaknesses in our fellowship,” said another, “has been our lack of understanding of the Holy Spirit.”[iv]

            This raising of the “Spirit question” quickly touched a nerve, provoking an outburst of reaction that continued for a couple of years.

            After a wave of critical attack and defense of the “Word only” doctrine, J. D. Thomas, of the ACC Bible faculty, noted the unacceptable world view implied in such a doctrine of the Spirit: “We must discount the idea of ‘biblical Deism,’ which assumes that God started the Christian system and left the Bible down here to do what it could, but meanwhile, He, Christ, and the Spirit have all retired to heaven and have nothing to do with the world until the end, when they will come back and check up to see how it all worked out.”[v] Thomas proceeded to lay out a very cautious treatment of the Spirit in the life of the Christian, affirming the Spirit’s personal, actual indwelling and firmly rejecting any “miraculous” activity of the Spirit.

            Yet even so cautious an exposition provoked alarmed response from prominent leaders. One writer insisted that the Spirit works only in “an indirect, mediate, natural, understandable manner,” and set forth the remarkable conclusion that both the Spirit and Satan no longer affect us supernaturally but are both “restricted to the use of ‘natural means.’” Foy Wallace Jr., long a leading defender of the “Word alone” theory, entered the fray and starkly restated Campbell’s (and Fanning’s and Sweeney’s) position: “Apart from the inspiration of the apostles and prophets, it is impossible for spirit to communicate with spirit except through words. God and Christ never personally occupied anyone; and for the same reason the Holy Spirit does not personally occupy anyone.”[vi]

            The fact that in 1966 an extremely cautious treatment of the Spirit’s indwelling could call forth such alarmed refutation provides a telling sign of the road taken by Churches of Christ—a road that began shortly after Cane Ridge and ended up in Bible deism valley. Certainly a modest lineage of leaders had affirmed a personal, immediate indwelling of the Spirit—twentieth-century leaders like James A. Harding, David Lipscomb, R. H. Boll, J. N. Armstrong, G. C. Brewer, K. C. Moser, Gus Nichols, and J. D. Thomas. That too is part of this odd history, but for much of the twentieth century it was not the dominant or consensus view among Churches of Christ.

Conclusion

In my typology of five major Spirit traditions in Christian history, I placed Churches of Christ in the Modernist tradition.[vii] That of course is deeply ironic for a movement claiming to be nothing more or less than “New Testament Christians.” Modernist views of the Spirit arose in response to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the sharp strictures it began to impose on how one determines what is real. Stress fell more and more upon the “reasonableness of Christianity” (John Locke)  as measured by the new scientific empiricism. Campbell partook of this spirit and wove it into the fabric of the Restoration movement. It is the garment in which we were clothed. But after modernity it doesn’t wear so well.

            For a good many years now this dominant view of the Spirit has been playing itself out as more and more believers have restlessly renewed the search for a more personal and immediate relationship with God. To recover a biblical “grammar” of the Holy Spirit is to recover the language enabling us to talk properly about life in the Spirit.

Leonard Allen serves as dean of the College of Bible and Ministry at Lipscomb University in Nashville. He taught theology, ethics, and philosophy for many years at Fuller Theological Seminary and Abilene Christian University. He is the author of numerous books, most recently Poured Out: The Spirit of God Empowering the Mission of God (2018).


[i] Z. T. Sweeney, The Spirit and the Word: A Treatise on the Holy Spirit in Light of a Rational Interpretation of the Word of Truth (1919; reprint ed., Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate, 1950), 67–79, 95–97, 99.

[ii] Robert P. Valentine Jr., “Robertson Lafayette Whiteside: Systematic Theologian for the Churches of Christ” (Guided Research Paper, Harding University Graduate School of Religion, 2001).

[iii] C. R. Nichol and R. L. Whiteside, Sound Doctrine (Clifton, TX: Nichol Publishing, 1924), 4:107-108; Whiteside, “Doctrinal Discourses: The Uses of Scripture,” Gospel Advocate 74 (February 4, 1932), 138. Cited by Hicks and Valentine, Kingdom Come, 72.

[iv]Abilene Christian College Bible Lectures, 1966 (Abilene, TX: ACC Bookstore, 1966), 175-76, 185.

[v] J. D. Thomas, The Spirit and Spirituality (Abilene, TX: Biblical Research Press), 19.

[vi]Reuel Lemmons, Firm Foundation 83, 722; ibid., 757; Foy Wallace, Jr., The Mission and Medium of the Holy Spirit (Nashville, TN: Wallace Publications, 1967), 7.

[vii] Leonard Allen, Poured Out: The Spirit of God Empowering the Mission of God (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2018), 35-54.