From Revival Ridge to Bible Deism Valley – The Odd History of the Holy Spirit Among Churches of Christ (Part 3)

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.

June Theme: Spiritual Rhythms

Life is full of rhythms. The seasons, your heartbeat, having tummy trouble after a taco bell run and still going back the next time you crave it only to repeat the process again.

Some rhythms are unconscious and consistent. You don’t even think about breathing. You don’t tell your heart to beat. These are parts of our autonomic nervous systems.

Taco bell, however, is a choice.

Other rhythms are forced: reading your Bible each day and the habit of prayer. These are not done automatically or without your awareness (although with enough repetition one might approximate that). They require discipline and attention. One must attend to these things to ensure they continue. Aren’t you glad you don’t have to do this with your heartbeat or breathing? And yet these things can be as essential as a heartbeat or a breath.

This month we will be taking a hard look at developing and maintaining spiritual rhythms. While we attend to these things they are also a grace. It is a grace God allows us to pray. It is a grace God has given us the scriptures to study. Founding this in grace is one of the ways we can encourage ourselves to persist in these things.

Welcome to June!

How Our “Roots” Killed Our Evangelism

Like many of you, I grew up in Churches of Christ. I knew what 728b was. I knew what a tract rack was (and used it as a resource as a child). I knew you weren’t supposed to clap. I knew who was going to heaven. We were and anyone else was suspect at best. I do not remember that last one being directly stated very often but it was the feel we had and was said often enough in private. We had the truth and if anyone wanted it (or not) we were going to inform them of it.

We got very good at a certain kind of evangelism. It was evangelizing people who already knew a fair amount about God, the Bible, Jesus, etc. It was evangelizing them to church rather than to Jesus. Maybe they had church wrong. Maybe the had baptism wrong. Maybe they had worship wrong. We were going to correct anyone who would listen (and many who wouldn’t or didn’t need to).

I engaged in those kinds of discussions for years. Then it finally occurred to me that there were Christians in other groups. I knew this because I met them and listened to them. I compared what they were saying with what the Bible said and saw no reasonable way to exclude them from the kingdom (as if that was my job anyway – the Lord adds to the church but we knew how to take away).

I finally realized that salvation didn’t hinge on having every issue right or else Paul got the introduction to all of his letters in the New Testament wrong.

This shift in thinking was the death of our evangelism. Not because we had nothing left to say but because of something else. Once we largely gave up converting “the denominations” we thought we had no one else to evangelize. This was because we had another faulty assumption. The first was that anyone not in our movement wasn’t a Christian. The second was that the people around us by and large had a knowledge of Jesus and were largely Christian.

But that wasn’t the case at all and still isn’t today. God has sent the world to us. We live in Acts 2 and 10 daily. What is more, the very people we need to be reaching are on the increase numerically (those who have fallen away and the non-affiliated, and those of non-Christian faiths). While those groups increased around us we lost our need to evangelize.

I believe we also lost our zeal for evangelism because we only knew how to talk to people about Jesus who were already mostly like us. They were already going to church (didn’t have to convince them to start). They already believed in the Bible and in Jesus. We knew how to take someone who was already pretty far along and get them the rest of the way (in our sectarian minded thinking). It was a smaller ask, an ask we were comfortable asking. But we didn’t know and largely don’t know how to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t believe in God or believes in numerous gods. These are the groups that are growing and we are ill-prepared to engage them.

We need to learn to contextualize the gospel and have the boldness to talk with people seemingly less like ourselves about Jesus. This means we are asking them to make bigger steps and larger commitments than we are used to. This is essential to our future but more than that, it is what we were told to do and even if we do it we are just unworthy servants, just doing our duty.


Theodrama – A Wineskins YouTube Series Launched!

A great new theological series started this week on our YouTube channel with John Mark Hicks. You can watch the first two below. This will be a 50+ part series that will post Mondays and Thursdays for the next six months. I won’t be posting them individually here as we go to not flood this site with the videos but I will post the first two below to give you a feel for these.

If you want to get these, I encourage you to subscribe to the Wineskins YouTube Channel which has already doubled subscribers in the last month. God is affirming this new aspect of our ministry. Thank you for participating!





Where We Went Wrong on Creeds

“No creed but Christ” or “No creed but the Bible” is something that comes up a lot in Churches of Christ. We have resisted having any documents outside the Bible that operate in any official capacity for the life and doctrine of the church. I think that is a good intention and I am not one to advocate a Church of Christ creed but I do want to offer two points that should be kept in mind that are related to our position on creeds.

Creeds established orthodoxy. The problem is everyone had different opinions on what needed to be in the list. I have a book of creeds in my office and it is several hundred pages long. This is why the Bible is so important. This means creeds force you to determine which matters are essential and most important and which matters are of lesser importance and liberty to come to varying conclusions on. More on that in a moment.

The reality is we have our own creeds. We just don’t write them down. We all know what they are. They are unofficial in that they aren’t documented but they are quite official in their consistency across autonomous congregations. You would think we had a creed even when we don’t in an official capacity.

Second, the thing we rarely worked out very well comes as a bi-product of our lack of creeds. We never wrestled with what constituted matters of first importance. Creeds force you to do that. We just say it’s the whole Bible (by that we mean the whole New Testament by that we mean Paul’s letters). I am being a bit silly but it isn’t far from the truth.

With our lack of emphasizing that not all things are of equal importance (1 Cor 15:3 – things of first importance and Romans 14 – the disputable matters) we made all things of equal importance. That has not worked in our favor. Because we don’t differentiate which things are core and which things are peripheral we elevate all things to the highest level of importance (even tradition, unfortunately). This approach lacks discernment and is actually not biblical.

Even if we don’t have a creed, we still need to work out which things are essential, core to the faith and which things are in the Romans 14 category of disputable matters. It is actually healthy (and again biblical) for us to conclude that some things are more important than others rather than make all matters DEFCON 1. Just try passing communion backwards and see what happens. The creed pops up again.

We never wrestled with what the groups with creeds wrestled with. One doesn’t have to have a creed to do this, mind you, but we just never did it and it has harmed our movement as a whole.

We need to spend time in our local congregations having some conviction about what it means to be a Christian and which things are essential to being identified with Christ. We have done a poor job of this, in my opinion, and if we can do this on a local level (not all churches will agree) we will be better for it and our standard for this must come from what the Bible itself says is most important (1 Cor 15:3-5 for example). It does not require having every teaching perfect to be “in” or else Paul wouldn’t have addressed any of his audiences as God’s church.