Marcionism & Churches of Christ: What Value, REALLY, is the ‘Old Testament?" How Did We Get Here, Campbell & His SermonAuthor: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Alexander Campbell, Hebrew Bible, Hermeneutics, Restoration History
Marcion & Churches of Christ: What Value is the “Old Testament?” Pt. 3 How We Got Here? Campbell and His “Sermon on the Law”
“[T]here is an essential difference between law and gospel—the Old Testament and the New. No two words are more distinct in their signification than law and gospel. They are contradistinguished under various names in the New Testament. The law is denominated ‘the letter’ … The gospel is denominated ‘the Spirit’ …” (Alexander Campbell, Sermon on the Law)
Alexander Campbell’s sermon on the Lord’s Day, September 1, 1816 at the annual meeting of the Redstone Baptist Association was a pivotal event in the hermeneutical and theological development of the Stone-Campbell tradition. Dubbed “The Sermon on the Law,” this speech has wielded as much in influence among the heirs of Campbell as either the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery or the Declaration and Address … and in Churches of Christ likely even more.
Overview of Campbell’s Sermon
At heart the “Sermon on the Law” is a polemic against prevailing uses of the Hebrew Bible on the Frontier in America. Campbell wants to reject the leading view of the “OT” assigned three functions to the Testament: 1) producing knowledge of sin; 2) restraining sinners; and 3) stimulating one to obedience.
The main body of the sermon covers four points. First AC establishes his meaning of the word “law” which covered both the Torah and the OT canon itself. He rejects the idea of “moral” law and ceremonial law. Second he discusses what law could not accomplish. Third he explains why law could not do what is described in #2. And finally he pointed out that Jesus brought an end to the law.
From these AC draws five conclusions about the role and nature of the Old Testament in the church. First he draws a sharp distinction between law and gospel. The old covenant was law and the new was not pure and simple. Second Christians are no longer under the law as a rule of life. Third, the preaching of law to prepare a person for Christianity is not necessary. Fourth, all arguments drawn from the OT to support a wide array of practices are illegitimate. Finally, Jesus and not Moses is the supreme object of love, affection and obedience for disciples.
In this Sermon, and in various other essays, AC develops the notion of three dispensations: the Patriarchal, the Mosaic, and the Christian in place of the prevailing Calvinistic point of view. Campbell, by analogy, compares these dispensations to the stages of spiritual maturity: infancy, childhood, and adulthood (or also to starlight, moonlight and sunlight). Based on Campbell’s second rule of interpretation the Christian dispensation began in Acts 2. Thus the Gospels and Jesus’ teaching actually belongs, ironically, to a dispensation characterized as childhood.
Campbell’s Sermon exploded like a Hydrogen bomb in its day. He was accused of not believing in the Old Testament. Later in his life AC himself would confess that his effort was not perfect yet it still represented his basic view. There are at least two very positive things that flow from this Sermon that we can be grateful for. First, AC demands that context matters in biblical interpretation. Context, both historical and literary, are essential for a proper reading of any text. Campbell’s heirs have much to learn from him in this insistence. Second, Campbell provides a sort of redemptive-historical approach to the Story of God. There are some affinities here with such contemporary approaches as that advocated by N. T. Wright in his The Last Word. We need, I believe, to regain a fresh appreciation for the historical (and unified) flow for redemptive history.
Despite its strengths there are a number of serious shortcomings to ACs hermeneutical and therefore his theological approach. The first is that it is simplistic at best, and wrong at worst, to simply equate the “old covenant” with the “Old Testament.” And though the dispensational grid can help the student remember historical setting this approach also, ironically, ignores context in two areas. First this approach almost always (as it did in AC himself) reads the “OT” through the eyes of Paul or Hebrews. This causes the student to forget that Paul and the Hebrew writer had his own historical context that needs to be taken seriously in interpreting what each says about the Hebrew Bible … in the end the OT itself is nearly silenced as a witness to its own purpose(s). Second it ignores the literary context that demonstrates there are profound continuities between these “dispensations.” They are not simply fresh works with no connection to what was before.
Another critical failing in Campbell’s reading of the Law (i.e. OT in his view) was the conceptualizing of the Mosaic covenant as a legal arrangement between God and his People. This lies at the basis of the charge that the OT is “law” and the NT is “grace.” But according to the Story itself covenant is not simply a legal arrangement and such a gross misunderstanding of covenant. The basis of Israel’s life with Yahweh was grace alone (some will balk at the word “alone” here but it is true nonetheless). Israel was “saved” in the Exodus not Sinai. Exodus comes before Sinai, Calvary comes before Pentecost. Grace comes before faith … or obedience. It always has and always will. Love is the essence of the Hebrew Bible.
In addition to the covenant of love there are several other trajectories that are dependent upon the Hebrew Bible for grounding in Christian life, reflection and practice. Here is a short list for your own reflection
The Goodness of Creation
Community/People of God (the solidarity of the people of God)
Worship (yes … worship!)
Christology (the story of the Savior is impossible without the Hebrew Bible)
Our religious tradition (yes it is a tradition) has lived with a polemically driven hermeneutic for reading the Hebrew Bible … and even the Gospels. This debate reading has resulted, often, in a limited understanding of huge portions of the Story of God in Scripture. And as true children of Campbell we have often simply read portions of Romans, Galatians or Hebrews for our “understanding” of three-fifths of the Bible. But the Hebrew Bible cannot be simply reduced to Paul’s first century debates about the inclusion of Gentiles in the promises.
There are major weaknesses in the prevailing view of the role and authority of the Hebrew Bible in most Churches of Christ. Yet there are also some helpful pointers in Campbell himself to a richer, and more nuanced, place for the “OT” in the Christian faith. Embracing the redemptive-historical framework and unified narrative of the Story will pay rich dividends for our spiritual health in the 21st century. There are two Testaments but there is only one Bible. There are stages and development in Scripture but there is only one Story. In future blogs we will explore this in more detail.
P.S. I have been doing my morning prayer time using Gary Holloway’s new Daily Disciple: A One-Year Devotional Guide which includes daily meditations from writers like Campbell, Stone, Scott, Garrison, Johnson, and Richardson. So far the selections have been meaningful to my life journey. Daily Disciple is published by Leafwood Publishers.