6 Feb 2008

Marcionism & Churches of Christ: What Value, REALLY, is the ‘Old Testament?" How Did We Get Here, Campbell & His Sermon

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Alexander Campbell, Hebrew Bible, Hermeneutics, Restoration History

Alexander Campbell

You can read Part 1 and Part 2 through the links.

“[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.

Brief Evaluation

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.

Seeking Shalom,

Bobby Valentine

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.

15 Responses to “Marcionism & Churches of Christ: What Value, REALLY, is the ‘Old Testament?" How Did We Get Here, Campbell & His Sermon”

  1. Falantedios Says:

    Thank you, Bobby, for this historical perspective and for helping me find a door to talk about the redemptive-historical approach within our tradition.

    Praying for shalom in your world and mine…

  2. Zack Says:

    Very good and very interesting. Context is extremely important. Especially in the OT. We all need to do better in reading and understanding the OT. Thank you for this thought provoking study. Looking forward to reading more! God bless! Peace.

  3. Rex Says:

    Great thoughts Bobby. I taught class and preached the other day at a church in South Carolina and I decided to speak on the God of grace from Exodus 3.1-10 and Romans 3.21-26 to show that God is the same then and today — extending his mercy and compassion to redeem people from their suffering.

    Great thoughts!

    Ithaca Church of Christ
    Ithaca, NY


  4. Darin L. Hamm Says:


    One of my great joys was reading the Jewish pseudepigrapha along with the apocrypha.

    My thesis paper for a class on Romans stated that in my view legalism came more from Luther/Calvin than any truly Jewish position of salvation. It is clear from their writings that they believed they were saved by the grace of God.

    My point was that the Jews had a superiority issue and not a legalistic one as you approach the New Testament.

    Anyway, I think a better understanding of the historic development can only help any believer who wants to experience the story. I did a study on the Jewish feasts and it was in those that I could see the connection between old and new. It seems to me that the experiences of Passover and Pentecost were foreshadowed in the Jewish customs.

    I find power in knowing that for the Jews Pentecost was a celebration of the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai. Acts 2 in my opinion was not a new dispensation but a fulfilling and empowering that was always to come. Far from halting or establishing new rules it gave us the Spirit so that the Law could be written on our hearts. Steps in a journey prophesied and then accomplished which is one reason we can be assured of Christ return. He always has kept His word.

    Thanks for some helpful understanding of the Stone/Campbell take and why this can be such an issue in discussion.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    I enjoyed how you put God at the top of the list and the connection of grace being first. It is really in a sense that simple, yet, very deep and opens up The Hebrew Bible in new ways. A very wholistic approach.

    I can never understand why Gospel & Law are even seperated to begin with. As N.T.Wright states, Yahweeh is the God of New Creation & Torah. To me it was the mission of our Creator to embody, and incarnate Himself into one example or One Being, Christ, who reveals and teaches what man has failed to grasp since the beginning.

    It seems like we look at Jesus and what He did or didn’t do as the reason for redemption. We always begin with, He was the perfect sacrifice which full fills the law. Yet, the primary or foundation is based upon what Jesus couldn’t do.

    The truth is we were saved because Jesus remained faithful to the promises of the Father. His total reliance on grace and the love of the Father IS the law. It’s the only reason He was able to keep it.

    Bobby, hope your doing better. Every testing you go through always makes you more like Christ.

    I love you,
    Penney Winiarski

  6. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Penny you always encourage me and for that I am grateful.

    Things however are not going the best in my life right at the moment to be honest. But God is faithful and I pray to him a hundred times a day and he will act at just the right time. I just don’t know when that right time is and that is the challenge.

    Seeking Shalom,
    Bobby Valentine

  7. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Rex I did a sermon from Exodus 2 and 3 on January 6 but took it off line. Great text(s).

    Bobby V

  8. Falantedios Says:

    The short answer?

    People read John 1:17 through the lens of Objective Timeless Truth and never ask themselves why John says “and truth” (as a clue, that the relationship between the Mosaic Law and the Grace of Jesus is the same as between Law and Truth.)

    Thus ignoring John’s purpose, ignoring John’s context, and ignoring John’s own clues, people say law is bad and grace is good.

    in HIS love,

  9. Rex Says:


    Every once in a while I dopp by to listen to a sermon (I don’t have as much time to do this as I would like). Any ways, I heard the sermon before it taken off line.

    And I said a prayer for God’s shalom to be with you.


  10. Royce Ogle Says:

    God is the same God over both the OT and NT, over Law and Grace. He has consistantly been in persuit of wicked sinners who will take Him at His word so that He might lavish His love on them.

    The Bible (both OT and NT) is one love story of God’s redemptive work on behalf of His creatures and His creation.

    Blessings to you and yours Bobby.

    His Peace,
    Royce Ogle

  11. Matthew Says:

    I love the work you do in this area. You weave Bible, history, and theological background very well.

  12. beowulf2k8 Says:

    So, you say that AC’s approach to understanding the Law “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.”

    Oh wow! So now its a sin to read the Law in the light of the New Testament. So, we all need to go back and read the Law with the veil on our hearts like a bunch of Jews? Is that it? (2 Cor 3:15) I sure am glad I’ve been schooled in the error of my ways (sarcasm). I spose it’s time to go find me a Levite or two and offer up a few bullocks as a sin-offering now (continued sarcasm).

    Bobby continues: “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).”

    So the New Testament is meaningless for us today and irrelevant because of some crypto-historical-context that we’re all too stupid to grasp except for Bobby, and therefore we ought to all just revert to the Old Testament and make Bobby our High Priest.

    But he’s not done yet, cuz he says “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.”

    That connections exist is a given. Yet that’s not your point. Alexandros C. himself would note that both Testaments continue belief in the same God, which is a clear connection, but it doesn’t make the covenants the same covenant.

    “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.””

    Sorry, but he didn’t say anything of the sort. You just wanted to use the fancy word “conceptualizing” didn’t you? Just learned some new words in college, eh? What’s really interesting is that what you are responding to is his quotation of John 1:17 that “the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” I think Alexandros would acknowledge that some grace existed under the Law too, but certainly not such as we have today! But if I keep saying such things I might eat into Bobby Valentine’s tithe as some Jews on here might convert to Christianity to get that extra abundance of grace that Jesus brought us that didn’t exist under the Law.

  13. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Glad you are around Beowulf. To bad you do not have the courage to sign your name.

    But again I think you are doing your best to miss the point … this time on what I said about context.

    Seeking Shalom,
    Bobby Valentine

  14. beowulf2k8 Says:

    Well, I took your advice to read the OT as it stands rather than through the lens of ‘Matthew’ or ‘Paul’ and it convinced me that the OT citations in the New Testament are inauthentic, that is that Marcion’s canon of the Gospel and Apostolikon is the Authentic Christian canon and the canon we now possess was produced by the proto-orthodox (2nd century Catholics) adding OT references and OT support material (taken out of context and mangled) to the Gospel of Marcion (which was then split out into four) and to Paul’s epistles, and supplementing it all with other spurious writings or revisions of non-canonical Marcionite literature.

    To prove this assertion read all the prophecies in Matthew 2 in their OT contexts. Isaiah 7-8 is about Mahershalalhahbaz to be born of a virgin as a sign of when the two kings that oppose Ahaz’ will be defeated (i.e. before Mahershalalhahbaz learns the difference between good and evil or the ability to cry out ‘mommy’). In Jer 31 Rachel is weeping because her children are in Bablyonian exile, for Yahweh says ‘weep not: thy children will return from the land of the enemy to their own border’. Nothing about a king killing infants there. Hosea 11:1 is about Israel as a nation being the firstborn of Yahweh and called out of Egypt in Exodus, as he told Moses to say to Pharaoh ‘Israel is my firstborn, let my son go…’ Micah 5 is about a warrior to defend Palestine against Assyrian incursion! And “he shall be called a Nazarene” (Matt 2:23) doesn’t even exist in the OT!

    Further, Jesus’ comment in Matt 11:11 that none ‘born of women’ is greater than John clearly excludes Jesus from the class ‘born of women,’ meaning Jesus is denying being born. Also in John 6:51, Jesus describes himself as the bread that came down from heaven, even including his flesh in this ‘and the bread I will give is my flesh’ meaning that his flesh came down from heaven too. Again, a denial of birth. It fits with the Marcionite doctrine that he descended from Heaven.

    As to the Trinity, we all know the OT doesn’t teach it, yet the NT does. Well, the Trinity is really impossible in ‘orthodox’ Christianity since the Father must be the enemy that Christ defeats or the rabid monster of rage that he placates or provides a ‘propitiation’ to. Thus the Trinity becomes divided into devouring and ogre-like Father and wonderful hero Son. But in Marcionism, the one to be placated or for us to be redeemed from is the Demiurge or god of the Old Testament (god of this world, world-ruler, ruler of this world) who is totally seperate from the Good God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). The Trinity can actually exist uninterupted and undivided in Marcionism (full-fledged two-god Marcionism), unlike in ‘orthodoxy.’

  15. beowulf2k8 Says:

    And the constant references to the idea that nobody has ever seen God but Jesus alone can declare him (in the gospel of John) are clearly Marcionite idea protruding through later layers of proto-orthodox (2nd century ‘Catholic’) revisionism. The suggestion that the father of the Jews is Satan who was ‘a liar from the beginning’ also points Marcion’s direction, seeing that anyone with spiritual eyes can see that the first lie in the Bible is made by the god who intended to use Adam’s transgression as an excuse to burn all of Adam’s posterity in hell for all eternity and yet merely threatened a personal punishment ‘in the day that you eat the fruit you will surely die.’ This is a lie, and a murderous one. Thus the father of the Jews, the god of the OT, is properly said by Jesus in John 8:44 to be both a liar and murderer from the beginning.


  1. Stoned-Campbell Disciple » Blog Archive » The “Old Testament,” Why it Matters: Reflections on a Thirty-One Year Journey of Discovery

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