8 Aug 2011

"Sound Doctrine," "Pattern," "Timothy:" Reflections on Restoration Hermeneutics #2

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Church History, Hermeneutics, Jesus, Patternism, Restoration History, Unity
Part one of “Sound Doctrine” & “Patternism” can be read HERE

The Problem of NOT Distinguishing Doctrine & Good News/Gospel

It should come as no surprise that Paul roots “healthy” (i.e. sound) teaching in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. One proceeds out of the other. For Paul, it seems, everything that can claim to be uniquely Christian is Christocentric. Scripture itself, Paul says, is ultimately Christ-centered for its function is to makes us wise unto salvation by focusing our faith onto the Christ (2 Tim 3.15)[1]. Bernard Ramm in his semi-classic work The Pattern of Authority said it nicely,

“Christ is the supreme object of the witness of the Spirit, and Christ is the supreme content of the Scriptures. The Spirit who bears his chief witness to Christ also inspired the Scripture. The Scriptures are inspired of the Spirit and they witness supremely to Christ, the personal Word of God. Such is the pattern of authority.” [2]

Yet the Stone Campbell Movement has not been Christologically focused but rather ecclesiologically focused. We use the Pauline language of “sound/healthy doctrine” to refer to dogma about baptism, the Lord’s Supper, instrumental music, elders, deacons, role of women, etc, etc. However we never use “sound/healthy doctrine” to refer to having a gentle spirit, loving our enemies, commitment to the unity of the body or being joyful in the Spirt. We have turned Paul’s language quite literally on its head and used post-biblical notions of dogma to make “sound doctrine” mean everything but what it actually means in the “Pastorals.” Even more we have often made our notion of dogma (our redefined “sound doctrine”) equivalent to Gospel itself. The Gospel is just another doctrine instead of being that which healthy teaching is built upon and in accordance with!!!

The Eclipse of Christ

When the Bible (or the New Testament) becomes the pattern, Christ’s supremacy is eclipsed. When Christ is eclipsed Christianity is perverted into what some Pharisees had made the Law of Moses – a perversion, a mere caricature of the Gracious Word (and God’s Torah was/is gracious too). It becomes a religion based upon human performance rather than the achievement of the Cross of Christ. This is not as God established it but as humans have practiced it.

Many have noticed the confusion that results when the Bible replaces Christ as the pattern under the reign of God.  J. D. Thomas himself argues that the controversy over pattern hermeneutics is ultimately the outgrowth of the “Man or the Plan” controversy[3]. Thomas admits that most of our problems in Churches of Christ stem not from hermeneutics per se but from legalistic tendencies.[4] I, myself, would argue that the hermeneutic drives the legalistic confusion. Thomas singles out as “major doctrinal” weaknesses as our failure to understand the Gospel of Christ Crucified and the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit.[5] Thomas is hardly a “new hermeneutic” advocate, yet he is perceptive and open enough to see that “Back to the Bible” movements have often let their allegiance to the written word eclipse the Living Word with their own agenda. Don’t misread me here … we are committed to the written word but the written word is NOT an end or the end … the written word is a vehicle, a sacrament if you will to come to the Living Word – Jesus the Messiah.

In our own Stone-Campbell Movement the process of moving the focus of our faith from the Living Word and Patterned life under the reign of God has been gradual but steady. It did not happen overnight. This movement has almost always come as a result of some conflict in our history. One of the earliest prophets came from the Founding Generation itself: Robert Richardson. After a series of conflicts in the late 1830s that resulted in the production of lists (for the first time!) of marks for the “one true church,” Richardson believed many had fixated on upon the Bible and not the Gospel. He said it is true to say the Bible is our religion in that it contains Christianity but it also contains Judaism. He pointed out the lack of clarity in our thinking that sometimes resulted in unhealthy teaching and even sicker division …

men seem to have lost the obvious distinction between the Bible and the Gospel … it should never be forgotten that the Apostles and the first preachers of the gospel had no Bibles or New Testaments to distribute.

The preaching of the gospel was around long before there were New Testaments. The Bible is our spiritual library but the “Gospel” is our “standard of orthodoxy”[6]Richardson declared.

A couple generations later, two writers called attention to our confusion in our preaching over the Gospel and “healthy” teaching. K. C. Moser and G.C. Brewer questioned if we were truly preaching gospel sermons. Brewer wrote in the publication, Gospel Advocate, he feared (along with Moser) that “we” were putting to much emphasis on a “plan” or conditions of salvation which made our preaching biblically “off key.”[7] Brewer would return to this theme throughout his career. He voiced his concern that a plan/pattern replaces Christ as Savior. In response to a question about the role of confession in the “plan of salvation” he said quite pointedly,

to put stress upon a PLAN and specific items and steps of that PLAN may lead to a wrong conclusion. We are saved by a PERSON not by a plan; we are saved by a Savior, not by a ceremony … our faith is in Christ not FAITH IN A PLAN.

Brewer goes on to say that trusting in a plan is to build according to a “blueprint” but we don’t build according to a blueprint (i.e. pattern) but faith in Christ the Savior.[8] Just before he died Brewer was even more blatant stating flatly,

I have frequently said that we sing a much better gospel than we preach. I believe with all my heart that this is true. Too many of us do not preach Christianity; we preach “Churchanity.” Too many of us instead of preaching Christ preach a creed.”[9]

The institutional controversy, which tore the bonds of fellowship over matters not remotely related to Paul’s use of the phrase “sound doctrine,” is a sad commentary on the truth of Richardson’s and Brewer’s observation: Christ had been eclipsed by “Churchanity!” This sad affair was, and is, only possible when we change the biblical meaning of the phrase “sound teaching/healthy doctrine” in Timothy and Titus to mean everything but behavior among brothers and sisters in the family of God.

Our hermeneutic has been flawed precisely because it has not been Christocentric. It has been church-centric. If it had been rooted first in the Living Word we would never have been confused over Gospel and “Sound Doctrine.” One of the clearest examples of the eclipse of Christ through all of this is the classic series of books by R. L. Whiteside and C. R. Nichol entitled, ironically, Sound Doctrine. Through four books co-authored and the last by Nichol alone, there is not a single chapter on Jesus!! Jesus is confined to a short paragraph under the heading of “Creation” in Sound Doctrine, vol 1, pp. 22-23!! Had our hermeneutic been more Christocentric we just might have had more Spirit-filled Christians in our pews and the shalom that marks His presence.

Sound Teaching

But do you inculcate the things which become wholesome doctrine: that aged men be vigilant, grave prudent, healthy by faith love, patience. That aged women, in like manner, be in deportment as becomes sacred persons–not slanderers, not enslaved to much wine, good teachers … (Titus 2.1ff, Living Oracles, Alexander Campbell’s version)

The Jerusalem Bible renders: “It is for you, then to preach the BEHAVIOR which goes with healthy doctrine … (Titus 2.1)

Paul told Timothy to keep the “pattern of healthy teaching.” That teaching is moral instruction rooted in and springs from the redemption we have received through the Crucified One. True healthy/sound doctrine is not a legal code of dogmas on various contemporary issues. “Wholesome doctrine” is instruction that leads to a life conformed to the image of Jesus by the power of the Spirit as we live under the reign of God. Paul, it seems, could not be clearer in what he means!

One writer on the subject of the Bible’s authority, and role, very insightfully says

we would understand much more about the authority of the Bible if we paid more attention to its function in ordering the moral life–forming character and guiding conduct–rather than attempting to derive abstract and intellectual theological systems from it.“[10]

The Bible must be allowed to function in the capacity that God gave it. We cannot respect God, or his word, by artificially forcing words or phrases into some preconceived pattern. Exegesis, not current controversy, defines what Paul meant in the first century by “sound teaching/doctrine.” That teaching had everything to do with the life of the community together, its peace, its harmony, it holiness and nothing to do with later dogmas formed in the heat of religious debate. Scripture reveals the ONE who is the paradigm/pattern for sound living under the reign of God: Jesus the Christ. Good, sound, healthy, biblical doctrine is teaching that is first rooted in the Gospel of Christ Crucified and second moves us to be transformed into the image (the pattern!) of Him who saves by his blood, Jesus.


[1] Notes Jesus’ own testimony in John 5.39-40.

[2] Bernard Ramm, The Pattern of Authority (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), 37

[3] J. D. Thomas, Harmonizing Hermeneutics: Applying the Bible to Contemporary Life (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1991), 95.

[4] Thomas speaks of the “legalistic mindset” ibid., pp. 82-84. He also dedicates considerable space on legalism in We Be Brethren, all of Chapters 9, 10, and half of 20 are devoted to this theme.

[5] Thomas, Harmonizing Hermeneutics, 89

[6] Robert Richardson, “Reformation, IV” Millennial Harbinger (September 1847), 508.

[7] G. C. Brewer, “Are We Preaching the Gospel?” Gospel Advocate (26 August 1937), 798.

[8] G. C. Brewer, Autobiography (Murfreesboro, TN, Dehoff Publications, 1957), 92.

[9] ibid., 151

[10] Michael R. Weed, “The Authority of Jesus, or the Jesus of Authority?” Faculty Bulletin 2 (October 1981), 55-56.

14 Responses to “"Sound Doctrine," "Pattern," "Timothy:" Reflections on Restoration Hermeneutics #2”

  1. Gardner Hall Says:

    Thanks Bobby for being so thought provoking as usual. You are correct and very eloquent in pointing out the under emphasis on the person of Christ and justice, mercy and faith among our ancestors. An underlined “amen” to that aspect of your post!

    But, as is so easy to do when justifiably reacting to evil influences, you are in danger of getting into the either-or game — either “Christologically focused” or “ecclesiastically focused.” Yes, the first must have absolute priority. And yes, focusing primarily on the latter without the former does bring on the carnal, sectarian spirit that has done so much harm. But please don’t forget that a lack of focus on the latter brought us the regional bishops, dioceses and finally the complete roman hierarchy! I won’t even go into the official annual conferences, national statutes and national Church of Christ officers in Latin America that bully those who won’t submit. Such abuses are a direct outgrowth of the “institutionalism” that you think is no big deal.

    It’s a package deal! You can’t separate Christ’s doctrine (teaching) from Christ himself. Yes there is meat and milk (I’m trying to use scriptural phraseology to try to refer to the distinction you’re making) and yes some have gotten so wrapped up in carnal battles about intricacies of “ecclesiology” that they’ve forgotten the milk. However, when reading posts like yours, Christ’s words keep ringing in my ears, “these ought ye to have done without leaving the other undone.” To forget that message of the Lord is to say that the development of Romanism was no big deal.

  2. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:


    Thank you for reading and replying. I always enjoy hearing from you brother. I appreciate your appreciation about Christ. If we dont have the main point the main point then nothing else matters.

    Yet brother I do not think that being Christologically or ecclesiastically focused is a both and proposition in the NT. Paul is not church focused anywhere in any place. The church matters … A GREAT DEAL!! And I think we need to embrace a far healthier ecclesiology than we have. But even in the most “church oriented” letter in the NT (I suggest that is Ephesians) the ecclesiology that is there has nothing to do with the fine print in our so called pattern debates. Paul talks mightily about what it means to BE the people of God but he does so through the lens of Christology … those matters are simply never (even in the Pastorals) the “focus.”

    On the other hand I never said that institutionalism is not a problem. I believe there are many problems with it. Those are just not what Paul himself meant by the use of the phrase “sound doctrine” … and I suspect we as God’s People would be healthier if we actually embraced the Pauline usage of “sound/healthy doctrine.”

    Bobby Valentine

  3. Johnny D. Hinton Says:

    Could it not be said that part of the reason for the restoration movement’s focus on ecclesiology was due to the initial assumption on the part of Alexander Campbell that everyone who professed to be a Christian was, but that the “order of things” is what caused the divisions? His call to unity based on the “Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things” was an effort to get everyone who professed to be Christians on the same page.

  4. kingdomseeking Says:

    This is just a great post. This is exactly why I am so vocal about the problem with reducing the authoritative text of the Bible to Acts 2- Revelation and reading that text to emulate the first-century church rather than trying to emulate Jesus (of which he is the only person in scripture we are called to follow) and reading the entire Bible (OT & NT) as wisdom and instruction for following Jesus as part of the ongoing Jesus movement. I know there are some who, with concern, ask whether we must make a dichotomy between Christology and Ecclesiology. But I suggest that by being Christo-centric – that is, by learning to follow Jesus in the way we live, believe, speak, act, etc… – we would be the church Jesus calls us to be. Further, because we are striving to be incarnational in our own cultures, the church would look very diverse and different from other historical incarnations of the church (including the first-century) yet would have much in common (most specifically, our allegiance the Kingdom of God).

    Grace and Peace,


  5. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:


    Great to have your thoughts here. You are, IMHO, not far from the mark regarding Campbell. AC was looking for a way to promote unity. I am all for that. He explicitly declares that his Ancient Order was not a term of communion.

    Yet AC and our forefathers after him, provide a case study in how contemporary concerns produced the majors to major in rather than the biblical narrative itself. This is the case for our use of the phrase “sound doctrine/teaching” as I have shown in this and the last post. Our contemporary debates with other religious groups produced the list of “distinctives” rather than the biblical text.

    I am for healthy doctrine. I believe I teach and preach healthy doctrine. We need to preach it and we need to teach it. We also need to recognize that what Paul calls that in the Pastorals has not the slightest resemblance to our lists. Titus 2.1f could not make it clearer (a text I did not wrestle with in the post).

    I think a work that shows how Christology and ecclesiology can inform one another for truly sound doctrine is Eugene Peterson’s Practice Resurrection which is sort of an exposition of Ephesians. Truly a sound work in the Pauline sense of the word.

    I close with the thought that scripture determines what is central not our contemporary circumstances. If we do not let the biblical narrative GOVERN our theology it is then that we misplace what is truly healthy, good and sound.

  6. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Rex I could not agree more. Keep the biblical narrative central! All of it!! But that narrative itself continuously brings us back to the center and keeps us biblically balanced rather than subject to the urgent polemics of the moment.

  7. kingdomseeking Says:

    Something else that I like about your post is your historical work regarding the Restoration Movement, which you are better equipped to deal with than I. What it reminds me of is that neither of us and other contemporary Restoration thinkers who are raising the same issue are doing so as novices. It’s nice to know that within our movement, there are thinkers of the past who were raising the same questions and objections even if it did not lead to the same conclusions that are being reached today.

    Grace and Peace,


  8. Lee Freeman Says:

    Campbell says in the 2nd ed. of *The Christian System* that he doesn’t intend anything he outlines in the book to be a test of fellowship, they are merely his ideas, after much study and reflection, on what the church should look like.

    The church is obviously important, as Paul says that Christ died for her and is her head (wish more people remembered that last one), however we must not forget that WE are the church.

    I remember what I was taught as a kid in the 70s-maybe not in so many words, but its the impression I got-that the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus was just one more doctrine among a lot of other doctrines. Important, yes, but then so was baptism and the role of elders.

    Christ is the cornerstone, not the church, important as it is.

  9. Anonymous Says:

    “However we never use ‘sound/healthy doctrine’ to refer to having a gentle spirit, loving our enemies, commitment to the unity of the body or being joyful in the Spirit.”

    Never say never. If we never use sound/healthy teaching to mean the things you mentioned then you would never have written the post. I agree that we way to often do not use healthy teaching as healthy teaching. Even some of us that sometimes take opposing sides to you and others do understand and agree with your post for the most part. Thanks for your insights
    Sonny O.

  10. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Sonny I always appreciate your graciousness. Honored to have you read and comment. I do believe that what I have written is “teaching” and I hope and pray it is “healthy.” My concern in these last two posts have been to examine in some detail what Paul himself meant by his own terminology. His meaning should place limits on our own usage … that is what we have always wanted. That is to Speak where the Bible speaks and be Silent where the Bible is silent, to call Bible things by Bible words and names … we have not done, IMHO, a good job of that when it comes to what we have habitually called “Sound Doctrine.” I can cite pages and pages of examples. Paul’s meaning is the meaning I want. I am sure you feel the same. Blessings brother.

  11. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    I share this following response that I made to a lengthy reply to my post. It was done privately so I will not mention this disciples name. I have respect for him/her and value his/her contrary point of view. Here is my response:
    Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. I am so honored that you have done so. xxxx I have never entertained, even for a moment, that you harbored ill feelings towards me in the slightest. You honor me, I believe, by reading and responding. As iron sharpens iron so one man sharpens another. Agreement on every jot or tittle is hardly essential forbrotherhood and certainly not for
    dialog or love.

    Let me respond to your observations as best I know how.

    1) I do not claim to ever have had an original thought. All I do is study as best I know how, using
    the best equipment (tools) available and share what I have come to understand. That others have looked at this matter seriously means it is worthy of
    reflection. I did not imply that no one ever preached sound doctrine with integrity. I hope I did not do that.

    2) On the matter of “sound doctrine.” Paul, whom I assume you will agree actually wrote the “Pastorals,” had a specific usage for that phrase. It occurs
    nowhere else in the NT. That phrase is part of the larger use of medical imagery throughout the letters. Nowhere in the Pastorals does healthy teaching refer to a list of “dogmas.” Now I do not use the word “dogma” in a pejorative sense either here or on my blog. I chose that word to distinguish it from the Pauline use of “doctrine” in the phrase “sound doctrine.” Dogma has a meaning that many people impose upon the term “doctrine” … and “doctrine” did evolve into sort of a synonym for dogma. But that is not how the phrase is used in
    the Pastorals. I have no issues with us studying the “doctrine of baptism,” or the “doctrine of worship” … I have written on those many times myself, not least
    in Kingdom Come or A Gathered People (with John Mark Hicks & Johnny Melton). Nor is it bad to
    challenge erroneous views. That is all good and perhaps even necessary but that is simply now how Paul used the phrase.

    You, seemingly admit, that your contention is NOT based upon Paul himself but on “subsequent developments after the close of the NT.” This simply proves my
    point in my two essays. We have allowed post-biblical controversy to determine the biblical meaning of Paul’s words.

    Now contrary to what you might think, I do not ignore developments subsequent
    to the close of the NT. I just contend that NT (whole Bible actually) is determinative for determining what is and what is not sound truly means. RLW
    and CRN are case in point. I am not picking on either of them. They are simply great examples of what I speak. I grew up on “Sound Doctrine.” The topics within
    that volume do NOT reflect order of importance those matters have within the biblical narrative. They are all determined by the religious debates in which
    Whiteside and Nichol’s worked in the early to first third of the 1900s. Their social context determined what they wrote about not the biblical narrative. There is no way the Father and Son can be reduced to two paragraphs and have that reflect the actual biblical narrative. There is not even a paragraph on the cross in the entire set. The Holy Spirit has a chapter which is determined by the emerging Pentecostal controversy…

    Bobby Valentine

  12. Sheri Says:

    I think we have forgotten that “sound doctrine” means “healthy doctrine.” When we hear the phrase “sound doctrine” we think it means that doctrine which we have been taught all our lives. We think it means “correct” doctrine, with our tradition defining what is correct. If it were translated as “healthy doctrine”, then maybe we would be more able to understand that if our ideas do not result in health, then they are not healthy doctrine. For example, I do not think it is healthy to divorce a couple and rip apart a family and its children just because a first marriage ended in divorce when no adultery took place. Somehow, we can convince ourselves that this is “sound doctrine” but I don’t think we could as easily convince ourselves that this is a healthy doctrine.

  13. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Sheri you are quite right. You said better than what I said in TWO blogs!!

    You will notice that Alexander Campbell rendered our phrase as “wholesome” in the quotation from Titus 2.

    Bobby V

  14. Gardner Hall Says:

    Didn’t mean to leave the impression that that a focus on Christ and one on the church were two equal “hermeneutical” approaches. My only point was that a focus on the person of Jesus Christ does not exclude concern about the church, Yes, some have emphasized the latter to the point of neglected the former, an inexcusable blunder and the area of your article that brought on the hearty amen.

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