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Introduction to Book on Baptism


The American Restoration Movement is one of the largest religious movements indigenous to North America. Although its beginning is variously dated,[1] it is certain that by the beginning of the Millennial Harbinger in 1830 the theology and practice of the American Restoration Movement was fundamentally intact. The formative period of this development was the 1820s. This movement is now represented by three major religious groups –Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Churches of Christ (Instrumental), and Churches of Christ (Non-instrumental) -- with a total membership of over five million.

The most distinctive aspect of the American Restoration Movement was its baptismal theology. In contrast with the theological setting of the day, the Restoration Movement's teaching on the design of baptism was unique. It certainly contrasted with the Presbyterians, Methodists and Lutherans who practiced infant baptism. The Restoration Movement was baptistic. It advocated the immersion of believers only as baptism. However, the Restoration Movement also stood in contrast with the Baptists -- something which the Reformers themselves were quick to point out. The difference with the Baptists focused on the movement's peculiar understanding of the phrase "baptism for the remission of sins" which was announced by the Reformers across the American frontier. As a consequence, the baptismal theology of the Restoration Movement was unique and novel in the eyes of the mainline Christian communities.

This distinctive view of baptism focuses on the issue of baptismal efficacy. In the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, the debate concerning baptismal efficacy centered around two positions.[2] First, there is the position of the "Sacramentalism". This is basically the position of Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans (Episcopalians) and Lutherans. Jewett defines this view as one that "regards the sacraments as inherently efficacious to mediate the inward grace (blessing) of which they are the outward sign."[3] The sacraments, particularly baptism in this case, have a "causative significance for the salvation of the one receiving the rite."[4] Second, there is the position of the "Evangelicalism". This is basically the position of Reformed theology exhibited in Presbyterian, Baptist and Wesleyan traditions. Jewett defines this view as one that regards baptism as that which "'signifies and seals,' but does not effect, the blessing of cleansing and renewal in Christ."[5] Baptism is the sign and seal of righteousness and salvation. It is the outward sign of the inward grace previously received.

The baptismal theology of the American Restoration Movement does not fall into either one of these two categories. It is neither "sacramental" nor "evangelical".[6] It rejects any kind of magical efficacy to the waters of baptism, and it requires faith on the part of the one who receives the grace mediated by baptism.[7] It does not view baptism as a mere ordinance, nor does it view it as an empty symbol of a grace already bestowed. Rather, the American Restoration Movement has argued that baptism is a true means of grace for those who receive it in faith. The thing signified by baptism, i.e., washing away of sins in the blood of Christ, is actually bestowed at the point of baptism. It is not only a sign, but a true means.[8]

Unlike the sacramentalist view of baptism, it does not see a "causative" connection between baptism and salvation. The baptismal water does not effect anything. Instead it is faith in Christ's blood that is effectual. The Restoration Movement argues for a chronological connection between baptism and salvation; a connection in which there is both symbol and true mediation. The obedience of faith in the submission to the command to be baptized is the chronological point at which one is saved. It is this chronological connection which distinguishes it from the baptismal theology of evangelicalism. Here the debate should not be about the efficacy of baptism or the efficacy of faith, but rather about the chronological point of salvation. In other words, the question is not: "Does faith save?" Rather, the question is: "When does faith save?"

This is a distinctive position in the history of Post-Reformation theology. However, it is not unique in the history of theology viewed from the beginning. In the first chapter, Dr. Cottrell demonstrates that the consensus of theology prior to the rise of Reformed theology was essentially the viewpoint of the American Restoration Movement. Consequently, while Alexander Campbell's exposition of "baptism for the remission of sins" was unique and novel to the American frontier, it was also a return to the biblical and historical roots of Christian theology.

In the second chapter, Dr. Cottrell stresses the uniqueness of Reformed theology in contrast with the earlier consensus of Christian theology. Concentrating on Zwingli, Dr. Cottrell gives a clear exposition of the view of baptismal efficacy which would later dominate Baptist thought. In Zwingli and Reformed theology as it developed, "we have," as Jewett comments, "the beginning of a radical break with the past and the appearance of a new constellation of ideas in the theological heavens."[9] It was in the climate of Reformed theology that the early American Reformers lived and moved. The American frontier was dominated by Calvinism, and this had a tremendous impact on the beginning of the American Restoration Movement.[10] The theology of Stone, Scott and Campbell began in and was influenced by Reformed theology.[11] Indeed, the Restoration Movement was largely a reaction to what they perceived as hyper-Calvinism. Consequently, as their distinctive view of baptismal efficacy developed, they were careful to distinguish themselves from not only the sacramentarians (they wanted to avoid the ex opere operato of Roman Catholicism), but also the "evangelicalism" of Reformed theology. They perceived themselves as proposing a via media (a middle way) by returning to a solid biblical foundation.

Although the American frontier shaped the American Restoration Movement, its European heritage also played a significant role. Both Campbell and Scott were born in Europe, and came to America with clear understandings of their own respective Presbyterian traditions. Dr. McMillon, in chapter three, outlines the various backgrounds which influenced Campbell and set the stage for the introduction of restorationism in America.

Chapters four and five, written by Dr. John Mark Hicks, detail the development and mature views of Alexander Campbell on the design of baptism. Beginning in Presbyterianism, Campbell moved through the Baptist adaptation of Reformed theology to embrace a "novel" view of the design of baptism which became the distinctive mark of
the new movement in the late 1820s. Chapter five, in particular, deals with the issue of Campbell's attitude toward the sects around him who did not agree with his "novel" views on baptism for the remission of sins. In this chapter Campbell's views on both "right-wing" and "left-wing" issues are examined.

In chapters 6 and 8, Mr. Chestnut and Mr. Gross deal with some "right-wing" issues that arose within the Restoration Movement. The issues boiled down to this question: should those immersed without respect to the remission of sins be reimmersed for the remission of sins? Campbell battled Dr. John Thomas on this issue in the 1830s. The battle continued in the 1880s between David Lipscomb and Austin McGary. The issue even now causes debate within moderate and conservative quarters of the American Restoration Movement.

In chapters 7 and 9, Mr. Greene and Dr. North deal with some "left-wing" issues that arose within the Restoration Movement. The issues boiled down to this question: should the American Restoration Movement accept the unimmersed into the fellowship of the visible church? Mr. Greene approaches this question by following the career and baptismal theology of Barton W. Stone. Stone advocated fellowship with the unimmersed. As such he prefigured those who advocated "open membership" in the 1920s. Dr. North details the "open membership" debate which triggered the division between the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and Churches of Christ (Instrumental).[12] This remains a major point of division between the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the Churches of Christ (both Instrumental and Non-instrumental).

In the final chapter of the book Mr. Fletcher, a member of the American Restoration Movement, gives a contemporary overview of the biblical data. Mr. Fletcher underscores an aspect of baptism often neglected in the movement. He emphasizes the role of the Spirit of God in mediating the salvation bestowed at baptism.

It is the purpose of this book to give a comprehensive overview of the development of baptismal theology in the American Restoration Movement. The rise of its distinctive view of baptismal efficacy must be placed against the background of Reformed theology. The tensions which developed within the Restoration Movement over Campbell's view of baptismal efficacy, both from the left and the right, must be seen as part of the struggle to come to terms with a baptismal theology radically different from that in Reformed theology. It is the history of this development and controversy which is the subject of this book.

David Fletcher
Protestant Chaplin
Barksdale AFB, Louisana

John Mark Hicks
Magnolia Bible College
Kosciusko, MS


[1]Some date the beginning of the movement from the dissolution of the Springfield Presbytery under Barton W. Stone in 1804. Others date it from the publication of the Declaration and Address by Thomas Campbell in 1809. Others date the beginning of the movement with the introduction of the Christian Baptist in 1823. While the events of 1804 and 1809 were necessary for the development of the Restoration Movement, these events signaled nothing unique in the total environment of religious history at the time. Britain had seen similar principles and movements initiated prior to these dates. However, with the publication of the Christian Baptist the American Restoration Movement began to have a defined essence and a unique program: the Ancient Order and the Ancient Gospel. This becomes most apparent in the development of Campbell's baptismal theology.

[2]This terminology with its definitions is adopted from Paul K. Jewett, Infant Baptism & the Covenant of Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), pp. 3-4; 75-82.

[3]Jewett, p. 3, footnote 2.

[4]Jewett, p. 3.

[5]Jewett, p. 3, footnote 2.

[6]The definition of the Reformed view of baptismal efficacy as "evangelical" is rather prejudicial. This implies that all other views are non-evangelical, i.e., they are not consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is not a good use of the term "evangelical." However, the term is used here in a strictly historical sense, according to Jewett's categories.

[7]It is important to note that all sacramentalists are also advocates of infant baptism. Sacramentalism does not require faith on the part of the recipient in order to enjoy the benefits of the grace given in baptism. Lutherans are a possible exception since they argue for the reality of "infant faith" (that is, the faith which an infant possesses).

[8]This is supported biblically by the instrumental use of dia (through) in Romans 6:4 and Titus 3:5. See chapters 1 and 10 for a look at the Biblical data.

[9]Jewett, p. 78.

[10]See Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., "The Age of Alexander Campbell," in The Sage of Bethany: A Pioneer in Broadcloth, edited by Perry E. Gresham (reprint; Joplin, Missouri: College Press Publishing Co., 1988), pp. 25-44.

[11]These three men all began their religious life in the context of Presbyterianism, and consequently in the context of Reformed theology.

[12]The issue of baptism had nothing to do with the division between the Churches of Christ (Instrumental) and Churches of Christ (Non-instrumental). That division centered around the application of certain hermeneutical principles with regard to church order and worship.

First published in Baptism and the Remission of Sins, edited by David Fletcher (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1990), 9-15.


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