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The Quest for Christian Unity, Peace and Purity

The Quest for Christian Unity, Peace, and Purity in Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address: Text and Studies, ATLA Monograph Series, no. 46, edited by Thomas H. Olbricht and Hans Rollmann. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2000. 489pp.

Thomas Campbell’s 1809 Declaration and Addresss is one of the founding documents of the Stone-Campbell Movement. In 1997 and 1998 several scholars and students discussed this significant piece of American Christianity in an electronic seminar. This book is the product of that seminar and provides the most exptensive discussion of the historic document available. The first edition of the Declaration and Address is printed in the volume, and Ernest C. Stefanik contributes a critical apparatus that illuminates how Alexander Campbell edited the second edition published in the Memoirs of Elder Thomas Campbell (1861). Stefanik also compiled a bibliography of Thomas Campbell’s writings (466-75). In addition, Christopher R. Hutson provides a Scripture index that demonstrates that 1 Cor 8-10, Rom 14-15, and Ephesians form the document’s biblical foundation. Hudson’s essay on its use of Scripture cogently argues that the right of private interpretation is fundamental and “where the Scriptures are not explicit, one’s interpretation is between oneself and God” (219).

The Declaration and Address is studied from multiple vantage points. Its background is explored in the light of the continental Reformation (Olbricht), Scottish rhetoric (Berryhill), and British Associations (Lester). The argument of the document is discussed in terms of its theory of logic (Casey), hermeneutics (Olbricht), and rhetoric (Hobbs). Its theology is unpacked through the themes of unity (Cook), forbearance (Synder), purity/maturity (Straughan), soteriology (Flynn), and eschatology (Rollmann). Three essays asses the historical influence of the document on particular branches of the Stone-Campbell Movement: the Disciples (Blowers), Churches of Christ (Foster), and Independents (Dull). Nutter assesses its significance for the present postmodern world, and Haymes concludes the studies with the proposal that the Declaration and Address’s importance—then and now—is rooted in its countercultural agenda.

No student of the Stone-Campbell Movement should ignore this book. It significantly advances our understanding of the Declaration and Address. Every student of ecumenicism should read it because it studies one of the first and primary documents of ecumenical thought in American Christianity.

While each essay contributes something valuable, several are particularly significant. For example, the late Hiram Lester advances our understanding of the social location of the Declaration and Address, particularly Campbell’s previous ecumenical activities in Ireland. He also illuminates the form and function of the Declaration and Address, which, as comparison with similar British societies demonstrates, was intended as the founding document of a voluntary, parachurch, missionary society. Campbell, according to Lester, followed the model of the associations that arose out of the British Evangelical Awakening (1790-1820). Campbell was the only Antiburgher member of the Evangelical Society of Ulster, formed in 1798. However, he was pressured to resign his membership though his thirst for Christian unity was not quenched. Indeed, Lester and Rollmann elaborate this point—Campbell’s quest for unity was driven by an eschatological hope for unity. But, as Rollmann points out, it was not simply a quest for unity, but also for purity (359), thus differentiating it from other associations of Campbell’s day.

Lee Snyder identifies a significant rhetorical strategy in the Declaration and Address that “remains a vital element of the Stone-Campbell heritage.” Campbell played the role of a “gracious advocate” (303). Consistent with Hutson’s identification of Rom 14 as a central text and Straughn’s argument that spiritual maturation is a process toward biblical purity and unity, Snyder argues that the ministry of forebearance is critical to Campbell’s search for unity. The “gracious advocate” seeks mutual understanding and is more concerned about relationality than institutionalism. Also, Synder demonstrates, contrary to others, that the Declaration and Address had a direct impact on Alexander Campbell. It gave direction to his reforming movement.

Blowers’s historical piece is an illuminating reflection on how F. D. Kershner (1875-1953) and William Robinson (1888-1963), theological moderates among the Disciples, interpreted the Declaration and Address for the emerging twentieth-century, ecumenical movement. Both believed that unity through restoration for the sake of world evangelism was the genius of the document. The Christological, organic unity of the church conjoined with a restoration principle rooted in the authority of Jesus and his gospel was Campbell’s essential contribution and one that Disciples, according to Kershner and Robinson, should embrace toward ecumenicism. Unity and apostolicity are found in the dynamic and real presence of Christ through the extension of his incarnation in the missionary and historic presence of the church.

As the title of this collection of essays testifies, the central hermeneutical issue in reading the Declaration and Address is the relationship between unity and purity. How does the document propose that we achieve both unity and purity in the present? Or are unity and purity eschatological goals that exist in tension throughout the process of history? In this light, as Don Haymes notes, the Declaration and Address is a “feast of irony” (461). It seeks what has never existed—unity, peace, and purity—in the historic church, but yearns for it because of Jesus’ prayer in John 17. Haymes believes that we hope and seek unity, peace, and purity because God is the source of all three and the one to whom the prayer is addressed.

Within the framework of an already/not yet eschatology, we seek the present experience of unity and purity but with the confession that we have not yet fully experienced what God intends. Perhaps this volume will not only contribute to the self-understanding of Stone-Campbell Movement, but it will also renew the impetus for the search for unity and purity in the church.


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