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Founding Vocation

Anthony L. Dunnavant, Richard T. Hughes and Paul M. Blowers, Founding Vocation & Future Vision: The Self-Understanding of the Disciples of Christ and the Churches of Christ. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1999. pbk, 114 pages. Reviewed by John Mark Hicks, Professor of Theology, Lipscomb University, Nashville, TN.

Originally the 1995 and 1997 Reed Lectures sponsored by the Disciples of Christ Historical Society, Dunnavant, the late lamented Dean of Lexington Theological Seminary and Hughes, Distinguished Professor at Pepperdine University, seek to articulate the “founding vocation” of the Stone-Campbell movement in the light of their respective traditions and provide a vision for the future adaptation of that vocation. Blowers, Assistant Professor of Church History at Emmanuel School of Religion, enhances these original lectures by critically assessing their historiography and reflecting on the nature of the “founding vocation” as a representative of the third major tradition of the Stone-Campbell movement (Independents). This triumvirate has gravitas as each is critically conversant with both Stone-Campbell origins and the development of their own particular traditions. This book, then, is a microcosm of current Stone-Campbell historiography. Since both Dunnavant and Hughes respond to Blowers, the dialogical value of the book is further enhanced.

Both Dunnavant and Hughes locate the “founding vocation” in the idea of freedom (following Ronald Osburn’s thesis), but they assess its significance differently. Dunnavant sets freedom in the broad context of other significant themes (apostolicity, unity, mission). Dunnavant places the Stone-Campbell vocation on a “providential” trajectory that develops these themes which ultimately blossom in ecumenical involvement and are embodied in denominational restructure. The theological dimension of Dunnavant’s claim is that “providence” is the frame in which God carries out his mission through the Disciples as they work within a catholic ethos. Hughes, on the other hand, argues that the idea of freedom is prior to any other theme associated with the “founding vocation.” Hughes identifies this freedom as a relentless search for truth unencumbered by creeds, tradition or previous reading of Scripture. Rather than locating this freedom solely in the rationalistic impulse of Campbellianism, Hughes believes that Stone and Campbell inherited the Reformed theological conviction that God is God and all human beings are fallible. The search for truth, then, is an outworking of the theological conviction of divine sovereignty and human frailty. Human beings are always reforming (searching) as they seek to understand the work of God in human history.

Both Dunnavant and Hughes believe that their respective traditions took some wrong turns with this founding freedom, though Dunnavant is a bit more positive in his assessment. While Dunnavant is appreciative of the unity impulse of the Disciples, he believes that Restructure reinterpreted the founding vocation through the eyes of modernism and progressivism rather than through a catholic historical consciousness. Consequently, he calls for a greater appreciation of the founding voices in the current dialogue between the Restructure and Renewal elements of the Disciples of Christ. Hughes believes the Churches of Christ turned the search for truth into a defense of the restored, true Church of Christ. In essence, they subverted the very essence of the founding vocation by claiming to have arrived at the goal wherein there is no more need for searching. The task has been accomplished and the search is over. Preoccupied with ecclesiological perfection, Churches of Christ were no longer able to hear the Gospel and thus lost the theological underpinnings of their vocation. Instead of emphasizing divine sovereignty and human fallibility, they stressed human perfection, and thereby negated the free search for truth within their own tradition.

Blowers objects to both renditions of the founding vocation. He rejects locating the founding vocation in a trajectory of themes (Dunnavant) or in the singular essence of a particular idea (Hughes). Instead, in keeping with his patristic interests, Blowers finds identity in the “core narrative” of the Christian faith. He calls for the renewal of a “rule of faith” which embodies the Christological, yet theocentric, character of Christianity. Blowers seeks a narrative reading of the founding vision and its biblical impetus whereas the theme of “freedom” smacks more of Baconian enlightenment or modern progressivism. The founding vocation, therefore, is more about how we read our own history than it is about what the original founders actually thought. A “rule of faith,” which is not too distant from Campbell’s own perspective, will give identity to the present church as well as link it with its roots, both catholic and Stone-Campbell.

I am persuaded by Blowers’ analysis. Dunnavant is correct that there were a cluster of themes and not one single, dominating one. Hughes is equally correct to highlight the value of freedom in the beginnings of the Stone-Campbell Movement, though his linkage to theological values is tenuous and largely inferred from the sources. Despite their positive contributions, Blowers correctly argues that these “trajectory” or “essence” interpretations are driven by modern progressivism on the one hand and Baconian Common-Sense rationalism on the other. Blowers calls us to a sanctified consensus on the Christological and theological center of our faith, and it is this center which links us with our past. Indeed, Campbell and Stone both place themselves within this larger narrative as they search for truth (Hughes) and pursue mission (Dunnavant). The narrative, then, is more foundational than either freedom or Dunnavant’s themes because the narrative, through communal discernment of Scripture and history, provides the heuristic frame for thinking about our contemporary vocation and future vision.

Anyone who seeks a current understanding of contemporary Stone-Campbell historiography cannot ignore this book. It is a must read and provides much fodder for future dialogue regarding our “founding vocation” and our “future vision.”


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