Atonement in early restorationist thought

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John Mark Hicks

Harding University Graduate School of Religion

Inagural Lecture at Restoration Theological Research Fellowship

Society of Biblical Literature Conference

Chicago, Illinois

November, 1994
The nineteenth century was a time of tremendous theological change in America. The whole theological culture moved from a Scottish Common Sense realism which largely ignored continental developments to an intense engagement with a new theology arising out of continent. It moved from an inviolable trust in the veracity of Scripture to an internal debate over its infallibility. It moved from a largely Puritan and Reformed theological perspective to a multi-varieted and pluralistic theological landscape. The nineteenth century was a century that began in relative stability and ended in flux.

Atonement theology is a significant illustration of this movement from stability to flux. David Wells has recently drawn attention to the appearance of three major theories of atonement in nineteenth century American Reformed theology.1 Charles Hodge (1797-1878) of Princeton Seminary represented the conservative Reformed tradition, the Old School, as an advocate of penal substitution. Nathaniel William Taylor (1768-1858) of Yale College represented a moderate Reformed tradition, the New School, as an advocate of the governmental theory of atonement. Horace Bushnell (1802-76) of Hartford, Connecticut represented an emerging liberal Reformed tradition as an advocate of the moral influence theory of atonement. These three theologians, representing larger theological traditions, waged a battle over the nature of the atonement in the early and mid-nineteenth century. It was a discussion rooted in broader theological differences than just the atonement.

The Reformed tradition was not unique in this theological development. The doctrine of atonement was a center piece of discussion among American Methodists as well. Robert Chiles has detailed the transition of American Methodism from penal substitution in Richard Watson (1737-1816), to a governmental theory of atonement in Richard Miley (1813-1895), and finally to a version of the moral influence theory in Robert Knudsen (1873-1953).2 As the discussion proceeded, what was accomplished in the atonement receded into the background and the application of the atonement took the center stage of discussion.

This is particularly seen in the theology of the great revivalist Charles Finney. "Revival," Wells argues, "had the effect of muffling discussion on the Atonement."3 When Finney introduced his "New Measures" the questions turned to practical methodology rather than dogmatic theology. Issues of "living piety" rather than theological understanding dominated. As a result, discussion focused on the application of the atonement instead of what the atonement accomplished. The Princetonians, who saw this tendency in the New Schoolers as well as Finney, believed it was a "concession, witting or unwitting, to a culture that was activistic, pragmatic, and impatient" with theological reflection.4 Finney shared a governmental perspective with the New Schoolers.5

The Restoration Movement was not immune to this nineteenth-century theological quarrel over the atonement. Neither was it immune to the pluralistic understandings of the atonement present in American evangelical theology. This paper will demonstrate that the American Restoration Movement reflected the same diversity, and essentially the same pattern of development which was present in the broader stream of American theological tradition. Paralleling the divergence of the Reformed and Wesleyan traditions, the American Restoration Movement had from its inception the presence of varied understandings of the atonement. While Thomas and Alexander Campbell represented a traditional penal substitution theory, Barton W. Stone represented a broad moral influence tradition and Walter Scott represented the governmental tradition. The purpose of this paper is to first understand the differences between restorationists, then to trace the pattern of its theological development in the nineteenth century.

Anyone familiar with the writings and controversies of the early Restoration Movement will not be surprised by the amount and depth of diversity within it. Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell, for example, differed on such important topics as the relationship between immersion and communion, whether the Reformers should wear the name "Disciples" or "Christians," the millennium, apocalyptic versus progressive worldviews, on the value and nature of Revivalism, and on whether the Reformation should unite with the Christian Connection among other things.6 However, Christology was a primary theological dividing point between Stone and Campbell, and it is in this context that their differences on the subject of atonement are stated.

Because of Stone's Christology, Campbell appears generally suspicious of the older Reformer. In 1827, Campbell expressed his concern about the growing sectarian character of the people who had assumed the name "Christian." He feared that "certain opinions, called Arian or Unitarian, or something else, are becoming [their] sectarian badge" and "that some peculiar views of atonement or reconciliation are likely to become characteristic of a people who have claimed the high character and dignified relation of the Church of Christ."7 Indeed, at the beginning of his letter, Campbell accepted Stone as a brother because Stone had once told him that he "conscientiously and devoutly pray[ed] to the Lord Jesus Christ as though there was no other God in the universe than he."8 Stone replied that he never said any such thing, and that if this was Campbell's acid test, then he would have to be excluded from the number Campbell calls "brethren."9 Consequently, Campbell was never entirely comfortable with Stone.10 For Campbell, the Christological test, whether applied to Stonites or to Calvinists, would be whether they "supremely venerate, and unequivocally worship the King my Lord and Master, and are willing to obey him in all things."11

After the union in 1832, Campbell believed that the "Christians" had left their sectarianism and opinions behind and had come to affirm the substance of his Christological test.12 Stone himself indicated that uniting with the Reformers meant that he would lay aside all the speculations of his former days and speak only in the "words of inspiration."13 Indeed, in 1844, Campbell believed that his movement had swallowed up the Stonite speculations so that the time of their "Newlightism" was a former day.14 He had hoped that the Christians and the Reformers had come to share some Christological common ground. For Stone's part, while he had earlier flirted with Arianism, by his death he had rejected all such speculative language and come to rest only, he claimed, in the words of Scripture.15 Stone acknowledged his debt to Campbell for rejecting speculation and "expressing the faith of the gospel in the words of revelation."16 In his last decade, his Christological statements are replete with biblical phrases without extended speculation as to their ultimate ontology.17 Campbell, however, was always sensitive to defend his association with the Stonites while distancing himself from the Unitarian Christian Connection precisely on Christological grounds.18 In the light of this concern, Campbell now engaged such issues as Trinity and Atonement when in 1830 he had counseled preachers that such topics were too well-known to discuss.19 What he had assumed in 1830 now, in 1833, had to be defended and proclaimed in the light of the union between the Christians and Reformers as well as Campbell's growing sense of urgency about how some Christological issues were understood. The union between the Christians and the Reformers prompted some, especially Dr. James Fishback, who was sympathetic with the Reformers, to attack Stone's Christology.20 In this context Campbell went on the defensive to clarify his own Christology.

This Christological tension between Stone and Campbell, however, extended to the nature of the atonement. Campbell was aware from the beginning of Stone's views on the atonement, but believed that he had shelved them at the time of the union. It was a common rumor that Stone had "publickly relinquished [his] former views of the atonement" which Stone emphatically denied.21 As a result of his encounter with the Reformers Stone had determined to speak about the atonement "only in the language of Scripture, and not to introduce any previous opinion, or speculation [he] may have entertained on the subject."22 Nevertheless, Stone continued to press his views in the Christian Messenger because he felt many among the Reformers were "partially ignorant of the doctrine of atonement."23 Indeed, alongside of such perennial topics as baptism, the Holy Spirit, unity and the church, the atonement is the most discussed item in the pages of the Christian Messenger.24

In 1833, not long after the union of the Christians and the Reformers, Thomas Campbell was asked to review an 1829 book by Noah Worcester entitled The Atoning Sacrifice: A Display of Love--not of Wrath.25 The work advocated a moral influence theory of atonement. Stone recommended Worcester's book along with his own 1821 Address to the Churches for those who wish to understand his own view of the atonement.26 In 1829, immediately after the publication of Worcester's work, Stone had provided some extended extracts from it with an endorsement of its views.27 While Thomas Campbell found much in the book to approve, he thought it contained some "radical mistakes."28 What was originally intended by Thomas Campbell as a private communication became, in the hands of Alexander Campbell, a bone of contention between the Stonites and the Reformers as Thomas Campbell and Stone exchanged letters.29 There is little doubt that Alexander Campbell published his father's strictures on Worcester as an assessment of Stone's understanding of the atonement. He prefaced his father's review with the hope that "it might be of use to some of our readers" even though it was intended only for William Z. Thompson of Kentucky.30 Campbell would later tell Stone that "our brethren desire argument and evidence on this subject."31 In 1840-41 Alexander Campbell and Stone would discuss the subject at length in a formal exchange of letters,32 and it would remain a topic of discussion till Stone's death in 1844.33

Shortly after the 1833 exchange between Thomas Campbell and Barton W. Stone, Walter Scott entered the fray. In 1834 Scott published the first of six articles on the death of Christ.34 He was criticized for inaugurating the series because it was believed that it would exacerbate the tensions within the union. In his third article Scott explained that he could not ignore this cardinal doctrine and believed no one could be an "intelligent proclaimer of the gospel" if they were "ignorant of the death of Christ, in its various relations and uses."35 Apparently, the criticism grew because in his fourth article he speaks of the "prejudice against even the investigation of this subject" which had developed among the Reformers because it had "proved a bone of constant and virulent contention among all parties."36 However, Scott's intent was to speak to the broader meaning of the death of Christ and not simply about its atoning efficacy. He felt that the topic had become too narrowed. In the next year (1836), he published his Gospel Restored where he repeated many of his concerns.37

Scott advocated a governmental theory of atonement in opposition to a penal theory of substitution.38 Stone, however, did not let this view of atonement, which contained an attack on the moral influence theory, go by without comment. He published a review entitled "A few friendly remarks on brother Walter Scott's views of atonement, contained in his last book, "The ancient Gospel restored."39 In brackets, Stone added his purpose to the title, "I have made these remarks in order to turn the attention of the brethren from speculation to the scriptures of truth."40 It is clear, then, that in the mid-1830s, after the union of the Christians and the Reformers, the discussion of atonement was a vital one. It went to the heart of how to understand the work of God in the gospel. Campbell, Stone and Scott all believed it to be central to the Christian faith, and all proclaimed it as foundational. But they understood the nature of this divine work quite differently. I now turn to the task of understanding their differences as expressed in their exchanges in the mid-1830s.

Campbell on Worcester

The thesis of Worcester's book was to demonstrate that the sacrifice of Christ was a display of love rather than wrath. The sacrifice of Christ consisted wholly in the moral influence of God's love to bring about the repentance of the sinner whom God could then forgive.41 Campbell responded from the framework of a traditional understanding of penal substitution and he placed two major concerns before the reader. First, the moral influence theory misunderstands the ground of justification or forgiveness. The righteousness of God, or the righteousness of faith is not, as Worcester represents it, the righteousness which God requires for the remission of sins, but the act of God in Jesus Christ through the sacrificial sin-offering. The righteousness by which we stand before God derives from the sacrifice of Christ and not out of the reformed life of the sinner. If saving righteousness is the righteousness of our repentance to which God leads us through the death of Christ, then there is no real need for the sacrifice of Christ because "good men before the coming of Christ, as well as since, possessed this righteousness."42 They attained righteousness independent of the work of Christ on the cross. Campbell believed that something objective took place at the cross which grants the righteousness of God through faith. The righteousness of God is God's act rather than our compliance. Faith in Christ's blood constitutes our "justifying righteousness" rather than works of repentance.43

Second, the moral influence theory does not give sufficient weight to God's justice or holiness. Any attempt to explain the cross of Christ as a "mere example, or a display of love, without regard to justice" subverts the "basis of the divine government" and robs "the gospel of all that glorifies the wisdom and power, the justice and mercy of God in putting away sin and in saving the sinner."44 The justice of God is magnified through the Son's endurance of the "penal effects of sin"45 or the law's "penalty in behalf of his people."46 God must be both just and justifier, and this is accomplished through penal substitution where Christ suffers the punishment due humanity. In Christ, God justly put away sin so that the sinner might be saved. Justice, therefore, must be seen as an operative principle in our salvation. The work of Christ is not only a display of love, but is also a manifestation of God's justice.

Stone on Campbell

Stone was disappointed that Campbell, who had pled for the "reformation on Bible facts alone," now attached "so much importance to his opinion of the sacrifice of Christ."47 His major disappointment with Campbell was on his insistence that the sacrifice of Christ was a display of wrath as well as love. Stone sees "nothing more than the greatest possible display of [God's] love to the world" in the death of Christ.48 The cross manifested all of the divine perfections, and "all his perfections harmonized in the plan and work of saving" humanity.49 This included justice.50 The bottom line, however, is that love of God is the root and full manifestation of God's perfections. Stone's starting point is the theological axiom "God is love," and the function of the cross is to reveal God's glorious love for sinners. As D. Newell Williams summarizes Stone's theology, "God's justice serves God's grace."51 Consequently, the cross does not function as a punishment of sin or a sign of wrath, but is God's way of leading sinners to repentance through his loving actions. "The sufferings and death of Jesus, are the highest display of God's infinite love, grace, and goodness to the lost world."52

Stone believed that the cross of Christ was a significant "moral influence upon the sinner," but had no moral effect or influence upon God.53 The purpose of the cross was to lead humanity to repentance; it was not to effect a mighty change in God from wrath to grace.54 God has acted in Christ to effect a change in us; to lead us to "faith, repentance and obedience." What has God done? "He has given us in his Son an exhibition of himself, his will, his amazing love, grace, mercy and goodness, by which believed the sinner is led to repentance, to mourn and be sorry for his sins, and to turn from them to God with a true heart determined to obey the Lord in all things."55 When we believe the facts about Jesus, and understand the love of God exhibited in them, then this intellectual belief "produces a moral influence or effect on the mind, to reconcile us to God--to lead us to repentance and consequently to remission of sin."56

Stone accepted George Campbell's understanding of Romans 1:16-17 as definitive. The righteousness of God, according to Stone, refers to the "righteousness which God requires."57 It refers to "God's plan of justification," where the righteousness of God is understood as that righteousness which he requires in "obedience to the law of faith, or the Gospel, which is to believe, to repent, confess the Savior before men, and to be baptized in his name." It is to this "obedience to the faith, [that] justification or pardon is granted."58 Just as Stone rejects the imputation of guilt to Christ as sin-bearer, so he rejects the imputation of Christ's righteousness to the believer because it is rooted in the "unscriptural notion of Christ's substitution".59 Instead, we are "justified by works" when "faith leads us to obedience, to reformation, to baptism and to all the requirements of the gospel." Reconciliation, or atonement, is the effect of the whole gospel plan which leads us to repentance and "becomes effectual through faith and obedience."60 The work of God in Christ is to influence us to repentance, to lead us to faith. The gospel plan is effectual through our transformation, our faith and obedience, on account of which God pardons us.

Since Christ's sacrifice has no effect on God, but only affects humanity; and since there is no barrier to the forgiveness of sins except the impenitence of the unbeliever, the gospel "plan is that the sinner must repent in order to be forgiven."61 This has been God's plan in every dispensation since "the beginning of the pardoning of sin." Just as the sacrifices of the Old Testament were intended to lead to repentance, so the sacrifice of Christ has the same purpose. The preaching of the cross of Christ leads sinners to repentance, and therefore it is the "foundation of repentance."62 God, then, has "one plan under the gospel, and this plan includes all those things already named, as faith, repentance, confession, prayer, baptism, and obedience....All are necessary to salvation, or remission of sins, according to the plan of our God ordained in the gospel."63

Stone unequivocally rejects any idea that Christ suffered the spiritual punishment due sinners, or bore their guilt on the tree. There is no imputation of guilt except to the guilty and there is, consequently, no imputation of righteousness except to the righteous. "According to God's government," Stone argues, "the sinner alone shall suffer the punishment due his iniquity--his wickedness shall be on him alone, and not imputed or transferred to the righteous, for the righteousness of the righteous shall be on him alone, and not on the wicked."64 The point, then, is that sinners are declared just "because they are so indeed."65 When the sinner "becomes holy, he ceases to be the object of condemnation and wrath."66 As a result, according to Williams' interpretation of Stone, "no person, who is not just, can be justified before God,"67 or "that believers are declared just because they are just."68 When the sinner repents, the sinner has removed the barrier to forgiveness, and has become righteous by compliance with the gospel plan. Since he is righteous, God counts him as righteous. He has been transformed by the love God into a lover of God through faith in Jesus Christ.69 Stone quickly adds, however, that "the whole work of regeneration and salvation from sin, is the work of" God through the Spirit who "begins, carries on, perfects the whole work. It is a work infinitely beyond the power of man, who can not make one hair white or black--who is unable to change his nature as the Ethiopian his skin, or the Leopard his spots."70 It is the transformative work of God in the hearts of people. God saves us through the work of sanctification whereby we are made righteous by the Spirit of God as we seek his will.

Stone's theology of atonement is moral rather than penal. He objects to forensic understandings of salvation at every turn.71 Instead he frames the atonement in relational or personal terms. The curse of the law is interpreted as the "misery arising from the want of love to God and man" rather than as forensic punishment.72 This curse is removed when the heart is moved to love God. God moves us through the expression of his love in the incarnation, ministry, life and resurrection of Jesus. Stone's theology of atonement is more incarnational than atoning; it is paticipatory rather than substitutionary. Christ suffered for us in that he suffered with us. "He suffered pain, distress, persecution and death--not because, or on account of his sin (for he had none), but for, or because of ours....Hence, as the children were partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same--the same flesh and blood, subject to the same afflictions, pain and death. He thus bore the burden of our sin, that he might bear away our sin and sanctify us, and so make an atonement or reconciliation between God and us." In bearing the burden of our iniquity, Christ "not only suffered in body, but also in soul."73 Jesus Christ bore our griefs and sorrows, according to Isaiah 53, in that "he experienced in himself the griefs and sorrows of our fallen nature...tempted in all points like as we are--and in all our afflictions he was afflicted."74 The love of God is manifested in the cross, then, not as some kind of answer to justice, but out of a loving desire to reunite God and humanity expressed through an incarnational identification with us.

Ultimately, Stone's theology of atonement was forged in the context of revivalism. As he attempted to call sinners to faith in his early years, he was "embarrassed" by the Calvinistic doctrine of penal substitution.75 Out of this embarrassment three convictions were clarified: (1) God loves the world and is willing to save everyone to which he has given evidence in Jesus Christ; (2) everyone has the natural and moral ability to respond to the preaching of the gospel for salvation and (3) he wanted to avoid universalism and maintain the urgency of evangelism.76 Genuine revivalistic preaching meant that God wanted to save everyone who heard and everyone who heard had the ability to respond, and those who did not were lost. Thus, the free and full offer of God's grace to everyone and the necessity of their response was the fundamental premise of Stone's revivalism and the fundamental theological principle of his doctrine of atonement. Stone writes, "I assume the free and full offer of the gospel to all men, to be one of those cardinal points by which I gauge all my other views of truth. I hold no doctrines--and by the grace of God never can hold any--which will be in my view inconsistent with the free and full offer of the gospel to all men; or which will bind my hands, or palsy my tongue, or freeze my heart, when I stand before sinners to tell them of a dying Savior."77

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