By Bruce E. Daugherty
While visiting with my son Mike this past week in Chicago, he shared a book titled The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell. It tells the story of the origins of the Army Air Corp and its role in the years leading up to World War II. It grew out of Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History and the point the book was making was about the conflict between theoretical and practical solutions to military problems. He even uses the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness where the Devil offered the kingdoms to Jesus if He would fall down and worship him and compared it to the ethical considerations that Civil and Military leaders had to make in the bombing of Japan in the last year of the war.
I highly recommend Gladwell’s book, and maybe I will get around to sharing some more insights from it if I have time. But what I really want to blog about now is Revisionist History. In a way, all history is revisionist. New discoveries are always being made, which cause re-examination and rewriting of what has taken place. When I teach Church History, on day one we define terms. I want students to see that history is both objective and subjective. History has an objective element: this happened at this place, on this date by this person. These are the basic facts of what happened, where and when and by whom to whom. But history also has a subjective element: that is, the interpretation of these facts and their importance. Consider October 31st 1517. Martin Luther nailed his 95 debate topics to the church door at Wittenburg. If one is a Protestant historian, this is the most important day since Pentecost. If one is a Catholic historian, this is one of the darkest days in history. I suggest to my students that we practice the golden rule (Matthew 7:12) as we read and try to maintain balance between extremes.
To study history, one has to learn to read historical accounts critically. Euesbius’ Church History is invaluable for information about the first three centuries of the Church. But Eusebius had an agenda. He was trying to make the Church look as presentable as possible to Emperor Constantine. His book is a study in triumphalism. He exalts martyrs in heroic portrayals of their sacrifices. He downplays people like Papias whose chiliasm was an embarrassment in his eyes. He made a long panegyric to Constantine in book 10 of his history, without mentioning any of the Emperor’s shortcomings, like the fact that he was not even baptized till the day before he died.
In Church history, there have been those who have tampered with the Bible in efforts to make its story more palatable to readers. Ufilas (311-381ca.) was an Arian who went to live among the Goths and made efforts to evangelize them. He created an alphabet for the Gothic people and translated the Bible into their language. The Gothic translation is an important 4th century witness to the New Testament. But due to the violent nature of the warrior Goths, Ulfilas believed he was justified in leaving out the books of the Kings in the Old Testament. He edited the Bible for his readers rather than trusting them with all the text. And of course, Arianism continued for many more years among Gothic believers.
Martin Luther is another individual who had an agenda which tampered with the text and if he had his way, would have tampered with the canon as well. In Romans 3:28, Luther added the word allein to his German translation. His German Bible might have been his greatest contribution to the Reformation. But Luther believed he had been saved by faith alone, apart from the Sacraments of the Catholic Church, and felt he was justified in adding the word alone to the text. But the Greek text does not call for it and it was added to make the text prove Luther’s theology. But the only place where “faith alone” appears in the Bible is James 2:24: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Because of this Luther called the epistle of James an “epistle of straw” and said it did not contain the gospel.
Restoration history has also seen its revisions in recent years. And this is to be expected since new discoveries are made which give insight and add knowledge to the lives and efforts of the Restoration pioneers. I am thankful for Brandon Renfroe’s discovery of some lost sermon outlines of J. W. McGarvey. What a great addition to our knowledge of a great Bible student of a previous generation. But there is a need to be aware of hidden agendas. The last three decades have seen the transition from the designation Restoration Movement to Stone-Campbell Movement as a way of talking about this history. (See my previous blog on Stone and Campbell on the Stone - Campbell Movement).
Part of this is an agenda aimed at creating more fellowship and cooperation between Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and Independent Christian Churches. This has resulted in an excellent reference work, The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement. It has also resulted in the new College Press New Testament commentary series, authored by individuals from Churches of Christ and Christian Churches, edited by Tony Ash and Jack Cottrell. This series has been met with mixed reaction. My dad is old school and likes the old College Press series but has little use for the new one. And of course, there was the day of shared communion between some leaders in Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ and Independent Christian Churches, in October 2009, marking the 200th anniversary of the Declaration and Address by Thomas Campbell. This did not receive as much fanfare as the 100th anniversary communion service held in Pittsburgh at Forbes Field baseball stadium.
This past year, Doug Foster has brought out a new book, A Life of Alexander Campbell. I appreciate the critical look at this leader of the Restoration Movement. Studies of Campbell’s life, beginning with his Memoirs entrusted to Robert Richardson, have nearly all been studies hailing the greatness of the man, but rarely looking at his flaws. In the words of Earl West in describing another controversial preacher “. . . we are not willing that his extremes blind us in seeing the real greatness in the man, nor shall our willingness to see his greatness stand as an obstacle to seeing his extremes.” (Search for the Ancient Order, vol. 2:305).
I do not aim to make this a review of Foster’s book. (Perhaps this can be done one day in the future as work schedule permits). Other good reviews have been made and the reader can do a search for those. Foster has been commended for his contribution that will probably become a standard text in Restoration studies in the years to come. But does Foster have an agenda?
History is always being revised. Learn to read history critically. Learn to look for the agendas in historiographies. And be willing to revise one’s views if new facts come to light. But always hold to the truth and sell it not!