Believer’s Baptism and the Campbellite Heresy

This summer, one of the books I have read while not in class was Believer’s Baptism, edited by Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright. This book is an excellent resource for a defense of biblical baptism against attacks from the best arguments offered by paedo-baptist sources, as found in works by John Calvin, John Murray, Pierre Marcel, Meredith Kline and in the book The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, edited by Gregg Strawbridge. Believer’s Baptism also contains some pastoral wisdom from Mark Dever in regards to the practice of baptism in the local church.

The usefulness of this book is severely compromised, however, by a single chapter. When I saw that there was a chapter in the book titled “Baptism in the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement,” I fully expected this chapter to warn baptists not emphasize believers’ baptism to the point that in guarding against paedo-baptism, we would fall into the opposite error of Campbellitism. And I was happy at the prospect of reading such a chapter, because here in Louisville there is a large number of Campbell’s theological descendants, especially in the “Christian Church.” Rather than an apologetic defense against Campbellitism, the author of this chapter, A.B. Caneday, asserts that “if one perseveres in reading [Alexander Campbell’s] works with care, one discovers that Campbell, particularly on baptism, has been unfairly treated to this day” (304) and furthermore:

American Evangelicalism’s exclusion of Christians and of churches from the Stone-Campbell tradition has injured both traditions. With this in view, the rapprochement of many within the Stone-Campbell tradition and of evangelicals… is worthy of commendation. (304)

But is Caneday correct? Should evangelicals (and, in this format, I would especially like to add, should Baptists) seek rapprochement with those in the Campbellite tradition [found in denominations such as the Christian Church and the Churches of Christ]? Should we not instead follow the example set by historic Baptist associations (299-300) and seek to distance ourselves from fellowship with the Campbellites, based on New Testament passages such as Galatians 1:6-9 and 2 John 10-11?

Caneday asserts that Alexander Campbell did not teach baptismal regeneration, the doctrinal error that Baptists usually ascribe to the Campbellites. Caneday writes: “Alexander Campbell was careful to articulate his beliefs concerning baptism, making it clear that he did not hold that baptism itself regenerates” (327). Under careful examination of Campbell’s works, it becomes obvious that Caneday is correct- Baptists are wrong to think that the “Christian Church” or other heirs of Campbell teach baptismal regeneration. On the other hand, as has been pointed out by some historians at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Campbellites do seem to hold to a core error best described as baptismal justification. Alexander Campbell taught that everyone needs a change in the state of their spiritual relations before God. Though tending to eschew categories of systematic theology, it is obvious that this change in the state of spiritual relations is what historic Christianity would call “justification.” According to Campbell, this change-justification- is caused by baptism. Campbell is careful to state that baptism is the “instrumental cause” of this change, not the original cause [why Campbell is comfortable with the term “instrumental cause,” when he seems so slow to use other terms not directly found in Scripture, I’m not sure]. The fatal error of this position can be illustrated through the following quote from R.C. Sproul:

During the Reformation one point of dispute focused on the instrumental cause of justification. Rome declared that there are two instrumental causes of justification: the first is the sacrament of baptism, the second is the sacrament of penance. Therefore Rome could speak of justification by the sacraments. By and through the sacraments the grace of justification is received. The sacraments are the means by which justifying grace is received.

In the Reformation formula, “Justification is by faith alone,” the word by captures the idea and communicates the notion that faith, not the sacraments, is the instrumental cause of justification. Faith is the instrument by which we are linked to Christ and receive the grace of justification. [Faith Alone, 75.]

The doctrinal statement “justification is by faith alone,” mentioned above, is directly based on Bible passages such as Romans 4:5 and Ephesians 2:8-9. The subtitle of Sproul’s book that was quoted from above is, “The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification.” Justification by faith alone is indeed the evangelical doctrine; to assert that baptism is the “instrumental cause” of justification is to indeed retreat to Rome and to cut off all hope of “rapprochement” with historic evangelicals. Campbellitism is now, as it has ever been, “strange fire” when introduced into the discussion of believers’ baptism.

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16 Comments on “Believer’s Baptism and the Campbellite Heresy”


  1. Campbell believed in a three stage model of the new birth, like many Regular Baptists in his day, and like some also in this day. He believed one was regenerated (begotten) before baptism, but born (brought forth) in baptism. I have some recent citations from Campbell on this in my blog.

    God bless,

    Stephen

  2. Gordan Says:

    Interesting that you note the Roman connection. Locally, a CoC leader just published an article in the newspaper in which he used a classic Roman Catholic argument to dismiss the doctrine of “sola fide.” He clearly rejected justification by faith, in place of justification by baptism. I realize he’s just one guy, but it was an illuminating, but sad article.

  3. strangebaptistfire Says:

    Andrew,

    The first church I pastored was a “Christian Church” and so I am very familiar with the doctrines and writings of Thomas and Alexander Campbell as well as Barton Stone. This church received me as their elder as they had started purposefully breaking ties with the North American Christian Convention and were eager to embrace historical evangelical orthodoxy; or so I was told. Obviously, being a young, wet-behind-the-ears Calvinistic Baptist, I created a firestorm from the start by merely preaching verse by verse through Romans.

    I could tell you many, many stories about how I experienced true spiritual warfare in that first pastorate. I watched God save people, harden people, and I even watched God kill two people after they publicly came against the biblical gospel. I will **never** forget that experience. It was the weirdest thing I have ever experienced, and it has changed me forever.


  4. I also live in a very Campellite area (Texas), so I know that whatever Campbell himself believed, his followers today certainly believe in baptismal justification.

  5. Anthony Says:

    I am currently serving in an Independent Christian Church, and I must say that the diversity within the movement on this subject is more broad than most of my fellow reformed types give credit. Many in the movement are fond of Biblical Theology rather than Systematic Theology to the point that their way of looking at central doctrines is very different than our own. More moderate Campbellites point to baptism as merely the final step in ones conversion, and do so based on a number of verses. The more extreme will emphasize it in such a way to truly seem like baptismal regenerationalists. All in all, the Restoration movement of Thomas and Alexander Campbell has few similarities with that of today. Thomas Campbell (a founder) was forever a Calvinist. Now we are treated as heretics worthy of hell. Even more frightening, many within the movement are moving away from Classic Arminianism as well and openly moving towards a blend of Pelagianism and open theism. I look for the Stone-Campbell movement to look drastically different in the next 50-60 years, with the possible exception of the non-instrumental hardliners.

    • Anthony Says:

      I left an independent “Christian Church”. I really like the pastor, but the founder is, “Campbell, Campbell, Campbell” non-trinitarian. We were deceived and outrightly lied to about their view of the Trinity. I was accused of being a cult Catholic and praying to Mary on a Facebook group. I utterly despise that church now due to the elusiveness and having had false witness borne against me, a Catholic up till 1977. We also butted heads on Calvin and the spiritual gifts. Finally it was enough.

  6. Eric Stroud Says:

    God bless you all. I am a life long member of the Christian Church and I must say that I dearly love my brothers in the Baptist Church. I have no problem affirming that I believe that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone. But I think it is important to keep in mind that even though the foregoing is the only sufficient cause for salvation that fact doesn’t negate that there are necessary causes of salvation like belief which is part of faith. I would point out that like belief; baptism is part of faith as so beautifully articulated in Col 2:12. There is a hermeneutic principle that should be kept in mind. When two passages address the same subject and one omits a detail. The passage that includes the detail is [and should be taken to be] correct where that detail is concerned. As to systematic theology in the Christian Church tradition, you should read Jack Cottrell’s excellent book “The Faith Once for All.” It was written years before the Colson book of a similar title. And yes I consider myself an evangelical.

  7. strangebaptistfire Says:

    I will let the reader determine whether Col 2:12 is actually a proof that baptism is a necessary part of faith, biblically defined.

    Of your “hermeneutical principle:” It is not only that baptism is sometimes not mentioned, but there are passages in which gospel preaching is distinguished from baptism (1 Cor 1:17) in a way that would be impossible if baptism were necessary for justification.

  8. Mike Says:

    We shouldn’t let a theological battle with Rome keep us from what is right. Immersion was clearly an important aspect of the movement and was so for hundred’s of years. The first Catholic churches had tubs not bowls. The letters to the Churches were written to immersed belivers from immersed beleivers so we should read them that way. Do I need to mention 9/11 everytime I talk about terrorism? No – it’s part of our shared experience. Does the why matter? Yes. Does the how? Yes. Were we meant to argue about it for 2000 years? No. Jesus made a new covenant. He changed the meaning of the sader meal. and oh my! He kicked immersion up several notches(Jews did this before John but even John’s was of the old covenant). He changed our relasionship to the Father.

  9. bighoss Says:

    After all that has been said here, one can clear out the fuzziness by simply reading Romans 6:1-11, which teaches clearly that baptism is the place and event which God has chosen in which to bring the death and blood of Jesus Christ into contact with the penitent believer. Salvation does not and can not occur until this burial and resurrection occur. Baptism is a work, but it is not a meritorious work of man; it is God’s work, chosen by Him and commanded upon all who would become His.

    Read that passage and as you do so, try to clear your mind of all the preconceived notions you entertain about baptism and let those verses, in their clarity and power, speak the profound truth that baptism is an inalienable element of God’s divine plan of salvation.

  10. Pip Says:

    The Reformed Faith? Is it the Reformed Roman Catholic Faith? What were the Reformers reforming? The Reformers were papists & were steeped in its dogma & doctrines & brought much of it into their State religions! Augustine taught that unbaptized babies went to Hell if they died & that is why Calvin & Luther continued to baptize babies. Oh, their followers say they didn’t believe in Baptismal Regeneration, but the fact remains, they carried on the act & made excuses for doing it! Why baptize a baby?

  11. Pip Says:

    What Is the History of Infant Sprinkling?

    In the first place, there is rarely any such practice as infant “baptism.” The Greek verb baptizo means to immerse. Babies, whenever they are administered what is commonly called “infant baptism,” are almost never immersed. Whatever else one may wish to call the practice, it is not infant “baptism.”

    Second, there is nothing in the New Testament remotely related to the custom of applying water to babies in an effort to secure their salvation, or to demonstrate salvation on behalf of such. There is no divine command, apostolic example, or inference (reasonable or necessary) that would sanction such a procedure. Rather, the practice had its genesis in the post-apostolic era when a divinely-foretold digression already was well underway (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:1ff; 1 Timothy 4:1ff; 2 Timothy 4:1ff).

    Note the following concession from celebrated cleric Albert Taylor Bledsoe (1809-1877), of the Methodist Episcopal Church, who himself engaged in the practice of “infant baptism.”

    “It is an article of our faith, that ‘the baptism of young children (infants) is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable to the institution of Christ.’ But yet, with all our searching, we have been unable to find, in the New Testament, a single express declaration, or word, in favor of Infant Baptism” (Southern Review,St. Louis, Vol. XIV, April, 1874, p. 334).

    Bledsoe went on to attempt his justification solely by inference — a most futile endeavor indeed.

    Post-Apostolic Testimony

    The first hint of an inclination in this direction came in the 2nd century A.D. when Irenaeus (cir. A.D. 130-200), a religious leader in southern Gaul, declared that:

    “He [Christ] came to save, through means of himself, all who through him are born again unto God — infants, children, and boys and youths, and old men” (Against Heresies2.22.4).

    The quotation reveals that the idea that infants needed salvation was evolving already.

    On the other hand, Tertullian in Africa (A.D. 160-220) opposed this inclination. He argued:

    “Let them come while they are growing up; let them come while they are learning, while they are being taught to what it is they are coming; let them become Christians when they are susceptible of the knowledge of Christ. What haste to procure the forgiveness of sins for the age of innocence. . . Let them first learn to feel their need of salvation; so it may appear that we have given to those that wanted” (On Baptism, 18).

    By the time of Cyprian (A.D. 200-258), a theologian in Carthage, the error of “infant sin” had taken a full grip on some who professed Christianity. Cyprian argued:

    “But if even the chief of sinners, who have been exceedingly guilty before God, receive the forgiveness of sins on coming to the faith, and no one is precluded from baptism and from grace, how less should the child be kept back, which, as it is but just born, cannot have sinned, but has only brought with it, by its descent from Adam, the infection of the old death; and which may the more easily obtain the remission of sins, because the sins which are forgiven it are not its own, but those of another” (Epistle, 58).

    In the same general timeframe, Origen (A.D. 185-254), a teacher in both Alexandria and Caesarea, contended:

    “Infants are baptized for the forgiveness of sins. Of what sins? Or when have they sinned? Or how can any reason of the laver in their case hold good, but according to that sense we mentioned even now — none is free from pollution, though the life be the length of one day upon the earth. And it is for that reason, because by the sacrament of baptism the pollution of our birth is taken away, that infants are baptized” (Homily on Luke, 14:5).

    Conclusion

    The historical evidence has been succinctly summarized by the Lutheran scholar H.A.W. Meyer:
    “The baptism of the children of Christians, of which no trace is found in the N.T., is not to be held as an apostolic ordinance, as, indeed, it encountered early and long resistance; but it is an institution of the church, which gradually arose in post-apostolic times in connection with the development of ecclesiastical life and of doctrinal teaching, not certainly attended before Tertullian, and by him still decidedly opposed, and, although defended by Cyprian, only becoming general after the time of Augustine in virtue of that connection” (Commentary on Acts[16:15], New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1883, p. 312).

    The practice of “infant baptism” is not authorized by the New Testament. It is a most dangerous custom for it raises a sense of false security in those whose parents impose it upon them. Salvation is a matter of personal obedience (Hebrews 5:9); it is not a blessing that can be accessed by one person on behalf of an


  12. Pip: 1. Your comments are off-topic; 2. We are Baptists, so no one here is defending “infant baptism.”


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