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.