Having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away! (2 Timothy 3:5).
Alexander Campbell’s favorite philosopher was John Locke (1632-1704). He is one of mine as well. But I am afraid that Locke’s rationalistic approach (viz., empiricism) unduly influenced Campbell. Consequently, Campbell rationalized the working of the Holy Spirit in conversion, limiting His influence to the written Word. It was Campbell’s belief that “if the Spirit of God has spoken all its arguments” in the Bible, then “all the power of the Holy Spirit which can operate on the human mind is spent” (The Campbell-Rice Debate, Henry Clay presiding, Lexington,
Kentucky, 1843, which was Mr. Campbell’s last public debate). It is not surprising, then, that Campbell’s son-in-law, close friend, and biographer, Dr. Robert Richardson, who preached Campbell’s funeral, wrote the following in a letter to Isaac Errett:
The philosophy of John Locke with which Bro. Campbell’s mind was deeply imbued in youth has insidiously mingled itself with almost all great points in the reformation and has been all the whole like an iceberg in the way—chilling the heart and benumbing the hands, and impeding all progress in the right direction (Goodnight’s transcript of Richardson’s private papers; a letter from Bethphage, July 16, 1857. Also Cloyd Goodnight and Dwight E. Stevenson, Home to Bethphage: A Biography of Robert Richardson, 1949, page 122).
Although I am not convinced that Richardson, rather than Campbell, had a better grip on the “right way,” I do believe Richardson was right in rejecting the “Word alone” vs. the “Spirit alone” dichotomy that had arisen in the Restoration Movement. But before anyone thinks me an enemy of Campbell (and some have), please understand that I hold him and most of his work in high esteem. And although I think Campbell was right in trying to counter the “better felt than told experience” of the Calvinists, who taught that one was saved by the direct operation of the Holy Spirit apart from the Word of God, his conclusion was, in my opinion, quite incorrect. The Holy Spirit certainly works through the Word (i.e. Scriptures) in conversion. In fact, no one can be converted apart from it. But, and this is very important, the Bible nowhere teaches that the Holy Spirit is limited to working “only in and through the Word.” Unfortunately, this is a mistake many among us have continued to make. Some have even taken the next step and are teaching that “God [viz., the totality of Who and What He is] works only in and through the Word today.”
While discussing the continued activity of demons today with a fellow preacher (and I’m not talking about demon possession), I pointed out that the Bible says we are engaged in a battle “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). I pointed out that it had been prophesied that some would give heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons (1 Timothy 4:1). In connection with this, I mentioned the Bible teaches there is a wisdom that is derived from demons (James 3:14-17), and that the battle we are engaged in seems to be centered on the mind (Acts 5:3; 2 Corinthians 4:4; 11:3; 2 Timothy 2:26). It was my point that these passages teach us that the Devil can fill our hearts, blind and corrupt our minds and, by the use of deception, take us captive to do his will. But according to this preacher, such was true only during the miraculous age. Satan and his agents, he claimed, can no longer do these things today. When asked why, he replied, in part, that God worked only in and through the Word today and, therefore, if Satan and his agents were allowed to influence our minds, then they would be more powerful than God.
This is exactly the kind of thinking I am trying to pinpoint. Where does the Bible teach, either through direct statement, approved example, or necessary inference, that God works only in and through the Word today? Where is the teaching that says God cannot influence our minds apart from the Word? Of course, one may counter by asking, “Where is the passage that says God does influence the mind independent of the Word?” This is a good question. In answering it, I call your attention to James 1:5. In this passage, we are taught that God gives wisdom to His children when they ask for it. Notice that this wisdom comes as a direct result of prayer, not study—although I believe it is safe to conclude this happens in a way not totally divorced from a serious study of God’s Word. Therefore, the Bible teaches that God can, and does, somehow influence the mind apart from the Word—and by this I mean the Word as the agent. If this were the only passage we were able to cite, it would prove, quite conclusively, that God is not limited to working only in and through the communicated Word today.
I am afraid that many, “not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God,” have become nothing much more than modern-day Sadducees (Matthew 22:29). Like the Deists, these seem to worship a God who no longer actively works in His creation. Their secularized gospel, although it sometimes gives lip-service to God’s providence, says that when good things happen, they happen because of chance, accident, planning, or work. In such matters, God’s providence is not really taken into consideration—after all, “God works only in and through the Word today,” they say. Likewise, when bad things happen, they happen for the same reasons. Satan’s activities are simply not factored in—after all, if Satan were directly involved, then he would have more power than God. Why? “Because God,” they remind us, “works only in and through the Word today.” Such teaching may seem orthodox to more than a few Christians, but I am convinced it has its roots in Locke’s 17th-century rationalism. The following examples come from Wayne Wells, a gospel preacher, concerning exchanges and conversations he engaged in with several preachers of the gospel:
In an email exchange, one preacher from a western state claimed the only thing Christians can ask from God is the forgiveness of sins. He said we can thank God for what He already created but cannot ask Him to do anything else or that would be a miracle. He wrote, “No, I do not believe in any kind of material or spiritual providence by God, Christ nor the Holy Spirit in this day and age” (Wayne Wells, “Campbellism vs. Prayer,” re:thinking magazine,
April 2006, at www.allanturner.com/magazine/Wells009.html).
He went on to say:
In a conversation, several preachers from a northern state claimed the only way God can influence nations is by His Word. They said the citizens will either obey or reject the Scriptures. If they obey, they will be honest and hard working so the nation will prosper. If they reject the Scriptures, they will be lazy and dishonest and cause the nation to crumble, and this is the only influence God has over the nations today! (Ibid.).
Ending that section of his article, he rightly concluded:
Such Biblical ignorance and perversions are breathtaking in their implications. How did a people become so ignorant of the hand of the Lord? God asked Israel, “Is My hand shortened at all that it cannot redeem? Or have I no power to deliver?” (Isaiah 50:2). They had no faith that God worked in their lives. The lack of understanding today proves again there is no new thing under the sun.
It is disappointing there are 21st-century Christians who are more comfortable with naturalistic rationalism than they are with the supernaturalism taught in the Bible. This ought not to be.
If we are going to teach that God’s providence is real, and that prayer is, in fact, effectual, then we must not teach that God works only in and through the Word today. As Sovereign of the Universe, God exercises control over nature, nations, and individuals. Currently, Jesus Christ rules as “Lord of lords.” The Bible says He has all authority in heaven and on earth (John 17:2) and “upholds all things by the word of His power” (Hebrews 1:3). Are we to think that He does this only in and through the written Word? Surely we can see how such thinking would dethrone the Lord in the minds of such folks. Moreover, the very fact that we exist proves that God is actively at work in His creation, for it is “in Him [viz., Jesus] all things consist” or hold together (Colossians 1:17). Without Jesus’ continuing work, everything would simply disintegrate.
Furthermore, in addition to general providence, there is the special providence promised to the church. Paul tells us that “all things work together for good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28), and that He provides us with all our needs (Philippians 4:19). He tells us that we always have “sufficiency in all things” (2 Corinthians 9:8-11). In Matthew 6:23-33, the Lord Himself says that those who will put the kingdom of God first in their lives will have all their physical needs taken care of. Are we to think that this will happen only in and through the Word?
Indeed, the Bible teaches that Christians ought to study and pray. But, if God today works only in and through the Word, then we ought, in all honesty, to quit praying and use this time for more Bible study. If not, why not? In truth, Restoration slogans and ideas, even when they come from esteemed brethren, are useful only as long as they reflect the truths taught in God’s Word.
But How About Miracles?
Some believe that in order for God to be actively at work in His creation today He would have to be performing miracles. This view seems to ignore the fact that most of God’s activities in both the Old and New Testaments were non-miraculous. The story of Joseph is but one of the many examples of this. Although men, with all their lusts, jealousies, and deceptions, were exercising their free wills in the matter of Joseph, he could say, “you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Genesis 50:20; 45:5-8). Further, the Bible attributes David’s success against the lion, bear, and Goliath to the help of God (1 Samuel 17:37, 45-47). Are we to label these “miraculous”? The Scriptures teach that the Lord was able to work a great victory through Shammah when he stood in his own bean field (2 Samuel 23:11-12). Where was the miracle? Consequently, when we stand in our own bean fields today, can’t God work victories through us without performing miracles? And when He does so, is it correct for His followers to claim He is working only in and through the Word?
The Bible tells us that God can deliver us from the evil one (Matthew 6:13; 2 Thessalonians 3:3) and open doors of opportunity for us (1 Corinthians 16:7; Colossians 4:2-3; Revelation 3:8). Can He? Does He? By faith, we can say, “Yes!” Does God need to perform a miracle to do so? Most certainly not! Therefore, those who believe and trust in the Lord can confidently sing, “Lord I believe, yes, I believe, I cannot doubt or be deceived; the eye that sees each sparrow fall, His unseen hand is in it all.”
In contemplating the majesty of Jehovah, Jack Cottrell, in his excellent book, What The Bible Says About God The Ruler, wrote:
Who is this God who holds the entire universe in the palm of his hand, and preserves it from oblivion by the mere force of his will? Who is this One whose power and presence penetrate and envelope every particle of the cosmos? What kind of God holds the reins of nature so that clouds turn, snow falls, thunder roars, and stars explode at his command? What kind of God knows every star and sparrow by name, and cares about them? What kind of God is this who can endow the crown of his creation with free will and still maintain constant control over the events and flow of history? How shall we describe the God who turns kings’ hearts wherever he wills; who metes out life and death, blessing and calamity, whose power bursts forth in signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth? (1984, page 265).
How thankful we ought to be that this one true God is our God. We must not think, say, or do anything that would take away from His glory and majesty. Limiting Him to working only in and through the written Word does just that, and is, I am convinced, a serious mistake.
Therefore, let us not be guilty of limiting the Lord of the universe to working only in and through the Word today, thereby making Him just another of the sham gods of man-made religion.