Churches of Christ in the United States have produced four truly outstanding Bible scholars. Two of those were active in the 1800s, and two more remain active today. This article is primarily written about a quote from Everett Ferguson, one of our exceptional contemporary Bible authorities, but the following two paragraphs tell a broader story about four men to whom we are much indebted.
Owing to his sharp scholarship, and his even sharper pen, Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) was better known in his age than any talking-head newsreader is in our age. Closely following Campbell was J.W. McGarvey (1829-1911). Declared by the London Times in 1870 to be “the ripest Bible scholar on earth," McGarvey, minister, author, and religious educator, taught for 46 years the College of the Bible in Lexington, Kentucky.
Our age has produce two more recognized authorities. Invited to participate in the NIV translation process, Jack P. Lewis (1919-), who holds a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in Old Testament from Hebrew Union College, taught Bible and biblical languages at Harding University and then at Harding School of Theology for 50 years. Everett Ferguson (1933-), about whom the rest of this article will focus, also holds a PH. D. from Harvard. Ferguson is a world-renowned expert, perhaps the world-renowned expert, on early Christian history.
The Elastic "Rule"
Brother Ferguson has recently written The Rule of Faith (2015, Cascade Books), a review of central beliefs of the ancient church. Of interest to everyone, even to those who are totally disinterested in ancient church history, the following introductory quote from that book challenges central non-beliefs of contemporary Christianity.
What do Christians believe? For many the answer is "whatever it is that people who choose to self-identify as Christians claim to believe." So belief is the Trinity is Christian, but so is denial; belief in the deity of Christ is Christian, but so is rejection; belief in the resurrection is Christian, but so is disbelief. The problem with such an approach is that pretty much any belief can...claim to being...Christian, and when a label becomes that elastic, it loses all hope of meaning anything.
All Hope Lost
Elastic, stretched-out-of-shape, both/and Christian doctrine and practice reflect an odd turn taken by contemporary society. Once rational and scientific, and benefiting from that rigidity of mind, we have become wildly irrational and illogical. Once we said that moral absolutes exist apart from us and require all from us. Now we worry that absolutes might hurt someone's feelings, and so absolutes are obsolete.
Obsolete absolutes are the casualties of the "epistemological revolution" (epistemology is the study of truth and knowing). Begun in academia, the impact of this revolution against rationality has been extraordinary. Once we esteemed and followed those who led us "in paths of righteousness." Now we esteem and follow (?) those who say they do not know one path from another.
We once knew, but now we have progressed away from knowing into a terminal tangle of hesitancy. The only thing we know for sure is that we don't know for sure. Not sure about anything anymore, we tolerate elastic, mutually exclusive conclusions like those listed by Brother Ferguson, and then brag about how "inclusive" we are.
Elasticity to the Last
Brother Ferguson's list of meaning-free doctrines is only the beginning. Our brethren joyfully, thoughtlessly include other mutually exclusive conclusions. For example:
- Instrumental music in worship is wrong, but is right.
- Baptism is essential, but is not.
- Alcohol is really pretty bad, but is really not very bad at all. Some have allied alcohol consumption so closely with Christian liberty that Christian abstainers, once highly respected, are now viewed as the bad guys.
- Worship attendance is mandatory, but your can skip services for any reason(s) and enjoy the grace of God that frees you from terrible feelings of legalism. Grace becomes meaningless is such sentences, a synonym for emotional license we give ourselves, and is used to promote meaninglessness in Christian doctrine and practice.
I could go on, but the point is made. Retooling a quote from Brother Ferguson, "When a movement (that's us) becomes that elastic, it loses all hope of meaning anything." As Churches of Christ choose their future (everyone chooses their future every day), we should fully understand that the road to nowhere begins where meaning ends.