Friday, June 08, 2007

Reflections on the Church of Christ: Inerrancy

I was brought up in the Church of Christ - a Southern fundamentalist sect with strongholds in Tennessee and Texas. It has much in common with Evangelical Christianity here in the states, but it is in some regards unique.

In this post and others to follow, I'll examine some of the core beliefs of the Church of Christ. As should come as no surprise to those who know my views, I find many of those beliefs indefensible. They suffer - or so I will argue - from severe logical defect.

This for me is an opportunity to examine the Christianity of my youth with an eye much more critical than it was when I was young. Only in the last few weeks have I begun to recall the details of my indoctrination. It's curious how the mind keeps things hidden from itself and then chooses to reveal what was hidden all at once. (There is much in us that we keep hidden from ourselves.) The catalyst must be my decision to begin initiation into the Catholic church. Religion has become for me not merely an intellectual curiosity (as it was before) but a very real, very insistent fact. But enough about me. Let us turn to the argument.

Bastell Barrett Baxter is one the best-known preachers in the Church of Christ. His church is the Purcellville Church of Christ in Purcellville, VA. (I should note that the name that they give for themselves is not "Church of Christ". Instead it is "church of Christ". Churches of Christ believe that they are not merely "another denomination". Rather they claim that they are the one true heir to the 1st century church and thus they are not a Church among Churches, but the sole body of Christ here on Earth. For a reason that is and always has been opaque to me, they take this as good reason not to use the capital "C".) On the Purcellvill Church of Christ site, one finds a good summary of the doctrines that unite the Churches of Christ. For instance, this is said about the Bible.

The original autographs of the sixty-six books which make up the Bible are considered to have been divinely inspired, by which it is meant that they are infallible and authoritative. Reference to the scriptures is made in settling every religious question. A pronouncement from the scriptures is considered the final word. The basic textbook of the church and the basis for all preaching is the Bible.

[The distinctive plea of the Churches of Christ] is primarily a plea for religious unity based upon the Bible . . . .. This is [a plea] to go back to the Bible; It [sic] is a plea to speak where the Bible speaks and to remain silent where the Bible is silent in all matters that pertain to religion. It further emphasizes that in everything religious there must be a "Thus saith the Lord" for all that is done.

The view here articulated is - I'll not mince words - absurd. (The argument I'll give is a slightly more sophisticated version of the one found here.) Let us go back in time to the 4th century. The Bible had not yet assumed its canonical form, and debates raged about what books to include in it and what books to exclude. Now let us ask what would have happened if the Catholic theologians who gave the Bible its final form had followed the dictum to "remain silent where the Bible is silent". If they had, they could not have produced the canonical Bible that exists today, for our Bible did not even exist then. If Baxter were to say that its various books did exist and that recourse could have been made to them, I will reply that nowhere in any book of the Bible are we told just what books should be part of the Bible. Thus if one remains silent where the Bible is silent, one could not not have gathered together the books that compose the Bible. The dictum "remain silent where the Bible is silent", if followed, would have left the world without the Bible.

Perhaps Baxter would reply that the dictum "remain silent where the Bible is silent", though applicable now, did not bind theologians in the 4th century. (Indeed I think that this is the only reply he can make.) This, however, cannot be simply said. It must be explained too. Why would that dictum have come into force only later? I can think of only one answer: the Spirit was at work in the editors of the Bible in a way that it is not now. (Surely the Christian must say that the authority of the Bible lies in the authority of its writers and its editors, and that the source of their authority lies in the fact that they were Spirit led.) But this seems an arbitrary and indefensible assumption. Moreover, it is an assumption in no way supported by Scripture - nowhere in Scripture will you find the claim that the Spirit does not now act as it acted in the 4th century. Thus if we follow Baxter and say that where the Bible is silent, we too must be silent, we must not say that the Spirit does not act now as it acted before.

Where are we left? The dictum "remain silent where the Bible is silent" simply cannot be believed by Christians. There must be a source of extra-Biblical religious authority, else the 4th century Biblical editors could not have produced an authoritative text. The source of this extra-Biblical authority should be clear - it is the activity of the Spirit upon the minds and hearts of believers.


Jennifer F. said...

Very well said!

I just discovered your site. You're a great writer! I'll definitely be back.

Thomas said...

The phrase "original autographs of the sixty-six books" is, in addition to your comments, bibliographically ridiculous as well. Most (if not all) biblical books did not start out with one autograph which then got disseminated. These books arose from an oral culture, and were edited, put together and ordered over long periods of time. Metzger is the guy to read, eg this book.

C Grace said...

Hi Franklin,

My husband happened to be with me when I read your last comment on my blog. At the comment of no instrumental music we looked at each other and wondered if you were from the church of Christ. My husband too came out of this sect.

Franklin Mason said...

Curious. How deep in was he? I never felt, even when very young, that it was my church home. I always knew, even when I coulnd't articulate it, that something was deeply wrong with the church of Christ.

C Grace said...

Not very deep. He likes to tell the story of how God managed to allow him to get baptised before they taught him their version of what baptism was all about. His mentor was supposed to go over the teaching on baptism with him (you had to be baptised by immersion [b]believing [/b]that your baptism was the point of salvation.) but they went over faith instead and never got back to this before he was baptised so he didn't believe this when he was baptised.

Also he was involved in some New Age occult stuff at the time of his conversion and didn't leave it entirely behind. Later when he suffered a serious spiritual attack and he asked the church for some help they had no idea what to do considering that they don't really accept spiritual reality as such. Their whole doctrine makes them totally blind to it and they were not willing to admit that his experienced were real.

The church eventually split and a lot of people ended up leaving. Mike eventually joined me at the charismatic church I was attending. Funny thing is, he knew more people coming in then I had made friends with after being there awhile because a bunch of people from his church of christ congregation were already attending my charismatic congregation.

The legalism and rejection of spiritual reality are just the symptoms of trying to have a completely rational faith. As much spiritual intuition as you have, I can imagine you never felt at home there.

Mike was drawn to this church because they were the first Christians he had met who took their faith seriously enough to try to live it and this high level of committment is what originally attracted him. He was only in it a couple of years.

QueenGeek said...

I thought I should point out that you have stated some untruths in your blog. You say, "Bastell Barrett Baxter is one the best-known preachers in the Church of Christ. His church is the Purcellville Church of Christ in Purcellville, VA." First, his name was Batsell, not Bastell. Second, I don't know where you got the idea that the church of Christ in Purcellville belongs to Brother Baxter. Brother Baxter was not even associated with the congregation in Purcellville. He has never even spoken here, and I've never even met the man. To say that the church of Christ in Purcellville is Brother Baxter's church is absurd, since he's never even darkened the doors of our congregation, nor did he purchase it with his blood!

You also seem to have missed the very idea of the phrase "church of Christ". The term "church of Christ" is not a name. It is a designator showing ownership: that of Christ. "Christ's church" is another way in the English language to convey the same idea. The church of Christ in Purcellville belongs to Christ. If it belonged to Brother Baxter, it would use the designator "the church of Brother Baxter", and I would have no part of it.

I have not yet read the rest of your blog, but given what I've seen thus far, this certainly makes me wonder how many other errors you have purported as truths.

Powderman said...

Speaking as a faithful member of the church of Christ, I must say it is quite saddening when I find people who do not understand just exactly what the church of Christ really is. Before I explain it, I would like to point out that not all congregations which bear the name "church of Christ" are part of the one universal body of Christ. As evidenced in Revelation, it is possible for a congregation of the Lord's church to apostatize to the point that they would have their "lampstand" removed, thus no longer being a light unto the world.

The entire core belief of the Lord's church is that everything required for righteousness is contained within the New Testament. The New Testament claims internally that in the first century, they received all things pertaining to life and Godliness, (2 Peter 1:3). Paul said in 2 Timothy 3:17 that we are thoroughly furnished through the scriptures.

It is an erroneous conclusion to say that the scriptures did not exist until the 4th century. The writings may not have been assembled as such, but the scriptures certainly did not pop out of existence after the first century and then back into existence in the 4th. A careful study of the new testament reveals that by direction of the Apostles, their letters were circulated among the churches and they knew they were scripture. Peter even referred to the writings of Paul and others as scripture (2 Peter 3:16).

The position of those in the Lord’s church today is that 1st century Christians were saved and went to heaven. We believe that if we follow the approved examples we have of them and their lives pertaining to Christ as recorded in scripture, believing what they believed, teaching what they taught, living how they lived, worship how they worshipped, and finally dieing how they died, being faithful unto death, we can be assured of being today just what they were in the first century.

When we look at scripture that teaches there is only one body, one faith, (Eph 4:4) and we see hundreds of denominations out there, it becomes apparent that some sort of means of being assured of our spirituality is necessary and therefore must be found. Emulating the lives of the original Christians as closely as possible is the only sure way of knowing beyond any doubt we are living an acceptable life before God.

Our worship is patterned as closely as possible to the form of worship offered to God in the first century as depicted in scripture. We strive only to be what the first Christians were. They were there with Christ and with His apostles. It is only logical that the best reproduction of anything is a copy of the original. Following the scripture precisely, adding nothing to nor taking anything away (1 Corinthians 4:6), striving to live the life of a faithful servant of God, obedient to His will in all things (Matthew 7:21), diligently trying to serve Him His way (Matthew 15:9), and not by the innovations of man (Romans 10:3), giving all the glory to God, we feel confident that we are on the one path to the strait gate.

Franklin Mason said...

Ahh, Queen, I see now the source of my mistake. I went online to find a good statement of some cofC positions, and I found this site:

I see now that the site simply quotes from Baxter. I'd assumed he preached there. (When I said "his church", I meant simply that he preached there. No ownership was implied. It's like when I say "My school is Harrison High". I don't mean that I own it. I mean only that that's where I do my work, where I teach. Read me charitably; read me in ways that don't make me out to have said something objectionable unless I quite clearly intended it.

Franklin Mason said...


I don't think that you really address my argument. I argue that the Bible did not exist until the 4th century, and by Bible I mean what everyone means - the canonical collection of books that goes under the head of "Bible". Of course the various component books existed before the 4th century, but before then they had not been collected (and many, many others rejected) into a canonical form. I mean to speak of that act of collection, of creation of the Book of books. This could easily have gone wrong. There were many other gospels, many other books of revelation (for example). They had to be rejected before the Bible could take shape. My point, then, is that this act of collection - an act necessary for the creation of our Bible - is not something itself Bible-guided, for in none of its books does the Bible tells us just what books are to be included in it. Thus it's simply false that all religious matters can be decided by appeal to the Bible. If you had been among those who in the 4th century had been charged with the task of the creation of a canonical Bible, you simply could not have relied only on the Bible - it did not then exist, and the books that were good candidates for inclusion did not tell you what to include and what to exclude.

My view is that the Spirit was at work here, and that (very likely) the Spirit is still active today. The Bible alone is not enough for either wisdom or for salvation, nor was it ever. Communion with the Spirit of God is also necessary.

(A little side point: your post seems quite Pelagian to me. You seem to assume that salvation comes through works. How do you square this with Paul's insistence that salvation is not through works but comes simply through faith in Christ?)

Franklin Mason said...


Another quick, little point. I think that it might be worth your time to actually engage the philosophical argument of my post. I did commit a little factual mistake, but that really has no relevance to the cogency of the argument that follows. Would you suggest that the argument is not cogent because I misidentified the congregation at which Baxter preached? That's surely fallacious . . . Perhaps you simply hoped to find a quick reason to write me off. I can assure you that it's not so simple as that. The argument I offer is not really my creation. It has been given for centuries, and is indeed an essential part of Catholic dogma. It deserves close study and a careful, detailed attempt at rebuttal (if rebuttal you intend).

QueenGeek said...

Mason... as I said, I have not yet read your whole blog. I was doing a web search on the church in Purcellville and curiously your page came up. I came here to see why in the world someone would be discussing this small congregation here. I will be happy to read what you have written and discuss it for its own merit or lack thereof... but not tonight.

Franklin Mason said...

Fair enough. I'm curious to know what you might have to say.

Powderman said...

The fact that the books of the New Testament were not organized in the collection we have now is really of no relevance. They had to have existed prior to that. The decision on which books to include and exclude were based on whether they were inspired or not. This was determined by a process known as the Canon or Rule of scripture. There is a whole gob of rules that a book had to pass in order to make the grade. If you are interested, there is a book, well written and easy to read called "How we Got the Bible" by Neil(?) Lightfoot. Google will find it instantly. It is also available from for about 20 bucks.

What is important to us is that the Bible is a collection of scriptures that were written by eye witnesses and second hand witnesses (Luke) of Christ Himself. You aren't going to get any purer of an account that from eyewitnesses and those who walked and lived with Christ on earth.

Regardless of how they are arranged, or when, they are still scripture. Still written by the conpanions of Jesus Christ Himself. The sheer volume of fragments and transcripts out there overwhelmingly attest to their authenticity. There are tens of thousands of transcripts and saving a few minor diferences there are no direct conflicts. the doctrinal stance is unaltered.

For example, Matthew 19:9. Some transcripts have the longer version where Christ said "And whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery" and some do not. All the manuscripts have it in Matthew 5:32, and Luke 16:18 so it really has no signicant difference one way or the other. This is common with all the differences.

The Bible exists. I am going to recognize it as the final authority, complete and able to thoroughly furnish us unto all good works.

As for salvation being by works. Quite simply, Faith/belief is a commandment that must be obeyed. 1 John 3:23... Belief is something we must do which makes it a work. Therefore to say we are not saved by works and follow that premise out to its logical conclusion is to say we are saved without belief as well.

Paul contrasted the law of Moses and the law of faith Romans 3:27. It's not that we are not saved by works of righteousness, rather we are not saved by the works of the Levitical law.

Yes we are saved by grace though faith. Grace is the undeserved favor of God. Our obedience is not going to pay for or earn salvation. It cost God the life of His Son. How we gonna repay that debt? No way. God does not owe us salvation because we choose to obey and serve Him. Without the blood of Christ, our obedience and service would be futile.

Our works will never earn salvation, but this fact does not excuse us from the obligation to serve. The fact that belief and faith are both a work of obedience negates the doctrine of salvation apart from works because faith is a work.

Thank you for your reply. If there are any further questions, I will try to answer them.

Franklin Mason said...

For now, I'll only post on the first part of what you say. I'll return to the matter of faith later.

You say, quite rightly, that there were "a whole gob" of rules that any book had to pass before it could be accepted into the canon. But my question to you is this: how did those early editors, those men who first gave us the collection of books we call the Bible, know to use just these rules and no others? My contention is that this knowledge of just what rules to use cannot itself have been Biblical in origin; and given that this is the case, it seems to me that, at least in the 4th century, the Bible was not the sole source of religiously significant knowledge.

It's not that I don't accept the authority of the Bible. I most certainly do. The question rather is this: is the Bible the sole authority on religious matters? It seems to me that as a matter is simple logic, in the 4th century it cannot have been. But if it cannot have been the sole source of authority then, why think that it's the sole source now?