Did Alexander Campbell found the church of Christ? Regardless of any prejudiced answers in either the affirmative or negative, the truth can be determined only when we know the church of Christ existed prior to Campbell's lifetime. It is this simple fact which answers the qurestion finally and definitely, for it cannot be shown that Campbell founded an institution which existed before he was born.
There is a fundamental difference between the "founder" of an institution and the "restorer" of some institution or organization. A founder is one who conceives and establishes an institution which has not previously existed. The resulting institution may have some characteristics which are similar to those of previously existing institutions, but when all of its distinctive features are considered together, the institution cannot claim to have existed earlier. On the other hand, a restorer is one who reestablishes an institution which has existed, having certain characteristics and for a specific purpose, he believes in his day and determines to re-establish this institution by copying all of its essential characteristics. He is not a founder; his work is that of a restorer.
LUTHERAN CHURCH: -- The relationship of Martin Luther to the Lutheran Church illustrates clearly the work of a founder. The name alone is enough to indicate that Luteranism did not exist before the lifetime of Luther, for it honors him by wearing his name.
Martin Luther is the central figure in the entire Protestant Reformation of the early 1500's, and it was his work which ultimately resulted in the formation of the Lutheran denomination. Luther was a German Catholic monk, born of poor mining peasants on November 10, 1483. He obtained an excellent eduction in spite of his poor background and became a member of the Augustinian order of Erfurt, Germany, transferred to a monastery at Wittenberg. Luther was given an opportunity to visit Rome; here he became acquainted with the deep moral and political corruption of the highest level of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. His deeply religious spirit revolted: he glimpsed the great truth of salvation through faith and the great Protestant Reformation burst throughout Europe.
When an indulgence traffic was set up in Germany, Luther was dismayed and on October 31, 1517, he posted a list of ninety-five theses on the door of the cathedral in Wittenberg, condemning the indulgences and inviting a discussion of their sale. Luther began writing vigorous polemics advocating a reformation of the Catholic Church. Powerful friends supported the reforming monk, and all Germany was divided into pro-Lutheran and pro-Catholic parties. When Luther was excommunicated in 1521, he publicly burned the pope's bull of excommunication. Within a few years the Lutheran Church was firmly established, and a divided Germany was girding itself for a series of devastating religious wars.
These facts are sufficient to indicate (1) that the Lutheran Church resulted from the work of him whose name it bears and (2) that it had not existed previously. It follows, therefore, that Luther is the founder of the Lutheran Church in every sense of that Word.
PROTESTANTISM: -- It may be demonstrated similarily that Protestantism, as a distinctive system of religion, originated during the early 1500's. When Luteran and Catholic princes were striving for supremacy in Germany, a diet met at Spires (1529) which was controlled by the Catholics and which placed severe restrictions upon all non-Catholics, particularly Zwinglians and Anabaptists. The Lutheran princes presented a formal "protest" and the name "Protestant" originated with this action (History, II, 98,99).
Certainly Protestantism could not have existed, at least in name, prior to 1529. Therefore, it may be stated as historical fact that Protestantism was "founded" during t he early 1500's.
CHURCH OF CHRIST: -- Many have charged that the church of Christ is "just another denomination" and that it was founded by Alexander Campbell just as Lutheranism was founded by Martin Luther. Campbell did nto have this conception of his work and repudiated emphatically the idea that he was the founder of a church. (See the June Preceptor for Campbell's letter to a New Orleans newspaper, denying that he was the "founder" of a new church and asking the paper to correct its mistake.) Campbell conceived of his work as the restoration or re-establishment of New Testament Christianity and often emphasized this view of his work in his writings. For example, when Campbell met Obadiah Jennings, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Nashville, in an informal debate in 1830, Jennings charged that Campbell was a sectarian and a factionist. Campbell reports that in his reply "the impossibility of building up a sect while we admitted only the constitution and laws of Christ's kingdom as authoritative, and allowed perfect liberty to private judgment -- was demonstrated." It was Campbell's idea that a return to the Bible would not produce a sect but would result in the restoration of Christ's kingdom.
Was Campbell's view of his own work correct, or was he, in reality, the founder of a new denomination? The one fact which answers these questions is this: the church of Christ had exist ed long before the era of Campbell and his contemporaries. The New Testament church is fully described in the New Testament, and by diligent study we may identify:
1) Its Name: The first century church was designated by several different names, one of which was the church of Christ. Writing of several congregations, Paul stated, "The churches of Christ salute you" (Rom. 16:16). It follows, therefore, that a church called the church of Christ had existed long before Campbell, for that name is used in the New Testament. When Campbell used the name "church of Christ," he was not originating anything; he was restoring the New Testament name to the church.
2) It Organization: -- Christ was the only Head recognized by the early church, for all authority both in heaven and on earth was His. The Savior, in turn, did not delegate authority to any person, pope, prelate, cardinal, Protestant council, convention or synod of our day. Each New Testament church was independent of all others; the affairs of each were directed by its own elders. Campbell did not "found" this order of church government; he found it plainly described in the New Testament.
3). Its Worship: --When Campbell described instrumental music in worship as a cowbell in a concert, he was not "founding" a peculiar or narrow-minded idea; he simply respected the New Testament pattern for worship.
This same procedure may be applied to every essential characteristic of the New Testament church; and when it is finished, we conclude that the church of Christ existed in the first century and is described in the New Testament. this being true, it is unfair and incorrect to regard Campbell as the "founder" of the church of Christ, because he was not. His respect for the authority of the New Testament was absolute; his ideal was "a restoration of the ancient order of things."
By Bill J. Humble in The "Preceptor, Vol. 1, No. 9, July, 1952.
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