By Tom M. Roberts
(This concludes a two-part study of C. Leonard Allen’s The Cruciform Church.Faulty reasoning (non-sequiturs) by the author presents a warped view of the gospel and the church of Christ. If this is representative of the thinking among liberal brethren, there is little wonder as to the source of a “new hermeneutic” and its effect upon churches who adopt it.)
Non Sequitur: Doctrine Idolatry
I am sure that there are some folks somewhere who elevate doctrine to idolatry and who worship the Bible, considering it a talisman to ward off evil spirits. But I must confess that I have not heard such teaching among my brethren. Leonard Allen claims to have heard it a lot.
This non sequitur states that “Even the Bible itself or our own religious tradition can become idols” (p. 88). “It becomes an idol when our faith becomes focused on Scripture rather than in the God Scripture reveals to us.” He feels compell0d to remind us that “Doctrines do not save us; we are saved by Christ” (p. 89). This knowledge is too much! We are awed by such pearls of wisdom. Actually, such smugness of religious superiority does little to commend him. It does not follow that an obedience of doctrine dethrones Jesus (1 John 5:3). It does not follow that a faithful compliance with Scripture elevates it to “doctrine-idolatry” (p. 89). Must it be “either/or” with regard to Christ and Scripture? Can it not (must it not) be “both/and” Christ and his message?
It is not true that since God does “impossibilities” (wonders, miracles), we cannot read the Bible with our “analytic-technical” mindset and grasp what God is doing. The God who does “impossibilities” is the God who has spoken to us in an accommodative way (human language) and requires obedience (Matt. 7:21).
Non Sequitur: The Displaced Cross
According to brother Allen, no other subject comes anywhere near the importance of this one. His charge: “First, as we shall see, `the word of the cross’ has beensignificantly displaced in the history of Churches of Christ. Throughout the four generations since Stone and Campbell we have tended to push the cross into the background and thus to proclaim an anemic and distorted gospel” (p. 113).
That this is a faulty premise (before we look at the unwarranted conclusions) can be seen from Allen’s definition of the “word of the cross.” Falling into the same error as C. H. Dodd (seen in Allen’s bibliography), Carl Ketcherside and others before him, Allen limits “the word of the cross” or the “gospel” to something vaguely defined as the “core message” or “apostolic kerygma” that somehow “underlies the New Testament writings” (p. 114). Whether or not Allen knows it, Dodd is a modernist, denying the inspiration of Scripture. Yet Dodd is cited by many as an authority on this disputed “core gospel.” While some demand five or more facts in this core gospel, Ketcherside required seven: birth, life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension and coronation of Jesus. No doctrines or commands are included in this gospel. Dodd claimed to have identified passages that taught this “core gospel” before redactors polluted the gospel with doctrinal demands. Dodd’s (and Ketcherside’s) theology was “faith only” (baptism is a command and not a part of the gospel) with salvation being secured by the acceptance of this “gospel” for justification. After one is saved, he may or may not accept some “doctrines” for sanctification but no doctrinal flaw would interfere with justification or limit fellowship with those who accepted the deity of Christ based on the core gospel.
Allen’s premise is that the “gospel” is limited, by definition, to the facts of Jesus’ atoning work; preaching the “word of the cross” is specific to those alone. Preaching from the epistles would not be preaching the “gospel.” Allen’s unwarranted conclusion, based on this faulty premise of “gospel,” is that many of us have displaced the “word of the cross.” If one allows his egregious definition, he is right. But Peter, Paul and James would also be guilty, and that suggests the fault lies with Allen’s definitions and not our preaching.
“Allen, like Don Quixote, tilts at windmills, because he doesn’t understand true gospel preaching. To him, preaching about baptism, the church, the Lord’s Supper, marriage and divorce, or any doctrinal matter (including, conceivably, the deity of Christ as doctrine) is not preaching `the cross.’
Allen, like Don Quixote, tilts at windmills, because he doesn’t understand true gospel preaching. To him, preaching about baptism, the church, the Lord’s supper, marriage and divorce, or any doctrinal matter (including, conceivably, the deity of Christ as doctrine) is not preaching “the cross.” Therefore he flays about like one possessed, decrying the lack of cross-centered preaching.
No one who is a Bible believer would argue about the necessity of putting Christ as both center and circumference of our faith and practice. Bring out all the superlatives and they fail to do justice to God’s love in Christ on Calvary. But Allen has no corner on the market in appreciating the Savior. We, too, understand atonement, justification, sacrifice and propitiation. He chastises with-out reason for a perceived displacement of Christ’s passion on the cross when the fault lies with his imperfect working hypothesis of the “word of the cross.”
This ill-conceived notion, however absurd, is illustrated when Allen applies his theory to the giants of the Restoration period (Campbell, Stone, Brents, Lard, etc.). They were not “cross centered” in their writing and preaching, we are told. Ignoring the fact that preaching the “word of the cross” includes “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) by testifying “to the gospel of the grace of God” (v. 24), Allen tilted at Campbell’s The Millennial Harbinger and Brents’ The Gospel Plan of Salvation as being “preoccupied with form, structure, and the setting in order of what was lacking” (p. 117), thus displacing the “word of the cross.” Brother Allen gives little weight to the fact that sectarians of that period readily agreed with Campbell and others as to the atoning work of Jesus and the central place he occupied in their faith. He seems oblivious to the fact that there were volumes of things keeping sectarians in spiritual bondage that needed to be addressed. It might be comfortable for Allen to sit in his ivory tower at Abilenein 1990 and second guess the pioneers as they fought daily battles for truth in 1840. But those stalwart men waged battles with the sword of the Spirit and did not tilt at windmills. It is ungracious, at this late date, with Calvin-ism (the error they opposed) on the rise, for anyone to promote fellowship with the very people Campbell and others fought. Much less is it gracious for those in non-institutional churches (sound preachers) today to parrot these unfounded charges against Campbell and Brents, using the same faulty definitions of gospel and doctrine as they relate to the word of the cross. The only thing “distorted and anemic” in this context is the fact that some will not preach the word of the cross in the biblical sense, being “ashamed” (Rom. 1:16) of the full proclamation as too negative, too legalistic, too unloving. Allen should not be too lonely in his ivory tower or tilting at windmills.
Non Sequitur: Covenant or Contract
In no other place of his book does Allen reveal his ignorance of the Bible more than when he contrasts covenant (gospel) and contract (doctrine). He charged that under Campbell (and others) “the gospel of grace became a gospel of duty, law, and perfect obedience. Covenant, we might say became contract. . . Consider the difference between covenant and contract. Though similar in some ways, they differ radically in spirit. A contract defines a precise set of relationships and obligations, and if these are correctly observed then the contractual obligations are fully discharged and the benefits fully received.
“But covenant in the biblical sense is far different” (p. 122).
Further, “God’s covenant with people, unlike a contract, always arises out of grace…. Contracts contain little room for slippage. . . God’s covenants, in contrast, always begin with an act of grace . . . because they are rooted in love and trust they contain elements of spontaneous giving and forgiving” (pp. 122, 123). It is difficult to know where to begin to correct such monstrous error.
True, the Law of Moses was a contract that required perfect obedience to merit salvation (Gal. 3:100, but faithful obedience was never condemned (cf: life of Abraham, Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:1 ff; etc.). The Law of Moses was also a covenant (Deut. 29:1; Jer. 31:31f; Heb. 8:8; 10:16; Exod. 24:3-10) that was a gift of God’s grace. On the other hand, the gospel of Christ is a law (Rom. 8:1-3; James 1:25), defining “a precise set of relationships and obligations” (Matt. 7:21; 2 John 9-11; 1 John 5:3).
We are under law today. It is no less law because it incorporates grace and forgiveness (Rom. 8:1-3). It is different from the Law of Moses in that it does not require perfection (provision for forgiveness implies sin, 1 John 1). Grace and law justification are mutually exclusive; but grace and obedience to the Law of Christ (gospel and doctrine) are inclusive of each other.
Brother Allen betrays his lack of knowledge even further by quoting from K. C. Moser (The Way of Salvation). Moser advocated Calvinism regarding the imputation of righteousness, the very thing Campbell, Stone, Brents and others were fighting to destroy. By quoting from Moser and his Calvinism (p. 123), Allen manifests ignorance as to the necessity of the Restoration battles and intimates his own Calvinist leanings. Had Leonard Allen lived during the Restoration era, he would, no doubt, have been on the opposite side from Campbell and those who were studying themselves out of Calvinistic error.
Non Sequitur: Spirit of the Age
By this time we should know that it is impossible to defeat the secularization of the world without the full message of the New Testament. The good news about Jesus’ deity, alone, will not suffice. It is impossible for one to be converted to Christ and to be motivated to godlyliving and self-denial without a knowledge of the “whole counsel.” When Paul wrote to Timothy, he spoke of doctrine which is “according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God” (1 Tim. 1:8-11). The doctrines of this gospel included the truth about the lawless and insubordinate, unholy and profane, murderers, fornicators, sodomites, kidnappers, liars, etc. While some might be too timid to preach like Paul, you can be sure that he preached the gospel. When Paul stood before Felix and spoke concerning “the faith in Christ,” he “reasoned about righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come” (Acts 24:24-25). That is gospel preaching, “word of the cross” preaching, “core gospel” preaching and “doctrinal” preaching, one and the same. Gospel and doctrine are mutually inclusive; they are equally related to the sinner’s salvation and the saint’s edification.
This is not an exhaustive review of the errors made by brother Allen in The Cruciform Church. Such a review would require a line-by-line examination. What has been listed is supplied as a warning that faithful preachers should not be put on the defensive by charges that we are guilty of not preaching enough about the cross of Christ. Some conservative preachers are already parroting this line, inadvertently lending credence to this foolishness. Dangerous consequences are sure to follow when we incorporate unscriptural language in our writing and preaching. It is misleading, to say the least; divisive, at the worst. If we don’t want to be identified with these men and go where they are going, let’s don’t be guilty of duplicating their material. Likewise, it is a warning against falling prey to yet another fallacious distinction between gospel/doctrine, this one called cross/doctrine. Compromisers will never be comfortable under the scrutiny of the whole counsel of God. Let us not give them the edge by defining biblical terminology so as to bring doctrinal preaching into disfavor.
Those who love unity in diversity and who want to broaden the borders of fellowship with error will love this book. It has an air of scholarship and religiosity that will provide just the right touch. We urge all who read it to read carefully, with a Bible at their side “for we are not ignorant of the Devil’s devices” (2 Cor. 2:11).
Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 24, p. 6-8
December 15, 1994