By J. W. McGarvey
There is a progress upward, and a progress downward; a progress forward, and a progress backward; a progress away from the truth, and a progress in the truth. Whether we are in favor of progress or not, depends upon its direction. It is common to speak of two classes in the church, the progressives and the conservatives. That a man should be conservative is not objected to by any; but to call a man progressive is a reproach in the estimation of some, and a compliment in the estimation of others. We have had some newspaper writers, for some years back, who frequently startle us with notes of alarm in reference to the progressive tendencies among us; and some other writers who hold up to contempt and ridicle the man who opposes progress. Why this difference? Are those writers actually as antipodal as they seem to be? The latter will tell you that Jesus progressed far beyond the Pharisees and scribes; that the apostles progressed away from the Judaizers; that Luther progressed beyond the Pope; that Alexander Campbell progressed beyond the sects; and that the man who is opposed to progress condemns all of these great movements, and would have been on the wrong side had he lived at either of the great epochs which they mark in history. Is there really a class of men among us who oppose this kind of progress? Surely if there is, we ought to hunt them o;t, and drive them into their holes, where they will not obstruct the forward movements of religious society.
But again, we are told that these scoffers at progress think they know all that is to be known, and are determined that no man shall progress beyond them by learning anything which they have not discovered. It is said that the Pharisees were this way toward Jesus, and the Romanists toward Martin Luther, and the sects toward Alexander Campbell; and thus the opposers of progress are made to take a very low seat in the kingdom of God.
I have had some thoughts with reference to the exact issue involved in this controversy, and have been led to make some inquires which may throw a little light upon it. I have inquired, in what way did Jesus progress beyond the Pharisees? Now, to progress beyond a man, means, in the current sense of the phrase, to go as he has gone in a certain direction, and then go farther in the same direction. I ask myself, in what line of progress did Jesus overtake the Pharisees, and pass beyond them? Certainly not in the line of tradition; for instead of going beyond them in that, He traveled in the opposite direction, and tried to pull them back from all the progress which they had made. Neither was it in the line of Sabbatical observances; for in this He met them face to face, and compelled them to turn back again to the law as it was. Nor was it in the line of divorce; for here He pushed them all the way back to Adam and Eve, re-enacting the law of marriage which prevailed in the garden of Eden. Indeed, I find but few things in which He differed from them that are not of the same category. The difference consisted not in starting with them and going beyond them in the same direction, but in starting back from their point of progress and returning to the letter of the law, or to a true interpretation of it.
So it was with Luther. His work was not to start even with the Romanists and progress beyond them; not to start with the knowledge which they possessed, and acquire more of the same kind; but to turn back from where they stood, and throw away, as useless or injurious, the greater part of what they had learned. And so with A. Campbell and his co-laborers. It was a movement, not beyond the position of the sects, but backward in the opposite direction. They were progressing forward, away from the Bible, outstripping each other in the race for new inventions of men; this movement was a progress backward toward the Bible which they had abandoned.
Now, it is true, that in all these cases there was some progress made in actual knowledge of the Scripture. Jesus made such progress; so did Luther; so did Campbell. But this is not the progress objected to. Where is the man who objects to this progress? He is not to be found, unless it be in the ranks of those who are progressing beyond and away from the word of God. The Pharisees had thus progressed; hence, they opposed Jesus. They opposed Him because He opposed them, and went in the opposite direction from them. So with Luther and the Romanists; with Campbell and the sects.
What, then, is the progress objected to? Briefly, it is this: it is that which begins with a melodeon in the Sunday School, and progresses toward a grand organ in the church; which begins with a relaxation of discipline, and progresses toward no discipline at all; which begins with belittling the Eldership, and progresses toward a pastorate as a substitute; which begins by declaring the unbaptized in the kingdom, and progresses towards the reception of them into the church; which begins by scouting the demand for soundness in the faith, and progresses to all manner of unsound teaching; which, in short, begins at the same point of departure with the sects, and aims to progress up to them all, and finally, beyond them all in unauthorized teaching and practice, – This, and this only is the progress condemned. True progress is still backward – backward toward the apostles, toward the doctrine, the terms of pardon, the worship and the discipline which they instituted. Push your progress in this direction if you wish to have a hard fight for every inch of ground you gain. If you would sail smoothly on the current, let your progress be in whatever direction the popular current flows.
By Ron Halbrook
John William McGarvey (1 March 1829-6 October 1911) was educated under such men as Alexander Campbell and W.K. Pendleton at Bethany College (1847-50), then learned to preach largely through the encouragement and example of T.M. Allen while living in LaFayette County Missouri (1850-62), and finally settled down as a preacher and teacher of preachers in Lexington, Kentucky (18621911). The article on “True Progress” reflects the early decades of McGarvey’s work when he was earnestly trying to answer what he called heaven’s “loudest call”: “The loudest call that comes from heaven to the men of this generation is for warfare, stern, relentless, merciless, extermination, against everything not expressly or by necessary implication authorized in the New Testament” (Millennial Harbinger, 1868, p. 219).
The major exception and failure in McGarvey’s life to answer heaven’s call was in his hearty participation in various societies which were intertwined with the churches for evangelism, edification, and benevolence. This is what David Lipscomb meant when he said of McGarvey, “He is so often and so thoroughly right on so many points that I feel indignant when he tramples on his own principles to go wrong” (Gospel Advocate, 1909, p. 169). McGarvey viewed the societies “not as permanent institutions, but as temporary expedients” until local churches learned to do their own work, which would eliminate every “excuse for the organization of a missionary society; for then the work would be going on in the most simple and effective method possible, and in a way expressly provided for in the New Testament” (American Christian Review, 1863, p. 194). In this, McGarvey admittedly failed to “progress backward toward the Bible” and thus unwittingly progressed “beyond and away from the word of God,” to borrow his own explanation of “True Progress.”
McGarvey’s mention of heaven’s “loudest call” in the 1868 Millennial Harbinger was provoked by A.S. Hayden’s attempt to justify such innovations as instrumental music under the banners of “Expediency and Progress” (M.H., 1868, pp. 135-44). For twenty years, McGarvey waged stern and relentless warfare against instrumental music in worship, as, for example, in the article on “True Progress.” But, when “the party for the innovation proved to be the popular party, and they finally succeeded in winning to their cause so nearly all of the preachers and congregations,” McGarvey thought it “useless to continue repeating arguments and evidences which were unheeded” and then “turned his pen to other subjects” (Autobiography of J. W. McGarvey published in special issue of The College of the Bible Quarterly, April 1960, p. 44). The fact is that McGarvey compromised his convictions by failing to cry out any longer against the instrument, because he knew that this was the price required in order for him to sustain fellowship with the society brethren. How sad that in this he trampled on his own principles and failed to heed heaven’s loudest call!
McGarvey was a prolific and influential writer. His articles first appeared in the Millennial Harbinger and in Benjamin Franklin’s American Christian Review. Moses E. Lard solicited McGarvey’s aid as a chief contributor of articles in publishing the short-lived Lard’s Quarterly (September 1863 – April 1868). Lard and Winthrop H. Hopson counseled with Robert Graham, Lanceford B. Wilkes, and McGarvey in 1868 about the possibility of starting a new paper. A “Prospectus of The Apostolic Times” appeared in December, bearing the names of those five widely-respected preachers, and announcing,
The absorbing object of the Paper will be the propagation and defense of the Gospel as it came pure from the lips of Christ and of the Apostles. On this grand theme it will decline even the semblance of a compromise. Whatever aids this, it will aid; whatever opposes this, it will oppose. To the primitive faith and the primitive practice, without enlargement or diminution, without innovation or modification, the Editors here and how commit their Paper and themselves with a will and purpose inflexible as the cause in whose interest they propose to write.
The Apostolic Times hoped to counteract the Christian Standard’s laxness, a paper which had been started to interject the social political issues in the War Between the States because other papers excluded such discussion as not befitting to the gospel, and which had been started also to overcome the embarrassment experienced by emerging liberals who found most of the journals narrow-minded and lacking literary merit. James A. Garfield, a prime mover in the beginning of the Christian Standard, was disappointed that it was not more liberal than it was and recognized Editor Isaac Errett to be a compromiser “as fearful of the liberal tendencies of the time as he is of the conservative.” Garfield was confiding to assistant editor Burke A. Hinsdale, who was using his influence to bring the Standard to openly “fight for a liberal Christianity” and who opted not to preach full-time because of “a lack of completest sympathy with the Disciple Brotherhood” (Garfield-Hinsdale Letters, pp. 109, 126). The Apostolic Times was determined to openly fight these liberal or “progressive” tendencies, and McGarvey’s article “True Progress” is but one of the many cannonades delivered in the war. The article appeared in Vol. III, No. 29 (26 October 1871), on page 228. The war conducted by the Apostolic Times was lost because the paper was caught in the cross fire created by the inconsistency of supporting societies but opposing other innovations. I.B. Grubbs and S.A. Kelley began editing the paper in 1876, Hopson bought it in 1878 and kept it for over a year, but it died in 1885. McGarvey edited another such ill-fated venture, the Apostolic Guide (1885-93), then turned his pen to “Biblical Criticism” in a column under that name for the Christian Standard until his death in 1911. The Standard approved both the societies and the instrument, but appeared to be relatively conservative in comparison to the rise of unmitigated theological liberalism. Many like McGarvey who once pledged not “even the semblance of a compromise” on certain issues were forced to seek contentment with compromise by giving their energies to other issues. This is not the course of a fierce, independent, wholehearted loyalty to Jesus Christ!
If our readers cannot see by now the striking parallel between events in McGarvey’s day and in the present, to further lengthen this article could not make them see any better. None are so blind as those who will not see. The speaker or writer must be clear, but the hearer must be honest of heart. Jesus said, “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself” (Jn. 7:17). Let us determine to seek and pursue only that progress which is backward toward the Lord himself, the apostles, the doctrine, the terms of pardon, the worship, the organization and discipline of the New Testament. We dare not go along with brethren in an effort to get along with them when they depart from the Bible, lest we trample on the Savior’s word and become deaf to heaven’s call. For any of us to say, “It can’t happen to me,” is to display the kind of arrogance which invites destruction.
Truth Magazine XXIII: 39, pp. 631-633
October 4, 1979