Distinguishing Apostolic Precedent from Personal Inference (A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things. No. 11)

[By Alexander Campbell, with emphasis added in bold by Scott Shifferd Jr.]

To the Editor of the Christian Baptist.

W———- Co. Ind. Dec. 12, 1825.

DEAR SIR:–A SINCERE desire to know the truth as it is in Christ, is the sole cause of these lines. I need not tell you that I am not a scholar–that these lines will manifest. Neither do I approve of the popular doctrines of the clergy, or even of such an order of men; but think it my duty to let you know that I belong to a church called “German Baptists,” sometimes “Dunkards,” whose government is the New Testament only. They are not the same in principle or faith with those of the old connection in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and Ohio; but an order that took rise from them in Kentucky, by one Teacher, in Shelby county, about six years ago, amounting now to about two thousand, having about twenty-four teachers, and increasing fast. Our views of Christianity you have expressed in the Christian Baptist, vol. 2d, and on the grace of God, volume second, Nos. 8 and 9; and in the whole second volume I do not see any thing to divide us in sentiment, though I do not approve of some things in your first and third volumes. The Calvinists here generally anathematize the Christian Baptist because it condemns their metaphysical speculations. I read your debate with McCalla, and also the first and second part of the 3d vol. of the Christian Baptist, and find myself edified, my views enlarged, and my faith strengthened; yet I was astonished, finding you so great an advocate for primitive Christianity, to hear you say that whatsoever the apostles commanded constituted the practice of the first Christians, and yet not notice the plain commandment of washing feet, and that of the kiss of charity; and to hear you say that the practice of the apostles constituted a law for us, and upon this ground contended for weekly communion, and yet not stating that the night was the time, yea, the only time, according to Christ’s institution and the practice of the apostles to observe this ordinance. Though I am not convinced of the necessity of weekly communion, not seeing how it could be kept so often in our back country, owing to our scattered state of living from ten to fifteen miles apart; yet I think that whenever it is observed, it should be done according to the primitive model. This much I have written for your own meditation, and now request you to write to me personally, and give me your views on trine immersion. You have plainly proved in your Debate that immersion was the only baptism the New Testament authorizes; but you have not stated whether trine or single immersion is the proper action of baptism. In your Debate you state that trine immersion was practiced within two years of the lives of the apostles, and we know, according to Robinson’s History, that it was the practice of the Christians, in the time of Constantine, and yet is among the Greeks. From the commission to baptize, Matt. 28:19 I yet think it is the proper action of baptism, and think that it should not be performed transversely, but forwards, in the most humble manner of obedience, Romans 6:5. I have written this to let you know my views; and now beg you, in the name of Christ, to inform a poor, illiterate man, who never has had the opportunity of receiving education, though he has always desired it, the whole truth with respect to this matter. I wish you to be concise and very particular, as I shall depend on what you write to me; and every earthly advantage and popularity would I freely forego to follow the truth. I am sincerely your friend, &c.

J. H.

Reply to the Above.

DEAR BROTHER–FOR such I recognize you, notwithstanding the varieties of opinion which you express on some topics, on which we might never agree. But if we should not, as not unity of opinion, but unity of faith, is the only true bond of Christian union, I will esteem and love you, as I do every man, of whatever name, who believes sincerely that Jesus is the Messiah, and hopes in his salvation. And as to the evidence of this belief and hope, I know of none more decisive than an unfeigned obedience, and willingness to submit to the authority of the Great King.

Your objection to the weekly breaking of bread, if I can call it an objection, equally bears against the meeting of disciples at all, for any purpose, on the first day. For if you will allow that if they meet at all, there is no difficulty insurmountable, in the way of attending to this, more than to any other institution of Jesus. As often as they can assemble for worship on that day, let them attend to all the worship, and means of edification, and comfort, which their gracious sovereign has appointed.

As to the time of the day or night when it should be observed, we have no commandment. But we have authority to attend upon this institution at whatever time of the day or night we meet. The Lord’s having instituted it at night, will not oblige us to observe it at night, more than his having first eaten the Passover should oblige us first to eat a paschal lamb, or to observe it in all the same circumstances. We are always to distinguish what is merely circumstantial in any institution, from the institution itself. The disciples at Troas came together upon the first day of the week to break bread; and the apostle Paul commanded the disciples at Corinth “to tarry one for another, to wait till all the expected guests had arrived,” which shows that it occupied an early as well as an essential part of their worship. Any objection made to the hour of the day or night in which any Christian institution should be observed is founded upon the doctrine of holy times, or sacred hours, which are Jewish and not Christian. Besides, it is bad logic to draw a general conclusion from any particular occurrence. We might as well argue that, because Paul immersed the jailor at the dead hour of night, every person should be immersed at the same hour, as that because the Lord instituted the supper the night in which he was betrayed, it should be always observed at night. Nay, the same sort of logic would oblige us to observe it only the last night in our lives, if we could ascertain it, and to have no more than a dozen fellow participants. We should, on the same principle, be constrained, like the Sabbatarians, to reform our almanacs, and to decide whether it was instituted at nine or twelve o’clock at night, &c. But apostolic precedent decides this point, and not inferential reasoning.

As to the washing of the saints’ feet, there is no evidence that it was a religious ordinance, or an act of social worship. Yea, there is positive evidence that it was not. Paul, in his directions to Timothy, at Ephesus, tells him that certain widows were to be supported in certain circumstances by the church. These widows were members of the church; and, as such, must have been regular attendants on, and partakers of, all its institutions.

Now, in describing the character of those widows which were to be supported by the congregation, Paul says, “If she have brought up children, if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints’ feet, if she have diligently followed every good work.” Had the washing of the saints’ feet been a religious, or what is called a church or social ordinance, it would have been impossible for her to have been in the congregation, and not to have joined in it. He might as well have said, If she have been baptized, if she have eaten the supper, as to have said, “If she have washed the saints’ feet” had it been a religious institution. But he ranks it not amongst social acts of worship, not amongst religious institutions, but amongst good works. When, then, it is a good work, it ought to be performed, but never placed on a level with acts of religious worship. It is a good work when necessity calls for it; and, though a menial service, the Saviour gave an example that no Christian should forget, of that condescending humility which, as Christians, we are bound, both from precept and example, to exhibit towards our brethren to all cases when called upon. Besides the design of it at the time he practiced it, is ascertained from a regard to the mistaken and aspiring views of the disciples respecting the nature of places of honor in his kingdom.

It was a good work, and still is a good work, more frequently in Asia than America. The soil, climate, and dress of the Asiatics more frequently called for it, than our circumstances require it. But we argue not from these circumstances–we use them as illustrations of the fact, that Paul the Apostle has positively decided that it is not a religious institution, an act of religious worship, or an ordinance in the church, but simply a good work, and I have experienced it to be a good work, in my own person, more than mince, even in these United States.

Much the same sort of evidence exists in proof that the kiss of charity is not a social or church ordinance. A great deal more, however, can be said in behalf of it, than of either of the preceding items. It is argued that it is five times positively commanded in the epistles written to the congregations, set in order by the apostles. From this I would conclude that it had not been established by the apostles as an act of religious or social worship in those societies, as a part of their usual and stated worship; for if it had, there could not have existed a reason for enjoining it so repeatedly as we find it enjoined. Hence we do not find one commandment in all the epistles to the churches, respecting baptism, the Lord’s supper, or the Lord’s day: certain things are said of them, and in relation to them, as already established in the church, but no command to observe them. From the fact of the kiss of charity being so often mentioned, and from the circumstances of the congregations to which it is mentioned, I argue quite differently from many zealous and exemplary Christians.

Another argument in favor of it is deduced from the fact that these letters were written to the churches, and that consequently the things enjoined in them, were enjoined upon the disciples in their collective capacity. True in part only. For it is not a fact that the injunctions in those epistles all respected the brethren in their meetings only, but also their conduct in the world, in their families, and in all the various relations of life.

It is admitted that the usual method of salutation in the East was, and still is, by kissing the cheek or neck of a relative or friend. In some countries, in Europe, too, this custom is quite common; but the farther west or north we travel from Constantinople or Rome, the custom is less frequent. Shaking hands is one of the most usual methods of expressing friendship and love in Europe and America.

Christians are to love one another as brethren. This is the grand standard of their affection. Whatever way, then, I express love to my natural brother, I should express it to my Christian brother. If the custom of the country and those habits of expressing affection which it familiarizes to our minds, require me to salute my natural brother when I meet him, by a kiss on the lips, neck, or cheek, so let me salute my Christian brother. But if the right hand of friendship and love be the highest expression of love and affection for a natural brother, to salute a Christian brother otherwise is unnatural. For example–suppose that after an absence of seven years, I were introduced into a room where one of my natural brothers and one of my Christian brethren were assembled, and that I should kiss the latter and shake hands with the former; would not this diversity be unnatural and contrary to the generic precept, “Love as brethren.” I contend, then, that neither the customs in dress, wearing the beard, or mode of salutation, is the meaning of the requirements, of the precepts, or examples of the apostles; but that the genius and spirit of their injunctions and examples, are, in these things, expressed by the customs and habits which our country and kindred adopt, and by means of which we express the spirit and temper which they inculcated and exhibited.

But to make this a regular and standing ordinance of Christian assemblies, appears to be entirely unauthorized by any hint, allusion, or command, in the apostolic writings. I speak neither from prejudice nor aversion to this custom. For my own part, I can cordially comply with either custom, having been born in a country where this mode of salutation was more common than in this; but to advocate or enjoin it as of apostolic authority, I cannot. When misunderstandings and alienations take place amongst brethren, and a reconciliation has been effected; when long absence has been succeeded by a joyful interview; or when about to separate for a long time, the highest expressions of love and most affectionate salutations are naturally called for, which the customs of the country have made natural. And these become holy amongst Christian brethren on account of the high considerations which elicit them.

In a word, whatever promotes love amongst Christian brethren, whatever may increase their affection, or whatever expressions of it can best exhibit it to others, according to the customs and feelings of the people amongst whom we live, is certainly inculcated by the apostles. And if Christian societies should exactly and literally imitate and obey this injunction, no man, as far as I can learn, has a right to condemn or censure them. Nor have they who practice according to the letter, a right to insist upon others to think of practice in a similar way, so long as they exhibit that they love one another as brethren.

With regard to trine immersion, and the manner in which the action should be performed, we have neither precept nor precedent. In the debate alluded to, instead of two, it is, I think, in the errata, two hundred years after the apostolic age, when we first read of trine immersion. That immersion is always spoken of as one act, is most evident from all that is said about Christian immersion. It is true that the scribes and elders, as indeed the Jews generally, had a plurality of immersions; but the Christian action is a unit. There is no command that a person should be immersed three times in order to constitute one baptism or immersion. Nor is there an example of the kind on record, not even a hint or allusion to such a custom. Therefore, we cannot teach it as of divine, but as of human authority. And in what position the body should be disposed of in the act, is as immaterial as in what fashion a coat or mantle should be made. To bring the Christian religion to inculcate matters of this sort, would be to convert the New Testament into a ritual like the book of Leviticus, and to make Christian obedience as low and servile as that of the weak and beggarly elements.

Thus, my dear sir, I have hinted at the topics you proposed. I should have written to you “personally” long since; but in such cases, here the matter is of general interest, I prefer, as opportunity serves, to lay it before the public. And as to the long delay, I have to urge by way of apology, that I am this winter, more than ever before, absorbed in business of the highest, most solemn and responsible nature. I have under my care the publication of a new Translation of the New Testament. Though the translation was made ready to my hand, yet the necessary examination if every word, and comparison of it with the other translations of note, for the purpose of assisting the English reader with the best means of understanding this blessed book, has given me incomparably more labor than I had any idea of. It is indeed, to me a delightful and profitable employment, having assembled all translations of note, and even those of no great reputation, I am under the happy necessity of reading, examining, and comparing all, and in notes critical and explanatory, elucidating the text when it can be improved. But a small portion of my labor can be seen, or will meet the public eye, because, in many instances, after the most diligent examination and comparison, the translation given is adopted in preference to all others; and my labor simply results in the conviction that the translation of the standard works is the best. It is a work that I dare not delay, or yield to any other demands upon me, however imperious. I have more than sixty letters at this time on file unanswered, and many of my correspondents are got out of patience with me; but I have a good, or many good apologies to make. If they will only bear with me this once, I hope to make them returns in full.

Wishing you favor, mercy and peace, from our Lord and Saviour, and glad to hear from you at any time, I subscribe myself your brother in the hope of immortality.

A. C.

About Scott J Shifferd

Minister, church of Christ in Jacksonville, FL. Husband and father of four. Email: ScottJon82[at]yahoo.com
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One Response to Distinguishing Apostolic Precedent from Personal Inference (A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things. No. 11)

  1. Phil says:

    Interesting conversion. It’s also interesting that they were arguing over ritualistic practices and people still do today. This approach always distracts one from the real purpose of NT Christianity. The real purpose of NT Christianity is to become transformed of mind into a new creation. Anyone can follow the rituals (Communion, physical baptism, the day and time rituals are performed, etc.) and still not be a new creation. So even if we do everything according to the Commands, Examples and Inference it’s still does not require a transformation of mind. An untransformed mind is capable of obedience to all of the commands. Yet what did Paul say about this?
    Galatians 5:6
    For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.
    Galatians 6:15
    For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature.


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