First: the institutions of the Restoration Movement are undergoing massive shifts and changes.
Second: the Restoration Movement is becoming less about principles and more about people.
My third observation is: the people of the Restoration Movement will be important players in the new movement for a unified church.
What, you say, there is a new movement for a unified church? You hadn’t heard about it?
Let me offer you a parallel from my field, biblical studies. In 1906, a great German scholar, Albert Schweitzer, published a book entitled The Quest for the Historical Jesus. Briefly, this was the culmination of 19th century efforts to sort through the theological formulations about Jesus and recover the story of the man who lived in Galilee in the first century. Schweitzer was a brilliant mind, having the equivalent of doctoral degrees in music, philosophy, theology, and medicine. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. However, many believed that his “Quest” book left many questions unanswered. He lost interest in biblical studies soon after the publication of this important and controversial book. Schweitzer’s work spurred many other books, but little consensus. It marked the end of the first “quest.”
In 1959, James Robinson published A New Quest for the Historical Jesus. Robinson noted that the “quest” had been revived and had shifted from a rigorous historical investigation to one based on the philosophical driver of the day, existentialism. This is not the place to trace the developments of this second quest, but simply to say it quickly reached dead ends (or drove over cliffs, depending on your chosen metaphor).
In 1993, an evangelical British scholar, N.T. Wright, announced that a “Third Quest” had begun, what I remember hearing described as the “New New Quest for the Historical Jesus.” This time, conservative and not-so-conservative scholars plunged headlong into analyzing and debating every piece of evidence about Jesus and his world, both from the Bible and other ancient sources. The results were things like Wright’s colossal series, Christian Origins and the Question of God, now at four volumes out of a projected six. The second volume, Jesus and the Victory of God is a hefty 700 pages and is the epitome of this third quest, exploring every possible avenue to recover the best and most accurate picture of the man, Jesus.
Three quests pursuing the historical Jesus, all having the same goal but different presuppositions and results. Each was a product of its historical context.
The Restoration Movement as envisaged by the Campbells and Barton Stone was a quest for Christian unity. They saw this as possible if Christians would abandon divisive creedalism and look to the Bible as the sole source of doctrine. However, even among the ranks of their immediate followers, complete consensus concerning the doctrines of the Bible was never reached. Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone themselves disagreed over something as central as the nature of God, Stone being semi-Arian and Campbell being clearly Trinitarian. Yet they agreed in principle to cooperate and have their churches be united. After their passing, the movement was split over things that seem almost comic in retrospect. Using pianos in worship? Paying ministers? Observers of the Restoration Movement in the first half of the twentieth century must have been amazed the a unity movement had so many hard-line sectarians.
In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a second quest for unity. This seemed to be motivated partly out of the dismay that the Restoration Movement had splintered so badly and needed to restore its own unity if it had any hope of being an example to the church at large. Several things happened, including the founding of the Stone Campbell Journal, a publication that had writers from all three branches of the movement. But while on a scholarly level the SCJ was a success, the churches were still separated. Perhaps they had lived apart for too long, a little like childhood friends reunited in old age who have little in common but distant memories.
I think there is now a third quest for Christian unity underway and it has little to do with the Restoration Movement. The sectarianism that has so permeated the church in America for 300 years makes little sense to many today. The megachurch phenomenon has congregated Christians of many backgrounds served by pastors with equally diverse educations and experiences. As I have said for twenty years, it is not about doctrine anymore and certainly not about doctrinal warfare. There are a few essentials: the authority and value of the Bible, the divinity of Christ, and the necessity of faith for a saving relationship with God. But no one wants to fight over premillennialism anymore.
There is a growing sense that Christians should be active agents for good in their communities, far beyond just inviting people to Sunday services. If the church is to matter to the next generation, it must do things that matter. Social justice is high on the agenda of the millennial generation, and this will not go away.
I believe the churches and the leaders of the Restoration Movement are poised and able to make a substantial contribution to this new quest for unity. Can we truly be Christians only again? Can we quit drawing lines that divide and find reasons to unite with other Christians?
There are some big issues here, and they are found throughout the evangelical community. Can we quit treating Catholics as sub-Christian enemies? Can we leave our right-wing or left-wing politics at home and no longer let our churches be political tools? Can we finally banish racism from our churches and accept people of all skin colors and ethnicities as brothers and sisters, even as church leaders?
The result of this may be that the Restoration Movement becomes a footnote in church history books. But it may be that its influence will be evident in a more unified church for the next century. That would be a good outcome, I think.
Nebraska Christian College