Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
April 25, 1968
NUMBER 50, PAGE 6b-7

Campbell's Case For Controversy

Earl Kimbrough

Perhaps no uninspired man ever possessed a more wholesome view of religious controversy than Alexander Campbell in his prime. He certainly held no brief for the abuses of controversy, nor did he believe in "a controversy for opinion," or even for truth itself when the controversy is "instituted by vanity, by the pride of understanding, or the lust for power." He believed that controversy arising from such impure motives would "pollute the heart, aggravate the passions, sour the temper, and terminate in vain jangling." But though fully aware of the abuses of controversy and the prejudice against it because of the abuses, he nevertheless was one of controversy's strongest advocates and ablest participants.

In the first number of the Millennial Harbinger (Jan. 1830), Campbell published an essay favoring religious controversy. The points he made in its behalf are as timely today as when written nearly a century and a half ago.

1. Campbell said, "There can be no progress without controversy." He reasoned that improvement requires and presupposes change, that change is innovation, and that innovation always creates opposition. "Every man who reforms his own life has a controversy within himself. And therefore, no man who has not always been perfect ...can be a good man without controversy. This being conceded (and who can refuse to concede it?) it follows that whenever society, religious or political, falls into error, or rather, so long as it is imperfect, it is the duty of all who have any talent or ability to oppose error, moral or political, who have intelligence to distinguish, and utterance to express, truth and goodness, to lift up a standard against it, and to panoply themselves for the combat."

2. He noted that the great men of the Bible engaged in controversy. "To go back no farther than the Jewish lawgiver, I ask, What was his character?

I need not specify. Whenever it was necessary, all yes, all the renowned men of antiquity were religious controversialists". Among the examples cited were: Moses' contention with the Egyptian magi, Elijah's encounter with the prophets of Baal, Job's debate with the princes of Edom, and the Jewish prophets' long and arduous controversy with the kings of Israel. He also named John, Jesus and the apostles as New Testament examples. But Campbell refused to concede that controversy means that one who engages in it is devoid of virtue. "Yet, who," he asked, "was more meek than Moses — more zealous than Elijah — more patient than Job — more devout than Paul — more benevolent than John?"

3. The Harbinger editor favored controversy because of the existence of error. "If there was no error, in principle or practice, the controversy, which is only another name for opposition to error, real or supposed, would be unnecessary. If it were lawful, or if it were benevolent, to make a truce with error, then opposition to it would be unjust and unkind. If error were innocent and harmless, then we might permit it to find its own quietus, or to immortalize itself. But so long as it is confessed that error is more or less injurious to the welfare of society, individually and collectively considered, then no man can be considered benevolent who does not set his face against it."

4. Campbell felt himself greatly indebted to controversy. "We have only to ask how we inherited so many blessings, religious and political, contrasted with our ancestors some five hundred years ago, to ascertain of what use controversy has been, and how much we are indebted to it. All was silent and peaceful as the grave under the gloomy sceptre of Roman Pontiffs, under the despotic sway of the Roman hierarchy, until Luther opened the war..."

"The controversy begun by Luther, not only maimed the power of the Roman hierarchy, but it also impaired the arm of political despotism. The crown, as well as the mitre, was jeopardized and desecrated by his herculean pen. From the controversy about the rights of Christians arose the controversy about the rights of men. Every blow inflicted upon ecclesiastical despotism was felt by the political tyrants."

5. Controversy was a noble enterprise, as Campbell saw it, because it has "enlightened the world." "Truth and liberty, both religious and political, are the first fruits of well directed controversy.

Peace and eternal bliss will be the 'harvest home.' Let the opponents of controversy, or they who controvert controversy, remember, that had there been no controversy, neither the Jewish nor the Christian religion could have ever been established; nor had it ceased could the Reformation have ever been achieved."

All faithful Christians today should be thankful that Campbell and his contemporary reformers were controversialists. What would these men have accomplished had they remained docile denominationalists, or had they been content to be reticent reformers (if such is possible)? But they attacked the religious error of their day, as they saw it, with the same vigor with which Luther attacked Rome. They contended for the faith, defended the ancient gospel, and had no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness. As a result of their efforts, New Testament Christianity was restored. And let us remember that it has only through constant controversy that "the ancient order of things" has been, or can be, maintained.

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