I have been reading a book by Richard Cherok entitled, Debating For God, which covers the life of Alexander Campbell’s defense of Christianity during the 19th century against various attackers but the most famous being Robert Owen, the man who launched the socialist revolution in England that spread to become modern-day Europe and communism in general.
Campbell was a master debater. To use a phrase familiar to Southerners, he took Owen to the woodshed. Owen believed three evils needed to be eradicated from society in general. They were: private property, traditional marriage, and religion (do you see anything familiar to today?). Owen had been a successful mill owner in England where his reforms within his industry had improved the lives of its workers, provided higher wagers for the workers, and had limited the use of children (as was the custom in early 19th century European industries). Owen came to America to open a commune called “New Harmony” in Indiana that he purchased from another socialist George Rapp. New Harmony, Indiana was to be Owen’s test at his theories of social reform where he would free people from the bonds of the evil trinity that he saw at work in modern culture.
New Harmony failed. However, Owen did not blame the failure on his theories but upon the minds of the people who came to New Harmony. He believed the spirit of independence on Americans prevented him from being successful. Owen continued to preach his socialism and before he left to return to England, he debated Alexander Campbell in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Owen had previously ran an ad in a New Orleans paper challenging the “professors of religion and clergy” to debate him over how religion has done one thing good for the betterment of humanity and how religion has brought nothing but slavery to the minds of men. No one took his challenge and Owen felt justified in his views and that religion could never stand in a serious educated debate. And then came Alexander Campbell.
Campbell was the opposite of Owen. His family had migrated to America in the late 18th century and upon coming to America, he and his father had launched a movement to restore Christianity back to its New Testament roots. Deism was in a revival period in America and the majority of the people of the United States could best be described as skeptics, atheists, agnostics, materialists, and deists. Most evangelical reactions to the deist movement were simply to ignore them. However, Campbell differed in that he took them head on. He took their challenges concerning evolution/creation, salvation, revelation, God and His nature, and inerrancy of Scripture seriously. Campbell believed strongly that the Bible was God’s Word and if it is true then nothing can stand against it. Campbell was the perfect man to debate Owen.
And so they did. Debates in the 19th century did not run for a few hours but a few days. Debates were the entertainment of the day and as many as 1200 people stood outside waiting to get inside to hear Owen and Campbell debate.
The debate was clearly in Campbell’s favor. Owen had no answers for Campbell’s ability to not just defend Christianity and its historical claims but Owen simply was trying to use the debate (as politicians do today in so-called debates) to preach his socialism. At one point, the crowd even begin to laugh as Owen would recite his Twelve Virtues of Socialism over and over again when he was backed into a corner by Campbell. Owen never was able to disprove Campbell and in the end Campbell was named the winner by far.
What do we learn from Alexander Campbell who continued to defend Christianity against her attackers until his death in 1866?
1. Campbell’s Faith in God
Campbell didn’t just believe that a God existed but he believed that God was personal and that we could know Him. He believed that God heard our prayers and that He was with His people (Matthew 28:20; Hebrews 13:5). He believed that while we must faith in God (Hebrews 11:1), this faith was not just blind belief but was based on God’s own self-revelation in the Bible (Hebrews 11:6).
Many in his day (and our own) believed that God was simply not knowable. God, no doubt, created all things but He simply left us alone after that. This was the deist doctrines preached by the likes of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklyn, and Robert Owen. If there was a God, who cares? That was the common thinking of many skeptics in Campbell’s day.
Yet Campbell believed that the deists were wrong. He believed that general revelation demands that God would speak. He didn’t just create Man and all creation but He also went further to reveal Himself in His Son (John 1:18; Colossians 1:15) and in His Word (Psalm 19:7-14).
2. Campbell’s Faith in the Bible
Campbell believed that the Bible was the Word of God. He believed that the Bible was unique in that it was the only true and reliable source for revelation. Campbell refuted even evangelicals who claimed that deists should not be attacked so strongly since Deism held to belief in general revelation. Campbell refuted this claim and he believed that the Bible was God’s special revelation wherein He has given to humanity a way to know God Himself, His salvation that He has brought to us in His only begotten Son, and truth from error.
In our day, we have many in the Church who claim to believe in God yet they deny the inerrancy of the Bible. Campbell believed in inerrancy. He never uses this term (neither did Luther, Calvin, Arminius, or Wesley but one clearly sees that they did from their statements about the Bible and its divine revelation) but Campbell believed the Bible was inspired by God’s Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16-17) and that holy men of God wrote the Bible as they were moved (or carried along) by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). Campbell stood firm in his belief that God had not just revealed Himself in creation but He also had given us His Word to teach us His ways and for us to live according to His Laws (Micah 6:8).
Campbell believed that they way to defend Christianity is not to run from the authority of Scripture but to stand upon it. He noted that Jesus had used Scripture to defeat Satan in Matthew 4:1-11. He noted that the Bible itself is called a sword and that Christians should use this sword to defeat lies of the enemy and defend the truth of Christianity (Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12). In his debates, Campbell often quoted Scripture. He did use “common sense logic” but he also believed the Bible gave us a pattern to follow. His “restoration principles” derived itself from this Scottish common sense. He believed that if we followed God’s pattern (the book of Acts in principle) then God would build His Church and His kingdom (Acts 2:47).
Many want us to abandon the doctrine of inerrancy and authority of the Bible but like Campbell, I believe firmly that the Bible is the only source of true revelation without error. I too believe that we need to defend Christianity against error by applying ourselves to studying and knowing God’s Word. I too agree with Campbell that general revelation is not enough apart from special revelation given through the inspiration of the Spirit (Romans 10:14-17).
3. Campbell’s Temperament
What strikes me about Alexander Campbell’s defense of Christianity is how he did it without malice. Like 1 Peter 3:15-16, Campbell believed that truth would win and yet we Christians needed to be pacifists in our temperament. He felt the character of Jesus demanded such (Matthew 5:10-16; 1 Peter 2:21-24). When attacked by deists, skeptics, and atheists in the newspapers of his day, Campbell refused to argue with them over his flaws or his sins but he would gladly debate them over the claims of Christianity.
Campbell was a brilliant man. He was well read in not just the Bible but he knew Greek and Latin. He read countless books on various subjects ranging from science to politics to history. Yet despite his wealth of information and his ability to debate, he sought to answer people gently and with respect. Even Robert Owen went to his deathbed with nothing but respect for Campbell though he never became a Christian.
Campbell felt that those he debated probably would not be moved by his defense of the gospel but perhaps they might repent because of his behavior in Christ. He did feel that many who heard him debate would be moved to become Christians but he knew that his character must follow his doctrines (1 Timothy 4:16).
How true. How we need to not just defend Christianity but live it! I know many who know much about the Bible but their lives are full of holes and inconsistencies. As Paul wrote, “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work” (Titus 1:16). Or as Peter wrote, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God in the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12). We, in our zeal for truth, must also beware that God has called us to be people of holiness (Hebrews 12:14) and this begins with seeking peace with all men. It is better to be righteous than right!
I believe that Alexander Campbell may have been the best defender of the Christian faith in the 19th century. He was their Ravi Zacharias or William Lane Craig. And, he was not a Calvinist! In fact, in one debate the deist tried to use the teachings of John Calvin against Campbell. Campbell refuted the deist by first pointing out he was not a Calvinist and then he went on to debunk what Calvin had written (in this case it was determinism). Campbell should be read by Arminians for his zeal for the gospel and for his passion for defending God’s truth against errors. Campbell did not shy away from debates and he did debate several evangelicals over the issue of baptism and salvation.
I believe he is a life that we should read and study. His passion for God’s truth and his passion for defending God’s truth is worth copying.