Fads, Fundamentals, Shibboleths, and Such

What I Have Learned in 50 Years as a Theologian part 1

by Jack Cottrell

Yes, that’s my tradition.

As some of CHB’s readers know, I was baptized into Christ under the auspices of the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, one of those non-denominational denominations with a slash in its name and whose congregants aren’t supposed to call themselves members of a denomination (much less use the diminutive “Campbellite” or mocking phrase “non-denominational denomination”).  We’re one of those 19th-century Protestant-unity movements now split into three branches who don’t talk to each other, much less engage in most ecumenical encounters, and those of us who have been blessed with an education in our history are cursed with our particular paradoxes.  And in the face of all these paradoxes, because I still do theology as one who is “Christian only, but not the only Christian” (one of our slogans that a handful of us still believe in), and because I believe I’m called to serve as Deacon to a congregation of non-denominationals, I still say I love my tradition even as it drives me nuts.

That’s all background; now I’m going to get into some substance.

I learned a few years ago, on a Campbellite message board that I only posted on for a couple months, that Jack Cottrell, a professor of whom I’d not heard in close to twenty years as a faithful Christian Churches congregant, is one of those figures who is at the unofficial heart of our movement, an author who has worked hard to define our own sectarian orthodoxy over his fifty-year career.  In that encounter, asked my opinion of a piece of his in the Christian Standard, one of our movement’s more popular weekly publications, I gave an honest assessment that his treatment of Just War Theory didn’t engage any of the primary texts and didn’t acknowledge any of the spots where Christians have expanded upon the Ciceronian tradition or even noted that the doctrine has a history at all.  I made the mistake (as I do less and less as I get older, though I still slip up) of saying that it wouldn’t have been a bad paper for a sophomore Intro-to-Christian-Ethics paper, except that he didn’t cite any sources.  Within hours, angry responses stacked up underneath my post, calling on me to issue a public apology to such an eminent man.  Because I was in no mood for such public display (and because nobody had actually demonstrated that I was wrong), I told Cottrell’s dedicated defenders to email their beloved professor and invite him to respond to my critiques like a man if his ideas were so great.

That wasn’t one of my proudest days.

I have to grant the possibility that my own snottiness brought forth the firestorm, but I did learn a lesson in the aftermath, namely that Cottrell was a name that, as a Stone-Campbell Christian, I needed to know and account for.  So when I saw his name on a retrospective piece in last week’s Standard, I knew I had to read it.  I wasn’t surprised but do admit some disappointment to see that, after 50 years as one of the public faces of my tradition’s sectarian tendencies, the first part of his retrospective consists mainly in Shibboleths from the last hundred fifty years or so.

Shibboleths are not always bad things; the source of the term, for those who think I’m neologizing, is Judges 12, in which the warriors of Gilead defeat Ephraim in a decisive battle and the warriors of Ephraim attempt to flee back across the Jordan.  When Gilead’s warriors capture a refugee, the test they use to see if they’re dealing with a local or with an Ephraimite is to have them say the word Shibboleth (a stalk of grain).  Because the Ephraimites didn’t have that consonant sound in their dialect, they would say “Sibboleth,” and the Gileadite would kill that one.

In modern usage, Shibboleths can be any of a spectrum of devices for saying who’s in and who’s out.  If you want to spot a Catholic in a theological conversation, bring up the Eucharist.  If you want to find the Mennonite, bring up military service.  And so on.  They’re not by any means always bad things; after all, the historic Creeds and Trinitarian formulas of the Church developed at least in part as Shibboleths for the project of spotting Marcionites, Ebionites, Arians, and other such characters.

What troubles me is not that Cottrell has presented in this piece a list of Campbellite Shibboleths; I recognize that he’s part of a wing of my own tradition that’s very concerned about establishing and maintaining our uniqueness among the “sects,” and I have too many friends who identify with that project to dismiss it outright.  What troubles me is that he frames those Shibboleths not as modern-historical tests of who’s in and out but as “eternally true, having withstood one attack after another.”  My critique of that categorical move makes more sense after a look at Cottrell’s “fundamentals” themselves, so without further ado, here are the “Fundamentals” that Cottrell lists in part 1 of his 2-part essay in The Christian Standard:

1. The Bible is God’s inerrant Word.

2. The only true God is the Creator-God of the Bible.

3. The transcendent Creator-God knows the future, even future freewill choices.

4. Human beings do have truly free will; Calvinism is false.

5. Jesus is the only Savior, and salvation comes only by knowing and accepting him as such.

6. The Holy Spirit does not give miraculous gifts today.

7. Demonic spirits are real and active today, even in Christian circles and in some Christians.

8. Sinners are saved by grace, through faith, in baptism, for good works.

9. Baptism in water is the point of time when God gives the saving grace of forgiveness through Christ’s blood and regeneration through the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

10. The Bible does not permit women to teach men, nor to have authority over men, in the church.

11. There is no such thing as a secret rapture.

12. The lost will suffer eternally in Hell.

13. The church is intended to be “the pillar and support of the truth” in this world of falsehood and relativism (1 Timothy 3:15).

The Shibboleth-quality of these items is not hard to spot; item one has been a Shibboleth for about a hundred years to mark off historical critics, and item three bars entry to those who would entertain Process Theology and Open Theism.  Items five and twelve Universalists won’t be able to pronounce, and number seven, though it doesn’t fit well with item six (one is in trouble if demons are real but nobody has the miraculous gift of exorcising them), obviously keeps theological liberals out (while number six, in conjunction with number ten, keeps Pentecostals and Charismatics at bay).  Although my Dispensationalist lore is limited, I’m guessing that number eleven is aimed at that camp.  And number four comes right out and names the party to be excluded.

Granted, items two and eight and thirteen are fairly close to Biblical quotations, but removed from their first-century contexts and transplanted to twentieth-century contexts, they’re not hard to spot either.

If I were to issue some sort of theological call against such projects, I would not call for a moratorium on Shibboleths.  I think, in the end, that some of the most interesting and potentially fruitful theology starts there, and I’d be more than a bit of a hypocrite if I denied that one of my own “tests” for a writer has to do with the writer’s attitudes towards nation-states and their wars.  But I would call for some more rhetorical honesty, a willingness to put forth Shibboleths as Shibboleths, to argue for them as Shibboleths, to dispense with the bad-faith distinctions between “God’s doctrines” and “man’s Shibboleths.”  I’d call for Christians to make the best cases they can for the Emergent Shibboleths, the New Calvinist Shibboleths, the Anabaptist Shibboleths, Liberal Protestant Shibboleths, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Shibboleths, and, yes, the Campbellite Shibboleths not as not-constructed but as adequately constructed, helpful as boundaries within which Christians can live together charitably and truthfully.  My hunch (and it’s only a hunch) is that, given at least that much honesty, perhaps Christians stand a chance of bringing ecumenicity and truthfulness a bit closer.  Without that much honesty, my fundamentals are going to remain your opinions, your nitpicking will offend my self-congratulating liberty, and their “doctrines of man” will never really have anything to learn from our “Biblical doctrine.”

In other words, I would challenge Cottrell or anyone else making lists of Shibboleths not merely to assert them and be done but to tell me and whoever else would read what Christians lose if we believe that miraculous gifts persist, how many women have to preach before Christian proclamation becomes invalid, why people who begin from different ontological assumptions about time are not fundamentally Christian, and so forth.  I realize that in a weekly publication there’s not much space for such things, but I do wish, when I see lists like this, that the author had petitioned for a longer series of editorials so that those of us who have not read the Corpus Cottrell could have a go with him.  I realize that making such changes radically alters the character of Shibboleths, turns arbitrary sounds (and phrases) into arguments and appeals and perhaps even reasoning-together.  I would welcome such alterations.  As it stands, this piece reminds me once again that, in the eyes of certain public writers in my tradition, I’m not even part of my tradition, and moreover that there’s still a place in that tradition for folks to make a living keeping folks like me out.

For folks who make their careers defining sects, that’s not such a bad thing, I suppose, but I’d rather try a different sort of project.

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