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.

10 thoughts on “Fads, Fundamentals, Shibboleths, and Such”
  1. Nathan,

    Your post today reminds me of one of the reasons why I ran for the Disciples hills. In attempting to construct such a tight set of arguments, Cottrell has missed one of the great principles of the early founders of the movement: charity. Not a charity that was wishy-washy and without fundamental belief, but rather a kind of charity that sought to carefully define what one believes, put it into rigorous conversation with others, and still remain committed to Christian fellowship with them – even as one differs. That’s what I find missing in the instance about which you’re writing.

    And the problem is that, in many ways, the kind of writing Cottrell does is internalized by local congregations so that they turn your powerfully written statement into one that characterizes not just public writing space, but ecclesial space as well: “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.” Count Cottrell as having been successful, at least in my case. I conceded long ago that he won.

    Here’s to hoping that if you’re committed to a different sort of project within that stream, that you have the fortitude to continue pursuing it.

    1. Rich, I don’t claim any special fortitude, much less righteousness, for sticking around–after all, I did do a DoC stint from 2003 to 2007 after a particularly nasty experience in which some rabid nationalists ran Mary and me off. That said, having returned, although there are things that need subverting and some very motivated people hunting down subversives, at the very least I can keep pretending I’m like Socrates in the Crito. 🙂

  2. Right now I’m taking a class on the history and polity of the DOC. Of course we are covering the history and the principles that have been at the core of all three streams of the Stone-Campbell movement.

    Now I’ve seen/briefly met Jack Cottrell and many of the other CCU personalities and believe me they are the nice enough people. They just want to keep the “Brotherhood” pure and are committed to their view of Restoration. I grew up in that environment and I of course rebelled. I went to Milligan although I was warned that it was a hotbed of Higher Criticism and Darwinism.

    I struggled with life in general and both physically and spiritually left the movement and the entire Church at different points in my twenties. However, I knew that deep down in my soul I was a Campbellite. Not that I particulary liked Alexander Campbell, but that was who I was.

    What I was was someone who believed in the “interpretation principle.” This happened to be a topic in my class today. I believe that everyone has the freedom and responsibility to read and interpret scripture for themselves. Each individual conscience should be left to decide many of these issues in which there is not in Alexander Campbell’s language a “thus saith the Lord.” In many ways this is the antithesis of what many Churches in all three streams of the movement have become. Of course I think that having these kind of Shibboleths you describe is a major hinderance to the freedom of opinion that is a part of our tradition.

    Now “we don’t have bishops but we have had editors” and publications such as the Standard (disciples recently lost Disciples’ World) are highly influential in forming opinion. The Jack Cottrell’s of the world are only partly to blame. The real problem is that many people do not take their responsibilities to read and interpret the Bible seriously.

    Like Rich I jumped ship and became DOC. It’s a lot harder to be like a “Socrates in Crito” if you feel called to be a preacher/pastor. However, life in the mainline, being apart of the people of the parentheses, presents its own unique challenges. I still see myself as I did when I was in the undenominaional Churches, a progressive evangelical. I think that no matter who we are, or where we we are, we need to find a balance between restoration and unity.

    Unity is “our polar star.”

    Restoration means different things in different places. It’s not about restoring the ancient order. It’s about the spirit of restoration which means listening to the scriptures seriously and letting the Holy Spirit move where it may.

  3. John Madison2010/02/11 at 12:35 pm Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    Mr. Gilmour:
    I found your blog today, and I must say it interests me very much. I too grew up in the Campbell tradition, Church of Christ, non-instrumental. I attended Harding University and preached 10 years, 1975-85. Today I work in a business office. I hold to God in all things and all things in God, and that Christ is the anointing we all experience when we understand we are God’s children; as Jesus did. But I can certainly understand what you mean when you say you love the tradition, but it drives you crazy. I no longer attend a Church of Christ; but there is a part of me that misses it; simply because its part of my childhood. I believe if I walked into a Church of Christ today I would feel like I was 12 years old again. But I have learned that most who left the church of their youth feel the same way. Its part of us, but no longer rules us. Forgive me for being so lengthy, but you know how we can be. God Bless.
    John Madison

  4. This whole discussion reminds me of something Karl Barth said, that confessions are meant to be stations rather than homes (my paraphrase), that we’re meant to pass through them rather than to make them permanent.

    There must be a difference between essentials and non-essentials and a corresponding difference in our attitude toward people who don’t place themselves in this or that group.

  5. Part of the difficulty, Michial, is deciding what’s essential and what ain’t. My point is that one ought to be willing and ready to make some sort of argument for confessions and for practices. My (perhaps too optimistic) thought is that an expectation of open argument ought at the very least to expose the truly arbitrary Shibboleths for what they are and allow Christians from varying traditions to talk to one another about whether and why this or that is essential or not.

  6. I am not a member of the Christian Church and have only a light and recent knowledge of Jack Cottrell. I read a couple of chapters he wrote in a baptism compendium, in which he showed in detail the historical development of the Zwinglian (and Calvinist to a large extent) doctrine of baptism. These chapters were quite enlightening, so I searched on “Jack Cottrell baptism” in a search engine. 90% of the hits were about one book he wrote on baptism, so I started reading the other hits and came to this page. I will take your word for it that he did a bad job examining Just War theory. However, this blog entry is one of the most arrogant and un-Christlike commentaries I have encountered in a long time, particularly in the opening paragraphs. Are you certain that Jack Cottrell is “an author who has worked hard to define our own sectarian orthodoxy over his fifty-year career,” or is it possible that he was doing a sincere job of pursuing Biblical truth over 50 years and occasionally writes an article for a popular magazine that is not fully argued and footnoted and is therefore a fair target for criticism? Would you like to read similar characterizations of your motivations? Your condescension is appalling for a Christian.

  7. Clark,

    If you’ll read the whole piece, you’ll note that the first three or four paragraphs constitute a confessio about my own place in the Stone-Campbell movement before I launch into the main body of the argument, which starts with a concession that Cottrell’s list is a valid thing to make and then a proposal for better ways to think about such lists. If you want to excerpt twenty words from that long argument and say how it fits in with the bigger picture and what’s wrong with that big picture, fine. If not, I’m afraid I’ll just have to let you think I’m appalling and leave it there.

  8. There seems to be a contradiction between saying that you had never heard of Cottrell, now only profess knowledge of him from two articles, and yet you can conclude that he has spent 50 years as a sectarian (a charge you make twice). I would think that you would need to be broadly and deeply familiar with a man’s work over 50 years to make such a statement. When I searched on Cottrell, I came across a page at his seminary that mentioned he has written 23 books IIRC. Throw in numerous scholarly articles over 50 years (I am supposing here) along with numerous popular non-peer-reviewed articles (more supposing on my part) and then consider that he spends time teaching classes, and it might be hard to summarize his 50 year career after reading two of his popular articles, none of his peer-reviewed articles, and none of his books. The ‘confessio’ purpose of the first few paragraphs does not require such a judgment on the man. You can explain your place in the Stone-Campbell movement without making any such remarks about Cottrell.

  9. Clark,

    I’m afraid you’re just going to have to be appalled with me. You’re still focused on one dependent clause and still ignoring the bulk of the essay. If you think my ways of setting up the argument need to be longer than the argument itself, I won’t keep you from thinking that. I will note that you’re proving the (minor) point that, among certain circles, the name Cottrell is more or less untouchable without inspiring wrath.

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