Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
January 2, 1969
NUMBER 34, PAGE 1-3,5-6a

"I Am A Biblical Literalist"

David Edwin Harrell, Jr.

In his book, The Small Sects in America, Elmer T. Clark asserts that it is "a peculiar type of mind which is convinced that God is interested in whether his worshipers sing with or without instrumental accompaniment." (p. 16) I once wrote that I thought it was "a peculiar type of mind" which thinks it is "a peculiar type of mind" which is convinced that instrumental music is sinful. But I agree with Clark's judgment. It is a "peculiar type of mind" which believes that God cares whether people sing with or without instrumental music. It is the mind of a legalistic fanatic. I would not think of trying to avoid any of the harsh consequences of such a religious posture. Obfuscation or a lack of candor would surely defeat the purpose of this lecture series.

I am a Biblical literalist. I mean by that simply that I believe in a literal and narrow interpretation of the Bible as the Word of God. My aim is the exact restoration of the ancient order of things. It is an article of my faith that the Bible should be, can be, and is literally understandable and that it should lead all men to the same conclusions. I am concerned about all sorts of problems which most people consider irrelevant to Christianity. Baptism for the remission of sins, the proper time for taking the Lord's Supper, the biological qualifications of elders, distinctions between individual and congregational activities, and hundreds of similar questions seemingly technical in nature, are crucial in my faith. I can spend a challenging evening with one of my brethren discussing an issue which has never occurred to many people and would be considered inconsequential by nearly everyone. This is not all that Christianity means to me, but it is an important part of the whole. It would be naive to think that this attitude is anything but "peculiar" in modern sophisticated society.

I am also a fanatic of sorts. I am not a dangerous enthusiast. Most members of the Churches of Christ share the American heritage of freedom of religious expression and are fully committed to religious toleration. But I have my zealot side. Any man who believes that he can find literal truth in the Scriptures must also believe that those who do not find the same truth are wrong. What follows is that such people are sinful. The next logical conclusion is that they will go to hell. The most onerous charge leveled against those who are members of the Churches of Christ is that they are bigots. It is frequently assumed that they believe that all who do not accept the truths which they find in the Bible will be lost. All members of the Churches of Christ do not have such an attitude, but I do. This does not imply that I would restrict anyone's right to believe as he pleases; I hold no brief for persecution. The essence of the philosophy of toleration is a willingness to defend a man's right to free expression even when one has deep convictions to the contrary. But I do recognize that the logical consequence of a legalistic concept of truth — the kind of mind which would cause one to quibble about instrumental music — is the condemnation of those who refuse to accept the revelation.

This doctrinal stance places obvious limitations on a speech on the relation of "my group" to the "Church Universal." From my theological point of view, the group to which I belong is the church universal. This narrow view is not a new attitude in American religious history, nor is it unique to the Churches of Christ today. Members of the Churches of Christ did not invent the idea of being God's "peculiar people," but they are surely some of the staunchest advocates of the concept.

Before examining my rationale for this position, I shall acknowledge the vast diversity of thought that exists within the Churches of Christ today. What I believe does not represent a "Churches of Christ platform." There is currently a very liberal and ecumenical-minded element within the church. The recent book, Voices of Concern, is some indication of the growing liberal concern within the Churches of Christ. Of course, many liberals find that the most satisfying course for them is to leave the narrow confines of the church and search for religious meaning in more tolerant environs. This has been especially true until the very recent past. Some of the ablest leaders of the Disciples of Christ have come out of the Churches of Christ. To a lesser extent the conservative church has contributed outstanding men to other religious communions. It is significant that more and more liberal preachers are choosing to remain in the church. Liberal sentiment has grown strong enough that they see some hope of influencing the church from within.

A great many other members of the Churches of Christ are much more slowly making feeble steps toward a rapprochement with the main stream of American Protestantism. Opposition to instrumental music, missionary societies, and "mixing with the sects" has become so creedalized that it is difficult to abandon these positions quickly. But dissatisfaction with these old dogmas is growing. Many sophisticated members of the Churches of Christ are embarrassed by the old commitments. They would like to abandon the harsh legalism of the past, and, in time, they will. Today these timid liberals have a good deal more in common with the cooperative Disciple spirit than with the conservative theology I described at the beginning of this lecture.

Still, Biblical legalism is typical of the thought of many members of the Churches of Christ. These conservatives do not all agree among themselves on particulars, but they do agree that all should be guided by the literal truths of the Bible. Without question, this is also one of the historic poles of emphasis within the Disciples of Christ movement. The early twentieth century leaders of the Churches of Christ are classic examples of Biblical legalists. It is fitting that such an attitude should be represented in this lecture program. Our common heritage was the incubator that hatched it, whether one likes it or not. One would miss the fascinating diversity of the Disciples mind if he overlooked the fanatical legalist.

This kind of faith has been an important ingredient in American history. It is a harsh theology, rooted in harsh times. The concept of simple truths, simply arrived at by common people, was in the air in the early nineteenth century. Most Americans had positive ideas about right and wrong and most of them were convinced that these absolute values were easily identifiable. They discarded theological complexities, distrusted sophistication and "show," and had implicit faith in the literal truth and simple clarity of the Bible. They considered the promise of salvation from this bleak and stern world the greatest of all blessings. The eternal damnation of those who refused the truth was dutifully accepted and frequently preached. This was the message of a society girded for war; it gave men courage in the face of fear, certainty in place of doubt, and comfort in the presence of abundant tribulation.

The historical pertinence of the faith of the legalistic fanatic, in the Disciples tradition, and in others, is simply that this commitment met the needs of thousands of souls in their bewildering human experience. The conservative rationale also contributed some admirable qualities to the American character. Authoritarian faith brought order into a rowdy and unruly society. It nurtured the cult of the will, the virtues of middle-class respectability, and the necessity of self-control and individual responsibility. Professor Ralph Barton Perry has written of the Puritans, who were as certainly a part of the family tree of the Disciples as the liberal minds of the Enlightenment: "From this school of discipline came men who were notable for doing what they soberly and conscientiously resolved to do, despite temptations and obstacles — such men as William the Silent,... Oliver Cromwell,...and our New England ancestors. The Puritans imprinted on English and American institutions a quality of manly courage, self-reliance, and sobriety. We are still drawing upon the reserves of spiritual vigor which they accumulated." (Puritanism and Democracy, p. 268) But I would not commend my faith on the basis of such relative values. One might easily make a list of seemingly harmful consequences of authoritarian religion. The contribution of the conservative faith in the Disciples tradition is simply that it met the spiritual needs of our fathers and grandfathers; it gave an anchor to cling to and an ethic to live by to the saints of old.

The legalism of nineteenth-century-Disciples thought was blunted by a concomitant emphasis on the union of all Christians. The enlightenment idea that "natural" truths existed and that they were self-evident and rational provided a base for the Disciples principle of restoration. The companion idea to that of natural law was the assumption that in time all men, because of their reasonable nature, would arrive at, and unite on, the truth. So it was with the Disciples philosophy of union. Disciples did not espouse a detached hope for union; they believed that Christian union was an inevitable consequence of the restoration of the ancient order of things. The two went together. The literal dogmatism of the nineteenth-century Disciple may seem less objectionable to a modern liberal because it was mixed with a millennial anticipation of ultimate union — in the early years of the movement, the anticipation of a very imminent union. Restoration was not an end in itself; it was a means of accomplishing the union of Christians. On the other hand, the nineteenth-century Disciples just as firmly believed that the end could be accomplished by no other means. In short, the early leaders of the Disciples were more than legalists. They were optimistic legalists, Enlightenment legalists, men with a plan of world-wide impact and universal application.

The traumatic experience of second-generation-Disciples history is the result of the crushing disillusionment that follows the collapse of this dream. The naive optimism of early Disciples history vanished in the years after the Civil War. Post-war leaders were not imbued with a millenialistic anticipation of victory; they lost their confidence in the dual plea for restoration and union. The plea was simply impractical. It became perfectly obvious to anyone who was willing to face reality that all people were not going to accept the Disciples platform of church order. Some preachers still mouthed the dual slogans but they no longer had the faith in fulfillment which had marked the hope of the first generation. And so, the Disciples came to the parting of the ways. Discerning men chose which plea expressed their faith; less discerning souls gravitated to the emphasis that suited their needs.

The question which I must deal with tonight is: What is the pertinence of restoration legalism in modern society? What does the old faith have to contribute in this day? Stripped of its naive Enlightenment optimism, frustrated in its idealistic hope for union, what justification remains for authoritarian legalism? Perhaps the modern world will find less use for it. When old Increase Mather was near the end of his many years, a friend wrote and asked if he were still in the land of the living. "No, Tell him I am going to it," he said to his son, "this Poor World is the land of the Dying." (quoted in Vernon Louis Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought, Vol. I, p. 116) The "Great Society" may not have as much use for conservative faith as did frontier society.

Biblical literalism still offers a way to come to terms with life, however — even in the modern world. Acceptance of authoritarian truth as a solution to the knotty problems of death, frustration, and suffering has satisfied many fine minds in the past. Francis Bacon, an honored and trusted advisor to early restoration leaders, came to terms with the spirit of the Enlightenment by the formulation of a doctrine of "double truth." He held that philosophy should be kept separate from theology. The purpose of philosophy was practical: to give men mastery over the forces of nature by means of scientific discoveries and inventions. Theology consisted of that which is known by revelation. There was no necessary continuity between the two, indeed, one might seem contradictory of the other. Bertrand Russell describes Bacon's attitude thus: "Indeed he held that the triumph of faith is greatest when to the unaided reason a dogma appears most absurd." (A History of Western Philosophy, p. 542)

There are certain advantages in such a schizoid view of truth. In a word of scientific relativism, of political uncertainty, of social injustice, and individual brutality, it is no small comfort to be able to turn to a citadel of truth. Of course, absolute allegiance to an authoritarian standard may have harmful effects unless one accepts a double standard of truth. Reason is the guide to truth in this world. If we cannot discover it in the neat and simple laws of nature that men once sought, we will simply have to deal with this world with the pragmatic rational capacity which we possess. But to be sure the problems of this life must be solved with the faculties of the human mind. If a man needs to know more, if he needs answers to questions which the reason cannot, by its human limitations, solve, then he must turn to revelation.

An understanding of "double truth" is implicit in much of the thinking of the nineteenth-century restoration movement. Many of the early reformers carefully sorted the religious from the social in their thinking and insisted that one was the domain of revelation and the other of reason. Their reluctance to issue religious proclamations on social subjects was rooted in this distinction in levels of truth. One could disagree with his brother about the pragmatic truths of this world, but not about the revealed truths of the spiritual realm.

To me, this remains the most compelling insight in the conservative Disciples mind. I am utterly repelled by the rallying of God to the support of worldly causes. God has been on every side of every social issue I have ever studied; He has participated in every war on every side; He is a Democrat and a Republican, high tariff and low tariff, a fascist and a communist. I distrust the man who has a plan from God for every social ill. I trust my reason more. On the other hand, an absolutist God with heavenly truth plays an important role in my scheme of things. One might argue that there is no need for such an impractical and remote God, a God who is confined to the unknowable and, to some, the unnecessary. And for some this may be true, but I do need Him. On the other hand, if all that God has to do with is this world, I do not need him.

It seems to me, then, that there is no essential relation between the mind of man and the faith of man in this life. One might believe in the ultimate harmony of things and recognize the probability of present contradiction. One's faith is, indeed, a blind leap. My profane but compelling friend Sigmund Freud has accused all religious men of behaving "in some respects like the paranoiac, substituting a wish-fulfillment for some aspects of the world which is unbearable" to us. All religions are "mass-delusions" designed to lighten the unbearable psychological burden of being. (Civilization and Its Discontents, p. 23) He continues: "At such a cost — by forcible imposition of mental infantilism and inducing a mass-delusion-religion succeeds in saving many people from individual neuroses...When the faithful find themselves reduced in the end to speaking of God's 'inscrutable decree,' they thereby avow that all that is left to them in their sufferings is unconditional submission as a last-remaining consolation and source of happiness. And if a man is willing to come to this, he could probably have arrived there by a shorter road." (Ibid. p. 27)

I agree; religion is delusion. It is "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." It is an admission of human fallibility, an acceptance of defeat, a surrender to the overpowering compulsion to know the unknown, a tranquilizer to still the fear of death, a prop to hold man up in the face of tragedy and adversity; it is an expression of man's unreasonable insistence that his life must have some higher meaning than that of the other animals around him. There are many forms of the delusion. But whatever the form, they have in common the universally applicable: "If a man is willing to come to this..."

The form that a man's faith takes is determined by a tenuous complex of causes. Basically, religion is a psychological response. Different types of people have different types of religious needs. The problems of life affect us in different ways. We see ourselves differently, and we view the world from a variety of vantage points. And so our religious outlooks are diverse. Professor J. Milton Yinger writes: "These who feel it (psychological frustration) most acutely may struggle with it in religious terms. For a few — the mystics, the ascetics, the prophets — (religion) became the dominant preoccupation of life." (Religion, Society and the Individual, p. 79)

Such reasoning easily runs into a kind of psychological determinism. With the reservation that I believe that this idea can be reconciled with a doctrine of free will, I accept the conclusion. I believe that "not many wise, not many noble, not many mighty after the world are called." The Churches of Christ is a gathering of certain psychological types, as is every other religious communion. Modern Disciples conservatism is rooted in the same psychology that Ralph Barton Perry describes as being typical of medieval Christianity: "These high truths are accessible, not through reason, but through faith and revelation: like salvation, they are a gift of God to such men as are, through the cult of humility, fit for their reception." (Puritanism and Democracy, p. 85) The cult of humility is central in the thought of the modern conservative. Of course, the humiliation of one's self does not fit the psychological inclinations of every man, but it fits some.

The psychology of humility is obviously related to the society which breeds it. Poverty, sorrow, and hardship breed intense religious psychologies. On the other hand, economic stability and comfort tend to produce complacent religious psychologies. I believe that this is the kind of determinism that Jesus had in mind when he warned of the dangers of riches. There is no question in my mind but that this is the nature of the sociological division of the Disciples in the nineteenth century. This is also the basis of the twentieth century rifts within both the Disciples of Christ and the Churches of Christ. Legalistic fanaticism remains the religious expression of the psychologically fervent, religiously intense, and socially and economically dispossessed.

What is the pertinence of the Churches of Christ in modern society? What contribution can legalistic conservatism make to modern man? The answer is simply that this religious expression meets the needs of some people. It meets my needs. I think that I have some understanding of why I accept Biblical literalism. I understand the sociological and psychological sources of my faith. But that does not minimize the fact that I do believe. I recognize the encounter when my faith conflicts with the best calculations of human reason; I think I am rarely blind to the obvious. But to me, and to those who share my faith, such clashes are totally irrelevant. I choose to believe and I do believe.

I understand that not everyone has these same inclinations. I believe that the individual who rejects the truth which is clear to me will be lost. That is where my faith leads me and I would not try to avoid the conclusion. But rationally I understand the motives that lead other men in other directions. Clearly, many people will never accept the truth which I accept. I have often said that I do not conceive of the mission of an evangelist as badgering those who have no inclination to accept his faith. His mission is to find those who are of a mind to share his mind. The gospel of evangelization is not the compelling of the unwilling but the search in your times for those who will, in your way, seek the Lord. My religious quest is to find those who would be "peculiar people."

My faith, and the traditional legalism of the members of the Churches of Christ, has nothing to offer "Christianity" in the broad sense of the term. Theologically, I have nothing in common with a modern liberal. We have two totally different religious minds. I am much closer to a Primitive Baptist, or a Seventh-Day Adventist, or a medieval Roman Catholic than I am to a liberal Disciple. As a historian, I hope that I understand his mind, but I do not share it. Reconciliation is inconceivable.

The only common ground which gives meaning to this lecture series, from my point of view, is the one that this building symbolizes and that this society is a tangible expression of. We have a common interest in the contradictory figures of the past from whom, curiously enough, we all learned our lessons. It is fitting that we meet here to discuss the paradoxes of the past, the diversity of the harvest, the perplexing meaning of the Disciples heritage.

This interest in our past will not be without its rewards. The result will not be union; my obstinacy will certainly preclude that. But it might be understanding. As an immortal soul, my deepest hope is the attainment of salvation through literal obedience to the Word of God. As a mortal man, I believe the greatest achievement in life is the gaining of an understanding of one's self and of those who differ from you. I do not believe that we shall ever reach accord in things spiritual, but if we could attain the lower good of understanding why, the insight would serve us well in our struggle in this life.