By Jerry Harris
When Isaac Errett wrote “Our Position,” a need existed within the Restoration Movement to define in succinct terms the soaring rhetoric of Barton W. Stone’s The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery, Thomas Campbell’s The Declaration and Address, and Alexander Campbell’s “Sermon on the Law,” which had so eloquently defined the position of a movement intent on the restoration of first-century Christianity.
Errett argued that while creeds are sectarian and create division, and therefore are sinful, we are free to identify those areas where we find ourselves in agreement with the larger evangelical framework, those areas where we agree with some but not all, and those areas where we are distinctive. While Errett’s position was written in five parts, it focused on these three areas: complete agreement, partial agreement, and our distinctives.
Errett listed 18 areas of agreement with evangelicals:
1.The divine inspiration and inerrancy of the Old and New Testaments.
2. The revelation of God as seen in the Trinity.
3. The all-sufficiency of the Bible.
4. The incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ.
5. Jesus’ life and teaching as a perfect example of divine character.
6. The death of Jesus as a perfect sin offering for redemption and forgiveness.
7. The bodily resurrection of Jesus and his immortality.
8. Jesus’ ascension and present mediation on our behalf until all his enemies are subdued.
9. Jesus’ supreme authority as Lord over all.
10. The personal and perpetual work of the Holy Spirit.
11. The alienation of the human race from God because of sin, and humanity’s total dependence on him.
12.The necessity of faith and repentance for salvation.
13. The ordinances of baptism and Communion.
14.The obligation to recognize Sunday as the Lord’s Day.
15. The acceptance that the church is a divine institution.
16. The necessity of the pursuit of righteous living.
17. The fullness and freeness of salvation.
18. The final punishment of the ungodly.
All who considered themselves evangelical at the time agreed on these things. After scanning through the belief statements on evangelical websites, I believe the same can be said today. In this sense, there is a great deal of unity between us all.
Errett identified these five areas of some commonality with other evangelicals:
1.The New Testament mode of baptism is always immersion only.
2. Baptism is an individual decision and not for infants.
3. The church began at Pentecost, not under John the Baptist’s teaching.
4. There should be no distinction between clergy and laity.
5. Sectarianism is sin and we should seek to be unified.
While many evangelical churches would describe their belief and practice as different from these, many others would agree with most or all of them, and in these we find an even larger degree of unity.
Errett described the reality and necessity of union in 10 ways:
1.Union is something we must desire.
2. We must hold union loosely.
3. A desire for division or sectarianism is sin and should be avoided.
4. We have only one basis for unity . . . that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
5. All other tests of fellowship must be abandoned.
6. There should be no distinction between clergy and laity.
7. In areas of biblical liberty, the law of love should lead us.
8. In areas of biblical inference, we should seek unity but never force our conviction on others.
9. In business matters, the majority should rule.
10. Where we are free, no one should judge someone else.
The idea of unity and the basis for it rested at the core of Restoration principles. It was something to be contended for while holding firm to the distinctives that made us who we are. The dynamic tension between truth and grace is seen here: On the one hand, an unwavering commitment to rightly dividing the Word of truth, and on the other, a committed motivation to honor the divine directive of unity.
Many churches in 1872 could line up with this position, but it was in the third group of nine distinctives that Errett defined and delineated the Restoration Movement of his day:
1. We believe that both the Old and New Testaments are divinely and inerrantly inspired by God, and that the Old Testament provides invaluable lessons and understanding to the New. That said, we believe the New Testament alone is our rule of authority, faith, and practice.
2. We refuse to attempt to define or explain the Trinity, as it is beyond human reason; we insist only on the descriptive words of Scripture.
3. We repudiate all human and man-made creeds and see the New Testament in totality as our only rule of faith and practice. Where it has not bound us, we are free to stand in that liberty.
4. We see Jesus, his divinity and Christhood, as the central truth of the Christian system. All who trust in him as the Christ, the Son of God, are part of our spiritual family.
5. Our faith comes by hearing God’s Word and responding to it. We repudiate any spiritual exercise that excludes the Word of God as central to conversion and regeneration.
6. We submit no other tests for baptism other than faith and repentance.
7. We insist on the meaning of baptism as defined in the New Testament and surrender to its biblical definition. We also regard the Lord’s Supper as a sweet and holy feast of precious memory within the framework of our spiritual family that we observe as a regular part of our worship.
8. We recognize Sunday as the Lord’s Day as a New Testament apostolic example.
9. We believe the church is a divine institution and renounce all party, denominational, or sectarian names.
The need to understand these distinctives of our movement is as critical today as it was in 1872. While we are not given to debate as our spiritual forebears were 150 years ago, having a clear understanding of our position, especially in leadership, is vital to this movement’s forward progress. In many ways, the wider evangelical movement has gravitated in our direction. Some of the motivation of this certainly comes from our numerical success. But celebrating attendance without understanding spiritual conviction is sandy ground. As I review the nine distinctives Errett laid out in “Our Position,” I find myself in sweet harmony with them.
I have always heard the term “Restoration plea,” but outside of this work by Isaac Errett, I couldn’t find any good explanation of its meaning besides the quoting of our mottoes or references to the writings of some of the great pioneers of our movement. As Alexander Campbell’s protégé and the original publisher and editor of Christian Standard, I think it’s important to study Errett’s writings on “Our Position.”
Even more interesting, I think, are the things we argue about today that I don’t see on any of these lists. Perhaps some of those things were understood or are written about elsewhere. Or perhaps some things ceased to be issues while breathing the fresh air of unity. Maybe we don’t have to agree on a particular interpretation of Scripture. Maybe on some subjects the value of brotherhood is more precious than the value of being proved right. As long as the love of Christ rules, debate is fine, but once we divide, that love is lost to us both.