The tension that led to Campbell’s trial might be rooted in his concept of faith, which in turn was affected by his pastoral experience with Reformed (Calvinist) Scots of the Dordt/Westminster variety (think TULIP). Here’s the problem (every theological tradition runs into them, as they attempt to work out things that God hasn’t clearly revealed):
- Salvation is entirely a matter of who God chooses to save – unconditional election. Christ died only for “the elect” and God forgives only the elect. God effectually “damns” the rest by His choice as well.
- Calvinism has consistently taught that God works in the people he chooses in order to “sanctify” them (make them joyful, holy and good-work-doing folks) and assure that they persevere in the faith to the end.
- But in Reformed/Calvinist communities, people are often encouraged to see themselves as elect and “act” the part OR to examine themselves for “fruit” that would be signs of assurance that they are elect
- Nonetheless, even if you give intellectual assent to the doctrines, if you aren’t “feeling it” and aren’t “doing” the faith, it makes sense to wonder whether maybe you aren’t elect (or maybe are elected to damnation instead), in which case, why bother? This is known as the problem of “antinomianism” (lawlessness) that troubles various forms of grace-based Christianity.
Campbell saw a lot of spiritual malaise in his congregation and reverse-engineered the problem. Ultimately, this experiential problem can only be solved, Campbell thought, by deep experiential knowledge of oneself as the beloved child of God, already forgiven, which gives birth to love of God (this is true faith, trusting love of God as He is revealed in Jesus Christ). Campbell sensed that in a system of limited election, only rare individuals seemed to truly “know” this about themselves. However, appealing to the more universal-sounding passages of scripture, Campbell arrived at, and began to preach, that God truly loved everyone, Jesus died for everyone (1 John 2:2, 1 Tim. 4:10, 2 Cor. 5:14), and everyone is already forgiven by God. Everyone who believed this, embraced it with joy and persevered in trusting in God’s salvation would be saved. Those who rejected God’s salvation or fell away, well… They went to hell with their sins forgiven, essentially rejecting God’s salvation and forgiveness to the end.
Michael Jinkins, writing about Campbell's trial (in a fascinating piece on heresy), states,
“Campbell taught that Christ died to reveal the loving heart of God toward all humanity, not to change God’s heart toward us or to win the benefits of salvation for a select few. He laid out his arguments, citing the Bible and other confessions, including the Heidelberg Catechism and the Scots Confession, to support his teachings. But he was sternly told by opponents: “We are far from appealing to the word of God on this ground; it is by the [Westminster] Confession of Faith that we must stand; by it we hold our livings.” In other words, the Westminster Confession tells us what the Bible means.”
Of course, Campbell's view had its own problems (the problems that tend to lurk around Arminian theology): How can everyone be equal before God and not all be saved? How can the one who merely “receives the gift” not end up patting himself or herself on the back as wiser, humbler, etc. than the person who rejects the message. Those who reject must in some innate sense be too proud, selfish, foolish, hard-hearted to have faith (ie. they must be innately more sinful in some sense than those who accept the message). This is a problem, but it wasn’t the problem Campbell was facing.
Campbell did not resolve the role of the Holy Spirit in God's plan or in the subjective experience of faith, but what he attempted to do was to preserve God’s universal loving care (and action) for all humanity as essential to the character of God as love. The records indicate that Campbell’s congregation was refreshed in their faith by his ministry, several notable people regarded his trial as a travesty and he kept preaching (outside the Church of Scotland) to popular response. His book on the Nature of the Atonement (online here) influenced T.F. and James Torrance in their own monumental theological accomplishments.
- For a lengthy and helpful review of Campbell’s theology, trial and preaching life, see this article by James C. Goodloe IV (Princeton).
- For some great theology podcasts (once you get past the cheesy intro music) from the unlimited atonement Barthian/Torrance “Reformed” tradition, see the “You’re Included” podcast by Grace Communion International (which used to be a crazy legalistic cult, but “reformed” literally in the 90s).