The primacy of scripture
In the introduction to his 1809 “Declaration and Address”, Thomas
“Our desire therefore, for ourselves and our brethren would be, that, rejecting human opinions and the inventions of men as of any authority, or as having any place in the Church of God, we might forever cease from further contentions about such things; returning to and holding fast by the original standard; taking the Divine word alone for our rule; the Holy Spirit for our teacher and guide, to lead us into all truth; and Christ alone, as exhibited in the word, for our salvation; that, by so doing, we may be at peace among ourselves, follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.”
Here, in the embryonic stages of the Restoration movement, in one of the earliest documents connected with it, Thomas Campbell lays out the “controlling idea” from which our movement takes its shape. The concept is further worked out in the document’s subsequent propositions (particularly Propositions 1, 4 and 6), and eventually becomes popularized with the slogan “We speak where the Bible speaks and are silent where the Bible is silent”. This idea certainly appears to stand in stark contrast to the religious landscape of the time. Even so, the idea is certainly not new. Its historical roots run back through the Reformation.
While my main focus is to reveal the “roots of Restoration” in early Swiss Anabaptism, I would certainly be remiss if I neglected to briefly explore them in Ulrich Zwingli, the reluctant/unwilling father of the Anabaptist Movement. In his sermon entitled “Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God”, Zwingli states:
And so it is with every soul. Once it is enlightened by God, it can find no assurance or consolation or encouragement in the word of man, but only in the Word of God; and like the disciples in John 6 it says: “Lord, to whom shall I go? Thou hast the words of life,” that is, Thy Word quickens and restores and gives life, so that the soul is comforted and bound to thee, and cannot trust in any other word but thine. (Bromiley 1953, 85)
Here, as much as in any of his other writings, Zwingli states his basic proposition that Scripture should be the authoritative, normative guide for our faith and practice. Indeed, in Zwingli’s thought, the traditions and proclamations of men (particularly from as expressed in the dominant church hierarchy of the time) were null and void if they could not be found in the simple and straightforward text of Scripture.
One of Zwingli’s brightest protégés was a young man named Conrad Grebel. Grebel drank in Zwingli’s ideas and words like cold water to a man dying of thirst. Further, he eventually carried them out to their (arguably) natural implications. This led Grebel and his followers/contemporaries down paths that made even Zwingli uncomfortable. Grebel and his likeminded friends were perplexed at Zwingli’s apparent inability and/or unwillingness to reach these conclusions, as they saw them as reforms demanded by a return to a commitment to the authority and primacy of Scripture.
At the end of a response to the Bishop of Constance, penned primarily by Zwingli, a poem by Grebel is included. While Zwingli was indeed fiery in his rhetoric, this poem provides an early glimpse of Grebel’s arguably more fiery and revolutionary take on Zwingli’s ideas. The poem is entitled “in gratitude for the gospel restored”. The text reads as follows:
In fury let them burst, the bishops all
So called in name, but grasping wolves in fact
For now again the gospel truth and light
Shines bright throughout the world like once of old.
And then intrepid tri-tongued Lucifers
Were sent to us, but God is now our Lord.
Indeed (I speak truth as prophets spoke)
Their way of sovereignty and tyranny,
Their keys, their codes, their lists of simony,
The slayings of their brother’s moral sense,
Their grim array of holy merchandise,
Their bulls, anathemas, and deisidaimonian [fear-based faith]
All these are vanquished by the gospel Word
That leads, will lead, to everlasting life.
So called in name, but grasping wolves in fact,
The bishops all, in fury let them burst (Harder 1985, 185-186)
So, in both Zwingli and Grebel, we see a commitment to “sola scriptura” that resonates with the ideas of Thomas and Alexander Campbell. Zwingli plants the seeds, but it is Grebel and the Anabaptists who courageously bear the fruits of those ideas. Indeed, it is to these “fruits” that I now turn.
 Quoted from Declaration & Address of the Christian Association of Washington County Pennsylvania by Thomas Campbell and a committee of twenty-one, 1809