Rice Haggard’s tract, On the Sacred Import of the Christian Name, has proven to be one of the most influential documents produced by the Restoration Movement. The primary objective of this document is apologetic, as Haggard intended to convince his audience that the name Christian is the only proper title or moniker for both individual believers in Christ Jesus, and for located churches. He deplores the sectarian nature of church naming conventions, and he suggests that this displays their lack of divine inspiration, “As in these days some are vain enough to profess themselves Calvinists, after Calvin; Lutherans, after Luther — Arminians, after Arminius. This is improper, unless their religion, be human, not divine–springing from men, not from God”.
Throughout this document, Haggard maintains an almost prophetic stance or rhetoric, somewhat similar to an “American Jeremiad”, focusing on the dilapidated nature of eighteenth century Christianity when compared to Apostolic precedent. Haggard, therefore, urges his readers to repent of their sectarian ways, and embrace a name which does have biblical sanction: the name of Christian. For the most part, Haggard is successful in communicating his point on the emotional level, but he fails to deliver an airtight argument from scripture for his agenda.
Rice Haggard’s interpretation of scripture employs a heavy reliance on Scottish common sense rationalism. He assumes that the Bible is largely self-interpreting and that a person can easily access the plain meaning of scripture by simply knowing how to read. This is demonstrated by his use of scant scriptural evidence to show that the Christian name “is the ancient and proper name for the church”.
Because the scriptures favor that as the name most proper for the church. It was given by divine authority, as has been already shown; and who will dispute the reason, and propriety of it? Paul almost persuaded Agrippa, as himself acknowledged, to become a Christian. Acts 26. 28. Paul was desirous, not only that the King should become a Christian, but all who heard him; would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these bonds, v. 29. Peter calls the followers of Jesus by the same name. I Pet. 4. 16. This appears to be the name alluded to in Eph. 3. 15. the name by which the whole family in Heaven, and earth is named.
It is noteworthy that Haggard states that the scriptures “favor” the name of Christian when it only explicitly appears in the New Testament three times (Acts 11:26; Acts 26:28; and 1 Peter 4:16). This is a far stretch from being a ubiquitous name. Additionally, Haggard will argue that the Christian name was laid aside because “they had lost the spirit of the Christian religion, and departed from the simplicity of the Gospel”. Yet, a reading of the book of Acts would note that the believers were first called Christians at Antioch, several years after the ascension of Jesus Christ. This would mean that even the term Christian is a development and not necessarily a part of the original apostolic gospel message. As such, Haggard’s logic is correct that the name Christian is certainly a designation the believers in Christ wore as a badge of honor and distinction (cf. 1 Peter 4:16), but it is far from compelling that it is the only or even the best name authorized by the New Testament.
The strongest aspect of Haggard’s work is his treatment of the ecumenical call. He is rightly frustrated by the party-mentality exhibited by Christians and his call to lay aside unhelpful nomenclature is well taken.
Another evil that arises out of partyism is, that frequently, in the same neighbourhood, and at the sametime, there are several worshiping assemblies in opposition to one another; when the whole might conveniently constitute one assembly only. Each of these parties, in their own opinion have God engaged on their side, and in opposition to the others. Let Christians blush and be ashamed, at the recollection!
The question then becomes implementation. How are Christians to designate truth versus falsehood without resorting to such names? After all, the naming conventions of many denominations rely on the self-assessment that they espouse a doctrine that makes them distinct or follow a theologian who properly articulated truth in a way that was better than their predecessors. Haggard’s call for a Bible-only hermeneutic to succor these problems has sadly failed to stand the test of time. Since the Bible requires interpretation, and all such interpretations must pass through the fires of church tradition, criticism, and response, it is difficult to orchestrate such a call without a deliberative body, which Haggard purposefully renounces. In short, Haggard’s call to return to the Christian name without the hint of party or division is praise worthy, but sadly naive to the difficulties of Biblical interpretation.