Alexander Campbell and Biblical Interpretation

One of the greatest gifts that I received from growing up in the Churches of Christ is being taught a love and respect for Scripture from an early age. My father and the teachers at my little rural church made the Scripture come alive, and I saw the text lived out among the people around me. I had always considered myself to be a “Christian only” but one day at the lunch table in junior high a fellow student called me a ‘Campbellite.’ By the tone of the other student, I did not take this moniker as a compliment. I went home that evening and asked my father what my interlocutor meant by the accusation of ‘Campbellism.’ It almost sounded like some dreaded disease. My dad explained to me on a very basic level that Alexander Campbell was a man that lived in the early 19th century that helped restore New Testament Christianity. He informed me that I did not follow Alexander Campbell because he was a mere man, but we follow Jesus. I was happy with that explanation and continued unhindered until my college years. In my college years, the challenges to my faith came from more robust and nuanced arguments. During that stage in my life, I became ‘self-aware’ that I had certain biases when I read Scripture that differed with other people that claimed to be followers of Jesus. I also realized that I had a method of interpretation that differed greatly from my Roman Catholic and Episcopalian friends.

I remember reading F. LaGard Smith’s book The Cultural Church during that period, and that reading made me more aware that my interpretive grid for reading Scripture was something I had taken for granted. As I have gotten older, I have grown to respect my heritage in the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. Part of respecting one’s faith heritage means to celebrate the good but also challenge the parts that are lacking, and that can be improved.

Alexander Campbell came upon the religious scene in America in a very exciting and liberating time. Along with the freedom and optimism of a new nation, the religious leaders of the early 19th century were also experiencing a new freedom and optimism as they approached the Bible. The freedom that came at the end of the 18th century and the dawning of the 19th century opened the door to religious possibilities that were unheard of just a generation before. Alexander Campbell came to America from Ireland and Scotland during this exciting time and was a visionary when it came to unity and the challenging of long-held religious traditions. Campbell published his book The Christian System in 1839 and in that volume, he laid out his view of the Bible and his method of interpretation. Much of the vision that he gives in that volume is still very influential among members of the Churches of Christ today. In this essay, I will discuss the influences upon Alexander Campbell in his views of interpretation, and I will provide an analysis of the worth of Campbell’s method for the church today along with some critique.

Alexander Campbell’s view of the Bible did not occur in a vacuum. Campbell’s view of the world was one of order and reason. Campbell shared the Enlightenment period’s optimistic view of the objectivity and power of reason. One can see that the early 17th-century thinker Sir Francis Bacon’s method of scientific inquiry and view of empirical epistemology was part of Campbell’s mental map. Bacon’s methods revolutionized how people in the Western world understood how they gained and organized knowledge. Probably the greatest philosophical influence upon Alexander Campbell was John Locke. John Locke began his work in the 17th century after years of religious wars and strife in Europe. Locke was searching for a systematic way to look at government and the Bible that would bring about peace and an end to the religious conflicts of his time.[1] Locke believed that government had no right to enforce religious orthodoxy upon its subjects. Locke also proposed that religion be reduced to a minimal set of principles that could be deemed as essentials. Locke believed that Christianity could be defended through evidence and that it was reasonable especially in the areas of Jesus’ Messiahship and obedience to His clear commands. One could embrace other doctrines outside those core essentials, but those nonessential doctrines could not be used as a basis to coerce others. Campbell differed with Locke on what he considered to be the essentials of the faith but took the Lockean principle of rationality and unity. Campbell was also steeped in the Scottish Common Sense method of Biblical interpretation that was especially popular in the Presbyterianism of his day. Scottish Common Sense proposed that words are a direct representation of the objects they represent. The strong connection from sign to referent may not sound revolutionary, but this tenant of Scottish Common Sense is in direct opposition to some of the concepts laid down by Jacques Derrida in postmodern deconstructionism.

When one reads Campbell’s view of interpretation in The Christian System, they can observe strong rationalistic influences upon his thought. Campbell states that the Bible is the “full and perfect revelation of God and his will, adapted to man as he now is” (Campbell, 3).[2] Notice that Campbell endorses the Protestant Reformation ideal of the perspicuity of Scripture. The knowledge of Scripture is attainable by all. Campbell’s anthropology shows the role of reason in his thought. Campbell viewed man as an animal, intellectual, and moralistic in his constitution (Campbell, 3). Campbell observed God’s revelation to be two-fold in that it is displayed in nature and in the special revelation of Scripture (Campbell, 2). Because man is an intellectual being, Campbell believed that reason should be employed equally in the study of nature and the study of the Bible (Campbell 2–3). One can observe that Campbell is espousing an almost scientific view of interpreting the Bible. Just as Sir Isaac Newton had reduced the universe to predictable laws, one could use a systematic approach to the Bible, and through that approach, all could come up with the same conclusions. Through Baconian logic when scientist stuck to the facts of natural revelation, all scientists came to the same conclusion and Campbell reasoned that the same should be true of the Bible. If one applies a systematic approach, then consensus in biblical interpretation can be attained. Campbell believed unity would be achieved by honestly applying reason to the text.

In The Christian System Campbell lays out seven principles for proper and rational biblical interpretation and these seven principles are based on the bedrock belief that one should build their practice and belief on a specific command from Scripture or an approved precedent (Campbell, xi). Campbell’s seven rules of interpretation have a lot in common with today’s historical-grammatical approach to biblical interpretation. In this essay, we will only examine a few of Campbell’s principles. Campbell’s first principle dealt with the historical situation of a specific book of the Bible (Campbell, 4). The historical concerns included the following: the historical order of the book, the title of the book, the author, the date, the place, and the occasion for writing the book (Campbell, 4). Another principle of Campbell dealt with examining the people addressed in the book (Campbell, 4). One should consider the addressee’s prejudices, historical situation, and religious beliefs when interpreting a biblical text (Campbell, 4). Campbell also believed that if a word had multiple meanings, then the context of the passage and other usages of that word in the Bible should be considered (Campbell, 4). In a sense, Campbell was applying Occam’s Razor to biblical interpretation.[3] Campbell’s seventh rule emphasized humility in the reader as they come under the lordship of the text (Campbell, 5). In his last principle, Campbell put great import in a humble disposition in the reader of the book (Campbell, 5).

Many times, we practice intellectual snobbery as we look back from our postmodern high tower and cast aspersions at Campbell and his rationalistic methods. I find it humorous to consider that the same rationalistic thinking that influenced Campbell was what produced much of what we take for granted like modern medicine and many scientific advances that we hold dear. As I wrote this essay I kept coming back to the question, “why have we made rationalism such the bogeyman of the Churches of Christ?” I don’t know many people that want to go back to premodern medicine because we feel that rationality is a bad thing. The problem of throwing out rationalism is that when one wants to get to the original meaning of the text as the author intended, we must employ many of the tools of rationalism. I also find it hard to believe that ancient interpreters did not use the same tools of rationality without modern labels. I can read the early church fathers such as Justin Martyr and his dialogue with Trypho the Jew and see rationality in his argument. I can look forward in church history and see robust rationality in the work of Erasmus of Rotterdam. Is rationality as bad as some make it out to be? Should we abandon the approach bequeathed to us by Alexander Campbell? In answering that question, I believe it is important to look at Campbell with a sense of charitableness that comes from a sense of thankfulness for our Stone-Campbell heritage. Some things that we have in common with Campbell is our love for Jesus, respect for God’s revelation in Scripture, and a desire for unity.  These commonalities make this venture a family discussion that is worth having.

Even though I see a lot of strengths in Campbell’s rationalistic approach, I can see many blind spots in his method as well. One place of improvement is to consider the prejudices and assumptions that the modern reader brings to the text. The realization of reader bias is a blessing that postmodernity brings to us by making us aware of our preconceived notions. It is foolhardy not to believe that our socioeconomic, educational opportunities, and theological grid of interpretation does not affect how we read the text. I found this principle to be true when I read Grant Osborne’s The Hermeneutical Spiral. Osborne demonstrates that many 19th century interpreters reinterpreted Jesus to be a type of paleo-liberal scholar of his day that had more in common with them than He did with a 2nd Temple Judaism Jew. In my ministry, I have noticed how the bias and prior conceptions of the people I minister to work as a sieve through which they read the text. For example, many people I have ministered to over the years filter the Apostle Paul’s anthropology through the lens of platonic Greek thought. They fail to realize the integrated view of the human person that a Jew in the first century would have. Because of this predisposition to Greek categories, the reader deemphasizes the value of the human body as an integrated whole and misses the power of what the Bible teaches about the resurrection. The point of this is to emphasize that Campbell’s method lacked this view of reader bias. Campbell’s concept that one could be a truly objective reader was a bit naïve. I am not saying that because of this one can never find the truth behind the text but I am proposing that to find that true teaching we must be aware of our bias and frailties.

I would propose another critique of Campbell’s method is its weakness in dealing with the Old Testament. One of the weaknesses of our heritage is a very minimalist approach to the role of the Old Testament in the life of a Christian. Just the phrase ‘New Testament Christian’ betrays that weakness. I propose that we should become ‘whole Bible Christians.’ It is very naïve to think that the church had the twenty-seven books of our New Testament in a Tommy Nelson leather-bound Bible by the end of the first century. The Scripture of the early church was the Old Testament. The earliest Christians learned to read the Old Testament Christocentrically. I am not advocating for bringing back the sacrificial system or Solomonic Temple, but I am advocating for understanding that the New Testament was written with the understanding that the reader is steeped in Old Testament terms, motifs, and theology. Our hermeneutic has been robbed by our lack of respect for the validity of the Old Testament. The New Testament writers are writing with a shared economy of words and thoughts that originate from the Old Testament. The entire Bible should be read as God’s grand narrative of rescue for humanity. N.T. Wright has done great work in this view of the Old Testament. Wright makes the point that to correctly interpret how to use the Old Testament in the life of the Christian is to understand what act of God’s drama that you are a part of in the story. If you are in the ‘church’ act or the ‘age of the Holy Spirit,’ then there are certain parts of the Old Testament such as Hebrew ceremonial law that doesn’t apply to you or they have been fulfilled in the work of Jesus. This method is much better than the watertight categories that I grew up with such as the Patriarchal Age, Mosaic, Age, and Christian Age.

There have been many advances in biblical scholarship in the last century when it comes to the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament. It is easy for us to make this critique of Campbell’s lack of nuance in interpretation as it relates to the Old Testament now because of the more recent contributions of scholars like Richard Hays and Michael Fishbane when it comes to the study of intertextuality. Intertextuality means that the New Testament writers used words and phrases that anchor the New Testament text to the Old Testament. Some early restoration leaders advocated that we should read the Bible as if fell from the sky. We are finding now that that is impossible. There is a shared currency that the New Testament writers have with the antecedents in the Old Testament. There are many echoes of older texts within more recent texts of the Bible.

It is easy for the interpreter to pick up direct quotes from the Old Testament that are given with introductory formulas such as ‘this was done to fulfill,’ but it is much more difficult to pick up on quotations that flow naturally in the text. For example, Philippians 1:19 has a section that is a direct quote from the LXX version of Job 13:16. When Paul quotes from Job 13:16 he is not saying that his suffering is a fulfillment of Job’s suffering. He is embedding an older text into his writing of Philippians to take the reader back to the situation of the writing of Job. Job was a fellow sufferer who was vindicated. The interpretation of Philippians 1:19 is enriched when the reader realizes that Paul wants you to take part in the ‘great conversation’ with the Old Testament text.

Another aspect of Campbell that I find lacking in his work is the absence of developed pneumatology. In the Churches of Christ, we have a great strength of being Christocentric in our theology of the church, but we have been sorely lacking in a theology of the Holy Spirit. I believe that it is almost unbiblical to champion a very individualistic reading of the Bible that takes it out of the heart to the Spirit-filled church. Biblical interpretation that endorses a radical individualism fails to take into account how communal the New Testament is. Even when John is bearing testimony of the veracity of his Gospel he does so with communal language when he states, “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true (John 21:24 ESV).” When one reads the Pauline epistles, it is staggering how much the ‘you’ admonitions are in reality ‘ya’ll’ exhortations. In other words, much of what we have read to be individualistic instructions are written to entire groups of people.

We quickly forget that the church is the temple of the Holy Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 Paul states, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple  (ESV).” The ‘you’ of verses sixteen and seventeen are plurals. The church is filled and animated with God’s Spirit. I believe that the interpretation of Scripture is best done in the heart of the church alongside other believers. This no guarantee that we are interpreting the Bible correctly but it does safeguard against fringe readings and interpretations. It is powerful to consider that the early church gathered for the communal reading of the text and the same Spirit that inspired the text of the Bible imbibes and animates the church.

Another aspect that I find troubling about Campbell is his suspicion of traditional readings. I understand that the religious divisions of his day influenced his thinking, but I believe we should turn to the wisdom of ancient Christians to help in interpreting the text. We have a treasure trove in the Early Church Fathers. Extensive writings by men such as Iraneaus, who was a spiritual grandchild to John the Apostle, are still available to us today. I am not saying that the Early Church Fathers’ writings are authoritative, but I am proposing that their writings give us some guidelines to how certain passages were interpreted in the period closest to the lives of the authors of the New Testament. G.K. Chesterton once said that tradition is the ‘democracy of the dead.’ Just as the church should read the Bible communally, I propose we should read it with the entire great cloud of witnesses that have gone on before us like the early Church Fathers.

In conclusion, much can be commended to Campbell’s approach to interpreting Scripture. I believe that members of the Churches of Christ should embrace and celebrate the heritage we have been given. Part of that celebration is to improve upon the methods of interpretation that we have been given. It is also imperative that we keep our spiritual ears open to the leading to the Holy Spirit. Leonard Ravenhill once said, “The Holy Book of the living God suffers more from its exponents today than from its opponents.” Let us prayerfully endeavor not to do violence to the text or misrepresent our Savior through poor exegesis. It is surely a noble endeavor to continue to strive to find the truth that God reveals to us in Holy Scripture. I can confidently say our brother Alexander Campbell would encourage us to do just that.


[1] For a good examination of John Locke and his influence on Alexander Campbell see C. Leonard Allen and Richard T. Hughes’s book Discovering Our Roots: The Ancestry of the Churches of Christ pgs. 78–80.

[2] All in text citations are from Alexander Campbell’s The Christian System.

[3] Occam’s Razor can be easily described as, “the simpler solution that requires the least speculation is probably the best answer.”

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