Warning: this is another “brief” post of over 3000 words. 🙂
In the previous two posts I concentrated on Alexander Campbell–his modern Baconianism as his philosophical-methodological base and his embrace of the Reformed approach to theological hermeneutics. In this piece I want to think more specifically about how Baconianism shaped how Scripture was used in Churches of Christ. In my next piece I will address how the Reformed hermeneutic has played out among Churches of Christ.
Lamar’s Baconian Method
J. S. Lamar (1829-1908 ) wrote the definitive hermeneutical textbook for the 19th century Stone-Campbell Movement–The Organon of Scripture (1859). D. R. Dugan also wrote a signifcant hermeneutics text entitled Hermeneutics: A Text-Book (2nd ed., 1888 ) which was still used as a hermeneutics textbook by some when I attended Freed-Hardeman University from 1974-1977.
They are bothcut from the same cloth. Both acknowledge their debt to Baconian inductivism and both specifically chose it over other potential methods. It was, in effect, the new hermeneutic of the 19th century as applied to the Biblical text. Dungan is a much more practical text (and thus endured in the schools) but Lamar lays the theoretical and methodological foundations. In Lamar we see what Dungan assumes. Consequently, Lamar is the focus of this post. Though many do not recognize Lamar today (while they may recognize Dungan), Lamar’s inductivism is what Churches of Christ imbibed by reading Dungan. They may not know Lamar, but they know his method and have rigorously practiced it.
The most helpful and simplest way to understand his method is to examine Lamar’s “temple analogy.” He imagines a field where the blocks for building the temple are strewn out on the ground just like facts are strewn throughout the Bible. It is the builder’s task to erect the temple just as it is the interpreter’s task to erect a system of doctrine. Here is Lamar’s description (pp. 40-42):
If now, while those stones or blocks were all spread out upon the ground, before the building was commenced, as, for the sake of the illustration we may suppose them to have been, a skillful architect had gone with rule in hand, and carefully measured and compacted every several piece, he could have determined with accuracy the place of every stone in the future building. And if he had been employed to superintend its erection, he could have had the work carried on according to the method or plan which was indicated by the stones themselves. Every piece had an appropriate place, and the marks upon it showed what was that place; and when they were all arranged agreeably to those indications, the structure was Solomon’s Temple.
It is thus in the Scriptures. The materials of the Temple of Truth are accurately fitted, marked, and numbered, and spread out before the reader, it may be in some confusion, enough to arouse him from indifference to careful examination; and now if he will earnestly consider and carefully compare these materials, it is next to impossible for him to mistake their method, or to fail to arrange them in the precise order designed by their Author and Giver. And simple as it may seem, this just and natural arrangement of the facts or materials of the New Testament, without adding to or subtracting from their number–assigning to every fact, precept, promise, doctrine, blessing, and privilege its own exact place in the collection of the whole–will conduct us in the most direct manner to the clear, full, and correct understanding of Christianity. For the entire business of interpretation consists properly in the careful observation and comparison of the phenomena of revelation, preparatory to the determination of their respective places and relative bearings in the grand synthesis of the whole. The rules, therefore, by which we come to a just understanding of individual facts, and the method which controls the operation of those rules, and arranges those facts into the true Christian system, must be drawn from the nature of the subject as presented in the Bible itself.
This method amounts to the legitimization of proof-texting. It reduces the narrative of Scripture to a field of marked stones or facts. These are then treated as isolated (atomistic) facts that now must be correlated and synthesized. The facts must be arranged into the “true Christian system.” In other words, the present order of Scripture–in its narrative flow–is not sufficient. The data must be rearranged and put into it’s, as the Baconian Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge put it, “proper order.” It is interesting, is it not, that the Bible is not sufficient as is. Rather, humans must fit it together in “precise order” to discern the “true Christian system”?
Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (1872-1873) is an example of Baconian inductivism by a Reformed theologian. In his introduction, his headings include: “Inductive Method as Applied to Theology,” “Facts to be Collected,” “The Theologian to be Guided by the Same Rules as the Man of Science,” “Necessity of Complete Induction,” “Principles to be Deduced from Facts,” and “Scriptures Contain all the Facts of Theology.” Sounds like Lamar, huh? Or, is it Lamar and Hodge both sound like Bacon?
I also find it fascinating that what is supposed to be so clear and plain to everyone who follows the rules of interpretation (as Campbell thought) actually involves earnest consideration and careful comparison because the stones (facts) of the Temple of Truth have been left on the field (Scripture) in some purposeful “confusion”! The method, then, becomes the savior. Without the method, we would know not how to erect the Temple of Truth. But it is a method dependent upon human wisdom though many have thought it was a divinely-given and intended method. [Bobby, does not F. LaGard Smith say something like this in his Cultural Church?]
The Temple analogy represents the Baconian method itself which Lamar summarizes in this way (pp. 180-81).
The induction which [Bacon] advocated required the collection of numerous facts or particulars; that they should be carefully weighed and compared; that whatever was special and exceptional, should be excluded or rejected; and that contrary or negative instances should be duly weighed; and that there should be no ascent to the general conclusion, until after all this care, diligence, and circumspection…. That included, besides this careful induction, which was exactly the reverse of it, namely, deduction; which descends from the general to the particular; from the whole to the parts included in it; which affirms that if a given general proposition be true, it follows of necessity that some other one embraced in it must also be true…[Though not developed by Bacon, deduction] is, nevertheless, an essential part of the magnificent scheme he projected….If asked to specify the precise province of deduction in this method, we reply that it is twofold: first, to verify the conclusions or generalizations of induction; and secondly, to conduct to new truth embraced in those conclusions.
The Baconianmethod includes both induction (gathering the explicit facts) and deduction (implications and inferences). Both are necessary in order to discern “new truth.” Induction alone is insufficient. To see the full system–to erect the whole Temple–we must fill in the blanks with the “new truth” that deduction obtains. Thus, ultimately we can build a system where missing blocks (where there is nothing explicit) are created by deduction (inference). Further, what is deduced becomes a lens by which to read other texts in Scripture with the result that the “plain” meaning of a text is recontextualized by a deduced truth. In other words, the text cannot mean what it appears to say because it would contradict one of the truths we have deduced. It must, therefore, mean something else. Anyone heard that before?
Campbell certainly used deduction (inference) and he believed truthcould be discern through inference. However, the problem with this fuller explanation of the Baconian method is that now the “true Christians system” is not possible without deduction. What happened in the history of Churches of Christ is that the “true Christian system” became equivalent with the “ancient order” (marks of the church) and “sound doctrine” such that without a full knowledge and practice of that system the individual or church was apostate. In other words, inference once again, as it had in the Westminster Confesson of Faith, became a term of communion–something which the Campbells intended to avoid like the plague.
The following is my schematic summary of Lamar’s Baconian method:
Collect the facts.
Carefully study and compare the facts.
Whatever is exceptional is excluded.
Contrary instances weighed.
Draw a general truth from the specific facts.
Draw a specific truthfrom a general truth.
Deduction verifies the induction.
Deduction yields new truth implied by general truth and combinations of previous deduced and explicit truths.
3. Erect the System (Temple of Truth).
Quarry out the facts and new (deduced) truths.
Systematize them and fit them together.
4. Result: The Truth, the Whole Truth andNothing but the Truth.
The irony, of course, is that the Bible as a narrative of redemption is no longer the ultimate truth here. Rather, it is the systematic conclusions of an inductive-deductive method that finally gets us to the truth–it collects the scattered truths (facts) of the Bible, unearths what the Bible only implies, assembles together, collates them, orders them and produces a system (“sound doctrine”). The truth as given to us in the form in which Scripture offers it is thereby insufficient. We need to induct the facts, deduce the new truths, arrange them, systematize and order them into a presentation of the Truth.
Is it any wonder, then, that though Scripture never offers us the “five steps of salvation” or “five acts of worship” members of Churches of Christ in the mid-20th century were as certain about these as they were that Jesus died for their sins. Their certainty was derived from their confidence in the method–generated by the Enlightenment, popularized by natural science and applied by human wisdom. And, at the same time, they thought their method was “common sense” or even the Biblical method itself.
Churches of Christ and the Baconian Method
As Churches of Christ ended the 1950s they were involved a acrimonious debate over institutionalism. This was not simply a hermeneutical discussion but it became the focal point. I will write more about this in another post. But I mention it here because perhaps the most significant book of that era among the institutionalists (the “liberals”) in the discussion was J. D. Thomas’ ‘We Be Brethren’: A Study in Biblical Interpretation (Abilene: Biblical Research Press, 1958). His subsequent books extended his discussion in defense of his method–Heaven’s Window: A Sequel to We Be Brethren (Abilene: Abilene Christian University Press, 1975) and Harmonizing Hermeneutics: Appplying the Bible to Contemporary Life (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1991). It represents a thirty-three year continuous defense of Baconianism.
Thomas is quite explicit that he is indebted to the Baconian method (p. 12) and notes that Churches of Christ are in general agreement about its legitimacy. He writes (We Be Brethren, 16-17): “In general our brethren have used the Inductive-Deductive Method of reasoning in a practical way in the past and their conclusions have been quite satisfactory for the most part.” His phrase “for the most part” leaves considerable room for doubt in a method which is supposed to produce and verify the “Temple of Truth.”
I think I can best make my point about the influence of Baconian methodology by illustrating it. Schematically, the method looks like this: isolated text + isolated text = deduced truth. The deduced truth+ isolated text = another deduced truth. Deduced truth+ another deduced truth= another deduced truth. The deductions (inferences) become as true as andas significant as the explicit statements of the text itself. In fact, the deductions often become the cement as well as a critical blocks in the “Temple of Truth.”
2 John 9 has been particularly abused by this method. The “doctrine of Christ” is taken to mean “anything Christ teaches” or, more specifically, “anything the New Testament teaches post-Pentecost.” This is a fairly wide circle and everything the New Testament teaches is thrown into it, including deduced (inferred) truths. As a result we get syllogisms like this (and I have heard one’s like this on many occasions–and the minor premise can be a whole list of the “marks of the church” as well as other “doctrines”).
Major Premise: No one who goes beyond what the New Testament teaches post-Pentecost is in fellowship with God.
Minor Premise: The New Testament teaches post-Pentecost that communion is every Sunday and only on Sunday.
Conclusion: Anyone who practices communion on any other daty than Sunday andless than weekly is not in fellowship with God.
The major premise is a highly inferential way of reading 2 John 9. First, it takes as certain that the “doctrine of Christ” in the text is what Christ teaches rather than what one teaches about Christ. Second, it sneaks in a dispensational distinction–and one that is necessary for the conclusion because Jesus himself ate his own Supper on a Thursday evening (but we’re not permitted to do what Jesus did; did I just say that?). Third, it sneaks in the notion of “New Testament” as a written document when there was no written testament at the time of Pentecost itself. Fourth, “doctrine of Christ” is lifted from the historical context of the text and set in a new context. In its new context–as a premise in a syllogism–it now can mean just about whatever we want it to mean. Extracting it from its original context, we give it a new context. And the new context is the intramural debates within Churches of Christ or the polemics against denominationalism, etc. So, the major premise is itself a inductive-deductive conclusion based upon Baconian reasoning. It is part of the matrix of temple-building.
The minor premise is an inference from a combination of isolated texts including 1 Corinthians 11:17ff; 16:1-2; Hebrews 10:25 and Acts 20:7. We Be Brethren uses this argument as a piece of common ground among all participants in the debates of the 1950s. They all agreed that this Baconian induction-deduction was certain. But it removes each of these text from their original contexts, isolates them and combines them with other texts that have little, if anything, to do with each other. The result is we draw a conclusion (an inference) from this combination of texts which is not explicit in the text itself. We have concluded that Sunday and only Sunday is the day of communion and this is an inference. The text nowhere states this but it is the inductive-deductive conclusion of Baconian methodology. [By the way, other Baconians in the 19th century did not think the conclusion followed; at the very least it is dubitable.]
The conclusion of the syllogism, therefore, is certain by the rigor of Baconian logic and methodology, but it is dubious in the extreme because it is fundamentally unfaithful to the historical nature of the biblical text itself. It does not read the text as it was written but reads the texts as pieces of data to be discerned, extracted, collated, arranged and fitted into a system. And it is not surprising that the system actually comes first most of the time and we read the texts in a particular way iin order to support what we already believe.
An example of how a deduced truth is used to reinterpret another text is Acts 2:46. While it might appear prima facie that “breaking bread” in Acts 2:42 andActs 2:46 refer to the same practice given it is the same context, one of the cherished truths of deduction within Churches of Christ is that the Lord’s Supper can only be observed on the first day of the week. This deduced truth is regarded as certain. Consequently, the daily breaking of bread in Acts 2:46 cannot possibly refer to the Lord’s Supper though the language of “breaking bread” in Acts 2:42 is usually thought to refer to the Lord’s Supper. A deduction drawn from isolated data is thereby used to color the reading of a text. The method, in this case, violates the context of Luke’s own narrative. The Baconian deduction undermines the historical and narratival reading of the text.
Further, this deduction is then used as a test of fellowship andas a mark of the true church. The above syllogism is an example of this. An inference, then, becomes a line of communion. One does not have to look far within recent literature to actually find such use of inferences defended. See, for example, Jimmy Jividen, “Case Study in Breaking Fellowship Over Inference,” Gospel Advocate 132 (October 1990), 42 and “Should Fellowship be Broken Over Inference,” Gospel Advocate132 (June 1990), 21. Thomas and Alexander Campbell are turning over in their graves! They did not use Baconian inferences for that purpose. They used them to discern truth but they did not use them to draw lines of fellowship.
While the Stone-Campbell Movement began with a strong sense of the grammatical-historical method–embracing a new literary method of reading the Bible, this was done with the presupposition sof Baconianism. Baconianism soon overshadowed the grammatical-historical (contextual) reading of the text by forcing implied conclusions from the facts as part of a grand system of doctrine and practice to which everyone must submit as a test of communion. In this way the “ancient order of things” (not only the explicit but the impled) became “marks of the true church.” (Anyone remember those sermons which identify the true church by its marks–membership, worship, government, etc.?)
The combination of an inductive-deductive Baconianism, a Reformed hermeneutic (discussed in a coming post) and a primitivist (restorationist) vision shaped the Churches of Christ. This combination meant that we practiced a Baconianism on steroids because our every deduction became, in effect, a command and every command became a line in the sand.
Oh, by the way, Lamar ultimately rejected his own method by the end of the 19th century. But Churches of Christ continued to apply it throughout the 20th century.
Broyles, Stephen E. “James Sanford Lamar and the Substructure of Biblical Interpretation in the Restoration Movement.” Restoration Quarterly 29.3 (1987), 143-151.
Lamar, J. S., The Organon of Scripture: Or, The Inductive Method of Biblical Interpretation (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippicott & Co., 1860).
Olbricht, Thomas H. “Hermeneutics in the Churches of Christ.” Restoration Quarterly 37.1 (1995), 1-24.
Allen, C. Leonard, “Baconianism and the Bible in the Disciples of Christ: J. S. Lamar and The Organon of Scripture,” Church History 55 (March 1986), 65-80.
D. R. Dungan, Hermeneutics: A Text-Book, 2nd ed (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Co, 1888).