Stone-Campbell Hermeneutics I – Campbell’s Scholarly Baconianism

I begin this series on Stone-Campbell hermeneutics with Alexander Campbell (1788-1866).  While I recognize that Barton W. Stone (1772-1844) and Thomas Campbell (1763-1855) also had a significant impact on how the Stone-Campbell Movement read the Bible, there seems little question that Alexander Campbell was the more dominant figure for Stone-Campbell hermeneutics. Consequently, I will stress Alexander Campbell’s perspective for the first half of the 19th century.

In this first post I call attention to the philosophic, scientific and linguistic presuppositions of Alexander Campbell’s reading of the Bible. No one reads Scripture in a vaccum or out of a vaccum; no one can read the Bible without cultural assumptions about the nature of language and reading. Campbell clearly, and self-avowedly, recognized his indebtedness to what historians have called “Baconianism.” It was the dominant scientific and philosophical understanding of the world in early 19th century England and America. Campbell was a natural-born child of that world.


The most detailed and significant piece on hermeneutics from Campbell’s own hand is his “Principles of Interpretation” which is the opening chapter in Christianity Restored (1835).  My points below are based on this essay.

1. Hermeneutical Optimism.  The optimism of the document reflects Common Sense Realism and the limitless possibilities of the Baconian method. Campbell’s hope for unity is rooted in the optimistic possibility of understanding the Bible alike. This is the spirit of the age; the optimism of a new country with the expectation of the millennium. This point is highlighted when we remember that this document appears at the head of the reprinted “Extras” from the Millennial Harbinger which contain the “elements or principles which constitute original christianity” upon which “all christians may form one communion” (p. 13).

For Campbell hermeneutics is the (Baconian) science “by which the christian institution may be certainly and satisfactorily ascertained” (p. 13). Certainty is important because it is vital to unity.  For if everyone would “work by the same rules,” Campbell writes, they would “come to the same conclusions” (p. 15). If “all students of the Bible were taught to apply the same rules of interpretation to its pages, there would be a greater uniformity in opinion and sentiment, than ever resulted from teh simple adoption of any written creed” (p. 15). For Campbell the unity of the Christian faith depends on the ability to “certainly” interpret and “certainly” understand the Scriptures (p. 15).

2. Linguistic Realism. This presupposition is apparent in his discussion of human language. He has a realist approach to language. The fact that God has given us a document in written language, in human language, presupposes a valid interpretative model and a correspondance between language and reality. Language reflects reality; it does not create it. This is the language theory of Scottish Common Sense realism. It is empirically rooted, but guided by native (intuitive, innate) principles which ground our language in reality and guarentee our ability to communicate.  Indeed, it is a “universal” art that is “common to all nations” (p. 16). There are universal, common rules of interpretation which every intuitively practices, and these are inductively discovered through the practice of interpretation. Thus, Campbell’s purpose is to “unfold the principles of this art, whether we regard it as native or acquired–and to deduce from those principles some plain precepts” (p. 17).

The Bible is human language to be understood according to human art of interpretation which is, at least, partly embedded in our nature and partly acquired through inductive experience. The humanity of the Bible is very important to Campbell as it grounds the nature of interpretation itself.  “God has spoken by men, to men, for men” (p. 22). There are no “special rules” for interpreting the Bible but only those rules which are common to reading human literature. The rules of interpretation that apply to human documents in general also apply to Scripture. The Bible should be understood “as one man conversing with another” (p. 22). The humanity of Scripture is such a solid presupposition for Campbell that he could even maintain that the Biblical authors “were as free in the selection of words and phrases, as I am in endeavoring to communicate my views of their inspiration” (p. 20) though, given inspiration, the “words or phrases” they chose were “clearly and fully expressive of the ideas” given to them by the Spirit (p. 21).

3. Objective Empiricism. The first task is inductive, and the second is deductive. The realism of Campbell’s approach, and the inductive nature of his method, reflect a positivistic and Baconian approach. It is in this context that he sets up his anti-enthusiasts statements. The meaning of words must derive from the meaning of the author, and not from the “knowledge of things which they imagine themselves to possess” (p. 23). The meaning of the text is derived solely from empirical observation just like any other text. This is a clear claim for authorial intent as the norm of meaning rather than the experience of the reader or some illumination of the Spirit by a supernatural act of God. Campbell consistently seeks to avoid the danger of subjectivism. Thus, even allegorization as a method of interpretation throws divine revelation “into the laboratory of every man’s imagination; and the key of knowledge forever taken from the people” (p. 27). The populism of that statement is quite striking–everyone can understand the Bible because everyone has access to this native art of interpretation. And everyone can understand it alike if everyone follows the same objective, empirical rules. This is Lockean modernity at its finest. It is both anti-subjectivism and populist (availability of knowledge for the common folk). Philosophically, its objectivism, empiricism and optimism is rooted in Campbell’s Common Sense Realism

4. Grammatical-Historical Method. Campbell adopted the most modern method of interpreting the Bible and rejected the older scholastic and mystical hermeneutical methods. Campbell accepted the evolving grammatical-historical method of contemporary scholars. When interpreting words, one must assess both the grammatical and historical nature of the term. This is extremely important since “the true sense of the words is the true doctrine of the Bible” (p. 27). The adoption of a grammatical-historical reading of the text is “daily gaining ground amongst the most learned and skillful interpreters: in one word,–that the Bible is not to be interpreted arbitrarily, is the most valuable discovery or concession of this generation” (p. 27). One, therefore, should read the Bible just like they read Cicero or read Plato. “The words and sentences of the Bible are to be translated, interpreted, and understood according to the same code of laws and principles of interpretation by which other ancient writings are translated and understood; for, when God spoke to man in his own language, he spoke as one person converses with another” (Christian System [1839], 3).

5. Historical (Baconian) Facts. Campbell, along with most trained people in his culture, accepted a Baconian understanding of the scientific method as empirical inductivism. Campbell read the Bible as an historical witness to “facts” which were not only the mighty acts of God in the narrative but also the historical precedents necessary for the reformation of the church.  Further, these “facts” are so obvious as not to admit dispute. “It is not human opinions which we propose as bonds of union, unless you say that facts, and testimony, and faith, are all mere opinions. I have, however, long since, decided never to argue with the man who tells me that the sun, and moon, and stars, have no existence, save in the opinions of men” (Campbell, Millennial Harbinger [1832], 603). While science searches out the “facts” of nature and then reorders and systematize them to form “laws of nature,” so the Baconian hermeneut searches out the “facts” of the Bible, reorders them, and systematize them to form the principles of faith and practice.

“If nature be a system, religion is no less so. God is ‘a God of order,’ and that is the same as to say he is a God of system….the Bible is a book of facts, not opinions, theories, abstract generalities, nor of verbal definitions. It is a book of awful fact, grand and sublime beyond description. These facts reveal God and man, and contain within them the reasons of all piety and righteousness, or what is commonly called religion and morality. The meaning of the Bible facts is the true biblical doctrine. History is, therefore, the plan pursued in both Testaments; for testimony has primarily to do with faith, and reasoning with the understanding. History has, we say, to do with facts–and religion springs from them. Hence, the history of the past, and the anticipation of the future, or what are usually called history and prophecy, make up exactly four-fifths of all the volumes of inspiration.” Campbell, Christian System (1839), 2, 6.


1. Campbell knew and applied the scholarship of his day that was available to him on the American frontier. He was well-read, self-studied (for the most part), and used the scholarly tools available at the time (look at his recommendations for the minister’s study). Most signifcantly, Campbell adopted a new hermeneutic–he adopted the grammatical-historical method of reading the text of Scripture in contrast to some of his contemporaries.  He also adopted a pericope-based (what we might call expository) method of teaching rather than a text-based (or proof-texting through preaching/teaching on a single line, etc.) method. He was concerned to lay out the grammatical, historical and contextual meaning of a pericope.

2. Campbell is thoroughly saturated with modern assumptions about hermeneutics. We would not expect to see anything else given that Campbell was current with the scholarship in his day. But it is important for his heirs–almost 200 years later–to recognize those modern assumptions and recognize their limitations in ways which Campbell was not able to see due to his historic and social location. This is where some of the insights of postmodern hermeneutics (as I noted in my five part series Created for Hermeneutics) would help moderate not only some of Campbell’s optimism but also his naive assumptions about–to use a common phrase–“the text says what it means and means what it says.” Campbell’s overwhelming emphasis on objectivity, empiricism and realism does not give enough attention to the subjective (e.g., the situated nature of interpreters) and perspectival dimensions of the hermeneutical task.

3.  Adopting the day’s new hermeneutic, Campbell stressed the historical nature of Scripture.  More specifically, in line with Baconian science, the primary function of hermeneutics was to discern the facts of the divine narrative. It is this emphasis on “facts” that renders Campbell skeptical of “theology.” This skepticism is both a positive and a negative, in my estimation. On the positive side, it recognizes that Scripture is a story, a history which offers a narrative of the mighty (f)acts of God. This story–as seen, for example, in the Apostle’s Creed, unites Christians. On the negative side, Campbell’s stress on the “facts” underplays the theological nature of Scripture’s story-telling. Theology is embedded in the text as well as facts. The text offers theologically intepreted facts; it does not offer us “bare” or “neutral” facts.  Interpreted facts yield theological reflection on the meaning and significance for contemporary life. “Facts” are not enough. Theology, not mere facts, shapes how we ourselves enter into the story of God and live it out in our lives. Ultimately, Campbell’s “facts” became “facts, commands and promises” as the central mode of discerning what God requires of humanity. This positivistic approach reduced the theology to a list of “do this” and “don’t do this.”  Such a list sucks the life out of the biblical story itself.

4. I would be remiss if I left the impression that Campbell’s approach to Scripture was merely factual.  Quite the contrary, Campbell has a very strong sense of the devotional or spiritual nature of Scripture.  In fact, a diary entry in 1809 noted that there were three reasons to read the Bible–“First, to learn to read it or dispute about it; second, read the historical parts for pleasure; third, to gather fruit; this last is the true way” (Richardson, Memoirs, 1:145). Campbell recognized that if we are to “receive any benefit” from reading the Scriptures, “we must earnestly pray for the Spirit to apply them and to explain them to our hearts” (Richardson, Memoirs, 1:143). The Spirit accompanies the word in such a way that the Spirit works in the hearts of its readers. It is through reading Scripture that we “feel the Spirit of God working in [us] to will and to do every thing pleasing to God” (Campbell, “On Bible Reading,” Millennial Harbinger [1839], 344).

Indeed, in one of his more interesting essays, he calls us to “feel” after God through reading Scripture. This is call moves beyond a mere rationalism. Though hermeneutically Campbell is quite scientific and rational in his approach to the words of the text in terms of their meaning, he also recognizes that through reading Scripture one encounters the living God (Campbell, “Bible Reading,” Millennial Harbinger [1839] 176):

But a devotional and sanctifying reading of that sacred Book, is essentially different from the readings of the theologian, the moralist, the sectary, and the virtuoso of every caste and school. The man of God reads the Book of God to commune with God, “to feel after him, and find him,” to feel his power and his divinity stirring within him; to have his soul fired, quickened, animated by the spirit of grace and truth. He reads the Bible to enjoy the God of the Bible; that the majesty, purity, excellency, and glory of its Author may overshadow him, inspire him, transform him, and new-create him in the image of God.

Recommended Reading

Casey, Michael. “The Origins of the Hermeneutics of the Churches of Christ, Part Two: The Philosophical Background.” Restoration Quarterly 31.4 (1989), 193-206.

Olbricht, Thomas H. “Alexander Campbell in the Context of American Biblical Studies, 1810-1874.” Restoration Quarterly 33.1 (1991), 13-28.

Campbell, Alexander, “Principles of Biblical Interpretation,” in Christianity Restored: The Principal Extras of the Millennial Harbinger, Revised and Corrected (1835), 3-27, 64-69, 94-99.

Campbell, Alexander, “Christian System. Chapter II. The Bible,” in Christian System (1839), 15-19.

Campbell, Alexander, “Bible Reading,” Millennial Harbinger 10 (January 1839), 35-38.

12 Responses to “Stone-Campbell Hermeneutics I – Campbell’s Scholarly Baconianism”

  1.   preacherman Says:

    Wonderful post brother.
    I really enjoyed it.
    Learned so much and great resources!
    I pray God bless you as much as your have blessed us.

  2.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    Great post, I look forward to more on this series.

    We have a lot to learn and appreciate from Campbell. Likewise it is also good to recognize some of the problems with his hermeneutical approach, problems which (as you point out) he was unable to forsee because of his own context. As the mantra goes, hindsight is always 20/20.

    I wish more members at the congregational level of the Churches of Christ were aware of this. I cringe evertime I hear someone speak of the Bible as though it was nothing more than an lab manual (or constitution) for being Christian/Church. And yet as ‘fact’ oriented as Campbell was, his view that “The man of God reads the Book of God to commune with God…” hints to a much bigger purpose of scripture than just being a lab manual.


  3.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    Rom 3:21 But now
    Rom 5:1 Being therefore justified by faith,

    I wish more members at the congregational level of the Churches of Christ were aware of this.
    how can a member be expcted to understand when the general method of teaching that system of understanding..
    how many Wednesday night’s would it take to get through one idea that Paul was trying to get across.
    A teacher can’t teach what he doesn’t know.

    But there’s always hope

    Thank you John Mark I found extremely interesting.
    I heard that inductive deductive reasoning thing probably more than 35 years ago.
    It has served me well.
    And continues to shed light on the way,down the path of rightousness buiding on the fundamentals of the faithfulness of the divine nature, for all those who believe forming a servant of God in Christ.
    Blessings rich and California

  4.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    Rich Constant,

    I am much more optomistic about teaching at the congregational level of church. If the congregation has an openness that is willing to consider things not thought of before, then there is hope. As for my teaching ability… I will be the first to confess that there is A LOT which I do not know. But I do know somethings and therefore I preach/teach and trust that God will use my preaching/teaching, in all of its weakness, to help lead his people in the way of Jesus Christ.


  5.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    well rex AS john mark is so kind to remind us
    we all need each others help.
    just got home from work.
    fellowship is GOOD
    hang in there rex you look young and sound real smart.
    BLESSINGS rich

  6.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    It is this emphasis on “facts” that renders Campbell skeptical of “theology.” This skepticism is both a positive and a negative, in my estimation. On the positive side,

    i can’t help myself,some body please
    oh well
    this sounds a bit ironic and a tad subjective
    DR. Hicks

    oh! john mark you’ve got to get a giggle out of that one.
    he said as he surched for the exclmation mark key.

    to funny


  7.   Kenneth W. Greene Says:

    Dr. Hicks,
    We met at North Davis in Arlington and talked about James A Harding. You asked me to let you know if I found the taped interview with R.C. Bell on Harding. Well, I did and the outside of the tape says Jesse P Sewell. I am positive that Sewell said no but Bell said yes. The tape is 50 years old so I will get it digitized.
    Thanks for the info on Campbell. I have just learned that he married my great grandfather and great grandfather. My grandfather was Porter Norris.

  8.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Thanks, Ken. I would love to have a copy of the interview when you have it digitized.

  9.   Bobby Valentine Says:

    I would love to have that tape by Bell on Harding too, 🙂

  10.   Keith Brenton Says:

    John Mark, thought you’d want to know that Edward Fudge (guest editor of New Wineskins’ March-April 2010 edition) is linking to this series at the end of his March 28 article (Historical Perspective). Nick Gill suggested it to him – and I concur it’s an excellent choice!


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