Stone-Campbell Hermeneutics II – Campbell’s Reformed Hermeneutic

This is a huge subject for a single post. I shall try to be brief. Warning: “brief” ended up being 2800+ words. 🙂

In my first post in this series I noted a few of the modern (Enlightenment) Baconian assumptions of Alexander Campbell’s hermeneutic. In essence Campbell draws out the facts of the redemptive narrative in order to offer a minimal but scientifically solid foundation for the unity of Christians. Christianity will only enjoy unity upon the facts (faith) of the Christian religion. The Reformed influences on Campbell’s thought gave him a method for naming the essential facts. It will constitute, in many ways, his theological hermeneutic (understanding, application and implementation of the “facts” discovered through Baconianism).

A Restoration of the Ancient Order

A good starting point for accessing the Reformed nature of Alexander Campbell’s hermeneutic is his thirty-article series on “A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things” from 1825 to 1829 in the Christian Baptist. It is fundamentally a primitivist ecclesiology ordering the worship, work and discipline of the church according to the ancient New Testament model. “A restoration of the ancient order of things is all that is necessary to the happiness and usefulness of christians.” Consequently, there is no need for creeds since the New  Testament is sufficient for the “happiness and usefulness of christians.”

This can be accomplished, says Campbell, on a hermeneutical model that is characteristically Reformed (dating back to Zwingli, present in Calvin, and used by the Puritans and dissenters of the British Isles). It has at least two basic pillars. First, Scripture alone is sufficient (and Campbell particularlizes this, unlike the Reformed tradition, to the New Testament alone). “To bring the societies of christians up to the New Testament, is just to bring the disciples individually and collectively, to walk in the faith, and in the commandments of the Lord and Saviour, as presented in that blessed volume; and this is to restore the ancient order of things.” The specification of the New Testament is quite intentional and actually only applies to post-Pentecost teachings and practices. “These laws and usages of the Apostles,” which govern the congregations of Christ according to Campbell, “must be learned from what the Apostles published to the world, after the ascension and coronation of the King, as they are recorded in the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles.” He further specifies that “neither are the statues and laws of the Christian kingdom to be sought for in the Jewish scriptures, nor antecedent to the day of Pentecost; except so far as our Lord himself, during his life time, propounded the doctrine of his reign.” Acts 2 is, indeed, the heremenutical hub for Campbell and for his descendants in the Stone-Campbell Movement.

Second, Scripture alone entails the exclusion of everything not sanctioned by it. His succinct summary is but one example of many that could be reproduced from the annuals of the Reformed tradition: “Now, in attempting to accomplish this, it must be observed, that it belongs to every individual and to every congregation of individuals to discard from their faith and their practice every thing that is not found written in the New Testament of the Lord and Saviour, and to believe and practise whatever is there enjoined. This done, and every thing is done which ought to be done.” It includes a principle of exclusion (whatever is not found in the New Testament) and inclusion (whatever is enjoined in the New Testament).

“Order” is an important word in Campbell’s title–it is typical of Reformed style. Everything has an “order” as God himself is an orderly God (e.g., laws of nature) and everything done for God must be done “decently and in order.”  Thomas Campbell, for example, wrote: “Surely, then, in such a divinely distinguished society every thing should be most solemnly conducted;–every thing to edification:–The ordinances of divine worship should be duly administered;–every thing done decently and in order. ‘Order is Heaven’s first law:’ nothing can be done right without it.

When, therefore, Campbell writers of the “order of worship” he assumes that (1) “there is a divinely authorized order of Christian worship in Christian assemblies” and (2) “the christian worship in christian assemblies is uniformly the same.” Order (in the sense of an authorized arrangement of particulars) is something that Baconian Reformed–and thus also Campbell–theologians looked for in Scripture. Consequently, Campbell finds an “order of worship,” a baptismal order, polity order, order of discipline, etc. The search for order, then, is a search for the divinely authorized arrangement (or pattern) and the divine arrangement is sufficient. Consequently, believers are limited by the divine arrangement and this is the essence of the Reformed regulative principle.

This language of “order” moves easily within a legal framework.  Unfortunately, in conjunction with this language, Campbell also used the metaphor of constitution to describe the “word of the apostles” which is the “constitution and law of the primitive church” and so “shall [it] be the constitution and law of the restored church.” The legal language unveils the legal nature of the Reformed hermeneutic itself which entails a legal–rather than historical or narratival–reading of Scripture. The primary function of reading the Bible, then, for the sake of restoring the church becomes a legal one, a search for authority, a search for “order.” The Bible as constitution–which is in contrast with the creedal constitution of the Presbyerian Church–becomes first and foremost a legal document in relation to the search for the “ancient order.”

The Reformed Tradition

Campbell embraces what the Reformed tradition calls the “regulative principle,” that is, all ecclesial practices are regulated by Scripture such that whenever one practices what is not taught or implied by Scripture is apostate. Scripture teaches both explicitly and implicitly, and believers are limited by what Scripture teaches in terms of faith and practice. This is enshrined in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) in two famous articles that are central to Reformed ecclesial hermeneutics (emphasis mine).

“The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from the Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men” (I.6).

“The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture” (XXI.1).

In the late 16th century, the early Puritans–particularly the Separatists–applied a strict hermeneutic in order to purify (and if not purify then separate from) the Church of England. A wonderful example, which should sound familiar to those who grew up in Churches of Christ (“Behold, the Pattern”), is found in the English separatist Henry Barrowe‘s (executed in 1593) A Brief Summary (emphasis mine):

We seek the fellowship of his faithful and obedient servants and together with them to enter covenant with the Lord and by direction of his Holy Spirit, to proceed to a godly, free, and right choice of ministers and other officers by him ordained to the service of his church…We seek to establish and obey the ordinances and laws of our savior Christ left by his last will and testament to the governing and guiding of his church, without altering, changing, innovating, or leaving out any of them…The tabernacle was a figure of the church of the Lord; and the Lord gave straight charge that it should be made according to the pattern showed to Moses in the mount. And so our savior Christ was forty days after his resurrection conversant with his apostles, teaching them those things which concerneth the building of his church and kingdom. And the apostles, according as they received instructions of him, so they built and have left us a pattern. Now these churches [Anglicans] have not framed after this pattern…Therefore, they be not the churches of Christ…God commandeth his faithful servants being as yet private men [laity], together to build his church, according to the true pattern of Christ’s testament (without altering, innovating, etc.)…for this we have the example of the primitive churches for our patterns and warrant…having received the faith of Christ, received likewise the ordinances of Christ, and continued in the same…Now seeing we find the form and pattern which Christ has instituted and given most perfect and absolute, such as cannot be corrected or amended by any human divine or ingenuity…neither may those places or actions receive other form but that thereby become adulterate, displeasing to God.

In some form this goes back to Calvin (in a later post I will clarify my ambiguity here). One of the clearer examples is his Reply to Sadoleto(1539-emphasis mine). [Google books provides the classic introduction and texts of the letters in A Reformation Debate.]

I have also no difficulty in conceding to you, that there is nothing more perilous to our salvation than a preposterous and perverse worship of God. The primary rudiments, by which we are wont to train to piety those whom we wish to gain as disciples to Christ, are these; viz., not to frame any new worship of God for themselves at random, and after their own pleasure, but to know that the only legitimate worship is that which he himself approved from the beginning. For we maintain, what the sacred oracle declared, that obedience is more excellent than any sacrifice (1 Sam. xv. 22.) In short, we train them, by every means, to be contented with the one rule of worship which they have received from his mouth, and bid adieu to all fictitious worship….I will not press you so closely as to call you back to that form which the Apostles instituted, (though in it we have the only model of a true Church, and whosoever deviates from it in the smallest degree is in error,) but to indulge you so for, place, I pray, before your eyes, that ancient form of the Church, such as their writings prove it to have been in the age of Chrysostom and Basil, among the Greeks, and of Cyprian, Ambrose, and Augustine, among the Latins…

However, it predates Calvin. Zwingli practiced this hermeneutic even to the point of excluding all music (instrumental and vocal) from the public worship of the church because he could find no warrant for it in the practice of the church. Some of the early Anabaptists, influenced by Zwingli, continued this practice. One good example of this is found in Conrad Grebel’s letter to Thomas Muntzer (1524): “Whatever we are not taught in definite statements and examples, we are to consider forbidden, as if it were written, ‘Do not do this, do not chant.‘”

Campbell’s Differences with the Reformed Tradition

While we might settle here for some time and draw out several differences, I want to stress two.  First, Campbell restricts his ecclesial hermeneutic to the New Testament. Campbell’s dispensationalism is a major break with the Reformed tradition in the way in which he applied it. Some Reformed theologians have recognized “dispensations” (even patriarchial, Mosaic and Christian such as Johannes Cocceius who taught that the Sabbath belonged to the Mosaic law and had no function within the Christian Church), but they had refused to draw a line at Acts 2 in terms of covenant delimitations. Campbell, however, drew a hard line at Acts 2 in terms of legal authority for the faith and practice of the church. [Bobby Valentine briefly discusses the significance of Campbell’s “Sermon on the Law” at his blog.]

Second, while Campbell uses inferences and implications to draw out further truth from Scripture, he does not regard those inferences and implications as terms of communion or fellowship. The restoration of the whole and full ancient order is important for the “happiness and usefulness of christians,” but it is not necessary for Christian communion. Thomas Campbell gave the Stone-Campbell Movement the most memorable statement of this point in the 1809 Declaration and Address (emphasis mine).

That although inferences and deductions from scripture premises, when fairly inferred, may be truly called the doctrine of God’s holy word: yet are they not formally binding upon the consciences of christiansfarther than they perceive the connection, and evidently see that they are so; for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men; but in the power and veracity of God–therefore no such deductions can be made terms of communion, but do properly belong to the after and progressive edification of the church. Hence it is evident that no such deductions or inferential truths ought to have any place in the church’s confession.

Consequently, while inferences may be true and even called the doctrine of God’s word, they cannot function as “terms of communion” because they depend too much on human wisdom. Only what is explicit in the text–command or example–can serve in that capacity. This differs from the Westminster Confession of Faith quoted above.


1.  Despite essentially the same hermeneutic–sola Scriptura and the regulative principle–there was no uniform agreement about ecclesial practices among the Reformed (including Campbell).  The method did not, in fact, produce the kind of unity some envisioned. For example, while they all excluded instrumental music and choirs (at least until the 19th century), they disagreed over whether there should be singing at all, whether they should sing only Psalms, whether the hymnbooks should have notes, etc.  Practitioners of the regulative principle could not agree on the use of written prayers in the assembly, the frequency of the Lord’s Supper, church polity (congregational or Presbyterian), the application of church discipline, etc. Indeed, they could not even agree on exactly how to define the regulative principle itself (and I will say more about this in a future post).

2.  While Churches of Christ generally adopted the Reformed hermeneutic as well as Campbell’s dispensationalism, they did not adopt his freedom regarding inferences. On the contrary, necessary inference became one of the hinges in future discussions that actually drew a line of fellowship. Necessary inferences became a test of fellowship.  In this Churches of Christ generally missed much of the impetus for the American Restoration Movement in the first place. Stone and the Campbells rebelled against the application of inferences as tests of fellowship and the saw inferences as the “stuff” out of which creeds (whether written or unwritten) were made and resulted in the division of the body of Christ. In contrast, Alexander Campbell stressed that only the “facts” of Scripture can be terms of communion, and these facts are explicit, never implicit.

3. Campbell’s Baconian hermeneutic which primarily treats Scripture as a historical text and his Reformed hermeneutic which primarily treats Scripture as a legal text stand in tension with each other. They are in tension because if one follows the grammatical-historical method and reads Scripture for the “facts,” it is quite apparent that Scripture is not itself a legal document nor presents itself in a legal genre. Ultimately, Campbell–in order to restore the ancient order–prioritizes the Reformed (legal) hermeneutic over the Baconian. The Baconian method is useful as an inductive tool to discover the facts, but then the Reformed hermeneutic takes over to discern the ecclesiological “order” (pattern) by imposing a legal frame on what are essentially texts of a different genre. In other words, the Reformed hermeneutic runs roughshod over the very nature of Scripture itself and the way Scripture presents itself to us as a literary document. Campbell told us that we should read Scripture as any other human document and according to the rules of interpreting any other ancient document. What other history (Campbell characterized Scripture as primarily narrative) do we read as primarily a legal text? The dominance of the Reformed hermeneutic and the primacy of the legal reading is an important key for self-understanding among Churches of Christ.

4.  I would be amiss if I did not point out–as my friend Bobby Valentine once pointed out to me–that Campbell did not regard the restoration of the ancient order as the basis of fellowship and communion within the church of God. He certainly believed that it would enhance the “happiness and usefulness” of Christians to fully embrace and exactly implement the ancient order, but he did not think it necessary for a congregation to fully understand and practice the ancient order in order to be a faithful community of God. Campbell insists that he “never made [the ancient order of things], hinted that they should be, or used them as a test of christian character or terms of christian communion.” The same cannot be said, of course, of Churches of Christ in the 20th century. By the mid-20th century Churches of Christ had taken Campbell’s “ancient order” and turned them into a prescribed order that defined the borders/marks of a faithful church.  Campbell’s “ancient order” became the “marks of the church.”  This is not what Campbell intended. It is no wonder that by his death Campbell had come to believe the Reform movement had, in many ways, turned into a sect.


Casey, Michael. “The Origins of the Hermeneutics of the Churches of Christ, Part One: The Reformed Tradition.Restoration Quarterly 31.2 (1989): 75-91.

C. Matthew McMahon, “The Regulative Principle in Worship,” ably articulates a Puritan understanding of the regulative principle.

6 Responses to “Stone-Campbell Hermeneutics II – Campbell’s Reformed Hermeneutic”

  1.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    It is no wonder that by his death Campbell had come to believe the Reform movement had, in many ways, turned into a sect.

    i feel the same.
    the church missed the boat on the aplacation of brotherly love

    john mark you are one great peice of work

    thanks for the lesson.
    too good
    rich in calif
    there must be a bunch more

    tell us all another story.

    oh well though i would say it
    just to good

  2.   Richard Corum Says:

    John Mark:

    Your knowledge of our heritage is amazing, but what I just read makes me realize how tilted the telling of history can be. In college I don’t feel like I got as clear of a picture as I once thought. Grace always.


  3.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    Though hindsight is always 20/20, it is so clearly seen just how much influence the philosophical culture of the day had on ther Reformed approach to hermeneutics – for good and bad. Make you wonder what people will think about our own hermeneutical approaches some 200 years from now (if the world is around). We can thank God that he is able to accomplish his will not because of us but because of the grace he extends to the jars of clay (us) that he calls to participate in his mission.


  4.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    History, like Scripture, is always interpreted, Richard. So, it is best to read in all directions. 🙂 In other words, don’t trust me. 🙂

    Clearly, Rex, what God does in us does not depend upon our hermeneutical method. God’s grace can redeem even with a mistaken hermeneutic–and there have been many culturally-dependent hermeneutics throughout history. Nevertheless, God still saves, he still draws us to himself, and he is gracious with our mistakes. Your point is well-taken.

  5.   Richard constant Says:

    In other words, don’t trust me.

    I just lost about 150 words that I had posted in rebuttal to this statement.
    Consider yourself lucky.
    Oh and by the way I wasn’t even close to being finished.
    One more statement like that I will put IT on word.
    Then copy and paste.
    But on a serious note John Mark.
    A preacher I’ve liked for a lot of years is named Steve Lloyd. Said Rich why don’t you study NT Wright. I Said Steve because I think he’s wrong.
    And I said it’s not that he is wrong he’s just not right.
    And I told him WHY,
    and I’m sure you know why I think that,
    he’s got his genders all screwed up ha ha.
    Says subjective in 22 and 27 he says objective big oops as far as I’m concerned and I don’t even know grammar .
    I just know my fundamentals.
    And that’s the big deal John Mark, to me.
    I built a scriptural box around myself so tight I couldn’t even climb out of it.Or find a way out of it. And it made me so unhappy I wound up being a borderline antinomian. The rationalization of dichotomies. The order of Scripture, necessary inferences, God’s order for the church.. how many years God be thanked I’m out of it.
    And I owe a lot of it to you John Mark many blessings.
    It is a razor’s edge that we walk on, I think you see that. Although it is a perfect law of liberty,
    when I see the perfect law of liberty spoken, I see the story of the talents.
    I C responsibility according to the ability that men have, I see Christ judging men’s hearts and the intent of the heart, by the apostles teaching.
    And the way that we walk together developing the divine nature through relationships for the building of the body Up in love.the ideal aim of the church in Ephesians 4
    I know you don’t cotton to best of one’s ability.
    But I see you seem to be saying the same thing in those terms expressed by culture and understanding, encapsulated in certain fundamental parameters although.
    You are called to teach John Mark, God’s Word, the truth. One day at a time, with the balance that comes from the blessings of family friends and Fellowship of the Saints seeking the others good.
    Trust you John Mark?
    One of these days my friend, God willing we will speak of reversed!
    Other than that
    If I was driving the car that your driving I would have been in a ditch right after I put it in gear.

    God bless you John Mark by the way, you take that nephew of yours to a baseball game yet.
    Rich in California

  6.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Thanks, Rich. I appreciate your kind words and encouragment. Ultimately we trust God but he does give us people through whom he works. Blessings for your day, my brother.


  1. Chais DiMaggio | A Moral & Positive Failure: Finding Authority

Leave a Reply