Biblical Interpretation in the Restoration Movement

By Mark Weedman

The history of the Restoration Movement is diverse and complex, and summarizing it is necessarily difficult. But some general patterns do emerge, and we can use those patterns to gain an overview of how followers of the Restoration Movement have approached biblical interpretation.

Three moments in that history stand out as especially important in shaping how Thomas and Alexander Campbell and their followers would interpret the Bible. The first was the appearance of Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address, a seminal document that established the movement’s governing plea. The second moment was a debate between Isaac Errett and David Lipscomb about how to apply that plea to a changing world. The third moment concerns the participation of Campbells’ heirs in the Modernist-Fundamentalist debate.

The most important theme to emerge from this study is the centrality of biblical interpretation to the Restoration Movement’s identity and formation. Thomas and Alexander Campbell, along with Barton W. Stone, advocated a return to the plain sense of Scripture in order to “restore” the unity of the church. The generations that followed have tried to implement the Campbells’ vision in a variety of ways, but always with a deep concern for the Bible and its interpretation.


Moment 1: Establishing the Plea

The most important text for understanding biblical interpretation in the Restoration Movement is Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address. Campbell begins his propositions, published in 1809, by asserting that the church is “essentially, intentionally and constitutionally one.” Later, however, Campbell argued that churches have neglected this essential unity because they have made human opinions “articles of faith and terms of communion.” In other words, Campbell believed the church loses its unity when its members add external qualifiers, such as creeds, to Scripture that then surpass the Scripture in authority and importance.

Thomas Campbell’s solution to this problem was to urge every Christian to abandon human additions to Scripture and return to a pure reading of the New Testament. Campbell urged his followers to accept as authoritative only “what is expressly enjoined by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles upon the New Testament Church.”1 Everything else must be discarded in favor of this pristine reading. Campbell was confident readers of good faith could set aside these human distortions and read the Bible for themselves. When they did so, he asserted, they would discover the church as it was meant to be, which would then allow all Christians to restore its pristine unity.

Thomas Campbell’s followers, most notably his son Alexander, took up his plea to read the Bible pristinely. As Fred Craddock has shown, these early leaders quickly established interpretative principles that guided both preachers and exegetes toward the plain sense of Scripture.2

The most important of these principles is “clarity,” which refers to the insight that, as the Bible was written in human words, God intended for it to be plainly understood. This clarity also implies that the Bible has “harmony.” There can be no discrepancy between any of the individual parts of the Bible, the Campbells believed, not least because the absence of harmony results in a lack of clarity.

But perhaps the most characteristic aspect of this first moment is the unwavering confidence that pervades early Campbellite exegesis that their interpretations had “finality.” As long as the interpreter read the Scripture properly, the Campellites believed, they could locate the true meaning of Scripture. The Campbells’ optimism was fed not only by the spirit of the early American frontier, but also by their deep sense that by abandoning creeds and human traditions they found out how to read the Bible once for all.


Moment 2: What Kind of Movement Are We?

With the death of Alexander Campbell in 1866, the movement lost its greatest leader. With the Civil War, the movement lost its national cohesion. As a result of both events, second-generation Camp-bellites found themselves faced with a new range of cultural circumstances and relationships that forced them to reevaluate the way they applied their interpretative principles.

One of the biggest problems was how to apply the movement’s plea when associating with other Christians. It quickly became clear that not every Christian agreed with the Campbellites’ interpretative principles, nor with their biblical beliefs concerning the practices of baptism and the Lord’s Supper—practices that Campbellites believed were necessary for salvation. To what extent, then, could followers of Thomas Campbell’s plea remain true to the founding principles and still associate with those who disagreed with them on core issues?

Two approaches to this question emerge among the second-generation leaders. The first is represented by Isaac Errett (1820-88), founding editor of Christian Standard. Errett advocated a moderate approach to interpretation. He acknowledged it was necessary for every Christian to identify and follow certain scriptural principles, including a rejection of creeds and doctrinal requirements, affirmation of necessity of baptism, and the rejection of hierarchy within the church. Beyond these basics, however, Errett argued the “law of love” permitted a great deal of latitude in matters of doctrine and practice.3

David Lipscomb (1831–1917) offered a more sectarian vision of the plea. For Lipscomb, the New Testament functions as a law book from which nothing can be added or removed. An interpretative method like Errett’s fails in Lipscomb’s scheme because it allows practices and beliefs that are not specifically permitted. Thus, for Lipscomb, any church that reads Scripture improperly and practices in unauthorized ways “has rejected God as its only Ruler.” It is also sinful to associate with such a church, because doing so might “encourage and build up a church that is going wrong.”4

This debate came to a head over whether the New Testament permitted churches to use instruments in worship, with those ascribing to Lipscomb’s approach saying instruments could not be used, while those with Errett’s viewpoint allowed them. The result was a split that ultimately resulted from an inability to agree on the best way to apply the founders’ interpretative principles.


Moment 3: Modernism vs. Fundamentalism

From the standpoint of biblical interpretation, the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversy was about how (or whether) an interpreter could use new scientific approaches in the study of history to interpret the Scriptures. Modernists argued that a scientific approach to interpretation produced readings of Scripture that were verifiable and authoritative. Thus, events such as the flood, battle of Jericho, and even the resurrection of Jesus can only be regarded as “historical” if they can be verified through the rigorous application of the historical-critical method.

Fundamentalists recognized that this approach to Scripture ends up denying core elements of the Christian faith, and between 1910 and 1915, an influential group of Christian theologians published a multivolume collection of essays called The Fundamentals. The collection’s authors affirmed the historicity of the entire Scripture, including the virgin birth and resurrection of Christ, defended the authority of Scripture, and attempted to describe ways of interpreting Scripture that countered Modernist historical criticism. Almost every volume of The Fundamentals had some discussion of Scripture and its interpretation, and debate over the interpretation of Scripture played a decisive role in the controversy as a whole.5

Along with nearly every other American denomination, the Disciples of Christ were caught up in the controversy, and like most denominations, the Disciples found themselves arguing with themselves. For the Modernist side, the Disciples had figures such as Herbert L. Willett (1864–1944). Willett taught at the University of Chicago and wrote widely for popular audiences, defending the new higher criticism as some-
thing consistent
with both Christianity in general and his Restoration Movement heritage. From the other side, the Disciples had J.W. McGarvey (1829–1911). Like Willett, McGarvey was an educator, teaching at the College of the Bible in Kentucky for nearly 40 years. Also like Willett, McGarvey wrote extensively, including a regular column in Christian Standard. Unlike Willett, McGarvey rejected higher criticism, and he devoted his extraordinary literary energy toward explaining the plain sense of Scripture over what he perceived to be the failures of Modernist exegesis.6

Neither Willett nor McGarvey was entirely absorbed by the controversy, and each retained traces of his Restoration Movement heritage. McGarvey’s Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, for example, stands within the Fundamentalist fold in its emphasis on the historicity of the Acts and other topics. But it is also a classic statement of Restoration Movement teaching on topics, such as the nature of the Scripture, baptism, and church structure.

Nevertheless, both Willett and McGarvey got pulled into the Modernist and Fundamentalist camps, and their followers have increasingly found themselves located—theologically and otherwise—within the broader Modernist or Fundamentalist/Evangelical communities. The split between the Disciples of Christ and the independent Christian churches is only one indication of the extent to which Modernist controversy affected approaches to interpretation on both sides.


Conclusion: Where Do We Go from Here?

A most notable effect of the controversy was the way in which refuting liberalism replaced working for Christian unity in Restoration Movement interpretation and exegesis. A trend toward de-emphasizing unity had already begun in Alexander Campbell’s time, but even in 1870, Isaac Errett could still write persuasively about the necessity of unity and its position at the heart of the plea.

This emphasis on unity is worth recovering. Thomas Campbell’s insight that the plain sense of Scripture demands a unified church is a great gift to contemporary Christianity. Helping other Christians recognize that “division among Christians is a horrid evil” would go a long way toward reclaiming his dream of restoring the true, unified church.



1Thomas Campbell, “Declaration and Address,” in Historical Documents Advocating Christian Union, edited by C.A. Young (Joplin: College Press, 1985), 108, 109.

2Fred Craddock, The Bible in the Pulpit of the Christian Church (Claremont: Disciples Seminary Foundation, 1981). Also see Gary Weedman, “Restoration Hermeneutics,” Christian Studies VI (1986, 1987), 74-84.

3Isaac Errett, “Our Position,” in Historical Documents, 319-323.

4David Lipscomb, “Instruments of Music in the Service of God,” Gospel Advocate XLIII (October 31, 1901), 696.

5For an authoritative history of this controversy, see George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, second edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

6For a helpful comparison of Willett and McGarvey, see M. Eugene Boring, Disciples and the Bible: A History of Disciples Biblical Interpretation in North America (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1997), 221-253.

Photo of Herbert L. Willett courtesy of Disciples of Christ Historical Society.


Mark Weedman is professor of biblical and historical theology at Crossroads College in Rochester, Minnesota.

You Might Also Like


  1. Billy LeJeune
    November 23, 2011 at 9:48 am

    “the Bible was written in human words, God intended for it to be plainly understood.”

    But, after 2000 years the culture in which the words were originally written is lost. We will always be varied on our interpretations of what certain sections of scripture meant to say.

    “This clarity also implies that the Bible has “harmony.” There can be no discrepancy between any of the individual parts of the Bible.”

    Yet the bible itself reveals discord between its writers such as Paul confronting Peter over table fellowship. I doubt even the original apostles understood every nuance of what was happening. They were frail men like us and they probably had to agree to disagree on some things.

    To get to that NT vision of unity I suppose we are going to have look at the Holy Spirit in the brother’s heart first and foremost over his bible hermeneutic.

  2. David Miller
    November 23, 2011 at 6:31 pm

    An outstanding article. It is a good thing for all of us regardless of our bent in the Restoration Movement to consider the “how” and “why” of each division. The main overarching principle has to remain Campbell’s plea to return to a “pristine” reading of the Scriptures; they are still God’s revelation to us through Christ.

    Our greatest challenge to furthering the Movement is still within our own ranks. The rift will always be with us if Brother Lipscomb’s opinion is still substituted in the place of “liberty in matters of opinion.” Perhaps there will be a great move of God among our brotherhood to extend the hand of fellowship and begin a dialogue that is long overdue.

    I still believe in our movement. It is more than a noble dream. When expressed articulately and lovingly it is no less than “the power of God for salvation.” Let us all pray for wisdom, love, and patience.

  3. C J Dull
    November 24, 2011 at 10:55 pm

    I am more than a little surprised that a scholar of Prof. Weedman’s stature so simplistically writes off the division between Disciples and Independents as an outgrowth of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. There was a great deal more going on institutionally that actually brought it about. One major force for it was the effort of the Disciples in the 1940s to bring about an organic merger with those then referred to as the N. Baptists. Jesse Bader, the eminent Disciple evangelist, commented in a 1949 article: “At last we are going to unite with somebody.” It, of course, came to nothing in the early ’50s, but there were fairly detailed preparations for it during the ’40s; those not interested in it could simply be left behind. So, in that respect, it was actually a unity movement that divided us.

    An emphasis on unity is a marvelous thing, but there is a certain paradox in that an emphasis on it does not necessarily produce it. The Roman Catholic Church has talked about the ONE true church for centuries, and a number of divisions derive from it. The Orthodox churches care much more for an almost minute emphasis on correct doctrine and have had few. In our own movement, the Disciples, who talk endlessly about unity, have gone through at least two and probably three divisions. The a cappella Churches of Christ, while fighting on almost every conceivable issue, nevertheless have maintained a unity. It seems there is a considerable difference between affirming a belief in unity and actually bringing it about.

    C J Dull

  4. Jeff Miller
    November 26, 2011 at 9:42 am

    The above criticism of a simplistic aspect of Mark Weedman’s article is unwarranted. The article uses essentially all of the allotted 1,600 words, and its opening paragraph states that the article will speak only of “general patterns” because “The history of the Restoration Movement is diverse and complex, and summarizing it is necessarily difficult.” The responder could have made the same point by beginning, “Thanks for a great article, Mark. In addition to the general patterns you have shown, I’d like to add …”

  5. November 27, 2011 at 5:05 pm

    It can’t be denied that correctly understanding the Bible is critical in fostering unity in Christ. Seth Wilson at Ozark Bible College taught Hermeneutics well, calling for his students to apply common-sense rules for right reading of the Bible. These rules are summarized in a study available on the internet at Jesus wants His disciples to be united. Satan wants disciples of Jesus to be disunited. We each much choose which leader to follow. If we want unity we can be in fellowship with all who have truly been born again of water and spirit. It’s our choice. The study we’ve read above is good.

  6. Neal Cornett
    November 27, 2011 at 8:55 pm

    Bro. Miller, even a general sketch may indicate complexity without surrendering its general character; what is important is that the essence of the matter be presented without undue distortion. Bro. Dull apparently feels that Bro. Weedman’s aticle was unsuccessful in this regard for the reasons he gives. How is his expression of that opinion unwarranted?

    Bro. LeJeune, it is one thing to note that Christians have at times been at variance with one another, even Peter and Paul; however, it is quite another to suggest that God is at variance with Himself: Peter was wrong, and Paul rightly rebuked him.

  7. December 3, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    Mark, This is indeed a well written and researched article. So, I have no problem with what was initially stated. However, I still puzzle over why we have grown in our conversations about the Restoration Movement per se, when the denominational world at large is watching and listening to us and wondering about the subject matter of our talks, sermons, and historical explanations of where we come from. Perhaps I’m not wording this correctly but why are we not spending more time on just preaching Christ and Him crucified instead of continually engrossing ourselves in the Restoration Movement?

    For educational purposes, it is well and good to teach a class on the Restoration Movement for our progenies of the faith, future teachers, deacons, elders, ministers. etc. But have we gone a step too far by dwelling too much on the “Movement?” Can we—as it were—move on from these “elementary teachings” to return back to preaching, teaching and living out the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Or have we, as the Apostle Paul says, “Gone beyond that which is written. Then you will not take pride in one man over against another” [1 Cor. 4:6].

    Besides this, I dare say that if Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone knew of our stressing so much importance of the Restoration Movement that they founded—instead of continuing to preach and teach Jesus Christ—they would turn over in their graves. So, what else is there? Are we not thus humbly challenged to re-evaluate what it is what we’re doing and correct our course? . . .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe for Free!

Subscribe to gain free access to all of our digital content,
including our new digital magazine,
and we'll let you know when new digital issues are ready to view!