Studying Scripture with Alexander Campbell (Part 2)
Studying Scripture with Alexander Campbell (Part 2)
This postcard (ca. 1930-45) shows Alexander Campbell’s study, a hexagonal brick structure located just west of the Campbell Mansion in Bethany, W. Va. The structure, still standing, is where Campbell studied God’s Word.

Today we conclude this two-part article from 1940 explaining the “four aspects” of Alexander Campbell’s Bible study. Today’s article covers aspects three and four.

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Alexander Campbell’s Contribution to Bible Study

(Part 2)

By Howard Elmo Short, B.D. (Hartford);
Minister, Church of Christ, Cuyahoga Falls, O.;
February 10, 1940; p. 5

. . . There is no finer contribution that Mr. Campbell has made to Bible study than this insistence upon original thinking. How often we read, leafing through, just to find the “pet” verses which prove the point we are arguing at the moment! The admonition of Mr. Campbell to read whole books and compare them with one another is not to be dismissed lightly.

There is hardly a doctrine known to the Christian world but what can be bolstered up by picking a few choice phrases here and there. . . . Scores start out with a given thesis, and then “prove” it by the Scriptures. Of course, Mr. Campbell was guided by what he knew, and what he had thought previously, just as every one is to a greater or less degree, but there is something of real value in attempting to read the Scriptures as if no one had read them before us, and even trying to forget what we thought yesterday when we read.

THIRD, Mr. Campbell made a lasting contribution to Bible study in his incessant use of higher criticism, almost before the term itself was known, and certainly before it was understood by any great numbers. One Bethany student copied the following key to understanding the Scriptures which [Campbell] gave to his classes:

I suggest, gentlemen, as a key to open to you the Scriptures, that you use the “W” key. Ask these questions:

Who writes or speaks?

To whom was he writing or speaking?

Where did he write?

When did he write?

What did he really say?

What purpose did he have in writing?

What lesson for our age?

What lesson for me?

This, as you observe immediately, is the Alpha and Omega of present-day higher criticism. Of course, I do not mean higher criticism as it is worked out in the minds of some higher critics, but refer to the science itself. Mr. Campbell was steering his pupils away from the textual method of surface interpretation to an inductive method—historical research into the reasons why the Bible books were written. Some are afraid to apply the test of reasonableness to the Scriptures, but not Mr. Campbell. Said he:

Error cleaves to its mother, Hoary Tradition, with an affection that increases with age. It is the beginning of mental slavery and degradation to deny a person the right to interpret the Scriptures except as others have done—or by the unanimous consent of the Fathers.

As might be expected, Mr. Campbell’s knowledge of Hebrew and Greek precluded his attaching any sanctity to the English text in the King James or any other version. In fact, he published his own translation of the Acts of the Apostles, and was the publisher of another complete translation by contemporaries.

Even a casual reading of his lectures on the Pentateuch reveals many examples of the above methods of study. We mention a few at random, without much effort to choose those discussions pertaining to great issues. It is the method of treatment that we want to portray, rather than any particularly new interpretations of texts. Regarding the temptation of Eve, he tells the students:

I have no doubt that the serpent was incarnated in human form.

Thus he leaves literal interpretation for those less daring than himself, and sees the Garden-of-Eden story as a figurative account of the spirit of evil entering into the heart of mankind. When he comes to the word “aprons,” he says:

The original word meant veils, and we owe this corruption, like many other errors, to the influences of fashion.

Regarding man’s being created in the likeness of God, he says this does not mean a material image, since

God has no materiality about Him.

In regard to the rainbow being an “everlasting” covenant with Noah, Mr. Campbell explains that this must be interpreted figuratively, and not literally, since

Nothing is everlasting except God.

Here again we see him deserting the ranks of his contemporaries and successors who would have nothing but a literal interpretation of every English word. . . .

FOURTH, Mr. Campbell fortified himself with as much general, or secular knowledge as he could. It may appear that this point is far-fetched, but it did not appear fair to close a discussion of Alexander Campbell’s Bible-study methods without at least stating what great use he made of such material to supplement his own thought concerning the Sacred Writings.

He knew the philosophers and the literature of several lands. His lectures on the Pentateuch are illustrated and enhanced by quotations from the poets and statements from the logicians and philosophers, times without number. This secular knowledge contributed directly to his desire to place the Bible alongside other literature, or to compare it with any one’s arguments, and thus let it prove itself to be a “reasonable” interpretation of life.

Since it is not possible to include the details of Mr. Campbell’s textual interpretations in this paper, it ought to be said that one of his most fundamental concepts; namely, that of immersion, was arrived at by the method of study above outlined. He also stated on one occasion that he knew many people who had arrived at the same conclusions as he, by using the same methods of study, without having been influenced by his own studies on the matter.

To restate the points suggested, from last to first, in the imperative mood, Alexander Campbell, by his thought and procedure says to those who would know the Bible:

  • Know the great thoughts of the secular world for the sake of comparison and contrast.
  • Be a Bible critic; find out the historical reasons for the writings if you would know what meaning they have today:
  • From time to time cast aside all you have read about the Bible, and what you yourself have thought, as well, so far as is possible, and read it anew.
  • Train yourself to know what the original writers said in their own language. For the benefit of lay members of the churches for whom this point might seem an impossibility, it is to be remembered that many modern commentaries translate the text literally, and also transliterate the characters of the ancient languages into English letters.

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—Jim Nieman, managing editor, Christian Standard

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