Studying Scripture with Alexander Campbell (Part 1)
Studying Scripture with Alexander Campbell (Part 1)

Restoration pioneer Alexander Campbell’s Bible study methods might be of interest to readers and leaders.

A notation above the headline of this article indicated this was “a paper read before a Bible-study conference of the churches in the Akron (O.) area some months ago.”

We will break this into two parts, plus edit it a bit for length. Part one will cover the first two of “four aspects of Mr. Campbell’s Bible study.”

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Alexander Campbell’s Contribution to Bible Study

Alexander Campbell in his study in Bethany, W.Va.

(Part 1)

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

Alexander Campbell edited the Christian Baptist monthly for seven years. He and his successor edited the Millennial Harbinger for thirty-five years. . . .

Alexander Campbell . . . was a power as a reformer, an orator and debater, a leader in education, a minister and a politician. In each of these fields, however, his knowledge of Biblical material and how to interpret it seems to have been the chief source of power. In politics, for example, he sat in the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829-30, associated there with the [former] President Madison, who is recorded to have said of Campbell, “I regard him as the ablest and most original and powerful expounder of the Scriptures I have ever heard.” It would appear, therefore, that an attempt to discover the Bible-study methods of such a man might prove of real worth.

We shall look at four aspects of Mr. Campbell’s Bible study, giving examples from his own notes to illustrate the points.

FIRST, Mr. Campbell was a firm believer in a knowledge of the Bible in the original tongues. Early in life he set for himself a plan of studies to which he adhered whenever he was in his own study. It follows:

One hour to read Greek, from 8:00 to 9:00 in the morning; one hour to read Latin, from 11:00 to 12:00 in the morning; one half-hour to read Hebrew, between 12:00 and 1:00 p.m. Commit ten verses of the Scripture to memory each day, and read the same in the original tongues with Henry and Scott’s notes and practical observations. Other reading and studies as occasion may serve. These studies are intended to constitute the principal part of my literary pursuits.

In addition to Hebrew and Greek, he saw the need for a knowledge of Latin. The illustrations in his lectures on the Pentateuch show the reason. The Latin Vulgate was the common New Testament in use for so many centuries that it became something of a standard from which modern translations were made. This, together with the fact that the English language has so much of a Latin background that the English Bible could not be explained except in terms of the Latin derivations of the word, led him to desire a good knowledge of Latin.

Alexander Campbell did not fail to set this standard for other ministers, as well as for himself. In a list of seven rules of qualifications for the ministry, he sets this one:

He must be well instructed in morality and religion, and in the original tongues in which the Scriptures were written, for without them he can hardly be qualified to explain Scripture or to teach religion and morality. He must be [so] proficient in his own language as to be able to express every doctrine and precept with the utmost simplicity, and without anything in his diction, either finical on the one hand, or vulgar on the other.

. . . It hardly seems possible that the disciples of Christ could have been so negligent in practicing this dictum of their early leader. . . . Scores of men have been ordained to the ministry without so much as having been asked whether they had made any intellectual preparation, or intended to make any. We are not arguing the point here, . . . we simply [state] that one of Alexander Campbell’s great contributions to Bible study was the injunction to understand the text.

SECOND, Mr. Campbell was a firm believer in independent research in the study of the Scriptures. We have noted that he made diligent use of commentaries, but he was careful not to make up his mind on the basis of the opinion of others. He wanted to let the Scriptures speak for themselves. [In] the Christian Baptist he gave readers a method for learning the meaning of the Scriptures:

You will take, say, a New Testament, and sit down with a pen or pencil in your hand. Begin with Matthew’s Gospel; read the whole of it at one reading, or two; mark on the margin every sentence you think you do not understand. Turn back again, read it a second time, in less portions at once than in the first reading; cancel such marks as you have made which noted passages that on the first reading appeared dark or difficult to understand, but on the second reading opened to your view. Then read Mark, Luke and John in the same manner, for they all treat of the same subject. After having read each Gospel in this way, read them all in succession a third time. At this time you will no doubt be able to cancel many of your marks. Thus read the Acts of the Apostles, which is the key to all the Epistles; then the Epistles in a similar manner; always before reading any Epistle, read everything said about the people addressed in the Epistle in the Acts of the Apostles. This is the course which we would take to understand any book.

This passage has been quoted at length, not so much to advocate an exact duplication of the method, as to show how firmly Mr. Campbell felt the need of really reading the Bible itself, instead of always reading about it, if one would understand it.

In a later Christian Baptist there is another paragraph which further illustrates the point at hand . . . :

For the last ten years . . . my inquiries into the Christian religion have been almost entirely confined to the Holy Scriptures. And I can assure you that the Holy Scriptures, when made their own interpreter and accompanied with earnest desires to know the author of these writings, have become to me a book entirely new and unlike what they were when read and consulted as a book of reference. . . . I have been so long disciplined in the school of free inquiry, that if I know my own mind, there is not a man upon this earth whose authority can influence me, any farther than with the evidence of reason and truth. To arrive at this state of mind is the result of many experiments and efforts, and to me has been arduous beyond expression. I have endeavored to read the Scriptures as if no one had read them before me, and I am as much on my guard against reading them today, through the medium of my views of yesterday, or a week ago, as I am against being influenced by any foreign name, authority, or system, whatever.

There is no finer contribution that Mr. Campbell has made to Bible study than this insistence upon original thinking. . . .

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When we resume this article next week, the author—Mr. Short—offers arguments against prooftexting, before he shares the third and fourth aspects of Alexander Campbell’s Bible study.

—Jim Nieman, managing editor, Christian Standard

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1 Comment

  1. Victor Knowles
    February 13, 2020 at 10:10 am

    I stand amazed at his incredible discipline and commitment to Bible study. My own puny efforts are like a dried-up mud puddle in comparison to his wide oceans of effort.

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