14 Apr 2016

Alexander Campbell: Lessons in Fearless Bible Study

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Alexander Campbell, Baptism, Bible, Church History, Discipleship, Exegesis, Faith, Restoration History, Sectarianism, Spiritual Disciplines, Unity
Alexander Campbell on a bad hair day

Alexander Campbell on a bad hair day

A Quotable Quote to Begin

It is always more or less detrimental to the ascertainment of truth to allow our previous conclusions to assume the position of fixed and fundamental truth to which nothing is to be at any time added either in correction or enlargement. On the contrary, we ought rather to act under the conviction that we may be wiser today than yesterday” (Alexander Campbell, 1840)

Not Afraid to Question

One of my heroes is Alexander Campbell. I even have named my blog partly for Campbell  The origin of the name Stoned-Campbell Disciple was explained many years ago HERE.

Now Campbell was not inspired as some are quick to point out, especially when he is quoted in opposition to some position commonly held today. But these very same critics have no hesitation in citing some writer in the Spiritual Sword, the Gospel Advocate, or Wayne Jackson of the Christian Courier.  Sources no more inherently correct than Campbell (though more likely to be incorrect). The inconsistency is seen by all but themselves.

However, with that caveat, I think Campbell is a great man and we likely would not be here if not for his work. There are things I disagree with him on but on the whole I find him stimulating as a dialogue partner.  He is at the Table of Fellowship when we study the Bible whether or not we have eyes to see him or not.  Sometimes that is for good and sometimes for ill. But he is there regardless.

A Model of Fearless Encounter with the Text

What I like most about Campbell is his fearlessness in restudying the text. This is not true about every subject for sure. Campbell wrestled with slavery, for example, and was trapped within a social location that I think blinded him to certain truths on the subject. We are all blind in certain areas. But that is partly the role of the history of interpretation to open our eyes beyond our limited experience to have “eyes to see.”

But on the whole, Campbell desired to go to the text and let the chips fall where they may regardless of previously held beliefs or others. This is the attitude that should be in the heart of anyone who holds to “restoration.” Our faith and practice is not determined by what we have always believed to be the case. “Our doctrine” does not determine the meaning of the text and should not be the criteria of how we decide on the validity, or lack thereof, of a given biblical interpretation. Let me provide two quick illustrations of what this commitment looks like.

Crises of Baptism

On March 12, 1811, Alexander Campbell was married to Margaret Brown. Within the year a lovely daughter was born to the union, named for Campbell’s mother, Jane. Now Alexander Campbell had been baptized as an infant. He was ordained to preach as a sprinkled man. He seemingly never questioned the fact that he was a Christian, a child of God.

But now he was faced with a decision, “should I baptize Jane.” He did not rush to any decision on the matter. Rather he acquired a large number of works pertaining to baptism. He did an independent study of the Greek New Testament and arrived, a year later, at the conclusion that it was he, not Jane, who needed to be baptized.

So on June 12, 1812, Matthias Luce, a Baptist preacher, baptized Alexander, upon a confession that Jesus is the Christ, in Buffalo Creek after a seven hour service preparing for the baptism (and folks today get upset if we take 15 minutes!). A number of things are important here:

1) AC was willing to examine a fundamental belief and not let his position be predetermined;

2) it is important to recall what Campbell’s conclusions were.

Campbell concluded that he had not been baptized. But he did not conclude that he had not been a Christian. Campbell concluded that the only New Testament requirement/conditions for baptism were

a] faith in Jesus as the Messiah and

b] one old enough to make that choice

Campbell did not believe he “became a Christian” on June 12. He believed that he was obeying the command of Jesus that he had never done before. In fact it would take Campbell another decade or more to understand the ins and outs of “baptism for the remission of sins” that fills the air of Churches of Christ today. But that understanding was never a “condition” of baptism according to Campbell rather obedient faith in the Messiah was the ONLY New Testament prerequisite for baptism.

Alexander Campbell never forgot that simply because one does not have this understanding imply they are rebellious or not a disciple of the Lord.

But it is the willingness to examine, to scrutinize, to challenge, to examine HIMSELF, not just the Bible, that is such a powerful model for us. So often in our fellowship today we find people who simply declare they already have the truth. There is a massive gulf between reading the text and studying the text to discover the meaning. We can assume all day long but until we are willing to say there are dimensions to this text that I do not understand we will never have the courageous, and fearless, spirit of Alexander.

Alexander Campbell's study at his home in Bethany

Alexander Campbell’s study at his home in Bethany

A Text Critical Matter

By the 1820’s, Alexander Campbell had come to the conclusion that one of the greatest hindrances to biblical understanding was none other than the famous King James Version of the Bible itself. He believed that scholarship had advanced to such a point in his day as to make the KJV lacking in clarity of meaning, fidelity to the Greek and Hebrew texts and also inaccurate in the actual text used as a basis for translation. These were no small conclusions in his day and will still ignite fires in some quarters.

So Campbell sought to produce a “modern” New Testament based upon the most accurate Greek New Testament possible and put it in modern English. The result was The Living Oracles published in 1826. Campbell fearlessly believed in letting the evidence decide our position and not what makes us comfortable, or what we like, or what we have believed in the past.

This commitment to presenting the authentic wording of the text in translation led Campbell to print many passages in italics that Griesbach’s Greek NT regarded as of doubtful authenticity. These doubtful texts range from a single word to entire passages, including John 7.53-8.11. Passages omitted from the Living Oracles were the Doxology at the end of the Lord’s Prayer (Mt 6.13, KJV); the Ethiopian’s confession (Acts 8.37, KJV); the phrase “through his blood” in Colossians 1.14 (KJV) and the Three Heavenly Witnesses in 1 John 5.7 (KJV). Ultimately three hundred and fifty seven readings were relegated to the table of “Spurious Readings.” It was the Greek New Testament that was the authority and not the King James Version according to Alexander Campbell.

The Living Oracles got Alexander Campbell in lots of hot water. The reading at Acts 20.28 especially led to cries of heresy towards Alexander Campbell. Campbell rejected the reading “theos” in favor of ‘Lord” resulting in charges of denying the deity of Christ (the same kind of charges are made today by KJV-Onlyites against modern versions like the NIV).

An anonymous “Friend of Truth” wrote to Campbell saying “this has long been viewed as a powerful text in opposition to those who deny the proper divinity of Christ … I am sorry that Mr. Campbell makes the change.” The Friend of Truth then insinuates that Campbell may be guilty of Unitarianism himself! The usefulness of the text in defeating a heretical point of view was more important than what Luke actually wrote in the Greek New Testament.

Campbell defended the the reading of Lord on the basis of the manuscript evidence available in his day and by appealing to the Church Father Irenaeus. For Campbell, the “Friend of Truth” did not want to deal with, or could not deal with, the textual evidence for the variant reading so he had to resort to casting aspirations upon Campbell’s orthodoxy.

Our pioneer Bible reviser writes pointedly,

For although I am as firmly convinced of the proper divinity of the Saviour [sic] of the world, that he is literally and as truly the Son of God as the Son of Man, as ever John Calvin was, I would not do as this ‘Friend of Truth’ insinuates I ought have done, made the text bend to suit my views.”

Campbell’s correspondent was actually no Friend of Truth at all but a sectarian. He was committed to what he already believed not truth.

Campbell insisted on the evidence not only determining what he believed but even what the Bible actually said!! Doctrinal belief was determined by the text and meaning of the Bible. The Bible and its meaning were not determined by previously held precious doctrine.

Fearful Bible study leads to the Dark Side ... fearlessly exegete everything and then do it again

Fearful Bible study leads to the Dark Side … fearlessly exegete everything and then do it again.

“Friends of Truth” Today

I come across many who claim they are are zealous for the “Truth” but in reality they are zealous for is what they have have believed to be the truth. The standard for faith is what they already believe not what the Bible actually says.

I remember having a discussion with a lady who was all upset when some teens served communion. Things were sort of mixed up accidentally that morning and she made a major deal out of it.  Half the church received the “cup” before the bread while the other half got the bread as usual. It was an accident but she was soooooooo upset and caused lots of trouble.

So I visited her in an attempt to bring peace on behalf of the teenagers. I invited her to study the Bible with me by looking at two texts.  I invited her, as lovingly as I know how, to see that the order does not matter. Both Paul and Luke mention the cup before the bread and in fact Luke mentions cup, bread, and another cup (1 Cor 10.15-17; Lk 22.14-26). She would have none of it. She said, “I was raised in the Church of Christ and we have never had it like that [being the Sunday mistake].” It did not matter at all what the Bible said or meant regarding the issue at hand. What mattered was what she already believed.

Another time, another church, a brother got incredibly upset because some folks raised their hands while singing or praying. Again while visiting this person at their table, I eventually opened up the Bible to 1 Timothy 2.8 and asked him to read it to me. After looking at the text for a few minutes, this brother literally pushed the Bible away and refused to tell me what it said.

I was doing a seminar at a congregation once and one of the sessions briefly covered Colossians 2.14.  I presented my exegesis of the text in its context. The passage does not teach that the “Old Testament” was “nailed to the cross.” Though I had never once mentioned such controversial matters as “instrumental music” even a single time in any of the sessions prior to this, afterwards I was cornered by a brother.  He did not offer a single critique of what I said.  Instead he said, “I believe you have taught error on this passage. If your position is correct then we cannot oppose instrumental music which is sin.”

I was taken aback quite literally. But the brother had no more concern for what Paul actual said and meant than the “Friend of Truth” chastising Campbell. The standard of what Colossians 2.14 teaches, beloved, is not whether or not it disproves instrumental music! I honestly do not recall what I said to the brother.

The examples I have just provided pale in significance to the two from Campbell’s life. If we claim to believe in “inerrancy” but are afraid to actually examine the text afresh then what good is that doctrine? Who cares if the text is inerrant if we are not willing to let the text itself determine what we believe? The doctrine of inerrancy becomes nothing but smoke and mirrors.

We see this in discussions of the “role of women” frequently (not always I want to point out). Phoebe cannot be a deacon because Paul declares that only men can be deacons in 1 Timothy 3. How do you know that Paul makes such a declaration in 1 Timothy 3? For a thousand years even some of the most misogynistic men in the world thought 1 Timothy 3.11 referred to women deacons. And what to do with the fact that Paul actually calls Phoebe “a deacon of the church at Cenchrea” (Rom 16.1, Living Oracles). A preexisting doctrinal commitment precludes even the possibility that Paul meant what he said.  In this case it is our doctrinal belief we have pledged allegiance and not the inerrant text.

Each of the positions above may be correct or incorrect but they cannot be decided a priori before hand.  It turns out that Campbell was likely incorrect on Acts 20.28 as newer manuscript discoveries have revealed.  But he would have followed the evidence and changed his mind.  We are not, in this blog, asserting any position but examining how we come to that position we hold.

Dark Grunge TextureFearlessness is not Arrogance

Do we have the courage to examine the text and let the chips fall where they may? I believe that discipleship is a journey not a way station. We can apply this to any discussion of the text. We have to be willing to study a text from the position of believing we may be wrong rather than assuming we already have it figured out. Light has a difficult time coming into a person whose eyes are locked shut. A “hermeneutic of suspicion” towards ourselves is conducive to learning.

The Bereans were fearless, it was fearlessness that opened up the Word of God to them.  Fearlessness in Bible study is an extension of our confidence God. It is an expression of faith in the great Lord of the Word and his amazing grace. We do not fear that if we learn something new that implies we were damned before we learned it.

Some are not fearless rather they are afraid.  In fact many mock the notion of restudy.  “Every time a brother announces he is restudying {insert topic, IM, women, etc} he decides he was wrong before.”  So what! Maybe they have simply discovered the new facts, new information, and accepted truth like Campbell.

Be like Campbell!
Grab the very best study tools you can get your hands on.
Do not rush to a decision.
Agonize over the text.

Never stop studying.  Ask what does the text say and let the chips fall where they may. Since Campbell’s day, literal revolutions have taken place in biblical studies, in lexicography, in Greek (Campbell had never heard of koine Greek!), in Hebrew, in cognate languages, archeological explosions of material for historical context that are like Copernican Revolutions in biblical studies. Think of the thousands of manuscript discoveries (Codex Sinaiticus, Sinaitic Syriac Gospels, the papyri, etc), the discovery of entire Ancient Near Eastern languages like Akkadian, Ugaritic, Mari. Think the Dead Sea Scrolls. And dozens of more examples.  Campbell saw farther because of the shoulders he stood upon, and we reap the benefit when we, like him, avail ourselves to God’s providential gifts that shed light on his word.

One last thing that we learn from Campbell’s example. When we study, really study, and we come to a conclusion at odds with our father (like he did his father, Thomas Campbell) we do not un-Christian those around us. We grow in our knowledge daily. Each day we learn that the depths of God’s word are infinite. We share what we have learned with love and care for God’s People.

We do not suddenly say because you do not see or understand this that you are not a Christian.

Growth in discipleship is not a matter of becoming a Christian again. It is a matter of thanking God for the transforming and illuminating work of the Spirit. Because of our journey we know that our faith is in Christ and not in our interpretation of this or that Scripture along the way.

4 Responses to “Alexander Campbell: Lessons in Fearless Bible Study”

  1. Andrew Swango Says:

    This is my favorite post on your blog since I subscribed not long ago. Thank you for sharing it! I particularly liked what you included about Alexander’s view of his own salvation before and after his baptism and your Darth Vador pic. 🙂

  2. Dwight Says:

    I think sometimes our striving to know knowledge has led to bad results, instead of striving to know Christ and his message, as much of the time we are looking for doctrine and not reading the story.
    I do like AC in that he sought to read not what he knew, but what he didn’t know, meaning that he didn’t conclude that he knew the truth as opposed to having the truth. I dislike all of our pamphlets and bulletins that have the word truth in it as if we are dispensers of it, much like the Guardian of the Truth thought it was. We are simply living in the Truth of the scriptures, but will never understand it all perfectly and are limited in knowing, unlike the apostles who had the HS to guide them and instruct them. This means our search for truth should never end and my/our doctrine never be considered beyond question. We need to be humble and know and accept our limitations. My faith in Christ can be secure and unlimited, even when I know I don’t know it all.

  3. Dwain Evans Says:

    Please add me to your mailing list.

  4. Jeffrey Taiwo Says:

    I don’t think anyone has all the truths except the Truth, Jesus. He gave us the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit to guide our sincere search for the truth.
    I always love the sincerity of Alexander Campbell in handling issues at his time. God looks into our hearts….

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