27 Sep 2021

Alexander Campbell: Pointers for Properly Reading the New Testament

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Alexander Campbell, Bible, Discipleship, Hermeneutics, Restoration History

There are many things for which Alexander Campbell can be criticized, just like all of us. And like all of us, sometimes it is our weaker positions that live on. One area Campbell has come in for criticism is what scholars call “Dispensationalism.” We recognize this from the Jule Miller filmstrips: Patriarchal, Mosaic, Christian dispensations. There has been a long tendency among us to mean more radical things by this than Campbell did. It is not uncommon to find the spiritual offspring of Campbell believing that the NT is essentially the antithesis to the “Old Testament.” As we shall see that is not what Campbell meant.

So for today, I think there are three truths that Campbell left us that are often overlooked. These truths are also sound beginning points to faithfully reading the New Testament.

First: A Moral Requirement. Campbell believed a certain moral quality is required to reading Scripture. It is this moral dimension that makes Bible study an act of worship. It is in fact the beginning and the ending of the matter. “God himself is the center of that circle, and humility is its circumference.” One enters Scripture not as a master, to debate, or the like, but humbly where we seek and find genuine communion with God through the power of the Spirit. “the voice of God is distinctly heard.” Our eyes are fixed upon God to be in joyous communion with God. So we do not read to prove another wrong but to commune in God’s holy presence.

Second: The Bible Requires Effort. There are few people who championed the right of ordinary people to read the Bible for themselves as Alexander Campbell. But Campbell did not believe that “the Bible alone” is equivalent to “ALONE with the Bible.” The Bible can be daunting and requires effort on the part of disciples. He put it like this,

“[N]o volume in the world can surpass the Bible, in all its varieties and peculiarities of style; and that no book demands so much discrimination on the part of the student, who would accurately understand and intelligently interpret, its ancient and venerable compositions” (Christianity Restored, p. 18).

The Bible is the greatest book. But the Bible makes “demands” upon a student for understanding. The Bible is “ancient.” One of the demands for reading the New Testament is a deep and proper comprehension of the Hebrew Scriptures. Campbell states this in numerous places. I will refer to both Christianity Restored and Christian System.

“Remember that the authors of the New Testament were Jews, and well versed in the Jewish Scriptures; and that an intimate acquaintance with the Jewish Scriptures is indispensable to your knowledge not only of the ancient communications, but to an acquaintance with the style and phraseology of the New Testament authors” (Christianity Restored, p. 65).

“Every one, then, who would accurately understand the Christian institution must approach it through the Mosaic; and that he would be a proficient the Jewish must make Paul his commentator … The language of the new institution is therefore explained by that of the old. No one can understand the dialect of the kingdom of heaven who has not studied the dialect of the antecedent administrations of heaven … All the leading words and phrases of the New Testament are to be explained and understood by the history of the Jewish nation and God’s government of them” (Christian System, pp. 117, 118-119).

“Paul was a Hebrew, and spoke in the Hebrew style. We must learn that style before we fully understand the apostle’s style. In other words, we must studiously read the Old Testament before we can accurately understand the New” (Christian System, p.231).

Campbell simply declared, “though the New Testament is written in Greek, it has the soul of Hebrew.” (Preface to the Living Oracles).

These words of Campbell, which can be multiplied, are almost stunning. For Campbell dispensationalism meant you could not base church PRACTICES like infant baptism (as the analogy to circumcision) on the OT. Campbell did not think and mean that you could even understand the Christian faith as written in the New Testament apart from living and breathing the “Hebrew style.” The thought of the New Testament is from the Hebrew Bible. In short NT doctrine means what it means based on the “Old Testament.”

Campbell’s emphasis here was correct. To use a Pauline image, it is “sound.”

Third, Epistles are Surprisingly “Hard.” For Campbell the Epistles of the New Testament embody the previous three ideas. We still seek God. And they are challenging for a myriad of reasons. They must be entered through an Old Testament framework. But there is one more obstacle that makes them “difficult.” They are “occasional.” In his “Preface to the Epistles” in the Living Oracles, Campbell wrote,

“EPISTOLARY communications are not so easily understood, as historic writings. The historian writes upon the hypothesis, that his reader is ignorant of the facts and information, which he communicates; and therefore explains himself as he proceeds. The letter-writer proceeds upon the hypothesis, that the person or community addressed, is already in possession of such information, as will explain the things, to which he only alludes, or which he simply mentions. This is more especially the fact, when the writer of a letter addresses a people, with whom he is personally acquainted, amongst whom he has been, and with whom he has already conversed, upon most of the subjects on which he writes. A letter to persons who have heard the writer before, who know his peculiarity; and, above all, who are perfectly acquainted with their own circumstances, questions, debates, difficulties, conduct, &c. may be every way plain, and of easy apprehension to them, when it may be very difficult, and, in some places, unintelligible, to persons altogether strangers to these things. It is a saying, to which little exception can be made, that every man best understands the letters addressed to himself. It is true, if another person were made minutely acquainted with all the business, from first to last, with all the peculiarities of the writer, and circumstances of the persons addressed, and with all the items of correspondence, he might as fully and as clearly understand the letter, as those for whom it was addressed.”

A letter writer makes a large number of ASSUMPTIONS on the part of the reader. These assumptions are typically not shared by those who were not the original recipient. After all, as Campbell states,

“we are to remember, that these letters were written nearly eighteen centuries ago. This fact has much meaning in it: for it follows from it, that, excepting the prophetic part of these writings, not a word or sentence in them, can be explained or understood, by all that has happened in the world, for eighteen hundred years. We might as well expect to find the meaning of Cicero’s orations, or Horace’s epistles, from reading the debates of the British Parliament, or the American Congress of the last year …”

What Campbell says is that New Testament Epistles have a historical context. They have an “occasion.” They were written “eighteen hundred years ago.” We need to learn the “style” of the authors (they were Jewish) and we need to try to enter the world of the readers. So we come to the Bible as a whole as humble students seeking the greatest gift, communion with God. We read the pages of the New Testament with reference to the Hebrew Bible. That is the New Testament is explained by the “Old Testament.” And admit that some of the text is challenging and requires effort and paying attention to the context both the wider biblical context and the historical context.

I think these pointers from Campbell would deeply enrich and bless our churches today.

One Response to “Alexander Campbell: Pointers for Properly Reading the New Testament”

  1. Robert Limb Says:

    I think you are absolutely right. The sad thing, which is actually astounding, is that there are people today who do not see this as self-evident.
    It is the epitome of silliness to think that you can understand the Bible with no help from anyone, no risk of error, when you can only read the Bible in your own tongue.

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