Proposing a New, Really Old, Hermeneutic

Okay, so I can’t count. This is really the fourth in a series of four. Maybe I will stop here – who knows. I’m kind of having fun.

In my last installment I critiqued the hermeneutic that a vast number of members of the Churches of Christ grew up with – and many still defend with the tenacity of a pit bull terrier. That hermeneutic is “Command, Example and Necessary Inference” (hereafter CENI). If you did not read that post, I can sum it up by saying there are some serious issues with that method of interpretation, especially with the “necessary inference” part, but I also see the strength of the hermeneutic and I believe that many Christians work around the problems intuitively, not necessarily consciously.

I also said there was a need for a healthier hermeneutic, and that I believed one was available. I believe it is practiced by more individuals than actually know it’s source (or sources). I think many younger preachers and teachers believe that this “new” hermeneutic is vastly superior to anything those hayseed Restoration leaders could ever think up. And so I give to you one of the most well reasoned, modern, and “spiritual” methods of interpreting the Bible constructed by — Alexander Campbell.

In his magnum opus, The Christian System, Alexander Campbell listed seven “rules” by which the Bible must be translated and interpreted. [As an aside here, this work really needs to be read and studied in its entirety by all ministers and teachers in the church. They will be amazed by the theological depth and breadth demonstrated by Campbell, and they will be embarrassed by their off-handed dismissals of his education, or supposed lack thereof.] I give them here, somewhat abbreviated, with explanations provided in brackets with my initials inside – [PAS]

  1.  On opening any book in the Sacred Scriptures, consider first the historical circumstances of the book. These are the order, the title, the author, the date, the place, and the occasion of it.
  2. In examining the contents of any book as respects precepts, promises, exhortations, &c., observe who it is that speaks, and under what dispensation he officiates . . . Consider also the persons addressed, their prejudices, characters and religious relations.
  3. To understand the meaning of what is commanded, promised, taught, &c., the same philological principles deduced from the nature of language, or the same laws of interpretation which are applied to the language of other books, are to be applied to the language of the Bible.
  4. Common usage, which can only be ascertained by testimony, must always decide the meaning of any word which has but one signification; but when words have, according to testimony (i.e. the Dictionary,) more meanings than one, whether literal or figurative, the scope, the context, or parallel passages must decide the meaning: for if common usage, the design of the writer, the context, and parallel passages fail, there can be no certainty in the interpretation of language.
  5. In all tropical language [poetic language- PAS] ascertain the point of resemblance, and judge of the nature of the trope, and its kind, from the point of resemblance.
  6. In the interpretation of symbols, types, allegories and parables, this rule is supreme: – Ascertain the point to be illustrated; for comparison is never to be extended beyond that point – to all the attributes, qualities, or circumstances of the symbol, type, allegory, or parable.
  7. For the salutary and sanctifying intelligence of the Oracles of God, the following rule is indispensable: – We must come within the understanding distance . . . Every one, then, who opens the Book of God with one aim, with one ardent desire – intent only to know the will of God, – to such a person the knowledge of God is easy; for the Bible is framed to illuminate such, and only such, with the salutary knowledge of things celestial and divine . . . He, then, that would interpret the Oracles of God to the salvation of his soul, must approach this volume with the humility and docility of a child, and meditate upon it day and night. (Alexander Campbell, The Christian System in Reference to the Union of Christians and Restoration of Primitive Christianity as Plead by the Current Reformation, [St. Louis: Christian Publishing CO., N.D.] p. 16-18, italics in the original)

The language is early 19th century flowery, but any student in a present-day course on hermeneutics would immediately recognize the scope of what  Campbell proposed – identify the type of literature, pay careful attention to the historical circumstances of the author and original readers, and do not press metaphorical language beyond it’s intended purpose. Wow. And Campbell wrote this in 1834-35. Of particular significance to me is Campbell’s use of the phrase, “understanding distance.” That sounds like it came straight out of the textbook I used in the Principles of Interpretation course I taught at Eastern New Mexico University.

Those who dismiss the theological acumen of Alexander Campbell are aghast at the soundness of this outline. Those who defend the hermeneutic of CENI are aghast that a Restoration leader would promote a “new hermeneutic” way back in 1835. The fact is, however, that if you truly follow what Campbell proposed, the hermeneutic of CENI is pretty toothless.

Are these seven rules of Campbell perfect? Are they to be equated with the words of the Bible itself? Are we to make of these seven rules what many have made of CENI? No, no, and no. I recognize these rules as one person’s contribution to the problem of biblical interpretation, and an early 19th century contribution at that. I know that our knowledge of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek languages, and our knowledge of ancient literature, has progressed significantly since Campbell’s day. I personally do not ascribe to Campbell’s dispensationalism, discussed in rule #2, and which he more fully expounds later in the book. So, I would tweak Campbell’s rules a little here and there. That having been said and duly noted, I find it quite amazing that so much of what Campbell wrote is still useable and valuable today.

I want to close this post with the words I selected as the final sentence above: “He, then, that would interpret the Oracles of God to the salvation of his soul, must approach this volume with the humility and docility of a child, and meditate upon it day and night.”

Amen, bro. Campbell, amen.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

5 thoughts on “Proposing a New, Really Old, Hermeneutic”

    1. Thanks for the comment, Tim – and for the link to your article. You quoted much more of Campbell’s 7th rule, and in so doing provided much more of the context. I appreciate your articles and your insights. It’s funny how we (in many Churches of Christ) have overlooked Campbell’s recognition of the spiritual aspect of biblical interpretation – and certainly that of Barton Stone. I think that is probably a result of the charismatic/Holy Spirit debates of the early 1900s, but there may be more to that than I am aware of.

      Thanks again for reading – and for the comment!

      Paul

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  1. Are you saying that CENI is an approach to interpretation or exegesis rather than a categories for application as imperatives? “Necessary inference” certainly conflates exegesis and application. Campbell’s points are elementary and appear for exegesis and not application.

    From my observation, disagreements come more from deciding what commands and examples to apply and how. Much of these controversial applications consist of inferences. By the way, I find that Romans 14 addresses unnecessary inferences. Are there any “necessary inferences” that are not examples? Examples have authority as a precedent only when illustrating commands.

    Thank you for addressing this subject with a fascinating source.

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    1. Thank you for the questions, Scott, and I must say that with my tongue firmly in my cheek I have to answer “yes” to your probing question. I have a specific idea in mind when I think of exegesis – that being the explication of what the text *meant* in its original setting by the original author. Campbell’s seven rules would probably best be described as an entry to exegesis. Hermeneutics, in my vocabulary, has as its goal the actual application of a text – the “so what” of exegesis. But as exegesis leads to hermeneutics, and hermeneutics cannot be properly done without adequate exegesis, the two are not purely independent practices. CENI has always (at least to my knowledge) been described as a “hermeneutic.” We either “apply” the text as a command to be obeyed, an example to be followed, or an inference that invariably becomes either a command to obey or an example to follow.

      As to your thoughts on Romans 14, the problem as I see it is that only with very few individuals can there be such an animal as an “unnecessary inference.” If I infer something from Scripture, well, by doggies you better agree with me or you won’t even get a sniff of the pearly gates. That is precisely the issue I have with the “inference” part – and I believe that was Thomas Campbell’s issue as well. He never said that we cannot make inferences from Scripture, only that we should not bind them as matters of conscience upon another Christian.

      I hope I addressed your questions – I do very much appreciate feedback, and I thank you for the time to read my post and for responding.

      Paul

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      1. Thank you, Paul. Sorry for the typos.

        Exegesis and application appear relatively simple to me with exception to a few difficult texts. However, I find most doctrinal division in misapplication of Scripture. For example, I hear believers discuss “rights to remarry” when Jesus defined adultery in Matt 19:9 and He did not mention “rights.” Furthermore, many believers do not apply the principles of order and edification for the assembly in 1 Cor 14.

        Personally, my concern is the application of precedents, fellowship, and faithfulness to following Scripture. Biblical examples of baptism illustrate and define the imperative of baptism. Biblical examples of assembly also illustrate and define the imperative of assembling. Further inferences appear to stretch Scripture to include opinions and traditions.

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