Restoration Quarterly Vol. 1 No. 1 (1957): 9-11


Principles of Biblical Interpretation in the Restoration Movement

Paul Southern

Pioneers in the Restoration Movement found themselves in a world of religious error with a multiformity of religious practices on every hand. Efforts at reform, though well meaning and far reaching, had failed to change the Catholic hierarchy. Roman ecclesiasticism continued, with an ever growing emphasis on the authority of an apostate church. The Reformation, furthermore, having veered from its original purpose, had evolved into a monstrous movement known as Protestantism. The papacy was hurling bitter anathemas against Protestantism, which was responding in like kind.

In the beginning Protestantism recognized the Bible as the only rule of faith and conduct. However, exponents of this noble sentiment never advanced very far in the correct interpretation of God’s word. Tradition had so overshadowed the Bible that its fundamental principles were shrouded in obscurity. The commandments of men were replacing the authority of the Scriptures. Many persons considered the precepts of the Lord as only wise counsel, while some went so far as to dishonor the Bible as a "dead letter."

Among the Protestant denominations which had taken form there were some well defined systems of theology. Although differing widely on many particulars, nearly all Protestants had one thing in common, namely, they had developed human creeds. Creeds and confessions of faith had multiplied to enormous proportions. Although designed to protect the one faith and exclude error, they became a barrier to the truth. Dogmas of speculation displaced divine Scripture and estranged professing children of God one from another.

Glaring discrepancies and peculiarities were not unusual within a given sect Religious leaders of equal intellectual and ecclesiastical rank would often cross swords under the same denominational banner. This condition was due to a number of causes. In the first place the religious world was in a state of flux. With transformation the order of the day, men were constantly shifting from one position to another. Released from the shackles of Roman dominion, earnest souls were feverish in their search for truth. Eager to debate the cause with their neighbors, sectarian leaders often met on the polemic platform. But one thing was noticeably absent, a well defined, comprehensive method of Scriptural exegesis. Sectarian trumpets were filling the air with many uncertain sounds. Nothing was more badly needed in the religious world than a return to the New Testament principles of Biblical interpretation as reflected in such statements as: "It is written," and "This is that which bath been spoken through the prophet."

The Restoration Movement was born for just such a time as this. Above the babel of clashing creeds the voice of the pioneers rang out with convincing clarity. Battle lines were drawn, and the fight began. Soldiers of the cross attacked all human creeds as an impeachment of the authority of the Scriptures. "Back to the Bible" in all matters of faith and practice became the rallying theme of the restorers, even before Thomas and Alexander Campbell arrived in America.

Appeal to the authority of the Scriptures was the primary issue of the day. Every undertaking was examined in the light of "thus saith the Lord." Leaders in the restoration movement were determined to "speak where the Scriptures speak, and to keep silent where the Scriptures are silent."

In his "Declaration and Address," Thomas Campbell sounded a clarion note which henceforth became the guiding principle in Biblical Exegesis. "It was his conviction that, if men would adopt the Bible as the only standard of religious truth, and accent the meaning of words as determined simply by the rules of language, its true sense would be sufficiently obvious, and there would be universal agreement in relation to the things which it revealed" (Richardson, Memoirs, Book II, p.11).

In a series of articles entitled "The Ancient Order of Things," Alexander Campbell waged a vigorous and untiring campaign against the divisive creeds of his day. Denouncing propositional dogmatics as an enemy to truth, he said: "Let the Bible be substituted for all human creeds; Facts, for definitions; Things, for words; Faith, for speculation; Unity of Faith, for unity of opinion; The Positive Commandments of God, for human legislation and tradition; Piety, for ceremony; Morality, for partisan zeal; The Practice of Religion,’ for the mere profession of it; and the work is done" (Campbell, The Christian System, p.117).

Restoration leaders recognized the fact that God has spoken. They accepted the Bible as a divine revelation, complete, authoritative, infallible, and inerrant. With them a simple appeal to the Scriptures was regarded as final on all matters on which it treated. Alexander Campbell said: "The Bible alone must always decide every question involving the nature, the character or the designs of the Christian institution. Outside of the apostolic canon, there is not, as it appears to me, one solid foot of terra firma on which to raise the superstructure ecclesiastic" (Richardson, Memoirs, Book II, p.495).

It was the contention of restoration leaders that the Bible is intelligible, and self-explanatory when interpreted according to its own well defined method. Since the Bible’s very nature and design is to unfold and make known, it admits of being understood. In looking to the Bible alone for all the spiritual plans and specifications of the Divine Architect, the restorers vigorously denounced the accumulated rubbish of human speculations. In matters of faith, they contended uncompromisingly for unity, but in matters of judgment they appealed for liberty.

Leaders in the Restoration Movement held that the materials in God’s great Temple of Truth are accurately fitted, marked, numbered, and displayed before the reader. It was believed that if the reader earnestly considered and carefully compared these materials, it was almost impossible to mistake their method. The precise meanings designed by God are obvious, they declared, when all the light of heaven’s inspiration is focused on matters of faith and practice. "For the entire business of interpretation consists properly in the careful observation and comparison of the phenomena of revelation, preparatory to the determination of their respective places and relative bearings in the grand synthesis of the whole. The rules, therefore, by which we come to a just understanding of individual facts, and the method which controls the operation of those rules, and arranges those facts into the true Christian system, must be drawn from the nature of the subject as presented in the Bible itself" (Lamar, Organon of Scripture, p.42).

With these principles of Biblical interpretation as their guide, pioneers of the faith settled everything with a "thus saith the Lord." For each item of faith and practice there had to be in the Scriptures. direct command, a clear example, or a necessary inference. Exegetical canons which did not measure up to these scriptural principles were rejected as the vagaries of men. The plea was not for human rules of interpretation, but for a return to the true method of exegesis indicated by the nature of the Scriptures themselves. Along these lines they pleaded with the religious world to return to the "ancient order of things."

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