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Alexander Campbell's System of Bible Study (with study questions)

7 Rules of Biblical Interpretation

In Section VI Alexander Campbell gives us his 7 Rules of Interpretation. It is important to remember that he intended these rules as a simple way to determine the plain meaning of scripture.. We, of course, are free to go beyond his original meaning in examining the areas that he proposes we study. Since I am trying to match this study to Campbell’s intentions (and by doing this, presenting a system for beginners as well as more advanced Bible students), I will try to adhere to his original meanings with only a few additional explanations.

Since Campbell believed that the Bible is easy to understand, and he assured us that the Holy Spirit would help us to have perception, it is best to attempt to answer all the questions under these 7 Rules from the text of scripture first. This way we are not influenced by the opinions of others. Our initial impression is from God’s word under the guidance of his Spirit. I believe this is an important step in Bible study. We need to leave pre-conceived notions and interpretations of others behind and just allow the Bible and the Holy Spirit to instruct us.

However, this does not mean we never consult any outside sources. It just means we don’t consult them first. God has been speaking to other men and women down through the centuries about his word, and it can be a real blessing to read what others have discovered. It is helpful for a new Bible student to have at least two books in their library to assist with applying Campbell’s system to a specific section of the Bible. One of the books should be a Bible Handbook, Bible Dictionary, or Study Bible, and the other book should be a Concordance such as Strong’s.

Rule 1

What do you think Campbell means by the "historical circumstances of the book"? List the 6 items we are to ascertain.

First, Campbell suggests we consider the historical circumstances of the book. This could include when it was written, to whom, for what purpose, who was the author, and so forth. This also may include specific customs, historical situations, or settings that would be pertinent to understanding the book. He lists 6 specific items to ascertain: the order, the title, the author, the date, the place, and the occasion of the writing.

1. Order. Although there is some scholarly disagreement over the dating of some of the Biblical books, they are generally presented in chronological order. This seems to be what Campbell is referring to. We could also examine the order of writings compared to other writings by the author. Here’s an overview of the Biblical books and the timing of the events they describe.

Genesis – the ancient Patriarchs

Exodus to Deuteronomy – Moses and the Exodus

Joshua to Judges – Conquest of Canaan and afterwards

Ruth to 2 Chronicles – Time of the Kings

Ezra to Esther – Around the time of the Exile (during and after)

Job to Song of Solomon – Poetry and Wisdom from various times

Isaiah to Malachi – Around the time of the Exile (before, during, and after)

Matthew to John – The life of Christ

Acts – The beginnings of the early church

Romans to Jude – Letters to the established churches

Revelation – The final words to the Church

2. Title. Although Bible Handbooks and Study Bibles have made this item not as important today as it was in Campbell’s day, we can still learn from the title. We can ask – what information is there in the title that would help us to understand the book we are studying?

3. Author. It is not always possible to determine the author. Sometimes the book will tell us who the author is. Other times it may give us clues. Campbell goes on to say we should examine the age in which the author lived, his style, and his mode of expression.

4. Date. Most of the time this involves conjecture. There will be times when events described in the narrative may give us a general clue especially if we know who the author is. As a general rule, historical books are considered to have been written after the last event recorded in the narrative. This may not always be true as a later editor may have added a post script to the work of an earlier author.

5. Place. In most cases it will be extremely difficult to determine the actual place. If we know the author, we may be able to speculate as to the place written by references in the book.

6. Occasion of the writing. There certainly was a reason for every book written in the Bible. The author had a definite purpose, and he wrote with a specific audience in mind. Sometimes we can figure this out, other times we may have clues that could lead to theories. This would also include determining the subject matter of the book.

Rule 2

What main thing are we to look for under this rule? Name some different speakers we might find in the Gospel of Matthew. Of these speakers, whose words should we live by, whose words should we ignore?

The first thing that Campbell tells us to do under this rule is to determine who it is that is speaking. Depending on who it is will determine whether we should listen to any commands, promises or exhortations.

For example in the Gospel of Matthew there are many speakers: Jesus, the Disciples, Angels, John the Baptist, Satan, Pharisees, scribes, etc. We will definitely want to listen to the words of Christ and the angels, and probably the disciples and John the Baptist, but we may want to hesitate to follow the words of the Pharisees and scribes, and we better definitely not listen to Satan. There is a story from the last century that the defense attorney in order to impress the jury quoted from the book of Job to defend his client’s position. But the prosecuting attorney won the day when he pointed out that the words from Job were the words of Satan. So it is important who is speaking in the Bible!

The next thing Campbell suggests we examine is under which dispensation does the speaker live – the Old Testament or the New Testament. Believers in the Old Testament were under the requirements of the law whereas Christians in the New Testament are under grace because of Christ’s sacrifice.

Next he suggests we examine the persons addressed. He tells us to look at their character, prejudices, and religious relations. For example, when we understand the Jews low esteem of Samaritans, we can better appreciate Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.

Rule 3

Does Campbell believe that the words in the Bible have special secret, hidden, or spiritual meanings other than their obvious meanings? How do you feel about this?

As we have discussed before, Campbell believes that the Bible is simple to understand and easy for us to perceive its meaning. To help us in that process, he gives us two guidelines in discovering the meaning of scripture. The first guideline requires a knowledge of Greek or Hebrew which will be beyond the average Bible student. I recommend that the student purchase a Strong’s Concordance which contains all the words in the Bible numerically coded so it is easy to compare the use of the same Hebrew or Greek words throughout scripture. It also has a brief Hebrew and Greek dictionary in the back to help understand the semantic range of words.

Campbell’s first rule concerns employing simple linguistic principles. We must use the same principles that are used in any language study. In other words our interpretation of the language must follow consistent rules. We need to follow the general meaning of words, and not consider unusual or speculative meanings without other evidence, either from internal evidences of the text, or examples from outside sources. I am a firm believer in finding the one English word which is closest in meaning to the Greek or Hebrew word, and using that meaning as much as possible. Because of the nature of translation, this can’t be done all the time, but the more consistent, as far as I’m concerned, the better. Translations such as the New International Version which freely switch different words of similar meaning for the Hebrew or Greek words are not appealing to me. For example, in the 119th Psalm there are 8 Hebrew words which are used for synonyms of the word of God. The psalmist has deliberately alternated these different words. The King James Version reflects this by always translating the same Hebrew word by the same English word – precepts, commandments, law, statutes, etc. But the New International Version will use any of the eight synonyms for any of the 8 Hebrew words and so you don’t get the same effect as in the original. One note of caution about language study. In the Hebrew, there are many theories of language development – some claim they can distinguish between early Hebrew and late Hebrew constructions and meanings. Beyond the Bible, there is virtually no Hebrew literature on which to base these theories, and new discoveries often contradict old theories. So we can examine these proposed ideas, but remember, most of them are simply unproved theories.

The second guideline is using consistent laws of interpretation. Laws of interpretation must be based on consistent principles. Nothing is more frustrating than when someone interprets one section of scripture one way, and then takes another similar wording or use in another section of scripture and interprets it the opposite way. We must be consistent in our interpretation. For example, Psalm 19:7-8 gives us two pairs of poetic parallelism matching different aspects of the word of God:

7 The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.

The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.

8 The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart.

The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.

But then in verse 9 we have:

The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever.

The ordinances of the Lord are sure and altogether righteous.

Following consistent laws of interpretation, we would have to say that the phrase in verse 9 "The fear of the Lord" is referring to scripture since verses 7-8 are parallel pairs and it seems verse 9 is repeating the same pattern. If we were to say this means that we must fear the Lord, we would be interpreting more into this text than is warranted. This verse is telling us that the commandment of God is the fear of the Lord. Since this concept is difficult for our 20th Century western mind to understand, this is a good example of a time when we need to allow the Holy Spirit to minister his truth to us.

The pitfall of interpreting scripture is the temptation to try to force scripture to say what we want it to say. We constantly see new interpretations trying to be forced on the Bible to match changing cultural and moral values. We must strive to avoid doing this, but sometimes it’s not easy.

Rule 4

What are some study aids we can use to help us understand the meaning of the words in the Bible? If a word offers more than one meaning, which 3 things does Campbell tell us to use to help us determine the meaning? What should we do if all these methods fail to produce a clear interpretation?

Campbell starts this section off by saying that common usage must always determine the meanings of words. He suggests using a Dictionary to help in this process. Perhaps he is thinking of a Greek or Hebrew dictionary or lexicon, but the English dictionary can also be very helpful at times when used with the Strong’s definitions. Another good tool for the student is a Bible Dictionary which will usually have the original meanings of most theologically significant words.

Campbell is very emphatic in insisting that common usage must always determine the meaning of words. I believe this is an extremely important rule, and I wish more Bible scholars would apply it. The common usage should always take precedence over any unusual, contrived, or speculated meaning.

When it is more difficult to determine the meaning of a word, or a word has more than one common use, Campbell suggests we look at 3 things: the scope, the context, and parallel passages.

1. The Scope. The scope of a word can sometimes be determined by consulting the Greek or Hebrew definition. It also helps to examine the various uses of the word throughout the Bible. For example, the Hebrew word barak means "bless," but it also means "kneel" and probably this was its original meaning. So if we see a verse saying that a father blesses his son using this word, it probably will not mean that the son was running to the father to receive the blessing

2. The context. What is being said in the chapters and verses surrounding the word you are examining can influence its meaning. For example the context of John 3:1-18 is being born of the flesh and born again of the spirit. So when verse 5 says, "no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit," the word "water" here is probably referring to the flesh, not to baptism. But some have been quoting this verse to "prove" that you must be baptized in order to be saved. Baptism is not mentioned at all in these 18 verses. It is not part of the context.

3. Parallel passages. This is always a very good way to determine meaning. If the word has been used the same way in another part of scripture, or the same idea of the passage is expressed in different words, then sometimes we can determine the intention of the author. For example, in Psalm 19, verse 4 says, "their line has gone out through all the earth." Many scholars think the first half of Psalm 19 reveals the evidence of nature, while the second half of the psalm the evidence of God’s word. But it seems to me the whole psalm teaches that God speaks to man, first through the words of creation and then through the words of scripture. Romans 10:18 quotes Psalm 19 and renders this line, "Their voice has gone out into all the earth." Although this isn’t conclusive, it does reveal an indication of what Paul thought Psalm 19 meant. And in this case the parallel passage supports my interpretation.

Alexander Campbell concludes Rule 4 by saying that if none of the above methods work, then the meaning cannot be determined with certainty. I think this is important to remember. Scholars will argue and debate over some obscure passage, but there are simply some passages that defy a clear interpretation. In Psalm 103:5 there has been much scholarly debate over the meaning of the Hebrew word ‘adiy. After reviewing all the different viewpoints and arguments for various meanings, Barnes wrote in 1871, "I confess myself unable to determine the meaning." Now there was an honest man.

Rule 5

What do the words "tropical" and "trope" refer to in this rule? What "point of resemblance" do you think Campbell means when it comes to interpreting figurative language?

Campbell’s reference to "tropical language" and "trope" refers to figurative language. His rule here is to determine if there is a point of resemblance to other similar wording in the Bible. This is extremely helpful in understanding passage with a lot of figurative language such as the book of Revelation. Much of the figurative language appears elsewhere in scripture, and so this can aid in our understanding of what these symbols might mean. Often we will see symbols repeated throughout the Bible. For example, the olive tree is often used to refer to Israel and oil is often used in connection with the Holy Spirit. By comparing symbolic language with other uses, it can sometimes help us understand the meaning. However, it is unwise to apply this to all usages. Just because an author uses a symbol does not mean that he necessarily intended the same meaning as others have used before him.

Rule 6

Name the 4 categories of scripture that Campbell is addressing in this rule. In order to properly interpret these kinds of verse, what is the most important thing we should look for?

Campbell extends his discussion of figurative language and lists four categories which we must take care to interpret properly:

1. symbols – which is when a word or phrase is symbolic of something else

2. types – is when one thing in the Bible teaches something about another (usually later) thing. For example, the Passover lamb sacrifice was a "type" of Jesus, the Lamb of God, being sacrificed for our sins.

3. allegories – are when words depict a picture of symbolic meaning. For example, the allegory of the heavens in Psalm 19 gives us a picture of God reaching to every corner of the earth.

4. parables – are short stories from everyday life that depict spiritual truth.

In these examples of figurative language, we are to ascertain the point to be illustrated and never extend the comparison beyond that point. For example, in the Parable of the Lost Coin recorded in Luke 15:8-10 Jesus is teaching that there is rejoicing in the presence of angels over one sinner who repents. So this parable should not be used to teach that we should become treasure hunters or that women need to sweep their houses more often. This goes beyond the point of the parable.

Rule 7

What spiritual preparation do you think is necessary in order to come within the "understanding distance" of God’s word?

Most courses on How to Study the Bible tell you that you must start any study with prayer. Christ promised us in John 14:26, "But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you." We have the Holy Spirit to help us understand the Bible. In order to come within Campbell’s "understanding distance," we must prepare our heart spiritually. We must commune with God and meditate upon his word. Campbell lists the following items of spiritual preparation:

Study with humility

Depend on God’s wisdom, not our own

We must open our eyes

We must not get distracted by intellectual interpretations

We must fix our understanding on God

We must have an ardent desire to know the will of God

We must listen for the still, small voice of God

Come as a child

Meditate on God’s word day and night

Sit in Christ’s presence

Listen for God’s voice

Then the Bible will be easy to understand

As we study God’s word, let us practice these spiritual disciplines. And may God reveal the truth of his word to strengthen us, encourage us, and lift us up.


This study on the 7 Rules of Interpretation 1998 by David Humpal. All Rights Reserved.

All scripture unless otherwise noted is from the New International Version 1971, Zondervan Bible Publishers

The author has attempted to present Campbell’s system of Bible study to be easily understood by the layman or Bible student with no knowledge of Hebrew, Greek, or critical methods of interpretation. I think I have been mostly successful, but at times I may get too technical. I hope the average reader will overlook those times.

Barnes’ Notes on the Old Testament, Psalms, pg. 75, Baker Book House

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