James Sanford Lamar and the Substructure of Biblical
Interpretation in the Restoration Movement
Stephen Broyles. This article
appeared originally in Restoration Quarterly 29.3 (1987), 143-51.
Reproduced by permission.
Portrait of J. S. Lamar
in The Living Pulpit of the Christian Church, ed. W. T. Moore.
Cincinnati: R. W. Carroll, 1868.
The following article visits part of the history of an American
religious movement that brought into being the Disciples of Christ
and the closely related Churches of Christ. Therefore, narrowly
viewed, it might be of interest only to people in these churches—and
maybe not even to many of them. But seen from a broader perspective,
the issue discussed here is relevant to a good many people who want
to be instructed by the Bible in their life and faith. The Bible
requires interpretation. But how do we interpret it? Lamar, like
many people before and since, sought a method that could be reduced
to a few rules. Was he on the right track? Read on.
The statement by Alexander Campbell in the second edition of The
Christian System has become a classic definition of the place of the
Bible in the Restoration heritage: ‘We take the Bible, the whole Bible,
and nothing but the Bible, as the foundation of all Christian union and
communion.”1 The concept that the Bible is the locus of the
voice of God for the church has dominated virtually all thought and
usage among those who stand in the Restoration heritage.
In consequence of taking the Bible as the place where God speaks, the
question naturally arose: How shall the Bible be understood? By what
methodology are these ancient words to be interpreted by the modem
reader? Restoration thinkers supplied a methodology which seemed to
avoid the wrong-headedness of allegory and dogmatism and to make a
strong appeal to practical men of common sense. That methodology was the
The leaders of the movement were deeply interested in arriving at
unanimity. The solution to religious division was, in the words of Moses
Lard, to accept “the exact meaning of Holy Writ as our religious
theory.”2 It therefore became crucial to determine what that
exact meaning was. And since all religious differences were “occasioned
by false principles of interpretation, or by a misapplication of the
true principles,”3 unity would result when right
principles were rightly applied. General optimism over unanimity was due
to methodological assumptions borrowed from the Baconian approach to the
empirical sciences. These assumptions, shared widely among American
Protestants in the early nineteenth century,4 were implicit
in Campbell’s approach to Scripture. “Great unanimity has obtained in
most of the sciences,” Campbell wrote, “in consequence of the adoption
of certain rules of analysis and synthesis: for all who work by the same
rules, come to the same conclusions.”5 Accordingly, Campbell
believed that in the interpretation of biblical phenomena, unanimity was
achievable by the same methods used by the sciences in the
interpretation of physical phenomena.
Campbell’s writings on biblical interpretation initially focused more
on the meanings of words and sentences than on the assumptions
underlying the search for meaning. It remained to one of Campbell’s
students—James Sanford Lamar (1829-1908)—to make the underlying
assumptions explicit. Lamar was a Georgia boy who graduated from Bethany
College in 1854, taking second honors in Latin and delivering the
valedictory address.6 After graduation he returned to
Georgia, centering around Augusta but also active in north Florida and
south Alabama. With A. G. Thomas he undertook to publish The
Christian Union.7 Later he became associate editor of the
Christian Standard, of which Isaac Errett was editor, and in his
mature years he became Errett’s biographer.8 In 1860, J. B.
Lippincott of Philadelphia published Lamar’s Organon of Scripture: Or
the Inductive Method of Biblical Interpretation,9 which
laid down the philosophical substructure for attaining the unanimity of
interpretation sought by Campbell.
In the Organon Lamar defined the religious climate in America
as skepticism. The church possessed the Bible, to which it looked for
ultimate truth. But when men asked the church for answers, the church
returned conflicting and disparate statements; consequently, men were
left in doubt as to which of the answers were true. Lamar attributed
doctrinal disagreements “not to the Bible, nor yet to the depravity or
incompetency of those who have studied it, but to the imperfections and
perverting influences of the methods which have been followed” (p. 24).
The false methods which had led to this state of confusion and
skepticism are (1) what Lamar called the “mystic method” (finding
multiple levels of meaning as in much post apostolic and medieval
interpretation) and (2) the “dogmatic method” (typified by late medieval
scholasticism and its use of interpretation to support Catholic dogma as
well as by Protestantism’s attempts to square the Bible with its
formulations of doctrine). In place of these two methods Lamar proposed
the inductive method. He was optimistic that the Bible could be studied
and understood by this method and would thereby “speak to us in a voice
as certain and unmistakable as the language of nature heard in the
experiments and observations of science” (p. 176).
Acknowledging his indebtedness to the scientific methodology of
Francis Bacon,10 John Herschel, and John Stuart Mill, Lamar
defined the task of interpretation as to observe and compare the
phenomena of revelation, given propositionally in the Bible, and then to
determine “their respective places and relative bearings in the grand
synthesis of the whole” (p. 42). Thus out of bits of information an
overall pattern would emerge.
Lamar’s own illustration of the method was the hewn blocks for
Solomon’s temple spread out upon the ground. By careful measurement and
observation of each block, a builder could learn how to fit all the
pieces together. If he was true to the character of each piece and put
them all where they fit without reshaping, the result would be—what
else?—Solomon’s temple (pp. 40-41). So it is with the Bible. It contains
the prefabricated materials of the temple of truth. Admittedly, they are
laid out in some confusion, but if the reader will only “earnestly
consider and carefully compare these materials, it is next to
impossible” for him to fail to erect the structure of truth which God
To guide the implementing of his method Lamar laid down eight canons
of interpretation to “put the reader in possession of the key which not
only unlocks the storehouse of natural and revealed truth, but which is
able also to introduce him into every department of knowledge,” since
“the method of science is also the method of revelation” (p. 241). The
eight canons were lifted bodily from Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse
on the Study of Natural Philosophy,11 which proposed
canons for interpreting data from the sciences.
It would be to no purpose to discuss all eight of the abstruse
canons, as even Lamar’s succinct explanations of their use first in
physics and then in biblical study do not make them easy. It will be
enough to illustrate one or two of them.
Canon 7 is one of the more accessible: “If we can find two instances
which agree exactly in all but one particular, and differ in that one,
its influence in producing the phenomenon, if it have any, must thereby
be rendered sensible” (p. 260). In terms of physics, this canon means
that if two experiments are identical in all ways but one, that one
feature will account for whatever differences there may be in the
results of the experiment. Taking canon 7 to scripture, Lamar concluded
that the two conversions in Acts 16 and 18 are identical in all ways but
one: the earthquake in Chapter 16. Drawing a general law of conversion
from these two accounts, he listed hearing, faith, and baptism—but not
the earthquake—as the elements necessary for conversion. But then, Lamar
asked what to do with the earthquake. Canon 8 gives the solution: “Being
a residual phenomenon remaining after the induction from the points of
agreement have been made, [the earthquake] must be now classified with
those providential or miraculous influences which concur in preparing
the mind for the reception of the word which produces faith” (p. 262).
In other words, having an earthquake prior to hearing the gospel is
helpful, but it is not necessary to salvation.
Both Campbell and W. K. Pendleton were lavish in their praise of
Lamar’s work. In Pendleton’s review, he said “It is truly a book of
substance—learned, but not pedantic; argumentative, but not dull; and so
rich of useful information and judicious reflection, that we feel it to
be a good service to commend it, as we most heartily do, to the candid
and studious perusal of the public.”12 Campbell called the
work “preeminently logical in its books, its parts, its chapters, and
its sections” and printed an expanded version of Lamar’s already
detailed table of contents. “This is a volume of much value,” Campbell
wrote, “got up in the best style of typography, and will interest every
amateur of the Divine Oracles, and more especially those who are devoted
to preaching and teaching the whole counsel of God.”13
Other books by Restoration scholars followed. David Roberts Dungan
(1837-1920) found the inductive method a firm base and elaborated its
application beyond the theoretical base Lamar had laid.14
Dungan even declared that the Bible itself recognized induction as the
correct method of interpretation. Citing several examples, he concluded,
“Nothing more respecting the Scripture method need be said, for it is
everywhere apparent that when the Lord would conduct an investigation on
any subject, He did it by the inductive method.”15
Clinton Lockhart (1858-1951), going every bit as far as Lamar, stated
that his aim in writing was, in part, “to reduce the entire system of
principles to a form that accords with the present state of other
sciences,” and “to approach every law by a process of induction, so that
the reader cannot fail to discern its value and to learn the method of
Discussion of the inductive method has been carried into the second
half of the twentieth century by James David Thomas and a number of
lesser lights. Thomas’ We Be Brethren17 was not
chiefly concerned with hermeneutic theory. It rather applied biblical
materials to the controversy over church cooperation in orphanages and
other institutions. But it did build upon the inductive base put down by
Dungan and others.18 A second book, Heaven’s Window,19
written to defend the pattern authority assumed in We Be Brethren,
brought hermeneutic substructure once again to the fore. We Be
Brethren, wrote Thomas, “more or less took up where Dungan left off,
while [Heaven’s Window] goes back behind Dungan’s original
assumptions and works in that area first.”20 Induction (or,
as he prefers to call it, the scientific method) serves the same end for
Thomas as it served for the earlier Restoration leaders; that is,
through its use each reader of Scripture “is striving to arrive at the
common mind through the same methodology.”21
J. S. Lamar did not provide the total impetus for inductive Bible
study in the Restoration Movement, but he was the first within the
movement to give it full and convincing expression. A hundred and
twenty-five years later, we can still admire the spirit and intention of
his work. He aimed at an accurate, reliable, and unfailing understanding
of the teachings of scripture. He sought to achieve that aim by applying
to scriptural phenomena the same canons that England’s greatest living
scientist applied with such success to physical phenomena. He attempted
to make biblical interpretation an exact science when allegory and
dogmatism had seemingly produced almost universal skepticism of arriving
at a consensus of what the Bible means. In the context in which it
arose, Lamar’s method offered an exciting possibility: the Bible can be
understood. It is as comprehensible as the natural world and has an
objective meaning that anyone following the correct methodology can find
But we now live and work in a different context. Allegory and
scholasticism no longer need to be overthrown. Baconian science is now a
historical curiosity.22 The old canons of scientific logic
have been found inapplicable in many areas of knowledge. And the
perspective from which we view the Bible is changing. The
nineteenth-century Restoration perspective fostered the meticulous
construction of a system of doctrine whose individual points were
declared somewhere in the Bible. The twentieth century perspective is
beginning to encourage the study of the theological issues addressed
directly by the contents of scripture, within their historical and
biblical contexts. Our predecessors asked, What does the Bible say about
God? about salvation? about the church? We are beginning to ask, What is
the central doctrine of the Bible? What is the message of Luke-Acts? How
is the history of the people of God also a revelation of God? For them,
grammatical exegesis was virtually equivalent to hermeneutics; for us it
is the presupposition for hermeneutics.
If the changing perspective is legitimate and if the new questions
are to be allowed, then to what extent is the old methodology
appropriate? The answer is that, taken as an all-encompassing
hermeneutic, induction has far-reaching inadequacies.
Lamar’s inductive method was essentially atomistic. It reduced the
Bible to “phenomena” representing “rules, laws, circumstances,
influences, forces, connections, and dependences, which may be expressed
in words” (p. 192; italics his). In studying any question, Lamar
said, “the first thing to be done would be to collect the scriptural
facts, or recorded instances, which bear upon the point” (p. 213). When
one views the Bible as a vast assortment of phenomena, spread out, “it
may be, in some confusion” (p. 42), one does not so much read it
consecutively for its own sake as ransack it for data bearing on a
particular question—even a question that may be wholly external and
alien to the biblical witness. Lamar’s own illustration suggests the
fundamental weakness of induction as one’s sole method: the Bible is not
an assortment of prefabricated blocks on their way to becoming a temple
of truth. It is itself the temple. The books of the Bible are
architectonic wholes, not stacks of lumber and stone waiting to be
assembled. The Canon of books is a unity, speaking a unified and
coherent word. It is not the interpreter’s task to erect the temple, but
to explore it.
One of the most distressing results that follow when the Bible is
atomized is that there are no longer any weightier matters of the law.
All matters begin to weigh the same. Every phenomenon in the Bible
becomes of equal height and weight with all the other phenomena.
Everything in the Bible tends to become of first importance, so nothing
remains of secondary importance. Everything becomes first principles, so
there are no second principles.23 Lamar grounds all true
doctrine on the proposition that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of
God—“the true center from which radiates all the light and truth of the
Bible” (p. 160). So far so good. He has identified a center. But the
next move is crucial. Do matters of believing and doing gain weight and
priority from their nearness to the center, or are all equally near and
primary? The Organon’s position is clear: to believe the center
“is to oblige one to obey all the commandments, to heed all the
instructions, and to cherish all the promises of the Savior, either
oracularly delivered in person or by those to whom he delegated the
authority. In fact, the whole Bible is but a radiation from its
glorious personage; and all its facts, precepts, promises, hopes,
fears, and enjoyments, are intimately and indissolubly connected with
him” (p. 162; italics mine). Whether Lamar pressed this viewpoint
consistently in his ministry is a separate matter. But here it stands at
least in theory. We are led to believe that matters like christology,
conversion, church organization, horse racing, and faro are all of equal
weight and importance.
Both the atomizing of the Bible and the leveling out of all its
contents resulted from modeling Bible study after scientific research.
Science in its Baconian expression advanced knowledge by collecting
facts, describing and classifying them, and then drawing consistent
inferences. By this method the total body of scientific learning was
increased. Without question this method is still of enormous value in
certain areas of biblical research, including archaeology and philology,
where the possibility exists of discovering data previously unknown and
integrating them into a coherent system. But the method cannot be
successfully applied to every dimension of Bible study, for at its
heart, Bible study is a literary, not a scientific pursuit. It deals
with a body of literature already well known. At its heart it aims at
helping the reader comprehend the meaning, nature, and purpose of what
is already given in the Bible. In addition to seeking answers to
contemporary questions, by constructing patterns from biblical facts or
phenomena, it must also recognize the larger organizing patterns already
present in the biblical literature. To attempt less than that is to fail
at the heart of the whole enterprise.
Until quite recent times, inductivism continued to exert its
influence upon Restorationist thought, particularly south of the Ohio
River. Insofar as interpreters adhered to the methods laid out by Lamar,
Dungan, Lockhart, and others, the atomization of scripture, the leveling
out of all distinctions between weightier and less weighty matters, and
the approach to the Bible through nonliterary avenues proceeded apace.
Meanwhile, biblical study at large has long since turned away from
whatever vogue Baconian induction might have enjoyed. Since the second
half of the nineteenth century, biblical scholarship has applied the
various methods developed within the fields of historical and literary
criticism to the history and literature in the Bible. Since the early
part of this century, scholarship has increasingly recognized a
distinction between exegesis and hermeneutics, between the descriptive
and the normative tasks. That the new methodologies have seemed to lead
to heretical outcomes, particularly in the practiced hands of German
liberals, has done nothing to make them attractive to people with a high
view of the Bible. In consequence much Restoration biblical scholarship
has been carried on virtually within a closed field of discussion.
The long-range consequences of following a defective methodology
within a closed atmosphere are dismal. The combination of biblical
maxims lifted from their contexts leads to more and more eccentric
interpretations of scripture’s intent. The removal of our researches
from the critical eye of outside scrutiny eliminates the need for
pleasing anyone but ourselves and suggests an underlying apprehension
that our researches will not stand such scrutiny. The leveling of the
Bible’s contents makes soundness in faith the unfailing adherence to a
limitless set of details and in practice makes unity unattainable. The
equation of exegesis with hermeneutics turns preaching into lectures on
the Bible and insures that our message will be increasingly
unintelligible to contemporary secular man.
If we fall into stagnation and rigidity, the blame is not to be laid
at the doorstep of Lamar and the other nineteenth-century thinkers. In
their time their work with the text faced contemporary concerns and
offered the best solutions they knew or could find out. Their clear and
compelling statement of the inductive method offered a positive
improvement over previous methods. Through its application, the rubbish
of allegory, spiritual interpretation, and dogmatism was cleared away
and the plain meaning of scripture could again be sought. But if in the
final analysis inductivism failed to supply an all-encompassing
hermeneutic, it is not because it attempted too much but because it
attempted too little.
In our work with the text we can open up avenues and try out visions
unknown to men in the last century. In our time the way is prepared for
a holistic reading of scripture acknowledging the structure, shape, and
thematic integrity of the various books. There is a move in the
direction of biblical theology, balancing our proclamation against what
is proclaimed in scripture and seeking a center for our faith around
which we may enjoy community. There is a fresh impulse to cleanse the
dark infections of sectarianism, flooding those areas with the light and
power of truth and love. And there is a call to reenter the larger field
of discussion, contributing our hard-won insights and benefiting from
the insights of others.
Lamar and the men of his generation took an exciting and challenging
adventure, and they did well. May the remembrance of their achievement
impel us to renewed vigor and excellence in the adventure of our own
1The Christian System in reference to the union of
Christians, and a restoration of primitive Christianity, as plead in
the current reformation (2d ed.; Pittsburg: Forrester &
Campbell, 1839. Reprint ed.; Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1970), p.
2“The Reformation for Which We Are Pleading—What Is It?”
Lard’s Quarterly 1 (1864): 22.
3Alexander Campbell, “The Bible—Principles of
Interpretation,” Millennial Harbinger, Ser. 3,3 (1846): 13.
This material had appeared earlier as “A connected view of the
principles and rules by which the living oracles may be intelligibly
and certainly interpreted,” in Christianity Restored, rev.
and corr. ed. (Bethany: M’Vay &Ewing, 1835).
4See Sydney E. Ahlstrom, “The Scottish Philosophy and
American Theology,” Church History 24 (1955): 257-272;
Theodore Dwight Bozeman, Protestants in an Age of Science: The
Baconian Ideal and Antebellum American Religious Thought (Chapel
Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977); George H. Daniels,
American Science in the Age of Jackson (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1968), pp. 63-85. Daniels takes Samuel Tyler
(1809-1877) as a representative of American Baconianism. Tyler was a
Maryland lawyer who through several articles in the Princeton
Review attracted wide notice, including the esteem of Sir
William Hamilton, a champion of the Scottish Philosophy. Daniels
listed the main elements of Tyler’s thought as “a passionate
attachment to the Scottish common-sense philosophy of Reid and
Stewart, a corresponding hatred of things ‘metaphysical,’ . . . and
. . . deep commitment to conventional religion, especially of the
Evangelical variety.” Daniels then remarked, with obvious relevance
for Campbell and other Restoration leaders in America, that a man of
that day with those particular beliefs “could hardly be anything but
a Baconian” (p. 70).
Interpretation,” p. 13.
6“Annual Commencement of Bethany College,” Millennial
Harbinger, Ser. 4, 4 (1854): 519-523; “Valedictory Address of J.
S. Lamar,” ibid., pp. 524-528.
71856. The periodical did not survive into a second year
(Claude E. Spencer, comp., Periodicals of the Disciples of Christ
and Related Religious Groups [Canton, Missouri: Disciples of
Christ Historical Society, 1943], p. 47).
8Memoirs of Isaac Errett with selections from his
writings, 2 vols. (Cincinnati: Standard, 1893).
9Reprinted many times, including an edition by the Old
Paths Book Club.
10Lamar’s book title imitates Bacon’s Novum organum
scientarum (1620), which enunciated an empirical approach to the
11London: Longman, 1831.
12Millennial Harbinger, Ser. 5, 3 (1860): 88.
13Ibid., p. 101.
14Hermeneutics: A Text Book (Cincinnati: Standard
Publishing Co., 1888).
15Ibid., p. 101.
16Clinton Lockhart, Principles of
Interpretation as recognized generally by Biblical scholars, treated
as a science, derived inductively from an exegesis of many passages
of scripture, 2d ed., rev. (Fort Worth: S. H. Taylor, 1915), p.
5. The first edition was published in 1910 under a slightly
different name by the Christian Index Publishing Co., Des Moines.
17We Be Brethren: A Study in
Biblical Interpretation (Abilene: Biblical Research Press,
18Thomas called Dungan’s
Hermeneutics “the best book in the general area available so
far” (p. 9).
19Abilene: Biblical Research Press,
20Heaven’s Window, p. 92.
21Ibid., p. 87.
22Its demise was evident as early as
the mid nineteenth century. It drowned under a “deluge of facts”
(Daniels, American Science, pp. 102-137). Justus von Liebig was the
first prominent scientist to repudiate Baconian inductivism (in his
essay Über Francis Bacon von Verulam und die Methode der
Naturforschung [Munich: Literarische-Artistische Anstalt, 1863];
see Larry Lauden, “Theories of Scientific Method from Plato to
Mach,” History of Science 7 : 1-63). I am indebted to
Robert Colvett for these last two references.
23See Matt. 23:23; 1 Cor. 15:3; Heb.
24I wish to thank Leonard Allen of
Abilene Christian University for making available to me his paper “Baconianism
and the Bible in the Disciples of Christ: J. S. Lamar and
The Organon of Scripture,”
presented to the American Academy of Religion Convention in 1983 and
published in Church History
Vol. 55, 1986, pp. 65-80). Dr. Allen’s paper is of special interest
because he follows Lamar’s thinking beyond the
Organon to his later years when Lamar himself rejected a rigid