Campbell’s New Testament

Alexander CampbellAlexander Campbell, ed., The Sacred Writings of the Apostles and Evangelists of Jesus Christ, Commonly Styled The New Testament. Translated from the Original Greek, by George Campbell, James MacKnight, and Philip Doddridge, Doctors of the Church of Scotland. With Prefaces to the Historical and Epistolary Books; and an Appendix, Containing Critical Notes and Various Translations of Difficult Passages. Buffaloe, Virginia [now Bethany, West Virginia]: Alexander Campbell, 1826. Second edition, 1828. Third edition, 1832. Fourth edition, 1835. Reprinted often, most recently by Gospel Advocate Co. in 1974. Most printings bore the cover title, “The Living Oracles,” and so the version came to be called by that name. For the fourth edition (1835) the title was changed to correct its erroneous assertion that Doddridge was a member of the Church of Scotland, and to indicate that the translations of the three “doctors” had been revised by Alexander Campbell: The Sacred Writings of the Apostles and Evangelists of Jesus Christ, commonly styled the New Testament. Translated from the original Greek by Doctors George Campbell, James MacKnight, and Philip Doddridge. With Prefaces, Various Emendations, and an Appendix. By Alexander Campbell. (Bethany, Virginia: M’Vay & Ewing, 1835).

The Background and Ministry of Alexander Campbell

Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) was born in northern Ireland of Scottish stock, the son of Thomas Campbell, a minister in the Seceder Presbyterian Church of Scotland. He was educated privately by his father. In 1807 his father emigrated to western Pennsylvania in America, and in 1809 Alexander followed him. The Campbells eventually settled in a frontier area, just east of the Ohio River, in the village now known as Bethany in West Virginia.

Before coming to America, the Campbells were associated with a sectarian movement that arose among Presbyterians in their native country. In Scotland the leading figures of this movement were John Glas (1695-1773), Robert Sandeman (1718-71), and James Haldane (1769-1851), and so its adherents were variously called “Glasite,” “Sandemanian,” or “Haldanean.” A number of Scotsmen associated with it, including Sandeman, emigrated to America with the hope that their ideas would find a greater reception among settlers there. It appears that the Campbells came with the same idea.

The Campbells at first associated themselves with Baptists in their area. Alexander displayed unusual talent as a preacher, and spent much of his time travelling about, preaching by invitation in Baptist churches in western Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Ohio. But in his preaching tours he soon began to advocate radical changes in polity and doctrine among the Baptists, along the lines of the Sandemanian movement in Scotland. 1 Campbell claimed that these reforms were necessary for a “restoration” of ancient Christianity.

Campbell maintained that the office of “pastor” was an unbiblical legacy of sacerdotalism inherited from Catholicism, and that there is no Scriptural warrant for the existence of denominational agencies and mission boards. He also argued that doctrinal standards embodied in the creeds and confessions of the Protestant churches should be abolished, and that the Bible alone should be used to distinguish truth from error. He drew a sharp distinction between the Old Testament and the New, and believed that the New Testament alone should be used to establish doctrine and practices of the church. He maintained that faith in Christ was not a gift from God, and regeneration was not necessary for it, because this saving faith was merely a rational human response to testimony provided in the Bible. It was, in essence, nothing more than intellectual assent to the proposition that “Jesus is the Christ” based upon adequate evidence. He taught that the natural human mind was capable of this faith without a prior work of the Holy Spirit. The biblical teaching regarding the need for Regeneration (“ye must be born again”) was practically nullified by equating Regeneration with post-conversion Baptism. 2

In addition to the Sandemanian influence, Campbell was also much influenced by the writings of Arminian controversialists like Daniel Whitby (1638-1726), and so his theology had much in common with that of the Wesleyans, who were at that time enjoying success among the common people on the American frontier. But unlike Wesley and his followers, whose ministry tended to be constructive and spiritually edifying despite its theological flaws, Campbell was mostly a controversialist, continually engaged in debates, and in general defining himself and his movement negatively, in terms of what he opposed. Most of his followers were not new converts, but persons drawn away from the Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists.

His main purpose, as he conceived it, was to attack and discredit all established creeds, and all existing ecclesiastical organizations, so as to clear the way for what he conceived to be a purely “biblical” faith and fellowship. In his polemic against “the teachings of men,” he went so far as to rejected even the ancient ecumenical creeds. When his followers asked if he agreed with the Trinitarian doctrine of the Nicene Creed, he dismissed it as “Calvinistic.” 3

Some of these ideas may be seen as exaggerated versions of ideas that had played a part in the Protestant Reformation. For example, Campbell’s famous slogan, “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent,” might be construed as a restatement of the Sola Scriptura principle of Luther and Calvin. But the spirit of Campbell’s ideology in this respect differs greatly from that of the magisterial Protestant Reformers. Luther, Calvin, and their followers did insist upon the unique authority of Scripture, but as interpreters of Scripture they did not set themselves against the whole history of the Christian church. They were well-versed in the theological writings of antiquity, and they valued the contributions of celebrated Fathers of the Church such as Athanasius and Augustine. Campbell, on the other hand, showed no respect for the ancient authors, and indeed we find in his writings little indication that he had even studied any of their works.

Aside from theological literature of the age, Campbell’s theology was also influenced by the secular philosophical literature of the so-called “Enlightenment” of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In particular, the influence of the empiricist theory of knowledge developed by John Locke is conspicuous in his teachings regarding the nature of faith 4

Campbell’s Edition of the New Testament

Eventually Campbell’s interest in the “restoration” of the “ancient order of things” led him to find fault with the King James Version of the Bible, which in his day was the only version known to most English-speaking Christians. For some time, the more advanced scholars in Great Britain had been pointing out small deficiencies of the version; but, in general, even among the most educated churchmen, the consensus was that the defects were theologically insignificant, and a revision was not necessary. The fact that all the different parties and sects of Protestantism had a common English version was seen as a blessing, and few believed that any revision would prove acceptable to all parties. Albert Barnes, who was a contemporary of Campbell’s, expressed the common opinion:

The friends of this translation have never claimed for it inspiration or infallibility. Yet it is the concurrent testimony of all who are competent to express an opinion, that no translation of the Bible into any language has preserved so faithfully the sense of the original as the English. Phrases there may be, and it is confessed there are, which modern criticism has shown not to express all the meaning of the original; but as a whole, it indubitably stands unrivalled. Nor is it probable that any translation can now supply its place, or improve upon its substantial correctness. The fact that it has for two hundred years poured light into the minds of millions, and guided the steps of generation after generation in the way to heaven, has given to it somewhat of the venerableness which appropriately belongs to a book of God. Successive ages may correct some of its few unimportant errors; may throw light on some of its obscure passages; but to the consummation of all things, it must stand, wherever the English language is spoken, as the purest specimen of its power to give utterance to the meaning of ancient tongues, and of the simple and pure majesty of the language which we speak.

These remarks are made, because it is easy for men who dislike the plain doctrines of the Bible, and for those ignorant of the true history of its translation, to throw out insinuations of its unfaithfulness. From various quarters, from men opposed to the clear doctrines of the Scriptures, are often heard demands for a new translation. We by no means assert the entire infallibility, much less the inspiration, of the English translation of the Bible. Yet of its general faithfulness to the original, there can be no doubt. It would be easy to multiply testimonies of the highest authority to this fact. But the general testimony of the world; the profound regard paid to it by men of the purest character and most extensive learning; the fact that it has warmed the hearts of the pious, ministered to the comforts of the wretched and the dying, and guided the steps of millions to glory, for two hundred years, and now commands the high regard of Christians of so many different denominations, evinces that it is, to no ordinary extent, faithful to the original, and has a claim on the continued regard of coming generations.

It is perfectly clear, also, that it would be impossible now to translate the Scriptures into the English language, under so favorable circumstances as attended the translation in the time of James I. No single set of men could so command the confidence of the Christian world; no convention of those who claim the Christian name could be formed, competent to the task, or if formed, could prosecute the work with harmony; no single denomination could make a translation that would secure the active regard of others. The probability is, therefore, that while the English language is spoken, and as far as it is used, the English Bible will continue to form their faith, and direct their lives; and that the words which now pour light into our minds will continue to illuminate the understandings, and mould the feelings, of unnumbered millions, in their path to immortal life. 5

Nevertheless, Campbell (whom Barnes would probably count among the “men who dislike the plain doctrines of the Bible”) charged that the translators of the King James Version had deliberately perverted or obscured the teaching of the Bible in several important ways, so as to give unfair advantage to the proponents of “Calvinism.” And so he was moved to compile and edit a more “perspicuous and correct” translation, on the basis of versions executed by notable scholars of the eighteenth century.

As the title shows, it is a revision of translations of parts of the New Testament done by British scholars. The Gospels are from a translation by George Campbell (London, 1789), the Epistles from James MacKnight (London, 1795), and the Acts and Revelation from Philip Doddridge’s Family Expositor (London, 1756). In 1818 a London publisher had reprinted these versions together in one volume, 6 and it was this 1818 edition which Campbell used to produce his own edition in 1826. But Campbell did not merely reprint the versions as he found them. He revised the text, and substituted his own Introduction and explanatory notes for the introductions and notes of the original translators.

In this new edition Campbell naturally took the opportunity to provide Scriptural support for various ideas that he favored. His preface exhibits the belligerence towards “Calvinism” which came to be a hallmark of his movement. In it Campbell tries to establish his claim that the KJV is a Calvinistically biased version by quoting others who had connected some renderings in it with the renderings of an annotated Latin version published in the late sixteenth century by the Calvinist theologian Theodore Beza. But the argument is weak and unconvincing, and only shows the extent to which his own thinking was influenced by Rationalist and Arminian polemical writers of his time.

In this revision Campbell made use of the critical Greek text of Griesbach 1805, but his version does not always follow Griesbach’s text. For example, in Acts 2:30 Griesbach marks the words to kata sarka anastesein ton christon (rendered “according to the flesh, raise up the Messiah” by Doddridge) as spurious, but Campbell omits only the words “according to the flesh” from Doddridge’s version.

To show the extent of the revision in the Gospels, we provide the full text of Matthew 1-7 in parallel columns on another page. For the revision of MacKnight’s Epistles, we give Ephesians 5. For the revision of Doddridge, we give Acts 1-3. In these passages it will be seen that the changes introduced by A. Campbell are mostly stylistic changes, such as any educated man would be inclined to make. Probably the most important changes from a dogmatic standpoint are the substitutions of “immersion” and “immerse” for “baptism” and “baptize,” which are clearly designed to promote Baptist teachings. But the most interesting and questionable renderings of the original translators, which would require expert knowledge to evaluate, are left unchanged.


1. Editions of Campbell’s New Testament online.

2. Campbell’s sources.

3. Secondary literature about Campbell.

Nearly all the literature about Campbell and his early followers has been written by later adherents of the “Restoration” movement, and so it must be read critically with this in mind. The idea that the teachings of Campbell and his followers sprung directly from the canonical Scriptures without any controlling influence from other quarters is an important element in the ideology of the sect. Campbell’s debt to other primitivist sectarians of his day, and to eighteenth-century theological writers who contributed to his thinking (viz., Sandeman and his followers, Arminians such as Whitby, and empiricist philosophers such as John Locke) is usually minimized if not denied by his admirers. In this list of titles, only the first work listed (by Whitsitt) was written by a scholar outside the Restoration Movement.

4. Secondary literature by Campbell


1. For a full discussion of the Scottish sectarian sources of Campbell’s theology by an American Baptist, see William H. Whitsitt, Origin of the Disciples of Christ (Campbellites): A Contribution to the Centennial Anniversary of the Birth of Alexander Campbell (New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1888). Campbell’s debt to these Scottish sectarians was often noticed by critics in his lifetime, but Campbell was apparently unconscious of the extent of it, and he professed to be an entirely independent thinker. Thus in 1826 when a correspondent wrote to him, “So far as I can judge by your writings and preaching, you are substantially a Sandemanian or Haldanian,” in his reply he would not acknowledge any special or substantial debt, and professed, “I have endeavoured to read the scriptures as though no one had read them before me; and I am as much on my guard against reading them to-day, through the medium of my own views yesterday, or a week ago, as I am against being influenced by any foreign name, authority, or system whatever.” (“Reply” to a letter from Robert B. Semple of Virginia, published in The Christian Baptist, vol. 3 [April 3, 1826], p. 204.) Likewise several Campbellite historians have downplayed the influences on Campbell, and have tried to portray him as an independent thinker; but, as one of them admits, the influence of the “Scotch Independents” on Campbell is “patent to every observer” (Hiram Van Kirk, A History of the Theology of the Disciples of Christ [St. Louis: Christian Publishing Co., 1907], p. 78). Nathan Hatch’s book The Democratization of American Christianity (1989) describes very well the individualistic and egalitarian milieu of the American frontier culture that was so receptive to Campbell’s views, but his statement that “Whatever Alexander Campbell may have brought to America of his Scottish and Presbyterian heritage, he discarded much of it for an explicitly American theology” (p. 71) is very misleading.

2. This rationalistic teaching about faith is certainly not derived from the Bible, in which faith is inseparable from faithfulness, and in which saving faith is presented not as a mere assent to propositions about Christ, but as a lively faith in Christ (i.e. trusting in God’s mercy through Christ), which also involves a mystical union with Christ (see Galatians 2:20). For this reason, Protestant theologians have generally insisted that saving faith involves much more than knowledge. For example, the Lutheran theologian Hans Martensen writes, “Justifying Faith, as the teachers of the Evangelical Church have specially insisted, is not only an assent of the understanding, but trust; a confidence of the heart, a trustful appropriation of the article of the forgiveness of sins, a heartfelt certitude that the Son of God died not only for all, but for me (Gal. ii. 20), the individual;—a faith which, as it is the personal act of the man who ventures to appropriate the redemption provided for the world, is, strictly speaking, the gift of the Spirit of God, the heart of man being in itself too weak for this infinite trust. This believing appropriation of the crucified Saviour brings with it actual fellowship of life with the risen Saviour in His Church: a fellowship in which the believer possesses the righteousness of Christ, not only outwardly, but inwardly, as a creative principle for a new development of life. Christ dwells in the heart of the man by faith, yea, faith is itself the living bond, the secret point of union between Christ and the individual soul (unio mystica) (Gal ii. 20).” (Christian Dogmatics: A Compendium of the Doctrines of Christianity, by Hans Martensen, translated into English by William Urwick [Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1874], p. 391).

3. Alexander Campbell, “The Trinitarian System,” The Christian Baptist, vol. 4, no. 10 (May 1827), pp. 231, 233. While Campbell several times declared that he believed in the divinity and eternity of Christ, and protested against being called anti-trinitarian, his declarations on the subject consistently indicate a kind of naive Sabellianism, and he welcomed into his fellowship the followers of Barton Stone, whose teaching was explicitly anti-trinitarian. Campbell’s position on the Trinity, if not definitely heretical, was dangerously vague and minimalist.

4. John Locke (1632-1704) in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) “defined faith in purely intellectual, and indeed propositional, terms as ‘the assent to any proposition, not thus made out by the deductions of reason, but upon the credit of the proposer, as coming from God, in some extraordinary way of communication,’ that is to say, by revelation (IV.18.2). Looking on faith as a form of knowledge inferior to reason, Locke recommended great caution in the acceptance of purported revelations. No proposition, he contended, should be entertained ‘with greater assurance than the proofs it is built upon will warrant’ (IV.19.1) ... In The Reasonableness of Christianity as Delivered by the Scriptures (1695) Locke relied principally on biblical prophecies and miracles to accredit Christ as God’s messenger.” (Avery Dulles, The Assurance of Things Hoped for: A Theology of Christian Faith [New York: Oxford University Press, 1997], p. 66.) On the various ways in which Campbell was influenced by Locke, see chapter 3 of Hiram Van Kirk’s History of the Theology of the Disciples of Christ (St. Louis: Christian Publishing Co., 1907). Locke’s influence on Campbell’s understanding of faith was even noted by one of his long-time companions in ministry, Robert Richardson, who complained of it in a private letter: “The philosophy of Locke with which Bro. Campbell’s mind was deeply imbued in youth has insidiously mingled itself with almost all the great points in the reformation and has been all the while like an iceberg in the way--chilling the heart and benumbing the hands, and impeding all progress in the right direction.” (Letter to Isaac Errett, written from Bethphage, July 16, 1857, as quoted by Cloyd Goodnight and Dwight E. Stevenson, Home to Bethphage: A Biography of Robert Richardson [St. Louis, MO: Christian Board of Publication, 1949], p. 122).

5. Notes, Explanatory and Practical, on the Gospels: Designed for Sunday School Teachers and Bible Classes, by Albert Barnes, 6th ed. (New York: Leavitt, Lord, & Co., 1835), pp. xi-xii. This was also the common opinion of the best educated men in England up until about 1860. In 1843 James Goodwin of Cambridge University wrote: “What is the result of our reading any other versions of more recent or modern date? The feeling with which we must rise from the careful perusal of them is no other than that of increased admiration at the faithfulness, accuracy, and beauty of the authorized version of the Holy Scriptures, which it is our happiness to possess. True it is that, since the time when it was made, the field of classical learning has been widely extended; the facilities of acquiring it greatly increased; and scholars have arisen from time to time, who, building on the foundations which others before them have laid, have consequently risen to a greater eminence on the steep hill of knowledge. True likewise it is that such men have here and there noted in our authorized version a few trifling errors, and suggested a few unimportant improvements, if such indeed they may be called. But the sum of their most critical investigations has been this, that it is altogether free from any important error; for general accuracy and faithfulness, unrivalled.... in the authorized version of the Old and New Testaments, we have all received from our fathers an unmixed fountain of living waters, which it is our duty to suffer to flow on, undefiled and pure, to our children.” (The Gospel According to Saint Matthew .... Translated into English from the Greek, with Original Notes, by Sir John Cheke ... [with] an Introductory Account of the Nature and Object of the Translation, by James Goodwin [Cambridge, 1843], pp. 22-24.)

6. The New Testament Translated from the Original Greek, by G. Campbell, P. Doddridge and J. MacKnight. London: John Lepard, 1818. The volume sold well, and came to be known as “Lepard’s Testament.” A volume containing the same text was also printed in London by Wightman and Cramp in 1827. Campbell describes the edition of 1818 and the conception of his edition in an “Historical Sketch of the Origin and Progress of the New Translation” published in the Millennial Harbinger 3 (1832), pp. 268-274.