CENI – Having a Humble Hermeneutic

A hermeneutic is the way we go about making interpretations. In the case of biblical hermeneutics, it is the method we use to make sense of what we read in scripture. I grew up in some pretty conservative circles. In those circles, the goal of interpretation was a desire to know what God wanted us to do and believe and what God wanted us to believe (identifying true doctrine and false doctrine). Bible study’s purpose seemed to be primarily about behavior and belief.

The reason you go to scripture often has an effect on how you read scripture. In my experience growing up, the goal of turning to scripture was often times about refuting what other people had to say about various points of doctrine. You turned to scripture in order to make a legal-type case for one doctrine, against other doctrines. The hermeneutic I grew up with that was most often deployed to ascertain that information from scripture is often called CENI, which stands for Command, Example and Necessary Inference. Here is how it works.

  • We know we are supposed to do or believe something if it is directly commanded in scripture (mostly just the New Testament + 9 of the 10 commandments).
  • We know we are to do or believe something if there is an example of it in Scripture (particularly, the New Testament).
  • What do you do if there is no command or example? In those cases you take what you do have in scripture (sometimes mixed with tradition) and try to conclude what might be inferred/assumed God would have to say on that issue.

My goal in this post is to unpack CENI in a way that shows CENI can be helfpul but does have enough limitations to remind us that we must be humble in how we interpret scripture and what we bind or don’t bind on other people. Often CENI is held up as THE WAY to interpret the Bible and that nothing else will result in biblically accurate conclusions. That is a false dichotomy that, if followed back to its logical conclusion would lead us to believe the NT writers didn’t interpret scripture correctly since they didn’t employ this approach. None of us would agree with that, and so, the weaknesses of CENI begin to emerge. The New Testament writers didn’t systematically use this hermeneutic. They used allegory, typology, midrash, etc and had the guidance of the Holy Spirit in doing so.

Command

The thought is, if God commanded it (Greek/Hebrew imperative) then we do it. First of all, I like that line of reasoning. I think we should take God’s commands very seriously. I think that because Jesus basically said as much at the end of Matthew 7. Commands are important, but a simple reading of the Bible very quickly reveals that not all commands in scripture are to be followed by us today. The first command in the Bible is one we cannot follow today (don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil). So commands are important. Commands are to be obeyed…but not all commands. How about these, now from the New Testament:

  • Romans 16:16 commands, “Greet one another with a holy kiss”.
  • Acts 15:20 commands we not eat meat with blood in it.
  • Matthew 5:29 tells us that if we lust we should gouge out our eye. I have yet to meet a single Christian with an eye patch on because they obeyed that command.

So some commands are binding and, for various reasons, others are not. Command in CENI has its limitations. It doesn’t work out 100% of the time. It is not always as easy as God said do this and so we do. How do we determine which commands are binding and which one are not? Why are some commands followed and which ones don’t apply? My point here is not so much to poke at CENI for saying commands are important (I think they are). My point is that those who go by CENI must be intellectually honest enough to be upfront about its limitations, exceptions, etc.

There is a false assumption that legalists take all the commands seriously and progressives are flippant about God’s commands. It just isn’t the case. Both are aware that there are non-binding commands. How do we determine what makes a command non-binding? For some tradition makes the call (“We haven’t ever done the Holy kiss thing and aren’t going to start it now”). For others it is about context and culture (“A handshake or hug communicates the same thing today”). Some on both ends of the spectrum use culture as an excuse to ignore a biblical commands in favor of their preconceived, culturally biased conclusions.

Example
CENI says examples (particularly apostolic examples) are binding . If they did it, we MUST do it just as they did it. From a CENI perspective, the presence or absence of examples carry the same weight as a command. But again, there are exceptions to that. Where are we to meet? There is no command in scripture that we have to meet in an official church building but we do have some examples of where they met. We learn in the New Testament that the first century church met in homes. Example? Yes. Binding? No. Many legalists decry small groups because they meet in homes (which is our scriptural example…now that is confusing.) and have decided meeting in a church buildings is more biblical even though there is no scriptural precedent for that . This is an example where CENI is hijacked by tradition. By the strict CENI standard, we shouldn’t even have a church building and only meet in homes, yet somehow (tradition), it gets spun around backwards and the biblical example is actually called SIN.

Or how about the Lord’s Supper? The early church took the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week (and possibly other times as well). Now, if CENI had been their hermeneutic, they would have had to take it on Thursday since Jesus didn’t command the day to take it on and all they were left with was his example of taking it on Thursday at sunset (which actually then counted as Friday, more on that in a minute). But the early Christians (and us today) took it on Sunday, the Lord’s resurrection day. They didn’t have a command. They did have an example and they picked a different day (by guidance of the Holy Spirit?). Sunday communion would have been condemned by the CENI hermeneutic and yet that is what they did. Were they sinning? Of course not. Did they have direct Holy Spirit inspiration to tell them to change the date of the Supper? Maybe. We aren’t told. The point is, CENI is not an ancient interpretive framework. It is an Enlightenment/modern method of interpreting scripture (that doesn’t make it all bad, we just have to recognize where it comes from and be aware of our own blindspots).

Now, about our following the example of the early church taking the Supper on the first day of the week, we do have examples in Acts of the early Christians taking communion that day. But what even constitutes the “first day of the week”? In Jesus’ day it was sunset on what we call Saturday evening to sunset Sunday evening because days began at sunset, not midnight. So if we are to understand early church practice, in their cultural context and the way in which they understood what a day actually is, then communion would have to be taken between Saturday sundown and Sunday sundown. Have you ever heard that taught? I don’t know any on the conservative side who teach that even though that would be accurate from a scriptural standpoint (doesn’t mean they aren’t out there…I just don’t know of any). I do know some who would tell you that you are sinning if you took the Lord’s Supper on Saturday night. I don’t want to broadly generalize here and say all of them would say that but I have heard it said. The question is not whether or not it fits our comfort zones and traditions but what Scripture actually teaches.

Here is the big question, that CENI doesn’t get to the heart of. What is the authorial intent in scripture when studying any particular topic, command, doctrine, etc.? CENI is more set up for debate and point proving and providing supporting evidence (often via prooftexting) for a particular view than it is at getting at the actual intent and meaning of the text in its original context. I am not saying proving points is bad. I am saying we should be proving points as they were intended to be made in Scripture rather than having a point to be proven and then wrapping scripture around it.

Just like the more conservative brethren, progressives also don’t believe ALL examples are binding. Instead, examples are just that…examples. They are not always binding on their own. Again, it depends on the context. Progressives don’t usually see examples as binding in all instances (neither does anyone else). From a progressive view point, examples are descriptive and can be but are not always prescriptive. In effect, both sides take exception with examples as not being always binding in every situation. We just may differ on which examples are binding and which ones are not. It is important both “sides” recognize that.

Necessary inference
Now we get even further out on the hermeneutical limb. Necessary inference is what is used to find out what we think God wants (and what is binding) on issues of silence. When there is no command and there is no example, necessary inference fills the gaps. It is like God just has to have something to say on every single issue and we are going to make him communicate it whether he wants to or not (Paul tells us some things in the Gospel are a mystery…but that doesn’t jive well with Enlightenment influence, modern thinkers), whether God cares about it it not. Can we have a song book even though there is no example in scripture (scripture is silent)? Sure…Why? Because we can necessarily infer that God wants us to sing and so we can use whatever tools we need to assist us in that singing (unless it is a praise team, multiple song leaders, etc). A pitch pipe is okay before a song but not during a song. Why is a pitch pipe ok? Because it assists us in our singing and God likes singing. This gets shaky.

So how do we know how to make a necessary inference in the best possible way? What factors influence what we believe can be inferred and what cannot? That is where things get tricky because there are many things like personal preference and tradition that often heavily weigh on what inferences people believe are necessary. We all make inferences but we have to realize they are just that. They are not commands and they are not based on example. We have some say in how and what we infer and that makes for a lot of wiggle room in areas of silence.

What must be avoided is putting the conclusions based on NI on level with direct commands or even examples. That is where things get really rocky…condemning others for drawing different inference-based conclusions than you do lacks humility and makes us the ultimate arbiter of all truth (even when not expressly stated by God). Honestly, the way NI is used and abused sometimes borders on outright arrogance. We all have to make inferences but we have to be very careful with how we view the inferences of others on matters that scripture is silent on.

From a progressive point of view, necessary inferences are not seen as inherently binding because God didn’t see fit to give us any direction on those matters. From their perspective, God has left us the freedom and ability to choose various options when it comes to the inferences we make. But that comes with a caveat. Necessary inference does have a place in biblical interpretation…for example, scripture never condemns speeding on the highway but it does say we need to obey and respect those in authority. We can infer that that includes speeding or running red lights or shooting guns into the air on New Years day…none of those things are explicitly condemned in scripture (for obvious reasons) and yet we would conclude/infer from other scriptures what we are to do or not do in those situations.

Conclusion – I hope that at this point in the conversation we all have the realization that humility is essential and that all things are not as simple as “the bible says so and we don’t need to do any sort of interpreting.” I also hope this has been fair, accurately representing what is being said out there and as even-handed as possible. I know that is basically impossible to do but I want to make a stab at being fair here and helping us all see our own blind spots, limitations and areas for growth. It is hard to see any of those things if we believe either of two extremes: we already have all truth and right answers on all issues or there is no truth to be had and that none of these issues are important anyway.

18 Responses to CENI – Having a Humble Hermeneutic

  1. It looks like you put a lot of work and thought into that, putting that into words.

    … but as a side query,

    Now, if CENI had been their hermeneutic, they would have had to take it on Thursday since Jesus didn’t command the day to take it on and all they were left with was his example of taking it on Thursday at sunset (which actually then counted as Friday, more on that in a minute).

    While we are weighing tradition, why Thursday night and Friday? Were you able to look at the colored chart I made? I know this was an earlier topic, but don’t remember a specific response, and I didn’t see elaboration in this article… if CENI was the apostolic hermeneutic, then wouldn’t they would have been keeping the Passover like the Essenes on Tuesday night, the meatless passover that only had bread, wine, and bitter herbs (for God would provide the Lamb)…

    … but back on topic,
    The CENI hermeneutic might work a little better if it were more consistently applied. For example, scripture does say “Blessed are they that do his commandments” … for “they may have right to the tree of life” and enter into that holy city. So commandments are not unimportant.

    1) It is important to take note of to whom the commandment was given. For example, there is a commandment in scripture to take your one and only son, travel to the top of a mountain, and make a human sacrifice. That commandment had limited jurisdiction, being subject to a particular person at one particular time. Likewise, the “ten commandments” also had a limited jurisdiction, over a particular people in a particular nation. With this angle considered, the law of Moses is not binding by itself, but it does provide an example of the heart of the lawgiver (natural inference).

    2) Proceeding on that natural inference, Jesus was asked to infer the law, and how did he answer? What is the great commandment of the law? And what is next to it? The law of Moses hung beneath those two laws, not that “love God” and “love thy neighbor” was subject to specific commands just because they were printed.

    3) Looking through the New Testament, we can find specific commands, in addition to “Love God” and “Love thy neighbor” of the same tenor. They include “Love thy enemy”, “love one another”, and “love truth”. All of these are broad commands, and it seems that we are expected to be able to infer the rest spiritually. If one gets locked into looking hard for micromanaged commands past this, maybe they’ve missed the point. God is a spirit, and we must worship him in spirit and truth.

    I apologize if it seems like I’ve taken a Devil’s Advocate position, but it seems to me that if properly and honestly applied, even the CENI method you described above might reach this same point, and maybe even soften (or dissolve) itself.

  2. Rusty says:

    Good thoughts. Enjoyed reading and processing this with you.

  3. John says:

    When I was a teenager one of the most well known Gospel Meeting preachers in the CoC had been trained in law before becoming a minister, and you could tell this was how he approached scripture. You would think that he approached all scripture as wanting to find the original intent. However, some of his approach was simply to find “correct wording”.

    A good example was his belief in the “Word Only” understanding for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. One of his arguments was Paul saying in 1 Corintians that Christ is not divided. So, since Christ could not be divided, then the Holy Spirit could not be divided between all Christians. Even a sixteen year who was a fan at the time found that one quite “iffy”.

    I have always loved reading poetry and song lyrics, and to be honest, that is how I read the Bible, poetically. Not that scripture is simply poetry, but that is the spirit in which I approach it. I felt guilty of this as a young man, after all even many of those who claim not to be legalists are more secure approaching scripture as law than as poetry or song. But, as shown by the example above, even the “law” approach does not guarantee clear and concise understanding.

    By the way, I think there is even room for the Allegory approach. Jewish Rabbis were famous for this. If it does no harm to truth, then it can be a beautiful tool

    Just thinking.

    • mattdabbs says:

      There is certainly room for allegory in our interpretation. The whole point here is, we have to use our brains, we have to seek God and truth. We have to trust that the most important things are easily interpreted. We also must realize that making a 100% on the final doctrine exam God will pass out on the day of judgment isn’t found anywhere in scripture. Perfect understanding is not a prerequisite for salvation. Praise God for that!

  4. I think the important thing to realize is that CENI isn’t a hermeneutic. It’s insufficient for recognizing biblical doctrine. Recognizing commands in the Bible is important, but, as you’ve pointed out, we still have to unpack which commands are for us and which aren’t. CENI doesn’t help us do that.

    Same with examples. When is an example binding and when is it not? Few churches practice corporate fasting, despite it being presented in the book of Acts. Many resist the laying on of hands. We make decisions about when to follow examples and when not to… CENI doesn’t give us the tools to do that.

    And inferences? You’ve covered that one well… CENI doesn’t help us know which inferences are necessary and which aren’t.

    If we use CENI as one tool in our interpretation kit, that’s fine. If we try to pretend it is a method of interpretation, we quickly get into hot water.

  5. Travis says:

    CENI is a valid method of interpretation, in that those who use it can, in fact, get to Heaven because of their approach, I believe. Grace covers a multitude of imperfections, even those caused by CENI (despite the lack of grace inherent in that method of understanding). The downside is the self-assurance it brings about, because our own knowledge and understanding become the basis of our salvation. Our faith saves us, and our faith is shown by our actions, and without faith, shown by our actions, it is impossible to please Him (to paraphrase multiple sermons I’ve heard on the subject). Commands, examples, and inference all exist, and I think we agree on that. But as pointed out, some of those commands and examples are rather vague (such as love) or hard or make us uncomfortable (such as greeting with a kiss, washing others feet, fasting, etc.). Better to stick to the concrete and easily understood, things we can check off on a list, rather than float around in hippie-ville, right? To continue the argument, God is not the creator of chaos, but of order. And if your understanding leads you to do something that my understanding leads me NOT to do (via CENI), then there is chaos. And division. So someone must be wrong. After growing up with this, and subsequently leaving that mindset, I’ve come to the conclusion that some people cling to CENI because of the false sense of security it gives. Some people like the rules, the definite black and white, right and wrong, it provides. Their God is a neat, tidy God, who dots all the i’s and crosses all the Ts, and is 100% predictable. He’s safe. He’s familiar. And He also evidently didn’t create hurricanes, which are none of those things. As Tim pointed out, CENI is a tool, but there’s much more we need to further our relationship with Christ.

  6. It seems the question is not the validity of commands, examples and inferences (which by definition are necessary), but rather the appropriate use of those three terms. As previously pointed out, some commands were directed at specific people at specific times for specific purposes. Abraham’s command to sacrifice Isaac serves as the perfect example of that. However, we all agree that Abraham could not have simply said, “Ok. God. I get it. I trust you enough to sacrifice my son. I have faith, let’s skip this little exercise and move on.” He knew he had to actually do what God commanded. If God provides a command for us through Jesus and the apostle’s teaching, then we have to follow that command. Yes, it takes some work, but determining, which commands were set for us to follow, and which were given strictly to the apostles or certain rich young men or other people will be determined by the context. I think we all understand that, and it is not being legalistic to look for commands we are to follow. That is called searching for the will of God, and then having the faith to do it.

    Examples have also been given for us to follow. Practically all of the New Testament is examples of people doing things in response to certain commands. These are the stories of early Christians doing their best to do God’s will. They heard the teachings of Jesus and their actions represent the best way to follow the commands they were given. By staying true to the original intent of the passage, we can discover which examples to follow strictly, and which ones were based on culture. Naturally there will be debate over which examples are tied to culture and which are not, but in the end the example is set and we must follow it.

    Inference is sadly a much maligned part of the interpretation process. The unfortunate addition of the word “necessary” has created much confusion. I know, Matt, that you did not add it, but whoever did add it created the idea, that perhaps there are some “unnecessary” inferences. When we read the story of Philip and the Eunuch, we see that the Eunuch was a religious man because he had been to Jerusalem to worship. He was reading Isaiah, but could not understand it. Philip, lead by the Spirit, went to him and asked if he needed help. Philip was invited into the chariot and proceeded to tell him the gospel. The next thing we read is the Eunuch, seeing some water, ask to be baptized. So we infer that the gospel includes, not just the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, but also the command given by Peter on Pentecost, that we must repent and be baptized in order to have our sins forgiven and to receive the Holy Spirit. The text doesn’t say that Philip taught the Eunuch to be baptized, but we infer that command from the Eunuch’s request to be baptized.

    I agree that inference has been abused by many to support a tradition that someone may wish to follow, but a true inference is one that comes from the text, and is clearly a result of logical reasoning. Commands, examples and inferences are what we look for when we study scripture because those are the things that God has given us to show us his will. He has given us the ability to reason because he knew we would need it to understand his truth. Regardless of how you find CEI, ultimately these are the only things that have any authority from scripture. If you don’t have a C, E or I, then you don’t have the will of God.

    • mattdabbs says:

      Randy,

      There are so many examples in scripture that have no follow through today. One of those is Acts 15 where we have an apostolic command (not example or inference…command) for what Gentiles must do in order to be fellowshipped: avoid sexual immorality, don’t eat bloody meat and don’t eat the meat of a strangled animal. Is there any reason why this should not apply today? My point is, if we are serious about CENI then let’s be serious about it, if not, then why tout it as the end all model of interpretation when those who strictly adhere to it don’t use it evenly.

      The other thing that has authority from scripture is the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

      • Matt,

        I believe we should be serious about Commands, Examples and Inferences, but as I mentioned, that is not the method, that is the result. If we study scripture, taking context, other passages on the same subject, type of writing, original recipient, etc. into consideration, we will find the things which are authoritative are CEI. If you start with a CEI then, yes, you begin proof-texting, and start falling into the error.

        I’m not sure what you mean, however, by, “The other thing that has authority from scripture is the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” Are you referring to how the Holy Spirit guided the apostles and first century Christians in finding the truth, or do you mean that the Holy Spirit guides people still today in their understanding of scripture? If the latter, then how do we find the truth, when two people are lead by the Holy Spirit to different understandings of the scripture?

    • mattdabbs says:

      Commands are to be taken seriously when they are interpreted to be applicable to us today. So, like has been said before, a command for Abraham to sacrifice his son is not an all time command for fathers to sacrifice their kids.

      Examples are important, especially when they are explicitly tied to the reasons they did certain things. So meeting in homes is the example we have of where to meet in scripture but we don’t feel compelled to bind that on ourselves today because the location itself is never given special theological significance in scripture.

      Necessary inferences should in no way be viewed the same as commands. They are closer in importance to examples but we have to be aware of their limitations. Inference, by its very definition, involves probability and the probability we assign to something is directly influenced by all sorts of things other than scripture.

      So let me sum this up – God says “Don’t murder”…it is hard to infer anything from that other than what it means. On the other hand Jesus says doesn’t tell us when to take the Lord’s Supper but leaves it as “as often as you do this” then the early church gives us an example that they did take it on the Lord’s day/Sunday. We then infer that that is when we should take it too. That’s pretty solid to me. But when we start using NI on pitch pipes, song books, lights, microphones, etc to justify all sorts of things as if every single thing has a “thus saith the Lord” assigned to it and then, as a result, judgment associated with it, isn’t a fair way to evaluate or interpret scripture.

    • mattdabbs says:

      On the Holy Spirit, Jesus told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would come and serve in various capacities:
      John 16:12-13 – The Spirit guides us into all truth
      Galatians 5 – helps produce fruit in our lives
      John 14:16 & 26 & 15:26 – acts as our comforter/advocate
      John 16:8 – prove the world wrong about sin
      John 16:14 – give God glory
      Rom 8:26-27 – The Spirit helps us in our weakness and speaks to God on our behalf

      On and on we can go. What is clear in the New Testament is that the Holy Spirit is our guide and the Holy Spirit guides us in truth and helps us speak the truth. Almost every time the Spirit is mentioned in the NT it is in reference to someone speaking, saying something for God. I don’t believe we have it in the same way they had it in the NT: tongues, prophesy, etc but I do think the Holy Spirit indwells us and guides us. That is no guarantee that we all agree 100% on all points of doctrine but it should comfort us to know that God is intimately involved in our lives (1 Cor 3:16 – we are God’s temple and His Spirit dwells in us).

      • I agree with that. My question really had more to do with truth. When it comes to truth, I believe there is one truth to be sought, and perhaps we will never fully understand, what that truth is, God still expects us to look for it. In many cases, we will not agree because the topic of discussion is an expedient, that God has allowed us to decide for ourselves, and could be changed from time to time.

        By the way, I really enjoy having these kinds of discussions. I think it helps me understand my understanding o scripture better, and I hope it has been thought provoking for everyone following your blog.

      • I think that if the Holy Spirit is allowed to lead, it will lead to a love of truth, without contradiction of scripture, and love, joy, peace (etc)…

        Perhaps I can illustrate by an example: if someone straight out rejects what they’ve been shown in scripture and resorts to an argument of “I know the Holy Spirit and He doesn’t know you!” … does it really seem like those are the types of words the Holy Spirit would give one to say, i.e. Luke 12:12? (… and yes, I’ve actually heard someone say that before… )

        Luk 12:11-12 KJV
        (11) And when they bring you unto the synagogues, and unto magistrates, and powers, take ye no thought how or what thing ye shall answer, or what ye shall say:
        (12) For the Holy Ghost shall teach you in the same hour what ye ought to say.

        I think it is possible for two people led by the Holy Spirit to have different ideas. As a case example I point to Apollos, Priscilla, and Aquila (Acts 1 8:26). This doesn’t mean that both sides are exactly right, but sometimes it may lead us to a crossroads.

        So what if Apollos, led by the Holy Spirit to preach the baptism of John, led by the Holy Spirit to where he could meet Priscilla and Aquila, chose to reject what was “expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly?” In such a case, who would he really have been rejecting?

        If the latter, then how do we find the truth, when two people are lead by the Holy Spirit to different understandings of the scripture?

        If both people play by the same rules (assuming they are the right rules) then there ought to be an eventual agreement. You find the truth by searching the scripture, to see if these things be so (Acts 17:11) so as to prove all things (1 Thessalonians 5:21) in meekness and fear (1 Peter 3:15) with a willingness to also change if we might be mistaken.

        So it seems to me that if one is truly led by the Holy Spirit then they would have no objection to that method, but if one finds that method abhorrent than that Holy Spirit, to the degree it was with them in the first place, may move further away or leave all together.

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