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.
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.
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.
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.