One of the questions that results from posts like the last one that we can see that our old way of interpreting the scriptures had some weaknesses but what do we replace it with? This post is going to address that question. Before I do, though, I want to point out two previous posts on our traditional hermeneutic. The hermeneutic I grew up with as did just about everyone who grew up in Churches of Christ is known as CENI – Command, Example and Necessary inference. I have outlined this in more detail in the past and tried to be as fair as I could about it,
There are a few things that clue us in to the fact that CENI is flawed. First is our experience. If we take an objective view on how CENI is actually implemented we see cracks in the approach. The truth is, we don’t actually treat all examples as binding or else we would be meeting in homes and giving holy kisses.
Second, it is flawed in its ability to actually interpret the real meaning of the text. In other words, not all texts are intended to be authorizations for the things they describe. In our hunt for scriptural practices, we tried to make the Bible speak on everything…when we can make the silence of scripture actually binding based on what it didn’t say, we have an issue. We saw the Bible that way because it was just part of the times we lived in…a modern world where we were more analytical and rational than people are today. The underlying flaw was, we weren’t as objective as we would like to think we were. We would reject other churches for putting tradition above doctrine while doing the same things ourselves and using our CENI hermeneutic to twist things around our traditions. People today see through that a lot more quickly than in years past.
All that to saw, CENI is flawed. So what do we replace it with? Before you can answer that question you have to answer a deeper question that will then drive the approach that is most appropriate. Here is the bigger question – What is the purpose of studying the scriptures? Asked another way – Why do the scriptures exist…what is God’s purpose for putting those words in our hands? Once you answer that you begin uncovering the necessary components of how to read and interpret scripture in light of what we believe God intended for scripture to do.
If you conclude that the Bible exists, solely for the authorization of proper practice, then scripture is turned into a rule book for worship and authorized practice and prooftexting is justified based on the goal we setup on the front end of why we read scripture in the first place. Once you see scripture as being that…then the approach becomes prooftexting. If you can find a verse that backs it up through CENI (not necessarily in what the verse is actually meaning but in what you can, in theory, turn it to mean), then you can prooftext your conclusion and feel confident that you have authorization and that you have the only correct conclusion on the matter. Here is one of the major points to remember here – The approach always follows the goal and the value system. It works that way for CENI but that same principle helps guide us toward a newer, healthier approach.
Stick with me here…if, however, scripture exists to bring about actual transformation in the lives of real people…people who were dead in sin but are being made alive through Christ…that should cause you to approach scripture from a different perspective than trying to authorize your practices via prooftext. If scripture’s intended purpose is transformation and the way that transformation works is through us reading it, understanding it and submitting to/applying it then we read scripture to understand what it actually means.
In order to know what it is actually saying (authorial intent) you start paying attention to things you didn’t use to pay attention to (because you weren’t looking for that before - you find what you are looking for, whether it is there or not). Here is what you have to start paying attention to if you are going to find the actual meaning of the text: genre, context, historical backgrounds…we start digging for authorial intent that gets clearer and clearer based on knowledge of the things I just mentioned. Include along with that original language study and systematic theology (how does this verse jive with what the author has written in other places and how does it jive with other scriptures?).
Once you start putting the pieces together of what is being said, what it would have meant in their day and then what it means to us today you have actually engaged in allowing the scriptures to speak for themselves, rather than us constructing systems that allow us to use scriptures to say what they weren’t saying in the first place. There is a name for this approach – the “historical-critical” approach to interpretation and IMO it is superior to CENI because its interest lies in giving the text, in context a fair, adequate and accurate reading for Its intended meaning rather than for our desire for what we want it to mean.