Adapting the Churches of Christ to a World that Has Changed: How Do You Replace CENI?

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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,

CENI – The Good Side
CENI – Having a Humble Hermeneutic

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.

CENI replacement?
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.

27 Responses

  1. I think, to be thorough, this question should also include a review of the development of the canon of Scriptures.

    But with that said, I believe the purpose of the Text is to reveal the covenant between God and mankind, tell us the story of Jesus, and provide examples of the implications of the covenant on how mankind should respond to that covenant.

  2. I believe this post is asking a great question -where do we go from here? From the toe I’ve put in the water, the “new” hermeneutic of the 80’s wasn’t so much presenting a new framework to work from as much as it was being critical of the old. For a group of modern, logical, CEI thinkers (aka Churches of Christ) -telling them to infuse more grace into their thinking and practices is not a new hermeneutic. The schism that occurred throughout the 90’s and 00’s manifested in most churches becoming either more entrenched in CEI or wandering closer to more mainstream American Christianity. I think the first step is admitting the brokenness of CEI -that viewing the New Testament as a blueprint for local Church design (regardless of culture and time) is a fundamental flaw. From the comments I read on the previous post, do you think by admitting this am I giving up my CoC membership? Just because I no longer see blueprint/CEI hermeneutic as the way to go, does that mean I need to leave?

    1. Jimmy, from the very beginning of our movement we have appealed to the authority of scripture. It should be common sense that our appeal (regardless of your perspective) should be to what scripture actually means. Once we see a better way to dig out that actual meaning (as outlined in this post)…it would seem to me that we would then be closer to our historical roots in the Restoration Movement (restoring what was actually there rather than restoring something we made it to be) rather than further from them.

    2. No, you aren’t giving up your cofC membership. If moderate people leave (again), then only the hard line people will remain. However, this was the same thing that happened in the Christian Church /DoC/cofC split 100+ years ago. At that time the cofC were the most conservative.

      The schism today is evident by the number of cofC congregations with services on a Good Friday and Christmas Eve. Some churches finally got tired of their members all winding up in the Methodist and other Protestant or Catholic churches for Good Friday, Easter, and Christmas.

  3. Matt, I’ve heard the historical-critical method used in conjunction and to justify the CEI method (I don’t think you’re making that argument here). Of course I agree good scholarship and study will help us understand “what it means in their day.” My question is with the next step: just because that’s what it meant in their day, does it mean the same thing for us today? We can restore the practices of the early church, but they no longer hold the transformational power like they did 2,000 years ago (which I think is your argument: read scripture through a transformational lens, not a rulebook lens). In my experience, those lines are fuzzy at the local level.

  4. I hope you don’t misread my tone -I think you are asking a great question and our church here has been struggling to find an answer. I applaud your willingness to take it head-on. All I can speak from is our experience here. We search for authorial intent (we call it AIM: Author’s Intended Meaning) -this is where study and scholarship really help us out, and the historical-critical method is certainly helpful in achieving this. Once we believe we understand what the author meant to his original audience in their particular situation in relation to the character of God and the scope of redemption, then we ask how that information is applied to the 21st century (this is a restorative slant on The Blue Parakeet). Where I’ve seen historical-critical used with CEI is using historical facts and figures to support a “command” to keep a practice. H-C can become a stronger defense for CEI. The problem isn’t CEI (imho), it is going back to the New Testament as a blueprint for how all churches are meant to function. If blueprint theology is the way you go, H-C is better than CEI -but it is still not addressing the bigger issue. Thanks for this post!

    1. Thanks for explaining that Jimmy…I haven’t read anything negative or off putting in your tone at all. No need to apologize 🙂

      Like I said in the post, you find what you are looking for. If you have to ignore a dozen scriptures to find the one that fits what you are trying to say (usually taken out of context – which is really, really hard to do if you are actually using HC) then you can take the best of approaches and misapply them. When the intention is to make the text say what we want it to say (based on preconceived ideas that are usually formed via tradition rather than scripture) then we end up mishandling, misunderstanding and by default misapplying the scriptures.

    2. True, true, true. What I’ve experienced is giving a historical tidbit from a scholar, and being told “We don’t know that for sure” or “They’re not in the brotherhood.” Funny how some facts are more true than others!

    3. Historical tidbits and actual/good historical criticism (combining history with genre, context, original language, and the broader theology of the author) are certainly two different things. The point here is that we don’t ignore the things we can know to make sense of what is harder to understand. If we can learn and know things that help us get into their world and understand the text (like my head covering example I just gave to David in the previous comment) we would be foolish not to use it.

    4. @Matt: One thing that is interesting to keep in mind when studying scripture (mainly the NT) is that what was written was written so as to be heard, not necessarily read like a book. Over 90% (probably closer to 97%) of the population at that time was illiterate and authors had to write this knowing that it would be read aloud. IMO, it adds a different and helpful perspective.

  5. JimmyT’s comment brings another point to mind … how smart do you have to be to understand the Text?

    Was the Text only intended for people who can understand theology and ancient languages and have studied the culture of the times?

    Isn’t the Text intended for stupid people as well as smart people?

    Hermeneutics may have it’s place, but it is not essential to salvation!

    1. When you have people who take Paul’s silence to be a vehement and absolute endorsement of our approach to Issues X, Y, and Z…it is important that we are able to come along and read the text and identify what Paul is actually talking about rather than what he is not saying.

      Take head coverings. It isn’t obvious to us what is going on there in 1 Cor 11 because we don’t live in a 1st century, Greco-roman society. So we read it from our 21st century perspective and come to all sorts of conclusions by pointing the text wherever our preconceived ideas want to take us. What is actually going on in that text can only be ascertained by an understanding of pagan Greco-roman worship practices and how they prayed and prophesied as pagans before becoming Christians…and how they were bringing those pagan practices into worship. Instead, we make it about men’s hair length and whether or not women should wear a hat and if they should…how do you make the tiniest hat possible to check the box. That’s just one example where historical-critical approach comes in handy.

    2. I think this is why teachers have some fairly stern warnings in the New Testament. Too easy to lead others astray if you are not real humble and careful.

  6. Good post Matt. I would tweak your opening question to “What is the Bible for and what do we mean when we say ‘The Bible is the Word of God.’?” If the point of the Bible is to set rules and that is the only thing we mean by Word, then CENI is an / the answer I suppose. But if the word of God became flesh and dwelt among men as John claims, then I think we have something else entirely.
    Then I think the New Testament (after the Gospels) becomes an exposition on how some of God’s people tried to live as hearers of the Word. And the Old Testament is in a sense the story of how God through his word can form a relationship or covenant. This all points to THE Word in Jesus. (Stealing from N.T. Wright a far bit here)

    This is actually part of the struggle for me. As a Mathematics professor who has read a lot about the formation of the cannon, Bible times life, textual criticism and so forth I really want to dig into that stuff in church classes. But most of the people I go to church with have little interest in that stuff. They want “devo type” lessons. So I am working on how to frame the class in that sense.

    In any event, keep up the god work blogging.

    1. You might focus on the difference between the Bible and the church. Too many times the teachings of Jesus were never discussed so that a sermon could focus on the church and her structure, organization, worship etc. The incessant focusing on Paul led many to forget Jesus. Teach the events occurring in Corinth to learn why the letters to the Corinthian brethren were written. It makes a lot more sense when the background is discussed.

    2. Have any of you had trouble accessing my blog this morning? My stats are about 2% of what they should be this morning which tells me something is up. Not a big deal, just trying to figure out if I need to fix something.

    3. Thanks Mark, I have thought about that. Without going into too much detail, we had a ‘flash point’ a couple of years ago on basically worship styles, and in talking with several members at my church the “women’s role” will be the next flash point. I am partially hoping to have this class so that when the issue really comes up we don’t just throw proof texts at each other, but use the Bible better, so to speak.

      I am just afraid that the pendulum is swinging back too far away from “read and memorize the Bible” to “just do what a good American would do” and that is Christian.

    4. You might go on and have it instead of letting matters fester. I am not surprised that is coming up. It’s been long past time.

  7. Matt, can you give me some differences between the historical-critical method and good, humble exegesis? And once a reader comes to a conclusion regarding what the author meant in the first century context, how does the historical-critical help with application today? Thanks!

  8. Hi Matt, I’ll check in later. All the comments are thoughts that have crossed my mind often. I’m at work driving so can’t text. Anyway , interesting topic. You take care. I’m not so certain the understanding entirely of hermeneutics is required to teach the gospel of salvation but maybe needed to clarify contextual issues especially regarding traditions and practices in the New Testament church. God is not the author of confusion but men really mess around with the scriptures too much. Agape brother.

  9. You said people back then were more rational and analytical. Thus, people today are less rational and less analytical. How then are they able to see the flaws of CENI “more clearly”? How do less rational and less analytical people see more clealy the flaws in hermeneutics developed by more rational and more analytical people, than the more rational and analytical people themselves?

    Seems irrational.

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