Command, Example, and Necessary InferenceFebruary 17, 2006
Note: Click here for the complete series on hermeneutics of the churches of Christ.
During the 20th century, the foundation for the doctrines of churches of Christ was a hermeneutic known as Command, Example, and Necessary Inference (CENI). This approach holds that there are three different ways that scripture authoritatively communicates the will of God. First, there are explicit commands (“Repent and be baptized…“). Second, there are examples / approved precedents (“Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church“). Third, there are necessary inferences (“On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.” Therefore, there must have been an assembly every first day of the week. And therefore we are obligated to do the same). According to CENI, if a teaching is found in any of these three forms in scripture, we are obligated to obey it.
In principle, deriving biblical authority from direct commands is relatively non-controversial.
Most would also agree that where we see an approved precedent for a practice in scripture, that practice would be approved for us as well. Binding an approved precedent as an authoritative command is perhaps more controversial.
Deriving biblical authority from necessary inferences, on the other hand, has always been quite controversial.
In Thomas Campbell’s sixth proposition of the Declaration and Address, he stated that inferences and deductions from scripture are not binding on an individual beyond his current understanding, and therefore such inferences may not be used as terms of communion.
Thomas Campbell’s son Alexander originally opposed the idea of binding inferences from scripture, though his position seems to have shifted as the years progressed. There are many instances where his writings imply that necessary inference is a less satisfactory proof than a command or an example.
Two of Alexander Campbell’s students, J. W. McGarvey and Moses Lard, began to uphold the authority of necessary inferences around the middle of the 1800′s. Others, including David Lipscomb, strongly resisted the idea. But by 1880, the binding of necessary inferences was well established in the conservative wing of the Restoration Movement. Some quotes from the notable proponents at that time:
…the reformation consists in an effort to induce all the truly pious in Christ to become perfectly joined together in the same mind, and in the same judgment, by accepting as doctrine, precisely and only what is either actually asserted or necessarily implied in the Bible; to speak the same things by speaking what the Bible speaks, and to speak them in the language of the Bible; and to practice the same things by doing simply the will of Christ. Moses Lard, Lard’s Quarterly, 1864
We have solemnly covenanted that whatever cannot be clearly shown to have the sanction of this standard shall be held as not doctrine, and shall not be practiced. …To warrant the holding of a doctrine or practice it must be shown that it has the affirmative or positive sanction of this standard, and not merely that it is not condemned by it. Either it must be actually asserted or necessarily implied or it must be positively backed by some divinely approved precedent, otherwise it is not even an item in Christianity, and is therefore, when it is attempted to be made a part of it, criminal and wrong. Moses Lard, Lard’s Quarterly, 1864
The loudest call that comes from heaven to the men of this generation is for warfare, stern, relentless, merciless, exterminating, against everything not expressly or by necessary implication authorized in the New Testament. J W McGarvey, The Millennial Harbinger, 1868
I have been taught all my life that the Scriptures teach ‘by precept by approved apostolic example and by necessary inference,’ and it is certain that this is correct….I am sure it is safe to do as they did; I am not certain it is safe to do any other way. James Harding, 1901
These men were all men of great integrity and scholarship. Had they stopped short of binding their inferences on others, I believe their positions would have been noble and right. But I believe that the theological battles of their day led them to the binding of examples and necessary inferences. In doing so they abandoned an important part of the call to unity from the Declaration and Address of 1809. And the result has been many divisions in the church.
I want to study more on this subject. The scriptures themselves do contain instructions and examples of how to properly apply the scriptures. I believe a lot can be learned by examining how Jesus and the apostles used scripture.