Command, Example, and Necessary Inference

February 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.


  1. Thanks for writing this!I was googling on CENI doctrine and found your blog. I was searching for it based on some writing I was reading from Batsell Barrett Baxter on the authority of scripture.After reading his writing and this blog I have to question the premise of “scriptural authority” as test. The scripture given by BB Baxter was Matt 21:23. In this scripture Jesus refuses to give the authority for His teaching. This doesn’t seem to prove the case for specific “scriptural authority” upon which CENI is based.BTW, I am a CofC’er of sorts but I question the re-interpretation of the restoration movement to bind things. Would love to hear your follow-up!

  2. Hi John,In case you didn’t find the link to my series on restoration hermeneutics, here it is. I’ll take a look at the Baxter article and post some comments in a day or two. Thanks for the link!

  3. Ok I’ve read the Baxter article. He begins with a premise I do not accept–namely, that we require authorization for everything we do. The middle portion of the article argues an uncontested point, namely, that the only source of authority available today is the Bible. He then points to Zwingli’s and Luther’s opposing positions on the silence of the scriptures. Finally he offers a couple of scriptures in an attempt to support his position that silence prohibits. But the two scriptures he offers, Gal 1:8 and 2 John 9, do not address the silence of the scriptures. Gal 1:8 warns against introducing a new gospel (“good news”), that is, additional requirements for salvation (in this context, circumcision and the Law of Moses). That is what constituted “another gospel”. And the context of 2 John 9 refers to people who do not acknowledge that Jesus came in the flesh. These two passages address specific, extreme examples of false teaching about the nature of Jesus and salvation. Neither passage addresses the silence of the scriptures.In that article and elsewhere, the arguments I’ve seen on that side of the issue consistently take scripture out of context and try to make them say something other than what the original writer was communicating to the original readers.

  4. In Matthew 21:23 (and surrounding), the issue is not that Jesus refused to give authority for his teaching. By asking them to answer whether the Baptism of John was from God or from men, before he would answer them, Jesus was demanding they first show whether they recognized the authority of God when they were faced with it.

  5. I read your outline of Baxter’s treatment on the subject. He used Galatians 1:8 as an example and you say it is not an example of necessary inference. But you very surely can infer from Galatians 1:8 that some teachings are cursed. Calvin’s TULIP is contrary to what Paul preached and is cursed. Would that not be an example for Galatians 1:8?www.aconqueringfaith.net

  6. Hi DM,Paul defined the gospel as Jesus dying for our sins, bein buried, and his being raised from the dead (1 Cor 15). If someone preaches salvation on some basis other than that (ie, some different gospel,) then the curse Paul wrote in Gal 1:8 would apply to that person.

  7. Hi Alan,So Baxter was right? I would have to conclude that distorting the Gospel extended beyond this general definition of the Gospel and would also include the kinds of errors which the Judaizers introduced in the Galatian churches and beyond.Thanks.Dan

  8. No, go back and read what Baxter said. He supported Zwingli’s position on silence, and generalized Gal 1:8 to apply to those topics.What Paul addressed in Gal 1:8 is the same thing I said in my previous comment. In his case, the different “gospel” was salvation through circumcision and the law — which is a different gospel from what Paul defined in 1 Cor 15.

  9. Greetings Alan Rouse,The concept of authority depends upon the fact that God is Lord. If we do something in the name of God, then we should have authority for it. If it wasn’t in God’s name, I don’t suppose it would matter. In the 21:23 reference, Jesus reasoned: “from heaven or from men?” In doing so, he acknowledged this principle. John’s baptism was in the name of God and therefore if legitimate, it required a “from heaven” origin. Since Christians profess Jesus is Lord, we look to our Lord for that which He desires of us, Col 3:17. ED

  10. Great article.I have been a member for a long time of the churches of Christ and never really bought the CENI approach to interpretation, something clearly invented by some of the restoration movement. While God is the obvious authority of all things spiritual, He never mentions that His authority must be understood through CENI.

  11. […] of the ScripturesCommand, Example, and Necessary InferenceWhen is a Command a Command?Binding ExamplesNecessary Inference The Big Squeeze: Silence and CENIDo […]

  12. […] Expedients Help? March 1, 2006 In the previous article I suggested that the combination of CENI and the principle of Silence of the Scriptures leads to almost inevitable divisions in the church, […]

  13. […] » The Big Squeeze: Silence and CENI February 28, 2006 The hermeneutic known as Command, Example, and Necessary Inference (CENI) contains its own controversies and grey areas, but with a little discretion it can be a […]

  14. […] “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 (T. Campbell) Declaration and Address of 1809. And the result has been many divisions in the church.” (Christian Unity blog). […]

  15. Dear Brother in Christ,
    I am a seventeen-year old young man who is a part of a brand new congregation in Rhome Texas. We started worshiping out of one of our member’s houses a few weeks ago and we already have attendance of up to twenty-three as of last Wednesday. Our small, but spiritually on fire, youth group are about to start a study of authority in the bible and I just wanted to write this comment to you to let you know that even fourteen years after writing this article you are still edifying your brethren. Can’t wait to talk to you more once we all get to Heaven. Continue fighting the good fight

    • Thank you for your encouragement. I’m glad this continues to be useful! I’ll pray for your new congregation!

  16. Another way to look at “necessary inference” is a “necessary conclusion based on the evidence.” Those who debate might point to the idea that if you have premises and a conclusion, that the argument is valid form, and the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. From that vantage point, NI is nothing more than looking at scripture logically, and reasoning to a valid conclusion.

    For instance, in 1 Peter 3:21 we read, “The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us.” That is not a command – it is not telling us to do anything. Nor is it an example – no one is being baptized here. At BEST, a relative example with Noah to illustrate the concept of baptism – i.e., a type – antitype situation.

    Yet, there is a logical argument leading up to that conclusion in 1 Peter 3:21. If we believe Peter is speaking by inspiration of God, we know it is not human wisdom giving us these words, but God’s wisdom. God is stating a fact, namely, that we are saved, in part, by baptism.

    Yes, we ALSO have Mark 16:15-16, Acts 16, and other passages showing the necessity of baptism. But, if all of those were absent, and only 1 Peter 3:21 was in our Bibles, we would be able to logically conclude that baptism is either optional or that we must NOT be baptized? One might try to say, “Well, we don’t need to worry about that because other passages DO show the necessity of baptism.” But, each passage, in context, still must be true on its own as well as with the entirety of scripture.

    As for Gal. 1:6-9, I believe an error has been made in application of this passage. There is both the immediate context and broader/remote context of a passage. Yes, the immediate context is upon Judaizers striving to apply principles like circumcision (which Acts 15 showed they ought not bind). But, that does not negate the broader/remote context whatsoever. Paul is addressing a specific set of issues, but it ALSO has a broader application. How do we know? Consider carefully the words in Gal. 1:8 when Paul writes, “preach any other gospel unto you”. Which other gospel? The Judaizing one immediately in view? Or is it *any and all other gospels*? The idea is any other gospel, whether Judaizing or not. There is, in fact, a necessary inference not to follow “any other gospel”. This perfectly agrees with Deut. 4:2, Prov. 30:6 and Rev. 22:18-19 – the necessary inference being that ANY alterations to God’s word are wrong and must be avoided if one desires to be right with God.

    • Thanks Kevin. That makes sense. I do think that inferences are subjeot to the bias of the reader. When we infer something, we are drawing a conclusion that was not stated. And the inference is only “necessary” if there is no other possibility. Sometimes “necessary inference” has been used as a tool to make a passage say what the reader wants it to say – that is, to put words into God’s mouth. It’s better IMO to let what God has actually said in other passages to interpret his meaning. God is his own interpreter, and the Bible is its own commentary. I think that’s pretty much what you have done in your comment.

      • I agree that everyone has a bias. But, reasoning logically to a conclusion & necessary inference *requires* setting aside one’s own bias. It *requires* reasoning only from facts and from all available and relevant facts. Doing that means one will necessarily reason from all God said on a subject, not just pick one passage & make it say what you want.

        Put another way, one CAN insert their bias into an inference, but then it is neither a valid nor a necessary inference. I can “infer” that 2 + 2 = 5 because I do not like the idea of 2 + 2 = 4. But, it is not a valid inference, nor is it necessary. I have inserted opinion into facts.

        If we cannot reach necessary inferences, by setting aside bias, and reasoning only from facts & all available & relevant facts, then John 8:32 is not possible to achieve.

        Just to be clear (to avoid misunderstandings later): by relevant I don’t mean “picking and choosing” which facts I want to be relevant. Rather, by way of example… In a discussion of baptism being necessary for salvation, the color of my hair (while ascertainable & a fact) is not a relevant fact.

  17. People are not 100% logical. We perceive things differently. We are sometimes 100% certain and yet 100% wrong on some point. A humble person will admit that he is probably wrong on some points, but he doesn’t know which points those are. He knows he needs grace to cover for his errors, and so he gives grace to others when he thinks he sees their errors.

    • I agree we need to give grace to others. I also agree that we need enough humility to realize we may be wrong on some things, if not many things. There’s a definite need to have an open mind to change if presented with evidence.

      But, again, in John 8:31-32 Jesus says “You *shall* know the truth,” indicating a few things. (1) There is truth, (2) truth is knowable, (3) we have the ability to ascertain that knowable truth, and (4) it comes, at least in part, from continuing in His word. We do not ascertain truth simply by opinion, but by a logical, unbiased, honest examination of all the relevant facts. Even to assert we can be wrong and are not 100% logical is an analysis based in logic.

      I have a feeling some common ground, on which we would agree, is that our understanding and faith come as part of a lifelong process, not a single point in time event, or even a few events. Is that fair to say?

      Yet, even as we grow in our knowledge, we still know there are unchanging principles, do we not? There is a God. Jesus is His Son. He died for our sins. Immersion is essential for salvation. Etc. Some may not know these things. Others may reject them no matter how clear the evidence. But, does that mean none can apply logic accurately to ascertain these principles? Does that mean we have not reached a necessary inference in each of these truths, despite others willingness to disregard them?

      • I imagine that we agree on most if not all of what we both consider “essentials.” My understanding is that the essentials are pretty clearly spelled out in scripture — not much “inference” required. There are truths that are rightly inferred from scripture but they come later as understanding grows. Those matters are not “essential” by my reckoning. IOW the essentials are the things that must be properly understood in order to be a candidate for baptism. A newborn Christian already has the essentials. And no matter what else he or she may be wrong about, they are every bit as much a child of God as I am. And I need to accept them as such.

      • It may well be part of what’s going on here is a matter of definitions… Part of why so many debates start with “defining your terms,” to make sure you’re truly discussing the same argument.

        I would say the “essentials” involve some amount of inference as I understand the term’s meaning.

        In 1 Peter 3:21, there’s a raw fact stated that baptism saves mankind. It’s not at all a command. Nor is it an example. But, by reading this fact, even if we were not familiar with other passages on baptism, at a minimum we could say that baptism is necessary for salvation. We might not know other conditions around it, but we would know it played a part in salvation.

        Such a conclusion is inferred from the facts. It is also a conclusion that can be reached, even if one has a previous bias to believe baptism is not essential. It’s a heart issue at that point, not a discrediting of “necessary inference”.

        The danger, in this instance, as in others, would be if we took ONLY this passage and inferred that baptism ALONE saves us. That’s where continued studied, an open heart & mind, leads us to more fully study a topic, in order to reach valid inferences. Not that we must be biblical scholars, lacking in nothing. But, rather, following the evidence where it leads (e.g., seeing what else is said of both baptism and salvation).

  18. One does not have to resort to inferences to establish that baptism is essential. It is commanded and its purpose is explicitly stated, and the scope of the command is explicitly stated. The promise associated with baptism is the most essential purpose possible: forgiveness of sins. It applies to all whom the Lord our God will call. It could not be stated more clearly. (Acts 2:38-39) That is how the Bible communicates essentials, and those are the things that are taught to outsiders leading up to conversion. It’s what they must know to be saved. And everyone who responds to being taught the essentials is my brother or sister. I have no right to withhold full fellowship from them based on other matters.

    Going beyond the essentials, we seek to find out what pleases the Lord. (Eph 5:10). The Christian life is a process. There’s not just a narrow gate where we enter, but also a narrow road where we walk. Its on that narrow road that we wrestle with inferences, not at the gate.

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