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First Corinthians Sidebar: Hermeneutics

January 7, 2008

One subject where 1 Corinthians sheds light is the topic of hermeneutics.

The churches of Christ have historically followed the hermeneutic known as Command, Example, and Necessary Inference (CENI). That hermeneutic emerged in the Restoration Movement the 1800’s. CENI is based on the theory that we can understand everything we need to know about Christianity, by making logical inferences and deductions based on the scriptures alone. This faith in the power of human logical reasoning was rooted in the Age of Reason / Enlightenment philosophy. John Locke was an early prominent philosopher who attempted to deduce the important principles of Christianity from scripture through human reasoning. Thomas and Alexander Campbell were greatly influenced by Locke. When they inferred Christian doctrine from the New Testament scriptures, they were applying the philosophy of their day.

The first two chapters of 1 Corinthians warn against such a humanistic approach. As Paul wrote:

1 Cor 1:19 For it is written: ā€œI will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.ā€

Scholars have repeatedly been frustrated in their attempts to settle controversies through the use of the scriptures. Human pride and stubbornness have certainly been part of the problem. But equally important is another reason which Paul points out in chapter 2:

1 Cor 2:14 The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.

A hermeneutic based exclusively on human reasoning and the biblical text omits a crucial element: the Holy Spirit. In the above passage, Paul described a man without the Spirit, who receives the deeper message of God, but could not understand it. According to Paul, only the Holy Spirit could enable one to understand the message. So, contrary to the common teaching in many churches of Christ, the Holy Spirit does play a role beyond merely delivering the word to the original inspired writers. In the passage above, the Holy Spirit had already delivered the message, and the man described by Paul had received that message. But he still required the Holy Spirit to help him understand that message, because the message is spiritually discerned.

The simple gospel facts are designed to be understood readily by a natural man. But that man is not ready to receive the deeper truths until he becomes mature in his spiritual discernment. (1 Cor 2:6, 1 Cor 3:1-2)

A correct biblical hermeneutic must allow time for the learner to come to spiritual maturity. As a Christian progresses toward the deeper truths, the Holy Spirit becomes central to the interpretive process. Ironically, once a person learns these spiritual truths, he cannot simply relay them directly to another person apart from the Holy Spirit. That person, too, must mature and learn these things from the Holy Spirit. These truths are spiritually discerned. They are not learned merely by applying logic and reading comprehension skills to a text.

The CENI hermeneutic attempts to bypass the Holy Spirit in the interpretive process. As a result it fails to understand spiritual truths. Its conclusions are limited to the wisdom of men. The Restoration Movement (and particularly churches of Christ) hoped that CENI would lead all believers to doctrinal unity. That goal obviously has not been achieved. God has made foolish the wisdom of man. The intelligence of the intelligent has been frustrated.

We need to face the fact that we don’t know everything, and that some of what we think we know is wrong. When we get humble, we can begin to learn from the Spirit.

1Co 8:2 The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know.

1Co 3:18 Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a “fool” so that he may become wise.

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