Archive for the ‘Hermeneutics’ Category

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Series on CENI

May 2, 2009

Jay Guin has begun a series on the hermeneutic known as Command, Example, and Necessary Inference (CENI) over at oneinjesus.info. CENI, in conjunction with the Regulative Principle (prohibitive silence), are the defining principles of church of Christ doctrine. I’ve previously blogged on the subject of CENI. I’m looking forward to what Jay has to share on the subject.

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How Jesus Used the Scriptures

January 22, 2009

Luk 6:46 “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”

In keeping with our congregation’s theme this year of “Jesus is Lord”, we are taking a careful look at the things Jesus said. We can hardly justify calling Jesus our Lord if we don’t even know what he said — let alone, if we don’t do it.

Jesus had quite a lot to say about the scriptures. His example in using the scriptures, and his teaching about the scriptures, are fundamentally important to those who would call Jesus their Lord. Moreover, his example and teaching regarding the scriptures run counter to the current progressive culture. We need to focus on what Jesus said about the scripture, to avoid being swept away from the will of God by the current of our culture.

Jesus knew the scripture from childhood (Luke 2:46-47). As an adult, his knowledge of the scripture amazed his hearers (John 7:15). He rebuked and admonished those whose knowledge of the scriptures was not what it should be (Mark 12:10-11, Matt 22:29). Jesus expected his followers to know the scripture.

Jesus accepted the Old Testament personalities and events as historical facts. He acknowledged Abel (Luke 11:51), Noah (Matt 24:37-39), Abraham (John 8:56-58), Sodom and Gommorah (Luke 17:29, Matt 10:15), Lot (Luke 17:28-32), manna in the wilderness (John 6:31,49), Moses and the serpent in the desert (John 13:1-4), Jonah (Matt 12:39-41), the queen of Sheba (Matt 12:42), and others. In all these cases and more, he referred to the Old Testament accounts as describing people and events that actually existed as described.

Jesus confirmed the recognized authorship of many Old Testament books, including Moses writing the books of the Law (Matt 19:7-8, Mark 7:10, Luke 5:14); Isaiah writing the book of Isaiah (Mark 7:6-13); Jonah writing the book of Jonah (Matt 12:39); and Daniel writing the book of Daniel (Matt 24:15).

Jesus taught that the scriptures are the words of God, not man. (Matt 22:31-32, Matt 22:43). He taught that the scriptures contain the very words from the mouth of God (Matt 4:4). He insisted that every letter of every word was immutable and authoritative (Matt 5:18). He regarded the scriptures as the final word on any subject (Matt 4:4-11).

Jesus submitted to the scriptures, even when it was hard (Matt 26:53-54).

All the preceding examples show how Jesus used the Old Testament scriptures, as the very words of God. But he also promised additional “words from the mouth of God” through the apostles. (Luk 10:16, John 13:20, John 14:26, and:

John 16:13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.

Note, if the Holy Spirit himself would not speak on his own, but only exactly what God instructed, what makes us think that the writers who received that precise instruction would be free to deviate from the delivered words?

And the apostles themselves testified that they were writing the words of God as they taught what became the New Testament scriptures (1 Cor 2:13, Gal 1:12, 1 Thess 2:13, 2 Pet 1:21, 2 Pet 3:15)

By his words and by his actions, Jesus firmly established the fact that the scriptures are the very words of God and carry the authority of God. Yet in our post-modern religious world, many are abandoning that solid foundation. More and more people today reject certain biblical teachings as outdated. They question whether Paul was correct when he wrote about topics like women, marriage, sexual morality, and other topics where the biblical teaching is unpopular in our culture. Despite the example of Jesus who submitted to the scriptures even to the extent of going to the cross, many today refuse to submit to biblical teachings that are difficult in our culture.

We cannot legitimately claim Jesus as our Lord without submitting to his teaching and following his example. In no area is this more important than in how we use the scriptures.

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Command, Request, or Invitation?

April 12, 2008

One reason for the inadequacy of the Command, Example, and Necessary Inference hermeneutic is that it does not make any distinction between commands, requests, and invitations. Anything of the grammatical form of a command is presumed to be mandatory, and failure to comply is seen as disobedience.

A Greek verb in the imperative mood can be a command or prohibition, a request or entreaty, or reluctant permission. Commonly cited examples of these different uses of the imperative mood are:

  • Command: Mark 2:14 Follow me!
  • Request: Matt 6:11 Give us today our daily bread.
  • Permission: 1Co 7:15 But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so.

In particular, when the imperative mood is combined with the aortist tense, the sense is often as a request or an entreaty, or an invitation. Let’s look at a few more examples.

Joh 21:12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.”

Here Jesus was inviting the disciples to join him for breakfast, using the aortist tense and the imperative mood to convey an invitation.

In the next example, Lydia invited Paul and his companions to stay at her house:

Act 16:15 When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.

Again, the invitation was in the aortist tense and the imperative mood.

Jesus invited the weary and burdened to come to him to find rest for their souls:

Mat 11:28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
Mat 11:29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
Mat 11:30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Jesus invited the weary into his rest, using the aortist tense and the imperative mood.

A similar invitation is extended by the Spirit and the bride (the church):

Rev 22:17 The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.

The invitation to take the free gift of the water of life was extended using the aortist tense and imperative mood.

Paul used the same kind of verb to appeal to the Corinthians to accept him.

2Co 7:2 Make room for us in your hearts.

Paul is urging and pleading — not commanding. Again, the verb is in the aortist tense and imperative mood.

Now let’s look at another often-discussed passage:

1Th 5:26 Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.

Once again, the verb is in the aortist tense and the imperative mood. Paul is making an appeal or perhaps an invitation to greet one another with a kiss. It would hardly make sense to say “Kiss one another or face the consequences!” Instead he is urging them to show affection — implying that they should feel affection for one another. To greet with a holy kiss without that affection (obedience “because I said so”) would be hypocritical. Instead the Thessalonians were being urged to have affection for one another, and then to show it.

The last example we will examine is just a bit different from the others:

Php 4:4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!

Here, rather than aortist imperative, Paul used the present imperative. Still, it makes no sense to say “Rejoice or face the consequences!” This was an invitation, not a mandate.

These examples illustrate that the scriptures convey a lot of shades of meaning. There surely are mandatory commands in scripture. But not everything in the form of a grammatical command is intended as a mandate. Sometimes God is giving us an invitation rather than a law. The context often supplies the answer directly. But in other cases, it is not so obvious. Understanding the meaning of scripture requires spiritual discernment. What is God’s nature? What kind of relationship does he seek with us? And therefore, what is he trying to say to us in these passages?

1Co 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.

Without spiritual discernment, we will miss the point. And sometimes we have done just that.

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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: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

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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Patterns

March 14, 2006

Introduction: New Gadget

UPDATE 3/23/2006: The scriptures now appear in a scripture tooltip using a completely different technique. It still requires javascript to be enabled and may also require popups to be enabled for this site. I’ve tested with IE 6 and Firefox 1.5. Let me know if you have problems.

I have been experimenting with a scripture popup technique using tools provided at gnpbc.org for the English Standard Version (ESV). In the list of scriptures below, just move the mouse over a scripture reference to get a popup with the scripture text (requires javascript and popups to be enabled for this site). The scripture is retrieved from the ESV site when you hover over the reference. I’ll use this article as a testbed to see how well it works for everyone. Let me know what you think.

The Real Article: Patterns

One principle that has guided the Restoration Movement churches, and especially the churches of Christ, is patternism–the principle of following patterns from scripture. Many of the controversies arising among these churches, and between them and non-Restoration churches, originate in the understanding of patterns. Nowadays it is common to find strong opposition to the notion of patterns, especially among post-modern believers. I think that opposition is misplaced. To me it seems that the controversies arise, not because we try to follow patterns, but because we bind upon others the patterns we think we see in scripture.

Patterns are by definition an inference from scripture. In most cases they would not be a necessary inference. There are some patterns in scripture that do not apply to us today (for example, the pattern of Paul first going to the synagogues when he entered a city). OTOH, the pattern of worshipping on Sunday is generally accepted as one we should follow. Deciding which patterns to apply today requires human judgment.

God does intend for us to follow patterns received from the apostles. See the following passages:

Rom 16:17
2 Thess 2:15
2 Thess 3:6-9
2 Tim 1:13
1 Cor 11:1-2
1 Cor 4:16
Phil 3:17

Rom 16:17 I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. (ESV)

2 Thes 2:15 So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. (ESV)

2 Thes 3:6-9 Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. 9 It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. (ESV)

2 Tim 1:13 Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. (ESV)

1 Cor 11:1-2 Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. 2 Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. (ESV)

1 Cor 4:16 I urge you, then, be imitators of me. (ESV)

Phil 3:17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. (ESV)

It makes perfect sense to try to follow the patterns we perceive in scripture. However when we bind those patterns on others who do not perceive them, we are asking them to put their faith in the wisdom of fallible men rather than in God. When we bind patterns on others who have not (yet) reached the same understanding, history teaches us that the result will often be divisions in the church.

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Doctrines of CENI

March 6, 2006

For the past several weeks I’ve been writing articles related to the hermeneutics of the churches of Christ. For convenience here is a collection of links.

Silence of the Scriptures
Command, Example, and Necessary Inference
When is a Command a Command?
Binding Examples
Necessary Inference
The Big Squeeze: Silence and CENI
Do Expedients Help?

When time permits I will pull these articles into my “Past Series” section so they will be easier to find.

Meanwhile, we are now ready to start on the project I suggested a few weeks ago. In the midst of writing those articles, I suggested that we collect an inventory of Restoration Movement doctrines that have been developed based on this hermeneutic. It would be quite interesting to look at these doctrines from the perspective of CENI, and to evaluate how well supported each is, how well reasoned from the scriptures. We have a start on that collection of doctrines, and have spent some time thinking about the hermeneutic itself. Now we can begin examining how that hermeneutic has shaped the doctrines of these churches.

Phil Spadaro suggested that this examination would fit well into the Restoration Wiki project that Clarke has started at RestorationMovement.org . The more I have thought about this, the better Phil’s idea sounds. By having this conversation on the wiki, it encourages a collaborative and ongoing effort. Over time it can be refined until it becomes a valuable resource for studying the beliefs that define and sometimes divide the various Restoration Movement groups. Hopefully this can lead to constructive dialog, increase mutual respect, and promote unity in the Lord’s church.

Clarke has offered to set up an area for us to begin this collaboration. Keep an eye on the Restoration Wiki site. When Clarke has a chance to open up a new area for this project, we can begin! (Editing to add a direct link to the correct page in Clarke’s wiki)

Please participate! I’m very eager to see what we can learn together in this effort.

My blogging opportunities will be rather limited for the next couple of weeks since I will be out of town tending to some family responsibilities. I will try to stay in touch through the blogs and the wiki project when it kicks off.

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Do 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, at least as these principles are traditionally understood and practiced in the churches of Christ. Any practice perceived in scripture as a command, an example, or as a necessary inference is treated as a mandate to be obeyed in the church today. And any practice on which the scriptures are silent is understood to be prohibited. Under that hermeneutic, without perfect agreement on the practices we see in scripture, we will inevitably differ in our practices, and will ultimately consider one another to be defying the commands of God. Restoration movement history has demonstrated this dilemma repeatedly over the past 200 years.

There is one principle that, on the surface, might seem to provide a way out of this difficulty: the principle of expedients. Thomas Campbell introduced this concept in his thirteenth proposition. There he said:

Lastly. That if any circumstantials indispensably necessary to the observance of divine ordinances be not found upon the page of express revelation, such, and such only, as are absolutely necessary for this purpose, should be adopted, under the title of human expedients, without any pretence to a more sacred origin–so that any subsequent alteration or difference in the observance of these things might produce no contention nor division in the church.

Campbell’s reluctance to concede this is evident in the qualifying phrases he uses: “indispensably necessary”, “such and only such”, “without any pretence to a more sacred origin”… He clearly sees these expedients as being a possible source of division and so attempts to minimize their impact from the beginning.

An example of an expedient that is universally accepted would be the time of day of a worship service. We have examples and inferences that the early church worshipped on the first day of the week. But the time of day for that worship is not specified. Yet, some time must be chosen. So it is implied that an expedient time may be chosen.

Another example that is often presented is the command to go and make disciples. We are told to go. We aren’t told to ride a camel, or to take a boat, or to walk. The choice of transportation is an expedient.

In the above examples, it is inescapable that some choice must be made. That is consistent with the scope of expedients that Thomas Campbell allowed in the thirteenth proposition (“indispensably necessary”). However, even the more conservative churches of Christ have not limited themselves to this narrow definition of expedients. For example, by far, most own church buildings. It is not disputed that there is no CENI support for owning a church building. Unlike the first two examples, there are alternatives (eg. meet in private homes or in some public facility). Yet they accept ownership of a building as an expedient. So it is conceded by even the conservatives that an expedient need not be essential to be allowable.

Another example of a less-than-essential expedient is song books. There is no CENI support for them, and worship could certainly be conducted without them. Yet they are generally considered acceptable even by the most conservative of churches of Christ, as an expediency.

In later years the concept of expedients was developed further. In order to be allowed, an expedient had to pass four tests. First, it had to be “lawful” (1 Cor 10:23). Second, it had to edify (1 Cor 10:23 again). Third, it had to support some practice that is taught (CENI) in scripture (from Campbell, “indispensably necessary to the observance of divine ordinances”). In other words, the expedient had to be derived from some CENI-supported practice. Fourth, it must not cause someone to stumble (1 Cor 10:32).

During the late 1800’s, the debates over instrumental music and missionary societies revolved around expediency. For conservatives, the silence of the scriptures trumped expediency on these two issues. They were deemed not “lawful” because there is no CENI for instruments in worship under the new covenant, nor for nonchurch organizations overseeing cooperative efforts of churches. The scriptures are silent on these topics, and that silence was deemed to prohibit.

To me this brings to light a contradiction. If one proposed expedient can be ruled not lawful because of silence of the scriptures (eg. musical instruments), why not every expedient (eg. owning a building)? There has been an apparent arbitrariness in deciding which expedients are allowable and which are prohibited by silence.

Adding expedients to the discussion just rephrases the same arguments. The same difficulties exist with or without expedients. CENI + silence + expedients = divisions + more divisions. The root of the problem IMO is in what we bind on others. It is one thing to bind CENI and the silence of the scriptures on yourself. It is quite another to bind them on others who haven’t reached the same depth of biblical understanding (Thomas Campbell’s sixth proposition).

Click for the complete series on Restoration Hermeneutics