Archive for the ‘Hermeneutics’ Category


Binding Examples

February 24, 2006

Today we will continue looking at the CENI hermeneutic. Earlier we considered the first principle in that approach, explicit commands in scripture. In this post we will take on the second principle, example (aka approved precedent). As we examine CENI we will continue collecting the Inventory of Doctrines which we will be examining later from the perspective of CENI.

There are two sides to the principle of examples. First, when we have an example in scripture of the early church holding to a certain practice, and it can be shown that the practice had the approval of an inspired apostle, it can be reasonably assumed that we can safely practice the same thing today. Second, some people take that a step farther, and hold that in this situation that we are obligated to practice the same thing. Let’s take a look at some examples in the scripture, and the conclusions drawn from them.

1. Weekly Communion

The practice of taking communion every Sunday is based on example. Acts 20:7 says:

On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight.

It is not explicitly stated that this church (or any other church) actually did this every Sunday, but it is generally believed that they did. Justin Martyr’s Apology I describes the weekly Sunday service including weekly communion. In view of that, the Acts 20 passage is understood to be describing a weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper. Based on this example, the churches of Christ take communion every Sunday. The example is considered binding. That is, these churches believe that we are required to follow the example of taking communion every Sunday. Many in these churches would not consider being a member of a church where communion was taken less frequently.

2. Daily Assembly

The frequency with which the church meets together is understood somewhat differently. Acts 2:46a says:

Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.

This is an explicitly stated example with apostolic approval. These Christians assembled every day in the temple courts. Yet few if any churches of Christ today consider this practice binding on the modern day church. If there were counterexamples where the scriptures stated a different frequency of meeting, it would be understandable that the Acts 2:46a example would not be binding. But that is not the case. Apparently either there are more subtle clues that tell us which cases should be taken as binding and which should not, or else the principle of examples has not been applied consistently.

I think all would agree that it is at least permissible for a church to assemble every day, based on Acts 2:46a.

Heb 3:12-13 might suggest that daily assembly is not merely optional. This passage contains a command to encourage daily (not merely an example) but it does not indicate that the encouragement must be performed in an assembly of the church. Heb 10:25 does indicate that encouragement should happen in the assembly, but not that it only occurs there. So the Hebrews passages at most would provide a possibility to infer daily assembly (ie. not a “necessary” inference).

So a requirement for the church to meet daily would stand or fall based on the merits of Acts 2:46a alone, depending on whether or not examples with apostolic approval are binding.


Undoubtedly other instances could be shown to illustrate that the principle of examples in CENI is not consistently applied in the churches of Christ. It is used where the conclusion seems reasonable to us, and the result enforced as if with the authority of God. But when the result does not seem reasonable, do we quietly ignore the principle? The determining factor seems to be our fallible human judgment. When we bind only some approved examples, we might be binding human opinions.

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When is a Command a Command?

February 22, 2006

I want to continue the project of collecting an Inventory of Doctrines of churches of Christ for the CENI study. Please post on that article if you want to submit a doctrine or practice for our discussion.

Meanwhile I want to post a few more thoughts regarding Command, Example, and Necessary Inference. I’ll post one article on each of the three principles of that hermeneutic, beginning now with Command.

When is a command a command?

Not every statement in the grammatical form of a command (imperative mood) is intended as a mandate. Let’s look at a few examples.

In Acts 2:38, the verbs “repent” and “be baptized” are both in the imperative mood in the Greek. Peter was answering the question, “what shall we do?” The result that the audience desperately wanted was forgiveness. Peter instructed them how to receive it. The tone seems to be instruction to a willing learner. Still, it is obvious from the text that repentance and baptism were necessary in order to receive the promised forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit. So I think that qualifies as a mandate. And the context makes it clear that the mandate applies to all whom the Lord would call, for all time.

In Phil 4:4, both occurrences of the verb “rejoice” are in the imperative mood. However the context hardly supports the notion that Paul was laying down a legal requirement, as though failure to obey would be apostasy. This seems more like an invitation to rejoice, or permission to rejoice. Perhaps it could be called an enthusiastic recommendation, or advice. It does not seem reasonable to me to take this as a mandate. Are a few moments of failure to rejoice a sin?

In Eph 5:19, the verbs in the Greek are all participles (“speaking” “singing” “making melody”). This passage seems to be painting a picture of how we should interact with one another, expressing our faith in the fellowship. It is not a law or a set of laws, but a description of what is good. It is not a list of things to do but a description of a way to be. The passage is not a mandate grammatically (ie not imperative mood), nor in meaning.

Sometimes a command is implied. Consider Gal 5:19-23. Here Paul lists the works of the flesh, and the fruits of the spirit. The two halves of this instruction are subtly different. The passage has no grammatical command, and yet there is a clearly implied message: “Do not do the things in the first list, and encourage the fruits in the second.” Note that according to the text, practicing any of the works in the first list would disqualify one from inheriting the Kingdom of God. There is an implied mandate to exclude all those works from our lives. However, notice that he doesn’t say you must demonstrate all the fruits of the spirit in order to be acceptable to God. Instead he says “Against such things there is no law.” They are produced by the Spirit, and are permissible. So in the second half he is giving wisdom, rather than a mandate. Again he is describing a way to be, rather than listing things to do.

Some commands in scripture were limited in scope to the specific people being addressed. For example, Jesus told the eleven (Luke 24:49) to wait in Jerusalem until they received power from on high. Common sense tells us that command does not apply to every believer.

How do we discern the intent behind the multitude of similar statements in scripture? I believe it is the work of a lifetime, to study, to meditate, and to gain understanding by degrees. We are not intended to apply a logical algorithm to the text to derive laws to be obeyed. We are not expected to arrive at complete understanding in this life. Understanding the scripture is a lifetime journey, not a destination.

Yet there are some clear commands in scripture, which should not take a lifetime to grasp. Examining our core doctrines and hermeneutics might help us determine where we have understood those commands, and where we have misconstrued the passage. Perhaps that effort can help us take down some walls and promote unity in the Lord’s church.

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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.


Silence of the Scriptures

January 12, 2006

Note: Click here for the complete series on hermeneutics of the churches of Christ.

One central issue that has divided Restoration Movement churches has been this: What conclusion can we draw from the silence of the scriptures? When the scriptures explicitly command or authorize something, or prohibit something, the required response is obvious. When we see an example in the Bible of a first century practice which was allowed by an apostle, we can reasonably conclude that it is allowed for us as well. The difficulty arises on subjects that are not addressed in the scripture–that is, subjects on which the scriptures are silent. I touched on this topic in my comments on Thomas Campbell’s fifth proposition from the Declaration and Address of 1809. I would now like to examine the question more thoroughly.

Ninety-four years after the Declaration and Address, J W McGarvey addressed this subject in answering a letter concerning the introduction of an organ into a church. He wrote:

I think you put the question in the proper form. If the “strong points of the argument” will not convince, it is certain that the weak ones will not; and it is well to save words by discussing the former alone. I begin by arguing that the practice belongs to a class of things expressly condemned in the New Testament. Jesus said in reference to certain additions which the Pharisees had made to the ritual of the law: “In vain do they worship me, teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men.” In these words he propounds the doctrine that all worship is vain which originates in human authority; or, to put it negatively, that no worship is acceptable to God which he himself has not authorized. Paul echoes this teaching when he condemns as “will worship” the observance of, ordinances “after the precepts and doctrines of men.” (Col. 2: 20-23, R. V.) The Greek word here rendered “will worship” means worship self-imposed, as distinguished from worship imposed by God; and the practices referred to in the context are condemned on this ground, thus showing that all self-imposed worship is wrong in the sight of God.

Now it is universally admitted by those competent to judge that there is not the slightest indication in the New Testament of divine authority for the use of instrumental music in Christian worship. He who employs it, therefore, engages in “will worship” according to Paul, and he offers vain worship according to Jesus.

Here McGarvey was presenting what he considered the strongest case for prohibiting the use of an organ in worship. Thus it is a central argument to consider for our discussion.

I have the utmost respect for the scholarship and integrity of J. W. McGarvey. However on this subject I believe he is mistaken in his use of the scriptures, and therefore in his conclusion. He presents two scriptures in support of this argument, which I will examine one at a time.

First, he refers to Mark 7, where Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for imposing their own rules on the people. The passage describes several rules created by the Pharisees which were not from God:

Mark 7:3-4 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)

Jesus goes on to describe a particularly gross example in which the Pharisees’ rule actually prevented people from following one of God’s rules. He quoted from Isaiah, and stated that the passage was a prophecy about the Pharisees. Their worship was in vain because they taught as doctrines the rules of men.

Note the examples of such rules that we are given in the passage:

  1. Do not eat until you have given your hands a ceremonial washing.
  2. After returning from the marketplace, wash before you eat.
  3. Rule requiring the washing of cups
  4. Rule requiring the washing of pitchers
  5. Rule requiring the washing of kettles
  6. Give what you would have given to your parents, to the temple instead.

One thing was wrong about all of these rules: They were not found in the scriptures, but instead were created by men. These rules may have had the appearance of making a person religious, and may have been consistent with certain biblical rules, but they were extensions created by men and therefore of no value. In fact, those who taught these rules (the Pharisees) were worshipping in vain. Note that this is not said of those who practiced the rules, but of those who taught them.

Each of the rules above specified something they were to do, in a particular way. People were expected to comply with the rules in the prescribed manner. The implication was that this was required in order to be in good standing under the Pharisaic rule of the Old Covenant.

This is a curious passage for McGarvey to choose to support the rule of no instruments in worship. It seems that this passage would prohibit McGarvey’s rule in exactly the same way that it prohibited the examples in the text. His rule, like theirs, is not found in the scripture. While his rule may be consistent with other things in the scripture, it is an extension created by men and therefore is of no value. His rule specifies that music in worship must be done in a particular manner (without instruments). And his rule clearly has been advanced as a test of who is in good standing under the New Covenant. His rule stands or falls along with the washing of cups, pitchers, and kettles.

The second passage advanced by McGarvey to support the rule of no instruments is Col 2:20-23:

Col 2:20-23
Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

Earlier in the same context, Paul said:

Col 2: 16-17 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.

In this context Paul admonishes the Colossian Christians against imposing additional rules and regulations beyond what God had delivered. He illustrates with quite a few sample rules:

  1. Rules on what to eat
  2. Rules on what to drink
  3. Rules on religious festivals
  4. Rules on New Moon celebrations
  5. Rules regarding the Sabbath
  6. Do not handle
  7. Do not taste
  8. Do not touch

These examples are rules that someone might think of imposing on the church, but which are not stated in the New Testament. Included in his examples are rules on worship, which are not written in the scriptures. He acknowledges that such rules have an appearance of wisdom. But he categorically denies that they have real value, and admonishes the church not to follow such rules.

Again, this passage seems to argue against the rule McGarvey wants to support. McGarvey’s rule of no instrumental accompaniment to singing in worship is not written in scripture. Without question men like McGarvey can make a case that these rules have an appearance of wisdom. Nevertheless that rule has no more value than Paul’s examples.

In the above two arguments, McGarvey attempts to support the rule of no instrumental music based on the principle of the silence of the scriptures. He offers the strongest argument he knows to support that position. However, the passages he uses actually seem to prohibit the rule he wants to support. We are not authorized to add rules based on the apparent wisdom of men. If the scriptures are silent, we must not step in to supply the supposed deficiency (Thomas Cambell’s fifth proposition).

After arguing from these two scriptures, McGarvey provides an argument based on the history of the use of instruments in worship. I will not dwell on that argument, since it hangs upon human reasoning and non-biblical history.

In the second letter at the same link, McGarvey addresses the question of conscience:

In Rom. 14: 23, R. V., he teaches that he who doubts the right to eat is condemned if he eat; and as you doubt the right to worship with the organ, you will be condemned if you do it. They, in trying to force you to do it, are trying to bring you into this condemnation. In regard to meats he teaches (verse 20) that all are really clean, but that it is evil for him who eats with offense; and, therefore, even if the use of the organ were innocent, it is evil to him who uses it with offense. He says (verse 15): “If because of meat thy brother is grieved, thou walkest no longer in love.” Therefore it must be equally true that if because of thy use of the organ “thy brother is grieved, thou walkest no longer in love.” He says (verse 19): “Let us follow after things which make for peace, and things whereby we may edify one another.” Tell them that you would gladly do this by consenting to the use of the organ but for the fact that you believe it to be wrong, and insist that as they do not consider it wrong to sing without the organ, this precept requires them, for the sake of peace and edification, to desist from their purpose.

On this point I agree wholeheartedly with McGarvey. We should dispense with instruments or any other nonessential that would otherwise divide brothers. However, that does not address the question of the silence of the scriptures.

What does this mean for me today? I must not draw lines of fellowship which are not drawn in scripture. If God has adopted a man as his son, he is my brother. It is not my choice whether I like that or not. God made it so. As long as a person is a son of God he remains my brother.

Rom 14:13 Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.

The urgent need of the church today, in order to bring about unity, is to eliminate the walls of division based on things not found in the Bible.

Click for the complete series on Restoration Hermeneutics