Free In Christ

Finding Freedom in the Churches of Christ

Hermenuetics

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[I wrote this a little while ago as the first chapter of a book that I plan to write. I don’t know if I will ever actually write the whole book so I would like to post it here so that it can be read if the book never happens. It isn’t the kind of material that catches the eye of the big publishers so this might be the only way it every gets out. Tell me what you think and if there are any ways that I can make this better. These posts should be seen as more of a rough draft than as a finished product. I would not release them in this form. If you have any suggestions or areas in which I can make things easier to understand, let me know]

You may not recognize the word in the title of this chapter but do not be alarmed. It is something that you use every time you open the Scriptures but you may never have even been aware of it.

Hermeneutics refers to the way that a person interprets what they read. In this case, we will be discussing how members of the churches of Christ have been taught to read the Scriptures and how this way leads to many of our interpretations on Christian doctrine and the practices of the Church.

Members of the churches of Christ have traditionally approached the Scriptures with a “tell me what to do” kind of attitude. We go to the New Testament to tell us how to be saved, how to live the Christian life, how to avoid sin, how to worship, how to raise our kids, and how to do just about everything else in our Spiritual lives.

Actually, this has become the typical way that the average American reads the Bible. You can find people among nearly every Christian denomination who read the Scriptures in this same way and would suggest that others do the same.

In the churches of Christ we have even come up with our own distinct system for doing this that you may not even be aware of. It is called CENI (Command, Example, and Necessary Inference). If you are a younger member of the churches of Christ you may have never even heard of this system, but many of the doctrines that you were taught were developed using it and the older members of your church are likely well aware of it.

CENI means that the reader of the Scriptures should seek to follow all of the commands, approved examples (examples that were pleasing to God), and anything else that can be reasonably inferred (concluded) from the New Testament.

For example, when Peter gave the first Gospel sermon in Acts chapter 2 he told the people who responded to repent and be baptized (if you haven’t heard of this, you are not a member of the churches of Christ to which I am referring and may not want to continue reading this book). Although Peter is speaking to a group of Jewish converts nearly two thousand years ago, CENI teaches that we must obey this command because the Apostle gave it and it was recorded in Scripture. The system of CENI says that all that is required for us to keep a command is that someone in authority gave it and it was recorded in Scripture.

When it comes to examples, CENI only includes examples that are approved. This means that God (or someone given authority like Jesus or the Apostles) approved of the example as given in Scripture when it happened. Members of the churches of Christ are taught that these examples are not optional, but are THE required way that these functions MUST be carried out.

In Acts chapter 20, we are told that the believers in Troas gathered together on the first day of the week to break bread (take the Lord’s Supper presumably). Those that practice CENI take this to be an approved example of how to take communion that must be obeyed by all Christians today. Because of this, churches of Christ only take of the Lord’s Supper on Sundays and they do this every Sunday. Because the Apostle Paul approved of this meeting (by preaching at it), this is an approved example and must be followed.

Necessary Inference can be a little tricky to understand if you are not used to it but it is basically just a category for what the church of Christ thinks should be obvious to an honest reader of Scripture but is never actually stated in a command or approved example.

Traditionally, churches of Christ have been opposed to using musical instruments in their worship services. Although most in the larger Christian world do not even blink an eye at this practice, churches of Christ insist that musical instruments in worship is not the desire of the Lord and that this should be inferred by any honest reader of the New Testament.

The idea behind this is that if God had wanted Christians to worship with instruments, He would have either instructed them to do so (command) or there would have been some approved example of them doing so found in the New Testament. It is common knowledge among Christian scholars that Christians did not use musical instruments in their worship for many centuries after the birth of Christianity.

Because this is true, the churches of Christ conclude (infer) that there must be something wrong with the practice because the early church rejected it. Although their have been other reasons given for restricting the use of the instrument, the primary reason has been that it was not practiced in the early Church.

So that is it, this system is used to answer the questions that church of Christ Bible readers want to know: How to be saved, how to live the Christian life, how to avoid sin, how to worship, how to raise our kids, and how to do just about everything else in our Spiritual lives.

THE PROBLEM

There are many today that are starting to question this system of CENI and the whole approach to reading the Scriptures with a “tell me what to do” attitude. Many are wondering if we have missed the point of what God was trying to teach us when He gave us the New Testament.

Are we really coming up with the right answers by extracting the parts we are supposed to obey from the rest? Are we just picking and choosing what to obey and what not to obey? What do we do when we read something in the Bible that does not match up with the practices we have developed using CENI?

These are the kinds of questions that are perplexing members of the churches of Christ nationwide. I do not plan to answer them all within the pages of this book, but would like to state what I believe to be wrong with CENI and the “tell me what to do” attitude toward the Scriptures. I would also like to provide an alternative that I think is more true to God’s intent in giving us the Bible.

PROBLEMS WITH CENI

The first problem that many find with the system of CENI is that it seems to ignore the different types of documents that the New Testament contains. The New Testament contains historical books (the Gospels and Acts), letters (Paul’s letters and the others), a sermon (Hebrews), and a Jewish apocalyptic book (Revelation).

CENI treats these different documents as if they were the same in type and purpose. It reads the New Testament as a whole and not by book. If you doubt me, ask yourself this: Would a person in the church of Christ reject a command because of what book of the New Testament that it was in? I have never heard of this happening in a single case. If a command, example, or necessary inference is in a book of the New Testament it is always treated as necessary to obey regardless of the book in which the reference is located.

Many now are asking: “is this right?”. Should we read the New Testament as a single book even though it is actually a collection of individual documents? Do books to specific churches (like Romans for example) apply to every church or just to the one in Rome? What about letters to individuals? Are Jesus’ words more related to the Jewish audience He was speaking to or to us who live thousands of miles and thousands of years ahead of His time? Can we obey them the same way that they did? Should we?

Another problem that some are having with CENI is the power that if gives to examples and inferences. Does an example really have to be followed two thousand years after it was done just because an Apostle approved of it? Couldn’t there be other ways that would also be appropriate (or maybe more appropriate as culture changes) and that the Apostles would also approve of?

With regard to inferences: What if people have different inferences (which we know they do)? Whose inferences must we follow? Who decides?

The biggest problem with the keeping of examples and inferences is that the New Testament doesn’t actually tell us that we are supposed to follow them. Most of the examples in Scripture never tell anyone to copy the example in any way. The New Testament describes what happens and leaves it at that. It is the church of Christ that has decided that we must follow and obey what the Scriptures only tell us a story about.

The church of Christ are also quite selective about which examples they keep and which they reject. For example, the Lord’s Supper was instituted by Jesus on a Wednesday (Matthew 26), taken by the church in Troas on a Sunday (Acts 20), and likely taken by the church in Jerusalem daily or more (Acts 2). Which example should we follow? Why has Sunday been the only acceptable example when there are other examples in the New Testament? Are some examples better than others?

With all this confusion over the use of CENI, is it any wonder that some are questioning whether we should even use it at all?

TELL ME WHAT TO DO

CENI was likely developed because of a larger problem with what readers of the New Testament expect to find when they open it: Instructions.

Bible readers of all types expect to find the answers to their questions when they read the New Testament. In fact, that is why they read it in the first place. The “tell me what to do” attitude is nearly universal when it comes to the reason that people want to read the Scriptures.

This idea is also re-enforced in the pulpits of churches every Sunday. The preacher gets up to the microphone and says: “The answer to your problems is found in the word of God” and the people believe that. I am not saying that the answer is not there, I am only saying that answers are what a Christian hopes to find when they open the Bible and they are often incapable of finding anything else there. Could it be possible that the reason they are finding these answers is because they want to find them and not because they are actually there?

Specifically, the church of Christ goes to the New Testament hoping to find the answers to specific questions like: What must I do to be saved? How is worship properly conducted? How should I live as a Christian? What is right? What is wrong? Is it right to baptize an infant? What are the qualifications of an elder? The list of questions in nearly endless.

Is this, however, how God intended us to use the Scriptures when He gave them to us? Is the New Testament God’s instruction book to the Christian on how to live the Christian life and to the church on how it should conduct itself in this world?

The answer to these questions is a resounding no.

Answering our questions and being our guide is not the purpose of the New Testament Scriptures (or any of the Scriptures for that matter). The Bible was not written to be our answer book, our legal code, or our pattern. This is where we have gone wrong.

HOW WE SHOULD READ THE SCRIPTURES

The purpose of all Scripture is very plainly told to us by Jesus when He said “you [the Pharisees] search the Scriptures because in them you think you have life, but the Scriptures point to me” (Jn. 5:39). The purpose of Scripture is to tell us about the story of creation, the fall, and God’s plan of redemption through Jesus Christ.

This plan is Jesus Christ Himself. The Scriptures purpose is to point us to Him so that He can be our guide. Jesus guides us by giving us His Spirit and writing His laws on our hearts. He does not use a written code to guide Christians as He did under the Old Covenant. I intend to cover this more in a later chapter.

This “pointing” perspective on hermeneutics is really a way of saying that the primary purpose of Scripture is to be historical. It’s purpose (and thus the way we should read it) is to tell us what happened so that we can live in the truth of the events that took place.

This is what people do with history. Until quite recently, Americans heavily identified with their history and saw themselves as a continuation of the ideas and philosophy of the Founding Fathers. Reading the stories of such figures as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln reminded them of the things that made America great and were part of the shared identity of the nation.

Although this is less true of America today, the idea of reading our history this way should influence how we look at the New Testament. It is our history as Christians. As Christian writer Brian Mclaren says it is the “story we find ourselves in”. Our history is our shared identity and I believe that this is why God gave us the New Testament books.

By knowing the foundations of our faith, we can identify with the story of God redeeming mankind and can live in that reality today.

Viewing the Bible as history is also conducive to the way that the documents are actually written. If God had wanted to give us an instruction book than He most certainly could have. He gave the Law of Moses to the Jews when He wanted them to have an instruction manual.

God did not choose this way of operating in the New Covenant but we have chosen it for Him by extracting the commands, examples, and necessary inferences and trying to follow them in the place of following Jesus by His Spirit.

We have not done this intentionally and I place no blame on any individual for buying this lie, but it is time to change. It is time to read and interpret the Scriptures according to the way that they are written and to allow our doctrine and practice to reflect this.

Many things will change as we do this and that is what the rest of this book is about. It is about what changes when you stop reading the New Testament asking “what am I supposed to do?” and start reading it asking “what happened and how do I live in it?”

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Written by freeinchrist

February 2, 2010 at 8:00 am

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