CENI – Having a Humble Hermeneutic

A hermeneutic is the way we go about making interpretations. In the case of biblical hermeneutics, it is the method we use to make sense of what we read in scripture. I grew up in some pretty conservative circles. In those circles, the goal of interpretation was a desire to know what God wanted us to do and believe and what God wanted us to believe (identifying true doctrine and false doctrine). Bible study’s purpose seemed to be primarily about behavior and belief.

The reason you go to scripture often has an effect on how you read scripture. In my experience growing up, the goal of turning to scripture was often times about refuting what other people had to say about various points of doctrine. You turned to scripture in order to make a legal-type case for one doctrine, against other doctrines. The hermeneutic I grew up with that was most often deployed to ascertain that information from scripture is often called CENI, which stands for Command, Example and Necessary Inference. Here is how it works.

  • We know we are supposed to do or believe something if it is directly commanded in scripture (mostly just the New Testament + 9 of the 10 commandments).
  • We know we are to do or believe something if there is an example of it in Scripture (particularly, the New Testament).
  • What do you do if there is no command or example? In those cases you take what you do have in scripture (sometimes mixed with tradition) and try to conclude what might be inferred/assumed God would have to say on that issue.

My goal in this post is to unpack CENI in a way that shows CENI can be helfpul but does have enough limitations to remind us that we must be humble in how we interpret scripture and what we bind or don’t bind on other people. Often CENI is held up as THE WAY to interpret the Bible and that nothing else will result in biblically accurate conclusions. That is a false dichotomy that, if followed back to its logical conclusion would lead us to believe the NT writers didn’t interpret scripture correctly since they didn’t employ this approach. None of us would agree with that, and so, the weaknesses of CENI begin to emerge. The New Testament writers didn’t systematically use this hermeneutic. They used allegory, typology, midrash, etc and had the guidance of the Holy Spirit in doing so.


The thought is, if God commanded it (Greek/Hebrew imperative) then we do it. First of all, I like that line of reasoning. I think we should take God’s commands very seriously. I think that because Jesus basically said as much at the end of Matthew 7. Commands are important, but a simple reading of the Bible very quickly reveals that not all commands in scripture are to be followed by us today. The first command in the Bible is one we cannot follow today (don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil). So commands are important. Commands are to be obeyed…but not all commands. How about these, now from the New Testament:

  • Romans 16:16 commands, “Greet one another with a holy kiss”.
  • Acts 15:20 commands we not eat meat with blood in it.
  • Matthew 5:29 tells us that if we lust we should gouge out our eye. I have yet to meet a single Christian with an eye patch on because they obeyed that command.

So some commands are binding and, for various reasons, others are not. Command in CENI has its limitations. It doesn’t work out 100% of the time. It is not always as easy as God said do this and so we do. How do we determine which commands are binding and which one are not? Why are some commands followed and which ones don’t apply? My point here is not so much to poke at CENI for saying commands are important (I think they are). My point is that those who go by CENI must be intellectually honest enough to be upfront about its limitations, exceptions, etc.

There is a false assumption that legalists take all the commands seriously and progressives are flippant about God’s commands. It just isn’t the case. Both are aware that there are non-binding commands. How do we determine what makes a command non-binding? For some tradition makes the call (“We haven’t ever done the Holy kiss thing and aren’t going to start it now”). For others it is about context and culture (“A handshake or hug communicates the same thing today”). Some on both ends of the spectrum use culture as an excuse to ignore a biblical commands in favor of their preconceived, culturally biased conclusions.

CENI says examples (particularly apostolic examples) are binding . If they did it, we MUST do it just as they did it. From a CENI perspective, the presence or absence of examples carry the same weight as a command. But again, there are exceptions to that. Where are we to meet? There is no command in scripture that we have to meet in an official church building but we do have some examples of where they met. We learn in the New Testament that the first century church met in homes. Example? Yes. Binding? No. Many legalists decry small groups because they meet in homes (which is our scriptural example…now that is confusing.) and have decided meeting in a church buildings is more biblical even though there is no scriptural precedent for that . This is an example where CENI is hijacked by tradition. By the strict CENI standard, we shouldn’t even have a church building and only meet in homes, yet somehow (tradition), it gets spun around backwards and the biblical example is actually called SIN.

Or how about the Lord’s Supper? The early church took the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week (and possibly other times as well). Now, if CENI had been their hermeneutic, they would have had to take it on Thursday since Jesus didn’t command the day to take it on and all they were left with was his example of taking it on Thursday at sunset (which actually then counted as Friday, more on that in a minute). But the early Christians (and us today) took it on Sunday, the Lord’s resurrection day. They didn’t have a command. They did have an example and they picked a different day (by guidance of the Holy Spirit?). Sunday communion would have been condemned by the CENI hermeneutic and yet that is what they did. Were they sinning? Of course not. Did they have direct Holy Spirit inspiration to tell them to change the date of the Supper? Maybe. We aren’t told. The point is, CENI is not an ancient interpretive framework. It is an Enlightenment/modern method of interpreting scripture (that doesn’t make it all bad, we just have to recognize where it comes from and be aware of our own blindspots).

Now, about our following the example of the early church taking the Supper on the first day of the week, we do have examples in Acts of the early Christians taking communion that day. But what even constitutes the “first day of the week”? In Jesus’ day it was sunset on what we call Saturday evening to sunset Sunday evening because days began at sunset, not midnight. So if we are to understand early church practice, in their cultural context and the way in which they understood what a day actually is, then communion would have to be taken between Saturday sundown and Sunday sundown. Have you ever heard that taught? I don’t know any on the conservative side who teach that even though that would be accurate from a scriptural standpoint (doesn’t mean they aren’t out there…I just don’t know of any). I do know some who would tell you that you are sinning if you took the Lord’s Supper on Saturday night. I don’t want to broadly generalize here and say all of them would say that but I have heard it said. The question is not whether or not it fits our comfort zones and traditions but what Scripture actually teaches.

Here is the big question, that CENI doesn’t get to the heart of. What is the authorial intent in scripture when studying any particular topic, command, doctrine, etc.? CENI is more set up for debate and point proving and providing supporting evidence (often via prooftexting) for a particular view than it is at getting at the actual intent and meaning of the text in its original context. I am not saying proving points is bad. I am saying we should be proving points as they were intended to be made in Scripture rather than having a point to be proven and then wrapping scripture around it.

Just like the more conservative brethren, progressives also don’t believe ALL examples are binding. Instead, examples are just that…examples. They are not always binding on their own. Again, it depends on the context. Progressives don’t usually see examples as binding in all instances (neither does anyone else). From a progressive view point, examples are descriptive and can be but are not always prescriptive. In effect, both sides take exception with examples as not being always binding in every situation. We just may differ on which examples are binding and which ones are not. It is important both “sides” recognize that.

Necessary inference
Now we get even further out on the hermeneutical limb. Necessary inference is what is used to find out what we think God wants (and what is binding) on issues of silence. When there is no command and there is no example, necessary inference fills the gaps. It is like God just has to have something to say on every single issue and we are going to make him communicate it whether he wants to or not (Paul tells us some things in the Gospel are a mystery…but that doesn’t jive well with Enlightenment influence, modern thinkers), whether God cares about it it not. Can we have a song book even though there is no example in scripture (scripture is silent)? Sure…Why? Because we can necessarily infer that God wants us to sing and so we can use whatever tools we need to assist us in that singing (unless it is a praise team, multiple song leaders, etc). A pitch pipe is okay before a song but not during a song. Why is a pitch pipe ok? Because it assists us in our singing and God likes singing. This gets shaky.

So how do we know how to make a necessary inference in the best possible way? What factors influence what we believe can be inferred and what cannot? That is where things get tricky because there are many things like personal preference and tradition that often heavily weigh on what inferences people believe are necessary. We all make inferences but we have to realize they are just that. They are not commands and they are not based on example. We have some say in how and what we infer and that makes for a lot of wiggle room in areas of silence.

What must be avoided is putting the conclusions based on NI on level with direct commands or even examples. That is where things get really rocky…condemning others for drawing different inference-based conclusions than you do lacks humility and makes us the ultimate arbiter of all truth (even when not expressly stated by God). Honestly, the way NI is used and abused sometimes borders on outright arrogance. We all have to make inferences but we have to be very careful with how we view the inferences of others on matters that scripture is silent on.

From a progressive point of view, necessary inferences are not seen as inherently binding because God didn’t see fit to give us any direction on those matters. From their perspective, God has left us the freedom and ability to choose various options when it comes to the inferences we make. But that comes with a caveat. Necessary inference does have a place in biblical interpretation…for example, scripture never condemns speeding on the highway but it does say we need to obey and respect those in authority. We can infer that that includes speeding or running red lights or shooting guns into the air on New Years day…none of those things are explicitly condemned in scripture (for obvious reasons) and yet we would conclude/infer from other scriptures what we are to do or not do in those situations.

Conclusion – I hope that at this point in the conversation we all have the realization that humility is essential and that all things are not as simple as “the bible says so and we don’t need to do any sort of interpreting.” I also hope this has been fair, accurately representing what is being said out there and as even-handed as possible. I know that is basically impossible to do but I want to make a stab at being fair here and helping us all see our own blind spots, limitations and areas for growth. It is hard to see any of those things if we believe either of two extremes: we already have all truth and right answers on all issues or there is no truth to be had and that none of these issues are important anyway.


How to Make Bible Study Practical – Perspective Issues 1

It is important, whether young or old, that we continue to tool and equip ourselves to study the Bible. So what I have to offer here on studying the Bible may be old news to some of you but hopefully there will be something for everyone. One of the driving forces in my Bible study has been the ongoing responsibility of producing curriculum for our small groups. When you are constantly writing material to be used in small groups there is a tremendous burden for it to be biblically sound and applicable. This is studying the Bible for the benefit of someone else and comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility (James 3:1). The reason I start by bringing that up is that I believe there are a few things that has taught me about studying the Bible that would be beneficial to share with anyone out there who is still reading this blog. You can’t study the Bible to help someone else grow without it profoundly (and firstly) helping you grow.

When we study the Bible we aren’t studying for information‘s sake although that is the first level we take in God’s Word. When you read the Bible you aren’t reading it to make bullet point lists to fit nicely on the page. You should be reading the Bible for the sake of transformation. The two (information and transformation) have to go hand in hand. You should never have one without the other. We aren’t studying a self-help book here. We are studying the Word of God. What we have between the covers of this book is what God thought would be important enough to reveal to us and have written down so that we could have faith in Him and live changed lives. So before we talk how to’s it is important to talk perspective.

Now for a little more on information leading to transformation…what we believe absolutely impacts how we live. Let’s say you don’t believe in God. You don’t believe in eternal life. When you die, you are dead. Forever. Would that drastically change the way you are currently living your life? Would it change your morality and ethics? If you change the guiding principles of someone’s life you will ultimately change their behavior. That is because what we believe impacts what we do. Information leads to transformation.

All those guys with letters after their names would say it like this – the indicative drives, or leads to, the imperative. Indicatives are just statements. God is love. Jesus is Lord. We are saved by grace. Those are indicatives. Imperatives are commands and in scripture they typically follow after indicatives. The reason for that is God usually gives us the reason why he wants us to live a particular way. Let me give two often cited examples of this.

Example #1 – The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20)
If you learned or memorized the ten commandments as a child you learned that they started at Exodus 20:3. But if you back up a verse, before God tells them anything about how to live or what commands (imperatives) to follow, he gives them this indicative as the basis for their obedience, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery…You shall have no other gods before me” (command #1). God understands the natural progression of how we think about things and what leads to us living them out. That only makes sense because He made us to be like that. I am glad he didn’t just give us a bunch of lists of truths or rules and expect us to get it. Instead he has delicately interlaced the two together in His Word and ultimately lived it out through the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

Example #2 – Ephesians
I first heard this from Dr. Oster at Harding Graduate School. The book of Ephesians is split very purposefully into two halves: Chapters 1-3 & 4-6. The first half is full of indicatives, truths about God, Christ, and our relationship with them. There is only 1 imperative/command in the first half of Ephesians and that one is a command to “remember” what God has done for us. So even the lone command is a command pointing us back to the indicatives. There are something like 41 imperatives in the last three chapters of Ephesians. What’s the point? Before Paul gives them all the commands they first have to understand something about God.

Let me bring this back to Bible study. When we study the Bible the end game is our hope that studying this book will result in a changed, more Christ-like life. That means we are studying for application/transformation. God wants scripture to change our lives. We should want that too. In order to have the basis for understanding and living out those transformative principles we must first have the information/indicative that gives us the background for why these things are important so that our actions and attitudes can be informed by the truth.

Let me end this post with one practical “how to” lesson on what all this means for how we study the Bible. I have said this on the blog before but here it goes again. If we want to apply scripture to our lives we have to know what it says. If we are going to know what it says we have to read or hear what it says. That means that before any of these things even matter we have to act. We have to make the move. We must pick up our Bibles, ask God to guide us and transform us, and study.

What Was the Colossian Heresy and What Can We Learn from it?

In comments on the last post Philip mentioned Milton Jones’ interpretation of the Colossian heresy as something comparable to post-modernism. I have a great level of respect for Milton Jones. I haven’t read his book (that Philip linked to in his comment) but I did think this would be an interesting point to respond to in a post rather than a comment. In January I started writing curriculum on the prison letters of Paul. I really believe it is important to understand the occasion of an epistle if we are going to spend time teaching it and discussing it. So I really wrestled with the Colossian heresy for a while. After sitting at the feet of everyone from N.T. Wright to Benny Three Sticks and Peter O’Brian via their excellent commentaries, here was my take on the Colossian heresy from my Prison Letters of Paul small group curriculum,

“The Jews believed angels were involved in giving the law (Gal 3:19 for instance). It seems false teachers had come in and said that it was necessary to please these angels, principalities and powers if God was to hear their prayers (see 2:16-23). In order to please them they were taught to follow strict dietary (2:21)and holiness guidelines as well as the observance of special days (2:16). Paul is teaching them that such teachings are false and that Christ is still supreme with full authority over everything in creation that they don’t need to lean on such hollow and deceptive teachings (1:15ff, 2:8).”

I can’t say with certainty that I have it all right but that is the best I can come up with thanks to borrowing from a few scholars I highly respect and trying to put these pieces together in my own mind. It seems more appropriate to me to read their Jewish worldview into the text rather than to read a 21st century worldview into it. It makes more sense that Paul would be referencing things from their culture and not ours. Application can certainly still be made and the parallels connected appropriately to teach us something today about our own world. But as for interpreting what the actual heresy was we have to be careful to read the text from the right direction and not interpret it in light of the first “hollow and deceptive” teaching that we can think of in the world we live in.

If this interpretation of the heresy is correct, how do we make application in our world today? First, we have to listen to what Paul did say about the truth concerning Christ because Paul believed that if we have the truth we won’t be led astray by false teachings (Col 2:8-15). Postmodernism in and of itself is not a false teaching, as some have claimed. It is a worldview. It can lead to false teaching but it can also lead to some very profound insights regarding our faith. We cannot let our worldview “kidnap” (Col 2:8) us by leading us away from Christ and to something claimed superior or more sufficient than Christ. If we allow any worldview to do that we are in grave danger. That can happen with postmodernism but it can happen with any worldview, even modernism. You can get so caught up in figuring everything else, from the modern perspective, that you fail to see a need for Christ in your life. That is Paul’s point in the next verses (Col 2:9-10). The Gospel doesn’t need anything more to make it sufficient to bring us life and godliness because Christ is head over all things. In Col 2:11-15 Paul lays out all that Christ has done for us. When we read through that great list we should realize that our worldview must draw us closer to God and not further away from Him.

PS – If you don’t read Philip’s blog you should have a look. He is a great friend and a very insightful guy.

God Says It Better Himself – Letting the Word of God Speak for Itself

One thing I try to do consistently when teaching from a book of the Bible is to start class with a full reading of the text at hand. It is important for scripture to be heard sans commentary. While we shouldn’t read the Bible so objectively that it might as well be arranged like an eye chart on the wall, each letter and word disconnected from the context and meaning of the surrounding words and themes, it is important for God’s Word to be heard on its own merit. It is important to realize that we can sit in class and discuss, interpret, make assumptions, and the like but in the end God says it better.

That being said it is necessary to point out that interpretation of the text is necessary. In fact, it is impossible to let the text stand on its own without interpretation. The only way to do that is to leave the Bible closed and on the shelf. Once the word is read our minds do what they do best. They begin sorting through the sensory experience of hearing. The words in the richness of their connections already present in our mind bring up sights, sounds, paralleled meanings and texts, stories and experiences. That is what our minds do. That is what God made them to do, especially when it comes to hearing His inspired word. John 20:31 tells us precisely that.

“But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,
and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

The text is to be actively engaged so that belief and faith might be produced through the process of interpretation of what God has said, recorded in scripture.

While I do believe scripture can and will speak for itself I don’t believe God wanted the Bible to be passively experienced. Instead it is meant to intersect our lives at a particular point in time and do something to us and in us and through us. That is why you can read the same story in scripture at different times in your life and walk away with different lessons each time. Each time something different jumps out that is relevant in your current life situation. It only makes sense that since the because we, the word, and the Spirit, are all living and active that all three would be designed to work in concert with one another in a way that grows our faith and knowledge of God.

But in the end, no matter how many great commentaries there are, how many wonderful application questions we can muster, and how many word studies we do, God always says it better himself.

Keith Brenton on the Jesus Hermeneutic

Great post Keith! This kind of thinking should put us at ease that God is actually merciful and compassionate. Maybe God was serious when he said he was abounding in steadfast love!?! Along with Frank B…another one of those guys you look forward to reading.

Resources on How to Read the Bible More Effectively

For those of you who want to read their Bible more effectively (in terms of interpretation and application) here are some resources you may want to consider:

Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible by Scot McKnight (more conversational)

Eat This Book: a conversation in the art of spiritual reading by Eugene Peterson (more conversational)

Elements of Biblical Exegesis: a Basic Guide for Students and Ministers by Michael Gorman

Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-on approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible by Scott Duvall

How to Read the Bible as Literature by Leland Ryken (slightly more advanced)

How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth by Gordon Fee (more advanced)

Exegetical Fallacies by D.A. Carson (more advanced)

Introduction to Biblical Interpretation by Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard (more advanced)

The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation by Grant Osborne (more advanced)

All Who Call on the Name of the Lord Will be Saved – Romans 10:13

A couple of verses that have been used in the anti-baptism argument come from Romans 10. The first is found in Romans 10:9 – “That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” That seems pretty straight forward and hard to get around…Paul doesn’t mention baptism as something necessary to do to be saved. The next comes a few verses later in 10:13 – “for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Again, another seemingly straight forward verse. Paul seems to be saying here that if you call on the name of the Lord you will be saved. No mention of belief, confession, repentance, or baptism. This would seem to contradict what Paul writes about baptism in other passages and even what Jesus and Peter taught concerning baptism. But if you can ignore that and the context of this passage you have the perfect prooftext to prove baptism is not necessary for salvation.

So what is Paul trying to say? The problem is not with Paul. The problem is with our traditional methods of interpretation and our propensity to prooftext verses that seem to say on the surface what we want them to say rather than actually trying to figure out what Paul meant. In Romans 10, Paul is talking about the unfaithfulness of Israel and God’s desire for them to put their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and as the culmination of the Law. In 10:9 he is saying that God desires to see in them the acknowledgment of who Jesus is – Lord – from his people. This is the response Jesus was supposed to elicit in their hearts and bring them to confession/faith. So the first part of the equation is the context, that Paul is saying God desires for them to acknowledge Christ as Lord (confession).

The second part of the equation is what Paul is not trying to do. Paul is not intending to write here what many have believed he is intending to write. Paul is not writing a “Spiritual how to manual” of how to be saved. Yet, when using this verse that is what many have made it – do this and you will be saved. Paul is not listing all things pertaining to what one must do to be saved. Here is merely telling them the response God had hoped to see in Israel when the Messiah came – acknowledgment by faith that he is the Messiah and Son of God. Instead, many rejected Jesus. So we have to read this verse in an effort to do with it what Paul was trying to do with it and not use it to make a point we want it to make. Context is important.

The second verse is in Romans 10:13 – for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Again, on the surface it appears that Paul is saying just cry out to God and that is enough. Again, we have to read it with an eye for how Paul intended for it to be heard. The emphasis is not an exact, scientific or mathematical equation that adds up to equal salvation. In the previous verses his point has been that anyone who puts their faith in Christ, God is willing to bring to salvation, whether Jew or Gentile. Notice these words in 10:11-13 – “anyone”, “Lord of all”, “richly blesses all”, “everyone who calls”. The point Paul is making here is not a specific “how to” about salvation. The point is about “who.” Who will be saved? Paul says anyone can if they will have faith in God.

So these verses go from proof texts to be used to make a point Paul wasn’t making into verses to be heard as Paul intended them to be heard and to make the point Paul was trying to make. Isn’t that interesting…that we might actually want to know what the Bible means rather than just try to make it mean what we think it means!

Speaking Where the Bible Speaks is Harder Than it Sounds Using Romans 10:9-13 as an Example

One of our main interpretive principles in the church of Christ is to speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where it is silent. I think that is a wonderful concept to try to attain. I respect our heritage and the overarching respect for scripture that our forefathers have brought to the table. We are spoiled with an incredible heritage and a wonderful ideal that has been set before us. But achieving it is often harder than it may seem at first.

In order to speak where the Bible speaks you have to know what the Bible says. That is easy enough when it comes to passages like “Jesus wept.” We get it…Jesus had physical, actual tears that ran down his cheeks. He felt the emotion of sadness and grief over the passing of his friend Lazarus and over the grief of his friends Mary and Martha. You might also say Jesus was weeping over the condition of mankind as he knew that death was not how things were intended to be for mankind in general. You can break this down very easily. It is succinct and we still weep today so we can relate to exactly what is going on here. All in all this would be a pretty easy exegesis. It is hard to disagree with and is something we all can pretty much agree on.

The plea to speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where it is silent at its core is an appeal to unity. If we would all just read the same Bible in a very simple way we would all come to the same conclusions and thus be unified in our beliefs. Again, this is quite easy when it comes to verses like the one mentioned above. But in other places this plea is very idealistic and nearly impossible to actually practice. In studying Romans over the past few months I have been primarily reading from Cranfield, Witherington and N.T. Wright. There are times they agree with each other, times when two of three agree and times when none of them agree. In my own exegesis of Romans there are times I agree with all of them and other times I agree with none of them. And we are all reading the same text and all trying desperately hard to understand exactly what Paul meant when he wrote it. In principle we should all be able to read the text and come to the same conclusion but in practice it doesn’t happen that way. Why?

We have many different interpretations of the same verse by well meaning and well intentioned people because the Bible has layers (just like ogres, by the way). The Bible has layers of time, culture, language, audience, author, style, overarching themes, context, and many other layers. When one comes to the text with only 35% of the puzzle pieces they aren’t going to be able to make out what the puzzle is a picture of as well as someone who has 85% of the pieces.

Let’s look at another, more complicated example. Romans 10:9-13 reads, “That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

There have been many different interpretations of this passage. Here are a few options:

  1. You can look at this passage as a spiritual “how to” list in terms of salvation. Here Paul doesn’t mention confession or repentance. He says confess and be saved. This becomes a tool in the box of those who believe baptism is not essential for salvation to hammer their side of the argument home. Yet, this in the plainest and least digging sense is what the text says on the surface. But that interpretation would not fly because it is not consistent with other doctrines that the Bible speaks about in relation to salvation.
  2. You can decide in advance that baptism is essential (based on a number of good passages) and so try to continue the idea of this being a spiritual “how to” list of how to be saved but use the caveat that Paul assumes they would have already known to be baptized based on what he wrote 4 chapters earlier in Romans 6. After all, we know it takes more than confession to be saved and so to keep this verse from throwing a monkey wrench into our theology we start constructing a precariously built scaffolding to hoist these verses into the framework of that which we already believe, rather than letting them speak for themselves. So we figure Paul is talking about how to be saved but he doesn’t give the full picture here…he would expect them to piece it together from a bunch of his other letters (which they wouldn’t have had access to) and some from this letter in order to decipher just what Paul thinks needs to happen to be saved.
  3. The third option allows these verses to speak for themselves without throwing a monkey wrench into our theology. How? By actually looking at the context. In Romans 9-11 Paul is talking about Israel and God’s desire for them to put their faith in Christ. In 10:4 Paul wrote that Christ was the completion of the law and in 10:6-8 he wrote that we don’t have to do spectacular feats to bring about our salvation…God wants Israel to acknowledge Christ as Lord. That is what the Law was pointing to but they didn’t get it (10:1-4). So Paul is not listing a spiritual how to manual for all things leading to salvation. Instead, he is just making the point that God still desires for his people to come to having faith in Christ as Lord. What about 10:13 and the quotation from Joel about just calling on the name of the Lord for salvation? It makes perfect sense in context. Paul’s point here is not how to be saved. His point is that ALL of those who turn to Christ will be saved…”anyone who trusts” (10:11), “richly blesses all who call” (10:12), “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” So Paul is not talking about exactly how to…he is saying whether Jew or Greek…it doesn’t matter. God will be faithful to all who turn to Him to be saved. The implication is that God desires for the rest of his people to do so.

If you simply speak where the Bible speaks when it comes to Romans 10, on the surface it seems you have to preach that confession is the only basis for salvation. But when you look at the context, the historical, cultural, and political background of the epistle things start shaping up and you find yourself actually trying to figure out what Paul was trying to emphasize rather than trying to take what he said awkwardly fit what we already believe. I have seen many, many people (including myself) who try hard to speak where the Bible speak actually take the scriptures and twist them out of context to make the Bible speak the way we want it to rather than to hear it for what it actually says. Instead of doing the careful work of exegesis and finding the true consistency that lies beneath the surface we come up with interpretations that are based on assumptions rather than the text and require us jumping through dozens of theological hurdles and hoops. That is dangerous at best. So this is not an easy task and we need to be patient with those who differ with us on those things that are negotiable. Can we speak where the Bible speaks? Yes. But we have to be careful and not arrogantly believe that we have every verse nailed down with precise perfection. We have to be humble in realizing that there are probably areas where we speak when scripture is silent and we are silent where scripture has clearly spoken. We all just have to humbly do our best and trust that God is graceful to deal with our shortcomings.

A Couple of Blog Series to Enjoy

Michael Spenser (imonk) has been doing a series on the Gospel of Mark that is worth following. After 7 posts he is only through verse 15.

  1. Why Study Mark?
  2. The Beginning
  3. The Forerunner
  4. The Baptism
  5. The Temptation
  6. The Message (Part 1)
  7. The Message (Part 2)

Also Jay Guin has been reviewing Scot McKnight’s new book Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible about how we read the Bible and how we apply what we find. I was going to spend more time reviewing the book myself but since he has done such a fine job why reinvent the wheel for now?

  1. Introduction
  2. What is a Blue Parakeet?
  3. Reading with Tradition
  4. The Bible as Story
  5. Wiki-stories
  6. The Story’s Plot
  7. Relational Reading
  8. Missional Listening
  9. Discerning
  10. End Notes
  11. Restoration Movement Parakeets
  12. The Story and Our Salvation
  13. How Things Could Have Been Different – Race
  14. How Things Could Have Been Different – Division
  15. The Sermon on the Mount
  16. How to Teach Hermeneutics

Understanding the Law Under the New Covenant

I am wrestling with Romans 2 & 3 right now. When you work through these texts you cannot help but wonder what is going on in Paul’s head when it comes to the Law (Torah) and its applicability to first century Jewish Christians. Growing up I always heard that the law was done away with, gone, nailed to the cross and had nothing to say for us today. I have been questioning that for some time now but haven’t really dealt with how to put all the pieces together in my head. First of all I think our logic has gotten the best of us. We have become reductionists. We read Romans 3:21 – “ But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known…” and we think to ourselves, “If there is righteousness apart from the law, then the law is no good and is over because we know that the only things that are important are matters of salvation.” Well, who is to say that just because righteousness doesn’t come from the law makes the law any less important or means that the law was dead in the water in the first century? But Matt, Jesus did away with sacrifices once for all, Hebrews tells us that right? Of course Jesus offered a more perfect, one time sacrifice but that doesn’t mean that first century Jewish Christians checked their Judaism at the door of the house church. Peter, Paul, James and many others were Christians who took their Judaism very seriously. What do you do with these verses?

Acts 10 – Peter is still keeping Kosher law. Of course we learn in this story that God declares all food clean but in the process we learn that the law is still a priority for Peter. We see it further when he has to interact with God-fearing Gentiles and needs some confirmation from God that those interactions are “Kosher.”

Acts 18:18 – Paul takes a Nazirite vow.

Acts 21:20-26 – Paul makes a vow and pays the ritual purity fees for four men precisely because accusations arose about Paul being apostate from the law and teaching against Moses, circumcision, and the customs. Paul goes headlong into a demonstration of how the law was still important to him.

Acts 25:8 – Paul is defending himself against accusations and says, “I have done nothing wrong against the law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar.”

Some would argue (including Jacob Jervell) that Luke’s purpose in Acts is to show that Paul is not apostate from the law.

What do you do with these verses in Romans?

2:25 – “Circumcision has value if you observe the law…” Well, Peter and Paul and those in Acts 15 were Christians who were still observing at least portions of the law.

3:1 – “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way!”

There are many more verses because even the verses that are traiditionally used to show that the law was dead in the water are actually pretty poorly interpreted (the most important being Colossians 2:13-15).

One reason we have been taught the law was dead is we have been sold a bill of good that the law was all about works righteousness whereas Jesus brought grace on the scene. That is far from the truth. There was plenty of grace and forgiveness in the Old Testament (Lev 4:20ff, Exo 34:6-7, Num 14:18-19, Jeremiah 36:3, Micah 7:18-19). God actually did forgive people in the Old Testament. Even in Gal 3:10 is not about obeying the whole law, rather, relying on the distinctive markers of the Jewish faith to save rather than faith in Christ).

When you put the pieces together, as best I can tell, there were still law practicing Jewish Christians in the first century (including James, Peter, and Paul) who still fully relied on Jesus Christ for their righteousness. Sure no more sacrifice and sure no more clean and unclean and sure the Gentiles don’t need to be circumcised to be “in” but that doesn’t mean that the law was tossed to the side once they heard about Jesus Christ. Notice Acts 21:20-22 “Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. 21 They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. 22 What shall we do?” There were Jews who believed in Jesus and yet still valued circumcision and the teachings of Moses (which were…the Law/Torah).

The key verse in all of this is 1 Cor 9:22 – Paul was willing to become all things to all men to win some. We get confused when Paul is writing to Gentiles it makes the law seem like it is in a negative light and so we downplay the law. Paul is trying to assure them that they don’t have to turn to fully obey the law and be circumcised to be “in.” They need Christ. But that doesn’t mean that the law was not valued and still had some value for early Jewish Christians.