CENI – The Good Side

After that last post about the limitations of CENI (Command, Example, and Necessary Inference) I want to point out some of the things I think are good about those three things.

First, I appreciate people who have a zeal for scripture. Some of the people who hold most tightly to CENI know the Bible backwards and forwards. It is impressive. I wish we all had that kind of knowledge, especially if that knowledge comes from such a love of God that we are immersed in His Word to the point that it is written all over our hearts and minds from study…to the point that it bears fruit in our lives that is undeniable. I love it when I meet someone who has a tremendous knowledge and grasp of the Scriptures AND whose life has been transformed by the Bible to be more like Jesus. It is a beautiful thing.

Second, I agree that commands are important. When God commands something, we best pay notice and do it. Faith requires it. To have a command of God and ignore it not faith at all. That is faithlessness. So I want you all to hear me say that God’s commands are very important to me. I think David Platt said it well in his book Follow Me,

“We can all profess publicly belief that we don’t possess personally, even (or should I say especially) in the church. Hear the shouts of the damned in Matthew 7 as they cry, “Lord, Lord!” Jesus replies to them, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” 29

Clearly, people who claim to believe in Jesus are not assured eternity in heaven. On the contrary, only those who obey Jesus will enter his Kingdom. As soon as I write that, you may perk up and ask, “David, did you just say that works are involved in our salvation?” In response to that question, I want to be clear: that is not what I am saying. Instead, it’s what Jesus is saying. Now I want to be very careful here, because we could begin to twist the gospel into something it’s not. Jesus is not saying that our works are the basis for our salvation. The grace of God is the only basis of our salvation— a truth we will explore further in the next chapter. But in our rush to defend grace, we cannot overlook the obvious in what Jesus is saying here (and in many other places as well): only those who are obedient to the words of Christ will enter the Kingdom of Christ. If our lives do not reflect the fruit of following Jesus, then we are foolish to think that we are actually followers of Jesus in the first place. – David Platt, Follow Me p.16

There is an important distinction made here about obedience and works. Those things work alongside our salvation. They are associated with our salvation. As David said, they are “involved” in our salvation but are not the “basis” for our salvation. Jesus thought obedience was vitally important. So do I. To think any less of obedience would be to make Christ out to be a liar.

Third, I am not a patternist (someone who believes we must use the New Testament as a pattern for EVERY practice…in essence, no one is a full fledged, 100% patternist) but I do value biblical example. I worship with a church that takes the Lord’s supper every Sunday. We worship without instruments, as the early church did. We sing. We pray. We read scripture out loud together. Fasting is important to me and so is giving, teaching, evangelism…these are all a part of my life and ministry. Why? They are because they were either taught in the New Testament or given to us by example. While I don’t believe every detail of their assembly was to serve as an example for us today, I do believe that having continuity with those who have gone before us is important, while still recognizing that even in the 21st century we are still the Lord’s people.

Fourth, inferences are more common than is often pointed out. When we read, we constantly make inferences. It is just part of reading comprehension to fill in the gaps with assumptions and to create meaning where none has been communicated. That is part of the beauty of reading the written word, entering into it’s space and taking something of value from it. I don’t appreciate necessary inference being used as a battering ram in the past, to push through various doctrines that aren’t explicitly laid out in scripture, I still think there is value in inference if done lovingly, with care and in line with a heart that is set on loving God and neighbor. Inference reminds us that there actually is interpretation going on here and if there is interpretation going on then someone is reading scripture and that is a good thing.


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.

Paul’s Example on How to Deal with Silence in Scriptures

What would happen if you used the Command, Example and Necessary Inference hermeneutic to help us understand how to deal with scripture’s silence on a given issue? As hard of a time as people give necessary inference, coming to logical conclusions on issues through the study of scripture is something we all have to do. That is true on issues scripture is clear about and on issues scripture is silent about. Necessary inference is just that, necessary. The problem we run into is how much authority we place on the conclusions arrived at via necessary inference. I think Paul gives us a clue about how we present our conclusions on issues of silence in 1 Cor 7:10-12 that help us keep things in perspective and present them fairly,

“To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. 11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.  12 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her”

Paul gives his take on the issue but says very clearly that he has no direction from the Lord. I am sure Paul prayed on this one, studied up, etc and this is the conclusion he reached. Yet he still says this is just Paul talking and not something that is directly from the Lord. Paul knows how to distinguish between the things that have been revealed to him by God and the things that have not. Obviously we don’t have the same inspiration Paul had but the principle is the same, we must be very careful when speaking on issues scripture is silent about and be up front about that when we present those issues that these are our opinions and why we have them/what scriptures we have based those conclusions on. I do believe God wants us to wrestle with issues scripture is silent on and I do believe the Bible is still our guide in those cases but we must have the humility and clarity of Paul to make the distinction of which things are clearly from God and which things are our own conclusions in these areas of silence. We get ourselves in trouble when we have an issue that scripture doesn’t directly address but we give our opinion as if it is scripture. We need to follow the example of Paul and be humble enough to say that what we are about to say is our own opinion on an issue but that scripture never addresses it.

Take home point – we need more people who are willing to say, “This conclusion is from me, not necessarily the Lord…” when we discussion issues of silence.


A Couple Notes of Interest

  1. Jay Guin has a fabulous post on CENI with some great followup comments by Edward Fudge and John Mark Hicks. If you know what CENI is then you probably want to read it. If you don’t have a clue what CENI means then move on to the next link.
  2. Imonk, Michael Spenser, has highlighted Church of Christ minister Kirk Cowell as one of his seven “Evangelical Untouchables.” The topic of the post was how different evangelical church leaders view what membership is. I didn’t particularly agree with Kirk on his take on church membership as it was a little further than I would personally take things, it really surprised me to see Spenser highlight someone from the Church of Christ. I was also unfamiliar with Kirk and his blog, which is very well done and very insightful.
  3. Dan Kimball has a post about haircuts that is far more interesting that just talking about haircuts. See that post here.