Question 16. Is the CENI hermeneutic the only scriptural based method of Bible interpretation and is it completely sound?

In the first place let me say that there is no “scriptural based method of Bible interpretation” if you mean by this that God has directed us to use a specific hermeneutic. He has not. Nevertheless, the Bible has to be, and is, interpreted. I get amused at those who say: “We should just take the Bible for what it says, and not interpret it.” Then they proceed to interpret it to fit their theological system. Others say, “Just let the Bible speak for itself.” This is another dodge used to defend a creed other than Christ.

I think we are all agreed that the Bible is God’s written word to man by which to direct and enhance our lives and understand the purpose and significance of life. Interpretation of the Bible is the process of understanding it so as to be able to apply it in our lives in a manner pleasing to God. Herein is where we have made one of our basic errors. Instead of viewing it as a book given by the love of God to help us grow into the image of Christ as we live out our daily lives, we have reduced it to a legal code that we must decipher correctly or be damned. Further we have put the emphasis of conforming to this legal code on the methods we use in an assembly for an hour and a half on Sunday morning. Christians do not live under a legal code, and the emphasis of our worship of God is not an hour or so on Sunday morning.

The problem with the CENI approach is not the approach per se. Who will deny that the Bible contains commands to be obeyed? Who will deny that we should consider examples found in the scriptures? Who will deny that at times we need to infer? The problem is that we have tied these things to legalism in conjunction with party politics. The result is strict pattern hermeneutics that magnifies a meritorious based works system of salvation and denigrates grace while producing divisions galore.

We need to understand though, no matter what hermeneutic we use, we will not all agree on what the Bible says nor will we not have problems. No matter whether it is the Allegorical, Analogy of Faith, Deductive or General Principle Method, Hierarchy of Truth, Inductive or Grammatical – Historical Method, Mystical, Naturalistic, Pattern, or Pietistic Method. As I understand it, the CENI approach developed as an action or reaction to some of the “inner light” approaches like the Pietistic which originated in Germany in the 17th century. Logic and reason were thrown out the door in favor of an “inner light” which comes from above and “illuminates” the meaning of a passage. We still have some of that same kind of stuff going on today by sensationalists who talk and write best-seller books for the gullible about the meaning of bar codes at the supermarkets and Old Testament prophecies pertaining to the Middle East.

Alexander Campbell once said that “the following rule is indispensable” when it comes to interpreting the Bible and I agree. “We must come within the understanding distance.” Just as we can’t hear somebody unless we are within the “hearing distance” or his “speaking distance” neither can we understand God’s written word unless we are within the “understanding distance.”  Brother Campbell said that “God himself is the center of that circle, and humility is its circumference.” In our approach to interpretation of the Bible we have put ourselves at the center and our circumference has been arrogance and condescension. Although we trace our CENI approach back to the Campbells, and some of their mentor/ teachers, the simplistic, legalistic, strict patterns approach that begin to develop in the late 19th century and used predominantly in the 20th century was not advocated by Alexander Campbell. This is very evident from Chapter II of his book The Christian System.

In conclusion, let me say two final things. One is that we have tended to make an idol of the Bible and our interpretations. The Bible is to point us to Christ “the great example and pattern” for our lives, but we have betrayed God by making our interpretations reflected in our methods used in the assembly the focus of our religion and the image to which believers must conform. Be it understood that we should be thankful for the Bible and its intent for our lives, but one can be a Christian without the written word. Doubtless few people had direct and easy access to the written word until after the invention of the printing press.

This brings me to my second and final point which is tied to the first. We must not get so complex and technical in our interpretation of the Bible so that we convey the idea that true Bible knowledge and understanding is essentially the prerogative of a special trained class or group like the clergy. This happened in the past and the clergy fought and persecuted people to keep it out of the “hands” of the common man. The Bible is for all men and most of them are common.


2 responses to “Question 16. Is the CENI hermeneutic the only scriptural based method of Bible interpretation and is it completely sound?

  1. Alabama John

    I was listening to a tape of a preacher that preaches across Birmingham from where I worshipped and he said in his sermon that on his way across town to preach for us, he counted the number of churches of Christ he passed.

    He said if I stopped at each and asked “What is a Christian” I would get a different answer from each one.

    That is what CENI has done to us.

    I posted an open letter to the church we left and in sited “CENI” and the “Legalistic Pattern” as the reason.

    Inbelievably, someone had to spell out what CENI stood for as even the preacher said he didn’t know.

  2. You refer to CENI as a “hermeneutic.” The problem with this is that “CENI” is NOT a hermeneutic. It is not a way of interpreting scripture. It is the foundation to all communication. God, just as any person, communicates His will by telling us what He wants, showing us what He wants. He gives us the ability to take what He is communicated in these ways and then make implications about His will for us. This is the way a parent tells their child what they want, a teacher gives instruction to a student, etc. Once again, CENI is not a way of interpreting scripture, but the way God communicates His will to us, and one cannot reject CENI (or better: tell, show, imply) without telling, showing, or desiring one to imply something from their arguments. You will communicate your disagreement in one of these three ways.

    One of the reasons why so many disagree with “CENI” is that many churches just have not done well in showing that this is the foundation for all communication that is done on a daily basis.

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