CENI: Necessary Inferences

The “NI” in CENI is necessary inference. Now, I majored in mathematics, and to us mathematicians, an inference is not “necessary” unless it is proven to a mathematical certainty. The Church of Christ approach to necessary inference is something else.

Let’s start with the “5 acts of worship,” which is a fundamental teaching of the Churches of Christ, going back to a series of articles written by Alexander Campbell over 150 years ago. The current teaching is that there are five and only five acts of worship permitted in the assembly —

  • Prayer
  • Preaching
  • Communion
  • Giving
  • Singing

However, as we review the prooftexts for this foundational argument, we see very little “necessary” in the inferences.

Where is the text commanding us to pray when we assemble? Surely, it’s a good practice for God’s people to pray when they are together, but where is the requirement to pray every time we assemble?

Just so, we have an example of Paul preaching to the Sunday assembly in Acts 20, but how is it necessarily so that they had a sermon every week? After all, Paul was a visiting evangelist.

We also know from Acts 20 that the church in Troas met on a Sunday to “break bread,” but we aren’t even sure whether “break bread” means communion, the Love Feast, both, or a common meal. And we can’t tell from scripture whether this was a universal, weekly practice.

We know that Paul told the church in Corinth to lay aside funds for the relief of the poor in Jerusalem weekly, but we have not a word of instruction regarding a weekly gift for the church’s general fund.

And where’s the passage that tells us to sing in the assembly? Paul mentions singing in the assembly in 1 Cor 14, along with prophesy and speaking in tongues. He urges Christians to sing in Ephesians and Colossians, but it’s a stretch to turn those verses into commands that you’ve not properly assembled unless you’ve sung.

We’ve taken possible interpretations and turned them into necessary interpretations — and then had the gall to damn those who disagree with our suspect logic.

Do I think we should practice the 5 acts of worship on Sunday? Well, that’s how my church does it. But if someone wants to give monthly or mail in his check, that’s quite all right.

And if we skip the sermon one week to focus on the Lord’s Supper or prayer, that’s quite all right, too.

And if we add to the 5 acts now and again — by having a baptism or greeting each other — that’s okay, too.

For now, the point is simply this: what we call “necessary” very often is simply not as certain or as mandatory as we claim. Something else is going on, something that’s hidden from view. The real hermeneutic is hidden. In the next post, we’ll look behind the curtain.

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15 Responses

  1. Above Jay says “We’ve taken possible interpretations and turned them into necessary interpretations — and then had the gall to damn those who disagree with our suspect logic.”

    Based on years of first hand experience, I have come to view this “gall” as complete religious arrogance and more unscriptural than the “error” that it condemns. Further I have come to the belief that a Chrstian who would exhibit such judgemental behavior has to either ignore or be completely unaware of God’s saving grace and the implications of that grace.

    Am I guilty of the same judgementalism which I find so disgusting? Maybe but I don’t really care because I am so sick and tired well meaning but mis-guided Christians dividing the Lord’s body because others have the gall to hold to an interpretation (necessary or otherwise) that is different from their own.

    I only hope that some day, our conservative bretheren can realize that the “necessary inference” of Romans 14 requires no inference at all. This text from Paul is a clear admonition for all of us to practice personal grace towards one another.

    We don’t have to be weak on the truth to accept as brothers and sisters those who have various differing interpretations from our own. We can actually be One in Jesus. I think He wants it that way but that is just my own necessary inference…

  2. And of course those who infer differently than the accepted inferences are condemned because they have “added” to God’s Word.

    Exactly how is a doctrine based upon a “necessary inference” not an addition to the Law of Christ?

  3. It would be good if the Churches of Christ, going back to its roots, remembered Thomas Campbell’s 6th proposition that, “although inferences and deductions from scripture premises, when fairly inferred, may be truly called the doctrine of God’s holy word: yet are they not formally binding upon the consciences of christians farther than they perceive the connection, and evidently see that they are so; for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men; but in the power and veracity of God–therefore no such deductions can be made terms of communion, but do properly belong to the after and progressive edification of the church. Hence it is evident that no such deductions or inferential truths ought to have any place in the churchs’s confession.”

    How can the traditionalists ignore such a great tradition – no such deductions can be made terms of communion?

    It makes me wonder who is really conservative and who is really binding and adding what God has not authorized.

    God bless.

  4. Great post and great comments. IMO the single biggest logical hole in conservative church of Christ doctrine, and the greatest cause of division, is the so-called necessary inference.

    Let’s have a look behind the curtain.

  5. “The current teaching is that there are five and only five acts of worship permitted in the assembly –

    * Prayer
    * Preaching
    * Communion
    * Giving
    * Singing”

    Sorry, but I have never heard this taught within a church of Christ in my 37 years as a member. I’ve heard similar wording to describe what is worship, but I’ve never known a place that would not allow a Bible reading within worship.

    1. Cor 14 is all about worship. Singing, praying and speaking of various forms are included as important elements when Christians meet together to worship God. (Paul covered communion in an earlier chapter and giving in a latter one).

    I agree, in general, that the concept of necessary inference has been used and abused over the years. I’m just seeing worship as a precedent blessed by God rather than an inference.

  6. Much like with the elder question, how do we fix it? What is a good hermeneutic? Can you recommend a book?

  7. Read Gerhard Maier’s BIBLICAL HERMENEUTICS.
    It is not CENI, Proof-texting, Land-markism or higher-critical. His way of doing hermeneutics is from belief and a faithful life of prayer and seeking and a Biblical “grammatical-historical” approach. He rakes the higher critical schools over the coals for their automatic write-off of divine revelation and miracles and their refusal to start from a ground of orthodoxy.

    Very good book. It has helped me a lot. Also read INTRODUCTION TO BIBLICAL HERMENEUTICS by Blomberg, Klein, and Hubbard. In fact read this first as it lays the mechanics of good interpretation out.

    One of the major faults or sins of the COC wing of the Restoration Movement is that of “illegitimate totality transfer”. There are many other interpretive errors of the COC as well.

    Peace,
    Gary

  8. Rich,

    Consider youself very lucky to have never have heard this taught. It has been a foundational teachuing in most Churches if Christ for over 120 years. In fact, at the 1951 ACC Lectureships, a John Bannister stated about the 5 acts of worship, “To be scriptural our Lord’s day worship must contain all of these five required items…To have less than these required five is to render the worship vain! To have more than these, is to corrupt the worship!”

    Further evidence of how this has been indoctrinated in the Churches of Christ, enter “5 acts of wroship” in an internet search engine (e.g. Google or Yahoo) and see what you get. Near all of the church references will be from “sound” brotherhood publications or Church websites.

    This doctrine has been around for quite a while. Be fortunate that you were not exposed to it.

    Blessings,
    Alan
    Sugar Land, TX

  9. Alan,

    Thanks for the feedback. I’m sure most people in a leadership role where I have attended over the last 30+ years would agree with the statement in question. They would do so without realizing that other items like scripture reading isn’t included in the list.

    People tend to propose ideals which are almost always an extreme. This is one of the issues I am seeing in the cofC now. People are polarizing themselves by defending ideals (both progressive and traditional) that most would find inadequate.

    God bless.
    Rich
    Flint, MI

  10. Gary,

    I had not heard of “illegitimate totality transfer”. Thanks for bringing this concept to me. I did a google search to help understand.

    It’s basic premise seems to assume that each passage of scripture is a stand-alone context. Looking at an author’s overall usage of a word should not be used to help understand the local scriptural context.

    Do the authors of the books cited believe the Bible is the infallible word of God or just written by good men? This philosophy seems to be more consistent with the latter.

    I’m not trying to be confrontational. I’m trying to reflect back what I understand was said (including unspoken ramifications). Please let me know if I have missed something.

    Rich.

  11. Hey Rich,

    Gerhard Meir will be a blessing you and all who read his approach to Scripture. I highly commend the other book as well. I consider all as Bible believers. In fact Gerhard addressed that very issue in my reading of his book today. I was blessed by his Biblical answer.
    As far as illegitimate totality transfer, we need to know the meaning of the Word in each Scriptural context. Too often only one verse in consulted in a matter under discussion, and the other verses which deal with the issue are conveniently skipped. Jay does a good job of avoiding this trap in his 1 Cor 7 study.

  12. I have two series on hermeneutics that attempt to answer this question. The Blue Parakeet is a book by Scot McKnight that provides an excellent introduction to the narrative approach to hermeneutics. I’ve been teaching a series of classes at church based on this book. The lessons are indexed at http://oneinjesus.info/index-under-construction/blue-parakeet-the/. I’ll keep posting through the end of May.

    An older series, from a different but still non-traditional angle, is http://oneinjesus.info/index-under-construction/hermeneutics/.

    And I’ll have few thoughts to share as we work through the CENI series.

  13. I just read Jay’s post on the 16 acts of worship. It was funny. I think I was saying the same thing. I don’t know of anyone who actually practices the 5 acts like Jay claims we do.

    I don’t understand the attack on those who count 5 by including anyone who speaks (invitation, confession, personal stories, scripture reading, etc) as the sermon element. Seems to me there are far more important issues than getting so nit picky.

  14. The argument sometimes made is that instrumental music is damnable heresy because it involves a 6th act of worship — and God has only approved the 5. Song books and song leaders are aids. IM is an addition. Just so, the argument is made that X is damnable heresy because it’s not authorized, not being one of the 5 approve acts.

    Baptism is, of course, approved — indeed, highly recommended — but not as an act of worship to perform during church. That point isn’t that anything of these things are wrong, but that our definition of “authorized” changes to suit our preconceptions. We don’t follow the CENI/5 acts hermeneutic — nor should we.

  15. Along these lines, I get frustrated when we create our own categories and use them to define words. The most common, but certainly not the only, example of this, is with TRUTH.

    Instead of striving to ascertain how each author uses this word, we create an extra-Scriptural category entitled TRUTH. We fill that box/category with whatever content seems best in our own eyes, and then we teach that whenever a Biblical writer uses the word TRUTH, he must mean “everything we’ve put in the box.”

    Take that idea for a spin — pick some other words and see how often we do it. Try SPIRIT or WORSHIP or KINGDOM.

    I’m trying to learn a better way — beginning by not assuming that all the authors use the same words in the same way. Sometimes the SAME author uses a word in different ways! (check out ‘dikaiosune’ — righteousness — in Romans!)

    Categorization looks simple and easy, but it doesn’t seem to be a Scriptural method of reading and understanding.

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