Hermeneutics: Email about Noninstitutionalism

I get emails —

I recently began attending a noninstitutional church, not because of its noninstitutional doctrine, but simply because it is a great group of people and the fundamental (salvation) issues of Christianity are well preached. However, hearing the noninstitutional doctrine has made me consider some things, and I feel as if after I have analyzed the issues I will be forced to be either much more conservative or much more liberal than I currently am regarding Biblical interpretation.

To get to the point, I recently read your article “CENI: Binding Examples” and would like to know what you believe to be the principles of hermeneutics if CENI is either incomplete or inaccurate. Hermeneutics is obviously important to the institutional vs. noninstitutional debate. Furthermore, I would like to know where you would turn to to answer questions regarding the questions raised by noninstitutionalism. This would include which books of the Bible you believe to be the most important in this area of doctrine, as well as what books have been written regarding the issue (from authors such as Thomas Warren, Guy N. Woods, etc.). Also, if you have put a lot of thought into the institutional/noninstitutional debate, I would be happy to hear what you have to say. Like I said before, I have an institutional background, but I’m having to look at the issues for myself.

I found your email address on your website, and I thought you might be helpful. If this is not the type of thing that you intended people to use your address for, just let me know. Thanks for any insight you can offer.

I entirely agree that hermeneutics are key for debates such as the instititional controversy. The two sides argue from the same scriptures, worship the same Savior, and yet damn each other over a topic not even directly addressed in the Bible. They have subtly different hermeneutics.

But I disagree with the most of the hermeneutics of both the institutional and noninstitutional debaters — and I’ve studied the debates in detail. You see, the church I grew up in split over this issue. But even though my parents were on the institutional side of the dispute, many of my best friends (and the best friends of some of my siblings) while I was growing up were the children of noninstitutional preachers. And we debated the issues at length. I still have friends within the noninstitutional churches. I’ve lived this issue.

After college, I actually pulled out the old debate books from the 1950s, when the dispute was the hottest, and read the arguments made by both sides. I eventually had to conclude that both sides were in error when it comes to hermeneutics — because neither side built its hermeneutics on the Word of God. Rather, both sides import human principles into the Word, rather than seeking God’s principles from the Word.

Over the years, I concluded that the foundational principles must be (a) in the Bible and (b) stated to be foundational in the Bible. After all, God is surely capable of saying what’s most important plainly. And it should be obvious that I can’t figure out the details until I’ve gotten the big picture right. Therefore, most of my studies should be focused on understanding the big issues deeply. Only then can I express an opinion on matters on which the scriptures appear silent.

Now, according to the Bible, what are the most important principles — book, chapter, and verse? Well, you can’t read much of the New Testament and not conclude that faith in Jesus is at the top of the list.

(1 Cor 15:3-5)  For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.

Do a study on the New Testament’s teachings on faith, and you quickly see how very central this principle is.

(Heb 11:6)  And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

What else? Well, Jesus himself said,

(Mat 22:36-40)  “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

And so, my hermeneutics begin with faith in Jesus and love for God and my neighbor.There are other principles, but these are the dominant, over-arching principles. If I get these wrong, all else is futility.

Now, to someone raised in the Churches of Christ, faith and love seem like just the first of hundreds of commands. But that is a mistake. You see, when the Galatian church began to insist on circumcision, Paul told them how to decide whether circumcision is truly a matter where God has imposed a rule —

(Gal 5:6 ESV) For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

Ponder this one at great length. Paul says the reason you don’t have to be circumcised (or not) is because circumcision has nothing to do with faith in Jesus or love. Rather, the only thing that counts with God is faith working through love. Could he be serious?

(Paul later had Timothy circumcised so he could evangelize Jews. The decision was driven by love and faith.)

He doesn’t say that circumcision doesn’t matter because it’s not one of the 5 steps in the Plan of Salvation or one of the Five Acts of Worship. Rather, he applies a test quite foreign to my training: is it faith in Jesus expressing itself through love? Oh, wow — that’s a radically different way of looking at scripture. We’d never say,

For in Christ Jesus neither [institutionalism] nor [noninstitutionalism] counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

We wouldn’t even consider applying the very test Paul used. Rather, we’d argue that our position, pro or con, is “faith” — but “faith” in Galatians is faith in Jesus, not faith in (or against) Thomas Warren’s position on institutionalism.

(Gal 2:15-16)  “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ 16 know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.

Now, I’ve gotten ahead of myself, as I’m bad to do. I realize I’ve not explained this well enough to expect you to be persuaded. I wouldn’t have been. Rather, what persuaded me was an in-depth study of faith and love and the Spirit.

Oh, I almost forgot —

(Rom 8:1-4)  Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, 4 in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.

Paul seems to think that I can live in a condition of “no condemnation” by being in Christ Jesus and living “according the Spirit.” When I first read this, I desperately wanted to have no condemnation! I mean, I’d felt condemned most of my life. I couldn’t imagine living without condemnation! And that led me to conclude that the Bible’s teachings on the Spirit are also extremely important. After all, the Spirit is a dominant theme of Romans 9 and Galatians 5, two books that tell me, now that I’ve been saved, how to stay saved.

(Rom 8:11)  And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.

In fact, the Spirit is essential to my salvation. And yet we’ve always minimized the Spirit’s work. How can that be right?

Again, I realize that I’m way ahead of myself. The point is that the scriptures and the hermeneutics of the 20th Century Churches of Christ don’t match. Indeed, 20th Century Church of Christ heremeneutics minimize the Spirit, teach that all Biblical inferences are “faith,” and treat the commands to love as co-equal with countless inferences not even stated in the Bible. This should be enough to persuade you that you need to find God’s hermeneutics from God’s own text.

I don’t expect you to agree with me at this point. I just hope that I’ve shown that the answer to your question won’t be found in the works of Guy N. Woods or Thomas Warren. Rather, I’d like to show you how to derive hermeneutics from the Bible.

I suggest you read Do We Teach ‘Another Gospel’? which is an ebook posted on this site. It’s not long. And it concludes with a section on hermeneutics. The book takes you through what I believe are the truly central doctrines of the scriptures and then compares traditional Church of Christ hermeneutics to the Bible’s own hermeneutics.

Over on the left of this page, you’ll see a list of Pages. This is an index to the site, and there’s a link to Hermeneutics. It’ll take you even deeper into the text of God’s Word, if you wish. But I recommend that you start with Do We Teach ‘Another Gospel’?

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5 Responses

  1. This may be off the subject, but…

    I guess I never learned any of the “traditional Church of Christ hermeneutics” when I was growing up. When I look at the 47 dozen or so ways to divide a Church of Christ I conclude that I grew up in one of the smallest divisions there are. I never read any books written by anyone from a Church of Christ. I never read any of the “edited” journals published by any Church of Christ group.

    This may be right on the subject,… I read the Bible a lot and listened to a few gracious preachers. One aspect of being in a tiny division is that you are accustomed to being hit with bricks and stones and you may learn to say, “I am a Christian, saved by the grace of God.”

    What a blessed childhood I had.

  2. Hi Jay

    Dreamland rules! My grandson arrived in Northport this morning at 8:00, BTW, 7 lbs, 7 oz.

    I preached on this this morning, tell me what you think. I used the Matthew 22 text you quote above. I tied it to: John 14:15 NKJV 15 If you love Me, keep My commandments. I taught that commands teach us how to practice love. Thus their practice is not legalism (I didn’t use that word), but simply God showing us how to love Him and our neighbor. It is a joy to seek out the commandments and try to do them better, because, by so doing I am growing my love.

    I encouraged my wife to go to UCC this morning. I am not sure yet if she did or not.

    John

  3. John,

    I didn’t get to meet your wife, but it’s a big church with two services. I hope she was benefited by the service.

    Congratulations on the newborn. I’m looking forward to grandparenthood — one of these days.

  4. I’m here to tell you…grandparenting ROCKS! However, you learn your place pretty quickly. My 3 year old grandson brought a box of chocolates to his nanna…I asked him where mine was and this sweet, adorable, apple of my eye, looked at me and said, “It’s waiting for you at Wal-Mart.”

    Sorry, for being off topic…but as a grandpa you never pass up an opportunity to bore others with stories of your grandchildren. 🙂

  5. Even though I have been a member of a church of Christ for almost 20 years, it never occurred to me until recently that CENI might not be a valid concept; or at least not validly applied. I now believe that our hermeneutic is the biggest reason why there is so much division in the churches of Christ.

    Below is a link to the first of a good two part article dealing with the binding of examples that might be helpful. I have found the study to be very enlightening.

    http://creedrehearsal.com/are-approved-examples-binding-part-1

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