by Al Maxey

Issue #126 ------- May 21, 2004
The shepherd drives the wolf from the
sheep's throat, for which the sheep thanks
the shepherd as his liberator, while
the wolf denounces him for the same act.
Plainly, the sheep and the wolf are not
agreed upon a definition of liberty.

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)
Speech in Baltimore - April 18, 1864

Suggesting Another Hermeneutic
Inquiry into an Interpretive Methodology

As clearly perceived in the illustration presented in the above quote by President Abraham Lincoln, one's interpretation of events and words can differ greatly from that of another, and the basis of that fundamental difference often lies not so much in that which is the subject of one's focus, but rather in the individual background and interpretive methodology each brings to that endeavor to understand. The wolf, based on his experience as a wolf, has a rather clear concept in his own mind of the meaning of personal liberty. So does the sheep. So does the shepherd. It is fallacious to ascribe "falsity" to one, as opposed to the others, simply because of differing perspectives. Each is true to itself.

The same could be said for differing brethren in Christ as they approach the serious task of seeking to understand the writings of the inspired revelation of God. Their individual backgrounds, as well as their interpretive methodologies, will often play a significant role in their understanding and application of the teachings of the Bible. To suggest, as some have, that, because their interpretations differ, one must be sincere and honest, while the other is not, is unconscionable. If Romans 14 demonstrates anything, it demonstrates that devoted disciples do at times arrive at completely opposite understandings of the will of God. This chapter also demonstrates that our Father, thanks be to His marvelous grace, judges the nature of our hearts in such matters far more than He does the nature of our hermeneutic.

Nevertheless, one's hermeneutic is important, as it will form the basis for that disciple's understanding of God's Word. An inferior hermeneutic will inevitably lead to an inferior theology. Thus, it behooves us to seek out and utilize the best interpretive process available. Many within the Stone-Campbell Movement, especially those within the more conservative wing of the Churches of Christ, have embraced what has come to be called the CENI hermeneutic (the letters of which simply refer to Command, Example, and Necessary Inference). As many know, I do not believe this to be the best methodology available to us. Indeed, I feel it to be fatally flawed as employed by its proponents, and believe the adherents of this hermeneutic have left the One Body horribly fragmented into countless feuding factions in the wake of their differing deductions and assumptions which they far too frequently feel compelled to bind upon others as universal LAW.

However, it is rather pointless, and even irresponsible, to "curse the darkness" if one is unprepared or unwilling to "light a candle." In other words, if it is my belief that CENI is flawed, then what do I have to offer in its place?! A Reflections subscriber from the great city of Houston, Texas (where a younger sister of my wife lives) wrote me the other day, "Al, I respectfully disagree with your assertions on CENI. You have condemned CENI without offering an alternative that makes more sense. Many seem to be doing that these days, but I have not seen a 'new hermeneutic' that makes more sense than CENI." This brother is absolutely correct in his challenge. If I criticize a particular hermeneutic, I must be willing to offer a reasonable, rational, responsible alternative in its place. I shall seek to do just that in this current issue of Reflections.

An Alternative To CENI

In view of the growing dissatisfaction with CENI among members of Churches of Christ (most other groups of disciples within Christendom saw through its flaws long ago and never really embraced it), many concerned brethren have been increasingly reflecting upon what would constitute a better interpretive methodology. For example, a reader from the beautiful state of North Carolina recently wrote, "I especially appreciated your recent Reflections on CENI. I'm moving toward a new hermeneutic -- I am affectionately calling it the principle hermeneutic. My basic tenet is: in the absence of a clear command from God about a particular subject, issue, question, etc., we should look for the overriding PRINCIPLE presented in God's Word. This would mean placing LOVE at the top of our list." This is very similar to the hermeneutic employed by one of my fellow elders at the congregation where I serve. He labels the basic tenets of his approach as: Precedent - Principle - Purpose. Other noted brethren in Churches of Christ, such as F. LaGard Smith in a recent book, have also sought to share approaches they feel to be superior to the "old standby" which is failing fast.

My approach is nothing new; it has been around for a good long time, and is used effectively and frequently by others within the universal One Body of Jesus Christ. I have made some modifications to that model, however, and am happy to share the basic premise of this hermeneutic. It can be characterized in the following skeletal sketch: Biblical -- Non-Biblical -- Anti-Biblical -- Beneficial. Let me address each of these aspects of this model.

BIBLICAL --- I am a firm believer in holding up the BIBLE as the source of our ultimate guidance. However, I do not regard the Bible as a LAW book, or book of RULES, the precise practice of which results in justification, sanctification and salvation. I'm reminded of the following shocking incident, the accounting of which appeared in a recent article by Dr. Rubel Shelly in Grace Centered Magazine (for which I am also one of the writers) -- "I was praying. Actually, I was being led in prayer -- along with a few hundred others -- on a Sunday morning. I usually pray with eyes closed -- reflectively, quietly, attentively. This time I gasped, my head yanked up, and my eyes popped open. The man leading the prayer was mouthing heresy to the ear of God and in the presence of all of us under the sound of his voice. 'Holy Father, we thank you for this little book of rules you have put into our possession that will lead us to heaven, if we will only learn them and put them into practice every day.' Looking at him, he was patting his little New Testament as he spoke." Had I been present with Rubel that day, I fear I would have audibly gasped as well.

Rather than the misguided view represented above, it is my conviction that the Bible is a divine revelation of the nature of our Father; an inspired guide as to how to order our lives in accord with His will. I like the way Rubel phrased it in his article -- "The Bible is a Spirit-breathed narrative of God's activity that invites us to travel a holy path, join a great adventure, and share Christ's life. The Bible is not a book of orders but a storyline set in history that tells us where we've come from and where we're headed. It is much less a list of rules than a poem or symphony that captures and reorients our hearts. It is not a threat but an invitation."

Are there commands given by God in this revelation, this divine "storyline set in history," that are to be obeyed by mankind? Absolutely! And willful disobedience can prove very costly. Few disciples, regardless of their hermeneutic, discount God's clear commands. When God declares "thou shalt" and "thou shalt not," we had better listen! But much of the guidance from above, through this written revelation, speaks more to the hearts and minds of His devoted disciples. Rather than a legalistic "check list," our God provides guiding principles which may be legitimately applied in different ways given the circumstances of one's immediate environment. For example, demonstrating a benevolent spirit might differ dramatically from New York to New Guinea, and yet either expression of benevolence would be acceptable to God, although what is approved in New York might "fly like a lead balloon" in New Guinea, and vice versa. Thus, it is the principle that is clearly seen to be eternal, not the method of application.

But, I digress! Back to the concept conveyed in the term "Biblical." Similar to the reader from North Carolina, I approach each issue, question, topic, practice, doctrine or belief by seeking to determine exactly how it relates to the Bible. Specifically, I seek to determine if it is Biblical, Non-Biblical, Anti-Biblical, or even if it is Beneficial. The very first matter to determine is: Is this matter Biblical? What this simply signifies is -- can this matter be found within the pages of the Bible? Does the Lord, at some point within the pages of Scripture, specifically address the issue, question, practice or doctrine? If He does -- if the Lord has spoken -- then all we need do is heed and obey. Thus, the first step in a responsible hermeneutic is to determine if God has spoken!!!

NON-BIBLICAL --- Not everything we face as disciples of Christ, however, can be found clearly addressed in the Bible. Indeed, some matters are never mentioned at all. These would fall into the realm of the "NON-Biblical." This simply means that they are not to be found anywhere in the Bible. It does NOT thereby suggest that they are wrong or sinful or "unauthorized" or forever forbidden (the "silence excludes" fallacy). It simply means the Bible is silent about them. This says nothing either for or against them. The matter is absent altogether from the pages of the biblical text. Such biblical absence neither "authorizes" nor "UNauthorizes" the item in question. Thus, one can neither condemn nor condone something simply by virtue of its absence alone. All one can safely say is, "God said NOTHING about it."

ANTI-BIBLICAL --- As previously mentioned, just because something isn't mentioned in the pages of the Bible does NOT necessarily mean it is acceptable to go ahead and do it. Nor may we forbid it on silence alone. When God's inspired Word offers no specific statement on a matter, we must then begin seeking further clarification by asking some very pointed questions. The first is: Does this action, attitude, issue or practice violate any known principles or inspired advice given to us in Scripture? Is there anything in God's Word that would clearly point to the fact that this matter is "ANTI-Biblical" in nature or focus? If there is, then it must be rejected as being in opposition to God's will for our lives.

I heard of a professional "exotic dancer" (they used to be called "strippers"), who claimed to be a "good Christian," who believed she could stand before a congregation of believers on a Sunday morning and "dance for them" in praise of her God and the "gift" He had given her. Well, after all, there was no verse in the Bible that said "No stripping during the worship assembly!" It was clearly a "Non-Biblical" matter. BUT, is it an "Anti-Biblical" matter? I think most of us would agree that it is, and few of us would have any difficulty producing several biblical principles and precepts indicating that such behavior is clearly in opposition to the will of our God.

BENEFICIAL --- There are many things not mentioned in the Bible, however, that are also not opposed to biblical principles and teachings. If the Bible is silent on some matter, and it can't be clearly shown to be in opposition to guiding biblical principles, does that mean we can then go ahead and do as we please with regard to such? No, not at all. The fact is, sometimes even good things can have a bad effect. Thus, in determining our actions and attitudes, we must ask yet another question of that which is "Non-Biblical" but not "Anti-Biblical" --- would this practice or action be Beneficial to the cause of Christ and the Body of Christ? Will it help or hinder us in the fulfilling of our godly purpose in life? Is it beneficial or detrimental to the growth and edification of the congregation of believers?

The apostle Paul spoke of this very matter in Romans 14 when he urged us to examine our actions, practices and motives carefully, and not allow a good thing to have a bad result. "Do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil" (vs. 16). Rather, we are to pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of the Body of Christ, even if that means backing off of what may, in different circumstances, be good and acceptable (vs. 19-20). Paul demonstrated his use of this very hermeneutical principle when he wrote the saints in Corinth, "Everything is permissible, but not everything is helpful. Everything is permissible, but not everything builds up" (1 Corinthians 10:23). In a very similar statement (1 Corinthians 6:12), Paul adds the thought that we must be careful lest we allow such matters to become masters over us, rather than being master over them. These matters are in our control, and thus we must exercise good judgment.


There are many "issues" over which the adherents of CENI have fostered factions in the family of God. If others don't agree with their personal assumptions from their personal perusal of Scripture, then they feel "led of God" to cast these brothers and sisters out of the family. This is shameful. Is there a better way to examine "issues" and challenges and questions in the church? I believe there is.

Let's notice a practical application of the above principles of biblical interpretation. I'll put my neck on the proverbial "chopping block" and select the "hot potato" of Instrumental Music, since this seems to be one of the major "issues" facing the church today, and over which disciples are horribly divided. Is the use of instruments, as either an aid or accompaniment to singing in a worship assembly, a practice approved or disapproved by God under the new covenant in Christ? More simply put: If Bertha tinkles the ivories in a corner of the auditorium on Sunday morning as we sing praises to God, are we all sinning and in danger of eternal damnation? This particular issue has divided brethren for generations. It has led to horrendous feuding among spiritual siblings, with combatants on both sides condemning the others to "everlasting torture in the fires of hell." Frankly, I blame, in large part, the fallacious hermeneutic employed in the past which has led to such heart-breaking schism.

Let's apply this other hermeneutic to the question. Is the use of instruments in corporate worship (as an aid or accompaniment to singing praises unto God) a practice that can be said to be "Biblical"? The answer is YES. The practice is clearly found in Scripture. The redeemed of God under the old covenant practiced such for centuries, and with the obvious approval of God. Indeed, God even commanded it (2 Chronicles 29:25 -- "the command was from the Lord through His prophets"). The Psalms are filled with examples of such (see Psalm 149 and 150, just by way of example). BUT ... has God spoken about the practice, one way or the other, in the New Covenant writings? Has He changed His thinking with regard to what may or may not accompany or aid our singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs? We know He desires for our expression of praise to come from the heart (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16), but that is nothing new. He always has!

Is the matter, therefore, "NON-Biblical" with respect to the writings of the New Testament? Well, not entirely. We know that near the end of the first century, in the Revelation given to John, mention is made of musical instruments in the courts of heaven (Revelation 5:8). This, of course, is merely a symbol, but it shows that God was using the symbol of a harp to convey the idea of praise unto Him. It seems odd that He would employ the symbol of an instrument of music to denote heavenly praise, if the actual use of such an instrument on earth in praise to Him would cause one to be lost!! Didn't Jesus teach us to pray, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10)? The early disciples also met frequently in the temple courts during the early years, and at times even continued to make vows and offer sacrifices in the temple (and did so without sin). Instruments obviously were used in some of these proceedings. Further, the early disciples sang psalms, some of which actually spoke of instruments used acceptably in praise. Again, wouldn't it be rather odd for a believer to be able to acceptably sing Psalm 150 in the assembly, but if that believer actually practiced what he sang about then he would be lost?!! Very odd. In fact, it borders on the irrational.

No, I don't think we can really say God is silent on the matter. And yet, on the other hand, He nowhere in the NT writings ever said "Thou shalt use instruments in the worship assembly" or "Thou shalt NOT use instruments in the worship assembly." Thus, with regard to specific instruction on the matter, this is indeed a "NON-Biblical" matter. In the NT writings there is NOTHING said specifically one way or the other.

Therefore, we must ask the question: Would such a practice of using instrumental accompaniment be "ANTI-Biblical"? Is there anything about this practice that would constitute sinful rebellion against God and His revealed teaching elsewhere in Scripture? To this I would have to answer NO. I find absolutely no teaching anywhere in the Bible that even hints at divine disapproval of such a practice. There is not one single verse, in either OT or NT writings, that even remotely suggests such a practice is sinful or an abomination to God. Thus, I think one would be very hard-pressed to produce biblical evidence condemning such a practice as sinful in the sight of our heavenly Father.

Would such a practice, however, be "Beneficial" to the Body of Christ Jesus? Ahhhh, here we come down to the nitty-gritty of the matter! This is where individual and corporate personalities and preferences and perceptions come to bear on the subject. Frankly, there are some individuals and congregations who genuinely believe that since the NT writings don't specifically say the early disciples used instruments, that they are therefore sinful. If that is their conviction, then they should live by it (Romans 14:22-23). "Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind" (Romans 14:5). In such a congregation, therefore, it would NOT be "Beneficial" for that group to employ instruments of music in their worship. If someone were to later come into their group and try to introduce such a practice, that person would NOT be acting in a benevolent, godly manner toward these brethren who honestly held to a differing conviction, and who were merely seeking to worship their God according to their own perception of His will. Such a person would be putting a stumbling block before them -- an unloving act.

Therefore, guidance for our actions and attitudes, in this matter, comes from our answer to the question: Does this BENEFIT these particular disciples in this particular place at this particular time? If the practice is not "Anti-Biblical," and if it DOES benefit the brethren, then it is deemed acceptable. If God is glorified, if brethren are built up, if the cause of Christ is furthered, if the lost are attracted to the light, then the practice is approved. The mere fact of biblical "silence" on some practice is NOT prohibitive (contrary to the CENI hermeneutists). Their hermeneutic would lead to alienation in this area (and frequently has); this new, better approach leads to greater acceptance among God's genuine children. I think that constitutes a better way.


In all we do, God must be ultimately glorified. In all we do, we must subjugate our own human desires to the greater good of those around us (both saved and lost). In all we do, we must assure that HIS purpose is served by our actions and attitudes, and that we do not knowingly array ourselves against Him or His Word. The Father expects His children to be mature, discerning, loving sons and daughters. He does not follow us around with a rule book and a switch! He guides us by His precepts and principles; He does not enslave us to rigid rules and regulations. We are, after all, free in Christ. But, with freedom comes responsibility. We are to exercise good judgment, and show consideration for others.

Is this hermeneutic I've advocated somewhat subjective in nature? Yes, it is. Most are. There is a major difference, however. This hermeneutic has no inherent drive to formulate universal binding LAW. Rather, it operates on God's guiding principles. My reasonings from Scripture, in areas of silence, will be for the purpose of guiding me in helping myself and others to grow in grace, not for the purpose of devising decrees to forever bind others to my personal preferences. My goal is freedom, not slavery; love, not law; responsible reform, not rigid regulation; acceptance, not alienation. It is an approach to Scripture that seeks to bring all believers together, not find ways to justify our increasing separation from members of God's extended family. It does not promote any "pattern" other than the pattern of God's love, mercy and grace as evidenced in the heart and life of Jesus. Our God is LOVE, not LAW, and this hermeneutic seeks His guidance within the parameters of the former, not the latter. Is it a perfect hermeneutic? No! None are. But, I feel it approaches the Bible with a far better spirit and focus than CENI. Thus, it is the interpretive approach I have adopted, and I commend it to you for your further reflection.

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in Oregon:

I was reading your article again -- The Legalistic Leap of CENI -- and am more convinced than ever that this legalistic approach to understanding God's Word is partially responsible for discouraging some to grow in His grace and knowledge. I've seen the eyes of some gloss over as they are being taught how to somehow fit every passage into this man-made model. When the inconsistencies become apparent, they are then faced with at least two choices: (1) Reject the humanly devised "sacred" CENI formula, and suffer the consequences, or (2) acknowledge they are simply not smart enough to understand God's Word, and then wait for the "legal experts" to tell them what the Word of God is REALLY saying.

As if CENI is not convoluted enough, we are also taxed with the burden of placing everything into one of two categories: Generic or Specific Authority. Have you researched these formulas and found more about their origin and development? I think it would make a great Reflections article. If you enter "Specific Authority" in your search engine, you'll find most discussions are from the same groups who think CENI is the "divine method of interpretation." It is likely that if others actually came to realize where some of our traditions and methods of interpretation originated, they might be less likely to treat them with such reverence, and perhaps get back to simply reading the Word, examining the context, grasping the principles, and making application without carrying the burdens that our legalistic brethren are themselves unable to bear. By the way, that was a great response to the Synagogue and Psalm 74:8 challenge. Keep up the good work.

From a Reader in Alabama:

Brother Al, I have been introduced to your writings by a friend and fellow saint here in Alabama. He knows how much I detest the methods employed by the "patternists" as they attempt to regulate who is allowed to be admitted into their "fellowship." I was reared in a very legalistic sect of the Church of Christ by a very sincere, yet mistaken, father who was influenced by those directly associated with bringing him to Christ. These men were some of the most legalistic and argumentative people I have ever seen. Debates were a constant. We studied to prove our point (proof-texting), rather than reading and studying to determine God's message for us. Anyway, I would appreciate it if you would add me to your mailing list.

From a Minister/Elder in New Jersey:

I am not sure which of the last two Reflections I appreciate most. Applied Pauline Theology was as excellent as was Psalms and Synagogues. I believe both have important messages (warnings) for the church today. The covenant relation with God through Jesus is often forgotten or cast aside amidst the jungle of religious rules, regulations and rituals. Christian discipleship has been traded for Church membership. What has happened to discipleship? We seem more concerned about being right and screening out of our organization anyone who does not agree with us. Christianity has become Churchianity, and Churchianity has been reduced to organizational forms, ceremonial services and battlegrounds of traditions. Great job, as usual. Keep your powder dry ... they'll be back.

From an Elder in West Virginia:

I have enjoyed reading your articles and the reader's responses since being added to the mailing list. I hope to find time to sit down soon and "catch up" on past thoughts you have written. Ultimately, we all have to come to our own interpretations and conclusions about Scripture, but I think it's beneficial to discuss among each other our views about what we believe God's Word is saying to us as individuals. Why would we want to keep that to ourselves?! Thanks again!

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