If faith alone is dead, CENI alone is equally toxic


“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it
and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
2 Timothy 3:14-17 ESV

CONCERNING HERMENEUTICS NEW AND OLD, AS IS TYPICAL, IT APPEARS THAT A PENDULUM EXISTS ON THE FOUNDATIONAL MATTER OF HOW WE APPROACH SCRIPTURE. Finding balance is rare; achieving it is more difficult still. Yet, if balance is sound thinking that is neither biased nor reactionary in nature, then balance is what we need.

NOTE: “CENI” refers to Command/direct statement, Example, Necessary Inference.

In listening to the grievances of brethren who loathe CENI, I have found some truth to their misgivings concerning the traditional hermeneutic among conservative thinkers. Namely, CENI, apart from a sound exegetical method, amounts to what is essentially an elementary approach to scripture at best and a blatant oversight of the bigger picture resulting in erroneous conclusions or out of character applications at worst. Yet, without CENI, we have no expediency to make complete, direct, and specific application, reducing the bible to an interesting history lesson or a beautiful love story with little if any binding authority over modern humanity. Some have adopted various alternate hermeneutics including Christocentric, Commands only, and various others.

A sound exegetical method first seeks to understand the background, the big picture, the text itself, and finally to make application to the modern church and Christian living. Consider the following model:

  • Author – What is known, first internally and then externally, about the writer(s), both human and divine?
  • Audience – What is known, first internally and then externally, about the originally intended recipient(s), their culture, relationship to the author, and historical context?
  • Purpose – What is the motive for writing and primary theme of the text?
  • Plot – What is the storyline?
  • Praise – What does it say about God?
  • Polity – What does it say about God’s kingdom?
  • Principle – What are the key themes and life lessons shaping the relationships of people with God and others, as well as our world view?
  • Precept – What are the prescriptions and prohibitions (Command/direct statement, Example, Necessary Inference)?
  • Application – How does God want me to think, feel, and act today in response to what I have read?

For brevity, we’ll call this combined exegetical and hermeneutical model “AAP6A.” At first, I thought about merely adding some letters before CENI, but I have chosen not to do so because I think adding CENI under “Precept” in the exegetical model helps us to see clearly why CENI alone is entirely inadequate. The problem with CENI alone is it skips to rules at the possible risk of trivializing or missing entirely what the text says about God, its original purpose, and broader principles which all provide a context to inform our application to our lives today. Further, utilizing CENI even as our sole means of application short circuits the natural process of responding with our spirit including intellect, emotion, and volition to what we have just read. We may skip to rule keeping and miss that God loves us, and we ought to love him back!

One may argue that CENI is the means by which we come to understand AAP6A. Even so, I contend that experience has born out the need to formally reframe our hermeneutic within a complete exegetical model without abandoning its merits. Thinking in terms of AAP6A facilitates a healthier approach to scripture.

The Bible is so much more than a list of rules. It is first a story or collection of historical accounts about God and his pursuit of relationship with his people. The very first verse of the Bible is not a “thou shalt” or a “thou shalt not,” nor does it contain an example for us to follow, nor any implied rules. Rather, it reveals the eternal nature of God; “In the beginning, God…” (Genesis 1:1). Scripture begins and ends with scenes depicting God with his people, from the garden of Eden in Genesis 2 and 3 to the New Jerusalem in Revelation 22. The covenant God made with man throughout scripture is “I will be your God, and you will be my people” (Exodus 6:7). It is for this covenant that Jesus shed his blood (Matthew 26:28). Thus, the primary theme of scripture is God, and secondarily, grace or redemption.

Further, each text or account contains overarching principles that serve to guide our lives in such a comprehensive manner that no mere list of rules could adequately address. One can make a far more compelling case against social drinking or immodest dress or provocative dancing based upon principles than with CENI alone. But a fuller understanding of our holy God coupled with a passion to be like him and be with him is what will truly motivate lustful people to desire God more than to desire what is on the other side of moral boundaries. Consequently, the devoted believer asks not “Where is the line,” but rather, “Where is God,” and then seeks to draw nearer to him and farther from the “line.”

Many who have learned to first see the big picture of the Bible in its original context have decided to eliminate CENI entirely, which denies the spirit and character of the Biblical text that clearly was written to be a prescriptive pattern for all time (2 Timothy 3:14-17). While CENI alone results in a primitive and immature form of rote religion that may well miss the main point of all scripture and life itself, to eliminate CENI is to adopt a form of lawlessness that leads away from a holy God who has always given instruction, expected diligent study, application of reason, and yes, obedience.

If faith alone (without works) is dead (James 2), CENI alone is equally toxic. Time has born this principle out in many shrinking, legalistic churches and in the lives of Christians who are always learning but never really growing spiritually in relationship with God (2 Timothy 3:7). Let us study scripture with spirits that hunger to know God, to discern his purposes, to find our place in his story, to grasp his principles, and apply his precepts.

“Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith, from which some, having strayed, have turned aside to idle talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, understanding neither what they say nor the things which they affirm.”
1 Timothy 1:5-7 NKJV

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