Hermen-what?


Hermeneutics – How e interpret and apply God’s Word to our lives.

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15 – NAS77)

I admit I have struggled with the practical application of scripture for my life and sometimes within the Body of Christ. Why do we do what we do and why don’t we do what we don’t do? Why are somethings wrong even though accepted by culture? As a child of the 1970’s and teen of the 1980’s I grew up in a culture of questions and change. When I began to ask questions about the work and worship of the church, Bible Class teachers and college professors pointed me and my peers to the hermeneutic of Command, Example, and Necessary Inference (CENI). When I first started using CENI, I did not always know when an inference was necessary and how such an inference regulated a command was for a limited or general audience. Then I tried to comprehend when to know an example was binding or to be ignored. Obviously, we do not follow all examples in the Bible, after all Judas went out and hanged himself and one of Judah’s sons (Onan) failed to have children in his brother’s name.

I use CENI in my study as a Christian and as a minister with conscious consideration of the context surrounding the text. What did the Holy Spirt want the original readers / hearers to know and do? How did they apply what they were taught? Do we have a similar context in which to make application of this directive or command? The consideration of of context determines the necessary inference that determines my reaction and use of the text in question. Another aspect of context is understanding the genre of a passage. How do we learn from and apply historical narrative, poetry, wisdom literature, law, and epistles? What carries more doctrinal weight: historical narrative, poetry, wisdom, or epistle? How do we determine this and who makes that determination?

Recently, I re-read a book I first read twenty years ago. This volume came about as many began calling for a “new” hermeneutic. Specifically, many were calling for a “new” approach to Bible study and application that shifted away from what they saw as a strict rational and lifeless approach toward a more lively and spiritual approach. This effort continues today, and this self-proclaimed spiritual approach continues to lead to changes in worship, leadership, and daily Christian living. Reading “The Cultural Church*” after all these years renewed my appreciation for CENI and how that hermeneutic helps us know God’s will Yes, CENI has weaknesses, but many of those weakness occur when we neglect context or purpose behind a text.

In “The Cultural Church,” LaGard Smith proposed a “not-so-new” hermeneutic. What he proposed is a reframing of what early restorers used and in someway redefines CENI in terms that may make more sense to my generation and those that follow. His terms and methodologies are some I can identify with and find that I am already using before I could define them. Smith does not abandon CENI but modifies and modernizes hermeneutics with three “not-so-new” but not-so-old either concepts (Purpose, Principle, and Precedent). His proposal from two decades ago deserves a look, this is my summary.

1. Purpose encompasses context and genre. Purpose asks: To whom was this originally written or spoken? Why? What did they learn or understand? Purpose investigates the literary genre to determine if a text is to be a command, directive, refection, prophecy, principle, or precedent.

2. Principles are doctrines, rules, directives, or commands. Principles can also be concepts such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We use Purpose to determine if this principle has a specific (limited) application or a universal application. What context indicates that a principle is specific or universal? Is the principle or directive repeated to other groups or individuals? Compare and contrast Paul’s directive about head coverings for women and what he writes about church leadership. One is specific and one is universal.

3. Precedent are the actions of the apostles and their contemporaries that set a pattern or example. In other words, we learn from their example how to apply a principle or directive.

Whether we call it CENI or Purpose, Principle, and Precedent the important this is that we look to scripture to establish our relationship to God in Christ and to learn how to come before Him as the church.

– Scott

* Smith, F. LaGard, The Cultural Church (Nashville:20th Century Christian), 1992

2 thoughts on “Hermen-what?

  1. I agree in principle but I have always thought that sometimes we over analyze what is written. Most of the epistles were written to be read to a specific group and then passed on to another group. These early Christians heard and understood. Some times we have 3 commentaries and a lexicon trying to find a hidden message. I admit I have slipped into this group. With internet you can look at a half dozen commentaries in a matter of minutes. A principle I was taught in college was KISS.

    • I tend to agree. Yet, not every principle sets a precedent. So we must use some method to determine what we apply and how we apply it. Consider women wearing head coverings. Paul in 1 Cor 11 says women are to cover their heads, why do we not apply this principle? Why do we say this is not a precedent? The answer is in why Paul said it – the purpose he defines. Contextually, he was talking about male spiritual leadership and using the cultural context of a veil (covering). The principle then is not about head coverings but about who is to be the spiritual leader.

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