So, Why Study History?

(Third of three in a series)

So, why do we study theology and history, especially our very real and human religious history? In a sentence, we study these not just to learn the what, but also to understand the why, and hopefully avoid making the same mistakes as our ancestors. In this installment I turn my attention to another misunderstood aspect of the Restoration Movement, that of our primary hermeneutic, or how we interpret the Bible.

If you have been a member of the Church of Christ for any length of time you have probably heard the slogan, “We do not interpret the Bible, we only obey the Bible.” Whether you have heard that or not, you have no doubt been influenced by the very real manner in which we do interpret the Bible – that of Command, Example, and Necessary Inference (hereafter abbreviated CENI). Stated as simply as I can, we interpret the Bible by identifying and obeying specific commands, by imitating certain examples, and by drawing inferences or deductions that (at least to certain individuals) are inescapable. Never mind that at each point the hermeneutic is fraught with problems, I would wager that very, very few members of the Churches of Christ understand how that method of interpretation came to have such a powerful influence on the Restoration Movement.

The language, and certainly the thought, comes primarily from Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address (first published in 1809). In his third proposition, Campbell wrote:

That in order to do this, nothing ought to be inculcated upon Christians as articles of faith; nor required of them as terms of communion, but what is expressly taught and enjoined upon them in the word of God. Nor ought anything to be admitted, as of Divine obligation, in their Church constitution and managements, but what is expressly enjoined by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles upon the New Testament Church; either in express terms or by approved precedent.

That paragraph gives us the “command and example” part of how we interpret Scripture. If there is a command given to a disciple or to a church, we obey it. If there is a behavior or practice that is “approved” in Scripture, we promote it. Once again, there are problems here, but we can see how the principle was taught. The problem comes with the addition of the “necessary inference” part of the hermeneutic. I doubt that many members of the church are even remotely familiar with Thomas Campbell’s sixth proposition, which states in part:

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 . . . Hence, it is evident that no such deductions or inferential truths ought to have any place in the Church’s confession.

You may want to re-read that paragraph. Thomas Campbell made it abundantly clear that where there are unambiguous commands or examples in Scripture, those teachings must be followed by disciples of Christ. Where human reason has to fill in any blanks, those deductions and inferences may indeed be correct, but those inferences and deductions cannot be bound on anyone who does not see the “obvious” nature of the deduction. Campbell’s wording is profound – a person’s faith must not lie in the wisdom of another person’s brilliant deduction, but only in the “veracity of God.”

Let’s first tackle the problems of “command and example.” It goes without saying that there are a number of dominical and apostolic commands that all disciples of Christ must strive to obey. “Love on another,” “Obey my commands,” “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength,” “Love your neighbor as yourself,” are just a few. I do not think there are many Christians who would disagree with the thrust of those commands.

But what about Matthew 5:27-30? Either there are no Christians who sin with their eyes or with their hands, or we are simply not obeying a direct command by Jesus. Or what about Romans 16:16? How many kisses do you see shared by ushers every Sunday morning? I especially like the manner in which we passionately obey 1 Timothy 5:23.

And what about the example part? Have you noticed that every time the Lord’s supper is described in the New Testament it is being celebrated at night in an upper room? We are told we are to “lay by in store” every first day of the week, as was the practice of the Corinthian church, but do we send that which is received to the church in Jerusalem? Do we wash each other’s feet before every pot-luck lunch?

The point is that there is a certain amount of “cherry picking” that we do even with the “express terms” and “approved precedents.” That discrepancy is multiplied by the tens when it comes to necessary inferences. How many divisions have plagued the Lord’s church just because someone made a “necessary inference” and then demanded that everyone else bow to their conclusion?

Where did we get our dependence on the “necessary inference” part of CENI if not from the Campbells? It was from the pen of Moses Lard, first a disciple of, and then a co-worker of, Alexander Campbell. Within the first generation of leaders the abhorrence of Thomas Campbell to the binding of inferences and deductions had already begun to wane. By the second and subsequent generations the addition of “necessary inference” was firmly entrenched, and has been a thorn in our attempts at unity ever since.

I want to return to a point I made at the beginning of yesterday’s post. Thomas and Alexander Campbell were disaffected Presbyterians. They were reacting against the inferences and deductions that had become church law in the Presbyterian Church. After all, a creed is nothing more than an institutionalized inference or deduction from Scripture. Thomas Campbell saw that when an inference or deduction was promoted, someone else either could not follow the logic, or could come up with a different inference or deduction. He allowed that some inferences and deductions could indeed be considered Scriptural truth, but they could not be bound on the conscience of another Christian!

I do not want to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” as the old saying goes. While I can identify problems with CENI, I also want to admit to its strengths. At the very least, it is an attempt to follow the doctrines of the Bible as they are taught in Scripture. It is a human construct, to be sure, but the motive of Thomas and Alexander Campbell (as well as their spiritual descendants) was commendable. Yes, mistakes have been made, but let us not go to the extreme that we utterly dismiss the love of Scripture and the love of the church that was demonstrated by these early Restoration leaders.

I believe there is a healthier manner to interpret Scripture than CENI. I am also convinced that we practice a better form of interpretation than we sometimes preach (i.e., we do not amputate hands nor do we gouge out eyes. We recognize those “commands” are metaphorical, and we do not consume wine to the exclusion of water because we recognize that Paul was addressing Timothy’s intestinal problems). My biggest issue is obviously with the “necessary inference” component of CENI, and I believe that is where the need for a healthier hermeneutic is most clearly demonstrated.

How many divisions could be healed, if we simply admitted to ourselves and to others that we have certain inferences and deductions that we hold to be dear, but that we willingly refuse to demand obedience by other faithful Christians?

May we all learn the art of ascending to the heights of what is possible by descending into what is necessary.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

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