Covenant-Appropriate Hermeneutic

New Wineskins - The Instrumental Music IssueI’ll say it right out: I think the CENI (Command, Example, Necessary Inference) hermeneutic can be really useful.

It may not help your appreciation of Hebrew poetic literature or prophecy or history, true. But CENI can really help you determine what God’s law and will was in the Old Testament. And, chances are, the verses you may have heard/seen/read to support this hermeneutic (method of viewing scripture) mostly or all come from the Old Testament.

I think that’s telling. The Old Covenant was about law, the law of Moses. It would seem that the rabbinical schools of thought which emerged at the close of the era chronicled by the Old Testament used something like CENI to create interpretations and traditions.

Many of those included interpretations and traditions that Jesus never failed to surgically explore, to excise any falsehood – and, when necessary, to pronounce dead on arrival.

But a New Covenant requires a new hermeneutic – or two, or maybe even more.

You see, the New covenant is not about law, but grace.

For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. ~ John 1:17

The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. ~ Romans 5:19-21

For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace. ~ Romans 6:14

I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing! ~ Galatians 2:21

You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. ~ Galatians 5:4

Law can’t save. Law can only condemn. (Romans 8)

I’m afraid that many people who apply an Old Covenant hermeneutic to the New Covenant – trying to establish what is both written and unwritten in it as only law that must be obeyed to the tiniest jot and tittle – many of those people eventually become very good at doing what law itself is good at doing:


It can start innocently enough with simple correction (even lovingly delivered), but it can also snowball out-of-control into accusation, insinuation, judgment, and condemnation of others.

All because the wrong hermeneutic for that covenant is in play.

I’m sure I’m not the first to propose A Jesus Hermeneutic (Luke 24:27; John 5:39-40) – one which looks at scripture and seeks to see Jesus Christ yet to come, fully present, returned to heaven and/or yet to come again. It puts all of scripture in perspective for me. It has application for my own life and choices. It implicitly asks the Charles Sheldon question, “What would Jesus do?” and all of its other forms.

But I would be the first to admit that while it can accomplish that purpose, it is not of ultimate value in helping determine the answer to procedural questions, especially with regard to church and worship. (It is still of great value there, but as an overarching rather than specific hermeneutic.)

Al Maxey has done a great service to his fellow Christians by proposing A Reflective Hermeneutic in this relatively brief New Wineskins article. That’s not enough space to fully develop the concept, of course, but the proposal alone that you’ll find there is extraordinary.

He recommends a method of discernment that goes well beyond the simplistic everything-must-be-right-or-wrong viewpoint of the CENI hermeneutic, especially when coupled with the Regulative Principle. That view served the wandering and settling tribes of Israel in a dark, violent, barbaric era. But it cannot deal with the complexity of procedural questions like those Paul dealt with in Romans 14. There are some matters about which God expresses no preference – and He expects us to respect the preferences of others in these situations, not to make law for them or judge them.

But what I want you to notice in the article is that Al doesn’t dip heavily into Old Testament scripture to form or exemplify the Reflective Hermeneutic; he quotes the New Testament to answer the questions which fall under the New Covenant.

Here are the four queries that the Reflective Hermeneutic asks us to make regarding any interpretation of scripture (and I would like to add some scriptures which I feel/agree are supportive of asking these questions):

Is it BIBLICAL? (Matthew 22:29; Acts 17:2, 11; Romans 4:3; 2 Timothy 3:16 and many, many others)
If not, is it NON-BIBLICAL? (Al cites Romans 14; I would add Mark 7:1-23; 1 Corinthians 7:10-13, 1 Corinthians 7:25)
If neither, is it ANTI-BIBLICAL? (Matthew 15:3-6; Colossians 2:8; 1 John 2:22, 4:3; 2 John 1:7)
Finally, is it BENEFICIAL? (Al cites 1 Corinthians 10:23; 1 Corinthians 6:12; I would add Romans 6:21-22; Colossians 2:22-23; Hebrews 13:9)

Is that to say there is no law at all in the New Testament or New Covenant? No, not at all; but a Reflective Hermeneutic paired with a Jesus Hermeneutic does recognize these simple facts:

  • that not all scripture is intended to be law;
  • that while obedience testifies to our faith in God’s grace, it does not earn nor merit it;
  • that law can still only condemn and only grace can save.

8 thoughts on “Covenant-Appropriate Hermeneutic

  1. Great article. Phil Sanders’ book on “proving” CENI was used at the time of the giving of the law at Sinai got me thinking about this.

    The sticking point i had with it was what hermeneutic were the 2 1/2 tribes employing when making a copy of the altar at a place other than prescribed or a purpose other than prescribed? When their reasons were given to the 9 1/2 tribes, they were cool with it, too. What hermeneutic were they using to give them such confidence? I don’t know that it was the CENI.

    Your thoughts?

  2. I don’t know what their hermeneutic was, but I do know that their action nearly touched off internecine war. So it probably wasn’t a very reliable one. (Kinda reminds you of the earlier era of the judges, doesn’t it? Where ‘every man did as he pleased’?)

  3. Even in the old covenant law I only see direct commands with no approved examples nor binding inferences. Not even silence because David was commended for desiring to build Him a temple(1 Kings 8:18).

    And the phrase in Leviticus 10:2 “that he did not command” is a Hebraism for a negative to affirm a positive. In other words, it actually means “contrary to what was commanded”. That means both nadab and Abihu both deliberately and arrogantly scorned God’s tabernacle regulations! Doing things both forbidden and contrabidden with their eyes wide open(no ignorance). Doing Arin’s job half-drunk, with profane coals, spices, and utensils with a distainful attitude(Leviticus 10:3) So you see, there’s no silence here.

  4. You refer to CENI as a “hermeneutic.” The problem with this is that “CENI” (or TSI – tell, show, imply) is NOT a hermeneutic. It is not a way of interpreting scripture. It is the foundation to all communication. God, just as any person, communicates His will by telling us what He wants and showing us what He wants. He also gives us the ability to take what He is communicated in these ways and then make implications about His will for us. This is the way a parent tells their child what they want, a teacher gives instruction to a student, etc.

  5. Jason, I can tell a story. That’s not a command. There’s a world of difference between telling someone something — even expressing what you want them to do — and exercising any authority over them to command what you require them to do.

    The CENI viewpoint is a hermeneutic because it begins by assuming that all God wants to tell us through scripture is what He wants us to do. (Or that the only important thing God wants to tell us is what He wants us to do.) Nothing could be further from the truth. He also wishes to communicate what is right, good, His nature, the blessings of loving others above self, the joys of being filled with His Spirit … the list is virtually endless.

    In other words, not just what He wants FROM us, but also what He wants FOR us.

  6. Mat 15:1 Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying,
    Mat 15:2 Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread.
    Mat 15:3 But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?
    Mat 15:4 For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death.
    Mat 15:5 But ye say, Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me;
    Mat 15:7 Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying,
    Mat 15:8 This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me.
    Mat 15:9 But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.

  7. Mat 22:36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
    Mat 22:37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
    Mat 22:38 This is the first and great commandment.
    Mat 22:39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
    Mat 22:40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

    All the laws and all the prophycies are based upon these two commands. Yes there are only “TWO” GREAT COMMAMDMENTS, but they are far reaching, brother really far reaching. We have to obey these before the others even come into play.

  8. Pingback: A Jesus Hermeneutic: Looking Again | Blog In My Own Eye

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