For those not familiar with the term, “CENI” is the internet abbreviation for Command, Example, and Necessary Inference. And CENI is the foundation of 20th Century Church of Christ hermeneutics.
A fuller expression of the slogan is Direct Command, Binding (or Approved) Example, and Necessary Inference.
Let me try to explain what’s going on. You see, CENI makes no sense unless you also teach the Regulative Principle. This principle goes back to John Calvin and his efforts to purify the church from the accretions of Medieval Catholicism. Calvin taught that, in worship, anything that isn’t authorized in the scriptures is not allowed. In other words, silence is a prohibition. This was supported by various passages that express God’s concern for how he is worshiped, such as the story of Nadab and Abihu.
Over time, those who followed in Calvin’s footsteps further developed the argument, but for centuries, the argument was limited to worship, as is evidenced by the fact many Calvinistic denominations developed denominational heirarchies and other organizations structures not found in scripture. Even the Puritans, who taught congregational autonomy, limited the Regulative Principle to worship. (Here’s a really interesting article on the Puritan version of the Regulative Principle. Someone could earn a masters — at least — comparing the Church of Christ version with the Puritan version.)
Now, it’s important to realize that the Restoration Movement grew out of Calvinism — as a rejection of many of the then current practices of the Calvinist denominations. But Barton W. Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell were originally Presbyterians. Although they rejected TULIP atonement theology, they remained affected by their heritage, Indeed, Thomas Campbell referred to himself as a Calvinist as late as 1820.
It’s perhaps more significant that vast numbers of the Movement’s members were recruited from among Calvinist denominations, especially Baptists (back then most Baptists were TULIP Calvinists, while most Baptists today are not). Therefore, we are hardly surprised the find the Regulative Principle being taught by the early Restoration preachers.
Now, if matters on which the Bible is silent are banned from worship, some rule must be given for how to know what is and isn’t a silence. Early on, the Campbells found authority in commands and examples, but soon enough, Alexander Campbell was forced to conclude that authority would also be found in necessary inference, even though inference involves the application of human wisdom and hence is less assured than the word of God itself.
Thus, when the question arose as to whether a congregation may buy a meetinghouse in which to worship, there is neither command nor example, but it was easy enough to infer the necessity of acquiring a space large enough to assemble in.
Now, notice that the original purpose of CENI was to establish authority for worship, not to define who is and isn’t saved. Indeed, the Campbells were quite clear that no one should be denied membership on a question of inference. CENI was not about salvation; just worship.
Early in the history of the Movement, CENI was expanded to include all of Christianity. As so often happens, we create doctrine to deal with problems that confront the church. Thus, as churches began to use organs in their worship, the Regulative Principle was called upon to prove the practice unscriptural. When disputes arose over the formation of extra-congregational organizations, such as missionary societies, the Regulative Principle was expanded to include church organizations. Over time, the Regulative Principle has been expanded by some to areas only tangentially mentioned by scripture (if at all), such as the structure of Bible classes and the propriety of supporting orphans homes.
There remains no memory that the principle was once limited to worship. In fact, the proofs adduced for the Regulative Principle are now so broad as to include anything that the scriptures address. Thus, if the scriptures mention one way of taking communion, supporting orphans, congregational singing, supporting missionaries, or raising money, that creates an example or command, and the mention thereby excludes all other possibilities.
However, if there is no CENI for a given practice, the matter is left to human wisdom as a matter of expedience. Not surprisingly, opinions have differed as to when and how to apply the principle, and yet many within the Churches continue to insist that any violation of CENI damns. Indeed, recently, Dub McClish has declared apostate those churches in which the elders have stood for re-affirmation, agreeing to resign if the members don’t periodically affirm them. After all, there is no CENI for elder re-affirmation. And those who fellowship the apostates are, of course, also apostate. And on it goes.
Interestingly, McClish has declared Dave Miller apostate over this issue, and Dave Miller is the author of A Plea to Reconsider, damning the Richland Hills congregation for adding an instrumental service, which I considered in the following series of posts:
Must We Have Authority?
Must We Have Authority? Further Thoughts
What’s Not Religious?
A Return to Creeds?
Abusing Restoration Movement History
On How Hard Humility Is: The Conclusion of It All
CENI has proven ineffective at bringing unity. Even the most conservative among us are now dividing from and damning each other over the most picayune issues. And this is hardly new or unexpected. It’s the natural consequence of a seriously flawed doctrine.
I’ll try to explain the flaws in the theory in future posts.