CENI: Is CENI a Hermeneutic?

CENI is to hermeneutics as McNuggets are to fine dining. (Couldn’t resist…) (Ceni is evidently a world-famous soccer goalie who will endorse any product at all.)

I occasionally move a comment I wrote to the main page, since most readers (I suspect) don’t read all the comments — and I’m bad to write too-long comments that I should save for posts.

Jason wrote,

“The problem with this is that “CENI” is NOT a hermeneutic. It is not a way of interpreting scripture. It is the foundation to all communication.”

(“CENI” in Internet lingo for Command, Example, Necessary Inference.)

Hmm …

My wife just left to go to the grocery store. I told her, “Please bring me some Diet Cokes.” If she brings back something in addition to Diet Cokes, has she acted in rebellion against me her husband? Or does the answer depend on something else? If so, what else?

Under a CENI approach, silence is a prohibition. I was silent on bananas. Does she have authority to buy bananas? Or are bananas necessarily inferred by “Diet Coke”? I don’t see how. So what’s the answer?

Ponder this long and hard, and you’ll find that the answer depends on the nature of my relationship with my wife and the nature of my own character. What kind of person would I have to be and what relationship would my wife and I have for “Diet Coke” to deny authority to buy bananas?

And so, you see, CENI omits quite a lot when it comes to human communication. In fact, to claim that humans can only grant authority by these three means is to take a very legalistic and unrealistic view of how humans relate to each other.

Here’s the reality. I don’t have to “authorize” my wife to buy groceries at all. We love each other. We trust each other. And if she wants to buy bananas, she doesn’t need my approval or authority — by command, example, or necessary inference. Her authority comes from our relationship and trust. In fact, while I suppose there’s an element of authority there, we never ever think or talk in those terms. It’s not a particularly useful concept in defining what to buy at the store.

Occasionally, she makes a mistake and buys something I don’t like. I divorce her when that happens, of course, because she should have acted based on clear authority!! And that, of course, is sheer foolishness and obviously so.

I don’t care when she makes a (very rare) mistake because perfection has never been and never will be the standard. I judge her heart and know she was trying to please me, and therefore I continue to love her and remain happily married even when by mistake she buys food I hate.

If you are in a loving relationship with someone else — a wife, a child, a parent — then this should be beyond obvious. You do not relate to someone you love based on CENI authority. You’d wind up at each other’s throats over trivialities! And who would want that kind of a relationship?

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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14 Responses to CENI: Is CENI a Hermeneutic?

  1. Jason must have been on a CENI safari. He left this comment on my blog:

    “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.”

    And I responded, much as you did, Jay:

    “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.”

  2. John says:

    NECESSARY INFERENCE has also been used to arrive at some horrible conclusions and beliefs. One example is Jesus’ parable of the laborers being called at different times of the day to go work in the field for the same wage used as a scriptural prohibition of Labor Unions. Or, Jesus’ statement of the poor always being with us as meaning that nothing can actually be done about the poor. And the Master-Slave passages? Well, we have discussed those before.

    Those who take silence to create prohibitions, are also masters at taking that little word, “inference” as a hammer and chisel to sculpt a few verses into hard, intimidating idols.

  3. David Himes says:

    The problem I see in CENI is that is starts from the premise that the NT Text is intended as a set of rules and laws which we are obligated to follow. That premise conflicts with virtually the entire Text of Romans.

    So, on that basis alone, CENI is a flawed method to approach understanding the Text

  4. Price says:

    Jay, when and where and by whom did CENI arrive ? It also seems to be a theory designed around punishment avoidance… What a strange relationship that would be, huh? Good thing love casts out fear..

  5. mark says:


    Jay wrote this back in 2009.


    It might help.

  6. Travis says:

    Jay, I’ve heard a similar example as yours several times when it comes to CENI, however, the characters are always father and child, to indicate God and us (his kids). There is obviously a difference in a husband/wife relationship and a father/child situation when it comes to authority. When a father instructs his son to go to the store to buy diet Coke, and the son also buys a candy bar, that son is in direct violation of the father’s command. Using CENI, the child obviously is in the wrong, since there is no command, example or necessary inference to authorize the purchase of the candy bar. The preachers I heard use this illustration were all very hard line, and who really did treat their kids like this. They were very controlling. The elders in those congregations had the same mindset. Those types of personalities see God as being just like them – very controlling and just looking for an opportunity to correct or punish someone. Of course, I’m not like that with my own kids. We have a “earned trust” relationship. When they were younger, my wife and I were more “CENI” with them, because they were in the training phase of their lives. As they’ve grown up, we’ve backed off from being so controlling because they’ve earned our trust by demonstrating good judgment. Now, if I send my 20-year-old daughter to the store for Coke (I would never send her out for diet! Ha!), she knows that she has my approval to also buy hair spray if she needs it. Our relationship defines the limits of authority needed for her to make a decision. Buying hair spray with my debit card is fine, but buying a new car is clearly out of bounds. Back to the OP, that is a problem with CENI. There is a lot of assumption that takes place before we ever start to apply it, and we too often try to force God into our own image while interpreting Scripture using this method.

  7. Keith, I was going to say the same thing. Jason left the exact same comment on my blog. More than a safari, it seems to be a crusade.

  8. R.J. says:

    CENI is flawed to it’s core. The reason being-nowhere in the bible does it say we need authority to do such and such. Colossians 3:17 has nothing to do with needing authorization but upholding a banner in gratitude!!!

  9. Jay Guin says:


    Thanks for your note. I decided to go with a husband/wife analogy because the church is the bride of Christ. Father/child works, too, as you describe.

    I’m disappointed that Jason has disappeared. I was hoping to hear what he would say.

  10. David’s point is well taken. CENI only seems to mesh with a badly written code of regulations, a method needed to create some legal order out of a text that clearly was not organized for the purpose. “Command” is black-letter requirement or prohibition. “Example” is precedent. “Necessary inference” is the attempt to apply precedent to different conditions to create a legal argument which calls for people to submit to unwritten conclusions as though they were black letter. CENI is far, far from the basis of all communication; it can be most charitably described as amateur lawyering applied to that which is not law.

  11. rich says:

    for anyone that would like to read …pretty much explains why…we all got on the path of
    thou shalt not…and calling THAT GODS LOVE…



    Philosophical/Theological Foundations–”Created for Hermeneutics” (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

    Stone-Campbell Hermeneutics (1, 2, 3, 4,
    Theological Hermeneutics (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 6b, 7, 8, 9, 10)

    Applied Theological Hermeneutics [“It Ain’t That Complicated”] (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

    Contemplative Bible Reading or Hermeneutics (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

  12. Ray Downen says:

    What seems clear is that all Jay’s friends realize that legalism is not Christianity. And since many Church of Christ congregations are legalistic, that is a problem. Can we rejoice that many members of Churches of Christ and of all churches are becoming friends of Jay and others who work for unity IN Christ? I surely do rejoice.

  13. Majola says:

    “CENI” (Command, Example, Necessary Inference) “hermeneutic” (method of interpreting the Bible). Though as will be pointed out, a hyper-rationalist approach to the scriptures can indeed take us away from Christ, the idea of using common sense in interpreting inspired scripture didn’t originate with Sir Frances Bacon or John Locke but is found throughout the Bible. Searching for a divine precedent (for example, seeking command, example or necessary inference) is a practical approach to finding God’s will, not a codified hermeneutic that originated in Europe in the late seventeenth century. God gave us common sense and expects us to use it!
    Doy Moyer hit several nails squarely on the head with the following posts on Facebook.
    We need to get past the constant criticism of CENI (Command, Example, Necessary Inference).
    The problem with CENI is not that it is a failed hermeneutic. The problem is that we have clouded the terminology so much that we have forgotten what basic communication is all about. CENI is fancy talk for the basic principles of communication – what we use anywhere at any time for everyone. How so?
    When you want to make your will known, how do you do it? May I suggest one of three ways? 1) You tell someone; 2) You show someone; 3) You imply something you expect people to get. This, of course, is the simplified version of CENI. When people disparage CENI, I don’t think they’ve really thought this point through. Attacking CENI is attacking the foundation of communication. And it won’t logically stand.
    Here’s the kicker: the whole principle (what I refer to more appropriately as “tell, show, and imply”) is self-evident. Anyone who wants to deny this is free to try it. But if you do, please do not tell me anything about it, show me anything about it, or imply anything about it. To do so would be self-defeating.
    In other words, “tell, show, and imply” is logically necessary. It is the way we communicate anything. Now I realize that this doesn’t get to the nuts and bolts of application, but I do think we need to get past this constant criticism of CENI. Perhaps we should lose the CENI terminology, but the principle that underlies it is logically necessary. In my opinion, our mistake has been that we haven’t explained that fundamental communication process — we’ve skipped right to the fancy talk and left people wondering, “where do you find that in the Bible?” You find it right where you find it anytime someone communicates anything. It is a fundamental starting point, and I don’t believe anyone can logically deny it without defeating their own denial.[7]
    Later he added, referring to CENI (command, example, necessary inference) in a simpler way as “tell, show, imply” (TSI).
    Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation. It is what we as the recipients (readers, hearers) bring to the communication process. TSI, on the other hand, is inherent in what the communicator gives. That is, we, the readers or listeners, do not provide the TSI; we take the TSI that is given to us and try to understand what that means. TSI, then, is not a method of interpretation; it is the material that we try to interpret. We might misinterpret it. We might fail to get out of it what is intended. But it is nevertheless the raw material that we use in order to understand what the author or speaker intends. There is no getting around this. No one interprets anything that is not first told, shown, or implied.
    So, CENI (TSI) is not a hermeneutic. It is the bare bones of what we work with when we do interpret. Thus, criticizing it as a failed hermeneutic is to misunderstand it at the most basic level. Instead of criticizing it, let’s recognize it for what it is (inherent in the communication process) and then deal with how we should properly understand the statements, examples, and implications

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