The Unnecessary Consequences of Necessary Inferences

Disclaimer:  The following essay is the blogging equivalent of “thinking out loud.”  I do not claim to have all truth, but I do have a mind, and I like to think about what I believe and why I believe it.  While I know that many will disagree with my conclusions, this is not an invitation to debate.  Remember, it’s called the World Wide Web for a reason.  If you want to post a differing view, I respect that.  But please do it in your own forum and in a civil manner.

Alexander Campbell was a brilliant man.  He and his father Thomas had a vision of Christian unity that they pressed toward unrelentingly.  Alexander was educated, and was trained in logic and proposed and promulgated a particular methodical, even Baconian way of understanding the Bible.  He felt that it should be approached as a rational, scientific undertaking, that careful dissection would supply all that was necessary for reestablishing an “ancient order” of church structure and function with the goal of uniting the many denominations into a unified body of believers.  He accepted direct scriptural commands and examples of early actions as necessary and fitting for re-visioning the primitive institution in modern times.  He came to understand that inferences were necessary at times, but that inferences were merely human interpretations that should never be used as tests of fellowship, even as Thomas declared in the sixth and thirteenth propositions of his Declaration and Address, the document that likely marked the official beginning of the Campbell portion of the Restoration Movement, sort of analogous to the famous “shot heard round the world.”

Proposition 6

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–therefore no such deductions can be made terms of communion, but do properly belong to the after and progressive edification of the church. Hence it is evident that no such deductions or inferential truths ought to have any place in the church’s confession.

Proposition 13

Lastly. That if any circumstantials indispensably necessary to the observance of divine ordinances be not found upon the page of express revelation, such, and such only, as are absolutely necessary for this purpose, should be adopted, under the title of human expedients, without any pretence to a more sacred origin–so that any subsequent alteration or difference in the observance of these things might produce no contention nor division in the church.

Now, I realize that any who deny the 19th century origin of the Stone-Campbell movement and its descendants in the churches of Christ will dismiss such important documents of its founders as being merely human constructs.  But Thomas and Alexander saw with greater clarity than today’s leaders the danger in elevating human opinion and interpretation to the level of law.  In Proposition 7, Thomas sees that the dependence on human inference could lead to the development of a practically Gnostic system of admission to fellowship including only those who have achieved a requisite body of knowledge, far beyond the primitive test of communion.

Proposition 7

That although doctrinal exhibitions of the great system of divine truths, and defensive testimonies in opposition to prevailing errors, be highly expedient; and the more full and explicit they be, for those purposes, the better; yet, as these must be in a great measure the effect of human reasoning, and of course must contain many inferential truths, they ought not to be made terms of christian communion: unless we suppose, what is contrary to fact, that none have a right to the communion of the church, but such as possess a very clear and decisive judgment; or are come to a very high degree of doctrinal information; whereas the church from the beginning did, and ever will, consist of little children and young men, as well as fathers.

Again, deny the source as you will, but these men were visionary far beyond the limited lens of any of today’s leaders who are proponents of a formulaic method of understanding scripture.

We cannot visit the Declaration and Address without touching on the most salient point leading to the often quoted (but rarely practiced), “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.”

Proposition 5

That with respect to the commands and ordinances of our Lord Jesus Christ, where the scriptures are silent, as to the express time or manner of performance, if any such there be; no human authority has power to interfere, in order to supply the supposed deficiency, by making laws for the church; nor can any thing more be required of christians in such cases, but only that they so observe these commands and ordinances, as will evidently answer the declared and obvious end of their institution. Much less has any human authority power to impose new commands or ordinances upon the church, which our Lord Jesus Christ has not enjoined. Nothing ought to be received into the faith or worship of the church; or be made a term of communion amongst christians, that is not as old as the New Testament.

Here, Thomas notes most forcefully that nothing may be added that interferes with or adds to what amounts to the test of communion.  He continues that no changes to worship should be made, which, by reason of the “expediency” clause in Proposition 13, may actually be modified, as long as those inferred expedients are not elevated to a test of communion.  Where the proponent of a legalistic view would elevate a “necessary inference” to the level of a test of fellowship, they actually violate this philosophical premise by acting contrary to the stipulation citing, “Much less has any human authority power to impose new commands or ordinances upon the church.” In other words, by inserting an inferred command where none explicitly exists, an interpreted opinion becomes tantamount to law and a test of faith.

That being said, a closer consideration of the Command, Example, Necessary Inference (CENI) hermeneutic or method of interpretation reveals that the method has been elevated to such a level of esteem that the thing itself is practically seen and defended as being divinely inspired.  Its Baconian origins are clearly evident to anyone who even marginally considers it structure and function.  The Campbells, indeed its earliest proponents among the churches of Christ, saw it as an important tool that revealed truth, but was flawed from the perspective of its potential to allow inference to become too important, and indeed equal to the force of command.

This “scientific” approach as it is currently practiced no longer shares much with its logical, methodical predecessor.  For example, the practice of CENI has evolved into a system in which accepted propositions and current practices are not subject to scrutiny.  In science, all things are subject to objective scrutiny.  Any hypothesis or even theory may be objectively tested by attempting its falsification.  If an investigation fails to support a hypothesis, i.e., if it is disproven by objective falsification, then the hypothesis is rejected or revised.  That a current interpretation may be revised or even rejected in light of new understanding is unheard of in the practice of CENI.  We have attained all knowledge, all understanding, and we have flawlessly recaptured the functional essence of 1st century Christianity.

That such a divergence of opinion or practice is not only possible but inevitable with the application of human reason and preference is foreign to the practice of science.  In science, the simplest solution is (usually) the best, according to the rule of parsimony.  In practice, where human preference and interpretation are employed as in the case of the strict application of CENI, division and plurality are the rule.

The disciple of CENI would suggest that command, example and inference are the most natural way of communication.  Indeed, explicit commands are undeniable in their force of communication.  However, examples may or may not be germane to a specific concern, and the potential for misapplying and narrowing an example-based doctrine increases in probability with the illogical, even irrational rejection of equally present, equally defensible positions.

A classic example of this scenario deals with meeting and observance of the Lord’s Supper.  We know from the gospel of John, chapter 20, that the first day was significant, since it was specifically noted that they disciples were together eight days after the resurrection, and Thomas had his famous interaction.  However, in Acts 2:42 and 46, the earliest disciples met daily, with similar expressions of “breaking bread” in each place.  Some would parse this to mean the Lord’s Supper in the first instance, and the partaking of a common meal in the second.  The language does not support this.  A daily meeting and observance is abandoned in favor of the example in Acts 20:7 when disciples met on the first day of the week to break bread.  This example is accepted and practiced, while actually condemning those who would adopt a daily observance.  (Far be it from me to point out that those who practiced daily observance would of necessity also practice Sunday observance.  But apparently over-frequency is ill-advised, even though Jesus himself commended the practice of the memorial with a vague mention of “as often as” you partake.)

So is there other evidence supporting a Sunday (only) observance?  From the second century, Ignatius of Antioch said in his letter to the Magnesians, “If, therefore, those who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord’s Day, on which also our life has sprung up again by Him and by His death – whom some deny, by which mystery we have obtained faith…” In addition, the Didache 14:1 (dated to between AD 50 and 120) specifies Sunday for Lord’s Supper. Of course, these are not canonical, but since they are within a century of apostolic influence, they seem quite consistent on the issue.  Thus, a Sunday observance seems to be the early norm.  But given the example of Acts 2, there may have been latitude.  At any rate, based on these data I could not condemn a group if they chose, in good conscience to meet and observe the Supper daily.  I would hope they would honor the competing view, espoused by equally conscientious practitioners who are devoted to a weekly observance.

An important question we need to consider deals not with scriptural context, but rather cultural and historical context.  In Acts 2, the new church was localized in Jerusalem.  We do not know how many of the first converts immediately dispersed from Jerusalem, but we do know that the main body appears to have remained there.  Thus, there was an immediate emergence of a new community composed of individuals with a new bond: discipleship to Christ.  Having all come from Judaism, they shared a common background, but having thrown off the shackles of Pharisaical domination, they faced an uncertain future.  They clung to each other for support.  They shared their goods, they shared their lives, they shared their faith.  They lived communally.  Daily meeting would have been natural and comfortable.

With the ongoing Diaspora, the early Christians were treated as a sect of the Jews, which was a fair assessment since in the earliest days, they were indeed “renegade” Jews.  By Roman practice, residents of occupied lands were dispersed, so the newly minted “Jewish sect” was also subject to expatriation.  The church was dispersed.  New churches formed with Gentile converts finally being accepted and welcomed.  Missionary ventures expanded the borders of the church’s influence.  People from all walks of life, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, were thrust into an association that a century before would have been unheard of.  Slaves, especially those from villas and farms farther from the cities, were not at liberty to freely meet on a daily basis.  But in ancient Rome, the “eighth day” was considered a market day.  So, by this reasoning, in far-flung reaches of the Empire where many slaves were converting to the new faith with its promise of liberty, they may have been gathering each eighth day—or first day—as they ventured into the towns and cities for market day.  This offered a ready venue for a gathered worship and/or convocation.  It is possible, then, that the practice was born of necessity, and not by strict command or instruction to the contrary.  Certainly, this is speculative.  But if such a consideration sheds light on the practice, we owe it to the cause of peaceful interaction to try and understand what we may.

The most divisive issue related to this entire CENI scheme is that of “necessary inference.”  Now, it is obvious that we all practice inference in our everyday lives.  In fact, my children bring home assignments from school in which they must draw appropriate inferences from a reading as a means of developing reading comprehension skills.  We all infer.  However, the issue is not with inference itself, but with the binding of inferred commands.  Inference is a way of knowing, not a means of legislating actions or behaviors.  It has its place in analyzing and understanding text, but by its very nature, it is invariably subjective in its application.  The Campbells saw its dangers.  Too many today do not.

The binding of “necessary” inferences leads to multiple interpretations on virtually any issue and to conflicts over what amounts to matters of opinion.  Dogmatic acceptance of one position and rejection of another is common with the application of binding inference in matters of faith and fellowship.  It is interesting to note that all of the branches of the churches of Christ with which I am familiar hold firmly to the centrality of the gospel as being the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, although some probably more fully than others.  There is a tendency to expand this focal message to include all aspects of church structure, governance, and worship practices as being of equal importance to the history and teachings of Jesus as he related his message of reconciliation and relationship with God.

Undoubtedly, however, within the churches, inference has been the source and root of virtually all divisions.  What is an “expedient” and what is an “addition”?  Whose inference is superior?  One group accepts the construction of a fellowship hall and kitchen to the disapproval of another, citing the condemnation of the Corinthian abuses of the Lord’s Supper in I Corinthians 11, despite the fact that early churches met in homes, which undoubtedly had facilities for cooking and eating.  One considers cooperation among churches to be expedient to its universal mission of evangelism, while another condemns it as a violation of church autonomy.  One group sees corporate outreach to victims of disaster as an acceptable display of Christian mercy citing passages such as Galatians 6:10 to do good to all, and especially to those of the household of faith, while another forbids any use of treasury funds for aid to non-members.  All of these issues spring from disagreements over interpreted inferences, and the elevation of these inferences to the level of command, making them tests of fellowship, and their practitioners subject to eternal condemnation.  Any deviation from accepted party practices are considered to be equal to “a different gospel” as found in Galatians 1.  However, peripheral practices, aids, and expediencies are not the Gospel, at least not according to Paul who “…decided to know nothing among you [the Corinthian Christians] except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2)

Many of these issues spring from the application of a governing practice inherited from Presbyterianism and other Calvinist traditions known as the Regulative Principle, or more aptly, the Law of Silence.  According to this concept, anything not commanded, exemplified, or necessarily inferred from scripture must be judiciously avoided, as Thomas Campbell established in the Declaration and Address.  However, any such consideration is subject to the same kind of potentially fallible human interpretation.  The Law of Silence is supported by the example of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10, who “innovated” to offer “strange” or unauthorized fire.  They actually were violating a specific command NOT to offer unauthorized incense found in Exodus 30:9, but silence, whether actually in play or not, always trumps specificity.  Uzzah, in II Samuel 6, went beyond his commission without authority, and paid the ultimate price for attempting to right the teetering Ark of the Covenant when the oxen pulling its cart stumbled.  Uzzah actually violated the specific directives regarding the transport of the Ark in Numbers 4:5-15, and touched the holy object, which had been prohibited on pain of death.  The Hebrew writer mentions in Chapter 4 of that letter that God said nothing about priests from the tribe of Judah, from which Jesus descended and would serve as a priest after the pre-Mosaic order of Melchizedek, but the law had been given placing the priestly duties under the auspices of the descendants of Aaron in the tribe of Levi (Numbers 3:6).  No other prohibition needed to be leveled with the priestly obligation already having been specifically given to the tribe of Levi.  To do anything else would have comprised violation of specific command, not addition to law.  The proto-Gnostic heresy denying the incarnation of Christ was decried in II John 7, which is contradicted by four Gospel accounts and secular historians, but all aspects of church polity and practice are included in the injunction forbidding “going ahead” or “beyond” “the teaching of Christ” in II John 9, clearly misusing its contextual application.  The curses to be visited upon those who add or take away from the words of the book of the Revelation in chapter 22 of that writing are applied to all of scripture, regardless of the fact that the intent applied to that missive, only, and there had actually been no complete collection of a New Testament canon at that point.  Context is preached, but applied selectively to support established positions.

In Romans 4, that learned, informed writer discusses in detail the finer points of law-keeping, and notes that where there is no law, there is no transgression.  Thus, if a law exists, whether a positively stated command, or whether a prohibition against something, the law could be transgressed, or the line could be crossed.  But if there is no line in the first place, it is impossible to cross one.  Paul apparently quotes a common theme of advocates of complete liberty in both I Corinthians chapters 6 and 10 that “All things are lawful”, which he does not explicitly deny, but then rebuts the argument with the counterpoint that not all things are useful or edifying.  I like what he said about not being dominated by anything, too.  We can be slaves to anything—even dogmas like the invisible law of silence.

The idea that all things are lawful, but not necessarily useful or edifying is an important one and one on which much of the issue hangs.  In Romans 14, the discussion of liberty and offense revolves around the right of some to keep various holidays, likely the reference was to the keeping of Jewish feasts, and the eating of meat.  Now, it seems that we may have elements that offend both former Jews and new Gentile converts: Gentiles may have been offended over the Jews keeping of feasts, and the Jews may have had difficulty with food that was offered to an idol or maybe that was not prepared by Kosher methods.  It may be that new Gentile converts placed too much emphasis on the idol aspect, and felt that there was undue significance in the consumption of anything with any association to their former pagan practices.  It is not explicit either from there or from I Corinthians 8 as to the specific offense, but that some were offended by eating meat, especially if that meat were offered to an idol.  Paul says that since the idol is nothing, offering meat to it really has no significance, and the food could easily be consumed with thanksgiving because it is just food.  But, if it causes offenses, the one who is at liberty to consume such meat should refrain in order to spare the weaker brother from stumbling, causing him to violate his conscience, and if anything is done contrary to one’s faith, that person has essentially sinned, placing the offense against one’s own self or conscience.  Now, even though eating any meat might be useful for nourishment, it may be that doing so would cause stumbling or the development of a rift or dissension or division, which from all evidence, fails to meet God’s approval.

So, what does this mean in practical terms today?  If any person is genuinely offended by some practice, we should not practice it or impose it on him.  If that is the case, then someone is likely to be offended by virtually anything, so we could potentially be restricted to a bare minimum of direct commands that cannot be denied.  That is ultimately unfulfilling for everyone.  Many of these issues, then, can be classified as matters of opinion, over which we are not to quarrel (Romans 14:1).  We must be sensitive to the others’ sensibilities, but not judgmental.  We have liberty—“all things are lawful”— but not to enslave others to our views, which would fail to edify.

So, how can we all get along?  If I am unhappy with the restrictions placed on me by the brothers who live by the code of silence, and they disapprove of the practice that I may find eminently edifying, we are at an impasse.  I cannot be fulfilled because of their consciences.  Perhaps the key here is the stumbling clause.  If I force someone to partake against his will, he stumbles.  One who sees liberty in all, sins if he imposes his practice on a legalist and causes him to violate his faith—that is the frequent interpretation.  However, the converse is also true.  A legalist who imposes restrictions (although none may exist) where another sees liberty also sins because the one who lives with greater liberty must now violate his faith by curtailing his freedom.  We face a paradox, since both believe they are arguing from the position of strength and the opponent from weakness, and yet, we are required to be considerate of the weaker brother.  Therein is a major point: by not conceding anything in such a matter of opinion, and demanding we get our own way, we violate the spirit of unity, mercy, compassion and concern that we are required to live by.

So what happens if we cannot agree?  Perhaps a physical separation would be in order, but not a spiritual one.  If I disapprove of your actions against which there are no direct restrictions, which you in good conscience exercise by right of your liberty, not forcing them on me, I should avoid those actions.  I should associate with others who believe as I do so that we can edify each other, not constantly tear each other down.  By doing this, we reduce direct conflict.  But if this is the way we choose to avoid conflict, we must do so realizing that we are unified at our foundation by the Gospel.  I should be able to call anyone my brother or sister who serves the same Master through the same Gospel.  Matters of opinion should not divide us spiritually, we should not judge another’s eternal disposition by our own interpreted standards, because to elevate opinion and inference to the level of Gospel is simply not taught anywhere in scripture (Romans 14:1).

The irrational, illogical defense of a system that by its very nature leads to strife and division is indeed perplexing.  The Campbells’ vision of greater Christian unity has been inverted to a reality of bleak reductionism.  Biology tells us that cells may reach a critical minimum volume below which they are no longer competent to function.  The same is true of churches.  Perhaps there is an idea that these iterative divisions will lead to a perfectly pure group, that, like the ancient Greek concept of the atom, we can divide until we reach the indivisible; that by our tests of faith and fellowship we are pressing toward the minuscule force of Gideon’s triumphant army; that minority always makes right.  And perhaps we have reached a point where we have set ourselves on par with the Almighty and sit in judgment over the hearts, minds, motives, and actions of others.  Jesus warned us that we should be careful of this behavior in Matthew 7.  To paraphrase the Teacher, Don’t worry about the speck in another’s eye, when you are diminished in capacity and have worries enough dealing with the log in your own.

Given a choice between listening to Jesus, “the author and finisher of our faith,” and some modern day high priest of CENI, steeped in human tradition, rife with division, and breathing condemnation, in the words of the old spiritual, “give me Jesus.”

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