Necessary InferenceFebruary 26, 2006
We’ve been discussing Command, Example, and Necessary Inference (CENI), the hermeneutic on which much of the doctrine of churches of Christ is based. We took a closer look at command and example in earlier articles. Today we will consider the third plank in the CENI platform, Necessary Inference.
An inference is simply a conclusion one draws from scripture which is not explicitly stated, based on things that are stated. We infer an idea from what the passage says. For example, 1 Cor 16:1-2 says:
Now about the collection for God’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.
From this passage it might be inferred that it was customary in all the churches to take up a collection on the first day of the week. However, that is not a necessary inference. Notice that the passage only tells us that Paul had given this instruction to the Galatians previously, and now to the Corinthians. We don’t know, for example about the Ephesian church. This passage doesn’t tell us. But we might conclude that it is likely they did. That might be a reasonable inference but is not a necessary one.
Also in the above passage, one might infer that the money was collected from the individual members on the first day of each week. If instead each person had set aside the sum of money at home, there would still need to be a collection when Paul arrived. So perhaps this would be an example of a necessary inference.
And finally, some might infer from the above passage that the collection was taken up as a part of the public worship service on the first day of the week. Again, the passage does not rule out other methods of collection. So while it might be a reasonable inference that they collected it during a worship service, that is not a necessary inference.
Necessary inference is a valid way to reason from the scriptures. Jesus taught by necessary inference in Matt 22:23-33. In his answer to the Sadducees he said:
Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead–have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”
Here he uses two premises to infer a conclusion. The premises are:
1) God stated “I am” the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (This was stated to Moses long after these three men had died).
2) He is not the God of the dead but of the living.
And the conclusion is that there is a resurrection from the dead. Based on the premises, it is necessary to conclude that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, although dead from the perspective of this world, were yet alive from the perspective of God. Jesus presented this necessary inference as proof that there is a resurrection from the dead.
The danger of binding necessary inferences is twofold. First, as Thomas Campbell reasoned in his sixth proposition, if we bind inferences on those who have not understood the inference, we are calling on them to place their faith in the veracity of men rather than of God. Secondly, historically we have not been very rigorous about which inferences are truly necessary. Although the conclusion seems reasonable and likely to us, it might actually be incorrect. There is a substantial degree of fallible human reasoning involved in any inference.
It makes perfect sense to infer conclusions from scripture, and to follow what we believe to be true on that basis. The danger comes when we try to bind those inferences on others who have not come to the same conclusions.
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