March Madness

March 28, 2006

What does the NCAA basketball tournament have to do with biblical hermeneutics?

Out of over three million brackets submitted to ESPN’s Men’s Tournament Challenge, there has not been a single entry that picked every game correctly to this point (with the Final Four weekend remaining to be played). Twelve contestants correctly picked fifteen of the Sweet Sixteen correctly. Only four out of the three million managed to pick the Final Four teams correctly. Why?

I see two main factors. First is pre-existing bias. Conventional wisdom did not see George Mason reaching the Final Four. Their chances were discounted by most contestants (probably based on minimal information) due to preconceived notions about the quality of the various teams.

Second is the compounding effect of probabilities. Suppose instead of basketball games we were predicting coin flips. The probability of guessing the winner of each game would be 50%. But the probability of guessing two in a row right would be only 25%. And the probability of guessing all 32 first round games correctly would be a little less than one in four billion. The probability of guessing correctly all of the 60 coin flips in the first four rounds would be about one in a billion billion (no typo–that’s a billion times a billion!) So it is no wonder that none of the three million contestants managed to do that.

The point is that when you chain together a series of decisions, the uncertainty compounds. The more decisions you chain together, each with some degree of uncertainty, the more uncertain your composite decision will be.

The same thing is true when interpreting scripture. In our Doctrines of CENI project we can see that these doctrines are not all equally supported in the scriptures. Some are based on direct commands. Others are supported by combining a command with an inference or an example. And some are supported merely by inferences and/or examples. Those differences in scriptural foundation translate into differences in the objective certainty that the scriptures have been understood correctly.

For example, consider the doctrine of observing the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. That doctrine is supported by an example and a reasonable inference.

The example is a single occasion in Acts 20 when they met on the first day of the week to break bread. From this passage people sometimes infer that we should take the Lord’s Supper every first day of the week. For that conclusion to hold, several things must be true from this passage:

1) It must have been true that they broke bread every first day of the week, and not just on this occasion.
2) it must also be true that to “break bread” in this context meant to take the Lord’s Supper.
3) And finally, it must be true that their example is prescriptive for our practice today.

All three points must be true for the conclusion to hold. And none of those points is explicitly stated in the passage. So we cannot be 100% sure of the conclusion. Suppose we are 70% sure of each point. Therefore we can be no more than 70% * 70% * 70% = 34% sure of the conclusion based on this scripture.

The reasonable inference is derived from 1 Corinthians 11 and 16. In chapter 11 we learn that they periodically assembled to partake of the Lord’s Supper (at least that was the proper purpose of that assembly). In chapter 16 we learn that they collected the funds on first day of each week. From those two passages we could reasonably infer that the assemblies mentioned in 1 Cor 11 occurred each first day of the week. But that is not a necessary inference. For the conclusion to follow in this case, both of the following must be true:

1) The meaning of the two passages is that the Corinthians actually partook of communion every first day of the week.
2) Their frequency of observing communion is binding on us.

If each of these two inferences is 70% certain, the conclusion that we are bound by these passages to take communion every first day of the week is 70% * 70% = 49% certain.

If either the Acts 20 example or the 1 Cor inference is correct, then we are bound to partake every Sunday. So in this illustration, we would be 34% + (50% * 66%) = 67% confident that we should partake of communion every Sunday. Is that a high enough level of confidence for us to draw a line of fellowship? (Note of course that these are hypothetical percentages).

Of course the degree of confidence in each component affects the confidence in the composite decision. For example, adult believer baptism is supported by a clear command and a necessary inference. Our degree of confidence is quite high that repentance must accompany baptism (Acts 2:38), because it is clearly stated. And our degree of confidence that an infant cannot repent is likewise quite high. Furthermore, that doctrine has a second independent line of reasoning from Mark 16:16, indicating that belief must accompany baptism. We are likewise quite confident that an infant cannot believe. In order for our conclusion to fail, both of these lines of reasoning must fail. So the confidence is substantially greater for this doctrine than for the weekly observance of communion.

One other point jumps out of this. Just as the odds are extremely remote that anyone would guess all of the 60 games correctly leading up to the final four, the odds are low that anyone would reach the correct conclusion on every doctrinal point. We are seriously handicapped in our reasoning ability by preconceived notions, emotional ties, and limited knowledge. Just as few people picked George Mason to make it to the final four, few of us will be objective enough, and have enough understanding, to reach every conclusion accurately. That should drive us to our knees in humility. And it should drive us to extend grace to those around us. We will be judged with the same judgment we use toward others. Claiming we know all the answers is the real madness.


  1. Great post about clear thinking and the uncertainty principle.To stretch the analogy further, how many of those that picked George Mason did so from a reasoned, disspasionate weighing of the strengths and weaknesses of every team. In other words, how many picked George Mason because of their bias toward George Mason?

  2. Alan:Welcome back. Hope your trip went well. Good post. Yet one more reason to examine the lines of fellowship.-Clarke

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