Associate Editorial

The Use of Reason to
Understand the Scriptures

Many attempt to excuse religious division on the basis that “we cannot all understand the Bible alike.” For centuries, denominations have been arguing that we must be permitted the right to individual interpretation of the word of God since no two people can possibly agree on essential points of doctrine. The result has been the “chaos of the cults.” Each man and denomination does that which is right in his own eyes and there is no sure standard in their religion.

Currently, some gospel preachers, who have (in the past) had their feet securely fixed in the “faith once for all delivered” (Jude 3), are casting themselves into the sea of human speculation through a disavowal of Bible principles which establish Biblical authority. To put it concisely, some are turning away from the use of approved apostolic examples and necessary inferences to prove what is that “good and acceptable will of God” (1 Tim. 2:3). Not only so, but they are shaking the faith of many and unsettling churches as to the limits of fellowship. Having negated the use of these two principles of Bible study, they conclude that churches of Christ are too narrow-minded and legalistic in refusing to fellowship some who disagree with us only in matters regulated by examples and inferences. The truth regarding the Lord’s supper, sponsoring churches, benevolent works, the eldership, and other things cannot be clearly ascertained, it is opined, therefore we cannot withhold fellowship from those who disagree.

The basic fallacy in this malady affecting so many is that some do not believe that God expects us to use reason in understanding His will. If it be so, as it is asserted, that only express commands have binding authority in the scriptures, man stands dumb before his Creator, unable to receive intelligent communication unless stated in primitive, elementary syllables: “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not.” Involved in this controversy is a basic misunderstanding of the nature of God’s communication with man. Before you jump to any conclusions and diminish your respect for examples and inferences, think this through with the native intelligence God has given to us all.

God Intends That Man Use Reason With The Scriptures

Can man reason from one point to another, drawing conclusions as he goes, arriving at a point intended by God? Does God include man’s ability to reason and deduce (which He gave to man) in the scheme of redemption? Does God hold man responsible for inferring exactly what God implies in His revelation? Is there any truth that is bound by an example? Does our Father only speak in binding terms through commands so clear as to require no reasoning before obedience? And, conversely, are doctrinal matters so complex that there is no sure right or wrong since inferences are required? Brethren, this is the root of the problem before us and we must deal with it. If the Lord has not spoken relevantly, specifically and bindingly in any way other than commands, then we must surely stop drawing lines or limits beyond that. We must stop our insistence on the use of examples and inferences and plead ignorance and inability before the throne of Grace. Nothing can become a matter of importance unless God has pointedly, specifically and beyond equivocation commanded it to us. That it applies to us must be beyond deduction. (Of course, one might ask where this would lead us, logically, if we followed it to its ultimate conclusion. Yet, we will never know, since we can’t reason it out! Makes one feel rather like a mule with blinders on, seeing neither to the right nor left, responding only to “gee” and “haw” - simple commands.)

Quite frankly, such a position seems as indefensible as the man who insists only on the authority of the words of Jesus in the “Red Letter Editions.” It is the height of folly to suppose that the will of Jesus is contained only in the “red letters” and not in the “apostles’ doctrine” (Acts 2:42; 2 John 9-11). Equally foolish is the position that one is bound only by the simple commands of the Bible and that man does not have the intelligence to receive communication from God in any other form. I wish to state emphatically that:

  1. God has spoken,
  2. He has spoken to man in more than one form of communication and
  3. He will hold man accountable for understanding and obeying that revealed message.

My position can be outlined in this manner:

God has spoken in the Scriptures through:

1. Express Commands
2. Implications
3. Approved Examples

to deliver “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3)

Man hears and uses

1. Native Intelligence
2. Reasoning Ability

to obey or disobey

Man’s Native Intelligence

By the use of “native intelligence” I refer to man as God made him, as a human being. In the Garden, God walked and talked with Adam and continued to talk with others after the fall and expulsion. Through the prophets, both oral and written, God has continued to speak and even now speaks through Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:1ff). There has never been a time in all the Bible, even to heathen nations (confer Daniel, etc.) when it was indicated in any fashion that man was not capable of receiving and understanding the will of God. Such an idea is inimical to the very nature of man. Benjamin Franklin, the pioneer preacher, stated in one of his recorded sermons that the “Bible, as it is, was given to man, as he is.” I believe that to be the truth. Why would God communicate with man, as He has through all the ages, if man is not able to receive intelligent thoughts?

Man is not born totally depraved, unable to perceive or reason, as Calvinism teaches. Primitive Baptists and others (who accept the doctrine of total depravity) hold that it is useless to preach to men who are “dead” in sin because they are unable to understand without miraculous help from God, a direct operation of the Holy Spirit. However, the entire Bible is predicated on the innate ability of man to hear and obey God. It did not take a miraculous operation on the hearers in Acts 2, but on the speakers (it was a gift of “tongues,” not “ears”). Man is to be “not foolish, but understand the will of the Lord” (Eph. 5:17). Paul said that “when ye read, ye may perceive my understanding in the mystery of Christ” (Eph. 3:4).

Man’s Reasoning Ability

In addition to being able to receive intelligent statements from God, man is also able to reason about such messages and draw conclusions. Basic to our study, and this ancient controversy, is whether or not God holds man accountable for conclusions drawn from something other than (or even from) plain and simple commands. If one admits that God has spoken authoritatively and bindingly in any method other than commands, the controversy ends here and now. If it is contended that only simple commands apply, some questions need to be answered: How does one know this? By what reasoning process did one learn of it? Where is such an express command that states that principle? How can one be sure it applies to us today. Does God hold one accountable for one’s reasoning ability or not?

Definition and Use in the Scriptures

“Reason” is defined by Vine thusly: “To bring together different reasons and reckon them up; to reason.” Thayer adds: “To bring together different reasons, to reckon up the reasons, to reason, revolve in one’s mind, deliberate.” Now, brethren, “reason” with me for a minute.

The question at hand is whether or not God demands that we reason (to bring together different matters, to revolve in one’s mind and deliberate as to their relevancy, making proper application) in the scriptures. I maintain that He does. And further, that He has done so in the question under consideration: examples and inferences. It seems to me that a denial of these matters and a conclusion of all truth being comprehended under commands does away with any need for deliberation toward the scriptures. If not, why not? And if one admits that deliberation is required at all, even with regard to commands, how can one deny drawing inferences from implications and examples?

Teaching by Implication
Learning by Inferences

A teacher teaches by implying a truth; the hearer draws the inference. This is a form of communication and we refer to it often as “exegesis” (as opposed to “eisegesis”). It is better stated to say that the Bible teaches by implication, rather than saying the Bible teaches by necessary inference. It should be recognized that not all inferences are “necessary,” but some surely are. When scripture binds from an implication, the inference from that becomes necessary and it is the only conclusion one can infer.

Jesus definitely taught by implication and expected His listeners to understand (infer) His message, even when they were His enemies, must less disciples. The truth implied (and the inference drawn from the implication) is the standard of judgment. We are accountable for the implications of scripture. Read Luke 20:1-7 carefully. In this passage, the Pharisees asked Jesus a question: “By what authority does thou these things?” He did not answer directly, but obliquely, through another question to his enemies. “I also will ask you a question; and tell me: the baptism of John, was it from heaven, or from men?” Now, those who reject human reasoning as binding, wrestle with this. Deliberate a little. “Reckon up” some things. A question was asked and it was answered. But the answer was by implication. Verse 5 says that “they reasoned with themselves.” Did what? They deliberated the question, putting different reasons together and came up with the answer Jesus expected of them. They reasoned, “If we say ‘From Heaven,’ He will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ all the people will stone us, for they are persuaded that John was a prophet.’” They inferred exactly what Jesus implied! Faced with the dilemma, they took the dishonorable way out and lied, saying that they “knew not whence it was” (v. 7). But they were accountable to God for the truth they rejected.

Does not the prophet Isaiah demand as much when he implored: “Come now, and let us reason together” (1:18). It is said of Paul that he “reasoned with them out of the scriptures” (Acts 17:2), that he “reasoned in the synagogues” (18:4) and he “reasoned” with Felix, “of righteousness, temperance and judgment to come” (24:25). Felix drew the correct inferences from what Paul taught and trembled at the truth it revealed. It is often said in the Gospels that Jesus’ hearers “reasoned with themselves” regarding His teaching. Did he expect anything less of them? How were they held accountable unless they inferred from Jesus’ implications? In Romans 12:1, we find an appeal (not an express command) to present our bodies as a “living sacrifice” to God. On what basis does Paul beseech this? Because it is our “reasonable” service (a service appealing to reason) and Thayer adds that the word could be translated “rational” and comes from the same root word as others in this study.

No Other Conclusion

Brethren, how can there be any other conclusion? Which among us has so little intelligence that he cannot see that God expects us to put different facts together and draw conclusions upon which we act in service to Him? Surely all can understand that when we infer just what God has implied, we will have the truth.

As one writer put it so well: “Again, let me state as clearly and emphatically as possible that I am not suggesting that we are bound by my inference or any one else’s for that matter, but we are most assuredly bound by God’s implication” (The Spiritual Sword, “Binding By Implication,” Robert Camp, Vol. 1, No. 4, July, 1970, p. 49).

Also, “The reason that I am bound by God’s word is not that I read it but that He wrote it. The reason I am bound by those things implicit in His word is not that I inferred it but that He implied it” (ibid, p. 50).

Godly implications and examples are not to be paralleled with opinions. We are speaking of approved apostolic examples and necessary inferences. Other studies have been (and will be) made as to which examples and inferences are binding and how to determine that; it is not to the point of this study. But it is vital to our becoming a full-grown man in Christ that we learn to “rightly divide” (2 Tim. 2:15) the scriptures. They are not always divided for us! Some things are spiritually discerned only as we study (1 Cor. 2:14-15). We must have “our senses exercised to discern between good and evil” (Heb. 5:14) and all spiritual food is not milk, but sometimes meat, which requires more “discerning” that some would permit.

Some Study Questions

Since there are those who currently question the authority of examples and inferences as binding, let us propose some questions for consideration (reasoning, deliberation). Let us know how one would handle these matters if the validity of binding truth is limited to expressed commands.

  1. How does one arrive at the conclusion that the plan of salvation includes all these actions: hearing, believing, repenting, confessing the name of Jesus and being baptized? How do we conclude that they must be in that order?

  2. How does one prove that we must take the Lord’s supper each first day of the week?

  3. Is the “sponsoring church” arrangement authorized in the scriptures? Is it wrong to oppose it as unscriptural and, if so, upon what basis?

  4. Must elders be appointed in every church or may elders be appointed over many churches in one city? Is there an expressed command that teaches on this or must we infer something?

  5. Are there any implications in the Bible from which we must draw necessary inferences and be held accountable for the inferences?

  6. Are there any approved examples which must be duplicated today? How do we learn of the binding force of examples?

  7. If express commands are the only means of learning what is authoritative, how does one determine which commands apply to modern Christians and which to peculiar, historical and cultural settings of the first century Christians?

  8. How would one prove that missionary societies are sinful?

  9. Since our individual names are not found in the Bible, how does one determine that the Bible is applicable to anyone today?

It is recognized that binding where God has not bound has been a source of controversy, conflict and division ever since the first century itself. Certainly, only God has the power to bind and loose (Mt. 16:19). If we are guilty of either binding or loosing where God has not done so, we will be condemned and will contribute to division. Yet it is inescapable that God expects us to read and reason from the scriptures to the correct understanding of God’s will. It is hoped that this will make a contribution toward that understanding.

Email Tom Roberts

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