The Three Methods of Argument to Establish Divine Authority

And the Three Arguments in Acts 15 (Part 1)

D. E. Koltenbah
Muncie, Indiana

I. Introduction

In recent years some who espouse congregational financing of extra-congregational benevolent and evangelistic organizations have rejected, in part at least, a doctrine proclaimed universally, unquestioningly and unhesitatingly by gospel preachers from the early days of the Restoration Movement down to the present denials uttered at the height of the current institutional controversy. I refer to the claim made that there are three general types of arguments by which from the study of the Word of God His will is determined, viz. by precept, by approved apostolic example, and by necessary inference. The traditional mode of justifying this claim is by the method of induction: various examples are presented of the application of each type of argument to sundry doctrinal or historical problems arising in the study of certain selected scriptures. I assume the reader is familiar with the commonly presented outline. The usual approach has become almost traditional, but this is not a derogatory observation. The applications usually made are, to the best understanding of this writer, valid, and because valid, widely and long proclaimed. It is the validity of the argument that explains the universality and long duration of this approach; it emphatically is not the generality of the acceptance of the argument which proves its validity. They who may so assume are guilty of a grievous blunder.

It is my intention in this article to review briefly the familiar inductive method mentioned above and to offer a rationale for the three modes of argument. In the succeeding article or articles I intend to present a less familiar method of justifying these three modes of argument, which we shall term the analytical method. This terminology is not entirely apt and can undoubtedly be improved upon, but let it suffice for now.

II. The Inductive Method - A Well-Known Example

An excellent presentation of the usual inductive method of establishing scriptural authority, one fully approved by this writer and familiar, I hope, to all my readers, is to be found in Roy Cogdill's study of the institutional controversy, Walking By Faith (Gospel Guardian Company, 1957), pp. 1415. (It can be found in countless other tracts, articles and books.) The application of the method to the problem of establishing upon Divine authority the necessity, time, and frequency of the observance by Christians of the Lord's Supper is a classic example and certainly not original with Brother Cogdill (he would be the first to agree) but goes back, so far as preaching in America is concerned, to the venerable "pioneer" preachers of the Western Reserve in the early stages of the Restoration Movement in the early nineteenth century. At least, I have heard that this is true, and I presume that it is; this factor is unimportant for the present discussion. (Herein lays a suggestion for an interesting study in Restoration history which I will return to at the end of these articles. I must confess, I am not sufficiently conversant with Restoration history and literature to know who first presented the argument in America - not that it is of any importance other than to satisfy one's historical curiosity.)

Briefly, the application to the Lord's Supper proceeds on this wise. The necessity of its observance follows from a direct statement of scripture (I Cor, 11:25), its time of observance on the first day of the week is in keeping with an approved apostolic example (Acts 20:6-7), and the frequency of its observance, viz. every first day, is established by a necessary inference (by comparison of the language of Acts 20:7 with Exod. 20:8, which instructed the Hebrews to observe every Sabbath, an interpretation of the Fourth Commandment universally held by the Jews, including our Lord (Lk. 4:16).)

III. Rationale of the Three Modes of Argument

1. Precept. These three types of argument logically exhaust all the possible modes of establishing a religious practice or doctrine upon divine authority, tinder the primary assumption that the Bible is the absolute, inerrant, complete and all-sufficient verbal revelation of God's will. (Some have sought to establish a fourth method, in effect to establish a method which would nullify or neutralize one or more of the preceding, but these efforts have not survived the scrutiny of disputation: e.g., E. R. Harper's "principle eternal" disastrously presented in the Tant-Harper debates at Lufkin and Abilene in 1955.) This being the case, a direct precept of scripture suffices emphatically to establish divine authority for one's faith or deed, it first having been ascertained that the particular text in question is applicable to the circumstances of the modern Bible student. (For example, the Fourth Commandment was exclusively an ancient Hebrew law, whereas Acts 2:38 is a requirement binding upon men living in the present Christian age.) In this category are explicit commands (e.g., Acts 2:38) and prohibitions (e.g., I Pet. 2:11), declarative statements (let the reader pick his own favorite example!), and direct prophecies. (An example of this last will be offered in the succeeding installments.) Occasionally a rhetorical question, having the force of a declarative statement or command, is employed. (An example occurs in I Cor. 11:22.)

2. Necessary inference. That divine authority can be established by a necessary inference but recognizes the validity of logic in its application to scriptural study. If "addition" is a valid hermeneutical rule, and if "two" and "one" are both practices or doctrine3 or concepts advocated by book, chapter and verse of Holy Writ, then likewise "three" rests upon divine authority, whether the scripture in so many words presents "three" or not, It is not necessary for either Exod. 20:8 or Acts 20:7 explicitly to emphasize that the practice enjoined is the observance of a worship exercise upon every occurrence of a certain day of the week; the ordinary rules of syntax and logic can infer inevitably no other conclusion as to the frequency of the practice enjoined. It should be emphasized that the inference must be necessary, not merely plausible or probable, much less asserted upon the ipse dixit of the' Bible interpreter.

Those who deny the validity of argument by necessary inference in establishing scriptural authority for some thing, fail to see that the argument underlies of necessity all religious practice and belief by persons today. When God in the Bible commands, and I ask, "Who me?," the voice that answers is that of my own heart reasoning by a necessary inference, "Yes, you!" There is no command in scripture for Koltenbah to be baptized, i. e. no command to me directly, personally, and by name. There were commands for apostles to baptize and to persons in the first century to be baptized, but nevertheless, I was baptized because I necessarily inferred from Holy Scripture the applicability to me personally of those ancient commands, originally spoken and written in a strange tongue nearly two millennia ago to a different race in a distant land. It is an inference drawn not only from those explicit statements and commands enjoining baptism of the ancients, but of all the New Testament teaching expressing the universality, all sufficiency and permanence of the gospel, that leads a person in this modern era to submit to Christ! Those who deny the validity of the argument by necessary inference are at loss to explain how John and Suzy Doe of Average Avenue, U. S. A., in 1967 are to be persuaded of the necessity of their obedience to the ancient gospel of our Lord. If this fact is not to be necessarily inferred from the precepts and examples of the ancient holy text, then how are they to reason who preach or obey the Great Commission today?

Logically, the objection to argument by necessary inference is self-defeating; it resorts to argument by (allegedly) necessary inference! There is no statement of scripture, or example of the apostles and prophets of old, rejecting the argument by necessary inference. (Indeed, to the contrary, we shall later discover examples of the employment of all three of these types of argument by the inspired apostles and prophets themselves, to establish before the church general the divine authority of their practices and doctrines!) Consequently, those who attempt to rebut the employment of argument from necessary inference must resort to arguing by "necessary" inference by (as the case may be, a plausible or implausible) employment of the rules of the logic of language and thought applied to Biblical study! Again I say, the objection is self-destructive. The logical consequence is the abandonment of reason and a denial of the logic of the language of revelation. With neither chart nor compass, beacon nor guiding star, there can be no true and safe course, and these who have so falsely reasoned - yea, who have abandoned reason - inevitably sail hard aground upon complete unbelief or descend into the maelstrom of an unending spiral of digression away from the truth into the black depths of apostate religious practice!

3. Approved apostolic example. We analyze lastly the reasonableness of the argument by approved apostolic example. The word "apostolic" is intended to distinguish from those examples, approved or otherwise, of persons of the Mosaic economy, from which regime we are liberated (although by I Cor. 10:6 we learn that even the Old Testament contains certain "examples" which illustrate golden truths which have been reiterated in Christ's gospel). The word "approved" recognizes in the first place that on at least one occasion (Gal. 2:11ff) an apostle did that which was approved and set an example not to be emulated. The terminology is traditional among us, and perhaps it is not quite precise: approved examples in the New Testament are not strictly limited to those by the "twelve plus one" apostles, but I think all understand this. Who among us, for example, has not argued from Philip's baptizing the Ethiopian (Acts 8:38f) that here is an approved example of the proper "mode" of baptism, though Philip was not himself one of the apostles?

This method of argument but recognizes the nature of divine revelation - that inspired historical writings are as much a bonafide mode of the revelation of the divine will as a collection of commands or a doctrinal dissertation from the pen of the inspired writers. The assumption here (one which rests squarely upon scriptural analysis, as will be seen later) is that the apostles walked in obedience to the will of the Lord revealed to them personally, that that will was intended by the Lord to be universally recognized and obeyed even though not expressed as a command of catholic address, and that by some expression of God's approval (e. g., through signs and wonders wrought at the hand of the apostles) the apostolic example is commended to all believers for imitation. We shall see in a later article that this "assumption" is of apostolic origin.

The inspired history of the apostles and early church is thus the record of an obedience to God's will which is commended to all, and thus by this means a revelation of God's will to all. If the argument from approved examples is to be abandoned, is not inspired history reduced to a mere collection of interesting, perhaps informative, but otherwise dispensable curiosities? We return, it would seem, to the old fallacy in the use of the Red Letter Testament: some words are more important than others, those in red to be revered, those in black to be permitted scanty and less frequent reading - with consequent less strict obedience as of lesser authority. The only difference now is in the rather arbitrary decision as to where to apply the red ink and where the black. The direct precepts are apparently to be read as though in red letters, the rest as though in black. It is not difficult to see that, figuratively speaking, in accordance with the law of supply and demand, the price of red ink has decreased almost to zero in some circles!

The objection to the argument from approved example is a misunderstanding of the nature of revelation. It would require that the Word of God have been presented to us as a fully indexed theology or ecclesiastical code, in which all that God wills is spelled out only in explicit commands, topically arranged in articles and paragraphs, with sub clauses and cross-references in a style similar to a modern law book. But God's revelation of His will was not so given, although we may not understand why. It was given in a collection of letters to churches, letters to individuals, a partial history of the early spread of the gospel, some systematically collected incidents from the career of our Lord, and an apocalyptic epistle to the, seven Asian churches. All of these were productions meeting immediate needs in the first century, and the whole doctrine of Christ contained therein is not systematically developed as a unified theology or philosophy, but was produced circumstantially, and in the case of any single book, partially. As an entire production the New Testament is thus eminently practical, rather than academic. This collection of variegated writing-s, composed to meet the practical needs of the early church, in God's wisdom anticipated the requirements of man for all time for a voice from God. Although all these books are the productions of men, bearing their individual styles and characteristics ' designed to meet immediate, peculiar local needs, written against the cultural, political and religious backdrop of the day, yet we are assured from the emphatic statements of the authors themselves, evidenced by the supernatural circumstances surrounding all their work, that they wrote under the motivation of the Holy Spirit, having been guided by Him into all truth and protected from error, so that the final productions of their minds and hands were truly the revelation of the mind of God, from the hand of God, and expressed in words of the Holy Spirit's choosing. Their writings were God-breathed and hence profitable for the~ spiritual guidance and discipline of the man of God (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

I verily believe the objection to argument from approved example arises in a failure to understand or to appreciate (not to say in the case of some, or to believe) the doctrine of the verbal, plenary inspiration of scripture, and in a failure to appreciate the variety of the New Testament modes of instruction. Divine encouragement is to be had for us by prayerfully wrestling with all the problems of the (to the modern Western mind) strange Oriental-apocalyptic symbolism of the Revelation, a style of writing current in religious literature of the first century but now obsolete. Divine instruction is to be obtained from the epistles of Paul with their irresistible, timeless Western style logic and characteristic rushing and intricate syntax. Diverse indeed are these styles of inspired literature, but each is a means by which the Holy Spirit has spoken. Let the good reader recognize that in similar fashion we do learn the will of the Lord from the truncated, almost painfully abbreviated church history by Luke. With his exacting devotion to accuracy and highly refined selection of materials, he has marvelously distilled out of the welter of details concerning the church's life in the first century world the essential principles governing the "acts of the apostles," and he has presented these principles, not in explicit commands to the reader, but by way of illustration in their execution in the living deeds of the apostles. Most emphatically, then, we do learn the will of the Lord from approved apostolic examples, and by imitating such we can be assured of divine approbation of our faith and practice.

I have deliberately avoided in this discussion so far the consideration of the problem of determining just which apostolic examples evidence permanent principles and hence constitute precedents binding for all time upon the saints, and just which of their activities were but non-essential personal or cultural eccentricities. It is not my purpose in this series of articles to uncover all the canons by which this distinction is to be properly made; it rather suffices to relegate this problem to its proper place, a place from which some have removed it in this present institutional controversy.

All the brethren have need of a valid hermeneutic, that is, a system of rules by which scripture is rightly divided and interpreted, but the requisite need is for a philosophy (if I may be permitted use of the word) of hermeneutics - a proper attitude in approaching the problem of rightly interpreting the Bible. To rule out a priori the validity of argument from approved apostolic Examples is an improper philosophy of hermeneutics - it is not in itself an hermeneutical rule even, much less a valid rule, as we shall presently see. I am trying here to argue for a proper philosophy of Biblical hermeneutics which will admit the validity of the argument from approved examples in principle, and then which assigns the problem of separating between binding and non-binding examples to its proper place in Biblical hermeneutics. Which examples are binding and which non-binding? This is a problem for Biblical exegesis (interpretation), and the principles of hermeneutics (the rules for interpretation) must guide us here. The difficulties of the problem (if indeed the problem be so difficult) cannot be cited to negate the possibility of the authority of apostolic examples. If, however, it is established in principle that at least some apostolic examples are commended as of binding authority by scripture, even though personal and cultural incidentals be granted as possessing in themselves no eternal pattern for imitation, then the problem of separating between the two species is validly assigned to Biblical exegesis. It is neither scriptural not rational to deny the validity of the argument from approved apostolic example because of an alleged problem in hermeneutics. Because the wheat must be separated from the chaff, so to speak, we do not solve the harvesting problem by plowing under the entire crop. I believe the concluding articles will indisputably establish the validity in principle of the argument from approved apostolic example by an analysis of some arguments which the apostles themselves made.

The validity of justifying doctrine and practice from apostolic examples is not only established by the examples of the apostles themselves (as we shall see), but also (as is perhaps better known) by their own precept (e.g., read 1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Phil. 3:17; 4:9; Heb. 6:12; etc.). This latter fact alone should suffice first, to motivate our study of the inspired word, particularly inspired history, in an effort to discover those canons by which non-binding and binding apostolic acts are to be discerned and second, to prompt our imitation of the latter.

(Incidentally, in our definition of the expression "approved apostolic example," in view of the preceding remarks, the word "approved" ought to be further delimited to those examples which do exhibit permanent principle, i. e. are approved as permanent precedents for the church. This is strictly what is meant when the brethren have spoken of "approved" apostolic examples.)

Not only so, but the reader should recognize that there is an analogous problem of separation facing the Biblical exegete who attempts to argue the present duties of Christians and the churches from direct precepts of scripture. Which of the direct commands in the Bible are binding upon all saints throughout time and which are to be understood as having related to merely local and temporary circumstances in Biblical times? In other words, which commands are permanently and which not permanently mandatory? The early Restoration preachers were compelled to give study to precisely this problem in view of the failure of many of their contemporaries to distinguish between the precepts of the Mosaic and Christian economies. (Perhaps the reader has read Alexander Campbell's historic "Sermon on the Law" delivered to the Redstone Baptist Association in Brooks County, Va., in 1816, printed in Historical Documents Advocating Christian Union (Chicago, The Christian Century Company, 1904).) If the problem of distinguishing between binding and nonbinding examples is the great problem in exegesis among the churches of Christ today, the problem of differentiating between binding and non-binding precepts was the great exegetical problems when the American Restoration Movement was being launched a century and a half or more ago.

This latter problem is not entirely solved even when proper division is made between the old and new covenants. As an example, Paul's command to the Romans, "Salute one another with a holy kiss" (Rom. 16:16), is properly understood, in accordance with well-known and long accepted rules of hermeneutics, to enjoin forever the duty of sincerity of their greeting, free from malice and hypocrisy, by Christians to one another; whereas by those rules the mode of expressing that greeting specifically by a kiss, relating to a first century custom, is understood to be an act not intended by the Holy Spirit to be permanently bound upon Christians in later centuries where other customs of greeting such as hand-shaking, should prevail. The commands of the Lord, instructing those whom He sent forth to preach, to take with them no money or supplies (Matt. 10:9-10), and to shake off the dust from their feet when leaving an unworthy obstinate community (verse 14) must likewise be understood to be limited in scope of application by the circumstances of the Limited Commission of Matthew chapter 10 in the former case, and by local custom in the latter case. The hermeneutical rules employed by us to determine whether the Lord intended preachers today to go forth with no wallet or second coat, or whether He intended for apostles or for preachers today literally shake dust from their feet upon leaving a city which had rejected their preaching, are taken for granted - even by these liberal fellows who from their own statements recoil in apparent perplexity and doubt from the problem of determining under what circumstances and limitations apostolic examples are permanently binding! Now if it is rational to reject out of hand any and all apostolic examples per se as binding because of the alleged exegetical difficulty of determining which were intended to be permanently binding, then by the same token it is rational to reject out of hand any and all commands as binding because of the analogous difficulty in determining which commands are permanently binding. But if the latter is not rational, then neither is the former!

But why the acceptance by some men of the duty of distinguishing between binding and non-binding commands but not of the analogous responsibility to separate between binding and non-binding examples? (That is, binding or not binding upon us today.) When it is argued that the time of observing the Lord's Supper (viz., upon the first day of the week) is exemplified as possessing exclusive divine approval in Acts 20:7, there are some preachers, priding themselves upon their imagined wit in repartee, who respond that to be consistent one must also observe the Supper exclusively in an upper room (verse 8) -- an absurd requirement, they aver, thus showing the invalidity in principle of arguing from an approved apostolic example. Note that such objection makes no attempt to establish or critically analyze hermeneutical principles - it only denies out of hand the validity of any hermeneutical principles whatsoever which would attempt to distinguish between the time and place of observing the Lord's Supper by Paul and the Troas saints insofar as they may constitute a permanent pattern. But these same preachers have no difficulty whatsoever in understanding limitations upon the Master's command to go forth to preach with no money, wallet, staff or extra coat! They accept as binding instructions of the Great Commission to the apostles and reject as binding the aforementioned instructions in the Limited Commission to the same apostles. It is observed also that whether by application of a hermeneutical principle or by a mutual hygienic expedient they fail to salute one another with that Roman kiss!

One is therefore led by his abhorrence of the burdens imposed by hermeneutics with reference to apostolic examples, together with their agreeableness to selected commands of the apostles, to infer inevitably that with reference to direct precepts they distinguish between those binding and those not binding today, not by a personal, clear recognition and careful application of the rules of accurate Biblical interpretation, but by blind acceptance of a traditional viewpoint!

This apparent adherence to mere tradition and ignorance of Biblical hermeneutics is the hallmark of religious denominationalism. It is the mental and spiritual stagnation consequent to several generations of refusal on the part of some to study and preach, to listen to and learn, anything from the Bible except a few somewhat arbitrarily selected and traditionally transmitted "first principles." This traditionalism, involving as it does a "hereditary" indifference to Bible study and endemic philosophy toward hermeneutics, together with an active infection by the humanistic and materialistic spirit of modern unbelieving religion, is without doubt at the root of our present illnesses.

The adherence of each generation of saint to true forms of doctrine must rest upon its own original study of the Bible, for when a generation arises that relaxes its study and abdicates its responsibility to think for itself and inevitably thereby accepts what has been received from its forebears without critical review, then it is also blind to the innovations of its own day. The vigilance which successfully repulses a contemporaneous departure from the faith is essentially introspective - it knows the underlying Biblical foundations for that faith, for that Book is the pole from which all departures are measured. The sentinel can recognize invasion of his territory only if first he knows where its boundaries lie. Religious traditionalism unavoidably is digressive, not necessarily by a knowing departure from truth, but by ignorance of the removal of the boundaries. It stands its ground in one small sentinel box, proclaiming loudly the "all's wells" of a blindly accepted segment of truth, while the foe stealthily infiltrates the border and conquers all the territory to the rear, and subsequently that unhappy sentry stands wholly within enemy ground upon a vanished border and continues to salute blindly a banner that is now foreign. It knows not the uniform of its friends and hence is not alarmed at the uniform of the foe. Traditionalism continues to tithe mint, anise, and cumin - to adhere to certain traditional "first principles," if you please -- but the spirit of the law it has forgotten (Matt. 23:23), and consequently voids the word of God by innovating newer traditions (Matt. 15:6). I dislike these names "conservative" and "liberal" - I dislike even more the manifest differences among us which make inevitable some such designations - but it is not the conservative brethren (as this term is currently used among us) who are the Pharisaic traditionalists, for the latter are those defenders of innovated error whose incongruous proclamation of a partial truth is as the still reverberating echo of the lingering cry of a man who a moment ago has fallen from a cliff to his eternal silence.

Those who currently hold to the proclamation of the aforementioned three modes of establishing divine authority are not the blind traditionalists, as some charge - not if they are thoroughly grounded upon the scriptural bases for those modes of argument. They who diligently examine the scriptures daily, whether these things be so (Acts 17: 11) manifest the highest kind of progressiveness - a spiritual growth, a reverent advancement which year by year more diligently studies the Word of God and thereby obtains deeper, yet deeper insight into its fathomless truth, and which in each generation reappraises every deed and all doctrine in the light of that truth. In these days of the so-called social gospel, it is well to reiterate the ancient truth that the most vital service to one's fellows, the very highest humanism, is that service which learns and then teaches to others the divine truth. It is the grossest error - the most stagnating oppression and the most insidious digression which accepts without analyzing, preaches without first pondering, which believes without wholeheartedly embosoming, which acts without first anchoring to, the Word of God.

IV. Conclusion and "Balance Carried Forward"

I have briefly summarized the inductive method of demonstrating the three methods or arguments by which divine authority is established, and I have attempted to present a rationale for the same. These are facts well known.

In the concluding articles, however, there will be presented a fact which apparently has not found wide-spread recognition in our preaching and writing (judging from the absence of reference to it in sermons and articles with which the writer has been familiar), viz. the fact that the apostles themselves in their argumentation to their brethren in the first century employed just these above mentioned three methods of argument in establishing divine authority for their doctrine and practice. The study will comprise an analysis of the three speeches of Acts chapter 15.

TRUTH MAGAZINE, XI: 10, pp. 18-24
July 1967