The Three Methods of Argument to

Establish Divine Authority

and the Three Arguments in Acts 15 - (Part II)

D. E. Koltenbah
Muncie, Indiana

1. Introduction and "Balance Brought Forward"

In the previous article I briefly reviewed the common method by which is presented the three modes of argument establishing divine authority, viz. an inductive method in which various examples of the application of each type of argument to sundry doctrinal or historical problems are presented in connection with the study of a number of selected scriptural texts. The three modes of argument, we repeat, are by direct precept, approved apostolic example, and necessary inference. These three types of argument were illustrated in a very well known example, the application to the determination of the necessity, time and frequency of the observance of the Lord's Supper. The article was concluded with a presentation of a rationale for these arguments in order to show their premises and reasonableness. Such a rationale will be continued in the discussion below. The material in the first article is well known by conservative brethren.

A fact, perhaps not as widely recognized, is that the inspired apostles and prophets themselves employed just these three arguments before their first century brethren in order to establish divine authority for their doctrine and practice. As an example, we will study Acts 15, the record of the great so-called Jerusalem conference of the apostles, elders and brethren. Hence, by an analysis of this text alone, the validity of the three modes of argument can be established - a method which may be, termed an analytical method in order to distinguish it from the aforementioned inductive method. (The terminology is not entirely apt, for any specific textual analysis cannot ignore the analogy of scripture, i. e. the hearing of other texts, and hence in a sense is inductive; on the other hand, the method referred to in the first article, while inducing truths from the study of numerous texts, is compelled to make a proper analysis of each, and hence is in this sense analytical. The learned reader who is a student of logic or rhetoric may offer a more satisfactory terminology. For the present, the above terms may be taken as merely convenient labels, if the reader so wishes.) It will prove useful, however, to consider from earlier chapters of Acts the background of the circumstances in chapter, 15.

The background of the Jerusalem conference. It is unnecessary to review in detail the circumstances leading to and surrounding the Jerusalem conference. "Certain men" (v. 1), apparently brethren still adhering to the tenets of Phariseism which they had embraced before conversion to Christ (v. 5) had traveled to Antioch in Syria and insisted that the Gentiles converted by Paul and Barnabas become proselytes to Judaism as a condition of their salvation by God and acceptance by Jewish brethren. After- considerable disputation between - Paul and Barnabas and the Judaizers, it was decided that the matter be carried to Jerusalem, the origin of the Pharisaic party. (Verse I describes the Judaizers as having come "down from Judaea," but it is apparent upon comparison with verse 24 that they had gone out from Jerusalem.)

After some preliminary debate, three key addresses were made in succession, respectively, by Peter, Paul and Barnabas (together), and James. The upshot of their collective argument was that God had already in the past revealed His intention to accept and indeed, the fact of His already having accepted - the Gentiles, qua uncircumcised, who believed in Christ. The inevitable conclusion which commended itself to all present was that the Gentiles be not compelled to adopt Jewish law or custom, but as a solace to a justifiable Jewish concern, that the Gentiles be warned about reverting to some of the obscenities accessory to their former idolatry (vv. 20f, 29). These conclusions were recorded in a document which was then sent to Antioch along with Paul, Barnabas, Judas Barsabbas, and Silas, the latter two of whom were prophets who exhorted the Antiochian congregation (v. 32), this undoubtedly implying that they interpreted the letter for the brethren and explained some of the implications and obligations of the Gentile liberty which it announced. If our inspired historian had not added, the reader of Acts would certainly have guessed, that the letter and the exhortation of the prophets was received with great joy and sense of relief by the Antioch Christians (v. 31).

II. The Apostle Peter's Argument

1. Peter's reasoning at Joppa and Caesarea (Acts 10). We turn now to examine the nature of the arguments made by the three principal speakers of the occasion. The first speaker was Peter. In order better to appreciate his argument, it will prove useful to review briefly the event he refers to in his speech, viz. the circumstance of Cornelius' conversion (Acts 10:1 - 11:18). It is important to inquire, by what means did Peter learn that God willed that Cornelius and his friends hear the gospel- and in spite of their uncircumcised status, be granted opportunity_ to obey it? It is important likewise to recognize a fact in scripture: the Lord revealed His will to the apostles not always by direct, explicit verbal instruction, but on occasion made His will known by other, more indirect means. The case at point is an example. Peter learned of God's desire that Cornelius receive the gospel from him, not by an explicit verbal revelation to that effect, but and let the reader note - by a necessary inference from (1) four explicit supernatural occurrences (to be enumerated below), and quite possibly also from (2) the implications of the Great Commission, the ancient prophecies, and intimations in earlier apostolic preaching (as for example in his own sermon at Pentecost, Acts 2:39).

If Peter drew any inferences from the second set, Luke does not state it, for the role of the supernatural events is emphasized: (1) Peter's vision (10:9-16) of the clean and unclean animals with the perplexing heavenly command to eat them, was not immediately understood by him (v. 17) (so slow that almost prenatal Jewish bias in even one as great as Peter to bow before the Lord's great plan for the uncircumcised!) "While Peter thought on the vision" (v. 19), the messengers from the centurion arrived, and then (2) the Spirit instructed Peter to accompany them, explaining that they were on an errand of His arrangement (vv. 19-20). It is important to see that neither in the vision nor in the Spirit's utterance was explicit verbal instruction given to preach to the uncircumcised as such. Next the messengers recounted to Peter the circumstances which occasioned their embassy to him, particularly (3) the story of the angel's appearance to their master (v. 22). Apparently when Peter arrived in Caesarea at the officer's house, he still did not fully understand the implications of the vision. He stated that while it was unlawful for a Jew thus to be socially conversant with a Gentile, from his vision he had inferred (note again!) that it was God's will that he call no man unclean, wherefore also, "I came without gainsaying, when I was sent for." Evidently Peter's earlier perplexity had not yet been completely dispelled for he then inquired of Cornelius the intent for which he had been summoned. When Cornelius explained the circumstances and concluded by explaining the motive of the Gentiles' assembling in his house (v. 33), whatever doubt or perplexity (v. 17) may have lingered in Peter's mind as to the purpose or propriety of his entrance into the company of Gentiles, it was dispersed. Particularly was this the case when (4) unexpectedly as Peter began to speak (11:15), the Holy Spirit fell upon the Gentiles, causing them to speak with tongues and magnify God (10:44ff). No express word had been given to Peter that he should preach to the Gentiles, yet when he commenced his sermon he stated, "Of a truth I perceive (note!) that God is no respecter of persons( 10:34). "I perceive"! From four supernatural occurrences (only three if the Spirit's falling upon Cornelius was immediately after these words - precisely when in Peter's speech the Spirit came is not clear to me), Peter had necessarily inferred that it was God's holy purpose that the Gentiles receive God's Word. That same necessary inference was implicit in his question to his Jewish fellows who had accompanied him, "Can any man forbid the water, that these should not be baptized, who have received the Holy Spirit as well as we?" (10:47)

2. Peter's reasoning in his explanation to the Jerusalem brethren (Acts 11). The justification of his action to the brethren in Judea (11:1-18) proceeded by a similar argument. The circumstances were recounted again in detail, and Peter closed his speech by again necessarily inferring from the Spirit's descent Caesarea. "If then God gave unto them the like gift as he did also unto us, when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was 1, that I could withstand God?" (11:17). To have withstood God would have been to refuse to accept the necessary implications of the Holy Spirit's coming to Cornelius household!

Who, then, says that man learns not the will of God or that man cannot establish divine authority by an argument from necessary inference? To say so is not merely to contradict some modern loyal herald of the truth; to say so is seriously to question the reason and practice of an inspired apostle in executing God's will in that first admission of the Gentiles to the family of God. If Peter's argument, because by a necessary inference, was invalid and not authoritative - the consequence of the reasoning of those who spurn this mode of argument  then his reasoning can be fairly questioned, his inspiration be held in doubt, and the validity of his practice in first preaching to the Gentiles must be held suspect as without divine approbation, for Peter rested all - the validity of his conduct and conversation upon just such an inference from the supernatural events we have considered! Where in the entire chapter and a half was Peter by direct precept commanded to preach to Gentiles? It does not suffice to quote the Great Commission as Peter's sufficient motivation to preach to Cornelius, for it is apparent on the face of it, that the apostle did not at first understand the universal implications of the Commission. The very fact that no less than four supernatural events - two in connection with Peter and two unto Cornelius -- were brought to happen by the Spirit is argument enough that there was a need for the additional revelation to be inferred from the symbolism of the vision and the circumstances of these miraculous happenings. It was precisely by this means that God made choice among the early Jewish Christians that by Peter's mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel, and believe (Acts 15:7).

It is perhaps unnecessary to add that the brethren in Judea at the conclusion of Peter's speech likewise inferred necessarily that "to the Gentiles also hath God granted repentance unto life" (11:18).

3. Peter's reasoning in his speech at the Jerusalem conference (Acts 15). I am writing about the speeches in Acts 15. No more than a word about Peter's speech is now necessary. Is it not now clear that it was an argument from necessary inference to establish divine authority for the apostolic practice of converting the uncircumcised? Once again, the primary reference was to the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Gentiles: "God, who knoweth the heart, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Spirit, even as he did unto us . . ." It was unnecessary for him to state the conclusion that this justified his conduct. Rather, proceeds to a further necessary inference: Why bind circumcision upon the Gentiles, for to do so is to make trial of God (15:8-10)! Those who refused this inference from the history in Acts 10 were making trial of God'.

We have therefore seen that on no less than three occasions Peter employed the argument by necessary inference. How can it be gainsaid? The Christian of today who by the same method of argument establishes every first day of the week as the divinely approved frequency of partaking of the Supper (see the first article) argues, not from the Spirit's coming to Cornelius' home, but from the Spirit-inspired Word, and in so doing he follows a noble precedent. It follows also that the use of this mode of argument in the study of the institutional problem is likewise valid; having scriptural precedent, but the time for such a discussion here would lead us far from our main course. (Read, for example, Cogdill's Walking by Faith, referred to in the first article.)

4. An item here out of chronological order: James' conclusion to the three arguments of Acts 15. It is not amiss at this point to reiterate the statement made in the first article in this series, that the argument by necessary inference underlies all reasoning upon Scripture. Perhaps we preachers and teachers have inadvertently overly simplified the matter by leaving the impression that the loyal exegete establishes divine authority by any one of the three modes of argument exclusive of the others. Can any argument from precept or example in the text be concluded or applied without employing inference(s) necessarily following from the analysis of that precept or example? Let him who denies it offer a contrary example for our scrutiny! The inseparability and inter-relatedness of these concepts is illustrated by again referring to the study of the Lord's Supper from Acts 20:7: the frequency of the observance (every first day) is necessarily inferred from the approved example of the apostle's and Christians' breaking bread on that day in this verse, as well as from the direct command to Israel to remember the Sabbath (in the Fourth Commandment). Not only so, but a truth established by a necessary inference may become a premise in yet another argument which by necessary inference leads to our recognition of another truth. Is it not a necessary inference, for example, from the fact that the Supper is to be observed each first day (necessarily inferred from Acts 20:7, etc.) and from the well known precept in Heb. 10:25 that the Lord's Supper is not to be forsaken? In a like manner James reasoned in his conclusion to his, Peter's, and Paul's and Barnabas' preceding arguments. The force of all three arguments (we have yet to analyze two of them) was that God approved of the apostolic preachment to and conversion of, the Gentiles in the past, an immediate conclusion from the three modes of argument they employed. This conclusion, however, was not the end of their reasoning to their brethren. From this fact (and logically also from the universal principle of God's consistency in all His ways) the conclusion which was of such practical need was reached: in the future also the Jews must not require circumcision of the Gentiles - a necessary inference! "Wherefore my judgment is that we trouble not them that from among the Gentiles turn to God . . ." (Acts 15:19). The fact that this was an inspired judgment makes it no less a logical argument (More on this a little later.) (One may say that another of James' unspoken premises was the great ground-principle of Matt. 18:18.)

Is it not clear then that argument by necessary inference was woven into the very fabric of inspired apostolic thought and argument? They, who object to argument by necessary inference, I repeat, fail to see that it is inseparable from all scriptural exegesis and correct religious thought, both ancient and modern. In closing this section, it is appropriate again to warn that such argument is valid only if a necessary inference: we must avoid unnecessary interference with Bible! (A bibliographical note: D. R. Dungan's familiar Hermeneutics (Standard Publishing Company, n. d.) discusses James' conclusion, although it is not emphasized that James' argument was what we call today "necessary inference" (pp. 87-92).

TRUTH MAGAZINE, XI: 11, pp. 15-18
August 1967