By Tom M. Roberts
It has been suggested by sectarians and brethren alike that any use of human reasoning ability in arriving at an understanding of the Bible makes any such conclusions suspect. We are told that no one should bind any other than direct statements as limits of fellowship. Specifically, inferences and examples are to be excluded as binding authority from the Scriptures because we must use human intellect to tell which, if any, examples and inferences have that binding force. This use of the human intellect, we are told, thrusts any conclusions we reach into the realm of opinion and should never be made a test of fellowship. Among sectarians, it is stated thusly: “No one can see the Bible alike. You interpret it your way and I will interpret it my way. One way is just as good as another. ” Among brethren, there is a call for a “new hermeneutic” which would exclude a but direct commands or statements and which would permit the same situation as that describing the sectarians. In fact, some brethren are rejecting any “doctrine” as important, accepting only the deity of Christ as a limit to fellowship. The argument common to both groups is that our reasoning is faulty, unity upon God’s word is impossible and that fellowship must be inclusive of every position short of the rejection of Jesus’ deity. While sectarians have occupied this position for centuries (resulting in permissiveness toward every kind of error), it is disconcerting to see brethren embrace such a fallacy. We need to see clearly that God has required the use of human reasoning in understanding his will.
If truth is relative (subjective), each man is right in what he believes, regardless of the Bible or of the belief of others. Humanism advocates the relativity of truth to the individual and his circumstances. They aver that stealing is wrong only if you believe it to be wrong; abortion is wrong only if it hurts your conscience; incest is wrong only if it is wrong for you (however, it might be right for another). To them, “man is the measure of all things.” Truth, therefore, is to be changed to fit the circumstances.
But the truth is not relative, it is absolute (objective). The world is round even if I maintain that it is flat. Baptism is for the remission of sins whether I understand that, disagree, or have never heard about it. Jesus Christ is the Son of God whether I concur or not. In other words, truth does not need my permission or consent to be truth. It is truth and will be truth with or without my acceptance or obedience.
God has spoken (Heb. 1:1,2). His spoken Word is truth (Jn. 8:32; 16:13). And God requires of me that I understand his word. “Whereby, when ye read, ye can perceive my understanding in the mystery of Christ” (Eph. 3:4). “Wherefore be ye not foolish, but understand what the win of the Lord is” (Eph. 5:17). “And now I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you the inheritance among all them that are sanctified” (Acts 20:32). Such Scriptures could be multiplied: Jude 3; 1 Corinthians 4:6; 2 Peter 1:3; Galatians 1:6-8; 2 John 9-11, et al.
Lest I be charged with believing in “perfectionism” (that one knows every answer to every question), let me state that God’s word has built into it an area in which brethren may hold different judgments (opinions) and still be in fellowship (Rom. 14), but that we must agree on matters of faith (Jude 3). But many are guilty of relegating every item of faith into the. area of opinion, making nonsense of the gospel of Christ.
If truth is absolute (arid it is), then I must seek to understand it lest I fall short of what God has said to us. And it should be noted, that absolute truth has been given to mankind for his benefit. It is relevant to our needs, given by inspiration to safe-guard its contents, having a purpose (the salvation of our souls), and it will judge us (Jn. 12:48). It is folly to say that man cannot understand the instruction given specifically to us by God. Is God not able to speak to us on our level, in an understandable manner? Is he not able to create a creature capable of receiving communication from his Maker? Either view is an indictment of God and his wisdom and/or ability. As the pioneer preacher Benjamin Franklin put it, “The Bible as it is, is addressed to man as he is, that he might become what God would have him to be.” Yes, brethren, I am charged with understanding the will of God and it requires of me that I use the native intelligence placed there by God at the creation. Adam understood more than the deity of God. He understood the revelation of the divine will and was held accountable for the violation of it. There was no one around to tell Adam that eating the forbidden fruit was right if he thought it to be right, except the Devil. The same God has spoken to the descendants of Adam and we had better listen, for we are accountable.
Reason Limited Only to Direct Statements?
It is affirmed that we are able to understand direct statements and commands by our human reasoning but not examples or inferences. “Inferences,” we are told, require human reasoning to decide when one is “necessary.” Also, we have to decide when one example is binding and another is not. Therefore, since we have difficulty in deciding, it is concluded that it is impossible to decide. Like the foolish mother that threw the baby out with the bath water, some would throw out all inferences and examples.
But before we deal with inferences and examples, let us back up a step. Is it not true also that we must use human reasoning with direct statements and commands as well? Are all commands binding on us today? What about the Ten Commandments? If you do not bind the Sabbath today, why not? Did you have to use some reasoning ability to determine that the law of Moses is not bound today? Have you burned any incense or killed any animals as sacrifices lately? Why not? Do you tithe? Do you observe Passover? Why not? But, more basic than that, since your name is not found anywhere in the Bible, how did you reason to the position that you have any obligations at all toward God? Should only the ancients serve God?
The point that I am making should be plain. Human reasoning is a necessity in determining which commands or positive statements, or, in fact, if any of the Bible is bound on us today. To state otherwise is to make the Bible into an absurdity, and it is not the Bible that is absurd.
As proof that God requires the use of human reason in understanding inferences, some passages should be considered. When the Sadducees tried to trap Jesus about the resurrection, he rebuked them for not reasoning and making an indifference from what God implied. “But Jesus answered and said unto di6n, Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God. . . Have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Matt. 22:29-32). That “God was not the God of the dead, but of the living” was an inference that the Sadducees should have drawn from Scripture was obvious. Should it be less obvious to us? Ignore this at your own peril: God holds us accountable when he implies something that we should infer.
The parables also teach by inference. In Matthew 21:33-45, the Pharisees “perceived” that he spake of them (v. 45). Many of the parables contain implications by God that we should understand.
In Hebrews 7:11-17, it is implied that the silence of the Scriptures is binding. I have seen some treat this principle with disdain, but the objective truth contained there will stand the carping of modern Sadducees. The people to whom the writer addressed the letter understood the point, as should any person who has read the Law. Jesus could not be priest on earth. Why? Was there a command that excluded him? No, but an inference was there that he could not serve since Moses “spake nothing” of the tribe of Judah serving, Was this inference any less binding than a stated command? Did it require human reasoning to understand it?
As for apostolic examples, it is readily admitted that not all examples give binding authority for us today. But are you sure that none of them do? Paul said, “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). “1 beseech you therefore, be ye followers of me” (1 Cor. 4:16). “And ye became followers of us, and of the Lord” (1 Thess. 1:6). “For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 2:14).
Were the first century Christians not discerning enough to know that they had no responsibility to follow churches that did wrong (like Corinth) or apostles that did wrong (like Peter)? Don’t you believe they could tell the difference and follow Paul “as he followed Christ”? If not, what is the force of these passages exhorting them to “follow” others? Were they not to follow Paul because he was right? And was he not right because he followed Christ? Would this be a sufficient background command to bind the example on early Christians? Or on us?
“Now these things were our examples” (1 Cor. 10:6). “. . . leaving us an example, that you should follow his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21). “. . so walk, even as ye have us for an example” (Phil. 3:17). Who says that examples do not bind? Did you learn it from these verses?
Yes, it takes reasoning power to know that we should follow some examples and not follow others. Some examples are good and some are bad, but we can know the difference. Also, some examples are of incidentals and some are binding. But we can tell the difference because of the Scriptures and because of the reasoning ability that God gave us.
Reverse the Process
If you disagree about the binding force of examples and inferences because it takes the ability to reason (and our reasoning may be faulty), then you must also apply this argument to direct statements and commands. I challenge you to be consistent. And if commands have no binding force, let us face it, the Bible is vain and empty and our faith is ludicrous.
Either the Bible leads and guides through the power of the Holy Spirit in an intelligible manner or it does not. God has addressed man on a level commensurate with his ability to comprehend or he hasn’t. Truth is absolute or it is not. The choice is clear. “Wherefore be ye not foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”
Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 24, pp. 749-750
December 21, 1989