Necessary Inferences and The Law of Silence

It seems to me that one of the major problems among Christians is our different interpretations of scripture. Even though Peter warned against its "private interpretation, "generally, his warning has been disregarded.

I grew up in a religious organization which taught that we should just read scripture and believe what it says without any interpretation. While at the same time we were teaching this viewpoint, most of us were busy interpreting scripture to shreds in our own way.

We even established proper methods of "studying" the scriptures, which were, in fact, our own methods of interpretation.

Some Rules of Interpretation

In our religious organization, we applied some basic rules of interpretation:

1) Commands, Examples, and Necessary Inferences are binding.

2) The "Law of Silence" excludes everything not mentioned.

These rules were based on the underlying, primary assumption that the scriptures are a rule book. Many denominations believe this same premise to one extent or another. Some claim it outright, others accept the assumption without much discussion at all. But almost all look at scripture in a similar way.

Some, like the Roman Catholic Church, openly give Church Tradition a place equal to or greater than scripture.

Generally, all feel that scripture must be interpreted to be understood. Most also believe that a "lay person" is not capable of reading and understanding without the help of the Clergy those specially educated in the appropriate college or seminary to interpret God to the rest of us.

Using the Rules

This is a very difficult, convoluted and confusing way for anyone to try to understand anything. However, let's look at the way these rules of interpretation are supposed to work.

1) It is assumed that the Bible is God's Rule Book. It is filled with rules (laws) to be obeyed. Some things we must do. Some things we must not do. We can either fall short of or go beyond fulfilling The Law of God.

2) At all times, the Rules of Logic apply (whether you know the rules or not).

3) Any Direct Command from Christ or any apostle to anyone, constitutes a Direct Command to everyone, both today and throughout all the centuries since they were spoken or written.

4) An Approved Apostolic Example is "binding" on all disciples since the church began. An Approved Apostolic Example is an incident (or incidents) which occurred among disciples for which there is direct or tacit evidence that an apostle approved. Such an Approved Apostolic Example is as binding on disciples as are Commands.

5) Necessary Inferences are logical conclusions (which we cannot avoid reaching) from the Commands, and Approved Apostolic Examples of which we read in scripture. The inference must be the only logical conclusion which can be drawn from the given situation. If there is any reasonable doubt whether another logical conclusion can be drawn, then the Inference is not Necessary, and is therefore not binding on disciples today. Otherwise, a Necessary Inference has the same force and effect as Law either a Command or an Approved Apostolic Example.

6) The Law of Silence can be stated quite simply: Whatever scripture does not authorize by one of the above methods is forbidden.

There are many problems with trying to use these rules. To mention a few:

1) They require a professional (or at least semi-professional) interpreter, trained in their use. 2) They foster a legalistic set of laws, even though Jesus died to free us from such laws. 3) They are confusing. 4) They cause interpretations that contradict each other. 5) They can never be applied consistently to all scripture without creating ridiculous conclusions.

For the most part, scriptures were written by simple people in simple street language. The target audience is the common person. Only a few writers, such as Moses, Matthew, Luke and Paul, were well educated. Most would have been little different from the average person today. Being written in a down-to-earth vocabulary and style, it was intended to be understood by anyone having it read aloud to them. The original recipients of these sacred writings would have had some real problems trying to use these modern rules of interpretation.

Some Questions

Throughout the Hebrew scriptures we often find references to someone reading the Law aloud to the people. In the Greek scriptures, the writings to groups of disciples were intended to be read aloud to the addresses. Imagine with me some of the problems early Christians might have had if they had interpreted the way we have been taught. 

How many of those common folks in Thessalonica do you suppose ever had the opportunity to take a scroll home with them for a "verse-by-verse" study? (There were no verses, remember?) Do you suppose they had Bible Classes (or Sunday School Classes) to do a line-by-line study of one of Paul's scrolls? Can you hear someone asking, "Now brother Demetrius, what did Paul mean when he said, 'Pray without ceasing'"? They had no concordances to look up how many ways Paul used the term pray.

Do you really think, as they heard their letter in Ephesus, that they thought about all of the things Paul did not mention? Do you really think that they thought that if Paul left anything unmentioned that it was forbidden?

What did our fellow disciples in Ephesus do with their money? Paul failed to mention a collection to them. Did that mean they were forbidden to take one up? Could they not pass the plate? Even if it were "separate and apart from the Lord's Supper?" Did they observe the Lord's Supper? Paul didn't mention that to them either.

Think of how much he did not mention to Philemon. Was Philemon forbidden to do anything not mentioned by Paul? Could he sing? Could he assemble with other saints? Could he take up a collection?

Remember, they did not have all the Greek scriptures to study. They did not have footnotes and concordances nor access to other saints' mail to help them find that the Corinthians were instructed to set aside some of their earnings weekly for needy Christians in Jerusalem. Were Laodecians and Ephesians required to do the same? And send it to Jerusalem? Did the Law of Silence forbid them to do so?!? If they had no access to Paul's writings to Corinth, how could they have inferred necessarily or otherwise that they were required to collect or required not to collect?

These disciples were our examples. Who were theirs? Could they possibly have interpreted scripture properly with no examples? Could they possibly have understood what Paul wrote to them interpreting only commands and looking for necessary inferences? What was wrong? Didn't they know how to interpret scripture?

Whose commands, examples and inferences had Timothy known since childhood? Moses? Elijah? Tubal-Cain? Mahershalalhashbaz? Onan?

As I heard someone say on TV, "Come on, get real!" Do we "interpret" anything else that way?

If you get a letter from a friend, I know that you would be conscious of any commands, but do you really feel compelled to search for necessary inferences and examples? Is that the way you understand a letter from a friend? Is that the way you read any book? Then why would the Colossians?

I call necessary inferences "reading between the lines." People that I have known who do that to an extreme usually need counselling if they continue.

I used to work with a man who would sit down with me after a meeting or a presentation, and ask, "Now, what did you really mean when you said... ?"

Umpteen times I tried explaining to him that I always tried to say exactly what I meant, as nearly as I could, that I had no hidden messages. He should stop trying to read between my lines, because there was nothing there! Even if I wanted to put something between the lines and have hidden meanings, I wasn't smart enough to do it!

We finally parted company after a little more than a year of doing business together. We were incompatible, I guess. He wanted to read between the lines of everything, and I wasn't putting anything there. I had finally found myself wondering if, since he was always looking for other's hidden meanings, if he ever meant what he said himself.

Is that what we do when we look for necessary inferences? Are we trying to figure out what scripture really means?

Try these inferences:

The early disciples met every Sunday for worship (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1,2). This inference disregards the fact that the disciples met daily in Jerusalem and that scripture never mentions the disciples meeting anywhere for worship.

Their numbers were large (3,000, 4,000 and above 5,000 men), so they could not all have met in one house. Therefore, some infer that they had church buildings (large enough to hold 5,000 men plus their women and children).

Some also infer that they must have had chairs (or pews) in their church buildings.

Because disciples were encouraged to sing (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:15;), some infer that they must have had songbooks.

Some infer that they must have sung sometimes at night (Acts 20). Therefore, they conclude that they must have had lights (Acts 20).

From the above, other inferences are only a small logical step away: Some infer that there is a church treasury, and that we can rent, lease or buy a building equipped with lights and pews and we can purchase song books and pay the light bill and pad the pews and plant and maintain landscaping and . .

See how far inferences can take us? See how many things have become a necessary part of our religious lives that we have inferred and not even necessarily? Those are inferences, all right. But they are not necessary. Are they binding? These are not the only inferences that can be drawn from what I read in His word.

One major problem with Necessary Inferences is that all our inferences are not necessary.

That the disciples numbers grew rapidly is fact. That they could not all meet in one house is probably fact. I have not seen any archaeological evidence that there were any houses that large in Jerusalem. but to say that their numbers grew that rapidly in other cities is an unnecessary inference. To assume that they rented, leased or bought property is also unnecessary. Archaeologists have found no "church buildings" earlier than the second century.

The Quandary

There is no question about the value of the examples of those who have gone before us. Paul told our Roman brothers that things written before were for "our learning and admonition." We can learn from both the triumphs and mistakes of others.

But can't we see that as long as we are trying to interpret scriptures by both Necessary Inferences and the Law of Silence we will have "interpretations" which contradict? That we will forever have strife with each other? That we will continue to divide into smaller and smaller groups until nothing is left? One man's Law will be another's Freedom.

Can't we see that these two methods contradict each other? With Inferences, we read something into the scripture which is not there and make it binding. With the Law of Silence, we read something out of scripture and make it just as binding.

See the quandary? Were the Romans to infer from a letter they had never seen, that it was a law for them to take up a collection every Sunday? Or were they to invoke the Law of Silence and believe it would be a sin for them ever to do so.

Far be it from me to maintain that it is a sin for a group of Christians to own things collectively whether buildings, books, or bushes. But please, let's not fool ourselves by saying that God authorized these. Let's recognize the truth for what it is as well as for what it is not. Let's not be afraid to "own up" to the fact that some things are either our own inventions for our own convenience in carrying out His work, or customs which we have borrowed "from the nations" around us.

It seems to me that we ought to do less interpreting of scriptures and just read and understand them more instead. I urge you to pray along with me for more under standing, for enlightenment and for the wisdom to use them.