Foundational Terms

by Doy Moyer

“The process of conceptual clarification always begins with ordinary usage of the concept to be clarified, so our conception of the truth ought to sound a lot like what you already believe the truth to be.” (Dolores G. Morris, Believing Philosophy, p. 50).

That quote captures one of the main reasons why I like to think in foundational terms. Many disagreements arise due to ambiguity, lack of clarity, and assumptions about people agreeing on the basics. For instance…

I have been asked why I get so basic when it comes to talking about biblical authority. For years, I have preferred using terms like “tell, show, and imply” to talk about the basics of communication because communication is where the heart of authority lies. There has been so much misunderstanding and misuse of terms like “command, example, and necessary inference” that I wanted to back it up and just see how communication works on any level and for every subject. “Tell, show, and imply” covers the process well, and it is so foundational that people are hard-pressed to disagree. In fact, to disagree would require using the very process to voice that disagreement, which makes opposition to it self-defeating.

Well and good, I hear, but why talk so basic when everyone would agree with that? My answer is given precisely because everyone can agree with it, and that’s a starting point. Using the building blocks of logic and communication, we can then move on to the more difficult aspects of it. When people complain about terms like “command, example, and inference,” we can show that the issue is not really with these terms (since they are represented by tell, show, and imply), but rather in overstepping with conclusions that are not warranted by the evidence. To do this, we have to get past the technical complaints about those terms. For example…

“We can’t bind anything that is not given as a direct command.” But where is the command for binding that? No one will consistently abide by this.

“We can’t bind anything that is based on inference.” But how did you reach that conclusion? And what do we do with the various places where significant conclusions were made based on inference? (e.g., Peter in Acts 10:28) The truth is that no conclusions can be reached without inference. The issue, then, is not about inferences per see.

My point is not to invite all the criticisms, but rather to try to get over the hump of the technical terminology battles. The real problems lie not in the terms themselves, but in the abuses, bad argumentation, and spurious conclusions to which all of us are susceptible if we aren’t being careful and honest.

Conceptual clarification is a starting point, and when you begin with ordinary usage of a concept, that “conception of the truth ought to sound a lot like what you already believe the truth to be.”

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