by Mike Johnson
Three forms of Bible authority govern us today. These are direct command or statement, approved examples, and necessary inference or conclusion. Most are willing to accept direct commands or statements as forms of Bible authority. Some may question the concept of approved examples, and a growing number challenge the use of necessary inference as an acceptable form of Bible authority. People challenge necessary inference based on it involving the use of the human mind, i.e., that one needs logic to draw the conclusion and call it a “clumsy interpretative procedure.”
It is essential to understand the Bible in the same way as any other written message. As with any document, we read it, translate the words into mental images, accumulate information, and draw conclusions.
We may often use necessary inference when interpreting the Bible without even realizing it. For example, no statement in the Bible addresses, specifically us. Ananias, for instance, told Saul, “And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.” Yet, most would correctly infer that this command is also intended for them since people today live under the same law and since God does not show partiality (Acts 10:34).
People regularly reason by inference. It would be difficult to conduct our life without this mode of thinking. Therefore, it is absurd to think that we should not use necessary inference in interpreting the Scriptures.
What Is Necessary Inference?
Typically, we convey information either in an “explicit” or “implicit” way. Explicit means there is nothing implied, as we fully state the subject. On the other hand, speaking implicitly indicates that something is not expressly stated — without detail, we infer something instead of directly saying it. For example, if we take what we hear, put two and two together, and draw a conclusion, we conclude by implication. Another word for “implicit” is “inference.” An inference is simply a conclusion reached from premises. (The premises are the two’s in the two plus two.)
More specifically, a necessary inference is one in which “we reach a conclusion because the evidence demands it.” It is a conclusion that unavoidably follows from the premises. However, a conclusion must be necessarily inferred. As stated, the evidence demands the conclusion drawn! A necessary inference is not a hunch or a guess.
Consider some examples from everyday life. Suppose a person is driving down the road, passes a baseball field, and notices it is wet. He might infer that it has recently rained, but he could not necessarily assume this. The person would be unable to conclude that it had recently rained because of the possibility that someone may have just sprayed the field with water to keep it from being dusty. On the other hand, a person might wake up one morning and see snow covering the countryside. Upon seeing this, he might necessarily infer that the temperature is, or at least has been, that which is necessary to produce snow.
Consider a few simple biblical examples. On the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), some people, after hearing the apostles speak in foreign languages, inferred that they were drunk (Acts 2:13-15). Their inference was wrong. In Acts 16:15, we read of the baptism of Lydia and her “household.” Some have inferred that this serves as an example of infant baptism. People might assume this, but they cannot necessarily conclude it because all households do not have infants. Finally, John 9 records the healing of a blind man by Jesus. The healed man concluded that Jesus must be a prophet (John 9:17) and must be “of God” because, as he said, “Since the world began it has been unheard of that anyone opened the eyes of one who was born blind. If this Man were not from God, He could do nothing” (John 9:32-33). He eventually concluded that Jesus was the son of God (John 9:38). The healed man drew “necessary” inferences.
Examples in the Scriptures
To begin with, note two simple examples. First, we learn from Genesis 12:10 that Abraham and Sarah went down to Egypt. Lot was with them earlier, but the Scriptures do not tell us that he went with Abraham and Sarah to Egypt. However, Genesis 13:1 says, “Then Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that he had, and Lot with him, to the South.” Again, it did not say that Lot went down to Egypt, but we would necessarily infer that he did since he came up out of Egypt. The second example involves Jesus’ baptism. Matthew 3:16 says, “When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water ...” The text does not say Jesus went down into the water, but one must necessarily infer He did since He “came up immediately out of the water.”
The Sadducees (a sect during Jesus’ ministry) did not believe in the resurrection and did not believe in consciousness after death. In Matthew 22:23-33, they questioned Jesus about the resurrection. In response, Jesus said, “But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had been dead for around four hundred years when God made the above statement to Moses (Exodus 3:6,16). When God spoke of the three who were dead, he spoke of them in the present tense. He did not say “I was” their God, but “I am” their God. Thus, God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; God is the God of the living, not of the dead. The necessary inference that Jesus expected the Sadducees to draw was that the three, though physically dead, were alive as spirits.
Consider Luke 15, where the Scriptures record the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son. The publicans and sinners had drawn near to Jesus to hear him. Meanwhile, the Pharisees and scribes complained because Christ received and ate with sinners. For Jesus to get His point across, they had to draw inferences from the three parables presented. For example, with the parable of the lost sheep, he noted that if a man had a hundred sheep and lost one, he would leave the ninety-nine, go out, and find the one lost. When found, the man, along with his friends and neighbors, would rejoice. Those listening to Jesus should have inferred this point: “As you would seek and receive a lost sheep, coin, or son, so will I seek and save a lost sinner.” Jesus does not explicitly state this, but it is the necessary inference He expected his critics to draw.
In Acts 10 and 11, we can read of the conversion of Cornelius and the Gentiles. Cornelius saw a vision, and an angel told him to send for Peter, who was in Joppa. Peter, in the meantime, fell into a trance and saw heaven open. Acts 10:11 says he saw “heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth.” Within were all kinds of unclean animals. Then the voice told Peter to rise and eat, but He refused to, even though the voice told him to do so two additional times. Peter was not sure of the meaning of this vision. Finally, the Spirit told him to meet the people who had arrived and go with them. Peter went with them, and when he got to Caesarea, he said to Cornelius and those gathered (Acts 10:28), “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” God did not tell Peter this by direct statement, but He gave Peter the information so he would have to draw that conclusion. The vision, and the Spirit telling him to go, forced Peter to draw the inescapable conclusion that he should not call any man common or unclean! He thus went, taught the Gentiles, and they became Christians.
Hebrews 7:17 cites a prophecy from Psalms 110:4 about Christ. Hebrews 7:17 says, “For He testifies: ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.’” From this passage, the author necessarily infers three facts:
- There was to be a change in the priesthood (Hebrews 7:12);
- There was to be a change in the law (Hebrews 7:12- for a change in the priesthood necessitated a change also in the law)
- Perfection was not obtainable through the Levitical priesthood (Hebrews 7:11- for had it been, there would have been no need that another priest should rise after the order of Melchisedec).
Consider various passages and questions where necessary inference comes into bearing.
The establishment of the church
The Scriptures speaks of its establishment on the day of Pentecost in connection with the events of Acts 2. The Bible does not specifically cite this as the time the church started, but from many passages, we can necessarily infer that it was (Matthew 16:18; Mark 9:1; Acts 1:8, 2:47; Colossians 1:13).
Preaching Christ meant preaching baptism
Acts 8:26-40 records the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch by Philip. The text says Philip joined the Ethiopian in his chariot and “preached Jesus to him” (Acts 8:36). As they were traveling, “they came to some water. And the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?’” How did he know the need for baptism? We can necessarily infer that “preaching Jesus” means “preaching baptism.” (Also note: Acts 2:38; 22:16; Galatians 3:27; I Corinthians 2:2; Acts 18:8.) Some erroneously say that people should just “preach Jesus” and quit preaching about baptism, ignoring the conversion case of the Ethiopian.
The frequency to partake of the Lord’s Supper
Acts 20:7 says, “Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight.” In this verse, we have an example of the early disciples partaking of the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week. How often are we to partake of the Lord’s Supper? We determine this by necessary inference. They took it on the first day of the week; every week has a first day; therefore, we must partake of the Lord’s Supper every week. In the Old Testament, people were told to (Exodus 20:8) “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” Yet, the command does not say to remember every Sabbath day, but this is the meaning. If it is true that there is no frequency taught for the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament, a person could partake of it only once and would never need to retake it, having satisfied the command to observe it. We must remember that the frequency to take the Lord’s Supper is not taught by direct statement, direct command, or approved example. There is, however, a frequency shown by necessary inference.
Rules of Inference
Just as specific logical rules determine when an example is binding, particular rules can prove beneficial with necessary inference. Consider them now:
- If a cause always brings forth a specific result, and the cause is stated, then it must be necessarily inferred that the result follows. As we have seen, the Ethiopian (Acts 8:27-39) was taught and baptized by Philip. But nothing is said about “why” Philip baptized him. Other passages, however, show that baptism is “for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). Therefore, we can necessarily infer that when Philip baptized the Eunuch, he received the remission of sins.
- If a cause always brings forth a particular result, and if the cause is the only way to obtain the result, and the result is stated, then it must necessarily be inferred that the cause occurred. Acts 18:8 tells us that Crispus believed in the Lord with his entire house, but the passage says nothing about what produced his faith. However, Romans 10:17 tells us that faith comes by hearing God’s Word, so it can be necessarily inferred that Crispus listened to the gospel just as the other Corinthians had.
- If the language structure requires a particular conclusion itself, the conclusion is necessarily inferred though unstated. An example of this would be the “frequency” of the Lord’s Supper, as discussed above. The instance of observing it on Sunday would lead us to conclude that we must take it every Sunday.
Acts 15 records a discussion at Jerusalem about the question of circumcision. Certain ones were teaching that the Gentile Christians had to be circumcised as was required under the Law of Moses (Acts 15:1,5). All three forms of Bible authority are employed in this discussion. First, they draw necessary inferences from events that had occurred (Acts 10:17; 15:6-12,19,28). Next, they cite approved examples. They point out that God gave them the Holy Spirit even as he did the Jews (Acts 15:8), that they had labored among the Gentiles, and God did signs and wonders (Acts 15:12). Finally, direct statements, or commands, are employed. Peter told how God commanded him to go to the house of Cornelius (Acts 15:7), and James cited the words of the prophets (Acts 15:7).
We see all three forms of authority in various aspects of the Lord’s Supper. The fact that we are to partake of it comes by command (Matthew 26:26-28; I Corinthians 11:24); we learn the day that we are to take it by example (Acts 20:7); finally, we know the frequency to partake of the Lord’s Supper (every Sunday) by necessary inference (Acts 20:7).
Necessary inference is a vital form of authority, and we should not neglect it.