If you Google “necessary inference,” you end up finding almost entirely Church of Christ websites, or websites about the Church of Christ and it’s sometimes unique doctrines. The reason? The term was popularized by Church of Christ preachers using a three-finger recital of how we establish Biblical authority for modern church practices: command, example, and necessary inference. But adherence to this methodology didn’t come from Alexander Campbell, or even his father.

“While Thomas Campbell, in his Declaration and Address, says we should use command and example to understand what God would have us do, Alexander Campbell, in his Christianity Restored, spends a hundred pages on hermeneutical principles and never mentions “command, example, and necessary inference.” (Stafford North at Oklahoma Christian University)

“We only pretend to assert what everyone that pretends to reason must acknowledge, namely, that there is a manifest distinction between an express scripture declaration, and the conclusion or inference which may be induced from it.” (Thomas Campbell in Declaration and Address)

“The inferences drawn by the human understanding partake of all the defects of that understanding…. These conclusions, then, are always private property and can never be placed upon a level with the inspired word of God. Subscription to them, or acknowledgement of them, can never be rationally required as a bond of union.” (Alexander Campbell in Christian Baptist)

In other words, Campbell himself relegated inferences to the category of opinion. But let’s look at necessary inference a little more deeply to understand why, and see what it’s all about. Here’s a defintion:

Necessary inference: A conclusion that is dictated by a fact or premise. If the underlying fact or premise is true, then the necessary inference is an unavoidable conclusion that must be drawn. (Source: Nolo Law Dictionary)

The real problem with necessary inference as a hermeneutic is not that it’s necessarily (pun intended) an invalid or unsound argument. If the premises are true, and the conclusion proceeds necessarily from the premises, then it is sound. The real problem is that it’s misused by people who have no clue about the rules of logic. They throw around the term to make it sound like they are saying something authoritative. In reality, they often haven’t even made a sound argument; only an assertion.

When you have to resort to necessary inference to support your Biblical interpretation, in my judgment, it’s probably because you have a flimsy hook to hang your argument on. The problem, as Merie used to say, is that when your premises are faulty, you not only don’t have anything to hang on the hook, you haven’t any hook. Arguments built on so-called necessary inference tend to be built upon a mountain of assumptions, making the conclusion completely untrustworthy—sometimes bordering on the absurd.

The reason this happens when we use necessary inference to interpret the Bible is that we don’t know what we don’t know. We rarely have all of the facts necessary from the Biblical record to draw a conclusion with complete certainty, if it wasn’t already addressed by direct command or approved example (although there are some logical issues with this one as well; more on this later). But when you want to believe a conclusion is true, necessary inference is the perfect vehicle to justify it. I know. I used to do this myself as a young legalist, wanting to debate and justify the beliefs I already held.

As a young Christian, I eagerly consumed books and articles on the rules of logic. I read Aristotle’s “Treatise on Rhetoric,” which discusses debate and the art of persuasion. I loved persuasive writing in my 80’s high school years (usually supporting Reagan and conservativism, only to get a C with my liberal social science teacher). I still love persuasive writing, hence this blog. But nothing fascinated me more than the idea of “necessary inference,” because it seemed so malleable in my hands as a self-styled debater. Not sure how to support an argument clearly from scripture? Paste together a shoestring case that necessary inference demands we accept the conclusion. But I’ve learned some things about the rules of logic since then, thankfully.

When it comes to the assumptions we have to make using necessary inference, there are almost always other perfectly reasonable explanations for why Paul said something, or didn’t say something, or why the Corinthian church did something, or didn’t do something, or why there are no references to a particular practice in the first century. Our shaky assumptions (usually driven by our doctrinal biases—and we all have them) end up sabataging our entire argument.

Let’s use a simple example to illustrate the problem. If we see Bob go into a room that we believe has no doors and windows, and don’t see him come out, we may logically infer that he is still in there. Our logic would go like this:

  • Bob entered a room with no doors and windows.
  • Bob has not come out.
  • Bob is still in the room.

This would be valid logic. We could call this a necessary inference based on rules of logic. But think about all the assumptions present in the premises. What if the room has a door or window we don’t know about? What if there’s a trap door we don’t know about? What if Bob has a motive we don’t know about, and breaks through a wall to escape undetected? Our conclusion that he’s not still in the room may be probable given the facts we know, or may not be if there are more facts as yet unknown. It all depends on our assumptions.

I think you can see that establishing the absolute truth of the premises in any argument is what gives any argument its power of persuasion. Take this example:

  • God created everything that exists, or has ever existed.
  • Dinosaurs existed.
  • God created dinosaurs.
If we accept the first two premises as rock solid, we have to accept the conclusion as rock solid. But what happens when we insert some uncertainty, or erroneous assumptions into one or more of the premises, like this?
  • God created everything that exists.
  • Dinosaurs don’t exist.
  • God didn’t create dinosaurs.
We can see that the conclusions is not valid, because the premises are not as air-tight as they should be. By asserting that God created everything that exists, are we saying that he didn’t create something that used to exist, but does not exist any longer? There’s some uncertainty or lack of clarity in that premise, which lends uncertainty to the conclusion.What about animals that God created in one form, but through natural selection, they’ve evolved (I’m talking about genetic speciation, not the evolution of new kinds of animals). Did he not create the newer species? Of course he did, but that takes a little more than the above argument to explain clearly and persuasively.

Going back to our example of Bob, let’s remove ourselves from any firsthand observation of Bob, and rely only on other witnesses’ written accounts of Bob entering the room. Now, let’s remove ourselves further by 2,000 years, and let’s say the original written accounts are written in a different language. This illustrates the situation we find ourselves in with the Bible.
I believe that first century authors recorded their words of history, prophecy, and teachings truthfully, by inspiration. But there is no guarantee that they included everything necessary to determine conclusively every single question, historical or doctrinal, that comes to our minds. We’ve been given what’s necessary for life and instruction in godliness. If a question we have is left inconclusively answered by the Bible, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s not cause for alarm. We just need to conclude that that information wasn’t necessary for us. We don’t need to have an answer to that question in order to affect life and godliness.
How does that relate to necessary inference? The biggest takeaway is that our conclusions are only as good as the premises. To use a typical Church of Christ argument:
  • We cannot do anything that is not expressly allowed or commanded in the New Testament.
  • The New Testament does not expressly allow or command the use of musical instruments.
  • We cannot use musical instruments.
The weakest link in this argument is premise #1, but premise #2 is not far behind. I don’t accept either of these two premises, and therefore, I cannot accept the conclusion. You may disagree with me, and that’s OK. The question of musical instruments is not really the point of this article; I’m going higher up the logical food chain to the premises that produced that conclusion.
My point is that there is no God-given rule that says we cannot do anything that is not expressly allowed in the New Testament. That’s a faulty premise—an assumption. Some people call it the Law of Silence; I prefer to call it the Flaw of Silence. It’s simply not a legitimate hermeneutical assumption, because it forces us to rationalize around all sorts of bizarre and illogical conclusions, like these:
  • We can’t use a pitch pipe or song book. The NT contains no command, example, or necessary inference to use such a device. And no, they’re not necessary.
  • We can’t use Western four-part harmony (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass). The first century church most likely chanted in the relatively monotone tradition of Jewish synagogue worship. Shouldn’t we do the same in order to follow their example?
  • We can’t use a P.A. system to address large crowds. Peter seemed perfectly able to address large crowds of 3,000 on the day of Pentecost without such technological innovation.
  • We can’t own a building. In NT examples, the church met in homes, synagogues, and public places. In one case, we know Paul stayed in a rented room while he was under house arrest and held Bible studies there. But did any church ever incorporate with the Roman government, open up a checking account, and purchase property?
  • We can’t baptize in a baptistry or swimming pool. NT examples seem to all occur in natural bodies of water.
  • We can’t take the Lord’s Supper on the ground floor. Believe it or not, all examples where the location of the Lord’s supper is described, it occurs in an upper room.
These conclusions using so-called necessary inference show that the inferences reached are only as good as the premises upon which you base those inferences. It’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that the lack of musical instruments in the NT had absolutely nothing to do with God not liking them. It’s more likely that the “silence” had to do with other factors:
  1. Socio-economics. Instruments were probably expensive, and probably not nearly as prevalent as they are today.
  2. Lack of skill. If instruments were not widespread, few people among the early Christians would have known how to play them.
  3. Intense persecution. In the latter part of the first century, Christians were persecuted and had to keep moving from house to house to congregate. This would have made moving instruments around difficult, and the playing of instruments would have made their meetings more noticeable to Roman neighbors.
The bottom line is that faulty assumptions in the premises almost always render our so-called necessary inference unnecessary. It is rarely an airtight logical conclusion. Far more often, it is just an excuse for arriving at the conclusion we are already biased toward. It’s just our opinion, but it gives us some wiggle room in our logic to fool ourselves that we’re interpreting the Bible soundly. Necessary inferences, at the end of the day, are still just opinions about the facts. They are not the facts themselves.

Barton Stone – “I blush for my fellows who hold up the Bible as the bond of union, yet make their opinions of it a test of fellowship; who plead for union of all Christians, yet refuse to fellowship with such as dissent from their notions. Vain men! Their zeal is not according to knowledge, nor is their spirit that of Christ. Such antisectarian-sectarians are doing more mischief to the cause and advancement of truth, the unity of Christians, and the salvation of the world, than all the skeptics in the world. In fact, they create skeptics.”

Alexander Campbell – “We will not hearken to those questions which gender strife, nor discuss them at all. If a person says such is his private opinion, let him have it as his private opinion; but lay no stress upon it; and if it be a wrong private opinion, it will die a natural death much sooner than if you attempt to kill it.”

Alexander Campbell – “But men cannot give up their opinions, and therefore, they can never unite, says one. We do not ask them to give up their opinions–we ask them only not to impose them upon others. Let them hold their opinions, but let them hold them as private property. The faith is public property; opinions are, and always have been private property. Men have foolishly attempted to make the deductions of some great minds the common measure of all Christians. Hence the deductions of a Luther, and a Calvin, and a Wesley, have been the rule and measure of all who coalesce under the names of these leaders. It is cruel to excommunicate a man because of the imbecility of his intellect.”