We are governed today by three forms of Bible authority. These are direct command or statement, approved example, 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 example, but there is a growing number who challenge the use of necessary inference as an acceptable form of Bible authority. Necessary inference has been challenged on the basis that it involves the use of the human mind — that logic is necessary to draw the inference, and it has been called a “clumsy interpretative procedure.”
It is important to understand that the Bible must be understood in the same way as any other written message. For example, 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 is addressed specifically to us. It was Saul who was told, “And now why tarriest thou? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins. . . .” Yet, most would (correctly) necessarily infer that this command is also for them since people today live under the same law, and since God does not show partiality (Acts 10:34).
Further, people reason by inference every day. It would be difficult to conduct our life without this mode of thinking. It is absurd to think that necessary inference cannot be applied to the interpretation of the Scriptures.
What Is Necessary Inference?
Information can be conveyed in an “explicit” way or in a way that is “implicit.” Explicit means that nothing is implied; the subject is clearly expressed and fully stated. Implicit, on the other hand, means that something is not expressly stated; it is without detail, something that you imply instead of directly saying. If a person takes what he hears, puts “two and two together,” and draws a conclusion, it could be said that his conclusion is implied. Another word for “implicit” is “inference.” An inference is simply a conclusion that is reached from the premises. (The premises are the two’s in the two plus two.)
More specifically, a necessary inference is one in which “a conclusion is drawn because the evidence demands it.” It is a conclusion that unavoidably follows from the premises. A conclusion must be NECESSARILY inferred. As stated, the evidence demands the conclusion! Necessary inference is not a hunch or a guess.
Consider some examples from everyday life. Suppose that a person is driving down the road, passes a baseball field, and notices that the field is wet. He might infer that it has recently rained, but he could not necessarily infer this. He would be unable to necessarily infer that it had recently rained because of the possibility that someone may have just sprayed the field with water to keep it from being so dusty. On the other hand, a person might wake up one morning and see that the countryside is covered with snow. 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 (v. 13-15). Their inference was clearly wrong. In Acts 16:15, we read where Lydia and her “household” were baptized. Some have inferred that this serves as an example of infant baptism. A person might infer this, but he cannot necessarily infer it because all households do not have infants. In John 9, the healing of a blind man is recorded by Jesus. The healed man concluded that Jesus must be a prophet (v. 17) and must be “of God” because, as he said, “Since the world began was it not heard that any man opened the eyes of one that was born blind. If this man was not of God, he could do nothing” (vs. 32, 33). He eventually concluded that Jesus was the son of God (v. 38). The healed man drew “necessary” inferences.
Examples in the Scriptures
To begin with, note two simple examples. Genesis 12:10 states that Abraham and Sarah went down to Egypt. Earlier, Lot was with them, but we are not told that he went with Abraham and Sarah to Egypt. However, Genesis 13:1 says, “And Abram went up out of Egypt, he, and his wife, and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the south.” 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, “And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water. . . .” The text does not say that Jesus went down into the water, but it must be necessarily inferred that he did since he “went up straightway out of the water.”
The Sadducees were a group of people who did not believe in the resurrection. They also did not believe in consciousness after death. In Matthew 22:23-33, they questioned Jesus about the resurrection. In response, Jesus said, “. . . 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.” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had been dead for around four hundred years when God made the above statement to Moses (Ex. 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 parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son are recorded. The publicans and sinners had drawn near to Jesus to hear him. Meanwhile, the Pharisees and scribes “murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.” For Jesus to get his point across to those who murmured, they had to draw inferences from the three parables presented. They 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.” This point is not specifically stated, but it is the necessary inference that 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 opened and “a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth.” Within were all kinds of unclean animals. Peter was told to rise and eat, but he refused to do so, even after being told two more times. Peter was not sure of the meaning of this vision. 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, “… Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” God did not tell Peter this by direct statement or by example, but He gave Peter the information so that 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. Verse 17 says, “For he testifieth, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec.” From this passage, the author necessarily infers three facts: 1. There was to be a change in the priesthood (v. 12a); 2. There was to be a change in the law (12b- for a change in the priesthood necessitated a change also in the law) 3. Perfection was not to be obtained through the Levitical priesthood (v. 11- for had it been, there would have been no need that another priest should arise after the order of Melchisedec).
Consider various passages and questions where necessary inference comes into bearing.
- The establishment of the church. The church was established on the day of Pentecost in connection with the events of Acts 2. The Bible does not specifically say that the church was established then, but from a number of passages, we can necessarily infer that it was (Mt. 16:18; Mk. 9:1; Acts 1:8, 2:47; Col. 1:13).
- Preaching Christ meant preaching baptism. Acts 8:26-40 records the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch by Philip. The text says that Philip joined the Ethiopian in his chariot and “preached unto him Jesus” (v. 35). As they were traveling, “they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?” How did he know to be baptized? Certainly, it can be necessarily inferred that “preaching Jesus” means “preaching baptism.” (Also note: Acts 2:38; 22:16; Gal. 3:27; I Cor. 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, “And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech 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 partook of it on the first day of the week; every week has a first day; therefore, we are to partake of the Lord’s Supper every week. In the Old Testament, the people were told to (Ex. 20:8) “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” Yet, they were not told to remember every Sabbath day. However, that is clearly what was meant. If it is true that no frequency is taught for the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament, a person could partake of it only once and would never need to partake of it again having satisfied the command to observe it. It must be keep in mind that the frequency to partake of the Lord’s Supper is not taught by direct statement, direct command, or by approved example. There is, however, a frequency taught, and it is taught by necessary inference.
Just as there are certain logical rules to determine when an example is binding, there are certain rules which can prove helpful with necessary inference:
1. If a cause always brings forth a particular result, and the cause is stated, then it must necessarily be inferred that the result followed. As we have seen, the Ethiopian (Acts 8:27-39) was taught and baptized by Philip. But nothing is said about “why” he was baptized. Other passages, however, teach that baptism is “for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). Therefore, it can be necessarily inferred that when the eunuch was baptized, his sins were remitted.
2. If a result is always brought about by a particular cause, and the result is stated, then it must necessarily be inferred that the cause occurred. Acts 18:8 tells us that Crispus believed on the Lord with all his house, but nothing is said 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 heard the gospel just as the other Corinthians had (8b).
3. If the structure of the language requires a certain conclusion itself, though unstated, the conclusion is necessarily inferred. An example of this would be the “frequency” of the Lord’s Supper as discussed above. The example of observing it on Sunday would lead us to conclude that it must be observed 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 (vs. 1, 5). All three forms of Bible authority are employed in this discussion. First, necessary inferences were drawn from events which had occurred (Acts 10:17; 15:6-12, 19, 28). Next, approved examples are cited. It was pointed out that God gave them the Holy Spirit even as he did the Jews (15:8), that they had labored among the Gentiles, and God did signs and wonders (15:12). Finally, direct statements, or commands, are employed. Peter told how he was commanded to go to the house of Cornelius (15:7), and James cited the words of the prophets (15:7).
All three forms of authority can be seen in various aspects of the Lord’s Supper. The fact that we are to partake of it comes by command (Mt. 26:26-28; I Cor. 11:24); we learn the day that we are to partake of it by example (Acts 20:7); finally, the frequency to partake of the Lord’s Supper (every Sunday) is determined by necessary inference (Acts 20:7).
Necessary inference is a very important form of authority and must not be neglected.