Chapter 13 - Proper Reasoning
Some Christians fear reasoning, logic, and philosophy. They feel
that the Christian is expected to substitute faith for rigorous mental
activity. But such a view misrepresents both faith and reasoning.
Jesus said, "You shall love the Lord your God . . . with all your mind"
(Matthew 22:37). Peter said, "Gird up your minds for action" (1 Peter
1:13). "God gave Solomon wisdom and very great discernment" (1 Kings
4:29), and Solomon said, "Acquire wisdom! Acquire understanding!"
(Proverbs 4:5). These and other passages indicate that God does want
you to think and reason with your mind.
A problem arises, of course, if you base your thinking on false assumptions.
The Bible warns against building your reasoning on "the tradition of men"
and "the elementary principles of the world" (Colossians 2:8) or on "your
own understanding" (Proverbs 3:5). But this does not mean that you
should not reason. It means that you must be careful to base your
reasoning on the proper starting points, namely, on "the fear of the Lord"
(Proverbs 1:7; 9:10) and on Christ (Colossians 2:8).
In the following sections we examine several improper types of reasoning.
In this error, a person begins with unfounded assumptions. He
then interprets scripture passages in light of his assumptions with the
result that his own assumptions, rather than the scriptures, determine
his conclusion. This type of reasoning error was discussed at length
in chapter 5.
To overgeneralize is a built-in human trait. We hear one or two
politicians of a particular party speak and we generalize that all the
people in that party hold similar views. We watch a few members of
a certain ethnic group, and we characterize all members of that ethnic
group according to the few. And we can easily make the same error
in interpreting the Bible by examining a small part of the evidence and
then feeling that we have arrived at the full truth. For example,
we might read how one or two of the patriarchs reacted under stress and
generalize that that is how all the patriarchs reacted under stress.
We must avoid this error in reasoning by actively seeking all the relevant
evidence. When we skip over any part of the evidence and jump to
a conclusion, we often jump to the wrong conclusion.
It is poor reasoning to argue that an idea is true just because there
is no biblical statement that the idea is false. Likewise, it is
poor reasoning to argue that an idea is false just because there is no
biblical statement that the idea is true. Such arguments are based
on silence, that is, lack of evidence.
In many places the biblical records are very short. The records
of creation, the experiences of the patriarchs, the deeds of the kings,
the life and ministry of Jesus, and the acts of the apostles are all extremely
brief. This brevity, or selectivity, becomes obvious from just a
casual reading. Also, John explicitly states this fact in connection
with the life of Jesus when he notes that "there are also many other things
which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even
the world itself would not contain the books which were written" (John
21:25; also see Acts 2:40).
The Bible does not attempt to speak in full detail on every possible
subject. Thus, when we find a silence in the Bible, we must be careful
not to interpret that silence incorrectly. Lack of an approving statement
is not in itself a disapproval. Likewise, lack of a disapproving
statement is not in itself an approval.
Also, because of this brevity of the biblical record, we should not
assign too much significance to the statistical analysis of the Bible.
For instance, we may calculate that the apostles witnessed in one way in
80 percent of the incidents and in another way in 20 percent of the incidents.
While such an observation may legitimately serve to raise certain questions
in our minds, it should not be taken as an accurate analysis of what the
apostles actually did, nor as a binding guideline for us. We must
remember that we do not really know how often the apostles actually witnessed
in one way or the other. All we know is how often they witnessed
in one way or the other in those incidents which are recorded, which
may be only a small fraction of the total.
On the one hand, when the Bible is silent, our safest position may also
be to be silent. On the other hand, remember that even though the
Bible may not explicitly address a certain topic, we are often able to
apply relevant biblical principles to that topic and thus reach a conclusion.
Furthermore, there are some cases in which a silence in the Bible does
in fact have more significance than other cases. If there is a high
degree of likelihood that something should be said on a certain topic,
but nothing is said, then that silence becomes more significant.
Example 1 - The Holy Spirit - Acts 1:5-8
John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the
Holy Spirit." 6 So when they met together, they asked
him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?"
7 He said to them: "It is not for you to know the times or
dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will
receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses
in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."
For instance, in verse 7 Jesus says nothing about the Holy Spirit taking
part in fixing times and dates. He mentions only the Father.
This fact in itself is not an adequate basis for concluding that
only the Father is responsible for determining times and dates. However,
it is interesting to note that Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit in the previous
discussion (verse 5), and more importantly, refers again to the Holy Spirit
in the very next sentence (verse 8). This makes it a little more
likely that Jesus' omission of the Holy Spirit in verse 7 is meant to be
instructive. If this section were intended as a list of the activities
of the Father, then the omission of the Holy Spirit from verse 7 would
be less noteworthy. But since it is not a listing of the Father's
activities, and since the Holy Spirit is already an important part of the
discussion, his omission from verse 7 seems to carry more weight in determining
the unique functions of the Father and of the Holy Spirit.
Of course, comparing Acts 1:7 with other passages, such as the following,
is also crucial in settling this issue.
"No one knows about
that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only
the Father. (Matthew 24:36, compare Mark 13:32)
Example 2 - The Nation Israel - Romans 11
As a more obvious example of a passage where something "should" be said,
consider Paul's discussion of the question "Did God reject his people?"
in Romans 11. Twice in this chapter Paul raises the question about
God's continued acceptance of the nation Israel (verses 1 and 11).
He uses this question as a literary technique to focus the discussion,
as evidenced by the explicit introduction to the question in both cases
("I ask then" and "Again I ask"). Because he raised the question
twice and drew attention to it both times, we can certainly expect that
he will answer this question. And in both cases he answers it immediately
- strongly in the negative. God certainly has not rejected
his people. Then Paul goes on to explain the sense in which God has
not rejected his people.
Paul's letter to the Romans was probably written in AD 57. In
70 Jerusalem was destroyed and the people were scattered. Then in
1948 modern Israel was formed. Many people believe that God has regathered
the nation Israel, and that this is the proof that God has not rejected
his people. They believe that God will fulfill for modern Israel
all the promises made to ancient Israel. If this view is correct
(that "God has not rejected his people" means "God will continue to work
with Israel as a nation"), then Paul's omission of this idea in Romans
11 is rather surprising.
The omission occurs in the explanations which follow the negative answers.
Paul never explicitly says that God will continue to work with Israel as
a nation. Rather, he demonstrates that God has not rejected Israel
by stating that he is an Israelite (an individual accepted by God because
of faith rather than national origin). He goes on to state that there
is a remnant of Israelites (also individuals accepted because of God grace).
This, then, is the sense in which Israel has not been rejected: individual
Israelites can still come to God through faith. What Paul does not
state in any way is that Israel as a nation has continued acceptance
with God. In view of the degree to which Paul highlights the issue,
this is a glaring omission for those who believe in the future of the nation
Again, we must take into account other passages which relate to the
same issue, such as Matthew 21:43; 23:31-32, 36-38; Luke 12:32; and many
Even though silence is usually a poor basis for an argument, there are
times when the circumstances in a given context, as illustrated above,
make the silence more significant and in turn make the silence a more valid
support for the argument.
Argument by Analogy
In an analogy, as in certain figures of speech (such as metaphor, simile,
parable, and allegory), two things are compared for the purpose of illustrating
or clarifying something about one of them. Even though analogies
can illustrate a point which is known to be true, then cannot establish
a point. Analogies do not prove anything; they only clarify.
Thus, to argue by analogy is never a strong argument.
For instance, in Matthew 13 Jesus illustrates some important facts about
the spread of the word to different types of persons by drawing an analogy
between that and sowing seed in various types of soil. It is a fact
that different persons respond differently to the word, but that fact is
not established because different soils produce different yields.
That fact is merely clarified or illustrated by the analogy of the soils.
If we tried to argue by analogy, we might claim that, since the soil makes
no choice, people also do not really choose. Similarly, we might
argue that, since the soil's yield was measured numerically, numerical
measurement is the way we should measure a person's response to the word.
But neither of these two arguments is sound, because no analogy can serve
as a basis for establishing an idea as fact.
Analogies can only illustrate a fact that is already established.
Also, it should not be assumed that every aspect of the analogy is meant
to illustrate every aspect of the truth with which it is being compared.
Beware of argument by analogy.
It is possible to twist a biblical statement without even being aware
that you are changing its meaning. Taking careful note of the exact
way in which a statement is expressed (that is, the form of the statement)
can help avoid this error.
Many of the statements in the Bible can be put into the If-A-then-B
form. This type of statement is known in the field of logic as a
conditional proposition or a sequential proposition. Such a statement
says that if (on the condition that) the first part of the statement
(A, the antecedent) is true, then it necessarily follows that the
second part of the statement (B, the consequent) is also true. For
example, common knowledge about automobiles can be put into the If-A-then-B
||If your car is out of gasoline
||then it will not run.
The above proposition is true; that is, the then-clause is true whenever
the if-clause is true. And you are "safe" as long as you maintain
the form of the statement. But when you begin to alter its form you
may find that you have actually twisted it and changed both its meaning
and its truthfulness. The three alterations in form are known as
- The converse, which interchanges the if-clause and the
then-clause so that the statement reads If B then A,
- The inverse, which negates both clauses so that the
statement reads If not A, then not B,
- The contrapositive, which interchanges and negates
both clauses so that the statement reads If not B then not A.
For example, given the above proposition about the car, the converse,
inverse, and contrapositive are as follows:
||If your car will not run
||then it is out of gasoline.
||If your car has gasoline
||then it will run.
||If your car will run
||then it has gasoline.
Here is a very basic rule of logic: Even though a conditional
proposition is true, the converse and inverse of that proposition may
be true or false. (By the way, if the conditional proposition
is true, the contrapositive is always true.)
You can check this out easily by thinking through the automobile illustration
above, or any other conditional proposition such as, "If you live in Illinois,
then you live in the United States" or "If it is raining, then it is cloudy."
If this rule of logic is neglected in Bible interpretation, you may
unintentionally twist some biblical statements. For example, Proverbs
18:22 can be stated in the If-A-then-B form.
||If a man gets married
||then he obtains the Lord's favor.
Some people might interpret this to mean that all men should marry because
God disapproves of celibacy. But such a viewpoint actually expresses
the inverse of the original biblical proposition. And since it is
the inverse, it is not necessarily true.
||If a man remains single
||then he obtains the Lord's disfavor.
When handling biblical statements you must be very careful lest you
twist a true statement into a not-necessarily-true statement and then build
your beliefs on that twisted statement.
This illustrates only one of the many types of statements which always
operate according to the rules of language and logic. You would be
wise to read as much as possible in the field of logic. Biblical
statements must not be handled carelessly.
A definition uses the word is. However, not every statement
using is is a definition. A great deal of confusion can be
created if a biblical statement using the word is is thought to
be a definition when it is really only a partial description.
For example, the following might appear to be definitions since they
use "is," but they are merely partial descriptions.
The following two statements illustrate the distinction between a definition
and a partial description.
God is love. (1 John 4:8)
The gospel . . . is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not
seen. (Hebrews 11:1)
|An automobile is a four wheeled, self propelled vehicle designed primarily to carry passengers.
||An automobile is a modern convenience.
The partial description does not apply very many limitations.
Thus, the complete predicate (the part of the statement beginning with
could easily refer to other things besides automobiles. A telephone
is also a modern convenience. On the other hand, the definition applies
enough limitations so that the predicate can refer only to an automobile.
In fact, the word define means "to limit," or "to set boundaries."
A statement using "is" is not a definition unless the predicate applies
enough limitations so that it can refer only to the subject of the statement.
In a definition, the word is could be replaced by the word equals,
whereas in a partial description the "is" would be replaced by "can be
described as," or "has, as one of its characteristics, the characteristic
of being," as illustrated below.
|An automobile equals a four wheeled, self propelled vehicle designed primarily to carry passengers.
||An automobile can be described as a modern convenience. Or, an automobile has, as one of its characteristics, the characteristic of being a modern convenience.
It is very important to determine when is means equals
and when is means something else. For example, it would be
quite inaccurate to say that "God is love," means "God equals love," when
in reality love is only one of God's many characteristics.
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