One of the more difficult issues in understanding communication, including authority, is that of inference. Some have become so disenchanted with the abuses of inference that they have just about given up on it as a reliable way to understand anything. This, however, is an over-reaction that is both unwarranted and impossible to bear out consistently. The reason is that inference is a necessary part of reasoning. No one can avoid inferences. The question is whether or not the inferences are warranted, legitimate, and reasonable. They must not be contrived or forced.
The definition of inference is: “in logic, derivation of conclusions from given information or premises by any acceptable form of reasoning. Inferences are commonly drawn (1) by deduction, which, by analyzing valid argument forms, draws out the conclusions implicit in their premises, (2) by induction, which argues from many instances to a general statement, (3) by probability, which passes from frequencies within a known domain to conclusions of stated likelihood, and (4) by statistical reasoning, which concludes that, on the average, a certain percentage of a set of entities will satisfy the stated conditions” (Encyclopaedia Britannica online).
The communicator implies and the receiver infers. To imply is to indicate something without explicitly stating it. To infer is to get what is being implied. There are many things that affect how we infer something, but that we infer is a fact of reasoning. Richard Paul and Linda Elder state in their Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking, “All reasoning contains inferences or interpretations by which we draw conclusions and give meaning to data.”
No reasoning takes place without drawing conclusions (inferring) from implications. Statements and examples usually come with the expectation that we draw further conclusions (the statements and examples are the data that we must infer from and to which we give meaning). The point of reasoning and discerning is that we are capable of taking what is given whether implicitly or explicitly, then reasoning to proper conclusions.
Implications can be both powerful and binding.
Some ask, “Are inferences binding?” They are wondering if what we infer can be required. When the communicator (in this case, God) implies something, and He expects us to infer or interpret His implication properly (that is, we are to “get it”), then yes it can be a required conclusion. Think back to Acts 10 and God’s expectation that Peter infer properly that gentiles should not be considered unclean. That inference was required. Some implications are binding and some aren’t, and we need to pay attention to the context of the passage. In order to better understand the principle, let’s consider some examples demonstrating that every Christian believes in the binding power of an implication.
First, anyone who is a Christian today has accepted, by inference, that people of all places and times ought to be Christians. There is no direct statement telling us explicitly that 21st century Americans should be Christians. We infer that Christianity was intended to be taken beyond the boundaries of the first century time-frame. This inference is necessary. Otherwise, on what basis should anyone be a Christian today (see Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 17:30-31)?
Second, when we follow particular commands in Scripture, we do so because we have inferred that those commands are viable for those beyond the original audience. That these commands are required is evident, but if we believe we should be following particular commands that were given to the Roman, Corinthian, or Colossian Christians, then we do so on the basis of what is implied by Scripture and what we infer as readers. Are these inferences necessary? We believe so.
Some matters of right and wrong must be inferred. Paul ends his list of sins in Galatians 5:19-21 with “things like these.” How can we know what this means? The Hebrews writer speaks of the mature who can “discern good and evil” (Heb. 5:12-14). Discerning requires inferring from known principles.
Here is a case in point to help clarify how we believe that inferences are required. What is the greatest commandment given? Jesus explicitly said that the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind (Matt. 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34). If we believe this is still the greatest commandment, then on what basis do we believe it? We ask this because it illustrates the power of an implication.
In context, Jesus was speaking about the Law and the Prophets. He said nothing explicitly about the New Covenant in this context. If the command is to be understood beyond the Hebrew Scriptures, then we are inferring its necessity beyond the original context.
Further, this command is not explicitly stated this way elsewhere in the New Testament. There are plenty of passages telling us to love one another. We know that we need to love God. However, where are we explicitly told elsewhere that loving God with all the heart, soul, strength, and mind is the greatest commandment? The only place that is found is in a passage that contextually is speaking of the Law and the Prophets. We infer the rest.
Even in the Hebrew Scriptures, where does it say that loving God with all the heart, soul, strength, and mind is the greatest of the commandments? The command is there (Deut. 6:4), but how were they to know it was the greatest? If they were expected to know it, then they knew it by what is implied. Some did get it. For example, the lawyer who asked Jesus about inheriting eternal life answered the question correctly (Luke 10:25-29). How did he know that inheriting eternal life was so connected to loving God with all the heart? That is not stated in Deuteronomy 6. Where does that passage say anything about “eternal life”? Yet, Jesus said that the lawyer answered his own question correctly. That must have been a pretty significant inference. Was it binding?
Do we believe in the power of an implication? If we are Christians, and we believe that loving God with all your heart is still the greatest commandment, then we believe in the power of implication. The question is not whether implications and inferences are part of our biblical understanding. They are vital for every reader. The question is whether we are inferring properly.
On Principle and Inference
A principle is a fundamental truth from which other laws or behaviors are derived. Upon understanding a principle, we recognize various applications that come from it. For example, based on the principle of treating others as we want to be treated (Matt. 7:12), we might infer that we should mow the lawn of a needy neighbor. The applications might be unstated and we must infer the specifics. Principles are accepted and applied through the process of inferring from the data we are given. If we believe in principles, then we accept implications and inferences.
Inferences are taken to task by those who question whether or not they are adequate for understanding anything authoritative. They may then speak of principles guiding their behavior. In truth, there is no living by principle if inferences have no power, for proper applications will involve inferences. Otherwise, principles would be empty ideas with no real-world application. Here is the argument: 1) everyone uses applied principles; 2) applying principles requires inference; 3) therefore, everyone uses inference.
Many explicit precepts also require us to work through proper applications. For example, we are told, “love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35-36). Yet how is all of this to be carried out? We can define love and mercy the way we wish (subjective and self-willed), or we can dig further into Scripture and see how God showed love and mercy. Then, we can see how to make applications in our own time. All of this requires inferring from then to now and from God’s actions to ours. Without inference, there is no modern application.
These are self-evident principles of authority. What God has told us, shown us, and implied are on every page. We cannot rightly say, “Only commands are binding,” for even then we will have crippled our abilities to make modern applications of those commands. If we cannot infer, then we cannot apply. We recognize that inferences can be unnecessary and lead to an abuse of a text. However, the fact that an abuse can take place does not invalidate the point. Rather, it drives home the need to be careful in drawing conclusions and making applications. The interpretation of Scripture needs to be attended by good reason and a great care for context. That is why this particular subject is important. If we care about principle, we’ll care about proper reasoning from the principle to the applications.
Implications and inferences are an integral part of the communication process. We are forced to use our minds to think things out and through. There are dangers, however, and we must be careful that we are using our reasoning process properly so that we are not forcing conclusions where they are not warranted. When warranted, however, the power of inferences is self-evident. Let us learn to use them appropriately.
1. What are implications and inferences? How do we imply?
2. Why would we say that implications and inferences are a necessary part of the communication process?
3. How can implications from 2,000 years ago be binding today?
4. On what basis do we follow any command that is given in Scripture?
5. How does the command to love God with all the heart illustrate the binding power of an implication?
6. What is a principle, and what role do principles play in our understanding of Scripture?
7. Why would we argue that inferences are necessary for applying principles?
8. Why should we be cautious with the inferences we make?