In my experience, I have seen a number of times in discussions where the idea of using an inference is taken to task, particularly in discussions about authority. I have noted in some cases that calling something an “inference” comes across almost as a pejorative. It’s as if to say, “that’s just an inference,” weakens the argument and makes it appear unworthy of much attention. Then there is the whole “we can’t bind inferences” line, which indicates a misunderstanding of the nature of inference. 

What is an inference? Simply put, an inference is a conclusion one draws from the available evidence. That’s it. Inferences are a necessary part of the reasoning process, and everyone who reasons, bar none, uses inferences (i.e., draws conclusions). What else can one do? To disparage inferences is to cut up the very fabric of the reasoning process. Indeed, it may well be the most important part of reasoning, for without proper inference, there can be no application of what is being communicated. Inferences are such a vital part of communication that we don’t even realize how common it is. In person, gestures, vocal indicators (e.g., which can indicate sarcasm), looks, eye-rolls, etc. are all part of a communication process by which implications and inferences are made all the time. In writing, we try to understand context, purpose, genre, style, etc. In all cases, we infer what the intended communication is supposed to be. There is no other way to do it. 

To show that this is not just some special Bible interpretation thing confined to a particular tradition, note how the Encyclopedia Britannica defines inference: “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.”

The communicator implies and the receiver infers. To imply is to indicate something without explicitly stating it (e.g., “I sure wish someone would take out the garbage”). To infer is to get what is being implied, to conclude from the evidence what the communicator is indicating (“I’m thinking that means me”). 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 (which is not a work about the Bible), “All reasoning contains inferences or interpretations by which we draw conclusions and give meaning to data.” 

One might say, “Oh, but I’m talking about those pesky so-called ‘necessary inferences’ that aren’t really necessary.” I get it. Calling something necessary does not make it necessary, but that by itself does not mean that, therefore, inferences are somehow void. Everyone draws conclusions, whether necessary or not. I know that faulty conclusions can be reached. I know that people can abuse the process and make things say more than is warranted. But that doesn’t mean we throw out all reasoning, which relies on drawing conclusions from the available information. No one can avoid this. The question is whether or not the inferences are warranted, legitimate, and reasonable. They must not be contrived or forced. If you think an inference (conclusion) is unwarranted, then show why, but don’t disparage the reasoning process. You are inferring, too. 

Can a conclusion be binding? Well, it’s not the conclusion per se as if it stands alone, but the implication that stands behind what is being concluded. Is it really implied? If so, then we ought to conclude so. If the conclusion that is drawn is what God intends, then the conclusion simply represents what God is communicating as His will. I’m not saying this is always easy. Interpretation is sometimes tough. Still, if you think anyone today, including yourself, should be a Christian, then you accept that at least one conclusion (and what stands behind it) is binding on everyone else. How so? Well, did you read your specific name in Scripture that lead you to become a Christian? If not, how did you reach the conclusion that you, personally, ought to be a Christian? On what basis do you conclude that anything ought to be applied to you while others things do not apply? We cannot answer these without inferring from the available data. 

Now if someone wants to argue about this, and say, for example, that the only thing we can “bind” are commands, then I will simply ask you: 1) how did you reach that conclusion? and 2) how do you know which commands are for you and which aren’t? 

All reasoning contains inferences. Let’s learn to do it properly, cautiously, and with a view toward knowing and doing God’s will. 

Doy Moyer