Command, Example and Inference – How Jesus Reasoned from the Scriptures (1)

by Shane Scott

I grew up in a wonderful neighborhood with lots of great families. Since there were several kids my age on our street, summer nights were filled with all kinds of games. Kickball – dodgeball – baseball – you name it, we played it. The only problem that ever arose was when we disagreed about the rules. Was it three foul balls and you’re out or four? The worst arguments broke out when it appeared that someone was simply making up the rules as they went along purely to suit their own purposes. That quickly led to a frustrating end to the fun.openbible3

As I grew up, I also heard many sermons addressing the question of how to establish authority. “We can establish authority three ways: direct statement or command, approved example, or by necessary inference.” These ideas sounded great, but where do they come from? Who says that we should establish authority by these principles? Is this just another example of making up the rules to suit our own purposes?

I don’t get around a lot, so I am hesitant to make many broad assertions about trends, but it seems to me that many Christians are questioning this framework for establishing authority. For some, these concepts are an artificial grid superimposed on Scripture to make it mean what we want it to mean. For others, this three-fold foundation for authority smacks of legalism and distorts the Christ-centered message of grace into just another legal code. Maybe for some it is the relic of a by-gone era of “Church-of-Christ” teaching.

For example, one author has written:

The New Testament nowhere tells us to follow some interpretative system of commands, examples and necessary inferences. Those terms and that approach spring from Scottish philosophy and the English common law. They might be useful at some time, but the Bible does not teach them or require them. Instead, it assumes that a person with a true heart set on pleasing God will be able, with the Spirit’s aid, to read the Scriptures prayerfully and to discern God’s leading day by day and moment by moment (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 1:16-17; Col. 1:9-12; 2 Tim. 2:7; Heb. 13:20-21; 1 John 2:27).

He continued:

 The New Testament Scriptures (which the early church did not even have for several decades) never claim to be a constitution or detailed pattern for all areas of church life…The earliest church’s pattern was Jesus himself. It did not somehow replace Jesus as the pattern for the church during successive generations.

A few years ago, I saw these statements on an internet discussion board:

Yes we need God’s authority. But command, ex, necessary inference wouldn’t hold up in a court of law. It is flawed and inconsistent in its application. I don’t read my Bible with that filter. The argument for authority isn’t laughable, the hermeneutic is, and yes it should be thrown out…I think that we are to be Christ followers. That being said, if Jesus did it or talked about it, then we can do it… So my means of establishing authority is simple. If the principle is found in Scripture, we have freedom to apply that principle.

If these statements are representative, then I think I can summarize the concerns about command, example and inference as follows:

  • “Command, example and inference” is a recent human (“Church-of-Christ”) construct and not a biblical method of discerning God’s will.
  • “Command, example and inference” are often inconsistently applied and reflect a legalistic mindset.
  • “Command, example and inference” should not be our pattern – Jesus should be our pattern.

Over the next few months I want to spend some time thinking through these issues with you. In this article, I want to directly address the notion that “command, example and inference” is of recent “Church-of-Christ” vintage. My first contention is that everyone reasons from these sorts of premises whether they are called “command, example and inference” or not. To illustrate, I have been doing some research on Islam over the last couple of years. Muslims follow the teachings recorded in the Quran as well as the stories about the life of Muhammad recorded in the hadith. And as one Islamic site explains, Muslims should also look for “what is understood as a necessary implication of the Text…any meaning that is not mentioned explicitly, but that is required for the Text to be meaningful.” So Muslims reason from the commands of the Quran, the example of the hadith, and inferences from the text.

But I think the most telling way to illustrate the ubiquitous nature of these forms of reasoning is to look at the arguments against them. If you object to “command, example and inference” by using commands, examples or inferences, you have defeated your own case. Consider this comment again:

Yes we need God’s authority. But command, ex, necessary inference wouldn’t hold up in a court of law. It is flawed and inconsistent in its application. I don’t read my Bible with that filter. The argument for authority isn’t laughable, the hermeneutic is, and yes it should be thrown out…I think that we are to be Christ followers. That being said, if Jesus did it or talked about it, then we can do it… So my means of establishing authority is simple. If the principle is found in Scripture, we have freedom to apply that principle.

It’s bad enough that this comment begins by arguing that “command, example and inference” wouldn’t hold up in a court of law when the only kinds of arguments courts can consider are from statutes, precedents, or inferences drawn from those statues and precedents. But even worse, the comment offers as an alternative the example of Jesus (“if Jesus did it”), the commands of Jesus (“or talked about it”), all the while drawing an inference (“if Jesus did it or talked about it, then we can do it”).

Similarly, the author I quoted above could only offer his counter-proposal for authority by eliciting information from the example of the early Christians, inferring what he believes the Bible “assumes” (= implies), and then bolstering his claim with scriptural references to commands given to Christians.

Some of the concerns I have heard about “command, example and inference” are legitimate, but these sorts of sloppy arguments do nothing to clarify the issues involved. They are self-refuting and only strengthen the basic validity of “command, example and inference.”

So how do we use these forms of reasoning while avoiding the pitfalls of legalism? And how do we use the word of God in a way that keeps Jesus at the center of our identity? My proposal is that we look to Jesus and follow His example of reasoning from the Bible.

Next time: The Most Important Command (Mark 12:28-34)