Logic and the Turtle on the Fence Post

Insight and understanding are interesting things.  If you’re like me, you can muddle along for ages not quite getting something, and then, in a flash of inspiration, everything makes sense.  Sometimes, what we may think of as understanding is not.  And sometimes, it is.

I remember one instance many years ago when I was a college student at Western Kentucky University.  It was evening, and I was walking down The Hill toward my dorm.  I had just passed the graduate college building attached to the main library, I was walking toward East Hall, just walking and thinking about the nature of God.  What if God is just an energy field, a cosmic force like in the movies?  What if we just tap into it, and become part of it?  You know, the silly musings of a silly college kid.

It would be easy to grab that concept and run with it, and use it as a dodge for dealing with all questions of religion: if God is energy, there must not really be good and evil, only positive and negative energies that must be balanced in some way.  It could lead to all manner of wild imaginings.  And then it happened:  I was struck with a violent fit of shaking, like I was suddenly the coldest I had ever been and was shivering not with small muscular contractions, but every long muscle was violently shortening for maximum effect.  I got it.  I got the message.  That was not the right strategy.  Whether it was merely my own subconscious reaction to a thought that I subliminally considered to be foreign and ultimately repulsive, or I was having some sense shaken into me by the very object of my musings, I will leave that to the reader to conclude.  I have my suspicions.  And I am thankful for that.

I am a middle child, the son of a preacher for the Non-Institutional Churches of Christ.  Like so many children of preachers (or elders or deacons for that matter), we are under extreme scrutiny and much is expected of us.  I know I must have been a significant disappointment for my parents, who probably expected me to dutifully submit to the gospel when I hit that magical age of 12, which is just about the right age for the non-scriptural “Age of Accountability” to kick in.  (I suppose it is a melding of James 4.17 with the story of Jesus in the Temple, in Luke 2.)  I found myself not quite able to do that, because so much just didn’t make sense to me.  I saw hypocrisy and church power plays and I couldn’t make Christianity fit with the actions of many of the Christians that I observed.  I saw the stark dichotomy of Heaven and Hell, and I was duly scared of Hell.  But I knew if I just obeyed out of fear of Hell, it could never be right.  I questioned a God who would consign anyone to Hell for not understanding.  I kept thinking, searching, wondering, trying to make some sense of it all, all through high school.  And college. And graduate school.  But God never gave up on me.  In fact, I think I was encouraged in many ways to really wrestle with faith in order to understand it.  On many occasions, I felt that God was watching over me.  Things happened, doors opened, opportunities and jobs fell into place to keep me moving ahead.

In graduate school, I spent a lot of hours in the basement Divinity library at Vanderbilt, looking for loopholes and faults with the whole scheme of religion.  The Bible must be terribly flawed, and I looked for evidence to support that.  But I tried to keep an open mind.  I read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, and the shell began to crack.  Here was reason, not superstition.  Here was logic and insight into the nature of the human condition.  I kept looking, listening, searching.  And then, I heard it.  And then the message made sense.  But it wasn’t just the message of fire insurance against Hell.  It was the message of real, genuine love, as delivered by John in his gospel and in his letters.  Perhaps one of the most influential passages to me then, and still is to me now, is found in I John 4.16-19:

“16 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.  17 By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world.  18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.  19 We love because he first loved us.”

The fog had lifted.  I got it.  I acted.  I have never looked back.

Since that time, I have been on a continuing journey not to find God, but to understand his mind and will.  For years, I kept pace with the Non-Institutional teachings.  I accepted the traditional means of determining authority: command, example, and necessary inference (CENI).  I taught it in classes and I preached it from the pulpit, but every time I did, something just didn’t feel right in the pit of my gut.  I had uttered the prescribed incantation as I was supposed to, but usually with a catch in my throat because part of me just didn’t buy it.  Commands are easy enough to grasp, and it’s usually easy enough to distinguish which commands are universal and which were meant for specific groups under specific circumstances (weekly collections notwithstanding).  Examples get harder to assess, and inferences made from examples and gleaned from dissected and reassembled texts are often so subjective that the old saying is quite true: put 10 Church of Christ preachers in a room and ask them to interpret a passage of scripture and you’ll get 20 different answers.

This particular means of interpreting scripture has been studied, analyzed, and found infallible by many thinkers on one hand, but flawed beyond practical usability by many others.  I’m somewhere closer to the beyond practical usability end.  I have read the arguments.  And I have seen people’s reputations attacked, characters assassinated, and then practically crucified because they would dare to question this highly revered but human invention that has become equal to scripture.

The arguments for the use of CENI usually revolve around the idea that these are the only three methods of communication and that each method provides equally true and valid conclusions.  However, an analysis that affirms that these are the only three methods of communication and that this is a self-evident fact provides the foundation for a logical tautology—a proposition that cannot be falsified because it is always true.

After years of wrestling with these questions, I had another of those, “I get it” moments.  Something struck me from out of the blue yesterday as I was typing a message to my father.  While I agree that these are valid means of communication, it is evident that each form of communication is variable and progressive in terms of its potential ambiguity. They are not in any way equal in their reliability.  Direct commands are the least ambiguous of the triad.  Examples obviously show how people did something, and if there is no direct condemnation of that action, the example is likely to be valid and approved.

Inferences are the most problematic of the three modes of communication because these rest on sets of assumptions that may or may not be true.  In logic, this can be easily demonstrated by the use of inferential syllogisms.  If the premises are true, the conclusion is more likely to be true, but not necessarily.  A classic example of a syllogism can be seen in the following: “All men are mortal. (true)  Socrates is a man. (true)  Therefore, Socrates is mortal.  (true)”  Here, the premises are each independently true, and the conclusion is also true.  The syllogism is valid because the conclusion is appropriately drawn from the premises.

Can a syllogism be based on true premises but lead to a false conclusion?  Obviously it can:  “All bats are mammals.  (true)  Cats are mammals.  (true)  Therefore, cats are bats. (false).”  The reasoning is invalid, here, and the conclusion is in error because it fails to recognize the correctly nested hierarchy of classifications.  Similarly, a conclusion drawn from false premises may be valid, but ultimately false.  Consider, “All Southerners are racist bigots.  (false)  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Southerner.  (true)  Therefore, Dr. Martin Luther King,, Jr. was a racist bigot. (false)”  In this case, the reasoning is valid, because the conclusion is logical given the premises.  However, the premise that all Southerners are racist bigots is obviously false, because many Southerners, both black and white fought the prevailing attitudes of racial inequality during the Civil Rights Movement and won great victories over institutionalized racism.  Therefore, the conclusion, while the product of a valid argument, is false because of its erroneous premise.

So, can we absolutely trust all inferences in religion as true because they may be based on valid arguments?  No, not if the premises are flawed or the conclusions do not necessarily follow from the premises.  Consider, the case in Acts 20, dealing with the timing of the Lord’s Supper observance.  “Christians are commanded to “break bread” as part of the Lord’s Supper memorial. (true)  Some Christians in Troas met on the First Day of the Week to “break bread.”  (true)  Therefore, we may observe the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week. (true)”  However, by placing an “only” in front of “observe,” we commit a logical fallacy of “affirming the consequent”—we limit the observance to one day when there are six others in a week, and we know from Acts 2 that Christians in Jerusalem met daily to attend the Temple together and “broke bread” “from house to house.”  Are we wrong to partake of the Lord’s Supper on the First Day of the Week?  No.  Can we condemn those who partake with greater frequency?  Not if we respect ALL scripture and allow one apostolically approved example to be the equal of—but not superseded by— another.

Another problematic point deals with the imposed silence of women.  In I Corinthians 14, Paul’s discussion of orderly worship deals with the practice and display of miraculous spiritual gifts.  At the conclusion of the discussion, where he has already said that a tongue-speaker without an interpreter must be silent, and a person who prophesies must be silent if another prophet receives a revelation, he turns his attention to the silence of women.  A similar situation is considered in I Timothy 2.  In each case, the focus appears to be on disruptive wives who do not show proper respect and submission to their husbands who may be teaching or prophesying.  The syllogism for the conventional understanding of this situation may look something like this: “All wives must be in subjection to their husbands (who are men). (true)  All wives are women. (true)  Therefore all women must be in subjection to any man. (false)”  Nowhere in scripture does it say that any woman must be in subjection to any or all men merely on the basis of gender.  Nowhere.  But wives are instructed to be subject to their husbands, to respect them and honor them.  The Greek words for “woman” or “women” in these passages are the same Greek words translated elsewhere as “wife” or “wives.”  By placing an appropriate translation into the passages, the sense is far less restrictive on unmarried women and widows.  Logically, how could a widow or an unmarried woman ask her husband at home about some question that arose in an assembly?  By making them ask some other woman’s husband, violence is done to the scripture by forcing an addition of a command directed to that specific class of people.

So, now that we can see how relatively simple logic may be applied to understanding even difficult situations, how can we improve our interpretation?  As we observed previously, command involves direct communication and should be the least ambiguous.  As a teacher, if I tell my students to work a problem set and turn in their work on a specific day, there is little room for misunderstanding.  However, the use of example becomes more ambiguous.  If I assign a problem and only show an equation with a solution, it may tell very little about how to actually solve the equation.  When an example is given, instruction usually accompanies it.  In my classes, when I introduce a new formula, I walk my students through a calculation so that they can see how each variable is used, and what effect each variable has on an outcome.  I give an example and explain the situation.  In the Bible, Jesus both instructed and exemplified what he wanted in terms of the observance of his memorial.  Jesus commanded baptism (command), and he also submitted to John’s baptism of repentance (example), even though he had nothing to repent of.  The whole genre of parables was to provide every day examples that could be applied to spiritual matters.  In many cases, Jesus told the parable/story and then made an application, providing both an example plus instruction.

But what about inference?  When we communicate, we do make inferences.  To paraphrase the famous author, Alex Hailey, when you see a turtle sitting on a fence post, you must infer that he had some help getting there.  Inference fills in the gap.  However, in order to ensure that our inferences are unambiguous and accurate when we communicate, we must ask the communicator to clarify his or her intent, and verify that our inferences are actually correct.  In fact, I had this very thing happen only today:  My wife had earlier asked me to make sure that I checked out how to do a particular set of exercises to help our son with his vision development program.  However, I thought she later told me pick up our daughter later, after she had picked up our son so that she could get him through his exercises.  I inferred that she wanted a quiet house to get the work done.  So, I went and ran some errands instead of coming home to observe the therapy techniques.  My inference was incorrect, because her intent was for me to be present for the exercises today.  It could have been corrected had I but asked for clarification.  Sometimes, we refer to this as “getting our wires crossed.”

Considering the logical syllogisms that we explored above, it is obvious that we can arrive at erroneous conclusions even given good premises.  With that in mind, how does this work for using inference as a means of determining scriptural authority?  Obviously, there are problems.  How can we ask for clarification?  How can we ask for verification of the validity of our interpretations?  We wind up having to rely on our own judgments, which may or may not be aligned with the intent of the communicator.  This is how two men of equal intelligence, character, and moral fiber can look at the same set of scriptures and arrive at different conclusions.  Neither will deny a command.  They may be in substantial agreement on examples.  But they may vary widely on matters of inference (kitchens, cooperation among congregations, one cup, Bible classes, head covering for women, located preachers, juice vs. wine in communion, etc.).

One of the consequences of inference is that it leads to extensions referred to as “expedients” to help us achieve some required goal or command.  The concept of the expedient has flourished despite the fact that the Regulative Principle (or “Law of Silence”) is invoked to prevent “additions.”  For example, Christians must assemble to worship.  Therefore, they must have a place to assemble.  In the early days, they met in houses, but where did they go when the congregations grew too large to meet in a private house?  We infer that they must have secured a larger meeting place, rather than divide into smaller groups to continue meeting in houses.  So, we infer that church buildings and the amenities associated with the comfort of the congregation are permissible, even though nothing is specifically authorized.  In fact, I recently read about one view of I Corinthians 11 where Paul’s condemning the church’s abuse of the love feast/Lord’s Supper is used to infer that the congregation was meeting in some place besides a home: “Do you not have houses to eat and drink in?”  While some may see this as perfectly logical, others may view this as quite a stretch.  If we need a place to assemble, some may think that we may need ways to get people there, and therefore a van or bus becomes an expedient.  Others consider this to be beyond authority, even though the same sort of reasoning was used to arrive at the conclusion.  Whose inference represents the limit of authority?  That limit now becomes a matter of opinion.

In virtually every instance of division among the churches of Christ, an inference has been at the root.  If inference is indeed a plausible means of establishing authority, then why has there been such division?  To place the blame for the error completely on the other guy is to proclaim our own infallibility.

Proponents of inference feel justified in its use, because this is so scientifically objective, so perfectly Baconian.  However, real scientific inference requires a dedication to real objectivity.  Conclusions should only be drawn if hypotheses are supported by experiments that use many subjects (the principle of replication) and experiments that may be repeated with similar results each time.  If I draw a conclusion using a single observation from an experiment, I would be a scientific fool.    And yet, we do that very thing with scripture, sometimes taking a single verse out of its historical and cultural context and inferring a principle, law or command that is seen as binding on all Christians for all time.  Similarly, I would be a fool to draw a conclusion from results that do not in any way correspond to the findings of other competent researchers who have repeated the experiment and achieved different results.  Again, we do the same thing on any number of issues that have split and divided us.

We are all products of our experience, and as such, we are affected by what we have heard, what we have seen and what we have learned.  In reality, very few people approach scriptures completely independently and completely without some form of bias.  Knowing this should make us consciously and conscientiously seek to set aside those prejudices.  The next time a preacher or teacher says, “There are three ways to establish authority: command, example, and inference,” or “tell, show, and imply,” ask a simple question: why?  Why would an all-knowing God who spared no expense in detailing the fine art of law-keeping to the Jews from the time of Moses until Christ hide the elements of the New Testament “pattern” like so many images in a hidden picture puzzle?  Why would he force us to rely on our own subjective inferences when it would lead not to the unity for which Jesus prayed, but a splintered, shattered, disarray of feuding factions?  Why would he purposely obscure his will for us?  So only a few would find it?

If the CENI method is truly from God, it should always lead to the same results.  Outside of direct commands, the interpretation of examples and the inferences interpolated from rationalizations to fit a pre-established bias almost always lead to a multiplicity of conclusions.  Are we as wise as God to accurately judge the hearts, minds, and motives of anyone who opposes our position?  We should understand that on any controversy, the church that is to the ideological right of where we find ourselves is condemning us for what we have concluded to be right and true.

Ultimately, grace is the only thing on which we can rely. Paul says in Ephesians 2.8-9, “8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9  not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” What if we make the right inferences and we get everything just right.  Paul says it’s only grace that saves us, through our willing, active faith.  And what if we make the wrong inferences, as carefully as we may have reached them…it’s still only grace that can make us whole.  That is not an inference, but a direct statement by an apostle.  In the end, inference as a method of establishing authority is the weakest of the traditional triad.  And that’s the only inference I’m truly comfortable in making.

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5 Responses to Logic and the Turtle on the Fence Post

  1. Mike Rosser says:

    An excellent contribution to this thorny discussion.

  2. Ken Green says:

    Writing on the same subject, I would have written the same article, but not nearly so well.

  3. Pingback: A Pause to Reflect on Reaching 100 Posts | the trail is the thing

  4. Pingback: Racism III: E Pluribus Unum | the trail is the thing

  5. Dawn Tucker says:

    It’s interesting to note in Revelation, as the problems within several first century churches are aired, no church is told to break fellowship with any other, to declare another church unworthy of being called a church “of Christ,” in spite of some very serious internal issues.

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