June 6, 2012

Theological Inferences: Be Careful When Reaching Beyond the Bible

     When Scripture makes a theological claim, it is incumbent upon Christians to affirm that claim. However, the theological task is never a matter of merely repeating Scripture (though we should be doing that more than we do!) The task of theology includes speaking to people today about the coherence of the truth claims made in Scripture. Part of the difficulty in the theological task is that different theologians choose to speak in different ways about the coherence of biblical theology. These competing ways of speaking theology arise due to the nature of one of the necessary, though problematic tools that we employ: theological inferences.
     Let us begin with a relevant example. For instance, when Scripture speaks about human responsibility and God holding people accountable for their attitudes and actions, most theologians automatically posit a doctrine of "free will." Scripture itself speaks of the human constituency in terms of "spirit," "soul," "conscience," etc., but "free will" does not appear to be an explicit biblical category for humanity. "Free will" is thus a theological inference that derives from the theological task. Such theological inferences may be useful as ways to clarify and categorize our thoughts about God and His creation, but they should be carefully used. A theological inference may be true, and may be in some way based on Scripture, but it still remains a human theological inference rather than a theological claim explicitly affirmed in Scripture.
     "Free will," which is, in my opinion, a legitimate theological inference, very often becomes part of the theological framework that theologians attempt to construct. Personally, I have tended to shy away from using it too much, though I freely affirm my fellow theologians in their use of the term. Why do I personally shy away from its heavy use? Well, because once you have one theological inference, you then must relate it to other theological claims and inferences. Why do I then affirm its use? Well, because we must engage in theology if we are to be faithful to the Word and the task of preaching, and there is little doubt that the term is helpful to many preachers.
     Let us dwell upon the first point--the personal reticence to use some theological inferences too heavily--a little more. Again, we appeal to the example of "free will," though there are many such inferences in theology. Once a theologian has posited "free will," he may feel compelled to step beyond that and use the concept in more substantial ways. This is especially true in Western theology. Standing at the headwaters of Latin theology, Augustine of Hippo posited this human constituency of "free will." He then felt compelled to propose how human "free will" should be related to divine sovereignty, which is an explicit theological claim in Scripture. He also felt compelled to relate human "free will" with the problem of the Fall of humanity into sin with Adam. Augustine then went on to make his answers foundational for his doctrines of infant baptism, the relation of nature and grace, etc.
     Inevitably, then, in order to maintain theological coherence, other questions are raised. For instance, how do you relate human "free will" with divine sovereignty and with the Fall of humanity? Well, some theologians see the human "free will" as determined by God from eternity, while others say it was corrupted in the Fall and therefore is no longer "free" per se, while yet others see it as created by God and as being involved in Adam's fall but that human beings retain their freedom even through the Fall. Of course, then these diverse theologians begin to argue and classify each other's ideas and each other with categories. Historically, in the Dark Ages names started being thrown about, such as "Augustinian," "Pelagian," "Semi-Augustinian," "Semi-Pelagian," and later, carrying on the medieval fascination with scholastic systems, "Calvinist," "Arminian," "Modified Calvinist," "Moderate Arminian," etc. Of course, there were also the terms "error" and "heresy" too often loosely scattered.
     Mind you, and here we are being overly charitable, these Christians at their best are each attempting to be responsible theologians and arrive at some conclusion to the matter in order to maintain the coherence of their theology. But also mind this, most departed from direct biblical claims and began to build theological inferences upon both the theological inferences of men and the theological claims of the Bible. This way of doing theology is also tied up heavily with Roman claims for the infallibility of councils and popes. This stacking of inference upon inference and claim upon yet more inferences and claims results in what we call systematic theology. (Yes, I do this type of thing for a living. And, yes, it is something that all Christians should necessarily do, for it is part of submitting our minds to God.)
     However, in spite of the necessity of systematic theology with its structure of inferences and claims, it would be beneficial if we remembered that the human theological inference and the biblical theological claim are not of the same status. When God's Word speaks, it is incumbent upon every Christian theologian to say, "Amen!" When a preacher speaks about God's Word, and the listener's heart is prompted by the Spirit to affirm that that too is God's Word, then say, "Amen!" However, not everything that a preacher says about God's Word may itself be God's Word. (Jesus warned us about this, and those noble Bereans in Acts 17 understood this well, for they judged Paul's preaching by the Word.)
     Part of what this theologian or that preacher says may be an inference, an inference to which my own heart has not been prompted by the Spirit to say, "Amen!" Why would I not say, "Amen!"? The possibilities are (1) that the Holy Spirit has not illuminated that biblical truth to me; (2) that I am in rebellion against God's Word and Spirit; or (3) that the theological inference is itself a human inference that God's Word really doesn't teach. How then do we arrive at the truth of the matter?
     In such cases, humility and community must, among others, step in and have their say. Humility with a theological inference means that I must recognize that my theological inference, such as "free will" or "effectual calling" or "prevenient grace," may have a tenuous biblical basis. Indeed, the latter two inferences strike me as being more difficult to establish than the inference of "free will." This means that there is actually a hierarchy of inferences: on one end are such doctrines as the Trinity and inerrancy, which are soundly based in the scriptural witness, and on the other end are such doctrines as effectual calling and prevenient grace, which are based upon a system of inferences and claims. As one of my fellow faculty said this morning, some theological inferences are legitimate as walls, but not as "load-bearing" walls. This is a very good point!
     Humility demands that I be careful with my theological inferences so as not to assert that they themselves are direct theological claims from Scripture. Humility demands that I be careful not to place undue weight on human inferences. Humility demands that I always hold my system, especially those sections heavily dependent upon inferences, in some degree of suspicion. I may believe in this way of reading Scripture, because I am convinced that it is constructed from the theological claims of Scripture and from legitimate theological inferences from Scripture. However, my theological system is still my response to Scripture, my human construction.
     Community also has a role as we discern the truths of Scripture. This is what Paul spoke about in 1 Corinthians 14 and what in the Radical Reformation is called the "law of sitting" (German Sitzerrecht, Latin lex sedentium.)  Let the preachers speak in an orderly way and let the others sit and judge. The Anabaptists were so willing to go into formal disputations with Lutheran, Reformed, and Roman theologians, because they believed truth was arrived at together, that the text would lead Christians together into the truth. Sadly, they were often wrongly accused as heretics and then horribly tortured. Thousands of them were burnt at the stake, drowned for being baptistic, and driven mercilessly from their homes by Catholics and Reformers alike. Christian history presents some horrible lessons for us, today, in these matters.
     In spite of the difficulties of theological construction and discussion, I still believe that we can arrive at theological truth through theological inferences as we listen to Scripture together, but only if we will orderly and patiently hear one another. This entails a willingness to return to Scripture in order to establish each and every claim and inference, alongside the freedom to reject inferences not firmly based in Scripture. This is where we are as Southern Baptists right now. I have longed to see us converse about theology and do this well. I pray we will. I am committing myself to listening patiently to others, even as I remember that theological inferences must be handled carefully, for with them we are reaching beyond the Bible. And reaching too far beyond the Bible is always a dangerous move.


  1. By the way, one of my colleagues in systematic theology informed me and our PhD seminar that I should write on the issue of theological inferences during the last semester. I felt a burden from the Lord that this should be done, too, but could not imagine when I would have the time or opportunity. I hope this precious man is pleased with the result and that the burden has been carried as far as the Lord wishes.

  2. I do not know if it satisfies your colleague, but it has certainly helped put a lot of things in perspective for this lay person in Oklahoma. Thank you, Dr. Yarnell. selahV

    1. That is one of my greatest goals, Mrs. Peterson: to serve our churches.

  3. You wrote, "In spite of the necessity of systematic theology with its structure of inferences and claims, it would be beneficial if we remembered that the human theological inference and the biblical theological claim are not of the same status."

    Excellent Baptist statement! And we need it!

  4. "An interpretation of Scripture is a derivative issue and not a primary one. Interpretation is not a hill on which to die." Judge Pressler, touching on these very issues, on page 158 in "A Hill on which to Die."

  5. Johnathan Pritchett12:53 AM

    I rarely use the words "free will" either. But I generally affirm the idea, depending on what is meant by it from the person using it.

    I do believe determinism of any kind to be wanting (there is a difference between God's determination and divine determinism), and compatiblism ought to be left to pseudo-moralizing atheists who misunderstand logic and reality rather than certain Calvinists (they really should drop the idea).

    Based on Scripture and experience existing in God's universe, the most I can infer is that I deliberate often and am volitional. I see no reason to believe my choices are predetermined, but see every reason to believe God predetermined my options and that He knows all outcomes (Proverbs 16:9 comes to mind off the top of my head).

    Most of this conversation here is more the task of philosophy than theology, but I find these inferences theologically useful.

    But "free will" is language I don't personally use, but can usually affirm when other people use it, depending on what they mean.

    What rings true most for me is the notion that we shouldn't be expected to affirm theological inferences. I tend to agree, but that actually gets muddy with Oneness Pentecostals, because arguments for the Trinity from texts like John 1, John 17, Phil. 2, etc. are slam dunk in Greek, but can be fuddled in English by opponents of the doctrine. But generally, this is spot on.

    Systematic theology is vitally important, but the systems that are best are generally the ones that say the least (with the least amount of inferences). After all, the Scripture WAS the theological explanation for the original audiences, not the theology derived from the Scriptures.

  6. Anonymous10:57 AM

    Thanks for the article. I have preached "free will" as taught by the Bible scenario of God's command to Adam giving the option to eat or not to eat.

    You help me with making a difference between "inferences" and "Scriptural claims."

  7. A. W. Mays10:59 AM

    The previous comment under "anonymous" concerning "free will" is from A. W. A. Mays, Pastor


Edifying comments always appreciated!