by Al Maxey

Issue #256 ------- July 13, 2006
To treat your facts with imagination is
one thing; to imagine your facts is another.

John Burroughs (1837-1921)

Doctrine of Negative Inference
Another Twist in CENI Hermeneutics

Before we get into the "meat" of this particular article, I am going to ask each of you to participate in a perceptive exercise. This is quite common in psychological studies, and will help you to better perceive what follows. There is a picture that appears to the left [hopefully you are all able to view this picture in your email edition of this article; if you can't, then click here to view the picture]. I would like for you to list as many FACTS about this picture as you can. Once you have done that, then make a list of all the ASSUMPTIONS you personally have drawn from your study of this picture. Please take some time and do this exercise before moving on with the below study.

The purpose of this simple, little exercise is to help us perceive the substantive difference between objective fact and subjective assumption. What we observe and what we subsequently infer from that observation are often worlds apart. In our efforts to interpret what we see, we frequently come to differing conclusions from those around us who observed the very same facts. This is normal. Another's assumptions are neither right nor wrong, necessarily ... they are just different. This is true even in our attempts to interpret a written text (such as Scripture), as we shall soon see.

Harold Geneen (1910-1997) once made the following very astute observation -- "The reliability of the person giving you the facts is as important as the facts themselves. Keep in mind that facts are seldom facts, but what people think are facts, heavily tinged with assumptions." It is a reality of human nature that we tend to assume much in the face of facts, and, quite frequently, these assumptions take on much more weight than the facts from which they were drawn. The danger of such an interpretive procedure is dogmatism. The facts themselves become mere incidentals; our inferences from those facts are what become determinative! This can be detrimental to Truth.

As I was preparing this article, my wife, Shelly, walked by the computer and I asked her what she saw in the above picture. She said, "The duck is about to smash his computer." That certainly seems to be a logical assumption. It may even be correct. We simply don't know. There is insufficient evidence. Equally possible is that the computer belongs to another. Maybe it's the computer of an enemy. It may not be his computer at all. Assumption. It's also merely an assumption that he intends to smash it. Maybe he has another motivation. Maybe he's protecting this computer. Perhaps there is someone off to the right (out of sight) who plans to do harm to the computer, or maybe steal it, and he is about to throw the mallet at this perceived threat. Is this possible? Certainly. But, it too is merely an assumption.

The duck has different colored legs. Fact. He stepped into a bucket of orange paint with his left leg. Or maybe he is afflicted with a genetic defect. Assumptions. The duck has glasses on. Fact. This is because he is near-sighted. It is because the light in front of him is too bright. It is because he doesn't want to get little pieces of the computer in his eyes when he smashes it to bits. Assumptions. The duck is white, and his jacket is blue with red on it. Fact. The duck is patriotic; a good American! Or maybe he just happens to be especially fond of the colors red and blue. Assumptions. There appear to be shadows to the left of the table and the duck's feet. The inference is that there is some light source to the right. But, is there? Could the black shape by the computer table be some dark colored carpet protection pad (I have one in front of my computer in my office)? As for the other "shadow," perhaps the duck simply stepped in ink or mud and tracked it in. Assumptions. We could go on and on and on, addressing such "weighty" issues as the motivation of the duck, his (or is this duck a her) mental state of being, etc. Facts and Assumptions! There has always been an interpretive tension between the two.

This is certainly true when it comes to the art and science of biblical hermeneutics. Few students of Scripture argue over the facts presented. The conflict arises over the assumptions, inferences and deductions drawn from those facts. Disciples of Christ came together on the first day of the week in Troas to break bread. Fact. Therefore, Sunday is the only day the Lord's Supper may be observed. Assumption. Paul speaks of making melody in our hearts. Fact. Therefore, musical instruments are sinful. Assumption. Sunday Schools, kitchens, fellowship halls, and homes for orphans and the aged are never mentioned in the New Covenant writings. Fact. Therefore, they are forbidden. Assumption. When the inferences of men (many of which do not even qualify as "necessary") are equated with fact, it is only a matter of time until they are elevated to LAW. These "laws" then become regulatory, with infractions impacting both fellowship and salvation. Brethren, the sad reality is: we have formulated a system of religion built upon human assumptions, and the end result is the fragmentation of the family of God into countless feuding factions.

The primary failing of the CENI hermeneutic [Command, Example, Necessary Inference] is the ENI portion of it. When we take selected examples from earlier disciples as to how they practiced their faith and lived by their convictions in the context of their own cultures, and take inferences drawn from those examples, deriving eternal LAW from such to be bound upon the rest of humanity until the end of time, we have doomed ourselves to failure before we even begin. I have written extensively on the failures of the CENI hermeneutic, and would simply refer the reader to the Archives for those studies. In this current article, however, I would like to explore briefly yet another aspect of Inference. It is known as the doctrine of Negative Inference.

First of all, let me hasten to point out that we all make daily use of inference in our interpretation of an event or text. That is a fact. Generally, such human assumptions are quickly recognized as being either valid or invalid, logical or illogical, necessary or contrived. For example, there is no place in the NT writings which actually says the two men who were crucified on either side of Jesus died. We assume they did, and I believe rightly so, but that fact is never stated. Thus, we might refer to this belief as a logical inference, and few would argue against it. Negative inference, however, is where an interpreter takes a statement of fact and then assumes the negative premise is equally true. For example: A man kicks a pit bull in the head and the dog attacks him. That is a statement of fact. The negative inference would be: If the man had not kicked the pit bull in the head, it would not have attacked him. Well, this may or may not be the case. Pit bulls are rather temperamental, after all. One may choose to attack you whether you kick it in the head or not. Another example: A woman jumps from the 31st floor of a tall building and dies on the pavement below. The negative inference is: If she had not jumped from the 31st floor of that tall building, she would not have died on the pavement below. Well, maybe, maybe not! She might have come down the elevator, walked out into the street, and been flattened by a Mack truck. The reality is -- negative inferences are largely conditional in nature. At times they are true; at times they are not. It just depends. Other factors must be considered before a valid conclusion can be reached. This is true of any assumption or inference.

One may wonder, "So, what's the big deal about negative inferences when it comes to biblical interpretation?" That is a fair question. There are some disciples who feel that certain doctrines have been established on no greater authority than a negative inference. For example, Paul S. Dixon did a study on what he believed to be the "Negative Inference Fallacy of Acts 2:38" (as well as certain other passages), declaring: "Those who insist that baptism is required for salvation rely heavily upon passages such as Acts 2:38 and Mark 16:16. In doing so, however, they fall into the negative inference trap." In other words, it is his conviction, and contention, that some are basing the doctrine of the necessity of immersion upon a negative inference rather than a stated fact.

Dixon has a point. It is a fact that the New Covenant writings nowhere specifically state that if a believer is NOT baptized that this believer is thereby eternally LOST. Such a conviction is based upon a negative inference from statements that declare, "He who believes and is baptized will be saved" (Mark 16:16). The question that comes before us, therefore, is simply this: may we correctly infer the negative of these statements connecting baptism and salvation? Dixon contends that we may not. The reality, however, is that negative inferences may be either true or false, with the determination depending upon additional evidence pertaining to the matter.

Like many who teach the doctrine of faith only, Dixon stresses the need to be immersed so as to validate one's faith, even suggesting one's salvation is in doubt if one refuses to obey this command. He writes, "Why, then, do both Acts 2:38 and Mark 16:16 link baptism so closely with belief and repentance as conditions, if not requirements, for salvation? It is probably to stress the importance of baptism as a command to be obeyed. It is so important, in fact, that if one were to claim he had faith, yet refused to submit to baptism, then there would be good reason to doubt his salvation." Dr. Albert Barnes, in his classic Barnes' Notes, concurs -- "It is worthy of remark that Jesus had made baptism of so much importance. He did not say, indeed, that a man could not be saved without baptism, but He has strongly implied that where this is neglected knowing it to be a command of the Savior, it endangers the salvation of the soul. Faith and baptism are the beginnings of a Christian life: the one the beginning of piety in the soul, the other of its manifestation before men, or of a profession of religion. Every man endangers his eternal interest by being ashamed of Christ before men."

Frankly, I must concur with these men to some extent. I do not believe one can base a doctrine upon a negative inference alone. Indeed, I do not believe doctrines pertaining to either salvation or fellowship should be based upon any inference alone. We know for a fact, however, that baptism is a command intimately linked with our salvation. "He who believes and is baptized will be saved" (Mark 16:16) is hard to get around. It is a statement of absolute fact. Even those who teach faith only can't argue against the need to demonstrate that faith through immersion in order to be saved. Both Dixon and Barnes concede this point. If one refuses to be immersed, then such a one "endangers his eternal interest." That's an understatement. The Hebrew writer stated it this way -- Jesus Christ "became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation" (Heb. 5:9). Dixon correctly states that baptism is a command. If obedience is essential to one's salvation, then immersion is essential to one's salvation (since it is commanded). James informs us that a faith that refuses to evidence itself in action is a faith that stands alone. He asks, "Can that faith save him?" (James 2:14). The answer is NO.

Thus, there is truly no need to make dogma of any negative inference associated with baptism. Indeed, as with any inference, negative or otherwise, there will likely be circumstances that invalidate the inference. The negative inference is: "He that is not baptized is not saved." Frankly, that is a false statement. What about infants? What about those adults with cognitive challenges (such as a 40 year old man with the mind of a child)? What about the person who dies on the steps of the baptistery just prior to being immersed (and, yes, it has happened --- see the Maxey-Hughes Debate)? What about those who have never heard the gospel, but who live to the best of their ability according to the available light given them by God (see Reflections #158)? Will there be some who are saved who have not been baptized? I believe we would all answer YES to this question. God's grace and mercy will make provision in some special circumstances. Thus, the negative inferred from such passages as Acts 2:38 and Mark 16:16 will not always hold up to reasonable scrutiny; therefore, such negative inferences simply cannot be elevated to the level of divine doctrine. This in no way, however, detracts from the positive command of these two passages. Therefore, we preach and teach the need for those who believe to be immersed; the exceptions we leave in the hands of our God, who will judge fairly and righteously.

I believe Dixon makes a valid observation in his Conclusion -- "If we are to be logically consistent and true to Scripture, then we must resist the temptation to infer the negation. When the Bible asserts the negation, then so should we. When the Bible does not affirm the negation, however, then neither should we." He doesn't take it far enough, however. He should have added: "When the Bible affirms the positive, then so should we!" After all, this premise is the very basis of our familiar "motto" within Churches of Christ -- We speak where the Bible speaks, we are silent where the Bible is silent. Scripture commands: Believe, repent, confess, be baptized ... so we preach and teach it. Perhaps we should all practice what we preach far more often when it comes to our interpretive philosophy! Unfortunately for the unity and harmony of the One Body, we too frequently do not! Sadly, there are countless examples of negative inference being elevated to the status of LAW. If we would "stick to the facts" of Scripture, and leave our many inferences and assumptions in the realm of personal preference, we would be infinitely closer to realizing the prayer of our Lord in John 17 for oneness. Maybe Sgt. Joe Friday (played by Jack Webb), on the old TV series Dragnet, had the best advice of all -- "Just the facts, Ma'am ... just the facts!"

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From Doug Mendenhall in Alabama:

Brother Al, Your weekly expositions have come to mean a lot to me, and I especially appreciate the gentlemanly tone you use, in contrast to a lot of the meanness circulating out there as Churches of Christ of different "flavors" try to come to grips with their past and their future. I believe you are doing God's work! Last year you were kind enough to tell your audience about my weekly newspaper column -- "Soul Food" -- in The Huntsville Times. It is still online each Friday. But I wanted to let you know that now there's a devotional book out, which is a collection of my favorite columns. "How Jesus Ended Up in the Food Court" will be in bookstores and the major online sites, such as, in about a month. Or, I have copies with me right now. I may be contacted at: Doug Mendenhall, The Huntsville Times, P.O. Box 1487, Huntsville, Alabama, 35807. The cost, including shipping, is $17, and be sure to tell me if you don't want the book spoiled by me signing it. Al, I don't mean to distract from your Reflections with a commercial like this, but I've received so many encouraging notes from your readers over the past year that I thought they might be interested. Thanks!

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

Dear Brother Maxey, First, let me say that your Reflections have been a profound blessing to me, and I believe that your insight and study of God's Holy Word will bring peace to multitudes as they are led to Christ. Praise be to our Father for men like you who are determined enough to take a stand against centuries of tradition, if need be, to uncover the Truth. I attended a Church of Christ with my parents practically from the cradle. At the age of thirteen I was buried with our Lord in baptism, and was taught, as are most within our faith heritage, that I would thereafter have to "live faithfully until death" in order to complete my own salvation and reach Heaven's gate. You can probably guess where this is going. Every time that I committed a sin in word, thought, or deed, I believed I was in danger of falling from grace. I would pray for forgiveness and "try to do better," only to turn around and fall again. Naturally, my unworthiness of God's divine grace loomed ever before me, and it slowly eroded the elation I had experienced following my obedience to the Gospel. It wasn't long before I realized that I would never be good enough, never be able to do enough for long enough, to obtain that crown laid up for me. I would read my Bible and pray into an increasing void, fearing God's retribution because I wasn't, in my view, being "faithful unto death." The bottom line was that I completely doubted my salvation and my standing with God; the very foundation of my faith was shaken to the core. I knew I wasn't good enough, and never would be, to see those pearly gates.

I had Baptist and Methodist friends who seemed to have so much more assurance of their salvation than I had. They had a peace and a joy in their everyday lives that I lacked. Their Jesus was Someone they talked to just like their best friend next door. They talked to Him about every detail of their lives and seemed to know Him intimately. They had a personal relationship with their Lord, and I did not. I had only fear and self-loathing. I began to question everything I had been taught, and yet at every turn I was told that what I had been given was the Truth, the only Truth, and that "the denominations" were in error. Not only was the Church of Christ the ONLY true church, but many members therein would be lost as well! All I knew was that my friends believed "once saved, always saved." I believed "once saved, always afraid." That wonderful "peace that passeth all understanding" seemed to be forever out of my reach, therefore I finally gave up. I concluded that since I could never be good enough, then what was the point. I finally just allowed the world to have me instead. Naturally, this proved to be my ultimate undoing, beginning a vicious cycle of sin, regret, sorrow, and still more fear. There was no doubt in my mind that God was tired of me; disgusted to the point of never hearing my pleas for forgiveness. I was completely lost.

Then I found your web site, and I began to delve into your many Reflections. I was astounded! You addressed so many of the questions and issues I had tortured myself with most of my life. For the first time, some things started to make sense. I was right all along. I wasn't good enough; never would be. BUT JESUS WAS. It hit me with the force of a sledgehammer. I could never do enough, but JESUS DID. Then something else occurred to me. The concept of a "faith/grace-based righteousness" grabbed me by the throat. I had always believed in a "works-based righteousness," and it had doomed me. Hope was reborn in my heart, and I have begun anew to seek God's face. You cannot know how much a part you have played in that hope, Bro. Maxey!! I don't know if anyone else has ever experienced anything like what I've gone through, but if so, I will tell them that I believe Our Father is working through Al Maxey to preach the true message of His grace and matchless love. May the Holy Spirit continue to guide you, brother. God bless you!

From a Minister/Elder in New Jersey:

Bro. Al, I am not sure if my view of Jonah fits within any of the four mentioned types of interpretation -- or all of them. My view of the book of Jonah is the same as my view of the rest of the Scriptures. We all seem to agree that Jesus taught by using parables. Telling stories to illustrate the message or point He was making. I view the record of the Scriptures as God's real life, real time dramatizations of His values, judgments, accountability, messages, love and forgiveness. Welcome home! How much time do you need to rest up from the vacation?!

From a Minister/Elder in California:

Brother Al, As I previously mentioned to you, your article "The Woman at the Well" [Reflections #252] has inspired me to create a sermon series titled: "Shocking! -- The People Jesus Hung Out With." That series begins tomorrow, July 9, 2006. I have borrowed thoughts, and some sentences, from your Reflections piece, and have so acknowledged in my sermon text. I thought you might like to see how I developed this first sermon from John 1:1-42. I have attached it for your reading pleasure. Thanks again for the inspiration. I'm really looking forward to the series. Please pray that God will use this series to challenge the good folks here at Placerville First Christian Church to DO like Jesus did. God bless!

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