Interpretive Minimalism and “good and necessary inferences”

I’ve taken to referring to my self as an “interpretive minimalist,” a term I’ve not seen anyone else use (and I didn’t bother to google it to see). This perspective keeps me from being too arrogant in my interpretations and encourages me to keep asking why the other side believes what it belies and how they got to their conclusions.

My “interpretive minimalist” perspective is largely the result of my realization that many of the propositions taught as doctrine are really deduced from our theological systems (and everybody has a system, even, or especially, the ones who say they don’t).

I realize that some of these propositions may very well be “good and necessary inferences” but two things strike me about that statement (which I realize is entirely permissible in terms of Reformed exegesis, and that’s partly my point):

What is ”good and necessary” to one person may not be so to another (just look at any internet discussion on exclusive psalmody or pedobaptism for proof of this).

Being able to say that something is a “good and necessary inference” is not necessarily the same as being able to say “the Bible says.”

Likewise, saying that one’s theology is  grounded in “good and necessary inferences” from the text of Scripture is not the same as saying that one’s theology or a theological proposition is grounded in the text of Scripture.

Now, I’m not saying we ought to be biblicists in the sense of only believing the things that are explicitly stated in the text of Scripture, but I am saying that accusations of biblicism really are subjective, aren’t they? And the resulting situation is a little odd since we supposedly believe and teach what Scripture reveals and teaches.

To use the examples above, pedobaptists see infant baptism as a “good and necessary inference” and point to the majority of Christians throughout Christian history who have practiced it.

Credobaptists, on the other hand, say that infant baptism is not a “good and necessary inference” and point to the example of Scripture.

But most people who believe in and practice exclusive psalmody do so because they see it as a “good and necessary inference.” Many exclusive psalmody people, however, are also pedobaptists but with regard to exclusive psalmody they are distinctly in the minority in Christian history so they point to the example of Scripture.

Ironic isn’t it?

The problem is that those who reject a given person’s (or denomination’s) “good and necessary inference” are often pejoratively labeled “biblicists” (as Michael Horton does in this article when talking about a pre-fall covenant of works) when the “biblicist” in question is simply trying to remain true to the text of Scripture as he or she understands it. And, they’re simply trying to choose the text of Scripture over the “good and necessary inference” which, I think we can all agree, is preferable.

Having said all that, I realize that sometimes we have to go with the “good and necessary inferences” because that’s the only answer we have. I’m not in any way suggesting we abandon the principle.

But if we admit that we are operating based on that, shouldn’t we also practice some humility toward brothers for whom these inferences from Scripture are not so “good and necessary”? I think so.

Also, as I hinted at in the first paragraph, I think there ought to be a further category: inferences from one’s theological system. This, obviously, is even further removed from the text of Scripture.

Much of what is taught as doctrine can be put into this category as well, for example, the pre-tribulation rapture, the pre-fall covenant of works (which granted may have more exegetical undergirding than some propositions, though I remain unconvinced).

My problem is not that people believe and teach these things, my problem is the lack of humility often present when some of these things are taught, along with the failure to understand opposing views as well as the uncharitableness often demonstrated toward the other side.

Having come from dispensational fundamentalism, I used to think they were the guilty party, but sadly, I see a lot of this arrogance and failure to listen coming from some contingents in the Reformed community as well. In fact, it seems some of my Reformed brethren are trying to erect a system and a set of standards as egregious as the fundamentalism I left. So much so that some of my Reformed brethren, and not just in the “young, restless, and reformed” movement, have out-fundamentalisted the fundamentalists.

And that’s just sad.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this in the future.

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About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
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