Disambiguation: What Do We Mean By “Biblical”?
The question of whether or not someone’s argument for their belief in a given doctrine is “biblical” is often asked without there first being an understanding of just what constitutes a “biblical” argument. Indeed, the question is asked before the question of just what one means by the word “biblical” is asked.
A “biblical” argument could refer to an argument copied verbatim from the Scriptures (e.g. Paul’s Sorites argument in 1st Cor 15). It could also refer to an argument that deduces a conclusion from biblical premises. It could even refer to an argument that inductively builds toward a general conclusion from Scriptural data.
So when we use the phrase “Biblical argument,” what do we mean?
Many times, the phrase is a polemical device meant to underscore one’s faithfulness or unfaithfulness to the system of theology revealed in the Scriptures. In such instances, the claim that one’s argument is “unbiblical” is an accusation of immorality. It is a euphemistic way of identifying one’s doctrine as anti-biblical and, therefore, the product of the fallen mind of man.
The Criterion of Judgment
Now that we have covered how the term “biblical” is used in the phrase “biblical argument,” we have to ask:
What is the criterion of judgment?
If the assertion “You have presented an unbiblical argument in defense of your position!” really means “You have presented an anti-biblical argument in defense of your position!” then the criterion of judgment is whether or not one’s argument comports with the systematic theology taught in Scripture. In this instance, the sheer volume of Scriptural quotations does not count in favor of one’s argument, but only the harmony of one’s argument with the teaching of Scripture.
If, however, the assertion “You have presented an unbiblical argument in defense of your position!” means “You have presented an inductively invalid argument in defense of your position!” then the criterion of judgment is the volume of Scriptural quotations that apparently support one’s position. One’s position is “biblical” if it has a sufficient number of Scriptural quotations to allow for an inductively valid inference that one’s position is the teaching of Scripture.
Finally, if the assertion “You have presented an unbiblical argument in defense of your position!” means “You have presented a deductively invalid argument in defense of your position!” then the criterion of judgment is the argument’s soundness (i.e. its theological and structural correctness). An argument is “biblical” if it validly deduces conclusions from Scriptural premises. This does not depend upon the volume of Scriptural propositions apparently supporting the doctrine in question, but simply upon one’s correct use of reasoning in regard to the propositions of Scripture and how they relate to one another.
To recap, there are three criteria that may be in play when one is seeking to determine the biblicality of an argument. These are:
- Systematic-Theological Harmony
- Inductive Inference
- Deductive Inference
From here onward, these will be referred to as STH, II, and DI.
Which Criterion is Actually Biblical?
Scriptural arguments, i.e. arguments used in the Scriptures by God and the authors of Scripture, demonstrate that arguments that are not anti-biblical (which is to say, arguments that are “biblical”) are deductive, not inductive. Christ, for instance, infers the continued life of the physically dead from the existential verb “I AM.” This is a deduction, and it requires only a part of one verse. Because the inference is valid, the doctrine is established as true.
Likewise, the apostles infer from the assertion “you will not allow your holy one to see corruption” that David’s words are speaking not of himself but of the Lord Jesus Christ. This, as well, is a deductive argument, and it requires only an assertion. Since the deduction is valid, the inferred conclusion stands.
While STH and DI provide us with a solid means of assessing the biblicality of one’s argument, II does not. Rather, II is susceptible to “the numbers game.” “The numbers game” is played by debaters when they attempt to argue their position by pointing to the sheer quantity of times Scriptural propositions allegedly supporting their position show up in the Scriptures. To give a brief example, among unitarian heretics Anthony Buzzard can be heard rattling off a myriad of Scriptural propositions using “the singular personal pronoun” as a defense of his unitarian monotheism. He accumulates all of the instances in which the singular personal pronoun is used of Yahweh in the OT and then proceeds to infer from this that God is unipersonal. We may also point to much of the argumentation of annihilationists which consists largely of accumulating all Scriptural references to destruction, death, burning, consuming, etc and then inferring from these references the conclusion that the wicked will be annihilated. Neither the conclusion of Buzzard nor the annihilationists follows from the stated premises, however, demonstrating that this way of arguing is adding to the clear teaching of Scripture.
Such arguments are unbiblical not because their premises are not drawn from Scripture, but because they are inductive fallacies that implicitly undermine the unity and closure of the theology of the Scriptures and, therefore, add to the clear teaching of the Scriptures. What is taught in Scripture is revealed either explicitly or implicitly; what is arrived at via induction is possibly neither implied nor explicitly taught in the Scriptures, despite the fact that one may have numerous Scriptural data seemingly supporting his position.
Consequently, the II criterion for judging whether an argument is or is not biblical is not a biblical criterion. In contrast to II, STH and DI are biblical criteria for determining whether one’s argument is or is not biblical. What matters is not the sheer volume of Scriptural data employed in one’s argument but how the data one presents is employed.
Soli Deo Gloria.