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The Apostles and Hermeneutics

Originally Published in Truth Magazine
(XXXIV: 18, pp. 545, 565 September 20, 1990)

Some brethren have decided that the old way of establishing Bible authority (precept, example and necessary inference) needs to be discarded for a new way of determining God's will for us. They seem to think that this method of interpretation originated in the Restoration Movement, is a church of Christ tradition, and needs to be rejected. The fact is that this has always been God's way of communicating His will to mankind, and has always been men's way of communicating with one another.

In a previous article, we showed that Jesus used this hermeneutic. Now, let us study the example of the apostles of Jesus, and other inspired men, and see how they established God's will. 

The classic New Testament chapter on Biblical hermeneutics is Acts 15. Some Jewish believers were teaching the Gentiles, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1). God could have given a direct revelation for them to quit teaching that doctrine, without any explanation of why the doctrine was not true, but He did not do that. Instead, the Holy Spirit showed how differences should be settled.

Peter's speech is first recorded (Acts 15:7-11). He reminded them of the example of Cornelius (Acts 10). When he was told to go to the house of a Gentile, he took six Jewish brethren with him, evidently as witnesses (Acts 11:12). As Peter was preaching to Cornelius and his household, "the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also" (Acts 15:45). The purpose of this is given when Peter is called on the carpet in Jerusalem for going "to the uncircumcised" (Acts 11:3). Peter recounted this event to those Jewish brethren and "when they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life" (Acts 11:18). At the house of Cornelius, Peter drew a necessary inference - that the Gentiles could be baptized (Acts 10:46-48). At the Jerusalem conference, he used the example and then drew this conclusion: "Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?" (Acts 15:10).

Paul and Barnabas then spoke, though their speeches are not recorded, and "declared how many miracles and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles" (Acts 15:12). Those examples and the necessary inference proved that Gentiles were accepted by God without being circumcised.

James then spoke and quoted the prophet Amos (Acts 15:13-21; Amos 9:11,12). He said the promise to "rebuild the tabernacle of David…So that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who are called by My name" had been fulfilled by the Gentiles hearing and obeying the gospel. That was a precept (statement of fact) that was applied to the issue at hand. Then, his necessary inference was, "Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God" (Acts 15:19).

We learn from command that elders are to be appointed in every city (Titus 1:5), but we learn from example that elders were appointed in every church (Acts 14:23). We learn from example that the Lord's supper is to be observed on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7), and the necessary conclusion from that is weekly. We learn from command that we are to assemble in order to exhort one another to love and good works (Heb. 10:24,25). We necessarily infer that a place to assemble is authorized. 

There is nothing new about precept, example and necessary inference. The first verse in the Bible has a statement of fact and two necessary implications. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." That statement of fact implies first that God exists and second that He had the power to create. Neither is specifically stated, but are just as true as if they were mentioned.

The rejection of pattern authority is the rejection of the Bible as the source of authority. The apostles in Jerusalem did not ask the Judaizers how they felt about admitting Gentiles into the church without circumcision, or what they felt Moses would do in their situation. They appealed to precept (statement of fact), examples and necessary inference. That hermeneutic is as old as Scripture, but the new hermeneutic is a rejection of Scripture and is simply old modernism in new clothing.

Originally Published in Truth Magazine
(XXXIV: 18, pp. 545, 565 September 20, 1990)