A tool that all Bible readers must use in their study of Scripture is human reason. Carl F. Henry defined reason as “a divinely fashioned instrument for recognizing truth” (God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 1. 225). This means that God reveals truth and reason seeks to recognize it. Human reason is not a “creative source of truth” (ibid), but is subject to divine revelation. Yet, theological formulation is not always a straight line from data to doctrine. As Rhyne Putman states, “The move from Bible to theology is both an art and a science” (When Doctrine Divides the People of God, 100). In light of this artistic work, then, we will inevitably draw some different theological conclusions.
Putman stresses that theological work often utilizes more adductive reasoning than deductive. This is an important philosophical distinction. Deductive reasoning occurs when the premises of an argument necessarily leads to its conclusions. An example helps:
Premise 1: All men are mortal.
Premise 2: Socrates is a man.
Conclusion: Socrates is mortal.
The first two premises are true and therefore necessarily lead to the final conclusion. Abductive reasoning, however, is “reasoning backwards.” It moves from effect to cause and tends to be a bit more like investigation than mathematics. This type of reasoning is used frequently in every day life. Crime scene investigators use it, doctors and scientists use it, and often parents use it as they seek to understand what their kids are doing/thinking. The key differences is that the conclusion is not a necessary result of the premises. An example:
Rule: babies cry when they need their diapers changed.
Case: your baby is crying and there is a bad smell coming from her room.
Result: the baby is upset because she needs a diaper changed.
Abductive reasoning is an inference to the best explanation. In this case the best explanation for the situation is that the baby is fussy because she needs a new diaper. Is that the certain explanation? No, there could be another possibility, but it is a probable explanation. Putman argues that theological work involves far more adductive reasoning than either deductive or inductive.
His argument is founded on the fact that theological work is “reasoning backward” and involves more creative work than not. He writes:
The abstraction of theological content from the historically contingent writings and placement of such content in systems necessarily requires creative arrangement. Theology also involves reasoning backwards from scripture and going back and forth between biblical text and our conjectures about what they mean.(ibid. 104).
Theological work, then, is not merely arranging data from Scripture. In the words of David Clark, “Theologians…do not just summarize the Bible. They interpret the data of Scripture” (To Know and Love God, 51). Theological work, then, has an artistic and creative element to it and we participate in the interplay between theorizing about doctrine and observing Scriptural data.
Scripture does not present us with a ready-made systematic theology. We must make inferences from the text about the best explanations of the data. Take for example the doctrine of church polity. Nowhere in Scripture is the governmental structure of the church explicitly defined. We are forced to make hypotheses based on the data in the text. Sometimes this adductive reasoning is obvious and easy and the conclusions are those generally agreed upon by others. At other times, however, the results are not so uniform and simple. Semiotician Umberto Eco advanced discussions about adductive reasoning by noting that there are four types: (1) overcoded, (2) undercoded, (3) creative, and (4) meta-abduction. A brief discussion of each type will allow us to see how our different reasoning leads to theological disagreement.
Overcoded Abduction – This is a type of reasoning that more or less states the obvious. Here we draw conclusions based on certain “rules” or “codes” that are generally recognized by all people. Putman notes that when a friend comes in with wet hair and wet clothes we reason that they have had contact with a liquid. We do this automatically because we know innately the rule that contact with liquid makes someone wet. In theological work, we use overcoded abductions when our conclusions arise from those universally recognized interpretations of Scripture. So, all theologians who read the text of Scripture plainly agree that Christ was raised to new life.
Undercoded Abduction – In this type of reasoning we have a group of potential solutions, each having their own relative probability. The interpreter, then, must choose between options. In this case there are some rules or codes that the interpreter can point to, but they are not as universally recognized. Consider, for example, the warning passages in Hebrews 6. The text itself does not explicitly confirm or deny actual apostasy. We must draw our theological conclusion based on inferences from other parts of Scripture, other doctrines, and the overall context and content of Hebrews. There are already established rules or codes that help us wrestle with these texts but they are not universally agreed upon, and so we must choose between those rules or codes which say no true Christian can fall away, or those that state that someone can fall away. In many ways our theological systems leads us to undercoded reasoning. We make choices about interpretations based on which will fit with our preferred theological system (Calvinist, Arminian, Dispensational, Postmillenial, etc.). We choose from the codes or rules which best align with those systems.
Creative Abduction – In this type of abductive reasoning we are offering a new and innovative explanation of the data. Copernicus did this when he theorizes a heliocentric universe. When none of the available explanations of the data seem to provide a reasonable explanation then an interpreter may resort to creative abduction.
Meta-abduction – This is the type of reasoning which seeks to assess and evaluate our creative and undercoded abductions. Here we are assessing whether our theory is predictable, coherent, simple, and fruitful. We have to test adductive theories because they are not obvious and certain.
Why does reason lead to different theological conclusions? We come to theological disagreement because our reasoning as individuals is different. So, in some instances we make flawed deductive arguments. We make invalid syllogisms or use other logical fallacies in the formulation of our dogma. At other times, we come to different conclusions about what best explains the data. So, we draw different inferences. At still other times, our individual creativity leads to different solutions to interpretive challenges. Finally, all human reasoning has limitations. It is not divinely inspired, as Scripture is, and it is conducted by fallen human beings and therefore we can never perfectly reason. So, all that to say that we reason differently and therefore we may come to different conclusions about matters that are not explicit and obvious in Scripture.