Ideas have consequences. Those consequences may be traced in history, culture and the lives of individuals. How we think and what we assume shapes our view of the world and life in it. Consciously or unconsciously, people live under the influence of ideas formulated by others. To think biblically we need to know how to handle God’s Word. For the Bible to have a consequential influence on our faith and life we must know how to apply the implications of what we read. By consequences we don’t just mean practical influence. Consequences are also truths that necessarily follow from verses of Scripture even if they are not explicitly stated in them. We actually need to know how to arrive at these in practically applying Scripture in our lives. Coming to understand the Bible’s teaching in this way is something that we all do. It’s also the way in which Christ Himself used Scripture. But it needs some explaining, so let’s consider it further.
It may seem technical but it is a matter of daily importance for us all as to how we read the Bible and put into practice. It’s easiest of course to explain a Bible truth by just giving one or more proof texts. It’s always clearest when we can find a verse that clearly states, commands, forbids or by example approves something. But there can be important truths where this is not possible. For instance, what the Bible teaches about the Lord Jesus Christ. He is one person who is truly God and truly man. Yet these two whole natures are distinct and not mixed together. We will not find a Bible verse that states all of this. Instead we have to draw together the teaching of various Bible passages in order to find the truth that necessarily follows from them.
In this we are not imposing something on the Bible that isn’t there. Instead, we are drawing out the meaning that is truly contained but not explicitly stated in the text. We are only making explicit what the Bible has made implicit. We need this in order to understand what the Bible teaches about what we should believe and what God requires of us. For instance, if someone wanted to believe that matter is eternal we would show them how Genesis 1:1 teaches that it had a beginning and only God is eternal.
This is how the Lord Jesus used Scripture in Matthew 22:29-32. Christ’s charge against the Sadducees is not that they reject the express statement of Scripture but rather the necessary inference from Exodus 3:6 (cf. 3:1-10,12). In John 10:34 he quotes from Psalm 82:6 to draw an inference from a passage that does not expressly state His point. Another example is in Matthew 19:4,5 where Christ, quoting from Genesis 2:24, is being questioned on the matter of divorce. The text says nothing about divorce but Christ is drawing out a necessary inference concerning it. Other examples can be given such as Matthew 12:3-4 and John 7:23. It is also the way in which the apostles interpreted Scripture (Acts 2:25-32; Acts 13:35-37; Acts 17:2-3; 1 Corinthians 15:27 and 45; 1 Corinthians 9:9-14. The Westminster Confession of Faith refers to this method of using Scripture when it says:
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture
The consequences inferred from Scripture must be legitimately drawn from Scripture. Comparing with the rest of Scripture helps to prove this. They must not be forced and arbitrary but something that follows logically. They must sufficiently and strongly prove the conclusion to be necessary. George Gillespie was one of those who helped compose this statement in the Westminster Confession. He points to the examples found in Scripture (as seen above), But he also explains further what is and (importantly) what is not meant by necessary consequence.
1. Necessary Inferences from Scripture May be Disputed
Good and necessary consequences from Scripture are not just conclusions that no one will dispute. If we embraced this principle of indisputable consequences, we would have to renounce many necessary truths which the Reformed Churches hold against the Arians, Anti-Trinitarians, Socinians, and Roman Catholics. This is because the consequences and arguments taken from Scripture to prove them are not accepted as good by the opponents.
2. Necessary Inferences from Scripture Are Not Trusting in Reason
We do not assert that human reason drawing a consequence from Scripture can be the grounds of our belief or conscience. The argument is made by human reason. But the consequence or conclusion itself is not believed nor embraced by the strength of reason. Rather it is because it is the truth and will of God.
3. Necessary Inferences from Scripture Use Sanctified Reason
There is a distinction between corrupt and renewed reason. It is not the same as natural reason arguing in divine things from natural and unregenerate principles, experience and the like. This is reason captivated and subdued to obedience to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). It judges divine things not by human but by divine rules and Scriptural principles no matter how opposed they may be to the wisdom of the flesh. Only sanctified reason will be convinced and satisfied with consequences and conclusions drawn from Scripture in things which concern the glory of God and spiritual matters.
4. Necessary Inferences from Scripture Differ from Good Inferences
The consequences drawn from Scripture are of two sorts. Some are necessary, strong and certain. Others are good consequences and prove something is consistent with Scripture although another thing may be also proved to be consistent with the Scripture in the same or another passage. These good inferences have very great use in a wide variety of things but for the present I speak of necessary consequences.
5. Necessary Inferences from Scripture Demonstrate the Bible’s Sufficiency
If we say that necessary consequences from Scripture cannot prove something to be required by God, we are inconsistent with the infinite wisdom of God. God is infinitely wise, and it would be blasphemous to maintain that anything can be drawn by a certain and necessary consequence from His holy Word which is not His will. This would make the only wise God as foolish man who cannot foresee all the things which will follow from his words. We must therefore maintain that it is the mind of God when something necessary follows from the Word of God.
6. Necessary Inferences from Scripture Avoid Absurdity
Various other great absurdities would result from denying necessary inferences from Scripture. How can it be proved that women may partake of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper unless we prove it by necessary consequence from Scripture? How can it be proved that this or that Church is a true church and its ministry a true ministry, and the baptism administered true baptism? No explicit Scripture will prove it, but necessary consequence will. How will this or that individual believer believe from Scripture that the Covenant of Grace and its promises belong to him in particular? Will Scripture prove this otherwise than by necessary consequence? Necessary consequence from Scripture will prove all this, but explicit Bible verses will not. Fasting and thanksgiving on this or that occasion is similar, God calls us to these duties and it is His will that we perform them. But this cannot be proved from Scripture except by necessary consequences.
Many Christians are good at working out what the words of Scripture mean but not always what they require of us. Sermons can also do more explaining than applying sometimes. If we want to understand and defend the whole counsel of God we need to be able to draw necessary inferences from Scripture. We cannot have a right understanding of what the Church should believe, how it should worship and be ordered without necessary inference. Neither can we understand how we are to live to the glory of God without searching the whole of Scripture and comparing its various parts.
By Good and Necessary Consequence by Ryan M McGraw (Reformation Heritage Books) is a helpful guide in this area. McGraw begins this work by noting the biblical foundation of the principle. He shows how it was used by some writers from the past. He also deals with the most significant objections to this principle. He treats the need for ‘necessary consequence’ in four major areas of theology, and concludes with certain practical applications that impact the Christian life and Church. More information here.