The Parameters of Meaning: Rule 2

While in this article I talk about “induction,” “deduction,” and “abduction,” please understand that I use these terms quite carefully.  Although not common in the literature, these terms may help the reader of Scripture become more aware of how he is reading and interpreting the text – at least at a basic (though important) level.  I should say that these twelve “rules” are designed to identify meanings which can be confidently seen in the wording of the biblical text, while excluding those interpretations which are forced onto the text.  These posts should not be seen as a replacement for the better hermeneutics and exegesis manuals.

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 1

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 2: Induction and deduction are inescapably linked (via retroduction or ‘abduction’), but induction is always prior to deduction. Never ask “But what about?” questions till you know what the text actually says!

a. “But What About…?”

When a person asks “But what about this….?”, it should indicate, in an ideal world, that they had paused long enough in their conversation with themselves to listen to what was being said to them.  Misunderstandings often occur because we fail to listen carefully to what has just been said.  Perhaps we do this because of some animus against the speaker, or against the subject he or she is talking about.  Perhaps it is because we think that the person talking ought to stop talking and listen to the sound wisdom we wish to benefit them with?  Or perhaps we believe that if they had read what we have read they wouldn’t be saying the things they are saying?

There are numerous reasons for not paying proper attention to what is being said to us, but there really is no excuse.  And when the Speaker is the Holy Spirit through the Holy Scriptures our ‘listening’ needs to be especially keen and attentive.  Any “But what about…?” questions we may have, better not arise before we have heard what God is saying to us!

When dealing with members of cults like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, one often meets up with this phenomenon.  Pointing them to Ephesians 2:8-9 and actually getting them to consent to its wording can be a long and difficult process.  Often it will involve them trying to dodge Paul’s words with the  question, “But what about James 2:14 & 17?”  It may take a concerted effort to persuade them that you will examine James 2 after you have analyzed Paul’s point in Ephesians 2.   And even if you have managed to get their finger out of James and keep it in Ephesians it will often be the case that you will feel the warmth of their recalcitrance as you ask them to explain “by grace, through faith; not of works…”

It is understandable to get the negative vibe from a JW to the biblical text.  It is more surprising to experience the same kind of resistance from true Christians.  How many times have I been teaching in a chapter of the Bible and have had to ask someone who has just asked one of these “what about…?” questions to wait until we have seen what the passage actually says!

For example, I may be in the middle of 1 Thess. 4:13-18 and inevitably I will hear “what about the pre-trib rapture?”  I may at that time tell them to wait, but add that the passage itself does not say anything about the timing of the rapture.  We need to ascertain first what it does say, and then, maybe we can fit its contribution into a wider theological argument in favor of the pre-trib position.  We must, however, be aware that this theological framework is not itself necessarily wrought out of exegesis (a matter to be addressed in another ‘Rule’).

So what is to be done?  Rule 1 is a good place to begin.  We ask, “what does it say?” not “what does it teach?”  But there will always be people who do not read it the way we read it.  We need to make a closer inspection.

b. Induction?

I remember when there was a lot of fuss over inductive Bible study (before Kay Arthur!).  In our exegesis of Bible texts we wanted to be inductive.  Induction involves moving from the particular to the general.  In exegesis it might be related to the process of determining sentence meanings and moving out to try to understand the function of the sentence or verse in the argument of the author.

Mention “induction” within earshot of most hermeneutics profs and they will likely run screaming from the room…But when dealing with a passage; and particularly a doctrinal passage, one needs to concentrate on what is being said.  I fully agree with Gordon D. Fee that,

“exegesis is primarily concerned with intentionality: What did the author intend his original readers to understand?” – New Testament Exegesis (Revised ed.), 27. 

Yes, and we cannot take one step along the path if we do not know what the text SAYS.  It may mean one of a number of things (i.e. there are ‘parameters of meaning’).  This is all I mean by the word “induction.”  I do not equate it, therefore, with any naive scientific approach to the text.  Neither do I want it confused with any individualistic devotional methods of reading Scripture.  I just mean that the first step in exegesis is to determine what is being said.

When John writes, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 Jn. 1:8), we are not free to make him SAY anything we want him to say.  We have to deal with what he SAYS!  That means we have to know what he says.  For many people, this is not easy to do (as per the impatient pre-tribber above).  There are cherished doctrines and proclivities to defend.  Nevertheless, God should be heard!

1 John 1:8 is an easy example.  There are other more difficult passages.  But we must listen to each word and each sentence before relating it to the broader context.  Then moving on to follow the argument of the writer.  That is what I mean by “induction.”  Feel free to choose another term if you wish.

c. Enter Deduction

By “deduction” I mean trying to understand a text by relating it to other ideas, especially theological ideas.  Deduction goes from the general to the particular.  If the premises are right, the conclusion follows inevitably and irresistibly.  However, too often our deductions (or deductive inferences) put their foot in the door before they should.  We may read 1 Thess. 4:13-18 and “see” the pre-trib rapture there!  But that is an inference we are putting on the text.  It may be a correct one, but we should be aware of what we are doing!

A glaring example of premature deduction is making the “leaven”  of Matthew 13:33 the Gospel.  It may indeed be the gospel.  But then again, it may not!  To declare dogmatically that Jesus is “clearly talking about the spread of the gospel” without considering the alternative negative connotations of “leaven” is to declare oneself a poor interpreter.  This illustrates why our deductive inferences must be based squarely on what is in the text.  Or, in our terminology, “induction” (examining the particulars) ought to go before “deduction” (formulating a meaning).

d. Abduction and the Hermeneutical Circle

Nevertheless, it is not possible to completely isolate the one from the other.  This introduces the subject of abduction.  Although it is seldom come across, the concept of “abduction” or “retroduction” is most helpful to keep in mind.  In philosophical parlance “abduction” involves testing a viewpoint or truth-claim to see how well it holds up.  It is a form of verificationalism.  One is trying to find the best “fit” for the facts one has before them.  This is done by comparing what is said to its possible meanings based upon continual re-readings and rumination upon biblical truth.

Possible meanings of “leaven” in Matt. 13:33 are “Gospel” or “evil.”  Possible meanings of, say, John’s words in John 3:16-17 would include “God loved the elect so much that He sent Christ to die for them, because it is not His will that the elect perish”; or, “God loved the world of rebellious sinners so much that He sent Christ to die for them, because it is not His will that they perish.”  Again, it might mean something like, “God loved the world of sinners so much that He sent Christ to die for them, because it is not His will that those who believe perish.”  Then these possible meanings are tested against things like contextual clues, lexical definitions, other texts (for and against the proposal), etc.  In this way there is interaction between text and theology.  The crucial thing is that ones theology be not allowed to determine a final meaning ahead of time.

This is similar to what is known as the “hermeneutical circle” (or spiral).  This view, which in the wrong hands can lead to relativism, states that the text is to be understood as part of the whole, while the whole must be understood in light of its texts.  As the reader moves backwards and forwards from one to the other a growing sense of meaning develops.

When all is said and done, there is a procedure.  although no one comes to the text of Scripture neutrally, it is possible to shut oneself up enough to listen to what is being SAID.  After that there are possible meanings which can be thrashed out via an ongoing process of abduction.


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4 comments

  1. Grace be to You for the Second Rule! Dr. Ramm would be pleased. I haven’t encountered
    thoughts like these since the late 70’s. They still hold true. Thank You for publishing this on
    the web! So many do not know the value of this teaching!
    God’s speed. John G.

  2. Hi Paul, I have been reading your site for a few days. I must say that I love it. The articles are well-founded and the comments are extremely enlightening. Rules of Affinity and now this. Definitely going to make use of this often. A perfect example of reading into scripture is the parable of the Buried Treasure in Matthew. For some reason people think the treasure is the Gospel, it is not. It is us. We are the Treasure.

    Not sure if you still reply to old posts but thanks again for all the awesome work you are doing.

    1. Hi Philip,

      Your comment must have got lost in the shuffle!

      I appreciate your encouragement. I’m sure I am not right all the time, but my goal is to encourage believers to believe that God says what He means.

      God bless you and yours,

      Your brother,

      Paul H.

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