Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
April 23, 1964
NUMBER 50, PAGE 4,10c-12a

A "Great Preacher's" Misadventures In Hermeneutics (Third In A Series)


James W. Adams Introduction

Dr. Batsell Barrett Baxter in his "Booklet and sermons spends considerable tinle and space emphasizing his acceptance of the Bible as the only rule of faith and practice in the religious realm. Among other things he says:

"First of all, I should like to make it very plain that I believe the Bible to be the inspired word of God. It is our authority, our only authority, in all matters that pertain to religion.... It is my conviction that in all matters that pertain to religious faith and practice we must speak where the scriptures speak and be silent where they are silent." (Booklet, p. 1.)

This being true, the determination of the issues with which our learned brother deals will be in the realm of hermeneutics as defined by Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary as follows: "The science of interpretation and explanation; esp., that branch of theology which defines the laws applied to exegesis." Since our brother is a very learned individual, a Doctor of Philosophy and a Bachelor of Divinity, one would ordinarily expect some perceptive and enlightening observations from him on the proper understanding and application of the Sacred Text. We bid the reader judge how well he fulfills our expectations.

"The Rule Of Three"

For want of a more precise designation, we shall hereafter call the first rule which Dr. Baxter recognizes in the field of exegesis, "The rule of three." Bible scholars, especially among brethren, have for generations recognized that the scriptures teach in three ways: (1) by precept (direct statement or command); (2) by approved, apostolic example; (3) by necessary inference (implication or conclusion). In the "Booklet (pp. 1-3), Dr. Baxter accepts as valid this so-called "rule of three." He says:

"In this connection it is imperative that we point out that the scriptures teach God's will to man in three different ways. First, there is direct command.... In the second place, there is approved apostolic example. ....In the third place, there is necessary inference." Booklet, p. 1.)

We appreciate Dr. Baxter's forthrightness in accepting this old and respected rule of Biblical hermeneutics. Others have not been so forthright, but have attempted to confuse the issue by professing to find a fourth way in which the scriptures teach. Some have called it "the principle eternal." (E. R. Harper.) Others have called it "the law of expediency." (Warren, Deaver, et. al.) Dr. Baxter's frank acceptance of the rule helps to pin-point the area of controversy in the issues under question. By so doing, however, he incurs an obligation. He must find either a direct command, approved apostolic example, or a necessary inference from the scriptures for every practice for which he contends. That Dr. Baxter recognizes and accepts this obligation is evident from the following statement:

"It is true, however, that all matters of faith and practice must have authorization in the scriptures either by direct command, approved apostolic example, or necessary inference." (Booklet, p. 3.) How well the "Great Preacher" fulfills this obligation remains to be seen.

The "Rule Of Three" Amplified And Explained

Having accepted what we choose to call "the rule of three," Dr. Baxter proceeds to enlarge upon and explain the rule in its various parts. Follow with us his reasoning:

(1) Direct Command. With Dr Baxter's explanation of this means by which the scriptures teach we find little fault. We prefer, however, to designate it "precept" or "direct statement" inasmuch as the will of God is often expressed directly, in so many words, yet not always in the form of a command. If the scriptures say a thing in so many words, it is a part of the Lord's teaching whether expressed as a command or not. Little needs to he said on this point, however, since our learned brother does not profess to find specific authority for that for which he contends. A thing which is set forth in so many words in the scriptures is specifically or explicitly authorized. Few matters of this kind, if any, are the subjects of controversy.

(2) Approved Apostolic Example. The "Great Preacher" admits that an approved apostolic example is one of the ways in which the word of God teaches. But, because current, human institutions and promotions among the churches (defended by Dr. Baxter in his Booklet) do not comport with New Testament examples of church activity in the fields of edification, evangelism, and benevolence, Dr. Baxter feels a compelling necessity to qualify the authority which he has admitted is resident in approved apostolic examples. So, he asks, "When is a New Testament example binding?" (Booklet, p. 5)

In connection, let it be observed that the "Great Preacher" in his "Booklet and sermons assumes an affirmative relation to the issues involved. This is logically fair and intellectually honest. Dr. Baxter and those who stand with him are pro certain practices. This writer and others are anti these certain practices. Since Baxter's practices are the subjects of question, he is obligated to show them to be scriptural. Our learned brother, appears to accept this responsibility but soon wavers. If he could have found approved apostolic examples of that for which he contends, he would have maintained his affirmative course because he would have found specific authority for his practices. Being explicitly authorized, they could not legitimately be the subject of controversy. Failing, however, to find such examples, the "Great Preacher" sagely abandons his affirmative relation to the issues and seeks to negate his own rule by attacking the "binding force" of an approved apostolic example. He becomes acutely concerned about the essential as opposed to the incidental elements of said examples. This is a tacit admission on his part to the fact that all the New Testament examples bearing any relation to the practices which he defends as scriptural are at variance with said practices and not corroborative of them. Hence it is that our learned exegete feels a compelling necessity to prove these aspects of approved apostolic examples to be mere incidentals. Dr. Baxter tellingly reveals the weakness of his case, as do all his colleagues, by seeking to negate the force of apostolic examples.

The "Great Preacher's" question (When is a New Testament example binding?) is tantamount to a denial of the authority of an approved apostolic example, unless he can establish a difference between that which is authoritative and that which is "binding." However, as his reasoning unfolds, we perceive that what he is trying to determine is: When does an approved apostolic example involve incidentals and when does it involve essentials? The disciples at Troas evidently ate the Lord's supper in an upper room. This certainly authorizes us to eat the Lord's supper in an upper room, Acts 20, but does this example demand that the supper thus be eaten? It teaches that it may, but does it teach that it must be so eaten? Was the upper room an essential or an incidental? This is what Dr. Baxter has in mind when he asks, "When is a New Testament example binding?" Since he raised the question, one would infer that the good doctor knows the answer. How does he solve the problem? This is a vital and intensely interesting aspect of his efforts.

The "Great Preacher's" rule for determining when an example involves essentials and when it involves incidentals follows:

"The determination of when something is a binding example and when it is only an incidental is a major problem. However, this problem can be solved by the simple expedient of looking behind any given example for a basic commandment of God which the example is demonstrating. If the example in question is a clear demonstration of a basic teaching or commandment of the Lord, it is a binding example." (Booklet, p. 6. Emphasis his.)

By way of illustrating his rule, Dr. Baxter calls attention to several examples. (Booklet, pp. 6, 7) (1) He says that churches today must be active in carrying the message of Christ to the lost world because of the example of "Paul's mission journeys," that the thing which makes them a "binding example" is the fact that the Lord commanded the gospel be preached in all the world. (Matt. 28:19, 20)

(2) He says that Christians today must help other Christians in their infirmities because of the example of the church at Antioch sending gifts to the destitute Christians of Judaea, that this is a binding example because of Paul's command, "Bear ye one another's burdens...." (Gal. 6:2)

(3) He says that partaking of the Lord's supper on the first day of the week is binding because of the example of the disciples at Troas (Acts 20), that this example is binding because "we know that Christians are to eat the Lord's supper." (4) He says (Note this and underscore it for later reference. JWA) that the giving of Christians on the first day of the week is bound on us today because of the example of the Corinthians (1 Cor. 16:2), that this is a binding example because "we also are commanded to give." Here are his exact words:

"Since we also are commanded to give, the example of the Corinthian church doing it on the Lord's day becomes our binding example." (Booklet, p. 7.)

A tyro in exegesis can see that the learned Dr. Baxter has done a great deal of talking and said an "infinite variety of nothing." His so-called rule involves "looking behind the example for a basic commandment of God which it demonstrates?' But how are we to determine whether or not such a commandment exists? The sole thing he advances in this regard is to be found in the examples which he gives. Because we know that Christians are to eat the Lord's supper, he says, we can conclude from the example of the disciples at Troas that it should be done on the first day of the week. Since the disciples also ate in an "upper room," why does this fact not prove that we must eat the Lord's supper in an upper room? Dr. Baxter offers no help in making such distinctions. The fact is that every New Testament example in some of its aspects has behind it some generic command of Christ which it demonstrates, otherwise churches would be doing that for which they have no authority. On the basis of the information Baxter provides, eating the Lord's supper in an upper room would he a "binding example." Baxter does not believe such to be a "binding example," nor do we, but his rule offers no alternative. Verily, there is something wrong with Baxter's rule.

Dr. Baxter, like Dr. J. D. Thomas in "We Be Brethren" (from whence Baxter probably obtained his rule), professes to be able to show when and what part of New Testament examples must be followed and when they need not be, yet neither Baxter nor Thomas sets forth an intelligible rule by means of which such decisions can be correctly made. They give us the benefit of their "sanctified common sense" or their "enlightened, trained, schoolman thinking," but they give us no rule. A great many reasonably capable men among churches of the Lord regard their common sense to be quite as good as that of Baxter and Thomas, and they reach entirely different conclusions from their common sense than those reached by our learned "school-men." The truth is that both Baxter and Thomas arbitrarily decide which examples must be followed and which may be ignored with impunity, and accuse all who will not accept their decisions thus reached of "imposing human opinions as matters of faith." (Baxter, Booklet, p. 32) or of being "antis" and "legalists." (Thomas, We Be Brethren.)

Until Dr. Baxter can give a clear-cut rule by means of which one can determine when there is a "basic commandment of God" behind an example or any part of an example rendering it "binding" (exemplifying an essential), his exegesis is worthless, and his foray into hermeneutics tragically comic. This the "Great Preacher" does not do either in his sermons or his "Booklet." Surely, we do not err when we entitle this article "Misadventures in Hermeneutics." There are some basic rules governing the distinguishing of essentials from incidental, but space will not permit our discussion of them in this article. Perhaps we may have opportunity to say more about them when we deal with some of Dr. Baxter's applications of his "rule" to those practices which he defends. It suffices to say now, Dr. Baxter does not profess to have a New Testament example for that which he defends.

(3) Necessary Inference. It should he apparent to our readers by this time, that the third element of our "rule of three" is indispensable to Dr. Baxter's entire effort. If he could have found a command or an approved apostolic example authorizing his practices, he would have established his case. One passage containing either a command or an example for each of his practices would have been sufficient to end all controversy. He could not find them, and he knows that such do not exist. His only alternative is to justify his practice by necessary inferences.

Most of what Dr. Baxter says concerning necessary inferences, we can accept. With him, we believe that a place of meeting necessarily inheres in the command to assemble. (Heb. 10:25) We also believe that the means of going inheres in the command to go. (Matt. 28:19, 20) We can also agree when he says:

"I might broaden the statement to say that every teaching of our Lord authorizes whatever is necessary to the carrying out of the teaching." (Booklet, p. 2)

We would add to this statement by saying that any requirement of the Lord includes, not only the things necessary" to carry it out, but also all things that would expedite its being carried out provided such things violate no principle of truth elsewhere revealed in the word of the Lord.

Dr. Baxter observes that many times the Lord does not specify the means or method of carrying out His commands. He further suggests that the specific steps in obeying divine comma ids may he left to the elders of congregations. He gives such examples as: the hour of meeting for worship; how many elders or deacons a congregation should have; and the location of the meeting house. Then he observes that it is wrong for anyone to bind his opinions in such realms. He further says:

"When someone calls for book, chapter, and verse concerning some specific matter, when the Lord has not given a specific statement, he is using an unfair approach." (Booklet, p. 3.)

We heartily agree with all Dr. Baxter says in this regard. However we vehemently object to the implications of his statements. He implies that those who oppose church support of institutional benevolent enterprises, sponsoring church arrangements, and church support of secular schools are guilty of seeking to bind specific methods of obeying generic commands where God has not spoken. This is grossly prejudicial and absolutely fallacious. Current issues concerning these matters involve the questions of church organization and government regarding which God has spoken and spoken clearly. This we shall demonstrate as we proceed.


In our next article, we shall take up Dr. Baxter's efforts to apply his hermeneutical rules to specific situations which are causing strife and division among brethren. Keep in mind, that our learned brother is faced with the task of proving that his practices are necessarily inferred from generic commands of scripture. If he fails, those things which he practices will be proved to be unscriptural. A necessary inference is simply an inescapable conclusion. A disputant can and may infer much, but inferences are not enough; they must be necessary.

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