The Explicit and the Implicit

Date: December 1, 2013
Study: Scripture: Unchanging Truth in a Changing World
Teacher: Lawson Hembree

The Explicit and the Implicit

Big Idea: The implicit is to be interpreted by the explicit.

Explicit teaching: a forthright, direct, and clear statement—what the Scripture actually says

Implicit teaching: a passage that requires the rational powers of deduction to draw inferences from a statement—what the Scripture might be saying 

Sometimes when we communicate, there can be a difference between what we say and what we mean. One of the tasks of the listener is to determine which is which and clarify if needed. For example,  if someone comes over and doesn’t necessarily like what you are serving, they may say “Thanks, but I’m not really that hungry.” They may be politely implying that they don’t like what you have prepared (implicit meaning) rather than telling you directly “That looks gross” (explicit meaning).

When it comes to interpreting the Bible, the inability to tell the difference between implicit teaching and explicit teachings can create a lot of needless confusion and debate.

An example of reading too much into a text can be found in 1 John 3:2. Upon reading this text, some might teach, “When we get our resurrection body, it will be the body of a 33-year old man with a beard and holes in the hands, feet, and side.” Of course, to construct a teaching about our resurrection bodies on the basis of this text involves unwarranted speculation and careless exegesis. The concern of this passage isn’t to teach about our resurrection bodies, but to give us hope as God’s children.

While that is a humorous example, we can all fall into the trap of drawing too many implications from a text. Even the most careful biblical scholars can err in their interpretation. In the Westminster Confession of Faith, Christians are told not to pray for those who have committed a sin leading to death (citing 1 John 5:16). However, looking at the text, John says “I do not say that one should pray for that.” This is an absence of command, not a positive prohibition as the writers of WCF interpreted it to be. When an implication is drawn that is contradictory to what is explicitly stated, the implication must be rejected.

Another example is Paul’s view of marriage. Based on several verses in 1 Corinthians 7 (specifically verses 6-9, 38), some Christians imply that Paul is anti-marriage.  This of course is bogus. Paul is making a comparison between good (marriage) and better (singleness), not between good and bad. It is a suggestion based on Paul’s desire for Christians to be wholly devoted to Jesus, not a command against marriage or condemnation of those who have chosen to be married. They are comparative levels of goodness.

Of course, not all inferences from Scripture are bad. Much of our understanding of the Trinity is based on implications found in throughout the Bible. A particular church’s teaching on the “extraordinary gifts” of the Holy Spirit (speaking in tongues, prophecy, healing, etc) are based on inferences. Some of this comes from ambiguity in the text, some of it is due to words in English/Greek/Hebrew having more than one meaning. The danger with implicit teaching comes in when it violates explicit teachings elsewhere in Scripture or it is taught as clear and unambiguous when they aren’t.

One of the themes of this semester’s study has been that every passage of Scripture must be measured and interpreted against the whole of Scripture. Let Scripture interpret Scripture. So as you are reading your Bible and seeking to apply it to your life, keep this rule in mind: interpret the obscure in the light of what is clearly taught. Deep logic isn’t a requirement, just the simple application of common sense.

Take some time to research the doctrine of the Trinity in Scripture. On three sheets of paper, write “Father”, “Son”, and “Holy Spirit” at the top. Divide each paper into three columns labeled “Names Attributed”, “Powers Attributed”, and “Response Demanded.” Look throughout the Bible for passages about the three Persons of the Trinity and record your findings on the pages and columns. Based on your study, is the doctrine of the Trinity a legitimate or illegitimate inference from the New Testament?

Knowing God by RC Sproul


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