A Review Of The Inductive-Deductive Method

Francis Bacon and Inductive Reasoning

The Greeks (Aristotle, Plato et al.) and later the Scholastics (who were primarily Roman Catholic theologians) were thoroughly enamored with deductive reasoning. And why not? It had (and still has) a way of making the teacher, philosopher, or theologian the authority. In other words, resorting primarily to deduction puts the one doing the resorting, not necessarily the facts, in charge. And this is true whether one realizes it or not.

By saying this, I’m not trying to disparage deduction. Instead, I’m trying to explain why resorting to deductive reasoning first has such a susceptibility for getting one headed in the wrong direction right from the start. This is, no doubt, why those who speak and write disparagingly of medieval religion are fond of making jokes about deductive methodology degenerating into very heated discussions among the Scholastics about just how many angels (i.e., how many at one time) could dance on the point of a needle. For all I know, such may be an over-exaggeration. In fact, some say there is no history of this particular issue ever being debated among the Scholastics. But on the other hand, if you’ve ever tried to read Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, then you would be more inclined to think debates like this really did happen.

Realizing the lack of practical results and, all too frequently, downright silliness that was the product of deductive reasoning, folks like Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), John Locke (1632-1704), Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727), Barton W. Stone (1772-1844), Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) and, yes, even Roy E. Cogdill (1907-1985) had the presence of mind, thankfully, to declare their preference for inductive, rather than deductive, reasoning. The rest, as they say, is history as it was undoubtedly the preference for the inductive method that was responsible for a theological and scientific awakening that has continued to be felt right up to the present moment. We can be sure that without such a “restoration” of the inductive method to its rightful place in human reasoning we would still be confined to the religious, philosophical, scientific, and intellectual quagmire still remembered by some of us as the Dark Ages.

But please don’t misunderstand me, for nothing I’ve said here suggests that deductive reasoning deserves to be thrown into the dustbin of history. Deduction (the method of reasoning from the general to the particular) is an indispensable part of any interpretive framework—but not the preeminent part. Such is reserved for induction (the method of reasoning from the particular to the general). Most often, this inductive-deductive process is called the “Scientific Method.” You can, of course, call it whatever you like, but the sketch below is what it looks like:

Inductive Vs. Deductive Reasoning

Alexander Campbell, who was well-versed in the works of Bacon and Locke et al., recognized the advantage of applying the kind of thinking described above to a study of the Bible. He became convinced that, if properly applied, such an interpretive framework would free one from the denominational mishmash (“colored glasses,” as he called it) that had resulted from centuries of “speculative” thinking as Campbell called it. This, he believed, would allow one to return to the religion of the first century—a religion which was uniquely the manifestation of the apostles’ doctrine contained in the Scriptures. Of this process, he said:

The doctrine of the Bible, on any given subject of inquiry, can be clearly and satisfactorily ascertained only by a full induction of all that is found in it upon that subject. When the induction is perfect and complete and fully comprehended on any one point, we can never have any more divine light upon the subject. This is our method of learning and of teaching what the Holy Spirit has taught on any given subject (Christian Baptism, with its Antecedents and Consequences, reprinted 1951, pp. 184-185).

Although there are those who speak disparagingly of Campbell as a “Baconite” (these are primarily those who are intent on dispensing with his methodology in favor of a “new” hermeneutic”), it was never really his desire to be anything, religiously, but a Christian and a Christian only. Even so, he freely admitted to employing an “eclectic” (that’s his term) methodology gleaned from Bacon, Locke, Newton et al. In the Owen-Campbell debate, he cited five of Bacon’s maxims, stating he would use “the principles of the inductive philosophy [as] my rule and guide in this investigation.” He shamelessly endorsed what he touted as “the improved principles of inductive philosophy.” In his lectures at Bethany College in 1860, he mentioned that the old style of deductive, Aristotelian reasoning (this is the kind the Scholastics used) had happily been replaced by the Baconian system. He went on to say, “Consequently, we now have to reason from facts, so that the logic of the present age is far superior to that of the Greeks and Romans….” He further emphasized that he was interested in the “facts,” which he described, as did Bacon, as either “something said” (commands and/or direct statements) or “something done” (examples). Clearly, then, Campbell thought that Bible beliefs were discerned by the “scientific,” ”Baconian,” “inductive-deductive” method. I do too, and I’m not hesitant to say so. After all, this was the means employed by Jesus, the apostles, the prophets, and those who wrote the New Testament.

But what does all this mean and how does it translate into what we do as Bible students? Simply this: In order to discern the New Testament doctrine of baptism, for example, one would inductively gather—some would disapprovingly say, “sleuth”—all the references to baptism and then generalize a conclusion from these passages, and isn’t this what we all try to do? If not, then those who push for a “better way” ought to make it clear just what they think is the right way to go about all of this. Frankly, I’m not much impressed by those who insist on critiquing what they think is an antiquated hermeneutic by asserting that the Bible isn’t a constitution, blueprint, law book, et cetera. For me, it’s all these things and this without ceasing to be everything else it is!

So, when one joins with Campbell and Cogdill in declaring he is, when it comes to science and philosophy, a Baconian and not an Aristotelian, as I and others do, it would behoove the critic, instead of pointing and saying, “Aha, a Baconite,” to actually spend some time trying to understand the distinct advantages of this interpretive framework. And, this is not just true for those trying to be good scientists, but for those of us trying our best to be good students of the Bible as well.

Now, I said all that to say this: all of us—every last one of us—employ some system of interpretation (hermeneutic) when trying to understand the Bible. It is most unfortunate that some feel only the obsession to deconstruct what they disparaging refer to as a “patternist” hermeneutic all the while telling us very little, if anything, about their “better way.” These make it clear that they believe those of us who teach there are binding examples to be found in the Bible are imposing an extra-biblical hermeneutic upon the Scriptures which, in turn, results in us binding where God hasn’t bound. This, then, is the question: “Does the inductive-deductive method many of us have used over the years cause us to bind where God hasn’t bound?” If so, it must be dispensed with and the sooner the better. However, and this contrary to the contentions of most of the new-hermeneutic advocates, binding examples do exist in the Scriptures along with necessary inferences, implications, or conclusions. As such, they are authoritative, and such authority derives not from man, as is being contended, but from God’s special revelation to man itself—viz., the Bible.

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