Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Explicit vs. Implicit

In theological or philosophical discussions it seems most people do not understand the terms “explicit” and “implicit.” Most people assume a couple of things about both of these terms. 1. The evidence for an explicit concept is always greater than for the implicit concept, and 2. If something or someone can be said to teach an argument, then that argument is explicit. Both of these are incorrect.

First, the relevant terms should actually be explained. “Explicit” means it is mentioned using the terms or wording of whatever subject is being discussed. So for instance, the concept of “eternal life” is explicitly taught in Scripture, for John 3:16 (as well as a host of other verses) actually mention it. Dictionary.com mentions it as “fully and clearly expressed or demonstrated." When we speak of arguments in the Bible that are explicit, we mean “actually mentioned and unequivocally discussed.”

“Implicit” means it is logically implied, though not stated directly. Here’s a really good example: suppose I say I do not like to sleep past Then I ask you to guess if I will be awake or asleep the next morning at While you might possibly be wrong by guessing “awake,” I have at least implied that I will be awake. This is an example of implicit.

Now notice what this means for certain doctrines. It means doctrines such as the Trinity are implicit, not explicit. What?! Yet we have better evidence for the Trinity than for some explicit doctrines (such as the doctrine of Hell). Why is that? For one, some would say the explicit statements may be hyperbolic, or metaphorical, or whatnot. However, the evidence for the Trinity is very strong. It’s just that there’s no one verse that explicitly says, “The Trinity exists as three persons in one being.” We have plenty of verses that implicitly mean this very thing, and most Bible-believers would attest that it is a very strong implication.

The reason I am writing this is because far too much of our thinking in Christian circles has been muddied over this very issue. Too many people have criticized other doctrines as being “non-biblical” (read: not explicit) while defending their own as “explicit” mistakenly. Even if your belief is as strongly attested as the Trinity, unless there is a sentence stating that (not strongly implying) it is implicit. Even if it is the case that the verse gives you a deductive argument that cannot be denied, it is nonetheless true that one’s belief is implicit.

An implicit belief is not necessarily weaker than an explicit belief, and a true belief is not necessarily an explicit belief. We must remember that when evaluating other Christians’ arguments.
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