Presumption is the act of drawing conclusions from limited evidence. Courts presume defendants to be innocent until the body of evidence convicts beyond all doubt. When you drive through a green light, you presume the opposing traffic sees a red light. Furthermore, you presume those drivers won’t hit the gas until they see green.
Since you’re not omniscient, every decision you make is based on presumption. There’s nothing inherently wrong with presumption, and avoiding it completely is impossible.
However, presumption is deadly when it trumps careful investigation. Unrestrained presumption can obstruct the process of interpretation.
Let’s say you want to buy a house. You find one you like, and you sign a contract to purchase it. You pack your belongings and prepare to relocate your family. But on move-in day, you discover that the “seller” didn’t actually own the house. He’s powerless to hand it over to you. When you try to move in, you find another family living in the house with no intent to move out. You’re stuck, partly because you presumed too much.
Presumption can be devastating in big life decisions, but it also causes trouble in the mundane. We presume a curt reply to imply anger. We mistake friendliness for attraction. We impute motives. We scold and convict a child on the testimony of a single embittered sibling. We rush to our conclusions and find security in the strength of our convictions. We admit no further evidence.
Careless presumption will kill your Bible study. It will strangle observation and bear stillborn application. It will make you look like the stereotypical, narrow-minded Christian, and it will diminish your influence for the Lord. By strengthening your confidence in questionable conclusions, presumption will cloud your relationship with Jesus and your experience of his grace. At worst, it may clog your pipeline to God. Guard yourself against every form of unexamined, unhindered presumption.
Relativism can be a form of presumption, when we believe a text means whatever we want it to mean. We’re not compelled to investigate the evidence, so we’re “tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph 4:14, ESV). We lose our anchor in Christ.
Tradition can be a form of presumption, when it bullies observation, threatens investigation, and demands adherence to a sanctioned message. Now I’m no hater of tradition; it’s both valuable and necessary. But when it drives—and isn’t driven by—interpretation, it rampages and destroys like a toddler in a Lego city. Unexamined tradition trains people to think only what they were taught to think. And what they were taught to think may or may not be the truth.
Education can be a form of presumption, when, like tradition, it generates thoughts but not thinkers. Irresponsible education—whether theistic or atheistic—results in students who presume to know the Bible, but who have ceased listening to it. For such learners, Jedi Master Yoda may prove instructive: “You must unlearn what you have learned.”
Premature application can be a form of presumption, when we jump to conclusions in the name of relevance. We read and observe the text, but we move straight to application. We want our answers to be quick and practical, but we fail to nurture curiosity.
Authority can be a form of presumption, when we carelessly trust what the experts (be they pastors, professors, commentators, or Knowable Word bloggers) say about a text. We might learn to regurgitate their conclusions, but we won’t learn to reach them ourselves. Our teaching will lack substantiation, and the next generation will grow disillusioned by what it perceives to be hollow.
Tradition, education, application, and authority are all good things. In the right context, presumption is a good thing. But unchecked, it will defy the discovery of meaning.