The Folly of Extrapolating Analogy
An “analogy” is a form of thought by which things are compared. Analogical thought involves a broad “comparison” spectrum that is manifested in several varieties. The simile, the metaphor, metonymy, the parable, and the similitude are all forms of analogical expression.
Scripture speaks of the person who meditates day and night upon the word of God, and suggests that such a one is “like a tree planted by rivers of water, that brings forth fruit in season, and whose leaf also does not wither” (Psalm 1:3). By means of a simile, “like a tree,” a spiritual truth is analogically illustrated.
The primary function of analogy is to illustrate. Not infrequently, however, a speaker or writer will attempt to “prove” a proposition by the use of analogy. But, from the nature of the case, no proposition can be established absolutely by the use of mere analogy. Analogy may argue for probability, if the points of comparison are many, but comparison alone proves nothing. Let me provide a couple of examples.
Some writers of a few centuries past observed that there is some analogy between our Earth, and that of neighboring planets within the solar system. These orbs receive their light from the Sun, rotate around the Sun, move in revolutions upon axes, etc. Older scholars concluded, therefore, that since there are human beings inhabiting the Earth, there likewise must be people living on other planets. We now know, of course, they were wrong. Their problem was in extracting, from a limited analogy, what simply was not there. Analogical extrapolation is a slippery slope that often leads to deductive disaster.
A dog has four legs and so does a table. There is between the two an analogical relationship, in that the four legs of both objects provide a balanced mechanism for the weight of the major body mass. But that is as far as the comparison goes. The back of a dog is not an appropriate place for a lovely vase, or the consumption of a meal; and a table neither barks nor chases cats.
The inability to recognize the limitation of analogy has produced some serious errors in the reasoning skills of a variety of people who otherwise are very sincere.
Analogical Fallacies Illustrated
- I once asked a prominent professor of zoology what he perceived as the strongest argument in support of Darwin’s theory of organic evolution. His response was: “Comparative Anatomy.” Comparative anatomy is an argument structured upon analogy. For instance, chimpanzees have internal systems (nervous, circulatory, respiratory, etc.), just as we do. They have hands and feet somewhat similar to man’s. In a number of particulars chimps “ape” us! The conclusion then, frequently drawn by those whose logistical skills need refinement, is that humans and anthropoids must be descended from a common stock.
But does the broad conclusion follow from the specific premises? It does not. Analogous in some respects is not analogous in all. Chimps do not think abstractly, they do not reason, they do not accumulate knowledge across generational lines, they have no sense of morality, they do not reflect upon the past, nor do they plan for their “senior” years. The two groups are not analogous in many more ways than they are.
A far more viable explanation is that both species were fashioned by a Designer who deliberately complimented these different creatures with features adapted to Earth’s environment and to their own mode of existence.
But false extrapolation in this regard has caused many to abandon the Creator and fall at the feet of those “gods” called “Time” and “Chance.”
- An apologist for infant baptism has argued in the following vein. Moses led the children of Israel through the Red Sea in their deliverance from Egyptian bondage. Paul saw this historical incident as being, in some way, analogous to Christian baptism.
“Our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Corinthians 10:1-2).
The inference drawn is this: since the Israelites carried their infants with them in that trek through the sea, this must suggest that infant baptism is acceptable.
If the analogy is to be pressed that far, a baptism of one’s livestock and/or pets would be permissible today, for the Israelites took their cattle and sheep, as well as their children, with them as they crossed over into Sinai. As the old saying goes, “that which ‘proves’ too much, proves nothing.”
- A sectarian gentleman, who is opposed to the proposition that baptism is a requirement for salvation, has argued in the following fashion.
Abraham was accounted as righteous in the sight of God prior to the time he was circumcised (Romans 4:9-12). Elsewhere, however, Paul has shown that there is an analogy between circumcision and baptism (Colossians 2:11-12). It thus should be apparent that salvation is received before baptism; hence the rite is not a condition preliminary to forgiveness. This is a classic example of extrapolating an analogy far beyond its intended scope.
In Romans 4, the apostle argued that God had a long-standing plan to offer the hope of salvation to all the “nations” of the earth (cf. v. 17). But some Jewish Christians insisted that before a Gentile could enjoy salvation, he was obligated to submit to the rite of circumcision (cf. Acts 15:1ff), i.e., a literal surgical procedure on males. Paul shows that Abraham was reckoned as righteous years before he received the rite of circumcision. It is obvious, therefore, that circumcision bore no relationship to the patriarch’s spiritual standing before God. So, similarly, Gentiles could access redemption apart from physical circumcision. That is the primary point the apostle made by his argument. One simply must not extrapolate the analogy beyond its immediate design.
To suggest that this line of argument somehow negates the relationship between baptism and salvation would thrust the apostle into the embarrassing position of contradicting himself in chapter 6 of his Roman epistle, where he forcefully contends that one does not receive “newness of life” (the equivalent of being “justified from sin,” cf. vv. 4b,7), until he is “raised” from that “burial” by which he is joined to the Lord (v. 4) — just as Christ was “raised” from his burial. Note the term “also” in v. 4b. God’s apostle did not inconsistently disavow baptism in chapter 4, and then require it in chapter 6!
Yes, in the Colossians 2 context there is a limited point to be made of the circumcision/baptism analogy; but it has nothing to do with whether or not baptism is essential.
Under the Mosaic regime, when a Hebrew boy was eight days of age, he, by means of a surgical procedure, had flesh removed from his body. So, in similar fashion, when one is buried with Christ in baptism, in the “operation of God,” he “puts off” the “body of flesh” — spiritually speaking. The circumcision here is a spiritual one (cf. Leviticus 26:41; Jeremiah 9:26; Ezekiel 44:7,9).
It is an extremely erroneous procedure to extract a literal “circumcision” from one context (as in Romans 4:9ff), place it beside a figurative “circumcision” in another text (Colossians 2:11-12), and from the two develop an argument from analogy that throws Paul into hopeless contradiction with himself — not to mention the reflection it casts upon the Holy Spirit who inspired the apostle in both compositions.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.