Arguing from Silence

Posted on August 22nd, 2011

The other evening we were approaching a restaurant where we were going to eat our evening meal. On the door was a sign that has become fairly familiar, particularly in coastal areas of the United States: "No shirt, no shoes, no service." I jokingly said to my family, "So, I suppose it's OK to come here without pants." My family has learned over the years to ignore my strange sense of humor.

But this little anecdote, in which you likely have no interest, does lead to an interesting point. The obvious reason such signs do not include the issue of wearing pants is because swirling around in our culture is the belief that it is not OK to fail to wear pants in public; and we are reminded of this every time we read or hear of someone who decides to transgress that boundary and is summarily arrested. In other words, these signs are silent on failing to wear pants because no warning is necessary. The same is true in that the "no shirt," admonition is not directly addressed to men, because they are the ones who would be the transgressors, since it is acceptable in certain contexts for men not to wear shirts in public (e.g. the beach) but never for women. The long and short of this is that it is context that makes sense of that sign on the restaurant door-- what is said and what is left unsaid. It would be silly to conclude that because the sign does not specifically mention the wearing of pants that the proprietors of the restaurant are OK with customers coming into their establishment naked from the waist down, except for their feet.

Arguments from silence, that is, drawing conclusions from what isn't said or written, are quite problematic as we all know. Nevertheless, all of us continue to use them. We use them in daily life and we also use them in interpreting biblical texts, which is why it is not all too uncommon to hear someone argue for or against something based on what Jesus or Paul did not say. The response basically goes something like, "Well, Jesus never mentions the subject, so he must have approved," or "Paul never talks about it so it must have been no big deal to him."

So, it is probably best not to use such arguments in referring to the biblical text, but if we are going to use them, we need to ask some important questions around context. I suggest asking the following questions:

First, if Jesus or Paul never mentions a subject could it simply be that it didn't come up in their teaching (Jesus) or writing (Paul)? The fact is that an issue not mentioned does not necessarily mean that it was unimportant to the person in question. It may mean it simply never came up (for some reason) in discussion, or in the case of the Gospels, it was not an issue for the writers. The absence of a subject in and of itself tells us nothing about what the person in question believed about it.

This first consideration really gets us nowhere in suggesting what Jesus or Paul might have believed about a matter for which we have no specific wisdom from them, but it is a reminder that we should not out-of-hand conclude that either figure didn't care or approved of something because they never spoke about it.

Second, then is the question of the person himself. Were they persons who avoided speaking about controversy or were they willing to step into the fray on any given matter? This is important because persons who are non-controversial will avoid such subjects. If we were to conclude that either Jesus or Paul went out of their way to avoid controversy, that could very well explain much as to why they avoided certain controversial subjects in their day.

Now, I hope that I do not have to argue that Jesus and Paul were controversial persons. Jesus didn't get crucified for preaching some shallow and sentimental notion of love. Indeed, Jesus clearly was a controversial figure and not afraid to step on people's sacred convictions. Paul spent some serious time in prison on account of his ministry; and he is still a controversial figure today in that some Christians don't even like him and take issue with some of the things he wrote two millennia ago.

This is important because it cannot be claimed that Jesus or Paul failed to deal with certain issues because they were afraid to "rock the boat." Indeed, both men were first class boat-rockers.

So, that finally leaves us with the context question-- what I will call for the sake of this post the "no pants question." Perhaps Jesus or Paul didn't address certain issues because they simply accepted and agreed with the Jewish consensus of their day? Just as the vast majority of us in the United States don't specifically have to be told to wear pants in public, and we believe that doing so is a good idea, so Jesus and Paul do not broach certain matters because in reference to those issues they found themselves to be within the mainstream of Jewish belief and practice? Indeed, if Jesus in particular ever spoke on such matters in his own Jewish context, perhaps the Gospel writers do not mention them because they simply would not have been news in their context. You don't have to reinforce the truth of a certain conviction that everyone believes. And, if indeed Jesus ever went against the common consensus of his culture on a particular subject, one wonders why it was excluded from the Gospels? Jesus was news, in part, because of his non-conformity.

Now, none of this suggests that there is a conclusive method for assessing arguments from silence, but it should be a reminder to us that if we are going to use them in reference to the biblical witness, we need to see them in light of the context of the text, and just not assume that silence means unimportance or insignificance.

Before we draw conclusions about what isn't said, we need to clothe the biblical text with context. Otherwise, our discussions could very well be obscene.

Allan R. Bevere is a United Methodist pastor in Akron, OH. He blogs at AllanBevere.com.
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