An argument from silence is a rhetorical device designed to be a convincing argument in a simple and straight forward way. It often, on the surface, is. There are numerous inherent flaws in an argument form silence however. This becomes important in theology as arguments from silence are, and have been, used to try and form persuasive arguments as well as having become part of the basis for theological stances. For the next little bit, I want to talk about the argument from silence, the flaws inherent in it, and how to break it down. You will often encounter this type of rhetorical device from “red letter” type Christians and activists more interested in advancing a cause than with meaning of scripture as a whole. You will also often find this in Christians who have not been taught well, those young in the faith, or even those who have become seduced by the simplicity of the statement. It most often is presented as the end all be all of a discussion. I will be speaking from a theological perspective here, though with a small amount of adaption I am confident that it can be translated to other aspects of life if you so desire.
To begin, let’s start with the easiest of the lot. An argument from silence can support the contradictory opinion. One could easily say that Jesus never directly spoke about good stewardship of the Earth. That statement is accurate, and because of that, it gains the illusion of authority and has the ring of truth to it. From this, one could then surmise that Jesus did not find environmental concerns to be terribly important, so we should not either. After all, if Jesus did not say it, it is not of a primary importance. You can also surmise the exact opposite opinion. Because Jesus did not say anything directly about proper stewardship of the Earth, one can reasonably surmise that He, like other first century Jews, understood that this was an important part of the faith so it did not bear mentioning as it was agreed upon with near universal consent of first century Jews as a duty. This is the first real problem with an argument from silence. This is also the easiest way to counter the argument. I personally have encountered this particular rhetorical device in discussions about environmental issues, the death penalty, homosexuality, and same sex marriage, though it can be used for a multitude of issues. Another useful tactic is to mention that Jesus never mentions a good many things that were problematic in his day. A not exhaustive list of these things includes child molestation, human trafficking, capital punishment, alcoholism, drug addiction, and the list just goes on and on. Dare we say that Jesus does not care about such things?
A second issue, that is related to the first, often encountered is the idea that Jesus did mention many things, so shouldn’t we focus on those instead. The power of this argument lies in the original statement again being not only true, but nearly universally agreed upon. Of course we should focus on things that Jesus said. Jesus cared a great deal for the poor, and so should we. We ignore the poor only at our peril. The problem with this approach is that it requires ignoring things Jesus did not say, that is to say that it requires us ignoring real social issues that affect real people. To say that we should focus only on those issues that Jesus directly addressed is to say that we should ignore people and issues. That does not remotely sound like the Jesus of scripture. This approach also assumes the falsehood that if we care about one thing, we can not care about another. That simply is not true. If you are married, you can easily care for your spouse and your child at the same time. For example, I am quite capable of caring about sexual morality, the poor in general, doing what I can in my own neighborhood to help the poor, criminal asset forfeiture, the political scope of the nation, etc. All of us can.
A third issue is that the argument from silence assumes that all Jesus said and did is recorded in the four gospels. We now from the Gospel of St. John that this is simply not the case. “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). I am comfortable that John is using a bit of hyperbole here, but the point should be well taken. We simply do not know if Jesus said anything about the issue, whatever the issue, at hand. This does leave a door opened however to speculation. If we don’t know if Jesus said it, we can then craft a hypothetical scenario where he may have and in that justify our action because there is silence. What to do about this? I’m glad that you asked. As Wesley intimated, we consult the whole tenor of scripture.
Our fourth issue is linked to the rest of them of course, and that is that the argument from silence about Christ ignores the rest of scripture. Th number of words that Christ spoke is remarkably small when compared to the rest of scripture. If we focus on the words of Christ to the exclusion of the rest of scripture, we are ignoring over 90% of the Bible. Contextually, we need to understand that Jesus was a first century Jew. In a very real way, what we now refer to as Christianity was a Jewish reform movement. We often tend to think that Christ came to start a new religion, but that is not the case at all. Because that is not the case, we need to understand how those reforms affect what is Christianity, but that is beyond the scope of this particular piece. What needs to be understood is that both the Old Testament and the New Testament in whole form the Christian faith. An argument from silence in this case ignores over 90% of what makes up the Christian faith. It also means that we ignore 90% of what makes up what Jesus thought on a multitude of things. Any argument that ignores 90% of the available evidence and material is likely to be a bad one.
We have here four problems with the arguments from silence. More are coming shortly, so be on the look out for them. Apologetic style matters. A part of that style is certainly knowledge of the faith, but also the way in which you use that knowledge matters as well. Understanding the rhetorical devices commonly used matters so that you can effectively counter them systematically with the truth. I hope that this is a good starting point for doing so, and stay tuned for more to come.