Posted in Bible

Jesus and the argument from silence

800px-Empty_bookThe headline caught my eye: “Here’s what Jesus had to say about (topic x).”  Underneath was an open book, with blank pages.

Clever, right? But is it a valid argument?

Let’s take the issue of cutting down trees. I might say:

Here’s what Jesus said about deforestation: ”          “

If felling trees and planting nothing in their place were wrong, one might assume that the Son of God would have uttered words against such an evil practice. In fact, we search Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in vain for a single word from Jesus on the subject. Accordingly, are we justified in clear-cutting the Amazon forest?

Another “hot-button” topic is abortion. Did Jesus have anything precise to say about it? No. Some might ask: “If it were so wrong, wouldn’t Jesus have spoken against it?”

The argument from silence makes conclusions based not on what Jesus said, but on what he didn’t say. But is it right to isolate Jesus’ teachings from the larger message of God’s revelation as contained in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments? The Lord responded to the pressing issues of his day, not all the pressing issues of our day. Still,  we can find principles about caring for the earth in the same Old Testament that Jesus recognized as God’s revelation. Psalm 104 praises the Creator and the beauty and splendor of creation. To mar that creation through deforestation is like taking a masterpiece by Rembrandt and slicing the canvas with scissors. In the same way, human beings – born and unborn – are God’s masterpiece. David affirms that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14, NIV). Deforestation and abortion alike are sins against both creation and Creator.

Apart from the Old Testament kings and prophets – the giants on whose shoulders Jesus stood – the Apostle Paul and other New Testament writers fill in some of the gaps. A good example is slavery. Jesus is mute about it, yet Paul radically affirmed:

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” – Galatians 3:28, NIV

If one were intent on accepting only Jesus’ words (or lack thereof) as our guide, one could say:

Here’s what Jesus had to say about slavery: ”             “

Yet we don’t accept that argument, because we understand that God’s view of the issue must be more broadly considered, taking into account not just the words of Christ in the Gospels, but all of the Bible. And when we do that, we see that God had lots to say about it. Yes, we can argue over the meaning of verses addressing slavery – and slave owners and abolitionists in 19th century America did so in spades! –  but at least we’d be debating the significance of words and not the verbal vacuum of the argumentum ex silencio.

The next time someone references Jesus’ silence on an issue, don’t let it be the close of the discussion. Instead, let it spur you to dig deeper in the broader mine of Scripture, to unearth closely related principles from God that can guide us. The Church and our world deserve nothing less.


Image credit: Wikkipedia commons



Greg is interested in many topics, including theology, philosophy, and science.

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