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No. 10: Political Hermeneutics: The Argument from Silence, Part 1

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 10
February, 1990
Copyright 1990, Biblical Horizons

If the debate over Operation Rescue has proven anything, it has proven that there is absolutely no consensus among evangelicals in general, or among "reconstructionists" in particular, about how to use the Bible to judge political actions and movements. Each side of the debate claims biblical authority for its position, and criticizes the other side for what it views as unbiblical practices and views. R. J. Rushdoony has argued in several articles that there is no biblical precedent for the activities of Operation Rescue. To take direct action to stop abortion, he claims, is to try to fight like David while wearing Saul’s armor. Operation Rescue’s defenders claim that Proverbs 24 provides biblical warrant for civil disobedience, and some argue that Christians are sinning if they do not obey the command to rescue the perishing. In something of a mediating position, Gary North argues that Operation Rescue is permissible, so long as the action remains non-violent and so long as the action meets certain biblical criteria, because the Bible does not forbid direct action to save life. (See R. J. Rushdoony, "Revolution or Regeneration," Chalcedon Report, January 1989; Rushdoony, "Christians and Saul’s Armor," The Counsel of Chalcedon, December 1988; Gary North, When Justice is Aborted: Biblical Standards for Non-Violent Resistance [Ft. Worth: Dominion Press, 1989].)

Quite apart from the substance of these arguments, this debate raises important questions about how Christians are to use the Bible in matters of political judgment. In particular, this debate (and others) raise questions about the relevance of arguments from silence. An argument from silence in this context means an argument that appeals to what the Bible does not say, rather than to what it does say. Rushdoony’s and North’s positions on Operation Rescue rest on different forms of the argument from silence. Rushdoony’s use of the argument from silence is the more obvious: Christians should not take any political action for which there is not a clear biblical precedent or command. North’s defense of Operation Rescue rests on his argument that "at least" nothing in the Bible forbids direct action to save life, an argument that assumes that what is not forbidden is permissible (North, When Justice, p. 132).

Widening the scope of this concern, it is evident that arguments from silence are used, particularly by "reconstructionists," in discussions of everything from education to welfare to prison reform. Several illustrations will show how pervasive this type of argument is. On education, Gary DeMar writes:

DeMar argues that there should be no tax-supported schools because the Bible nowhere commands civil rulers to educate children.

R. J. Rushdoony notes that "The prison appears in Biblical law only as a place of custody, pending trial. There is no direct reference to prisons." After distinguishing the biblical emphasis on restitution from the pagan emphasis on punishment, and detailing the evils associated with modern prison systems, Rushdoony concludes: "According to Leviticus 18:24-30, every departure from God’s law is a defilement of men and a defilement of the land: it is the basic pollution of all things. The prison system is an important aspect of the defilement of our times." (Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law [Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1973], pp. 514-22. Note well that, in addition to pointing out that ancient Israel had no prisons, Rushdoony also makes a historical and theological case against modern criminal "justice.")

More generally and simply, David Chilton writes:

It can be seen that much of the "reconstructionist" social agenda rests on an appeal to the silence of Scripture. Indeed, this willingness to appeal to silence as conclusive evidence of a biblical position seems almost to be the distinguishing characteristic of the "reconstructionist" political hermeneutic. Other evangelical groups, such as Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship, also point out that the Bible does not prescribe prison as a form of punishment, but they do not draw the conclusion that therefore prisons are inherently ungodly. Colson’s arguments against modern prisons rest (as do Rushdoony’s in part) on general biblical principles of justice and restitution.

I

Arguments from silence usually conceal unexamined assumptions about the nature of Scripture and the nature of civil government. What assumptions make the appeal to silence persuasive? First, arguments from silence tend to assume that the Bible provides explicit guidance in all possible matters of public policy; they assume, in short, that the Bible provides something like a legal "code." The implicit argument is something like this, "If God had wanted us to do X, He would have told us." Second, arguments from silence assume that the civil ruler must remain within the explicit limits of Scripture. That is, it would be sinful for a civil ruler to propose a public education system, or a program for poor relief, precisely because God has not told civil rulers to do such things.

Another way to formulate the assumptions of these arguments from silence might be as follows: The Bible delegates certain responsibilities to certain persons: parents have the power of the rod, Church elders the power of the keys, and civil rulers the power of the sword. Because God has delegated the sword, the civil ruler is responsible to God for his use of the sword. He may use the sword, that is, coercion, only in those ways explicitly permitted by Scripture. From this conclusion are drawn a number specific consequences: If the ruler kills someone for a crime that is not a capital crime in the Bible, he has committed murder. If the ruler imprisons someone without biblical warrant to do so, he is guilty of kidnapping. If the civil ruler collects taxes for transfer payments, which the Bible nowhere commands him to do, he has committed theft.

Putting these assumptions together, arguments from silence assume a rather tightly formulated "regulative principle" of political action; civil rulers and politically active citizens ought not do anything that the Bible does not command them to do. What is not commanded is forbidden. These, and only these, assumptions can make arguments from silence persuasive. But are these assumptions valid?

II

It must be admitted that these are not obviously fallacious assumptions, and in fact there is much truth in them. The civil ruler is responsible to God for his political actions, as are all citizens who engage in political activity. In particular, the civil ruler is responsible to obey God as He has revealed Himself in His Word. Moreover, the Bible does claim to be useful for the godly man in "every good work." Finally, the Bible does delegate various responsibilities to various offices and institutions. I even agree with some of the specific consequences that are drawn from these assumptions. I agree that the civil ruler may not impose capital punishment except with God’s permission; in this case it is clear that a civil ruler who imposes the death penalty for, say, reading Biblical Horizons , is guilty of murder.

But in many areas, the sinfulness of a ruler’s act is not so easily established. Let us take the example of transfer payments. Are transfer payments sinful? If so, precisely why? Civil rulers clearly have the right to exact taxes. They clearly have the right to transfer tax money from some people (citizens) to others (government employees). Someone attacking transfer payments with an argument from silence would admit this point, but would argue that the Bible gives the civil ruler no authority to transfer money from some (richer) citizens to other (poorer) citizens. This reply assumes that a civil ruler must have specific and explicit biblical warrant for his every activity and program. But is this a standard that can be consistently applied? If not, is it a useful standard? I am not defending transfer payments, but any persuasive attack on transfer payments must have a firmer basis than the mere silence of Scripture.

This standard, in fact, cannot be, or at least has not been, consistently applied. Christians do countless things today, without a qualm of conscience, that have no direct warrant in Scripture. This is true not only in daily life (where we use computers, electric lights, and flush toilets), but also in the political sphere. Modern legislatures are characterized by at least three features: 1) elected representatives who 2) make laws and 3) control the public purse. There is no explicit biblical warrant a body with these three features. Are Christians who run for legislative office or who are engaged in lobbying legislators involved in an unbiblical institution? Strictly speaking, yes, they are, since there are no legislatures in the Bible. Is there anything inherently wrong with this? Almost no one would say so.

(One reply to this line of argument would be to attempt to prove that there was in fact a legislative branch in Old Testament Israel. J. B. Shearer argues, for example, that ancient Israel had a bicameral legislature, and claims that the representatives not only interpreted laws, but also "provided for new and exceptional cases by new legislation." The only texts he provides as evidence for this conclusion are Numbers 27:1-11 and 36:1-12; but in both passages, the "new legislation" came directly from God, not by the majority vote of the elders. It appears to me that Israel’s civil rulers operated mainly as judges and military commanders. In their judicial capacity, they applied God’s laws to new situations, thus in a sense "making new laws," but I find no conclusive evidence that there was a separate department or branch of Israel’s government dedicated to legislative activity. And one key element of modern legislative governance — the power of the purse — is wholly lacking in Scripture. It seems that Shearer’s argument is more an effort to read the American Constitutional system back into Scripture than an effort to understand Scripture on its own.)

But a more central problem with arguments from silence is the assumption that the Bible provides specific guidance on all possible policy questions. This assumption, it seems, is at the core of the argument from silence, yet is, paradoxically enough, the weakest assumption. Without this assumption, a simple appeal to an argument from silence lacks logical and biblical foundation.

Scripture does, as I emphasized in the previous section, guide us in every area of life. If we walk in the way of the law, our way will be blameless (Psalm 119:1). But two qualifications must be made. First, Scripture’s purpose is to reveal God and to tell us of His mighty acts for us, as well as to direct us in the way of righteousness. Even the Old Testament law’s purpose is not merely legal, but revelational. Christ is the heart of the law and the prophets. As James B. Jordan has put it, "God’s Word comes to us first as a Tree of Life, giving us grace, and then afterwards as a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, giving us rules." (Jordan, Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World [Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1988], p. 120.) The Bible is not essentially a rule book or a law code; even the rules find their deepest meaning in the light of God’s revelation in Christ. For these reasons, we ought not to read the Bible merely as a collection of moral rules, or as a textbook of political ethics.

Second, to insist that Scripture is a guide for all of life, including political life, does not in itself answer the question of how the Bible should be interpreted. Those who make use of simplistic arguments from silence fail to recognize the various levels of generality in God’s commands to us. They search for specific answers to every political question, and distort texts if no suitable answer is immediately forthcoming.

John Frame presents a more defensible form of a regulative principle for all of life. He rejects the notion that "whatever is not forbidden is permitted" as unbiblical, and instead defends the formulation, for both worship and life, that "whatever is not commanded is forbidden." Frame’s application of this principle, however, is more satisfactory than that of the proponents of arguments from silence. He distinguishes between various levels of specificity in the commands of God. The Bible provides both absolutely general principles and very specific guidance. Frame, explaining the qualifications on the "regulative principle of worship" that are found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, admits that "there are some `circumstances’ not specifically mentioned in scripture which we seek to arrange wisely, in accord with the broader principles of the word." (John Frame, "Some Questions About the Regulative Principle," unpublished paper, p. 11.) Thus, a civil ruler may propose a program that has no explicit biblical warrant, so long as the program conforms to the "broader principles" of Scripture. This is not to say that Scripture cannot possibly provide specific guidance in the area of public policy; it may, and the only way to determine whether or not it does is to study Scripture in detail. But it is possible that, having made an effort to find some guidance for a specific problem, we find that Scripture does not speak explicitly to a particular issue. It is this latter possibility that arguments from silence do not take account of.

Moreover, Frame argues, there may be many different, equally legitimate, ways of fulfilling a command. God sometimes commands without telling us specifically how we are to obey that command (ibid., pp. 4-5). We are commanded to show mercy to poor people, but there are a variety of legitimate ways to obey that command, from making donations to relief ministries to moving into a ghetto to minister directly to the underclass. The way we obey is not neutral; but we do have some freedom to decide specifically how we may obey God.

What is true in personal ethics is true in political ethics: there may be more than one legitimate way for a civil ruler to fulfill his duty to God. Civil rulers ought to promote the good (Rom. 13:3). The chief way in which a civil ruler fulfills this command, according to the text of Romans 13, is to be a terror to the evildoer and conversely a protector of the good. But might there be other ways for a civil ruler to "praise" the good? Does this mean that the civil ruler gives public recognition to outstanding citizens? Should the ruler provide financial or other incentives for good behavior? Should fertile, law-abiding citizens get a tax break? All of these questions, of course, must be examined in the light of Scripture. But the point is that there may be many possible ways for a civil ruler to fulfill God’s command.

Frame’s explanation of the "regulative principle of all of life," combined with his emphasis elsewhere on the need for careful exegesis and the necessity of multiple perspectives on ethics, provide a starting point for re-thinking "reconstructionist" political theory with greater clarity.

A final way of thinking about this problem is to consider what we mean when we say something is "unbiblical." In a weak sense, something is "unbiblical" when it is not mentioned in the Bible. While it may be historically interesting to note that there is no mention in Scripture of, say, the combustion engine, it is not very helpful in resolving political ethical questions. In a strong sense, something is "unbiblical" when it violates positive biblical principles. Arguments from silence systematically confuse these two senses because an institution or practice is condemned simply because it is not mentioned in Scripture. A related problem occurs with the use of the word "biblical." Is polygamy biblical? In a weak sense, yes (that is, it is mentioned in the Bible). In a strong sense, polygamy is contrary to God’s will for man and woman, and therefore unbiblical. I am suggesting that our use of the Bible would be improved if we were to use "unbiblical" and "biblical" only in the strong sense. In this way, we could avoid forcing Scripture to say more than it does. Adding to Scripture is, after all, condemned equally as much as subtracting from it.

(Concluded in the March 1990 issue of Biblical Horizons .)