Thursday, 25 September 2014

WHEN SILENCE PROVES NOTHING

Well, the old "Jesus never said anything about it" chestnut has surfaced once more.

It seems that no matter how many times this lame excuse for an apologetic is hit out of the park someone will always just keep on retrieving the ball and having another go.

This time however it comes with a twist.


This time it is not our Lord's silence upon a specific sin that is being highlighted but rather His Trappist tendencies in relation to what has always been supposed a biblical requirement: namely the physical disciplining of children.

Jonathan Merritt (who else?) is unequivocal in his opinion of corporal punishment,

                          "I don’t think the Bible supports it in the slightest."

He then reminds us with a wearying inevitability that "Jesus was silent on the matter."

Jonathan is one of those religious liberals who doesn't seem to be quite able to convince himself that the Bible is wholly without any merit and so has to keep flicking through its pages in search of some kind of justification for his liberalism. This time he believes he has found it in relation to the physical chastisement of children.

Elsewhere in another article published the same day he more fully outlines his views on corporal punishment.

 Here he cites an ordained Baptist minister and professor of sociology (?) as his authority for interpreting the Hebrew of Prov 13:24. The sociology professor says that the shepherd's rod was used for guidance and not for beating. 

 Traditionally it has been considered that the staff (Ps 23:4) served this former function, but neither Merritt nor his sociology friend deal with that.

He of course employs throughout the highly emotive language habitually used by the anti-camp, referring to "hitting" and "violence" rather than spanking. This is vocabulary deliberately intended to steer the debate and we must learn to challenge it whenever it is encountered. Spanking is not violence.

 Describing Proverbs as "non-literal" -whatever that means- Merritt states that pro-spanking Christians rely upon Proverbs and are "ignoring the entire New Testament and Jesus' teachings."

This latter point is especially confusing. He has after all said that Jesus was silent on the issue and that the Proverbs verses are our only biblical reference. But if Jesus and the New Testament are silent on an issue then in what sense are we ignoring them? Ignoring what?

So is there another possible explanation for the Bible's relative silence on this issue? .

What if the physical correction of children was so universally considered by ancient societies to be a healthy practice that the Biblical writers rarely needed to bring their guns to bear in defence of it?

 After all when the writer to the Hebrews referred to the chastening he received at the hands of his earthly father (Heb 12:9), it is doubtful that he was recalling the suspension of his internet privileges. 

 His readership would have assumed that he meant physical correction. His argument in the chapter after all is that the believers' chastening from their heavenly Father is similarly painful. The writer's being made to sit on the "naughty step" as a child simply does not fit the context.  

We must always ask ourselves whether silence on a matter may actually just indicate unchallenged consensus on that issue. The defence of motherhood and apple pie has not generally been deemed to require any especially vigorous apologetic.  

 Hence the interpreter of scripture must always allow for -to coin a theological phrase - "the bleedin' obvious." This is simply a mark of good exegesis.

 Whether we are speaking of alleged good practices or of alleged sins, in both cases the Bible sometimes simply assumes that everybody would know what its position would be.
 
Thus when Jesus is silent on a particular sin such as homosexuality which has become such a modern-day controversy we ought always to consider that there are two possible reasons for His silence,

1) Jesus didn't mention it because He did not consider it a sin

2) Jesus considered it such a manifestly obvious sin that it didn't need to be mentioned.

 Common sense (and good commentaries) will help us to decide which is the more likely to apply in each case.Without question in Jesus' day, homosexuality would have fallen into the category of obvious sins. 

 It did not exist openly in the Israelite society of our Lord's ' day. Indeed in biblical history there are few records of its open presence amongst the Old Covenant people of God. 

 One notable occurrence being found in the times of the Judges (Jud 19:16-25), which were truly the "swinging sixties" era of Old Testament history; but otherwise very little.

 So if open homosexual practice had never been an habitual sin in Israel and was not so in Jesus' day then why would He spend time rebuking people for something that they weren't doing? 

 The reason for the Gospels' silence therefore ought to be obvious. Just because the issue is controversial with us does not mean it was remotely controversial then.

Similarly if chastening your children was the universal practice of the ancient world (and it was) then why should we expect that any Old Testament prophet would ever have felt the need to waste a good scroll on an issue that no one was arguing with him about?    

This is a good point to remind ourselves of the fact that whilst the Bible is a long book it remains a finite book. This means, rather obviously, that not everything will fit into it. 

 Not all beneficial practices (such as disciplining children) get full coverage and neither does every conceivable evil.

For instance before furnishing those bewitched Galatians with a list of the fruit of the Spirit the apostle Paul had first provided them with a catalogue of the works of the flesh (Gal 5:19-23).

Whilst the fruit maxed out at nine, it is salutary to note that the delicacies of the flesh eventually came to no less than seventeen. And even then Paul had not finished but simply gave up counting, leaving us to guess what "other things like these" might look like.

Our society seems intent upon exploring the possibilities inherent in those words, and is now daily pushing the boundaries in relation to "the other things."

Man's capacity for novel expressions of sin seems limitless. It follows then that we cannot expect the descriptions of human sin found in the scriptures to be exhaustive. The potential remains at all times for sinners to go beyond what is written.

  As our society moves ever further off the radar with regards to its moral behaviour it will doubtless soon discover a fondness for many practices that the Bible never mentions (euthanizing children anybody?). 

 When this happens it will be important for us to remember that biblical silence on that specific sin is not ever to be taken as an endorsement of it. It simply means that our behaviour is now moving beyond the worst imaginings of the scriptures'  human writers.

Similarly not every manifestly good practice is given the full treatment in Scripture. 

 This means that when we renounce such godly practices, the scarcity of biblical data on the matter cannot be taken as a green light for our decision. 

If we have simply made something controversial that Holy Writ considers to be wholly uncontroversial, then this is only a proof of how far off the reservation we have gone.

Sometimes the Bible just assumes that Wisdom will be known of her children.