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No. 11: Political Hermeneutics: The Argument From Silence, Part 2

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 11
March, 1990
Copyright 1990, Biblical Horizons


This leads to a further question. I have argued that silence cannot by itself establish a Scriptural principle, but does Scripture’s silence carry any weight in itself? Does the fact that something is unbiblical in a weak sense tell us anything at all? In order to simplify the discussion, and to make it more concrete, I will use a "test case," namely, the legislature. I have argued previously that the Bible nowhere mentions (much less commands) a legislative branch of government. This point is certainly debatable, but for the sake of this essay, I will assume that my conclusion is correct. Given this assumption, what implications are we justified in drawing from it?

Before we go further, let me again describe the main features of modern legislatures. They have basically three characteristics: 1) they consist of popularly elected representatives; 2) they make laws; and 3) they control the public purse. In every modern "democracy," the legislature has at least these three features. Popular election of law-makers is arguably the essence of modern democratic governance.

What conclusions can we draw from the fact that legislatures are not commanded or even mentioned in Scripture? The first and most obvious implication is that legislatures are not required. If God does not command it, it cannot be necessary. It is possible to erect a just and godly political system without a legislative branch. Israel was God’s nation in the Old Covenant, and Israel had no legislatures; the Church is God’s model nation in the New Covenant, and she has no legislatures. Thus, legislatures are not necessary to a just order. This means that the institution of the legislature is open to challenge in a way that God-ordained institutions are not. (I owe this formulation to John M. Frame, personal letter, 19 August 1989.) The institution of marriage and the family, as a creation of God, is not, in itself, open to challenge. But legislatures are not God-ordained institutions.

In order to assess whether legislatures are consistent with biblical principles of civil government, however, we need to do more than to note that God does not command it. We need to mount an argument, pro or con, on the basis of historical, sociological, and other kinds of evidence. This evidence, of course, should be biblically interpreted and evaluated. But, since the Bible in itself provides no direct answer to this question, we are forced to reason about biblically interpreted evidence, and to apply the "broader principles" of Scripture. In order to illustrate how one side of such an argument might be conducted, I will attempt to present the argument against legislative government.

Glancing at the history of legislatures, we may be justified in concluding that there are dangers in establishing a popularly elected, law-making body that has control of the public purse. First, every major revolution in modern Western history has been led in its initial stages by a legislative body. The Puritan Revolution began in Parliament, the Jacobin Revolution in the National Assembly, and the Bolshevik Revolution in the Duma. Otto Scott summarized the pattern of the French Revolution in a remarkable article, "Revolution," published in the December 1987 issue of Chronicles. Once the Estates-General had been summoned, they began to assert their power against the king and nobles:

Scott reminds us ominously that in both the French and Russian revolutions, "the revolution succeeded from within the offices of government, from men situated inside the legislature. Legislatures, it seems, in addition to containing `representatives’ of the people, can also be seedbeds of revolution" (ibid., p. 26).

The fact that legislatures have led revolutionary movements does not prove that legislatures are inherently flawed. Is there any evidence that the very structure of modern legislatures tends toward corruption, abuse or radicalism? Several factors suggest that this might indeed be the case. First, in early modern struggles with over-bearing monarchs, Western legislatures secured the power of the purse. Thereafter legislators made decisions about the allocation and collection of the monies that fund the government. Carolyn Webber, in A History of Taxation and Expenditure in the Western World, notes that "the idea of control of the purse emerged concurrently with legislative restriction of the sovereign," which "removed state finance from an authoritarian executive’s personal prerogative and gave it to a wider, more representative constituency. The most important idea that emerged during this era was that state finance should be public finance." (Carolyn Webber and Aaron Wildavsky, A History of Taxation and Expenditure in the Western World [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986], p. 296.)

During the 19th century, Webber continues, "the idea of legislative responsibility to the public came to be the core of democratic theory" (ibid ., p. 299). In other words, soon after legislatures secured control of spending, they were also becoming accountable to the voting public. This combination encouraged the formation of pressure groups, which lobbied legislators to grant funds for their pet projects. Budgeting — taxing and spending — had become a political issue, and was no longer a financial issue.

How can we expect a legislator to act in such a situation? Generally, this lobbying is in the direction of bigger, not smaller government. Nobel economist James M. Buchanan has argued that political leaders are biased toward expansion of government activity and spending by several factors. First, the people attracted to politics in the first place are likely to be people who seek to implement their social objectives through political action. Even if a politician is not ideologically committed to bigger government, he may seek office simply because he enjoys the power that a political office provides; this non-ideological politician is also likely to vote for expanding government. Finally, if any politician, ideological or not, wants to survive politically, he must give the voters and lobbyists what they want. (James M. Buchanan, The Limits of Liberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan [University of Chicago, 1975], pp. 156-57.)

Charles Murray argues along similar lines that legislatures cannot be expected to define a stopping point for their programs.

The authors of the Federalist began with the assumption that factions are unavoidable, and concluded that therefore a system must be constructed that will limit their potential destructiveness. The force of this argument is that faction is not inevitable, but is endemic only to legislative systems in which popularly elected representatives control the public purse.

In what sense is this argument a "biblical" argument? There are several clear biblical principles inherent in the argument. First, I assume that a radical revolution that produces the execution of thousands of innocent people is evil. If legislative government can be shown to be particularly susceptible to such radicalism, from a biblical perspective that is a strike against legislatures. Second, the argument that legislative government tends toward expansion is based on a realistic biblical anthropology that recognizes that men will tend to use power for their own good. The other side of this argument — that interest groups will emerge to influence legislators — is based on the same anthropology. Finally, the argument assumes that an ever-expanding civil government is also an evil; it assumes, in short, that the Bible teaches that the "state" is a limited institution.

The advantage of this style of argument is that it is based on clear and consistent Scriptural themes, not on questionable interpretation of a single text or on the fact that Scripture is silent. The apparent disadvantage is that it does not yield a conclusion that carries absolute certainty. But, as I have tried to show, the "certitude" of the conclusions from arguments from silence is built on, well, precisely nothing.


The above argument serves merely as an illustration of a possible way to deal with a modern political institution on which Scripture is conspicuously silent. There is, of course, another side to the argument, one that can be rooted in biblical principles. My own conclusion with respect to legislatures is that they are consistent with biblical principles of government, but that they function well only among a self-governed people. Legislatures degenerate into publicly accessible troughs when a people seeks its summum bonum in entitlements and legislatively granted privileges, in short, when a people turns to the idolatries of mammon and power.

It must be stressed that Scripture gives more explicit guidance on many issues. And, when Scripture does speak more directly to a particular issue, the argument will, of course, be formulated very differently, and the conclusion will carry more certainty. There can be no pro-and-con argument regarding the sinfulness of, say, homosexual sodomy (though I believe the appropriate public sanctions against it are open to discussion).

All this seems to leave the biblical Christian in something of a quandary. Does the Bible give us guidance on political issues, or not? Again, I affirm that it does. But I also insist that several conclusions do not follow from this commitment. First, we are not assured that determining a biblical position on any particular issue will be a simple process. Not only are we faced with all the problems inherent in the interpretation of an ancient text, but we are also faced with the difficulty of applying the principles we discover to a complex world. Second, it does not follow that extra-biblical evidence is irrelevant; indeed, as John Frame argues, some extra-biblical information is necessary if we are to apply the Scriptures at all. Third, we are not assured that all our questions will be answered with equal clarity. Our certainty about the "biblical" position on an issue must necessarily vary with the degree of explicitness with which the Bible treats the issue. Finally, it does not follow there will be no room for debate on the precise application of Scripture. On some issues, indeed, there is no room for debate concerning the Scriptural position. But the Church will reach wisdom on many other issues only by vigorous debate.

The arguments presented in this paper are especially threatening to the "reconstructionist" political agenda. If arguments from silence are to be entirely rejected, the biblical grounds for a great many of what "reconstructionists" consider biblical positions would be much less clear. The "reconstructionist" rejection of public education, of state-sponsored welfare programs, and of prisons-as-punishment, to name but a few prominent issues, would have to be argued on other grounds. Indeed, the entire "reconstructionist" tendency toward libertarianism is challenged by an attack on arguments from silence. I believe that, in the main, these same positions can be established on other grounds, if somewhat more cautiously. But a certain amount of caution would seem to be warranted on issues that Scripture fails even to mention in explicit terms.

The advantages of re-thinking of these questions among "reconstructionists" and those sympathetic to their agenda are, in my view, manifold. First, and most importantly, we would be more faithful to Scripture and to its Author if we were to restrict ourselves to discovering and applying positive biblical principles. Second, "reconstructionist" positions might be more persuasive to the evangelical community at large, and particularly to academic evangelicalism, if they were defended from a more secure hermeneutical foundation. Finally, a more moderate and cautious "tone" would result from more careful exegesis, with the result that "reconstructionist" positions could be presented in a more appealing manner.