Monday, January 7, 2008

A Deafening Silence: The Argument from Silence and Infant Baptism

The argument from silence (argumentum a silentio) is a logical fallacy. In what sense is it a fallacy though? Generally the fallacy goes something like this: We know that God does not exist. We simply have not formulated the right proof yet. In this case one is silent due to the appeal of knowledge that is yet to be brought to light. The "proof" is of no substantive use. Or x is not mentioned therefore x is or is not the case. This is the more common form of the fallacy.
But practically speaking there may be silence because something is not the case or there may be silence because something is indeed the case. Here are more examples. It is true that Martians do not exist because we have not seen them and they have not contacted us (probability seems to be on our side regarding this truth claim). I do not have a bibliography in my book or paper because it is not the case that I know what I am talking about. But this is not necessarily the truth. Though the lack of a bibliography may indicate that I am ignorant, it may not. It could mean I am really wise beyond my years, smart-a born scholar--an authority! Also consider that I do not have to say that I am human for you to know that a human wrote this blog post. A computer program may have generated the blog post, but odds are a human did it. One would be justified in believing, saying, reasoning, arguing, and concluding that a man named Robert wrote this article. The last time I checked there weren't many computers named Robert doing philosophy and theology (no offense intended to my AI friends).
The point I wish to make is that an argument from silence is not always and necessarily a fallacy. Indeed much can be implied and inferred from silence given the right circumstances. Though we do not have certitude with arguments from silence in this respect we do nevertheless have probability that lends support for or against what it is that is being argued. This cannot be ignored. Let me illustrate this point.
The word "trinity" is "silent" in the bible. You cannot look it up with a concordance. There is not a single proof text, but the doctrine of the trinity is clearly taught. It would be an argument from silence to say that because the word is silent the doctrine is false. The "regulative principle" is not in the bible, nevertheless, the principle is biblical. When it comes to an argument from silence, the truth or falsehood of a matter is contingent on reality. The thing may be either true or false.
The phrase "Infant baptism" is not explicitly mentioned in the bible, but does this mean that because the words themselves are not mentioned the doctrine is false? Silence in this respect is no refutation to the doctrine. The same is true by contrast. It is not sufficient to say that because there is no explicit mention of a verse condemning infant baptism the doctrine is to be taken as true. An argument from silence is completely useless for both applications in this respect. It is appropriate to bring to light fallacious reasoning in these instances.
Again does this mean that there is no usefulness for an argument of silence and that all arguments from silence are fallacious? No. We may find a suitable non fallacious use for an argument from silence if we use it in light of probability. If we take into account the context, available evidence, and relevant information such as already proven truths, we build upon the foundation of pre-existing knowledge. We make use of what we have to work with abductivley (inference to the best conclusion) and inductively (much evidence is given in support). Probability gives much for us to consider. There is much to be said about silence, rather what is not said and why it is not said. Caution must be used, however. It is granted that one must be careful of unbridled speculation.
What if we were told that John is going to preform a baptism, administer the Lord's supper, and preach this Sunday, would we be wrong or unjustified in concluding that he is a minister, even though the term "minister" is silent? No. The conclusion that John is a minister is true unless he is really a plumber who has lost it mentally, and done something extreme like taken the leaders of the church hostage, coercing everybody to go along with him as he plays out his deluded fantasies. Technically we may or may not be right in saying John is a minister but we would have good reason to believe he is. There is room for the possibility of error. But what are the odds?
If a group of secular paleontologist contend that evolution is true, they just have not found the transitional fossils in the fossil record as of yet to use as proof, silence is weak as an appeal for support of their truth claim. We could conclude just as easily that the fossil record is silent because transitional fossils do not exist. The only way we could be absolutely sure (because we have not looked everywhere and at all dispensations of time) is if for example, the scripture, something we know to be true, does not allow for evolution as such. In this case there is no room for possible error in that we have a known rule of truth to verify our conclusion. Probability is not even a factor in this case. We have gone beyond silence to knowledge in this case.
As for infant baptism, we find that there is so much evidence in support of the doctrine that we cannot deny it even though the words themselves are not mentioned. I contend that a proper view of covenant theology leads to a proper view of baptism (infant). I would argue that in one sense we have an example in like kind to the one above. The evidence is overwhelming and is not related to an argument from silence. However due to the nature of the debate on the issue, namely in that proponents of infant baptism are accused of having to resort to arguing from silence, I will show that we are by the contrary supported by what silence there may be in scripture, rather than hindered in our position on the matter. Though it is not necessary for me to make the case of infant baptism solely by using an argument of silence I will, nevertheless, demonstrate the possibility of doing so having given clarification as to what is meant by an argument from silence.
Silence does not take away from the doctrine of infant baptism, but is a helpful ally when used abductively and inductively. As mentioned there can be little or no support when dealing with arguments of silence, but there can also be useful support. Plausibility cannot be ignored.
We find support when considering that it would be completely foreign to God's people to not include their children in receiving the sign of faith whether it be circumcision or baptism. This was such a given in the cultural beliefs and practices of the Hebrew people that there was no need of explicit mention of the need for children to receive the sign of the covenant. To readdress the concept anymore than the scripture had already done would to be redundant for the apostles and outside the scope of the common understanding of God's people and everyday religious experience. This concept is so elementary that it is not heavily reiterated in the new testament. It was clear in the minds of the people.
If I say the Landrums went to church Sunday it would be out of the ordinary for you to think that I am not including my children--infants too. In fact, you would think I was taking a mental vacation if I did not include my children by extension. Similarly, if we are painting a house and we have primed all of the wood that is to be painted and have now began to paint, it would be absurd to keep priming. Paint has now taken the place of primer and as such the transition is easily made without confusion and incident, or at least with very little confusion. There is no more need for primer. As a painter you would not think it strange that the primer was now replaced with paint, but it would be redundant for me to explicitly state the obvious, telling what is already perceived to be the case.
So it is with circumcision, baptism, and the children of the covenant people of God. Circumcision was replaced with baptism. This transition was so easily made that there is no need of an explicit explanation. Silence in this case gives support rather than vitiates. The silence of the matter indicates the transition between the signs of the covenants from old to new was without incident. What problems that did arise were dealt with explicitly, namely, having to do with whether or not circumcision was still required. As we know, it was no longer a requirement for God's new covenant people.
What would have caused a major commotion, on the other hand, in the early church would be the notion that the people of God were no longer to include their children in God's covenant. But that some how after they exhibited faith they were to include them. This would be nonsense in the mind of the people of God. The silence of this in the new testament is deafening!
To exclude children in the new covenant is to turn everything we know about our covenantal relationship with God upside down. It is because God initiates a covenant with us that our faith is qualified. He is the greater and we are the lesser. The covenant is offered by the greater to the lesser with promises of blessings and warnings of curses. Our faith does not validate or invalidate God's covenant, it only determines our position in or under it, in the overall scheme of the plan of redemption. In this sense God's covenant is not contingent on man whatsoever. If anything, we are covenant breakers, not covenant keepers! We are only covenant keepers in light of God's grace on our hearts. This is partly why the old covenant became obsolete and there was need of a new covenant. Adam fell and Moses foreshadowed a better covenant and is considered old in the light of the new. As fallen man we do not initiate and propose a plan of redemption to God. Pure "covenant theology" began long before man was graced with the gift of life and existence--ipso facto--the pactum salutis. (More on the subject of covenant theology in another post.)
I am sure I will be accused of committing the very fallacy of which I am discussing. But as I think I have proven, there can be sources of knowledge (other evidence) that lend a helping hand of probability and relevance to an argument of silence . The argument of silence is a fallacy only in that there is no certitude. It is simply not a good argument in this respect. It is not that the argument cannot be valid in any sense whatsoever.
Silence has no ontological value. It is nothing. It has no being. It is the lack of something, viz, sound. It is the absence of time and space to God, but in our temporal existence we live subject to time and space which are marks of God's creation. So we can use that which is not binding to God for our benefit. An empty glass may be filled. A pause in the chronological order of things helps us to make a point, as is the case with public speaking. And so silence can and is used to our advantage. Such is the way in which the lack of something can be used practically. While being interrogated by the Sanhedrin Jesus remained silent when accused of being able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days. His silence in the matter indicated that he was indeed the Christ. He was condemned on the basis of his silence in the matter. To remain silent is sometimes the equivalent to an open truth claim. My children are sometimes silent in giving me an answer when they have done something wrong. This is a powerful testimony to their guilt.
Surely we cannot rest on fallacious reasoning, arguing from fallacies, but we also cannot deny the relevance of what is implied by silence no more than we might say an appeal to authority is fallacious when referring to God as the authority. Let us then avoid falling prey to bad argument that asserts that the bible is silent on infant baptism and that we must therefore be mistaken on the matter.

Note: There are some evolutionist that claim to have transitional fossils now.
Note: It is difficult to talk of an argument from silence without having a bit of overlap with the argument from ignorance. Context is determines my meaning and choice of fallacies.