I’ve been enjoying Paul’s series on lousy arguments. At the risk of stealing Paul’s thunder, I’ve got another argument to add to the mix: the Argument from Silence. The Argument from Silence is rather simple, often wrong, but sometimes spot-on. The Argument from Silence happens when you listen to a speaker, or read a blog or book or article, and notice that they don’t mention some particular topic. You conclude that, since they didn’t mention that topic, they are ignorant of it, or it’s not important to them. To give an example that I’ve been thinking about recently, what should you conclude when you don’t hear much about the Holy Spirit in your church’s preaching program, your Bible Study series, your favourite podcast, etc.?
You could, perhaps, conclude that the church/leader/speaker doesn’t really believe in the Holy Spirit: either they don’t know him, or he’s not important to them. This conclusion, however, might be quite wrong. The Apostle Paul wrote a whole letter to the Colossian church full of densely packed theology, urging them to stick to the truth of Christ crucified and risen. But Colossians only directly mentions the Holy Spirit once in an almost offhand phrase (Col 1:8). It would be quite wrong to conclude on the basis of this letter that Paul didn’t believe in the Holy Spirit. You only need to read his other letters to see references to the Spirit everywhere!
Indeed, this is in line with the reality of the Spirit’s own person. The Holy Spirit is not the Showbiz Department of the Trinity; according to the Bible, the Spirit points away from himself, glorifies the Father and the Son, and brings us to relationship with God through the word of the Father and Son (e.g. John 14:16, 14:26, 15:26, 16:7-11, 1 Cor 12:3, Rom 8:15). Where God the Father is being glorified (Col 1:3, 1:12, 3:17), where the word of God is faithfully spoken (Col 3:16, 4:3), where people are living in trusting, repentant, hope-filled submission to Jesus Christ (Col 1:4, 2:5-7), where love is reigning among our brothers and sisters (Col 3:14), there we can be sure that the Spirit is doing his work. We shouldn’t expect him to crave seeing his name up in lights.
However, there are times when our silence about the Holy Spirit may point to a deeper problem. This is especially the case when we are talking not about God or Christ or the gospel directly, but about ourselves, and about the way in which God’s truth is made real in our lives, our communities and our world. At times like this, we often need to acknowledge God’s Spirit somehow, or we may end up replacing the Spirit with something else.
For example, I recently had the opportunity to sit in and listen to a group of Bible College graduates from all over the USA and UK as they tried to formulate a list of eight important summary statements about the relationship between God, the Bible and modern Bible readers. They produced fascinating and often insightful statements about the way God can speak through human writings, the significance of narrative (or the ‘story’ nature of the Bible), the role of the church in reading Scripture, and the kinds of methodologies that readers of Scripture could or should use to understand the text better.
But none of these summary statements included any mention of the Holy Spirit. Of course, none of the participants, when asked, denied that they believed in the Holy Spirit or that he had some relationship to Bible reading. Nevertheless, there was still something wrong here. Why was the Holy Spirit completely absent from the discussion? Maybe it was because deep down, we prefer to think that the work of reading, living and applying God’s word is nothing more than an exercise in human wisdom, human industriousness or communal reflection. All of these are, of course, involved in Bible reading. However, a true understanding and application of God’s word will always involve God himself, who opens our blind eyes and brings us to know and trust the Father and the Son. This is, in fact, one of the key works of the Spirit (e.g. Rom 8:5-7, 1 Cor 2:12-14, Eph 6:17, 1 Thess 1:5, 2 Tim 1:13-14). Sometimes a failure to speak meaningfully about the Holy Spirit while we are talking about our reading and application of God’s word might point to a deeper problem: our own arrogance before God’s revelation. This caused me to reflect on myself (as I do a PhD in biblical studies), and to admit that sometimes I’m guilty of this implicit attitude, and that I need to repent.
There might be other instances where silence about the Spirit points to a deeper problem. Another recent observation I’ve had about this significant silence about the Spirit is less directly relevant to this Sola Panel article (which is long enough as it is), so you can check it out on my own blog if you’d like to read further.