RESPECTING THE SILENCE OF SCRIPTURE
Some 3,500 years ago, Moses explained the tragic enslavement of Israel in Egypt in a single, succinct statement: “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph” (Exo. 1:8). A vast portion of what was once the church of our Lord has fallen victim in the past half-century to the spiritual enslavement of liberalism, resulting in countless innovations. We can lay much of the blame for the apostasy at the feet of a two-fold ignorance. First, people in the pews substituted drinking whatever religious Kool-Aid their elders or preacher dispensed for their personal Bible study and stopped “examining the scriptures daily, whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11).
Second, as with the Pharaoh Moses described, a few decades ago a generation of the Lord’s people “arose who knew not” any uninspired church history (especially that of the two previous centuries). As it did in 1500 B.C. Egypt, so in the church in our time, ignorance of history has resulted in indescribable tragedy for God’s spiritual Israel.
There were plenty of preachers, professors, and writers with a change agenda who were quite willing to take advantage of this two-fold ignorance to advance their schemes. They have done so with devastating force. Along with their demonstrable general disrespect for the authority of Scripture, a major tactic of these ”new hermeneutic” apostates has been the destruction of respect for the silence of Scripture. They know that only by eliminating (if possible) adherence to this necessary hermeneutical principle will they be able to accomplish fully their wicked intent.
A study of this subject requires reviewing some church history, some of which some readers may not know and which others may have forgotten (though they once knew it). In the course of this study it will be necessary to mention the names of various men and of some religious bodies for the sake of identity and documentation. After laying a historical foundation relative to respect for Scriptural silence, we will then consider what the Bible says about its own silence.
In the early summer of 1809, a small group of acquaintances met for Bible study in the farmhouse of Mr. Abraham Altars near Washington, Pennsylvania. The leader of the study and discussion concluded with a “rule” he suggested they all follow: “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent” (West 1:47). The devout, learned author of this statement was Thomas Campbell, who had not long before studied, preached, and practiced himself out of the Presbyterian Church. He had come to our very young, fledgling nation from Ireland two years earlier, on the advice of his doctor. He had lived with his family in both Scotland and Ireland, and was a licensed preacher in the Old-Light, Anti-Burgher, Seceder wing of the Scottish Presbyterian Church. He immediately gained his credentials to preach in Seceder churches in his new homeland, but by 1809, Presbyterian authorities closed their pulpits to him because he preached and practiced too much Bible and too little of the Presbyterian creed.
Campbell’s affirmation concerning the bounds of Scripture, particularly the silence of the Bible, became the watchword of the effort and plea to restore New Testament Christianity in early nineteenth-century America. His statement was unique in at least two respects. First, while other uninspired men before Campbell had called attention to the significance of Scriptural silence (Mattox 256), they applied the principle only to the abuses and innovations of Roman Catholicism (West 1:47). Thomas Campbell and his associates correctly applied the principle both to Protestant and Catholic departures. Second, Campbell distilled the principle to an easily-remembered slogan: “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent.”
To correctly determine what God authorizes, must we respect the silence as well as the statement of Scripture, or is this merely another man-made rule in religion, formulated in a clever slogan? We will address and answer this question in the course of our study, but before doing so, we need to consider another issue: the meaning of the phrase, where the Bible is silent, we are silent.
Two opposing schools of thought have answered the following question differently: “Is the Silence of the Bible permissive or is it prohibitive?”
Less than half a century after Campbell uttered his famous motto, some brethren began, as did Lot’s wife, to look back and lust for certain unauthorized doctrines and practices they and their fathers had escaped.
These brethren asserted (and their disciples still assert) that Campbell and his early associates meant that silence is permissive—that where the Bible is silent, we have freedom to act. The first symptom of this attitude surfaced in 1849 with the establishment of an extra-church evangelistic organization, the American Christian Missionary Society. Clamor for this society implied that the church, as commissioned by the Lord (Mark 16:15–16, et al.), was inadequate for the task. When faithful brethren opposed it as unauthorized, its defenders responded that, since the Scriptures were silent concerning such, it was permissible (West 1:203).
As early as 1851, scattered congregations began using musical instruments in worship assemblies (West 1:312), but the controversy over them did not become heated until soon after the end of the Civil War. As had those who justified the Missionary Society a few years before, apologists for instrumental music freely admitted the silence of the New Testament concerning instruments, but presumed upon that silence permission to employ them. This approach implied (and implies) that the Scriptures prohibit and exclude doctrines or practices only by explicit thou shalt not statements. (Incidentally, political/social liberals make the same argument in their efforts to justify such things as homosexual “marriages”: “The law doesn’t explicitly forbid it.”)
This attitude toward Scripture allows human desires and opinions to determine the work, worship, and organization of the church (as well as personal behavior). Desire became the father of doctrine, rather than Biblical doctrine controlling desires—a disastrous reversal of direction.
Jacob Creath, Jr., one of the stellar restoration preachers of the middle years of the nineteenth century, recognized the “slippery-slope” nature of this approach to Biblical authority. In an 1875 Gospel Advocate article, he wrote:
When a man leaps the fall of Niagara, can he stop before he touches the bottom over the falls. When a man leaves the Bible alone, there is no rest for him this side of Rome. The most that can be said for all those persons who ceased to the silence of the Bible is that they are only partly in the reformation [emph. in orig.] (West 2:240–41).
Those who pushed these innovations were so determined to have them that they forced a wide-ranging division upon the Lord’s church, a division recognized in separate census figures in 1906 for churches of Christ and the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ. These figures revealed that 86% of what was once a united brotherhood had chosen to embrace the liberal innovations, leaving the remaining 14% of faithful brethren to begin with almost nothing except the Truth and their dedication to it (West 3:25). The liberals took the lion’s share of the buildings, bank accounts, schools, and periodicals.
The digressives divided within a few years, as some who had clamored for the innovations were also outright skeptics, denying such fundamentals as inspiration and the Lord’s virgin conception and resurrection. Most of the innovators merely wanted the instrument and the society. Unable to stomach the blatant infidelity, they broke from their unbelieving brethren. The modernists became the “Disciples of Christ Christian Churches, which has been in the vanguard of liberalism and modernism ever since. The other group prefer to be called the Independent Christian Churches (hereafter, ICC), though in some sections of the country they employ Church of Christ, sometimes with Instrumental also on their signs.
Both wings of the Christian Church retain one thing in common: They hold the silence of Scripture in contempt, as did their forebears who began to abandon the Truth in the mid- nineteenth century. In 1984 some men from the ICC, along with some of our liberal brethren, fashioned what they called a “Restoration Summit” in Joplin, Missouri. One of the speakers from the ICC was W.F. Lown. In the course of his speech, he affirmed that “silence gives us freedom to speak” and “liberty begins where Scripture stops.” Predictably, this disdain for Scriptural authority has led the ICC to introduce numerous other innovations and departures from the faith besides the use of instrumental music in worship.
The utter lack of recognition (whether through ignorance or contempt) of the significance of Scriptural silence is universal in denominationalism. This fact explains the existence of thousands of denominations and their varied and multiplied unauthorized doctrines and practices. Ignoring the silence of Scripture leaves religion resting on the ever-shifting sands of human desire, judgment, and subjectivism.
The other school of thought understood (and understands) that the Bible does not authorize doctrines or practices by its silence concerning them. Biblical silence therefore has a prohibitive force. That Thomas Campbell and his early associates thus meant it is proved by the fact that they gave up such denominational practices as infant “baptism,” instrumental music in worship, centralized church government, and host of other human trappings. The Bible was silent on these things in which they had participated in their earlier religious involvements. As one unlettered, but Bible-wise nineteenth-century brother from the hills of East Tennessee was reported to have said about why the church of Christ did not use a piano, “There ain’t no Bible fer it.”
Campbell and his cohorts, sick of the sectarian divisions of Protestantism (to say nothing of the totally apostate Roman Catholic religion) were intent on restoring the church of which they read in the New Testament. Restore means to bring the entity involved back to its original state. I learned to drive in a Ford pickup truck that “discovered America” the same year I did (1938). I got my driver’s license driving that old truck when I was fourteen years old. It was pretty beat up by the time my dad bought it, but I took a great liking to it since it was the only thing I was permitted to drive at that age. I’ve thought at times that it would be gratifying to find what was left of one of those old trucks and restore it for sentimental reasons. To do so I would need to secure from the Ford Motor Company the original specifications, detailing its equipment and specifications. Then I would need to find and assemble all of the missing or degraded parts. If a pure restoration were my aim, I would not be able to include an automatic transmission, air conditioning, power steering, an entertainment/GPS system, or so many other things we take for granted on modern vehicles.
I would have to omit such innovations, not because the original specifications explicitly prohibited them, but because they were silent about them—and with good reason: they did not exist at the time the original was built. To restore the truck I would have to include everything that originally composed it and leave out anything that was not originally part of it, regardless of how badly I might want to do otherwise. If I decided to add things not in the original or omit things from the original truck, I would not be restoring it, but customizing it (according to my own tastes). One cannot restore either a truck or the church if he is intent on adding things that were not part of it originally. Lamentably, when it comes to the church, men have almost universally preferred to customize rather than restore.
The early restorers did not understand or accept the claims of liberals of their day that silence gives consent or freedom to act. Nathan J. Mitchell was a confidant of Thomas Campbell’s who accompanied him on many preaching trips, hearing him preach many times. As nineteenth-century liberals increasingly averred that Campbell agreed with their silence-gives- freedom-to-act-or-speak dictum, Mitchell responded in an 1879 article in American Christian Review by quoting a statement he said he had often heard Thomas Campbell make:
The order of the primitive churches, as to worship of God, under the immediate personal teaching and supervision of the inspired apostles, was equivalent to a command to us moderns; and that the silence of the inspired apostles, on any theme, was to be sacredly and scrupulously regarded as much as the positive teaching (West 2:242).
Our worship to God is regulated by laws of God. We have no knowledge of what is well-pleasing to God, in worship, save God has revealed it to us. The New Testament is at once the rule and limit of our faith & worship to God. This is the distinctive difference between us and other religious bodies. Others accept the New Testament as their rule of faith, but do not make it the limit of their faith…. We seek for things authorized, they for things not prohibited. Our rule is safe—theirs is loose and latitudinarian. Ours confines us to God’s appointments. Theirs opens the worship and service of God to whatever will please men (West 2:241).
By any standards, Ben Franklin (descendant of the eighteenth-century statesman) was one of the most influential writers and preachers among the mid-nineteenth-century restorers. When the battle was raging over the role of Biblical authority and silence, he weighed in with a powerful exposure of the folly of assuming that silence confers liberty and permission to act:
Where has God forbidden sprinkling for baptism? Where has He forbidden the offering of incense, the counting of beads, in worship? What harm is there in all this? This is sophistry, deception, delusion, and that, too, of a very low and unworthy order at that. Where is the Divine authority for doing this or that? If there is no Divine authority for doing this or that in religion or worship, that very circumstance is Divine authority against it.…
Those who consider themselves free to do anything not forbidden in Scripture are out at sea, pretty much cut loose from the Bible. They have in their horizon a broad range. They are not in search of Divine authority, not engaged in that for which there is Divine authority, but things for which there is no Divine authority—things not forbidden.… If there is no Divine authority for a thing, that is enough. We need no Scripture forbidding it [emph. in orig.] (290– 91).
Those who argued then that the early restorers, beginning with Thomas Campbell and his famous motto, meant that Biblical silence gives freedom and permission to act were history revisionists. So are those who now make the same allegations about the convictions of those dedicated men. As we shall see, they were Scripturally mistaken as well.
We may refer to this principle as a law of inclusion and exclusion or authorization and non-authorization. A key passage regarding Biblical authority is Colossians 3:17: “And whatsoever ye do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” The phrase, In the name of the Lord Jesus, means “by the authority of the Lord Jesus” (cf. Acts 4:7). This subject is no more complex than men choose to make it. We must do and say only those things the Lord authorizes through His Word, which authorization is established by the statement, not the silence of Scripture. When God and His Son are silent regarding any action, there is no authority for it; that is, it is implicitly unauthorized and thus prohibited, without His having to explicitly forbid it.
We understand and employ this principle so naturally every day that we are likely not even conscious of it most of the time. In fact, effective communication would be all but impossible without acknowledgement of the validity of this principle. When a song leader in worship announces a song number, he ”authorizes” us to join him in that song alone. Just as surely, he also implicitly excludes every other song without having to say so. Men and Ladies signs on restroom doors likewise indicate exclusions without saying so. When a doctor writes a prescription for me, I do not expect him to list all of the medications he is not prescribing. When the pharmacist fills the prescription, I would seek another pharmacist if he should hand me twenty others, explaining that I did not tell him not to prepare those for me. In all such cases, that which was stated was authorized or allowed, while things not stated were implicitly not authorized or allowed—without any explicit “thou shalt not” being necessary.
We see this principle illustrated in various Old Testament occurrences, which are recorded for our instruction (Rom. 15:4). The Bible begins early to emphasize the significance of God’s silence in order that we might not miss it.
Genesis 4 tells us that Cain substituted an offering of his choice in place of what God authorized/specified. We have no hint that God issued to Cain or Abel any prohibition of that which either of them was to offer. Abel heard and honored God’s stated will in his offering. Cain doubtless had access to the same instructions, but seems to have reasoned, “I have raised this good produce from my field, and God did not say I could not offer it.” God apparently expected both Cain and Abel to understand He authorized only what He specified (cf. Heb. 11:4; Rom. 10:17).
Genesis 6 tells us that Noah understood and honored this principle as he used only the God-specified gopher wood in building the ark: “Thus did Noah; according to all that God commanded him, so did he” (v. 22). He did not reason, “God did not forbid me to use pine, cedar, and fir….”
God summarily executed Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron and nephews of Moses, for offering “strange fire” in their censers (Lev. 10:1–2). The description of the reason this fire was called “strange” is noteworthy. It was not because God had explicitly forbidden it, but because it was fire that He “commanded them not”—God was utterly silent about such fire, making it unauthorized. Other occasions in Scripture also illustrate this idea, but these suffice to demonstrate that God operates on the basis of this principle of authorization and non- authorization, and He expects men to understand and honor it.
Jesus taught, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16a; believeth in this context refers to believing the Gospel, v. 15). He thus sets forth who is an authorized candidate for Scriptural baptism that brings salvation. His statement of inclusion also excludes the baptizing of infants, infidels, and/or those who are mentally incompetent (though “adults” in age). Likewise, sprinkling or pouring water on a person as “baptism” is excluded because baptized demands dipping, plunging, overwhelming, or immersing the believer. The foregoing “baptisms” are “strange” baptisms for the same reason the fire of Nadab and Abihu was “strange” fire—they are alike unauthorized. Note, however, that the “baptisms” (as the fire) are prohibited not by explicit statement, but because the Lord (as well as the remainder of the New Testament) is utterly silent about baptizing unbelievers or substituting sprinkling or pouring for immersing believers.
When the Lord instituted His memorial supper, He placed in it the elements of unleavened bread (of the Passover supper) and fruit of the vine (i.e., grape juice) (Mat. 26:26– 29). All other items of food and drink are thereby excluded—thus unauthorized—not by any statement of prohibition, but by the silence of Scripture. Otherwise, coffee and donuts or any number of other food and drink items are permissible. Other elements besides the unleavened bread and fruit of the vine constitute “strange” elements, like unto Nadab and Abihu’s “strange” fire.
In our worship assemblies, the New Testament authorizes (yea, commands) that each of us sing spiritual songs and hymns whereby we praise and glorify God and His Son and teach and admonish one another (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). These passages authorize only congregational singing that fulfills these functions. No other sort of music-making is authorized, whether it is instrumental music, mimicking the sounds of instruments with the voice, humming, whistling, emitting prolonged “ahhs,” hand-clapping, or employing a choir or other special group that sings to the congregation. These all constitute “strange” music and are prohibited on the principle of inclusion/exclusion: The Holy Spirit included the kind of music He authorizes in Christian worship, and simultaneously, without having to explicitly say so, by His silence, excluded every other sort of music.
By implication, the foregoing examples in and statements from Scripture, along with ordinary human experience, serve to demonstrate the prohibitive force of the silence of Scripture. However, let us now specifically summarize various ways by which we can determine the validity of this principle.
1. Being silent where the Bible is silent is not valid merely because Thomas Campbell and other great and dedicated men advocated this principle. Rather, they advocated it because they, through their study, recognized its Scriptural validity.
2. It is reasonable to follow this principle. Ignoring it is unreasonable and creates impossibilities in both profane and sacred matters. The only alternative to recognizing the excluding force of silence is to demand that every possible exclusion be specified in every circumstance—an absolute impossibility. A song leader in worship could never know, much less name, every song the congregation is not to sing. We do not expect our doctor to specify every medication we are not to take. We do not expect a listing of all exclusions as we deal with one another, so why should anyone expect it of God? Doubtless, He could make such a list, but what man or men could be found smart enough or live long enough to read or learn all of it? He has made it simple for us by means of His axiomatic, universal law of authorization/non-authorization, inclusion/exclusion. Respecting the silence of Scripture is reasonable; requiring the naming of every prohibited action or element is both unreasonable and impossible.
3. It is disastrous to ignore this principle. We saw it in the case of Cain’s illegitimate and “strange” sacrifice. We saw it in the sad ending of Nadab and Abihu because of the “strange” fire they offered. We briefly traced the folly wrought in the church when some brethren in the nineteenth century began to deny the significance of Scriptural silence. This denial was their principal justification for their innovation in the worship (instrumental music) and in the work (establishment of the missionary society) of the church. Their denial, moreover, opened a “Pandora’s Box” that paved the way for almost unending additional innovations.
Denial of this principle produced tragic and heartbreaking division. Brethren who had sacrificed greatly to establish congregations and erect buildings were rudely shown the door when they would not compromise with the innovators. Contempt for Scriptural silence produced two new denominations, both taking the name, Christian Church, and both wedded to their principal idol (i.e., instrumental music) on the pretext, the Bible doesn’t forbid it. There is no Scriptural or logical way to oppose coffee and donuts on the Lord’s table, infant baptism, praying with rosary beads, burning incense, dancing in the aisles, or a hundred other things (including instrumental music in worship) if the silence as well as the statement of Scripture is not duly respected. Spiritual disaster follows in the wake of contempt for Scriptural silence.
4. Respecting Scriptural silence produces only good fruit. We saw this fact regarding Noah, who did all that God commanded and did not presume upon that which God did not say concerning preparation for the flood. He thereby saved all of his family and the human race from that catastrophic event. The church of the Lord was restored and its first-century purity has been maintained wherever devout disciples have adhered to this principle. If the church ever completely apostatized so that for a century it ceased to exist, it could be restored as long as the New Testament still existed. However, the church could not be restored apart from respect for its silence as well as its statement. Only good fruit can come from faithful application of this principle, for it is God-ordained.
5. God and His inspired writers employed this principle. A case once came to trial, but the defendant, who was out on bail, failed to appear. The judge asked if anyone in the courtroom might know why he was not present or where he might be. When the defense attorney did not know, the judge turned to the gallery. A spectator indicated that he had known the defendant for several years, and he knew of more than one reason he might not be present. The judge asked him to name some of them. The man began his list by saying the defendant had died six weeks earlier. The judge interrupted him, saying, “You don’t need to name any more.” Likewise, if one respects the Bible as the Word of God, one need not remember any other factors that demonstrate the validity of this principle.
Hebrews 1 contains two arguments that demonstrate the prohibitive, excluding force of Scriptural silence:
For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, This day have I begotten thee? and again, I will be to him a Father, And he shall be to me a Son? … But of which of the angels hath he said at any time, Sit thou on my right hand, Till I make thine enemies the footstool of thy feet? (vv. 5, 13).
Both passages declare and demonstrate the supremacy of the Christ over the angels by arguing from God’s silence concerning the angels. He did not have to point to every angel in Heaven and say, “You are not my Son.” His identification of His Son and His silence relative to any other Son excluded and forbade any angel to claim that unique Sonship, without having to exclude even one of them explicitly. In both passages, the entire argument for the exclusion of angels from Sonship of God rests upon God’s silence.
Hebrews 7 and 8 contain an inspired argument, as clear as it is powerful, demonstrating the Holy Spirit’s evaluation of the implications of Scriptural silence:
For it is evident that our Lord hath sprung out of Judah; as to which tribe Moses spake nothing [was silent] concerning priests.” …Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, seeing there are those who offer the gifts according to the law (7:14; 8:4, emph. DM).
The latter verse observes that Jesus was not authorized to be a priest under the law of Moses, the reason being that He was of the tribe of Judah (v. 7). But where did the law state, “Thou shalt not appoint a priest of Judah?” There is no such explicit prohibition, but a prohibition nonetheless, based on two factors: (1) Moses’ specification that only the Levites were to “offer gifts according to the law” (v. 8) and upon the fact that “Moses spake nothing” concerning priestly appointments from Judah (v. 7). The inspired writer undeniably believed that where the Bible (Moses, in this case) is silent, we must be silent.
If God revealed His will by His silence as well as by His statements (and He clearly did), then we are bound to respect both of these vehicles of revelation. Further, if inspired men respected the prohibitive force of Scriptural silence, then we not only may, but must, likewise respect it to “handle aright the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). Further still, if inspired men established obligatory prohibitions based on the silence of Scripture, so must we.
Those brethren in the nineteenth century who foolishly began showing contempt for the silence of Scripture likely would never have done so had they not first determined to introduce their innovations and then scrambled, after the fact, to find some justification for them. When they abandoned their respect for God’s silence in an effort to defend their innovations, they opened the door for all other things that are not explicitly forbidden.
Many important principles of Biblical hermeneutics and interpretation exist, but none is more important than this one. Those who give it up or never learn it forfeit the ability to find, much less follow, the New Testament pattern for the church. Lipscomb was right: “This is the distinctive difference between us and other religious bodies.”
It is right to inquire of a matter, “Does the Bible forbid it?” in an explicit way (which the Bible does regarding various things). The more important question is, however, “Does the Bible authorize it?” concerning all things we teach and practice (cf. Col. 3:17). When men a century from now read the history we are making, they will see that the change agents of our day have aimed their attacks squarely at the “silence principle” more than at any other rule of Bible interpretation. Destroying respect for Scriptural silence is a principal aim of the so-called “new hermeneutikers.” These destroyers know that, only by so doing will they be able to perfect the agenda of ultimate apostasy that will drown the church in the cesspool of denominationalism.
Restoring and maintaining the New Testament church stands or falls on faithful and equal respect for the statement and the silence of Scripture. Peter’s exhortation of twenty centuries ago was never more appropriate than at the present: “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God…” (1 Pet. 4:11a, KJV). How dare any mortal presume to speak (or act) in matters concerning which God has been silent.
Franklin, Benjamin. A Book of Gems. Ed. J.A. Headington, Joseph Franklin. Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate Co., 1960 (orig. copyright, 1879).
Mattox, F.W. The Eternal Kingdom. Delight, AR: Gospel Light Pub. Co., 1961.321nedrawb West, Earl Irvin. The Search for the Ancient Order, Vol. 1. Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate Co., 1949.
West, Earl Irvin. The Search for the Ancient Order, Vol. 2. Indianapolis, IN: Religious Book Service, 1950.
West, Earl Irvin, The Search for the Ancient Order, Vol. 3. Indianapolis, IN: Religious Book Service, 1979.
[Note: I wrote this MS for and I presented a digest of it orally at the Bellview Lectures, hosted by the Bellview Church of Christ, Pensacola, FL, June 7–11, 2013. It was published in the book of the lectures, Innovations, ed. Michael Hatcher (Bellview Church of Christ, Pensacola, FL)].
Published in The Old Paths Archive