THE SILENCE OF THE SCRIPTURES

Mike Johnson

 What should be our attitude regarding the silence of the Scriptures?  What should be done regarding those situations about which the Lord says nothing?  These questions pertaining to the silence of the Scriptures are very important.  Disagreement on how to regard the silence of the Scriptures has caused much division over the years.  If we could agree on how to regard the silence of God’s Word, we could do much in achieving unity among religious people.

There are two different approaches which are taken toward the silence of the Scriptures. One view is that when the New Testament is silent, man is then at liberty to act as he pleases and can do whatever he wants to do in the service of God.”  This might be called the “permissive” approach.  According to this view, we can do anything not specifically forbidden, and everything is acceptable unless God has said, “Thou shall not.”  The other view might be called the prohibitive view.  Those who take this view would say that man must only do what is authorized in the New Testament.  The law of exclusion prevails with this view as the unmentioned is not authorized.

Where do we find the answer to the question of how we should view the silence of the Scriptures?  The answer must be found in God’s Word itself.  We cannot answer this question from our own opinions or from the writings and views of men.  God has given us the Scriptures which actually reveal what our method of interpretation should be.

To begin with, consider how Noah had to regard the silence of the Scriptures.  In Genesis 6:14-15, Noah was told to build an ark out of gopher wood.  Further, the ark was to be three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide, and thirty cubits high.  Could Noah have used oak to build the ark?  God didn’t say that Noah could not, but obviously this would have been wrong.  God specified that the ark had to be made of gopher wood which meant that all other types of wood could not be used.  God did not have to say don’t use oak, pine, or maple.  When God specified what he wanted, all else was eliminated.  Could Noah have changed the dimensions of the ark?  After all, God did not say don’t make the ark three hundred and fifty cubits long.  God didn’t have to.  When he said to make the ark three hundred cubits long, every other possible length for the ark was ruled out.  Noah had to respect the silence of God.

Another important Old Testament example is the case of Nadab and Abihu.  We learn from Leviticus 10 that these two priests offered “strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not.”  As a result of their sin, verse 2 says, “And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord.”  It appears that they got the fire which they offered from the wrong source rather than the “altar of burnt offering” (16:12).  Because God had not commanded the fire which they used, it was sinful for them to use it.  Nadab and Abihu would have been wrong to argue that their sacrifice was acceptable because God had not prohibited them from using this other source.    When God specified the fire that he wanted, all other sources of fire were eliminated.  These priests should have respected the silence of God.

Consider also the case of Naaman in II Kings 5.  Naaman was a “captain of the host” in the Syrian army.  He was an honorable man who was highly regarded by his king, but he had leprosy.  He was told about a prophet in Samaria who could heal him so he went and found this prophet— a man named Elisha.   To be cured of his leprosy, Elisha told him to dip seven times in the Jordan River.  At first, he refused to do what the prophet said, reasoning that the rivers of Damascus were better than all the waters of Israel.  Finally, he was persuaded to do what Elisha told him to do and was cured.  It is clear that Naaman had to dip seven times in the Jordan if he wanted to be cured — no other rivers were suitable.  God, through Elisha, specified the river to wash in so, because of God’s silence, all other rivers were eliminated as being acceptable.  God did not have to say, “Wash in the Jordan River to be cleansed,” and then in order to eliminate other rivers say, “You can’t wash in this river or that river and be cured.”  Further, Naaman had to dip seven times in the Jordan River to be cleansed.  Could Naaman have only dipped five times and still have been cured?  God didn’t say “don’t dip five times.”  NO, when God specified that Naaman had to dip seven times, other amounts were eliminated.

In the New Testament, consider Hebrews 7.  Here we find a discussion of the priesthood of Christ.  Under the old law, a person had to be of the tribe of Levi to be a priest. Christ, who was of the tribe of Judah, was not a priest under the Levitical system.  Although of the tribe of Judah, Christ is our priest today.  This change in the priesthood is used to show that the old law was no longer in effect.  To illustrate the point of our discussion, consider verse 14 which says, “For it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Judah; of which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning the priesthood.”  Why was Christ unable to be a priest under the Levitical system?  A person had to be of the tribe of Levi; Christ was of the tribe of Judah, and concerning the tribe of Judah, Moses had said “nothing.” Judah was eliminated as being an acceptable tribe for a priest under the Levitical system because of the silence of God’s Word.  God did not have to say that Levi was the tribe one had to be a member of and then name all of the other tribes saying that they were unacceptable.  When he specified Levi, all others were eliminated.  Many people today, if they had been there, would perhaps have erroneously said that one could be a priest if he was of the tribe of Judah because, after all, Moses did not say you could not.  (At least, that is the type of reasoning often used today to justify certain religious practices.)

Consider Acts 15 where there is a discussion of the question of circumcision.  There was a controversy in the early church because some had gone out from Jerusalem teaching that the Gentile converts had to be circumcised.  After a discussion in Jerusalem, a letter was sent out to the churches  stating, “Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment” (v. 24). These false teachers were wrong because of the silence of the inspired teaching.  “No such commandment” had been given, so it was wrong to require circumcision.  The false teachers would have been wrong if they had tried to justify their teaching by saying that God did not say that it was not required.  These people had added to God’s Word (Rev. 22:18-19).

In Hebrews 1, there is a discussion of the superiority of Christ over angels.  Verse 5 says, “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?”  No angel had the right to claim to be the Son of God.   The superiority of Christ is seen as the statement of verse five was directly said to Him, and it was not said to an angel.  God’s silence (in not making this statement to angels) meant that they do not have this honor.

Consider a few examples from everyday life to illustrate further this point.  In cooking, if a recipe calls for four eggs, it is not necessary for it to state “don’t use five eggs.”  The fact that it says four eliminates all other numbers.  When we give our phone number to people, we don’t have to say all of the numbers that it is not.  We don’t have to say, “don’t invert the order.”  When we name a child, we don’t have to say what the child’s name is not— only what it is.  Zechariah, in naming his son, only had to write that his name is John (Lk. 1:13, 60, 63).  He did not have to say that his name is not George.  In worship services, the song leader, after announcing the hymn number to the congregation does not have to then say what the number is not.  If he says that we will sing hymn number 33, all other hymns are eliminated.  All of the above examples are obvious.

A spiritual application for today can be made to the Lord’s Supper which was instituted by Jesus (Mt. 26:26-28).  We learn that the elements of the Lord’s Supper are to be unleavened bread and the fruit of the vine.  Jesus did not say don’t use ham and eggs as the elements for the Lord’s Supper.  Would it be wrong to substitute ham and eggs as elements for the Lord’s Supper?  Obviously it would be wrong because Jesus specified what he wanted, thus ruling out all else.

The Bible also teaches that baptism is a burial in water (Rom. 6:1-4, Col. 2:12, Acts 8:36).  The Bible does not say “don’t use sprinkling for baptism.”  However, it doesn’t need to because when a burial is specified, any other form that man might come up with is wrong.  Using sprinkling for baptism instead of a burial in water (as the Bible specifies) is wrong because of the silence of the Scriptures.

There are many religious groups which use instrumental music in their worship.  The Bible, however, specifies that we are to sing (Col. 3:16, Eph. 5:19, I Cor. 14:15).  When God specified singing, all other forms of music were ruled out.  Sometimes people will say, trying to defend the addition of instrumental music to their worship, that God did not say, “don’t use it.”  He did not have to; God said what He wanted.  Remember, Christ did not say, “don’t use ham and eggs for the elements of the Lord’s Supper.”  Yet, most understand that He did not need to, having already specified what he wanted the elements to be.  In the same way, the specification of “sing” as the type of music to use today in worshiping God eliminates “playing.”

This same principle can be applied to many other Bible subjects.  God has specified the work of the church (teach the lost, teach Christians, help needy saints); the way that the church takes in money (Christians giving on the first day of the week); the organization of the church (local autonomous congregations overseen by elders); who is to be baptized (penitent believers); and the day to partake of the Lord’s Supper (the first day of the week).  The Bible does not have to say that the church is not to be involved in providing recreation and entertainment.  It does not have to say that the church cannot be involved in a business to make money.  The Scriptures do not have to say that it is wrong to have someone who might be called a bishop overseeing several congregations.  It does not have to say that baptizing infants is wrong or that it is wrong to partake of the Lord’s Supper on Saturday.  In all of these areas, God has specified what He wants, so all else is ruled out.

Consider a final illustration.  Let us say that you send your son to the store, give him twenty dollars, and tell him to buy milk and eggs.  The son returns having spent the change on candy, ice cream, and soft drinks.  Would the son be wrong?  Yes, especially if you had told him in the past, “when I send you to the store you are allowed to buy only what I tell you.”  The son could not successfully defend himself by saying that you didn’t say don’t buy soft drinks, candy, and ice cream (or everything else that the store has).  No, when you specify what you want, all else is ruled out.  You don’t have to say don’t buy this or don’t buy that.  If we can understand this principle of the illustration, we can understand the importance of God’s silence as it pertains to the subject of authority (Rev. 22:18-19).