The Silence of the Scriptures

by Jefferson David Tant

For hundreds of years, Bible believers have had discussions over the question of “the silence of the Scriptures.” Does silence indicate that whatever is not specifically condemned is permissible? Thus, does silence give consent? Or does silence mean there is no authority for a certain practice, and it is therefore unscriptural?

Early Thoughts

These questions rose early, as Tertullian (ca. 150-222 A.D) wrote of those who claimed that “the thing which is not forbidden is freely permitted.” He replied, “I would rather say that what has not been freely allowed is forbidden.”

This is a question that is important for us, even as it was 2,000 years ago.

In The Reformation

In the Reformation, there were differences in the approach to this by Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531). In his early years, Luther wrote, “Whatever is without the word of God is, by that very fact, against God,” based on Deuteronomy 4:2: “You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.”

In his later years, Luther changed, stating, “What is not against Scripture is for Scripture, and Scripture for it” This statement amounted to “silence gives consent.” Zwingli taught that practices “not enjoined or taught in the New Testament should be unconditionally rejected.”

Luther’s view prevailed and became the preferred view of the denominations. If Zwingli’s view had won, the history of the religious world might have been different, but Luther lived 15 years longer than Zwingli and thus had a longer influence. A Protestant pastor was captured by a militant Catholic group, tried for heresy, and burned at the stake. The Protestant government in Zurich declared war, and while serving as a chaplain, Zwingli was hit by a spear and died on October 10, 1531.

In the Restoration Movement

"The question came to the front once again. As the use of instrumental music in worship was gaining, L. L. Pinkerton championed for them, basing his position on the fact that they were not forbidden. This led to division, as he introduced a melodeon into the worship of the church in Midway, Kentucky about 1859. He complained that the singing was so bad that it would “scare away the rats from worship.” To him, the instrument was just an expedient. J.S. Lamar argued that the instrument was “an inevitable consequence of growth and culture.”

These views ushered in many other practices which resulted in tragic division, bringing about the Christian Church as separate from the churches of Christ in the early 1900s. The view of “silence gives consent” is strong in almost all denominations.

But “What saith the Scriptures?”

Consider what the Scriptures do say about instruments of music in worship. The argument is made that they used instruments in worship in the Old Testament. And they certainly did. And why did they use them? Because God authorized it! “He then stationed the Levites in the house of the LORD with cymbals, with harps, and with lyres, according to the command of David and of Gad the king's seer, and of Nathan the prophet; for the command was from the LORD through His prophets” (II Chronicles 29:25).

If a similar passage can be found in the New Testament, I’ll move the piano in tomorrow. But it’s not there. Furthermore, we know that the first Christians were the Jews who converted on Pentecost. There is no record of them using instruments in their worship. In fact, church historians agree that there were no instruments used in the worship of Christians. Historian Elesha Coffman writes: “Unaccompanied vocal music continued to be the norm in Christian worship for centuries. Then, in about the 10th or 12th century, Western Christians began to use the organ in the liturgy.”

There must be some reason that those who used the instruments by God’s approval no longer used them. It is obvious that the New Testament is “silent” about them, and therefore those early Christians knew they were not authorized.

In the Old Testament Cain and Able present the first case for consideration. We know that Cain’s sacrifice was rejected, while Able’s was accepted. We do not know what God had told them, but we know he gave instructions. “By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous, God testifying about his gifts, and through faith, though he is dead, he still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4).

And what was the source of Able’s faith? “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17) Thus it is obvious that God had given instruction. That’s a “necessary implication,” another way to ascertain God’s will.

We surmise that God told both the same thing, but it should be obvious that he did not tell them all the kinds of sacrifices that would not be acceptable. If God had to deal with us that way, we would need a wheelbarrow to carry the Bible around.

The same reasoning applies to God’s command to Moses about a certain sacrifice. “This is the statute of the law which the LORD has commanded, saying, 'Speak to the sons of Israel that they bring you an unblemished red heifer in which is no defect, [and] on which a yoke has never been placed” (Numbers 19:2).

Where, in all of the Bible is Moses told, “No horse, zebra, bedbug or ant?” How many species of animals live on the earth? The point is clear, God said what he wanted, but did not need to specify what he did not want.

We often refer to Noah and his preparation for building the ark. “Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the ark with rooms, and shall cover it inside and out with pitch” (Genesis 6:14). How many varieties of trees were on the earth? Notice that God did not say, “Gopher, but I do not want Ash, Birth, Cedar, Dogwood, Elm, Fir, etc.” If Mrs. Noah insisted on golden oak in the bedroom, Noah could have reasoned that since God was silent about oak, it would be OK?

My father, Yater Tant, referred to this matter in a sermon and stated that if Noah had used any other kind of wood, the ark would have sunk like a rock. After the service, a listener disagree with my father, and my father insisted that the ark would have sunk. The listener replied, “No, it never would have floated in the first place.” The point is well taken!

The sad fate of Nadab and Abihu is another good example to consider. God gave instructions about fire, incense and offerings. “And he shall take a firepan full of coals of fire from upon the altar before the LORD, and two handfuls of finely ground sweet incense, and bring [it] inside the veil” (Leviticus 16:12).

The brother’s sad fate is well known. “Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD” (Leviticus 10:1-2). The operative phrase is “which He had not commanded them.” Did the brothers think “One fire is as good as another, and this is more convenient than the one God specified?” the NIV says they offered “unauthorized fire.” Note that God was “silent” about any other fire. He only mentioned fire from the altar.

The Ark of the Covenant was sacred to the nation of Israel. Whenever it was to be moved, God specified its transport. “At that time the LORD set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the LORD, to stand before the LORD to serve Him and to bless in His name until this day” (Deuteronomy 10:8) Further instructions were given in Exodus 25:12-14: “And you shall cast four gold rings for it, and fasten them on its four feet, and two rings shall be on one side of it and two rings on the other side of it. And you shall make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, to carry the ark with them.”

After the Ark was captured by the Philistines, King David was returning it to its rightful place. “Now David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. And David arose and went with all the people who were with him to Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God which is called by the Name, the very name of the LORD of hosts who is enthroned [above] the cherubim. And they placed the ark of God on a new cart that they might bring it from the house of Abinadab which was on the hill; and Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were leading the new cart” (II Samuel 6:1-3).

This method of transport seemed sensible, as they had some distance to cover, and it was certainly more convenient to place the ark on an oxcart rather than for the men to carry it on their shoulders. They were doing a good work, but good to whom? Men, or God?

Once again, tragedy came. “And they placed the ark of God on a new cart that they might bring it from the house of Abinadab which was on the hill; and Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were leading the new cart. So they brought it with the ark of God from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill; and Ahio was walking ahead of the ark. Meanwhile, David and all the house of Israel were celebrating before the LORD with all kinds of [instruments made of] fir wood, and with lyres, harps, tambourines, castanets and cymbals. But when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out toward the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen nearly upset it. And the anger of the LORD burned against Uzzah, and God struck him down there for his irreverence; and he died there by the ark of God” (II Samuel 6:3-7).

Why did he die for “doing good?” He was simply trying to save the ark from falling to the ground. But he violated a clear prohibition. “Then David said, "No one is to carry the ark of God but the Levites; for the LORD chose them to carry the ark of God, and to minister to Him forever." (I Chronicles 15:2) “And when Aaron and his sons have finished covering the holy [objects] and all the furnishings of the sanctuary, when the camp is to set out, after that the sons of Kohath shall come to carry [them,] so that they may not touch the holy [objects] and die. These are the things in the tent of meeting which the sons of Kohath are to carry” (Numbers 4:15).

David recognized the problem. “Because you did not [carry it] at the first, the LORD our God made an outburst on us, for we did not seek Him according to the ordinance" (I Chronicles 15:13). Evidently he had thought “silence gives consent,” as nowhere were they told they could not transport the Ark on a cart, but learned that it doesn’t.

In the New Testament “Going beyond” was on Paul’s mind in writing to Corinth. “Now these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and Apollos for your sakes; that in us ye might learn not to go beyond the things which are written; that no one of you be puffed up for the one against the other” (I Corinthians 4:6 ASV).

Paul referred to himself and Apollos as those authorized to speak with authority. To “go beyond” is to enter the realm of silence, which was not to be done.

The Colossian letter warns against practices that were not acceptable. ”Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!" (which all [refer to] things destined to perish with the using) --in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, [but are] of no value against fleshly indulgence” (Colossians 2:21-23).

How should we define this “self-made religion” (NASV) or “will-woship” (ASV)? Paul says these things have “the appearance of wisdom…but are of no value.” Many worship practices in denominations are justified because they are entertaining and draw large crowds. Some of the popular preachers are “Dr. Phil in the pulpit” who take a verse of Scripture and deliver a “feel good” sermon. The well-known Joel Osteen, with a 40,000-member church has said, “I don’t preach on sin. I want my people to feel good.” Well, he certainly is not a preacher of Christ, for Christ often dealt with sin in his preaching.

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