The “Silence” of The Scriptures

20140317_160954Without a common understanding of how the Bible authorizes, even the most earnest desire and irenic spirit are insufficient to attain and maintain unity.  A brief examination of our own history over the past 150 years will bear this out. A little more than a century ago, the United States Census Bureau, for the first time, listed Churches of Christ and Christian Churches as two separate religious bodies.  This official recognition of the division that existed between Churches of Christ and Christian Churches was the culmination of half a century of disagreement over how the Scriptures authorize; specifically, how to interpret the “silence” of the Scriptures.

How is one to understand “silence” after God has already spoken?  Is “silence” prohibitive or permissive?  Is “silence” intentional or incidental?  Disagreement over this fundamental issue is what divided us 100 years ago, and continues to keep us separated today.

However, let’s allow the Scriptures to answer this question for us and allow it to be its own interpreter.

The prophet Jeremiah was told to stand in the gate of the temple and to urge the people to “Amend your ways…” (Jeremiah 7:3).  What ways did they need to amend?  According to Jeremiah 7:31, they had built high places upon which to burn their sons and daughters.  But note the principle or rationale by which God condemned their action.  God said they were guilty of doing that “which I did not command, nor did it come into My heart.”  Their condemnation was not based upon the explicit prohibition of idolatry, but rather was based on the equivalent practice of doing that which the Lord had not commanded.

In Leviticus 10:1-2, Nadab and Abihu sinned by ignoring this principle of silence.  They offered strange fire before the Lord “which He had not commanded them.”  By doing that which the Lord had not commanded them, they were found guilty.  Nowhere did God say, “You cannot use this fire.”  However what God did do is tell them what fire they were supposed to use, and there was no permission to be found in God’s silence about other fires.

I challenge all men to heed the words of the Puritan preacher, Richard Baxter (1615-1691) who stated, “For what man, dare go in a way which has neither precept nor example to warrant it? Can that be obedience which has no command for it…O, the pride of man’s heart, that instead of being a law-obeyer, will be a law-maker! For my part, I will not fear that God will be angry with me for doing no more than He has commanded me, and sticking close to the rule of His word, in matter of worship; but I should tremble to add or diminish!” (Baxter, 24)

May we have such reverence for God and his authority that we might all tremble at the very thought of adding to or diminishing from God’s word!


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Comments 14

  • I don’t disagree with your point. But in Exodus 30:9, didn’t God prohibit “strange incense?” Was that different from “strange fire?”

  • Listening to the silence of the scriptures can and is as powerful as listening to what the scriptures are saying.

  • There is a command to sing in the worship of God. The command to sing in the worship of God has some specifics given. They include singing one to another. This is the expressed will of God. To depart from the will of God is sin. Therefore those who refuse to sing, where otherwise able, in the worship of God are in sin. All sin condemns and put our soul in jeopardy. This sin, largely not addressed, puts souls at risk.

  • Can you please put this on Facebook? Thanks.

  • Steve, good article as usual. Clear, concise and true to scripture. Before I got to the end I thought you might include Heb.7:13f which is, as you know, equally powerful.

  • Good article Steve. I couldn’t help but think though that with both examples the silence is in direct conflict with what He has said, sacrifices to idols and strange fire. In that respect isn’t it a subject that is not completely silent, but God has given some instructions in that area. It is our responsibility as Christians to search the Bible to make sure we are not dealing with an area that example or inference does not cover. Richard’s quote is a good one. Keep up your good work.

  • Steve, your comments about the silence of the scriptures interest me for several reasons. You said, “However, let’s allow the Scriptures to answer this question for us and allow it to be its own interpreter.” I totally agree with you on this. But I must point out to you that you have violated your own exhortation. You have failed to let the Bible be its own interpreter. For instance…
    You cited Jeremiah 7:31 and then stated “Their condemnation was not based upon the explicit prohibition of idolatry, but rather was based on the equivalent practice of doing that which the Lord had not commanded.” Surely a bit of careful thought would have led you to realize that it was not wrong for the Israelites to offer their children to an idol because God had not commanded it, but because it was a violation of the explicit commandments of God. Exodus 20:2-5 clearly states:
    3 “You shall have no other gods before me. 4 You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.”
    Sure, God had said nothing about offering their children to Molech, but he had addressed the worship of idols. Did he need to specifically forbid it when he had forbidden the worship of idols? Israel had violated the “law of specificity,” not some imagined “law of silence.”
    You said, “In Leviticus 10:1-2, Nadab and Abihu sinned by ignoring this principle of silence.”
    Actually there were at least four offenses these brothers committed.
    1. Unauthorized entry into the Holy of Holies to offer incense. Only the high priest was authorized to go into the Holy of Holies.
    2. Failure to show proper reverence for the Lord God. The very next verse says, Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” Lev. 10:3
    3. Intoxication was possibly what led them to do this irreverent act. (See Lev. 10:8-10).
    4. Offering “strange fire.”
    What made the “strange fire” strange? It was fire the Lord had not commanded. Where did the “unauthorized fire” (ESV) come from? Obviously it came from a source other than that God had authorized. We properly must infer that God had authorized the source of fire to be used in the burning of incense. He would have been unjust to condemn them for taking fire from another source had He not specified where the fire to be used in the burning of incense was to come from.
    Where was the source of the authorized fire?
    Leviticus 9:24 And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the pieces of fat on the altar, and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces.
    That fire was to be kept perpetually burning. On the Day of Atonement, Moses was instructed that Aaron “…shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the Lord, and two handfuls of sweet incense beaten small, and he shall bring it inside the veil 13 and put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is over the testimony, so that he does not die…” Leviticus 16:12-13
    Nadab and Abihu were not condemned to death because they did something God had said nothing about but because they did not do what God had specified should be done. Sure, God had said nothing about fire from some other source. He didn’t need to. He had specified where the fire was to come from.

  • AMEN Steve! !
    Great thoughts

  • Thanks for your comment, Melissa. Yes, God prohibited “strange fire,” but the question is, “What made it “strange fire?” Did God simply authorize what he wanted, or did he have to innumerate all the kinds of fire that he didn’t want? The point is, we act by authority, and silence doesn’t grant permission. Hope this helps.

  • I have already put it on several lists I am on. If you hit the facebook button at the bottom of the page, you can add it to your page as well.

  • Thanks David. For the record, I took it out just for brevity’s sake. I included this passage in the full article that can be accessed at

  • Thanks for your thoughts, Jeff. Yes I am aware of what you’re saying, but don’t miss this point. I understand that God spoke on these issues, but what I’m trying to demonstrate in these passages is the “rationale” God used in condemning them. He said they were guilty for doing what he “did not command them.” The point then is that doing what he did not command is equivalent to not doing what he did command.

  • Hello Max,
    This article is a condensed version of a longer article. I placed the word “silence” in quotation marks to indicate that technically it isn’t silence that prohibits or permits, but it is the “words” of God that prohibit or permit. In trying to make the article brief, I left out the following paragraph that would explain this. It said… . [For the record, I will use the terms “silence of the Scriptures,” and the “principle of silence” in a colloquial sense throughout this lecture. More precisely stated, the principle of silence would be better called the principle of authority. Technically, we are not trying to interpret the silence of God, but we are trying to determine how we are to interpret the words of God]. Hope this clarifies.

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