The Sounds of silence

One question that comes up frequently in a discussion over a cappella music is whether arguing from the silence of Scripture is a legitimate way to study the Bible. Does silence communicate? I recall that my mother could communicate without saying a word. Does the Bible suggest that it should be interpreted by its silence as well as by its words? What if the Bible actually expressed how it was to be interpreted?

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Jesus was capable of fusing the entirety of the Law of Moses into two principles: Love God and love your neighbor, noting that “on these two commandments depend all the law and prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).

There were 613 commands in the Old Testament. The genius of Jesus’ teaching can be seen in the manner in which he put all of these under two headings: love God and love our neighbor. Jesus taught that we should respect the “weightier” matters of the Law (Matthew 23:23).

When faced by questions from the Sadducees, however, Jesus proved the resurrection by appealing to the tense of a verb: At the burning bush, Jesus recalled God’s words: “I am the God of Abraham.” Noting the present tense (“I am”), Jesus deduced that the patriarchs were still alive in Moses’ day. Jesus deftly turned a major theological teaching on the tense of the verb (Matthew 22:29-32)! This is pretty careful, exact exegesis of the text of Scripture.

The Sounds of Silence

So we return to our first question: Does the Bible suggest that we are to interpret it by arguing from silence? Does such an argument exist?

We can start with the Lord’s warning not to add or take away from Scripture (Revelation 22:18,19). The principle seems fairly clear, but, some wonder if this passage applies only to the book of Revelation (“this prophecy”) and not to the Bible as a whole. Personally, I have no idea why God would demand such respect for this biblical book and not for the rest of Scripture, but perhaps we could ask if this interpretation principle is used anywhere else in Scripture?

Several times in Deuteronomy the very same principle is expressed: “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandment of the Lord your God that I command you” (Deuteronomy 4:2).

Later the Lord declares: “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it” (Deuteronomy 12:32).

In charging Joshua at the outset of his career, The Lord called on him not to “turn from [God’s Law] to the right hand or to the left (Joshua 1:7). The phrase “do not turn to the right or the left” is a pretty close approximation of the language of “adding or taking away.

The apostle Paul uses this reasoning when he urges the Corinthians “not to go beyond what is written that none of you may be puffed up” (1 Corinthians 4:6). Note the connection between going beyond what is written and human arrogance.

The author of Hebrews uses the argument from silence by noting that if the Law designated Levites as the priestly tribe, it did not need to delineate the others: “For it is evident that our Lord descended from Judah,” he declares, then adds: “and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests” (Hebrews 7:14). It would be silly to say, “Priests will come from the tribe of Levi; that excludes the tribes of Reuben, Simeon, Judah, etc. …”

John contrasts the process of remaining within God’s word and “going beyond” the word. “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the father and the son” (2 John 1:9).

“Going on ahead” of the word of God is to add to it; “Abiding” in the word of God is to follow exactly what it teaches.

If someone was to say: All women aged 16-22 please line up behind entrance number 1,” that would automatically exclude all men from age 16-22, or women who older than 22. It would not be necessary to say who it does not include, simply whom it does. A command is inclusive as well as exclusive. It includes the item mentioned and excludes all others. When, for instance, Scripture says baptism saves, that excludes sprinkling or pouring. When it says the early church met on the first day of the week to break bread, that excludes Thursdays. When it says the early church worshiped a cappella, that excludes instruments.

Interpreting Scripture’s silence is a strong and biblical method of interpreting Scripture. Scripture itself confirms this.

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Stan Mitchell

Stan has preached since 1976, in Zimbabwe, California, Texas and Tennessee. He serves as preacher for the Red Walnut Church of Christ in Bath Springs, TN. He is currently Professor of Bible at Freed-Hardeman University. He is married to the former Marjorie McCarthy, and has one daughter, Tracy Watts. He is the author of four books: The Wise Get Wiser, the Foolish More Foolish: The Book of Proverbs, Give the Winds a Mighty Voice: Our Worship in Song, and Equipping the Saints for Ministry. He has recently published another book, "Will Our Faith Have Children: Developing Leadership in the Church for the Next Generation.

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