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Q&A: What Is The Principle of Silence?

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Q&AThe principle of silence (also called the principle of exclusion or the principle of specificity) is one of the most important principles for the Christian to understand. It determines what is permitted or prohibited in all aspects of faith and religion.

Simply put, the principle of silence states that God’s silence on a particular issue should be respected. Does that answer your question? I didn’t think so. The Bible explains this important principle better than I can. Let’s look at some examples. 

The Principle Of Silence In Scripture

1. The Example Of Nadab & Abihu

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. 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.’” And Aaron held his peace. (Lev. 10:1-3, ESV) 

The two older sons of Aaron the high priest, Nadab & Abihu, offered “unauthorized fire” (which was any fire other than the fire from the alter) on the alter of incense. The punishment for violating God’s Law was death.

The point is this: God instructed the priests, when burning incense in the temple, to ignite the sweet smelling odor of incense from the brazen altar in the courtyard. God specified what fire to use, thereby excluding all other sources. God didn’t have to say, “Don’t take fire from any source except the brazen altar.” They were expected to worship God exactly how He commanded.

2. The Example Of Noah & The Ark

When the earth was overwhelmed with wickedness, God determined to destroy the world with a flood; so, He instructed Noah, who had found favor in His eyes (Gen. 6:8), to build an ark. Specifically, it was to be made out of “gopher wood” and pitched inside and out (v. 14). Also, God gave Noah very specific dimensions for the ark (v. 15). 

Noah constructed the ark “by faith” (Heb. 11:7; cf. Rom. 10:17), and thus followed God’s instructions exactly.

“Noah did everything just as God commanded him.” (Gen. 6:22, NIV)

The point is this: If He had used some other kind of wood, or any combination of different kinds of wood, he would have been in violation of God’s command. He was expected to do everything “just as God commanded him.”

3. The Example Of King David & Uzzah

God specified that men from the tribe of Levi were to carry the ark of the covenant (Deut. 10:8). It was that tribe’s responsibility. Were men from any other tribe therefore excluded? Yes they were; a parallel passage says:

…no one but the Levites may carry the ark of God, for the Lord had chosen them to carry the ark of the Lord and to minister to Him forever. (1 Chron. 15:2, ESV) 

Additionally, God specified how He wanted His ark to be transported. He wanted the ark to be carried by hand with poles through the rings on the sides of the ark (Ex. 25:12-24). 

However, about a century after this command was given, King David had the ark transported on a “new cart” (2 Sam. 6:3). Subsequently, the incident with Uzzah happened (2 Sam. 6:6-7). God didn’t say not to transport the ark on a cart; He only specified to carry it on poles. Was David wrong for commanding this? Yes he was; he didn’t respect God’s silence. David later said they were wrong for not following God’s specific command (cf. 1 Chron. 15:13-15).

4. The Example Of Moses & The Priesthood

For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. (Heb. 7:12-14, ESV)

The point is this: Moses specified that priests were to be from the tribe of Levi. The fact that Moses was silent about any other tribe meant that no one from Judah could serve as a priest under the Mosaical Law.

When The Principle Of Silence Is Permissive And When It is Prohibitive

The silence of the Lord both allows and forbids. In some contexts, God’s silence restricts; and, in other contexts, God’s silence gives license. Because the Bible implicitly forbids any belief or practice that is not authorized, we need to know when God’s silence authorizes and when it rejects.

Some of God’s commands are generic, some specific. A generic command includes everything in its class, while a specific command is limited to what is specified.  If God authorizes us to do something (a generic command), but doesn’t tell us how to do it, we are at liberty to use any method that doesn’t violate any other Biblical principle. If the Bible requires something specific, we are not at liberty to substitute or add to the command.

For example, God commands baptism/immersion for (a) the remission of sins (Acts 2:38; 1 Pet. 3:21, &c) and (b) to be born into the Body of Christ (John 3:5; Rom. 6:3-5; Acts 2:47, &c). God specified immersion (which implicitly excludes sprinkling), but we are at liberty to baptize in either warm or cold water, in the ocean or a river, or in a pool or baptistery. God’s silence, therefore, invalidates sprinkling while allowing whatever location is most expedient to fulfill His command.

Is The Principle Of Silence Valid?

No, it’s not. That is, not if your theology is wrong. An elder at a church in Ohio once told me,

Silence is just that – silence. It is neither “yes” nor “no”, and is not a friend to those who steal it for polemic purposes.

Such a response to God’s silence is typical among people who have forgotten their responsibility and approach to Scripture.

There are two ways to approach God’s Word. One is to assume that every practice is acceptable unless it is expressly forbidden in Scripture. This is the attitude of reformers like John Calvin and Martin Luther and is seen throughout the modern denominational world. The other approach is to realize everything must be done with either implicit or explicit Scriptural authority — and any practice without authorization is to questioned.

The principle of silence is only valid to the person who only accepts what the Scriptures teach, practices what the Scriptures instruct, and rejects what the Scriptures do not sanction. People who approach God’s Word with any other mindset will make light of the silence of Scripture.

Paul warned Christians “not to go beyond the things which are written” (1 Cor. 4:6). When one does that, one has entered the realm of silence, and we must learn not to do that. 

Let’s just do things God’s way. Let’s avoid modifying His commands in a matters we might presume we know best. God’s thoughts and ways are not our ways (Isa. 55:8-9); God always knows best. Like Noah, Christians must obey God “by faith” (Heb. 11:7) and do things just as He has commanded (Gen. 6:22).

Conclusion

A deep respect for God’s silence is the key ingredient for Christian unity. In fact, the only hope of maintaining the purity of Christianity – as instituted by the apostles in the 1st century – is by remaining within the guidelines of Biblical authority. If we no longer respect what God has specified or excluded, Christianity will become anarchy. When God instructs us to do something, we should do exactly as He says – nothing more, nothing less.

Question: How else does the Bible teach the principle of silence?

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One Response to Q&A: What Is The Principle of Silence?

  1. Emerson August 9, 2013 at 8:40 AM #

    Good article on an important issue. I once heard the term “positive authority” to describe something either explicitly or implicitly permissible in Scripture, and I think that it well illustrates the point. In fact, we operate on the principle that silence does not permit on a daily basis; we would not quote an author on something he/she never said–to do so would be presumptuous and unfair to the author; we would not say, “He never said he DIDN’T believe this, so therefore he must think this is true!” Likewise, we cannot logically say God authorizes something unless he tells us, either explicitly or implicitly. To presume on God’s silence by saying, “He never said we COULDN’T” is a very scary and arrogant thing to do. Not only is this principle Biblical (most importantly, as we can see from the examples you cited), but it is also common sense.

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