My entire life I have heard this saying, “Speak where the Bible speaks; be silent where the Bible is silent,” or phrases very similar. I have heard this phrase lauded, I have heard it ridiculed, and I have heard it misused. Recently, a reader of this blog asked me to address this phrase and what it really means. I would love to do just that.
Where Did the Saying Come From?
First of all, this isn’t a quotation from Scripture, but a quotation from a preacher named Thomas Campbell. In 1809, Campbell spoke to a large crowd of people, who were described as being, “Sick of the animosities and controversies between rival sects, and disgusted with the petty differences which occasioned alienation and strife…” They sought some way to be united and to use Scripture alone as their guide in all matters of faith.
Thomas Campbell’s speech that day was described in this way:
Having opened the meeting in the usual manner, and, in earnest prayer, specially invoked the Divine guidance, proceeded to rehearse the matter from the beginning, and to dwell with unusual force upon the manifold evils resulting from the divisions in religious society–divisions which, he urged, were as unnecessary as they were injurious, since God had provided, in his sacred Word, an infallible standard, which was all-sufficient and alone-sufficient, as a basis of union and Christian co-operation. He showed, however, that men had not been satisfied with its teachings, but had gone outside of the Bible, to frame for themselves religious theories, opinions and speculations, which were the real occasions of the unhappy controversies and strifes which had so long desolated the religious world. He, therefore, insisted with great earnestness upon a return to the simple teachings of the Scriptures, and upon the entire abandonment of everything in religion for which there could not be produced a Divine warrant.
Near the conclusion of his address, he spoke these now famous words, “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; and where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.” A profound silence was said to have fallen over the crowd, as the weight of that thought sunk into their minds.
What Did It Mean?
Many debate and try to twist the meaning of these words today, but make no mistake, the meaning of those words were clear on that day. The first man to speak up said, “Mr. Campbell, if we adopt that as a basis, then there is an end of infant baptism.” To which Campbell replied, “If infant baptism be not found in Scripture, we can have nothing to do with it.”
There it is, the plain and simple meaning of the phrase: The church should do what Scripture authorizes us to do and not do what Scripture says nothing about. Fill in the blank with any religious practice, “If _____________ be not found in Scripture, we can have nothing to do with it.”
Campbell’s statement was summed up this way:
There should be no contention, henceforth, in regard to the opinions of men, however wise or learned. Whatever private opinions might be entertained upon matters not clearly revealed must be retained in silence, and no effort must be made to impose them upon others. Thus the silence of the Bible was to be respected equally with its revelations, which were by Divine authority declared to be able to “make the man of God perfect and thoroughly furnished unto every good work.”
There may in deed be many matters about which Scripture is silent and men may draw any number of conclusions and opinions about those matters. However, those opinions and conclusions should not be brought into the faith and worship of the church. They should be “retained in silence.” Incidentally, this seems to be the precise teaching of Romans 14 as well.
What It Does NOT Mean
1. It does not mean what God has not authorized is necessarily sinful.
We have often taken this to the next level and said we can know for certain that practices about which God is silent must indeed be sinful. That was not the intention of the phrase. Campbell believed “that all matters not distinctly revealed in the Bible should be held as matters of opinion and of mutual forbearance.”
But just because something is not sinful, or may not be sinful, does not mean you or I have the authority to introduce it into the faith or worship of the Lord’s church without express authority from God.
2. It does not mean when the Bible is silent about something, we can do whatever we want.
Many have begun to twist this phrase and insist it means the exact opposite of what Campbell meant. They now insist it means, “Where the Bible is silent, do whatever you want, just don’t make any laws about it.” Campbell knew there would continue to be chaos and disunity if men continued doing that.
It was obvious to the crowd the day this phrase was first spoken, If we make this the basis of our unity, then there are many things which we must STOP doing.
3. It does not mean we are not allowed to use church buildings.
When this phrase is quoted, many say something like, “Then why do you have a church building? The Bible is silent on that.” Actually, Scripture is NOT silent on a meeting place. In fact, the commands to assemble necessitate a meeting place. In a follow up writing, Campbell said about matters like this:
That if any circumstantials indispensably necessary to the observance of Divine ordinances be not found upon the page of express revelation, such, and such only, as are absolutely necessary for this purpose should be adopted under the title of human expedients, without any pretense to a more sacred origin, so that any subsequent alteration or difference in the observance of these things might produce no contention nor division in the Church.
The church is authorized to adopt certain “human expedients” that are necessary for doing what God has expressly commanded us to do. Consider this example: If someone commissioned you to bake a cake, you’d be authorized to use an oven and purchase flour, as these things are necessary for doing what you’ve been told to do.
I am not a follower of Thomas Campbell. I’m a follower of Jesus Christ. But I happen to believe Campbell was right. I believe we would be better off if we adopt – and stick to – this mentality, “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; and where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.”
I believe Scripture is not only inspired, I believe it is all sufficient. I believe it is, “Profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for EVERY good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
It is presumptuous, divisive, and spiritually dangerous to introduce things into the faith and worship of the church that are not expressly authorized in Scripture. Let us walk circumspectly, dear church.
I love you and God loves you,
Robert Richardson, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell and Thomas Campbell’s, Declaration and Address (Source)