The Silence of the Scriptures: Permissive or Prohibitive?

Some allege that whatever is not expressly forbidden is allowed in religious practice. Others contend that anything not authorized is not permitted. Is there any validity to the argument from silence?
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

No narration available

One of the controversies that has raged in the world of “Christendom” for centuries is the matter of whether or not the “silence” of the Scriptures must be respected or ignored. Some allege that whatever is not expressly forbidden is allowed in religious practice; others contend that anything not authorized is not permitted.

The dispute surfaced early in the post-apostolic age. Tertullian (ca. A.D. 150-222) spoke of those who contended that “the thing which is not forbidden is freely permitted.” He replied: “I should rather say that what has not been freely allowed is forbidden” (1995, 94).

During the early Reformation period, Martin Luther (1483-1546) taught that “whatever is without the word of God is, by that very fact, against God.” He frequently appealed to Deuteronomy 4:2: “Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish aught from it.” But he gradually modified his view.

Later Luther wrote: “Nothing ought to be set up without scriptural authority, or if it is set up, it ought to be esteemed free and not necessary” (emphasis added). Finally, he declared: “What is not against Scripture is for Scripture, and Scripture for it” (Newman 1902, 308). How tragic it is that Luther’s course of doctrinal digression is now pursued by so many today.

Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) of Switzerland felt that practices “not enjoined or taught in the New Testament should be unconditionally rejected” (Ibid., 308). Yet not even he grasped the full implication in this maxim, for he sanctioned infant baptism—which is neither enjoined nor taught in the New Testament. (For a very helpful discussion of the Reformers’ struggle with the principle of silence, see Lewis 1996, 18-19.)

In the final analysis, the issue actually is: does the Bible itself sanction the principle that the silence of the Scriptures is prohibitive? That is what counts.

It will be the contention of this article that both the Old Testament and New Testament amply demonstrate that one is not allowed to engage in any religious practice for which there is not scriptural authority—within either a generic or specific format).

Old Testament Evidence

The Old Testament contains a number of examples illustrating the force of the “silence” principle.

The “Cain Syndrome”

The difference between Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam, was the difference between respecting what Jehovah had authorized, and what he had not. Cain offered the produce of the field; Abel offered the firstlings of his flock (Genesis 4:3-4).

The latter act was “by faith” (Hebrews 11:4)—which comes by hearing what the Lord has spoken (Romans 10:17), not what he has left unspoken! The former act was obviously of human inclination, and so the Lord rejected Cain’s offering. The temperament reflected in Cain’s action is far from extinct.

Noah’s Example

Similarly, when Noah constructed the ark, he did so “by faith” (Hebrews 11:7), which means the patriarch did “according to all that God commanded him” (Genesis 6:22), or, as the NIV renders the clause: “Noah did everything just as God commanded him.” Though the question is frequently ridiculed these days—when authority is held in contempt—it is still appropriate to ask: would Noah have been preserved if he had acted upon the presumption that “whatever is not forbidden is allowed,” and so had altered the divine pattern for the building of the ark?

The “Strange Fire” Incident

Nadab and Abihu were sons of Aaron, the first Hebrew high priest. When they employed “strange fire” (i.e., fire not taken from the altar of sacrifice; cf. Leviticus 16:12) they were destroyed by God. What was their crime? The inspired text states that they offered “that which [God] had not commanded them” (Leviticus 10:1), or, to express it in another way: “[T]hey offered unauthorized fire before the Lord” (NIV; emphasis added).

The Ark of the Covenant

One of the sacred items of the tabernacle system was the ark of the covenant. The Mosaic law specified: “Jehovah set aside the tribe of Levi, to bear the ark of the covenant” (Deuteronomy 10:8). The Levites were thus authorized to transport the ark. There was no specific prohibition regarding the other tribes; the law was simply silent as to their privilege of transporting the holy vessel. Was that silence prohibitive? Yes it was, for a parallel passage explicitly states: “None ought to carry the ark of God but the Levites, for them Jehovah has chosen to carry the ark” (1 Chronicles 15:2; emphasis added). When the Levites were specifically authorized to bear the ark, in the absence of supplementary authority, that clearly implied that “none else” should function in that capacity. Silence excluded!

Furthermore, the Levites were to bear that ark by poles, which were passed through rings on the side of the golden box (Exodus 25:12-14). David, however, had borne the ark on a “new cart” (2 Samuel 6:3). Was such a sin, inasmuch as the law was silent respecting the matter of carts? Israel’s great king clarified this matter when he later confessed: “[W]e sought [God] not according to the ordinance” (1 Chronicles 15:13), or, “in the prescribed way” (NIV).

Prohibition of Idolatry

One is not at liberty to go beyond what has been prescribed in a religious practice, any more than a pharmacist is allowed to add more to one’s medication than what the physician prescribed!

The first commandment of the Decalogue stated:

I am Jehovah thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:2-3).

Of course the nation of Israel egregiously violated that prohibition across the centuries.

There is an interesting commentary on this matter in the book of Jeremiah. God’s prophet was instructed to stand in the gate of the temple compound and urge the nation, “Amend your ways” (Jeremiah 7:3). What was their transgression? Among other things:

[T]hey have built the high places [centers of idol worship] of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded not, neither came it into my mind" (Jeremiah 7:31; emphasis added).

A comparison of this passage with the original law forbidding idolatry plainly shows that a practice which the Lord has not commanded is equivalent to an explicit prohibition. The Bible is its own best commentary!

New Testament Evidence

The New Testament record is equally lucid with reference to our obligation to acknowledge the principle of biblical silence.

Going Beyond

In his first letter to the Christians at Corinth, Paul addresses the problem of attaching oneself to a church leader and forming a sect around that individual. The apostle condemns the practice by the use of some rhetorical questions: “Is Christ divided?,” etc. (1 Corinthians 1:12-13). Later, he apparently alludes to the issue again when he says:

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 (1 Corinthians 4:6, ASV).

The reference to “myself” and “Apollos” is “a veiled allusion to those who were actually responsible for the church factions, tactfully withholding their names” (Vine 1951, 61). When one goes “beyond the things that are written,” he has entered the realm of silence. And the inspired apostle says that one must learn not to do that.


In Paul’s letter to the saints at Colossae, he condemned the practice of “will-worship,” a disposition which is “after the precepts and doctrines of men” (Colossians 2:22-23). Vine defines will-worship as “voluntarily adopted worship, whether unbidden or forbidden” (1962, 236).

We have no difficulty in understanding what it means to do that which is “forbidden.” But what does it mean to do that which is “unbidden”—if it is not doing that about which the Bible is silent?

Noted lexicographer J. H. Thayer described will-worship as “worship which one devises and prescribes for himself” (1958, 168). Everett Harrison commented that “will-worship” is that which “is not prescribed by God but only by (the will of) man” (1971, 72).

Here is the issue: if one may, with divine approval, operate in the realm of silence, why can’t he “devise and prescribe for himself” whatever pleases him? And yet, it is this very thing being censured.

The Silence of Moses

In the opening chapter of Hebrews, the inspired author argued for the superiority of Jesus Christ over the angels. One of his points was this: one may not place angels in the same class as God’s Son. Why not? Because the Father never “at any time” said to an angelic being: “You are my Son” (1:5). The principle is this: when God is silent about a matter, humanity has no right to be presumptive, and thus to speak (or to act) without his bidding.

One of the most powerful arguments setting forth the silence principle is found in Hebrews chapters seven and eight. In 8:4 it is affirmed that Jesus Christ, if on earth, could not function as a priest. And why was that the case? Because, as indicated in 7:14, Jesus was from the tribe of Judah—not Levi.

Here is the crux of the matter. Concerning priests from the tribe of Judah, “Moses spake nothing”; or, to say the same thing in another way, he was silent about it!

Silence amounts to no authority, and is thus prohibitive. One scholar expresses it in this fashion:

It was from the tribe of Judah that our great High Priest descended. The Mosaic legislation never authorized anyone from that tribe to be a priest (McDonald 1971, 102).

Or note the comment of the renowned scholar John Owen, in his monumental seven-volume set of commentaries on the book of Hebrews:

And this silence of Moses in this matter the apostle takes to be a sufficient argument to prove that the legal priesthood did not belong, nor could be transferred, unto the tribe of Judah(1980, 442).

Could a matter be clearer?

Some have attempted to nullify the inspired silence argument of Hebrews 7:14 by contending that the Old Testament was not silent about the tribal association of priests. Non-Levites were explicitly forbidden from doing Levitical functions (Numbers 1:51).

That is correct. But that was not the manner in which the writer of Hebrews argued the case. He contended that a non-Levite was prohibited due to the silence of the Mosaic code. A comparison of 7:14, therefore, with the text from Numbers, clearly demonstrates that operating without authority is the equivalent of a specific prohibition! The argument from Hebrews 7:14 has never been answered by those who disdain the “silence-is-prohibitive” concept.

Going Beyond What Is Written

An inspired apostle wrote:

Whosoever goeth onward and abideth not in the teaching of Christ, hath not God: he that abideth in the teaching, the same hath both the Father and the Son (2 John 9).

There is an objective body of truth designated “the teaching of Christ.” To step beyond it—either into that which is specifically forbidden, or into the unauthorized realm of silence—is to transgress the will of God.

There has been considerable technical discussion over the grammar of this passage. Some have contended that the verse addresses only the nature of Jesus, but not peripheral matters of doctrine. The fact is, one of the most ludicrous positions that one can entertain is to allege that one must accept the New Testament teaching about Christ, but he may, with impunity, ignore the instruction that is from the Lord! The silence principle is quite valid, and a repudiation of it leads to abject apostasy.

Logical Consequences

We must at least give brief attention to the logical consequences that attach to rejecting the silence concept. Once one abandons this principle, “anything goes” becomes the name of the game. One of the leading digressive voices of today argued this very point:

If it were the case that anything not expressly forbidden in the New Testament is permissible in the Christian religion, then we could not only use pianos to accompany our singing but beads to aid our prayers, crucifixes to focus our devotion, and hashish to enhance our sensitivity. We could also initiate an organizational network similar to that which has been protested so strongly in Catholicism or begin financing church projects with bingo games (where legal) on Tuesday evenings. Not one of these things is explicitly forbidden in the New Testament, and no one who denies the legitimacy of the authority principle as outlined above can consistently argue against any of them (Shelly, 1987, 33-34).

Such Logic!

We conclude this study by citing a gentleman who emphatically denies that biblical silence is prohibitive. He wrote:

God’s silence is not a governing factor in matters pertaining to life and godliness. The whole idea of “silence,” as those of the anti-instrumentalist position have used the term, requires the interpretation of fallible men. If God did not say it, then how can we be sure that men have said what He meant, but did not say? How dare mortal men to take upon themselves to thus unauthorizedly speak for God? (Blakely 1996; emphasis added).

If one understands the point being made, it is this: it is not legitimate to use the silence argument because God has been silent regarding the silence argument, and if God is silent with reference to the silence argument, then the silence argument is unauthorized, hence is improper as an argumentative device.

There are two things that may be said in response. First, as we have demonstrated already, God has not been silent regarding the silence principle. Second, in view of Blakely’s reasoning (i.e., if God has not said it, it is unauthorized) why is it not the case that the employment of instrumental music in Christian worship is improper, inasmuch as the New Testament is silent concerning its use?


There is but one hope of maintaining the purity of Christianity, as that system existed under the leadership of inspired apostles. We must plead that men remain within the guidelines of New Testament authority. That can be done only when the principle of the silence of the Scriptures is revered.

  • Harrison, Everett. 1971. Colossians: Christ All-Sufficient. Chicago, IL: Moody.
  • Lewis, Jack. 1996. Reformation Thought. Gospel Advocate, January.
  • McDonald, William. 1971. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers.
  • Newman, A. H. 1902. A Manual of Church History. Vol. 2. Chciago, IL: The American Baptist Publication Society.
  • Owen, John. 1980. An Exposition on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Vol. 5. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
  • Shelly, Rubel. 1987. Sing His Praise—A Case for A Capella Music as Worship Today. Nashville, TN: 20th Century Christian.
  • Tertullian. 1995. Ante-Nicene Fathers. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
  • Thayer, J. H. 1958. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark.
  • Vine, W. E. 1951. 1st Corinthians. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Vine, W.E. 1962. Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. Vol. 4. Westwood, NJ: Fleming Revell.