Copyright © 2003, by John Lankford, Fort Smith, Arkansas

In approaching the New Testament as a historical document, it is important to treat it as any other type of writing. This means that statements are collected and examined in light of the context of the times. In doing this for religious materials, usually a coherent picture emerges that characterizes the teachings/practices of a movement.

If there is no mention of a teaching or practice, then this "raw silence" by itself proves nothing. For

example, the "silence" of the New Testament on the topic of Purgatory is used to both prove and condemn it. It "cuts both ways." In another case, infant baptism has been both affirmed and denied based on the mere non-mention of the practice in the New Testament. Any historian/lawyer will testify that a case cannot be made on just mere silence without any positive testimony to accompany it.

Only "silence-in-context" is significant. That is, if all the statements point toward a specific conclusion, this will shed light on what is not stated. For example, when all the New Testament information is collected on baptism together with early Christian testimony (e.g., Didache, late 1st century), it points toward the conclusion that immersion was normative. As such, the silence of the New Testament on other modes (e.g., sprinkling, pouring) is "explained." Here what is SAID allows for an accurate understanding of the silence.

Churches have used "raw silence" to both allow and forbid things. For example, the Catholic doctrine of "Mary as Intercessor" is a case-in-point. To the Catholic, no one can prove that it is expressly forbidden (here: "silence allows"). Protestants counter by saying such a doctrine was not present because there is no record of it in the New Testament (here: "silence forbids"). In the Churches of Christ, the use of Sunday School, individual communion cups, baptistries, orphan homes, fellowship rooms, youth ministers, songbooks, instrumental music and a host of other things have been allowed/forbidden based on the argument from the mere non-mention of these in the New Testament. (See further reading #4.)

The Solution again is to collect/examine all the statements from the record an see if a coherent picture emerges then let this "explain" the silence. This is the correct way. This is "silence-in-context." For example, the New Testament picture presents the Holy Spirit an intercessor for us in prayer (Romans 8:26). This explains why there is no mention of Mary in this role. Even though it is claimed that she does not keep the Holy Spirit from its work, Mary is an addition that modifies the design explicitly stated. God's express design should be respected and not changed (Hebrews 8:5; Deuteronomy 4:2; 1 Corinthians 4:6).

With regard to the communion cup, all the statements show that the focus is not on the vessel but the contents (1 Corinthians 11:25, etc.). This is specific and is further confirmed by the testimony of early church writers. So, whether one drinking container or many are used, the contents are still taken. The container does not modify the expressed design of communion in any way. Hence, there is no significance to the mention/silence of any container.

In Summary, failure to use "silence-in-context" has been the cause of much division. It is very important that STATEMENTS be gathered FIRST to see if a coherent picture or design emerges, then the non-mention of something can be accurately explained.

Further study:

  1. To read more about using evidence, see the article Follow the Evidence on this website.

  2. To see how Catholics/ Church of Christ both mis-use the silence of scripture see the Stevens-Beevers Debate in our church library.

  3. In the Church of Christ, to see the very non-mention of something is used to forbid orphan homes, etc., see the Willis-Inman Debate in our library.

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West-Ark Church of Christ