A Responsive Letter

Thursday, November 7, 2002


Al Maxey
Cuba Avenue Church of Christ
Alamogordo, New Mexico


Dr. Stafford North
Professor of Bible
Oklahoma Christian University
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Good Afternoon Brother North,

First, let me commend you for the many years of devoted service you have provided our God, His church, and His cause. You have been an example unto, and influence for good upon, a great many brethren. I know only eternity will reveal the full extent of the good you have accomplished for and to the glory of the Lord. I commend you, brother.

I recently read your article in the "Opinion" section of the November, 2002 issue of the Christian Chronicle. It was entitled "Making the 'sound of silence' in Scripture audible by applying language principles." As you correctly noted at the beginning of your article, "Considerable controversy has arisen recently" over this particular issue of the nature of "silence" in the Scriptures. In addition to the obvious controversy, and the chasms between brethren which have regrettably widened as a result, there also reigns confusion among the people of God with regard to this matter. I appreciate you taking the time, and investing the energy, to share your insights with us. I felt you made some valid and insightful observations.

However, may I suggest that perhaps in your analysis there is a perpetuation of what I feel to be a confusion between two interpretative principles of biblical hermeneutics: silence and specificity, and which of the two more readily lends itself to the concept of exclusion. I certainly don't place this confusion of principles at your feet alone, as I believe it can be demonstrated to predate you by many generations of sincere students of the Word. Consider your following principle:

SILENCE PRINCIPLE #1 --- "If one or more options out of a category are specified, silence about all other options in that category excludes them."

May I suggest, brother North, that it is NOT "silence" that excludes all other options in that category, but rather the stated specificity. In your illustration of the invitation to the dinner, it was NOT the silence about any other day or time that truly excluded those options, but the fact that a specific day and time was specified. Thus, brother North, your statement does not truly and correctly state the operative principle in force. It is SPECIFICITY that excludes other options, NOT SILENCE. To be truly valid, your principle should read: "If one or more options out of a category are specified, that specificity excludes all other options in that category." In other words, this actually has nothing to do with "silence" as an operative or regulatory principle.

For example, if I ask you to meet with me on MONDAY (November 11, 2002) at 10:00 a.m. in my office, you do not "reason" that you are required to appear on Monday because I was silent about Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It is not SILENCE with respect to the other six days that informs you which day to appear, it is SPECIFICITY with respect to the one day mentioned (Monday) that is truly regulatory. In your principle, brother North, you place the emphasis in your second clause upon "silence." That is misplaced and illogical, in my view.

Notice some of your other statements. You wrote, "By specifying one possibility out of the 'date' category, silence about all other dates naturally excludes them." Again, that is not truly correct logic. It is not "silence" that excludes, it is "specificity." June 12 is not excluded because the invitation was silent about it. June 12 is excluded because the invitation specified November 7. It is specificity that excludes, not silence. You also wrote, "In the 'place' category, the Smith home has been specified. Silence about all other places naturally excludes them." Again, this is an illogical approach to establishing the law of exclusion. The Johnson home is not excluded by virtue of silence; the Johnson home is excluded by virtue of specificity. By specifying the Smith home, the matter of 'place' is settled. There is no logical or rational need to exclude by name all other homes in the area because that logically occurs via the specifying of a single home. Again, this is the principle of exclusion by specificity, not exclusion by silence.

Brother North, you spoke of "the exclusionary power of silence" in various biblical examples. I believe that is a fallacious principle. In the examples you cited it was not "silence" that excluded, rather it was the fact that God had "spoken." He had specified exactly what one should or should not do, and it was this principle of specificity that excluded all other options in that category. To suggest it is "silence" that truly excludes is to completely miss the point of these biblical examples, in my opinion, and leads to the establishment of an exclusionary principle associated with "silence" never contemplated by the inspired writers. Thus, authorial intent is violated.

You have even seemingly acknowledged this fact in the wording of a few of your statements in your article. For example, you wrote, "Because the Lord specified immersion as the method of baptism, sprinkling is excluded." Exactly. Why is sprinkling excluded? Because the Lord SPECIFIED immersion, NOT because He was SILENT about sprinkling. Your wording in this case reflects the principle accurately. You also wrote, "When God specified where to get fire to burn incense, Nadab and Abihu suffered the consequences of getting 'unauthorized fire' because they got fire from a place not specified." Again, this is correct. God SPECIFIED, and they chose a place NOT SPECIFIED. This is not a matter of "silence" at all. God had SPOKEN; He had SPECIFIED.

You express this principle correctly when you write, "So when one option out of a category is specified, other options in that category are excluded. That is how language operates." That is exactly right. When one is SPECIFIED, others are EXCLUDED (as a general rule). Thus, exclusion derives from specificity, not from silence. To suggest exclusion derives from silence is to misstate the principle.

To your credit, you did indeed address "true silence" in your article. "Back to the dinner invitation. Did you notice a category about which there is total silence? Nothing is said about the category of 'dress.' Total silence about that category leaves all options in that category open and so here silence allows. What I wear to the dinner, then, is my choice. ... Since the invitation was silent about 'dress,' I am free to dress as I wish." Of course, you and I would agree that this freedom calls for a degree of responsible judgment. Or, to phrase it as Paul might, "All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify" (1 Corinthians 10:23). For example, in the case of your dinner invitation, even though there was deafening silence with regard to "dress," nevertheless sound judgment would likely dictate that a see-through negligee would be inappropriate on that occasion!! Thus, true silence neither permits nor prohibits, but rather calls for the exercise of responsible judgment.

SILENCE PRINCIPLE #2 --- "If a category is left open with nothing specified, we may choose any options in that category." Although technically true, nevertheless it would be wise to amend this principle to include the above stated need for the exercise of responsible judgment. I'm sure you would agree.

Let me close by reiterating my deep respect for you and your many years of honorable and devoted service to our Lord. You are an inspiration to countless disciples, and I want you to know that I thank my God for your example of commitment. May our God richly bless you as you have so richly blessed others.

With Christian Love,

Dr. North Responds

Dear Al:

Thanks for your comments on my article. I think we stand at the same point on this issue but may have chosen a different way to express the same point. I guess my point is that even when the Lord is silent about other tribes, that silence is not to be interpreted as freedom when something in the category has been specified. My point might have been more precisely made had I said that when something in a category has been specified, the silence about other items in this case does not allow as when nothing in a category has been specified.

My concern is that there are those who are saying that when something in a category has been specified, silence about other items leaves them open to be chosen. I was trying to show that in such a case, even if there is silence about them, they are not allowed because something else has been specified.

Thanks for your comments.