February 7, 2003
There is an interpretive precept circulating among certain elements within Christendom (and largely among conservative brethren of the American Restoration Movement) that suggests biblical silence is to be regarded as prohibitive in nature. This is a somewhat radical, and at times fanatical, hermeneutical persuasion that if God said nothing about some doctrine or practice (neither pro nor con) then that doctrine or practice is ipso facto forever excluded, and to go against this so-called "Law of Silence" is to SIN against God and risk one's very salvation.
For example, there is no direct reference in the New Testament documents to instruments of music aiding or accompanying singing in a corporate worship setting. Therefore, according to this so-called "Law of Silence," the use of instruments is a potentially soul-damning abomination in the sight of God. There is no mention of a Sunday School arrangement in the New Testament writings, therefore if a congregation employs this teaching device for its children it has transgressed the so-called "Law of Silence," and this congregation has fallen into apostasy. And on and on ad infinitum.
The fact that these excluded doctrines and practices may not actually dishonor God, or prove to be spiritually harmful to the church, or even violate some biblical principle is entirely irrelevant to these proponents of this "law." Their only concern is the contention that the Scriptures are "silent" with regard to the doctrine or practice in question, regardless of the intrinsic merit or worth of that doctrine or practice, and therefore it is sinful. Period! End of discussion! Biblical silence, therefore, equates to only one thing, to their way of thinking: eternal, universal exclusion. Transgressing this "law" equates, purely and simply, to SIN.
I oppose this so-called "Law of Silence," and its attendant abuses and inconsistencies, with all of my being. It is a dangerous premise, and I believe it has materially contributed to much of the feuding within and fragmenting of the Body of Christ. It is time for God's people to rise up and challenge the absurdities of this false interpretive method.
Periodically throughout the course of these published Reflections I shall attempt to shed light on the fallacious nature of this "law." In this present issue, however, let me challenge the proponents of this "law" to carefully and prayerfully consider the case of the four cups of wine in the context of the Passover celebration.
Exodus 12 presents the biblical teaching on the establishment of the Passover. After specifying when it would be celebrated, and the various elements of the meal itself, the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, "Now you shall eat it in this manner: with your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste -- it is the Lord's Passover" (Exodus 12:11). Just three verses later the people of God are informed that it was to be celebrated "as a permanent ordinance."
The Lord God was very specific as to what He wanted included in this memorial feast. Interestingly enough, however, God never mentioned anything to drink. In fact, the Passover was constantly referred to in Scripture as a feast during which the celebrants would EAT the meal; they are never urged to DRINK anything. The Bible is SILENT with respect to drinking anything during this feast. In other words, God said EAT the Passover, He didn't say EAT & DRINK the Passover. Thus, if one were to apply the so-called "Law of Silence" to this situation, one would have to exclude and forbid as sinful any form of drink being added to the Passover feast. After all, since "silence" supposedly excludes and prohibits, is God not suggesting by this silence His disapproval of any form of drink? Such would be the obvious conclusion of this hermeneutical device, if carried to it logical conclusion. After all, the proponents of this "law," using the same rationale, are quick to point out that cornbread and buttermilk are "unauthorized" for inclusion at the Lord's Table, and their use would constitute an "abomination." Would not consistency require the same conclusion with regard to this addition of cups of wine to the prescribed elements of the Passover feast? If not, why not?!
But let's not stop here. In addition to the command of the Lord God Himself with respect to the Passover, and what should be included or excluded, we have several biblical examples of the Passover being celebrated by God's people. We find it being observed, for example, in Numbers 9:1-14 and Joshua 5:10-12 and 2 Kings 23:21-23. In none of these biblical examples of Passover observance is there any mention of anyone drinking anything, or of the use of cups, or of the consumption of wine. The Bible is completely SILENT about any such additions to the prescribed elements of the feast. Even in 2 Chronicles 30 (in which the people of God "ate the Passover otherwise than prescribed" -- vs. 18) there is still no mention of cups of wine being consumed. In short, there is not a single, solitary word anywhere in the Old Testament writings that speaks of cups of wine, or of the drinking of any liquid, being connected in any way with the Passover. All that exists in the biblical record on this matter is a deafening SILENCE.
By the time of Jesus Christ, however, things have changed with regard to the prescribed observance of this God-ordained commemorative feast. Rather than being eaten "in haste" (Exodus 12:11), it had become customary for the participants to eat it while reclining at a table. "Now when evening had come, Jesus was reclining at the table with the twelve disciples" (Matthew 26:20; see also: Mark 14:18; Luke 22:14-15).
Another innovation was the addition of drink to this Passover feast as part of the religious ritual. Four cups of wine had been added by the rabbis to the Passover celebration. These were not just for the purpose of "washing down the food," a mere "incidental," as a few have feebly sought to suggest, but these cups of wine were specially and purposefully added for their spiritual significance to the feast itself. The Jews themselves admit that these cups of wine were "a Rabbinic tradition," with a specific religious purpose, and thus were not originally part of the divine directive, nor were they merely "incidental to the Passover itself." "By New Testament times the Passover observance had features ADDED to those already SPECIFIED in the Old Testament .... At various intervals four cups of wine, a symbol of joy, were consumed" (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, volume 3, page 677).
The use of four cups of wine during the course of the Passover feast was also more than just a humanly devised tradition .... It had become mandatory, and indeed crucial to the religious significance of the feast itself. "The use of wine at this festival was COMPULSORY, even upon the poorest .... But used it must be, even by persons commonly abstaining (from wine) and young persons" (Hastings Dictionary of the Bible, volume 2, page 326). In the Jewish "Orach Chayim" it is written, "Whosoever has not got wine transgresses a command of the rabbis, for they have said that there shall be no diminution from the four cups. And it is necessary to sell what he has in order to keep the command of the wise men." The Talmud states, "If he has not enough money to get four cups of wine, he must get it from the poor box or pawn his coat or hire himself out for four cups of wine." Yes, the Jewish rabbis had actually elevated this human tradition, this addition to God's Passover, to the status of LAW. Hardly an "incidental."
What exactly is the purpose and significance of these four cups of wine? A Jewish Rabbi by the name of Tim Hegg, from Beit Hallel, has written an excellent treatise on "The Four Cups," and he clearly demonstrates not only the purpose, but that this practice came not from God, but rather from "Jewish Rabbinic Tradition." He writes, "The sages ordained four cups in the meal of remembrance to commemorate God's work." He points out that the historical background of these four cups is found in the Midrash (which he quotes extensively in the article). In the Jerusalem Talmud there is an expansion of the source of these four cups. It reads, "Why do we have four cups of wine? Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Benayah, this refers to four stages in the redemption." Thus, these cups clearly had religious significance, and were not simply added to "help wash the food down."
Rabbi Hegg goes on to inform the reader that the use of four cups of wine in the Passover is "...the tradition" that symbolizes "the four activities of God as described in Exodus 6:6-7. Thus, the four cups represent God's saving activity, one cup for each of God's sovereign acts as He fought against Pharaoh and the pagan gods -- four cups outlining the work of God on behalf of His firstborn son, Israel."
Clearly, the use of four cups of wine during the Passover celebration was not something that was prescribed by God. It was a human addition and innovation to a God-ordained and -regulated commemorative feast. The Old Covenant writings are absolutely SILENT about cups of wine in the Passover feast, both in command and example (precept & pattern). If the so-called "Law of Silence" is valid as a hermeneutical principle, as its proponents allege, then here they have a perfect example of a practice about which there is deafening silence. IF silence excludes and prohibits, and IF violation of said "law" constitutes SIN .... we have a problem!! Jesus embraced the practice of the four cups of wine!
"From the NT record it seems clear that Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper by associating it with the third cup of wine. It was known as the 'cup of redemption,' linked in rabbinic tradition to the third of the fourfold promise of redemption in Exodus 6:6f, 'I will redeem you.' Jesus associated this cup of red wine with His atoning death" (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, volume 3, page 678). Yes, the cup utilized by Jesus in His last Passover celebration, a cup given special new spiritual significance to those under the soon to be established New Covenant, was a human innovation and addition to God's directives. As such it was "unauthorized." Thus, each year as Jesus and His family, and later as Jesus and His disciples, celebrated the Passover, they made use of the four cups of wine (as they were mandatory), even though the OT Scriptures were completely SILENT with regard to drinking from cups of wine.
Some suggested that Jesus would have refused, on principle, to employ this "unauthorized addition" to the Passover, and thus He never actually utilized the four cups of wine. This is a ridiculous assertion that seemingly forgets His use of these cups in the establishment of the Lord's Supper. It also fails to reconcile how such yearly refusal for decades had gone unnoticed by His fellow Jews, who were intent upon finding any small deviation from the Rabbinic Tradition in His every action. Had Jesus consistently refused to use the four cups of wine, it would have come to the attention of His critics. However, there is not a single word of criticism against Jesus for such an omission of what was then a mandatory aspect of the Passover meal. There is thus no doubt that Jesus had observed the Passover repeatedly "otherwise than prescribed." If the so-called "Law of Silence" is valid, then Jesus violated it. If violation of this so-called "law" constitutes sin, then Jesus sinned.
Those who embrace a radical view of this so-called "Law of Silence" (which states that it always prohibits and excludes, and that violation constitutes sin) are faced with some insurmountable challenges to their false theory. The challenge I have just raised with respect to the use of four cups of wine in the Passover meal is one such challenge. According to their "law," these cups are "unauthorized human additions," and as such "damnable abominations." To embrace such a prohibited practice is soul-damning apostasy. And Jesus embraced it!!
I have for years challenged the proponents of this so-called "Law of Silence" to address this challenge in a rational, biblical manner, and to explain how the action of our Lord Jesus is not a violation of this "law" of theirs. They have tried every maneuver imaginable to evade this challenge, but none have yet presented a reasoned response in defense of their theory. The typical responses I get are: (1) they totally ignore me and hope I'll go away, (2) they make some feeble attempt at rationalization, such as "food and drink go together, don't they?", or (3) I am "tossed up on tongues" --- being called everything from "false teacher," "false brother," "heretic," "apostate," "wolf in sheep's clothing," and worse. Caustic pejoratives come easily to those caught in the absurdities of their assumptions. Respectful, reasoned responses and careful exegesis of the Word require a greater degree of integrity and humility.
OK, let's make a practical application. Those who argue against the use of instruments of music as an accompaniment or aid to singing, just by way of a singular example, often appeal to this so-called "Law of Silence" in an attempt to validate their position. They believe that if the New Testament writings are SILENT about something, then that silence EXCLUDES and forever PROHIBITS that which men seek to ADD to that which IS prescribed in the biblical text. In other words, the Ephesian and Colossian passages (Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16) prescribe singing. They don't say "sing and play." Thus, they reason from their "law" that playing instruments, even as an aid or accompaniment, is forever prohibited and excluded, and any attempt to include them in any fashion into our worship would be a soul-damning sin.
The problem, however, is that the case of the four cups of wine completely destroys their premise. Jesus, who was sinless, embraced and utilized the four cups of wine which were added by men to the Lord God's Passover feast. Jesus thus demonstrated that innovation and addition are not necessarily wrong, if that to which they are added is not negated or replaced or diminished by the addition or accompaniment. In other words, the four cups of wine in no way negated, replaced or diminished what God HAD prescribed and ordained in the Passover. The things which God commanded continued. The same is true with respect to our singing. By the addition of musical accompaniment one does NOT in any way replace, negate or even diminish the heartfelt expressions of devotion by those singing. Singing continues to occur. It still comes from the heart. The directive is obeyed fully. The only thing truly negated here, for those not too blinded by their tradition to perceive it, is the exclusionary force of this so-called "Law of Silence."
I believe this interpretive device known as the "Law of Silence" is fallacious. It should be discarded as a hermeneutical tool. Those who seek to use it do so inconsistently at best. At worst, it has been employed to divide brethren into warring factions over their many differing personal preferences and perceptions. Assumptions, deductions and inferences (few of which are truly "necessary") have been much too frequently elevated to LAW, all in the name of "silence" .... and the One Body of Christ has been dismembered by the factious fuming and fussing which inevitably follows. This is unconscionable, and is an abomination. It is time for this "law" to be cast aside, and for rational minds to prevail as we approach the task of biblical interpretation and application.
From a Reader in Michigan:
We are battling just the things you are talking about in your writings up here in the Detroit area. Thanks for some GREAT insight! Keep the Faith.
From a Reader in West Virginia:
Al, thanks for the Reflection on the "Law of Silence." I'm convinced, and I'm sure that you are convinced as well, that the so-called law of silence doctrine has been detrimental to the goals of unity sparked by the Restoration Movement. I consider the theme of the law of silence --- "The only things that can be used in worship are those things that are 'authorized' and given by example in the New Testament" --- as a human creed, and a very bad one at that. This creed is not only detrimental to the cause of unity, it is unscriptural, untenable, and the cause of much division, even in our own brotherhood. Folks, those of you who hold to this doctrine, please reconsider this insidious, divisive issue so that we can once again pursue the goal of unity that our Lord prayed for.
From a Reader in Oregon:
Al, if ever a nail was "hit on the head," you have done so here. If this so-called "law of silence" were to be followed "religiously," then our PA systems, Powerpoint usage, song books, and other things which we commonly use in worship would all be outlawed. It really is time to apply some common sense to this "law," and the way it is applied by so many. Your example of Jesus using the synagogues is one I have thought of quite frequently as disproving this false "law of silence." Good job!
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