Sometime in the early summer of 1809 Thomas Campbell delivered a speech in which he encouraged his audience to return to the pattern of New Testament Christianity. In concluding his address, he stated that "where the scriptures speak, we speak; where the scriptures are silent, we are silent." Many historians believe that this statement was what ignited the movement which came to be known as the restoration movement. Whether it actually started that movement or not, it certainly provided a popular statement that became the rallying cry for the restoration leaders. Thus a strong plea was made by many of the religious leaders of the day to return to the simple truth as recorded in the scriptures and to do away with traditions and creeds written by men.
Later events indicate that Campbell himself did not fully understand the application of his statement. He did not realize the many things in common practice that would need to be eliminated if people were to truly live by the literal meaning of his words. The same is still true today. We have heard those words so many times that we assume we are living in conformity with them. The statement is very simple and contains much wisdom. Who could argue with the wisdom of following God's word in action, in thought, in teaching, and in seeking out the lost? But how many of us who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ can actually prove our practices and beliefs by the scriptures? In far too many cases we are simply doing what has been done before (traditions) and we believe what our favorite preacher(s) tells us. We need to understand that each individual must search the scriptures to determine the truth. Certainly, others may lead or guide but that does not negate the individual responsibility. Campbell was primarily appealing to his audience to use only the scriptures as a guide, but there is much more involved in his statement. Let's consider the statement by parts:
Strongly implied in these words is the thought that we must study the scriptures, else how could we know "where the scriptures speak?" The entire Bible is filled with admonitions to study God's word. We could cite many instances where this idea is made very clear. For example, Paul told Timothy to "study to show thyself approved" (2 Tim. 2:15) and the Bereans were complimented for searching the scriptures daily to prove the things they were being told (Acts 17:11). Some of the saddest words ever penned state the same message in a negative way: "My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge" (Hos. 4:6). Please notice it is not a lack of knowledge on the part of the preacher or teacher that destroys but lack of knowledge on the part of the people. Others cannot study for us. We must study individually in order to avoid destruction. Yes, the scriptures speak -- to every accountable person, but the message is of no value to an individual unless he first learns the content of the message and then acts upon that knowledge.
Certainly this means that we are to act in a manner consistent with what we have learned from the scriptures. That is, our lifestyle should be consistent with God's word. There is, however, another message here. We are to speak! Once we learn we are to tell others. TELL THE STORY OF JESUS. Not as one who knows all truth but as a guide, so that those to whom we talk will be encouraged to go to the scriptures in search of truth. Jesus instructed the eleven to "preach the gospel" (Mk. 16:15) and when the people were scattered "they went everywhere preaching" (Acts 8:4). Paul instructed the young preacher Timothy to "preach the word" (2 Tim. 4:2) and in writing to the Corinthians said, "I determined to know nothing among you except Christ and Him crucified" (I Cor. 2:2). The message is clear. We must have the initiative to tell others what we have learned. We must not keep it to ourself but let our light shine so that all may see (Matt. 5:16).
Many of the religious disputes of today involve things or ideas which are not mentioned in the scriptures. Why don't we concentrate on the things that are mentioned and avoid those things that are not mentioned? God gave to us His revelation. It is complete! It thoroughly furnishes us to all good works (2 Tim. 3:17). Therefore, can't we conclude that a work not in God's word does not qualify as a "good" work? The warnings against adding to God's word as recorded in Rev. 22:18 and Deut. 4:2 should be sufficient to end the matter for all time. The mere thought of adding to His word should bring fear to the heart of any man. We must learn that the scriptures are silent with regard to some things and that is by God's design. Man cannot improve on what is revealed. Therefore, we should occupy our time with what is revealed.
One of the most difficult things for people to do is to maintain silence. Teachers know that one way to cause a group of student to participate is to simply remain silent. In just a few seconds someone will feel compelled to fill the silence. We sometimes react to God's word in the same manner. We see what we believe to be a void and feel compelled to fill that void. Thus we see human creeds and rules (both written and unwritten) come into existence as though we can improve on the work of God! God does not need our help. If we could only learn to eliminate from our thinking and practice everything which we cannot find in the scriptures. Then, we need to remember that when we attempt to teach others, we should teach only that which we find in God's word. NO MORE AND NO LESS. When Philip "preached Jesus" he converted the Eunuch (Acts 8). If we would preach Jesus and not worry about our man-made rules and laws we should be just as successful.
Campbell's statement has, over the years, caused many people (including Campbell himself) to stop and think about what they practice and what they believe. The statement then and now appeals to people not because it is a quote from Thomas Campbell but because it expresses truth based upon, and consistent with, God's revealed word. It would be wise if we would pause from time to time to reflect on the wisdom contained in those words.