Monday, June 3, 2013

Chicken or the Egg?, or return to Sola Scriptura

We have all heard the question: What came first, the chicken or the egg? We as Christians could also ask another question: What came first, the Bible or the church? The Roman Catholic view on the this question is in favor of the church. When the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century rejected some long-held Catholic beliefs for their view of things like justification by faith based on what the Bible said, Catholics said that there would be no Bible without the church because the church chose which books were allowed into the canon of scripture. Hence, the church preceded the Bible and gave it authority. Therefore, the church (meaning to them the RC Church) is the authoritative interpreter of scripture and is thereby infallible.

Protestants rightly argued that the church only affirmed the Bible which is the written Word of God. The apostles and their immediate followers wrote the books of the New Testament. The church circulated those documents and most of them were immediately and universally accepted by the churches. Now, "the churches" here does not mean any organization that developed out of the earliest churches (i.e., the RC and Orthodox churches), but the people, including, but not exclusively, the ministers of the church. The four gospels and Paul's writings were accepted as authoritative writings right away. Even when the NT was still being written, Paul's epistles were being called scripture. "Paul also, according to the wisdom given him wrote to you; as in all his letters, speaking in them of these things; in which some things are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist, as they do the other Scriptures." (2 Peter 3:16)*

Some still note that it took time to write the New Testament and that the early church had no New Testament to read. True, but they did have the same Word of God that we do, only it was preached and not written down yet. The revelation of God's Word was given to the early church because the apostles had revelation from God and most of them were direct followers of Jesus. That same Word that they preached became inscripturated as they wrote down what God had revealed to them. The church is "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the chief cornerstone." (Ephesians 2:20) The church is built on the Word.The written Word and the preached Word are the same thing in different forms. The church simply recognized the New Testament as the written Word of God based on the apostolic witness.

A New Chicken or Egg question: Do we put Jesus or the Bible first?**

The RC view and the Protestant view of this is clearly at odds. But now we have Protestants who are as confused as the Catholics. A prominent pastor recently said this, "The foundation of our faith is not the Scripture. The foundation of our faith is not the infallibility of the Bible. The foundation of our faith is something that happened in history." He means, of course, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. That might sound good, but it is wrong. It is true that we are saved by the crucifixion and resurrection, but our faith in that is based on the Word of God which we have in the Bible. "Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God." (Romans 10:17) That is the Word preached by the apostles and made into scripture. That is the basis of our faith. We cannot be saved without this Word. If Jesus dies on the cross and nobody hears about it, it does us nobody any good.

Jesus, the living Word, is God's revelation to us, . That revelation was preached by the apostles and written in the New Testament. Some, like this pastor, think that they are exalting Jesus by lowering their view of scripture. That cannot happen. You cannot have a low view of the Bible and a high view of Jesus. Our attitude towards the Bible, the written Word, determines the place that Jesus, the living Word, holds in our life.

The Protestant Reformers held a high view of scripture. Part of that what was called 'Sola Scriptura', Latin for 'Scripture Alone'. This is "the teaching that Scripture is the Church's only infallible and sufficient rule for deciding issues of faith and practices that involve doctrines" (Theopedia). In other words, the Bible is not only perfect in what it affirms but it has everything we need for the Christian life.

Amen to that. No personal revelation or prophecy or education or enlightened conscience can or should be put above the Bible which is God's Word to us today.

*The church took a couple of centuries to bring together and approve the books that would be put into the New Testament. It was not done, as a famous novelist suggested, by a group of bishops wanted to insist on one of a variety of Christianities supposedly present in the fourth century. (I am referring to the Council of Nicea where the 27 books of the NT were accepted, but not newly accepted. The bishops only agreed that what had already been accepted was, in fact, correct.) The church used several criteria for what constituted the new (testament) scriptures. They had to be written by an apostle or the companion of an apostle. They had to be generally useful to the churches. In other words, they could not be a message to an individual or a church that had no application to other individuals and churches. And they must agree with the apostolic tradition passed down through the churches and originating with the apostles themselves.

** I am aware that the chicken and egg analogy does not work exactly in the second case where some Protestants tried to put Jesus 'above' the Bible. It's just a literary device, so I think it works anyway.

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