This week I passed a personal milestone in my life - I hit 20 years of fulltime ministry in the word. I realize there are many of you who preached longer than I have been alive and probably think I am still a little wet behind the years with only two decades under my belt!
But I tend to be a nostalgic person, so this week I thought a little bit about how much things have changed since I started full time work. I bought my first computer that same summer, and vividly remember the guy at the shop telling me that I would never need anything bigger than a 20 MB hard drive! The internet was non-existent, and now I can’t imagine doing research without it. There was no such thing as powerpoint – I thought using colored pens to make transparencies was high tech!
Anyone who has preached for any length of time will also tell you that the most embarrassing thing you can do is go back and look at some of your old lessons (or worse, to listen to them!). I just cringe when I think about some of the lessons I preached in those early days, and I am thankful that God has granted me time to grow and learn and mature, though I have a ways to go.
There are some things I just got flat wrong; and in some lessons I made the right point but used really flimsy arguments to bolster it; and of course there are some lessons I preached then I could still preach word for word today.
That kind of self-awareness and reevaluation is a crucial component of growth. More than that, it is a command from God-
2 Cor. 13:5 Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves.
I have lots of friends, particularly among my former students, who have been testing what they believe, and they are troubled. I realize of course that I am painting with a broad brush, but I think I have seen enough evidence of this on websites and blogs and in personal conversations that it is fair to say there is a serious re-evaluation going on among many Christians my age and younger, on key issues such as:
-is the Bible alone the basis of authority?
-is the model of establishing authority by command, example, and inference legitimate?
-is the exclusion of instruments from worship in the church a biblical matter or just a “church-of-Christ” tradition?
-is the emphasis on baptism as the time of conversion really as significant as we make it?
-isn’t the “church of Christ” really just a denomination?
I think these are good questions, questions that should be asked, and that we need to think through these issues, and that it would be just as foolish not to revisit these subjects as it would be for a guy who’s been preaching 20 years never to rethink and revise what he believes.
So let’s begin with the most basic issue of all. The phrase I heard more than any other growing up was that we should “speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent.” It wasn’t until much later in life that I heard the phrase sola scriptura, which is Latin for “scripture only,” and was one of the cardinal rallying cries of the Protestant Reformation. Both of these slogans have the same meaning: the Bible and the Bible alone is the standard for Christian faith and practice, that we should satisfy ourselves with doing only what can be found in God’s word.
But of course, neither of those phrases is found verbatim in Scripture. Does that mean the concept of sola scriptura is unbiblical?
The Biblical Basis of Sola Scriptura
I often heard the preacher in my hometown quote a phrase from 1 Peter 4:11 as proof of speaking where the Bible speaks and being silent where the Bible is silent – “if any man speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God.” But I never really actually turned to the passage to see it in context, so let’s take a look at where that phrase comes from.
1 Peter 4:10 As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: 11 whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
The context of “speak as the oracles of God” is stewardship, as verse 10 makes explicit. We should use whatever gift God has given us as a matter of stewardship, of making the best use of the talents he has given us. And then the end of verse 11 gives us the ultimate objective of this wise stewardship – the glory of God. “In order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.” So this is a passage bracketed by God-centeredness. It begins with God’s gifts and ends with God’s glory.
And sandwiched in between are two specific gifts that should be used for God’s glory, serving and speaking. And each of those gifts is to be exercised with God’s power. The one who serves “serves by the strength that God supplies,” and the one who speaks, “speaks oracles of God.”
We don’t use a word like “oracles” very much today, so I looked up how other translations render this phrase.
-The NIV says, “If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God.”
-The NCV says, “Anyone who speaks should speak words from God.”
-The CEV, “If you have the gift of speaking, preach God's message.”
So what Peter is saying is that just as the one who serves does so by the strength God provides, the one who speaks do so by the word God supplies, so that God will be glorified.
In other words, speak as God has given you the message of Scripture to speak, speak as the Bible speaks!
And if you only speak what is God’s word, so that only God gets the glory, then by definition you must not speak your own word. You must “be silent where the Bible is silent.”
Now I suppose that someone could object and say that Peter is talking about actual preaching, and that it would be unfair to use 1 Peter 4:11 to prove Scripture alone is our rule of faith and practice. So let’s look at another text which I think does speak directly to this issue.
2 Tim 3:16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
I love the way the ESV translates the first part of this passage – “all Scripture is breathed out by God.” That is a very literal translation of what the Greek word means. Just as when you speak you must breathe out, when God speaks, He breathes out, and the result is Scripture. So as the word of God Scripture is authoritative. And according to verse 17 it is sufficient. It equips the man of God with what he needs for “every good work” so that he is capable, competent, and complete.
And that in a nutshell is what the concept of sola scriptura, or speaking where the Bible speaks and being silent where the Bible is silent, is all about.
This does not mean…
• We will instantly understand everything in the Bible perfectly. There are many difficult subjects in the Bible, and we need to apply ourselves in study and meditation.
• We do not need to be taught by others. We need instruction from others, and an benefit from that, but it does mean that we must always compare that teaching to the final standard of authority, Scripture.
Another way to put the issue is this: the Bible plus nothing.
The Bible Plus…
But not everyone agrees with this. They believe that this is too simplistic, or that leaving each person to decide for themselves what the truth using Scripture alone is destined to cause chaos and endless division.
So if the answer is not the Bible plus nothing, then what’s the solution? And for many people, that solution is the Bible plus “Tradition.” Let me give you two illustrations of what I mean by “tradition.”
First, in Roman Catholic teaching. I want to be very clear: I have great respect for many of the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church. Its commitment to life for the unborn, its strong stand against homosexuality and feminism in the face of tremendous public pressure. Further, there are many Catholics whose personal prayer life puts mine to shame. So please understand that the criticisms that follow are not just a wholesale dismissal of anything Catholic. But there is a reason I am not a Catholic, and the primary reason is the issue of authority.
In Roman Catholicism theology, authority consists of the Bible plus tradition, a tradition that developed through what is sometimes called apostolic succession, meaning that the apostles picked men to be their successors and wield their authority. The Catechism says this:
880 When Christ instituted the Twelve, "he constituted [them] in the form of a college or permanent assembly, at the head of which he placed Peter, chosen from among them." Just as "by the Lord's institution, St. Peter and the rest of the apostles constitute a single apostolic college, so in like fashion the Roman Pontiff, Peter's successor, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are related with and united to one another."
Down through the centuries these successors to the apostles handed down traditions which are authoritative though not found in the Bible.
Further, in Catholic teaching, the Pope and the bishops form an infallible teaching authority, called the Magisterium:
891 "The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office.... The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter's successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium," above all in an Ecumenical Council.
So then in Catholicism it is the Bible plus two other things, Tradition and the teaching authority of the church:
95 "It is clear therefore that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls."
This is why Roman Catholic theology contains so many doctrines that are not found in Scripture, like the Immaculate Conception, or the Bodily Assumption of Mary. It’s because Scripture isn’t their only source of authority.
I have heard of a few Christians who have decided the answer is the Bible plus something, but who have turned instead to the Orthodox Church. In 1054 there was a split (called the “Great Schism”) between what we now would call Catholicism and Orthodoxy over a variety of issues. There are many differences between the Orthodox and Catholics, but both agree that the Bible alone is not sufficient. As the Orthodox Church of America website explains:
The result also was the teaching of apostolic succession in the Church, the doctrine that the genuine faith and life of Christianity is passed over from church to church, from generation to generation and from place to place, through the succession of the Holy Tradition of the Church in the consecration of bishops, whose teachings and practice is identical to each other and to that of the apostles of Jesus.
The Orthodox believe in apostolic succession just as Catholics, though they do not accept the primacy of Rome or have one supreme head.
The Orthodox also believe in Tradition as an element of authority:
Among the elements which make up the Holy Tradition of the Church, the Bible holds the first place. Next comes the Church's liturgical life and its prayer, then its dogmatic decisions and the acts of its approved churchly councils, the writings of the church fathers, the lives of the saints, the canon laws, and finally the iconographic tradition together with the other inspired forms of creative artistic expression such as music and architecture.
To be fair, Orthodoxy at least acknowledges that the Bible should have preeminence. And yet the Orthodox Church claims to be the only legitimate source of interpreting the Bible-
It is only within the living Tradition of the Church under the direct inspiration of Christ's Spirit that the proper interpretation of the Bible can be made.
Now if you just read the NT you would never find reference to apostolic succession in the sense that Catholicism and Orthodoxy practice. There were men the apostles trained to carry on the work of the gospel (like Paul’s relationship with Timothy and Titus). But that is a far cry from the assertion that the apostles intended for there to be an unbroken chain of successors acting as if they had the same authority as the apostles. So where did this idea come from?
Most historians point to a time in early church history when believers were dealing with heretics who claimed that the apostles passed on secret knowledge to them that was not found in their writings. One early believer named Irenaeus (AD 120-202) responded to these heretics by saying that he knew specific men who had been appointed by the apostles and their successors down to his own day, and that they could verify that the apostles never passed on the strange teaching of the heretics.
It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. (Against Heresies III.I.I)
It is one thing of course to say that you could list the men who from the time of the apostles had served as overseers. But it is a broad jump of Olympian proportions to move from that to say as Catholics do that the Pope and his bishops in the Magisterium are unable to make mistakes! Or that as the Orthodox claim, it is only possible to interpret the Bible properly under the living tradition of the Orthodox Church.
A Response to the Bible Plus Tradition
The problem with any view of authority which looks to the Bible plus something else is that it runs counter to what Jesus Himself taught. For instance, look at this exchange that took place between an expert in the Law and Jesus.
Luke 10:25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" 26 He said to him, "What is written in the Law? How do you read it?" 27 And he answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." 28 And he said to him, "You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live."
This is the setup to the parable of the Good Samaritan. But notice what Jesus says to the lawyer when he asked what to do to inherit eternal life: what is written in the law, and how do you read it? That is the concept of sola scripture in a nutshell – Jesus appeals to the Bible alone – “what is written in the law” – and infers that it was possible to read the Law and understand it. In fact, how many times does Jesus say something like “what is in the Law,” or “have you not read,” or “you do err not knowing the Scriptures or the power of God.”
In fact, Jesus specifically rebuked the Pharisees in Matthew 15 for confusing their traditions with God’s written word.
3 He answered them, "And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God commanded, 'Honor your father and your mother,' and, 'Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.' 5 But you say, 'If anyone tells his father or his mother, "What you would have gained from me is given to God," 6 he need not honor his father.' So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. 7 You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
8 "'This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
9 in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'"
Perhaps someone would argue that this applies only to traditions that come from man, but that the traditions of apostolic succession are a different matter. Well, let’s take a look at one more passage – Paul’s farewell speech to the elders of Ephesus in Acts 20.
Acts 20:28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears. 32 And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
Paul is concerned because this is the last time he is going to see these men, and he knows that trouble is ahead. That “fierce wolves” are going to infiltrate the flock and threaten it.
Think about this with me. If in fact we are to believe that in each church the apostles bequeathed authority to an official successor, then wouldn’t it have made sense for Paul in this final speech to these men to mention that? To point out who it is they were to listen to and follow? Who it was who was going to have the mantle of apostolic authority? After all, he spent more time there in Ephesus than anywhere else he preached.
But that is not at all what he does! In fact, he says that “from among your own selves” heretics would emerge, twisting the truth.
So there was no apostolic succession in the sense that some teach. But there was hope. And that hope was in God, and His word. “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace.” The solution was not to look for authority invested in a person, but the authority invested in the word of God, out of loyalty to God!
And after all, that is what speaking where the Bible speaks is all about. We speak the message of God so that He is glorified, and it was to God and His word that Paul pointed the Ephesian elders.
Since I would suspect most of us here today are in agreement on this issue, I thought I would caution us abut subtle ways we can fall into the same traps others have.
1) First we must make sure we don’t trade the single Pope of Catholicism for hundreds of little popes, preachers who try to wield authority and influence beyond what the Bible teaches. Or members like Diotrephes in 3 John who are dictators who must always get their way.
2) Second, we must make sure that we do not allow what we have always done or heard to be elevated to the status of Scripture. You ever heard the expression, “If it’s true it’s not new, and if it’s new it’s not true.” I think I understand what is meant by that – if something doesn’t line up with the ancient faith of Scripture it is not true. But so many times what that becomes is, If I have never heard this before it can’t be true. I think I may have told you about a sermon I preached in another place years ago, and a lady walked out afterwards and said, “I’ve never heard that before.” That night she came back and said, “I read through over a hundred church bulletins and never read you said today.” First of all I was stunned that anyone would have a hundred bulletins lying around; but second, for her the issue was not the merits of the biblical evidence, but what had she always heard. That kind of thinking is absolute poison to the pursuit of truth!
3) And finally, it doesn’t do a whole lot of good to say that we believe the Bible is the only standard of faith and practice if we don’t do what it says. James 1:22 says, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” Saying we follow only the Bible while ignoring what it says to do is the epitome of self-deception. Be doers of the word.