Crossfunction: Is the Bible the pillar of truth?

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Is the Bible the pillar of truth?

Yesterday I received a letter from a fellow who’s got some pointed questions (and misgivings) about the Catholic Church. Below I take up one of Ian K's issues, and hope we'll have an opportunity to discuss them all… (I'm reprinting Ian's name and most of his letter with his kind permission.)

hi- the pope claims that the only true church is catholic. How can a statement like this be made? I belong to a non-denominational church who's only doctrine is what is written in the bible. The catholic church clearly worship idols, all the statues of different saints or the virgin Mary, who was only a woman not a deity. The catholics are responsible for more negative PR than the devil. How come you could only eat fish on Fridays and then suddenly it becomes ok to eat meat. I have yet to come across either in the scriptures. This however, is only a small point but it shows the catholic doctrines are from man and not from the word of God. You say yourselves "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" -Mark 2:7 RSV yet confess to priests and they forgive you. That alone should be the end of the discussion. But there's so much more. What's with all the priests getting away with pedophilia and the many examples of the churches being a huge, magnificent structure in the middle of a slum. This is missing the whole point (wasn't it share the wealth?) and, at the same time, driving people away from God...
-Ian K., letter of June 5, 2010

Hi, Ian, nice to hear from You. You’ve got lots of good questions, but too many to try answer all at once. I’d like to try to focus on one point at a time, and then see where it takes us, okay?

What does the Bible say about it?

Perhaps the most basic issue You raise is about where Christian doctrine comes from. You wrote,

“I belong to a non-denominational church who's only doctrine is what is written in the bible.”

Well, You’ve got lots of fellow Protestants who likewise believe that Scripture and Scripture alone is the sole rule of faith and morals. You probably know that this doctrine is called sola scriptura, and of course it’s one of the pillars of Protestantism.

However sola scriptura is not taught by Scripture. It’s not even compatible with Scripture. In fact, Scripture teaches against it clearly, repeatedly, and emphatically. Yet many people believe the doctrine because, well, they love Scripture as the inspired Word of God (which of course it is), they’ve been taught by their family or their church to accept this doctrine, and they assume it's true.

But if we love Scripture, we must love the truth and desire to know more clearly whether Scripture really teaches what we've been told it does. So what does the Bible say about it?

Scripture does not teach that Jesus delivered His saving message by simply dropping a book from the clouds and leaving us to figure it out on our own. Instead, He picked disciples and personally taught them His message through words, deeds, miracles... His whole life, death and resurrection. He appointed some of them to be apostles with the mission to carry His message to the ends of the earth. He gave them the protection of the Holy Spirit to guard the purity of the message. And He gave Peter, and the others in union with him, the authority to interpret it definitively and preach it without error.

"And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
-Matthew 16:18-19 RSV

"He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me."
-Luke 10:16 RSV

And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age."
-Matthew 28:18-20 RSV

This apostolic ministry is at the very foundation of the Church Jesus founded, and it’s something the Church can’t do without in the twenty-first century any more than it could in the first century. That’s why from the very beginning the apostles used their authority to appoint other men to share in their apostolic ministry. In the book of Acts we see Matthias appointed the first successor to the apostolic ministry. (cf. Acts 1:15-26)

No other foundation

"And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb."
-Revelation 21:14 RSV

"You form a building which rises on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone."
-Ephesians 2:20 RSV

"...and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house..."
-1 Peter 2 RSV

This is the way Jesus built His Church: He’s the cornerstone; His apostles are the foundation; we are the living stones which are built upon that foundation. We're not free to change the way Jesus built His Church. In any case, can the bricks of a building remain secure if they leave their foundation?

So Scripture describes the Church as a "spiritual house", a building with a permanent cornerstone, a permanent foundation, and living stones connected to each other and united to Christ through that foundation.

Where's the Gospel?

Now, it wasn't until years after Jesus ascended to Heaven –even decades later, in some cases- that some of these men wrote the books of the New Testament under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Where was the Gospel to be found during these years before the New Testament ever existed? How was it preserved, interpreted, and taught before any of it was written down? The same way that Jesus delivered it: through the oral preaching and living example of the apostles and their successors. And did the apostles stop their preaching once the books of the New Testament were completed? Of course not. They wrote these books to supplement and reinforce their ongoing teaching, not to replace it.

“But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder...”
-Romans 15:15

The apostolic preaching continued, carried on through the centuries by those appointed by the apostles and their successors.

The apostle’s writings are authoritative not because they are written, but because they are of apostolic authority. It is through apostolic authority that we know which books belong in the Bible, and it is through this same authority that we are helped to discover their authentic meaning.

From the hands of the apostles

My point is not to deny the importance of Scripture, but rather to insist that it’s of utmost importance to interpret and understand Scripture correctly, according to the mind of Jesus and His apostles. For this we must use the means that Jesus has provided His Church. And Jesus gave His Church apostles with the authority to interpret and teach. Should we study Scripture privately and prayerfully? Certainly. But always we must listen to the apostles and their successors and embrace their teaching. Scripture repeatedly warns us against accepting doctrines that contradict the apostolic tradition.

"So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter."
-2 Thessalonians 2:15 RSV

"Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast -- unless you believed in vain."
-1 Corinthians 15:1-2 RSV

"But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed. --As we have said before, so now I say again, If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed."
-Galatians 1: 8-9 RSV

"And we [the apostles] have the prophetic word made more sure. You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation,"
-2 Peter 1:19-20 RSV

If we cut ourselves off from the apostolic preaching, claiming that “we don’t need apostles because we have the Holy Spirit”, we delude ourselves.  The apostolic tradition is a most precious safeguard of the Gospel truth.  Separate ourselves from this, and we separate ourselves from God's appointed safeguards of the Gospel.

"There are some things in them [Paul's letters] hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures."
-2 Peter 3:16 RSV

Rejecting apostolic succession and the Church's teaching authority, Christian denominations have arisen, split over doctrinal disputes, multiplied, and split, again without ceasing. One need only browse the internet or the phone book to see the resulting disunity: tens of thousands of Christian churches with thousands of different creeds: a pathetic tower of Babel where the world needs to see one, shining city on a hill.

Standing on the pillar of truth

"And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers."
-Acts 2:42 RSV

The protection of the Holy Spirit which Christians enjoy has several forms, but primarily we receive it through remaining faithful to what we’ve received from the teachers God has sent us. But this does not permit us to pick teachers according to our own liking. Rather, the pattern of Scripture urges us to seek out those who truly have apostolic authority, those who, like Mathias, were picked and appointed by those who themselves received this authority.

Paul wrote that the Church is:

"...the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth."
-1 Timothy 3:15 RSV

It is this Church which Jesus gave the power to interpret and explain His message, and many gifts to help us live that message in a way pleasing to Him and helpful to our salvation and sanctification. If we wish to be united with Him, should we not seek direction from those whom He sent to guide us?

Again, according to Scripture, what is “the pillar and bulwark of the truth”? The Church. The Church is our guarantee of receiving the truth of the Bible intact. Doctrines which contradict what the Church teaches therefore contradict the apostolic preaching and should be rejected, no matter how pleasing they may sound.

Ian, most Christian churches deny that they have the apostolic authority I have described above. The Roman Catholic Church claims to have this authority, and this claim is supported by 2000 years of history showing an unbroken chain of apostolic succession.

Some Christians deny this history exists, deny that the apostolic ministry is a permanent part of the Church, deny even that it even existed past the first century. But to deny these things one must deny Scripture. And this we can’t and mustn’t do.

Ian, I propose to You that sola scriptura -the belief that all Christian doctrine should or could be based purely on Scripture- is actually a doctrine of men, not of God. It’s not a doctrine taught by Jesus in the 1st century, and it didn’t gain traction until it was promoted by certain European men in the 16th century. It’s a pillar of Protestantism, but it’s not a pillar of Scripture, and certainly not a pillar of truth.

So, Ian, I ask You: what do You think of the biblical fact of apostolic authority which I've tried to outline above? Do You agree that we should take it seriously?

Thank You for writing to me, Ian, and for Your great questions. Perhaps once we finish up with sola scriptura and apostolic authority we could talk about Your other questions.

Please do send Your thoughts!

John Robin.

1 comment:

  1. hi John,
    Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. I'm not a student of theology and am not able to interpret why you feel that what is written here is evidence of apostolic authority. This directive seems kind of harsh and the date suggests it is the word of men
    The Creed of the Council of Toledo, A.D. 400, 447: (14)
    The rule of the Catholic faith against all heresies...
    12. If anyone either believes that any scriptures, except those which the Catholic Church has received, ought to be held in authority or venerates them, let him be anathema.

    We all believe in the same new testament and it changed everything, so why then is there this strife, why does the Holy Spirit dwell in people of all denominations, how does someone like Heidi Baker do miracles, by the glory of God which is working though her. Her ministry is non-denominational. I suggest that it's not what church you go to, that's not it at all, but how you well you follow Jesus's instructions about humbling yourself that Christ dwells in you, Ep 3:17
    I started my walk with God just over a year ago and am a bit disappointed that more believer's aren't tuned into what God says we can do, Mark 16 : 17 & 18 or John 14: 13 & 14 according to the word, we should really be able to make a big difference. We need more of the kind of teaching about what we can do if we get it right


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