Recovering Scripture: The Church’s Only Hope
I recently gave a talk where I walked through the arguments for the sufficiency of Scripture. It was amazing to me how few of the people—in a conservative evangelical church—had never heard anything on the subject. This is a problem.
Roman Catholic apologists argue forcefully that the Bible is “the Church’s book.” Since the New Testament canon (as well as the Old) was “determined” by the church, it must be the case that the church is the mother of Scripture.
The Reformation countered that the church is the “creature of the Word” (creatura verbi). They knew, of course, that the church preceded the completed canon. After all, the church has existed from Adam and Eve (Gen 3:15) to the present. It is the Word that creates the church, regardless of time and place. Abraham knew less clearly what we know more fully, but the object of his faith was the same: his heir, Jesus Christ, in whom all the families of the earth would be blessed.
But now we have a canon. There is a qualitative difference between the ministry of the apostles and that of the ordinary pastors. Paul could appeal to the immediate revelation of Jesus Christ (Gal 1), while encouraging Timothy to take courage in the gift that was given to him “when the council of elders [presbytery] laid their hands” on him (1 Tim 4:14).
“Scripture alone” does not mean that the church has no authority. Rather, as the Reformers taught, there is a distinction between the extraordinary ministry of prophets and apostles (providing the canonical foundation of the faith) and the ordinary ministry of those pastor-teachers and elders today who lead Christ’s body. The church has a ministerial authority. That’s why we embrace the ecumenical creeds and Reformation confessions (Lutheran or Reformed) as faithful summaries of Scripture. However, the church’s authority is not magisterial. The church may get it wrong, but God’s Word remains. Scripture must have the last word in every controversy.
There is no “apostolic office,” whether of popes or Pentecostal prophets. Christ speaks to us every time we hear the Word of God preached (Rom 10:1-17) on the basis of the biblical canon that is now complete. Even in the days of the apostles, sectarian rivalry threatened the unity of the church. Therefore, Paul declared, “Do not go beyond what is written” (1 Cor 4:6). If churches that were founded by the apostles were in danger of having their candlestick removed (Gal 3:1; 5:4; Rev 2:5), then what hubris is represented by popes who preached a gospel other than the one that was delivered by Christ through his apostles?
Lose the Scriptures and you lose the gospel.
But in our day, it’s Protestants—even evangelicals—who downplay the sufficiency of Scripture for doctrine and life. As in the medieval church, many today think that Scripture is unclear about various doctrines, practices, and forms of worship. It’s just not interesting enough. We have to add our speculations, experiences, and cultural perspectives.
We believe the Reformation recovered the central themes of Scripture that the church slowly had abandoned – as it tends to do in every generation. We all need to recover Scripture: in our devotional lives, as the source of our theology, in our churches, and as the living voice of God today. It is only “by Scripture alone” that we hear the odd announcement of a Father who “so loved the world who gave his only-begotten Son.” Compromise this “sola” and you end up surrendering “solo Christo” (by Christ alone), “sola fide” (through faith alone), and “soli Deo gloria” (to God alone be the glory).