I like to think I don’t just believe things because I grew up with them. I like to think I am clear thinking and will follow facts to their conclusions, however uncomfortable.
For any low church, evangelical Baptist like myself, diving into church history can be a jarring experience. As we wade back through the years past the hymns and alter calls and past the 95 Theses, we suddenly find ourselves starring face to face with bishops, councils, creeds, liturgy and all kinds of uncomfortable, “papist” tomfoolery right there in our own spiritual DNA. What are us Baptists to make of this? Are we just a Christianized hybrid of Enlightenment rationalism with a little down home democracy thrown in as some “high church” folks allege?
I’ve been wrestling with this for months (actually on and off for years . . . dang education and books).
At last, I’ve distilled the the primary issues my evangelical Baptist faith is obstensibly unable to answer from church history into five questions. Over the next few weeks, we will look at them one at a time and I will offer a summarized rebuttal explaining why despite them all I choose to remain a low church, evangelical Baptist.
This is Part 2. Here’s Part 1.
***Please note I haven’t cited all my historical quotes due to laziness. If you want them let me know.
Issue 2: Where did the Bible come from? The Bible cannot be the ultimate source of authority when its books were determined by the church. There was vast disagreement about what belonged in the Bible in the early church that was only settled by councils four hundred years after Jesus. And those councils certified books not accepted by Protestants today. In fact the exact 66 book Protestant Bible did not exist at all until 1500 years after Jesus. If the Bible is the ultimate source of truth shouldn’t we at least be able to know for sure what’s in it? There is no way to tell without an authoritative church to judge and interpret. Therefore, “scripture alone” is a logical fallacy and cannot be true.
This is the first of two posts related to issues surrounding biblical authority. It is a valid and difficult question. So how does a Baptist who measures all beliefs and practices against the bible alone respond to the charge that the church determined what’s in the bible?
In short . . . I believe that is a simplistic and triumphalist interpretation of history.
As I stated last week, the historical record is unequivocal that an authoritative heirarchy of bishops rose early in the church. And yes, it’s true determining the books of the bible was a long and arduous process. However, I believe this, long arduous process actually supports a doctrine of sola scriptura, or scripture alone as the highest authority. If bishops and councils were the ultimate authority, why did they not just declare right off the bat what was and was not in the bible? Why wait centuries? For example, the Roman Catholic Church didn’t declare a dogmatic list of books (a canon) until the 1500’s – and only then as response to attacks of the Reformers! So rather than a synod of bishops dictating what belonged in the bible, what we see instead is a communal journey of receiving God’s revelation through careful analysis and community conversation. We see various churches and leaders arguing for different books throughout various regions of the world – a process that hasn’t really ended. We still have a variety of canons today.
So how can we be confident we have the right scripture? Isn’t this all a little haphazard? Yes and no.
I’ll let Roman Catholic apologist Mark Shea describe the process of canonical reception. He calls it the “roots and fruits” test. He writes, “The Church said in essence, “Does the book have a widespread and ancient tradition concerning its apostolic origin? Check. Does the book square with the total paradosis (Greek for “tradition”) we all learned from the apostles and the bishops they gave us?” Exactly. While Shea is defending church authority, I see his reasoning as an excellent exposition of how apostolic authority is enshrined in scripture. Those books that were from the apostles and internally matched apostolic teaching were kept, the others discarded. Furthermore, I would add to Shea’s definition that books over which disagreement persisted were measured against those over which there was no disagreement. And it is that same apostolic authority that remains the measuring rod for all life and faith.
Next, It’s important not to overstate the disagreements. There was from the very beginning universal agreement on the four gospels, the epistles of Paul, and the vast majority of the Old Testament. Uncertainty raged only around a handful of books. A few of these ended up being included such as Hebrews, Jude, and James. Other important early works such as 1 Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas, which some early Christians considered scripture were excluded. Why? No widespread attestation to a direct apostolic connection. In other words, not enough “roots and fruits.” The fact that the church universally agreed to exclude these important and useful books only because of a lack of apostolic connection should give us great confidence those books included are indeed reliable. To reiterate, books were selected because they bare internal witness to God’s unique revelation to the apostles during that critical turning point in salvation history. There are, in Paul’s words, able to make us “wise for salvation.”
But still . . . we need to acknowledge there is some gray area around the edge of the biblical canon . . . and I think that’s ok.
As R.C. Sproul is famous for saying, “the canon is a fallible collection of infallible books.” It’s important here to remember what the purpose of scripture is. It’s not to provide us with an engineering textbook of formulas for every possible situation we will face in life. Rather, it is only to provide us with knowledge of God’s redemptive plan for the world that we might have faith in Christ. Is our ability to live a life of faith drastically affected if we never read Jude or 1 Maccabees? As helpful and insightful as those books may be, I think the answer is no. God promises to give us all the information we need to have life in him and he does. We don’t need to press any farther than he does.
Finally, to those who argue, sola scriptura is not taught in the bible, I must offer a hardy disagreement. The biblical warrants for the doctrine are many, but I’ll mention two primary examples for brevity’s sake. First, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 does at the very least strongly suggest scripture as the primary and ultimate guide to faith. Paul instructs Timothy that it will prepare him to be, “complete, equipped for every good work.” As an aside, this text should ease our concerns about the exact boundaries of the canon, because at the time of its writing the New Testament was not yet complete. Secondly, Jesus consistently appealed to scripture as his ground of authority – usually with the refrain, “It is written.” Jesus clearly expected God’s words in written form to be heard, passed on, understood, and obeyed.
Again, it’s hard to stop. So much more could be said. The above however should provide at least an outline of why I believe God intended for the bible alone to be our primary authority and roadmap to salvation. Yes, tradition is important, critical even. We couldn’t live as Christians without it. It is through tradition, working alongside scripture that we answer with confidence the challenges of our age with the faithful voices of the past. Indeed, we all read the bible through the lens of one tradition or another. But tradition must always be critiqued in light of scripture. Tradition cannot and should not be ultimate. It’s not reliable enough. Sola scriptura.