For the next several hundred years, there was a lot of discussion in the Christian community about which books were considered Scripture and which books weren’t. But it wasn’t until the 300s that what we know as the sixty-six books of the Bible were actually agreed upon as the Bible.The basic thrust of Rob Bell’s argument seems to be that the Bible can not be the only authority because the Bible does not contain a list of which books belong in the Bible. He uses this (and some other issues I will discuss in Part 3) to jump to the conclusion that the church has the authority to “bind and loose,” the authority to “make new interpretations of the Bible” based on what essentially amounts to group consensus. (Keep in mind that Bell is often given to hyperbole and other forms of rhetoric in his statements. I often struggle to separate the meaning from the rhetoric.) My comments in the last post apply here as well, but a new wrinkle has been introduced.
This is part of the problem with continually insisting that one of the absolutes of the Christian faith must be a belief that “Scripture alone” is our guide. It sounds nice, but it is not true. In reaction to abuses by the church, a group of believers during a time called the Reformation claimed that we only need the authority of the Bible. But the problem is that we got the Bible from the church voting on what the Bible even is. So when I affirm the Bible as God’s Word, in the same breath I have to affirm that when those people voted, God was somehow present, guiding them to do what they did. When people say all we need is the Bible, it is simply not true.
True, there was a clearly-reasoned process by which the books of the New Testament were chosen, but there is another conclusion which can be reached. Dr. R. C. Sproul addresses this issue directly while discussing the selection process:
… Some people take the position that the church is a higher authority than the Bible because the only reason the Bible has any authority is that the church declared what books the Bible would contain. Most Protestants, however, take a different view of the matter and point out that when the decision was made as to what books were canonical, they used the Latin term recipemus, which means “we receive.” What the church said is that we receive these particular books as being canonical, as being apostolic in authority and in origin, and therefore weThere is a place for the secondary authority of the church. The Bible is the only infallible authority, but only when interpreted properly. Even Satan quotes the Bible when it suits him (Matt. 4:1-11). The members of the church throughout history and in the present who have specialized gifts should be consulted on these matters. We would be foolish to proceed without them. If this is all Bell means, we are okay; but I do not take his comments that way.
submit to their authority. It’s one thing to make something authoritative, and it’s another thing to recognize something that already is authoritative. Those human decisions did not make something that was not authoritative suddenly authoritative, but rather the church was bowing … to that which they recognized to be sacred Scripture. http://www.ligonier.org/questions_answered.php?question_id=15
The only perfectly true and accurate authority for faith and practice is the Bible. The basic rule is to find the plain meaning of Scripture according to the original intent of the author who God inspired. This process is carried out taking into account language, history, grammar, construction, genera, context, and other common-sense items. Much knowledge has been added by technical experts in these areas, and their works should be studied diligently. (I recommend Knowing Scripture by R. C. Sproul for more details.)
The church has the authority to make new applications of Scripture. This is a given. Some things that are around now were simply not around at the time of the apostles (e. g. genetic engineering and abortion pills). The basic idea is given in the 1689 London Baptist Confession:
To each of these churches thus gathered, according to his mind declared in his word, he hath given all that power and authority, which is in any way needful for their carrying on that order in worship and discipline, which he hath instituted for them to observe; with commands and rules for the due and right
exerting, and executing of that power. ( Matthew 18:17, 18; 1 Corinthians 5:4, 5; 1 Corinthians 5:13; 2 Corinthians 2:6-8 )
But never forget the ultimate authority is the Bible, Here’s the way the 1689 Confession puts it (quoting from the Westminster Confession to show unity in essentials, I might add):
The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit, into which Scripture so delivered, our faith is finally resolved. ( Matthew 22:29, 31, 32; Ephesians 2:20; Acts 28:23)
If that doesn’t help, try on of the best systematic theologians in church history:
It should be noted that though many might write concerning Catholic truth, there is this difference that those who wrote the canonical Scripture, the Evangelists and Apostles, and the like, so constantly assert it that they leave no room for doubt. That is what he means when he says 'we know his witness is true.'
Galatians 1:9, "If anyone preach a gospel to you other than that which you have received, let him be anathema!" The reason is that only canonical Scripture is a measure of faith. Others however so wrote of the truth that they should not be believed save insofar as they say true things. (St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John 21)
To think that because the church has the power to “bind and loose” it has the power to come up with new interpretations which are at odds with the carefully reasoned positions of the saints throughout history is dangerous. Again, “If it’s new, it’s not true; if it’s true, it’s not new.”
What are our rights as we meet to discuss the Bible in our small groups or other forums? Dr. R. C. Sproul is quoted again below.
…though the individual believer has the right to the private interpretation of Scripture, it is clearly acknowledged that the individual is capable of misinterpreting the Bible. He has the ability to misinterpret Scripture, but never the right to do it. That is, with the right of private interpretation the responsibility of correct interpretation is also given. We never have the right
to distort the teaching of Scripture … Church tradition and church creeds can err. Individual interpreters can err. It is the Scriptures alone that are without error.
This is the idea behind the title to my blog: Fear and Trembling. I approach the topics discussed with fear because I might be wrong and with trembling because I know the God whom I will offend if I am wrong. I’d never write about any of this stuff if I did not have a firm grasp on salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone. Writing would be way to risky!