It is common in Protestant and "non-denominational" thinking to view the New Testament as the supreme authority in the church. Some even view it as an authoritative "constitution" or "pattern" for the church. For example, many churches contain remarks like this as part of their statement of beliefs:
The Bible is the full and final authority on all matters of faith.
As a result of this, Christians (supposedly) spend an enormous amount of time studying the Scriptures, trying to figure out how they apply to this and that issue in the church. People look to the New Testament for everything from explicit teachings to obscure examples and principles.
Having spent more than twenty-five years in churches claiming to "follow the Bible," I've come to realize this is a misconception (and a key factor behind negative church experiences as well). Let me explain why.
According to the New Testament itself, we can see that the early church existed without the New Testament for quite some time.
By all accounts, Acts 2 records the birth of the church, the events of which are generally dated at 30 AD. The church was based upon the gospel of Jesus, through the proclamation and leadership of the apostles.
They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Acts 2:42 (NIV)
From all indications, the church existed for years, perhaps even decades, before a page of the New Testament was written. Most books are dated between the mid-40's to the mid-60's AD and were written for various specific purposes. (See the articles "Bible Basics" and "New Testament Survey" for more on this.)
None of the New Testament books were intended to serve as a "constitution" or "pattern" for the church. There was no need for such a thing; the church already existed and already had its own "pattern" of teachings and traditions in place under the authority and guidance of the apostles. They were trained by Jesus and empowered by the Holy-Spirit for this purpose.
If the earliest churches did not need the New Testament, why would it be needed now?
Over time, the books and letters that later came to comprise the New Testament were gathered into collections. These were circulated among the churches, and there is even some evidence for this in the New Testament itself (Colossians 4:16, 2 Peter 3;15).
There is no evidence of concern for a canon (authoritative, standard collection) of New Testament writings for years into the history of the church- certainly none at all in the New Testament itself. There is no evidence of the apostles creating or even being concerned about a canon.
The issue finally arose in the 2nd century when various teachers arose looking to bring Gnostic ideas into Christianity. Irenaeus writes how the church viewed this.
Such, then, is their system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures; and, to use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand, while they endeavor to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support. In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked art in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1:8:1)
Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case,] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches? (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3:4:1)
The church knew its faith and could clearly recognize things that were not a part of it. They judged the false teachers based upon 4 criteria.
The false teachers of whom Irenaeus was speaking failed on all four counts. But even then- notice that "Scripture Alone" is not used to refute them. Not only was the New Testament not yet fully canonized, but even taking that into consideration this shows that apostolic writings were one of many of the tools the church had at its disposal. There is an appeal to the understanding of the church and its traditions handed down from the apostles as well as apostolic/New Testament writings.
Nonetheless- the idea of a "New Testament" began as a collection of known apostolic writings- recognized by the leaders of the early church that had been entrusted with leadership from the apostles.
The church apparently saw no particular urgency to the question of a "New Testament." The actual process of finally determining which books would be accepted and which would be excluded in the New Testament took decades, if not centuries. The first known list of the 27 books of our modern New Testaments was first seen in the mid-late 4th century- more than 300 years after the birth of the church. In the meantime, the church functioned just fine with its teachings, practices and traditions that had been handed down from the apostolic age and clarified as necessary when questions arose.
The existence of the canonized New Testament itself may be considered a "church tradition." As previously mentioned, there is no evidence that the apostles themselves even considered a New Testament something to be concerned about.
The New Testament writings, from their very beginning, were intended as a supplement to the ongoing teachings, practices and traditions of the church that has been delivered from the apostles. They were not intended to replace those things or be some "independent" source of truth or competing source of authority to the apostles and other duly appointed church leaders.
Nearly every New Testament book gives an explicit indication of reminding, enhancing or explaining things that had already been taught and established, or urging continued faithfulness to the existing teachings and traditions at the time. There is no indication that the faith or salvation of the recipients of New Testament books, or the validity of the churches or their beliefs and practices, was somehow in jeopardy or incomplete without the information contained in those books. Here is just a sampling of passages:
I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people. Romans 16:17-18 (NIV)
I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you. 1 Cor 11:2 (NIV)
Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 1 Cor 15:1-2 (NIV)
But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent's cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. 2 Cor 11:3-4 (NIV)
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel-- which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! Gal 1:6-8 (NIV)
Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation-- if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant. Col 1:21-23 (NIV)
I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness-- the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. Col 1:25-26 (NIV)
So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. 2 Thess 2:15 (NIV)
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 2 Tim 3:14-15 (NIV)
We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. Heb 2:1 (NIV)
Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. Heb 13:9 (NIV)
See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father. And this is what he promised us--even eternal life. I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray. As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit--just as it has taught you, remain in him. 1 John 2:24-27 (NIV)
Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. Jude 1:3 (NIV)
The New Testament writers frequently testify to the need of duly-appointed, authoritative human leadership for instruction in the faith:
And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Matt 16:18-19 (NIV)
Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." Matt 28:18-20 (NIV)
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?" "Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my lambs." John 21:15 (NIV)
Don't you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? 2 Thess 2:5 (NIV)
Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. Phil 3:17 (NIV)
And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others. 2 Tim 2:2 (NIV)
Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Heb 13:7 (NIV)
I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete. 2 John 1:12 (NIV)
Further- individual Christians were not allowed to "interpret" these writings as they saw fit; those who did so were rebuked:
Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord's command. If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored. 1 Cor 14:36-38 (NIV)
Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. 2 Peter 3:15-16 (NIV)
Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work. 2 John 1:9-11 (NIV)
What about the times when the apostles would appeal to the Old Testament Scriptures? Typically, these happen as a means of demonstrating that Jesus or the church was fulfilling Old Testament prophecy. These facts were critical to the Messianic identify of Jesus himself; these cannot be twisted into some example of the early church practicing "Scripture Alone." Jesus had explained the (Old Testament) Scriptures to the apostles, and the apostles simply drew upon that as needed.
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high." Luke 24:45-49 (NIV)
Over and over again, we see that the early church did not practice "Scripture Alone." Christians did not devote themselves to studying Scripture to determine their guidance or church direction, practices or the like. The guidance of the church was a matter of continuing what had been started, under the direction of the apostles and other duly-appointed leaders. They were living out their faith, and growing in their understanding of it.
Jesus selected apostles to perpetuate his mission on the earth. He promised to guide the apostles and the church into all truth. This guidance was through the Holy Spirit given to the apostles.
"All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. John 14:25-26 (NIV)
"I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you. John 16:12-15 (NIV)
What made the apostles special was Jesus' calling, training and promise of the Holy Spirit. The apostles did not take this position of authority upon themselves.
Now one might suppose that these words were intended for the apostles only. But then heed what is said concerning the rest of us in Jesus' prayer shortly after these things were said:
"My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. John 17:20-23 (NIV)
The faithfulness and unity of the church is a key component in world evangelism, as it is a key component in the integrity of Christianity itself. How was this to be maintained? Let's consider what Paul and Peter said about this topic:
And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others. 2 Tim 2:2 (NIV)
So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have. I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body, because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things. 2 Peter 1:12-15 (NIV)
The church was the living testimony of the apostles; what they delivered to the church was entrusted to "faithful men" who would take their place as they passed. Just as the Holy Spirit guided the apostles in their role, the New Testament teaches that the Holy Spirit himself ordained those appointed as overseers to guide the church.
Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. Acts 20:28 (NIV)
The church was entrusted to these overseers, just as Jesus entrusted his mission itself to the apostles. Jesus promised to guide them with the Holy Spirit, and subsequently the Holy Spirit worked through the overseers that he appointed for that task. And again- this is all before the existence of the New Testament.
Let's fast-forward to the present day. As mentioned at the outset, many churches state that Scripture is their final authority in matters of faith. But Scripture cannot engage in discussion and apply itself to an argument-- it is not a person. One cannot give the Bible "the floor" in a meeting or put a Bible up to a microphone and have it address any issue at hand.
The prophetic Word of God (words spoken by a prophet in a particular context and later recorded as Scripture) may be living and active (Hebrews 4:12; notice the context), but Scripture is inanimate. People select and interpret Scripture and apply it to the discussion at hand. So what we are dealing with today is not "Scripture" but "selections and interpretations of Scripture."
Unfortunately, people often conflate their interpretation of Scripture with "the clear meaning of Scripture" or worse yet the "prophetic Word of God." So what ends up as the final authority isn't "Scripture" but one's interpretations of Scripture. That doesn't sound nearly as trustworthy, does it?
And, it gets worse for proponents of "Scripture Alone." There are thousands of denominations and off-shoots each believing and practicing different, unique things, about topics big and small, all claiming to be following Scripture "as the ultimate rule of faith."
Any of us who have spent any time in any such church understand these from experience. Anybody who thinks churches or church leaders simply read the "Scripture Alone" and arrive at their positions in some pristine theological vacuum, apart from personalities, opinions, self-serving biases, history, church practices or tradition, is fooling themselves. Even in the best of circumstances, everybody brings these things and more to the table when it comes to interpreting Scripture and applying it to issues in the church today. And all too often, the objective is to do something unique or different to define or differentiate a leader, church or movement from others, or reacting to some past experience that they find troubling. Worse, frequently God's name is put on these ideas by saying, "The Lord opened our eyes to this teaching" or something like that.
Does that sound like "Scripture Alone" to you?
In the end-- Scripture ends up meaning whatever the church leader wants it to mean. Let's re-read what Irenaeus said but this time consider it for our present times.
They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures; and, to use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand, while they endeavor to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support. In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked art in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1:8:1)
Centuries of leaders and groups "studying Scripture Alone" has shown us that widely varying beliefs and doctrines all have some degree of "support" from the Scriptures. Each denomination and offshoot has developed arguments why their perspective is more legitimate than others. They have also developed "refutations" of the positions of others. Everybody so indoctrinated feels good about their faith, as long as nobody asks too many questions or thinks about it too much. The end result is thousands of individual churches and ideologies, each with enough Scriptural basis to appear to be reasonable, but together undermining the very principal of "Scripture Alone" that supposedly gives them a right to exist in the first place.
It's not that these are bad people; there are many wonderful, dedicated people in these churches. But, they have been given and are perpetuating a false premise-- that "Scripture Alone" is a legitimate means of guidance for the church.
They are doing something with the Scriptures that was not done by the original recipients of the New Testament writings, nor was done during the early centuries of the church's existence, and nowhere is authorized or suggested by the very Scriptures that are claimed are the "final authority."
Am I saying that the Scriptures are somehow less than "inspired" or "inerrant?" No. In fact, because they are so valuable as a testimony to the Lord and the early church, they must be understood in context and that includes not using them in a way in which they were not intended.
Am I saying that God has not worked, and cannot work, within churches pursuing the "Scripture Alone" ideal? No. But I am saying that the very ideal that animates those churches also hampers and harms them because that ideal is ill-conceived and ill-suited for that role.
Am I saying that the apostles and the "faithful men" to which they entrusted leadership never sinned or made mistakes? No. The Scriptures are very clear on the failings of the apostles and other early church leaders. Paul even warned that some from among them would rise up and teach wrong things (Acts 20:30). But that did not invalidate the role or authority of the overseers, as the rest were to stick together and keep watch over the flock and resist distortions and deviations from what they had been taught. The point is that in exercising their role in teaching and directing the church, Jesus promised to guide the apostles into all truth, and that included entrusting leadership to others after them since that is what the apostles did. The truth and trustworthiness of this depends not upon the men, but on the Savior who promised it. Remember, there is no evidence of that Savior ever promising an infallible/inerrant New Testament.
Am I then saying we should all become Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox? No. But if we are looking for the faith that was "once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3)" we have to recognize that the New Testament is not the whole story of it. The rest of the story is in the church itself. We must value the historical church, its teachings and history, because they, too, are a valid and authorized testimony to that same faith. We must value the apostles and those to whom they entrusted leadership, as they led the church long before the New Testament existed. Not because they were flawless, but because Jesus himself promised to guide them through the Holy Spirit. We cannot dismiss the historical church because of fear or prejudice, nor because it takes work to learn about it and understand it.
Am I saying we should not concern ourselves with what the Bible says? By no means. But it does mean that we must consider it in context, and this context includes a living church that existed for a long time before the New Testament was written and canonized.
"Scripture Alone" is perhaps a noble ideal. But at its best, it is ill-conceived and flawed. And at its worst, it is disingenuous and deceptive.
"Scripture Alone" as the highest authority in the church is anachronistic because the Scriptures never were the highest authority in the early church. The Scriptures (New Testament) did not even exist when the church began. During and even after the age of the apostles, New Testament writings were used to support the church, not define it. The early church did not practice "Scripture Alone."
"Scripture Alone" neglects the promise of Jesus to guide his church through apostolic leadership empowered by the Holy Spirit. Guided by the Holy Spirit, they established the church and its traditions. They entrusted their teachings and role to faithful men, who were expected to do the same.
"Scripture Alone" opens the door to permitting church leaders to do and teach whatever they want while claiming it is "in the Bible." While seeming to be faithful to the faith delivered by the apostles, it unwittingly opens the door to all forms of confusion and harm.
The faith and unity of Christians depends upon the faith delivered by the apostles to the church. As a "Scripture Alone" adherent I would have said this faith means following the "Bible alone." But it can't mean that, for the reasons cited here. Apostolic writings have intrinsic authority in context because they are apostolic. But these writings are only a subset of apostolic influence on the church. We cannot be faithful to what the apostles delivered and simultaneously ignore a substantial part of what they delivered.
The rest of that influence- the living history and traditions of the church- must be considered if Christians and churches are to truly follow the apostolic guidance that was designed and authorized by the Lord.