Authority

Some time ago I received an email from someone who had a few questions for me as a Baptist and as a theologian:

Where did Jesus give instructions that the Christian faith should be based exclusively on a book?

Where did he tell his apostles to write anything down?

Where in the New Testament do the apostles tell future generations that the Christian faith will be based on a book?

Where in the Bible is God’s word restricted only to what is written down?

Where in the Bible do we find an inspired and infallible list of books that should belong in the Bible?

Where, in the Bible, does it say that the Bible is our only rule of faith? (And don’t quote 2 Timothy 3:16, which does not say that ONLY Scripture is inspired of God.)

How do we know, from the Bible alone, that the individual books of the New Testament are inspired, even when the make no claim to be inspired?

If the authors of the New Testament believed in sola Scriptura, why did they sometimes draw on oral tradition as authoritative and as God’s Word (Matt. 2:23; 23:2; 1 Corinthians 10:4; 1 Peter 3:19; Jude 9, Rev. 14:15)?

If the books of the NT are “self-authenticating through the ministry of the Holy Spirit to each individual,” then why was there confusion in the early Church over which books were inspired, with some books being rejected by the majority?

How did the early church evangelize and overthrow the Roman Empire, survive and prosper almost 350 years, without knowing for sure which books belong in the canon of Scripture?

Who in the church had the authority to determine which books belonged in the NT canon and to make this decision binding on all Christians? If nobody has this authority, then can I remove or add books to the canon on my own authority?

Why do Protestant scholars recognize the early Church concils at Hippo and Carthage as the first instances in which the NT canon was officially ratified, but ignore the fact that those same councils ratified the OT canon used by the Catholic Church today but abandoned by Protestants at the Reformation?

Why do Protestants follow post-apostolic Jewish decisions on the boundaries of the OT canon (after the destruction of Jerusalem), rather than the decision of the Church founded by Jesus Christ?

If Christianity is a “book religion,” how did it flourish during the first 1,500 years of Church history when the vast majority of people were illiterate?

If the early Church believed in sola Scriptura, why do the creeds of the early Church always say “we believe in the holy, catholic Church,” and not “we believe in the Bible alone?”

I believe that those are excellent questions and I so here are my rather random, incomplete, and scattered thoughts and answers to these questions:

The early creeds also fail to mention that the pope is supreme or that the church is the authority for faith and practice. Protestants (or at least Baptists) do not view creeds as authoritative, anyhow. What was the purpose of the creeds, anyhow? But to give a basic summary of what Christians believed in contrast to the paganism around them.

Underlying (and not clearly articulated) presupposition here by Catholic theology: church councils, pronouncements of the Pope ex cathedra, and the Bible are the triad on which authority for faith and practice rest. The authority of church councils and the ex cathedra pronouncements of the Pope rests on the presupposition that the authority wielded by the apostles was passed down through the church.

Yet, consider conflicting evidence:

The Council of Jerusalem forbade the eating of food sacrificed to idols (Acts 15:20, 29, and 21:25), yet Paul didn’t feel particularly constrained by what the Council of Jerusalem said (1 Corinthians 8).

Paul felt no compulsion about publicly disagreeing with Peter over the issue of eating with Gentiles and following Jewish dietary regulations, and seemed not particularly enamored by the “pillars” of the church (Galatians 2:2-21).

Where does the New Testament tell us that the church, or church councils have the authority claimed for them in Catholic theology?

The practice of Jesus and the apostles demonstrates that the Bible was considered ultimately authoritative. Jesus’ interaction with the Jewish establishment centered on the issue of authority: their traditions, vs. the actual statements of scripture. Are we to say that Christian tradition is somehow authoritative, while the pronouncements of the Jewish tradition were automatically not? What is the fundamental difference?

What Jesus taught, and what the apostles taught is presented as authoritative. All we have left of them is what is contained in the New Testament. If they were authoritative in person, then their written correspondence should likewise be authoritative. But the issue is not the authority of the Bible. The issue is whether the councils, church, and pope are an equal authority. Where does the Bible, the known authority, add the church, its councils, and the pope as an authority equal to it?

Protestants point out that the church councils at Hippo and Carthage recognized the current New Testament cannon. Protestants do not suggest that such recognition is authoritative or binding. Protestants would argue that by their nature, the New Testament works are scripture, whether we recognize them or not. You as an individual are free to choose to accept or dispute any part of scripture you want. Your disputing has no effect on the nature of that scripture, however, one way or the other.

The church and the individuals in the church function without knowing well or having at their disposal the Bible. And that is certainly true and remains true. But that is not because of the authority and outer form and structure of the church. Rather, it is a consequence of the simple fact that Christians have the Holy Spirit of God living inside of them. That is how it is we become Christians and have been transformed. The special work of the Spirit began on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) and as Peter pointed out there, fulfills the promises of the Old Testament prophets.

Particularly, the New Testament or Covenant that we have in Christ was predicted by the prophet Jeremiah and became real for Christians on the day of Pentecost:

The days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
9 It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they did not remain faithful to my covenant,
and I turned away from them,
declares the Lord.
10 This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel
after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
11 No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
12 For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more. (Hebrews 8:8–12 quoting Jeremiah 31:31-34)

The law of God is in our minds and hearts because God is there in our minds and hearts. We don’t need to teach our neighbor to “Know the Lord” because the Lord lives inside of him or her. Many Baptists and other protestants still have trouble coming to grips with just how transformative the coming of God’s Spirit is for individual Christians.

Nevertheless, ignorance of the Bible does not lessen the Bible’s authority. Besides, did the average Christian of the first centuries know all the pronouncements of all the councils, bishops and popes? Did they know any of them? And yet, the average Christian would have heard some of the words of scripture proclaimed every Sunday in their churches.

The issue is not the day-to-day functioning of the church or believers, but what their final authority might be. The rule, the guide, in Protestant thinking, is the Bible as the final arbiter. Even the church councils have a tendency to wind up quoting the Bible, as do the bishops and popes whenever they speak on matters of faith and doctrine..

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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